By Charles EP Murphy
Renga! All-Brit Action In Yer Face!
Renga! Demons and motorbikes and violence!
Renga! From the company that publishes Dennis the Menace!
In 1995, venerable Beano publishers DC Thomson became interested in publishing a comic for older readers – a project that would go unknown until twenty years later, when Down the Tubes first broke the story. Little was known when we started this article. We spoke to several people to find out more and we’d like to thank everyone who contributed what they could.
The man who developed the comic and produced a ‘dummy’ first issue was the late Tony Luke (1966 – 2016). The dummy was named for his company, Renga Media – named after a form of Japanese poetry – and it’s likely the comic would have been called something else if made, but we’ll be calling it Renga! for the sake of clarity. He revealed the existence of the project and several pieces of art to Down the Tubes eight months before he sadly passed away from cancer.
Luke was a writer, artist, goth rock musician, and stop-motion animator, always with numerous projects in the works. As a young stop motion prodigy, he made appearances on shows like Get Fresh showing off his work, and first came to the attention of future collaborator Alan Grant (Judge Dredd, Lobo) at the age of fourteen when he constructed a competition-winning model of Judge Death. As an adult he worked on, among other things, multiple bands, Manga Video’s Hellkat inserts, a Godzilla documentary, several Psi-Judge Anderson stories, and an utterly mad live action/stop motion short film called Archangel Thunderbird where Neil Gaiman voices the Devil.
His signature creation was Dominator, the heavy metal adventures of an eponymous guitar-wielding demon. Dominator’s biggest appearances included a run in Kodansha’s manga magazine Monthly Afternoon, making him and Alan Grant the first Brits to be published in Japanese manga, and a 2003 CGI animated film that Luke made himself for £20,000. This film was made just after he’d been diagnosed with cancer – he was told he had eight months to live, an estimate he exceeded by a decade – and he said half of Dominator’s money came from his own disability allowance.
While he never managed to really hit it big, he was known and liked by many comic creators and tributes would flood in after his death.
Paul Cornell (Shadow Police, Doctor Who), who worked with him on a music video for the band Urusei Yatsura and later on Renga!, told us: “Tony always struck me as someone slightly at odds with what any medium or market was capable of. He felt cutting edge, but he never quite laid his hands on the right vehicle. Still, he was a gentle soul. I think maybe if he'd found someone to provide conceptual depth to his cracking visuals, he'd have got somewhere. “
Tony Luke had an interview with SFX around the same time he was working Renga!, and Luke had sneakily said he hoped “something exciting and fresh” would shake up the British comic industry. “I don't know what that could be. Well, actually I do know what that could be, but I'm not saying.”
His aims for Renga! can be picked up here, as he discusses how he’d run a comic company if he had the money:
“[It] would do what I've experienced from Kodansha. Which is to have an active and exciting editorial team, actively encouraging fresh new talent to bring out exciting publications and instigate new projects because I don't think there's enough of that going on in Britain now. … [The state is] pretty dire, isn't it? Lack of imagination and foresight. The whole adult graphic novel thing from the '80s was almost like the kiss of death. In far too short a space of time, certain PA people tried to con the general public that comics were - and always have been - this incredibly valid adult art form. The audience split up into different bits and it lost its mainstream footing.”
To craft his pilot for DC Thomson, Luke turned to Grant and Cornell again. Other creators included Alan Mitchell (Third World War), John Hicklenton (Nemesis the Warlock), and Paul Green (Zenoscope). Sadly, Mitchell and Hicklenton have both passed away in the last decade as well.
Renga! includes Devilcop! by Luke, Grant, and Green, about a demon bringing justice to a crime-ridden city; Killer Tongue by Paul Cornell and John Hicklenton; and The Thunderhawks by Alan Mitchell, which would involve a team up of old DC Thomson superheroes like Billy the Cat. Devilcop was presumably the flagship character as he also made the dummy cover: a gloriously lurid work by Glenn Fabry (also the cover artist for Preacher) with Devilcop biking towards us with guns blazing!
What information exists about Thunderhawks claims Les Spink was the artist, but he has informed us he was not involved.
Killer Tongue was a tie-in to a 1996 low-budget horror comedy, The Killer Tongue, from Brighton’s Spice Factory, who Luke had worked for on an unmade Doctor Who game and had been interested in the rights to a Dominator film. (Spice Factory were shut down by the High Court for fraud in 2016, so it’s likely a good thing Luke got the rights back!) In it, Candy (Melinda Clarke) is mutated by a meteorite and gains the eponymous lengthy murderous tongue. Due to quirks of film production, if Renga! had come out in 1996, it likely would have come out before the film!
Cornell remembers Killer Tongue as “all deliberately edgy, which was I tone I wasn't up for, really. I recall trying to establish character and back story, but that's hard to do when your lead character has an enormous, deadly tongue. I mean, I gave her dialogue anyway, but I'm not sure how she was saying it.”
DC Thomson passed on this version of the dummy but was willing to give it another go. Deep Space Transmission learned from Luke that an unpublished second dummy was made, with Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, All-Star Superman) himself as the writer of “Thunderhawks” – this time a more action-packed Justice League type strip. This had been obliquely mentioned in a 1997 fanzine, Vicious, as a "proposed X-Files type magazine which may feature a revival of some old DC Thompson characters done Manga style” – indicating DC Thomson were still on the fence about the plan.
Chris Murray’s book The British Superhero referred to Morrison’s script as a parody of contemporary Image Comics, in particular the sexualised costumes, with poor Katy the Kat as the victim of it. Apparently this didn’t make DC Thomson very happy!
Devilcop VS Dredd
While there’s a lot we don’t still know about Renga!, what we do know is that it would be pissing on 2000AD’s chips.
2000AD had been challenged a few years before by Neptune Distribution’s Toxic!. They’d seen it off, but Neptune had been a small publisher who had no experience in publishing a weekly comic, and 2000AD at the time was still in a strong position. By 1996, 2000AD was in dire straits due to a changing marketplace and a run of less popular strips. Editor John Tomlinson and his successor David Bishop were still trying to turn it around.
When we asked Bishop what Fleetway had known about Renga!, he told us he had “absolutely no memory” of it and that “all my focus was on ensuring £100,00 profit a year.” At the time, he says, “Egmont Fleetway was more worried about the Stallone Dredd movie's flop, and the impact that was having on sales on 2000AD.”
To give us context on the market, he said: “By the mid-90s most competition was long gone - Toxic! had imploded, Deadline was on its last legs, and the Marvel UK challenge had dissolved. Newsagents were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a shelf presence for existing titles - launching a new comic into them was near impossible.”
All this means two things:
If Renga! had debuted at this point, 2000AD would be facing a dedicated competitor in a moment of weakness.If Renga! had debuted at this point, it would have been in a brutal fight for its own survival in a dangerous marketplace. 2000AD itself would have survived the battle between the two titles but Judge Dredd Megazine would likely not have. The comic was on Fleetway’s ‘kill or cure’ list of titles and going monthly again only just saved the title in our timeline; a few sales lost to Renga! would have ended it. (This alters my timeline, as I came to 2000AD through the Meg!)
In a marketplace increasingly devoid of work, Renga! would be a place that would attract creators. Egmont Fleetway would want to retain as many as it could. This could lead to better deals being offered to them – not hard as DC Thompson is a company known for low pay, no creator ownership, and, even today, rarely credits its creators. The Renga! dummy does include credits and may have paid better than Beano in order to attract the creators it needed.
However, Fleetway would have something DC Thomson did not: it had Fleetway Film and Television (FFTV), an initiative meant to adapt its many comic properties into shows and films. FFTV was shut down due to lack of success in December 1997 and its initial contracts for creators, ensuring Fleetway had the audio and visual rights, were not great; Bishop wrote in Thrill-Power Overload that they “offered worse terms than writers and artists already got”, and ill-feelings lingered even after this was fixed. Film Stories #11, talking both to Pat Mills and film writer Peter Briggs, paints a grim tale of a company unaware of how things were ‘done’ in the industry and creators being ignored.
But in this timeline, it’d be a useful weapon. ‘Stay with us and you might get a big sack of cash for a TV deal!’ As long as it can be such a weapon, FFTV may be kept on life support.
A wrinkle here is that Spice Factory were looking at doing 2000AD films at the time – would they side with the comic currently paying them for Killer Tongue or drop them for the chance at Bad Company? It’s most likely the latter, making things nastier and more personal all round!
While FFTV may stop veteran creators going to Renga!, Luke was interested in giving new creators a break and so some creators who started at 2000AD in our time would instead debut at Renga!. What would this mean for the shape of British comics after?
We should also note that this is all speaking from the assumption Renga! comes out in 1996. What if the second dummy comes out in 1997 instead?
By 1997, FFTV is on its way out and may not be salvageable, Megazine is still extremely vulnerable, and DC Thomson will be able to boast that they have the Grant Morrison writing superheroes at the same time his JLA run is exploding on the market. On the other hand, by 1997, 2000AD is in better shape with John Wagner into a new wave of Dredd strips and new hits such as Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante getting entrenched. Who is better off here?
Add in that either way, Egmont Fleetway were, as Thrill-Power Overload recounts, interested in 2000AD generating free publicity in the media as an alternative for the ad budget. This led to strips such as Space Girls, A Life Less Ordinary (adapting the film) and B.L.A.I.R. 1, as well as a “Sex Prog”. These did not help sales and narked off existing readers, but may keep being imposed on the comic anyway. Renga! would have the advantage of not doing that.
How long can Renga! survive?
There’s no equivalent of FFTV at DC Thomson, the market is extremely difficult, and it’s starting from scratch. On the other hand, DC Thomson was the only publisher who would have the resources for a whole new comic at the time, it’s a new place creators can go, and for readers getting too old for Sonic the Comic, Renga! is somewhere more fresh and shiny to go to than 2000AD. There’s not yet any continuity baggage.
If it does die, then it would still have disrupted how late-90s comics went in our time and would leave a generation of fans who would fondly remember it. Some of those fans may have otherwise fallen out of comics; some of them may become creators. If Renga! doesn’t die, or at least lives for a good while, British comics would again have some competition going on. For creators and readers, this will only be a good thing. How long would these good times roll? Can they inspire other comics as the companies try to outflank each other? Will Buster, cancelled at the turn of the century and mostly running reprint strips, be deliberately rejuvenated to battle the Beano as retaliation?
And hanging over this, the fate of 2000AD. By 1998, Egmont Fleetway had lost interest in the comic; it was an anomaly in their publishing ranks, and they were happy to sell it to Rebellion, the current owners. But FFTV lasting longer may mean it achieves something, which would then make Egmont Fleetway unwilling to sell – and will the comic last until today if it’s published by uninterested people who just want it as an IP farm? If Rebellion still buys it, what will they do to compete with Renga! and show, as fans-turned-owners, that this is the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic and not the upstart rival?
One unmade comic could have greatly changed the entire British industry and dozens of careers.
(It would also mean you’ve actually heard of Killer Tongue before reading this article!)
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.