The oddly old-fashioned and pulpy science fiction comic book series from the people who brought you Commando.
In 1978, science fiction was all the rage with the kids, thanks to the success of both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and everyone wanted a slice of the pie while it was still hot. There was no saying just how long the sci-fi boom would last, after all – it was vital to jump onto the bandwagon quickly and raise it as long as it lasted. A lot of magazines and books appeared, usually with a still from Star Wars – often the same still – on the cover and some hastily cobbled together supporting content leaning heavily on classic movies, Star Trek and the like. This was shameless opportunism, and few of these magazines made it past five issues – most came and went with their first edition. As it turned out, there was a market for science fiction beyond this initial boom – some magazines that even their publishers might have expected to come and go within a few issues had runs extended into years, even decades. Some are still going now.
This unexpected longevity extended to the comic book world as well. It’s fair to say that 2000AD, launched early in 1977, was probably expected to have, at best, the shelf-life of Action. Weekly humour titles were the mainstay of the British comics scene, and it was generally considered that war titles like Battle and Warlord were what the boys wanted. While Action had suggested a grittier way forward for boys’ comics, the outrage that greeted it also made publishers take a step back. 2000AD, as a science fiction title, had a little more leeway – its violence and cynicism, of which there was a lot, was hidden from the prudes in a fantastical setting. Having Judge Dredd gun down villains was somehow more acceptable than seeing Dredger do it. But it’s fair to say that 2000AD was probably expected to have the 22 issue shelf-life of titles like Tornado before being absorbed into Battle and then quietly forgotten about. I doubt anyone expected it to still be going strong twenty-one years after the titular date – then the very height of futuristic imagination – had come and gone.
The popular British comics all followed a similar format – multi-strip titles with ongoing characters, published weekly. But there was also an alternative type of comic, one that was hugely popular with an audience for whom the weeklies held no interest. The digest-format pocketbooks, most famously the long-running (launched in 1961 and still going now!) Commando, had a slightly more adult style and told a single story in each edition. While some characters would return, each tale was a stand-alone piece. Even though distribution often seemed spotty and the format meant that they would be buried on newsstands, these were hugely popular – publication varied from month to twice monthly (which was not the same as fortnightly) – from 1971, eight editions of Commando appeared each month, which seems ludicrous. As with the more traditional weeklies, most of these titles aimed at boys were wartime adventures – the obsession with World War 2 triumphs being fresh in the minds of the publishers and creators, if not the readers. But the format was expanded to romance tales and horror stories – the popular Pocket Chiller Library offering up crude shocks for eager readers. The success of these comics in Britain – flying in the face of what publishing wisdom said the kids wanted – even saw DC superheroes like Batman and Superman having their adventures reprinted in perfect-bound, full-colour digests and prompted Marvel UK to publish a variety of unsuccessful single-story digests alongside the more traditional weeklies in the late 1970s.
The science fiction boom meant that a sci-fi digest was inevitable. As early as 1976, DC Thompson – the publishers of Commando as well as The Dandy and The Beano – had considered a science fiction title, but it was the post-Star Wars explosion of interest and, more pertinently, the success of 2000AD that really pushed things forward. Starblazer was given the green light in September 1978, with DC Thompson editor Jack Smith placed in charge of the project.
The first edition of Starblazer appeared in April 1979 with a story titled The Omega Experiment. Like all DC Thompson titles – and most other British comics – of the time, the work was uncredited. The artists and writers of these strips would remain a mystery to most readers until 2000AD began crediting the creatives and readers started to recognise artist styles. The debut story set the scene for what would be, by and large, more traditional space operas – this was a comic that felt somewhat old-fashioned compared to the anarchic and provocative stories that were already emerging in 2000AD – DC Thompson was nothing if not traditional.
The first three editions of Starblazer appeared on a monthly basis before the output was cranked up to twice a month, a schedule that would be retained for the whole run. Each issue had 68 pages, which sounds a lot – but with a variety of artists and writers working on the comic, and with the smaller format essentially making the work involved no more than in a regular US monthly comic book, any problems with Starblazer were not really down to a lack of time. It seems that the problem facing Starblazer was much the same as faced any of the other digest titles of the time, namely having to come up with brand new stories on a production treadmill, with nothing to keep the reader coming back issue after issue – as each edition was an individual piece, readers were likely to just pick up the issues that interested them through the cover art – often rather more exciting than the story within, it must be said. For this reason, several characters would make repeated appearances over the years, with any suggestion that a hero was at all popular being an excuse to bring him back time and time again.
As time went by, the comic expanded its horizons to take in a wider fantasy element, with the strapline switching from Space Fiction Adventure in Pictures (something that sounded very old fashioned even in 1979) to Fantasy Fiction in Pictures. With this came other changes – the dropping of the black and white photo feature on the back cover that covered aspects of space exploration and science (clinging to the odd idea that fans of science fiction must be fans of science fact) in favour of a colour wraparound. The comic also made an ill-judged and rapidly abandoned foray into the ‘choose your own adventure’ role-playing fiction format. Other than this, though, the format of Starblazer remained admirably consistent throughout its run. A single black and white story, two editions a month and an oddly dated vibe about the whole thing.
The biggest mystery about Starblazer was just who was buying it. After the first issue, distribution became decidedly haphazard – you were more likely to find random back copies in revolving display racks in seaside shops than in your local newsagent, and this was a time before dedicated comic shops really existed outside a handful of pioneering London stores. Simply finding the damn thing was a battle. And the cover price was higher than most weekly comics – for the kid on a budget, already possibly committed to several other weeklies, this seemed an extravagance too far, especially as the stories often felt stilted and stodgy in comparison to those in 2000AD. With no continuing strip to hook you in, Starblazer often seemed a luxury that you could easily do without.
But clearly, it had a market, as Starblazer lasted twelve years, publishing 281 issues in total. Perhaps it was selling to an audience that the juvenile weeklies didn’t serve – an older demographic who were happy to dip into disposable sci-fi tales that required no commitment. The covers and titles probably appealed to an audience that loved the comic books and pulp fiction novels of an age gone by. Looked at now, there is something appealing old-fashioned and no-nonsense about these comics, even as science fiction began to put its pulpy past behind it and instead embraced extravagance and bloated excess. This was science fiction as it used to be.
While Starblazer is fondly remembered in some circles, it would be a stretch to say that it has a dedicated following. Even those who like it would probably admit that it lacked consistency and felt like a throwback to a comics age already over by the time it launched. But there is, seen now, something curiously comforting about the comic – it wasn’t trying to be anything that it wasn’t, and certainly didn’t attempt to compete with its rivals. Starblazer knew its place, and served a readership that no one else was catering to.
Copies of Starblazer can be picked up for a reasonable price, depending on the greed and ambition of the seller – full runs are, of course, a lot harder to find and a lot more expensive. An incomplete collection can be read here: https://archive.org/details/starblazermagazine
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