DREDD – EXIT WOUNDS

A few years back, a publisher at Random House asked me to write a sample chapter for a proposed book that my agent – a big comic book fan – felt I should write.  It was to be called:

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 light of the new film, and present it here as the introductory piece to my new blog. If you missed them, here are PART ONE: THE KILLING MACHINE, PART TWO: THE LAWMAN OF THE FUTURE, PART THREE: BETTER DREDD THAN DEAD, and PART FOUR: JUDGEMENT DAY.

PART FIVE: EXIT WOUNDS

John Wagner, seeing his character successfully up and running, thankfully came back to Dredd. It was a huge relief. He wrote a Dredd serial where the robots of Mega-City One rise up in rebellion, which proved his excellence as a writer.  The rebellion was led by robot messiah “Call Me Kenneth” whom John dryly pointed out to me at the time was a carpenter by profession.  Three months after 2000AD had hit the newstands, Dredd finally became its most popular character.

Although, soon after I left, I’ve been told the Judge then began to drop again in the popularity poll.  I think these were the stories shortly after the Robot Rebellion, but before Brian Bolland began drawing the Dredd on the Moon saga. In order to hide this from the powers-that-be, the votes were rigged to make Dredd seem more popular than he actually was, to ensure he stayed in the comic.  Someone in authority thought it would be a good idea to “rest” him for a while, even though I had designed all 2000AD serials to be ongoing.

The voting system must seem rather curious and obsessive today.  Some editors had the most elaborate graph charts, recording the success or failure of individual stories and the episodes where they were especially popular or unpopular were noted and analysed. But it was surprisingly accurate, although biased towards action, which usually meant subtle episodes would not go down so well. The system worked until the split between younger mainstream readers – who still filled in the forms, and fans –who didn’t – made it difficult to interpret them correctly. Today, the forums provide similar feedback, although it’s always down, ultimately, to editorial judgement and preference.

In the weeks up to our launch and after, I co-wrote Dan Dare with Kelvin Gosnell, basing the alien Biogs on some pretty hideous microscopic bugs I’d seen in the National Geographic. I also wrote Flesh and many of the Mach Ones, with further important contributions by Kelvin Gosnell and others, but I couldn’t continue to write or rewrite everything in the entire comic and, anyway, It was time for me to go.  My brief from the publisher was to create a Comic Revolution, never to remain with one particular title.

My plan had been to stay with 2000AD until it was rock solid, so it couldn’t be destroyed the way Action had been destroyed, see it through its first important twelve weeks, plan – and edit wherever possible – the stories for the following three months, and then move on. I’d already discussed my next creation with John Sanders and he was keen for me to start. It was to be called Misty, (I took the title from the film Play Misty For Me), a girls comic version of 2000AD with the emphasis on the supernatural, rather than sf.

But I was still leaving 2000AD and Judge Dredd alone in a toxic and hostile desert and expecting them to thrive. It would not be easy.

Here’s how Dez Skinn, creator of Warrior magazine, describes that desert:

I was around 25 when I was told that no matter whether my ideas were any good, I could not become an editor until I turned 30. The thought of another 5 years as a sub-editor, regurgitating the same tired old 1950s formulae, coupled with my 1975 proposal of a horror weekly named CHILLER being turned into THE BUSTER BOOK OF SPOOKY STORIES was enough! I was out.

When I told the editorial director, John Sanders, that I was resigning, he asked how long I’d been at IPC. “Five years,” I replied.

To which he said, “I’m surprised you didn’t leave years ago”.

Here’s a similar view by Annie Parkhouse.

I started on Lion with Geoff Kemp as editor. Initially he was not happy to have a girl on his staff but I felt we had a great working relationship. Then he was also editor on Jet and Thunder, where I was the only art staff.  

When Jet and Thunder failed, [it was cynically just more of the same], I was sent to Valiant, which I hated. Geoff protested to no avail. It was like being at school. All joy was sucked out of the job.

I was only at IPC for 2 years before going freelance, but because I was young it seemed like ages. The resistance to change was why most of the young creatives left within about 6 months around 1972. I left in the October, Steve (Parkhouse) the following April.  

Like the previous comics in the Comic Revolution, Battle and Action, 2000AD was hated by the old regime. Thus when John Wagner and I created Battle, we were told it had to be top secret so they couldn’t interfere and make trouble with the union.  We worked on it in an office kept locked at all times and when other editors asked what we were doing, we said we were working on a braille comic for the blind.  When the managing editor eventually discovered what we were really up to, he saw it as a huge betrayal and cut me dead in the street.

Now, rather than celebrating 2000AD’s success, which was providing employment for four full-time staff, he called me in and told me – with ill-concealed glee – how sales had dropped about 5,000 copies each issue from a starting high of somewhere around 220, 000. The fact that this drop was peanuts didn’t matter to him. There was the hope the drop would continue and this dangerous rival to the old comics would end up in the bin.

Then there was the tragically “lost” strip by Ken Reid.  Long before Monty Python, there was the brilliant Ken Reid.  His surreal cartoon strips, such as the original Frankie Stein, George’s Germs, The Nervs, Jonah and Face Ache are often Pythonesque, sometimes even more insane, yet equally funny.  A few weeks before 2000AD was due to go to press, I learnt that there was a brilliant Ken Reid cartoon strip he had produced for a dummy that had never been published!!! The same managing editor thought it was disgusting and condemned it to the vaults.  It concerned the hideous mutant survivor of a nuclear war who had a horrible “thing” on his back and every week he would try and kill himself.  But each week the thing on his back would prevent him.  So if he jumped off a cliff, the thing would turn into a propeller and fly him to safety etc.  You can just imagine how Ken would have drawn it!  How deliciously foul and what a wonderful antidote to all those saccharine strips in Whoopee! et al.  Just what I needed for the back cover of 2000AD.  I had 100 per cent power to do what I wanted with 2000AD, so I requisitioned the strip from the vaults. But the old regime told me that it had mysteriously “disappeared” and could not be found. Yeah, right.

Sir Patrick Moore

Later, after I’d left and was safely out of the way, there were also serious plans by the old regime to revamp 2000AD, turning it back into traditional two page stories and having a celebrity column: like Dick Emery who hosted the Airfix page in Valiant.  I know they invited astronomer Patrick Moore, host of The Sky At Night, to write this column in 2000AD because I was shown the postcard he sent them where he agreed to write for “this wretched little comic”. It could have been worse: it could have been Jimmy Saville.

But whatever sabotage the counter-revolutionaries were planning, I knew Judge Dredd, at least, was in safe hands with John.

Dredd’s success was not just due to the stunning look of the hero and the quality of John’s writing, but also because the standard of some of the other stories, which had plenty of merit and uniqueness of their own, and should have also been number one characters, was to slip more than a little.

END OF PART FIVE

Savage Taking A Break

Image

BILL SAVAGE taking a break from fighting Volgans, for a charity calendar (Patrick Goddard, colours by Dylan Teague)
 

Patrick Goddard tells me: 

“It’s for a local comic shop (Fish4Comics) and they’re raising money for a charity for the homeless.  They invited local artists to contribute a month and I got July, and what better way for Bill to spend a sunny day at Barry Island.”

THE CHARLEY’S WAR that might have been: An Unpatriotic History Of The Second World War

An important and unique book

Just received James Heartfield’s An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, kindly sent to me by Tariq Goddard, novelist and publisher at Zero Books.   It’s a really important and unique book and I can’t wait to read and review it.

Previous titles in this genre, which I’ve made a special study of, include James Bacque’s Crimes And Mercies: The fate of German civilians under allied occupation, 1944-1950; Sean Longden’s To The Victor The Spoils: D-Day to VE Day, the reality behind the heroism; and Clive Ponting’s 1940 Myth And Reality.  All three were insightful and revealing, but only cover aspects of the war.  And Ponting’s book is still written by a member of the establishment.  This book, however, is absolute dynamite!

It’s the kind of book I was looking for when I wanted to carry Charley’s War into WW2.  But it didn’t exist.  More soon!

DREDD – JUDGEMENT DAY

A few years back, a publisher at Random House asked me to write a sample chapter for a proposed book that my agent – a big comic book fan – felt I should write.  It was to be called:

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 light of the new film, and present it here as the introductory piece to my new blog. If you missed them, here are PART ONE: THE KILLING MACHINE, PART TWO: THE LAWMAN OF THE FUTURE and PART THREE: BETTER DREDD THAN DEAD.

PART FOUR: JUDGEMENT DAY

Carlos had a gritty, even grimy style. It looked like he drew with a felt tip and yet it was aesthetically pleasing at the same time.  It is a style I have always liked, although I think he has had resistance to it in Europe and the States.  I invited a number of comic artists to submit samples.  I told them I wanted a modern, challenging look which they sometimes took just a little too literally.  I recall doing a double-take when one artist, Bill Ward, a staff artist on IPC juveniles, submitted a leather-clad, camp, gay interpretation of Dredd. It was good, but a bit too YMCA, if you know what I mean.  Another artist drew a wonderfully over the top, sadistic Nazi version of Dredd who was clutching a whip rather than a lawgiver. This guy had serious talent, he was an important find, and I felt if he took out the whip he might have worked. Unfortunately, I took too long making up my mind about him – it was the whip that made me hesitate –  and when I finally got  back to him and asked him to do a one-off  Dredd, he turned me down. He disappeared from comics so I don’t recall his name, I’m afraid.  And then along came the answer to an editor’s prayers in the form of young Chelsea art school graduate sMike McMahon.

The surly punk look now associated with Dredd, the emphasis on the chains and the knee caps, was developed by Mike and stemmed from his own surly punk persona, an ideal qualification for drawing Dredd.  Attitude was never a problem on my new wave comics, as long as talent came with it, and Mike had plenty of both.  In this, I should add, he was not alone.  With the notable exception of the very easy-going and affable Dave Gibbons, many of the new generation of young artists had “interesting” attitudes to either me or 2000AD, but as long as they produced great work, which they did, they could be as difficult as they liked.  For instance, one famous young fantasy artist, John Bolton, came in to bollock me personally for IPC’s past “crimes” over the way they’d treated Frank Hampson, Frank Bellamy and other stars, losing, destroying or not returning their artwork.  A very shameful story.  But I denied all knowledge of these events which were well before my time.  He then said he couldn’t work for me because of this appalling past and the fact we didn’t return original artwork.  He clearly came in just to let off steam. After he left, I turned to my staff: “Okay, guys – get the shredder out and let’s cut up some more artwork.”

Mike captured the Ezquerra Dredd style perfectly, though the elegant sharpness of Mike’s sample portfolio, that I infinitely preferred, quickly gave way to a less appealing, rougher, scruffier style. He had the grit and the grime, all right. A little too much for my taste.  But Mike’s incredible ability to out-Ezquerra Ezquerra was astonishing and I am sure dismayed Carlos who must have believed his creation would go down the toilet without him.  And he would have been right.  Without Mike, Judge Dredd would have died.  End of story.  We owe Mike a lot.

However Mike’s scruffy, semi-underground style didn’t meet with John Sanders approval. John rightly didn’t want 2000AD to be swamped by unclear, fuzzy art showing characters at dramatic, odd and occasionally incomprehensible angles, the polar opposite of what was known at our rival D.C. Thomson’s as “front seat of the stalls” art.  After all, our potential readers were middle of the road kids, not fans.  But Mike’s style was just, just on the right and healthier side of fandom, and was getting more reader friendly all the time.  So whenever John ordered us to dump him, his artwork would be hidden away for a while until John had calmed down and forgotten about Mike.

So we had our character and our artist.  The next objective was to get the script right.  By now, the script I’d written showing Dredd executing a litter bug had been vetoed by the board of directors.  Action was being heavily censored and we were getting the same treatment. It was clearly too violent. In an attempt to get the board off our backs, John Sanders suggested that I relocate Dredd to “a galaxy far, far away”, but I insisted Mega-City must be a futuristic New York.

I’d looked at a number of possible Dredd scripts from writers and bought a few, but none of them quite had the ingredients for the first episode which had to be definitive.  With no sign of John Wagner relenting and returning to 2000AD, I decided to write Dredd myself.  The result was a story about Dredd recognising a face-changing perp by his unique voice-print and leaping off his robot bike to arrest him.  It was drawn in a rather crude style by McMahon which I wasn’t that happy about; the script was okay; but it didn’t have the extra element needed for a first episode. So I relegated it to episode two and continued hunting.

My final choice for episode one of Dredd came from a most unlikely source – an unpublished writer named Peter Harris who had previously submitted a war serial to John and I when we were producing Battle.  This rejoiced in the unsexy title of “Four Green Tank Men” and we didn’t proceed with it.  I talked about Dredd to Peter over the phone and sent him my Dredd briefing sheet with examples of script and art, but I never expected anything worthwhile back from him.  But now from Peter – to my astonishment – came an exciting and very un-green story about a criminal gang of mutants hiding in a derelict Empire State building with a highway running through the middle of the upper stories.  The mutants murder a Judge whose corpse is sent back to Justice H.Q. chained to his bike. Dredd insists on going in alone to deal with them; to show the citizens of Mega-City that a Judge is never afraid.  Inevitably he blows the mutants away and executes their leader, Whitey.

As this is a style of Dredd story that isn’t always emulated today, let me say why I especially liked it. It had architecture with the Empire State but showed there were starscrapers dwarfing it.  It had a sense of wonder and futurism.  It had emotion – the death of Dredd’s buddies – and courage: Judge Dredd goes in alone to show the mutant scum that Judges are not afraid of them. Wow! I think that’s as powerful today as it was back then.  But he couldn’t execute Whitey, alas, with the board breathing down my neck and I felt then – and still do – that a standard prison sentence is pretty boring if we’re in an sf future.

My editor designate, Kelvin Gosnell, with his invaluable love of science fiction, came up with a different ending, suggested by a J.G. Ballard story.  Instead of being executed, Whitey is sentenced to be marooned on Devil’s Island, a massive traffic island, surrounded by high speed motorways, impossible to escape from, unless you wanted to be smeared by a juggernaut. I loved it and I still do.  In fact, I wonder if Whitey is still on that roundabout? I like to think he is, chewing the grass verge, begging for food from passing trucks and fighting and eating other castaways.  Perhaps someone should write a story about Whitey briefly escaping from Devil’s Island before, inevitably, being sent back?

But the most curious aspect of this story is the writer himself.  Peter Harris disappeared and has never surfaced since. I believe he was an accountant and wrote comics in his spare time. I’ve often wondered what happened to him and imagined what other incredible Dredd stories he might have come up with which – at that point – easily eclipsed those written by John Wagner and myself.

Peter’s story still holds up well today, and confirmed the important elements for Judge Dredd scripts for other writers to follow: the justice system of multiple Judges; the science fantasy; and a pro-active, ruthless, yet human hero, on this occasion avenging his dead fellow Judge.  It was a key moment in Dredd’s development.

Until this stage, the serial might still have gone in any number of other directions.  For instance, with the easy luxury of hindsight, Kevin O’Neill, myself and others have sometimes wondered whether the series should have been about just one Judge for Mega-City.

Judge Dredd.

Or at least more of a Justice elite, supported by regular cops. After all, Ezquerra’s original illustrations and my third draft script itself make it very clear there were support police for the Judges.  And there is only one Lone Ranger, Batman, Robocop and Zorro. Also, a solo role for Judge Dredd might have been more in keeping with the science fiction mystery of Ezquerra’s initial design which our scripts didn’t do full justice to.  Perhaps none of us were sufficiently marinaded in sf to take full advantage of that starscraper world. Imagine what a Philip K. Dick would have done with them!

This raises an interesting point in comics. The writer creator can respond to the artist’s vision; or the artist can respond to the writer’s vision. On most stories, I respond to the artist’s vision.  In John’s case, the artist responds to his vision.  It’s a choice and it usually can’t be both.

There are casualties either way. Thus I’ve gained enormously from responding to Kevin O’Neill’s vision on Nemesis and Marshal Law and letting his art inspire my stories.  Ditto Clint Langley on Slaine, ABC Warriors and American Reaper.   In fact I’m well known for this approach and it does bring out an artist’s best work and makes it a truly collaborative process in which the artist is a true co-creator.  It’s also more fun!  But I can think of other occasions where I’ve let the artist set the pace, tone and direction and it’s been a big mistake and really cost me.  So I can understand John’s perspective that it’s the writer who should be in the driving seat.  It makes a lot of sense. Many other writers follow a similar policy to John.

Returning to the subject of solo Judge or many Judges, this was certainly something Kevin and I kept in mind when we created Marshal Law (returning in a de luxe edition in Spring 2013 from DC Comics).  There is only ONE superhero hunter and hater and that seems to work pretty well.

Mike McMahon drew the first episode which was excellent, apart from the first page showing the Empire State building.  I’d been expecting something at least as enthralling as Ezquerra’s Gaudi-esque fantasy city.  But his city view, the first time the readers would see Mega-City, looked scruffy and depressing.   So I asked Mike to draw it again.  The second version was equally unimpressive and I think we reluctantly ended up  with the first version, as there was not enough time for him to do a third version. Instead, the page was livened up in the office by Doug Church.

But in the context of the 2012 movie, perhaps Mike was right all along. The tower blocks featured there are equally dark, grim and depressing, like some future version of a hellish council estate.  Perhaps Mike was just too far ahead of his time.

And it also comes down to interpretation. Mike’s vision is so much closer to John’s pessimism than my optimism.  Thus when Mike worked on Slaine, it was brilliant but he saw a very realistic, downbeat and grim “mud hut” world, whereas I wanted the Celtic world to look like how they imagined their world to be. A glorious fantasy world, right up there with Tolkien.

It was now Judgement Day when the readers would decide whether I’d got it right or wrong.

I paginated the first issue which needed lots of space for each story to give them the visual impact I wanted.  So I held Dredd back for the second issue because I was confident that my first issue stories were strong enough to sell the comic and also because I wanted something to intrigue the readers and persuade them to buy the second issue.  As one reader wrote in after looking at the advert for Dredd “coming next prog”, “Who or what is Judge Dredd?”

In retrospect, I’m glad I did this for other reasons,too.  Because it confirms that 2000AD was a hit without Dredd and also sold well before Dredd became popular. It stops all those – then and now – who seek to inflate Dredd’s role in those early months.

2000AD was launched – Prog One was a huge hit, Prog Two – with Dredd in it – also went down well and, during the first two critical months, during which the fate of a comic is irrevocably decided, Dredd was popular with the readers, but no more so than any other heroes.  It had good weeks and bad weeks in the popularity polls, depending on who was writing and drawing it and – equally important – what the competition was like.

But Mach One – a six million dollar man-style secret agent – was easily the number one character, as I had expected and planned for, and the publication owes its huge initial success primarily to him, with the other heroes, including Dredd, not too far behind.  Hard core comicbook fans hated the downmarket Mach One and many other aspects of 2000AD and came in to tell me so personally and where I was going wrong and how it should be more like Heavy Metal and Metal Hurlant.  But kids loved the comic– and hey, I was doing 2000AD for kids, not Heavy Metal comic fans.  200,000 plus mainstream kids versus maybe 1,000 (?) fans.  No contest.  Hence why I put a welcoming sign up over my office door: “Piss off all Heavy Metal Fans!”

The comic’s phenomenal sales – selling out everywhere – confirmed we had our mix absolutely spot-on and its future looked bright. My plan to have a comic of all number one heroes was working.  There were no Coffin Subs here.  Neither was there one lead story with supporting stories which I was against.  If you wonder why, look no further than Valiant which had Captain Hurricane plus supporting stories.  It’s not the way to do things and it encourages complacency– with the star story often “carrying” the others which are not given the attention and priority they should have. It’s also not giving the readers value for money.

But now there were problems ahead in the shape of the ancien regime who, aware of 2000AD’s stunning success, could hear the rumble of the tumbril approaching them, and were determined to put an end to the Comic Revolution.

END OF PART FOUR

FINN TO APPEAR IN THE MEGAZINE

Aside

Delighted that Finn is being reprinted in the next Megazine.  Jim Elston’s art was fabulous.  Finn  was very popular – in fact, at the end of his run more popular than Slaine.  So i asked the editor at the time, Dave Bishop, if he wanted the character to continue. No, he said without explanation.  I never found out why but I’m pretty certain  it  was because some readers were complaining vehemently about Finn in the letters page being a sinister witch and saying his authentic pagan practises were a bad example to readers.  (In a comic with Judge Dredd?!  FFS!)  The editor actually encouraged some pretty ferocious  letters criticising creators – in my opinion because it “cut us down to size”.  Bizarre.  Anyway, Finn will be in the Megazine soon and you can make up your own mind.  But don’t copy him!  Or they’ll never reprint the second volume!

DREDD – BETTER DREDD THAN DEAD

A few years back, a publisher at Random House asked me to write a sample chapter for a proposed book that my agent – a big comic book fan – felt I should write.  It was to be called:

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 light of the new film, and present it here as the introductory piece to my new blog. If you missed them, here are PART ONE: THE KILLING MACHINE and PART TWO: THE LAWMAN OF THE FUTURE

PART THREE:  BETTER DREDD THAN DEAD

But John soon had another reason for being unhappy.  John Sanders could not get his revolutionary plan for 2000AD to be produced by outside contractors past his board of directors. I know he did his level best but it was not to be.  I never found out why. Although I don’t think I had endeared myself to the board a year earlier when Sanders had put me forward as the new managing editor of the boys’ comics and his directors interviewed me for the job. They asked me what changes I would make if I got the job.  I told them with great enthusiasm how I’d like to do away with merging two comics together in a bid to artificially boost sales – the odious policy of “hatch, match and despatch”, which was insulting to readers and I knew they hated. “Great news inside, readers – Lion is joining forces with Valiant.” I also talked about comics appearing on better quality paper and – most important of all – treating the readers with more respect, making the stories more sophisticated, more cool, more real.  If I had the power of managing editor, I would also have sacked many of the old regime and made a new start with the talent I knew was out there and had been suppressed. Unfortunately, I rather fear I intimated as much to them!  Big mistake.  It was not what they wanted to hear.  What they wanted was a “yes man” and a “suit”, not a long-haired comic revolutionary with a guillotine waiting for all those who were driving British comics into the ground.

So  it was around this time in the Autumn of 1976 John sadly informed me I would have to go back to creating 2000AD as “work for hire” and selling IPC all rights. The deal was off.  I had no choice but to resign. At the time I was being paid a very basic sum to create 2000AD.  It was a lot of grief for a very poor financial return.  It involved commuting to London every day from Colchester, working long hours, and missing out on my family life.  I wanted to go back to freelancing, having fun and enjoying my kids growing up.  So my mind was made up.  Goodbye 2000AD.

Two days later, John Sanders telephoned me at home. Realising there was no-one who could take over from me, except the old regime with their 100 per cent track record of screwing comics up, he offered to pay me £250 a week to continue to produce my science fiction comic.  In 1976 this was serious money – about £1400 a week today – and I readily accepted.  But it was on offer to me alone, because as John made clear:  I was the sole creator of 2000AD.

I felt pretty bad about it, but the private contractor deal was dead whatever I decided. Aware also that, not just Dredd but my other stories – Flesh, Harlem Heroes, Mach One etc –  were really starting to take shape and were equally special and shouldn’t fall into the unloving hands of the old regime.  If you think I’m being paranoid about the old regime – take a look at the censored version of Action.  It was just awful.  “Look what they done to my comic, Ma!”  Readers still complain today about that shameful comic castration.

John was naturally bitterly disappointed when he heard the news and Decided to have nothing more to do with Dredd as he makes clear in the following:

“We’d been promised to be allowed to do 2000AD as a contracting-out job (not in house) and would have more than a writer’s interest in it – a profit motive.  Pat was the mover on it, he was the one IPC wanted to do it.  He called me in to talk over lots of stories and we developed one or two of them.  I had been involved for a few weeks, I’d done Dredd and put a lot of imagination and creativity into it – more than just the usual work for hire deal.  But the IPC board turned it down after all the work had been done on it.  I was jarred off by it and thought to hell with it.  I won’t be writing for it anymore -I’ve had enough.”  (The making of Judge Dredd 1995)

John and I never fell out over this.  We were both sensible enough to know the target of our anger should not be each other or John Sanders, who just as gutted as we were, but the system in the shape of his antique board of directors.  It was such a pity. John Sanders was a great visionary – he’d anticipated the idea of contracted-out creativity decades before it happened.

Losing John Wagner was a set-back, but I was used to set-backs, it was just another one to overcome and although I was sad on a personal level for John, I don’t recall being concerned on a creative level.  This was because my vision of what I wanted from the comic was now crystal clear and had become very personal to me and I was not going to let anything get in my way of achieving it. Particularly on the money I was being paid which I felt I had to justify.

And, in truth, by this stage, no-one was indispensable with the notable and unique exception of my art director, Doug Church. His contribution was crucial.  Because he choreographed the visual look of  all  the stories  (with the notable exception of Dave Gibbons’s story Harlem Heroes which was so cool it didn’t need it). I won’t go into exactly how he did it here because it’s too big a subject – other than to say that in a very special, almost magical way, he could dress “mutton” comic book art up as “lamb”.  So crappy art was often turned into cool, sexy and dynamic art.  Now that’s a talent. Everything else important on the comic I was able to do myself. So I – and everyone who cares about 2000AD – owe Doug Church a huge debt of thanks.  The fact that he actually disliked 2000AD, as you can begin to see from his comments, and thought Action was far better, is completely irrelevant!  You’re still a star, Doug!

But now Carlos was unhappy as well as John.

“I was very angry that I wasn’t able to draw the first Dredd story ever published, having done so much to create the visual look of the character, the city and other elements. I had made up the character, so why not be allowed to draw the first one? I was very angry, which was maybe a bit childish, but I returned to Battle.”   (The Making of Dredd. 1995)

Carlos claims the reason is because he was not allowed to draw the first episode and thus went to Battle.  That’s not the case. I would have loved Carlos to have drawn the first episode, but – by the time the first script was finalised – Carlos had already walked off the set and gone to Battle.  When he left, Dredd was not a “house character” open to other artists, and no other artist had yet appeared to copy Carlos’s unique style. Everyone would have thought it impossible.  If Carlos had been prepared to sustain a high weekly output, which he was easily capable of (as regular 2000AD readers are well aware) it might never have happened.  After all, there would have been no reason to look for other artists when I was completely crazy about his version.  Why would I go elsewhere when I was and still am his biggest fan?

It’s possible Carlos was unhappy at the prospect that other artists might eventually follow him, which was the normal policy on long running, number one stories. After all, it still happens on Dredd today.  But that was not the key reason he left. As with most things in life, it was about money.

He was unhappy with the money he was being paid. I remember him complaining about it vehemently, especially the money for the city design, although I paid him as much as I could within my budget limitations.  Looking back, I wish I’d found a way to pay more, he really deserved it, but I was stuck with a fixed page rate to artists and my accounts were carefully audited by the old regime, who were constantly finding fault with what I was doing.

He was also unhappy with the comic itself, which I sensed he – and/or his agent – did not like and did not think would succeed.  In this he was not alone – everyone in comics seemed to hate what I was doing.  Thus when I tried to get prestigious sf artist Brian Lewis to work for me, his agent said he couldn’t possibly be associated with an sf comic like that.  Meaning a science fiction comic produced on crappy bog paper.

Carlos was unhappy with me personally from the angry Spanish words he muttered under his breath to his agent and translator.  We never actually sat down and talked it all through and in retrospect we should have done, but it was impossible with his agent watching over him.  My recollection is of Carlos standing alongside his agent, Barry Coker, and looking very fed-up as Barry translated his grievances. I rather think something got lost in translation. Financial security was important to Carlos and also to his agent and this was a risky new comic.  I wonder if Barry, looking at it from a business point of view, confirmed his concerns and advised Carlos, directly or indirectly, against continuing with Dredd. That’s certainly how it came over at the time.  After all, that is how agents work. Any creative will tell you agents always want their clients to avoid dangerous new projects and stick to “bread and butter” work.  And it was understandable: so many new comics had failed at that time. Why should my sf comic be any different?  Ultimately, of course, Carlos was unhappy for the reason we were all unhappy – because he did not have control over or intellectual property rights to his character and in this he had my sympathy.

My friendly rival on Battle, the excellent editor Dave Hunt, for whom I have the greatest respect, saw his opportunity. I say “excellent” because, after John Wagner and I created Battle, Dave took over from us and did a superb job.  It was also admirable the way he patiently put up with a couple of demanding and difficult creatives breathing down his neck. Subsequently, we often competed in a friendly way for artists and ideas.  I recall how a year before 2000AD, I gave a passionate speech to John Sanders on why there should a German hero for Action: Hellmann of Hammer Force, a daring, even controversial concept at the time. John was concerned there might be trouble from the British Legion.  I argued that it was time Germans were seen as human beings, not “nazi schwein” or “sausage noshers” as in Captain Hurricane. I think John agreed in the end just to stop me banging on about good Germans and get me out of his office. When Dave heard about my big breakthrough, he quickly gazumped me with Fallmann about a German paratrooper in Battle who thus became the first German hero to appear in comics.  Damn!

Now, in an adroit move, which still amuses me, he once again beat me to the draw and poached Carlos in Autumn 1976.  He offered Carlos the opportunity to create and exclusively draw any serial he wanted if he would just come back to Battle.  Believing, like everyone else, that 2000AD would die, and wanting more creative control, Carlos went off to create an American Civil War serial, El Mestizo, for Battle.

This is Dave’s perspective: “Pat was in charge of all new comics and seconded Carlos from my Battle Picture Weekly to draw the preliminary Dredd sketches. Carlos was very happy working on Battle Picture Weekly with such characters as Major Eazy and the Rat Pack and, to be honest, I was a bit loath to see him go…Luckily for me, he seemed quite happy working on Battle.”  (The Making of Dredd. 1995)

So, as Dave makes clear here, this was the real reason Carlos left Dredd.

El Mestizo, a mixed-race hero who fought for neither North or South in the tradition of the Eastwood character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  The serial would later bomb. It was an interesting idea, but it was obvious to me why it would bomb because the scripts, by Alan Hebden, lacked real spaghetti-western stylish humour; the modern war elements needed playing up and the western element playing down for a World War Two comic.  More grim trench war, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, just might have persuaded the readers.  However, it must also be recognised that cowboy stories are usually hated by comic readers in this country.  And when British readers hate a story or a genre, oh, boy, they really hate it!  You have to brace yourself for the hate mail.

As an aside, it’s worth stressing this hate mail.  It’s one of the reasons we all got rather good at what we did, because we feared the readers’ wrath!  I recall on Action, I commissioned one turkey story, compared with seven hit stories and got my arse kicked for it.  The abuse I received from readers on that turkey story – Coffin Sub – about a haunted submarine was unbelievable. Don’t anyone try doing a comic strip version of Das Boot!  Westerns were particularly high on the readers’ hate list. Hence why the superb French number one Western comic book series Blueberry also bombed when it appeared in Britain.

The concept of a hero fighting for neither side also needs careful handling. El Mestizo’s role seemed unclear and fuzzy. Mixed-race may have been a problem, too. Although it was extremely hard to prove, especially at the dawn of the politically correct era, I was aware of some reader resistance to my later black characters because they were black.  Certainly the old regime warned me against using black characters because they told me the readers would object.  Instead, they suggested I should have white heroes with black sidekicks. Hi yo Tonto!

There were problems with the art as well.  El Mestizo didn’t come over as a visual icon.  He looked “okay”, but he was a bit short and ordinary.  If I was in the editor’s chair, I would have asked for him  to be larger than life; more Jimmi Hendrix in his stature, posture and facial expression; more power; more oomph; more expression; more hip. Oh, yes, and less moustache.

If all that sounds very picky, that’s what is required to make a comic hero work. And that’s what John and I were trying to do in our separate and sometimes competing ways on Dredd.

Unfortunately, Dave, if he agreed with this analysis, could hardly tell Carlos he’d got it wrong, having just lured him back with a creative freehand away from that difficult bastard he’d been working with on the sci-fi comic.  Dave was an excellent editor, the best I have ever worked with, but he was a nice guy. Most editorial were in fact nice guys, but in comics nice guys don’t finish first.

And this leads me to another important diversion which explains the Comic Revolution.  Staff editors are paid a modest salary and do a good job but there’s only so much grief they need in their lives.  They want to go home at the weekend and forget work and have a life.  And that’s absolutely right.  In the immortal words of American editor Archie Goodwin: “Keep telling yourself every day – it’s only a comic… It’s only a comic…”  By comparison, the publisher was paying me, an outsider, a freelance, big money and expecting BIG results.  John Sanders said I was being paid more than he was. And he was  paying me not to be a nice guy, to be difficult, to rock the boat, to dissect stories and art, to agonise over them, to argue with creators, to endlessly reject scripts and art until it was right, to figure out exactly why stories worked or did not work, to change my mind, to change direction, and tell talented contributors things they did not want to hear, and to revive an industry that was dying and where many of the staff wanted it to die, so they could get their redundancy.  He was not paying me to be popular. In other words I needed to be a complete monster. Which – in creative terms – is okay if you know what you are doing. I did.

Returning to El Mestizo, it was a bloody shame it didn’t fly, because I would have liked to see historical stories, my first love, succeed in Battle.  There are so many historical sagas I’d love to have written myself because I am crazy about the genre as readers of Charley’s War and Slaine will know.  But it was not to be.  It stiffed at the box office. And, as a history-buff, I’m sad it did.

However, the reason I have gone into such detail on El Mestizo, Dredd’s rival, is this: If it had been popular, I have absolutely no doubt Carlos would never ever have returned to Judge Dredd and 2000AD.

So, with no writer and no artist, I had to find both or the Lawman of the Future would die. It would prove to be no easy task.

END OF PART THREE

DREDD – THE LAWMAN OF THE FUTURE

A few years back, a publisher at Random House asked me to write a sample chapter for a proposed book that my agent – a big comic book fan – felt I should write.  It was to be called:

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 light of the new film, and present it here as the introductory piece to my new blog.  If you missed it, here’s PART ONE: THE KILLING MACHINE

PART TWO:  THE LAWMAN OF THE FUTURE

We gave the script to artist Carlos Ezquerra and included a reference of David Carradine in Death Race 2000 as the basis for Dredd.  Carlos, born in Zaragoza, Spain, but living in Britain, had impressed John and I by his work on Battle, co-creating two impressive series, Major Eazy and Rat Pack.  So I knew it was going to be good.  But I was still not prepared for the fantastic images Carlos and his agent later brought into the office.

They were extraordinary!  The lawman of the future I was staring at was unbelievable!  I was blown away by them and so was everyone else – including my middle-aged mother-in-law who said, “That character is going to be famous”. It was obvious we had something really special here and it confirmed Carlos’s status as a world-class comic creator.

This is Carlos’ view of his first visualisation: “Dredd was so successful because he was a little ahead of his time, particularly in the fashion sense.  I drew him before the 1977 punk boom of black leather and chains, and well before the heavy metal movement, which he typified.  I have always believed that successive generations went to the opposite extreme of its predecessor.  In this case I thought the peace-loving, flower-wearing hippies would be superseded by a spiteful, black anarchic generation.  The Dredd generation.”

I agree with this totally. And it’s good to hear Carlos refute the punk connection. I get so tired of writers claiming 2000AD grew out of the punk movement.  Sorry, but that’s wishful retro thinking.  It certainly featured punk artists like Mike McMahon, but it wasn’t punk from the point of view of the primary creators.  Although it’s fair to say we all had very punk attitudes even if we didn’t have spiked hair. And Carlos has also said that the uniform was inspired by growing up in Franco’s Spain.  It quite clearly has a strong fascist/Nazi feeling as well.

This was my reaction as recalled by Doug Church, my art director. “When Pat Mills first saw Ezquerra’s sketches of this surly bloke sitting on a massive motor-cycle – he was orgasmic.”      (The making of Judge Dredd, 1995)

Those first sketches of a tall, elegant, remote, mysterious Judge of the future on a Bike out of Hell have never – in my view – been matched by any of the subsequent Dredd artists Indeed they have rarely been matched by Carlos himself. I think this was because he later felt it necessary to follow the powerful, but more “gritty”, down to earth, street-cop versions of his successors, possibly because this was what John Wagner preferred.

As Carlos recalls, he had combined, “a basic motor-bike helmet with a fifteenth century executioner’s hood… I added elements from an ancient Greek Warrior’s helmet to give Dredd’s helmet that distinctly rounded full-face look.”  (The making of Judge Dredd, 1995.)

It’s worth stressing at this point that there are great creators and great developers, but as the creator comes first, in my opinion, he – or she – is the one that truly matters.  Without them, all you have is a blank piece of paper.  So often in comics, it’s the developer who gets the recognition and the praise and I think this has happened more than a little in Carlos’s case.

I still prefer everything about Carlos’s original: the character, the bike and the city – which I’ll discuss a little later – and in this, I feel I am somewhat in a minority, at least among my peers who rate the versions by Bolland, McMahon or Jock, possibly missing the point that none of these three artists – brilliant as they are – have ever, to my knowledge, designed human heroes with the same iconic status as Dredd.  It’s important to recognise this and thereby reinstate the importance of creators

I showed the designs to John Wagner who, to my dismay and disappointment, tossed them angrily to one side and said in his dour Dredd-like voice, “Fucking hell!  He looks like a fucking Spanish pirate!  I’m not writing him, he looks fucking stupid!”

I can understand why he felt this.  After all, John was visualising a cop of the near future, Carlos’s version was of a very distant science fiction future.

Ironically, Dredd’s flamboyant, heavily padded, “busy” look, which John was referring to, whilst unusual in the 1970’s, is now commonplace amongst riot police the world over.  I recently observed some riot police in Serbia preparing for a football match and their knee pads, shoulder pads and fabulous, futuristic boots were extremely “baroque” – as John would put it – and actually put Dredd in the shade.  So it was prophetic of Carlos to have anticipated all this.

Dredd’s look was something John would take some adjusting to, as is evidenced by the art changes he later required for his stories of the Judges on the moon.  He was clearly still uncomfortable with the futuristic design and was trying to find a way to modify it.  Against art editor Kevin O’Neill’s advice, he insisted on the Judges wearing cloaks and made other uniform changes.  Then when he saw the cloaks, he was unhappy with them, and asked for them to be taken out again which would have been problematic so Kevin refused.  Actually, I quite like the cloaks!  But then I’m a huge Bolland fan, too, and, for me, he can do no wrong.

All this passion and dissent is actually very healthy and is no criticism of any of us, because it shows how much we cared and how we wanted the very best for our comic and our readers. It is very different to sf author Michael Moorcock’s view of 2000AD. Apparently he had worked in comics some years before I arrived on the scene and was therefore consulted by the media for his opinion.  Having initially criticised us in the Guardian when 2000AD first appeared for my story about a Soviet-style invasion of Britain, he then went on to say in the Sun newspaper September 8 1978, nearly two years later, “The men who used to produce comics were very creative and they really cared about what they gave the kids. Now they just do it with a supermarket mentality, like producing tins of beans.” It’s a pity he didn’t actually look carefully at comics at that time before giving his opinion.  Not only we were all passionate about what we were doing, and it showed, but so, too, were the guys on Battle, Tammy, and the brilliant comics coming out of D. C. Thomson’s like Jackie, Bunty and Warlord.

This is John’s generous recollection of his reaction to the designs:  “I was unhappy with them.  I thought they were way over the top. I was looking for somebody with much cleaner lines.  I saw Dredd more like smooth glistening metal rather than Carlos’s baroque Judge.  But he was obviously right – it’s a look that has lasted.  Carlos is a great character creator; he was right and I was wrong.” (The making of Judge Dredd, 1995)

Yet interestingly, in the 2012 movie, the character has actually moved back to the streamlined look John was originally after.  Dredd is now much closer to the Death Race 2000 reference we sent Carlos.  And, arguably, this is better from a movie point of view in that Dredd looks more convincing, more functional.  Robocop also went for that clean, metallic look John describes.

Staying with the art, we now come to the city.  I considered the background of one of Carlos’s illustrations which showed a tiny but curiously curved skyscraper, very different to anything I had seen before in science fiction.  John and I had not paid any attention to the visual look of the city, which we imagined would be similar to today’s architecture. This was not unusual in British and American comics where backgrounds are rarely a priority.  But I was becoming increasingly aware of their impact from studying old science fiction books and European comic art and I saw the potential immediately.  Accordingly, I asked Carlos to draw a full page poster based on this small image.

Carlos recalls: “The first strip was set right in the middle of New York City, some years in the future – so I decided to make the buildings rounded and soar into the air, to house the many millions of people.  This was the shape I drew the city.” (The making of Judge Dredd. 1995)

The result was a city so amazing it could no longer be called New York. Instead, my art director, Doug Church, suggested it stretched down the whole of the Eastern seaboard and be renamed Mega-City One.

Here is Doug’s recollection: “Pat came to me with Ezquerra’s full-page depiction of New York in Dredd’s time.  Pat was in raptures over it – but I thought it was a horrible piece of work, but he wanted to feature it as a full-page colour poster.” (The making of Judge Dredd. 1995)

Doug was to be the basis of my character Smith 70, the fast-talking, crazy machine-gunner, in Charley’s War, with his catchphrase “It’s a funny old business…” and everyone in the office instantly recognised him when they read the serial in Battle.  Charley’s affection for Smith 70 reflects my own affection for Doug.  He chattered faster than Smith 70’s machine gun and drove everyone crazy, which endeared him to me as I talked fast and drove everyone crazy as well.  But here I have to disagree with Doug.  It was not horrible and I am still in raptures over that poster.

With hindsight, I realise Carlos might have been influenced a little by Gaudí, whose architecture is equally wild.  Or perhaps not.  In any event, nothing takes away from the uniqueness of his vision, which is his alone. All I contributed to the city was encouraging Carlos to bring out its potential.  I looked at that city for hours and hours and could still do so today.  I still do not believe any other artist’s subsequent version of Mega-City has matched it.  In fact, they have often detracted from it.  The original city has almost skeletal, insectoid, mile-high buildings, rather than the broader, more plausible, and less interesting blocks of his successors.  (I planned a story where these “starscrapers” were so high, they ran out of air on the top floors.)

There was a remote, sinister, mysterious quality to Carlos’s metropolis.  In my view, it has more originality and magic than even the beautiful cities in Blade Runner and Fifth Element, and perhaps draws on similar European comic influences, which it still surpasses.  I do not recall going into comparable raptures when I saw the Blade Runner and Fifth Element cities on the screen.  His city also included CCTV police cameras at a time in the 1970s when they were unknown.  It was this poster image, with Dredd riding across the future landscape, which inspired me to write his triumphant catchphrase, “I am the Law.”

The city was also important to me for two crucial reasons.  Firstly, along with the other images Carlos had drawn, it suggested 2000AD could eventually break into the European market and/or appeal to fans of Metal Hurlant, Heavy Metal and similar comics.  Secondly, it gave 2000AD a classy, fantasy look which it desperately needed to offset the very crude bog-paper we were printed on.  (The story of my battle for higher quality paper for 2000AD is covered in a different chapter).  So we could legitimately call ourselves a science fiction comic at a time where everyone believed sf comics must have the glossy paper and full colour of Eagle or TV21.  This poster was therefore crucial to my plans.

But, above all, these beautiful, mysterious starscrapers of Mega City One showed a world where kids could dream about the world of tomorrow.  There was an aesthetic quality to them, an optimism about the future that I felt could inspire our readers.

Interestingly, looking at the movie city in 2012, the deliberately drab, functional city block has won out over the starscrapers.  And it works – especially the exciting scene in the film where the block goes into lock-down, which is brilliant.  And if it works, and sells, that’s what ultimately matters.  But I still carry a torch for Carlos’s original city and dream of what might have been.

Certainly we lost our European opportunity with the direction Dredd took and it’s why, at least until recently, Dredd comics have not majored in Europe.  But clearly there is a market and an interest there as is shown by the huge popularity of Slaine and ABC Warriors.  European comics are very inspiring.  I was motivated to write Nemesis after reading Caza and Druillet and Lob’s Lone Sloane Delirious.  I’m sure Kevin’s baroque view of Termight, the underground world in Nemesis, was also partly inspired by the Europeans.  Although – in a typically Brit way – he has gone so much further and darker. And I based my overall vision of 2000AD on European comics. But I feel that Kevin and I – and other artists like Brendan McCarthy – were relatively alone in our love of European artists and our desire to be part of that artistic universe.  For others, the move was always towards American art, but to a more functional and basic imagery than the beautiful art of Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson and Barry Windsor-Smith.

Even though we lost something, perhaps we gained something at the same time: that celebration of the dark. Or maybe we just reinforced our unique, almost isolationist British cultural identity.  A friend of mine, Serbian film director and comics festival organiser Dejan Kraljacic sums this up well.

“Dredd is American.  But in the right way.  A very convincing future in which you can feel the stamp of the author.  By comparison, American superheroes seem compromised.  Dredd is more radical, more punk rock, more on the edge.  But he’s too alternative-tough for America and not artistic enough for Europe. For our taste, the art is too realistic and too simple, compared to European styles, which have more backgrounds, more details, more mystery.  Such as the art of Moebius which is very cool, very seducing.

“I really think Dredd is Great Britain; a reflection of Britain’s unique identity, neither American or European.”

Wise words. So now I had the story, the art, and all should have been well for Dredd. Unfortunately not. In the space of a few short weeks, John, Carlos and myself would all resign for different reasons  and all of us insisted we would never, ever return.  Now that was very British!

END OF PART TWO