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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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