The 35th anniversary of the thrill-loaded zarjazian comic 2000AD will shortly be upon us, James took this opportunity to speak to Michael Carroll, the newest writer on Judge Dredd, who has been a fan right from the start.
Q. You came to 2000AD when it was launched. Can you remember what drew you to the comic?
A. What a lot of newbies (that is, people who’ve only been reading the comic for about thirty years) don’t realise is that at the very beginning the big draw – the one thing that was very heavily pushed – was the return of Dan Dare. There hadn’t been any new Dan Dare material since about 1967, ten years earlier, so this was big enough to make the news even over here in Ireland. My dad fondly remembered Dare from the original Eagle: Dad was about ten when the comic first appeared, same age as I was when 2000AD was launched.
It appealed to me because I was already into science fiction: By that age I was well-versed in the ABCs of SF – Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke (plus Norton, LeGuin, Heinlein, Pohl… all the greats!) – and I’d read all the Doctor Who novelisations, James Blish’s Star Trek books, pretty much anything I could find that had a monster or a spaceship on the cover.
Pocket-money was tight in those days… I was usually only able to afford one comic a week, and I was already regularly reading Bullet (an “Action Paper for Boys!” published by DC Thomson) so I had to scrimp and save to get the 8p needed for 2000AD. But once I got that first issue, I was hooked. Britain overwhelmed by the Volgan armies in Invasion, the all-new Dan Dare, time-travelling cowboys versus dinosaurs in Flesh, M.A.C.H. 1 – a man activated by compu-puncture hyper-power (I didn’t even have to look that up) and thrilling future sport Aeroball (basketball with jetpacks!) in Harlem Heroes… What’s not to like about that? Plus there was the Space Spinner and the promise next issue of a new character who went by the unlikely name of Judge Dredd.
Q. What was your favourite character, and why did you like them so much?
A. Dredd quickly became my favourite, but in the beginning I adored Harlem Heroes and Dan Dare, mostly because of the amazing artwork by Dave Gibbons and Massimo Belardinelli respectively. I know that there’s not a lot of love these days for the 2000AD incarnation of Dare, but I thought it was great. It got even better when Dave Gibbons took over art duties (Belardinelli switched to the Harlem Heroes’ sequel Inferno – don’t get me started on about how badly the closing chapters of that story were treated!).
When it came to Dredd, I enjoyed the tales but it wasn’t until about seven months into the comic that it really kicked in for me. No, not Pat Mill’s classic story “The Return of Rico” in prog 30, but one week earlier. In “The Neon Knights” (again, written by Mills) Dredd is captured by a large bunch of baddies when he makes a grab for one of their guns… “He’s trying to escape!” And Dredd replies: “I ain’t escaping! I’m taking you all on!”
From that point on, it was Dredd all the way. That said, a couple of times other characters have come close to toppling Dredd: Nikolai Dante, especially in the early days, and the Strontium Dog stories “The Killing” and “Rage” were just wonderful stuff. For me, though, the one that came closest to beating Dredd was The Stainless Steel Rat. I adored that story so much that I went out and bought the novel on which it was based, then I bought the others in the series, and every single one of Harry Harrison’s other books. Harry quickly became, and has remained, my all-time favourite writer.
Q. What possessed you to pick up Starlord?
A. I bought the first issue, but only rarely picked it up after that. Not because I didn’t like it – I loved it – but Starlord cost twelve pence per issue, which was way more than I could afford at the time. Luckily, I was able to read my friends’ copies.
I remember being particularly taken with Strontium Dog, Time Quake and Ro-Busters, but the comic’s other strips didn’t really grab me.
Q. Comics did seem to come and go, it’s not just a more recent phenomenon, there was Tornado as well.
A. Yeah, back then new comics came out in spring and autumn, and the good ones survived. The others were given the chop rather abruptly: We learned to dread the words “Inside – Exciting News For All Readers!” If you saw that on the cover, your comic was most likely doomed. Next week, the logo that appeared after the “and” in the merged comic was destined to shrink over the following four months, then it would disappear completely just in time for the next merger.
Starlord and Tornado both had their buckets kicked out from under them after only twenty-two issues… Tornado wasn’t a “proper” SF comic, though. The Mind of Wolfie Smith and Black Hawk were the only ones to survive the merger with 2000AD, and the latter had to be rather awkwardly science-fictionised to make it work. (OK, so Captain Klep also survived, but that was only a one-pager and it was pretty silly… Still, I’d love to see them all reprinted. Are you listening, Mighty One?)
I recall expecting that Fleetway’s later action-packed title Speed (not a lot of people remember that one, I suspect) or the re-launched Eagle would be merged with 2000AD, but it never happened. Eagle ran for much longer than I’d anticipated (twelve years – not a bad run at all), and as for Speed… I have no idea; it probably merged with something else. In the great pantheon of British comics of the 70s and 80s, 2000AD is rather unique in that it had only two mergers… Battle Picture Weekly (as it was originally called) seemed to be merging with another comic every couple of months.
Q. In those early years, there seemed to be a number of political messages, although some Dredd stories were not being allowed to be reprinted for other issues, but Dredd himself was a satirical take on the way Britain was leaning to the right. As a young reader, how did that impact upon you?
A. There have indeed been a lot of political messages, but for clarity I should point out that the “banned” Dredd stories weren’t political. They can’t be reprinted for copyright reasons (two two-part tales from the Cursed Earth saga: the first featured warring clans of hamburger franchises, the second featured lots of old characters that belonged to big companies, like the Jovial Emerald Colossus – note how I’m not even using the real name here, just in case!).
I only recall a few instances where the political message was overt enough for my slow-moving brain to pick it up (slavery is bad, discrimination is bad, Volgans can’t be trusted, etc.), but I’m sure that my subconscious took a lot out of those stories. I’m fairly left-wing in my own attitudes: I believe in freedom of expression and equal rights for all regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or anything else. But I also believe that one who deliberately violates the rights or safety of another should receive swift and just punishment. I mean, I’m all for non-violence but if someone breaks into my house and endangers my family then as far as I’m concerned he leaves his human rights outside and I should be well within my rights to kick the living snot out of him (or her – let’s not discriminate here).
Chiefly, though, I think I learned that political messages in comics (or any form of fiction) should be subtle, secondary to the entertainment. If they’re not, you end up with some of the stories that appeared in Revolver and Crisis, where it’s all politics and no fun. I’m not saying which stories because if you’ve read them, you already know, and if you haven’t, you don’t need to know.
Q. If we separate the comic into sets of five years from 1980, do you have any favourite stories from the first five and the second five of the eighties, and why did you like them so much?
A. Ooh, tough one… I have to admit that I lapsed a lot during the second half of the 80s. I stopped reading 2000AD several times during that period. I managed to catch up each time I resumed, thankfully, but there’s not a lot in that period that immediately springs to mind. The Oz storyline in Dredd was good fun, though very disjointed. I didn’t take to Bad Company at all, but I re-read it a few years ago and loved it. I really adored the first book of Zenith, but after that the art changed and the story went all weird. I’m still not quite sure what was going on.
The first half of the 80s were better, I feel. Dredd had “The Judge Child” and “The Apocalypse War”, Bellardinelli was back with Meltdown Man, there was Nemesis, Ace Trucking Co. (Belardinelli again!), Fiends of the Eastern Front, Return to Armageddon (with art by the sublime Jesus Redondo), plus of course the arrival of Alan Moore, who gave us Halo Jones and D.R. and Quinch and a whole bunch of great Future Shocks.
Q. There was a period of time when there were many shoot-offs: Revolver, Crisis, Judge Dredd Megazine, and of course competitors such as Deadline, Toxic and Blast. Which of these did you read and pick up?
A. I bought the first six issues of Revolver before abandoning it (a mistake, as there were only seven issues!) and the first dozen or so of Crisis. Neither of them really grabbed me, and I don’t even know where my copies are now. I followed the Megazine for a long time, but my interest faded somewhere in the late 90s for a couple of years. When I started again in 2001 I tracked down all the back-issues I’d missed.
As for the rivals… Sad to say, I never really read any of them. I think I have one issue of Deadline, which I picked up a few years ago.
Q. The great Judge Dredd epics were a summer ritual. Do you have a favourite Dredd Epic? I think for myself, “The Apocalypse War” was a favourite, as a sort of realisation of a cold war gone hot, while the “Necropolis” storyline was also pretty enjoyable for me. Which ones do you remember immediately, and why?
A. “The Apocalypse War” was a scorcher, and still stands out today as a masterpiece of comics story-telling. One of the reasons I love it is that it’s one artist all the way through, Dredd’s very own co-creator Carlos Ezquerra. Immediately prior to that we had the nine-part prelude “Block Mania”, which is a great story but really suffers from the shift in artists, despite the fact that said artists are Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland, Steve Dillon and Ron Smith – all classic Dredd artists.
More recently, I loved “Origins” (again, Carlos all the way through) and “Tour of Duty” was a great idea: instead of one long tale it’s broken up into smaller parts, which makes it easier on the artists and – presumably – easier on the writer too. The current epic “Day of Chaos” is rocketing along nicely – can’t wait to see where that’s going!
Q. Badges, stickers, posters, cards, datafiles… all were freebies with the comic, which had a free Space Spinner with issue one, and even now the Judge Dredd Megazine has mini graphic novels free with every issue (which I have seen one fan get bound), but what were your favourite freebies?
A. I loved the idea of the Biotronic Man stickers with prog 2: stick ‘em on your arm and it looks like you’ve got bionics (sorry, biotronics) inside, but they weren’t much good after the first use. In those days, most comics gave away freebies about every six months to boost readership, but after the initial three issues 2000AD didn’t give anything away until prog 178 (a badge with a pic of Judge Dredd on it!). Not counting those multi-part cut-away booklets and posters, of course… I dutifully applied scissors to comic for each and every one of those, thereby ruining my progs. Took me years to rebuild my collection after that!
My all-time favourite freebies were the Space Calculator that came with issue 2 of Starlord and the tiny gold Judge Dredd shield that came with 2000AD prog 300. I still have both of them!
Q. Halo Jones, Judge Anderson, Judge Hershey, Judge McGruder, Venus Blue Genes, America, Roxy, Really and Truly, Aimee Nixon, Judge Beeny, are all female comic characters that I actually like, some I have loved, I wondered who your favourite female characters from 2000AD are or were, and what you liked about them.
A. Ah, your list missed three of my favourites: Angelina DiGriz from The Stainless Steel Rat, Durham Red from Strontium Dog, and Chrysoprasia from D.R. and Quinch. You’ll note that the first two were drawn by Carlos Ezquerra – he sure knows how to draw attractive women! But what I like most about them is that they’re not subservient to their male counterparts; these are not Lois Lanes who exist solely to be captured and later rescued. They could – and, in the case of Durham Red, have – easily carried their own adventures.
I’m also very fond of Judge Anderson, Synnamon and – more recently – Samantha Slade. I’d still like to see more female characters, though – and certainly more female creators!
Taking a slightly different approach, another of my favourite female 2000AD characters was Old One Eye, the tyrannosaur from Flesh. She used to give me nightmares!
Q. What’s your take on “The Final Solution”, and the way it was effectively removed from the Strontium Dog canon and then slotted back in?
A. Sure, for years it was as though “The Final Solution” was being ignored, but with the latest Strontium Dog tale – “The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha” – Johnny’s death in “The Final Solution” is now accepted as having happened. John Wagner – all hail his boundless genius – has come up with a brilliant way of bringing Johnny back without compromising past stories.
It was a brave move to kill Johnny Alpha, and hats off to The Powers That Be for leaving him dead for so long (twenty years!), but I wasn’t tremendously impressed with the Johnny-free stories that followed. When Wagner returned to the strip ten year later, we (mostly) got stories set before “The Final Solution”, which were great fun but did seem to be avoiding the whole “torn apart by a flying beastie” situation.
If you’re going to kill off a character, then leave him dead. This isn’t an American superhero comic where everyone dies and then comes back. All the way back in prog 64, M.A.C.H. 1 was killed and he’s never shown up again. That’s the way to do it!
On the other hand, if you want to resurrect a character in a way that doesn’t feel like the readers are being cheated, the best way is to plant a plot seed before he or she dies (like Spock in The Wrath of Khan). In the case of “The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha”, Mr. Wagner’s clearly worked pretty hard to craft a story that solves the problem of Johnny being dead and is still a solid, entertaining tale in its own right. Whereas the other post-“Final Solution” tales detracted from the greatness of the character, this new tale adds to it.
In part 2 We Talk to Michael about writing Judge Dredd.
Michael Carroll started with 2000AD and The Judge Dredd Megazine in the traditional way, with a couple of Future Shocks, and was soon asked to submit one-off stories Tales from Black Museum, the success of which led very quickly to his being invited to pitch ideas for Judge Dredd. In the last twelve months he has had some thirteen Dredd episodes published, with his “Caterpillars” and “Downtime” stories achieving huge popularity. (and you can vote for them, in The Eagle awards here: http://www.eagleawards.co.uk/ Ed.)
He has had considerable success with his Quantum Prophecy series of books for young adult readers, being published in both the UK and US, with the next book, Stronger, due out this June. Last year saw the publication of his adult novel Double-Crossing, the first in a series of novels inspired by the characters and situations in John Higgins’ acclaimed Razorjack graphic novel. Michael lives and works in Dublin.