40 years ago this week, any little boys whose sole highlight of being dragged to the shops by their mother was to scan the shelves in the newsagents and see which comic caught the eye were greeted by a new arrival. Although I enjoyed the ‘funnies’ produced by both DC Thompson and IPC, my preferred choice was usually the superhero weeklies that emanated from Marvel’s UK division – monochrome reprints of the company’s US classics, albeit with strikingly colourful cover illustrations accompanying a mouth-watering range of titles. No home-grown comic could compete with the Marvel Universe when it came to imaginary escapism – until February 1977, that is, when a new IPC publication created its own universe of spectacular heroes and villains, one set in a distant future that wouldn’t be the present for another 23 years.
There had never been a British comic quite like ‘2000AD’. The nearest to date had been ‘Action’, a title that had hit the headlines a year or so previously due to its excessive violence; in a pre-‘Video Nasty’ era, when children’s reading material was regularly held up as the inspiration for delinquency and vandalism, ‘Action’ was met with such widespread adult condemnation that IPC were forced to cancel the comic for several months until resurrecting it in a diluted fashion; it didn’t last long after that.
However, many of the artists and writers who had their fingers burned on ‘Action’ reunited at the beginning of 1977, having come up with the canny ruse of replicating the excitement of ‘Action’ in a futuristic context, figuring no grown-up would notice if the same rhetoric was cloaked in the unreality of a sci-fi landscape. Ironically, appearing on the newsstands just a couple of months after Bill Grundy’s summit meeting with The Sex Pistols, ‘2000AD’ may have been looking far ahead, but it was very much a product of its times.
The front cover of issue No.1 was partially obscured by the obligatory free gift (a futuristic Frisbee taped to it), but concessions to past, present and future were present: one was a new-look Dan Dare, the comic hero of my father’s childhood; another was M.A.C.H. 1, a bionic hero shamelessly ripping off ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’; and hidden behind the free gift was Tharg, the alien editor of the comic. I had no idea this intriguing newcomer was arriving; it seemed to drop from the stars out of nowhere. I managed to persuade my mum to part with the princely sum of 8p and I was transported to another planet.
Along with the two strips already mentioned, there was the gory ‘Flesh’, in which a future food shortage saw time-travel utilised to farm dinosaurs for human consumption; there was ‘Harlem Heroes’, following the fortunes of a team playing a violent sport clearly based on the movie, ‘Rollerball’; and there was also ‘Invasion’, set two years before the date of the comic’s title and dealing with a Soviet-style nation invading the UK; I remember one panel in particular showing an aged Prince Charles (complete with moustache) fleeing the country and addressed as Your Majesty. The writers obviously couldn’t envisage a Queen poised to celebrate her Silver Jubilee would still be on the throne at the end of the twentieth century, let alone into the twenty-first.
The character associated with ‘2000AD’ more than any other didn’t appear until the second issue, and this was when the comic really set itself apart from the competition. Judge Dredd may have taken his name from a comedy British reggae act (albeit spelt differently), but he was unlike any other UK comic hero there’d ever been. He was cop, judge, jury and executioner embodied in a sadistic hybrid of Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s character from ‘Death Wish’, fighting crime in the dystopian American metropolis of Mega City One.
With an unseen face permanently shielded by the distinctive helmet that was crucial to the uniform of this militaristic cop, Dredd was a classic anti-hero that was new to British readers. As with the other strips in the comic, the artwork was superb, the nearest Brits had come to the great Marvel artists, manufacturing a nightmarish vision of what was to come that nevertheless reflected contemporary concerns about the western world’s urban jungles.
‘2000AD’ appeared just a few months before ‘Star Wars’ hit UK cinema screens, but even though it capitalised on the sci-fi craze of the late 70s, the content of the comic owed more to the adult sci-fi movies of the early 70s in that it was less concerned with far-off worlds and more focused on the world we already knew, maximising present day fears and turning them up to eleven. By the beginning of the 80s, its influence stretched way beyond these shores, attracting attention across the pond. Marvel and DC, beginning to look a little jaded by comparison, started poaching the talented team of writers and artists working on ‘2000AD’ and hired them to revitalise their own universes.
The likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman received early breaks on ‘2000AD’, but rather than simply succumbing to the easy dollar of the superhero comic, they served to transform the medium by helping create the graphic novel. This new grown-up incarnation of the comic book had its roots in the early pioneering days of ‘2000AD’; in fact, the sprawling 1978 Judge Dredd epic, ‘The Cursed Earth’ (originally spanning 25 issues), laid the foundations for the modern graphic novel in its ambitious narrative scale. British comics would never be the same again.
‘2000AD’ marked a turning point in this country, whereby comics ceased to be aimed solely at a prepubescent readership and began to be appreciated as an art-form appealing to all ages. However, one could argue a major casualty of this change has been the prepubescent readership itself; just compare the dazzling variety of graphic novels on sale in bookshops to the paucity of children’s comics available at your local newsagent. The graphic novel is where the money’s at for aspiring comic artists and writers; the rich British tradition of the essential, not to say affordable, weekly is essentially over. Perhaps ‘2000AD’ was its last hurrah, both rejuvenating and killing it. In some respects, the publication’s now rather anachronistic title seemed to predict an end rather than a beginning.
© The Editor