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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt