Wednesday, February 14, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #14: Dark Bish-OP Pt. 1

In preparation for writing THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, I interviewed myself about my experiences with 2000 AD. I knew there'd be places in the book where I needed eye witness quotes from somebody who was there and I was there, so I might as well be quoted. But I was also the author, creating an age-old dilemma for writers in similar situations: would I write about my experiences in the first person and risk jolting readers out of the narrative?; or would I write about myself in the third person and risk drawing attention to the fact I was doing that instead?

It's a no-win situation, but I opted for the latter. If the TPO book stays in print for years to come [fingers crossed], people will eventually stop noticing the author's name also appears as a participant inside. To me, the narrative's the most important part of the history - not drawing attention to myself everytime I feature in events. Anyway, here's the first extract from my self-interview about 2000 AD, beginning with the comic's big push for Prog 889...


The 1994 TV campaign was a failure. It was supposed to revive 2000 AD’s fortunes but instead it became a millstone around the comic’s neck. For years afterwards Egmont Fleetway’s marketing people would point at the campaign and say that TV advertising doesn’t work. Well, of course it doesn’t work if nobody sees the TV ad! They spent about a quarter of a million pounds on the 889 campaign and got something like a five-week sales bump. By Prog 900 all those extra sales were long gone and all the company had to show for it was a big hole in its profits for the year.

Prog 889 saw the return of John Wagner as regular Dredd writer...

That was the best thing to come out of the campaign. I remember Steve MacManus telling [then editor] Alan McKenzie to get Wagner back writing Dredd, no matter what it cost. After Garth left in 1993, the strip had been passed around between half a dozen different writers – all with their own individual take on Dredd. That’s fine if the editorial team has time to meld those styles. But Alan and John [Tomlinson] had their hands full elsewhere on the comic – so Dredd was beginning to suffer. Getting Wagner writing Dredd again was crucial to the comic’s future. Other writers produce a reasonable pastiche of Dredd, but few can match Wagner.

Prog 900 featured a single, 28-pp story starring Dredd and Rogue Trooper...

I think that was the first time an entire issue had been devoted to a single story. When I began editing 2000 AD at the end of 1995, I recycled that idea, giving characters like Sláine and Sinister Dexter their own showcase issues. I always wanted to give Nikolai Dante a prog to himself, but never got around to it. Prog 900 wasn’t a bad yarn , drawing the obvious parallel between Dredd and Rogue both being clones.

August 1994 – the final 2000 AD and Dredd yearbooks are published...

Yearbooks were softcover books introduced in 1991 to replace annuals, because sales on the hardback versions were falling fast. But the new format didn’t make any difference and sales kept dropping. The final yearbooks were published in 1994, dated 1995. I think another Egmont company, Ravette Books, actually published them. Ironically, the following year brought the Judge Dredd movie but no annual or yearbook – a bizarre decision, I thought. All the specials sold really well in the Summer of 95, thanks to the Dredd movie. If ever there was a time to be publishing a Dredd Annual, it was then – but nothing came out.

Red Razors swaps to 2000 from Megazine in Prog 908...

I had rejected the Hunt for Red Razors stories when Mark Millar originally pitched it to the Megazine. I liked Red Razors, but wanted Mark to write a series of one-off stories that would develop the character and the world around it. He sent in a proposal for a full-length series and I turned it down. A year or so later it turned up in 2000 AD, much to my surprise! That was the first example of a Megazine character migrating to the weekly.

In November 1994 Alan McKenzie was made redundant...

The consequences of the failed TV campaign became obvious when Egmont Fleetway made six or seven people redundant in one day – November, I think it was. The pre-Christmas staff cull was fast becoming a very nasty tradition. But this time the cuts hit 2000 AD directly. Editor Alan McKenzie was made redundant, as was publisher Chris Power who had helped mastermind the campaign. The cuts spread into other departments but 2000 AD really felt the brunt of it. Managing editors were told they needed to be working directly on titles, so Steve MacManus was put back in charge of the weekly. In reality, much of his time was spent dealing with approvals on merchandise in the run-up to the Dredd film. John Tomlinson found himself in the hotseat.

I always remember the day it happened, because Jonathan Ross came in the office to interview me for the Virgin Airlines in-flight entertainment news show. He was asking me about the forthcoming Dredd film and I was saying how excited we all were, how it was going to revive British comics. In the background Alan McKenzie was packing his possessions into a cardboard box and saying goodbye to everyone. A very surreal moment.

Prog 919 – Exterminator – recycled Dredd strip?

That story started life as a Terminator proposal John had written for Dark Horse. In the early 1990s Dark Horse briefly set up a British office, hoping to lure some UK talents on to its titles, but I don’t think much came of it. Anyway, John rewrite his Terminator story as a Dredd tale. John Burns did the first few episodes but dropped out and somebody else got drafted in as a last minute replacement.

Early 1995 – Dredd/Lobo published

Another in the series of Fleetway/DC Comics inter-company crossovers, but the first one to pair Dredd with a character other than Batman. This was quite a fun book. We published our own edition of it and I got Simon Bisley to paint a cover for it. I did offer Simon’s cover to DC but they had already commissioned the interior artist to do their cover. I remember Simon being unimpressed by that and deciding to make his cover even better. It went through several sketches, as Simon’s original version had Dredd and Lobo so close together they were almost grinding groins. I got Simon to prise them apart a little!

To coincide with the Dredd film's release, the Megazine relaunches as Volume 3 in July 1995 while Complete Dredd & Best of 2000 are replaced by Classic Dredd (mono) and Classic 2000 (colour)...

There was a massive revamp of all the titles to coincide with the film’s release in the UK. Of course, by the time it opened here, the Dredd movie had already flopped in America. But it was too late to change course by then, we were stuck with it. Despite all its flaws, the movie did a lot of raise awareness of Dredd and 2000 AD, it did deliver a sizeable sales spike. The comics hung on to those new readers for a while, but by the time the video came out all the benefits had long since eroded. We were back to where we started – worse off, in some cases.

950 – Bonus Dredd strip begins – Rico remixed

2000 AD gained an extra eight pages and thus and extra strip, while putting its price up to £1 at the same time, all to coincide with the film’s release. I’m not sure readers really noticed a major gain from this. The retelling of the Rico story was quite a smart move, tying in to the film.

950 – Urban Strike

That was a marketing-driven innovation. It was the commonly held belief that the growth in popularity of video games and consoles like the Playstation was hurting 2000 AD. Egmont Fleetway had become a marketing-led company. In the days of IPC and John Sanders, editorial innovation drove things forward. But the Egmont way was for marketing to rule the roost. So it was decided that what better way to combat videogames than to put comic strip adaptations of videogames into 2000 AD?

The problem is 2000 AD readers expect the weekly to be all-original. Existing readers might play videogames, but you will never persuade videogame players to pick up a comic in place of their Playstation – why should they? The pictures don’t move, you can’t directly influence the story or get involved. Comics present entertain to you – videogames involve you in creating entertainment by challenging you and your skills.

2000 AD readers hated the idea of running a videogame adaptation in the comic. Even if it had been the best such adaptation in the world, it would only have earned grudging respect. Urban Strike opted for overt comedy and got its arse kicked, as overt comedy strips usually do in the weekly.

951 – Vector 13 debuts...

The Future Shocks format was getting very, very tired. Vector 13 was a great innovation, as it created a new way of telling one-off stories. The Men in Black was a long-standing urban myth about men in dark suits covering up conspiracies. The X Files was crossing over from a cult TV show to a mainstream hit, so V13 feed on that fascination too. Vector 13 could tell all manner of different stories, such as aliens killing 16th Century playwright Christopher Marlowe because he knew too much. It was wonderfully flexible. However, writers often fell into the trap of telling an entire story through caption boxes. That means the reader is lees likely to get involved with the characters, turning a story into just a recitation of facts or fictions.

I really embraced V13 when I took over 2000 AD at the end of 1995. The Men In Black even replaced Tharg as the editorial host for 18 weeks at the end of 1996. We published about 70 V13 stories in four years, but the format wore thin pretty quickly. Still, it was great while it lasted.

955 – first appearance of the Frendz in Judge Dredd...

Wagner felt Dredd needed more formidable enemies and invented the nebulous threat of the Frendz crime organisation. That was good because it didn’t matter if Dredd defeated one part of the Frendz, another who take its place – like the Hydra in ancient myths. The Frendz have come back again and again since this first story.

The Cal Files in Prog 959 introduced another recurring nemesis for Dredd...

This sowed the seeds for later story and introduced the concept of the PSU, the Public Surveillance Unit. Head of that was Judge Jura Edgar, a real battleaxe who Dredd did not get on with. Wagner was getting on a rule with Dredd again. It took him a while to get back in the swing when he starting writing it for the weekly, but this was him putting fresh pieces on the chessboard.

970 – The Pit begins – a modern Dredd classic?

Steve MacManus and I often kicked around the idea of doing a Hill Street Blues style emsemble series, set in Dredd’s world. I even used the idea as the basis for a Dredd novel I wrote for Virgin Publishing in 1994, putting Dredd in charge of a Sector House. When Steve took over editing 2000 AD, he must have suggested the concept to Wagner who adopted it.

The Pit was a different sort of epic. Instead of a body count into the millions or even billions, it concentrated on small scale human stories. Dredd was often a background figure to the main drama, but that didn’t matter. It took readers a while to catch on to it, but they soon saw it was a classic in the making.

The Pit introduced a fresh batch of characters to Dredd’s supporting cast, particularly Galen DeMarco. One of the big downsides of Judgement Day was Garth wiped out almost every previously known judge in Dredd continuity. The Pit gave John a chance to slowly redress that problem. DeMarco proved especially significant over the next few years for Dredd.

Managing director Jon Davidge resigned near the end of 1995...

Jon leaving was a bit of a shock. He’d been a good friend to 2000 AD, while incoming MD Frank Knau was obviously an unknown quantity. I had been at the Megazine five years and I was bored with editing Dredd, Dredd and more Dredd. I was running the Megazine, Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future, Classic Judge Dredd, plus any Judge Dredd specials. I indicated to management I was going to start looking for jobs elsewhere unless I got a change. The first time I met Frank, he asked me to stick around until 1996 – change was coming.

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