10 OF THE BEST: CELEBRATING SOME OF 2000AD’S UNSUNG HEROES
Last month, we celebrated 2000AD’s 40th Birthday in Hammersmith. It was a fantastic event: kudos to Rebellion and the entire team of staff and volunteers who made it such a huge success. Some good stuff has been written about it on DownTheTubes, BBC Arts and The Independent.
I was blown away by the sheer volume of people who shared with me their love for the comic. Thousands of readers cite 2000AD as a major influence in their life, and it was incredibly gratifying to meet a fraction of them at the Hammersmith Novotel.
So many people were responsible for making 2000AD the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Most of them are well known to readers, and their story has been told, but a few have been a little forgotten along the way, so I thought I should remember them on our 40th birthday. Starting with …
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Doug designed 2000AD and his importance to the comic cannot be stressed enough. He’s barely known today, because his face didn’t really fit and he was “old school”, but he was actually cooler, and more imaginative and talented than many who followed in his footsteps. (This might explain changes of logo, etc, as subsequent staff wanted to put their own mark on the comic.)
Plus he liked Action better than 2000AD! We tried to get him on the Future Shock! documentary and nearly succeeded. Maybe next time. He’s a smashing guy and if anyone wants to know what he’s like, I based Smith 70 in Charley’s War on Doug.
Specifically, Doug came up with:
The idea of Mega City One
To escape controversy, the publisher had suggested I change Dredd’s world from New York to “a galaxy far, far away”. I didn’t like that at all so I insisted it had to be New York. But when Doug saw Carlos’s first amazing image of the city, he said New York was too limited and suggested a Mega City stretching down the whole of the Eastern seaboard. I thought it was a brilliant idea and went for it.
Doug came up with the title of the original number one storyin 2000AD. He also designed the slow-mo special effects on Mach One which none of the artists could have created on their own.
He designed the early issues of the comic, so the work of traditional artists suddenly looked cool. He made the pages look dynamic in a very different (and far better) way than Marvel and DC, with a focal image on each page. He was a great visualizer. Compare the first six progs designed mainly by Doug with the six progs that followed, and you’ll see what I mean. Doug was literally sketching every picture out for artists. This is probably why he’s not remembered with great affection by some artists today, who maybe saw his work as intrusive, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. Often their work would otherwise have been somewhat flat and even dull. If I could have twisted Doug’s arm, I’d have got him to design many more stories. John Wagner and I hired Doug specifically to visualize and layout the artwork on another (abortive) comic project. Once again he did a brilliant job. He had previously designed the first amazing Death Game 1999 cover on Action.
Doug was a great adviser on the comic. He was my Obi-Wan Kenobi. He suggested Jesus Blasco for Invasion. He had mind-blowing ideas about the future, which regularly inspired me.
I still miss Doug and his endless energy.
After Doug Church, another key figure was:
Kelvin worked in the IPC competitions department and first saw the potential in science fiction comics with an article in the Evening Standard that predicted Star Wars would be massive. He sent it to the publisher, who as a result, commissioned me to create a science fiction comic. A year later, after writing most of the stories, I asked that Kelvin be the editor to take over from me once 2000AD had been successfully launched.
Amongst Kelvin’s achievements on the comic were:
Getting the hardware and the science right
This was incredibly important at the time. Before 2000AD, many readers hated comic science fiction stories, calling them “stupid” and “unrealistic”, with some justification. So Kelvin gave many of the stories technical details that would make them seem real and convincing. Computer data on Mach One, for example. Increasingly, though, we found that 2000AD readers weren’t as passionate about reality and conventional hardware as Battle and Action readers. That came as a surprise to us and so the comic moved towards science fantasy.
STAINLESS STEEL RAT & CURSED EARTH
Kelvin was keen to bring the influence of science fiction novels into the comic. He was widely-read and a big fan of Harry Harrison. As a result, Kelvin commissioned the excellent The Stainless Steel Rat adaptions drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. He had also read Damnation Alley and suggested I write the The Cursed Earth, which has a similar premise.
Kelvin went on to create Starlord and Tornado.
BILL SAVAGE’S CATCHPHRASE
We wrote the final version of Dan Dare together and episode two of Invasion. “Laugh this off, twinkletoes” is Kelvin’s memorable line!
Another key figure in 2000AD’s history is undoubtedly:
Probably everyone in comics knows that Nick, publisher of Titan Books and owner of Forbidden Planet, first broke 2000AD out of the straitjacket of traditional comics by reprinting Dredd, Nemesis, Slaine and others as graphic novel collections. Titan Books and Forbidden Planet made a vital contribution to the comic’s success. But there was so much more to this story.
Nick had just left film school and, seeing 2000AD’s potential, was keen to get a job on the comic. Reading his impressive CV, I thought he’d make a great assistant editor. I had one big reservation, however: he was a hardcore comic fan; worse, he was an American super hero fan, and I was determined to keep American super heroes out of my comic. Any reader of Marshal Law will know my feeling on these corporate characters. They represent and promote establishment values I despise. And, from a commercial point of view, despite all the hype and bullshit, which could make you think superheroes were runaway successes, they didn’t sell well in the UK, I’m pleased to say.
Also, hardcore fans were regarded with some concern by the publishers IPC, and with very good reason. Put simply, such fans were often like those eccentric characters out of The Big Bang Theory. They would invariably have a purist and elitist attitude to comics and put the interests of fans ahead of mainstream readers, whom they seemed to despise. Sales could crash as a result. I was concerned about this very real danger, but finally decided it was better to have a fan who was passionate about comics, than some of the indifferent individuals who were also applying for the job. For instance, a senior IPC editor’s son who told me he didn’t read or watch science fiction, but he would do, if he got the job.
So I carefully schooled Nick in what to say to publisher John Sanders, for his final interview. I told him to play down his fan persona, and “don’t mention the Silver Surfer”. This was because John, too, shared my concerns about super heroes. He knew they were box office poison in the UK. I recommended John gave Nick the job, which he duly did.
Nick’s subsequent key achievement was the Cursed Earth, which is generally recognized as the most popular Dredd of all time. Working alongside Kevin O’Neill, he was the de-facto editor of 2000AD, because Kelvin was creating Starlord. Apparently Kevin and Nick used to have chariot chair races around the office floor after everyone had gone home. Happy days!
Nick had the patience to extract scripts from me, discuss those great spreads, and encourage me to get ever wilder in my storytelling (e.g. bringing back Flesh with Satanus in the Cursed Earth). Nick had even more patience getting Brian Bolland to draw his episodes – a colossal achievement, as Brian was so slow and needed regular encouraging. Nick deserves a medal for that alone.
LOSING TOUCH WITH THE MAINSTREAM
As I say, it was a dangerous path because subsequently Titan only reprinted stories that put fans first and mainstream readers second. Of course there was an overlap, but fans now started to seriously shape 2000AD’s future, which I greatly resented and had several furious conversations with Nick about. Thus Belardinelli’s stories (Dan Dare, Ace Trucking and Slaine) weren’t reprinted by Titan to my huge disappointment. It didn’t matter to Titan that mainstream readers (then the majority of the readers) loved his work. Fans took priority.
At times it felt like the fandom tail was wagging the mainstream dog and this was a direction many editors following in Nick’s footsteps often pursued, preferring fandom to the mainstream. Particularly when the ultra-cool NME climbed on the 2000AD bandwagon and started reviewing the comic, which they called “Toothy”. Inevitably the comic became overly weird to keep NME and similar organisations happy which, of course, was ridiculous.
So we lost thousands upon thousands of mainstream readers who would often write in and bitterly complain that the comic was becoming too elitist and too cool. No, let me be honest – they actually said it was too far up its own arse. I agree. In fact, my own views on this subject are far more profane. I remember wincing when one reader wrote that he loved 2000AD until he was 19, then he realized he just wasn’t hip enough to understand the comic anymore and stopped buying it. There were a lot of readers like that, I’m sad to say.
Whatever you may have read elsewhere, this is the true reason the circulation dropped and why we lost our younger readers, which still angers me. I’d still like to get them back. Other explanations for the drop in circulation are self-serving, complacent bullshit, and I have the info to prove it.
It took present owners Rebellion to reconcile and unite the two sometimes-conflicting directions of fandom and mainstream. They’ve done a remarkable (I would have said impossible) job and succeeded. They like mainstream and have reprinted mainstream artists like Belardinelli and finally given him the respect he deserves. His books have been a commercial success, and readers who had understandably deserted the comic in the Dark Ages of the 90s have been coming back to 2000AD since the Rebellion take-over.
But, whatever my reservations, the harsh truth is that, without Nick and Titan, there was no way 2000AD would have prospered. We definitely owe that to Nick. Without Nick, I rather doubt the comic would have been around today, as there were so many idiots who were intent on its destruction. (For example, one IPC editorial overlord wanted to turn 2000AD into a series of two page stories and have Patrick Moore writing a column for it, even though the great astronomer had actually sneered at the comic.)
So many, many thanks, Nick, for Titan’s crucial contribution in sustaining 2000AD and, above all, for your brilliant editing of the The Cursed Earth. Keep up the chariot racing!
One of the least known 2000AD contributors is
Before I left 2000AD, Deirdre was one of the applicants for the job of assistant editor. I was tremendously impressed by her CV, which included a genuine love for science fiction. Kelvin Gosnell, my editor designate, was equally impressed, so we hired Deirdre, alongside Nick. It was highly unusual for a female journalist to be interested in girls comics, let alone a boys science fiction comic, so I was fascinated to see what she would come up with. In the few weeks I worked with her I could see she was going to make an important creative contribution to the comic.
Sadly, a few months later, IPC moved Deirdre onto the teen romance mag My Guy, even though she said she would have preferred to stay with 2000AD. Editorial assistants were given no choice in these matters. Subsequently she had a distinguished career in women’s magazines as editor of Woman’s Journal and Aura.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if she had become editor of 2000AD, as could so easily have happened. I have no doubt she would have been a massive improvement on some of the people who subsequently edited the comic.
In fact, I was so impressed by Deidre that she is one of several sources for the character of Joy in my black comedy novel, Serial Killer (written with Kevin O’Neill), featuring an alternative history of British comics. The left-wing Joy sets out to change British comics forever and is the architect of a ‘Comics Workshop’ to rival Games Workshop in success and yet still give creators a fair commercial deal. Many readers of Serial Killer have already told me that Joy is their favourite character in the novel.
In this alternate reality of comicdom, the idiots and the exploiters are kept at bay and the good guys actually win! So, of course, it’s complete fantasy, but it’s one we’d all like to think could have come true. And, if it had, British comics would be in far better shape than they are today.
Doctor Morbus will see you now
One of the most important players is:
Gerry’s work is loved by mainstream readers, not so loved by fans, and definitely not loved by his peers. Everyone knows his work: Rogue Trooper, Harry 20: On the High Rock, Fiends of the Eastern Front, VCs etc.
There were difficulties with his stories, which are a matter of record, but IMHO they could be overcome. I’ve edited endless scripts by Gerry so I really know what I’m talking about. To prove my point, just a few years back I edited a Rogue Trooper story by Gerry, which subsequently appeared in the Prog to considerable acclaim. It was his last story. So I know it’s possible, if you want to make it happen. Truth is, his critics didn’t want to make it happen. So one of them, editor Dave Bishop, took over and wrote Gerry’s brilliant and well-loved story Fiends of the Eastern Front. I gather it was not a success.
The ultimate test is: have subsequent Rogue Trooper writers done a better and more popular job? From talking to readers, I’d say: no. The nettle no-one wants to grasp is that Gerry had his military background in the TA. This enabled him to write his stories with conviction and authenticity. Even if his pacing was old school, many readers didn’t care, and pacing can be fixed – not least by the simple process of chucking the script back and making the writer do it again. That’s what I used to do when Gerry’s scripts weren’t right. Or simply deduct the cost of a revision. There’s always a way.
Mainstream readers sensed Gerry’s quality instinctively – it’s why his work is so popular and his successors’ work doesn’t have the same appeal, and thus why Rogue Trooper ain’t around no more. And, in any event, it is Gerry’s character, FFS! No one dares raid Alan Moore or Grant Morrison’s stories to do their own version – even though legally they could. Surely Gerry is entitled to the same respect?
Gerry is a real gentleman, and he’s moved on from 2000AD, so he rarely, if ever, fights his corner. But I have always believed in fighting back when someone takes the piss. So whenever I can, I’ll speak out on his behalf. It’s important to honor great 2000AD creators like Gerry whose work is loved by many of the readers, if not by his peers.
I’d love to see another Fiends by Gerry and I know mainstream readers feel the same way. Gerry told me his idea for a new Fiends, and it sounded pretty cool, as well as other brilliant sf and horror story ideas he has, but I doubt it will happen now. A great pity.
One of my all-time favourite contributors is:
Tony is my dear friend and writing partner on Finn, ABC Warriors: Kronicles of Khaos, selected stories on Flesh and Nemesis, as well as Shadowslayer (Editions Glenat), and Accident Man, now being made into a film starring Scott Adkins and currently in post-production. Tony was also responsible for many of the pagan aspects of Slaine: The Horned God and other Slaine stories. And we wrote Death Game 2020, Punisher 2099 and Ravage 2099 (which Stan Lee asked us to take over from him.)
I would put my avant-garde, pagan friend in the same category as writers who have led exciting lives and therefore have something to write about, rather than dreaming it all up in their back bedroom. I regularly attend pagan events with Tony and I think it’s fair to say a magical time is had by all.
But having a life was not a credential for 2000AD back then, the editor actually declaring, “No! I can’t have a witch writing for 2000AD.” FFS!
What makes his statement even more surprising is that there are at least two other well-known occultists who worked on 2000AD around that time. We must attract them – can’t imagine why! But, for some reason, witches are not acceptable in 2000AD, but magicians are? I hadn’t realized there was a class system in the occult hierarchy! Incredible!
So 2000AD were never comfortable with my choice of writing partner, and there was a lot of sly and rather skilful machinations behind the scenes to keep Tony out, especially when he submitted a solo-written, excellent Judge Dredd. He was after all the co-writer of the million-selling Punisher 2099 and Accident Man, so it was bound to be pretty darn good.
The people concerned with that particular Dredd story seriously wasted Tony’s time, which I suspect was their intention. They were curious to meet him, hear about his fairly exotic life style, and see if there was something in it for them, but never actually had any intention of buying his Dredd. We really don’t need these kind of unpleasant, self-serving games in comics.
So it was jealousy as well as fear that motivated others. One 2000AD staffer admitted to Tony and myself that he was annoyed by Tony’s meteoric success because “he hadn’t paid his dues”. He hadn’t gone through the tortuous Future Shock process first. FFS! Talent will always jump the queue. We’re not working for an effing bank!
It all culminated in one Puritanical 2000AD artist actually reprimanding me for “being involved with someone like that”.
Tony should have been a key 2000AD writer by now, were it not for this truly ludicrous, pathetic and paranoid nonsense. It’s 2000AD’s loss.
Not that he is bothered, having a successful career in music and film, but I still feel the loss and I know so many readers do, too. In fact, Tony has a great sense of humour on the subject. So when a reporter asked him, “What’s it like working under Pat Mills?” He replied, “Well… sometimes Pat is on top, but we also like to change positions, so then I will go on top.”
In fact, Finn was so successful, Dave Bishop told me it actually surpassed Slaine in popularity, which doesn’t surprise me at all. But he refused any more Finn stories, claiming that it was too similar to Slaine. Can’t have too much paganism, apparently. Once again … FFS!
Even today, the shadow of those snide, behind-the-scenes whisperings and machinations have left their mark. Only a few Finn stories have been reprinted, it’s never been collected in album form, despite its huge success, and I’m sure I would be given a convincing reason why I can’t write any new Finn stories with Tony today.
Only I wouldn’t be convinced.
Last, but not least, are four creators who sadly are no longer with us:
MALCOLM SHAW, ALAN MITCHELL, JOHN HICKLENTON and PETER HARRIS
Malcolm was an excellent girls comic writer and wrote some of the early Dredds as well as other SF stories for 2000AD. Given time and encouragement, he would have come up with some amazing serials.
Alan wrote Third World War with me for Crisis and also some ABC Warriors stories. As a black writer, he had some deep and hilarious insights into black culture. Those classic episodes are still amongst my favourites.
John is still amongst my favourite 2000AD artists. As the dumbing down of society accelerated after the millennium, John’s brilliant cult art was amongst the casualties.
Some readers seemed to prefer old-school, meter-running, conventional and depressingly dull comic strip to astonishing and always exciting art by John, whom I call ‘the Jimi Hendrix of comics’. Their voice was loudest and also the most insulting – with some truly disgraceful and vile comments about Johnny’s art that editorial should never, ever have printed – and they won. I can think of one of my Dredd stories as a case in point.
Readers, it seemed, actually preferred desperately dull, ‘by the book’, old fashioned, good storytelling over wild passion and breathtaking imagery. In an ideal world, I’d like good storytelling, too, but if I had to choose, give me passion any time. Johnny was a high-maintenance, maverick genius, but there’s little time for such eccentrics in today’s sombre world.
I ran Peter Harris’ story as the first Judge Dredd in Prog 2 because it literally created the Dredd world. The whole Judge system, the bike on automatic GPS, the mutants, the Empire State road, Dredd as hero – all that came from Peter. Previously Dredd had been a solo Judge but I wasn’t happy with either John’s vision of Dredd or my own. I knew there was something missing. My own script was 7 out of 10 (and was used in prog 3), but I wanted 10 out of 10. I didn’t like the submissions by other writers either. They didn’t quite get it; their tone wasn’t right. Close but no cigar. I vaguely recall talking to Peter over the phone about Dredd, sending him my briefing notes, and then his story came out of the blue. I was stunned! It was exactly what I was looking for! In fact, it was better!
Previously, Peter had submitted a story to John and me on Battle, Four Green Tank Men. As the title suggests, it wasn’t great and I rejected it, but now he had submitted a brilliant world-building script!
Kelvin and I added a twist ending (Mutant punished by being marooned on Devil’s Traffic Island) but it was still basically Peter’s story.
After that, Peter disappeared. I have no recollection of him submitting more scripts, although he may have tried after I left. Then, very recently, Future Shock! director, Paul Goodwin, tracked Mrs Harris down and we learnt the sad news that Peter had passed. But his widow was thrilled to hear of her husband’s success.
I must ask Paul to pass on her details to Rebellion as his estate may be due some royalties for that first episode. I was able to facilitate some royalties to Malcolm Shaw’s widow in a similar way.
Thank you so much, Peter, for your vital contribution to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic by developing the Judge Dredd world.
You, most of all, need to be remembered in this 40th birthday year.