Here's the second excerpt from an interview I did with Garth Ennis in 2002 for THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, my history of 2000 AD. Ennis had volunteered the opinion that most of his Dredd stories for the weekly were not good enough. I asked him if they might have been better if the editorial team had pushed him harder...
I think they might have been better under a different editorial team. In my short experience of working with Steve MacManus on Crisis and the Megazine, I felt that he was a much better editor, that he had a much better sense of story and character and pushing people in the right direction. If he’d been around at the time, I might well have done better work. Particularly on Judgement Day, which needed someone to say look, less zombies, more plot.
Emerald Isle is notable for beginning your collaboration with Steve Dillon. How quickly did the two of you click as a creative team?
In terms of clicking, it’s hard to really point to that as us clicking for the first time. We clicked as friends a long time before we did as collaborators. Really because at that point Steve knew Dredd inside out – it wouldn’t really have mattered who those scripts came from, he still would have done a classic Dillon Dredd job. It wasn’t until late 92 when we began on working on Hellblazer together with Steve as the regular artist and not just filling in that we found whatever strange telepathic groove it is we’ve been riding in ever since. I suppose it wasn’t really Dredd. That was just coincidentally the first job we ever did together.
(Much reprinted) Yes, although that’s also down to the subject matter and specifically the cover of Dredd with the gun and the other fella with the pint of Guinness. That’s instantly recognisable.
During this time you also took over writing Strontium Dogs, following the death of Johnny Alpha. What was it like taking on the strip after the death of the lead character?
Fairly anti-climatic, really. The character that I was writing, Feral, was really nowhere near as interesting. I seem to recall Steve Pugh did the art on the first story, Monsters. Unfortunately, the story was crap. Nigel Dobbyn then took over – very underrated artist I think, very good artist. He drew what was probably the most successful story in my Strontium Dog run, where the Gronk comes back. That was a good little story.
The third one was an attempt to marry the horror aspect of the strip with the more humorous Gronk material. That fell flat but again Nigel did a great job.
Where did the idea for the crossover Judgement Day come from? How successful do you think that mega-epic was?
Don’t think it was a particularly good story or epic. As for the crossover element, I really don’t know. I can remember people complaining about it at the time and I empathised with them completely. On the other hand, a couple of years later people were snapping up exactly the same thing for John’s Wilderlands story. I don’t know. People complain about it but they buy it again two years later. Like any crossover, it’s inherently frustrating and probably should have been avoided.
How well did it work? Well, I piled on far too many zombies. I recycled too much material that had appeared in other epics. There’s bite of Apocalypse War all over that story. The art didn’t help. When it was Pete Doherty or it was Carlos, it was spot on. When it was Dean Ormston – well, Dean’s talents lay elsewhere.
There was one fill-in episode that should have been a doozey. It was Dredd kicking the shit out of Johnny Alpha and a Japanese Judge, but it fell as flat as a pancake because the art was by one of these Bisley knock-offs. (Chris Halls aka Chris Cunningham, director of Madonna’s Frozen video.) Frozen’s a fucking great video so he’s clearly gone on to better things. But at the time, the stuff he was doing on that strip just didn’t really work. On the other hand, it wasn’t really a very good script to begin with, so who am I to talk?
On the whole, the thing fell flat. There were a few bits in it that stood up quite well. But it didn’t work terribly well. Really, the last truly great Dredd epic was the Apocalypse War, which I don’t think can be beat for drama and cohesion and just sheer power. It even beats out The Cursed Earth, which is a close second for me.
Judgement Day gave you a chance to write Johnny Alpha – enjoyable?
It was nice. With the story being more important than the characters, I didn’t really take it anywhere interesting. John is doing much more interesting stuff on it now, I think, in the new Strontium Dog strips. You know, the everything you’ve heard before is a lie, which is working very well.
You wrote a series called The Corps featuring Judges in Space fighting Kleggs – how did that come about? Your tribute to the VCs?
I remember that. That was an absolute disaster from start to finish. As I recall, Alan McKenzie had just taken over as editor. He wanted a sort of war in space type strip with Judges. I suggested something called Fireteam One, the idea being these guys are like a marine fire team. A small unit dedicated to going in and putting as much fire down as possible to kill as many of the enemy as possible. None of it was terribly original. I would say that Alan or whoever it was who rewrote it had left it alone, it would have been alright. But by the time they’d finished with it, I may as well not have bothered in the first place.
One thing I do remember was that… I’m a bit ashamed to admit this but I actually sub-contracted my friend Si Spencer to write the last episode because I just ran out of time and interest. It was a six page story but Si turned in a seven page script where I think the last episode ends with the two female characters being the only survivors drifting out into space in a lifepod.
Si’s seventh page basically had them having a dodgy Penthouse-style lesbian encounter which really when I was reading over the script before I retyped it and sent it on to 2000. It was one of the funniest fucking things I’d ever seen and if only I could have included it. It was would have been a very, very different story – classic, actually, is what it would have been!
That was kind of naughty of me. That’s the first and only time I’ve done something like that.
(The VCs) It’s hard to get away from that. The VCs is a much better strip and anyone who’s into that kind of thing should read the VCs and not The Corps. I haven’t seen the new VCs, I’m talking about the classic one. That really was excellent, excellent stuff.
You stopped writing for 2000 AD in 1993 – why?
One reason would have been I realised I was always going to be much happier writing my own characters, doing my own material. If I had to write company-owned characters, it was best to pick ones like Constantine where I had a natural affinity for it or The Demon where the book was in such shit state I could write whatever I wanted to anyway. There was that.
There was also the fact that the treatment of creators in American comics was at that time so much better. In terms of the relationship you have with the editorial staff, the way you’re rewarded financially for your work. Really, they’re streets ahead. The situation at Marvel and DC isn’t ideal, it’s still on an editorial level streets ahead of how things were on 2000 AD – at least, when I was there.
You returned to the weekly last year to write Helter Skelter – how and why?
Well… A deal had been worked out whereby the rights to Troubled Souls, which was the very first thing I ever did for comics and did for Crisis, were available. Rebellion bought them from Fleetway and agreed to return them to me in return for a twelve-episode Dredd strip. And that was essentially it.
Obviously, I have no desire for Troubled Souls ever to see print again. But buried within Troubled Souls are the first appearances of Dougie and Ivor, who would go on to become the Dicks. They’re my all-time favourites characters of any that I’ve written, whether my own or somebody else’s. To get a chance to write them again, to get them back into print, to get Johnny McCrea and I back to doing what amounts to our favourite work was too good an opportunity to ignore. If all I had to do was write 12 episodes of Dredd – which I found thoroughly enjoyable anyway – then it seemed to me to be an excellent deal all round.
(How do you feel about HS?) Not bad, reasonably pleased with it. It was a shame Carlos ran into so much trouble last Summer. He was trying to juggle Dredd and Rifle Brigade and cope with his house falling down around him. All at the same time. Inevitable, someone had to suffer and it turned out to be Dredd. I believe an episode Rifle Brigade shipped late too.
Some of the middle episodes are obviously rushed. Sadly, some of what would have been the most epic parts of the story. And of course Henry Flint had to step in, which I’ve no objection to, the guy’s great, but it would have been nice for Carlos to do the whole thing. But it’s just one of those tricks of fate, there’s really nothing you can do about it. Carlos couldn’t help it that his house practically fell down around him and something had to give.
What’s your happiest memory of working for 2000 AD?
I don’t know really. I ticked off Dredd, Strontium Dog, Chopper, so many classic supporting characters. On the other hand, that’s coloured by the fact I didn’t do a terribly good job on them – oh, the irony! My happiest memories of 2000 AD are a long way away from me actually working on it.
By the time I came to work on it, 2000 AD was a very different beast than the comic I grew up on in every way. I still maintain the last truly brilliant issue of 2000 was the last one printed on bog roll (519) with terrible production values and nothing but black and white throughout. The next prog was the tenth birthday issue and they started to put colour through it.
After that you have a series of unfortunate coincidences – Steve MacManus stepping down as editor, a lot of writers and artists going off to work for the States where they’d been understandably wooed away too. An overall drop in quality that coincided with a rise in printing quality. My happiest memories of 2000 AD are reading it as a kid. What was and always will be best comic ever. Writing for the thing – well by the time I did it was a very different creature. Any fond memories I had got knocked out of me pretty quickly.