Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Happy 30th Birthday, 2000 AD!

Thirty years ago this week, Tharg the Mighty, a grouchy, irritable, egotistical alien from the planet Quaxxan in the star-system of Betelguese, brought thrillpower to Earth in the form of 2000 AD, the greatest comic that there's ever been.

That's not entirely true, of course. 2000 AD, the home of Judge Dredd, was actually devised by Pat Mills and John Wagner, who had earlier created the anthologies Action and Battle Picture Weekly for IPC. For thirty years of almost continuous publication - there was an agonizing four week layoff in 1984 thanks to some labor unrest - 2000 AD has provided the most consistently entertaining comics read in the business. It's launched the careers of about half the people in modern comics who are worth reading. It's also responsible, unfortunately, for Mark Millar, but you got Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, Frazer Irving, Brian Bolland, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon and Carlos Ezquerra out of the deal, which more than makes up for it, I think.

Thirty years. That's crazy. I started reading before the eighth birthday issue.

Anthologies don't really work in America; most readers look at them in terms of the individual stories and characters and would prefer just one title for each of the most interesting features. But 2000 AD is a case where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The anthology format, tied together by the goofy nonsense about it being created by an alien and his staff of droids who get rewards in oil rations, makes the overall package simply the most fun thing to read in the comic shop. (The "edited by a work of fiction" concept used to be pretty common in British comics, but it has its roots in American titles. Everybody remembers the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt, not to mention his spiritual successors in DC horror titles: Cain, Abel, Eve, Destiny and the others.)

But as fun as the package is, the individual series within 2000 AD's covers are of course the reason to keep coming back. Initially aimed at an audience of nine year-old boys, its present remit is now, naturally, towards an older audience, but - and here's where 2000 AD gets right what Marvel and DC get so very, very wrong - an older, more sophisticated and mature audience that nevertheless totally loves going completely over the top with high-concept, rocket fuel ideas unlike anything else you can see in any medium. It's a book where Sir Isaac Newton can get in a wrestling match with a werewolf in one story, and a fellow gets a tyrannosaur surgically grafted to the top of his head in the next, and an undercover officer thrust on stage at a massive rock festival improvises a metal tune about how badly he needs to piss right now in the next, and a robot flamethrower with a head like a Zippo lighter turns out to be an undercover intelligence droid in the next. All written and illustrated by the best creative teams in comics.

Many comics readers are more familiar with later works by 2000 AD's top talent for other companies with larger wallets and better American distribution. Funny thing, though... I think Grant Morrison's best work has come for DC Comics, but just about all the other major names were coming up with their most outlandish and spectacular ideas for the little newspaper anthology that most American readers have maybe just sort-of-heard-about. Alan Moore, for instance, has a justifiably great reputation for his books Watchmen and From Hell, but his most brilliant work was a little five-page strip called "Chronocops" which appeared without hype or herald tucked away in issue # 310. Simultaneously the funniest time travel story ever written and among the most clever, tightly-plotted scripts ever seen in comics, it's Moore's greatest triumph. Well, that or the one with the thin planet that's used as the galaxy's largest record, with three-mile deep canyons full of screaming marsupials for grooves.

There was a sagging period in the early 1990s. The comic had gone through a period where the editors weren't cultivating new talent the way they might have and found themselves with 50% more pages to fill when a companion anthology, The Judge Dredd Megazine, was launched, and many of its top creators were wooed by American companies, particularly to settle into DC's nascent Vertigo imprint. So the quality ebbed for a few years - I think of them as the "Brett Ewins coloring book" era - until a new editor, David Bishop, whose authorized history of the comic, Thrill-Power Overload!, will be in bookstores in March, brought a new focus, new talent, and a host of new ongoing series to the title. There have been two Thargs since Bishop resigned his Rosette of Sirius; Andy Diggle, who has been working for American comics and is about to begin a run on Hellblazer, and Matt Smith, the incumbent who's writing the snarky comebacks in the letters page and really stoking the thrillpower engines to maximum with a host of great new commissioned storylines.

There have been some efforts at breaking America by finding co-publishing allies (such as Eagle, Quality or Titan) or letting DC make its own, mediocre Judge Dredd comic for a while, but over the last couple of years, 2000 AD has retargeted its efforts and worked internally to assemble the best-looking line of trade paperbacks and graphic novels in the market. The weak US dollar ensures they're a bit costly, but the excellent paper and matte covers, combined with extra features, background material and supplemental art, not to mention occasional new artwork on the covers, makes these the best-looking and sharpest collections on the shelves. (And heck, I was pleased with the DC/Rebellion collaborations of 2004-05; the current crop, released two a month, are streets superior in production design and overall quality.)

I've stepped in and out of various fandoms throughout the years, but it wasn't until the mid-nineties and I got online and found the alt.comics.2000ad newsgroup that I really got to interact lots of other 2000 AD fans. I'd been reading for a decade - my best friend introduced me to it - but there were never any American fan organizations, and since in the US, the comic was then ten or more weeks' behind the UK publishing, it would have been unfeasible to even bother with British fandom since I'd end up being so far behind. Getting online and making the very first "series index" webpage (the original, even uglier, version of Touched by the Hand of Tharg) let me finally get to interact with other fans, ten years after I first climbed onboard, with a prog that featured Dredd, Halo Jones, Nemesis, Rogue Trooper and, err... The Helltrekkers. Well, they don't shoot 100% every week, but frankly, even a quality-scale-reading of "excellent" on two out of five strips is reason enough for me to buy. These days we're closer to only three weeks behind the UK issues, and the official messageboard is the greatest, most troll-free forum online. I just wish I could get to it from work...

And I'll say this with all sincerity: 2000 AD fandom is by far the best fandom I've ever seen. There's never been crazy fan-schisms or blocs of uber-fans spoiling fun for the newbies. Folk don't even take that much stick for admitting they like "that film." People turn over chunks of their collections to newer fans and help each other on projects, and the official website even hosts some folks' fan-created strips and stories. 2000 AD's always had a healthy relationship with small press creators and the zine world, and a number of unofficial, fan-created sites are hosted on the official site's server.

All the love and attention and care are worth it because 2000 AD's series are just so freaking fantastic. There's Robo-Hunter by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ian Gibson, my all-time favorite series, which is a comedic mess about a detective who tracks down recalcitrant robots. And D.R. & Quinch by Alan Moore and Alan Davis, about two juvenile delinquents who run cons and get into incredibly violent mayhem. And Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser (among others), which is a "future history" about a Russian rogue caught between two warring dynasties. And Zenith by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, which looks at an alternate timeline where the British government bio-engineered superheroes. And Leviathan by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, about a luxury liner which left Britain in the 1930s and, decades later, still hasn't reached New York. And Caballistics Inc. by Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon, about a privately-funded team of ghosthunters. And Nemesis the Warlock by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill (among others), in which Earth has devolved into jingoistic, religious maniacs on a crusade to wipe out alien life. And Indigo Prime by John Smith and Chris Weston, which is about an organization which defends reality from disturbances in time. And hundreds of others.

2000 AD's thirtieth anniversary issue is on newsstands this week in England and will be in better US shops in March. It features new outings for Savage along with Nikolai Dante, plus a new Tharg Tale by Robin Smith and a one-off episode of the classic thrill Flesh by Mills and Ramon Sola. Plus Judge Dredd. He's in it every week. And new stories for Sinister Dexter and Samantha Slade, Robo-Hunter start in the next issue.

The collections continue at the rate of about two a month. The fifth Nikolai Dante collection is out in March, along with the Thrill-Power Overload! history mentioned above. April will see the third book of The ABC Warriors by Mills and Kevin Walker and the complete Asylum by Rob Williams and Boo Cook.

I thought and thought about a good way to wrap this up, but I couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound trite. I enjoyed this article from BBC Online on Monday, which explains a little more about 2000 AD's longevity and charm, even if the perennially cranky Ian Gibson gets a little sour about whippersnappers and their video games at the end. It doesn't really explain the addictive properties of concentrated thrillpower all that well; you'll need the actual comics for that. If your local comic shop's worth a darn, they can get it for you. Try it for two months and see if you're not sold on the Galaxy's Greatest Comic for life. Another very nice article appeared in yesterday's Independent, and creators have been making the rounds of various radio programs over the last week. It's funny, although not completely unexpected, to see considerably more attention paid to this anniversary by more traditional media outlets than the typical comic "news" sites.


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(Originally published 2/28/07 at LiveJournal)