Drokk! If you have been living in an iso-cube the past few weeks, then you may have missed some exciting news from across the pond! Between Rebellion acquiring the Fleetway and IPC Youth Group archives and 2000 AD celebrating their 2,000th issue, former 2000 AD editor Steve MacManus released his memoir, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre. In it, he describes his time with the publisher when he was first hired as a sub-editor in 1973 through his impactful tutelage as editor of 2000 AD during its “golden age.” It’s a candid retrospective, as well as an oral history documenting the changing face of British comics and the rise of the comic convention scene.
Recently, Fanbase Press Editorials Manager Michele Brittany had the unique opportunity to interview MacManus about his editorial experiences on several popular British titles, as well as working with talent on the rise.
Michele Brittany, Fanbase Press Editorials Manager: For those who haven’t read your new book, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre, can you tell us how you got into editing comic books?
Steve MacManus: It was by chance rather than by design. I had actually applied to Fleetway Publications for a job on a soccer magazine of theirs called Shoot!, but I failed to be hired. Perhaps taking pity on me, the interviewer suggested I apply for a job that was going on one of the comics published by the same company. I reasoned it would be good to at least get some kind of job in the company and that was how I came to be hired as sub-editor on a weekly comic title called Valiant. As it transpired, my whole career was to be spent in the world of comics because, pretty soon, I realised what a great job it was to work with picture strips!
MB: In reading your memoir, you talk about how many titles were collected in anthologies that were published weekly! Typically, how many strips were you editing and how many issues were you assembling each week?
SM: Each editor was assigned a 32-page weekly title, and that would contain eight strips, created by eight different freelance writer/artist pairings. Even though the production process ran to a tight schedule, the editor was usually handling around six issues at differing stages of development. To track all this, the editor used what was called a make-up book, with each issue’s status entered and updated in pencil across a spread of the book.
MB: Early in your editing days, you had the opportunity to write an episode of Rat Pack, which did not lead to anything at the time. Did you want to be a writer or was editing your first passion? Later in your book, you shared some of your writing projects with readers. Do you feel editing improved your writing and if so how?
SM: I’ve always been a writer at heart – it’s in my name (Manus!). But at the time I did not see how I could achieve the same quality as the then current crop of scripters, and this was born out when my stab at Rat Pack was rejected. So editing became the next best thing in terms of being close to the creation process. And yes, working on editorial improves a newcomer’s understanding of the nuts and bolts of scripting picture strips in lots of ways. For example, as a lowly sub-editor, I was learning at the feet of John Wagner and Pat Mills, absorbing their know-how with every script conference they convened. It was fascinating and a real master class not only in scripting, but also creating new characters to showcase to an audience that was becoming increasingly sophisticated in its choice of visual entertainment.
MB: One of the recurring influences I picked up on in your memoir was the significance of films on British comics – is that a correct assessment? What were some of the most influential films that you recall?
SM: That assessment is absolutely correct. Battle Picture Weekly took its cue from films like, The Dirty Dozen, Cross of Iron, Where Eagles Dare, and Kelly’s Heroes. Action comic gleefully featured a retread of Jaws, not to mention a strip inspired by the television series, The Fugitive. 2000 AD as a proposal in itself was inspired by the news of a forthcoming film called Star Wars. The boom in sci-fi films that followed served only to provide even more content as inspiration for new ideas and characters. And through all this, the notion of a grim, gritty anti-hero as a protagonist became the over-riding factor in a strip’s creation. It was a case of saying ‘so long’ to clean cut stars like John Wayne and issuing a big ‘Howdy!’ to darker characters such as Clint Eastwood.
MB: In a “life imitates art” moment, for a brief time you were dubbed “Action Man,” although I think The Sun’s label “The Sevenpenny Nightmare” might have been more apropos. What was it like going through the challenges that readers suggested? What challenge did you fear the most? And was there a challenge you were thankful was never suggested?
SM: At the time, I was in my early twenties and at that age most people are fearless, we don’t know any better! So, the proposal that I be ‘Action’s’ stunt man seemed entirely reasonable, not to mention fun. The challenge I feared most was exploring London’s sewers, where there was a chance, slim but still a possibility, of catching Sewerman’s Flu, a waterborne disease that results in two or three fatalities a year.
The challenge I would have thought twice about, I guess, would have been where I had to parachute from a plane, as I have a fear of heights.
MB: Steve, you took up the mantle of editor of 2000 AD in 1979, inheriting 3 staff persons, 30 freelancers, and 100,000 readers, all at the age of 26! Can you walk through your initial thoughts as that realization sunk into your mind? What strengths do you feel your brought to the position and what challenges did you face in that first year?
SM: My initial thoughts can be summed up in word, ‘panic’! But there wasn’t time to freak out for very long; the production schedule soon brought me to my senses, like a slap to the face. The challenges in the first year mainly came from management figures, personages who were stuck in the cosy world of comics created in the 1950s and 1960s. In short, they did not understand 2000 AD and may even have feared its rawness, its urgency, and its vibrancy. But also, I had to prove to the editorial team I had inherited that I was the right person to take over as editor. In both cases I think perseverance and diplomacy were key strengths that saw me through that first year.
MB: Today, we have academic scholars that analyze fandoms, so I am anxious to know your thoughts about the early days of British comic book conventions (or marts) and the first autograph signings at Forbidden Planet in London where you first gained appreciation for the growing celebrity status of 2000 AD’s writers and artists.
SM: I knew nothing of fandom until I was told 2000 AD had won an Eagle Award for favourite British comic, with Judge Dredd winning the category for favourite British comics character. From this I quickly learned all about fandom and how there were regular gatherings of comic fans at comic marts, mainly held in London. I began to attend these, and then 2000 AD folk began to receive invitations to attend actual comic conventions in Britain. The first signing by 2000 AD creators at London’s Forbidden Planet showed how passionate the fans were for 2000 AD, queuing for hours to meet the creators and get their signatures. I was utterly impressed by the enjoyment every attendee (both professional and fan alike) derived from these different events. Being British occasions, you can be assured a few beers were consumed on each occasion!
MB: In the US, American comics overshadow comics made and distributed in other countries today; however, in the bigger history of the industry, in what ways are British comics significant?
SM: The British comics industry has a heritage dating back to 1825. The picture strip is very much part of British life and this makes the industry a fertile breeding ground for new talent. In that sense, I would say that the industry produces writers and artists, colourists and letterers who can work for foreign publishers and so enhance those native publications through different styles of writing and drawing.
MB: During your tutelage, one of the practices you instituted was the stockpiling of episodes to minimize the risk of a serial gap. How were you able to do that while working on 6 – 7 issues per week?
SM: Easy. Just turn the commissioning taps up to full power. Naturally, this led to the office plans chest soon overflowing with artwork, but I just kept those taps on full until I received a memo stating I had amassed sixty thousand dollars worth of content.
MB: Why do you think that 2000 AD readers were so passionate about the publication? Has that fandom changed over time in your opinion?
SM: The discovery of 2000 AD by the average schoolboy (no-one assumed a schoolgirl would buy it, but I am sure lots did) must have been one of those life-enhancing moments that we all experienced in childhood. Who could ignore the happy coincidence of a bunch of British tyros strutting their stuff in each issue? I’m referring to nascent stars such as Bolland, McMahon, Gibbons, Gibson, and Belardinelli. The weekly frequency made the whole experience relentlessly exciting. The change over time, I guess, is that everyone is a lot older, but still enjoying every moment of the ride!
MB: After your travels in the States and you returned to England to establish Crisis, Revolver, and Judge Dredd Megazine. It seems unfathomable that Crisis and Revolver, which targeted an older reader demographic, didn’t make it long-term. Would you do anything differently?
SM: Before I left for my busman’s holiday in the Sates, I had the good fortune to be offered the strip, Zenith, by Grant Morrison. All we needed was an artist and when Grant proposed Steve Yeowell, I immediately said yes. What I should have done next was reserve the strip for inclusion in Crisis, which was planned to have superhero content. Instead I let the strip be published in 2000 AD. Other than that, the answer is no, I don’t think so.
MB: I was astounded by the pedigree of talent that has been associated with 2000 AD and Crisis. Please feel free to name drop some especially bright talent, so we Yanks can appreciate that their roots were in British comics.
SM: It was my good fortune to take over a title that was already bursting with artistic talents such as Ezquerra, Bolland, Gibbons, McMahon and O’Neill. Not to mention the scripting talents of Mills and Wagner. And in due course similarly now famous names graced the title with their nascent talents: among them artists Brendan McCarthy, Simon Bisley, Liam Sharp, Chris Weston, Glenn Fabry, Bryan Talbot, Cam Kennedy, Jim Baikie, John McCrea, not to mention writing talent like Grant Morrison, John Smith, Neil Gaiman, Alan Grant, Peter Milligan and Alan Moore.
MB: In your “Aftermaths,” you reflected on Danny Cannon’s 1995 film, Judge Dredd, stating that you felt something had gotten lost from translation to adaptation, advocating at the time that any further audio/visual projects should be controlled more tightly by Fleetway. What do you think of Pete Travis’ interpretation with his 2012 film, Dredd?
SM: I haven’t actually seen it, but I’ve heard great things about it. I understand John Wagner was involved in the script’s development and that can only have helped to bring a better depiction of Dredd’s world to the screen.
MB: Steve, I thoroughly enjoyed your book and feel that it provides candid insight into the inner workings of the 2000 AD group of titles, as well as document the industry the latter decades of the 20th century. What would you like readers to take away from reading The Mighty One?
SM: Well, first of all, I hope they feel the outlay was worth it. In many ways, the book is colloquial, chatty, so no-one should come to it expecting an intellectual examination of the subject matter! In terms of take-aways, I’ve noticed different readers respond to different parts of the text so all I would hope is that the underlying theme of never losing faith in oneself or a project proves useful to them in the future.
MB: Thank you very much for your time, Steve! For those interested in reading The Mighty One, Rebellion has e-copies available for purchase, or physical copies are available at Amazon.
Images are excerpts from The Mighty One and are courtesy of Steve MacManus.