Tuesday, February 20, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #20: More MacManus Pt. 2

Here's another helping of interview transcript with Steve MacManus, one of 2000 AD's longest serving and best editors. It begins with him recalling the launch of Crisis in September 1988. I asked Steve how the fortnightly comic came about..


The original concept was they wanted a superhero comic that could be sold in America, through the direct sales market. That’s why you had the New Statesmen. TWW… I don’t know if it started out as a superhero strip, but it very quickly became what it was. So when Crisis came out, it was half of one and six of the other, but labelled as a political comic. We did achieve our ambition of repackaging the material for America. To that extent, it succeeded – but not enough to repeat that process with later stories.

I think 80k, 50k, 30k issue three. They said we might as well cancel this but they didn’t. It found a core audience of comic fans, about 20k, went monthly, had its costs cut but hung around. Probably Crisis and Deadline between them had a market of 35k people. I don’t think one bought the other. There were 35k people, these aren’t fans, these are people of consumer publications who were happy to entertain the concept of adult comics.

(It found an audience who didn’t tend to read comics.) Yeah. It did find a niche audience. At the same time it attracted artists who never approached 2000 AD.

The pulling of Skin by Milligan and McCarthy – what really happened? How badly did that incident hurt the comic in terms of perception?

Yeah. The repro house refused to repro it. The MD heard about this. He had to choose whether to pull the strip or switch it to a different repro house. He came into the office, read the first episode and decided to pull the strip. That was Jon Davidge.

Crisis’s biggest contribution – finding talents like Garth Ennis and John McCrea, giving newbies like John Smith a chance to shine?

Yeah. It had the room to do that. It didn’t have anything in the drawer so there was no time lag. If your script was accepted it could be out on the streets in eight weeks. Since we didn’t buy one-off scripts, we bought serials. Suddenly people like Garth and John were working on ten-part series.

In early 1989 the wheels seems to come off 2000 AD, just after Prog 600 – endless Future Shocks, Daily Star Dredd reprints, endless tiny stories and epics going late – what went wrong? When did stockpiling begin?

I don’t think they had a stockpile but they realised they had to. After about a year, they had a massive stockpile but didn’t seem to know how to bring it on stream. I went down to Richard’s house one day and we sat at his computer and we looked at his computer with the stockpile and plugged it in. That became the basis of those charts we used where you could look ahead a year and see the new stories coming on line. You knew that they were all there. Inventing the flowchart system. We were winging it before that, to a large extent.

They were used quite a lot of young artists that didn’t have the mental toughness that the original artists had to stay up and get it done. People were taking ages over six pages. No wonder the editors were left with panics trying to fill the comic. It was gruesome, it was pretty bad.

Despite problems, some classic strips – Rogue in Cinnebar – a Nu-Earth Flashback. Rogue returning to NU-Earth flashbacks beginning in Prog 1300 – does Rogue work best in that setting? Why?

Cinnebar – wasn’t that great? Why didn’t he write more? (Rogue best on Nu Earth?) I think so. Does Batman work outside of Gotham? I know all those Elseworld stories. What is on Nu Earth? No much. So what’s the magic ingredient there? I don’t know, but it just seems right.

1989 brings the first two books of Slaine – Horned God, painted by Bisley? Did it put up sales by itself? Considering how much painted art dominated 2000 for the next five years, how influential was Bisley on Slaine?

I can believe sales went up. Don’t forget that 2000 AD wasn’t very expensive then – still isn’t really. People didn’t mind buying it for one story and chucking the rest away. They were quite happy to do that. 40p for six pages, that’s alright. It’s a great thing, if you can keep the price down, one great story is enough, sales will be sensitive.

(Painted art) Mud, we called. Copyright Fleetway. Mud TM. And I think that’s where we lacked a strong art editor to say stop everyone! Stop using brown now! That’s what we lacked. Steve Cook was designer the typography of the cover and creating the logos, but he wasn’t editing the strip art. Had he been, he might well have said stop everyone. Somebody needed to. It was maybe the comic’s salvation, but it was also its damnation. It was like somebody turned the lights out for four years.

Because by now everything was stockpiled, you’d open the drawer and see two year’s worth of brown art. I’m guessing that was the reaction of the editorial team. I was group editor, all my time was taken up with Crisis, launching Revolver, the Meg…

Prog 650 looks like a turning point – Slaine II, the Dead Man, more Zenith, the beginning of War Machine – Richard finding his feet as editor?

That was redolent of Prog 500, or Prog 282. They got all their strips lined up, no gaps and off they went right through to 700.

Rogue Trooper: War Machine – how well do you think this version of Rogue worked?

I think it worked well on one level. There was no silliness in there. For my own taste, I like a little bit of eccentricity. I always liked Sgt Rock. Dave’s War Machine lacked that slightly human aspect. He would say the whole point of Rogue is that he’s not human. But if he’s not human, what’s in it for me as a reader, where’s my point of identification? What do I get out of it? (Broken story) That’s just really unfortunate. Will Simpson being late. That’s one story that should have been saved up and run when complete. Poor Dave, he must feel rotten about that. He gets the chance to write Rogue as he’d want it and the story is not appearing sequentially.

The Dead Man – a bold new direction for Dredd? Wagner’s swansong…

The curious thing was, working on Crisis and Revolver, I had a sense of having grown out of 2000 AD. Not grown out of it, but I couldn’t get that thrill out of the Dead Man or even Slaine really. Crisis was such a different head on. In retrospect, The Dead Man and Necropolis was a staggering feat of scripting. It stands up there for me with Dark Knight and stuff like that.

I think John says Richard was very helpful in orchestrating that, perhaps because he didn’t have Alan to bounce ideas off. He found it quite a useful editor on that story.

Chopper – Song of the Surfer – Wagner back on song?

Compelling stuff.

1990 brings a new decade and Davidge introduces contract, royalties and reprint fees for creators – how important was that?

It was important but it was shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We had them on Crisis. But Jon came from a book publishing background and thought it was lunacy that the same terms, the same system wasn’t operating in this area of publishing. To him it was no big deal to bring contracts in. The effect was… The notion of it, rather than it making anyone any money. You felt proper. The big people whom it was meant for had already gone. You found yourself offering an 18-year-old half the movie rights, knowing it would never happen. How often does it happen? It almost felt artificial.

We announced them at a vodka bar in Soho. People were, by then, so, you’ve only caught up. You’ve only put yourself on a par with the rest. So what? It was almost a deflating moment.

Revival mania begins – Rogue as War Machine, Mike Fleischer does Harlem Heroes, Mark Millar would do Robo-Hunter – too inward looking?

Retrospective, perhaps. They had this stable of characters that weren’t being used, out of respect to the original writers. Those characters started to be revived. You have to ask yourself whether that was worth it, in the end. It wasn’t really anything I was involved in. I wouldn’t have done it. I knew from bitter experience that it’s just too painful to do it to people – not that I’d done it. I just knew it would be a bitter and painful experience. Also, it’s kind of saying we can’t think of anything new. You never now until you try. Also, if you’re a young writer, it’s a lot easier to write an existing character – you just put your spin on it. Whereas I think they found it very hard to create new characters.

Mike Fleischer – Harlem, Junker, Rogue – perhaps not 2000 AD’s finest hour. What happened? Stockpiling goes wrong? Americans can’t write for 2000?

I think it’s a case of where, if you’re not careful, if you don’t manage a writer, you will find a script on your desk every day with an invoice. If you put it to one side, thinking you’ll read it later, before you know it you’ve got ten of them. Months have gone by, he’s ringing up saying why haven’t you paid me? Because you’ve let time slip, it’s hard to turn round them and say I’m not going to pay you. You think alright, I’ll fix these scripts myself, I’ll deal with them. You turn around these another ten! It’s purely about managing the writers. You have to pick up the phone and say Stop! I haven’t read the first five yet. Do not proceed until I have. It’s more than likely I’ll be sending them back to you because, because, because…

Another reason is financial control from the company. At IPC you weren’t allowed to carry more than £30,000 of stock. Even that they thought was a fortune. But at Maxwell there didn’t seem to be any such concept. I don’t think they did know, until they woke up one day and realised there was 300k of scripts and art in the 2000 AD office. Months, even years of work. If there had been financial controls, that sort of thing would have been picked up much earlier. The Maxwell spirit of that time…

June 1990 – Revolver launches with Dare, Rogan Gosh etc – a very Vertigo-esque title, in retrospect – too far ahead of its time?

Yeah, I think it was. When we did Crisis, we thought two stories, repackage them for America – if this goes well, we’ll bring out another fortnightly call it something else, do the same thing. That was the idea for Revolver. But when Crisis began to have its problems, we looked again at Revolver and thought maybe it’s better off like Zarjaz. A monthly cross between Deadline and 2000 AD. The only story I had involvement in was Dan Dare. Igor brought Jimi Hendrix to the table. Peter commissioned the rest. From this collection of people who were creating work for Deadline or America or their own fanzine…

It was ahead of its team. Peter and his creators were totally free. Europe was waking up, being appreciative to what was happening (in Britain), seemed to be knocking on the door. (Brits in Angouleme.) It was all the rage – make a comic, syndicate at the next European festival, come home with tons of dosh. Slaine went all over Europe, certainly…

Prog 686 – the death of Johnny Alpha – how significant was this? Who should choose whether characters die – creators or editorial?

To the readers it was traumatic, but it didn’t register on my radar. It didn’t seem a big deal when I was sitting with artwork telling me about stuff going on in South Africa, Tianamen Square – written and drawn by people who had experienced it. It seemed much more real. Johnny Alpha dying – I was just detached from it. You can kill a guy but actually no-one ever dies in comics. It can be good for sales – look at the death of Superman.

When I arrived at Fleetway in July 1990, the staff seemed enormous – Richard, Alan, Steve Cook, Audrey, Peter, Frank, Steve E, Michael B, Igor, you and me – a golden moment?

It really did feel good, for that brief period of time. The British comics equivalent of the Summer of Love. 2000 AD had actually increased its sales I think, Crisis was hanging in there, Revolver was a new star on the horizon, the Megazine was being prepped and Steve Edgell was there repackaging it all. It felt buzzy. But then things can change in a second. In a second Revolver was cancelled, it was goodbye to Pete and Frank, and things start shrinking again...

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