Monday, March 9, 2015

No. 1 John Wagner

First Prog: (as scripter, on two separate stories!) Prog 9; 
(as character co-creator) Prog 2
Last Prog: may the day never come!

First Meg: 1
Last Meg: not bloody likely

Total appearances: 2573 and counting
-Since there haven’t even been 2000 Progs yet, this seems an impossible number. It’s explained away in that Wagner has contributed (and sometimes still does today!) multiple stories to each Prog (I’ve counted these twice on purpose), and not forgetting stories in the majority of issues of the Megazine (again, sometimes more than one per issue), each issue of StarLord, nearly every Annual and plenty of specials, too…

…but this magnificent number doesn’t even include the 287 scripts he wrote for the rather delicious Daily Star Judge Dredd comic strip.
- Or the 6 scripts he wrote for the American comics version of Judge Dredd
- Or the many, many, stories he has written for publications such as Eagle, Toxic!, Scream, Battle/Action and so on.

John Wagner, in disguise as John Howard, bashes out script after script.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
2000 AD series creator / co-creator credits:
Judge Dredd, Shako!, Strontium Dog, Robo-Hunter, Ace Trucking Co, Helltrekkers, The Mean Team, Chopper, the Mean Machine, Button Man, I was a Teenage Tax Consultant, Judge Death, The Balls Brothers, Banzai Battalion
(not to mention: Darkie’s Mob, The Bogie Man, Bob the Galactic Bum, with origins elsewhere, but reprinted in the Megazine, which episodes I did include in the count)

Other 2000 AD story credits:
MACH 1, various Future Shock style one-offs

Notable character creations:
See above – it would take all day to list the many weird and wonderful characters Wagner has created for recurring use (e.g. PJ Maybe; Frinton and Clacton Fuzz), and all week to list the inordinate number he has tossed off for use in Dredd one-off stories alone (perhaps the ultimate example being the wonderfully-named and wickedly executed Rinus Limpopop Quintz). The man puts almost every other comics creator to shame with his near-continuous output of genuinely engaging characters for the most incidental of uses. With, I re-iterate, supremely well-chosen names.* 

Art by Cam Kennedy

Notable characteristics:
Black comedy; satire; hard men; tight plotting; well-choreographed action scenes; stories based around outrageously stupid people doing wonderfully stupid things. TV commentators as hilarious narrators. 

Art by Ian Gibson
Writing entire epsiodes in somng/rhyme form - others do it, too, but Wagner seems to have a special affinity for it. He’s also celebrated for his very terse panel descriptions that many artists have found freeing, allowing them to go crazy with their depictions of, say, Judge Dredd, his bike, his gun, and the city he lives in. Oh, and he’s perhaps the undisputed master of writing long, long stories that remain exciting as individual episodes as well as being coherent and dramatic over a long chunk – a lost art in comics, I feel.

Wagner writes the best class of idiots.
Art by Steve Brown

On John:
All around, JohnWagner has been a busy man. In a large number of Progs he has written multiple stories. And the longest stretch between Wagner-penned stories is a mere 96 Progs, from the end of Button Man in Prog 791 to the start of Judge Dredd: Conspiracy of Silence in Prog 889. Of course, during that time he was hardly idle, writing monthly Dredd scripts for the Megazine, a modest comedy hit with Al’s Baby, and the absolute classic Return of the Taxidermist.

Indeed, it’s only in recent times that readers who enjoy both 2000 AD and the Megazine have had to suffer the occasional lack of Wagner for weeks or months at a stretch. Years, never.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that by any set of criteria, John Wagner is the man.

He will forever be celebrated for Judge Dredd, a character he was, we’re told, inspired to create by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. To my mind, his second-most beloved creation - Strontium Dog - owes a certain debt to Mr Eastwood as well, from his westerns. Indeed, it seems to me that one way into the work of Wagner is through action cinema of the 1970s.

As seen in many thrillers from this decade, Wagner’s men are stoic, generally competent without being superhuman, and handy in a fight. They aren’t prone to whining like so many superheroes, they’re not over the top with quips and muscles like the 80s action stars, and while Wagner’s hard men are not averse to the idea of a romantic liaison, they don’t really care if they’re in a relationship or not. 

Stone cold antiheroes
Art by Arthur Ranson
Wagner’s stories have characters and a plot, and no mucking about with being pretentious. But that’s not to say there’s no substance! Again, as found in 70s cinema (both the high-end productions and the delights of genre and exploitation films), lurking inside most Wagner scripts there’s a layer of social commentary that you can ignore if you want, but it’s there for you to enjoy as well. A very tricky thing that, to fit commentary in without making it preachy, or, even worse, so obvious as to become text rather than subtext.

And who needs subtext when you can have straight up satirical text?
This piece from 1979 predicts today's current state of talent-show telly, which has of course been around for aaaages.
Art by Ron Smith

But he isn’t just a man of action. Wagner is one of the only 2000 AD writers to score hit after hit with his comedies. 2000 AD is full of humour, but Tharg only occasionally commissions explicitly funny strips. This is probably because they’re often miserably bad, as seen in, say, Captain Klep or the Space Girls. But Wagner pulled out RoboHunter, Ace Trucking Co**, Young Death and Al’s Baby, just to name the most overtly funny ones. Let’s not forget, in both the foreground and background of many Dredd tales there’s a thick seam of sarcasm, send-up, slapstick and delightfully pithy one-liners.

Art by Ian Gibson

Of course, Wagner also suffered the fate of being too clever for his own good with Teen Tax Consultant - a lovely comedic idea with nowhere to go plotwise; and the Balls Brothers – a superhero satire so scathing that it left no room for readers to get behind the characters***.

Teen tax consultant has its moments, for sure.
Art by Ian Gibson
It’s not all laughs. While it’s ludicrous to compare comedy strips to straight strips and argue about which is ‘better’, some would say that Wagner’s very best 2000 AD output is his serious drama, for example Portrait of a Mutant, America, the Button Man series and Song of the Surfer**** Of course, in every one of these tales Wagner cannot resist dropping in generous dollops of wry humour amongst the pathos.

Ms Beeny remembers an assault.
Art by Colin MacNeil

It’s important to note that Wagner the writer is much loved for his collaborations, especially with one Alan Grant (who will feature in the count-up really rather soon!), but also, in his pre-2000AD days, with Pat Mills. Could anyone imagine a more delicious trio of candid conversation, fertile imaginations and work ethic in a room together?

The Wagner/Grant writing team is the stuff of legend, mostly of course for the quality of stories they wrote, but also for the sheer volume of output. Prog 476 is especially notable for featuring 5 separate stories written by the pair! (At least, I assume they’re all joint efforts. A small part of me wonders if Bad City Blue was Alan Grant on his own, but I don’t think so). The only thing keeping it from being the Wagner/Grant show were the back pages, featuring the loveable lunacy of Sooner or Later. (And in fact those five strips ran for quite a while either side of Prog 476, too, but with fewer pages and a future shock or two for authorial variety.)

I don’t know about you, but I find it near impossible to tell the difference between a Wagner solo script and a Wagner collaboration. A sure sign that the collaboration is working well, especially given how outspoken both Mills and Grant come across in interviews! I suppose that Shako! (the only Wagner/Mills collaboration for the House of Tharg) displays a certain crazed over-the-top quality that smacks of Mills’s involvement, while many classic-era Dredds and Strontium Dogs are laced with that bit of extra humour which I associate, perhaps wrongly, with Grant. The point is, Wagner works as well in company as he does flying solo. Likely this means he’s a decent chap, which isn’t relevant, but never hurts when appreciating an artist’s work.

It’s a sure bet that without John Wagner’s input, 2000 AD would not have survived to the end of the 80s and very probably the 90s, too. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that whenever he’s in the Prog in the 2010s, there a subtle but noticeable sales spike, too…

John Wagner, we salute you.

My personal favourites:
Strontium Dog: Bad Boys Bust; The Kreeler Conspiracy
RoboHunter: Verdus; The Filby Case
The Mean Team
Ace Trucking Co: the Doppelgarp
The Dead Man
Button Man 1 and 2
Return of the Taxidermist
Judge Dredd: Judge Death; Blobs; The Magnificent Obsession; It pays to be Mental; Oz; PJ Maybe, Age 13; Curse of the Spider-Woman; Young Giant; Necropolis; Hottie House siege; Total War; Ratfink (gosh, listing favourite Wagner-penned Dredd stories is the sort of challenge that could take up pages and pages of text, isn’t it!)
Banzai Battalion: Robot Wars

Art by Henry Flint

*If there’s one thing today’s excellent crop of Dredd-writers haven’t quite got the knack of, it’s choosing just the right name for Mega City 1’s blocks (Or maybe it’s just that because I’m of a younger generation, I often didn’t/don’t catch Wagner’s references, so they feel subtler than those of my contemporaries)

**OK, I understand that a vocal minority doesn’t find Ace Trucking to be that funny. But lots of people must have done, because the creators tried to kill the series twice and still brought it back owing to reader demand! I loved it then and love it still.

***Well, I didn’t much like it anyway, but that may well be because I actually like superhero comics? Kev Walker’s art was great, mind.

****At the time it was first published, anyway. The bloom seems to have come off that rose in the last 20 years. Still good, still liked, but not, I suspect, showing up in ‘best ever’ lists. [I like to imagine there are small armies of 2000AD fans who dream up such lists on a semi-regular basis. Sniff. I’m so alone.]


  1. What a fantastic idea for a Blog. Well done sir and long may it continue!

  2. There is, technically, a finite number of entries that can follow the theme, but it'll take a good 2 years, minimum, to get there!

    Thanks for the kind words, too.

  3. Arh but then you have to go back an up date all the info. It'll never end!

  4. That link to Prog 476 is missing the bit which narrows it down to the Prog:

  5. Smashing blog sir! Hats off to you!

  6. Thanks Sheridan, should be fixed now!