Not to be confused with the kids title, Luke reminisces about one of the great “could’ve beens” of British comics. Sidestepping the politics behind its creation and demise (well most of them anyway, fascinating though they are) he takes a look at the content, and found that whilst there is some dross, there is a lot to love.
Toxic! : The Comic Throws Up
By Luke Williams
Conceived as a rival to the Galaxy’s Greatest and driven by a “committee” made up of the core of the creators from the golden era of 2000AD, including Pat Mills, Alan Grant, John Wagner, Kevin O’Neill, Mike McMahon, “Toxic!” burned briefly, but brightly.
Tired of the lack of creator recognition from IPC/Fleetway/Egmont, both creative and financial, “Toxic!” was an ambitious means of creators retaining their rights, reaping greater royalties. The Galaxy’s Greatest was going through one of its transition phases at the time. Arguably, the comic had peaked with “Slaine : The Horned God”, “Judge Dredd : Necropolis” and other strips, it had lost its way in attempting to become more “sophisticated”, whilst at the same time dumbing down in the rebooting of established characters.
Big name creators had left for the big money in the states, or worse, had burned out on their respective strips. The dearth of creative talent, the end of the golden era and the quality of some of the strips with their new creative teams seemed like an ideal opportunity for the launch of a weekly rival with better terms for its contributors.
Priced at 99p compared to 45p for a contemporary issue of 2000AD, aimed at an older readership, targeting lapsed fans of the Galaxy’s Greatest with more than a little bit of the violence and irreverent humour of “Action” in the mix. Comparisons to the golden age of British adventure comics didn’t stop there, it even had its own editorial host, Doc’ Tox.
Alongside a slew of new characters, existing properties were drafted in. Wagner, Grant & Smith’s “Bogie Man” and Mills & O’Neill’s “Marshal Law” made early showings. As a lead in to the weekly, a one shot special “Marshal law – Kingdom of the Blind” was published, with more one shot specials to appear as time went on.
Issue 1 debuted in March 1991 with “Marshal Law : The Hateful Dead” by Mills & O’Neill, “Accident Man” by , Mills, Skinner and Martin Edmond, “Muto Maniac” by Mills and Mike McMahon and the one off “Corpse With No Name” by Alan Grant and Simon Bisley. An impressive line up, big names and an established property to draw people in, everything looked rosy. However, cracks had already begun to appear, “Bogie Man : The Chinese Syndrome” debuted in issue 2, with new artist Cam Kennedy. Our deluded hero, Clunie had again escaped the mental hospital straight into a Glaswegian Chinese criminal gang feud.
Super hero hater “Marshal Law” had devolved into a superhero slanging match rather than the brutal and sophisticated satire of his Epic run. “Accident Man”, the story of a hitman who offs his victims by means of “accidents”, more on him here, quickly became the star and breakout hit of comic.
On the other hand, the short lived”Muto Maniac” was the tale of a rebel who could influence events via his luck altering powers. Despite the presence of some frankly gorgeous McMahon art, it wasn’t a hit with the readers and disappeared without warning with issue 7, despite being cover star of issue 8, never to return.
This set a pattern for the remaining run. Strips would occasionally disappear mid run which was more than a bit frustrating. Interviews with those in the know have indicated that this was down to a combination of failure to meet crushingly short deadlines, a lack of story inventory and creator dispute.
Despite all this, the first few issues had a fairly consistent line up. In addition to the big names, David Leach and “Private Eye” and “Financial Times” cartoonist Jeremy Banx’s excellent “The Driver” was introduced from issue 2, a bizarre surreal strip where a seemingly sadistic maniac drives an apocalyptic articulated, cutting a swathe of destruction across the landscape.
Unappreciated by your correspondent at the time, it’s certainly grown on him now. The cartoony clear line art style seemingly jarring with the other styles present in the magazine and definitely an acquired taste. Banx and Leach later collaborated on the equally bizarre “Detritus Rex”, set in a world where there has been ecological collapse and the underclass are harvested by the upper classes as food.
Leach followed up in a similar vein with “Dinner Ladies from Hell” and Banx contributed the frankly bizarre “Curious Foetus” – which does exactly what it says on the tin. I’d buy a collection of all these strips, and if you haven’t read them, your missing out on some great comics.
“Sex Warrior” by Mills, Skinner and Will Simpson debuted in issue 9. War had erupted between the generations, the young on one side, the old known as “wrinklies” on the other. In their fight the young have trained some of their soldiers as “orgonicists” – Sex Warriors. They channel orgone energy generated by performing sexual acts into special weapons to fight the wrinklies. This means that they are highly strung and incredibly promiscuous.
Mills and Skinner had really gone nuts with new concepts. “Roler Beast” by Mills, Skinner and Andrew Currie was their take on future sport. In a world divided into norms and freaks and a power struggle between two families. Oh and dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs. Beautiful art by Currie.
Alan Grant and Enrqiue Alcatena (known for lots of work on DC Thomson’s “Starblazer”) debuted in issue 8 with “Makabre” a futuristic vigilante in the Batman / Nightraven mould.
“Toxic!” saw the debut of a number of great artists as part of Mills’ seemingly endless search for new talent and possibly to sate the ravenous beast that is a weekly comic’s need for material. Dave Kendall’s first high profile work was on Mills & Skinner’s “Psycho Killer”, recently reprinted by Millsverse and reviewed here, is the story of a leather jacket sporting, mask wearing psychologist who specialises in the supernatural. “Coffin “drawn by Morak, written by Mills and the late Alan Mitchell, stars a shape shifting African magician hunting down the descendants of those who committed atrocities during the colonial era.
Duke Mighten and John Erasmus debuted on series 2 and 3 of “Accident Man”, though it has to be said to lesser effect than the late great Martin Edmond. Mighten later moved onto Mills & Skinner’s superhero satire, “Brats Bizarre”, kind of like “Marshal Law” meets “X-Men”- just without the savage wit.
Along with a sole Bisley strip from issue 1, there were a few notable one offs, issue 10’s “The Vampire New Year” by Wagner, Grant & Arthur Ranson and Gary Ushaw and Gary Frank’s “Crap Fairy” from issue 25.
The final six weeks saw the debut startling “Fear Teachers” by Mills, Skinner and Hicklenton and Alan Grant and David Pugh’s ecological satire “Garbage Man”, but material from writers other than Mills, Skinner, Wagner and Grant began to appear.
“T Bone”, by Alan Cowsill and Steve Tappin was a 3 episode gore fest starring the survivor of an execution. “The Missionary” by Ian Abbinett and Martin Edmond starred yet another mysterious stranger with a spinning moral compass offing people in imaginative ways.
Superhero yarn “Aquarius” by Mike Carey and American artist Ken Meyer Jr debuted, alongside perhaps the most intriguing, and least “Toxic!” strip of the final weeks, “The Road To Hell” by American writers Dwayne McDuffie \ Matt Wayne with lovely painted art by Colin MacNeil,
None of them had much of a chance to develop as the comic stopped abruptly with 31 billed as “The Ultimate Issue”. I remember scouring the newsagents for weeks for issue 32 before I finally admitted defeat and accepted that “Toxic!” had been flushed away.
However, that isn’t quite the end. “Sex Warrior,” the “Bogie Man” (both the China Syndrome & Manhattan Project), “Makabre” “Marshal Law : The Hateful Dead”, “Accident Man” and a few others were reprinted in the Apocalypse Presents collections, but far too soon after their appearances in the weekly. “Bogie Man : The Manhattan Project” was proposed as a one off special, much like “Marshal Law : Kingdom Of The Blind” but was serialised in the comic. One can only assume that the specials rapid publication was seen as a means to recover costs for a project that was obviously hemorrhaging money.
There was life after “Toxic!” for many of the strips. Dark Horse published a reworked “Sex Warrior” 2 issue mini, brand new “Accident Man” series and a few “Marshal Law”s. “Brats Bizarre” appeared in 4 issues published by Marvel/Epic along with “Terrarists” by Mills, Skinner and Erasmus which although never published in the comic had a “Toxic!” feel and “Bogie Man : The Chinese Syndrome” was redrawn by Robin Smith as “Chinatoon” published by Atomeka / Tundra and later collected by DC/Paradox.
Controversy dogged the comic, and there were disagreements between creators. “Bogie Man” wasn’t deemed to be “Toxic!” enough for some of the contributors, which caused some problems behind the scenes with fellow creators, as original “Bogie Man” artist Robin Smith was seen as being “frozen out” of the weekly strip. There were difficulties in hiring editorial staff, and early issues were helmed by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, before Dan Abnett was drafted in. There were other rejections too, “Al’s Baby”, “Button Man” and the Wagner/Gibson misfire “I was A Teenage Tax Consultant” were all proposed for the title. Sadly when “Toxic!” crashed, it crashed hard and left creators out of pocket.
Although it lasted a mere 31 issues “Toxic!” showed what a creative powerhouse Mills & Skinner were. The team came up with some bizarre and highly original concepts, but sadly it wasn’t enough, strips like the “Driver” and the attitude of the comic were a refreshing counterpoint to the comparatively listless 2000AD, seemingly in a slow decline.
“Toxic!” was a failure, but was only one of a number of creator owned “mature” themed anthologies, such as “Revolver”, “Blast!” and “Meltdown”, that launched and quickly sank. Laudable in its purpose, fun while it lasted, but ultimately perhaps, overly ambitious.
Further reading / podcasts :
Chris McCauley’s article on his Talking Comics site : https://talkingcomicssite.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/toxic-a-revolutionary-british-comic/
John McShane’s recent article in Comic Scene UK Volume 1, issues 1 & 2. Back issues can be bought here : https://comicscene.org/blog/
John McShane also briefly discusses “Toxic!” on the Masters In Comics podcast
Pat Mills has voiced long and hard on Toxic : as a freebie the “Artists Debt Collection Party” details how he and some of his comrades tried to recover money owed to them from the publishers, it is a hoot and can be found by subscribing to his website: https://www.subscribepage.com/millsverse