Zoids – Our Plastic Toys at War, Part One

This post is a continuation of our look at the complete works of Grant Morrison, but this particular post isn't about Grant Morrison, so disbelievers in the 'God of All Comics' may like to stick around for a bit...

Anyone following my delve into Morrison’s work might have noticed that my posts on the topic have been on hiatus for a while. Of course, life and work gets in the way, but I’ve also got a little hung up on figuring out what to say about Zoids, the earliest Morrison work that I can get my hands on at the moment.

As such, it’s obviously worth a look, but what to say about the few chapters written by Morrison in what amounts to more or less, an extended toy advert? Further, unlike his DC work, many readers may not be familiar with the context these Marvel UK strips were published in. So, for those of you unfamiliar with how superheroes were brought to us kids back in the Old World, here are a few words about that corner of publishing in a particular era. There’s an awful lot to say about Marvel UK, as Jeff of Earth J has discovered about one small element of it, but this post is limited to Marvel’s UK output as I experienced it from about 1979 to 1984

Contexts 1 – Marvel UK

Zoids was a (mainly) 6-page strip that ran in a Marvel UK comic called Spider-man and Zoids weekly, from March 1986 to February 1987. It ran for the lifetime of that comic - just under a year. It was a very typical publication of Marvel UK of the time, which in turn followed a longstanding UK comics anthology template of several strips between two covers every week. The ‘last man standing’ of this format is now 2000AD, and its monthly Judge Dredd and 2000AD re-print offshoots.

I collected Marvel UK reprints from about 1980 to 1984. A lot of titles came and went in that time. Spider-man TV comic, Hulk weekly, Rampage (which reprinted Claremont/Byrne X-men), Marvel Superheroes (Avengers), and Fantastic Four weekly were some of them. They were almost entirely re-prints of US comics and I got my earliest exposure to Trimpe’s Hulk, Sinnott’s glossily finished Fantastic Four and – my favourites – the Byrne/Perez/Shooter run of Avengers that ended around #200.

Marvel UK had their pick of some of the best comics work of its time to reprint, and they also had a line of fondly-remembered little pocketbooks, which published the goldmine of early Kirby and Ditko marvel comics – 2 to 3 issues in each book. So fondly remembered, in fact, that I leaped at the chance to pick up a few tatty issues that I came across recently. As ever, it’s probably best to stick with your memories of these things rather than revisit the original article. Not only were they in black and white, which I grew up on anyway, so it’s not such a problem, but they were reprinted at about 2/3 the original size. Since I’ve got into the art as much as the stories in the meantime, it’s certainly a disservice to the work of the Old Masters. Worst of all though was the dodginess of the reprinting. A lot of it was quite sloppy, with whole lines of artwork being dropped during whatever scanning process they used.

Which is all by-the-by. I didn’t miss what I didn’t know was there the first time I read those old classics. However, that cheapness and sloppiness became evident hallmarks of Marvel UK as I continued to collect their comics. Or rather, as I tried to collect their comics. They didn’t make it very easy on their young fanbase as none of the comics ran for very long before being discontinued to make way for an ‘exciting pulse-pounding first issue’ of some other comic, or was merged with another title in an attempt to combine the readerships and boost flagging sales.

In fact Marvel UK can take pride in being the inspiration for my lifelong cynicism regarding the machinations and manipulations of the mass-market commercial world. 10 years old is quite a young age to realise that the paying public were being played like dupes, being handed rubbish and told it was gold. I didn’t collect any Spider-man comics – that was my cousins job - but the final straw for me was when I saw that Spider-man weekly was being merged with The Care Bears!

Oh boy!

By that time my my healthy suspicion of ‘the system’ and the cynicism which Marvel UK had helped to nurture had found a good home in the iconoclastic pages of ‘The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic’. So at this point around maybe 1984, young comics fan Figs takes himself out of the story of Marvel UK for many years.

Of course, the other side of this story is the market that Marvel UK were trying to work in. Even though their content was obviously much easier to produce (ie licence) than its US counterpart, they somehow couldn’t hold onto their audience as each comic continued to be published. I would contend that publishing a few titles that the readership knew were top quality week in week out (the 2000AD model) would have been a better long-term publishing strategy, but they went with the short-term thinking of mergers and starting a new first issue every so often.

It’s easy to suppose that behind that strategy was the belief that comics were junk for children and that the market cycled through new readers every few years anyway. Everyone reading this article is living evidence of the error of those assumptions. For myself, Marvel UK published one of the very first comics I remember reading. As it was the outstanding Neal Adams X-men – the issue detailing Sauron’s origins - it electrified me at the time and made me a comic fan for life.

To be fair, Marvel occasionally did try to nurture a quality-based market, but although comics like The Daredevils, which brought us Alan Moore’s Captain Britain, were critically well received, they just didn’t seem to build a big enough readership to continue for long.

The emerging trend in the period we’re discussing, as the Care Bears example shows, was that kids were becoming mainly interested in comics featuring whatever tacky plastic toys they were being flogged that month. Transformers was a Marvel UK comic strip with a similar concept to Zoids and it was also popular for a while and went on to be published as original material from Marvel UK. In the same vein, Marvel Comics in the US had their biggest commercial success of this period with their Secret Wars series which was tied into a line of toys. This itself had been a deliberate attempt to ape the success of DC's Super Powers toys/comics tie-in line. Secret Wars itself, was the last straw for me as a Marvel fan back then by the way. It seemed to me to be too obviously a blatant attempt to use the comics as part of a marketing exercise rather than a worthwhile product in itself. So young, I was, and yet so serious!

All of which brings us back nicely to 1986 and Spider-man and Zoids.

In my next instalment, in looking some more at the context of the Zoids strip which Morrison contributed to, I'll be taking a broader look at the area of comics publishing that crossed over with toy merchandising.

BTW #1 - I hesitated before posting this as a blog post, as I didn't think it was important enough, but having seen some blogs lately of the type - "Hey! Heres a link!", thought I might give it a go...

Am I now officially a "Blogger"?

BTW #2 - I did want to make this post more 'reader friendly' with pictures, covers and artwork, but alas, that would have taken waaaay to much time for this Daddy-o.

But as a compensation - "Hey! Here's a link!"

Here's another

And one more.

Views: 245

Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on March 10, 2010 at 11:24pm
I'm looking forward to the next installment, my internationally displaced friend.
Comment by Captain Comics on March 12, 2010 at 2:57pm
The occasional blog post that's essentially a link were mistakes, Figs -- for which I take blame, hitting the "OK" button too fast. (All blog posts have to be OK'd by a Moderator.) We do hope the blog posts are essentially that, whereas more conversational posts go in the appropriate forum.

But, hey, we're making this up as we go along, and I'm not much of authoritarian, so whatevs. :)


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