When 2000AD Was The Future

35 years on and still 2000AD remains a classic, even if it was wildly inaccurate...
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35 years on and still 2000AD remains a classic, even if it was wildly inaccurate...

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It was heartening to read today that veteran sci-fi comic book 2000AD was celebrating its 35th birthday party at a sold-out SFX Weekender in Prestatyn. For a few fleeting seconds, I was right back in the 1970s, watching a TV ad (on a black and white set) for an exciting new comic book. It cost eight of your Earth pence, came with a free ‘Space Spinner’ and promised it would be ‘in orbit every Monday’.

Like the sudden warmth of remembrance for a long-forgotten old friend, I had happened on a piece of the future from way back in my past. (Vivid memory as ‘Future Shock’ or perhaps ‘á la recherche de l’avenir perdue’.)  In February 1977 when 2000AD was launched, the year sounded ever so modern and far off in the glittering 21st century. Before 2000AD’s launch, comic books for me had meant BeanoThe BeezerWarlord or Action.

Naturally, I was a member of Desperate Dan Pie Eaters Club, not to mention being a fully-paid up and Lord Peter Flint-certified Secret Agent in Warlord’s fan club. My only real deviation from this diet of World War Two derring do and 1950s schoolboy japery were the very occasional Marvel or DC comics brought by relatives returning from America. In those pre-Star Wars days, I can promise you that County Mayo was much more Cowboys and Indian than little green men.

But seductive novelty aside, sci-fi also seemed much less problematic as a comic book genre. Without getting too political about it, sci-fi offered the perfect escape from the Troubles. The VictorWarlordBattle and Bullet were all fine and dandy but even as a youngster, I had begun to question the ideological disconnect between the clear-cut heroism of the British soldiers in these WWII comics and the contradictory ambivalence and indifference shown to the ones that were being shot at on the streets and lanes of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.

Sci-fi offered no such dilemmas or difficult reconciliations. In 2000AD, the flawed present could be reduced to back story for an exciting future. In the early strip Flesh for example, the plot revolved around Trans-time, a free-booting company sent its operatives back in time to harvest dinosaur meat for a starving dystopian future world, by-passing the present entirely in favour of traffic between a prehistoric past and a dark voracious future.

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This comic book seemed to offer a future that was often decisively severed from our present by the finality of nuclear Armageddon; an all-pervading preoccupation of the 70s and 80s. That Cold War fixation could also offer a more ‘near future’ style of narrative such as the strip Invasion! which pitted tough London lorry driver turned guerrilla fighter Bill Savage against thinly-veiled Soviet ciphers ‘the Volgans’ in their invasion of the United Kingdom in a putative 1999.

I was hooked from the start but it was a character that made his debut in the second issue (that’s ‘Prog 2’ to the initiated) who has earned a place in the All Time Pantheon of Comic Heroes.

Judge Dredd, a figure as archetypal as Superman (Nietzsche’s or DC’s), is probably 2000AD’s most identifiable character. He is big enough to share headline billing with Batman (Judgement on Gotham); he has already been given the Hollywood treatment once with Sly Stallone taking the old stony face role.  The Mega-City lawman is now ready once again for his close up; the latest adaptation – scripted by Alex (28 Days Later) Garland – is pencilled in for release in September of this year.

But as early 2000AD readers, in that first year and a half, we followed Dredd through the mean streets of Mega City One as he battled robot revolts and then, in a fatal fratricidal showdown, he dispatched his own cloned brother Rico. Then it was off to the moon for a brief posting where he cleaned up Luna-1. But it was the first Cursed Earth story that really saw Dredd grow in stature. Those storylines (from Prog 61 – 85) represented the first epic cycle in the Dredd mythos.

I have such vivid recollection of daydreaming and doodling away many an hour between ‘Progs’ speculating  earnestly about how Dredd might escape the clutches of Satanus, the GM T-Rex.

Following Dredd’s serialised exploits as his mission of mercy took on him on a journey across the apocalyptic American wilderness between the two Mega Cities was the acme of cliffhanging anticipation; a week seemed like an eternity to wait between instalments.

I have such vivid recollection of daydreaming and doodling away many an hour between ‘Progs’ speculating  earnestly about how Dredd might escape the clutches of Satanus, the GM T-Rex.  Or in that fantastic Death Valley showdown, faced with General Blood ‘n’Guts and the robotic Legion of the Damned, how would Dredd and his dwindling band of misfit comrades escape certain death in their Alamo-style last stand?

If we stray from warm recollection and briefly foray into objective artistic assessment; this publication was, in its time, home to some of the UK’s top comic artists and writers. Pat Mills, the man who started it all, was already a veteran of Battle and Action before he created 2000AD. (For an in-depth interview with Mills on Sabotage Times click here).

Alan Moore also earned a living at 2000AD before going on to pen the masterpieces Watchmen and V for Vendetta which, it could be argued, transcend genre and have earned the right to be considered classics however you shape your canon of literature . Other notable alumni of IPC Tower include Neil (Sandman) Gaiman, Grant (Arkham Asylum)  Morrison and Brian Bolland (widely considered to be the definitive Dredd artist).

One of the most satisfying aspects of reading 2000AD was the whole shared universe idea. It was possible over time to link Flesh with Judge Dredd through the dinosaur Satanus; the futuristic games of games of Aeroball and Inferno  could also be connected to Dredd through the Harlem Heroes’ John ‘Giant’ Clay.  These and many other links and spin-offs gave the 2000AD multi-verse an immensely satisfying depth of dimension. And let’s not forget that the venerable editor Tharg was never afraid to take a chance on a long-shot.

Funnily enough, one of my early 2000AD favourites isn’t really a sci-fi strip. The Fiends of the Eastern Front was actually a Second World War vampire story. The unlikely protagonist was a Wehrmacht soldier who discovered that some of his Romanian allies were vampires. Later in the war, after Romania changed sides, the German soldier was the only one who knew their secret. With its constant knowing nods to popular culture, I sometimes feel that 2000AD’s imagined future gave my ilk the rudiments of a futurist folklore; a hard-edged mythology forged in a post-punk crucible and liberated from the obligations of historical narrative.

I’m happy to report that my top memories from 1977 were reading my first copy of 2000AD, followed by my First Holy Communion.

"When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

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September 2011 is a huge month in the world of comics as DC launches the ‘New 52’. With traditional print media numbers falling the comics giant has taken the boldest step possible by re-launching its entire universe and embracing a digital readership. The Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman known and loved by so many remain intact, but every character across DC’s publications begins again with new ‘issue one’ comics.

Most aren’t having their origins retold but all have either been subtly or radically overhauled to reflect a changing world. Free of the bonds of years and years of continuity, hopes are high that new readers will come onboard and embrace a world that in the past has been seen as unwelcoming and complicated to break into.

For instance people who watched ‘The Dark Knight” at the cinema and wanted to begin reading the comics were faced with a run by Grant Morrison in which Batman was entrenched in a saga three years in the making. This complicated arc punished those that hadn’t been reading since day one, involving amongst other things ‘Doctor Hurt’ as the lead villain having last been seen in the 60s, Bruce Wayne’s test tube birthed son and attempts to tie in over fifty years of continuity into one ‘definitive’ story.

Along with this and a multitude of economic reasons they’ve also been lagging behind main rival Marvel in sales, a company who’ve successfully tapered their printed output to run in line with a series of films featuring their biggest names. This ‘New 52’ is by no means a last roll of the dice, but it does represent a step away from their traditional audience and a move to a world without their own self-imposed conventions.

It’s also an acknowledgement that DC are willing to take big decisions regarding ‘their’ world having missed huge opportunities in the past. A case in point for one of the biggest was a loss of nerve to run with an idea that would have reshaped the fabric of not just their own output, but potentially set a new benchmark for the whole industry. Back in the late 80s DC managed to reject the greatest comic book event never written – Alan Moore’s ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’.