When editing began on my new book, Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? (which you can buy for yourself – just click on the image of the book on the right side of the screen!), my editor Kate had a tough time. I had submitted a whole lot more material than we had room for, so she had to make a whole lot of edits. When it came to cutting things, 90% of what was cut was my material as she naturally did not want to cut much from the comic book creators who were kind enough to contribute lists to the books. That said, some of the contributor lists did have cuts. Mostly stuff like instead of a top five list it became a top four list or instead of a top six it became a top four. That sort of thing. The list of Kieron Gillen (the great writer of books like Phonogram, Journey Into Mystery and Uncanny X-Men), though, probably was edited the most of all the contributor lists that made it into the book, especially the many hilarious asides that Kieron made in his original list. So I thought it would be a fun “Director’s Cut” type of thing to share with you Kieron’s original list, in all of its offbeat glory. So from here on out, it is Kieron’s writing. Enjoy! – BC
When asked for my comics secret origin, I normally say something like “I didn’t really read comics until I was in my twenties” because it’s easier that way, and also dodges a lot of awkward follow-ups. But it’s also a lie. I just didn’t read many comics when I was a teenager When I was a proper kid, with chirpy optimism and undescended gonads, I read whatever comics I could find. And even if I didn’t buy them as a teen, if they were left around, I’d totally have a good old flick. I’ll read anything, especially if it involves a dude’s head exploding in a suitably transgressive fashion. Or emotions. Always up for head-exploding and emotions, me.
Anyway – this is everything you need to know about five great British comic characters you probably won’t have heard of, unless you have, in which case well done you. I find you alluring. Yes, sexually. I’m going to try and choose ones which won’t have appeared in Zenith or Albion or in the corner of a panel in whatever League issue Moore’s putting out. Because talking about them is Jess Nevins’ job, and I’m no scab.
I really do find you very alluring, by the way.
1. OOR WULLIE
The eponymous character from Oor Wullie and the uneponymous character from The Broons crashed into my life on my first holidays, as a pre-schooler, to my mum’s Scottish relations. And these comic portraits of Scottish family life in 1960s – because they were reprints – absorbed me. They were alien artefacts, in a setting stranger than Krypton or Asgard could dream of. Why does glue look like a chocolate bar? This haunts me to this day. More importantly, it was written in Scottish dialect, which made it my pre-pubescent Trainspotting. And educational (probably).
Across his one-page episodes Oor Wullie starts on a bucket, tries to have a little fun, fails to have a little fun, and end up sitting on a bucket. Between the two buckets, we find all human life, and splendid words like “braw”.
Artist Dudley Watkins is now most commonly cited as the primary influence on Frank Quietly, which is always a good one to confuse the yanks. I’m not convinced. I’ve never seen Quitely render a bucket so lovingly. Still: it’s not too late. I would pay shiny coins to read ALL STAR OOR WULLIE. Get on with it, Morrison. Quit pissing around with the Batchap! Bucket! Now! Boy On A Bucket!
2. JOHNNY RED
If you mention Battle to an American, they’ll mostly say “What?”. If they fancy themselves as a multi-cultural titan, they’ll probably say “Oh – Charlie’s War”. If you’re someone like Douglas Wolk, you’ll probably say “Ah, Darkies’ Mob”, because you know most people will just say Charlies’ War, and you get special critic shiny stars by going for something else – and you can probably double them if you go for a naughty rude one. But if you’re me, you’ll go to go for Johnny Red, because it prominently features a Hurricane fighter, and I have nothing but crazy love for the Hurricane.
Johnny Red is basically a British fighter pilot gets sent in that loveable snub-nosed flying-brick of a Hurricane to fight on the Eastern Front. He meets the Hun! He shoots them with his gun! Plane-guns! Lovingly rendered visceral period warfare, which introduced me to the concept of women pilots flying those anti-tank planes which had a cannon running all the way down its centre. When Ennis gets out his Airfix models and spins them through the air making dakkadakkadakka noises, I assure you, he is imagining that he’s Johnny Red.
3. HOOK JAW
I’ve a theory about kids’ comics. It runs contrary to pretty much everyone in the American industry. Normally, when people bemoan the state of kids’ comics, it’s parents looking for child friendly stuff to give their little tiddlers. Why aren’t there more suitable comics? And I’ve sympathy for that. But that’s not comics for kids. That’s comics for parents to give to kids. The wonder of true kids comics is that it’s offensive enough to thrill a kid with evil transgression but simultaneously not offensive enough for a horrified parent to tear it away and set fire to the newsagents. It’s this approach which a disproportionate section of British comics have walked – especially the lineage I’m charting here. And when you walk this line… well, occasionally you over-step it. The infamous Action comic – what Mills did before 2000AD but after Battle – pretty much made a career of it. Well, for a few months before it was withdrawn from sale due to the aforementioned arsonist-parent-issue.
It came back, but it was toned down and not long for the world. But hey! For its brief time it was a shameless remix of Jaws, starring a killer shark with a hook embedded in his jaw. What was Hook Jaw about? It was about showing people being torn into pieces in the sort of loving detail that would make the average Avatar-comics devotee wince. And so imaginative! When rediscovering Hook Jaw recently I became transfixed by how they managed to off someone smart enough to use a shark-cage. One of the sharks gave birth, and the diver was torn into pieces by a shoal of tiny baby sharks, fresh from the womb, hungry for flesh.
There is nothing that is not good about Hook Jaw, except ethically.
4. NEMESIS THE WARLOCK
This neatly follows on from the above argument. It’s another Mills joint, this time in 2000AD and working with the divine visionary power of Kevin O’Neil. When Rebellion released their first enormous collection of Nemesis, I hastily bought it and shoved it in the hands of a visibly confused Matt Fraction. It was my way of showing him the reason why British creators are different (i.e. mentally disturbed people who should be shunned) was that when we were eleven we were reading stuff like this instead of – oh, I don’t know – Archie.
(The biggest difference between UK comic readers and US comic readers is that we have literally no idea of Archie. It’s much like Twinkies – something we only know exists due to it being alluded to in other media. But I digress. Oh – read CRIMINAL: LAST OF THE INNOCENT. And I digress again. I’ll stop digressing. I’m not being paid by the word. I’m not being paid at all.)
Nemesis the Warlock is about an alien terrorist trying to kill as many humans as possible. But he’s the good guy, because humans really are right bastards, aren’t they?
Impactor also follows on from Hook Jaw, but only because he’s got a hook in his anatomy which he stabs into things. Impactor is a supporting character created by Simon Furman as part of the British-originated Transformer Comics. And – no, shut up. You have no idea how important the Brit TF comics were to a generation. Impactor debuted in TARGET 2006, which was where Furman’s Transformer’s saga – er – transformed. It had been good before – TARGET 2006 was immediately preceded by IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST, which married government-agency paranoia to enormous saurian robots – but this new storyline was something else entirely. The game was raised, the toys played with so hard they broke. In a periodic comic, the sudden sense of freedom in the rush from week to week was overwhelming. We revelled in it. The next issue panel that only displayed the head of the insectoid bad-guy Shrapnel being shot clear through by some manner of brutal harpoon MUCH LIKE THE ONE HOOK-JAW MAY HAVE USED seemed like a call to arms, a statement that anything goes. Seven days from first seeing it, you couldn’t have kept me away from the newsagents with riot police.
Impactor went on to sacrifice himself to save everyone at the end of the story. Then a few years later, he returned in an ahead-of-its-time zombie story as a zombie-robot, and was the one character to overcome his re-animation, before swiftly proceeding to sacrifice himself to save everyone again. What a bot! For the rest of the run, Springer keeps on worrying about not being good enough to replace Impactor as the leader of his squad of robo-commandos. And rightly so, Springer. Compared to Impactor, you’re shit.
In short: Impactor is basically who Brit-kids got sniffly over instead of Jean Grey. Jean Grey didn’t even have a harpoon for a hand.