Tim Pilcher, ex-Vertigo Comics editor, is serialising the first chapter of his new book Comic Book Babylon: A Cautionary Tale of Sex, Drugs & Comics on Bleeding Cool. The Kickstarter to fund publication has just started.
I remember buying multiple copies of Starlord #1. In May 1978 I traded the free “badges” of fictional space regiments, (actually shiny metallic stickers), in a desperate attempt at getting the complete set, with fellow pupils at St. Jude’s Middle School, Englefield Green. My favourite story was the horrific Planet of the Damned, written by Pat Mills under the pseudonym of R.E. Wright and drawn by a succession of Spanish artists. Planet… saw a group of survivors from a plane crash that had crossed through some dimensional portal in the Bermuda Triangle and ended up on a deadly planet where practically everything— animals, plants, rain—tried to maim, kill, or eat the survivors’ faces off. It had a profound effect on me, to the point that nearly all my creative writing in my English classes was devoted to grim survival stories. I actually preferred Starlord to 2000 AD. It was darker, more dangerous and grisly. But I was in the minority. Sales were suffering and so it succumbed to the savage law of IPC—which had also spelt the death of Action: “Hatch, Match and Dispatch.” That meant: Hatch a new title; Match it with a new similar title; then Dispatch the weaker selling title by merging it with the bigger hit. Often this would come with a “health warning” on the cover stating “Attention readers: Exciting news inside!” A sure indicator that the comic was doomed.
When Starlord merged with 2000 AD—and eventually died, just five months later—it bequeathed its best characters to its successor: Strontium Dog, AKA Johnny Alpha, and the brilliantly named robots Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (whose excellent pun I’m afraid I didn’t pick up on for a least a decade later) went on to be huge hits in 2000 AD.
2000 AD introduced me to some of the best British comics creators the country had ever produced. It was a golden era of creativity. I studied the art of Steve Dillon and Garry Leach. Their composition, pacing, body language and facial expressions brought everything they drew to life. Of course, I loved Brian Bolland’s work on Judge Dredd, but his work had a stiffness and solidity that Leach and Dillon had managed to shrug off. I endlessly traced and copied their work, in some futile belief that I would crack the secret of their skill and, in turn, magically be able to draw equally as well. When Dillon spent the entire summer of 1983 drawing the epic Judge Dredd saga, Cry of the Werewolf, I couldn’t have been happier.
Out of all the comics from my youth, 2000 AD was the one constant in my life from the age of seven until I was 21. For 14 years it was my companion through puberty and into adulthood. In the early years I used to produce my own “radio plays”—which were essentially me reading out the various parts from Harry 20 on the High Rock, in different voices and recorded on tape cassettes. Thankfully none of these exist anymore.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was regarded as somewhat of a nerd at school. I unwittingly set myself up as a target by taking a large black briefcase to school and openly confessing to playing Dungeons & Dragons. I spent my secondary school days on the verge of beatings, only just managing to use my gift of the gab to avoid the bruises. Being a comic fan didn’t help. But every Saturday made the week a little more bearable, and it could never come round fast enough, as I escaped into a fantasy world of future lawmen, cowboys rounding up dinosaurs and giant, killer polar bears.