Whatever happened to Marvel UK?

The UK branch of Marvel Comics may have drawn to a close, but it gave a real chance to lots of new talent. Rob's been tracing the story...

Death's Head: part of the Marvel UK canon

The UK has fine reputation of producing comics, many of which were and still are published by DC Thomson publications. These include fine traditional ‘British’ comics such as The Beano and Dandy and even (in association with Rebellion) 2000AD.

But during the early 1970s, the British offshoot of Marvel was run by renowned UK comic editor Dez Skinn. Originally only producing a few titles, the company primarily focused on anthologies such as The Incredible Hulk Weekly and Mighty World Of Marvel, which consisted entirely of 1960s reprints.

They also reprinted the popular twelve issue Secret Wars, which took the groundbreaking limited series, and the huge crossover that was Secret Wars 2, and spread them over nearly 100 issues.

These publications basically took the American version of the comics and reproduced them in a format more in line with others on the shelves in Britain. The changes made for the UK audience were both editorially led as well as cosmetic. The reprints’ most noticeable difference was a size change. Whereas most American comics are 17cm by 26cm, the UK reproduction books changed to reflect other titles on the shelves (such as Battle, Tiger, etc) and were blown up to magazine size.

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All of this changed during the 1980s when Marvel UK embraced the influx of American toys and half hour adverts (sorry, cartoon shows) that spewed onto our screens and toy shelves

Seeing an opportunity to cash-in on cartoon licenses, Marvel UK produced a comic based on the Transformers line of toys. Written by Simon Forman, these stories actually had a bigger impact than their American counterparts and are now seen by Transformer fans as ‘canon’.

A resounding success, these stories and plots by Furman became the bible of reference for the main continuity of the US books. With excellent such stories as Target 2006 and the Unicron saga (which introduced the bounty hunter Death’s Head), the comic stayed popular even after the toy lines dwindled.

Another toy line that appeared in comic format was Zoids, a set of clockwork and battery-powered Mecha-inspired dinosaurs. The strip, even though inspired by a toy line, was actually very enjoyable, despite a lot of the stories being ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere (such as the films Alien and The Thing, as well as episodes of Doctor Who).

The title had superb artwork and highly compelling stories, some of which were created by current X-men writer Grant Morrison.

 

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These books also contained back-up strips that included the Canadian-based super team Alpha Flight and even X-men limited series starring Iceman, as well as running some bizarre back up stories that included Barry Windsor Smith’s Machine Man, Iron Man 2020, Starbrand and the excellent Strikeforce Morituri. These titles also ran other really obscure toy tie-ins such as Insectors and Inhumanoids, and a great and very surreal series called Rocket Raccoon.

With this success and the regained interest from the UK reading public, Marvel UK then aimed to sell to both us and also the American comic audience. The creators here (which included the likes of Brian Hitch, Mark Miller, Gary Frank, Carlos Pacheco and Salvador Lacroa) began to design and build its own universe of characters.

This UK-specific canon of heroes and titles were designed to run on their own continuity lines, but at times interact with the characters in the main Marvel Universe (which was really only an excuse to put in cameos of Wolverine and the X-men in month after month to boost flagging sales).

 

Using the lynchpin of a huge megalithic corporation called MYS-Tech, the books were built around a blend of science fiction and fantasy, mixing magic with modern technology. As well as the enigmatic MYS-Tech Corporation’s own title, readers also had the choice of the ‘Stargate-like’ Warheads, as well as Death’s Head 2 by Liam Sharpe, a fully painted title called Digi-Tek, a Goth’s dream comic called Dark Angel (Hell’s Angel) and the sci-fi epic Motormouth.

For the most part these were actually pretty good, however being the 1990s and with comics flooding the market, problems lay ahead. There were so many comics to choose from back then that with the more ‘American’ price tag (i.e. a lot more expensive), readers turned away from this bloated market in their droves.

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With production of Marvel UK titles finishing during the mid 1990s (after being sold as a going concern during the bankruptcy of Marvel USA in 1997) the company ran into trouble. Creators were leaving and titles were closing after a few issues. A lot of talent moved to other British titles such as 2000AD, Revolver and Deadline, where there was more creator-owned work to produce, while others moved onto American titles for Marvel and DC.

 

The implosion of the British arm of Marvel was a major blow to the comic-buying community in general; however there were some benefits as Marvel UK had showcased the huge amount of talent based here and helped launch the careers of some of today’s superstars.

Presently Marvel UK in its current state is but a shadow of its former self. Now in the hands of Panini (best known and loved for its sticker albums in the 80s) Marvel UK continues to produce monthly reprint comics, allowing British readers without access to comic stores to enjoy reprints of the X-men and Avengers stories from a few years’ past.

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