Sunday, 26 September 2010

2000AD Part 1: I Remember the Good Old Days

It must have been the summer of 1977 to 1978. This is New Zealand, of course, where summer straddles the New Year, and it was probably after Christmas, so that means 1978. I remember particularly because we were on holiday around the North Island, one of those touring holidays we used to go on, all packed into Dad's old Fiat 128, Mum riding shot gun, three in the back and one lucky child in the coveted space in the boot lounging on duvets (don't worry, it was a hatch back). No seat belts, no car seats, Dad smoking like a chimney the whole time – this was the 70s, and life, among other things, was cheap.

I remember the day itself very well. We were staying in a motel, somewhere in Rotorua, somewhere far from the centre. It was a blazing hot, sunny day, that intense piercing sun you get in New Zealand that you can feel cooking your skin through your t-shirt. I don't remember the circumstances exactly, but all of us got a few coins to spend at the local shop. I don't remember what my brothers and sisters bought, but I bought a comic.

I recognised the name – I'd noticed it's appearance on the comics shelves several months before, but at that point I saw the fat black white reprints of DC comics as a better buy: seventy eight pages for 25 cents, all content, the only ads being a great big one for stamp collecting by mail. I used to think it was funny that you had to send away a stamped addressed envelope for a sample set of stamps, but I sent away for it. I suppose some philately magnate made his fortune in twenty and fifty cent portions from kids all over Australasia. Every kid I knew collected stamps at some stage, most like me, sporadically, over a couple of years, the sort of weird make work that passed for kid's hobbies in those days, keeping their idle hands busy until puberty brought new interests.

Super-powered secret agent M.A.C.H 1 - remind you of anyone?
Anyway. Hot sun. A sleepy day on holiday, and there in this shop was this new comic, that I'd been kind of interested in, but hadn't tried when it came out, being essentially an unadventurous sort and then I felt that if you didn't get it from number one, there was no point as you couldn't follow the stories. But then I thought, since I was on holiday, the usual rules had broken down. I was at license to undertake any shocking and irregular act that occurred to me, up to and including buying a random comic because I liked the look of it. So, I bought my first copy of 2000AD.

Nationalistic ultra violence
and why not?
I remember reading it a table outside, plastic cups with drinks and lunch in progress using motel crockery, probably ham sandwiches. I can still see myself turning the pages, squinting against the sunlight, trying to peel every detail off the page, every bit of information I could use to discern what it was about. Judge Dredd, of course, was immediately striking. It was the Mutie the Pig/Rico story, drawn by Mike McMahon, and I hungered to know more about this intriguing world just from that one little glimpse. If I remember rightly (which is not by any means guaranteed) the other thrills were Flesh, MACH One, Invasion: 1990 and... surely something else? Can't remember now, but then there was Tharg himself, obviously a guy in a mask, but still a weird intriguing figure. I knew right away that this new comic had been made especially for me.

Over the rest of the holiday, I was able to pick up progs 29 and 31, due to the patchy distribution around rural Rotorua district, and when we got back to Wellington, I immediately “put in an order” at the Titahi Bay Book & Stationary Shop, from whom my first issue was 33, but Dad was sent into to town to scour the Big Shops for prog 32 to ensure a complete collection hereafter (which he found!)

It's hard to overstate the importance of 2000AD to the development of my interests, attitudes and aesthetic sensibility. I lived in a fairly remote corner of New Zealand, we had two TV channels (and the reception on the second was somewhat wobbly) and the cinema was a long way away. My weekly thrill power fix was one of the few things I had to feed my hungry imagination. I had a few friends who got it, too, a little circle of us, classic nerds, I guess, of the type they stopped making sometime in the 1990s.

Alan Moore seems so serious these days, but DR & Quinch was one of the most
hilarious stories in the history of 2000AD.
I grew with 2000AD at the same time that I was discovering grown up sci fi. 2000AD's anarchic style and sophisticated approach to boys' fiction prepared my mind for the wilder reaches of SF that I was to discover as my teens went on. I was already dabbling in Golden Age greats like Bradbury and Asimov, but 2000AD conditioned me to expect wild visions, black humour and automatic anti-authoritarianism. By the time I got to the wilder shores of Moorcock, or to the borderline madness of Philip K Dick and and pungent sarcastic satire of Kurt Vonnegut, Bob Shaw and Norman Spinrad, 2000AD had already predisposed me in that direction.

A genuine masterpiece from Brian Bolland.
It's not just me, of course. The imagery and style of 2000AD soaked into British culture, feeding and being fed by the post-punk and early goth movements, finding its way into computer games and RPGs, and out into the culture at large. Aside from the art, the deconstructionist, inconoclastic style of Alan Moore more or less consumed all other approaches to SF and fantasy - you can see it in Life on Mars and the new Doctor Who, and of course in contemporary super-hero comics and movies.

It couldn't last, of course. Something changed and by prog By 900 or so I'd had my fill. I lingered on just to see in the millennium, as it were, albeit three years earlier than my fellow Earthlets who weren't in the know, and at that point, I put it down and officially moved on. 2000AD and I had aged together for a while, but something had happened around about my late teens: it had stuck with me through puberty but then stopped developing with me into adulthood. By the time I was finished my bachelor's degree, it seemed, banal and foolish. Compared to Swamp Thing and Watchmen by its greatest alumnus, it just didn't seem relevant any more.

Instead of following through with the growing maturity, it hesitated, never really reaching adulthood and it didn't seem prepared, either, to go back to where it began as a comic for ten to sixteen year old boys. The publishers had a go at a more grown up product in Revolver, a worthy effort in my eyes but one that didn't set the market on fire (although it was given only a handful of issues, with more faith behind it maybe it would have endured).

I think it was Toxic that really changed things for 2000AD. Toxic was launched by Pat Mills, apparently after he became disaffected by editorial constraints and licensing problems with 2000AD (all this according to scuttlebut I read on the internet!) It sold pretty well, but apparently the publishers had cashflow problems and the project ultimately foundered. I kind of liked Toxic, myself, although I've always been a Marshall Law sceptic (it was the title's biggest draw) but I was happy for that stuff to remain in Toxic. Instead it showed the editors of 2000AD, though, was where their steady market was: readers too old for kiddy fare, but not ready or willing to take on more mature stuff. Greasy, glossy kid stuff, with a bit of titillation, an anti-authoritarian edge and plenty of whacky gore.

Kevin O'Neil is perhaps entirely responsible for the
influential 2000AD look through his early work as art editor.

This wasn't really what I wanted from 2000AD (I could always buy Heavy Metal for that, after all) but most importantly, I suppose, is that I just stopped enjoying it. Judge Dredd was dependly good, but at any one time it was never my favourite 2000AD story, and around the time of the launch of the Megazine, it became very serious and too involved with its own continuity. On the one hand we had leaden stories trying to make Big Statements on Important Themes, while on the other, too many stories began to focus on the machinations inside the Justice Department or elements of Dredd back-story. The latter was never very consistent, either, and in a concession to the developing “serious” tone a lot of the sillier elements were abandoned – Otto Sump, Walter the Robot, in fact all the robots seemed to largely disappear from Megea City One at some point.

Other older thrills seemed well-past their sell-by dates. Strontium Dog had introduced Feral by this stage, intended to be a Stronty Dog for the new generation, but just annoying, really, and Rogue Trooper had ranged far and wide looking for a decent story to hook its premise on to. Slaine was becoming hard to follow – when and where was he, anyway? - and cranky Pat Mills fodder like Finn, with adolescent politics and an accent on edginess made me cringe. On top of this were a few catastrophic misfires that drove me away – the Robo Hunter revival by Mark Millar, the “Summer Offensive”, The Space Girls, Babe Race, B.L.A.I.R 1 (although that did a good job of raising 2000AD's profile).

At about that time, there were a few changes in my life and I stopped reading comics entirely (well, apart from some Alan Moore titles, but, you know, he's Alan Moore!). In my late thirties, though, I started picking them up again, first the Essential Marvel series and then some of the regular titles, and before long I was reading comics again.

Ewins & Mcarthy were among the first artists to evolve the 2000AD style.

As both my regular readers will know, I've been reading the 2000AD equivalents of the Marvel Essentials for sometime. Unlike the Essentials, these are actually rather spiffy and nicely designed, and I've been enjoying them a great deal. Like the Essentials, though, they made me wonder, like you wonder at an old lover, I suppose, when you look through old photographs. I recently stopped a bunch of Marvel titles and it felt like a break, so, I fell for that age-old middle aged faux pas and looked up my first love...

In my whole life, it's probably the only cultural phenomenon that I've ever been a real part of. I flirted off and on with musical style truibes in my teen, like we all do, but I bought into anything like I bought into 2000AD, and like a bitter old Teddy boy or mod or punk or raver, I'm always bleating on that it's what it was.

But maybe, I thought, I could recapture that youthful exhilarating joy. Maybe I just I needed a little distance, maybe it's been long enough now so that what put me off back then might have changed, or that I might have changed enough to be able to appreciate it for what it is, rather than deride it for what it was.

So, next time I was in GOSH, I picjed up the latest prog 1689 and put in my order once again, and rejoined the ranks of the squaxx dek thargo.

(Coming soon: 2000AD as she is today.)


  1. "a little circle of us, classic nerds, I guess, of the type they stopped making sometime in the 1990s."

    Ooh, what's a classic nerd, and what changed in the 1990s?

    I ask mostly, of course, to find out if I make the cut.

  2. Odd balls and outcasts.

    There was a time when we circled our wagons around SF and comics (and RPGs, of course) for our own protection. Intemediate was probably the vital period, between the ages of 11 and 13. Primary school was small enough that it wasn't necessary and by high school we'd mostly found friendly niches.

    It all ended with that Def Con One tune by Pop Will Eat Itself: suddenly every trendy wossisname new who Alan Moore was and he wasn't "ours" anymore. It was a short trip from there to Roxilla and BLAIR 1. (Actually, I think Roxilla pre-dated Def Con One ...)

    I suppose it still goes on, even if the materials have changed - there's got to be some reason behind the popularity of Warhammer Fantasy Battles!

  3. "On top of this were a few catastrophic misfires that drove me away – the Robo Hunter revival by Mark Millar, the “Summer Offensive”, The Space Girls, Babe Race, B.L.A.I.R 1 (although that did a good job of raising 2000AD's profile)."

    Those early-mid 1990s were a real strain on us all, so fell by the way and others (like myself) hung on in there waiting for better times. Luckily they came around again and the prog is riding high at the moment. Long may it continue. Hope you enjoy the ride.

  4. Hi Emperor! Well, there were lots of other reasons that one drifts away. Going back has been interesting. I'll be posting part four in this series soon!

  5. "Well, there were lots of other reasons that one drifts away."

    Oh well yes, I had already drifted away from American comic books by that point largely because wine, women and song had proved a major draw on my limited resources. It was probably largely drunken inertia that stopped me from wandering up to the newsagents and cancelling 2000AD in the early-mid 90s.

  6. Hi Emperor! I shifted from NZ to the UK in the 90s and dropped all regular comics reading for a decade or so after that.

    You know, I'm a proper grown up and I read proper grown up books and all, but there's just some thing about super-heroes and cheesy sci fi etc that I really love. I probably wouldn't read prose books of this sort (maybe, though) but on the other hand I don't read many "serious" graphic novels etc - I like Dan Clowes stuff, by and large, and I picked up the new Charles Burns, but that about as far as it goes. (I've also got a complete run of Fabulous Furry Freak Bros, signed by Gilbery Shelton, but maybe that's just as cheesy as Marvel ior 2000AD in in its way...)

    I don't know why I love it so, but there we go!


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