Dec 27, 2018

Marvel UK Is the Best

As a kid, I read Marvel UK a lot, because other than a few Alan Moore-related comics, it would end up in the quarter bins. Even the new stuff, quickly found its way to the cheap boxes, the ballast of the comics shop. Now, I can look at the US releases from the same eras, and I was luckier reading Marvel UK.

Marvel UK Is the Best
Travis Hedge Coke

Marvel UK, the imprint, lasted 1972-95, reprinting Marvel Comics and quickly producing its own material, for over twenty years. The Marvel UK sub-universe, identifiable by original and shared characters, and a unique cosmogony within the larger Marvel Universe, has continued to make appearances or be invoked, from the ongoing (but canceled two years in) Captain Britain and MI 13, to the Revolutionary War miniseries, that isn’t critically lauded but damn sure ought to be (I’m lauding it right here, so now it is; Marvel, republish the collection and tell’em I said it’s fantastic). Marvel UK published early Alan (Watchmen) Moore, early Grant (Happy!) Morrison, Steve (Preacher) Dillon, and Dave (Watchmen, too!) Gibbons, the imprint was early on overseen by women at a time that was particularly unusual for what was, front and center, a superhero outfit, then later by one of the Pet Shop Boys before there was a Pet Shop Boys, Dez Skinn, and at the end, one of the most identifiable inkers in comics history, Paul Neary.

By the time I was reading, they had a backlog of Doctor Who stories, Care Bears that are somehow still charming enough to read with a kid, Blake’s 7, an almost astonishingly good Black Knight series, extremely quality Night Raven, an always fun Captain Britain, Transformers, and a silly/smart Zoids. And, by the time I was ten, Neary having become editor, they launched a world of superhero and superhero-adjacent titles that were both ludicrously of their era and delightedly not serious while being serious about real things that matter, in the way the best kids entertainment ought to be.

Warheads sort of looked like 90s superheroes, with big guns and underwear with slogans on the crotch, but they were almost-naive mercenaries, bounced from job to job and dying for a paycheck and false promises from bosses who did not care. Motormouth’s title character was a teenage runaway with teleporting shoes, who used this fantastic gift to avoid being killed by evil corporate jerks and to steal some nicer clothes and better food for herself and her friend, the child-in-a-monster-body, Killpower. Liam Sharp, Carlos Pacheco, Dan Abnett, et al, made these feel emotionally valid and vibrantly harmless and they were just fun to read.

American superheroes, and earlier Marvel UK characters who had succeeded in becoming American superheroes, like Psylocke of the X-Men, would guest in these Marvel UK comics, pretty consistently, and they were not always written all that great (Wolverine talks like Wolverine has talked in no other comics… a lot), but they were also there to shout out that this was the Marvel Universe, and because it was funny to make fun of them.

Shevaun, whose initial title was Hell’s Angel, before a legal flap with the biker organization, then Dark Angel, was brilliant, talented, stylish, a little thoughtless, overly high powered, and she ran circles around X-Men. That was the sum of her gag: have excellent hair and make fun of Wolverine or Psylocke. And, she was great at it.

Motormouth was like a real kid, a cool older sister who could get away with things.

Nikki Doyle, protagonist of Wild Thing, posed like a fashion model, went through withdrawals on panel, constantly looked starved, stressed, and on the verge. And, she kept trying to help people despite it usually making her throw up. Addict superheroes were not necessarily new with Nikki, but it is often only addiction in metaphor or something overcome by potent willpower and rarely addressed again. Nikki Doyle was addicted all the time, and her job was using. She was the junkie the police put back into the drug trade, just with virtual reality, and the police are SHIELD.

Very well, because SHIELD are the police.

We never saw Nikki’s end or even a catharsis in English. The followup to her solo, Wild Angels, was published only in Italian through Marvel Italia and Panini. Which has always made me casually ponder, what was Marvel Italia and what else are we anglophone folks missing out on?

This was how Marvel UK was. Spotty but loud. Superhuman but humanly heroic. Occasionally they just vomited regularly or stole everything they owned.

Is it any wonder that Death’s Head II was the breakout property? And, that even he is pretty niche?

Death’s Head and his sequels and spin-offs are big cyborg bastard mercs and strong arms. Death’s Head was going to be a Transformers character, but they published him in another Marvel book first, because he was too cool to give up to Hasbro. Rock’n’roll.

Death’s Head II was an already very metal design turned up to Jesus and Mary Chain/Madchester willful absurdity. Lofi bigness. Death’s Head II speaks not in catchphrases or soliloquies, but in verve and self-reference. When he made his big comeback towards the end of Captain Britain and MI 13, he shouted right out to the reader, “Surprise appearance!"

Death Wreck was Death’s Head with the dial turned in the other direction, confused, alcoholic, and helpful. More flesh, more little big guy. The Terminator in a rough job market after a tough and bemusing life.

Death Metal slaughtered alternate realities and tore up Toronto trying not to be the kind of over-armed robot you would name Death Metal. Memoirs of a Dutiful Deathbot, turning his shiny metal teeth and claws towards self-actuating suicide.

Death, corporate leeches, and Acorn Green. That was Marvel UK, which knew some secrets: The more you say “death” the sillier death is. Heroism isn’t beating everyone else up every time, but once in awhile it helps illustrate the point. And, style never goes out of fashion, even when it’s out of favor.

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