Squalor on the Streets…, But Stars Up in the Sky’ – Children’s Science Fiction of the 1970s Part two of two

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“Under the eaves the swallow is resting / Set the controls for the heart of the sun” (Pink Floyd, ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’, A Saucerful Of Secrets, 1968).

“Change it all / The Planet’s Old” (Paul Weller, ‘Saturns Pattern’, Saturns Pattern, 2015).

Ro-Busters – Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein, and Humes (Continued)
As discussed in Part 1, metallic, friendly aliens resonated throughout many of the science fiction – or, rather, sf – texts of the 1970s. Even the comic Starlord, launched on Monday 13th May 1978, included a strip that had as its central characters a type of mechanical Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise of the robotics’ future: Ro-Busters’ ‘Ro-Jaws’ and ‘Hammerstein’ (‘Rogers and Hammerstein’ – geddit?). 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 – always seemed to enter into a bit of metallic, matey banter whilst, all around, panic-stricken humans demand life-saving attention amid unfolding calamaties. As such, 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.

Across instalments 5 and 6 (10th – 17th June 1978), Starlord's young readers were not only warned of the ever-present danger of nuclear accidents, but are presented with a strip that prophesises, rather ominously, the events of 9/11. Yet, instead of an airborne terrorist attack upon New York, the American ‘LEP-574’ rocket – whilst ‘out of control’ – impales itself through the centre of a London skyscraper: the, according to the comic, “spectacular 400 storey high-rise special conference complex known as Midpoint”. Blame is apportioned firmly and squarely, here, towards America, with the LEP rocket emblazoned with the stars ‘n’ stripes (that is, alongside a skull and crossbones), as the second half of the two-part story opens with the following: ““Operation Leper” … codename for the U. S. Government’s method of getting rid of indestructible nuclear waste-matter in 2078! They fire the stuff up into outer space in special rockets! But now one of these nuclear-garbage rockets has run amok…”. So, the ‘Midpoint’ disaster strip chillingly predicts the reportage that followed the fall of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 2001: “It was its architect's proud boast that Midpoint was built to last! But never in his wildest nightmares did he ever imagine a situation like this!”. Ian Kennedy, the strip’s artist, even includes a highly disturbing panel that frames a multitude of silhouetted victims plunging to their deaths in a harrowing ‘falling man’ flash-forward. So, even in the endless summer of 1978, a future – that is, a future whereby crowded airspace and upward urban sprawl would combine tragically to produce mass civilian casualties – was already graphically being warned about amid the pages of Starlord.

Starlord’s Hardware Profiles – Junk, Rust, and the Foss School
The Starlord annual of 1981 contains “Starlord Hardware Profile” endpapers entitled “Shuttle is at Battle Stations”, and touches upon the notion that the future (that is, ‘the future’ as it was, way back in the early years of Thatcherism) was already underway, and that, as a result, space was no longer a utopian void to be filled by our wildest dreams, but a dystopian battleground of our worst nightmares. Acknowledging that “primitive as she is by Galactic standards, your Space Shuttle is nevertheless a vital step towards the stars”, and with reference to the possible use of “the Charged Particle Beam weapon – the fore-runner of the laser cannon”, the article adds that the Space Shuttle “will have more uses than just putting communication satellites into orbit”, as “spy satellites will have to be launched and serviced and, perhaps, enemy spy satellites can be approached and put out of operation”. Such speculation of ‘present-future’, early 80s’ space technology being utilised amid an Earth-confined Cold War, only serves, of course, to reduce the sf of Starlord to the realm of ‘science-fact’.

In an attempt to move from ‘science-fact’ to sf, the maverick film director Stanley Kubrick – for his 2001 (shot at Elstree Studios, North London, in 1968) – employed British carpenters and model-makers to create brilliant-white, gleaming space ships and, in doing so, revolutionised the look of sf. So much so that for Howard Sounes, in his book Seventies – The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade (2006), “watching these dazzling models spin through space to the waltz music of Johann Strauss was an aesthetic triumph” (p.264). Contrasting Kubrick’s late 60s’ epic, yet ultra-sanitised, version of the future with that of George Lucas’ 1977 sf blockbuster Star Wars – especially the latter’s space ship flown by pilot-for-hire Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon (described by Luke Skywalker as ‘a piece of junk’), Sounes stresses that, quite possibly, the most significant and surprising element of Star Wars upon its release, “was that life in space might not always be so shiny new” (p.264).

Time, then, to remind ourselves of the artwork of Chris Foss, as Steve Holland’s Sci-Fi Art – A Graphic History (2009) insists that “if anyone can be said to have revolutionized science fiction artwork, that person is Chris Foss” (p.60). Born in Devon, 1946, Foss’ initial work was inspired by the local dilapidated industrial landscape and infrastructure, especially that of the West Country’s rusting railway network, long-closed tin mines, and run-down shipyards at Poole. Highly prolific, the many rocket ships that hurtled through Foss’ spacescapes were characterised by, according to Holland, “a patchwork of panels, stripes, and lettering reminiscent of Second World War aircraft”, that were, quite often, merely “rusting hulks, scarred and ready for the scrapheap” (p.60). As someone who created such plausible versions of the future, it was admitted that – in the introduction to 21st Century Foss (published in 1978, and, thus, one of the first retrospectives to celebrate the artist’s output) – Foss’ visioning tended to look back as much as it did forward. Asking as to why Foss’ ‘future conveyances’ appear so believable, the book quotes Foss himself, who admits that his futuristic space hardware of his imagination are, yes, “old fashioned and historic”, as “his inventions evoke memories of Great War ‘landships’ and battleships, Edwardian liners, even Victorian suspension bridges” (p.6). Foss, then, was – in his oh-so subtle way – a vital link between late 70s’ sf and what is now termed ‘Steampunk’, for “the curiously antiquated aspect of his work” captures, all at once, both “the precursors and relics of the coming space age” (p.6). Furthermore, Foss’ picturing of future space travel technology resulted in a contemporaneous formation of a so-called ‘Foss-School’, with the ‘Foss School’ being a collective of young, up-and-coming, Chris Foss-inspired sf illustrators represented by the Young Artists Agency of London. This group’s collective work (originally, of course, the result of specific commissions for providing eye-catching covers for mass-market sf paperbacks) was used and reused – often out of its original context – time and time again. As Stewart Cowley’s highly successful ‘Terran Trade Authority’ series of hardback books – Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD (1978), Great Space Battles (1979), Spacewreck – Ghost Ships and Derelicts of Space (1979), and Starliners – Commercial Travel in 2200 AD (1980) – managed to recycle, for a childhood readership, much of the Foss School’s cover art, to such an extent that they, according to Holland, provided us with “a kind of Jane’s Fighting Ships of the future” (p.63).

Science Fiction Monthly – Big Format, Big Flop
Chris Foss’ majestic, rusting leviathans graced countless sf paperback covers throughout the entire 1970s, to the extent that, quite often, his illustrations were prized by the novels’ readers more than the stories they were meant to package. Mike Ashley, in Gateways to Forever – The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980 (2007), notes that the publisher New English Library (NEL), who possessed an excellent art department, was, as a result, “proud of its bright and vibrant paperback covers” (p.108). In an attempt to capitalise upon their readers’ request for prints of their (amongst others) Foss covers, they brought out, in January 1974, their tabloid-sized, ‘glossy poster’-based magazine, Science Fiction Monthly. Whilst it did include cutting-edge sf short stories (from both established and emerging writers in the genre), with its focus upon high-quality, large-scale reproductions of their sf paperbacks’ illustrations, “the emphasis remained on the art” (p.108). So, Science Fiction Monthly came in a large, breakfast-bar format (40cm x 28cm), with 28 unstapled pages selling for – originally – 25p, whereby five of the pages were meant to be unfolded as posters to be, eventually, drawing-pinned to your bedroom wall (that is, alongside four more, single-paged posters). So, considering its lavish publication values, the magazine’s cover prize was, eventually, amid very hard times for its readers, to shoot through the roof. Rising to 30p in October 1974, and to 35p in May 1975, and even higher – to 40p in January 1976 – it eventually peaked at a massive 50p in April 1976. No surprise, then, that Science Fiction Monthly was not to last. With circulation plummeting to below 20,000 – and with its full-colour, pull-out posters no longer a major attraction amid an erratic publishing market suffering more than most during the ever-increasing economic downturn of the mid-1970s – it ceased publication in May 1976. Yet, despite its failure, what Science Fiction Monthly did successfully manage – especially as a direct result of their series of features that profiled young, up-and-coming sf illustrators – was to, according to Mike Ashley, “at last giving some identity to the all-too-often-anonymous cover artist” (p.108). With the launch of 2000 AD the same year that Science Fiction Monthly went under, a similar commitment to crediting the comic artists and writers was undertaken by IPC’s editorial. Come 1978, with each and every Starlord comic, not only did the readers become totally familiar with those who were responsible for writing, drawing and lettering the strips (via so-called, single-framed ‘Starlord Blueprinters’ credits), but they were encouraged to write in and list their favourite in a “1” (their most favourite ) to “5” (their least favourite) manner. Such accrediting of writers, artists and letterers, of course, not only provided acknowledgement to those who had – historically – often been ignored in British comics, but also provided quantitative justification as to what strips should survive following the all-too-common comic-to-comic merger.

Conclusion – Look Up!… And Dream of the Future
Malcolm Edwards’ essay, ‘Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow’ – to be found amid Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978), and to do with the status of ‘science fiction’ in 1978 (the year, of course, of Starlord’s short-lived life upon the newsagents’ shelves) – noted that “sf, if the term means anything, is a form of contemporary metaphor, a literary device for examining our world and our lives from another perspective” (p.189). So, Starlord existed at a time – the immediate post-Star Wars era – when it not only became economically viable (vital even) to locate kids’ comic-strip adventures amid the stars, but – at a time of very real social and economic fragmentation – it seemed absolutely essential as a means by which mankind (that is, the adult world) made sense of the mess that it found itself in. Starlord existed at a time when space exploration was, due to economic constraints, being rolled-back, and science-fiction more generally – that is, sf – reflected this human ‘withdrawal’ from space before, really, it had even started. And, of course, it wasn’t just the space programme that was being curtailed; it was sf publishing, both for adults and children, that was, come the late 1970s, recoiling from the final frontier. Despite weekly sales estimated to have been exceeding that of 2000 AD, it remains (even to this very day) a mystery as to why, after a mere five months upon the newsagents’ shelves, Starlord – the first, self-proclaimed ‘Starzine’ – resorted to a merger with ‘the Galaxy's Greatest Comic’. But, of course, Starlord himself attempted, all the while, to be optimistic about the end, claiming that – as his comic collapsed around him – the “Earth is saved!”, explaining that “The Int. Stell. Fed. have abandoned their plan to attack and destroy us”. Indeed, he pleaded, “do not despair”, as “bright and wondrous events await you in the future and you can learn about them now in the pages of 2000 AD and Starlord”, that was, he insisted, “the best of both worlds!”. Thus, the merger of Starlord with 2000 AD was a sign, not of the future, but of the times – the shitty 1970s: In a climate of economic downturn, this was the dystopian reality of Britain on the verge of Thatcherism. Yet, such mergers would, characteristically, always promise a utopian future – and Starlord’s words of farewell to his readers promised so much more. The hope that – for the children of 1978 – “bright and wondrous events await you in the future”, not only stressed the necessity of prolonging childhood optimism and innocence, but promised, however vainly, that an eventual utopian future – in adulthood – awaited us all. In 1978, there may have been rubbish on the streets, but there were still stars up in the sky. So, the kids of Britain, as the 1980s dawned, had no other choice but to – as Starlord implored us – “Watch the stars!”, and dream of a brighter, bolder future that has yet to pass.

Part One Here 

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