2000AD at Forty

February 22nd, 2017

Borag Thung, Mindlessettes, and happy fortieth birthday to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic!

Normally, what I’d do here is talk a bit about the first issue of 2000AD I ever read, what influence it had on me, and so on. But I was thinking about that issue a couple of days ago, because of an email from Bobsy, and I realised that… it’s not so celebratory.

So what I’m going to do is a two-part post. Today, you get the celebration of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Tomorrow, I talk about the very first story I ever read in my first issue of the comic, and how decades later it has a resonance it just didn’t at the time.

But for today, yes, let’s just be celebratory.

We’ve linked in the past to Tom Ewing (brother of script-droid Al) writing ten years ago about what Thrill-Power is. Ewing is absolutely right that the trash aesthetic that comes from having to churn out as much product as possible is central to why 2000AD worked as well as it did, when it did:

You have a vast demand for material and very little time to produce it. You have a system that rewards speed and quantity over craft and artistic expression. You have output that is being judged entirely on its commercial performance. You have an audience that demands more intense material than you’re actually able to give it. And you have all this market and time pressure being brought to bear on immensely creative, talented individuals, who are too overworked to really be individuals, and who just feed their ideas and talent into the robot bulldozer machine. No doubt it’s a bloody horrible way to make a living– but what it can produce is magnificent.

When 2000AD started, its original publisher IPC worked on what was described as a hatch-match-dispatch system. A new title would be launched, would be given six months to make as much profit as it could, and as soon as sales started dragging, it would be merged with another title, with the most popular strips from both being kept, and the others ditched.

2000AD‘s survival into the 1990s was quite astonishing, and the result of this immense evolutionary pressure was a shark-like predator which ate all its competitors, both within IPC and without. It incorporated (“great news, kids!”) Starlord and Tornado, it tore apart rivals Warrior and Deadline, and with every one of these it became sleeker, more streamlined, and better equipped to defend itself. It survived as publishers collapsed around it – it went from IPC, to Fleetway, to Fleetway Editions, to Egmont, to Rebellion – and as script and art droids left for markets that paid decent wages and gave them some creative rights. (That the “decent wages” and “creative rights” were the terms offered by DC and Marvel in the 1980s tells you just how bad at these things the UK comics industry has always been).

The comic as it is now is something of a living fossil. It was adapted to survive in a cut-throat marketplace, and that marketplace has now disappeared. Comparing it to its near-contemporary Doctor Who Magazine, the only other survivor from their generation, is instructive – both have gone from mass-market children’s comic to specialist publication for an adult hobbyist audience. In Doctor Who Magazine‘s case, it’s no longer a comic at all, except for a few pages each issue hanging on like a vestigial tail – it spent a decade or more as a ridiculously detailed examination of British genre TV, full of profiles of character actors, which made Doctor Who possibly the most documented TV programme ever, and then turned into a PR magazine – while 2000AD is now a classy, upmarket, comic.

It’s a very good one – and in the case of Al Ewing’s work, or John Wagner’s continuing Judge Dredd stories, for example, far better than it was at the height of its popularity. But it’s no longer the same repository of Thrill-Power that it was, precisely because of that evolutionary process.

These days, everyone knows what a 2000AD story is, and how to tell one, and so there’s a minimum level of competence that is assumed. But in the early years – and I’d count everything up to about the time of the Stallone Dredd film as “the early years” in this context – it was a monstrously difficult magazine to put out, requiring far more material than could sensibly be produced, and so it would try anything and would latch on to any trend. CB radio is a craze this month? Ten-four good buddy! We’ll have some space truckers who speak in CB slang. Jaws is big? We’ll have a killer polar bear. ET is coming out? Quick, get Alan Moore to write a knock-off of it. Boys From the Blackstuff is huge on the TV? OK, throw that into the ET knockoff too…

Much of this stuff was crap, and was written by the kind of people for whom the word “hack” was created (although 2000AD was extremely lucky to have at its core through the 70s and 80s three writers who could, more often than not, provide the impossible combination of good, quick, and cheap – John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Pat Mills), and strips would often be swapped between artists on a week-by-week basis (Ron Smith, Brian Bolland, and Mike McMahon are all extraordinary artists, but the three of them telling the same story doesn’t really give it much in the way of stylistic consistency). But extreme variations mean that you get extreme highs as well as extreme lows, and the highs of 2000AD were extraordinarily high.

Everyone talks about Judge Dredd, of course, and rightly so – he’s the one British character in the action-adventure genre to be able legitimately to be talked about in the same sentence as US characters such as Batman or Spider-Man (even if, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, the sentence would usually start “Judge Dredd, unlike US characters such as Batman or Spider-Man…”). But Zenith, Halo Jones, Button Man, Big Dave, D.R. & Quinch, Nemesis the Warlock and more have provided British comics with some of their greatest moments.

These days, 2000AD is a veteran, and much like veterans in the rock music world, it alternates between “returns to form” and lapses into dullness, without ever being as innovative as it was in its hungry youth. But like the best of those veterans it’s stuck around for a reason.

Florix grabundae for a zarjaz forty years, Tharg, and thrashoruns for a scrotnig next forty!

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9 Responses to “2000AD at Forty”

  1. Aonghus Fallon Says:

    I still get 2000AD every week but I’m pretty typical of the demographic you’re talking about – ie, a 53-year-old man who has been buying it pretty much since it came out. Like you say, its earlier output was more uneven, but it was surfing the zeitgeist whereas now it is catering to a niche audience. I still reckon there’s the odd stand-out story mixed in with more traditional fare – e.g. “Brass Sun”,’DeFoe’ & “The Red Seas’, although I guess these all have a certain retro feel to them? (‘The Red Seas’ was even occasionally printed in black and white)

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Oh yes, there’s still a lot of very good stuff there — Al Ewing’s work, or Arthur Wyatt’s, deserves to be rated with the best of the past stuff. Just to be clear, the fact that it’s not the innovative, spiky, thing it was forty years ago isn’t meant to be a criticism. It does what it does very, *very* well. But I suspect it’s not being bought by many eleven-year-olds any more.

  3. Aonghus Fallon Says:

    ‘Damnation Station’ was pretty good. ‘Zaucer of Zilk’ had an early Seventies vibe (at least for me) and I wonder how it went down with readers in general. ‘Zombo’ reminded me of other 2000ad types (e.g. a character who’s principally defined by the havoc he leaves in his wake) – not necessarily a bad thing, I hasten to add. I don’t know much about Wyatt’s stuff as I don’t get the Judge Dredd Megazine (although there was an overlapping storyline involving both publications recently).

  4. Interesting Links for 24-02-2017 | Made from Truth and Lies Says:

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  5. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Future Shocked Says:

    [...] I was preparing my piece on 2000AD‘s fortieth anniversary, I was reading through the new edition of Thrill-Power Overload, the history of 2000AD (a genuinely [...]

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