Thirty Years of Thrillpower: a 2000AD retrospective
So the high priests of culture have finally anointed comics as a serious artform. You've got to wonder what kept them? For those who've been enjoying comics for years, and don't need to be patronised or approved by the fashionistas, comics at their best have always run hand in hand with the best in cinema, art and literature. A universe in themselves, they're simply as dumb, inventive, funny, harrowing, throwaway and profound as we are.
Turning its back on the superhero orthodoxy of DC and Marvel, 2000AD combined the diversity of the early days of comics, the hard-hitting pulp of the infamous EC stable and the radical slant of the '60s underground press with a fresh urge to make it new and make it real. Last time around, we looked at the comic and its flagship character, now a nod to the other treasures that have graced the pages.
Honourable mentions are due to Alan Moore's critically-acclaimed The Ballad of Halo Jones series, the classic Sam Slade-Robo-Hunter (expertly inked by the comic equivalent of Aubrey Beardsley: Ian Gibson), the eclectic one-offs that were Tharg's Future Shocks, the virtually-incomprehensible but spectacular Revere and the Charley's War meets Hammer Horror of Fiends of the Eastern Front as well as a host of series that had meteoric moments of glory (Finn, Cannon Fodder, Bradley, The Stainless Steel Rat, Hewligan's Haircut etc). Now for some choice cuts…
Chopper – Song of the Surfer, Progs 654-665
John Wagner (script) / Colin MacNeil (art).
"One day, Chopper will ram his board down Dredd's grim, humourless, Poll-Tax collecting face. Go, Chopper, go!" – Steven Wells
Judge Dredd has had some sterling enemies in his time: the Dark Judges (Death, Fear, Fire and Mortis, who can respectively eviscerate, petrify, immolate and decay their victims to death), Sabbat the zombie-hatching Necromagus, the malevolent Judge Child Owen Krysler, the ostentatious psychopath Judge Cal, the slack-jawed Angel family, Orlok the deadly Soviet assassin… None of them though are the antithesis of Dredd. Indeed our hero shares some of their violent semi-sociopath tendencies. No, the opposite of Dredd is Marlon Shakespeare better known as Chopper, a symbol of liberty and irreverence in the face of Dredd's grim authority.
Chopper began as a disenchanted youth, dismayed by his parent's pointless existence (and their hobbies of repeatedly washing dishes and lobbing eggs into a basket). Thus he became a rebel without a cause, first as an outlaw graffiti artist, fighting scrawl wars through acts of nocturnal vandalism (Unamerican Graffiti – Progs 206-207), before adopting skysurfing in the excellent Midnight Surfer series (Progs 424-429).
Having played a crucial role as a fugitive in the Dredd epic Oz, Chopper gave his old adversary the slip one final time and sought seclusion in the Australian radback, taking shelter with an aged Aborigine called Smokie. With Song of the Surfer, he returned and slipped off the baggage of being just another Dredd bit part, entering the pantheon of classic comic characters in his own right.
The Song of the Surfer itself is a reference the belief of indigenous Australians in dreamtime and song lines; in crude terms the ability to lucidly perceive time and destiny through shared ancestral memory and in touch with the spirits of the environment. Following what he sees as his songline, Chopper abandons his exile and returns to the city to participate in Supersurf 11. The twist is that the race, engineered by the blind oligarch Stig, is designed to be a bloodbath, with the greatest surfers in the world battling to survive amidst machine gun fire, napalm bursts and white phosphorous shells. What follows is a horrific and exhilarating torture garden, captured in blinding artwork by Colin MacNeil.
Much more than a gruesome shooting gallery, the tale works because of the overwhelming sentiment, a masterclass from Wagner, who runs events in all their televised technicolour depravity but also from the distraught perspective of Chopper's friends and lover. The scenes where Chopper volunteers for the race, when he confronts the young upstart Sonny Williams and when he finally dies from his wounds, pack intense emotional weight. And die he does. They may have resurrected him for a sequence of piss-poor stories (which they've since openly regretted) but for aficionados Chopper died that day, hanging in the air inches before the finishing line on that final page. The mere thought of it puts a lump in the throat of balding b-boys and ageing hipsters.
Judge Anderson – Shamballa, Progs 700-711
Alan Grant (script) / Arthur Ranson (art)
One of the problems of Judge Dredd, as his writers have acknowledged, is his lack of anything remotely resembling a personality, beyond ultraviolence and the odd witty quip. The most rewarding Dredd stories have come with a rare crisis of faith or have relied on the interest factor brought by enemies (a case of the devil getting all the best lines), riffing off the surroundings (Mega-City, Cursed Earth, space) and the various calamities thrown up by life in the future (block mania, fatties, future shock, mutants etc).
By contrast Judge Anderson seems conceived as a vehicle to bring light to the Judges, maintaining a capacity for doubt and kindness of spirit. Compared to Dredd the zealot, Anderson is Doubting Thomas. Hitting on a deeper level than the sometimes one-dimensional action heroes that surround her, she has become a celebrated emotional and intellectual character, all the more empathetic because of her tormented conscience and moments of weakness.
Created by Wagner as a Psi-Judge (psychic judges with powers of precognition who due to their heightened mental abilities are often highly sensitive even unstable), she has been developed largely by his cohort Alan Grant, following the dissolution of their writing partnership. The fact that Wagner retained Dredd in the custody battle while Grant got Anderson and Strontium Dogs is some indication of the popularity and acknowledged richness of the character.
In Grant's hands, she became the centre of a series of highly mature, consistently high-quality tales, prying into previous comic-taboos such as domestic violence, child abuse and suicide and dealing responsibly with their after-effects (her own abuse by her father and the suicide of her best friend Psi-Judge Corey shadow Anderson throughout her adventures).
Whilst the messianic The Jesus Syndrome, the martian odyssey Childhood's End and her inter-planetary abdication Postcards from the Edge (all from Judge Dredd the Megazine) give it a run for it's money, the finest Anderson story is arguably Shamballa.
Unexplained cataclysms suddenly plague the world. Oni demons appear on Mount Fuji, black dogs prowl Brit-Cit, the ghosts of the disappeared fill the streets of South American cities, Manticore stalk the islands of Indonesia. Stigmata and demonic possession are rife. "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold."
In the spirit of perestroika, Anderson travels to occupied Tibet to locate the source of the disturbances with a party of scientists and a Soviet counterpart. She falls in love, uncovers a nefarious, cavern-dwelling civilisation, an infectious form of anthropophagy, the (barely-)living incarnation of Buddha and ultimately comes to find despair and enlightenment in the same terrible moment.
Rendered with cinematic realism by Arthur Ranson, Shamballa is successful not only because of the fortean events (all of which come from alleged cases and international folklore) but because of the underlying tenderness, a tenderness which makes the conclusion so devastating. The closest the comic ever got to mysticism.
Rogue Trooper – Cinnabar, Progs 624-635
John Smith (script) / Steve Dillon (art) / Kev Walker (art)
Democracy is an odd creature. It can usher in beasts like Hitler or chumps like Blair. Once in a while though, it gets things right. Feedback from fans in the early days revealed a demand for a future war story and so future war they got. Created by an unheralded star of the early days Gerry Finley-Day (author of Harry 20 on the High Rock and Fiends of the Eastern Front) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Rogue Trooper's genius lay in its blend of genres. It was a civil war deserter tale but one informed by space-age science fiction, a no-mans land ghost story with the "ride into town, sort out the trouble and ride off into the sunset" basis of a western. Then there was the private-eye sense of an underlying conspiracy, all shadows and set-ups. For the curious, the first strip is the best introduction.
Set on a remote planet in the far-flung future, a genetic infantryman roaming the toxic wilds of Nu-Earth, the sole survivor of his butchered, betrayed regiment (wiped out in the Quartz Zone Massacre), fighting in a pointless conflict that neither side (the Norts and the Southers) can win. Due to his genetic enhancements (a side-effect of which means he has blue skin), he can venture into the dead zones where the radiation, poison gas and pestilence would kill a normal soldier in seconds. So he's become a spectral presence, a myth to frontline troops, haunting the trenches and looming out from the mists to slice the throats of the unwary.
In the strip, we accompany Rogue and his three biochips, containing the souls of deceased allies (comic foil for the sullen Shane-like hero). Often he breezes into town from the wastes, a wanted man with a bounty on his head, uncovers Nort conspiracies, saves the day, then leaves without recognition, still wanted, heading back out into the wilderness alone.
Over the years, he became one of the comic's lead characters, particularly in his Cam Kennedy-sketched incarnation and in epics like the multi-ethnic Fort Neuro (Progs 290-310) with it's droll satire of Berlin's Cold War divisions (Napoleonic, Scandinavian, disco and Butlins sectors). Following the final showdown with the traitor general, Rogue lost his core reason to exist and appeared to have run out of steam. At which point, several writers tried to reinvent the character; Simon Geller made a largely abortive attempt to depict him as a political assassin before Dave Gibbons and Will Simpson rewrote him as Friday, a much edgier character, fighting the same war on a different planet in the claustrophobic The War Machine (appearing intermittently from Progs 650-687) with great success, and no small degree of perplexity.
Cinnabar, by contrast, was a flashback to the old Rogue, complete with the ever-cynical biochips, but one that retained the grit of The War Machine. Rendered crystal clear by Dillon's dazzling art and written by, to my eyes the most under-appreciated writer in British comics, John Smith, Cinnabar is a tour de force and a fitting conclusion for the original character. One of the strengths of Smith's writing, consistently of the highest calibre and on occasion the stuff of lunacy, is his ability to use inter-textual ideas with a lightness of touch and a bona fide impact. In this case, he revitalises Rogue with reference to the good book. Opening with the crucifixion of the main character, it moves onto a futuristic Sodom and Gomorrah before thrusting him, like Jonah, into the belly of the beast. The ending is like a postscript to The Book of Revelation. To summarize the complex gripping work does no justice to it; it is a startling fever dream, Smith being aware that horror, the kind that burns like lye into the mind, can come in the slightest remark or a half-glimpsed scene. Just a hint and let the imagination do the rest.
The essence of Rogue may have carried on with Friday and spin-offs like The 86ers and Mercy Heights but none have reached these heights, or depths, again.
Button Man: The Killing Game, Progs 780-791
John Wagner (script) / Arthur Ranson (art)
Just when you've had enough of fantasy worlds, they bring you plunging to earth. "30 seconds in the future," the tagline used to read and they didn't lie. This is the cold hard edge of life, an ultra-reality, a strip whose precedents were more Get Carter and The Long Good Friday than anything that had previously graced a comic book. Having left a shady career in the army and as a mercenary behind, Harry Exton is directionless until a contact hooks him up with the "voices," wealthy businessmen who stake thousands on the outcome of a new sport: The Killing Game. The contests consist of bouts in which these Button Men hunt each other for entertainment. Lured in by the money and the prestige, Exton soon finds there are no exit signs.
An adept hardboiled showpiece and a study in amorality, the rights to this ready-made film script have long been rumoured to be in circulation. Now, following the success of David Cronenberg's Palme D'Or-nominated adaptation of Wagner's graphic novel A History of Violence, it seems moves are finally afoot. Time will tell whether Hollywood will fuck up a sure-fire classic.
Nemesis the Warlock – The Gothic Empire, Progs 387-406
Pat Mills (script) / Kevin O'Neill (art) / Bryan Talbot (art)
It takes major talent to create a future world that hasn't been seen before. The nocturnal cityscapes of Bladerunner and Metropolis have long been borrowed and stolen to the point of cliché. Pat Mills, one of the Celtic trio that founded 2000AD, made the future new by delving into the past. The Lovecraftian world, he and O'Neill created was one of the first occurrences of steampunk in British comics; placing traditional sci-fi motifs such as spaceships and robots alongside blimps, the dark arts and a heap of Victoriana.
O Neill's baroque style took matters further into the unknown with organic buildings (based on termite colonies) more akin to canyon formations or diseased plants and generous toppings of torture and genocide, which would see the IPC attempt to censor the strip and the American CCA idiotically banning O'Neill altogether.
It wasn't just stylistic innovations that the creators salvaged from the past. Wildly anti-establishment and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, Mills assembled iconography of despotism and combined them in the villainous Torquemada's dictatorship (in no small part a critique of Thatcher's war-hungry administration in power at the time). The Termight Empire and their Terminator enforcers wore the armour of the Crusaders, the headwear of the Ku Klux Klan, bore the righteous zeal of the stormtrooper and were backed by fundamentalist scribes, who provided the ideology behind their campaign of genocide against deviants, aliens and unbelievers. The fact that both creators would come under fire for their work from neo-puritans, within the comics industry and without, only served to confirm and heighten the relevance and importance of what they were doing.
As the series progressed, it surfaced that Torquemada was the reincarnation of his real-life Spanish Inquisition namesake (responsible for the persecution of thousands of Spanish Jews) as well as the US Army Officer (and butcher of Indian women and children) John Chivington, the scourge of spinsters - Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and a little known Austrian Adolf Hitler. He was also, by all accounts, based on a Catholic priest Mills had had the misfortune of encountering as child, with a penchant for beating young boys with that uniquely crazed zealousness some in the Holy Orders possess.
Against the empire stand a straggle of rebels; the infernal extraterrestrial Nemesis the Warlock (who in true Mills-style is more than a little sinister and morally ambiguous), Purity Brown (a human sympathiser) and Deadlock (a Khaos-worshipping Knight Martial droid). There are really no good guys in the strip, least of all the humans, all the easy cowboys and indians dichotomies are avoided in favour of those who are for order and those who are against it, which makes for an intriguing foundation where you never really know where you stand or where the next twist will come.
With each series, the world and its cast of characters expanded outwards and inwards; Torquemada's family intrigues would put the Borgias to shame with its duplicities, madness and murders. When Nemesis' family is stolen from him, his true dark soul is hinted at and, like the would-be Tsar-killer Stepan Fedorov of Camus' The Just Assasins, there is the implication, would the world be any less bloody and unjust if the rebel were in charge?
All the while, the crusade and the insurrection rages on exotic planets, in the time wastes and even, in one memorable case, Thatcher's Britain.
From an earlier defunct story Ro-Busters, Mills introduced the ragtag Cross of Iron-esque ABC Warriors. Essentially a bunch of semi-lunatic robots, they included, amongst others, a cold-blooded sniper with transvestite tendencies Joe Pineapples, the femme fatale Morrigan, a treacherous half-reprogrammed torture-droid Blackblood and the coprophagic sewage-bot Ro-Jaws. With the exception of Hammerstein (the only hero albeit one consistently regarded as a tiresome bore), all are just as amoral as their master Deadlock and ally Nemesis, in thrall to anarchy rather than righteousness.
You could make the case for any of the early series of Nemesis or the fantastic ABC Warriors strips (particularly the immaculate Simon Bisley-inked The Black Hole – Progs 555-581 and the Kev Walker-painted, sleak and hilarious Khronicles of Khaos Progs 750-757) to rank alongside the best of 2000AD. As it is, Nemesis Book IV: The Gothic Empire probably wins by a head. Fully embracing the Victorian qualities of the story, and incorporating the ABC Warriors, Mills takes the battle to a world where aliens have constructed their culture around the first radio transmissions received from Earth, moulding themselves as heirs to the industrial age of the British Empire. More than any other, it ensured the future as envisaged by Pat Mills would take root in the consciousness. Torquemada's slogan "Be pure! Be vigilante! Behave!" would appear sprayed onto the Berlin Wall and as lyrics on the Manic's The Holy Bible. Steampunk was now one more future ahead of us.
To be continued…
© Darran Anderson 2007
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.