“Lots of People Dressed Like That in the Sixties”:

Shameless? Part 21

Page by John Higgins and David Hine from the 1992 Action Special. I’ll be discussing their contributions to the strip in next week’s post

Continued from last week.

Fifteen months would pass until March 1992′s 2000 AD Action Special and the next of Millar’s superhero stories to see print. A stillborn revamping of the Sixties British superhero The Spider, it would prove to be a remarkably unpopular project. Indeed, in what was Millar’s fourth year as a professional comics writer, his career was giving every impression of losing momentum. Behind the scenes, projects such as 1993’s 2000AD Summer Offensive were slowly gathering pace. (*1) But his assignments at the comic were as yet still limited to his controversial Robohunter stories and a smattering of done-in-one tales. Worse yet, the amount of his work in the marketplace had dramatically declined. Whereas 1991 had seen 40 of Millar’s scripts published, 1992 would feature only 23. Even his contributions to the daily Judge Dredd newspaper strip would fall by a third. Other opportunities would also elude him. DC Comics would continue to prove resistant to his overtures, while Fleetway’s plan to produce Earthside 8, a 2000AD-type comic for younger readers, fell through. With it went Millar and Brett Ewins’ Billy Whisper, a strip aimed at 8 year old boys which featured “the boy billionaire who bought the Presidency”. (*2).

The 2000 AD Action Special itself was an embarrassingly short-lived attempt by Fleetway to reinvigorate a number of much-loved and yet long-defunct UK comic strip characters. Only after it was published did it become clear that the company didn’t actually own the rights to the likes of the Steel Claw, Cursitor Doom, Kelly’s Eye, Mytek The Mighty, Doctor Sin and The Spider. (*3) What might have been a profitable new dawn became stalled in legal complications. Only a belated, anaemic 10-part serial of Kelly’s Eye would creep out in the Special’s wake before 2000AD entirely abandoned its pursuit of the properties.

The depiction of The Spider on Brendan McCarthy’s cover for the 1992 Action Special is far truer to the character than anything which appeared inside.

Of all the supposedly spruced-up takes that appeared in the 2000 AD Action Special, Millar’s slash’n’burn reworking of The Spider was both the most radical and the least respectful. Most surprisingly, Millar choose to cut away a great deal of the character’s associations with the superhero genre. What had once been a darkly wry British take on the figure of the costumed crimefighter was now rebooted as an obvious spin on Thomas Harris’ tales of force-of-nature serial killers. Though a sheen of The Spider’s previous continuity remained, the resulting hybrid was far more a stereotypical psychopath yarn than a superhero tale. Anthony Hopkin’s channelling of Hannibal Lector had been embraced by popular culture following the preceding year’s film adaptation of Silence Of The Lambs by director Jonathan Demme, and Millar seems to have been unable to resist appropriating considerable slabs of the film’s plot and atmosphere. Many of the most obvious components of the movie were slightly rejigged and then brazenly trotted out; an outsmarted if well-intentioned psychiatrist; a terrifying and imprisoned killer spinning out a remorseless design; the discovery of desecrated corpses; the inevitability of terrifyingly hopeless murders; the intimation of cannibalism, and so on and on. Quite how Millar might have imagined that such a limited and over-familiar premise could have been spun out into a series is hard to deduce, and yet this was his pilot for what might have been The Spider’s future.

In opting to reduce The Spider to yet another Lector-clone, Millar had inexplicably chosen to disregard much of what made the character so compelling in the first place. Those who remembered The Spider from the Sixties and the Seventies were often appalled by Millar’s choices, while neophytes were offered little but a familiar, wornthrough spin on exceptionally familiar and unenticing material. (*4) As we’ve already discussed, it was a period in which Millar’s always pronounced taste for cribbing from other people’s work became embarrassingly overt. As fellow 2000AD writer John Smith would later recall, Millar’s attitude towards his inspirations could be remarkably unselfconscious;

“Mark’s Billy Whisper came about when I told him all about Bukeroo Banzai and he shamelessly stole the whole plot and character, only, y’know, making him a kid … All in all, probably best that it never got to see the light of day.” (*5)

When even a writer’s friends and collaborators are happy to chuckle over an otherwise-admired colleagues’ habit of, shall we say, appropriation, there’s a truth that’s being told.

A page from the never-widely available Billy Whisper, from Steve Cook’s Secret Oranges blog, which is always well worth a visit; http://secret-oranges.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/never-before-seen.html

But what’s mystifying is why Millar rejected so much of The Spider’s character and back-story in the first place. After all, he’s always been fascinated by the idea of the corrupt superhero, and the unique figure of The Spider as he stood in the Sixties could have sat very well in the forefront of Wanted or Nemesis. As reworked by Millar, however, he would’ve most likely passed as just another predictable and disposable psychopathic super-villain suitable only for the also-ran supporting cast. Yet as originally created to an editorial brief in 1965 by writer Edward Cowan for the boy’s anthology comic Lion, The Spider was a mighty if ghoulish criminal mastermind fighting to establish an “Empire Of Crime”. (*6) With the arrival of Superman creator Jerry Siegel as writer in early 1966, The Spider opted to become an arrogant anti-hero who revelled in the tracking down and defeating of other super-criminals. It was a unique, creepy and often hilarious deconstruction of the genre, and one that surely could have been put to use in the 1990s too. Artist Reg Bunn’s fine lines, dark shadows, movie-set backdrops and realistic characters all worked to highlight the menace of the threateningly caricatured Spider. With his lithe and yet muscular frame, elongated skull, exaggerated Roman nose, sharp-topped teeth and huge, pointed ears, The Spider was evidently anything but a typical human being. Yet the series cleverly left the origins of both his disconcerting appearance and his capacity to cling to walls and hypnotise unwilling subjects unexplained. Perpetually clothed in a skin-tight, pitch-black, one-piece jump-suit, and typically bearing an inexhaustible range of futuristic gadgets and weapons, the Spider was a richly ambiguous, beguilingly perverse and visually compelling superhero.

Page by Jerry Siegel and Reg Bunn, from 1966’s “The Spider vs Dr Mysterio”, as reprinted in “King Of Crooks”

Millar’s response to the challenge of relaunching The Spider was to junk pretty much all of what had gone before. Even the Spider’s apparent reliance upon impossible technology for his abilities was rejected in favor of giving him run-of-the-mill superpowers. Now he was able to climb walls in his bare feet, while Millar lent him the limited super-strength to punch through a terrified victim’s body. In a market saturated with fairly strong and fairly agile super-people, The Spider had been reduced to just another player amongst many. In doing so, Millar had abandoned the fascinating uncertainty of the character’s original version. What had once been a megalomaniac mastermind capable of out-thinking and obliterating the most formidable of opponents was now no more than a squalid murderer of none-too-smart psychiatrists and innocent, blameless train passengers. Once the “King of Crime” and the conqueror of the Sinister Seven and The Android Emperor and Dr Mysterioso, Millar’s Spider was incapable of even escaping from a clearly porous psychiatric secure unit. Though reporters from the gutter press could sneak into his cell, he himself was unable to attain his freedom. Reduced to snacking on kittens and snarling “Get out. Leave me alone.” to the inane Doctor Pinter,  this The Spider seemed far more pathetic than threatening. The hilariously contemptuous and self-obsessed Spider was now a charmless black hole of petty popcorn-blockbuster psychopathy. It’s extremely difficult to think of a less appropriate and appetising take for one of the few truly unique and compelling British superheroes.

To be continued.


*1:- Page 160, Thrll-Power Overload, David Bishop, Rebellion 2007

*2:- Quote from the brief sample of Billy Whisper printed at http://2000adonline.tumblr.com/post/13645472282/steve-cook-was-also-involved-in-earthside-8-the#.Ue6SI20UuSo

*3:- pg 153, Thrill-Power Overload, David Bishop, Rebellion 2007

*4:- http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/s/spider.htm refers to Millar tale as an “atrocity”, while http://counter-x.net/comics/spider/history/index.html expresses an even more extreme judgment. In ‘King Of Crooks” -  see no 6 below –  the character chronology refers to the Millar take “as not considered successful”. Though the following thread does contain some more generous comments – http://forums.2000adonline.com/index.php?topic=33644.0 – 2000AD’s own Tumblr has linked to Steve Cook’s blog, which referred to The Spider strip as “not the best of the bunch, shall we say” – http://2000adonline.tumblr.com/post/3171552681/in-march-1992-2000-ad-published-the-2000ad-action#.Ue_-_20UuSo

*5:- http://forums.2000adonline.com/index.php/topic,34667.25/wap2.html-

*6:- The information about the editorial responsibility for the idea of The Spider comes from Steve Holland’s fine introduction to “King Of Crooks”, the 2005 Titan Books collection of The Spider’s earliest adventures.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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