From Thursday lunchtime, thousands of aspirational crimefighters across the nation will queue up to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. In America, they premiered it last Thursday at midnight and showed it round the clock to so many fans – some in Joker costumes – that the movie pulled in $155m in three days. It comes, of course, hard on the heels of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man and Hellboy II (about that crimson ape-man with what appear to be battleship rivets in his cranium) – and though it seems only yesterday we were watching Spider-Man 3, there's a 4 on the assembly line, due out in 2011.
Which of us thought, 30 years ago when the first Superman movie was released, that comics would rule the film world? In my neck of the woods, Superman was considered a joke, as silly and juvenile as the televised Batman series, which was played entirely for laughs, with its cackling villains and the sound effects ("Ka-pow!" "Crash!" "Ouch!"). We greeted Superman's shout-line, "You'll believe a man can fly!" with a raised eyebrow: yeah right, we thought.
Nonetheless, the films have become Hollywood's insurance policy in recessionary times; the above Hulks and Hellboys are together likely to make £1bn this year, a hefty chunk of the total world box-office. Each is spawning a sequel or a spin-off (Hellgirl? The Incredible Shrinking Hulk?) and obscure comic books and graphic novels are being ransacked for their movie potential.
All of which, as we celebrate the 70th birthday of The Beano, prompts the question: why did American comics differ so sharply from British ones? In the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of comic-strip entertainment, the contrast was startling. American comics weren't comical: they dealt in superhuman fantasy figures, defenders of the weak, righters of wrong. British comics were concerned with two things: anarchic humour and self-reliance. In The Dandy, The Beano, The Beezer, The Topper, Whizzer and Chips and their cheery ilk, schoolboys cheeked their masters and feisty girls stood up to authority, while amusing ethnics in foreign parts (like Little Plum, the Red Indian) got into trouble by disregarding their parents' advice.
Any triumph was celebrated by a "slap-up" supper; any transgression led to a spanking with the parental slipper. The protagonists did not, by and large, acquire superhero powers to save their city from colourful felons. They had no special personality traits, except native cunning (Roger the Dodger) and barely concealed malevolence (especially a nasty infant called Baby-Face Finlayson).
The Hotspur, Tiger and Valiant carried war stories in which large, violent mavericks, like "Captain Hurricane," despatched platoons of quaking Jerries and Nips with their bare hands; or tales of sportsmen who, by their single-minded determination ("Alf Tupper: the Tough of the Track") transcended their humble origins to win. No flying, no climbing skyscrapers. Not a trace of vainglory. British comic stories were about misfits and loners making the best of things. A favourite of mine, in Valiant, was "The Duke of Dry Gulch," in which an English milord took on the cowpokes and gunslingers of the Wild West and taught them some manners.
When second-hand copies of Marvel Comics and DC Comics began to appear in street markets from Battersea to Barrow-in-Furness in the mid-1960s, bringing the hot news about The Phantom, Captain Marvel, Mandrake the Magician, Green Lantern and the repertory company of classic superheroes, we kids looked at them in amazement. The stories went on for pages! They were designed like film stills! They were in full colour! And though the characters were at times hard to understand (how could the Silver Surfer fight criminals while propelling himself along a wave, 200 yards from dry land?) they could transform themselves into exciting alter egos.
We had one British SF hero, of sorts. He was Dan Dare, and since 1950 his adventures had been chronicled in The Eagle. Every week, Dan had to outwit a hovering, macrocephalic Oriental called The Mekon, ruler of the unspeakable Treens, bent on global conquest. Typically for a British comic hero, Dan Dare had no special powers, apart from being quite good at judo. He was just (harrumph) a damned fine pilot, OK? He was given a plump, down-to-earth Wigan batman called Albert Digby, who was always eating.
Their clipped dialogue and imperial attitudes derived from war films of the 1950s, even though the action was supposedly set in the 1990s. And Dan didn't whack people. He didn't believe in it. He dealt in non-violent solutions to intergalactic threat. He stood for decency, truth, honour and doing the right thing. No wonder nobody has made a blockbuster movie of his adventures.
To this day, nobody has tried to bring Desperate Dan to celluloid, nor Korky the Cat, nor Captain Hurricane. Hard to credit, I know. Despite the obvious appeal of the ensemble scenario, the film rights to The Bash Street Kids have still not been bought by Miramax. It seems that UK comics were always too gentle, too polite to be blockbuster material. No matter how perfectly cast Angelina Jolie would be as Minnie the Minx.