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.
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