THE COMIC REVOLUTION
Judge Dredd, 2000AD, Battle and Action
My book would have covered my personal recollections of how those comics were created and what a bizarre world comic publishing was back then. The sample chapter I wrote was about Judge Dredd, which would have been Chapter 12 in the book. Although editorial liked it and green lit the project, it was turned down by their marketing department, who felt there wasn’t enough interest in comics.
Today, especially with the new Dredd movie just out, all that’s changed. There seems to be more interest in comics and their origins than ever. So I thought it was time to dust the chapter off, update and extend it in the light of the new film, and present it here as the introductory piece to my new blog.
THE KILLING MACHINE
In the summer of 1976, the creating of the future cop Judge Dredd began. It was a complicated and protracted process that is not unusual in comics. Most great comic book heroes go through endless changes and revisions before the final iconic heroe emerges. But Dredd was more involved than most because its two creators, writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, actually walked away from their embryonic creation, leaving me to develop it or face it being stillborn. John left because a deal we were promised on intellectual property rights didn’t happen; and Carlos left because Dave Hunt on Battle promised him his own strip – El Mestizo – about a bandit in the American Civil War. There were other considerations for both of them, but these were the key reasons why they left. As a fellow creative, I sympathised with John’s reason for leaving, but as the editor and creator of 2000AD, I could not allow their hero to self-destruct. Dredd had to survive because its potential was so obvious and so enormous.
The story begins when, following the initial success of Action, IPC Magazines publisher John Sanders commissioned me to originate a science fiction comic as part of the comics new wave. This was part of a long term plan to get rid of the old regime, who were holding comics back, and bring the publications up to date. John Sanders had already succeeded on the girls’ side, where best-selling comics like Tammy had revived the industry. Now he wanted to do the same with boys’ comics. And so, for many long months, I worked entirely on my own, up on the top floor of King’s Reach Tower, isolated from the rest of the juveniles department and therefore away from prying eyes, creating sci-fi characters and worlds and writing the first episodes of serials which would eventually appear in Prog One of 2000AD or in subsequent issues. I also got John’s okay to bring Dan Dare back and I spent weeks going through the back issues of Eagle and discussing a suitable approach with my proposed writer Ken Armstrong who also designed an excellent NASA style spaceship for Dare.
This led to meetings with Paul de Savary who had the film rights to Dan Dare and was understandably very interested in what I was intending to do with Dare in my comic. Ken and I had several meetings with Paul and his designer, who had worked on Space 1999, and who I recall didn’t like Ken’s ship because it had “too many bits sticking out from it” (the solar panels) and thus wouldn’t make a good toy. The de Savary connection resulted in John Sanders approaching me with an interesting business proposition: he suggested that I produce 2000AD as an outside contractor, supplying IPC with the final finished comic product. In some unspecified way, Paul de Savary would be part of this equation, probably helping to finance it. Paul was primarily interested in Dan Dare and guiding its return to comics, but as time went on, I recall him also enthusing to John and myself about my other stories and seeing their potential.
The outside contractor idea would have neatly bypassed all the problems John Sanders was having with the old regime as they dug their heels in, refused to change, and waited, exuding passive aggression, for their retirement or redundancy as the other Fleetway comics slowly – and sometimes not so slowly – died. As well as a fixed fee, it would have given me a percentage of the comic’s profits, so naturally I agreed. But it was too big a task for me to handle alone; it would have involved hiring an office and staff. Therefore, as a first step, I brought in my former writing partner John Wagner, whom I had known since 1970 when we worked together at publisher D.C. Thomson’s in Dundee. I paid him to review the first drafts of my scripts and he agreed to create a ‘future cop’ story for me as part of the package.
The deal would have given us both some intellectual property rights over our stories, something sadly lacking in British comics then and even to this day. As comic writers and artists, we did not own our characters: instead we sold all rights to the company. So any profits from films, reprints or merchandising went to the company and not the creators. At that time, no royalties were ever passed on. They could also employ cheaper replacement writers and artists if we protested or became ‘difficult’, as I was frequently described! Worse, we had no credits on our work. This was a deliberate policy of the publishers – both IPC comics and D. C. Thomson – to stop individuals building up a fan following, so any artist’s signatures on their work were ruthlessly whitened out and writers names blacked out on the scripts, which meant writers could never communicate with artists direct. This appalling ‘divide and rule’ policy worked for many decades, until Kevin O’Neill heroically sneaked credits onto 2000AD stories and the British comic industry was changed forever. Publishers’ lack of shame for this restrictive practice is something to be marvelled at. When I tell my colleagues in France, where creators are held in high regard, they shake their heads in disbelief. They can’t believe it was actually that bad.
With the prospect of a better and fairer future ahead of us, John and I enthusiastically talked about his idea for a cop of the future. We were both impressed by a one page American underground strip called Mannix that was reprinted in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, by Les Daniels. It featured a ruthless cop who shoots a fleeing criminal in the back and was obviously satirising dirty cops some years before the Clint Eastwood films appeared. We were also impressed by a story in American magazine Weird and Eerie where a science fiction cop pursues a criminal through a futuristic city and executes him. We then discover the perp’s crime – he was carrying a copy of a sick and seditious magazine, Weird and Eerie!
We also rated science fiction movies like Fahrenheit 451 where cops burn books, Logan’s Run where cops shoot old people, Death Race 2000 where crazy drivers run over pedestrians in legalised death races, and Rollerball where death is turned into a sport. Against this background, John suggested to me, “What about a future New York cop who executes people for the smallest infraction of the law, such as dropping litter?”
It sounded brilliant. Primarily because I’d seen, time and time again, how readers preferred extreme characters. To my surprise, and even alarm, a psycho character with no feelings would regularly win out any day over a hero who had some humanity or vulnerability. From my point of view, it was giving the readers what they wanted, but it also had sufficient satire to make it acceptable to me personally. I think it’s important to say this because if a story doesn’t interest me, I will not write or edit it, no matter how successful it might be. Hence why I never joined my peers in the Brits’ enthusiastic invasion of American comicdom, even though I had several opportunities. Writing mainstream superheroes bores me too much. So much so, I actually fell asleep at a high level Marvel 2099 conference in New York, where my fellow writers excitedly plotted contrived cross-overs between “Spidey”, X Men, Doctor Doom and my Punisher 2099 in the presence of the great man Stan Lee himself who was writing Ravage 2099. I just kept thinking “What the f**k am I doing here?”, imagining how Marshal Law could help them all with their problems, and gently drifted off.
Coming back to that death penalty for dropping litter – if the idea seems unconvincing or ridiculous now, then consider the situation in modern Iran. I spent three months in that country a few years ago and once watched breakdancing teenagers halfway up a mountain outside Tehran. They believed they would be safe from the law, but the secret police were also watching, and moved in to arrest them. Dancing is against the law in Iran.
Of course, the tone of John’s zero tolerance cop had to be absolutely right. So it needed to be closer to the tone of Rollerball, than to Death Race 2000. The central character had to be deadly serious. As a Marvel Comics editor said to me once, “Laughing at a comic book hero is like laughing at the reader’s dick.” But I knew John would be suitably respectful of their genitalia.
Next, John’s idea needed a title and this came from an unusual direction. I had previously created a black magic serial for 2000AD, entitled “Judge Dread“. I had taken the name from a popular Jamaican reggae band at the time. The hero was a kind of occult Doctor Who, with the visual image of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. My Judge Dread, famous for being Britain’s last “Hanging Judge”, had sentenced to death many of Britain’s most notorious and vicious murderers. I wrote a first episode where the Judge and his companions pursue a group of black magicians who are holding a sabbat at Stonehenge. It ended with a sensational revelation: Judge Dread discloses he last met the leader of the Satanists when he stood before him in the dock at the Old Bailey; and sentenced him to be hung from the neck until dead!
John, now reviewing this script for me, felt such an occult story did not fit into my comic of science fiction stories and recommended I ditch it. I agreed and, as the title was going spare, he asked me if he could have it for his cop story, to which I also agreed. Later, we changed it to “Judge Dredd” to avoid complaints from the reggae band.
Interestingly and – perhaps bearing out John’s view – I tried reviving my original Judge Dread for 2000AD in recent years, giving it a new title. Set in an alternative 1960s Britain, the story I outlined featured all the hung men the Judge had sentenced to death coming back from their graves, intent on vengeance. They were led by a manic and evil mod, straight out of Quadrophenia, who was the last person to be hanged in my alternative UK. 2000AD’s editor, Matt Smith, rejected it as being too nightmarish, especially the execution scene which had the tone and detail of Pierrepoint – the Last Hangman. The mod defiantly sings The Who’s My Generation as he’s dragged to the execution chamber and drops through the hatch. Matt felt it needed more science fiction/fantasy to remove the story from the horror reality. Personally, I think it really came down to who would have drawn it. A John Hicklenton style artist? Clearly too horrific! (Alas!) But an artist like Patrick Goddard I believe would have done a wonderful and more restrained job.
I looked forward to John’s first draft. My expectation at that time was that it should have some emotion and humour and it’s worth lingering for a moment on these expectations and whether they were really valid or not. They would lead me later to introduce Maria, Judge Dredd’s Italian landlady, into the serial. When the Judge sat there reading his law books at night, she would worry about him being warm enough when he was out on the cold Mega-City streets. Similarly, John himself would later create Dredd’s humorous companion, Walter the lisping wobot, who once bought “Judge Dwedd” a stick to beat Walter with, so that the Judge would not “hurt his hand on Walter’s wuff metal skin.”
I thought John’s Walter was great – because he was someone for the Judge’s grim character to bounce off – and so did the readers at the time, as was confirmed by their letters and a sudden surge in the popularity of Dredd. Walter – a vending machine robot – was brilliantly designed by Kevin O’Neill and was so successful he even had his own one page strip, drawn by Brian Bolland.
But the late John Hicklenton, who drew a recent Judge Dredd serial of mine – The Tenth Circle – told me, “As a thirteen year old I was blown away by Dredd. I turned to my dad and said, “I’m going to draw that one day.” But I didn’t like Maria and Walter the wobot. I just wanted Dredd to be a killing machine. I imagined him sleeping in a cryotube.”
John Hicklenton made a really important point here that goes right to the heart of the debate over what Judge Dredd should be about and many readers today will wholeheartedly agree with his verdict. This is the Dredd they prefer and I can understand why. As a teenager, I remember preferring a secret agent film which was just full-on violence and mayhem, with zero characterisation, in preference to the relative complexities of Bond. Others may disagree and feel a need for something more from Dredd that Walter, John’s hilarious stories like the Oxygen Board and later my Rico story and the Cursed Earth fulfilled. That I think was a dilemma for many years in Dredd’s history before Dredd as a killing machine finally won out. As Dredd is John’s hugely successful and established character, it is his prerogative and it is absolutely right that he should take his story wherever he wants it to go.
But in the late summer of 1976, as editor of the new sf comic, I had a very different perspective. I read John’s first draft and found, surprisingly, it did not have the science-fiction tone or the other elements I was expecting, although he did have a special gun, inspired, I believe, by Dick Tracy’s. Instead, Dredd was hunting and burning anonymous ‘communist subversives’, there were no surprises and no executions for dropping litter, no satire as in Mannix or the Weird and Eerie future cop. The tone was dead straight. Dredd was, literally, a killing machine. And this is fascinating from a 2012 perspective because this means John’s very first draft – his initial vision of the character- is actually the closest to the current Dredd movie. It’s far nearer than the drafts that followed or the Dredds that would appear in 2000AD in the first few years. Watching the film, I was struck by this and how the dialogue felt so like John’s. The movie – with Karl Urban’s superb rendering of Dredd – is a vindication of John’s approach and is very much his movie.
Whether a killing machine would have worked in the comic at the time is questionable. Leaving aside 18 certificate issues (which we could have gotten around), I doubt it, because it would have seemed hugely out of place in 2000AD, which had stronger elements of futurism, characterisation, humour and plot development. So I revised the first draft and introduced an element of satire, although I felt it still did not have enough ‘edge’ for my taste. In retrospect, I think what I was really looking for was the black comedy that comes through in the first Terminator movie. Arnie is a comparable killing machine to Dredd, but with a much stronger element of humour.
John and I then wrote a third version together which more closely resembled what he originally described to me. It featured a sequence where Dredd executes bank robbers, then a jaywalker steps off the pavement in his excitement to see ‘justice’ done. So Judge Dredd turns and executes him as well. That worked for me and for the time being I was satisfied.
The next stage was to find an artist to draw it.
END OF PART ONE