Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre

Rigellian Hot Shot

The Mighty One:
My Life Inside The Nerve Centre

by Steve MacManus
200AD Publications
ISBN: 978-1781084755

So... it turns out this is a really great book.

Regular readers may remember that the main comic I grew up on as a kid was the classic title which brought regular readers their weekly dose of thrill power, 2000AD. I finally ditched this title after, from the first issue, buying the first 1,500 or so installments due to what I thought was a steady decline in the publication which had been going on since the late 1980s. At least I still have all my back issues though.

The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre is an autobiographical ramble by writer Steve MacManus about his various jobs in the British comics scene. What seems to be his longest and, arguably, his most influential job is what the title of this bright and breezy account is referring to. Any kid worth his salt knew that The Nerve Centre was where their weekly issue of 2000AD took on life and The Mighty One refers, in a way, to MacManus himself. Actually, it refers to Tharg, the fictional alien who ran The Nerve Centre and, although MacManus wasn’t working on the comic right from the outset, for a large chunk of time he was working on the title and running the show and, yes, he did don the familiar (to us kids) Tharg The Mighty costume on occasion. Just as, if I remember correctly, comic artist Dave Gibbons, who provides the foreword to this tome, used to wear the costume of The Big E for one of 2000AD’s failed sister publications Tornado... a title which, like Starlord before it, got merged with 2000AD and swallowed by it... although, in the case of Starlord, a couple of the strips, notably RoBusters and Strontium Dog, did at least continue on with a life of their own in the pages of the elder sister. I don’t remember much about Tornado, to be honest... other than I stopped reading it after maybe the first issue.

But, of course, this mighty tome is not just about the glory days of 2000AD. It’s about the young MacManus going through various stages of his career starting on the popular (at the time) British comic Battle, where his first job was to make up the letters page for the first edition. Now, when I was a kid I always used to wonder why so many comics had a letter page in their first issue. After all, how could anyone have read it to make a comment before it was even out? I always used to assume that some lucky blighters had been sent free advanced copies of the comics and asked to give their opinion but my dad, always the cynic, said “Knickers! They make them up themselves.”* Well, the truth is revealed here as being something between the two. MacManus and others would make up letters for various logic defying first issues’ letter pages, which completely goes against the grain and makes the 9 year old in me fairly angry but, at least they weren’t writing them for every issue, as my dad insisted they did. After the first issue, the mail bag for a title would begin to fill and so it was only the first week where mailbag fantasies were concocted. Still, it’s nice to be able to finally get to the bottom of that mystery, I can tell you.

The writer goes on to give various fascinating insights about the rewriting and editing of scripts for these comics and how long it would all take. He also mentions the new work ethos inherited from the Scottish teams poached and brought down to old London town to help launch Battle. It would be true to say that the title was very successful and he does mention the creation of rival comic Action, which MacManus also contributed the odd story to. Now, he doesn’t go into the ins and outs of just why Action was publicly denounced and talked about in Parliament and, ultimately, banned before being sanitised and then just fizzling out, but it is at least mentioned and there are some fond recollections to be had when talking about certain characters... the giant shark Hookjaw comes to mind. I remember first reading an issue when I was in hospital, recovering from having been hit by two cars that collided with each other before mounting the pavement and nearly killing me. It wasn’t a comic I read a lot of though and, given the state I was in both mentally and physically at the time, that’s perhaps not too surprising. He also reveals how he was the guy photographed for Action doing crazy stunts under the name of Mr. Action on a weekly basis... and there’s some entertaining stories to be had there too.

Then he talks about his time on the creator of Action’s next... and somewhat very secret project, 2000AD... first as a similar job to what he’d climbed to on Battle and then, ultimately, inheriting the chief editor position by default. And it’s absolutely great to read that the gentleman acknowledges the problem with the Biotronic Stickers given away in Issue 2. I remember these things vividly, not because they were obviously inspired by the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man and showed cut outs of machinery to give the illusion that you were some kind of cybernetic being with mechanical workings showing in handy portals on your body but, like a lot of kids, because of the near traumatising experience of getting the damn things off. MacManus admits the glue used on this classic gift was a little overpowering and that even when taking a bath with them on, many kids could still not get the enhanced cosmetics off. Oh yeah, I remember the pain involved on that fateful Saturday I decided to wear my biotronic gift... a pain now slightly offset by MacManus’ accounts of the number of complaining phone calls the offices received from across the land from angry parents with many kids in similar situations. Those were the days, eh?

And, frankly, this whole book is a joy to read, not because it’s always entirely factually accurate, it isn’t... but because it gives a real insight in the art of running a top selling weekly comic and it does so in a thoroughly entertaining manner. I loved that even MacManus identified strips like Rick Random and Angel as being absolutely terrible (and in the case of Rick Random, thrust on them by the publishers). I similarly love his echoing of my thoughts (aka my angry rant to people and film studios who misuse the term) when he said Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were marketed to an uneducated British public as graphic novels. He knows they aren’t graphic novels, they’re comic book reprints so... yeah, wish the film studios purporting their comic book movies are based on graphic novels, to make them sound more legitimate in their eyes, would learn the difference.

As I said before, there are inaccuracies. For example, he says that Ridley Scott’s movie ALIEN was rated 15 by the British Board of Film Censors... it wasn’t. That rating wasn’t even created when ALIEN was released... it was an X certificate, pure and simple. Similarly, citing an event that happened to him reminding him at the time of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption is, I think, more convenient in terms of an entertaining sentence rather than reflecting accuracy... since the film wasn’t released for another seven years after the incident referred to happened. Unless, of course, he was referring to the original novella but then... it doesn’t have that title and it wasn’t known at the time that Stephen King wrote it (it was originally released under a pen name).

But, honestly, you can forgive the odd inaccuracy or two when you are being entertained by a writer who comes up with golden lines like... “I fell asleep during 2001: A Space Odyssey and awoke with a Hal of a hangover.” And his embarrassing story about making a point in a powerful meeting hinging on the lyrics of Enya’s Orinoco Flow as “Save a whale, save a whale, save a whale” is priceless. Especially when he realises later that he’d misheard the lyrics and they were “Sail away, sail away, sail away...”.

This is easily one of the most interesting and easy to read biographical sketches I’ve read and, when he includes stories about the creation and reception of such classics as the Judge Dredd tale The Cursed Earth, The Ballad Of Halo Jones (a 2000AD cover from The Ballad Of Halo Jones Book Three is included on the front of this tome), Strontium Dog, Robohunter, Ace Trucking, Rogue Trooper, The ABC Warriors, Nemesis The Warlock and also throws in stories about his involvement with the creation of Crisis and Revolver, you have a heck of a nice little book brimming over with what, in the old days, The Mighty Tharg would call thrill power. If you have any interest or remembrance of some of the comics mentioned her then you’ll definitely have a good time reading The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre. A definite recommendation from me and just a genuinely fun package. Miss this at your peril (and be ready to receive a Rigellian Hot Shot for your trouble).

*Please note, my dad was using this expression as an expletive long before Rojaws in Robusters took it as his catchphrase.

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