Thursday, February 15, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #15.1: Dark Bish-OP Pt. 2

In preparation for writing THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, I interviewed myself about my experiences with 2000 AD. Here's another chunk of excerpts, beginning with my memories of becoming the weekly's editor...


Frank Knau took over as Managing Director from early 1996. He made a point of telling the Egmont Fleetway staff there would be no redundancies while he was in charge – a promise he kept, too. He also told us that Marvel Comics had made an offer to buy 2000 AD but he was going to turn it down. Frank said he believed the comic had much more value than just Dredd, that it had dozens of characters that could be made into films or TV projects. He wanted to make that happen.

In early 1996 the Judge Dredd Megazine reverted to being a monthly. Six months later it was filled out with bulk reprints to save money - and the comic...

The Volume 3 relaunch of the Megazine was not a great success, especially after the Dredd film came and went. All the Dredd titles suffered sales-wise from the sour taste left by the movie. At the beginning of 1996 the Megazine reverted to monthly publication, beginning with 3.14. After that Egmont Fleetway put it on something known as the kill or cure list. That meant the title needed to find a way to improve its performance or be killed off. The Megazine was living on borrowed time.

John Tomlinson and I swapped jobs in December, 1995. I became editor of 2000 AD and he took over the Megazine and Lawman of the Future. I had been gagging to get control of 2000 AD for years. I found it very frustrating watching the comic’s decline during the first half of the 1990s and thought I could have prevented that. It was only when I took over as editor of 2000 AD I realised just hard demanding and draining a job it was. There are so many demands on your time, many of them not directly related to getting this week’s issue ready. I soon developed a greater appreciation for what Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie and John and Steve had managed to achieve against the odds.

I spent the first two weeks as editor of 2000 AD getting the comic out over Christmas and assessing what was in the stockpile for the New Year. I decided to make Prog 1000 the point where my version of 2000 AD would begin to show itself. Most of the material leading up to that had already been commissioned and was being prepared. I also decided some urgent action was required on several series to bring them closer to my vision of 2000 AD.

For a start, I discovered we had more than two dozen Ron Smith pin-up paintings of Judge Dredd in the drawer. I wasn’t a big Ron Smith but even if I was, I couldn’t understand the need to have bought more than 20 of these pin-ups. But Egmont Fleetway had a policy that if you had paid for a piece of work, you had to publish it. That meant pulling out all the forgotten and unwanted stories and art from the drawer and publishing them.

I did manage to persuade management to let me dump a small amount of material that both Steve MacManus and I thought unfit for publication. That was mostly some awful, awful Future Shocks. But the write off only covered less than £2000 of stock. All the rest we had to publish – like it or not.

Steve MacManus had several long sessions discussing the state of the comic and its various series. We agreed that Strontium Dogs was struggling. The death of Johnny Alpha had robbed the series of its star and giving Durham Red her own adventures had made matters worse. I decided to wrap up Strontium Dogs as quickly as possible.

Durham Red had become quite a hit with the readers, but this was mostly to do with Mark Harrison’s stunning painted art. John Tomlinson and Steve MacManus had struggled to get what they wanted from writer Peter Hogan on a story called Night of the Hunters. Durham was supposed to be facing the ten deadliest bounty hunters in the galaxy in a fight for TV broadcast, so she could face all her enemies at once. I felt Durham was far too passive a character in Peter’s scripts and they needed to be rewritten. Mark had already painted the first three episodes of the nine planned. I decided to drastically rewrite the remaining scripts and needed to get them to Mark as soon as possible, to ensure the story was ready to run in Prog 1000.

I called Peter Hogan, who had been editor of Revolver five years before. He had taken over writing Robo-Hunter from Mark Millar and Durham Red’s solo adventures and the Strontium Dogs from Garth Ennis. Peter’s a lovely guy but I didn’t think his writing style or content suited 2000 AD as I saw it. I told him this and said I would be making major rewrites to Night of the Hunters and Strontium Dogs - without his involvement.

Looking back on it now, I regret the way I did that. It was brutal and must have been horrible for him. I felt it was necessary, but the way I did it was wildly insensitive. If someone did that to me, I’d be utterly gutted. Peter was furious and demanded his name be taken off the scripts in question, which I did. They were credited to Alan Smithee, the name film directors use when they object to how their movie is being edited or presented.

The other immediate victim of my new regime was Alan McKenzie, who had written a strip called RAM Raiders, a sort of post-internet version of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Art on the first story was nearly finished, but the second story was still at script stage. I remember cutting those scripts down by an episode or two, so it would be over and done with as soon as possible. I think Alan is great at creating characters – just look at how did he invented for 2000 AD – but I was not a great fan of his actual writing. So I didn’t ask him to do anything else for the weekly and I can’t remember him pitching anything either.

Like all editors, I have my favourite creators – many of whom had gotten their chance to break into comics via the Megazine. So once I was made editor of 2000 AD, I began poaching the Megazine’s creative stable to work for 2000 AD. Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser were already developed a new, swashbuckling character for the weekly when I arrived. I brought over my favourite creators from the Megazine and gave them a crack at 2000 AD.

Prog 981 – Sinister Dexter make their debut in the weekly...

I wasn’t too thrilled by Sinister Dexter when I arrived at 2000 AD. At first glance it seemed like a cheap knockoff of Pulp Fiction. But a run of seven or eight one-off stories had been commissioned and I had to run them, so in they went.

Six weeks later the strip was pulled for an issue after the Dunblane massacre...

Dunblane shocked everyone when it happened, early in 1996. The Sinister Dexter story originally scheduled to run in Prog 987 was a tongue in cheek correspondence course about hitmen, which seemed in bad taste at the time. We pulled it out of the comic at the last minute and replaced it with a Vector 13. Fortunately, the nature of V13 stories made this intervention seem nothing untoward. The SinDex story, Lerning Kurv, ran months later and in somewhat amended form to avoid any problems.

I was ready to retire Sinister Dexter but an artist went late on another series. As a result, I was left with a five-week gap and needed scripts in a hurry. Dan Abnett is famous among editors for his speed of writing and was able to supply the scripts in the time available. Early episodes of the series hadn’t caught on with the readers, but its ratings began to improve dramatically during the extra episodes added to the end of the initial run.

The other turning point was the addition of Simon Davis as artist. He was another Megazine graduate who I brought over to 2000 AD. His photo realistic style gave Sinister Dexter an extra edge it had maybe been lacking. By the final episode of that first run, I began to appreciate Sinister Dexter a little more and the readers were rating it their second favourite after Dredd. So, the gunsharks lived to fight another day…

Prog 999 – Judge Dredd: the Pit concludes with 12-pager...

Originally the Pit was only planned to run for twelve episodes. But by the time I took over as editor of 2000 AD, John was firing on all cylinders with the story. The hardest part was getting him to stop in the end! I remember he sent in the script for Part 20 and I called him up, asking how many more episodes he thought it would run to. He asked how many I wanted, so I said it would be good if it wrapped up by Prog 999 to leave a clean slate for Prog 1000. In the end we had to have a double-helping in 999 so John could wrap up most of the plot threads, so it effectively ran to 31 episodes in total. That probably makes it the longest of the mega-epics.

Summer 1996 – Rogue Trooper special published, final 2000 Summer Special published, ending a 19-year tradition, and final Mega-Special published...

The Rogue Trooper Action Special was the first of a planned series of specials highlighting particular characters. But sales proved disappointing and the idea was scrapped, with the strip material just getting shuffled straight into 2000 AD.

Bulk reprint in the Megazine...

The Megazine was still in trouble, despite going monthly. Egmont Fleetway decided to dispense with John Tomlinson’s services as freelance editor and I was given the Megazine back, thus cutting editorial costs. To help save the title from extinction, I chucked in great fistfuls of reprint – beginning with triple helpings of Necropolis. The readers complained bitterly and I couldn’t blame, although I made it seem like I did in one very badly phrased editorial comment. It wasn’t a happy period for the Megazine.

Prog 1000 – Judge Dredd: Dead Reckoning begins...

Steve MacManus had commissioned Dead Reckoning to appear as a single-story Christmas prog. John Wagner wrote a very funny script and Greg Staples did some lovely line work. But after The Pit we needed Dredd material in a hurry and this was available, so it got used over six or seven weeks that Summer.

That issue also sees the debut of Outlaw...

Writer Paul Neal had been working with an artist called Marc Wigmore for the Megazine. The pair were both from Brighton and came as a package deal, something I was normally against. But I liked the material they came up with and used them on the Megazine. When I shifted to 2000 AD, I invited Paul to pitch ideas for the weekly. He came up with a proposal called Outlaw. I can’t remember much about it, except the title and the fact certain plot elements were not dissimilar to another series that was already in preparation for the comic, called Mazeworld.

So, I sat in the bath one morning before going to work and came up with the basic structure of Outlaw – much of it very obviously inspired by the film The Quick and the Dead. I wrote that up and gave to Paul to take away and develop as a series. He did this, with artist Jason Brashill creating the look of the character and painting the first episode. It was the first new series I commissioned from scratch for the weekly. Alas, Outlaw never came to life on the page, never escaped its origins and became a strip worthy of 2000 AD.

Ironically, despite its flaws, Outlaw has been under option for adaptation as a film for at least five years. A guy who co-wrote hit film The Mummy for Universal was paid $70,000 to write a draft script – three or four times the amount we spent creating the series in the first place! Every year the option gets renewed again – so obviously somebody thinks it has merit.

1001 – Black Light debuts...

Like V13, this was another product of X Files mania. The high concept for this series was the X Files meets Mission Impossible. As a contemporary thriller, it never quite gelled in the weekly. But it attracted a lot of interest from outside the comic. Francis Ford Coppola’s TV production company got very close to turning Black Light into a pilot for an American series.

One of Frank Knau’s projects during his two years in charge of Egmont Fleetway was setting up a company called Fleetway Film and TV (FFTV). This was created to exploit the audio-visual to 2000 AD’s many characters besides Dredd. The Dredd film rights had been signed away in the early 1980s by IPC, who retained no control over the film. FFTV was designed to prevent that happening again, while exploiting the potential goldmine of character concepts within 2000 AD.

1014 – Men In Black replace Tharg.

When I arrived I was determined to get rid of Tharg, egged on by several prominent creators. I thought he was an anachronism and stifled the title creatively. As soon as I could, I sent him back to Betelgeuse and replaced him with the Men In Black from Vector 13. But rather than dump him altogether, I left open a way back. Reader reaction was strong and sometimes vitriolic, but I was willing to ignore that – if I felt the new style was working.

On a title like 2000 AD, you can’t let a vocal minority opinion dictate your editorial decisions. Readers will always talk about some golden age in the past, it’s just human nature. Not only do you have to give readers what they want (Judge Dredd every week, for example), you also have to give readers what they don’t know they want yet.

I decided 2000 AD should be a mixture of new and old. Dredd every week was essential (although I can remember somebody in Egmont Fleetway’s management team suggesting Dredd be taken out of 2000 AD as a way of boosting the Megazine’s sales). I wanted to have two favourite characters or series running in each prog, such as Sláine, Rogue Trooper or Durham Red. But I was also determined to have two relatively new Thrills in each prog.

2000 AD has to keep moving forwards, has to keep pushing itself to create and innovate. When the weekly rests on its laurels, there is a real danger of stagnation. I was determined to avoid that. Usurping Tharg was a way of challenging the status quo, making readers take notice. But I soon discovered how useful an attribute Tharg was to the comic. By comparison, the Men in Black quickly become a tiresome encumbrance. So Tharg was reinstated just in time for the 20th birthday prog.

1014 – Mazeworld

Like Button Man, this series was originally created for Toxic but never saw print there. Steve MacManus had commissioned this by the time I arrived, although it didn’t see print for another year. I welcomed it, as I could never understand why Pat Mills seemed to be the only person writing fantasy series for 2000 AD.

1015 – Time Flies II, finally

This had been commissioned by Richard Burton at least five years earlier. Philip Bond drew half of it then quit. Jon Beeston was brought in as a replacement and only lasted nine pages. Finally Roger Langridge was given the job of finishing it off. When I arrived the series had been shoved to the back of a drawer and forgotten. Knowing I had to publish almost everything in the drawer, I got Simon Jacob to colour up the pages, and then ran it. By this point writer Garth Ennis was a major name in US comics, but Time Flies II was hardly his finest hour.

1017 – Darkside – transferred from Megazine

John Wagner was having one of his periodic blocks when it came to writing Dredd. I seem to recall having commissioned this for the Megazine. Anyway, I nabbed it and ran it in 2000 AD instead. Despite having chopped the story into different lengths from what writer John Smith had originally intended, it still read fine as six-page episodes in the weekly.

1022 – Rogue & Venus sent into black hole

Rogue Trooper continuity had become a real can of worms, with Friday meeting the original Rogue and sundry other GIs. The original Rogue got blown up in an act of heroic self sacrifice, but that still left us with his replacement hanging around the pages. It was a big old mess and poor Steve White had been doing his best to untangle it. I found myself having to do a lot of work on Steve’s scripts to pare back his love of military jargon. Finally, I decided it was best just to give the Rogue Trooper concept a well-earned rest. I got Steve and Dan Abnett to send Friday and Venus into a black hole, where they have remained ever since.

End of 1996 – reprint monthlies fold, no more specials – just Meg & 2000 AD left...

The reprint titles had stumbled along for 18 months since being revamped to coincide with the Dredd movie. But Classic Dredd had run out of black and white stories to reprint and re-running the colour stories was not financially viable. Egmont Fleetway was not in the business of publishing reprint for artistic reasons, so that was the end of Classic Dredd. Classic 2000 AD also struggled for sales and was cancelled. The summer specials were also a flop that year, especially compared to the high sales generated in the hype of the Dredd film during 1995. So all the specials got canned too. If 1995 was all about savouring the moment as the Dredd film finally arrived, then 1996 was the hangover.

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