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