Here's the first excerpt from an interview I did with Garth Ennis in 2002 for THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, my history of 2000 AD. The writer began by talking about how to came to write CHOPPER: Earth, Wind and Fire for the Judge Dredd Megazine's launch issue in 1990...
GARTH ENNIS Pt. 1
That was because when John Wagner and Steve MacManus started to put the Megazine together, they wanted me to do something. That was the idea that was kicked about at the time, I think. When they first started talking about it, they didn’t have too much idea of what they wanted in the Megazine, apart from Dredd. Al’s Baby was really the first one that stepped outside his world. So it really came down to the supporting characters.
Chopper was kicking about at the time. He had been pretty much shot to death in John’s story, Song of the Surfer. There’s no doubt about it, he should have been left there. On the other hand, nice art.
Reviving Chopper so soon after his apparent death in Song of the Surfer caused some backlash from readers. Were you aware of that? If so, how did you feel about that?
Yeah. Yes, I was aware of it. It was one of those stories where I kind of lost interest and began to dislike almost as soon as it seeing print. I knew it was a mistake, even then. So I just thought, they don’t like it, I don’t like it. Best just to consign it to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible.
About this time you were developing a series called Sixgun with Will Simpson – I think for Revolver originally. I remember reading the scripts and it featured a lot of elements that eventually turned up in Preacher. Was it a dry run? Why didn’t it get picked up at the time?
That was supposed to be for Revolver. You could make a reasonably convincing argument that the Sixgun character would eventually go on to become the Saint of Killers. Although he was obviously based on the character from the Clint Eastwood westerns, specifically the Dollar trilogy. He very much more had the motivation of that character. He was a sort of mercenary thug, rather than the Saint of Killers, who was the spirit of unstoppable vengeance and death – a much more serious character.
The idea of an old west gunfighter in a contemporary setting, yeah, I definitely did recycle that one. It was supposed to go in Crisis and that folded. Then it was supposed to go to Tundra. I think after Tundra bought up an absolute shitload of properties and realised they’d bought far too much, Sixgun and Dicks were two of the first to go.
Dicks has since been revived, which I’m very happy about. Sixgun – I’m happy enough for it to be consigned to limbo. I’ve ripped out the really good ideas anyway. It was one of the first ones Tundra cast by the wayside.
The first series you wrote for 2000 AD was Time Flies, drawn by Philip Bond, a comedy strip about time travel. How do you feel about that now?
I think if you examine it in detail I think you’ll find it was, in fact, crap. Nice art. Very, very nice art. He did half the second series and then jacked it in as a dead loss – a wise decision, I think, on reflection. It was a load of crap. They asked me for a series for 2000 AD and that was the load of balls that was kicking around in my head at the time and that was what got written. Like I say, nice art.
A second series was commissioned and written but didn’t see print until 1996. How did you feel about that blast from the past turning up six years on?
Was it really six years? It wouldn’t be the first time something terrible from my past has returned to haunt me. Either because it took a long time to draw or because they suddenly decided out of the blue to collect it. There it is, running around out there, embarrassing the hell out of me. No names, no pack drill. But like I say, it’s not the first time it’s happened to me.
I found an article which mentions you and Phil Winslade pitching a revival of Invasion to 2000 AD – what happened to that?
We came up with a Bill Savage serial. He was always one of my favourite characters as a kid. Marvellous character, this terrible shotgun-wielding thug from the East End – just sheer genius. We had him sometime 20 years later escaping from a lunatic asylum in Canada and being convinced the Volgs, that he was still in England and the Volgs were still in charge. He wen ton the rampage and killed everyone – there really wasn’t much more to it than that!
Very definitely for the best that it didn’t happen. But I did, eventually, get to write Bill Savage in the 25th anniversary prog, with art by Dave Gibbons. So all’s well that ends well.
At the end of 1990 you took over writing Dredd in 2000 AD from John Wagner. How did that come about?
I’d already gotten Strontium Dog. At that time John and I were already talking about the Megazine, about various ideas for it. And I think at that point John had enough American commitments and was writing the lion’s share of the Megazine. He had enough outside commitments that handling the Dredd strip in 2000 was too much work. He needed someone new.
Why he chose me? I guess a combination of that he wanted someone pretty new and impressionable so they didn’t have preconceived ideas. Also, I’ll go out on a limb and say that of the younger writers at the time I probably had the best grip of just simple story structure. I guess that’s why I got it.
Plus I was a big fan and I knew the character and so on. There obviously weren’t going to be any mysteries to the history of Dredd. I guess John would be able to tell you better than I.
You wrote about 130 episodes of Dredd for 2000 AD over the next three years. You’ve been quite dismissive of those stories – why?
I would say about 10% of them are good. Some others – bits of stories are good. And a lot of it’s rap, to be quite honest with you. A combination of things. Sometimes getting the wrong artists. Frankly, bad editing at the time. The comic was in the hands of Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie who were not up to the job. I can’t believe, looking back, is going to be a particularly uncommon opinion among people you’ve interviewed – I could be wrong.
The main reason is I was not up to the job. A couple of reasons for that. One would be too young, just not ready for that level of work. I was writing all sorts of stuff as well as Dredd and still trying to write a weekly strip. I just wasn’t up to it, I wasn’t ready. The other reason – and I’ve though about this a bit because I wrote Dredd again last year for the Helter Skelter – and I think the basic reason is this: I can’t do Dredd right because I’m too close to it, too reverential. I like it too much.
The instinct that allows me to go in and piss all over American superheroes and end up writing quite entertaining stories about them - where Batman and Green Lantern turn up in Hitman and are thoroughly pilloried or where Wolverine and Spiderman and Daredevil appear in Punisher and have a terrible time – that instinct to go in and tear characters apart and come up with entertaining if controversial stories, that just isn’t there for me when it comes to Dredd.
Dredd means too much to me, I am too reverential to it and I can’t take the piss. I can’t tear it apart. And I guess I’ll never really be able to get over that. Even last year, doing Helter Skelter, which I had a lot of fun doing. I came away from that thinking that isn’t really Dredd. Because at the end of the day, if Dredd is not written by John Wagner or not the classic period where John was co-writing with Alan Grant, then it just isn’t really Dredd.
I can’t get it right. Neither can Robbie nor Gordon. Grant and Mark couldn’t get it right. Alan on his own hasn’t quite got it. He and John in the glory days that lasted up until 1986 – they had it absolutely down pat. These days when John writes it by himself – well, he’s pretty much the only guy that can do it now. Maybe that’s actually what defines Dredd is John’s work on it.
With American superheroes, every character has as many different personalities and takes on it as there have been writers who have worked on it. With most characters, that numbers into the hundreds. With Dredd, you’ve really only got one correct take and that’s John. To cut a long story short, that’s the reason why I was never able to nail Dredd right.
There are a few good stories, when the editors kept their mucky paws off it and I was actually getting it right. When they put the right artist on the job and he did a good job. There are several stories I’m very pleased with. There’s a lot of them that are mediocre. There’s a lot of them that I think are downright bloody awful.
You told the Comics Journal you really like a few of them, perhaps one in ten. Which ones stand out in your memory? Raider?
My all-time favourite was one that Antony Williams drew – the one about the spitting contest. A Man Called Greener? They reprinted it recently in a Titan Book. That was where I thought I came close to capturing that insane feeling that all the great Dredds had. The ones from 1980 to 1986. Those I think are the best, where John and Alan settled down into their rhythm and really kick arse on the character. Apart from that, there’s one here and one there – Death Aid wasn’t bad. There’s odd one-parters – Dermot Power did Teddy Choppermitz, Carlos did a Christmas one about Ebenezer Scrooge.
Bits of Judgement Day were okay, but overall it wasn’t up to much. I liked that last page, being able to write that last page, where Dredd and Alpha walk off together – that was cool.