By Michael Berry

The first British invasion passed me by.

Born too late to be swept up by Beatlemania, as a young child I was vaguely aware of the Fab Four, but mostly as cartoon characters on ABC-TV's Saturday morning line-up. As much as it shames me to admit it now, my first pop idols were home-grown and insipid, the Monkees and the Partridge Family. Without older brothers or sisters to smarten me up, I was well into my teens before I started to appreciate the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones or the Kinks.

I almost missed the most recent British invasion of the arts, as well. This time I have a slightly better excuse. There have been no hordes of screaming fans to clue me in, no media blitzes to equal the appearance of John, Paul, George and Ringo on the "Ed Sullivan Show." This invasion has been remarkably quiet, occurring in the more dimly illuminated corners of popular culture.

Nevertheless, just as the Beatles forever altered the course of rock and roll history, a new group artists from the United Kingdom are transforming a uniquely American medium into something boldly different, something almost unrecognizeable from its past incarnations.

The Brits have taken them over, and things will never be the same again.

Mainstream comics, defined primarily as those published by DC and Marvel, underwent a revolution during the early Eighties. The first part of it involved advances in technology and distribution. By experimenting with better inks, slicker papers, new computer software and more flexible presses, comics publishers were able to move beyond the dull, flimsy, newsprint comics we all remember. Specialty stores also sprang up around the country, meaning that comics no longer had to be sold haphazardly on newsstands or in grocery stores and pharmacies.

These improvements were matched by a great leap in narrative sophistication on the part of two writers new to the medium.

Here in America, Frank Miller created "The Dark Knight Returns" for DC in 1986, the company's first square-bound, Prestige Format mini-series. A success of titanic proportions, "Dark Knight" updated and reworked the Batman legend into a brooding, angst-ridden nightmare lightyears away from the campy television travesty of the Sixties. Tim Burton's blockbuster film owes no small debt to Miller's dark vision.

Across the Atlantic, Alan Moore agreed to write DC's "Swamp Thing," a horror title about a scientist who becomes a walking heap of marsh muck. Moore took this preposterous scenario and ran with it, creating a chilling and often tender run of stories with first-rate characterization and increasingly complex narrative structure.

Moore truly hit his stride with the remarkable 12-issue mini-series "Watchmen," illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC in 1986. A painstakingly detailed history of a world in which costumed heroes affect global politics, the book -- smart, exciting and challenging -- once and for all laid to rest the notion that comic books were a medium fit only for children and morons.

Moore still writes comics, but not for DC or Marvel. He has turned his attention to matters weightier than superheroes and is presently in the midst of two major, multi-part projects, "Big Numbers," illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, and "From Hell," with art by Eddie Campbell.

The former uses the physics of chaos as a metaphor for what happens when an American corporation decides to build a huge shopping mall in an English town. The latter delves into the mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper and offers a chilling indictment of Victorian morals. Both are published by Tundra Publishing, a new company started by Kevin Eastman with some of the vast fortune he's earned as one of the creators of the ubiquitous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

With Moore's departure from mainstream comics, there was great debate in the fan press as to who might replace him as the champion of "comics as literature." Moore more or less decided the matter himself when he chose Neil Gaiman, a young British journalist, as his successor for "Miracle Man," an innovative superhero title published by Sonoma County's Eclipse Comics.

Impressed by "Swamp Thing," Gaiman had contacted Moore, struck up a friendship and learned how to format a comics script. Then he collaborated with Dave McKean, a painter still in art school, on "Violent Cases," a one-shot publication that won the Eagle Award for best British comics album of 1987. (It will be reprinted in the US this summer by Tundra.)

Because production delays postponed Moore's final "Miracle Man" issue, Gaiman's American debut had to wait a while. But when DC talent scouts visited England, Gaiman and McKean pitched some ideas to them and wound up taking home the assignment to do a three-issue, Prestige Format series starring Black Orchid, a costumed female superhero whom no one had heard of in 15 years.

Of all the British comics creators, Gaiman seems the one most eager to mingle among his American fans. He's visited California at least three times during the past year, usually stopping in Berkeley at Dark Carnival on Adeline Avenue or at Comic Relief on University. An amiable chap with pale skin, black hair, dark clothes and even darker sunglasses, he's quite happy to answer questions while signing comic book covers with a gold magic marker.

Gaiman says that "Black Orchid" almost seemed doomed from the start. "It was absolutely terrifying. This was the first mainstream comic I'd written, the first David had ever painted. When we asked DC whether they thought it would sell, they said, 'You're two guys no one's ever heard of, doing a character nobody's ever head of. She's a female character, and nobody buys books about female characters. So, no, we don't think it's going to sell."

But "Black Orchid" was a bigger hit than anyone expected, each issue selling more than 100,000 copies. Combining feminist sentiments and ecological concerns with moody, haunting artwork, the book managed to be that rarest of graphic novels, a superhero comic about non-violent women.

A few months before "Black Orchid" appeared, Gaiman's monthly series, "Sandman," debuted. Rather that featuring some cliched caped crusader, the book stars Morpheus, Master of Dreams, a white-faced, black-clad, New Wave dude who lives in the worlds we mortals concoct in our heads each night. By turns horrifying and darkly humorous, "The Sandman" toys with themes straight out of Dante, Freud, Bruno Bettelheim, and Thomas Harris. Difficult to summarize, it manages to be clever and compelling without ever dipping into pretension.

As off-beat as the comic is, readers are certainly responding to it. In England, it's the third-most-popular American comic, trailing behind only DC's ever-popular Batman titles. Over here, it sells 60,000 to 70,000 copies per issue and ranks within the company's Top 20 bestsellers.

What's also interesting to note is that women seem to like the book. Comics have traditionally been as much a boy's retreat as the Bohemian Club. As Gaiman points out, "Before now, comics had been about the gratification of adolescent male power fantasies, which don't appeal to women of any age, not even teenaged girls. For too long, the idea of a strong woman character in comics meant Rambo with tits. That's a crock of shit as far as I'm concerned."

Gaiman must be doing something right in telling his strange stories. He says that the readership of "Sandman" is split fairly evenly between men and women.

Gaiman's "Sandman" carries a "Suggested for Mature Readers" label, but so far has avoided any serious controversy. Necrophilia, child abuse and serial murder have all cropped up in its pages, but Gaiman says he's not felt much editorial pressure.

In the issue that featured a convention of America's most notorious serial killers, "the only word that got censored was 'masturbate,'" Gaiman says. "It was explained to me that people do not masturbate in the DC Universe. Actually, that explains a lot. That's probably why the characters all dress in tight costumes and go around thumping the shit out of each other."

The second tier of British comics creators, people with followings that are sizeable but not as large as Moore's or Gaiman's, includes Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison. Most of their work is also published by DC.

Delano used to pen "Hellblazer," another horror comic with pungent dialogue and very nasty, very English plots. He recently finished a run on a somewhat dismal, science fiction mini-series, "World Without End."

Milligan writes the monthly "Shade the Changing Man" title, a phantasmagoria that explores the madness at the heart of the American Dream. He also just signed on as scripter for "Detective Comics," one of DC's three showcases for that all-American hero, Batman.

Grant Morrison, who hails from Glasgow, dreams up some of the weirdest comics ever printed. His brilliant, 26-issue run on "Animal Man" was an extended exercise in metafiction that consistently turned the conventions of the medium on their head. His current work on "Doom Patrol" and the "Kid Eternity" three-issue mini-series, probes the oddest corners of philosophy and pop culture.

It was Morrison, along with Dave McKean, who produced 1989's mega-hyped "Arkham Asylum" Batman hardback, now available in softcover from the Book-of-the-Month Club, of all places.

Asked to explain the success of his fellow British writers, Gaiman says, "I think it's not so much what we're doing right as what most American writers are doing wrong. It's unfortunate that comics have become very incestuous and very blinkered, because they've been cut off and regarded as a medium for sub-literates. The people who've grown up in the industry don't read. How they learned to write comics was by copying people who wrote other comics.

"It's as if you've taken an image and photocopied it too many times. Eventually you get something that's very blurred and inferior and shoddy. Too many mainstream comics are simply that. The writers know all the riffs but don't know what the music's about."

It's one thing to convince comics readers that a little erudition won't hurt them. It's another to convince the mainstream media critics that the 256-page "Sandman" collection might be as worthy of a serious review as, say, the latest Stephen King potboiler or even Philip Roth's new novel.

"In the UK, we broke through three years ago, about the time 'Black Orchid' got reviewed in the Sunday Times book section," Gaiman says. "The US is still a little slower on the uptake, primarily because in the UK we have a very localized media base. Once we'd convinced London, we were set. Here there's a battle to be fought in every major city, and there's really nobody out there fighting it."

For the moment, Gaiman and the other British comics creators are known mainly to the informed, urban clientele of specialty shops. But don't expect the situation to remain that way forever. Remember when Matt Groening's only claim to fame was that goofy rabbit cartoon in the second section of this newspaper?

(c) 1991 by Michael Berry