Having had the temerity to outlive its own self-imposed sell-by date, the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic has enjoyed a long and eventful history.
The initial idea for a sci-fi weekly came from Kevin Gosnell, who was working as a sub-editor in the competitions department at IPC. Having read a newspaper article predicting the genre was the next big thing at the box office (Star Wars was on its way), he became convinced the oncoming craze could be profitably exploited, even if it was going to prove short-lived. “It must make money while riding the crest,” he wrote in a memo, “and could be used for a merge when it becomes uneconomic”.
Editorial director John Sanders was sufficiently impressed to set wunderkind Pat Mills onto the job of putting the title together. Having successfully launched Battle and Action, could the writer come up with a third hit in a row?
Despite his suspicions about the genre (he hadn’t allowed any SF in Action), Mills got to work, formulating a comic that would continue his anti-establishment themes. Heavily influenced by publications from the continent, he was determined to rope in a new wave of European artists to work on the comic, which at that time was known as ‘AD 2000′ (a title that came from Sanders).
From fairly early on the idea occurred to lead with a new, revamped Dan Dare strip. Not only had the character been a great success first time around in Eagle mk I, but his return would also provide the launch with a good publicity angle.
Bringing in sparring-partner and fellow Battle creator John Wagner, the two started thinking about possible story ideas. Wagner felt the comic needed a cop character and suggested a futuristic version of ‘One-Eyed Jack’, the Dirty Harry-lite he’d created for Valiant. In search of a name, Mills suggested ‘Judge Dread’, which was the title of an occult strip he’d been toying with for the publication – until he’d been persuaded it wouldn’t fit into the mix. Changing that to ‘Judge Dredd’ to avoid confusion with the comedy reggae artist who was bothering the pop charts at the time, the concept was passed onto Battle artist Carlos Ezquerra to visualise.
In the meantime, Paul DeSavery became interested in the duo’s activities. Having bought the film rights to Dan Dare, he was now checking out the possibility of buying up their comic. For Mills and Wagner this would mean they’d finally be free of in-house politics and could each expect a share in the title’s profits rather than having to accept a miserly £10 page fee. Unfortunately for them, the IPC board rejected the deal and now thoroughly disgruntled with the whole thing, Wagner quit leaving his partner to soldier on alone.
Exhausted by the trials of bring 2000 AD to life, Mills informed Sanders he had no desire to edit the title past launch and suggested the mantle be passed onto the man who’d had the idea in the first place – Kelvin Gosnell.
That first issue hit the news stands dated February 26, 1977. As Mills had guessed, the return of Dan Dare had provided the publication with some pretty decent newspaper coverage (a trick later repeated by Eagle mk II), and IPC had even shelled out for a spot of TV advertising.
Arriving with a free space spinner (nee ‘a frisbee’ – another trick to be repeated by Eagle mk II), the first issue may have sported “space-age dinosaurs” and the adventures of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN-influenced MACH-1 whose “incredible hyper-power will amaze you!”, but there was one thing it didn’t have: Judge Dredd. Due to the continuing difficulties in finding a suitable writer and artist for the strip (there’d been disagreements with Ezquerra), the Lawman of the Future’s first story just wasn’t ready in time. It wasn’t seen as a huge problem, however, as a certain Pilot of the Future was considered the big draw here.
The first story, ‘Invasion’ brought us that Volgan army parachuting into London with guns blazing as “War with the East!” was declared in the media. Even Angela Rippon was roped in, telling readers via a ‘stereopanorama’ television set: “For the first time in a thousand years – Britain has been invaded!” Worse was to come as just a couple of pages on, poor old Ange herself fell foul of the attacking squad who stormed BBC TV Centre. “The last free broadcast is over!” While the army failed to withstand the onslaught, there was one man who wouldn’t be messed with – lorry driver Bill Savage. “I ain’t running from dirty Volgans!” he exclaimed as he unloaded two barrels into an enemy patrol vehicle. “Experience future shock again next week,” ran the caption at the bottom, debuting a turn-of-phrase that would later find favour in the comic.
Next up was ‘Flesh’, the story of Earl Regan, a cigar-chomping hunter from the twenty-third century, an era when animals had been made extinct and man lived on synthetic foods. Nevertheless, it seemed we still had an appetite for blood, and thus Earl and pals travelled back in time to hunt dinosaurs for grub. Was there an ecology subtext in there somewhere? Perhaps, but who cared when you got to see a bloke being chomped up by a prehistoric crocodile.
On the centre pages we had – in colour – the new Dan Dare. Set in the year 2177AD, the hero some might have remembered from the 1950s had undergone some serious changes. Existing in a grim, sinewy world drawn by Italian artist Massimo Belardinelli, the character had developed a constant scowl, a nasty buzz-cut hairstyle and – dak! – a line in bad language. “Drokk it!” he exclaimed as he railed against his deskbound boss at the Solar Astronautical and Space Adminstration HQ.
‘MACH-1’ was next out of the bag. “Not so much a secret agent, more a secret weapon!” it brought us the adventures of John Probe, a spy whose physicality had been augmented by ‘compu-puncture hyperpower’ and thus now exhibited superhuman abilities.
Finishing off the issue was ‘Harlem Heroes’, another spin on Action’s ‘Death Game 1999’. Here we found ourselves in the year 2050, enjoying the futuristic, jet-powered sport of Aeroball. Inevitably, violence formed part of the playing tactics: “A perfect 80pmh kung-fu drop kick from Hairy!”…
Helming this fine mix of futuristic action was alien Tharg, who introduced himself to readers on page 20. We were advised his spaceship was “cunningly disguised as a32 -storey office block in London” (IPC’s King’s Reach Tower), and in a neatly-typed missive he advised us: “From the heart of the Galaxy, I, Tharg, have journeyed many light-years to bring you 2000 AD – your planet’s first comic of the future,” before signing off with the baffling “Splundig vur thrigg!”
The following week brought us our first encounter with Judge Dredd. Part of a breed of lawmen who’d been empowered to deliver instant sentences on the spot, here he tackled the gun-happy Whitey, who was blasting futuristic cops for fun with his laser cannon. When the grand judge declared they were going to send in an air strike to stop the criminal, Dredd interjected: “No! Who’s gonna have respect for the law if we have to call in the heavy boys as soon as the going gets tough? I’ll go… alone!“ And thus, a new era of hard-bastardery law enforcement was born.
The comic proved to be another smash for Mills, with Dredd quickly becoming the standout character. From issue nine, Wagner took over the scripting duties having swallowed his pride about that earlier walkout, and things went from strength to strength as the bizarre world of Mega City One took shape.
A year on from launch, IPC produced sister title Starlord, while 2000 AD found itself getting into strife thanks to a series of Dredd strips featuring futuristic versions of McDonalds and Burger King battling over the state of Kansas. If that wasn’t bad enough, Colonel Sanders then showed up, using the likes of the Michelin Man and the Jolly Green Giant to do his bidding. The latter, in particular, was very upset – resulting in an out-of-court settlement with the character’s creators and a dumb half-page strip in which Dredd feasted on sweetcorn and spelt out clearly the malevolent emerald-hued character they’d tangled with previously wasn’t the real Giant.
In October 1978, the title merged with Starlord, which, after five months on the shelves had been pulled, despite strong sales. “Two sci-fi greats united in a giant leap for mankind!” ran the cover blurb, as mutant bounty hunter ‘Strontium Dog’ Johnny Alpha, and put-upon robot rescue squad ‘Ro-Busters’ joined the paper’s line-up with ‘prog’ 86.
Into 1979, it was becoming increasingly obvious the new Dan Dare just wasn’t cutting the mustard, and the character was given a super-hero makeover as he donned a cosmic claw that blasted “some kind of electro-magnetic beam!” Meanwhile, another spin-off came and went as Tornado tried its luck with more down-to-Earth action. Again, just five months later it merged with 2000 AD, but its earthier brand of characters didn’t last long.
By the time 2000 AD reached issue 200 in 1981, we’d been introduced to the whimsical private dick Sam Slade in ‘Robo-Hunter’, Dredd had replaced Dan Dare on the centre pages (whose strip was suddenly abandoned altogether partway through a story) and bizarre alien anti-hero Nemesis the Warlock had made his debut in a tale inspired by the Jam song ‘Going Underground’, and was now contemplating a full-scale assault on mental-case ruler of the earth Torquemada in his own self-titled strip, which began in prog 222.
The 1980s really saw the comic achieve greatness – in 1983, Alan Moore’s first regular series, ‘Skizz’, arrived telling the story of an alien stranded on Earth. While it might have owed something to ET, it was a minor classic – Moore’s work owning as much to Britain’s own kitchen-sink dramas as Spielberg’s imaginings. That same year the writer would go on to bring us out-and-out humour with delinquent teen extra terrestrials DR and Quinch (“S’right”) before his best work for the publication arrived in 1984, in the form of ‘The Ballad Halo Jones’, a superior slice of sci-fi following the adventures of an ordinary 50th century girl. Designed as a contrast to the hardcore macho action found elsewhere in the paper, it was something of a slow-burner to begin with, but gradually found critical acclaim.
In December 1986, there was really something to shout about as 2000 AD clocked up its 500th prog. Sporting a glossy wrap-around cover for the occasion, it showcased the comics’ fine array of characters, which by now included blue-skinned genetically engineered soldier Rogue Trooper (he’d arrived in 1981), Celtic, axe-wielding barbarian Slaine (1983), the flat-headed super-deadly infantryman Kano from the strip ‘Bad Company’ (1986) and former psychic sidekick to the mighty Dredd-turned leading lady Judge Anderson (who first went solo in 1983).
Even more notable was a self-indulgent birthday strip entitled ‘Tharg’s Head Revisited’. With each page coming from a different creative team, it allowed the likes of Pat Mills to take a few cheeky potshots at the comic’s history. Thus, we had an unshaven Dan Dare moaning to The Mighty One (as Tharg liked to refer to himself) about his aborted comeback. “First you made me a complete freak, then a Biggles look-alike with a clunky space fort, and, finally, you gave me this… this cosmic claw and turned me into a – choke – super-hero™” While another page referred to the comic’s creators gradual defection to the US, and the likes of Marvel and DC where they’d be able to retain ownership of their work (‘Captain Dollar’ appearing to lure Rogue Trooper and co across the pond – “Do I get to wear a cap?”), Mike McMahon’s page which griped about the amount of times his artwork had been ripped off was pulled altogether. Instead he was forced to turn out a late-in-the-day replacement which featured Hammer-Stein and Ro-Jaws blatantly treading water with dull chatter (“You see,” explained the toothy ‘bot, “the first page Mike drew got censored!…”)
It may have been a good way to let off steam, but the reality was Tharg’s minions were getting fed up of the poor conditions they were forced to accept, whereby they had to sign away all rights to their creations, while the publishers made a mint on them in merchandising and other licensing arrangements. It was the same old grumble that had prompted Wagner’s extended sulk 10 years before.
As the US giants continued poaching 2000 AD’s star players, the hunt was on for the next generation of talent, and in August 1987, the brightest star from the new wave was revealed. ‘Zenith’ was a mould-breaking British superhero strip which told the story of a vain and materialistic 19-year-old who used his special powers as we all would were we so blessed: to become famous. Crime-fighting was hardly his bag when he could be out clubbing with some Page Three girl, but nonetheless, he reluctantly found himself engaged in a fight to the death with – well – a super-powered Tory.
Having grown-up with comics, he had a desire to play around with the genre in the same way Dennis Potter had evoked old songs in many of his TV dramas, and thus, as the series developed he played self-consciously with the conventions and lineage of the medium. This reached its apex in ‘Zenith’s third ‘phase’ when a huge war across parallel universes gave him the excuse to not only unearth Lion’s Robot Archie (reinvented here as a tin-plated acid house freak) but pretty much everyone else from the Fleetway/IPC back catalogue.
The week after ‘Zenith’ started, another change hit the paper – but this was of the behind-the-scenes variety. IPC had sold their youth group to Maxwell Communications who were now publishing the comic under the Fleetway banner – the name the Mirror Group had used in the 1960s for their juvenile division.
In 1988, the comic adopted glossy covers fulltime, and there was a sense that the next phase of its life had now begun. With adult spin-off Crisis making a splash and Judge Dredd Megazine and Revolver soon to follow, the good times were surely here. Added to that, in 1990, the newly appointed managing director at Fleetway, Jon Davidage, consented to redraft the agreement the company had with its creatives following a confrontation with Wagner. Finally the artists and writers were going to be awarded a royalty on all merchandising and reprints of their work. It had taken nearly a decade and half of foot-stomping from the Dredd godfather to secure the deal, but it was worth it.
Full colour arrived in 1991, but despite the impressive production values, there was suddenly a sense 2000AD was running on empty. ‘Robo Hunter’ was brought back for an ironic revival, ‘Rogue Trooper’ for a pretty witless one, ‘Strontium Dog’ for a confusing one and ‘The Harlem Heroes’ for a missing-the-point one. Meanwhile, too many of Pat Mills’ stories were becoming bogged down with his desire to politick (an episode of ‘Nemesis and Deadlock’, for example, being given over to a rather boring union meeting of sorcerers). In addition, unappealing space fillers like ‘Tao De Moto’ (a Japanese dancer agrees to become a surrogate mum) and ‘Bix Barton’ (an agent from the Department of the Irrational) were being given free rein.
Something had to be done, and in July 1993, the comic launched its ‘summer offensive’. Handing over control of the title for eight issues to Morrison and fellow bright young thing Mark Millar, the campaign’s name had a double meaning: not only was it supposed to represent a relaunch of 2000 AD, it was also designed to – well – offend. The chief exponent of this was ‘Big Dave’, a beer-swilling, Rottweiler-owning, tabloid-reading hard nut who, in his first story, decided to help ‘our boys’ by nutting Saddam in ‘Target: Baghdad’, before later jumping into bed with Fergie and Di at Buckingham Palace. A tale for the Loaded generation a year before that publication even hit the newsstands, it did indeed succeed in kicking up a mild stink as some readers failed to see the funny side.
During this run, Morrison also wrote ‘Really and Truly’ (the tale of a couple of ditsy female drug couriers) while Millar brought us big robot action in ‘Maniac 5’. Meanwhile, Crisis writer John Smith also got a look in, producing ‘Slaughterbowl’ – yet another futuristic sports strip.
Although none of the above would turn into long-running properties, this had been the most overt acknowledgement yet that the comic’s readers were no longer 11-year-old boys. In fact, it was now the case that a significant percentage of the audience had been following the title since the 1970s.
As the 1990s continued, 2000 AD struggled to recapture the sparkle of its early years, but did its best to capitalise on the excitement of the 1995 Judge Dredd film. Aside from launching another spin-off title, Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future, the paper received something of a makeover – the distinctive logo being ditched for a far less impressive version. With even Dredd himself subject to a merry-go-round of writers, was 2000 AD set to snuff it before the end of the millennium beckoned?
Thankfully not, and as that fateful year beckoned, the paper was still hanging on in there. Well aware that it had now pretty much survived all its rivals, it celebrated the fact with a fantastic cover drawn by fan favourite Brian Bolland. Based on the famous photo of the US Marines raising the American flag at the top of Mount Surbatchi in Iwo Jima in 1945, it depicted old hands Dredd, Nemesis, Johnny Alpha, Rogue Trooper and relative new boy Nikolai Dante, plunging the 2000 AD banner into a heap of deceased comics. Yes, they were all there, from Deadline to Valiant, a literal heap of history upon which Tharg’s boys were now standing tall.
Some favourite creators who’d long ago opted to take the US dollar returned to the fold to mark the occasion, with artists Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Brett Ewins and Kevin O’Neill returning to the strips that made their name. As if things weren’t exciting enough, this edition also saw the death of that alien Warlock, who was melded together with arch-enemy Torquemada to form a ghostly spaceship fated to loop around the Earth for all eternity.
However, for lapsed readers looking in this shock would have paled alongside the glimpse of – gasp! – bare naked boobs in Dante’s story! Truly comics weren’t for kids anymore.
The following year, it was announced Oxford-based computer games company Rebellion had purchased 2000 AD from Fleetway. Their arrival coincided with another new look for the paper, but also brought about a sense of optimism about its future, with incoming editor Andy Diggle enthusing: “Jason Kingsley, CEO of Rebellion, has been a fan of 2000 AD since prog one – which means that for the first time, it is owned and controlled by people who care passionately about it!”
The new bosses were aware that while the publication was now a lukewarm seller, there was still money to be made in licensing the characters for other projects… particularly video games.
In 2001, the comic thankfully reverted back to its former logo (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… creep!” said a truncheon wielding Dredd to a perp about to dismantle it) and began billing itself as “the UK’s award-winning cult weekly”. And indeed, that’s what it now was and is. Long gone are the days when comics could sell in their hundreds of thousands, but thankfully under its current owners, it seems 2000 AD is happy to accept it’s no longer on regular order with the majority of the nation’s boys. Instead, it’s courting an already devoted audience who tuned into its thrill-power some 20-odd (and they have been) years ago and have stuck around since.
Glossy from start to finish, far more adult than ever before and Britain’s only remaining all-new action weekly – in many ways 2000 AD has never had it so good.
As for Tharg; the green-skinned fella is still hanging on in there giving it a ‘Borag Thungg, Earthlets!’ at the start of every edition and promoting each ‘new thrill!’ with the same recognisable chutzpah he’d employed to big-up Dan Dare and MACH-1.
You might also want to see... Starlord.