Comics on TV: Life on Mars

In the 2006 TV show Life on Mars (named after the David Bowie song that was released on the 1971 album Hunky Dory) Manchester-based police officer Sam Tyler is struck by a car and wakes up in the year 1973. He doesn’t know whether he’s going crazy, in a coma, or has travelled back in time. It’s a great show that still stands up today, and has spawned many remakes all over the world.

Life on Mars poster

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, I suspect, is the scene in season one, episode four, where Sam visits his childhood home — which has recently been abruptly abandoned. As the camera pans across his younger self’s former bedroom we see this:

Life on Mars - s1e4a

Looks like a copy of The Hotspur! Yay! That got yer Uncle Rusty’s heart racing because there are really only two good reasons to risk going back in time:

  1. Attend concerts by musicians and bands before they died (one day I’m going to have to write that science fiction story set in 1985 in which no one can get in to Wembley Stadium to see Live Aid because all the tickets have been bought by time-travellers).
  2. Buy old comics when they were still new and only cost a few pence.

If we paste the screen-grab into Photoshop we can zoom in on young Sam’s comic…

sam's comic clipped

Then enhance the colours to make it a little clearer…

sam's comic enhanced

So, yes, definitely a copy of The Hotspur!

Setting aside the massively enormous great big gaping plot hole in this episode — no way any kid would just abandon his comics — we can see that this is a back-issue, too. Not just because the show is set forty-seven years ago, but because The Hotspur didn’t use that arched logo in 1973:

hotspur logo #238
The Hotspur logo from #238 (9 May 1964) to #601 (24 Apr 1971)
hotspur logo #601
The Hotspur logo from #602 (1 May 1971) to #881 (4 Sep 1976)

Luckily, Photoshop has a couple of very handy time-saving functions…

Detect Comic Cover menu option

“Detect Comic Cover” is a filter that can strip out the background and highlight all the areas of the image that it believes to be part of a comic-book cover.

comic cover detected

Once we have that, we can use the “Identify Comic” function:

Identify Comic menu option

This process submits the cover to a service that uses a heuristic image-matching algorithm to check it against a number of on-line comic-book databases. That can take a little time depending on the speed of your internet connection. If the process is successful, and it usually is, you’ll get something like this:

comic identified

Comic successfully identified!

No, I’m just kidding! Photoshop doesn’t really have the facility to detect and identify comics (but it should have).

The cover-identifying process is actually done by manually searching through websites like ComicVine, the Grand Comics Database and League of Comic Geeks, though it does of course speed things up to have some idea of the era from which the comic hails.

Aside from using the logo to narrow down the range of dates, the blue bar with white text across the top of the cover is quite distinctive and doesn’t appear very often, so that’s the first thing for which to look.

And bingo, before too long, here we have it: The Hotspur #562, cover-dated 25 Jul 1970:

The Hotspur #562 s

A few minutes later, Sam encounters some more comics on the floor, but only one is clear enough for us to track down:

Life on Mars - s1e4b
Life on Mars - s1e4b cu

That one turns out to be from a couple of months earlier, issue #553 (23 May 1970):

the Hotspur #553 s

We’re not sure exactly when in 1973 the episode is set, but it’s clear that young Sammy keeps at least some of his comics in fairly good condition. Apart from abandoning them, that is.

We see more comics in the second episode of series two when Sam and his boss Gene Hunt stop at a news-stand…

Life on Mars - s2e2b
Life on Mars - s2e2b cu

This lot took yer uncle Rusty a few minutes, but I managed to track down all four of the comics on display…

Buster & Jet, 17 Mar 1973

The Victor #544, 24 Jul 1971
The Victor #544, 24 Jul 1971

Tiger and Jag #969 19 May 1973
Tiger and Jag #969, 19 May 1973

The Avengers #9 17 Nov 1973
The Avengers #9, 17 Nov 1973

There you go! Until today you probably didn’t realise that there was a huge gap in your “old British comics that show up on TV” knowledge, so you’re very welcome.

I had fun tracking down these comics but it is of course pretty much useless (although this post will give certain readers a reason to trot out “You have too much time on your hands!” as though that’s funny and not insulting).

I’m sure there’ll never be an actual need for me to do this ever again. So naturally I will.

Update: Hi folks! Thanks for all the very helpful comments pointing out that there are comics often in the background of the TV show Spaced — I did actually know that, thanks! (One of the main characters in Spaced is a comic-book artist who works in a comic shop and is played by the show’s co-creator Simon Pegg, a comic-book nerd who has written his own comics and appears in the comic-book-based show The Boys where he plays the father of the character who was based on him in the original comic, and was the voice of Johnny Alpha in the Big Finish audiobooks.)

7 thoughts on “Comics on TV: Life on Mars

  1. In the series “castle” he uses the first issues of a number of superhero comics as a storyboard…one of the early episodes, to relate to a sighting


    1. Hi Mark,
      I’ve seen every episode of Castle but I don’t remember that specifically… I recall one in which there was a vigilante who dressed as a comic-book hero: could be the same episode! (Pretty sure that any comics featured weren’t British comics, though!)


      1. thats the episode remember seeing avengers cover and either amazing fantasy15 or spidey cover


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