Once upon a time in England, there was another Marvel Comics.
No, unlike the famed Marvelman, whose ’80s debut in America necessitated a change in nomenclature, this Marvel Comics wasn’t a rival to the superhero giant, but a fondly recalled imprint that brought British creators, British characters and a British feel to the Marvel Universe forever anchored in New York City. Called Marvel UK, the imprint lived many lives from its days publishing Alan Moore and Alan Davis on “Captain Britain” to its slow death producing reprint albums with the occasional original short story which finally wrapped in 2011.
But perhaps best remembered and best loved by fans on both side of the Atlantic was the Marvel UK of the early ’90s, where the weekly reprint offices in London blew out into a full-fledged imprint and created a whole line of wholly British heroes connected by a sci-fi sensibility and a soon-to-be-famous creative staff. From “Death’s Head II” (a relaunch of Simon Furman’s well known UK Marvel antihero) to “Knights of Pendragon” (Captain Britain’s original team book), the Marvel UK offices set out a number of cutting-edge superhero comics before market forces and the bankruptcy of their parent company forced the shop to again become a reprint house as part of European publisher Panini’s overall Marvel plans.
Though many fans have expressed sadness at the loss of Marvel UK as its own force over the years, in January 2014, a piece of the original ’90s run will live on in “Revolutionary War” — a new eight-issue publishing event led by writer Andy Lanning and his former co-staffer Alan Cowsill. The book celebrates the 20th anniversary of the original Marvel UK line with revival issues for Death’s Head II, Knights of Pendragon, Dark Angel, Motor Mouth and more. CBR News spoke to Lanning about how the project came about, and in the process got a crash course on the imprint that launched the careers of everyone form Bryan Hitch to Gary Frank as he explained what’s in store for “Revolutionary War.”
CBR News: Andy, in very recent memory, UK comic fans watched as the last vestiges of original publishing under the Marvel UK office wrapped up their work. And as it came out that no new stories would be produced in England for an English audience, Marvel executives like Tom Brevoort said that the company would love to return to the original characters created by the office in the 1990s. “Revolutionary War” is the project that finally fulfills that promise, and I’ve got to say, I’m surprised it all came together. Let’s start with your own history with Marvel UK. What’s your memory of the life of that imprint and that original publishing office which carved out their own corner of the Marvel Universe?
Andy Lanning: It’s bizarre. It’s been 20 years since we started up, or actually it’s been 20 years since the last Marvel UK comic from our original imprint was published. There really was this brief moment of glory — barely three years — from when we started off making “Death’s Head II” and through the whole Marvel UK imprint. During the first couple of years, I was working in house there, and we had a large studio where I worked with Bryan Hitch, Liam Sharp, Andrew Currie, and guys luke Gary Frank and Cam Smith would come in. There were a lot of people who are professionals working today who got their start at Marvel UK. And it was great! It was really exciting. It was a sort of buzzy time.
By the end of that run, I was actually doing a lot of work for American Marvel and wasn’t going into the offices that much. I decided to start working at home and writing a bunch of things with Dan [Abnett] where we moved on beyond just the Marvel UK stuff. So I wasn’t around for the last days of the empire, as you might say. [Laughs]
As it turns out, I’m going to be writing this series with a guy call Alan Cowsill. He was an editor at Marvel UK at the time, and he went with the company when they moved out of London and went to Panini where they started working on what they had actually began doing in the first place: reprints of American stuff with a very small amount of original stuff. Alan now writes for the Dorling/Kindersly Encyclopedias like the “Encyclopedia of Super Heroes” or “Encyclopedia of Avengers.” Alan puts together all of those, and he does the Marvel and DC figurine books as well, which are really quite brilliant. So he’s a walking encyclopedia of all this stuff, quite literally. It’s been his job for the last five or ten years to write those books, so he’s been great to help me out and back me up. It’s nice not to do all the heavy lifting as far as the research is concerned. [Laughs] But I have spent the last few months in the attic digging out all my old issues of the Marvel UK stuff that I’ve got secreted amongst all the cobwebs.
You wrote a number of titles during that three-year Marvel UK run originating characters like the Knights of Pendragon and others who were very different than some other Marvel characters who had come before. What was the impetus of the creation for all these guys, and what made them stand out as their own concepts?
I think a lot of that goes down to Paul Neary. When he took over as the editor of Marvel UK, he instigated this drive to publish an imprint of American-style comics featuring new heroes and stories that would take place within the actual Marvel continuity. What made them unique was this spark where Paul let us run wild. The idea was that a lot of these stories would be collected and published in a UK format as well as the American. You may know, the traditional method for UK comics is the weekly anthology format — magazines made up of eight-page stories with multiple characters. That’s like the “2000AD” format.
What we were tasked to do initially was create some heroes that had a sort of sci-fi, off-beat feel to them. Even though they were technically superheroes in the Marvel Universe, they also had this slightly kooky feel to them. They were eventually collected and published in “Overkill” magazine which was a weekly British-format comic. Then at the end of each month they were collected into a 22-page American-format monthly comic as well. So it a brave experiment to see whether we could create something that straddled both comic markets. “Overkill” lasted for about two or three years, but ultimately it was the legacy of the American-style comics that we had the bigger impact with.
How did this come back around for a new series coming out of the Marvel New York offices?
Bizarrely enough, this has been cooking for over a year now. I pitched editor Steve Wacker the concept probably before San Diego last year. I said to him, “You do realize that next year will be around 20 years since Marvel UK had been published?” and I then listed all of the creators working today who had cut their teeth at Marvel UK. I mentioned all those people from Hitch and Liam Sharp to Carlos Pacheco and Salvadore Larroca to Pasquel Ferry and Gary Frank. There was a big swell of talented people there. So I said, “It’d be great if we could revisit this stuff especially in continuity.”
I mean, it’s been 20 years in the real world, and a significant chunk of change has passed in Marvel U time as well. But those comics went away very quickly because at the time circumstances dictated an end when Marvel went into receivership [during the company’s bankruptcy]. [Laughs] Things evaporated very quickly. And I thought we could make a story point of that. Go back and look at this as a mystery of what ever happened to Mys-Tech — these nefarious techno wizards who were the main bad guys in the Marvel UK titles. It gave us the opportunity to revisit some of the these characters who, as you say, a lot of people still have a lot of love for. Someone like Death’s Head keeps popping up in books and has been cropping up in Marvel books over the intervening years.
I framed it to Steve that this could be a cool project if he every wanted to do that. I’ve gotten along well with him since we worked on “Legion” back at DC, and we batted this around for the better part of at least a year. He came back to me after a few months and said, “We actually have a format and a place in the schedule to make this work!” I think we were both really surprised by that. [Laughs] After a year of him knocking on the door there and being told, “Yeah, we like that, but it’s not a good time just yet” they suddenly said, “That idea you’ve been bugging us with Steve, go ahead and do it. We can fit it in the schedule now.” We were just like, “Really?!?” [Laughter] We were as surprised as anybody is that this is happening, but very pleasantly surprised.
Of course, the UK in the Marvel Universe has changed a lot since these titles were being published regularly. Paul Cornell did a lot of development of that side of the pond in “Captain Britain and MI-13,” and as I understand it, you’ll be starting your story with MI-13 as well. Why did you want to reintroduce these heroes out of the England we’ve seen on the page in recent memory?
That’s definitely what we’re doing. I was a big fan of what Paul did with his “MI-13” stories, and previous to that I loved what he did with the Pete Wisdom mini series he did. I’m a great believe of respecting the most recent version of any character and their continuity because it gives you a great building block to tell your own story with. So that’s very much the playground we’re starting in.
But there is a “hidden history” where there are layers of things that have happened in the intervening years that we haven’t seen in those stories. Maybe because the POV of those stories were told through the eyes of Pete Wisdom and the MI-13 we didn’t see it as much, but Paul himself brought in the likes of Motor Mouth and Killpower, Dark Angel, Digitek and Death’s Head in issue #15 of “MI-13.” I’ve been researching this, you can tell. [Laughs] If you ask me in a couple of weeks time where all this stuff appeared recently, I may not remember so much. But it’s even been five years — five real years — since even that issue came out. It’s always good if you’ve got a nice buffer of time between series because it gives you latitude to do a little nip and tuck and make your story work. But as I said, as much as possible I try to respect what Paul established because that was the last iteration of this stuff that we’ve seen. So that’s where we’ll start.
How is the story going to be structured?
There are going to be eight issues in total which will include an Alpha and an Omega issue that are the bookends which tell the main story. But that story also runs through six one-shots that each focus on an individual character. I think the order is Dark Angel, Knights of Pendragon, Death’s Head, Motormouth, Super Soldiers and Warheads. Each of those characters will get a one-shot against the backdrop of this over-arching story that the Alpha and Omega issues tell. It’s going to come out over three months with two issues, and then three and then three.
Was there a character where you went, “I’ve had this story in my head since I worked in the Marvel UK offices,” or were there any you needed to rediscover to do this story?
Well, Alan Cowsill and I are going to write for of the issues. We’re writing the Alpha and Omega issues as well as “Death’s Head” and “Warheads.” The other four we’ll hopefully get four English writers to do. We’re in the process of putting it all together the moment. But the biggest story isn’t, “This one character is the centrally important one.” I was a fan of all of those characters because I was around for the development of the lot of them at Marvel UK. Being drawn to things like “Death’s Head” because it was one of the very first books I inked along with Knights of Pendragon, it’s been great going back and researching this stuff and getting back into these characters. Even though they are of their time — when you get right down to the production values on those books, it was when color separations weren’t even computerized! — you can look back and see that there is a core of cool characters there worth exploring.
To me, the idea of coming back and revisiting those characters after a period of time when no one has looked back at them is always an attractive story trope to mine. And that’s basically what we’re doing. That was the initial seed this all grew from.
Like you said, this is early in the process, but on the art side with so many great artists who worked at Marvel UK initially, are you going to try and get as many of the old faces to come in and contribute?
That was always my plan. There’s blue sky thinking as far as that’s concerned. Maybe we could reach out to some of these guys and get at least a cover out of them. You’d think they want to contribute. But then there’s the cold, hard reality of “Do they have time, and can we afford them?” [Laughs] I’d like to think that we’ll get some contributions from some of them. Richard Elson is drawing the Alpha and Omega issues, and time permitting, I’m going to be inking him on that as well. He’s been doing some great stuff for Marvel of late on “Thor” and the “Morbius” series, and he started out on Marvel UK as well. There’s a lovely symmetry there, and Rich and I have actually worked together outside of comics stuff, but this is our first chance to work as writer/artist, which will be awesome. That was one of the boxes ticked, as far as I was concerned.
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