British Superheroes is a research project that grew out of Professor Christopher Murray’s 2017 monograph, The British Superhero (University Press of Mississippi). It is a collaboration between Murray and several comics artists investigating the narrative and visual techniques of British superhero comics. The British Superhero (2017) was the first study of the history of these comics, revealing a largely forgotten history of British superhero comics and exploring the relationship between British and American comics industries. British Superheroes built on this, and became a practice oriented research project in its own right, asking the following questions:
1/ What cultural and political influences shaped British superhero comics?
2/ How can a creative re-imagining of these comics implicate readers in a critical re-evaluation of these comics and their politics?
3/ How can the techniques employed in these comics be reworked through contemporary comics creative practice?
Between 2015 and 2020 Murray wrote comics scripts, often accompanied by sketches, designs and layouts, then worked collaboratively with artists to discover, echo and extend the strategies employed by British superhero comics from the 1940s to the present. The project explored the uses of satire, parody, pastiche, intertextual allusion, appropriation, and ‘lifting’ (copying) often seen in these comics, connecting this to British Pop Art and other influences. Traditional and digital techniques were employed. Outputs include stories featuring Alpha, a character created by Murray, articles and essays in comics form, an adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s 1935 novel Odd John, game comic hybrids, an illustrated script book, and many conference papers and presentations. The outputs were made available to the public for free.
The idea was to create a number of fictional characters and titles, imagining that British superhero comics had become popular, and that Alpha, a fictional British superhero amalgamating characteristics of several real British superheroes, had a similar longevity to Superman. Alpha, it was imagined, had adapted to changing political, cultural and industrial circumstances from the 1930s to present. This prompted several questions. What would such a British superhero look like? How would he, the wider cast of characters, and the style of storytelling, change over the years? Rather than being purely speculative, the stories that were created were rooted in the now largely forgotten British superhero comics, and the imported and reprinted American material that appeared in Britain. There was a concerted attempt to reconstruct the style of comics produced by British creators like Jack Glass, Len Fullterton, Mick Anglo, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, and many others to investigate the history of British superhero comics, and the strategies employed in these comics. The creation of a fictional alternate British comics history where British Superhero comics were popular allowed for a creative re-imagining of British superhero comics using the conventions of the genre, where alternate realities and ‘ret-conning’ of stories and characters is commonplace.
It was found that the presentation of a fictionalised alternate British comics history (primarily explored through the character of Alpha), and the recreation of these comics using contemporary techniques opened up a space to comment on and challenge misconceptions about British comics history, and by extension, reveal much about the politics embedded in these comics, and the diverse range of influences upon them, including British pop art and science fiction. Findings were disseminated throughout the country, and internationally, in New York, San Diego and Toronto.
The comics produced as part of this project include:
1/ Alpha – The British Superhero (2016), a 108 page graphic novel.
2/ Retro Inactive (2018), a 24 page comic and article in comics form.
3/ Superhuman Futures (2018), a 36 page comic and article in comics form.
4/ Odd John (2019), a 52 page graphic novel, artwork by Helen Robinson.
6/ Alpha – A Tumble Through Time (2019), game and comic, artwork by Anna Morozova.
7/ ‘The Special Relationship’ (2019), a political cartoon, artwork by Elliot Balson.
8/ Big Whoop Comics (2019), a 12 page comic, reworking some elements of Alpha – The British Superhero and including ‘Flash Avenger’, a pastiche by Chris Murray. Includes artwork by Letty Wilson and Norrie Millar.
9/ Trump: Now Incorporating Chump (2019), an 8 page comic, reworking some elements of Alpha – The British Superhero, artwork by Norrie Millar.
10/ Galactic Sci-Fi Thrills (2020), a 12 page comic, artwork by Norrie Millar and Chris Murray.
11/ Star Warrior (2020), a 20 page comic, reworking some elements of Alpha – The British Superhero, artwork by Elliot Balson, Letty Wilson, Phillip Vaughan, Chris Murray, and Dave Gibbons.
12/ ‘Alpha Sez…’ (2020), two public information style advertisements featuring Alpha for the Pandemic Tales: Responses to COVID-19 and Lockdown (2020), artwork by Phillip Vaughan.
13/ Superheroes Never Give Up (2020), a 12 page comic and a 20 page children’s book, artwork by Mark Brown.
14/ The Legion of British Superheroes and The Pola Cola Caper (2020), a 20 page comic, artwork by Gary Welsh, Nick Johnson, and Phillip Vaughan.
15/ The British Superheroes Script Book (2020), a compilation of scripts written for this project by Chris Murray. Process work by various artists included.
If you read any of these comics please take a few minutes to complete a brief questionnaire. We would really appreciate your thoughts on the comics, especially on the impact they might have made on your understanding of British comics history, the superhero genre, etc.