Tuesday, May 12, 2015

No. 17 David Bishop

First Prog: (as editor): 980
(as writer): 1032
Final Prog: (as editor): 1189
(as writer): 1370

First Meg: (as writer / deputy editor) 1.09 (or #9 if you prefer)
(as editor): 1.13
Final Meg: (as editor) 4.08 (aka #190, although he had a short break during that nonetheless epic run of 181 issues across a 12-year span)
(as writer): 252
- but he’s got such a long association with this magazine in particular, I’d not be surprised to see his name in the credits again one day.

Total appearances: (as editor and writer combined) 469
(as writer) 60

- the writer count does not include his novels, or various text pieces, but I am making an exception for his series of articles published in the Megazine that comprised Thrill-Power Overload, and also the subsequent history of the Megazine itself. Lots of people don’t read the articles, text stories and other bits, but I can’t believe anyone didn’t read, and indeed anticipate with excitement, those two treasures. Seriously, if you haven’t read Thrill-Power Overload but are finding anything of interest in this here blog, go and buy a copy now!

Art by Brian Bolland
Available in hardback or paperback.

Creator credits:
The Straightjacket Fits, Soul Sisters, Dead Men Walking, the Space Girls, BLAIR 1

Other writing credits:
Art by Steve Cook
Judge Dredd
A Life Less Ordinary
Fiends of the Eastern Front
Various one offs, most notably 3000AD, where BLAIR 1 debuted

Notable character creations:
BLAIR 1. Come on, he’s definitely notable. He was on the backdrop of ‘Have I got News for You’ for years and years, and the basic conception of the character was a neat idea – but it didn’t seem to have anywhere to go beyond a single episode.

Art by Simon Davis; Words by Alan Grant
Notable characteristics:
Not sure Bishop has generated enough written strip work for 2000AD to really get a sense of him having any general thematic concerns or proclivities. To some extent everything he’s done has had humour in it, even the overtly serious stuff. Probably it’s because I’ve read too much of his blog, but I get the impression Bishop is as much (more?) interested in the craft and mechanics of writing as he is in telling any particular story. This comes hand in hand with a certain tendency towards the meta – you know, commenting on story tropes, deliberately throwing in references to contemporary pop culture, that sort of thing.

I get a vague hint of an interest in Catch-22 type shenanigans from many of his stories, all the way back to Straightjacket. In Bishop’s world, the system isn’t necessarily evil, but it isn’t quite working…

As an editor, Bishop is notable (in my book) for really getting into things like readers surveys and lists that compile just how much work various contributors have completed. I’m a fan of that sort of thing, you’ll be shocked to learn. He’s also, I think, noteworthy for putting some effort into running engaging letter columns and giving straight answers. 

Yes, that's Bishop the editor printing and responding to some pre-internet era slagging off.

And, above all, for giving new creators a chance. I don’t know if Bishop actually was more generous in this than other editors, but its one lasting impression I had as a young reader in the 1990s.

On David:
When you think of Bishop, as a 2000 AD fan, you think of a few things. The highs and lows of the Judge Dredd Megazine volumes 2 and 3. The arrival, take-over and swift removal of the Men in Black in 2000AD. Those Prog covers that were trying to be like magazine covers. Overtly topical satire. Giving a space to new, untried, and, occasionally, not-quite-ready-yet artists and writers. Not necessarily the finest part of 2000AD’s history.

The Men in Black took over from Tharg, once upon a time. Logo design and photo by Steve Cook.
Somewhat unfairly, I get the impression that what people don’t immediately associate with Bishop, but should, are the overtly positive things such as: bringing the contents of 2000 AD back on track; giving space to epic stories that need the room to breathe; bringing back the joy of seeing regular recurring characters week in and week out (Slaine, Sinister Dexter, Judge Anderson, and Nikolai Dante were, at various points, given outings month after month after month, not just every now and then.) And, yes, giving space to new, untried, and, occasionally, not-quite-ready-yet artists and writers who turned out to be really rather excellent, thank you very much.

As has become traditional with these editor posts, here’s a list of some of the fine word and inksmiths given time, space and presumably actual practical advice under the aegis of David Bishop. I’ll start by singling out some names that he seemed to really get behind across both the Megazine and 2000AD, even when a portion of the readership weren’t (initially at least) so keen: Simon Davis, Gordon Rennie, Siku, Robbie Morrison (I’m fully prepared to believe that Bishop had a strong hand in persuading Morrison to refine his Dante idea in various ways, giving it a strong launchpad that allowed an unusual thrill to blossom into a true epic). Less controversially, but no less thanks to Bishop for the initial hand-up: Trevor Hairsine, Jason Brashill, Jim Murray, Frank Quitely, Charlie Adlard, Charles Gillespie, Alex Ronald, Chris Standley, Paul Cornell, Jock, and, of course, Andy Diggle (who presumably took writing crit as well as editorial lessons from Bishop in the early days?)*

Bishop has not been shy of describing some of the working realities of his time in office. He has taken great pains to show that he fought as hard as he could against the edict that every piece of story/art paid for must be printed, in the fullness of time (resulting in delightful curios, such as slapping OTT dialogue and Siku paints over the old-skool pencil work of Kev Hopgood on the Harlem Heroes: Cyborg Death Trip). 

Pencil layouts by Kev Hopgood; Painted art by Siku
Dialogue by Michael Fleisher
Heavyily ironic overtones by Bishop/Tomlinson

He lobbied hard not to have anything to do with the much-despised Loaded magazine ad campaign (which I won’t link to for fear of dredging up old wounds). I’m not entirely clear on how much he had to do with the notorious Megazine ‘Femmes Fatales’ pin-ups pullout, mind. I suspect he thought it well-intentioned at the time…**

Even as it as happening, Bishop was very up front about the cold reality that the Megazine, for quite a while, was dangerously close to cancellation. He helped keep it afloat by cutting back to a single new strip each month (Wagner-scripted Judge Dredd, for the most part, and always good stuff. We’re getting to that era in the Case Files pretty soon actually), and filling out the rest with reprint material. Most famously, this kicked off with Preacher. At the time, I had no idea this story was in fact a reprint, (originally produced for Vertigo comics in the US). I just thought it was Ennis and Dillon doing a new story for Tharg, and a cracker of a story at that! I’d probably have cancelled my sub to the Megazine if it hadn’t been for Preacher, truth be told. So I’ve no qualms about crediting Bishop with the downfall but more importantly the resurgence of the Judge Dredd Megazine.***

He’s also put his hand up to say he was involved in the weird ‘2000AD films’ fiasco from the late 90s, which I gather put a fair few noses out of joint, and may be part of the reason why so few 2000 AD properties have made it to any sort of screen, big, small or even direct to video.

But let’s get back to the good stuff. 

A scattering of the series that ran in 2000AD under David Bishop's editorship.
Not all commissioned by him, mind, but he  takes a share of both credit and blame for them all!

What Bishop did for the Megazine, missing a bunch of series logos because they didn't and still don't exist.
I get the argument that logos get in the way of artwork, but a strip with no logo is a strip that will never build up a rabid fanbase, I contend.

What about Bishop’s own writing contributions? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag, and a bag with some rotten stuff in it. Opening gambit The Straitjacket Fits got off to a lousy start. This despite some lovely Roger Langridge art, and, to be fair, some decent character ideas (the bored robodoc, the human tree, and Adolf the overly sensitive tall dwarf grew on me by the end). The series became tolerable when it started parodying other comics, but it never quite tipped into actually being funny, and was certainly never actually about anything.

Art by Roger Langridge

The 'frame of reference' is to the Goon Show
(think Peter Sellers saying 'he's fallen in the wa-ter')
Yes, David, it is. And it never stopped.

The Soul Sisters is, I believe, widely acknowledged to be the worst strip ever to run in the Megazine. Again, despite Shaky Kane on art duty, a marmite artist but I’m firmly on the side of ‘love it’. Really, it isn’t funny or clever, despite a pair of writers to bounce potential lauighs off each other (Bishop co-wrote with Dave Stone). But you know, they tried to do something funny and different, just a shame it didn’t work.

The only way from here was up. And, in my opinion, this led to what can fairly be described as a series of noble failures. Film adaptation A Life Less Ordinary is an odd beast. It ended up running in the Prog after the film aired – a film that was expected to be a hit, but was widely deemed a miss.

In fact, it’s a glorious film. I’ll defend it to my dying day.

One of the best scenes from the film, ably and faithfully translated by Bishop and Yeowell

The comics version wasn’t so successful, mostly because a lot of the best bits of the film rely on music and Danny Boyle wizardry, and it’s hard to build on that in 45-page comic. The plot and characters (conceived by screenwriter John Hodge, of course, not comics scribe David Bishop) are deliberately clichéd, which again made Bishop and Yeowell’s job harder. But honestly, the adaptation is perfectly decent, and if the film had been better received, people wouldn’t be so down on it I don’t think. And who knows, we may have had more movie adaptations, for good or ill. A worthwhile experiment.

BLAIR 1 and the Space Girls are generally lumped in as a (failed) attempt to get 2000AD on the UK satire map. Again, I recognise I’m in a minority here, but I don’t have a problem with the desire to do that, or even with the basic idea behind the two series. Except that apart from ‘being satire’, they didn’t really have a driving hook to them. But they could’ve! From an editorial point of view, I applaud Bishop putting these strips on the roster, but they clearly needed a bit more thought before being passed over to the creative team to make proper stories out of them.

Art by Jason Brashill; Words by John Tomlinson
I re-read the 5-part series recently, and have to confess that it is godawful. Its sort of vaguely about an evil baron who created cloned pop icons who then turn against him.
It may in fact not have been possible to make it anything other than awful...
More by accident than design, 2000AD had, I think, found itself being proper trendy pretty much from its inception, but definitely by the mid-1980s, and into the early 90s. (you know, when comics ‘grew up’). It’s no slight on the editorial team if they ended up trying to chase that trendiness. Hell, it worked for the actual Tony Blair, so why couldn’t it have worked for 2000AD? The 3000AD supplement (bagged with Prog 1034), in which Bishop and old hand Steve MacManus repurposed Prog 1’s strips with a contemporary spin, was largely funny and clever, although perhaps it could have been funnier and cleverer.

Bill Savage by MacManus, Bishop and Henry Flint

New Flesh by MacManus, Bishop and Carl Critchlow

Hike Harlem Heroes (that's High-kee like Nike, because satire) by MacManus, Bishop and Jason Brashill

Maybe the difference is that much of the trendiness of 2000AD in the 80s was born of a certain level of genius/pretentiousness - the writing of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, and the art of Brendan McCarthy, Jamie Hewlett and Simon Bisley are all, still, a force to be reckoned with, although they remain defiantly idiosyncratic and were never intentionally populist.

Moving on, Bishop has but three one-off 5-page stories to his name (perhaps in pointed contrast to previous editor McKenzie, Bishop didn’t commission scripts off himself?). All are well-told and worthy of their place. Then finally, finally, after stepping down as editor, Bishop throws in his two best efforts, a brace of long form and essentially serious action pieces.

Dead Men Walking is a deliberately clichéd but also reasonably inventive SF prison-break tale. Artist Boo Cook makes it better than it might have been, but he’s building off Bishop’s ideas, and has a fun blind girl protagonist to work with. It’s no Harry Twenty, but it’s not Stalag 666 either.

A scene-setting caption from David Bishop

Art by Boo Cook
 Fiends of the Eastern front: Stalingrad is the real deal, wherein Bishop shows off his craftsmanship. He takes the original idea from Gerry Finley-Day and concocts a new story with new characters, mixed in with proper WW2 research and a clever use of Jewish characters/mythology. And yes, the Colin McNeil art doesn’t hurt! Good, solid war comic thrills ensue. More work-for-hire along these lines, please!

Art by Colin MacNeil

Thanks for all your hard work, David Bishop, and for keeping 2000 AD alive.

Personal favourites:
Dead Men Walking
Fiends of the Eastern Front: Stalingrad
Thrill-Power Overload

I’ve only read three prose novels based on 2000 AD properties. Two of these were by David Bishop – Judge Dredd: the Savage Amusement, and Nikolai Dante: the Strangelove Gambit. They were both pretty good books, and very good examples of the two characters in question. Thought I may as well give them a plug here!

More on David Bishop
Once again, I refer readers to Thrill-Power Overload. I haven't yet said how well written it is. I know Im a captive audience, but Bishop makes it compelling and easy to read, combing the need to run through basically every series that has seen print with anecdotes and interviews and a tiny amount of editorializing along the way. The bits where he has to interview himself are about as well handled as they could be. The fact that he couldn't secure interivews with a fw key people is outwieghed by the wealth of those who did choose to talk.

Bishop is also a prolific blogger.
See here (and scroll down a bit) to gain a window into a series of posts he did about 2000AD, specifically.
He features reasonably heavily, and is as candid as ever, in ‘Future Shock’ the excellent 2000AD documentary.

There's Tumblr video thingy here
And a short Q&A about 2000 AD on DowntheTubes

*It’s probably also necessary to mention the great creator purge of 1996, when Bishop took over as editor of 2000AD. I’m sure the disappearance of some stalwart creators from the Prog was coincidence (Shaky Kane, Simon Jacob, David Hine, Nigel Dobbyn, Tim Bollard, Rian Hughes), but some, such as Peter Hogan and Alan McKenzie, definitely weren’t…

**As a concept, this was rightly called out as hateful in the extreme. In reality, a handful of the artists involved managed to be at least tasteful (Ormston’s effort, for one) and downright hilarious (Quitely’s ‘Dredd in Bed’ for the back cover). Even the overtly ‘sexy’ ones were executed with a tongue in knowing cheek. Still, Bishop, for shame.

***Remembering that John Tomlinson was technically the editor for a few months just before the Preacher era kicked in, and noting that Andy Diggle helped guide the Meg back to 2000AD reprints and expanded the new content by the end of Volume 3).

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