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 In this case I thought the peace-loving, flower-wearing hippies would be superseded by a spiteful, black anarchic generation.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