Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Countdown to Halloween: A Tribute to Martha's Monster Make-Up

We're getting short on days but I felt I should take one to abuse the 'horror' theme of Countdown to Halloween and put up a (scarily serious) post about an old comic strip character, lucky you lot eh?

For the imaginary American readers (who don’t read 2000AD) we once had a thriving comic scene here the UK that ultimately petered out, like the Americans we had two major publishers (hell one was even called DC!) – Almagamted Press which later became IPC (and who also published books under Fleetway and, after buying them out, Odhams) and D.C. Thompson & Co, the latter being the company responsible for The Beano, The Dandy and Bunty and the former being responsible for Buster, Whizzer & Chips and 2000AD. While DCT stuck mostly with the same few titles (Beano, Dandy, Bunty…) turning them into long running institutions IPC/Fleetway produced a lot of titles with shorter runs, preferring it seems to ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’. Classic British comics are also very different in format to their American equivalents, they were almost always anthology books with two types of short strips – comedy strips (Dennis the Menace) and adventure strips (Judge Dredd) – most books focussed on one type but usually had at least one example of the other: e.g. Valiant was an adventure strip paper but had comedy strips like Mowser whereas Buster was primarily a comedy strip paper but featured adventure strips like The Leopard from Lime Street, even The Beano and the Dandy ran adventure series once. Mostly the strips ran for between one and four pages (with some exceptions, 2000AD and Sonic the Comic for instance used longer strips) and each book featured the prestigious ‘cover strip’ – a strip that started on the front cover. Most books were weekly or bi-weekly and the industry soon settled into a habit of giving each title a hardback annual every Christmas and a summer special for the school holidays, often the annuals (and sometimes the summer specials) would long outlast the regular comic.

Right, now we’re all up to speed – Martha’s Monster Make-Up. Monster Fun debuted cover dated  14 June 1975, a weekly comic in the vein of the Beano or Dandy but mostly in the vein of (IPC) Fleetway’s earlier series Shiver & Shake which had in fact only ended the year before. On its cover was the bulbous orange ape Kid Kong who would serve as the series’ mascot and affixed to that cover a Plate Wobbler – a practical joke novelty toy, and inside a pull-out book. Though X-Ray Specs, Draculass and Creature Teacher were all here some of the book’s biggest stars were noticeably absent – no Gums, no Mummy’s Boy and no Little Monsters but one character who was there from the start was Martha and her monstrous make-up. Martha was the new strip for the series created by industry legend Ken Reid, and thematically similar to his other strip at the time Faceache (which had begun in Jet but was now being published in Buster). Reid is best known for creating Beano legends Jonah and Roger the Dodger (and newspaper strip Fudge the Elf) but had left D.C. Thompson & Co for Odhams alongside his other superstar creator Leo Baxendale for better creative freedom. Once at Odham’s Press he created one of IPC/Odhams/Fleetway’s biggest stars – Frankie Stein, who was in fact the ‘editor’ of Monster Fun; had a brilliant run on Baxendale created The Nervs then gave us Dare-a-Day Davy, Faceache and Martha’s Monster Make-Up.  The man’s talents lie especially in detail and weirdness, he just had a natural talent for producing highly rendered monsters, madmen, freaks and geeks of all kinds, so Frankie, Faceache and Martha were all perfect vehicles for him to show off (so good was his weird monster art that IPC  gave over a page in Whoopee! just to let him drawn them – twice! They were called Wanted Posters and World Wide Weirdies btw).

Unlike Faceache who could ‘scrunge’ his face naturally and turn himself into facsimiles of freaky things, Martha came armed with a (seemingly never ending) pot of old make-up her father found at his job in the Mallet Horror Films Studio which she soon found out (after applying it to herself and scaring her mum) that it transformed whatever you put it on into something monstrous. I love Martha’s Monster Make-up obviously, I find it to not only be the best strip in Monster Fun but also superior to Faceache (not a common opinion) because of just how much more versatile the concept was, it could be applied to anyone or anything and typically was – cars, statues, art pieces, telephones, post boxes, post bags, cuckoo clocks, brick walls, food and every part of the body in various combinations all got made over – and this gave Reid far more options to be creative artistically (and to indulge in his weird love of octopi, something he seemed to share with Baxendale) as well as to offer up some occasionally pretty scary stuff (the aforementioned brick wall is downright menacing). Further while Faceache’s more anarchic strips are fun Martha’s always feel far more satisfying, her strips were usually morality plays with her using her make-up to help someone or (more often than not) fuck over someone who really needed fucking over, usually based on someone in real life who needed to be scared straight (jobsworths, bullies and the vein were particularly favourite targets) which kept the series relatable and with Martha being very much an outsider, hell she dresses in a style that today was easily fit into the category of Gothabilly, a lot of the people who need screwing were decided by that outsider, counter-culture mentality – that is, MY mentality. Plus when she did use it for something selfish or morally questionable the joke was on Martha and she came a cropper via her own actions and make-up, this isn’t uncommon, Dennis the Menace often ended up the victim of his own bad behaviour for instance, as did Faceache, but it allowed the strip even more variety.

Monster Run ran for little over a year from 14 June 1975 to 30 October 1976 for a total of 73 issues and Martha never missed one, every week she and her make-up did something devious for her allotted 1 page (though 4 issues weren’t by Reid, issues 26, 30 and 62 were by Frank McDairmid and issue 15 was by a ghost artist). She also appeared in both Monster Fun Summer Specials and in the Monster Fun Annuals 1977-1978 and 1980-1982 (with most not by Reid either). After its 73rd issue Monster Fun merged with Fleetway’s flagship title Buster; mergers in British comics were a peculiar trend that pretty much amounted to ‘lying to children’, what in fact happened was one book would be cancelled (in this case Monster Fun) but some of the strips would carry on being published in another title (in this case Buster) and that comic would feature the other title’s logo on its front cover (so in this case ‘Buster and Monster Fun’) until it was decided that this was no longer of use to sales to that book (or another book needed to ‘merge’ with it) and it was quietly dropped. Despite only lasting a year Monster Fun was pretty damn popular, so popular that the title remained on Busters’ cover until 1979 and the Buster and Monster Fun summer specials continued to be published until 1996 (which is how I first found out about the old title). The 8 strips that ‘survived the merger’ with Buster were Gums, X-Ray Specs, Kid Kong, Mummy’s Boy, Terror TV, Teddy Scare, Draculass and damn right, Martha’s Monster Make-Up but there was a however in Martha’s case. Martha didn’t simply join the book, she replaced Faceache which had been running in the book since 1971 (the result of another merger) and fans were not happy, Martha lasted from 6th November 1976 issue to the 12th February 1977 issue when she gave her spot back to Faceache by fan demand (Faceache would last until 1988). The utterly vanilla X-Ray Specs on the other hand would last until Buster’s cancellation in 2000.        

But that wasn’t quite the end of Martha. In 2005 Wildstorm Comics (then an imprint of DC Comics) published Albion written by Alan Moore, Leah Moore and John Reppon (Moore’s daughter and son-in-law) it was a cool but utterly
depressing story that revealed that all of the British comic characters were real people and in order to cover this up, the British Government was keeping them all imprisoned in Cursitor Doom’s castle in Scotland and a team of Danny Doom, Bad Penny, Robot Archie and Charlie Peace went to break them out during an investigation into the facility’s stability by Zip Nolan. Amongst the old superheroes, evil geniuses, adventure strip stars and the cast of The Dolls of St Dominic’s and The Swots and the Blots was a pretty blonde woman named Martina who was in in a relationship with a male inmate Fred Ackerly who could change – some might say scrunge – his face at will, and then during the breakout when everyone was getting their old equipment back from the armoury, she applied some substance, almost a make-up of a kind, and her face became a strange creature, a monster if you will. Yeah it was clearly supposed to be Martha and Faceache – so why wasn’t it? Well in 1987 IPC sold off a number of their comic properties to fat robbing bastard and terrible swimmer Cap’n Bob Robert Maxwell, the sale amounted (roughly) to all comics they had launched since 1970 and the characters that had debuted in them plus Buster and 26 specific characters from that title (that presumably debuted before 1970). Characters that debuted after 1970 but in books launched before 1970 (like Danny Doom) stayed with IPC as did characters who had debuted before 1970 but had runs in the books that started after 1970 (like Frankie Stein and Grimley Fiendish) but the characters from Monster Fun, Whizzer & Chips, Cor!!, Shiver & Shake, Wow!, Scream!, Whoopee!, 2000AD and Starlord, Jet, Krazy, Cheeky Weekly, Jinty, Misty, Tammy, Nipper, Oink! , School Fun, Jackpot and the second volume of Knockout were all amongst those sold which included Faceache and Martha’s Monster Make-Up. Maxwell didn’t have them for very long and Egmont Editions bought them and the Fleetway name in 1991 (but later sold 2000AD). However Albion was made only in conjunction with Time Inc. UK (then IPC Media) meaning that they couldn’t officially use any of the characters owned by Egmont (who still exist and publish a lot of kids tie-in magazine over here) so the real Martha couldn’t appear, thus Martina.

This is easily my favorite Martha strip
 Jobsworth postmen really annoy me
Sadly Albion didn’t lead to a revival of the old British Comics Heroes – mostly because it portrayed them as sad weird mostly ineffectual convicts, it did get us an excellent new Battler Briton mini-series and a couple of hardback collections but if big names that they could officially admit to being in the book - like Robot Archie, Grimley Fiendish and The Spider – couldn’t get a revival out of it, Martha had no chance. And as our publishes seem to remain almost completely oblivious to Trade Paperbacks the only place you’ll find Martha and Monster fun is in Charity Shops or the odd scanned issue online, just like most of her peers. Incidentally excellent blog Kazoop!! did an in-depth look at Monster Fun (and Shiver & Shake) that's really worth checking out (and that I used to fact-check).

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