Thirty Years of Thrillpower: a 2000AD retrospective
"Travelling Willburys…You're Busted!"
Time felt longer back then. Traversing the length of Ireland seemed to take centuries, especially trapped on a godforsaken bus, back in the days when elderly mountain men were free to smoke pipes in the dead heat of a summer coach and air-conditioning was a thing of distant rumour. We were travelling up through the landlocked midlands of Ireland, from Cork to Derry, for some reason forgoing the usual route along the wild, west coast. My sister and I bickered and gazed out the windows at the speeding countryside until we got sick. Eventually we pulled into a shop in a border town to spend the last of our punts, dry-heave the contents of our stomachs onto the grass verge and prepare for the farce of the border crossing. In the shop I came across a strange comic and, only half-knowing the truth, convinced my mother it was for children. Its name was 2000AD and I was 8 years old. By good fortune the publication was in the midst of a golden age, that issue alone featuring three unabashed classics: Slaine the Horned God, Rogue Trooper - Cinnabar and Zenith - War In Heaven. It also featured a Judge Dredd story centred around a futuristic Beverley Hillbillies-type family searching for a home. By the end, all the family members were dead with the exception of the senile old bint of a grandmother who doubtless doesn't even realise what's happened, an example of the mix of wicked humour, edgy irreverence and tragedy at the creation's heart. In hindsight, it may not seem the wisest thing to give a child of that age and I didn't understand most of what was going on but something changed. Goodbye the simple pleasures of The Beezer and Oink and hello to warp spasms, civil war deserters and genocidal superheroes.
2000AD was as much a part of a healthily dysfunctional early adolescence as blowing up aerosols, hanging out in building sites, listening to the Butthole Surfers and getting chases from mentally unsound neighbours. Several things set it apart, above and beyond its peers. Conceived at the height of punk, it contained a radical cynicism, it was audaciously imaginative but also levelheaded, capable of the fantastical but earthly and anti-establishment to the core. Like all the best music and films of those years, it felt like it was dangerous forbidden territory, the content of which you literally hid from your parents and read in bed by the light of the streetlamp outside. On one occasion, a friend was caught with a copy during religious studies at our Catholic primary school; a copy that, much to his misfortune, had a cigar-smoking Private Eye (Sam Slade: Robo-Hunter) battling a robot with a disembodied human head attached. The genuine disturbance that registered on the teacher’s face was enough to reassure us that this was the real deal.
Of course, there was no shortage of comics in those days. In town there was a shop (run by a entertainingly irate derivative of The Simpson's Comic Book Guy) that catered for every taste, from the fledgling Manga copies that were slowly finding their way across the globe, to a plethora of US comics. But there was something about the dominant American publications that never quite clicked; they didn't speak to the real experience of growing up in Ireland or Britain at the time. Even to the child's mind they seemed slightly ludicrous and remote. All those camp caped crusaders. Too clean-living. Too patriotic. Too perfect. Even Batman the darkest and most intriguing character was made distant by the fact he was a millionaire philanthropist. In addition, the convoluted plotlines never really made much sense, they crossed haphazardly, characters died and were resurrected on a weekly basis, negating any emotions you had invested. What would speak to working class kids, living amidst the poverty, unemployment and riots of the 80's, from Derry to Glasgow to Brixton?
And the answer is 2000AD. The comic did things differently and, for all its outlandish ideas, it kept its feet firmly rooted in reality. It jettisoned the love interests, the prim superheroes, the moralising, the preposterous superpowers, invincibility and cosy resolutions that all seemed like cop-outs. In came iconoclasm, the playful deconstruction of traditional comic conventions, a sense of alienation, realistic violence, grim humour, existentially wracked characters, scenarios that were as complex as real life and avoided the easy way out. In doing so it went beyond sci-fi until it was trading blow for blow with the best fiction out there. For all the disenchanted youth out there, those with a lifelong aversion to sport in all its forms and an attraction to the simple pleasures of lighting fires and smashing glass, it was bliss.
It's a testament to the quality of 2000AD that so many incredible talents passed through the stable. There were the godfathers of (post-) modern comics: John Wagner, Alan Grant and Pat Mills. Then there were those who would lead the charge known as the British invasion, which revolutionised US Marvel and DC comics in the '80s and '90s. Fostered in 2000AD, they eventually crossed the Atlantic, signed up with the exhausted old comic behemoths in the States and revitalised them, injecting political, social and sexual realism (often riffing off the simple maxim, "What if this were real?") into archaic characters who had long since run out of steam. These included one of the greatest writers on the planet in Alan Moore (The Watchmen, From Hell, Swamp Thing), Neil Gaiman the highly-acclaimed writer of the Sandman series and the young guns of the invasion: the genius Scot Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, New X-Men, Batman: Arkham Asylum), the Irishman Garth Ennis (The Preacher, Hitman) and Peter Milligan (Enigma, Tank Girl, X-Force). Then there were the mavericks like John Smith (Hellblazer, Scarab), an immense and shamefully underrated talent.
Art-wise there was a fantastic crop including Simon Bisley (Lobo), Simon Harrison, Steve Dillon (Punisher, Preacher), Ian Gibson (Mister Miracle), Carlos Esquerra, Brian Bolland (Batman: The Killing Joke, The Invisibles), Kevin O’Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Jamie Hewlett (co-creator of the Gorillaz, Tank Girl), Dean Ormston (The Girl Who Would Be Death), Chris Weston (Swamp Thing, The Invisibles), Peter Doherty (Grendel) and Chris Halls (the early pseudonym of the director Chris Cunningham).
Enchantment can rarely be captured in lists and figures. How do you define the magic of something that meant so much in your early years, looking back when everything was tied up in the strange mix of wonder and nostalgia? Simply put, that first issue had it all and is anchored in the head with ten thousand other thoughts and memories like Super 8 footage.
The best way to appreciate the comic is to delve into the 30 years of back-issues. Stop by 2000AD for a wealth of re-issued graphic novels, hit Ebay or dig out the dusty boxes from the attic. Here are some directions:
Judge Dredd – the Necropolis era
John Wagner (script) / Carlos Esquerra (art)
You can't begin anywhere else than with the man. Old Stonyface. A prophetic glimpse of a dystopian American future. Depending on your outlook, he's a joyless fascist bully (sharing a first name, Joe, with no less than Uncle Stalin himself) or a paragon of law and order, keeping the madness from totally consuming Mega-City One (the gigantic conurbation on the Eastern Seaboard of what was once the United States).
As a series that has graced the comic continually since it's early days, and has broadened and deepened to a bewildering labyrinthine degree with each year, the potential choice moments are legion. In the early days he's a somewhat more playful, quirkier character with his own servant Walter the Wobot, a maid Maria, a sharply dressed spiv informer Max Normal (reprised years later in much more jaded tones in the Samurai assassin episode "Art of Geomancy") and a niece Vienna. Even his enemies and sidekicks seem quaint; the rogue carpentry droid Call-Me-Kenneth, the metal-dreaded pirate (and son of a mutated squid) Captain Skank, the flea-bitten friendly ogre Fergie, Citizen Snork (a citizen blessed and tormented with a gigantic nose) and an endless cast of gorilla gangsters, mutants, aliens, deranged gameshow hosts, fatties and perps.
When the darkness comes, things get more interesting. Forced to kill his own brother the corrupt Judge Rico, Dredd turns all Clint Eastwood. In a move that set him apart from other more one-dimensional comic characters, Dredd is shifted from hero to anti-hero. From the youthful gunsmith of the early days Dredd is transformed, acquiring the fanatic zeal of a stormtrooper or an Inquisition-era monk. The judges are no longer simply futuristic policemen but dictatorial rulers, a priestly celibate caste in awe of the power not of God but Law and Order. The political element of Dredd was invariably highlighted; displaying, and satirising, the traditionally right wing view of the world as black and white, good and evil, us and them. With such a world-view, there's no room for explanations, no social reasons for crime and little to no chance of rehabilitation. In Dredd's eyes there is only perps and perps-to-be. It was no coincidence that it was a view expounded by the Thatcher and Reagan administrations then in power. The real question that emerges though is not whether Dredd is a fascist or a sociopath but how and why, in mind of these factors, he still has us rooting for him?
Dredd's greatness arguably lies amidst his epics. In the early years these are picaresque affairs, where diverse imaginative one-issue stories are welded together within the framework of a larger story. The Cursed Earth epic (progs 61-85), in which he traverses the mutant-populated nuclear wasteland between the Mega-Cities (what was once the Mid-West and Southern states of the US), features rabid rats, an alternative Mount Rushmore, psychics, robotic vampires and civil war droids, cryogenically frozen presidents, dinosaurs, fast food wars and a not so jolly green giant.
In the space-age counterpart the Judge Child (progs 156-181), there's the classic villain Mean Machine Angel (a psychotic cyborg with an uncontrollable to headbutt things into a pulp) and his inbred family, a Jigsaw Man disintegrating piece by piece and a gigantic grotesque toad with magical powers. Both epics are, naturally, fantastic. Then there's the hilarious decadence of Judge Cal in The Day The Law Died (a futuristic rewriting of the Roman Emperor Caligula in progs 89-108) and the Cold War bombast of the Apocalypse War (progs 245-270).
Somewhere along the line, it's difficult to pinpoint where, the collage effect gave way to a new grittiness, a comics noir. A new-found maturity, and brutality, entered the frame. Crucially doubts entered the character and he moved from being an emotionless robot to a man growing old. Slowly he began to question what all this had been for. Even his environment began to look less like a futuristic metropolis and more like some decaying plains city. Dredd was no longer a childhood concern but a tough and intrepid work of art.
One commendably unsettling example of this new Dredd was the Judge Kurten story, beginning with "Crazy Barry, Little Mo" (progs 615-618) and progressing to "Banana City" (progs 623-625) set in the corrupt Latin American city-state of Ciudad Barranquilla. It featured El Diablo, a schizophrenic renegade Judge (taunted by a little blue man in his head called Mo), in a story that explored a seething underbelly where men fight rats with their teeth for bets and muggings and rapes are watched over by heartless crooked judges. In many ways the Kurten story was the rebirth of Dredd as a dark art, exposing the shadowy consequences of the future American Dream, an outlook that led to future gritty epics such as the zombie-fest Judgement Day (progs 786-799).
The strip also expanded the Dredd universe to take in the hinterlands and countries beyond the walls of Mega-City One. The spin-off Judge Dredd the Megazine established itself at the forefront of this new post-colonial outlook, expanding on the international possibilities and introducing characters as diverse as Brit-Cit's Devlin Waugh (John Smith's "Charles Bronson meets Noel Coward" exorcist character) and Detective-Judge Armitage, the savannah-based Pan-African Judges, Hondo City's samurai Judge Shimura, Judge Mac Brayne from the tribal nuclear-tainted Scotland of Cal-Hab and Judge-Sergeant Joyce of the Emerald Isle themepark. Even the vision of Mega-City One became more intricate with the bizarre creature The Creep (who lives in the Undercity – the subterranean ruins of old New York) and the fire and brimstone preacher Missionary Man, who walks the badlands of the Cursed Earth to the west. The new sophistication was evident even in the one-off stories, which shifted from a one-twist set-up to thought-provoking emotionally-charged works with all the meticulousness and profundity of a short story, the best examples of which are Wagner and Doherty's "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart" (Judge Dredd Megazine 2-46) and Grant and Mac Neil's "John Cassavettes Is Dead" (prog 627).
Arguably the most mature, multi-layered and emotionally involving series centred on the Necropolis era. In The Dead Man (prog 650-662) a curious black and white story that came out of the blue, a haunted amnesiac was portrayed fleeing from sinister supernatural forces through a searing wasteland. It was a gripping work that slowly grew with each recovered memory. The masterstroke, one of the most extraordinary in comic history, came when it emerged that this figure was none other than Dredd. It dumbfounded even the most astute or cynical of readers. How could this be, considering Dredd's stories were ongoing within the same issue?
Wagner deftly revealed the truth in Tale of the Dead Man (progs 662-668). Wracked by doubts (sparked by his run-ins with the democracy movement and an innocent questioning letter from a child in prog 661, who was later murdered by a brain-damaged neighbour), Dredd had resigned and took the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth. Whilst there, he was set upon by malevolent forces and, horribly burnt, had lost his memory and knowledge of who he was. Back in Mega-City One, agents of Dredd's deadliest enemy, the undead Judge Death and his Dark Judges, have corrupted his clone replacement. When he releases them from their captivity, a genocide is unleashed. In the ensuing epic (progs 669-699), Dredd reaffirmed his place as the foremost character in British comics and his humane, psychic counterpart Judge Anderson emerged as a major character in her own right.
Arguably Dredd has never been bettered than in Necropolis and its satellite stories; a thrilling mix of erudite writing and all-out action. He would certainly scale similar heights with the epic Judgement Day (with its world of judges and the crossover appeal of Strontium Dog Johnny Alpha) and the highly astute and moving Democracy stories (The Devil You Know, Twilight's Last Gleaming and America series - progs 750-753, 754-756 and the Megazine's 1.01-1.07 respectively). He came down to earth though with a series of relative misfires and partial successes such as Inferno (progs 842-853), Wilderlands (progs 891-918 and Megazine 2.57 to 2.67) and The Pit (progs 970-983). The less said about the botched abortion that was the Hollywood film, a Sin City-esque opportunity missed, the better.
Since then, and with Rebellion's acquisition of the comic, the character has been regaining lost ground. A wealth of reissues and graphic novels now abound, with the recent epics Total War, Brothers of the Blood, The Chief Judge's Man and above all the stunning Origins restoring credibility and proving that the creation may be 30 years old but it's still slugging it out with the best of them.
To be continued…
© Darran Anderson 2007
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.