Monday, September 14, 2020

Thirty years ago, the Judge Dredd Megazine was born!

 Hard to believe, but 30 years ago this week Judge Dredd The Megazine was launched as a spin-off from iconic British comics anthology 2000AD. Giving future lawman Dredd his own title had long been mooted, but on September 15th 1990 it became a reality. Happily, it's still going strong today.

 I was assistant editor for the launch, and soon became editor. My association with that title continued off and on for another 11 years as part of the editorial team, and I've since contributed numerous pieces to the title. Here's the first from a series of articles I wrote in 2005 charting the Meg's early years...

In September 1990 a new monthly called Judge Dredd The Megazine was launched into Britain’s turbulent comics market. It lacked the street cred of titles like Deadline and Crisis, nor did it have the media profile of Fleetway’s other new launch that year, Revolver. But the Megazine survived while the rest stumbled, garnering readers, respect and plenty of awards. Fifteen years on, the monthly is still going strong. Now David Bishop tells the story of its tumultuous history…

Giving Judge Dredd his own comic looks an obvious choice in retrospect, yet it almost never happened. The future lawman made his debut strip appearance in March 1977, relegated to the back pages of 2000 AD’s second issue. But within months Dredd emerged as a reader’s favourite, thanks to the writing of John Wagner and dynamic visuals by young British artists like Mike McMahon and Ian Gibson. The character got his own annual in 1980, a sure sign that publisher IPC considered Dredd a valuable asset. In 1984 the company asked Wagner and co-writer Alan Grant to develop a Judge Dredd fortnightly. Scripts were written, strips drawn and lettered, everything seemed set to go. But IPC got cold feet and cancelled the launch, to the frustration of those involved.

Steve MacManus was editor of 2000 AD at the time. ‘Any Judge Dredd spin-off that made it to the newsstands was always going to succeed,’ he believes. This was proven when the first Judge Dredd Mega-Special was published in 1988, selling 75,000 copies when 2000 AD was shifting 100,000 progs a week. Plainly, there was a hunger for more Dredd material. But IPC had sold its comics group to Maxwell Consumer Magazines, who established the group as a company called Fleetway Publications. Instead of giving Dredd his head, the new owners chose to launch a title strongly influenced by the success of mature comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.

The result was Crisis, a politically charged fortnightly that was an initial hit but soon found itself struggling to make a profit. The following summer Jon Davidge joined Fleetway as publishing director. He decided the time was right to do a Dredd spin-off. ‘This was good publishing,’ Davidge recalls. ‘Dredd was our strongest character, he was aimed at our core audience. We should have done the Megazine instead of Crisis, but that decision was taken before I arrived.’ By 1989 MacManus was managing editor of the 2000 AD Group. It had been losing talent to US comics for years because British publishers refusing to pay royalties. MacManus insisted there had to be financial incentives attached to the new Dredd title, otherwise key creators would not get involved.

Wagner was crucial to the new launch, since he had created Dredd with artist Carlos Ezquerra and scripted most of the character’s stories for a dozen years. ‘They needed me to do it,’ the writer recalls. ‘I felt it was an opportune time to put forward my proposals for a fairer deal for creators. Originally it was meant to be me and Alan [Grant] developing the Megazine, but I did most of the initial work because of a misunderstanding.’

The two writers had dissolved their highly successful partnership two years earlier. Grant says they had drifted apart as a consequence. ‘We were out in London one night and [Fleetway PR consultant} Igor Goldkind was there, pleading with John to work on the Megazine. By the end of the evening John and I were back on speaking terms and decided I would play a part in the Megazine as well. Having done so much work previously on prototypes, John negotiated a deal whereby we would be consultant editors and get a percentage in return.’

MacManus was chosen as in-house launch editor. He recalls Wagner coming into the office for an initial meeting to discuss what characters might appear in the new title. ‘There were some proposals already on the table. The concept of a Dredd magazine had been known for quite a while. People were just pitching in, we weren’t commissioning yet. At that meeting we agreed the title would be called the Judge Dredd Megazine. The development work was very easy, I must say. It was simply a question of John writing it, assigning artists and getting on with it. My role was more of a production editor, trafficking material.’

Wagner has a different recollection. He says finding the quality of material he wanted proved tremendously difficult. ‘I have set ideas about Dredd’s world and the kind of stories I like, I’m afraid. I was giving prospective writers a very hard time of it. Sitting in judgement over other writers is not a position I like to be in, it’s one of the reasons I quit editorial in the first place.’

A new generation of writers and artists had emerged in the late 1980s to fill the gap left by established creators going to work for the American market. Many submitted ideas for the new Dredd launch, among them writer John Smith. ‘I was asked by Steve MacManus to come up with a series when the comic was still in pre-production, but all the ideas I pitched got turned down, one way or another. There was an occult investigator story starring Eddy Whyteman [a character Smith recycled for the recent Devlin Waugh story All Hell], a Cursed Earth hospital story and a kind of Alan Bennett comedy strip about a Brit-Cit stand-up comedian. My favourite series almost made it through. It was set in the Academy of Law and followed a group of young cadets as they joined up and trained. I think John Wagner suggested I write that. It would have been revealed one of the cadets was a clone from the Fargo-Dredd bloodline. 

‘Unfortunately everyone felt I went way over the top in terms of nastiness,’ Smith recalls. ‘My view was if you have these five-year-olds being shipped off by their parents to this terrible, soul-destroying place, it’s bound to fuck them up. The Academy of Law is just an institutionalised child-abuse factory, a way of brainwashing innocent, impressionable kids and turning them into mindless, robotic servants of the Law. The story was basically Scum with primary school kids and showed all the horrifying consequences I’m sure that would involve. Thinking about it now, that probably was a bit strong.’

American writer James Hudnall was commissioned to write a six-part story called Killer, featuring Japanese Judge Sadu. ‘I got that through my dealings with Steve MacManus,’ he recalls. ‘I met him at a convention in Britain and he was interested in me doing some work. I wrote the first two parts of Killer and got paid, but there was an editorial shuffle or something and it never got finished.’ An El Salvadorian artist living in Paris, Carlos Kastro, was mooted for Sadu. Hudnall knew Kastro from the San Francisco Bay area where they both used to live.

MacManus says some projects proposed for the Megazine got further than others, but he doesn’t recall why Killer was dropped. ‘Sadu was a good character. Maybe we were holding that back for later, but it never progressed. It was important to choose the right stories for the first issue. There wasn’t a need to create new characters for the launch.’ He says there was one character from the Dredd universe everybody wanted in the Megazine – the skysurf champion Marlon Shakespeare, better known as Chopper.

Up and coming writer Garth Ennis was selected to take over this iconic character from Wagner. ‘When John and Steve started to put the Megazine together, they asked me to do something,’ Ennis explains. ‘They didn’t have too much idea of what they wanted in there, apart from Dredd, 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.’ 

Wagner says he was initially against reviving Chopper, but came round. ‘In my mind Song of the Surfer stood alone as a story. As long as I personally didn’t write the follow-up, I felt I hadn’t committed any breach of faith with Chopper. Rather in the same way I’ve never regarded any Strontium Dog stories not written by me or Alan as real, and am quite prepared to disregard or rewrite any continuity not established by myself. A bit arrogant, perhaps, but they’re my characters. In any case, I liked Garth and John McCrea’s work. I’d been really impressed by Troubled Souls [in Crisis] and wanted to see them in the Megazine. They wanted to do Chopper, so I let them. Aside from Chopper’s miraculous revival, there was nothing in their story I took exception to and was happy to take it on board the Chopper continuity.’

Ennis was the only one from the new wave of young writers to make the launch issue. Grant joined Wagner for some of the deliberations. ‘I recall us sitting with heaps of scripts from the usual suspects for the Megazine. We took a lot of care trying to tell people what they were doing wrong, but they didn’t seem to pay attention. The Megazine was the first thing we had an ongoing interest in, therefore we wanted it to be as successful as we could possibly make it.’ But Wagner and Grant were not the only creators to benefit if the monthly was a hit. Contracts were issued to all the contributors guaranteeing them a royalty for all sales over 50,000 copies.

Unable to find what he wanted from other writers, Wagner was forced to script three of the strips in the launch issue. Cam Kennedy illustrated Beyond Our Kenny, a Dredd three-parter reviving a minor character from the lawman’s past. Wagner adopted the pseudonym Brian Skuter for Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend, a humorous biography of Dredd’s arch-enemy Judge Death [see sidebar] delicately painted by newcomer Peter Doherty. The writer’s other contribution to the monthly was America [see sidebar]. The final strip was another Dredd tale, Midnite’s Children, written by Grant as launch deadline approached. ‘I bumped into John. He said they needed one more story and it was quite urgent. Jim Baikie had to turn the art round at a high rate of knots.’ The last element was Mega-City Times, a satirical newspaper section written by stand-up comedian Tony Allen and designed with an early version of desktop publishing software by Shanti Tolputt.

Finding suitable strip material was not the only problem. Determining the new title’s format also proved a challenge. Freelance journalist David Bishop joined as assistant editor in July 1990, seven weeks before the first issue went on sale. ‘The Megazine had never existed, so John and Steve had to invent it. They needed the comic to be sufficiently different from 2000 AD to justify its creation, yet familiar enough to also attract 2000 AD readers to buy it.’ Bishop recalls seeing a document proposing the monthly feature a 20-page lead Dredd story, with two back-up tales of 8-10 pages each and a satirical magazine section.

‘That concept had been ditched before I arrived, probably because of the lead time required to produce 20 pages of painted art for a monthly.’ At the time 2000 AD was 36 pages and cost 40 pence. For that readers got 28 pages of strip a week, usually three colour stories and two in black and white. The Megazine was almost four times the price at £1.50 when it launched, but the monthly was full colour with 44 pages of strip and four pages of satirical feature material. A deal for the Megazine to be republished in the US meant the pages had to be the same proportions as an American comic, making them visibly narrower than 2000 AD. [Only two issues of the US edition were published and the Megazine expanded to 2000 AD dimensions in 1992.] 

Once the strip content was chosen, a design template for the new launch was required. ‘We didn’t have an art editor or designer,’ MacManus recalls. ‘We needed someone from outside to fulfil the role of creating a look for the Meg, just as we asked Rian Hughes to create a look for Crisis. Sean Phillips had been painting covers for Crisis that were powerful, design-led images – they suggested he could give the Megazine a style of its own.’

Phillips began working as a comics artist while still at secondary school, but had subsequently completed a graphic design degree. ‘I can’t remember if Steve Mac asked me if I wanted to design the Meg, or if I volunteered – probably he asked me.’ The first seven issues featured a logo that stretched over more than a third of the front cover. ‘I was advised to make the logo as big as possible, to make it eye-catching,’ Phillips recalls. ‘A few months down the line we realised that didn’t leave much space for the image, so it was slightly tweaked.’ 

The artist also painted a gatefold image of Dredd and several old foes for the launch issue that angered several established 2000 AD artists. ‘I was asked to do an illustration showing those particular characters,’ Phillips says. ‘I thought it would be a good idea to do my own painted version of iconic drawings other people had done, using the classic Fink Angel drawing by Mike McMahon and the classic Judge Dredd drawing by Brian Bolland. Steve was okay with that, so I went ahead and did it. Apparently the gatefold pissed a few people off, although I’ve never heard from any of them face to face. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. It wasn’t as if I was basing my whole career on ripping someone else’s style off. It was a single painting and it seemed to fit the first issue.’

MacManus believes the bad blood stemmed from gossip Phillips had been paid a lot of money for the gatefold. ‘There was a rumour he got a lot of money, £4000 instead of the £400 he probably got. These days we’d print the creators’ names next to the image, with a big name-check for Carlos as the original visual creator of Dredd to avoid confusion.’

The first issue of Judge Dredd The Megazine went on sale Saturday September 15, 1990. The title’s original editorial budget was £15,500 an issue, but this was exceeded by almost £2000 on the first issue, thanks to all the extra developmental costs accumulated over the previous year.  Wagner and Grant were named inside as consultant editors, but their role was already diminishing. ‘By the time the first issue was out, I opted to take more of a back seat,’ Wagner recalls. ‘I began to feel I was in danger of stifling the kind of creativity we needed. I let Steve and David Bishop deal with submissions after that.’ The new title was launched with a special luncheon at the UK Comic Art Convention in London. Bishop remembers being terrified at the prospect of meeting Wagner and Grant for the first time at the launch, having only spoken to them on the phone. 

‘I knew how important they were to the comic. Alan was never afraid to say if he thought you were making a mistake, while John has a voice like thunder and gravel fighting at the bottom of a cement mixer. Fortunately, neither of them pointed out how little I knew about comics editing at the time.’ The assistant editor had grown up in New Zealand and was not a regular 2000 AD reader before starting at the Megazine. ‘Steve Mac taught me everything I needed to know about comics editing, gave me a real apprenticeship. He was brilliant at the mechanics of putting together a periodical, and gave me a solid grounding in the vocabulary of the medium. I still think Steve doesn’t get enough credit for his part in what most people call the golden age of 2000 AD.’ 

The Megazine had become increasingly important for Fleetway since its launch was first mooted. By September 1990 sales on Crisis had fallen so far the title switched from fortnightly to monthly publication to stay alive. Earlier in the year Fleetway had launched an ambitious monthly anthology called Revolver, aimed at mature readers. But early sales results suggested its eclectic mix of strips was struggling to find an audience. Even 2000 AD’s normally rock solid circulation was beginning to regularly dip below 100,000 a week. 

Fortunately, the Megazine’s first issue sold more than 50,000 copies in the UK, generating a royalty for all the contributing creators. ‘The success of the Megazine was hugely important for the 2000 AD Group,’ MacManus recalls. Subsequent issues never achieved the same level again, but he says the introduction of creator contracts was a milestone for the company. ‘The principal was there, even if it only applied to that first issue. The Megazine was the first comic from a major British publisher that shared revenue with creators. That’s one of its greatest achievements.’

America by Wagner and Colin MacNeil quickly emerged as the monthly’s outstanding tale. ‘The story had a new depth and intensity,’ Wagner feels. ‘It was a more complete look at Dredd’s world as I see it, and for that alone I still rank America among my best pieces. If you asked me what my favourite Dredd stories were, I’d probably plump for some of the one-offs, but America is right up there.’

MacManus says the strip’s success had a powerful impact on the shape and style of stories that followed. ‘It influenced the voice of the Megazine, showing that voice could go older than in 2000 AD and therefore achieve separation. Having said that, stories such as Young Death always have a place in the title. They deal with the darkly humorous side of Dredd which is so important to his success.’ 

To Bishop America represented a quantum leap forwards in Dredd storytelling. ‘It was so different from everything that had been done with the character and his world before. America had the depth and maturity of tone you saw in the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The story also stood out by deviating from the usual Dredd timeline. All previous stories had taken place in a continuous thread, one after another. America jumped back to before the Apocalypse War, then moved forwards through the Big Meg’s recent history. That gave readers a fresh perspective on Dredd’s world. The quality of Colin MacNeil’s art didn’t hurt either.’

The revival of Chopper was not so popular with readers. Many wrote letters complaining about the character’s Lazarus-like resurrection after being shot to pieces seven months earlier in 2000 AD. Ennis found himself agreeing with the readers. ‘There’s no doubt about it, Chopper should have been left there,’ the writer says. ‘It was one of those stories were I lost interest and began to dislike almost as soon as it was seeing print. I knew Earth, Wind and Fire was a mistake, even then. I thought they don’t like it, I don’t like it. Best to consign it to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible. On the other hand, nice art.’

McCrea was excited to be part of the new launch. ‘It was pretty cool to be in the first issue,’ he told website ‘Certain bits of Chopper were reasonably done on my part. Some of the writing’s not up to scratch, but then neither is some of my drawing. ‘I really was sick of painted artwork. I still to this day don’t think comics should have any painted art … it’s not what the medium’s about. It slows things down, it distracts from the story.’

The fourth issue of the Megazine introduced a new strip. Al’s Baby [see sidebar] was a creator-owned story by Wagner and Ezquerra originally devised for a new British weekly anthology called Toxic! But Wagner withdrew most of his characters from that title before it launched and offered Al’s Baby to the Megazine instead. MacManus was eager to secure an all-new story from the creators of Dredd. There was only one problem: Al’s Baby was set in Chicago during the year 2014 and had nothing to do with Dredd’s world. Wagner suggested adding a page to the first and last episodes, with a robot teacher in a Mega-City One classroom introducing the story as part of a history lesson. ‘Breaking the all-Dredd format of the Meg so early was a bold move,’ MacManus recalls, ‘but that era was full of bold moves. This one worked, happily. Looking back at it now, Al’s Baby reads like a science fiction version of The Sopranos.’

Bishop says a few readers questioned the presence of Al’s Baby in the Megazine, but most welcomed the new arrival. ‘If it had sucked, that would have been more of a problem. The fact Al’s Baby was by the original creators of Dredd helped smooth over the anomaly of it appearing in a comic supposedly devoted solely to telling stories from the world of Dredd.’

MacManus was conscious of the need to find new talent for the monthly. ‘It was hugely important for the Meg to find its own voice otherwise there would have been no differentiation between it and 2000 AD. I felt the Meg had to be booted out from the fold, find its own talent to survive.’ The first newcomer to break in via the monthly was artist Dean Ormston. Wagner was impressed by a Dredd painting Ormston took to a comics convention. He sent the artist to see MacManus, who bought the image to use as a cover [it appeared on the front of Megazine 1.10] and gave the illustrator a Dredd script as a try-out. I Singe the Body Electric was published in the comic’s sixth issue.

‘When I started, I were completely in at the deep end,’ Ormston recalls. He had drawn only one comic strip before, a 12-page Spiderman story for America’s Marvel Comics. ‘I’d never done a painted comic when I started on Dredd. I was learning as I went along. Gradually I got better and enjoyed the episodes more as I got faster and better at painting. The later ones are technically better.’ 

Wagner and Grant were still scripting 80% of the Megazine, and finding new writers who could match them was much harder than identifying potential artists. 2000 AD had long used a one-off story slot called Future Shocks as a testing ground for new creators. A similar format was invented for the Megazine called Strange Cases, featuring bizarre incidents from the future-shocked city. The first tale commissioned for the slot was Skin Games by Smith and John Hicklenton, although it was not published until 1992. The first Strange Case to see print was Feed Me by Warren Ellis and Phillips in the Megazine’s seventh issue.

Phillips also illustrated another Strange Case in the following issue, scripted by Ian Edginton. Both writers would have considerable success in the future, Edginton co-creating popular 2000 AD serials Red Sails and Leviathan while Ellis became a much sought after by US publishers. ‘I think Warren’s story is the only thing he’s ever done for a 2000 AD publication,’ Phillips says. ‘I put him off, obviously! Neither story was my best work. It was back in the days when everyone had to paint like Bisley.’

A handful of other Strange Cases were commissioned, but most saw print in specials and yearbooks. MacManus says the one-off concept didn’t sit well in the monthly. ‘We wanted the Megazine to be rock solid from front cover to back. It didn’t feel right to have one-off experiments going into the early issues – we couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong.’ In future new Megazine writers would have to win their place by creating a complete series worthy of publication.

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