Before we begin…
Uh… I have a confession to make. I assumed for years that DC Vertigo was British. I didn’t think to like, check, and so I put it on the list for ‘History of British Comics,’ not taking into account that it’s… Not British. A simple Google search would have been enough to find this pretty basic fact. Vertigo just employed all of the most well-known British writing talent: Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis… it felt British enough to me. I also planned to talk about Tale of One Bad Rat, my favourite graphic novel of all time, as part of this discussion, but guess what? THAT’S FROM DARK HORSE. As is Give Me Liberty. That’s frustrating… but y’know what? At least this means I can finally skip to the main event. The thing I’ve been wanting to write about since I started this.
So screw it.
So, as the final part of my “Brief History of British Comics,” here’s the tale of 2000AD; The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic and the comic book institution of this Sceptred Isle…. and it’s most well-known anti-hero.
I suppose I probably ought to address how being super into the misadventures of a literal fascist – or at least a literal authoritarian – is definitely something to discuss.
Borag Thungg Earthlets
First off, meet the editor of 2000AD, Tharg the Mighty, formerly of Quaxxann, a planet that orbits the star Betelgeuse. He’s been around since the first issue in 1977 and he’s… a bit of a dish, as my grandma used to say.
He answers mail from fans, introduces and closes each issue, or “prog,” and will occasionally narrate a few 2000AD stories Rod Serling style. He is wise enough to stay off of Twitter, unlike other company mascots. He’s also definitely gotten better with age.
He joins the ranks of other fictional overlords/editors of British comics such as Misty (beautiful mysterious witchy goddess and keeper of my heart), Ghastly McNasty, Lord Peter Flint, and Fireball. He has overseen this great anthology comic all the way to this, its forty-second year. 2000AD has seen its most iconic and well-known character get two movie adaptations and can claim to be the starting point for Alan Moore, the comic book industry’s own personal Rasputin. His work from 2000AD included The Ballad of Halo Jones, DR and Quinch, Skizz, and a ton of one-off Future Shock stories. Personal favourites of mine are Nicholai Dante and Durham Red, but the biggest fan favourites are arguably Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, and ABC Warriors. Y’know. These guys:
Before we do anything else, I need to make one thing perfectly clear. This is quite the controversial opinion if you’re British and a 2000AD reader, but… I actually have a huge soft spot for the first Judge Dredd movie. It’s… bad. Like, super bad, but I can’t help but kind of love it. It got me into 2000AD in the first place, or rather, finally convinced me to read the many collected volumes of Dredd collected at my local library. A similar thing happened with Tank Girl. I know, on a deep intellectual level, that these movies (Dredd and Tank Girl) are utter guff, but I still love them, okay? Of course the 2012 version Dredd is a hundred times better and was criminally overlooked. Karl Urban was perfect as Dredd. I finally got to see a big screen version of Judge Anderson, and holy shit Lena Heady was so good as the villain. Gruddammit. If only it had come out like, maybe a few years later it would’ve been more widely appreciated.
But what makes this particular movie work so much better than the first, for me and for most 2000AD readers, is that whilst it’s a lot more down to earth and ‘grittier’ than the comics, it feels closer to the ‘spirit’ of them. Whilst 1995’s Judge Dredd certainly looked the part, with some actually impressive practical effects and shout outs (the Angel gang, the ABC Warriors, block names, the Council’s names all being significant) it was… not executed all that well. It was too goofy and upbeat, and ugh Rob Schneider. Dredd kept shout outs to a minimum, restricting them to background Easter eggs, and concentrated on telling a story that put Dredd in the middle of a tough, but pretty normal, day in Mega City One. It’s the city not long after the Judges become the prevailing government. The best thing about Dredd is that Dredd keeps the helmet on the entire time. That is the whole point. Reforming him, making him somehow more ‘relaxed’ is not the best approach for a story about the creeping influence of fascism and how we can all be made worryingly complicit in endorsing it. We’ll get to why.
Judge Dredd did not start as the flagship character for the comics. As I discussed in prior installments, a rebooted, dark re-imagining of Dan Dare ended up alienating pretty much everyone, but Dredd captured the imagination. You have to understand: 1977 was a pretty tough year. As the seventies died, so did pretty much all of the hope and optimism from the sixties and early seventies. By the eighties, everything kind of sucked. Dystopia was very much in, especially in Britain. In the first few issues of 2000AD, we are treated to what sounds a lot like Robocop – which, incidentally, came out over a decade later and was heavily influenced by Judge Dredd, according to the director Paul Verhooven. M.A.C.H. 1 is inspired by The Six Million Dollar Man (most British comics at this time were capitalising on popular movies and TV shows – see Hook Jaw from the Action comics).
Whilst M.A.C.H. 1 has violent moments, it’s pretty tame, all things considered. It’s more existential than outwardly violent. It’s a story about who really controls you when most of you is machine, and what you have to sacrifice in order to be truly free, which seemed really fresh and exciting in 1977 and not dull, tired, and par for the course.
Then there’s Flesh.
Flesh is about cowboys from the future who hunt dinosaurs for fun and meat. Mostly influenced by the original Westworld as well as a warm affection for Doug McClure movies, it is as cool and brutal as it sounds.
I feel the need to mention that THIS COMIC WAS AIMED AT PRE-TEEN BOYS. Check out the ad for the launch of the comic – does this mesh with that story at all? Maybe this is British comics in a nutshell? Violent dystopia with tons of pathos – free space spinner!
Dredd himself is introduced in the second prog, quickly becoming the flagship character for the comic for reasons that were relevant to the time he was introduced and continue to be relevant to this day. He’s a problematic fave to be sure, but he’s undeniably fascinating and what I would call the platonic example of Lawful Neutral. He’s also the Law. I’ll take his word for it.
Fear and Dredd
He’s inspired in look by Death Race 2000 (designed by the late great Carlos Ezquerra) and named after a white ska musician, who was himself named after a Prince Buster song. White guys writing grim science fiction who are also super into ska? Unheard of.
As a character, he taps into how Britain was feeling, and his rise to prominence in the eighties is very understandable. Whilst he isn’t technically part machine, he might as well be. You never see his face, and his eyes are obscured all the time. The imagery is not subtle, but it’s effective.
He doesn’t see anything in terms of good and evil, only lawful and unlawful. He’s cold to the point of callousness, focused, angry, violent, and unwavering. He’s a hero, mostly, but he’s guilty of the worst crime you can imagine: he has committed genocide with a nuclear weapon. Like a machine, “Old Stony Face” is only as “good” as he is programmed to be, i.e, what the law is. The laws in Mega City One are ridiculous: they are nigh on impossible to obey, and you can be put in an iso-cube for such minor infractions as “littering.” An iso-cube is a sterile box with a hygiene pod, a bed, and that’s it. Even just thinking about that gives me a minor panic attack.
That’s the whole point- the Judges are judges, there is no due process. To be fair, they’re also expected to adhere to strict rules regarding their own behaviour, and punishment is just as severe. No romantic or sexual relationships, only ten-minute sleep shifts in pods, and the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth at the end of it all. As cool as their gear, weapons, and vehicles are (and they are very cool), they enforce the rules of a fascist police state, and the fact they are suffering too is probably cold comfort for ordinary citizens of Mega City One.
It can’t happen here
You are reminded of that constantly and, well, a lot of Mega City One is far too close for comfort. It’s worryingly prophetic. Those descriptions of iso-cubes are worryingly close to the descriptions of solitary confinement in American jails. Just listen to the origin story of the judges and tell me we aren’t looking it straight in the face.
Also, Mega City One elects an orangutan to mayor (please insert painfully obvious joke here) – except he’s actually a pretty good politician.
The fatphobia is gross, though. I can do without that. Otherwise, the whole point of Dredd is to show that fascism is very easy to slide into. There’s always ways to justify it. And it can be silly, ridiculous even. Dredd’s always had a stupid side, it’s what makes his stories appealing. To me it’s a particularly British thing. We’re not good at sincerity as a nation, it’s why we don’t have a lot of home grown superheroes that aren’t… um… also fascists or just garden variety bastards.
Dredd as a series has always just presented Dredd, the character, as he is. He could happen to be on your side, but he’s ultimately on the side of the law. If you’re within the law, that’s fine, but it’s very easy to be outside it. The best stories are when Dredd has to at least act human for five minutes in order to save the entire city or a group of marginalised people. The other “best,” and by best I mean most horrible and hard hitting, stories are also when we get to see what happens when the law is not on the side of people. It’s very hard to root for a guy who murders millions without hesitation, but… you find yourself doing it quite a lot. Some stories he’s fighting a absolute dictator who’s way way worse than he is and cosmic horrors that regard life itself as a crime. The Judge Cal saga is my favourite for being ridiculous and darkly silly, as well as showing all the best aspects of Dredd as a series. The Dark Judges are so much fun, and nothing will ever be as deliciously satisfying as this panel:
But other stories? He’s a practically a villain. Read America, where Dredd ruthlessly crushes a fledgling democratic movement who use terrorist tactics, but like the best examinations of terrorism, we see what drives them to it. Or, and I’m sorry to harp on about this, the time when he literally commits genocide. He does it to prevent further war, and at this point, his city has suffered just as many losses. Remember, this came out in 1986 – the threat of nuclear apocalypse was looming on the horizon. Again.
This is the lesson from that war, the one that essentially created Judge Dredd. It came out ten years after 2000AD first debuted, so this character was just coming into his own. His trial by fire was him dropping the bomb. I can type it as many times as I like, but some part of me is always fascinated by his character and the Judges.
The reason why Dredd is so iconic to me, why his series is 2000AD’s crown jewel and how he’s endured this whole time, is intrinsically linked to why 2000AD is so beloved and has become the Kingpin of British comics. 2000AD is cynical and downbeat, dark as pitch – but it’s also funny and ridiculous. The complexity and grimness of Dredd’s character is balanced out by the sheer amount of nonsense he has to deal with. It is undeniably cool to see him fuckin’ stompin’ in and delivering verdicts, but every now and again you’re reminded of the consequences of him being so grim-faced. It’s a gut punch to be sure, but also, maybe, a reminder of just how easily we can fall into embracing fascism? The comic doesn’t endorse Dredd’s actions, obviously, but it does frame them in a pretty cool light just long enough for us to get suckered in… then we remember, “Oh yeah, he’s kind of a bastard isn’t he?”
No one wins in Mega City One, but you can’t ever say it’s boring.
Recently, IDW has also been printing Dredd stories, which I have thoroughly enjoyed (I reviewed a recent story here).
But lately, something interesting has been happening: Dredd, the character, is aging. Unlike the Big Two, we have linear time. IDW has some stories set in the future where Dredd has already taken the Long Walk out into the Cursed Earth. As of this writing, he’s had a Rejuvenation treatment, so he’s going to be around for a while… but eventually, eventually, they’ll have to tackle the end of his life, somehow. It’d be interesting to see how it plays out. Are they really going to let Dredd die? Really?
Not that it’s the only thing from 2000AD, obviously, but still… he’s the only character, so far, that’s got major brand recognition. There is a Rogue Trooper movie on the way by Doug Jones, which will be very interesting to see.
Teenage me still wants that Nikolai Dante TV series. And Durham Red– though they’d probably have do Strontium Dog first. But at least I got a live action Judge Anderson.
Dredd as a series, along with 2000AD itself and as a character, serves as a nice closer to the whole thesis I had based this series around: British comics exist on a scale of “daft as a brush” or “dark as pitch.” 2000AD mixes both to produce dark comedy which is either horribly prophetic and profound or full of uncomfortable pathos. It somehow combines elements of both to become the quintessential British comic. In my opinion, obviously.
This is particularly notable in Judge Dredd, but it’s present in pretty much throughout. All of this within a comic edited by an alien.
We take our nonsense seriously
British comics are weird when you think about it. I honestly cannot say where the future lies for any of our comics, but Rebellion media, who own 2000AD, are pretty much a miniature British version of Disney. They bought up the rights to most of the IPs British comics have. Their strategy is a great way of reintroducing older titles to a new generation of comics readers, and it’s invaluable for me as a researcher (which is a poncy way of saying I get to read a butt-ton of comics!).
After researching over 100 years of British comics, the one conclusion I can come to is this: “We take our nonsense seriously” is the unofficial slogan of the British Isles and our pop culture in general. My general thesis, the premise I set out with, was right, but I don’t think it’s a scale or a binary so much as a Venn Diagram with many overlapping circles. We have lovable buffoons, hooligan kids, dashing heroes, wartime drama, kitchen sink drama, classic horror, existential horror, fascistic dystopia, science fiction, antihero leads, shameless cash-ins on popular culture… they all combine and occupy levels of “grim-dark” to “unabashedly uplifting” to “downright silly.” These genres also apply if you take a broad look at American comics, but most people think of American comics as superheroes and not much else. You cannot apply the popular perception of American comics to British comics – if you ask most of the Boomer generation of my country what comics they read, it would probably include home grown talent like The Beano, Action, Dan Dare, etc., largely helped by a temporary import ban. Non-nerdy kids might have been reading Roy of the Rovers or Jinty or Bunty. The beautiful creatures of the night were clearly reading Misty. Even the Gen Xers and Millennials would read British interpretations of other popular characters like Transformers or Sonic The Comic alongside 2000AD and, of course, a ton of American comics, too.
It was a right old knees up, innit?
It’s been weird, dark, gross, thoughtful, shocking, and downright zarjaz. I love 2000AD and I love British comics. A lot. Are there some problematic faves? Yup. Very much so. I mean, I didn’t touch on how few women or people of colour there are in the industry overall, throughout most of our history. Even the comics aimed at women and girls, amazing though they are, were mostly written and published by men. This is either behind the scenes or as characters, but that’s pretty much the story on most comic books. There are plenty of notable exceptions. And, as previously reported, last year 2000AD did a one-off special where the entire creative team was women and it was very good. We also have a comics laureate who recently did a reboot of Sentinels, literally one of the best stories published in British comics. So, that’s a start.
It didn’t bother me much when I was collecting 2000AD back in 2000-2001. Now, obviously, I’m spoiled for choice. The world’s opened up. As far as 2000AD is concerned, there are lots of titles in the comic aside from Dredd that I would definitely recommend, and I’ll post a top five at the end. They’re pretty easy to get hold of now. You can order the digital versions via the 2000AD store, but the IDW stories are on Comixology. I only wanted to focus on Dredd as I feel he represents the comic as a whole and is one of the most famous icons in British comics. Not talking about him in some detail would be like talking about Marvel and not focusing on Spider-Man.
Yeah… Judge Dredd being our Spider-Man is pretty much my entire series in a nutshell. We’re cynical, silly, grim, lighthearted, cool, and unbearably dorky.
Speaking of which, behold this 1985 music video tribute to Judge Dredd created by the two front men from the band Madness, which you have to suffer through as well.
There’s an amazing top ten of Judge Dredd stories someone’s already compiled here. Here’s my personal favourite five of other 2000AD stories I feel you should check out:
My hero. She has all of Dredd’s best points, but actually gets to be human. The most accomplished and well known Judge in the Psi division (the Judges have departments for the supernatural, obviously). Anything with her fighting the Dark Judges is the best, but it’s all good. Particular recommendations include Shamballa, Judge Anderson: Year One, and Satan. She also has collected anthologies called The Psi Division Files that cover her arc from her first appearance.
Former Judge turned Private Detective, Galen DeMarco has an interesting story, to say the least. Her first appearance, The Pit, was one of the first collected Dredd stories I ever read, and she means a lot to me as a character. Since that first appearance in 1997, she’s continued as a P.I and occasional main player in Dredd’s inner circle. She and Anderson, both got an appearance in the 2018 Sci-fi special, with an all women creative team. Recommended reads include The Pit, DeMarco, The Simping Detective, and Deja Vu.
Raised by a family of Amazonian pirates, Nikolai’s a swashbuckling thief in a far-future Russian Empire once again ruled by a Tsar. He’s also a bastard son of the Romanov family – the descendants of the last Tsars of Russia who wish to take back the throne in a series of bloody revolutions. Nikolai, being “too cool to kill,” just wants to party and fuck his way out of danger. Sometimes this just puts him in worse trouble, sometimes his better nature gets the better of him. His first story is worth a look for Simon Fraser’s artwork alone.
Vampire bounty hunter, former member of Strontium Dog and then, after over 12,000 years of suspended animation, the Saint of Mutants, Durham’s a fascinating figure. Recently she’s been a little more down to earth but still got a gorgeous cover by Rachael Stott last year. The Scarlett Cantos is the start of her future arc (which I read as a teen and fell in love with) where things get very uh, Warhammer, and the artwork is gorgeous, but the collected volume Bitch is a lot of classic eighties 2000AD fun.
I’ve always had a thing for barbarians. Sláine is based mostly in Irish mythology, but there’s a healthy heaping of Conan The Barbarian. It’s right up your street if you’re of the Jason Aaron inclination – there’s body horror, smart alec dwarves, vengeful gods, and lots of violence. Calling it “Conan with Irish mythology slapped on top” is a little reductive, but it’s a fair comparison. It certainly captured my imagination, especially The Horned God, which is considered something of a game changer in British comics. You should start with Warrior’s Dawn. You might recognise the artwork in Time Killer if you’re a Preacher fan.
The title is pronounced Slawnye in Irish, in case you’re wondering.