2000AD artist Henry Flint still recalls the excitement of encountering the first issue of the weekly SF-adventure comic. It was, he says, “nasty, brutal. Parents hated it. The morality of the heroes was questionable. After the Beano, I was a little scared. I loved it.”
It’s hardly surprising that his seven year old self would feel that way. 2000AD was nasty and brutal and purposefully so. A long-pent up snarl of frustration and ambition from creators weary of profoundly conservative comics, 2000AD featured the grimmest of anti-heroes in absurdly amped-up, fantastical tales with more than just a taste of radical agitprop. An America devastated by nuclear war and ruled over by one-strike-and-you’re-executed blackshirts! Giant intelligent dinosaurs warring on time-travelling cowboys sent back to slaughter them from an environmentally-depleted and meatless 23rd century! Like so much of the very best pop culture, 2000AD took a generally dismissed form and infused it with innovative storytelling, challenging politics and a gleefully taboo-busting sense of the transgressive. “As a kid, 2000AD was a friend, it was my secret.” remembers Flint, “I felt like I’d been accepted into a secret club.”
Writer Al Ewing, who’s been a frequent collaborator of Flint’s, was similarly impressed by the copies which his elder brother brought home every week; “2000AD taught me the first lessons about how deft and intelligent comics could be, while at the same time being a thrill-ride suitable for all ages. After that I kind of stopped paying attention to the people trying to teach me that comics were inherently junk.”
The same old tiresome debates about whether comics are a legitimate form are still being played out in today’s Sunday supplements. But out in the real world, the past year has been a remarkable success for 2000AD and its publisher Rebellion Press. The transformation of the entertainment landscape means it’s no longer able to rely on a mass audience of young readers inculcated with the habit of reading comics. But Rebellion’s responded by nurturing new markets for its huge library of characters and stories through book collections and digital distribution, films and gaming and audio plays, and so on.
With the movie adaption of its flagship character Judge Dredd triumphantly topping the British box-office earlier in the year, the comic itself has continued to focus on ingeniously-crafted “thrill-rides”. (The comic has its own tongue-in-cheek vocabulary – stories are “thrills”, issues are “progs”, and the whole thing is “edited” by an alien from Betelgeuse called Tharg).The content itself is typically a touch more measured now, aimed as it is at an older audience. But the comic’s never lost its signature fusion of out-there excitement, ever-ambitious craftsmanship and smart, challenging content. As Flint says, “It can’t be what it was in the 80’s, but it’s evolved into something relevant for today. It seems to have settled into a new identity which still delivers the pathos and humour while offering a mirror to the modern world.”
Whether working together or with other creators, Flint and Ewing’s contributions to 2000AD are marked by a determination to be both accessible and innovative, populist and experimental. There’s nothing precious or pretentious about their pages, but there is a fierce conviction that empty-hearted retreads of past features and complacent narrative shortcuts are to be avoided at all costs. (Ewing; “When you look at your work and think how perfect it is, that’s the start of the long decline.”) As such, their body of work together is notably versatile and entertaining, packed as it tends to be with a willingness to hybridize 2000AD‘s strips with a broad range of cultural influences. Their recent, claustrophobically noir-tinged take on Judge Dredd – the future’s most fascist super-cop – unexpectedly drew from the paranoia and scheming of John Le Carre’s spy novels. Yet in an extravagant contrast, their horror-comedy Zombo mixed precisely calibrated farce with broad political satire, as they exuberantly lashed out at reactionary politicos, 21st century celebrity culture and slack-minded genre clichés alike.
Both men are quick to praise the way in which the current editorial regime under Matt Smith at 2000AD supports their ambitions. Ewing refers to Smith as “one of the best editors you could possibly have”, while Flint lauds the “freedom to experiment, change style, pick and choose who you want to work with and which projects you’d like to work on.” It’s a style of management that’s helped the comic thrive every bit as much as Rebellion’s innovative approach to marketing. Ewing’s values the fact that “once someone creates a new strip, it’s generally understood that nobody else will be working on it, so I won’t open the comic one day and see my character taken over by someone else.” Some writers and artists working elsewhere in the comics industry on company-owned properties may find such a fundamentally respectful situation difficult to believe in. But it’s certainly paid off for 2000AD and its monthly sister title, Judge Dredd: The Megazine.
A comic that’s approaching its 36th year in print might be expected to be heading for heritage status, safely churning out approximations of old glories for an ever-diminishing audience. Yet no one could hold on to such an assumption after interviewing Flint and Ewing. Both speak enthusiastically, for example, of their involvement in the recent Trifecta crossover, in which a trio of apparently quite separate strips by entirely different creative teams were slowly revealed to be telling the same story from quite different perspectives. The equivalent of a series of prime-time cop shows reaching mid-series before unexpectedly beginning to merge, Trifecta presented the reader with an unusually complex and inventive cross-narrative concerning a coup in Judge Dredd’s beloved Mega-City One. An experiment the likes of which the comic had never seen before, it’s been greeted with unanimously positive reviews.
Yet no matter how enthused by that experience Flint’s been, he’s still playfully sure that the next Zombo series will be, all “modesty set aside … brilliant”. But then, as Ewing argues, “the best thing we’ve done together is always the newest thing”.
The last word should perhaps go to Ewing, a novelist as well as a comics’ scripter. When asked whether 2000AD was still an important comic in 2012, his response was unequivocal:
“It’s always been an important comic.”
With thanks to Henry Flint and Al Ewing for their generous help. This piece was originally published at newstatesmen.com as part of its British Comics Week.