Friday, 8 October 2010

Marvelman: not really that marvellous at all

It's been a while, but yes, against the odds, I have returned once again from the grave to bring you another edition of THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS. Aren't you pleased? Today let's rap about coal. Not just any coal, but coal in space. You dig?

I may have mentioned previously how much I like the 1940s-1950s Captain Marvel comics that were published by Fawcett (and later reprinted in Shazam! by DC). Eventually curtailed thanks to a legal action by the publishers of Superman, who claimed it was a rip-off of their precious goody-goody super-ruffian, Captain Marvel was in fact an inspired, magical, brilliantly entertaining send up of the whole superhero genre. Cap (the alter ego of newsboy Billy Batson, who becomes Cap when he says the name of ancient Egyptian wizard Shazam) is the only superhero (pre-Spiderman) who was entertainingly aware of his own failings and shortcomings, and who made mistakes. Yes, he was a tough bully-boy, but he knew it. He remains the only superhero to exhibit a dry sense of self-aware humour and sometimes displayed an ironic awareness of how freakish a 'superhero' actually is. Perhaps more importantly he was the only superhero to face a villainous worm who spoke through a radio set around his neck (Mr. Mind) and whose best friend was a talking tiger who worked as a museum guide (Mr. Tawky Tawny). His arch-nemesis was a bald bloke who looked like a dentist and went heh-heh-heh a lot, the immortal Dr Thaddeus Bodog Sivana. It was brilliant stuff, I promise you, and I wish those clowns at DC - who hold the rights to the back catalogue - would reprint it properly. I don't want no modern 're-imaginings' of it, no thanks. One of the blogs I link down the side over there - written by the mighty Captain Zorikh - is devoted to the Big Red Cheese - take a look.

Here I am rambling off on one again. This post isn't even about Captain Marvel. When Cap bit the dust, L. Miller, the British publishers of his comics, suddenly without American material to reprint, quickly filled the gap with a homegrown rip-off of their own: Marvelman. Starved of the genuine Fawcett stuff, British kids (or their parents, who bought the comics in Woolworth's) made Marvelman a success, and his adventures continued into the early 1960s.

I remember, when I was a kid, my old man showing me a few old copies of Marvelman that he'd saved from the 1950s. In my memory they were badly drawn, stiffly written, unfunny, and often swiped directly from superior Captain Marvel tales of days gone by. But he lingered in the pop-cultural consciousness. Intriguingly, Marvelman was unexpectedly revived by eighties comics genius Alan Moore in the short-lived British adult comic Warrior. I bought some of the issues at the time and seem to recall that it was quite good as you would expect but it's quite tricky to get hold of now, for Marvel Comics long ago decided that rule the universe and that they have the copyright in anything called Marvelman because it sounds a bit like Marvel Comics and Moore's effort had to be called Miracleman when it was reprinted some years back and then it was forbidden from being reprinted at all. You see? No, neither do I. But I have probably violated fifteen pieces of legislation simply by mentioning the matter here, and I await my imminent arrest.

Anyhow, Marvel Comics have suddenly decided to reprint the old British 1950s Marvelman. I can't imagine that they are doing this for any other reason than that they want to irrevocably establish copyright on the character, which I thought lay with old geezer Mick Anglo, now 94, the Brit comics hack who 'created' him back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise at seeing loads of Marvelman comics in the local emporium, amidst the X Men and what have you. Could they really be as bad as I remembered? Maybe I'd been unfair on them. Anyway, I picked up a few to check them out.

I hadn't been unfair on them. But what I don't get is why Marvel are bothering to reprint this stuff at all. It must be the lamest old super-tosh ever consigned to newsprint. And worse than the ineptitude of its production is the namby-pamby nature of the stories. In the unlikely event that any contemporary child picked up an issue, and unwisely bought it before they had a look inside, they'd sure get a shock when they broke the seal on the mylar comic sleeve and discovered what lie within - for if there ever was a trades' description act for comics covers, this one surely broke it. On the front, your standard buff super tough-boy prancing po-facedly about through space:

Inside, though, it's a different story. Here you will discover the true tedium of Marvelman: dreary, grey, post-war England fittingly encapsulated in the flattest, feeblest, drippiest superhero tales ever written. All power to Mr Anglo, who I'm sure did his best, for hopping on the gravy train while he could - and presumably Marvel have handed him a sizeable cheque for the 'rights' to his rip-off? - but his story ideas were hilariously dry and dull. I can't quite believe that Marvelman ran into the 1960s but, somehow it did.

Displaying a distinct lack of irony or self-awareness themselves, Marvel are touting the Marvelman stories as Golden Age classics. They ain't.

Coal in Space is a thrilling tale of that most thrilling of subjects, coal mining, but in space. The chap with the glasses is Gargunza, Marvelman's foe. He decides to mine for coal in space. He mines coal in space. It's not illegal to mine coal in space, but Marvelman duffs him up at the end anyway, for importing it without a license.

Frustratingly, they only reprinted the cover of this one, so I didn't get to read Marvelman and the Map Makers. But I bet it's pretty thrilling. I expect he meets some map makers, and...they make some maps. And probably he duffs them up at the end...for making maps without a license.

If you can stand the excitement, check out this thriller involving Kid Marvelman, the junior version of Marvelman: The Park Thefts. It's serious stuff, involving damage to plants. If you're of a nervous disposition, look away now.

No wonder they tried to ban comics in the 1950s. A gratuitous depiction of a man in a demob suit pulling up a plant, while his evil associates push statues about, willy nilly. And they're enjoying it. Why, it almost borders on a transgression of various local bylaws. Here's the plot:

Yeah, yeah. Gripping stuff. The sack is the least of his worries: hope Ned gets a decent meal sometime soon, so his shoulders can develop properly. For naughty kicks, and a frisson of guilty excitement, here's a close up of the plant-defiler. Don't tell anyone I showed you this.

He's not enjoyed himself so much since powdered egg came off the ration. Anyhow, that's quite enough excitement for me for one day. You won't find these comics in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS, or in any other house, I would suspect. But nonetheless I sure hope Mr Anglo made Marvel cough up big time.

Who let a dog in here?


  1. It's always good to see a new entry on this Blog. I can't help but think the Marvelman family looks a lot like Tintin.

  2. Thanks, Meekrat. I'm fascinated by your website, because I can't figure it out at all. Splendid.

    Yes, now you come to mention it, the Marvelmen do look like Tintin, but slightly overweight and with droopy quiffs. And also they're a bit middle-aged Billy Whizz.

  3. The clowns at DC don't know what to do with the original Captain Marvel. Because of the copyright/trademark glitch, they can't even use the name on covers or in marketing ads, and that is the least of their problems. Their house style is grim-and-gritty, and the Big Red Cheese just does not fit. He worked best in all-ages, tongue-in-cheek stories, and they can't adapt him to their grimdark style without ruining everything that made him appealing in the first place.