In February 1977 a new science fiction comic hit the shelves of newsagents across the UK. Children played with the customary free gift that’s come with new British weekly comics back then for around two minutes, but they lapped up the contents of cowboys fighting dinosaurs, futuristic sports, super-powered secret agents and a future lawman by the name of Judge Dredd was teased for the next issue. This was the first issue (or Prog) of 2000 AD and at that moment British comics were changed forever. And so was the American industry, as creators passed through the doors of 2000 AD over the years who would eventually end up at Marvel and DC.
The brainchild of Pat Mills who’d previously came up with the controversial Action comics. This infamous boy’s comic ended up being banned after a wave of pompous establishment outrage, but not before Mills realised that boys would buy anti-authoritarian/establishment titles in their droves if done right. So bringing on board John Wagner to help, Mills shaped the new comic which was designed to cash in on the future release of Star Wars. Like most weekly comics at the time the idea of longevity would be a good 3-5 years. It’s now September 2016 and Prog 2000 was just released, and it sold out in under 48 hours.
For myself as a wee child I lapped 2000 AD up. My favourite strip was Flesh, the story of time-travelling corporations going back to farm dinosaurs for meat upon their return to the flesh starved world of the future. It was violent, brutal and gory. Of course I loved it! I also liked Harlem Heroes, the story of a futuristic sports team struggling to make it big, and I adored Dan Dare. As a kid not even into double figures in terms of age I didn’t really know that Dan Dare was a huge British comics icon, but I got the idea from the editor Tharg – a space alien who came to give us these thrills every week – that this was A Big Deal. And I just loved Massimo Belardinelli’s utterly wild art.
There was a tease of something called Judge Dredd. I didn’t really like the look of it, and indeed come Prog 2 I wasn’t taken with it. I was having too much fun with dinosaurs and weird space adventure.
Of course later on I realised Tharg wasn’t real and that it was whoever drew the short straw in the IPC (the original publishers) office to don the mask that week, and I also grew to appreciate Judge Dredd when The Cursed Earth story hit.
By this point 2000AD had hit full flow and was entering a Golden Age which lasted until the early 1980’s. Judge Dredd became the comics big hit with its perfect mix of action, violence, satire and social commentary. Dan Dare had become a superhero with Dave Gibbons on art. Furthermore, Mills and artist Kevin O’Neill had unleashed Nemesis the Warlock, still one of the best things Mills has ever done.
There was also Mills and Mike McMahon’s Slaine, Alan Grant, John Wagner and Belardinelli’s comedic Ace Trucking Co, and Alan Moore and Alan Davis’s D.R and Quinch.
By the mid 1980’s 2000AD seemed like it could do no wrong. It had after all given us The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson, which gave the comic an intellectual weight even beyond what it’d already built up. Pete Milligan and Brett Ewins gave us Bad Company, a trippy future war story, not to mention characters like Strontium Dog and Rogue Trooper rivalled even Judge Dredd for popularity while artists like Brian Bolland, Glenn Fabry and Simon Bisley became massive fan favourites on both sides of the Atlantic.
Creative slumps are something you get used to with a weekly comic, yet with the title approaching its 10th anniversary 2000 AD hit troubles as sales dropped, as did most weekly comics as kids had more things to spend their money on. Plus 2000 AD started to reflect more of an older readership; Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith gave the comic its first new popular character in several years, not to mention the comic’s first actual superhero.
A problem for 2000 AD at this point were creators rights. In fact it’d been an issue from the very start but had reached a head at this point. Put simply: creators didn’t own what they created for 2000 AD, plus there was virtually no royalties for reprints, so the Titan Books editions barely paid while the Eagle Comics (later taken over by Dez Skinn and his Quality Comics imprint) reprints aimed at the American market paid nothing, with creators often only knowing their work was being reprinted when they’d picked an issue up in a comic shop. Added to this, DC Comics had engaged a policy of head-hunting talent with DC editor Karen Berger holding meetings/parties to skim the cream off of 2000 AD’s talent pool which created a talent vacuum as some creators brought in were simply not up to the same high standards.
2000 AD’s publishers had also changed, with the comic passing into the grubby hands of Robert Maxwell (shady businessman and yacht owner), which meant Maxwell had gotten the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic at a time when comics as a medium exploded in the UK. Creators though were still leaving for America and although 2000 AD mined the short lived spin-off Revolver, not to mention Crisis (a bi-weekly comic very firmly aimed at an adult audience) for new talent, people like Garth Ennis were quickly snapped up by DC Comics.
New, more favourable contracts were offered. Creators like John Wagner were lured back from comics, an example of his work being the short lived Toxic!. This was down to having more creative control, more money and, unfortunately, the failure of Toxic!. That sad wee story however is a tale for another time…
As 2000 AD hit the 1990’s it struggled. Stunts like the “Summer Offensive” pushed away as many readers as it brought in, while changes in editorial staff alienated creators like Pat Mills, as he and then editor Dave Bishop battled against each other with these disputes rolling on for years. The excellent documentary Futureshock outlines the basis of the problems with Mills not mincing his words in regards Bishop, not to mention Andy Diggle both in the documentary and on his website.
The comic limped through the 1990’s (reaching a nadir with B.L.A.I.R ONE) and into the new millennium when in 2000 it was bought by Rebellion, a publisher of video and computer games who steadied the ship. New characters like Nikolai Dante complemented existing favourites, old creators were wooed back while new creators were found in an industry in the UK which had been utterly transformed since 1977. Now there was even digital comics, so no longer did you have to worry about your Progs falling to pieces because you’ve read them so often.
In 2016 2000 AD marches on. It’s had some great times, some good times, some average times, some lulls and some times when I’ve picked an issue up and been staggered by the incompetency on display in its pages. But it has survived all of this. A big chunk of that is thanks to the fans who, in some cases grew, up with the comic while supporting it even during the bleaker years – even during Mark Millar’s Robo-Hunter, a strip so bad that it regularly occupies of lists of terrible 2000 AD strips.. We’re talking that faithful!
So happy 2000th Prog 2000 AD. I’m no longer a wee boy lapping up the tales of dinosaurs and spacemen; I’m a rapidly ageing man who still laps up those stories. I’m grateful for what it’s done to reshape what was a flagging industry in America with British talent who thought and wrote differently from their American colleagues, which in turn, changed the industry in the English speaking world forever. Here’s to another 2000 Progs!