The holes in comics history are finally closing

The canon of comics is full of lost greats – but the gaps are slowly getting filled in.

Delve too deeply into any "best-of" list of comics, and you're likely to have an unpleasant discovery: some of the greatest works produced in the medium are unavailable, and have been for years.

Occasionally, this is just the industry's own doltishness. When Marvel can't even keep in print Guardians of the Galaxy, a critically-acclaimed space-opera published just four years ago and in the process of being made into a major film, I despair. (A hardback of volume two of the series is selling for £60 second hand at the moment).

But sometimes, it's less in the hands of the industry. For various reasons, some books which ought never to have fallen out of print have become untouchable. And there's almost a holy trinity within that category, three books which new comics fans were forever being told "you should read these – but you can't": Flex Mentallo, Marvelman and Zenith.

But the ice seems to be thawing. After years in limbo, there's now hope on the horizon.

Flex Mentallo is actually already back in print. The book, the first major collaboration between Scotland's Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, spins off Morrison's earlier work for DC, Doom Patrol. Starring Flex Mentallo, a man who can twist reality with just a twitch of his muscles, the book is a metatextual riff on what superhero comics meant to a young Morrison.

It was also held up for years by a law suit with Charles Atlas, he of the "I Can Make YOU a New Man" adverts. Flex was clearly a take-off of Atlas, right down to starring in a parody of his ads, but rather that fight for the right to lampoon, a scared DC agreed not to reprint the book – an agreement which held for two decades.

Next on the horizon seems to be Marvelman. This Alan Moore comic, illustrated by a who's who of the 1980s best artists, has been trapped in a quagmire for years. Firstly, there's Moore himself, who, burnt by the mainstream comics industry over and over, wants nothing to do with any of it. Then there's Marvel, who forced the character's name to be changed to "Miracleman" when it was launched in the US, and recently bought up the rights to the 1950s series it was based on. Next, Neil Gaiman gets involved, having had the rights transferred to him – apparently – by Moore when he took over writing the series in 1990. After that, Todd McFarlane, the illustrator of Spawn and one of the founders of Image Comics, bought Eclipse, Marvelman's publishers, and – look, it's an omnishambles, OK?

But Marvel has been working behind the scenes trying to clear up the rights, and the hope is that they're getting closer than ever before to actually having it in the bag. Marvelman has been out of print for too long already, so it would be great to see it back on the shelves.

But what of the last of the three? Zenith, Grant Morrison's first major work, co-created with Brendan McCarthy and Steve Yeowall, is a distinctly un-heroic superhero. Exploring ideas of generational inheritance, fame, and iconography, it has been out of print for the more prosaic reason that no-one has been able to sort out who owns it. Rebellion, publishers of 2000 AD, where the character originally appear, claim it's them, Morrison that it's him.

But I've heard through the grapevine that that might be cleared up – and sooner than I thought. Rebellion aren't talking, but turning up to C2E2. the Chicago comic-con, wearing Zenith t-shirts (as seen in the pic at the top, there) could be interpreted as a pretty big wink in that direction. I'd say "wait and see"; just, don't go dropping £100 on a complete set on eBay any time soon. You'll be kicking yourself if I'm right…

The Rebellion table at C2E2

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.