“Americans trust heroes. The English wouldn’t be able to give Superman that glorious crown that Americans give him […] I think that’s the giant engine that drives 2000 AD, because it’s one of the wonderful messages of 2000 AD is: do not trust your heroes.”
Thus says Neil Gaiman about one of Britain’s great comics institutions, 2000 AD. Since its founding in the late 70s, the comic’s given birth to some of the country’s most famous characters and strips – most obviously Judge Dredd, but also such stories as Strontium Dog, Nemesis The Warlock and Rogue Trooper. It’s been the breeding ground for some now famous writers and artists, including Brian Bolland, Grant Morrison and, of course, Gaiman himself. But 2000 AD’s roots have drilled deep into modern culture, having influenced – either directly or indirectly – a generation of filmmakers, designers and screenwriters.
It’s fair to say, then, that a proper, detailed evaluation of 2000 AD’s place in comics history is long overdue, and here comes director Paul Goodwin to fill the gap. With contributions from many of the comic’s best known contributors, from those mentioned above to Dave Gibbons, Carlos Ezquerra and John Wagner, Future Shock: The Story Of 2000 AD dedicates its 100 minutes or so to the publication’s roots in the era of punk and Thatcher, via its creative wobble in the 90s, right up to its resurgence in the 21st century.
Goodwin succeeds in establishing 2000 AD’s anti-establishment, confrontational edge from the documentary’s opening, with footage of riots, punk gigs and newspaper headlines about the Yorkshire Ripper giving way to the bold black-and-white ink of 2000 AD in all its kinetic, anarchic glory. Perhaps realising that the people he has to speak to are outspoken and colourful enough to drive the narrative by themselves, Goodwin sits back and lets them have at it, with creator and founding editor Pat Mills offering some particularly fiery, unvarnished insights into 2000 AD’s history.
“It’s not about bearing a grudge,” Mills says when the topic turns to 2000 AD‘s 90s creative wobble, “but it was such an awful era that it deserves to be recorded.”
As another contributor wryly notes, “When Pat’s not happy, you know about it.”
At a time when the British comics scene was already in the doldrums, 2000 AD seemed as futuristic as its title implied. Inspired more by the hard sci-fi of France’s Metal Hurlant than the somewhat quaint heroics of the UK’s own Eagle, 2000 AD’s stories put their own genre slant on the concerns of the day. The comic was born out of the ashes of an earlier publication, Action, which had made an enemy of media watchdog Mary Whitehouse thanks to stories like Kids Rule OK, about a violent, youth-dominated future where adults have succumbed to plague. Action didn’t survive the bad press (it lasted for just nine months), but Mills kept hold of his vision for an uncompromising “comic for the streets.”
The result was 2000 AD, a comic that could tell edgy stories through a filter of sci-fi and fantasy. Mills describes the move as something of a retreat from the grubby realism of Action, yet this new title, first published in 1977, still sharp teeth and blood under its fingernails. In an era where most comics played it safe, Judge Dredd was anything but cosy; about a masked law enforcer stamping out resistance in a totalitarian future city, it was a world away from the daring-do of anything published in The Eagle or Jet.
“Dredd was based on Margaret Thatcher,” Grant Morrison says, with more than a hint of mischief in his eyes. “He was a fascist. And the more right wing and fascist we made him, the more readers loved him.”
Other characters were no less keyed into their time. Nemesis The Warlock dealt with themes of racism and xenophobia. Strontium Dog was about a mutant bounty hunter who was himself a mutant. Simply put, 2000 AD was exploring subject matters that no other British comic dared touch.
Future Shock captures the creative spike that drove those early years – a meeting of minds that drove 2000 AD from a standing start to a success at news stands, defying the hopes from some quarters that the comic would fail spectacularly. If the documentary has a breathless, fanboy-ish air, with musicians from Portishead and Anthrax chipping in to express their adulation, then it’s soon matched by its honest exploration of where 2000 AD faltered. Although the comic’s success was built on the bedrock of great artists and writers, they were given neither credit nor copyright in its early years. Artist Kevin O’Neill was even given the job of painting out the names or in-jokes left behind by artists.
The lack of recognition and low pay eventually alienated writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and when 2000 AD finally started crediting its staff in the early 1990s, it had the exact effect its publishers probably feared. American comics companies like DC and Vertigo, with their deep pockets and voluminous catalogues of iconic characters, soon came calling – and who can blame the likes of Brian Bolland, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison for responding?
A British mini-invasion of US comics followed, with the smart storytelling and gritty anything-goes sensibility of former 2000 AD artists transforming DC and Marvel’s output forever. But as 2000 AD helped launch the careers of Britain’s finest comic book storytellers, the publication itself struggled to fill the hole left behind when the exodus began in the 1990s.
Future Shock doesn’t try to gloss over this difficult period, and even Dave Bishop, the editor who was steering the ship through those stormy waters, is candid about what went wrong. Attempts to set up a production company dedicated to flogging 2000 AD characters to Hollywood failed to catch fire, while a crass attempt to make the comic appeal to the “New Lad” generation who were buying Loaded magazine led to one of the most toe-curlingly ill-advised advertising campaigns this writer’s ever laid eyes on.
Nevertheless, 2000 AD survived those dark times, and it’s pleasing to see Future Shock explore just what a great, largely unacknowledged influence the comic has been on TV and film. Danny Cannon’s 1995 Judge Dredd film may have flopped, but then, RoboCop had already plundered the pages of 2000 AD for some of its best ideas. Alex Garland, who would later go on to write and produce the 2012 Dredd film that comics fans deserved, states that 2000 AD has informed just about everything he’s ever written.
Simply made though it is, amounting to little more than a procession of talking heads and nicely-produced animated interludes, Future Shock is nevertheless an informative and highly entertaining oral history of a perennially wayward British comic. If there’s disappointment to be found, it’s in the surprising lack of extras; given the wealth of interviews, the lack of outtakes and additional insights from the film’s contributors would have been a more than welcome addition. A PDF which collects together some prime cuts from early 2000 AD comics – including Stontium Dog and Alan Moore’s sadly unfinished The Story Of Halo Jones – is a nice touch, but looks a bit lonely on a disc otherwise bereft of more material.
Still, it’s difficult to fault the value of the main event. Here’s a final sample quote from Kevin O’Neill:
“Eagle didn’t last half as long, and it’s much more respected. And it’s a fucking terrible comic.”
With that kind of candour, how could any 2000 AD fan resist?
Future Shock! The Story Of 2000 AD is out on DVD now in the UK.