Just as it was in the U.S., the late 1980s was a heady time for comics in the United Kingdom. The success of the holy trinity of 1980s comic book breakthroughs — Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus — convinced highbrow media that comics had grown up, a fact usually announced with far more references to “Biff! Bam! Pow!” than was entirely necessary. Nonetheless, the publicity accompanying such coverage was music to publishers’ ears, leading to an influx of investment in comics that weren’t targeted towards children at the same time as a new wave of creators were emerging with a hunger to push the boundaries of what they could do with the medium.
Central to most histories of the British comic book industry, especially over the past half century, is 2000 AD. That’s the case when it comes to the then-emerging “adult comic” scene of the UK in the late ‘80s; not only were many, if not most, of the exciting creators of the era veterans of the venerable weekly anthology — Dave Gibbons, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and so many more had served at the pleasure of Tharg the Mighty — but that title was the launching pad for two new anthologies of the time, Crisis and the gone-too-soon Revolver. 2000 AD would also spin out the Judge Dredd Megazine by 1990, another title aimed at older readers from that period that has the unhappy distinction of being the only title launched during that time still running.
2000 AD wasn’t the only game in town, however, with a number of independent publishers and titles making their mark, fueled by the glow of (and business investments resulting from) the Dark Watchmaus publicity: Trident Publishing gave the world Mark Millar as well as Paul Grist, while also paying Eddie Campbell to create new Bacchus material, while Escape continued to mine the cream of the small press and offer it up to a wider audience. And then, most gloriously, there was Deadline.
In many ways, Deadline followed the hallowed British tradition in that it was an anthology of a number of different creators telling stories that shared a sensibility, if not an aesthetic or any “shared universe” of crossover-ready characters. You could look at an issue of the series — which ran from 1988 through 1995, before imploding in a mess of bad decisions and Tank Girl movie-related anxiety — and see the DNA of 1960s and ‘70s titles like Whizzer and Chips or The Beano, and not just because some of the anarchic attitude of Dennis the Menace or Minnie the Minx is very evident in the work of future Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, Rob Moran, or any of a number of Deadline creators.
The title was far from a retro title or a throwback, though; at its best, Deadline felt like a breath of fresh air, something new and different from everything else around — the closest to punk rock that comics had managed to that point in time.
Today, Deadline is almost certainly remembered most for Tank Girl, the Hewlett/Alan Martin creation that was unmistakably the breakout character from the series. Even now, more than three decades later, it’s easy to see why everyone fell in love with her at the time — the combination of the music hall humor, the fuck-you attitude and Hewlett’s frenetic, cartoonish artwork gave the strip a sense that anything could and probably would happen that even the creators’ later dip into the neo-hippieness of rave culture couldn’t dim. (Some of those later stories, though, have aged poorly. Baggy was always a bad idea.)
There was so much more than Tank Girl, though; from Hewlett and Martin alone, there were further strips like Fireball (think Wacky Races but more wacky) and Planet Swerve (hippies in space, man). The thrill of Deadline was its variety, though; as publisher Tom Astor famously put it, it was a magazine mixing comics and music journalism that was intended tract as “a forum for the wild, wacky and hitherto unpublishable.”
That meant a collection of creators ranging from the newly discovered — Philip Bond, D’Israeli, and Glyn Dillon were amongst those who got their professional starts in the title, before going on to bigger, better, or simply more high profile, things — to the unfamiliar and arguably uncommercial, whether it was Julie Hollings’ Beryl the Bitch, Shaky Kane’s Jack Kirby-meets-William S. Burroughs surrealism, or introducing cult U.S. material like Love and Rockets, Flaming Carrot, and Evan Dorkin’s Milk and Cheese to British audiences… all alongside articles arguing the appeal of bands like Blur, the Inspiral Carpets, or Lush.
And this is saying nothing about Nick Abadzis’ Hugo Tate, which would almost certainly be the emotional heart of every issue in which it appeared; but I’ve already gone on at length about that here: https://neotextcorp.com/culture/nick-abadzis-revisits-his-beginnings-with-hugo-tate-with-hugo-tate/
(Philip Bond’s most substantial contribution to Deadline was the strip Wired World, about two young women called Pippa and Liz, whose lives combine the mundane and the surreal in seemingly equal balance; it was told with such humor and unexpected poignancy that the fact that it has never been collected remains one of the crimes of the comic book industry.)
For the seven years of its existence, from founding editors Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon through the later period of Si Spencer, and later Frank Wynne, Deadline did its best to live up to Astor’s ambitions, continually confounding expectations with as much wild and wacky material as possible — and, in the process, finding new voices in comics and new ways to think about comics, while helping readers discover their tastes in the process. If that wasn’t taking full advantage of the possibilities of the era, I don’t know what is. Would that more anthologies today had had the hunger for novelty, the variety, or simply the fuck you attitude of Deadline, then we’d all be so much better off.