Well, just maybe…..
2000AD – the British comic of the future from the 1970s right up until today. One of their favourite themes in the early years was future sport. Early strips in 2000AD had some basis in popular culture (MACH1 was another take on the 6 Million Dollar Man, Judge Dredd a version of Dirty Harry/ Clint Eastwood) and so the first future sport strip ‘Harlem Heroes’ was probably influenced by the commercial success of Rollerball, the 1975 film starring James Caan. It is also worth noting that most British boys comics of the time had sports strips, from ‘Roy of the Rovers’ (who had graduated from ‘Tiger’ to his own comic in 1976) to ‘Look out for Lefty’ from ‘Action’ comic, which also had the prototype for future sport titles, ‘Death Game 1999‘. The strip was written by Tom Tully who went on to create both ‘Harlem Heroes’ and later on, ‘Mean Arena’ for 2000AD.
Harlem Heroes (progs 1-27)
Although I can speculate that the interest in future sports had come from the success of ‘Rollerball’, ‘Harlem Heroes’ was actually a strip based around the fictitious game of ‘aeroball’ that had swept the world by the year 2050;
“It’s Football, Boxing, Kung Fu and Basketball all rolled into one! Players roar through the air wearing jet packs (controlled by buttons on their belts) and score “air strikes” by getting the ball in the “score tank”. One of the top teams is the all-black Harlem Heroes!” (taken from the first ‘Harlem Heroes’ strip in Prog 1 of 2000AD, 1977)
One of the main stars of the strip was the team captain, John ‘Giant’ Clay, and his character was one who would crossover into another title – a rare ‘cross-over’ event within the 2000AD universe – as he was the father of Judge Giant, an important figure in the early stories of Judge Dredd, who helped defeat the tyrannical Judge Cal. The series followed the fortunes of the ‘Heroes as they competed in the ‘World Aeroball Championship’. In a storyline reminiscent of the Munich disaster that claimed the lives of 7 Manchester United football players, the Harlem Heroes have to recover from the devastating loss of most of their team who are killed in a bus crash following a preliminary round victory. Subsequent episodes followed by the survivors and new recruits as they battled through the Championship against the likes of ‘The Baltimore Bulls’ and ‘The Siberian Wolves’. The early episodes were drawn by Dave Gibbons, but the amazing Massimo Bellardinelli took over the art duties on the final episodes and its sequel, Inferno.
Inferno (progs 36-75)
Inferno was the direct sequel to Harlem Heroes, again scripted by Tom Tully and illustrated by Bellardinelli. Billed as being ‘Deadlier than Aeroball’ on its very first page, it lived up to its promise. Overtly violent compared to its predeccesor, it followed the ‘Harlem Hellcats’ who were the rechristened, surviving ‘Harlem Heroes’ as they contested in ‘Inferno’, a legalised spectator ‘death sport’. The plot wreaks havoc and death upon the team, with very few surviving to the gloomy, nihilistic finale. Even Tharg seemed to have had enough by then, popping up in the middle of a page in the final episode, adding narration and explaining another Hellcat loss, as opposed to Bellardinelli visualising it. All very brutal and downbeat. This wouldnt be the last time a strip would be ended so gracelessly (see the entry for ‘The Mean Team’, further down this post).
Harlem Heroes / Inferno Links
The Mean Arena (various progs from 1980 until 1982)
That man Tom Tully again. Alongside several artists (notably Steve Dillon did a stint, but John Richardson was the first artist on title) Tully created another futuresport scenario – this one was a bit like street football and rugby, but with whole urban areas given over to it. There was, of course, the possibility of death lurking around every corner. The hero was called Matt Talon, and he led the Slayers in the ‘Mean Arena’, helping them rise from obscurity to new heights. Think ‘Rollerball’ meets ‘Roy of the Rovers’. Sub-plots abounded such as Tallons brother dying as a combatant in the ‘Mean Arena’, and the possibility of a traitor in his own ranks. Despite its numerous appearances over several years, it was never a classic in my opinion, but gets 7.26 thrillpower at the 2000AD site (mind you, only 19 people have voted…)
Mean Arena Links
The 2000AD fansite nails it with all the info, including all progs that featured The Mean Arena
2000AD site entry
This is great – a really fascinating insight, writer david bishop interviews 2000ad editor steve mcmanus (aka ‘tharg’) and puts it on his blog. There is a short conversation about Mean Arena
The Mean Team (various progs from 1985, 1987 & 1989)
Another strip illustrated by the peerless Massimo Bellardinelli, who made memorable anything he worked on (Ace Trucking Co, Meltdown Man, early Slaine, Harlem Heroes, Inferno), ‘The Mean Team’ was another mixed affair. Sometimes it was downright bizarre as well as bleak, brutal and ham-fisted. Initially written by Wagner & Grant under the pseudonym of ‘The Beast’, this was initially a future sport title, where really bad people got to play some sort of death sport with death around every corner (you follow me?), but turned into something like a quest. It was a bit silly really and a lot of it was forgettable – especially the sequels to the original ‘Mean Team’, those being ‘Return’ in 1987 and ‘Survivor’ in 1989. Anyone who has read the story will know that this is how silly it could get;
That is ‘Bad’ Jack Keller finding the right combination of words to get some magical staff working to save himself and his fellow team members. Lucky those words happened to be ‘The Mean Team’, eh???
There were times when you could almost read the new instructions coming from editorial decisions panel by panel, as the future sport theme was clearly not working, so they changed tack so that the story turns into a sort of quest, followed by a last minute decision to ensure that most of ‘The Mean Team’ would not be coming back for a sequel – I mean, how abrupt an ending is this?
succinctly puts it in a great article about the end of The Mean Team, it is probably the worst ending to a comic ever – it just feels like its execution (pun intended) is done on a whim, almost an afterthought to wrap up the story.
Mean Team Links
Finally, someone called Vodkashok has been moved enough by recent Harlem Heroes and Mean Arena reprints to create a game in their honour, called ‘Deathball’;