The late 1980s. Britain. The Franco-Belgian tradition of adult graphic novels, beautiful painted things, was being rediscovered again, in no small part due to the efforts of Paul Gravett and Peter Stanley in opening up the UK medium's worldview. The American medium, also influenced by the European comics via the Stateside vehicle HEAVY METAL, was opening up to adult comics in a high-profile manner. And 2000AD, probably the most important British comic of the past thirty years, was starting to see its initial children's audience grow up and away from it. These three pressures led to possibly the most significant event in British graphic novels -- significant not least because of its failure.
Fleetway, the publishers of 2000AD, greenlit the creation of CRISIS.
2000AD was weekly, and mostly still black and white. CRISIS would come out every two weeks and be in full painted colour. 2000AD ran episodes of between four and six serials an issue, four to seven pages a time. CRISIS would have only two serials, running fourteen pages apiece. And they were aimed specifically at an older audience, nominally 16-25.
For the lead serial, writer Pat Mills and artist Carlos Ezquerra, two of the three progenitors of JUDGE DREDD, were brought back. Mills' writing had been straining against the boundaries of children's fiction for some time, his work having grown ever more serious, deeply researched and esoteric, and visibly bumping up against the walls of What Is Acceptable. He didn't want to talk to children any more. Similarly, the practicalities of cheap reproduction had clearly been weighing on Ezquerra, whose work to that point had grown stale -- a long way from the explosive painting of sf bounty hunter yarn STRONTIUM DOG, and from the gravelly energy of his JUDGE DREDD.
Their CRISIS serial, THIRD WORLD WAR, was genuinely, astonishingly fresh. Politicised near-future sf, perfect for the doomy Eighties, it depicted jobless late-teenagers drafted into a Peace Corps-like operation designed to make the Third World safe for corporate globalisation. This is ten years before "globalisation" became a buzzword. Eve is one of the "Psychos", tasked to win the hearts and minds of native populations. Also, the squad full of perceived nutcases; the punk, the pagan, the fundamentalist Christian, the lairy beer boy, and Eve, an alienated black girl with a nervous breakdown behind her before twenty.
Forced migration, corporate depredation of land and resources, better living through chemistry -- all taken from real life, right out of John Pilger and everything the right-wing tabloids weren't reporting. It fit its era and audience perfectly. For the first time, people were seeing girls reading comics in pubs -- primed, a year or two later, for TANK GIRL. These were days when we looked out of the window in the morning to see if the government had put Daleks on the streets, when the vote was being stolen from us by a targeted tax, and when the authorities were putting the concept of concentration camps into the public discourse -- for people with AIDS. Sure, it was preachy. People were ready for preachy, then.
Third World War
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
The second serial, NEW STATESMEN, was written by John Smith, a writer who'd developed a reputation for well-written pitches but bizarrely non-linear scripts, and illustrated by Jim Baikie, a consummate professional greatly admired by his peers but never an explosively commercial force. This was Smith's first major published work, and he threw the kitchen sink in. Again, it was political sf, set in America, and revolving around the concept of some fifty-one enhanced humans with paranormal abilities. The superhuman has always been a ripe science fictional concept, and Smith went after it with venom, depicting a fractured and schizophrenic America where these biological weapons were shared out among the states as icons and mascots, aspirational figures and living logos. They lead pointless, hedonistic lives, emblems of and for nothing. Except for the small group known as the Halcyons. Who are used as enforcers of America's will. And nowhere was their will made more sharply known than in the 51st State, Britain, where they committed atrocious "police actions" in defence of the Union. This leads us to the emotional focus of the story: Burgess, the Statesman for Britain, who helped commit those atrocities.
Smith and Baikie formed a superb team; Baikie anchored Smith with his visual storytelling skills, Smith drove Baikie into a welter of formal experimentation. It wasn't always brilliant, it occasionally fell into incoherence, but it was wildly, breathlessly inventive, it kicked the doors off and made new sounds.
For people who'd picked up 2000AD as children in '77, CRISIS in '88 was a killer package. Two stories, coming out every two weeks, in beautifully-rendered pages and a hipdesign package generated by Rian Hughes - then a comics artist and designer, now a sought-after designer, illustrator and typographer working in tv, advertising and publishing.
It lasted for fourteen issues.
Then they changed the format, deleting NEW STATEMEN, adding two new stories - both contemporary mainstream fiction -- juggling page counts and altering the cover design. A few months later, they fiddled around with it some more. Then they launched a companion book, a monthly called REVOLVER, bigger and more expensive. Then, when REVOLVER died, CRISIS went monthly in a similar dense format. Another spin-off, ESPRESSO, came out kind of stillborn. CRISIS was dead by 1991, the final few issues reprinting European comics albums. Each time they strayed from that original format, sales went down and interest was lost. Despite the undeniable high quality of a lot of this work, within six months of CRISIS' launch, you didn't see anyone reading it in the pub any more.
It was going to take more than a few months to prepare an audience weaned on JUDGE DREDD or eating up dystopic sf for contemporary mimetic fiction about carpenters in Camden Town or even shy boys in trouble in Northern Ireland. Right when a publisher was actually required to do what a publisher always does, which is to build carefully and be a bit scared of what happens next - they front-loaded a literary mainstream for comics into a market that just wasn't ready for it yet.
And when it all fell apart, as it was always going to do, the idea of adult graphic novels in Britain largely went with it. The money was pulled. No-one at Fleetway was going to get a second shot. No other publisher - being careful and scared - was going to put their money on the place where the floor fell in.
And, to this day, no-one's really been back there.