The age of superheroes

In the 1930s, as the age of superheroes was dawning in America, quite different heroes populated the pages of British comics.

In the 1930s, as the age of superheroes was dawning in America, quite different heroes populated the pages of British comics. Without the frenetic financial and technological optimism of America to fuel them, British heroes of the time were of a more earthbound variety. Stiff upper lip was the order of the day, exhibited by adventurers who were the sort of men able to keep Britain’s Empire in good working order. While an increasingly powerful America was creating its mythology, a declining British Empire was recording its twilight. These increasingly nostalgic tales of the handsome stalwarts of empire, always ready with a fist or gun, outlasted the Empire itself, surviving well into the 1960s.

By then Britain was regaining its swagger after the difficult post-war years. It had lost its Empire, but culturally it was booming: a new empire centred on groovy Carnaby Street, with the Beatles leading the British cultural invasion of America. All of this created a kind of ‘perfect storm’ for the 1970s, which was to be the wellspring of a golden age in British comics. With a renewed confidence, and drawing on talent that had been nourished in the small press and underground comics scenes, the politically tumultuous 1970s saw Britain producing some of the best comics of the time. Its impact continued for two decades and is still being felt.

Cinema had always been an important influence on comics output, and the 1970s was the time of big budget sci-fi in Hollywood; both Star Wars and Alien enjoyed huge success internationally. 2000 AD was a sci-fi publication that sought to capitalise on this trend and in 1977 Judge Dredd appeared its pages. Dredd was a complex hero appropriate for a particularly turbulent moment in British history that would see the Conservative government taking on the unions and seismic changes taking place across the country as a result.

Dredd was ‘A Man for All Seasons’ – but in the darkest sense. He was a fascist whose word was quite literally law – but he got things done. He was unshakeable in his convictions, harking back to the unambiguous heroes of empire that populated the pages of pre-war comics. He was equally loved and reviled, often by the same reader, within the same story. Dredd was also American, and as much as the setting was a genuine homage to America, it also allowed for excoriating attacks on this cultural imperialist.

This was at a time when the colonisation of Britain seemed more complete daily, heralded by the sinister outriders of McDonalds and Burger King. A controversial episode within the larger Judge Dredd story arc of ‘Cursed Earth’ saw demented, post-apocalyptic mutant gangs the Burger King Creeps and the Macdonald’s Marauders battling it out. This material was not included in later reprints, but the sheer bravado of this kind of satire was not soon forgotten – and is representative of the spirit of 2000 AD at that time.

Judge Dredd, The Complete America

Judge Dredd, the Complete America, John Wagner and Colin MacNeill

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From the 1970s through to the 1990s, 2000 AD produced many memorable heroes, including adventurer/artist Tyranny Rex. The creation of John Smith, this sexy, gun-toting reptilian adventuress with green skin and a tail criss-crossed the galaxy, taking what she wanted and leaving a trail of entertaining chaos in her wake, all in the name of art – and a good time. While musicians such as Courtney Love, P J Harvey, Shirley Manson and Kat Bjelland mounted an all-out assault on the boys-only clubhouse of hard rock, in British comics Tyranny Rex and her contemporary Tank Girl took up the call to arms.

2000 AD "Tyranny Rex. Part 1: In His Image"

‘Tyranny Rex’ 1988, John Smith, Steve Dillon, Rebellion Development

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She may not have been green-skinned or sported a tail, but artist Jamie Hewlett and writer Alan Martin’s shaven-headed Tank Girl wasn’t the kind of girl you were going to forget… With an appetite for destruction that made Mad Max look like Gandhi, she was joined in her ‘adventures’ (read as: mindless carnage) by her part-kangaroo mutant boyfriend Booga. First appearing in influential comics anthology Deadline, the sheer energy of the artwork and Tank Girl’s indomitable spirit made her an international success; her influence duly spilled out of comics and on to the catwalk and big screen. Artist and co-creator Jamie Hewlett continued to produce iconic artwork, transitioning into the new millennium with arguably the first internationally successful ‘virtual band’, Gorillaz, created with musician Damon Albarn of Blur. These destructive rock brats with a bad attitude and a string of hit songs proved themselves worthy successors to their older sister Tank Girl.

This article is an excerpt from Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK (The British Library) by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning.

The age of superheroes © John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Odyssey no. 3, Tank Girl artwork

‘Tank Girl’, The Odyssey, 1995, Jamie Hewlett

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  • John Harris Dunning
  • John Harris Dunning is a comics writer whose work has appeared at the Comica Festival and in the UK anthology Sturgeon White Moss.

  • Paul Gravett
  • Paul Gravett is a writer, curator, lecturer and broadcaster, co-director of Comica Festival, co-publisher of Escape Books and author of Comics Art (Tate).