Friday, February 16, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #16.1: Dark Bish-OP Pt. 3

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 the comic's 20th anniversary year, 1997...


The first run of Sinister Dexter had all been one or two part stories. I gave Dan a chance to write a longer series, to see if the characters could sustain interest over months as well as weeks. Gunshark Vacation was a big, fat hit with the readers and Sinister Dexter cemented their popularity.

Sláine had always been plagued with deadline problems, especially with the advent of fully painted art. But in 1997 I managed to get the character into the weekly for a six month residency. Dermot Power kicked it off with Book II of the Treasures of Britain, a very successful Camelot yarn. Steve Tappin made his Sláine debut, then came the William Wallace story King of Hearts. That had originally been commissioned as a single story for a stand-along special, but went into the weekly when all the specials were canned. Then Tappin came back for The Grail War.

The time travelling Sláine stories were quite popular for a while, but there seemed to be a law of diminishing returns. Readers started to tire of Sláine being cast in the role of Doctor Who with an axe and a dwarf.

1033 – 20th birthday prog, two Dredds, reprint of Prog 1 supplement, PR-led focus for editorial instituted, 2000 AD becomes A4 publication (thinner)

There were lots of ideas of how to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Also, I was getting increasingly nervous about the problem of what to call 2000 AD in the year 2000. The new millennium might have sounded like science fiction in 1977 – but by 1997 it was all too close. I suggested we launch a new title called 3000 AD, to sit alongside 2000 AD. It would introduce an all-new cast of characters, with Judge Dredd acting as the bridge to the new title. The old favourites could continue in 2000 AD. If 3000 AD was successful, it could continue and evolve, eventually supplanting 2000 AD when the year 2000 made the week’s title seem redundant. If 3000 AD failed, we could always fold its content back into 2000 AD. This was considered briefly but dismissed. After the bad year that was 1996, the company was in no rush to launch a new title.

Changing page size was done for two reasons. Firstly, making the title 15 millimetres thinner saved money on paper. Paper prices jumped by 50% in the late 1990s, so such savings were not inconsiderable – a five figure sum each year, I seem to recall.

Throughout my tenure as editor, I had to come up with substantial savings each year to maintain 2000 AD’s profitability. Sales on the comic had fallen an average of 8000 copies a year since the late 1980s. After I arrived that decline began to slow dramatically, but weekly sales were still falling. That meant I was charged with cutting between up to 10% from the comic’s costs every year, without making this obvious to the readers. The move to A4 helped achieve that. When I took over 2000 AD in December 1995 the annual editorial budget was more than £520,000 – basically £10,000 a prog. When I left in June 2000, the editorial budget had been cut back to less than £400,000. We also made massive savings on repro and paper costs – at least another £50,000 a year.

Going A4 meant all the physical artwork for the comic could be drawn or painted on to an A3 sheet. Previously, when we wanted to photocopy or scan a page of original art, we had to do it in two halves because Egmont Fleetway (like nearly all companies) did not have an A2 copier or scanner. Having done two copies or scans, you then had to laboriously paste them together. It doesn’t sound like much for a single page, but we had 28 pages of art a week to deal with. Going A4 was a wonderful time saver.

Of course, changing page size on a weekly like 2000 D requires enormous pre-planning. For a year in advance of the size change, we had to supply any artist doing work to see print after Prog 1032 with the new page sizes and check they stuck to those sizes. Also, we had to clear out all remaining stock from the drawers, as it would not fit in the new size easily. Only one series was not finished in time to be published before we changed size – I Was A Teenage Tax Consultant, drawn by Ian Gibson. I pleaded with Ian to finish it in time so we could run it before the page size changed but to little avail. It eventually ran from Prog 1050 with an ugly banner across the top of each page, because of the art being the wrong size.

1033 – Hunting Party begins, first Mercy Heights

Mercy Heights was an attempt to combine the best bits of two popular TV series of the time – Babylon 5 and ER. So it was a medical drama with lots of aliens and science fiction. John Tomlinson did a great job on a tough brief, balancing an ensemble cast of characters in episodes of only six pages a week. Kevin Walker’s art and character designs were great, it was just a shame he couldn’t draw the whole series. But the need to run complete stories meant sometimes they had to be spread between multiple artists.

The Hunting Party tried to use the multiple artist problem as a plus-point, having an epic broken down into individual stories with their own artist. Ultimately, the story lacked a little zing and having so many different artists hurt it more than it helped. You can’t win them all!

1034 – Al’s Baby transfers from Megazine, B.L.A.I.R. 1 in 3000 AD supplement

Al’s Baby was a creator-owned series that found an audience in the Megazine, despite having nothing to do with Dredd. Now that the Megazine was running so much reprint, a lot of its characters were not seeing much page-time. So Al’s Baby was the first of several Megazine strips to follow me over to 2000 AD.

Reprinting a replica of Prog 1 to give away free with the 20th birthday issue was hardly an original idea – it had been done over several weeks as mini-comic pages years before. But it did spawn another idea, the 3000 AD supplement given away with Prog 1034. That re-imagined all the original Prog 1 series from 1977, but with 1997 artists and updated stories.

Of these, the updating of M.A.C.H. 1 I wrote and Simon Davis drew got the most attention. B.L.A.I.R. 1 spoofed the messianic rise of the New Labour leader and predicted his party’s landslide victory in the General Election, which didn’t happen for several months. The story got picked up by one or two newspapers and got the comic some attention. I noticed this and decided to bring the character back, getting Alan Grant to take over as writer.

After the debacle of the Prog 889 TV campaign, there was no money in the budget for advertising 2000 AD. But Egmont Fleetway was willing to pay for a public relations company to hype the comic to the media. To make that work, I had to inject stories and concepts into the comic that would acts as hooks for media interest. B.L.A.I.R. 1 was the most successful of these, as time would tell. Again, this was a symptom of Egmont Fleetway as a self-proclaimed marketing-led company. 2000 AD was being asked to service the needs of marketing people, no matter how it distorted the content of the comic itself.

1035 – first Nikolai Dante

Dante had already been in development when I became editor in December 1995. John Tomlinson had been working with Robbie and Simon, prepping the story. Everything was already in place when I arrived – the characters, the story arc, its feel. The only problem was deciding where to start the first series. I think I suggested changing a few names for minor characters. But Dante was fully formed and the central character seemed to have his own, distinctive voice. It was god-send to arrive as the new editor and find this gem.

It took another 15 months before Dante got into print, just getting it right and giving Simon enough time to draw the first 15 episodes. I wanted Dante to have the best chance of making an impression on readers. The best way to do that is give a new series a long run with a consistent creative team. And it worked – Dante was an immediate hit with the readership, evening challenging Dredd. Once the novelty had worn off, Dante’s popularity declined for a while. But it gradually built back up again, as the central character grew and developed. Dante is among my all-time favourites in 2000 AD.

1050 – Tax Consultant, Witch World debut

I Was a Teenage Tax Consultant had been in development for years. It was a creator-owned series that had originally been intended for something else, but found a home at 2000 AD. It was meant to appear before Prog 1033 when 2000 AD changed size, but Ian Gibson was taking forever to do the art. I once worked out he was averaging 16 weeks to produce six pages of colour art. When it finally ran, we had to put a border over the art because it was now the wrong size for the comic. I think the concept had gone a little stale by then.

Witch World came from me challenging the writers to create a new fantasy strip for the weekly. I could never understand why only Pat Mills seemed to write fantasy for 2000 AD. Gordon came up with Witch World, which showed the most promise. It suffered from having nearly half a dozen different artists splitting the 12 episodes between them – but that was necessary to get the strip into print.

Anderson: Crusade

Not a highlight for anyone, looking back. The Wonderwall story that preceded it was great, a strong return for Anderson after five years out of 2000 AD. But Crusade was a mistake and seemed to go on forever. It did generate one of my all-time favourite covers, which shows a dead Anderson being zipped up inside a body bag.

Diggle joins editorial circa late Summer 1997

I think Andy joined not long after Prog 1050. He was certainly around for the Autumn of 1997, which was a real nadir for the comic during my time as editor. The marketing-led approach was swamping 2000 AD. The drive to create media-friendly stories laden with cross-promotional hooks proved to be a real turn-off for regular readers. I have to take much of the blame for that period, because I bought into the approach.

But I was also effectively editing 2000 AD and the Megazine on my own at the time. Most of Steve MacManus’s time was being taken up elsewhere within Egmont Fleetway, leaving me to run the weekly and the monthly alone. It was too much. One editor can just about keep 2000 AD going every week, but looking after the Megazine as well was driving me barmy.

2000 AD slowly eats you alive as an editor, especially if you don’t have enough support. I was working ten and twelve hours a day, just trying to get the comic out on time. Andy’s arrival saved me and the comic from going under, probably. He was scathing about the sort of material 2000 AD was running at the end of 1997 – the Space Girls, B.L.A.I.R. 1 and an adaptation of the film A Life Less Ordinary. He said 2000 AD should concentrate on entertaining its existing readers and winning back lapsed readers, not on trying to seduce the media – and he was right. We argued a lot but it was worth it.

1062 – Space Girls

A parody of the Spice Girls, who were then approaching the apogee of their 15 minutes of fame. The Space Girls accurately predicted the departure of Geri Halliwell from the real world counterpart, a year before it happened. It was a series that provokes enormous vitriol, despite only being five parts long. I created it with Jason Brashill and gave it to John Tomlinson to write. It wasn’t good enough and it didn’t belong in 2000 AD. It did get us a lot of media coverage – the Guardian newspaper described me as an ‘opportunistic marketing spiv’. It was covered in the French edition of Elle magazine and we were still getting letters from French schoolgirls about it six months later.

1063 – Life Less Ordinary

The trio that made Shallow Grave and Trainspotting wanted to have a graphic novel adaptation made of their next film together, A Life Less Ordinary. Egmont Fleetway shared the same media lawyers and they acted as go-between. It was decided to run the adaptation inside 2000 AD. The film contained fantasy elements, to help justify its presence in the progs. The Trainspotting trio were white hot at the time and doing a comic version of their next film was expected to get 2000 AD a lot of coverage and cachet.

Once we’d paid for the rights, there was no money for scripts so I had to write the adaptation myself. Steve Yeowell did a nice job drawing the strip under incredible time pressure, with very little reference material. Alas, the film sucked and died, leaving us with a limp filler in 2000 AD for eight weeks.

1066 – Sex Prog

Another media-friendly event that caused a backlash from regular readers. This issue was bagged because of its risqué content. Sales went up by several thousand, as they often do when a comic is bagged.

Oct-Dec 1997 – Dredd vs Predator published by Dark Horse, reprinted in Meg

An okay script by Wagner, mediocre art by Alcatena. Dark Horse was responsible for the editorial on that. It made for cheap reprint material in the Meg, helping to keep the title alive for another year.

1071 – B.L.A.I.R. 1 gets mucho PR

The first appearance of B.L.A.I.R. 1 in the 3000 AD supplement given away with Prog 1034 had generated a healthy dose of media coverage, so I decided to try the same trick again. I brought in Alan Grant to write a four-part series, again painted by Simon Davis, then leaked the story to a news agency. The story went around the world and we were inundated for several days. It was all over news bulletins on TV, radio and newspapers. It even got featured on the satirical TV news quiz Have I Got News For You. Sales jumped by several thousand, but slumped again once the spotlight had moved on.

1077 – 24-page sequel to 2120 predictions, good paper, going self-cover again

For years readers had been wondering about a psychic prediction of disaster for Mega-City One in the year 2120. When the Dredd strip reached that time period, I commissioned this story as a pre-emptive strike. It was nothing special.

1091 – Missionary Man transfers from Megazine

With the Megazine running so much reprint material, its own characters were getting badly neglected. So I commissioned Gordon to write a new series about Preacher Cain for 2000 AD. It was successful enough to merit further stories. Happily, the Megazine can now afford to give strips like Missionary Man a home again.

1096 – first Pulp Sci-Fi, V13 replacement, begets Rose O’Rion

Pulp Sci-Fi was Andy’s concept, I believe. It was a chance for established creators to have fun doing one-off sci-fi tales without the trappings of V13 or the need for a twist ending. But getting the quality of work was always a problem. The character Rose O’Rion proved popular enough to get her own series later.

1100 – all Slaine prog, no Dredd, beginning of Lost Years tales

I had liked the concept of an entire prog being devoted to a single story, turning it into a special event. Lord of the Beasts featured great art by a Spanish illustrator called Rafael Garres and I wanted to give it a real showcase. Also, it launched a run of back to basics Sláine stories, set before he became a time traveller agent of the Earth Goddes.

1101 – Beyond the Call of Duty – Pit sequel – Dredd snogged by DeMarco!

The Pit had been a big hit and created a lot of interesting new characters in Dredd’s world. John likes to come back to these characters and nudge them along, developing underlying plot threads. Beyond the Call of Duty did just that, culminating in DeMarco snogging Dredd. That gave us a great cover, real impact. It was a good yarn with excellent Ezquerra art too.

1111 – 48pg special issue, 4x10pp strips

We seemed to have endless meetings with marketing managers debating the future of 2000 AD. Among the ideas kicked around were changing the frequency, taking the comic fortnightly or even monthly. Prog 1111 was an attempt to test that notion, upping the page count and cover price to see how readers reacted. It seemed to make no difference to sales.

1112 – Sancho Panzer

I’m fond of this, even if it wears influences from Tremors and Princess Bride a little too obviously on its sleeve. Some stunning colour art by Henry Flint, whose sketchbooks have to be seen to be believed. We had a blow-up of his Peter Fonda Telephone Head sketch pinned to the wall for months. Henry had a habit of writing signs wrong on his art. I remember a sign outside a town Sancho Panzer visited was meant to say Cool your jets and stay awhile! When the art arrived, Henry had somehow made this into Cool Jets and Stay Awake! Classic...

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