Monday, February 12, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #12.1: Future History

In 1999 book publisher Hamlyn decided to issue a 2000 AD Diary for the year 2000. Somewehre along the way, I agreed to write text for this tome to be slotted in around the days, weeks and months. Apparently the diary did alright for Hamlyn - but they never sent me a copy. Among the copy I wrote for it was a decade by decade history of strips in 2000 AD. Obviously, this doesn't cover the current decade as what is now our past, present and future was only the future back in the past. Anyway, here's what I wrote for the first ten years of 2000 AD...


The Galaxy's greatest comic launched in Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee year, when punk rock was shocking the British public and the Swedish pop group ABBA was top of the pop charts. 2000 AD was aimed at the boys' action/adventure market, with each story given a sci-fi theme to tie in with forthcoming films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The most-hyped strip in the weekly was DAN DARE, which updated the old 1950s favourite from The Eagle comic.

Many of the stories in Programme 1 (as it was called) were heavily inspired by the hit films and television shows of the time. M.A.C.H. 1 was a cut-price British remake of the Six Million Dollar Man, while HARLEM HEROES took its brutal future sport theme from the film Rollerball. FLESH saw cowboys travelling back in time to harvest Dinosaurs for their meat while INVASION was an old-fashioned war story set in 1999. Overseeing all this was 2000 AD's alien editor, the Mighty Tharg.

The anthology's second issue introduced its most enduring character, JUDGE DREDD. The future lawman had gone through a long and painful development process, hence his belated arrival in the pages of 2000 AD. Dredd was relegated to the back of the comic for several months but his ever increasing popularity forced the editorial team to take him more seriously. Within a year Dredd would be the star of the show.

Prog 20 brought the arrival of SHAKO, a killer polar bear . The cuddly killer was the latest in a long line of deadly animals sin British comics, all inspired by the success of the film Jaws. He was replaced by INFERNO (prog 36), a new future sports series which revived the survivors from the Harlem Heroes. The final series to debut in 1977 was BONJO FROM BEYOND THE STARS, a comedy strip written and drawn by 2000 AD's art assistant Kevin O'Neill. Although Bonjo was an alien, his wacky antics seemed better suited to a boys' humour title like Whizzer and Chips or Buster. He didn't last long in 2000 AD...


The New Year dawned with 2000 AD struggling to find enough cracking characters and strong scripts to sustain itself. The launch of sister title Starlord did not make matters any easier, splitting the creative talents available over two comics. So the self-proclaimed greatest comic in the Galaxy found itself publishing strips like the VISIBLE MAN (Prog 47), which had been rejected from the original line-up when the title was being launched.

Judge Dredd's sidekick, WALTER THE WOBOT, got his own series of one-page gag strips from Prog 50, mostly drawn by Brian Bolland. With Invasion finally being rested after 51 episodes, it was promptly replaced with another series about an invasion. But instead of being human aggressors, the unoriginal COLONY EARTH (Prog 52) made aliens the enemy. At least DEATH PLANET (Prog 62) was set on another world.

2000 AD's most popular series just kept getting better, as Judge Dredd began his mega-epic journey across The Cursed Earth. By comparison, spinning off the inarticulate M.A.C.H. ZERO into his own series from Prog 65 seemed like an admission of defeat. ANT WARS (Prog 71) was not much an improvement, retreading hackneyed plots from 1950s B-movies as giant ants stalked the jungles of South America.

Help finally arrived in Prog 76 with the debut of Sam Slade, ROBO-HUNTER. The first hit character introduced since Dredd, Slade was just building an audience when the series was shoved aside by 2000 AD's merger with Starlord. In the 1970s any new title which failed to find a big enough audience was cancelled and merged with another comic. This meant at least two stories from the dead title had to immediately start appearing in their new home. Publishers believed this would give the surviving title a boost of new readers acquired from the cancelled comic.

From Prog 86 2000 AD became 2000 AD with STARLORD and the influx of new stories and readers helped ensure the survival of the Galaxy's greatest comic. The merger added STRONTIUM DOG and RO-BUSTERS to the line-up, introducing characters that would still be appearing in its pages a decade later. With this merger, 2000 AD turned a corner. The next merger would not be so productive...


Judge Dredd survived The Cursed Earth but began the New Year accused of murder as he was plunged into what become known as the Judge Caligula saga. 2000 AD was on a role after its merger with Starlord, but everyone has their off day. That's the polite way to describe ANGEL (Prog 95), a series about a pilot who melds with his in-flight computer during a mid-air explosion and gains special abilities as a result. Dodgy 1950s hero RICK RANDOM got from inexplicable revival from Prog 113, but better was to come.

After Ro-Busters had run its course, the series mutated into A. B. C. WARRIORS (Prog 119). This smash hit starred seven magnificent robots on a secret mission to Mars. Alas, with the smooth comes the rough. In this case, the rough was Cockney rebel Bill Savage. Having fought the Volgan invasion of 1999, Savage returned for DISASTER 1990 (Prog 119) where England is threatened by a giant flood - something that had never been mentioned in the first series set nine years later! Also in Prog 119, the first episode of the aptly named PROJECT OVERKILL.

While the Starlord merger had done the Galaxy's greatest comic a power of good, its abrupt transformation into 2000 AD with TORNADO from Prog 127 did it nothing but harm. Popular series were shoved aside to make way for lesser serials like CAPTAIN KLEP, THE MIND OF WOLFIE SMITH and BLACKHAWK. Like Starlord before it, Tornado had been launched as a sister title to 2000 AD. But the new title failed and the inevitable merger added little of value to Tharg's Thrill-Archives.

But as the decade drew to a close, two new series that would grow into firm reader favourites made their debut in Prog 140. THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT was an adaptation of the very successful SF novel by Harry Harrison. The experiment proved so successful that two further adaptation of Stainless Steel Rat novels followed in the next five years. The second series was THE VCs, a future war saga that proved the popularity of this sub-genre. It led to the creation of future warrior, whose adventures would run for 15 years in 2000 AD. But that was still to come, in the 1980s...


The early 1980s are hailed as 2000 AD's Golden Age by long-term readers. Each year introduced another great character to the comic, but 1980 got off to an inauspicious start with the century-spanning adventures of James Blocker in TIMEQUAKE (Prog 148). Better was to come in FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT, an ingenious collision of World War II and horror genres. This flashback tale revealed the secret of a terrifying squad of vampire soldiers. Not really 2000 AD material but still a ripping yarn.

1980's most celebrated new series was NEMESIS THE WARLOCK, which began its life as a one-off in Prog 167. Loosely inspired by The Jam's hit single Going Underground, this short story by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill introduced all the key elements that would grow into one of the weekly's most popular series. Less successful were the comic antics of DASH DECENT, despite featuring the same artist.

It was one of three new Thrills introduced in Prog 178. MEAN ARENA was another future sport saga from the highly prolific Tom Tully, while MELTDOWN MAN was a smash hit with readers during its 50-week residency in the Galaxy's greatest comic. The final addition to Tharg's award-winning anthology was RETURN TO ARMAGEDDON, featuring the lyrical line art of European illustrator Jesus Redondo.


Readers could always tell when 2000 AD's editorial team felt they were doing something right. If the five series in each prog were firing on all cylinders, there was no need to keep introducing new Thrills to take their place. Instead, as an individual story came to an end, a new story featuring the same characters was commissioned to follow it. This gave a greater feeling of consistency and continuity.

By 1981 the comic was entering its fifth year of publication and the editorial team were obviously feeling very confident about the mix of strips in the title. Just two new series were added to the pages of 2000 AD and both proved to be valuable additions to Tharg's roster of hit characters. First to arrive was ROGUE TROOPER in Prog 228. A natural successor to future war series like The VCs, Rogue had the advantage of a distinctive lead character rather than the clutter of a team strip. Strong solo heroes and anti-heroes have always been more popular than team stories in 2000 AD, mainly because the lead character doesn't have to share his dialogue with half a dozen companions.

The blue-skinned genetic infantryman quickly became a reader favourite, taking up semi-permanent residence less than a year after his arrival. A decade and a half later, Rogue's descendants like Friday, Venus Blue Genes and Tor Cyan in Mercy Heights would still be going strong in 2000 AD - a testament to strength of the original concept.

The other strip to makes its debut in 1981 was ACE TRUCKING CO. Latching on to the craze for CB radio, writers John Wagner and Alan Grant created a futuristic equivalent in the adventures of a firm of space truckers with their own bizarre lingo. The strip's popularity long outlasted the fad for CB radio, appearing frequently in the comic over the next five years. A large part of its appeal was due to Italian Massimo Belardinelli and his distinctively alien characterisation.


The early 1980s may have been a quiet time for new series in 2000 AD, but future lawman Judge Dredd was undergoing a series of epic adventures that would text him and his city to the limit. At the end of 1981 Mega-City One was gripped by Block Mania, a mysterious madness that saw apartment buildings declare war against each other. The resulting chaos threatened to destablise the entire metropolis - which was exactly its goal. The Block Mania virus had been introduced into the Big Meg's water system by Orlok, an assassin from the Soviet city of East-Meg One. His plan was eventually discovered, but it planned to be just a precursor to a far greater threat.

The first prog of 1982 launched the Apocalypse War, a 25-part epic that saw half of Mega-City One vaporised by East-Meg nuclear bombs. This was followed by a full invasion force and it seemed the city would fall. But Dredd struck back, choosing a handful of Judges to join him on a suicide mission against East-Meg One. The Apocalypse Squad succeeded and the invading city was, itself, wiped out by nuclear bombs. When asked what he would do differently if such a threat arose again, Dredd's answer was typically curt: "Next time we get our retaliation in first!"

The only new series introduced during 1982 was HARRY 20 ON THE HIGH ROCK, which made its debut in Prog 287. This 21-part saga was set in an orbital prison, where Harry 20 had been unjustly incarcerated. He managed to escape with his cellmate, only to discover his best friend was actually a robot assigned to thwart him! 2000 AD readers still speak fondly of this shocking reversal of fate for the unfortunate Harry 20...


Alan Moore is now one of the most acclaimed writers in Western comics, the author of modern classics like Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta. But in 1983 he was just another struggling writer trying to build a career from comics. After several years crafting Tharg's Future Shocks and Time Twisters, Moore finally got to start writing series of his own for the Galaxy's greatest comic. And what series they were...

SKIZZ (Prog 308) was the story of an alien stranded on Earth, on the run from the authorities. The main plot was very similar to the American film E.T. but this was just coincidence - the two projects emerged simultaneously on different sides of the Atlantic. While Spielberg's film was sentimental and maudlin, Skizz was blessed with a wonderful wit and delightful turn of phrase. This Moore writer was worth watching, it seemed...

Just a few weeks later he came up trumps again with D. R. & QUINCH (Prog 317), the tale of two juvenile delinquent aliens armed with nuclear technology and no qualms. Introduced in a one-off Time Twister, the pair demanded their own series and soon got it.

A very different debut took place in Prog 330 with the arrival of SLÁINE. This sword and sorcery series seemed to owe a debt to previous barbarian comics characters like Conan, but quickly carved out its own niche with Pat Mills' meticulously researched scripts delving into the world of Celtic mythology along side exciting and innovative artwork from the likes of Mike McMahon and Glenn Fabry. If anyone thought an overt fantasy series had no place in 2000 AD, Sláine had his reply ready: "Kiss My Axe!"


If Skizz and D. R. & Quinch had shown Alan Moore's gift for comedy adventures starring aliens with pointy ears, THE BALLAD OF HALO JONES showed a far greater talent at work within the pages of the Galaxy's greatest comic. Over the next three years this story of a young woman's quest for fulfilment in the future became recognised as one of the finest series every published in 2000 AD. Yet when Book One began in Prog 376 it only got a lukewarm response from the readers.

Halo Jones was created as the antithesis of the title' usual strip. It had an unarmed female lead character instead of a gun-totting guy. The first series had Halo going out to do some shopping, instead of fighting wars or conquering worlds or enforcing the Law. It was a combination of factors that gradually saw her popularity grew: Alan Moore's depth of characterisation and eye for a thought-provoking science fiction concept, and artist Ian Gibson's outstanding storytelling which forsook cartooning for sumptuous illustration.

By contrast, the only other new series introduced during 1984 was a very poor relation. HELLTREKKERS (Prog 387) was the story about a group of citizens who leaves Judge Dredd's future-shocked city to travel across the radioactive wasteland of the Cursed Earth to find a new home for themselves. It is usually the sign of embarrassment when writers resort to using a pseudonym to disguise their identity on a 2000 AD series. Such was the case with Helltrekkers' writer F. Martin Candor - actually two writers, the normally very reliable John Wagner and Alan Grant. Oh well, everyone has an off day.

The pair were doing much better as co-writers on that weekly staple, Judge Dredd himself. 1984 saw Dredd and Anderson travel forwards in time to face the horrors of City of the Damned, beginning in Prog 393. This was the last Dredd mega-epic for three years. The next one proved so difficult the pair sundered their writing partnership at its conclusion. But that still lay in the future...


2000 AD's strong run of new strips continued into 1985, where ANDERSON, PSI DIVISION finally got her own series in Prog 416 after five years' loyal service as a supporting character to Judge Dredd. She was only accorded this honour after the planned Judge Dredd Fortnightly was cancelled before it could even been launched. Most of the strips from that aborted title would instead appear in the Galaxy's greatest comic in months to come.

The only other new arrival this year was MEAN TEAM in Prog 437. Not to be confused Mean Arena or even Mean Machine Angel, Mean Team by Alan Grant and Massimo Belardinelli had only a short first series. It was revived two years later with Alan Hebden taking over as writing. One of the characters from the Mean Team called Henry Moon refused to go away. He would return once more in 1989, with another new writer...


The Galaxy's greatest comic was creeping towards transition in 1986. The editorial team had been stable for several years but was now breaking, with new voices joining the staff, bringing new ideas. A new wave of creators was coming to fore as well, replacing favourites from 2000 AD's early years who were now working for American comics publishers.

The number of new series being introduced to the comic began to accelerate as well. BAD CITY BLUE made its debut in Prog 468, written and drawn by two former editorial staffers - Alan Grant and Robin Smith. The same prog heralded the arrival of SOONER OR LATER, a one-page strip on the back cover by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy.

Prog 483 brought METALZOIC, a series originally published by America's DC Comics. It featured the talents of Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill, a duo responsible for such previous gems as Nemesis the Warlock and the A. B. C. Warriors. The final new addition of the year was BAD COMPANY, which made its debut in the landmark Prog 500. Like Anderson before it, future war series Bad Company had originally been developed for the proposed Judge Dredd fortnightly which never happened. The concept was passed to writer on the rise Peter Milligan and the legend of Kano was made strip...

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