BOOK REVIEW: The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre

 

Title: The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre

Author: Steve MacManus

Publisher: Rebellion Publishing

Published: 07 Sep 2016

RRP: £5.99

Steve MacManus, the editor of 2000 AD during its 1980s heyday, lifts the lid on how the UK’s most important comic came into existence and his extraordinary role in shaping it into a industry-revolutionising icon … in this warm and witty memoir, MacManus vividly describes the fiercely creative environment that was British comics in the 1970s and ‘80s – from Battle and Action to the stellar rise of 2000 AD and Judge Dredd, he details the personalities at play and the corporate politics and deadline battles he and others engaged in on a daily basis. With keen insight, MacManus reveals how 2000 AD defined comics for a generation and became a global phenomenon.

If words like ‘borag thungg’, ‘scrotnig’, ‘ghafflebette’, and ‘zarjaz’ sound familiar to you, then chances are you grew up under the gently subversive influence of “the galaxy’s greatest comic,” 2000 AD. A talent nursery of the most extraordinary kind, the revered British anthology series has nurtured the nascent careers of future giants like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Garth Ennis and many more besides. An original idea of a then IPC Magazines sub-editor (Kelvin Gosnell) that was developed and brought to life by legendary duo Pat Mills and John Wagner, by the mid-1980s 2000 AD had emerged as the “crown jewel of British comics” on the back of strips like Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, Anderson: Psi Division, Rogue Trooper, A.B.C. Warriors, The Ballad of Halo Jones, and Sláine. Now, as 2000 AD prepares to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, the man who oversaw the comic’s ‘golden age’ as editor, Steve MacManus, takes us past the marbled reception and down the long, dark corridors of Fleetway House circa 1973 with his engaging memoir, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre.

Landing a job as sub-editor for the boys’ adventure anthology Valiant – then selling in excess of 100,000 copies each week – MacManus was rapidly put to the test subbing lead strip Captain Hurricane, tallying character popularity voting coupons from Valiant’s huge weekly postbag (usually at home whilst watching The Sweeney) and learning the arcane art of composing toplines that fit the exact width of the comic’s cover. His Valiant colleagues were World War II veterans, hard-drinking and not easily impressed. Amidst the wafting fumes of Cow Gum rubber adhesive and perpetual clouds of cigarette smoke, and with almost zero in-house training, MacManus – fueled only by the sugary comestibles of Flo, the ubiquitous tea lady whose trolley trundled down the gloomy hall twice a day – affably fumbled his way through his first learnings in comics, and gradually earned the acceptance of his fellows and his place in the IPC Magazines publishing machine.

The 1974 demise of another IPC boys’ adventure title, Lion, and its subsequent merger with industry mainstay Valiant, marked the beginning of MacManus’ schooling in the cruel vagaries of commercial comics publishing – that, while the calling to comics might originate from a desire to script picture strips of some kind or another for eventual illustration and publication, survival in the industry is driven by the ability to develop and realise strips that shift copies. He survived the merger of Valiant and Lion and thrived, headhunted soon after to sub-edit IPC’s new war comic, Battle Picture Weekly, which first appeared in March 1975.

Indeed it was MacManus’ talent as a ‘navigator’ of change, his ability to adapt to threats and evolve with opportunity, that saw him through myriad capricious upheavals within IPC and Fleetway. By 1978, with World War II’s grip on British cultural identity waning, and the phenomenal international success of films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, science fiction was poised to invade public consciousness like never before. Having soldiered through three years of Battle alongside top-gun writers Mills and Wagner and editor David Hunt, and freelanced on what was then Britain’s most vilified weekly comic anthology, the blood-and-gore-drenched Action (referred to by critics as “the seven-penny nightmare”) – where he also endured a memorable sideline as ‘Action Man’, irrepressible mascot and de facto stuntman – MacManus heeded the call of the bouffant-haired superhero Starlord and hitched a ride on the nearest rocket-ship to sub-edit the new IPC science fiction comic of the same name, where readers were urged to “keep watching the stars.”

The ambitiously high production values of Starlord proved popular but ultimately unsustainable, with the magazine folding having published just twenty-two regular issues, three annuals and one summer special. Thankfully Starlord wasn’t IPC’s only foray into the bourgeoning science fiction, as its ‘sister comic’ 2000 AD had emerged just one year prior. Starlord was merged with the then-slightly-drifting 2000 AD and some of its strongest strips – most notably Strontium Dog (created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra) and Ro-Busters (created by Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill) – were integrated into the now strengthened 2000 AD. Keeping in the established British horror and action comic tradition of being ‘hosted’, 2000 AD was run from an enigmatic ‘Nerve Centre’ by its fictional and highly authoritarian editor, Tharg the Mighty. Hailing from Betelgeuse, Tharg – also known as ‘The Mighty One’ – lorded it over a small horde of subjugated script and art ‘droids’ who worked around the clock to produce 2000 AD and lived in constant fear of being on the receiving end of one of Tharg’s infamous ‘Rigellian hotshots’. Along with the best of Starlord, MacManus – replete with the tools of his trade: “scalpel, ruler, pencil, em rule, dictionary, eraser and other scholarly gear” – made the journey to the Nerve Centre and never quite left.

In fact, not only would he never quite leave, within a short time he would be appointed editor of 2000 AD, following in the footsteps of earlier ‘Thargs’ Kelvin Gosnell and Nick Landau and finding himself “responsible for a staff of three, a stable of thirty freelancers, and … the task of entertaining 100,000 kids – every seven days.” MacManus would prove to be more than up to the task, and the next five years would emerge as the halcyon days for the Eagle Award-winning 2000 AD which, by 1984, had flourished exponentially. By shirking the confines of long-established anthology comics and their strips rooted in football antics and the mighty clash of Axis versus Allies, and instead embracing the bright shiny future of a rising science fiction, 2000 AD had positioned itself as an unbeatable market leader.

As much as The Mighty One is an assembly of amusing anecdotes and document of accumulated hijinks – ranging from pool and pints at The Rising Sun and Motorhead’s Lemmy tearing apart a copy of 2000 AD with his teeth during an interview, to pursuing ‘dodgy birds’ in-and-out of a procession of even dodgier American motels and John Wagner typing away at Valiant scripts while wearing a gorilla mask – it is as much about the day-in, day-out grind of commercial comic publishing: appealing pay scales, interpreting and sometimes defending sales figures, hiring and handling staff and freelancers, avoiding the sunglasses-clad MIB-style figures of ‘management’ as much as possible, and deadline after deadline after deadline. For comics folk and fans of 2000 AD alike, The Mighty One proffers an entertaining and insightful exposition on how what is arguably Britain’s most important comic came to be.

So, don’t be a ‘grexnix’ (idiot) – grab a copy of The Mighty One for yourself and get along to the 2000 AD: 40 Years of Thrill Power Festival … both are ‘zarjaz’ (fantastic) and sure to result in ‘vinglop hudsock’ (great enjoyment)!

Rating: 4.5/5

Reviewer: Paul Hardacre

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