I believe Steve MacManus is one of 2000 AD's great, unsung heroes. He was editor during the comic's most acclaimed period, the first half of the 1980s. It's a truism that when 2000 AD is great, the creators get the credit, and when 2000 AD sucks readers blame the editor. Both attitudes are deserved, but I always thought editors also deserved some positive recognition.
A great editor finds great talents and gets them to collaborate. The editor guides those talents towards the best possible story - and then gets out of the way. Great editors should be invisible, like the work of great editors in films. As part of my continuing series of interview transcripts, here's what Steve MacManus had to say about his arrival and early days as editor of 2000 AD...
When did you start work on 2000 AD? What prog?
I think Starlord only lasted 22 issues. They knew they were going to fold the two. I don’t think Sanders was happy that Nick and Kevin were doing so well, maybe Kelvin wasn’t either. Nick and Kevin were really running 2000 AD on their own and they’d escaped the management structure. So I think basically Sanders said I would replace Nick. To break up Nick and Kev, Nick would go and work on Battle. That’s what happened.
I remember the day walking downstairs with my box of possessions. But there was a period of half an hour where I hung around, waiting for Nick to acknowledge my presence. But he eventually bit the bullet and then spent quite a long time telling me what was in the drawer, what had been commissioned, who was good, who was bad. I think that was around about issue 70. I was to be a sub-editor. Robo-Hunter had just started (issue 76). It was before the merger with Starlord in Prog 86.
As a new editor, you look for an issue where you can draw a line, this is where I’ll make my mark, this is where I’ll kick in. The merge issue had solved itself. Incoming were Ro-Busters and Strontium Dog. Then there was Dredd, so that was a period of assuming operational controls. I looked ahead to issue 100 and that was the first issue I really paginated in the make-up book. No-one could dispute that then…
I walked downstairs with my box, Nick exits stage right. I sit at his desk. On my right is Roy Preston, editorial. On my left, a design type – Kev O’Neill. Kelvin was the editor. He was probably going straight from the closure of Starlord to begin work on the launch of Tornado, which he attacked with his usual enthusiasm, he threw himself into it.
I was agitating to get from a grade 7 to a grade 5, it was a bit more money. Grade 7 was senior sub, grade 5 was chief sub. You had to go through the union and the management and they call had to talk about it. About two o’clock somebody from the union came round and said congratulations, you’re grade 5. I thought this is cool. Half an hour later Kelvin walks down and says he had told Sanders that I should take over as editor of 2000 AD.
Suddenly in one afternoon I went from senior sub to chief sub to editor. It was like wow, it’s all mine! But there was a big black cloud on the horizon, Bob Bartholomew, nominal group editor.
Kevin O’Neill left to go freelance – the Ro-Busters story with the first appearance of the Terror Tube in it. We did issue 86 which was great because brining in these two stories, we lost the weak stories in 2000 AD. 86 was Dredd – Cal saga, Ro-Busters, Strontium Dog – a good solid springboard to jump from. We knew we had Robo-Hunter waiting in the wings to come back and so 100 was the kick-off point. We did a great four-part poster and it was all going well…
But then we were told we had to show this guy, Bob Bartholomew, all our pages. He didn’t like Kevin O’Neill or his artwork, couldn’t get his head around the Terror Tube and its crazy angles. He wanted it all redrawn, real interference. Then I had to walk back to Kev and deliver the bad news. But we got through that..
What were you doing before this?
I joined Fleetway in September 1973 as a sub-editor on Valiant comic. I was there for a while then Pat and John were launching Battle and they talent-spotted me to be a sub on Battle. That was great, I loved that. I think that came out in 1975. I was on Battle for quite a long time. During that time Pat launched Action and then he spent a year developing 2000 AD which he did and that came out in Feburary 1977. I think it was about Prog 50 that Starlord came out. How did I get to Starlord? I think Kelvin said I’m launching Starlord, do you want to come and be sub-editor? There was me, Jan Shepherd and Beverly.
Kelvin had assembled the whole thing. He had commissioned Strontium Dog, he had commissioned Ro-Busters. There was artwork around. Chris Lowder (aka Jack Adrian) he was involved with the comic. I remember working with him developed Starlord the character, the counterpoint to Tharg, writing his opening letter and stuff with Chris. Actually we weren’t in the tower, we were in a little annexe up to the launch.
I was at Battle at Farringdon Road and shifted into King’s Reach Tower as Battle. Action came across as well.
Kelvin feels Starlord was launched to be published for six months and then be folded together with 2000 AD. Same again with Tornado…
That’s Pat’s hatch, match and despatch theory. I don’t think any title is launched to be folded. But in those days when you combined the two circulations, you did combine them – you doubled your sales. Now if you merge two titles, nothing happens in terms of extra sales.
Re-writing – how much was done by editorial team?
When it began, Pat had a whole stable of writers that he would rewrite. I found it easier just to get rid of those guys and stick with Pat and Gerry and John. I can’t think of many stories, besides Tom Tully, that were being written by hacks. We wouldn’t rewrite Pat or John. Tom Tully, we didn’t rewrite him. Instead we sat down with him and discussed his style. The guy could write, he would just spin it out. We sat down with him and forced him to commit to an episode synopsis. We rewrote him in advance, as it were…
But with Gerry… Gerry worked – a lot of his scripts went to foreign artists, who couldn’t read English, so they went through a translator, who would put their own translation on the script. It seemed easier to ask Alan to rewrite. The ideas were there but you’d have things like characters who were dead would pop up again, stuff like that, little lapses! Alan was very good at that. He’d go away with all this crap and come back with a neatly typed script that read wonderfully. That was a joy.
Who were your assistants during this time?
When I first went down their with my box, 2000 AD had the luxury of two editorial. Sitting next to me was Roy Preston. I came in straight above Roy. To begin with it was me, Roy and Kev O’Neill. Colin Wyatt was in there somewhere. When Kev left, I think Roy left about the same time. Maybe they could see I’d grabbed all the power. Then we go Alan Grant as Roy’s replacement. I can’t think of anyone in between. That would have been more or less the time of the Tornado merger. That was the time for quite a while – me, Alan, Kevin and Colin. It was like a band – the Stuart Sutcliffes were gone…