Comics: Return of 'The Claw'

British comic-book superheroes who have languished unseen for decades are about be called back into action. Chris Gray reports
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Fathers for Justice will be delighted. Some long-forgotten British superheroes are about to emerge from 30-years in hiding to re-launch their battle against evil. Steel Claw, Robot Archie, Cursitor Doom and the Dolmann are breaking out from the depths of their publisher's corporate vaults in an audacious escape worthy of their superhero status.

Banished since the early 1970s, their release will revive macabre British comic characters that had survived only in the memories of middle-aged men and the enthusiasms of a few younger collectors. Whether they join Batman, Superman and Spiderman in the Fathers for Justice repertoire remains to be seen, but their imminent resurrection has brought Britain's comic aficionados to heightened states of anticipation.

One of the most excited is Andrew Sumner, an executive at the publishers IPC, who was instrumental in rescuing the heroes of comics like Valiant and Lion after a chance sighting of an old strip on a photocopier in the content and licensing department of the company headquarters.

Sumner is a man who keeps 30,000 comics in his parents' loft, can name the date and edition number of Batman's first appearance in a strip, and was introduced to Spiderman at three years old by his grandfather, who read the original comics with American GIs as a soldier in Normandy. There was no better person to realise the implications of that double-page spread of The Trigan Empire, a 1960s strip re-enacting the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in space.

If Trigan Empire strips were floating around IPC's licensing department it was likely the company still held the rights to the whole cast of post-war comic-book heroes that Sumner had devoured in his childhood. Confirming this with colleagues in contents and `licensing was, says Sumner, the equivalent of finding the holy grail of the comic book world. He had found the key to reviving among others, Steel Claw, a criminal-turned-secret-agent who became invisible when electricity touched his prosthetic hand; Cursitor Doom, a psychic paranormal investigator; Dolmann, a master puppeteer with an army of miniature robots; Robot Archie, the world's most powerful mechanical man; Janus Stark, a rubber-boned escapologist; and Tim Kelly, an immortal crime-fighter.

"These are characters who have been talked about by UK comic fans for the last 30 years since they ceased publication. They were a fundamental part of every British male's childhood in the Sixties," says Sumner.

"It has been the equivalent of Spiderman and Superman slipping out of publication 30 years ago and, due to corporate complexity, not being published in any way for half of their life."

If the corporate labyrinth was partly responsible for keeping Britain's superheroes in obscurity, it has also been crucial to their rebirth. IPC is no longer in the business of publishing comics, but its takeover by Time Warner meant that it had an American sister company in DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman.

Sumner knew they might have an interest in the old British titles, but he did not realise that DC Comics's Anglophile vice president of sales and marketing, Bob Wayne, was investigating who to speak to at IPC about reviving them. Neither did he realise a proposal for new scripts for the characters had been offered to DC Comic's subsidiary WildStorm by Alan Moore, a man sometime referred to as the Orson Welles of comics, and who grew up reading Valiant and Lion as a child in Northampton.

These connections became clear when Wayne and the WildStorm executive editor, Scott Dunbier, who was the link with Moore, came to IPC in the spring, and put Moore's scripts on the table.

"It was as if we had intellectual property we were interested in getting made into a film and we sat down with Harvey Weinstein from Miramax and Harvey says 'I've shown your property to Quentin Tarantino, he grew up on this property, he loves it, he wants to make it his next project and further more, here's the script he's written'!," says Sumner.

From that meeting it was a relatively simple step to license the titles from one part of Time Warner to another, with the result that Steel Claw and the rest will be unleashed next summer in a new six-part series entitled Albion.

The title is no accident. The Valiant and Lion characters grew out of a "dark, rainy, economically depressed post-war Britain," says Sumner, and although the new strips will be available in the US and Europe as well as the UK, they will keep their original dark tone.

Alan Moore is best-known for a pair of graphic novels, Watchmen and From Hell, and is revered for creating gritty, realistic strips with superheroes who bleed, get injured and die. His vision for Albion, which he is writing with his daughter Leah, is thought unlikely to be a cheery portrayal of contemporary Britain.

"I think we can expect some political overtones to the story," says Sumner. "I'm sure he has the same issues that lots of people have got about where the British government is going."

American comic-book readers are apparently ready for his vision. Bob Wayne at DC Comics sees the hard-edged Steel Claw becoming a quick hit and believes the British characters will appeal because they are so different to American superheroes. "The post-war comics created in areas that had direct experience of war were different to those on this side of the Atlantic where the country had no direct experience," he says.

Some in Britain's comic community are not so convinced the characters will be accepted in America, likening the deal to selling something as intrinsically British as Only Fools and Horses to US TV networks, and worrying if the strips will be Americanised.

But the involvement of Moore, and the British artist Dave Gibbons, who is drawing the covers, seems to be enough to allay many fears.

"Moore is the greatest writer the comics world has ever known, so if you want someone handling the reinvention of your childhood, it would be him," says Chris Smillie of the online comic shop Superhero Store. "I trust him to update the heroes whilst keeping the essence of the originals."

Fraser Diamond, of another comic and cartoon site, toonhound.com, says it may be Moore's involvement that ensures the venture's success rather than the characters themselves, who may mean nothing to younger readers.

"Up and coming comic buyers have never head of these things, but Alan Moore brings so much kudos to it. You have to read these things now because Alan Moore is the God of comics."

He hopes the launch will end a misconception that Britain had no comic action heroes of its own until the 1970s.

Whether Robot Archie and the rest find success in America and among younger enthusiasts, the 41-year-old Sumner is certain they have a British market in men of his generation.

"I am the prime demographic for this," says Sumner, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Simon Pegg, star of the British zombie movie Shaun of the Dead and of the television comedy about a comic book addict, Spaced. "It's something I really want to see. The 10-year-old boy inside of me is very proud of this deal."

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