Crisis of identity
I haven’t written about everything that appeared in Crisis. When I write about Third World War I’ll probably have covered more than half the stuff that appeared in its pages, because Third World War was close to half of what appeared in its pages. I wrote about New Statesmen in an early series of blogs about British superheroes, spending three different blogs proving, at least, that it’s somebody’s favourite. I’ve written about the work of British creators who went on to longer American things like Garth Ennis, and the experiments in form and content of Grant Morrison, and the forgotten early work of Mark Millar, and the unacknowledged triumph of John Smith and Sean Phillips’s Straitgate, and the cult obscurity of Rogan Gosh. But I haven’t written about Sticky Fingers, or The Real Robin Hood, or Oscar Zarate’s Reflexions, or Phillip Bond’s urban angel strip, or any of the political stuff. I’ve written about comics that appeared in Revolver, ignoring that it was a different publication. I haven’t given an overview, tried to explain what Crisis was as a whole. Which was simultaneously like little else and like all British comics. Let me explain.
Crisis began as a 2000AD spinoff. Fortnightly instead of monthly, all colour, printed on shiny Izal paper, designed in bold semi-military style by Rian Hughes, it was the adult wing of Tharg the Mighty’s publication. And it followed, for the first 14 issues, the same template; comics set in a science-fictional future but satirising the present day. Crisis was just that little bit more adult, that bit Mature Readers, and aimed at American length, the contents to be reprinted as five-issue miniseries and eventually graphic novels. John Smith and John Hicklenton was asked to submit a Tyranny Rex proposal that would have kept that 2000AD’s older-brother-at-uni feel.
With Crisis #15 that changed. Troubled Souls and Sticky Fingers, two stories of life in the marginalised youth culture of the UK, replaced the portentous postmodern superheroics of New Statesmen. At the same time Third World War, returned to the UK, lurched in the same direction, creating an anthology comic that came closer to reflecting the lives of its readers. It also began to become more political; though Troubled Souls consciously avoided a stance it couldn’t help be anti-war, Sticky Fingers was about the demonised poor and Pat Mills had always been broadcasting a radical left message which became more strident as Third World War came home. The first short stories, filler material, began to appear and again took the side of the young and the left, synonymous categories back then. Increasingly they told true stories, gave unseen perspectives, asked the readers to think about their assumptions, how they lived.
The leftism built to a head with #39, an issue dedicated to Amnesty International telling true stories of political prisoners. It was a worthy effort, but in art worthy isn’t always worthwhile. The artifice of storytelling was discarded, the starkness and power of the truth presumed superior and not always proving so. The opening pages of Pat Mills and Sean Phillips’s The Death Factory in that issue, illustrating an apocryphal legend of condemned prisoners, are far more powerful than the documentary approach that follows. The left-wingery of Crisis was now a permanent element of the comic, in journalism or one-off comics or Third World War or even some other series, and while it accords with my politics it was never what I read the comic for.
While drifting left, Crisis had begun to fall prey to the eternal weakness of the anthology comic: inconsistency. Series would run double episodes in one issue and skip the following one. Painfully earnest comics about Tiananmen Square would run next to puerile Ennis stories about turds. Work by seasoned professional would appear in the same issue as work by obvious amateurs. The great David Lloyd would draw a story written by the comic’s publicist, Igor Goldkind. The quality of the journalism was reliably low. Which all meant that you never knew what you were getting when your copy of Crisis came through the door, and sometimes there wouldn’t be anything good in it at all.
Crisis #50 marked a watershed. The comic went monthly, getting a glossy cover and more pages in the process, and Third World War (with a final episode in #53) ceased appearing. The one constant of Crisis, the lead feature, was removed and it began to flounder. Around this time Fleetway launched sister comic Revolver which tried to be a little bit of what Crisis wasn’t; not so serious, not so 80s, psychedelic and loopy and fun. It lasted seven issues before suffering that most British of comic endings: a merger. Not officially, Crisis didn’t get the name added to the masthead in subordinate position, but it took Dare and concluded it and it took Steve Parkhouse and Paul Neary’s Happenstance & Kismet, too. Revolver had two specials, the Romance Special and the Horror Special, the first of which featured the fine Still Life by Smith and Phillips, the second of which featured an unreprinted horror story by Neil Gaiman. If all the quality stuff that had appeared in Revolver and the Specials had appeared in Crisis then perhaps it could have survived longer, changed its identity from the strident lefter-than-thou student activist who was becoming a reviled figure in post-Thatcher Britain into something that gave less of a fuck and liked dancing.
Warrior, the previous adult British anthology comic, also suffered the indignity of a merger in its final days, taking on content from sister publication Halls of Horror. And Warrior, like Crisis, thought it had found a solution to inconsistency and creators becoming popular and taking the Yankee dollar: Europe. Both began buying European comics and printing translated versions, drawing on the wealth of material published across the channel. Fleetway even promised a new publication, Xpresso, which would contain the best of these comics and which was eventually published as a Crisis special. (This features a story written and drawn by Sean Phillips, I believe, and if anybody has a scan I’d love to see it.) But the appeal of Crisis was always that it was now and ours. Diluting that by throwing in the pretty but vapid work of Manara washed away the last of its identity. I didn’t buy it; there wasn’t anything to buy it for any longer. Just over a year after it went monthly, it closed.
There was some great stuff in Crisis. I’ve blogged about most of it, if not all. There was some deeply mediocre stuff and some terrible stuff. The struggle to find an identity was eventually fatal. It’s not easy for an anthology comic to do so. 2000AD took about three years to become itself, greatly aided by a merger with Starlord and hampered by repelling boarders from Tornado. Warrior never really managed, only Alan Moore’s famous contributions and Laser Eraser ever seeming like they belonged. Deadline roared out of the gate and lost its heart when Tank Girl outgrew it. Crisis lasted three years. It did better than many.