Thursday, April 9, 2015

No. 10 Alan McKenzie

First Prog: (as sub-editor): Prog 515 (as editor): Prog 873
(as writer): 517
Final Prog: (as editor) 914
(as writer): 992

Total appearances: (combined total) 682
(as writer): 238

Writer/co-creator credits:
Universal Soldier; Bradley; The Journal of Luke Kirby; Moon Runners; Brigand Doom; Soul Gun Warrior; R.A.M. Raiders

Other writing credits:
Kelly’s Eye – a sort of redo of an old UK comics character that I know nothing about. I’m inclined to assume that McKenzie’s version had little in common with the original, although the one series that ran was noteworthy for being retro in tone, a kind of action noir type job. Rather fun, on the whole.
Mean Arena – the 90s revamp with absolutely no connection to the original, and perhaps all the better for that. It suffered a little from having the main character be an ordinary man surrounded by more interesting weirdos.
A handful of Judge Dredd tales (all, apparently, co-written with John Tomlinson)
Chopper – that one story with Supersurf 13 that basically no one remembers. Including me.
An episode each of Armoured Gideon and Maniac 5.
His fair share of one-off twist-y tales. Reliably decent, at that.

Notable character creations:
Bradley and Milton (With bonus points for the reference to the popular children’s games company of the 1980s)
Brigand Doom and Investigator 9
Luke Kirby
Pretty much the whole cast of Moon Runners were rather well-realized (bearing in mind the importance of Massimo Belardinelli’s input on the design, and co-writing duty from Steve Parkhouse).

Notable writing characteristics:
Having all his pieces in place from the get-go. Throwing a ‘normal’ person into very abnormal circumstances. Not taking anything too seriously.

On Alan:
McKenzie joined 2000 AD as assistant editor just in time for the revamp of the comic with Prog 520, which saw a) a move from IPC to Robert Maxwell’s ‘Fleetway Editions’ and b) from printing the comic on old-school newsprint to somewhat smarter paper. 

Art by John Higgins
It's hard to see, but the jump in paper quality
with this Prog was a significant thing at the time.

These two moves pretty much coincided with the death of weekly comics as a mass-market pocket-money treat for children, and a regular presence in British newsagents, towards their current status as niche, not always easy-to-find periodicals affordable only to adults. This was, of course, nothing to do with Alan McKenzie.

However, I think it is fair to include him as a part of the movement, beginning in the mid 1980s, that saw the media come to define comics in the 1980s as ‘not just for kids any more’. Both as writer and editor, I think, he helped push the comic towards more sophisticated storytelling and much more experimental art content.

McKenzie contributed in significant but different ways both as an editor and as a writer. Let’s look at each in turn…

On Alan the editor:
Let me state here that I have never met Alan McKenzie and don’t know anything about him beyond what he has written for Tharg (and indeed as Tharg), and what he has put up on his website, and I have no grudge against him. Got that? So, let’s go ahead and get the elephant out of the room...

I get the distinct impression that a lot of folk in the world of 2000AD, not least a number of actual working comics professionals, don’t like Alan McKenzie. Why? Probably the biggest reason is that he, as assistant editor, and later as editor, commissioned (and paid) himself to write scripts, (and the occasional text piece), for 2000AD. [Strongly related to this is the fact the McKenzie still holds the copyright (maybe) on many of those pieces of work. It's not entirely clear to me why he does but other writers of the era don't. This is something of a legal mess that I don't know anything about, and probably shouldn't have brought up in the first place...]

Art by John Ridgway

Other reasons include the suggestion that he wasn’t very good at the editing part of the job - although this charge has perhaps been levelled more explicitly at Alan’s senior, Richard Burton; more on him another time. There may be other reasons, too, I guess?

It’s worth pointing out that McKenzie was one of the very few 2000 AD contributors who refused to be interviewed by David Bishop for his epic history of all things Tharg, Thrill-Power Overload. This perhaps means a slightly skewed view of his tenure is now part of recorded history. McKenzie is, however, perfectly forthcoming about his version of events on his own website, so it’s not a completely one-sided argument.

Case for the defence 1:
It’s undeniably true that McKenzie contributed a lot of scripts during his time as both Tharg’s minion, and during a brief stint as Tharg himself (although there were, in the end, less than a year’s worth of Progs created under his sole charge). 
Only four all-new series joined the Prog line-up during McKenzie's brief session as Tharg-in-charge.
Without knowing how things worked in the editorial offices at that time, it could simply be that someone had to come up with the goods at the last minute, to fill a page or 5 in the weekly Prog, and there may not have been anywhere else reliable to turn to get a solid script in place.

I certainly don’t begrudge the idea that McKenzie, the editor, ended up feeling obliged to rewrite certain scripts (and likely not get paid for this) to get them up to a certain standard – I believe this emerges as ‘Sydney Falco’ writing some of the Friday stories originally penned by Michael Fleisher.

Second pseudonym ‘Sonny Steelgrave’ was McKenzie and fellow script droid John Tomlinson together writing Judge Dredd – arguably not terrifically well, but, in context, these tales are more true to Dredd than some other writers of the period. (I’ll not defend the Sugar Beat, which is too long and, intentionally or not, terrifyingly racist.) Again, given the need to keep Dredd goign and the lack of access to reliably good Dredd scripts at the time, maybe fair enough? Maybe.

I’d also say that, from Tharg’s point of view, McKenzie was a safe pair of hands as a writer. The bulk of his stories were pretty good, including the notoriously tough to write Future Shocks. Certainly McKenzie’s hit rate with new series, overall, was overwhelmingly positive (to my eyes). I don’t know if his story/series proposals got special treatment (I mean, obviously they’ll have got the special treatment of actually being read, before and above random newbie submissions), but maybe they just were better than other stories Tharg was being sent?

Art by Dave D'Antiquis

Case for the defence 2:
I was an avid 2000AD reader fan during McKenzie’s time as assistant editor. As such, I was one of, I assume many, readers who badly wanted to see more appearances of McKenzie’s creations, including especially Bradley and Luke Kirby, but also Universal Soldier and Brigand Doom. If the readers were demanding more from Alan the writer, I don’t think it’s cheating for Alan the deputy-editor to commission these scripts from himself.

Art by Simon Harrison
Comic stylings here are a pastiche of Rupert Bear.
A good one at that.
Case for the Prosecution:
(yes, lawyer-types, I know that in real trials prosecution goes first, defence second).

McKenzie was being paid, as editor, to fill the comic with top-end material. If that necessitated his own scripts, so be it. But it's not on to pay yourself for the scripts you need to fill your own comic. Is it?

Right, that’s the elephant dealt with. Now we can move on to the nice bits!

McKenzie the editor was a pretty major part of the comic at a time when it went from the glory days of boy’s action comics to the even glorier days of sophisticated adventure comics for all ages. This can’t all have been in spite of him, surely? I’d cite as evidence McKenzie’s very first series, Universal Soldier, which felt like a part of that new wave of just being a bit more grown up while still having a classic 2000 AD hook. (An equal amount of credit for this goes to artist Will Simpson, of course, whose style was a far cry from then-standard UK comics look.)

Art by Will Simpson
Indeed, while McKenzie probably wasn’t in a position to hand-pick Simpson for his strip, he had a pretty good go at getting some bold artists into the Prog. Ascribing credit for these things is very hard, but can we not thank McKenzie for his part in getting and keeping hold of young guns such as Simon Harrison, Dave D’Antiquis, Shaky Kane, Simon Coleby and Rian Hughes – as well as bringing in comics legend John Ridgway, and even the return of 2000 AD veteran Ron Smith, who’d not been a regular in the Prog for several years?

Art by Ron Smith
One more thing about McKenzie the editor – I’m inclined to blame/honour him for a change in style of 2000AD during the early 1990s. Was it not he, writing as ‘Roxilla’*, who filled the occasional page of the Prog with music reviews that generally championed dance music at a time when the UK was also embracing this relatively new genre? And is it not McKenzie’s own website that is all about the house music?

In the future, six yeard-olds will like House music. Just how old was Bradley meant to be, anyway?
Art by Simon Harrison

I wasn’t really listening to any music at the time so it all went over my head (and frankly dance music is well out of my comfort zone still), but I noticed the general rave-based drift in the Prog, certainly different to what had gone before. Compare, for example, the then-look of Tharg himself (the Brett Ewins version), with his floppy Mohawk, pointy shades and such, to the previous Ezquerra version. A clear tonal shift. See also the dayglo colours used to advertise the Prog.

I’d always assumed 2000AD’s natural music home was metal and punk – and to some extent it feels as if Tharg has returned to these roots since the move to Rebellion. Whether or not the Acid House experiment was a good thing for the comic is irrelevant – at least McKenzie was trying something out, and I’m all in favour of kicking things up every now and then!**

On Alan the writer:
David Bishop’s rough assessment of McKenzie’s writing talents (see Thrill Power Overload again) was that he was great at dreaming up new characters and stories that fit the 2000AD mould, but not always so great at plotting and scripting actual adventures. I can get behind this assessment, but I’m inclined to be more impressed by the talent needed to dream up working comics characters.

The ideal of British weekly comics always used to be: come up with characters and settings that suit endless one-off tales, occasional longer adventures, and, ultimately, a sense of continuity that never requires readers to have read every episode in order to stay abreast. Stalwarts would include Strontium Dog, Slaine and Sinister Dexter (just to pick some examples beginning with S). I think McKenzie managed this brief really rather well. Universal Soldier, as a character, is as versatile as Rogue Trooper, and potentially makes better use of the ‘evil, faceless corporation’ as villain than Friday-Rogue did to give the series overall some continuity.

Luke Kirby worked beautifully as a series of individual stories, of varying lengths, that formed a whole narrative without needing the reader to remember what had gone before. Definitely his best-loved serial, and containing some of the 2000 AD’s finest emotionally resonant moments. When Luke gets his revenge on a bunch of bullies, and feels simultaneously exhilarated and disgusted with himself, it’s powerful stuff. Much credit, of course, to artist John Ridgway - but Steve Parkhouse on the last couple of serials did a sterling job, too. (That McKenzie irked Ridgway by subbing out those episodes is perhaps less creditable.)

Art by John Ridgway
Luke Kirby was an exceptionally well-formed character,
right down to his hairstyle and facial expressions

Art by Steve Parkhouse
Who really pulled out some lovely work on the series, too.
Moon Runners was, surely, intended to be an ongoing story about space merchants and space pirates. I’m not sure if it was art droid Belardinelli’s ill-health or just lack of reader interest that cut it short after only two outings. It suffered from an opening story that was too long, too convoluted and perhaps too clich├ęd, but this series could have been a go-er had it had more outings, I think. (On the other hand, Zippy Couriers explored similar themes and was more original, so perhaps it’s for the best that Moon Runners retired when it did.)

Art by Massimo Belardinelli

Brigand Doom is probably the closest McKenzie came to a pure formula strip. Each story involved: something corrupt in ‘the City’ being exposed. Brigand Doom meting out some form of ironic punishment. Investigator 9 being taunted by the Brigand. Investigator 9 almost, but not quite, working out who the Brigand is, and learning just how corrupt the City really is, and coming to sympathise with her nemesis a little bit more. Simple, effective, even elegant stuff, and massively elevated by a perfectly-matched artist in Dave D’Antiquis.

Art by Dave D'Antiquis
Meet Investigator 9
Art by Dave D'Antiquis
Brigand Doom was all about bringing poetic justice to the sinful.

There’s perhaps a sense that the more involved he became with the editorial side, the less good his written output was. Bradley’s move into retelling fairy tales was a neat showcase for artist Simon Harrison, but lost the comedy joys of the original stories. Mean Arena is maligned unfairly for being, basically, a children’s comic surrounded by the adult feel of contemporary strips by Grant Morrison and John Smith. Tharg was, I think, caught at the time without knowing whether to aim at 11 year-olds or 21 year-olds. (Modern wisdom would certainly suggest that Tharg shouldn’t try to aim at anyone, only at telling good stories). Nonetheless, Mean Arena, despite not doing much wrong, didn’t have much to say either.  

Art by Anthony Williams

Soul Gun Warrior went completely the other way – less easy to read, but more fun to dwell upon. A noble failure? I had fun with it.
Art by Shaky Kane aka Shaky 2000

By the time McKenzie had moved up to full editor, and then stepped down again, he was back to basics with RAM Raiders. A computer / electroincs expert and the ghost of his dead girlfriend solve computer/ghost based mysteries. Another child-friendly idea, an I'd say better in execution than the synopsis implies, although it's lesser McKenzie overall. The characters sparked well enough off each other, and the in-story mechanics were easier to follow than the likes of WireHeads. (Aah, WireHeads. You tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end you were a mess.)

And then, somewhat abruptly, he was gone, never to have a story printed by Tharg again.
Whatever the legal reality of Alan McKenzie’s story ownership, it sure is frustrating that his best works remain unreprinted.***
Art by Dave D'Antiquis

Personal Favourites:
Universal Soldier: books I and II
Bradley (the first 5 one-off stories)
Summer Magic (McKenzie’s single best story);
Luke Kirby in the Summer/Winter Specials
Brigand Doom (especially the first couple of stories, but generally all of it)
Soul Gun Warrior (the inherent fun of the idea outweighs some glitches in the actual execution)

More on Alan McKenzie
The best place to go is Alan's own website, which details his time working for 2000AD here
I'm not aware of any published interviews he's given about his time at 2000AD, but if anyone does, please chuck a link in the comments. And do remember that the aim of this Blog is to celebrate the good works of Tharg's droids - be courteous!

*For those interested, the woman posing as Roxilla in the photo was apparently editorial PA Cyb-Aud, aka Audrey Wong.

**I'd also like to put in here that Roxilla didn't come completely out of nowhere - John Brosnan's occasional film column ran from time to time first, and I always enjoyed the heck out of his knowledge of obscure B movies. And even this was pre-dated by D-Mil's movie round-up from days of extreme yore. 2000AD - more than just a comic!

***Actually, there is one. The first series of Universal Soldier is available in Tharg's Sci-Fi Thrillers.


  1. You're a very generous soul, Alex. Maybe McKenzie commissioned himself to write most of the stories in the comic because his scripts *were* just better than everyone else's ...

  2. I've got to be generous if this project is going to work I reckon.
    Wait 'til you see how I find nice things to say about BLAIR 1 and the Space Girls!