King of Crooks and the Vanishing Man
By Pádraig Ó Méalóid
Towards the end of 2005, Titan Books published two volumes of classic comics. The first, The Spider: King of Crooks, appeared in October and the second, The Steel Claw: The Vanishing Man, in December. They both reprint well-remembered and much loved old stories from classic UK comics, coming from Lion and Valiant respectively. Despite the popularity of the move amongst comics aficionados, the road to getting them published wasn’t as smooth as everyone though it would be.
Certainly the time seems right to publish reprints of old UK comics stories. DC Comics, through its WildStorm imprint, is publishing a six-part comic called Albion in the US market. This features a huge array of old, out-of-print UK characters from the IPC/Fleetway comics stable. The whole thing is plotted by comics genius Alan Moore, and written by his daughter Leah Moore and her husband John Reppion. Sales of Albion seem to be strong, proving that perhaps there is interest in these characters. The WildStorm comics and the Titan books carry mutual advertising, one for the other, as the two projects, the republication of old stories on one hand, and the reinvention of the old characters on the other, go hand-in-hand.
It’s not just the success of Albion, either, that shows a renewed interest in old UK comics and their characters. Christmas 2005 saw two books catering to various ends of UK comics nostalgia. On one hand, there was The Best of Jackie, a collection of articles and features from one of the most popular of the UK’s teenage girls’ magazines of the 1970’s. On the other hand, there was Graham Kibble-White’s extremely informative and useful The Ultimate Book of British Comics, a book packed full of information about UK comics. These will soon be joined by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s Great British Comics: Celebrating a Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes (Aurum, October 2006).
One possible explanation for this fascination with the past is the fact that, out of what were, if not hundreds, at least many dozens of titles being published on a weekly or monthly basis in the UK up to the 1970’s, only four titles still survive. These are 2000AD, The Beano, Commando, and The Dandy, with a fifth title, Judge Dredd Megazine, making up the five comics titles currently being produced in the UK. Times change, but perhaps the time is right for what was lost to be found again. Further hopeful pointers can be found in nostalgia-inspired UK comics’ small press titles like Solar Wind, Pony School and Spaceship Away, all well worth seeking out.
As I said above, getting these volumes published wasn’t as simple as was originally envisaged. Titan Books had lost the rights to do reprints of old 2000AD strips, as Rebellion were now doing these themselves. Titan was looking for something to fill the gap, so they decided to do reprints of old Fleetway/IPC strips. First, though, Titan had to find the original material. Apparently this wasn’t available in an archive at IPC so, around the middle of 2004, they started to put the word out through the Internet that they were looking for collectors of old UK comics who would be prepared to allow them to scan their comics for the forthcoming collections. A lot of the material in The Spider: King of Crooks was sourced from the collection of a friend of mine, David McDonald. David was so inspired by the fact that Titan were doing these collections that he went out and got the rights to reprint an old favorite of his, the strip Doomlord, which ran in Eagle. The quality of the material in both Titan reprints was still not perfect, however, and both books have this imprimatur on the bottom of the indicia page: Much of the comic strip material used by Titan in this edition is exceedingly rare. As such, we hope that readers appreciate that the quality of the material can be variable. To make matters more complex, there was another character called The Spider registered in the US and, although there was no problem about calling the book after the title character in the UK, they had to redesign the cover of the book for both markets, which is why this character’s book is simply called King of Crooks, at least on the cover, and only identified as being about The Spider inside. All this delayed the production of the book, which was originally meant to be released in June 2005 to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the character.
All of this background information is all well and good, I imagine you’re thinking, but are the books any good? Does the material stand the test of time in any way? Fair enough, I’ve put it off long enough, so here’s the plain unvarnished truth: not really. Having said that small but unpalatable mouthful, there’s still a lot to be said for these books, but unfortunately the original stories aren’t really that good, and with that flaw all the rest is just trimming. So, here’s a brief description of both books, with the good point and bad points.
The Spider: King of Crooks tells the story of the eponymous character, who wears an armored exosuit which allows him to do all sorts of amazing things. He sets out to become the greatest criminal the world has ever known. He puts together his little army of crime in the first few installments of the story, and then attempts various outrageous crimes, only to be thwarted at the last minute by the authorities. All this is accompanied by much in the way of megalomaniacal pronouncements and general mad cackling, and very little character development. The storylines are, frankly, unlikely, even given that we should be suspending our disbelief. Although when Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, takes over the scripting from Ted Cowan for the third story in the book, it all starts to flow a bit more freely and the action becomes slicker and faster-paced. The book comes complete with useful biographical essays about both the character and the creators, and a chronology of all the appearances of The Spider from 1965 to the present, all courtesy of the extremely knowledgeable Steve Holland, author of The Fleetway Companion. Some of the page reproductions are quite poor, and, although I understand the desire to show the material in its original state, a little touching up for the sake of clarity wouldn’t have gone astray.
The Steel Claw is a lot better for all sorts of reasons. The artwork, by Jesús Blasco, is beautiful. The title character, Louis Crandell, is presented as a well-developed human being, with doubts to go with his powers. Even the reproduction is clearer and more consistent. Crandall, who lost a hand due to a laboratory accident, finds himself involved in another accident, this time involving large doses of electricity. This causes him to become invisible, except for his steel hand. He originally decides to use his newfound ability to commit crimes, but seems to be in a moral dilemma about this as the book goes along, and more and more finds himself helping people rather than doing evil. The storylines, written by SF writer Kenneth Bulmer, are generally better that the other book, perhaps because the character allows more leeway, and because the creative team in general were better. The book also comes with biographical essays by Steve Holland, and a character chronology. It features a cover by Brian Bolland. Minus several points to the editorial team, however, for managing to move around or else completely lose the diacritical mark on artist Jesús Blasco’s first name at various places in the book.
Even though The Steel Claw is the better book of the two, it still wouldn’t stand up in today’s comic-book market place. There are several reasons for this, most of which are to do with the way these stories were presented at the time. In both cases, the stories were told in installments of only two pages a week, meaning that there was virtually no room for any kind of complex storytelling. The writer and artist had to resolve the previous week’s cliff-hanger ending, move the story forward, and then set up another cliff-hanger, all in the span of maybe twelve or fifteen panels. Certainly this must have been an ongoing challenge, with full forward action often being an easier solution than any sort of complex storyline. Any character interaction beyond the most basic was simply out of the question. You also have to remember that the target market for these stories was British boys between the ages of eight and twelve, or thereabouts, who were living in a fairly uncritical and uncynical time. They would lap up pretty much whatever was put in front of them.
Despite all of the above, I’m firmly in favor of these books, and many more like them, hopefully, being produced by Titan Books. These stories are valuable pieces of UK comics history, and certainly hold a very treasured place in the memories of many people. All the additional material is useful and informative and, reservations about the quality of the reproductions of some pages aside, the production values on both these books are sky high. Also I can’t help thinking that my own critical opinion is going to be of no interest whatsoever to someone who simply wants to re-read the stories he read as a child; and this is absolutely as it should be. It’s entirely unfair of me to try to judge these books in terms of what is being written today, where they will necessarily fall short. As well-presented archival material, and as collections of once-loved characters rescued from undeserved obscurity, these books are treasures, and it is as such that I’ll be keeping them, and hopefully adding to them, if Titan finds it in their hearts to continue with the series of IPC reprints.
[I note in passing that no self-respecting teenage girl I knew would be seen dead reading Jackie. The sorts of magazines I bought at that age were Cosmo-for-teens publications with names like Just Seventeen (which appears to be still going!). The trick was never to buy a magazine that appeared to be aimed at girls younger than you, which is why they tended to have ages in their titles. Jackie was what you read when you were young enough to have crushes on David Cassidy and Donny Osmond rather than on David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. – Cheryl]