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.
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