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, PART FOUR: JUDGEMENT DAY and PART FIVE: EXIT WOUNDS.
PART SIX: IN THE SHADOW OF THE JUDGE?
Two 2000AD stories, at least, didn’t always sustain the cool look and promise of my early episodes – Mach One and Invasion – and that is why they eventually came to an end. Also, the sea-based Flesh Book Two – although it had some memorable moments, with brilliant art by Belardinelli – lacked the heroes, the intensity and missed the subtext of my Wild West Book One. The artwork at the end by another artist was also pretty wretched and old-fashioned. As a result, Flesh disappeared from 2000AD for many years.
Harlem Heroes was always popular, thanks to Dave Gibbons, especially with the hideous cyborg Artie Gruber, but now we were no longer allowed to make it a death game, like Rollerball, it was hard for the writer Tom Tully to give it the ferocity he’d previously injected into the excellent Death Game 1999 on Action. That game,devised by Geoff Kemp and myself, featured convicts playing ‘Spinball’, fighting to the death on a giant pinball board.
The new 2000AD stories – such as Ant Wars – that replaced my original line-up were often not to my liking, but having left the comic, they were beyond my control. Looking back, in theory there was still no reason why my plan for a comic with all number one heroes shouldn’t have worked. Being a visual icon – like Dredd – is not an automatic guarantee for success. Take Charley’s War, where a very ordinary looking sixteen year old kid was the number one story in Battle for nearly a decade. Also, the fact that today two of my stories from Prog One, Savage (Invasion) and Flesh, have successfully returned to the pages of 2000AD and are very popular tells you something about what might have been.
I’ve no doubt Harlem Heroes, with the right writer and artist, would also still work today. As a huge fan of the original Rollerball, I’ve always regretted not continuing to write Harlem Heroes after my original script – with spikes around the goals – was censored. So in my French series Sha – set in a satanic New York called New Eden – I wrote a death game sequence called “Dwarfball”, based on a concept by artist co-creator, Olivier Ledroit.
Dwarfball. From Sha, by Mills and Ledroit
And then, there’s Dan Dare, which I anticipated would be especially popular, hence why I had it opening on the colour centre-spread. One reader, Gavin Aslett, wrote to me recently and said:
I bought 2000AD regularly from the age of 7 (prog 9) and Dan Dare was the main reason I bought it. A lot of people seem to not recognise that Dan Dare launched the comic and I consider the Belardenelli series to be one of the greatest the comic has witnessed.
The Dave Gibbons series was very captivating as well. Most of the people at school I went to were into 2000AD’s Dan Dare and Judge Dredd did not really get popular until The Cursed Earth series in Prog 60. Dan Dare was badly treated by 2000AD and still does deserve a conclusion. I can’t stand all these Eagle Dan Dare fanatics who pompously criticize the 2000AD Dan Dare version. It’s a generational thing and the 2000AD Dan Dare reflected the 1970s kids were growing up in – hence that is why it appealed to me. I like the 1950’s Eagle version but it is part of another nostalgic age. Worse still I can’t stand all these 2000AD revisionists who never bought the comic in the beginning who tell us how awful Dan Dare was in 2000AD.
2000AD today is not the comic it was and frankly could acknowledge Dan Dare’s contribution not only because it is just very disrespectful to the artists who gave the comic so much i.e. Massimo Belardenelli and Dave Gibbons.
You can view also a report on my conclusion to 2000AD’s Dan Dare here:
I know many other readers feel the same way. And that’s great, because I brought Dan into the comic, not just for the publicity which helped sales a lot (despite our critics) but to provide an all-important space saga, in the tradition of Star Trek and Alien, with amazing spaceships and fantastic alien worlds – something I feel a science fiction comic should include. Despite the very different artwork, I followed the approach of the original Frank Hampson “Voyage to Venus” adventure, with Dan descending – in a high gravity suit – into Jupiter’s mysterious Red Spot. I wanted to feature a familiar planet in our solar system where something very strange and alien is happening. But, as Gavin’s e-mail implies, Dan’s significance is often overshadowed by Dredd, especially today because – for copyright reasons – those adventures cannot be reprinted without paying a significant fee to the Dan Dare copyright holder. (A more detailed article about Dan Dare, originally written for Spaceship Away, the classic Dan Dare fan magazine, and subsequently published on my Facebook page back in 2010, can be seen here.)
But ultimately, Dredd won out over all the other stories because of the quality of the writing plus the vital boost it received by being drawn by Brian Bolland and Mike McMahon. Their artwork also helped pushed Dredd into the stratosphere where it has remained ever since. If that were not so, why didn’t Carlos’s equally iconic Major Eazy in Battle achieve a similar mass audience? So it has to be largely down to the words.
So, at this point, I think it’s relevant to ask just what was so special about John’s Dredd and my own depiction of the Judge in the Return of Rico and the Cursed Earth? The answer is simple. We used real-life role models on which to base our two somewhat different interpretations of Dredd.
END OF PART SIX
p.s. I couldn’t resist including another page of Dwarfball from Sha:
More Dwarfball. from Sha, by Mills and Ledroit