Cast the spotlight of history on the greatest of Britain's comics and the cold light reveals their humble beginnings. We know, for instance, that the iconic Dan Dare and Eagle began life on Frank Hampson's kitchen table in Southport; that Dan became the hero of the fifties and ushered in the Silver Age of British comics is now a matter of record. With hindsight, we know that Pat Mills and John Wagner were destined for greater things but, 21-years ago, the creators of Judge Dredd, Slaine, the A.B.C. Warriors, Robo-Hunter and countless other top strips, were fresh out of D. C. Thomson's fiction department and beginning their comic careers hacking out 'Tomboy' and 'Jack Pott' humour strips for I.P.C. from a garden shed in Dundee.
In the early 1970s, with the traditional British boys' comics dying on their feet, Mills and Wagner were part of a renaissance that actually began in I.P.C.'s girls' titles Tammy and Sandie. 'Ella on Easy Street' and 'Back Stab Ballerina' ushered in a new realism in comics, the "soap opera element," as Mills calls it. Out of that was to come the new, realistic war comic Battle Picture Weekly, created by Mills and Wagner and launched in 1975.
In 1976 IPC Magazines launched a wild-child on the news-stands called Action. The winning formula was to take themes that were popular in film and television as a meter for kids' tastes and turn them into colourful, kinetic comic strips. Many saw Action as anti-authoritarian, vicious and dangerous, but it was lifeblood to its audience: against all the odds, the circulation began to rise as word spread about the comic with attitude.
Once the shape of Action had been moulded and an editor appointed, Mills was invited to create another new title, and was given unprecedented freedom by I.P.C.'s management. The idea for a science fiction comic came from Kelvin Gosnell, fresh out of the company's Competitions Department but destined to be 2000AD's first editor. Gosnell had read an article about SF movies being made in Hollywood. Films such as Rollerball and Logan's Run mixed futuristic adventure with violence in the style of Mills' new vision for comics, and with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the horizon, a science fiction comic was potentially a winner.
The idea evolved into the seminal 2000AD, a distillation of film and television hits and potential hits, processed by Mills and further distorted with a futuristic twist. If Action was the punk of I.P.C.'s comics, 2000AD was Death Race 2000, filled with gutsy, bloody stories that struck a nerve.
When Programme 1 of 2000AD welcomed us into the future on February 26, 1977, it didn't look much like The Galaxy's Greatest Comic of nowadays. Although Tharg, his Nerve Centre and his Betelgeusian catchphrases were present, Judge Dredd didn't arrive until Programme 2 (the familiar 'Prog' abbreviation didn't occur until May 21, Prog 13). Now, nineteen years on, 2000AD is entering a new millennium, but it still has echoes of those early issues: "If you have something and its foundations are strong and solid, you'll always return to those foundations," says Mills. "You'll go off occasionally on different tangents as you reflect the tastes of the times, but you always come back to the bedrock of the characters, the basic fabric. At times, 2000AD has been more rock orientated, more political, and has gone through phases of being very fan conscious - it was all the taste of the times.
"For example, now you've got 'Vector 13' which clearly reflects interest in The X-Files. We had the equivalent years back: we had 'Harlem Heroes' which reflected the interest at the time in things like Rollerball and Death Race 2000."
"I think of 'Vector 13' as a combination of The X-Files and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone," says group editor Steve MacManus. "The thing about 2000AD was that once it had ridden on the back of Star Wars, we second guessed Hollywood all the way and we had nothing to rip off because we'd got there first. The Japanese have a saying: 'If it's good, how can we make it better?' I'm sure that's the philosophy that Pat applied to, say, The Six Million Dollar Man in M.A.C.H. 1 and he did make it so much better. 'Man Activated by Compu-puncture Hyperpower' - what a great concept! - which, without the Six Million Dollar Man, Pat maybe wouldn't have bothered to look at [the idea of] an indestructible man.
MacManus, a sub-editor on Action, joined 2000AD a year and a half into its existence from Starlord, and still retains every ounce of enthusiasm for his eighteen years on the title. "What was nice was that having joined on Prog 76, there was so much to look forward to: 'Robo-Hunter' appeared and 2000AD was being merged with Starlord. That's why I joined. You merge a comic and one of the two subs has to go."
Things have changed from the distant days when Tharg rocketed his comic out of King's Reach Towers. Or have they? "Next year is twenty years on and it's going to be a year of science fiction; that's a nice echo. On his noticeboard, David [Bishop]'s got a snap of an old Starlord cover of the Washington Monument being snapped in two by a UFO being chased by American pilots. The thing about science fiction is that its cyclical."
Things may be coming back to basics but 2000AD has matured over the years. "From a production point of view, you could say a lot of the things we had hoped to get in the early days, we've finally succeeded in getting," says Pat Mills. "Glossy covers, full colour in a lot of cases and I can tell you, its been a bloody long, hard slog and fight to get that. I think there is better continuity of artwork and arguably some of the stories have become more sophisticated. I think that's the standard answer, but I don't think that's entirely true. I think there are stories going back some years that would compete pretty well with today's stories. Things are a little more sophisticated than they have been, but the basic rules that applied then apply now."
"If you look at the first issues, it's predominantly filled with Spanish artists," says current editor David Bishop. "I don't think any artist got work from us in the first two years without coming through an agency; now, of course, agencies are very much in the minority. Most people come to us through the post or at conventions and that's how people break through these days. In terms of writers, frequently the best of the writers around twenty years ago are the best of the writers today, Wagner and Mills being the obvious ones from the first couple of years and Alan Grant, who came in on stream later. So, to a large extent I think the writing has definitely improved: in the early days, 2000AD was virtually written by committee.
"We do have a situation with 2000AD where we're about to go full circle. If you consider, in 1976 the reason 2000AD was launched, one of the deciding factors, was the Alexander Walker article in the Evening Standard about how all these science fiction movies were going to be the rage in 1977, with Star Wars and even the director of Jaws, Stephen Spielberg was going to do a movie about UFOs - which of course was Close Encounters. Now, twenty years later, you've got Independence Day in summer, Mars Attacks and a very long article in the Sunday Times recently about the wealth of science fiction; it's hip again for TV and film and all we're going to see over the next year is more SF, with millennium fever and all that. It feels like we've turned the clock back to 1976. Star Wars is on the horizon, the Sex Pistols are on tour...
"The only difference maybe is that in the Seventies, 2000AD was the new kid on the block," says Macmanus. "Twenty years on we're the old man on the block, but pumped full of rejuve drugs."
David Bishop neatly summarises 2000AD's place in the scheme of things when he casually remarks "Imagine if 2000AD never existed. I think you would struggle to name any British writer or artist over the past twenty years who didn't get their showcase on 2000AD. The exception would be Neil Gaiman, I think he wrote one and a half 'Future Shocks' for us and then cut straight to the chase, because he went into almost self publishing when he did Violent Cases, and Jamie Hewlett with Deadline... Not all these creators needed 2000AD because talent will out, but for the past twenty years, almost all the best writers and artists have sprung from the pages of 2000AD. So finding that talent, nurturing that talent and tearfully waving it goodbye as it crosses the pond has been 2000's role, to create the people who now sit around the bar at UKCAC. Without 2000AD, you could probably argue the case that there'd be no Vertigo. Without Vertigo, you wouldn't have Paradox and so many other things."
So what's coming up in Prog 1000?
"On the cover there will be Slaine painted by Jason Brashill," reveals Bishop. "Inside, we have a Slaine one-off story called 'The Bowels of Hell', by Pat Mills and Jim Murray. In the next issue that's succeeded by another multi-book Slaine epic called 'Treasures of Britain' which is by Pat Mills and Dermot Power, which I suspect will easily challenge 'The Horned God' for popularity. Also in Prog 1000 is 'Durham Red: Night of the Hunters', written by Alan Smithee and painted by Mark Harrison, and very saucy stuff it is too. Then we have a brand new character called 'Outlaw' written by Paul Neal, who cut his teeth in the Megazine and has moved over to 2000; the first episode is painted by Jason Brashill. It's a sci-fi, revenge western, blood-soaked saga. It's Commando, with more guns. But better. And of course, Judge Dredd. That's part 1 of a story featuring five Dark Judges, well there's five Dark Judges as the story progresses: who is the mystery fifth Dark Judge? That's by John Wagner and Greg Staples. Bagged with it is a free 60 page supplement, which will tell you all about 2000AD past, present and future.
"In the future, we're doing tie-ins with ID4 and The X-Files later on in the year, but our big event post 1000 is the 20th birthday in February next year and I think there's two fundamental issues which we have to resolve. One: Tharg. In Prog 1000, we'll put a ratings card in and we'll ask people, should Tharg die, leave, stay or live forever? I'd like to see the back of the green sucker myself but that's just my opinion. But we're giving readers the chance to save Tharg, while you still can. Either everyone will say 'Yes, get rid of him once and for all, we hate him!' or they'll say 'How dare you! He is the icon! Without him, 2000AD is just Bishop trying to seize control!'
"The other question we have to address is, What will 2000AD be called in the year 2000? Millennium Fever just keeps getting bigger but I wouldn't like in ten years time to be, in 2006, publishing something called 2000AD, because I don't think it's going to look very relevant any more. It would be a bit like publishing the Radio Times and calling it the Cave Drawing Times or The Mosaic Times. There are two ways of looking at it: either we advance the title by one year once a year, which gives us a copyright problem, or we cast it so far into the future that I don't think it will be my problem i.e. 3000AD, or 2500 or 2020, whatever, or we say no fuck it, 2000AD is worth too much good publicity to us. And if we change it, when do we change it? Do we change it sooner rather than later? Do we change it on 31st December 1999?"
"The future looks bright," insists Steve Macmanus. "What can I say? Comics as an artform may die but these characters will live on. Time was when we appeared on paper. Today it's the day of 'CD-Rom Dog: The half-hour TV show'.
"One way to mark a thousand issues is to count how many characters were created: in 2000AD's case it's over 180, and even if only 20% of those are decent that's still three dozen ready-made characters for a world screaming out for stuff to fill all their digital channels - and they've already been tested in front of hundreds of thousands of readers."
(* 2000AD is, of course, still going strong. A bumper 48-page Prog 1526 goes on sale on 28 February and marks the return of a couple of old favourites, including 'Flesh' (by Pat Mills & Ramon Sola) and 'Savage' (by Pat Mills & Charlie Adlard), plus Tharg will be retelling the history of the Galaxy's Greatest in 5 pages (drawn by former Nerve Centre droid Robin Smith).
Incidentally, a little bit of 2000AD will be passing into history soon when IPC move out of King's Reach Tower, better know to 2K fans as Tharg's spaceship! The end of an era...
2000AD and the image above are © Rebellion A/S.)