How The 'British Invasion' Changed the World of Comics

By Tom Pritchard on at

When you hear the phrase 'British Invasion', the thing that probably comes to mind is the influx of British rock and pop bands into the US market back in the 1960s. But what if I told you there was another British Invasion in the '80s?

It was a time when British comic writers and artists left the UK and headed to work for DC in America, and it was an event that had massive ramifications on the comics industry. Let's see what that was all about.

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The Origins

Back in the '80s, the British comic industry wasn't in too great a shape. Most of the comics being published were aimed at young children, particularly boys, and the only major example of not following this trend was the legendary 2000AD. Since it was launched in the '70s 2000AD had deliberately avoided childishly themed comic strips, and published more violent mature stories with depth and social commentary.

The thing is, according to the talent it employed, 2000AD wasn't very respectful of the people creating the strips. The publisher demanded creators hand over all copyright to new characters (a practice that, outside of indies, is still the norm in the comics industry to this day), refused to pay royalties for reprinted work, treated original artwork like rubbish (literally), and actually tried to prevent crediting the people involved.

It's hardly surprising that when DC came knocking hoping to poach some of the talent, many of them jumped at the opportunity.

The Invasion Itself

According to Dave Gibbons, who later went onto work on comics like Watchmen, when DC came to London in 1981 it was a rather unbelievable situation. As he put it for the artists it wasn't "present samples and maybe get some work out of it, but actually just to be offered some work." Artist Brian Bolland was one of the first to take up DC's offer, and he was soon followed by the likes of Gibbons, Steve Dillon, Brendan McCarthy, and Glenn Fabry.

Most people don't consider the start of the 'invasion', instead attributing that to the hiring of writer Alan Moore in 1983, and his successful run on the comic Swamp Thing, which had been suffering from a serious drop in sales. Shortly afterwards DC took on Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, two more 2000AD veterans, who went onto respectively revitalise the Sandman and Animal Man series.

All three series ending up doing phenomenally well, and despite the differences in how the three writers tackled their work, the similarities are generally considered to be why readers liked them so much. The stories were darker than much of what DC had produced up to that point, dealt with mature issues, and featured some social relevance - all things that had been a staple of what 2000AD had been doing in the ten years previously.

The stories written by Moore, Gaiman, and Morrisson ended up being incredibly popular with readers, comic retailers, and DC as a whole. This success led to DC replicating the same formula, and headhunting more 2000AD veterans since they already had ample experience writing these kinds of stories in the British market. It didn't take long for DC to launch the Vertigo imprint, a sector of DC that would solely focus on creating comics for an adult audience. It also allowed creators to have more freedom and some sort of stake in their work (though, Vertigo titles would not become 100 per cent creator owned until 2010).

From then on, it became common practise for British comic writers and artists to start out working on Vertigo before moving to mainstream DC titles. It eventually got to the point where anyone who had a successful run working at 2000AD was snatched up to work at DC. John Sanders (then publisher of 2000AD) was very nonchalant about losing talent to America, to the fury of 2000AD founder Pat Mills. About Sanders' attitude, Mills himself said "No, you've got to fight back! Why do we have to play poor relation to America?"

This trend led to some people people, including former 2000AD editor David bishop, to refer to 2000AD as an 'apprenticeship' that would end up with creatives moving to the States. Pat Mills also claimed that 2000AD became a "nursery slope for Vertigo" and whenever he found a new artist he found himself wondering how long it would be "before they got pinched by DC".

It was hardly a surprise that so many left, really. The American market would allow artist and writers to produce comics that would be read by a much wider audience, the pay was better, and there was chance that writers and artists would be able to work on popular DC titles like Batman, Superman, and The Justice League.

The Legacy

One of the biggest outcomes of the British Invasion was the launch of DC's Vertigo imprint. Back then, the American comics industry was adhering to guidelines set out by the Comic Code Authority - an organisation founded to ensure that comics weren't corrupting the youth or printing things that were unsuitable for younger readers. Vertigo was made to be exempt from the CCA, and meant that writers could produce work that was aimed at a mature audience. The books could include depictions of graphic violence, sex, substance abuse, and so on.

Notable Vertigo comics include Hellblazer (featuring John Constantine), V for Vendetta, Sandman, Preacher, iZombie, and Lucifer.

The British Invasion and 2000AD also helped reshape the American comics scene as a whole. First of all because of the changing tone, which saw comics across the industry becoming darker and more psychological in nature, something that nobody had really thought possible beforehand. Pundits have also gone on record about how the American comics had become rather dull, because it was in a comfortable place. Then the English writers came along and completely flipped things around.

There's also the fact that it improved the actual writing in comics. Critics have said that prior to the British invasion American comics had great plots and storytelling, but the actual use of the English language fell flat. Writers like Alan Moore were much better wordsmiths with a greater grasp of the English language, and that is something that caught on for the betterment of the industry.

It's also been claimed that the British Invasion helped kicked off a "sense of authorship" within the comics industry, with readers actually following specific authors rather than characters and artists - the first notable one being Alan Moore.

The British outlook also created the theme of superhero distrust, something that was especially prominent in Watchmen. Neil Gaiman recently said that "Americans trust heroes. The English would not be able to give Superman that glorious crown that Americans give him." This in turn was the "giant engine" that drove 2000AD, and many of the creatives it employed, because "one of the wonderful messages of 2000AD is never trust your heroes".

Dave Gibbons has said that this idea put him and Alan Moore in the perfect position to create Watchmen, saying "what Alan and I were were really able to let loose on was the outsiders view of superheroes and costumed heroes. Much as we loved them, we were a step back, we could question them a bit. We didn't take them as gospel. We could see the wood for the trees."

Watchmen is often referred to as the cornerstone of the British invasion, with it's alternate history take on US history that featured masked heroes. It questions the role of superheroes, a stance that still reverberates through comic culture today – it's basically the whole set up for Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice film.

Watchmen is often referred to as a masterpiece in the world of comics, and without the cynical British outlook and the influx of British writers, it might never have existed.

Without us miserable Brits, the modern comic landscape would be immensely different. Rule-fucking-Britannia.

All quotes come from Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD