Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to The No-Fly Zone! This is Mania.com’s weekly alternative comics column. You may remember that at San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel announced that it had acquired the rights to Marvelman, after years of legal strife kept the character out of print. Alan Moore revamped the old British superhero in the early 1980s for Warrior magazine, and then continued the series at Eclipse Comics. After 16 issues, he handed it off to Neil Gaiman. But, Eclipse went bankrupt before Gaiman could finish his run on the series. Todd McFarlane purchased Eclipse’s assets, but Gaiman claimed that the rights to Marvelman weren’t included. The two fought it out in court for years, while back issues and trade paperback collections of the series shot up in value. Rumors emerged a few years ago that Marvel might buy the rights to the character with Gaiman’s cooperation. It was only at San Diego Comic-Con that fans learned that the deal had been sealed and the mystery of Marvelman’s ownership had been solved. Mick Anglo—the man who conceived the character in 1954—still owned the rights. At 93 years old and still living in Britain, Marvelman’s original creator has finally received his due for a character that has become a legend in the comics industry. Now, there’s little to say about Alan Moore that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. He effectively reinvented superheroes for a modern audience, beginning with Miracleman. He wrote Watchmen and V for Vendetta. He takes his name off of movies based on his work. And, he’s really damn glad that Mick Anglo is finally getting compensated for the reinvented Marvelman. Recently, Mr. Moore took some time with us to reflect on his Marvelman work, in the first part of a truly epic interview.
Kurt Amacker: I understand you were informed about the purchase by Marvel by Neil Gaiman’s lawyer, right after Comic-Con. Have you heard anything else?
Alan Moore: After being initially informed by Neil’s lawyer, I had to think about it for a couple of days. I decided that while I’m very happy for this book to get published—because that means money will finally go to Marvelman’s creator, Mick Anglo, and to his wife. Mick is very, very old, and his wife, I believe, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The actual Marvelman story is such a grim and ugly one that I would probably rather that the work was published without my name on it, and that all of the money went to Mick. The decision about my name was largely based upon my history with Marvel—my desire to really have nothing to do with them, and my increasing desire to have nothing to do with the American comics industry. I mean, they’re probably are enough books out there with my name on them to keep the comics industry afloat for a little bit longer. I left a message to that effect with Neil. I’ve since heard back from the lawyer upon another issue, and he said that he was certain that would be the case—that Marvel would accede to my request. That looks like the way it will be emerging. And, Neil will be able to finish his Marvelman story because he has a completely different relationship with Marvel than I have with them—or rather, don’t have. The main thing is that I will feel happy to know that Mick Anglo is finally getting the recompense he so richly deserves. And, I will have distanced myself from a lot of the deceit and ugliness that surrounded the relaunching of Marvelman as a character.
KA: I understood that, initially, when you all worked on it in Warrior, you were under the impression that the publisher had acquired the rights to Marvelman, but then it turned out to have not been the case—or, the rights had only been acquired informally and not legally.
AM: That is absolutely true. The origin of the [reinvented] character, as far as I was concerned, was, as a small boy I’d been visiting Yarmouth with my parents, which is a British seaside resort that we used to go to every year. And, I remember that the little seaside bookstores used to sell comics and books that would, presumably, have been on a different distribution circuit. And, sort of, you’d get titles turning up that you wouldn’t get at your news agent and bookstores at home. I had picked up a copy of a Young Marvelman annual, which was a strange hard-covered thing that would be completely unfamiliar to an American audience. But, this was a collection of Young Marvelman and Marvelman strips by Mick Anglo. I also picked up a copy of one of the Ballentine paperbacks of Harvey Kurtzman’s brilliant Mad. It was the one that had Super-Duper Man. Since I picked up these two things on the same day—and bearing in mind that I was 12—it occurred to me that maybe I could do a brilliant parody like Super-Duper Man, but of an English superhero. So, I started to imagine a kind of a parody of Marvelman, where he had forgotten his magic word. I don’t know where I was going to do this obviously derivative piece of work, and it never happened. But the idea did kind of lodge in my mind. Then, some 13 or 14 years later, when I was just entering into a professional comics career, I had been interviewed by, I think, David Lloyd, for the Society of Strip Illustrators magazine. It was a general interview about the experience of new young script writers entering the field. And, as a final question, I was asked if there were any projects that I would like to do in the future. More or less jokingly, without any real expectation that it would come about, I said that if anybody revived Marvelman, I would really like to write it because I’d got some great ideas as to how it could be done. I was contacted very soon after by Dez Skinn, who was the editor for Warrior, and he explained to me that Marvelman’s copyright had belonged to the publisher L. Miller & Son, and that they had gone bankrupt in 1963 and that the rights to Marvelman had passed to the Official Receiver. Therefore, they could be purchased for a very small amount, and would I like to put my money where my mouth was and contribute to this new retelling of Marvelman. With the situation explained like that, it seemed completely reasonable. So, I was happy to write the stories that I did. By the time I’d got to the end of the third book, there had been such a lot of doubts and suspicions and angry words exchanged, and I was happy to wash my hands of the entire project and hand it over to Neil Gaiman. And, I told Neil, “This may well be a poisoned chalice.” And, I remember saying to him, prophetically, at the time, “I’ve got no idea who owns Marvelman.” I said, “For all I know, it might still be owned by Mick Anglo.” That, at the time, I thought was a fairly outrageous and unlikely possibility. But, then I was contacted 18 months or a couple of years ago by a record company—a Scottish record company that had been working with Mick Anglo’s son, who is a musician. They had found out something of the Mick Anglo story and had become very interested in it, because it seemed to them that he had probably been cheated. And, they pieced together the Marvelman story and they got in touch with me. And they explained to me—and provided documentation—that Mick Anglo had always owned the copyright, that it had never been owned by L. Miller & Son, and that they had not gone bankrupt, but had concluded their affairs quietly in 1963, and that the whole basis of my work on Marvelman—in Warrior and later at Eclipse—was completely fallacious. Basically, Mick Anglo had been robbed of his ownership of this work. I felt I’d been made a party to it, albeit unwittingly. So, this has led to my reasons for wishing to disassociate myself from this project—and it’s also a way of giving back to Mick something that I feel he’s owed. That was the deal back at the start of it at all. That was my understanding—that Marvelman as a character was owned by the Official Receiver and that the rights could and would be purchased for a nominal amount. I was happy under those circumstances to begin writing Marvelman.
KA: Was there any intentional wrongdoing that you’re aware of on the part of Dez Skinn or was it just a colossal misunderstanding?
AM: My particular opinion is that, yes, there was. I was not on the best of terms with Dez Skinn by the end of the Warrior experience. I didn’t trust the man, and my opinion—for what that is worth—is that there was knowing deceit involved in the Marvelman decision. But, like I said, that is just my opinion and, of course, I can’t prove what was in somebody else’s mind.
KA: Well, certainly. And, it’s led to this courtroom nightmare between Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane, after he bought the rights to Eclipse, hoping to pick up the character. As I understand, you passed on your stake to Mr. Gaiman when you handed the book over to him at Eclipse, did you not?
AM: That’s right, because I’d not been any happier with the way that the character was handled by Eclipse and, I didn’t trust the people there either. They had made certain promises to me that I wanted to be absolutely sure that the artist at that time, Alan Davis, was happy about his work being reprinted. And, I told them that I could not commence writing any new work until they had got that affirmation. They finally left it until the last minute, and then asked me why I hadn’t got the new Marvelman work in, at which point I reiterated my request for some proof that Alan Davis was okay about the whole thing. They said that they were getting this proof—and that they really needed me to start work—that this proof existed, that it was on its way, and they would be showing it to me as soon as possible. I started work because I believed that they were telling the truth. I later found out this was not the case. So, by the time I’d finished working with Marvelman, I was pretty sick of all the publishers that had been involved with it up to that point. I knew that Neil had always been interested in the characters, and was probably the only writer who would be able to take it off in his own direction and would be able to do a good job with the script. But, like I said, when I asked if he and Mark Buckingham wanted to take over the strip, I did say that I was very uncertain about the ownership of a lot of this stuff and that it might cause him a lot of trouble, which, unfortunately, I think it did. Neil has been through an awful lot of trouble with Todd McFarlane. Eclipse never owned Marvelman. Throughout all of this, the character has always been owned by Mick Anglo. Anyone else that said they owned it wasn’t telling the truth. Neil had quite a long and unpleasant, drawn-out, protracted, idiotic court case with Todd McFarlane. But, I believe that this is all resolved now. I can see that, sort of, that Marvel is probably the logical comic company, in that they are the only people who could publish it under the name Marvelman without getting a lot of legal trouble from Marvel themselves. That seems to be the situation. My initial problems with Marvel started when they were refusing to allow the publication of Marvelman—even under the generic title of “Kimota.” They were very heavy-handed about the entire thing, especially since Marvelman had been copyrighted in 1953, which, according to the no-doubt antiquated calendar that we still use over here, was several years before 1961, when, I believe, Marvel copyrighted their name in America. So, it seemed to me to be just bullying at the time. [The pressure by Marvel led to the book being retitled Miracleman for its American relaunch by Eclipse—Kurt] That was what led me to state that I didn’t want to work for Marvel, and they haven’t really done anything to change my opinion of them since. So, that’s why it seems to just be the neatest solution—to let them publish it so that Mick gets the money, but that my name’s not on it.
KA: You call it a poisoned chalice—and it certainly has been from a legal standpoint—but for a lot of comic fans, it’s a Holy Grail. Part of that is because it’s been so unavailable for so many years. The collections are out of print and you have to go through secondary markets, like EBay. And, at the core of it, there’s this really amazing postmodern superhero story. A lot of people credit Marvelman with beginning what we call the Modern Era of comics by reinventing superheroes—a trend which you’re largely credited with starting here, and later with Watchmen. It’s left such a troubled legacy in its wake, but it’s still an amazing work—one that a lot of fans haven’t been able to read.
AM: Well, thank you. I guess that in terms of my revision of superheroes, probably Watchmen was more coherently conceptualized in that I had been playing with these ideas for a few years by the time I’d started it. I’d got a much clearer idea of how I could express the kind of concepts that had occurred to me. With Marvelman, it was a much more spontaneous process. I’d got a vague idea that there was a way that I thought superheroes could be done that would be more gripping and more intense than the way they were being done at the time. Picking up on a character like Marvelman was something that really put a lot of my unproven theories to the test, because right from the start you’ve got the problem that the character is faintly ridiculous. The standards of the 1950s and early 1960s were very, very different to anything we’re familiar with today, at least in terms of English comic books. So, you’d have Marvelman meeting fairy tale characters or scientific super-villains from another planet, and this was all, apparently, completely consistent and logical. No one really bothered with consistency back then! And yet, I approached the character thinking it would be arrogant to simply say, “Well, none of these previous stories ever happened and I’m now going to tell you a completely revamped story.” There’d be no point in actually doing that story about Marvelmann, because the whole thing is to stick to the original continuity. But, I thought that it could maybe be reinterpreted in such a way that would make the character a lot more credible and a lot more involving. So, I looked at those ridiculous fairy tale adventures and thought, “Well, this plainly couldn’t have happened. And yet, this is part of the Marvelman continuity. What about if this happened entirely in his mind in some way? What if there was a whole other story going on?” And, I gradually, probably leaning heavily upon Philip K. Dick, came up with the idea of these people who were kept in a dream state, with programmed dreams, for a number of years. And, I thought that would explain the odder 1950s and ‘60s stories. And, then I begin to think if there was any semi-scientific way in which a person could change from one body to another with the utterance of a magic word. Marvelman kind of evolved from there. Because we tried to set it in as realistic a world as were capable of, we found that every aspects of the character’s life presented us with new questions. If superheroes were real, then what would their relationships with their loved ones be like—especially in the case of a character like Marvelman, who is literally two completely separate people? Would there be psychological ramifications of constantly being the junior partner—constantly being the Billy Batson, who has to say the magic word and turn into the invulnerable superhero, in order to achieve anything? That could get to you after a while. We started to think about those ramifications. We also thought about what the political ramifications of some of these things would be. What would the government’s part be in all this? Where did this extraordinary technology come from in the first place to actually give someone another body at the utterance of a magic word? So, the whole Marvelman continuity kind of spread out from there. And, very early on, we started thinking about why Marvelman has been out of the picture all these years. What happens to his former sidekicks? All of these things just presented so many interesting storytelling possibilities, that we got on to a bit of a roll. The strip progressed through its incarnation in Warrior and then was handled by Chuck [Austen] and Rick Veitch, and then we had that wonderful final book with John Totleben, which it was mainly because I was working with John that I conceived of a very different approach to the third book. It’s told much more in captions, which tends to mean that you can cram a lot of events in but there’s not the same sense of continuous action that you might’ve got in some of the earlier books. I was kind of deliberately writing those stories to suit John’s beautiful style.
Our interview with Mr. Moore will continue next week, Maniacs. Until then, keep the faith and keep your eyes pointed at Marvel for further updates on Marvelman.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.