“I’ve hud thes idea fur a freish comic strip. It’s abit a skale bairn aboot ages wi’ oor readers! N’ gie thes — he’s naughty! An’ gei thes — some weeks he gits aw’ wi’ it, and some weeks he gits intae trooble!”
“Brilliant jimmy, stoatin! It will rin fur sixty seven years!”
Mike Taylor recently wrote a piece about an early 2000AD strip called Harlem Heroes and said that he was still struck by the visceral power of the story and art. 2000AD was, by the standards of 1970s comics, very naughty indeed: the violence of it can still take your breath away. But how did an English comic strip by a white artist for mainly white kids come to be called Harlem Heroes? Basketball wasn’t very widely played in England although Globetrotters exhibition games had been shown in late night slots on BBC2. But 2000AD's target demographic would be more likely to have remembered a cut-and-paste Hannah-Barbara cartoon series which had been on children's TV a couple of years before. Harlem Heroes is simply the Harlem Globetrotters playing futuristic death basketball. It’s hard to say if Pat Mills was being shamelessly derivative, or producing a shockingly poor taste parody.
It wasn’t so much a question of cultural appropriation as of grabbing everything within arms reach and running away with it. If there had been a summer blockbuster about a shark them the English comic book artisans would scribble out a violent strip called Hookjaw and a silly strip called Gums in time for the Autumn specials. If that year's hit movie involved a marooned alien making friends with some American schoolkids, then some hack would rush out a comic about some English kids and a crashed flying saucer occupant. I don’t know if the kids noticed, or were supposed to notice. I don’t think we engaged with the material to that extent. Comics had always been, and cold only ever be, mildly diverting knock-offs of better books, or anachronistic little squibs about pea-shooters and canes and German spies. That was why the launch of American style superhero comics made such a massive impact on us.
Buster was typical of the era. When it launched in 1960 the title character had been the son of Andy Capp, the outrageously un-PC Geordie who appeared (and still appears) every day in the Daily Mirror. But by 1976, he was just a generic Dennis the Menace character who played pranks and clashed with authority figures. A list of the other features in the comic is enough to generate feelings of suicidal ennui: Ivor Lott and Tony Broke (with Milly O’Naire and Penny Less); Kid Kong; Lucy Lastic; X-Ray Specs; James Pond... Adam Adman was “A young man obsessed by advertising”; Jack Pot was “a boy with exceptional luck” and Joker was “a boy obsessed with jokes”. This is how young people amused themselves before Minecraft was invented.
The Leopard from Lime Street appeared in Buster from 1976 to 85. (The first year's worth have just been reprinted by Rebellion.) He is often said to be “England’s first superhero” or “Britain’s answer to Spider-Man”. But reading these episodes 40 years later, it feels less like a British attempt to do Marvel Comics and more like a gag strip that accidentally got drawn in a serious style. Yes, the Leopard wears a costume and, on occasion, catches robbers. But he’s also a schoolboy who deals with bullies and outwits nasty grown ups and earns himself treats by means of a special gimmick.
If British comics are a celebration of naughtiness, there is a joyful shamelessness in the way writer Tom Tully scrumps the good bits from his more famous American template. Peter Parker has the proportional strength of a spider; Billy Farmer is as strong as a fully grown jungle cat. Peter Parker has his spider-sense: Billy gets danger signals from his Leopard’s sixth sense. Spider-Man has his webbing; Billy has a grappling rope. In the early installments, artist Mike Western even makes use of a Gemini motif, showing Billy’s face as half-human and half-leopard. It’s all so outrageous that it sometimes feels less like swiping and more like dead-pan parody. Viz is still twelve years in the future.
Spider-Man is a timeless classic. The Leopard of Lime Street seems like a dispatch from a different world. But as a piece of archive material, it’s worth acquainting oneself with.
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