A Comic Odyssey
The very first issue (or ‘prog’) of 2000AD was published on 26 February 1977, and as the title celebrates its 30th anniversary Paul Gravett explores the enduring appeal of the UK’s long-running weekly comic.
"Science fiction is dead and it will never sell."
This was the judgment sent down from on high, from the head and deputy of IPC’s boys’ comics department in 1975, on a proposal for a new SF comic from Kelvin Gosnell.
What could some lowly office junior in the competitions department know compared to their years of experience? After all, in 1969 millions had watched the moon landing, a momentous event that might seem to make science fiction all but redundant. Some three months earlier, Eagle - home of Dan Dare - had folded its wings, almost exactly one year before its 20th anniversary.
Entering the 1970s, science fiction still appeared in UK comics but mostly based on Gerry Anderson’s series, successive Doctor Who’s and other shows. But in 1975 young Gosnell read an Evening Standard feature by film critic Alexander Walker about director George Lucas’ space blockbuster in production and predicting that science fiction would be the next big thing in Hollywood. Gosnell put his proposal into a memo to writer and creator of Battle and Action Pat Mills, noting that, "even if it planned to run only as long as the boom lasts, it must make money while riding the crest and could be used for a merge when [note, rather than if] it becomes uneconomic. Although, given the right mix, I am certain that it would stand a good chance of surviving much longer than the movie boom."
How right Gosnell would prove to be. Mills sent the proposal up to the top and got the green light to put it into development. Never expecting a lengthy run, publisher John Sanders would later come up with a title: "Normally, a successful title lasts up to 12 years, so I joked at the time we should call it 2000AD, because it would be dead and buried by then." In fact, the "Galaxy’s Greatest Comic" would outlast that date which it was never supposed to see. To understand more about the enduring appeal of 2000AD and its iconic character, lawman of the future Judge Dredd, Martin Baker, an astute researcher into British comics, interviewed many fans and found that several enjoyed the irony and critique of an extreme police state in these stories. On the other hand, he also found one Australian fan, a declared fascist, who saw none of this and took Dredd at face value.
Writing about him in Trash Aesthetics (Pluto Press, 1997) Barker records how this reader admired Dredd’s "incorruptability" and his brutal brand of instant judgment, almost suggesting that this would be the best way to deal with criminals. As he saw it, "The world around us is not black and white anyway. Judge Dredd portrays it as black and white, but even if there’s a gray area he suddenly makes it black and white to suit himself." Where you see him as an exemplar or an absurd exaggeration of fascism, Dredd seems to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike, the double-edged sword of its satire cutting both ways.
On February 26th 2007, 2000AD hits 30. Disturbingly, in these days of ASBOs, ID cards, police surveillance and the Stockwell shooting of a suspected terrorist, the closer we get to the future, the closer writer John Wagner’s sardonic extrapolations of ourselves and our world today come to resemble real life.
I can still conjure up the impression Dredd’s debut in the second issue made on me when I read it back in 1977, before Thatcher, before Star Wars, before Blade Runner. Mike McMahon’s almost-half page aerial shot in colour on the back page of Devil’s Island seared itself on my brain. He showed "a huge traffic island in the middle of the vast inter-city complex! Where computer-controlled lorries roar past day and night at two hundred mile an hour! Where lawbreakers who commit serious crime are marooned!" To me there was something cruelly clever and comical about Dredd right from the start, which prompted me immediately to write a rave fanzine review of this riveting new character.
Those first cases, from Progs 2 to 60, have been handily repackaged by Rebellion in an Essentials-style paperback, The Complete Case Files, with extras of the censored version of the suppressed ‘First Dredd’, the Walter The Wobot comedy one-pagers and a few front covers.
There are some credit boo-boos (an editing fault on other Rebellion titles too), for example listing McMahon as cover artist when it’s clearly Ian Gibson, and unfortunately the colour pages are printed in gray tones. Still, this ongoing reprinting in a chunky format is a great way to discover or revisit these foundational tales and see how the character evolved with every episode, though I suspect the next volume will have to skip over those Cursed Earth chapters about the Burger Wars and the Jolly Green Giant, still deemed way too controversial.
After reaching US comics shops through DC for a while, Rebellion is continuing to reissue other black-and-white 2000AD classics, like Rogue Trooper, Robo-Hunter and DR & Quinch (complete with Jamie Delano’s later one-pagers). It’s good to have them back and on shinier paper than in the original Titan Books versions, but the artwork, drawn for a more squat, square page, and the readability suffer slightly from having to be reduced to fit the height of an American comic book, the only height some US retailers and customers seem to accept. The result is a wasted inch of blank space top and bottom of each page. Those proportions work better for the more recent, more upright pages from 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine.
Four of the latest Dredd compilations prove that Wagner still brings a remarkable vigour and pitch-black twistedness to the futureworld he co-created with Carlos Ezquerra of Mega-City One. Far from running dry, he’s as inventive as he’s ever been, if not more so. Total War‘s trio of tales lead off with another fine collaboration with Colin MacNeil, revisiting the freedom-fighters or, as the Judges see them, terrorists, who hate the ruling system so much, they are prepared to kill to bring it down. One member of the Total War group breaks a crucial rule: instead of leaving behind the charming woman, a politics teacher, he has met in the bar, he goes back for her and saves her before the whole place blows up, killing ten. Now someone knows what he looks like and she tells the Judges. From this, Wagner weaves the tragic web of desire and deceit that ensnare the couple. To show how far the judges will go to crush Total War, Wagner comes up with some perverse secret eye-ball surgery, whereby Dredd fits audio-visual receptors into the bomber’s optic nerves so that he can lead the Judges to Total War’s unknown leaders.
Another Wagnerian flourish I enjoy is his word play, inventing terms like ‘encubement’ for doing time in the iso-cubes, or the terrorist’s demands for ‘demegafication’, presumably similar to abolition of global capitalism. Some of the smartest Dredd epics have dealt with such pro-democracy protests and sometime violent uprisings, stories torn from today’s headlines.
In a brilliant understanding of society, when the people are offered the chance to vote for democracy, they choose to retain the security of the Judge system. The Chief Judge’s Man opens with a TV debate by a Mrs Petula No, who alleges that the Judges rigged the electoral process and are bumping off anyone who objects to them.
Mrs No dismisses their claim that a string of eight deaths in twelve months of anti-justice activists is the work of an unknown assassin; not long after the broadcast, she is the next victim. Wagner, with artists Will Simpson, MacNeil and John Burns, unravels a conspiracy that seems to go all the way to the top, incriminating the Chief Judge herself, and revels the dark motives of the ‘Justice Killer’ and his mysterious boss within the Department.
Wagner’s on equally strong form in Sin City, a vast pleasure island allowed into Mega-City’s waters and haven to a deadly terrorist, and in My Name Is Death, unleashing the righteous Judge Death on another spree, illustrated in Frazer Irving’s fine, feverish style. Dredd’s saga continues to elaborate.
To understand its origins and early years, the best book was probably Judge Dredd: The Mega-History (Lennard Publishing, 1995) by Colin M Jarmon and Peter Acton, timed to coincide with Stallone movie. This tome, however, has been eclipsed by former editor David Bishop‘s meticulous account of the whole 2000AD story serialised in the Megazine. Ideally, this ultimate reference should be published in book form, as Thrill Powered Overload, for the 30th anniversary.
Now is time to start planning other celebrations. Why not reactivate some of Tharg’s ‘art robots’ across 2000AD‘s three decades, like Ramon Sola, John Cooper, Brett Ewins and Massimo Berlardinelli, to draw a strip, page or pin-up again? Maybe invite as many contributors as possible, past and present, to a special, mega reunion Dredd Con?
And after two fairly modest exhibitions, at the Victoria And Albert Museum in 2002 and the Zarjaz show in London’s Seven Dials early this year, isn’t it time for a massive, in-depth exhibition, not just of 2000AD‘s artwork, but also explaining its cultural and social context, impact and influence?
When 2000AD was nearing the millennium, speculation was rife that it would have to change name, perhaps to 3000AD. But as one life time reader, SNB from Nottingham, wrote in 1999, "I don’t care what they call it next year. The content has seldom had anything to do with that date anyway, it’s just semantics. What matters is that it was, is and always will be part of what makes me me."
2000AD‘s title stayed unchanged. More than a specific year, it has become a brand, an attitude, an identity, and shows no sign of going past its sell-by-date.
Posted: March 11, 2007
The original version of this article appeared in 2006 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.