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2000AD: Dare the Future with the Galaxy's Greatest Comic!

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It was almost thirty-five years ago, in February 1977, that we primitive humans were first hurled into the far, far future world of 2000AD, and what a bizarre world it was! Springing from the fertile brain of Pat Mills, the man who had delighted kids and outraged parents with Action just the previous year, the self-styled ‘Galaxy’s Greatest Comic’ introduced the bewildered kids of mid ‘70s Britain to a universe of limitless possibilities; from futuristic football players to time travelling cowboys trapping dinosaurs for their flesh to feed a starving world. But it’s unlikely that anyone involved back then really foresaw the impact of the phenomenon they were creating.

Originally created by Pat Mills and John Wagner, at the suggestion of editor Kelvin Gosnell (alter ego of the comic’s alien editor, Tharg), 2000AD was an attempt to cash in on the then imminent craze for SF which Gosnell knew would be generated by a wave of forthcoming science-fiction movies (including the original Star Wars). As such, it was never really envisaged as being a long-term success - crazes tending to come and go - but 2000AD’s creators had faith in it, and a great deal more commitment than the old hands behind a lot of publishers Fleetway’s other titles at the time, most of whom did not really see the potential of comics in quite the same way.

To begin with, 2000AD was not that different to a lot of the titles that had preceded it, the most notable strips in issue one being M.A.C.H. 1 (essentially a rip-off of the then popular TV character the Six Million Dollar Man, though agent John Probe probably came rather cheaper since he basically got his superhuman powers from a form of acupuncture involving electrified needles!) and Dan Dare, a reinvention of the 1950s hero of the legendary Eagle comic, now inexplicably updated from a spacefaring Biggles to a sci-fi version of Dirty Harry. But then, in Prog #2 (‘Prog’ standing for ‘Programme’, which sounded more futuristic than ‘issue’) a new character appeared, the fascist future cop Judge Dredd, and British comics would never be the same again!

It took a few months for Dredd, an emotionless law enforcer in a nightmarish Mega City of the future, to really get into his stride. But when he did, he quickly became one of 2000AD’s most popular characters. The attraction for readers was less to do with Dredd himself (who often seemed more like a robot than a man and was never seen without his face-obscuring helmet - two things which seemed to render him something of a blank slate in terms of personality) than it was the world he inhabited. Mega City One was a city of several hundred million people taking up much of what had, prior to a nuclear war which devastated much of the world, been the Eastern seaboard of the United States. The city was a crazy place, where criminals serving life sentences were imprisoned on a giant traffic island surrounded by cars constantly moving at a hundred miles an hour so guards were not needed, where the Mayor was an Orang-utan called Dave, and where citizens indulged in a seemingly endless variety of weird crazes in order to stave off the boredom of a lifetime spent in a city with 90% unemployment.

            

Keeping a lid on the constantly building pressure in the Mega City were the Judges, trained from the age of five (or in the case of Dredd, a clone, from birth) to care for nothing but the law, a law in which the smallest infraction was dealt with mercilessly. The strip was part action adventure, part satire on our own world taken to extremes, and the readers loved it.

As time went on, some of the original line-up fell by the wayside (notably Dan Dare, a character nobody really knew what to do with in this brave new world, having gone from Clint Eastwood clone with a crew of ex-cons to a costumed superhero facing down the evil Mekon armed with Eternicus, the Cosmic Claw) but were replaced by others who by accident or design captured the readers’ imaginations in a big way. John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ian Gibson’s Sam Slade, Robo-Hunter, a wisecracking and rather cynical private eye, quipped his way through a series of anarchic adventures with insane mechanoids, armed only with his wits and a large blaster gun and aided by a supporting cast including a dim-witted robot built from a kit, a talking robotic Cuban cigar and an embittered space pilot named Jim Kidd who was trapped in the body of a one year old. M.A.C.H. 1 died, but was replaced by his monstrous predecessor, the failed experiment M.A.C.H. Zero.

           

The premature demise of sister comic StarLord brought mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, AKA the Strontium Dog into the fold, as well as the lunatic members of the disaster squad named Ro-Busters, notably the ill matched pairing of sewer robot Ro-Jaws and ex-war droid Hammerstein, forebears of the fan favourite ABC Warriors. The equally swift cancellation of Tornado weekly yielded telepathic teen Wolfie Smith and time-displaced Roman centurion Black-Hawk, now fighting in an alien arena. And as 2000AD moved into the Eighties we were introduced to a whole host of new stars in the comics firmament; Rogue Trooper, Slaine and many others.

The Eighties were a golden age for 2000AD. But more than that they were something of a new golden age for the comics industry in part because of 2000AD, with the creators of strips such as Slaine, Nemesis and Skizz - individuals like Alan Moore, Bryan Talbot, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Alan Davis and Kevin O’Neill - coming to the attention of the big American publishers because of their work on the comic (and to a slightly lesser extent, in the case of Moore and Davis, their work for Warrior magazine and Marvel UK). Many of those creators were duly head-hunted by Marvel or DC, reinvigorating the by then moribund US comics industry, while 2000AD sought out a new wave of talent to replace them - people like Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison - who were in turn snapped up by the big boys in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The cycle continued.

As 2000AD moved into the Nineties, its fortunes rose and dipped several times. Spin-off publications abounded, like the long running Judge Dredd Megazine and Pat Mills’ shorter lived but often groundbreaking Crisis, but revamps of the formerly popular Rogue Trooper and Robo-Hunter, amongst others, did not do as well as the original versions, and the killing-off of Johnny Alpha (a decision which so upset long-time Strontium Dog artist Carlos Ezquerra that he refused to draw it) also proved a mistake.

                     

In addition, 2000AD’s publisher, Fleetway, went through changes of ownership, first becoming a part of Robert Maxwell’s media empire, then a part of London Editions, before eventually being sold off (in 2000, appropriately enough) to games developer Rebellion, under whose stewardship it has recovered from the mistakes of the Nineties and become a force to be reckoned with once more. Old troupers like Dredd and a revived Johnny Alpha sit alongside newer stars such as Russian rogue Nikolai Dante, the hapless hit-men Sinister-Dexter and the loveable flesh eater Zombo. And the ideas keep coming.

Eleven years after the far future it was named for finally arrived (an era which sadly proved devoid of the personal jet packs and flying cars we’d all been promised by many a mid-Seventies edition of the TV show Tomorrow’s World), 2000AD is now firmly established as one of the mainstays of the admittedly sadly diminished British comics industry. If not quite as popular now as it’s ever been (which comics are?) then at least more than holding its own.  

Judge Dredd is on the verge of making a second bid for movie stardom (we don’t talk about the first), Arthur Ranson’s critically acclaimed 1990s series Button Man has been optioned for a movie, there are computer games and collected editions and mad Celtic axe-man Slaine is conquering Europe’s bookstores in graphic novel form. 

But perhaps more importantly, 2000AD continues to find the best and brightest new British comics talents, doing its bit to prop up our beloved comics industry as few other titles can or ever have. Long may it continue to do so!

2000AD is published weekly by Rebellion. Check out the official 2000AD website here.

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Comments

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Aug 16, 2011 at 9:53am

    Great article about the history of 2000 AD in a nutshell! thanks

  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 16, 2011 at 11:28am

    Helped immensely by an inspired choice of images (cheers, Andy). Those covers bring back some memories...

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 16, 2011 at 11:55am

    Those '70s-mid '80s days of 2000AD are definitely my favourite era! Possibly coloured by nostalgia but there was just *something* extra special about that time.

  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 16, 2011 at 3:17pm

    Oh, I agree! Up to about Prog #500, I'd say. Pick up any issue from, say, 1983 and you won't find one clunker amongst the five or six stories, no matter what the lineup.

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