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Squalor on the Streets…, But Stars up in the Sky’ – Children’s Science Fiction of the 1970s Part one of Two

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“Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda / And Titania, Neptune, Titan / Stars can frighten…” (Pink Floyd, ‘Astronomy Domine’, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, 1967).
“The dying planet grew darker still / My thirsty engines took me up and then / I could see the embers / Of Andromeda” (Paul Weller, ‘Andromeda’, Wake Up The Nation, 2010).

’70s Britain – Fragmentation, Filth and Fury
Contemplating the state of Britain and its inventive creativity in the 1970s, Bart Moore-Gilbert – upon the opening page of his book, Cultural Closure? The Arts in the 1970s (1994) – insists that the “steady deterioration in a number of key areas as the decade progressed gave much contemporary analysis an apocalyptic tone” (p.1). During the decade that immediately followed the Swinging Sixties (with its distinctive ‘swinging’ approach to a science-based future heralded by Harold Wilson’s celebratory ‘white heat of technology’ speech in 1963), we were, seemingly, up shit creek without a paddle. The 1970s in Britain were characterised by “a rapidly accelerating backwardness, economic stagnation, social decay, and cultural despair”, whereby the country had become “decayed to the point of disintegration” (p.1). Quite simply, as Moore-Gilbert asserts, this was an “image of Britain as a fragmenting society” (p.6). Such a ‘fragmenting society’ – that is Britain up social shit creek without either an economic or cultural paddle – was no more evident than with the coming of the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’, that involved under-paid public sector employees rallying against governmental curbing of salaries. So, with gravediggers’ strikes in Liverpool, lack of road gritting, no rubbish collection, and the picketing of hospitals, this spate of industrial action dogged the Labour government during the harsh winter of 1978-79. As with the Sex Pistols swearing on early evening television, the whole country appeared to be wallowing in its own ‘filth and fury’ – as, in Mark Garnett’s From Anger to Apathy – The British Experience Since 1975 (2007), a striking ambulance driver, at the time (with both the crap and dead bodies piling up), furiously retorted “If it means lives must be lost, this is how it must be” (p.225). Furthermore, one report – written at the time of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (and, again, as quoted by Garnett earlier in his book) – made explicit the effects of a lorry drivers’ blockade. This particular round of industrial action had not only “emptied the shelves in supermarkets while food rotted in the docks”, but meant that pigs, with no other foodstuff available to them, “were reported to be resorting to cannibalism” (p.91). Even over 25 years later, the right-wing press could not help itself but to lambast those putrid months, as 1978 festered into 1979, when “Britain was one big, open-air skip, carpeted in chicken carcasses, rotting vegetables and assorted household detritus” (cited in Garnett, p.92).

No surprise, then, that the nation’s bleak mood was reflected in, and perpetuated by, the so-called ‘classic’ science-fiction – that is ‘sci-fi’, or ‘sf’ – television of the time. Well, actually, sf television that was primarily aimed at adults, but which became increasingly ‘must see’ TV for any 70s’ child. As with Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999 – first screened in 1974, and being the sf tale of a colony on the Moon (whereby this dusty rock of a satellite no longer orbits the Earth due to dumped nuclear waste having exploded), the mood was unremittingly bleak – right down to the diarrhoea-toned uniforms, with their flared trousers and colour-coded left arms. Meanwhile, with the 1970s being the decade most associated with the bloodiest of attacks by the IRA, Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigade, Daniel O’Brien, in SF:UK – How British Science Fiction Changed the World (2000), admits that with Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981) “[t]he tone is unrelentingly downbeat and cynical” (p.117). With the entire series, according to O’Brien, being the rather bleak story of a gang of politicised space bandits that find themselves pitted against the totalitarian Federation, “Blake’s not-so-merry band of freedom fighters engaged in acts verging on terrorism” (p.117). Similarly, Alwyn W. Turner – in Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s (2008) – not only asserts that Blake’s 7, despite being sf TV, was very much a product of the oh-so depressed Britain of the late 1970s, but he also reminds us of how the series' version of the future was actually received in 1978: As one critic solemnly noted, Blake’s 7 portrayed “the future as being much the same as the present, Lord help us, only worse'” (cited in Turner, p.203).

Starlord – Skyscrapers, Skateboards and Interstellar Survival
So, whilst Britain, during the late 1970s, festered in its own excrement, help – hoorah! – was at hand from beyond the Solar System… Well, IPC Magazines Ltd., London, actually. Already – with the launch of 2000 AD (in February 1977) – the gambo-riding urchins of Britain were being distracted from the troubles of their parents’ world by, as Graham Kibble-White, in The Ultimate Book of British Comics – 70 Years of Mischief, Mayhem and Cow Pies (2005), calls it “your planet’s first comic of the future” (p.26). ‘Tharg’, the comic’s alien editor, tried to gloss over the urban planners’ scourge of that decade – the high-rise block of flats – by begging us to believe that his ‘spaceship’ was cleverly masquerading as a thirty-two London skyscraper (in reality, of course, this was IPC’s King’s Reach Tower). Yet, despite such alien tongues planted firmly in their little green cheeks, O’Brien asserts that, in alignment with the wider tradition of British SF, 2000 AD offered “a largely dystopian world view” (p.119). Such was the success of this dystopian-tinged weekly publication – or, as it rather grandly termed itself, the ‘Galaxy's greatest comic’ – that, just a year later, IPC launched the even more heavens-facing Starlord. As Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury, in Great British Comics – Celebrating a Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes (2006) remind us, it was initially envisaged that Starlord would be a 64-page, all-colour monthly (a format more akin to the ‘serious’ graphic novels found upon the European mainland). However, upon publication, a slimmed-down, 32-page Starlord (perhaps a victim of its own over-optimism at a time of economic downturn) graced the newsagents’ shelves on Monday 13th May 1978. Yet, with a total of eight full-colour pages, IPC had still managed to launch a relatively lavish publication, all aimed at the more discerning, sf-fixated, 70s kid. At an astronomical 12p (that is, compared to 2000 AD’s far more pocket-money-friendly 8p), Starlord proclaimed that the future was to be bright, that the future was to be multi-coloured – and, by the standards of the day, that the future of comics was to be bloody expensive! As with 2000 AD's Tharg, Starlord was piloted by its very own self-titled, caped, alien editor. Starlord – that is, the editor, not the comic – had, like some one-man (or, rather, one-alien) Blake’s 7, wrenched himself from the demonic forces of the ‘Interstellar Federation’, and, as a result, was now Earth-bound in order to bring us a ‘dire warning’, of an imminent ‘cataclysmic catastrophe’. But – fear not – Starlord, both editor and the comic, were to be our saviours, insisting that ‘Starlord is your paper … and your crash-course in Interstellar Survival!'’.

So, the Earth’s answer to this extra-terrestrial threat was for the kids to proudly wear the free badge that came with the very first issue of Starlord. Thus, with a range of badges randomly sellotaped to the comic’s covers, the one that you ripped off your copy enrolled you instantly amid the massed ranks of the so-called Star-Troopers. Arguably, of course, such Star-Troopers were the latest in a line of pseudo-fascist space soldiers of the future – a lineage that, arguably, started with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), continued with Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero (1964), and, in turn, culminated with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974). However, fascist or otherwise, Starlord’s young Star-Troopers of ’78, with their Star-Trooper badges displayed proudly on their chests, would be readily recognisable to other neighbourhood Star-Troopers – to the extent that, collectively, they would form their own, localised Star-Squads. As Kibble-White enthused, “You could either be a Pilot, a Time Warden, a Laser Specialist, a member of the Robot Regiment, a common-or-garden Trooper or – surely the best? – a Skateboard Strike Force bod” (2005, p.223). With the ‘Ro-Jaws’ strip amid the Starlord annual of 1980 set against a disaster backdrop of liquid dynamite spilling over a blocked motorway (typically what Starlord had come to term ‘a hume nightmare!’), a thief is ultimately captured. However, the criminal’s incarceration is not due to the heroics of the story’s robotic protagonists, but to the sewer-lurking antics of a gang of skateboarding children – presumably, then, just like some bunch of Starlord-reading, badge-wearing members of the ‘Skateboard Strike Force’?

Star Wars – Shreddies, Smash and Crispy Pancakes
It seems that interstellar survival began at the breakfast table with a bowl of wholesome cereal, as –providing us with a real insight into the when-and-where it was read as a children's comic – a half-page Shreddies’ advert in the 17th June 1978 instalment informed readers that Star Wars rub-down transfer sets (to be found inside the cereal’s cardboard packaging) would enable them to act out their very own Star Wars on the back of the box. This, then, was just a year after George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), a film that had already transformed sf from being solely the preoccupation of Prog-Rock-loving, pimply nerds into block-busting, wide-screen popular culture for the masses. For the comic-reading children of ’78, not only did the future begin with a bowl of Shreddies at the breakfast table, but it continued come tea-time. Following the 2008 reprint of The Complete Ro-Busters – a highly popular Starlord/2000 AD comic strip (a strip which we will come to in a moment) – an Amazon customer review explicitly made the connection between the ’70s childhood twin-experience of reading sf-orientated comics whilst eating your tea: “The opening stories make me think fondly of the ten-year-old who used to wait all week for the arrival of 2000 AD on a Saturday teatime, along with his Findus crispy pancakes and Buck Rogers or Battlestar Galactica on ITV”. For Starlord, of course, existed in the post-Moon landings’ era of convenience foods such as crispy pancakes and the like. More than any other decade, the 1970s was the golden period of meat substitutes and instant mashed potatoes. As Alwyn Turner (2008) stresses, in Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s (2008), with the coming of branded soya products such as Kesp, Protena, and TVP, “an estimated 20 million school dinners were made using Kesp in 1977” (p.46). With such highly processed foods as crispy pancakes, the future was already with us, and this was something which was oh-so captured by the Cadbury’s Smash TV ads, in which a gang of metallic (albeit, friendly) Martians fell about chortling as a result of the primitive way in which humans still resorted to both boiling and then mashing, as opposed to adding boiling water to the contents of a silver-foiled packet of off-white, powdery chemicals.

Ro-Busters – Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein, and Humes
Such metallic, friendly aliens, of course, resonated throughout many of the sf texts of the 1970s. Most famously with Star Wars – with its loveable space-white, yet ever-so-slightly, rusty smorgasbord of semi-comic aliens, droids and robots – George Lucas provided a considerable humour to (what was, more generally) an over-serious genre. No surprise, then, that come the launch of Starlord, IPC wanted a strip that had as its central characters a type of mechanical Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise of the robotics’ future – which they got with Ro-Busters’ two stars, ‘Ro-Jaws’ and ‘Hammerstein’. This is what the strips’ writer, Pat Mills – in the 2008 reprint – had to say about the genesis of Ro-Busters:

“Ro-Busters came about because I had reluctantly promised the Starlord editor, Kevin Gosnell, that I would write a story for his new publication. His Managing Editor, Bob Bartholemew, phoned me with the idea he wanted me to work on. It concerned a group of British ex-servicemen with super powers who dealt with Thunderbirds-style disasters. My heart sank. It was as if the comic revolution of Battle, Action and 2000 AD had never happened. We were back in the comic Dark Ages. Then I thought of a solution – what about turning them into robots? This would have the satirical and subversive edge necessary to appeal to me and a modern generation of readers … Alongside the dramatic possibilities of Ro-Busters, Kevin, myself and the readers also saw that Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein had enormous comedy potential”.

Despite the inaugural episode of Ro-Busters (13th May 1978), across a full-colour, double-page spread – opening with the catastrophic event of 2078, whereby a mighty submarine oil tanker, that had gone off-course, crashes through the ‘tritanium’ wall of the North Sea Tunnel linking Britain and Scandinavia – there is some quite considerable robotic humour at the humans’ expense. What you would now call ‘disaster-management droids’, Ro-Busters’ Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (whom the young readers had now come to recognise as an inseparable pair of machinelike buddies) enter into a bit of metallic, matey banter whilst, all around, panic-stricken humans demand life-saving attention:

Hammerstein: “Hey – Are you all right?”

Ro-Jaws: “Yeah... Apart from needing a new shovel-arm!”

Hume [or, human]: “Will you two stop yakking! I'm the important one!”

Yet, with Ro-Busters, there was more to the strip than just a bit of ’70s comedy double-act, as, each week, all-too-possible ‘future’ catastrophes were, with the turn of the page, vividly portrayed…

Part Two Here
Read 3312 times Last modified on Sunday, 20 December 2015 16:34
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Peter Jachimiak

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