The Mighty One review and Steve MacManus interview
‘A thought bubble appeared above my head with the notion that I might just have a comic tale or two to tell.’ So prompted, after turning freelance five years ago, was Steve MacManus to write The Mighty One: My life inside the Nerve Centre, a fascinating memoir of his career at Fleetway Publications/IPC/Fleetway Editions, during which time he worked on a huge number of the publisher’s most significant titles – Valiant, Battle Picture Weekly, Action, Starlord, Crisis, Revolver and the Judge Dredd Megazine – and was the editor of 2000AD for nearly eight years, a period in which The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic came of age and established itself as an icon of British popular culture.
Here is the archetypal ‘candid, behind-the-scenes’ memoir that I suspect many of us have been wanting for some time. This sort of book is commonplace in my other fandoms: there seems to be a fertile market for memoirs by actors, writers, producers, directors and pretty much anyone else who has ever been involved in Doctor Who, and there has been a long tradition of gritty, lift-the-lid autobiographies in the world of football (some terrific books amid shelves and shelves of vapid dross, I should add). The Mighty One, in its authenticity, nostalgic detail and lack of pretension, reminds me of Eamon Dunphy’s journeyman professional footballer’s account of a season at Millwall in the early 1970s, Only a Game? – although Steve has a rather more glorious tale to tell.
His book is Betelgeusian nectar for those of us thirsty for greater understanding and insight into the working culture that underlay the creative and commercial decisions behind the production of these wonderful comics – weekly publications which fed the imaginations and worldviews of our childhood and continue to be a source of nostalgic fascination today. The Mighty One is packed with fresh anecdotes and insight, and is published by Rebellion into something of a gap in British comics literature. Most of the other books which cover this period have been written by historians or critics and – while many of them are excellent – inevitably lack the eye or voice of someone who was actually there, walking the corridors and sitting at a desk at the heart of the multi-storey temple that was King’s Reach Tower, Stamford Street in South London. Steve MacManus provides this first-hand, personal disclosure in polystyrene bucketloads. Aside from the lowdown on some of the most important and consequential developments in global comics history – I’ll try to avoid the significant spoilers in this review – the geek in me found thrills in almost equal measure through revelations that the offices of Fleetway House in Farringdon Street had actual fireplaces around which actual pipe-smoking comics stalwarts of the 1950s and 1960s would congregate, that young comics hopefuls would very occasionally manage to sneak their way past lobby security and the front desk of King’s Reach Tower in order to make a direct, unsolicited pitch to Steve and the 2000AD team in their twenty-third floor office (Grant Morrison being a notable example), and that Pat Mills would sometimes somersault down the corridor to help visualise an action scene while scripting early episodes of M.A.C.H.1.
The first third of the book recounts Steve’s apprenticeship in the ways of IPC comicraft, hopping fairly rapidly from his first job as a sub-editor on Valiant to involvement in the creation of Battle Picture Weekly, Action and Starlord. The bulk of the book then concentrates on his time in the Rigellian hot-seat at 2000AD, before an end-game in which Steve spends several months travelling in the United States, plotting the development of a more mature range of titles which he then instigated against the turbulent backdrop of a boom-and-bust adult comic market and terrifying acquisition of IPC’s Youth Group by Robert Maxwell. There is interesting coverage of Steve’s responsibility for approving the brand merchandising for 1995’s Judge Dredd movie, but he seems coy about his life and career in the twenty or so years between then and now. There is a suggestion that he has had some success in other fields, but it’s a coded final couple of pages and one senses either that he wishes more recent chapters in his life to remain private or perhaps that he believes they would hold little interest to the core readership of the book. It makes for a wistful and slightly downbeat end to the book, but this is in keeping with a heart-on-sleeve writing style that fascinates and entertains throughout.
The narrative is seasoned with a few fun quirks, in which Steve reveals his Buster’s Dream Diary persona – drifting off into imaginative flights of fancy at particular points of stress or opportunity – his ‘Ello It’s Cheeky persona – a love of witty wordplay and corny puns – and his Captain Hurricane persona – a ‘Bad Steve’ who (infrequently) raises his grumpy, offensive head and infrequently lashes out at colleagues and contributors, usually at points of extreme tiredness or inebriation. To be honest, I found this darker side of his personality harder to believe in – or at least very easy to forgive – as the overall impression (evaluating between the lines) is that Steve is of one of life’s good guys: self-deprecating and modest, lacking in self-confidence for the large part yet clearly possessing potent creative vision, an admirable work ethic, a passion for his job, a sense of humour and sympathetic character. It seems clear from the start that there were certain people in the higher echelons at IPC who saw potential in Steve as a raw recruit, perhaps where he didn’t appreciate it properly in himself. We can be grateful that they gave him the encouragement and opportunity to realise it, leading, over time, to the publication of a truly wonderful comic.
The Mighty One is a mature reflection on how the 2000AD that meant so much to so many of us was forged through a balancing of the tensions between creative integrity and business sense, innovation and corporate responsibility. Steve also seems to have had a gift for successfully bridging the old school and the new school of comic traditions, the wildly different personalities of creators and management, and the challenges of the children’s market and the young adult market. The tone of the book is notably less visceral and punky than the recent Future Shock! documentary and David Bishop’s mighty 2007 tome Thrill-power Overload – both of which are essential viewing/reading, but more heavily weighted towards contributions from the writers, artists and editorial staff of 2000AD’s production history. Steve MacManus was responsible to these incredible creators, shabbily treated yet without whom 2000AD would never have existed, but also to those who provided the finance, business and marketing structure that enabled it. An enviable job but in many ways an unenviable one too. Thank Grud for the Action Man, for whom few challenges were too daunting.
Generously, Steve has answered a few questions for Great News For All Readers:
Hi Steve. Thank you for writing The Mighty One, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading. It was easy to forget just how long ago this all happened but your memories and reflections are fascinating to read. Have you enjoyed looking back and telling the story?
The notion of tracing my career in comics from 1973 through to 1991 was very much a leap of faith. I had no idea whether I would be able to produce anything worthy of publication. So I took it one step at a time, otherwise the enormity of the task would have freaked me out, I’m sure! Thankfully, when writing on the first page about being in the Valiant office, hoping to be hired, I wrote off the top of my head the sentence: ‘The whole room began to chortle, because that’s what comics folk do.’ As I sat back and looked at that sentence, I had a massive wave of nostalgia for that particular moment and for the British comics industry as a whole. It was then that I knew I was really, really going to enjoy the project and all I had to do was to include as many similar anecdotes as I could.
Interestingly, after completing the first few chapters I put the manuscript in a drawer and did not touch it again for a year! This was because I had had a long held dream to script a daily strip for a newspaper. I spent the next year working on a proposal called Herb and Spaceman, about a battle of wits between Earth’s first visitor and the Terran who becomes his handler. I wrote eighty of these strips and was lucky enough to be able to entice Ian Baker to draw the strips.
Alas, the cartoon editor at the Daily Mirror declined to accept the strip on the grounds that it wasn’t funny; this view was shared by several other industry professionals, and so I returned to the memoir. I suppose if Herb and Spaceman had been accepted, I probably would not have time to carry on with the memoir and I wouldn’t be writing these words today!
Of all the people you worked with in your time at Fleetway/IPC, whose similarly-candid memoir would you most like to read? And what question would you most like to be answered?
In terms of people who worked on staff, like me, I would love to read about David Hunt’s career. There is an interview with him on the website fanboy.frothers.unite.com which describes how he began in 1961 working on pocketbook titles such as Cowboy Picture Library. Within a few years he was editing Scorcher and then I was lucky enough to work with him on Battle Picture Weekly. David later co-launched the new Eagle in 1988, so you can see there’s nearly thirty years’ worth of anecdotes waiting to be told!
I was interested to read your view – in the context of increased depictions of violence and reckless behaviour in Action before its ban, on the grounds that this was what the readers wanted – that actually young readers don’t necessarily know what they want, nor have the emotional maturity to process it in a responsible way. 2000AD also contained, occasionally, fairly graphic depictions of violence but was generally less criticised for it. Do you feel there was a subtle difference in approach, and if so how would you describe it?
A modicum of common sense doesn’t go amiss. If you’ve got a picture or scene which you think could cause you trouble what you don’t do is put it on the front cover, mainly because the image will be taken out of context and therefore open to whatever interpretation the viewer chooses.
In the book you choose not to mention many of the higher management staff at IPC by name, but rather by initials denoting their job title (for example: MD = managing director, PD = publishing director). What’s the reason for that?
Well, the memoir isn’t about embarrassing people and it was never intended to be that. It’s a chunk of nostalgia for a time and place that is long gone now. Also, by not naming names you get a more general picture of ‘management’ which is easier to use as a dramatic device when describing pressures from above!
I read somewhere that you declined to be interviewed for the recent Future Shock! documentary about 2000AD. Is this true, and if so, why was that?
Actually, I never personally spoke to any of the makers so the question never arose. But, I would probably have said no, mainly because I would have wanted to save my memories of 2000 AD for the memoir!
A few days ago, the announcement was made that Rebellion have bought the bulk of the IPC comics archive, containing most of the series and characters that you worked with on many titles during your time with the company. How do you feel about this development? What sort of opportunities do you think Rebellion now have? And – self-indulgently, without regard for commercial potential – which long-lost character that you either wrote or edited would you most like to see revived for a twenty-first century audience?
In terms of scripting, I would like to see the episodes of The Running Man collected into an album, if only to showcase the incredible work of the artist Horacio Lalia. I can’t tell you how impressed Pat Mills and I were when the artwork for the first episode arrived from Argentina. It was just what we wanted and more – visually summing up the title Pat wanted Action to be.
In terms of strips for a twenty-first century audience, well I’m a sucker for the Second World War so I would be first in the queue for a revival of Panzer G-Man. Either way, the opportunities look golden and hats off to Ben Smith and Rebellion for choosing to revive the archive.
The Mighty One: My life inside the Nerve Centre by Steve MacManus has an Introduction by Dave Gibbons and a 16-page full-colour photo section that includes some great pictures of Steve’s exploits as Action’s daredevil Action Man. It will be published by Rebellion Publishing in paperback (£9.99) on 8 September. For more information, visit the 2000AD online shop.