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.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era