By Charles EP Murphy
Johnny Alpha, Old stoneface, Slaine. The three classics of 2000AD.
How many survive a merger with Battle?
Picture courtesy 2000AD.
Charles EP Murphy is the acknowledged expert on all matters comic-related on the SLP forum. In this article – well, I’ll let him explain himself. He’s better at it than I am.
This September, 2000AD had a dip into alternate history with a crossover event that asked: what if, in 1982, 2000AD and its war comic stablemate Battle had merged into one comic to boost sales?
A big reason for this event was to see Battle’s strips and those it inherited from its own merger with Action! revamped as science fiction stories or crossovers with 2000AD strips. In a framing story, the alien editor Tharg sums this up as: “Blackhawk it”, referring to the famous case of how when Tornado and 2000AD merged, Blackhawk the Nubian soldier in the Roman legions became Blackhawk the intergalactic gladiator! And so, in September’s crossover, the Rat Pack of convict soldiers are now the mutant Rad Pack; Wild West mercenary El Mestizo is possessed by an alien; and Hellman of Hammer Force is sent to invade actual Hell. One of the strips, Death Game 2047, is actually a sci-fi strip being returned to its roots because it became a war story when brought from Action! to Battle!
While the comics do a grand job of pretending to be ‘real’ mergers, complete with fake ‘Next Issue’ cliffhangers, these aren’t what would have really happened. A real merger in 1982 would have involved the Battle line-up that existed at the time. For the purposes of a crossover, you of course ignore that and choose the most interesting strips because we all want to see a young Cadet Dredd crossed over with the punk-pocalypse Kids Rule OK.
So, what would a merger have actually looked like?
Battle had a soft relaunch of 27 February 1982 in an attempt to boost sales, ending its all-war focus with three action strips based on new action crazes: kung fu (and ripping off the TV show Kung Fu) with The Fists of Jimmy Chang; big rigs in America with Truck Turpin; and the TV show The Professionals (who worked for CI5) with The Hunters SI6. This could be when a merger happens.
Another time for a merger could be in the Summer of 1983, when sales had dropped to almost 71,000 (this may sound high, but low-price newsagent distributed comics required high sales just to break even). Fantasy Advertiser #79 had already reported in May that Battle was almost certain to be merged with Eagle by the end of the year. What stopped this was Palitoy started paying for strips to advertise its Action Force toys (later the European branding for GI Joe), which caused such a massive boost in sales that the comic rapidly changed into Battle Action Force. So if they don’t get this boost, and if 2000AD gets the nod over Eagle...
The once-great Alan Moore. Some of his great works were in 2000AD. Skizz, Halo Jones, DR & Quinch...
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The 1982 strips that survived merger were:
-Sailor Small, about a short sailor trying to establish himself in the Navy.
-Johnny Red, where young Scouser Johnny Redburn and his Hurricane accidentally get stuck in Russia and began leading the Soviet’s Falcon Squadron.
-Charley’s War, the tale of young Charley Bourne in World War One, one of Britain’s most celebrated and brutal war comics.
And in 1983, as well as The Hunters SI6, Charley’s War, and Johnny Red, there were:
-Invasion 1984!, where skull-faced aliens attack Earth and are faced by the British Army’s Storm Squad.
-Jetblade, a story about a high-tech helicopter.
By 1984, these other two strips would be gone, so it doesn’t look good for Jetblade surviving a merger. Invasion 1984!, however, is quids in, being a war story about alien invaders written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, and if there’s a 1982 merger, it may happen anyway, but being remembered as a 2000AD strip.
If the merger is in 1982, poor Jimmy and Truck might not ever exist as there’s no sales bump from bringing in a story nobody’s heard of and no time to rework them into sci-fi tales. Possibly the men from SI6 stand a chance in either merger though: it has secret agents working undercover as television actors, and you could change that into spies vs mad scientists, cyborgs, aliens, and so on without much work. 2000AD had already done spy-fi in M.A.C.H. 1 before and would do in Black Light later.
One strip that’s likely to be knocked out by a 1982 merger is September’s non-fiction strip Fight for the Falklands; as the merged comic is no longer a straightforward war comic, they don’t have an obligation to acknowledge the recent actual war. The 1981 strip Clash of the Guards, featuring a Hollywood stunt driver seconded to a Guards platoon, was briefly revived to cover a ten-week gap in Charley’s War when artist Joe Colquhoun fell ill; here, that can just be filled with an existing 2000AD strip.
As for Sailor Small, that was a strip that nobody seemed to care about enough except to write ‘he was a sailor and he was small’ in histories and has never been reprinted, so your guess is as good as mine with that one.
And then there’s Charley’s War and Johnny Red. They’re massively popular, the flagship strips, and turning them sci-fi really is “Blackhawking it”. Can you overhaul them anyway without losing readers?
Johnny Red’s big hook is that it’s the Eastern Front at a time when war comics rarely did that and when they did, it was with German protagonists rather than Russian ones; Johnny himself is just the way of giving readers an easy ‘in’ to a story where the Reds are goodies. It would be awkward to make this into a science fiction strip, but if you keep the setting, you could potentially pull it off for enough readers. The Falcon Squadron could face off against bizarre German wunder-waffen or occult acts. Tom Tully, the writer, was a reliable old hand and could make the change if asked.
Johnny Red in trouble in 1988.
Picture courtesy Comic Vine.
However, Charley’s War is a gritty, semi-grounded war story where the ‘gimmick’ is simply being a politically angry story about a working-class soldier in the First World War and all the filth and slaughter he goes through. If you bring science fiction in, you’re not doing Charley’s War anymore.
Because the strip was so popular and Pat Mills was a key figure in 2000AD, it’s possible that it might be given an exemption (just as gritty action thriller Button Man would be in the 1990s) and continue to run as normal for as long as it remained popular.
If it does, as 2000AD’s readers get older and the sales stay solid, Mills could try to keep the strip going with Bourne’s son in the Second World War and his grandson in Northern Ireland as he’d hoped. Mills has said in interviews that the reason he quit was because the editorial wouldn’t pay for a research budget to interview WW2 veterans, but this is in a timeline where he’s already disgruntled by Battle shifting to toy tie-ins and reprints of older strips (“I cringed with embarrassment”, he told interviewer Neil Emery). Without that to poison the well, he might keep going – though most likely ‘Tharg’ balks at a strip set in actual not-an-allegory-with-aliens Northern Ireland.
If a sci-fi revamp is forced on Charley’s War anyway, Mills likely drops the strip for someone else to do and gives his same ending as OTL: an adult Charley Bourne on the dole, thinking things will get better, while a newspaper reports Hitler has been made Chancellor of Germany.
Those are the Battle strips that could be added. But what strips disappear from 2000AD to make room?
If there’s a 27/2/82 merger, 2000AD is early into stories for future sports story The Mean Arena, alien truckers Ace Trucking, and Nemesis the Warlock’s second story about our demonic antihero saving the galaxy from us humans. Rogue Trooper is finishing off a short story, there’s a Future Shock, and Judge Dredd is early into the mighty Apocalypse War.
Who gets the axe? Dredd’s safe; he likely just gets a ‘new readers start here’ chapter of his ongoing battle against Sov invasion. Rogue, Ace Trucking, and Mean Arena were constantly running strips, so being disrupted here could kill their momentum and see one of them fade away from lack of attention. Nemesis Book 2 was not as popular as the first run due to Jesus Redondo replacing Kevin O’Neill as artist, so this is quite possibly getting wrapped up early. Renondo was there so O’Neill could catch up with his schedule and the super-popular Nemesis didn’t have to wait, but what happens if ‘Tharg’ comes to believe Nemesis the Warlock only work with O’Neill, since he’s going to be dropping the strip for other work by Book 4?
Double Ace Garp. Oh lord, that's double the trouble.
Picture: Editor's collection. The shame.
If it’s 4th June 1983 that we get a merger, prog 319 is the halfway point of a Robo-Hunter strip and Alan Moore & Jim Baikie’s ET-meets-Alan-Bleasdale strip Skizz, has a one-off Time Twister, and just started a new Rogue Trooper story. Judge Dredd handily just started a three-parter. With Skizz being the odd one out, a more socially realist strip closer to girls’ comic plotting and a one-off rather than a popular series coming back, it’s most likely this strip is one of the ones that gets told to wrap it up and make way for Battle. That would be a pretty grim loss!
Here’s another thought: What happens to Action Force? Palitoy still wants its property promoted and IPC still wants that sweet, sweet money. Does Action Force go to the 1980s Eagle, just like Robo Machines (AKA GoBots) and the game-promotion vehicle Computer Warrior? Does the ailing Tiger get the strip, allowing it to survive in rude health for a few more years rather than have the merger with Eagle?
Or does Action Force go to Palitoy’s original planned partner, Marvel UK, after all? Before this fell through, Palitoy and Marvel were planning a 24-page weekly comic with John Higgins and John Ridgway as artists and Steve Moore and Alan Moore as writers. (Years later, after Action Force became a vehicle for GI Joe toys, Marvel UK did take over the comic license). Just imagine a world where we can say: “Alan Moore sort of did GI Joe, or what became it, anyway,” and Marvel, Devil’s Due, IDW, and now Skybound are constantly reprinting GI Joe: The Alan Moore Collection trades.
However, at the end of the day, in all of these potential timelines, we don’t have a September 2023 crossover event that has Cadet Dredd fighting the David Cameron Block Oinkers. So, we do in fact live in the best timeline!
Historical details for this article were taken from Thrill Power Overload and the Hibernia Books print of Blazing Battle Action, both by David Bishop with David MacDonald writing about the unmade Marvel AF.
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