Monday, March 30, 2015

No. 7 Matt Smith & Simon 'Pye' Parr

First Prog: (Smith, as sub-editor): Somewhere during the early 1200s*;
in charge come Prog 1274
(Parr, as designer): 1289; promoted to head designer by 1406
Final Prog? As of 1931, Parr has quite as designer, although he may yet return on art duties...

First Meg:
(Smith, as editor): 241
(Parr, as designer): 4.11 - notionally issue 191 if one thinks of the Megazine as a continuous publication
Final Meg? As of 360, Parr has quit as designer. But as of 369, he's made his debut as a Megazine strip artist

(I suppose a last Prog and Meg must come at some point for Matt Smith, but I don't like to think about it.)

Art by Henry Flint
Total appearances: Parr is well over 800; Smith pushing 900 (with a certain amount of guesswork involved at getting exact figures, you understand. Parr has more Megs, and more internal credits; Smith has more Progs.)
It may or may not be a coincidence that the two people most responsible for making the Prog and Meg come to life each week/month happened to start work at around the same time. (One imagines the move from Egmont to Rebellion at around this time had something to do with it.) I’m sure there’s room for debate about who has put in more creative and/or physical labour, but few would deny that this duo has overseen a gloriously long stretch of greatness, a stretch that is going strong to this day.
Art by Henry Flint

Creator credits:
1. Matt Smith
Well, technically, none – but it’s for certain that Smith has commissioned series, strips and maybe even characters that other creator droids, who brought them to life, would not have come up with on their own. I hope he gets some kind of remuneration for this, along with the occasional warm glow of satisfaction. 
2. Pye Parr
Realm of the Damned - and Parr can count also the current incarnation of the Nerve Centre pages, and of course the Prog and Meg logos as his creation, and perhaps some earlier versions, too. And likely a bunch of strip logos, too? The sort of people who are into 2000AD enough to read blogs like this one love a good logo, don’t they?

A fistful of logos from the Smith/Parr era
Other credits:
(Smith) the Dredd movie prologue, featured in Meg 328
(Parr): various covers; Shaun of the Dead Poster Prog, a future shock, a bunch of lettering

On Matt & Pye**:
Maybe it’s Stan Lee’s fault for inspiring the cult of the writer/editor as king in the world of comics in the 1960s, or maybe it’s just that the job ‘designer’ hasn’t really come into common consciousness until the turn of the millennium, but if Tharg warped his way to Earth today, I reckon he’d style himself ‘Chief Creative Officer’ or somesuch term that allows him to take credit for both the words and the pictures.

But, as it was in 1977, Tharg described himself as an editor, and as such is linked to the editorial droid in charge of putting together the weekly Prog. But it was never that simple. The look of the Prog has always been essential to its enduring popularity. Even the mighty Pat Mills, creator (original editor and lead writer) of 2000AD, is quick and insistent to explain the vital contribution that IPC design bod Doug Church made to the initial wave of Thrill Power. And few readers who go back to the early Progs (and StarLords, for that matter) can fail to spot the key involvement of a young Kevin O’Neill tinkering away with the layout of those fiddly pages in between the strips, and those ever-pesky beasts, the front cover and the Nerve Centre.

Although it’s surely the stories within the pages of 2000AD that keep readers coming back, one could argue that the essence of those stories has not changed all that much in 40 years – while the style of the comic has had to adapt quite a bit to draw in new readers. Is it Tharg in his design droid iteration who carries more of the risk?

So much for the preamble, what about Messrs Smith and Parr themselves? I mean, what have they ever done for 2000AD?

Smith has, technically, a single strip writing credit (that counts towards this points tally): the Dredd movie prologue, featured in Meg 328. A solid outing that shows how well he understands Dredd – it was designed to tie-in with the movie version, and does so brilliantly, but also feels in keeping with the beloved comics iteration of Dredd.

Looking beyond Rebellion, he also wrote Dredd: Year One for IDW and is currently really getting into his groove on Judge Anderson. The man can write good comics, I’m telling you. (And that’s without mentioning his novels, which I’ve not read.)

Otherwise, well, you could and should give a little credit to Smith for every story to appear in the Prog in the last decade (and a bit more). He hasn’t given many interviews, and is carefully polite about hiding which creators/stories he has had to polish up to meet the high standards of the comic – but you can bet he’s done his share of tinkering. But those are the fine details. If there’s one thing Matt Smith should receive a whole deacde’s worth of praise for, it’s that under his whip:
a)      the Prog has not seen any of those mid-series hiatuses and hurtful delays that seemed to plague 2000AD in the late 80s and early 90s.
b)      he’s maintained an incredibly high hit rate of thrill power by cultivating long form storytelling over multiple series, using a dependable a mix of old characters, new characters, and occasional revamps of ancient characters – basically being all things to all readers and somehow making it work. All this adds up to fans consistently describing the last decade's-worth of Prog's being a new Golden Age for 2000 AD. Certainly the letters pages and online forums are full of lapsed readers picking up a newer Prog and rediscovering all that they loved about the Galaxy's Greatest comic. It's a good time to be a Squaxx dek Thargo.

It's hard to find relevant images for Smith's input, so instead I'm showing this, one of the finest Prog covers, and part of a storyline that clearly inspired a young Smith into a love of all things Dredd.

Art by Steve Dillon
He's even written his name on the side.

One of Smith's first commissions as editor: more Werewolf judges
Art by Trevor Hairsine

On the pure writing side, Smith has done his bit as an editor willing to contribute some free pages, including the odd Tharg adventure and, most recently, a strip for the Free Comic Book Day Prog, reintroducing one fo the better Dredd foes of recent times, Ratfink...

Smith steers wisely and efficiently clear of sexual overtones by inserting the word 'pantry'.
Good skills that editor!
Art by Joelle Jones
I don't want Smith to stop being Tharg, but at least there's the hope of solid writing should that black day come to pass.

Logo and cover art by Simon Parr
Parr has the edge in terms of credited creative contribution. He’s got 8 covers to his roster (including a one of my all-time faves on 1605, for, of all things, the space prison serial Stalag 666). He even has a writing credit as well as strip art credit, and, doubtless due to the dreaded deadline doom, a whole host of lettering credits. 

And now of course we have Realm of the Damned, a divisive but, for this reader, glorious gore-filled romp. Without having any knowledge of the death / black metal scene, I'd have thought the expected style for a strip like this would be painted, along the lines fo a Dave Kendall, Nick Percival or of course Simon Bisley.

Parr keeps it with a clean line, and perhaps a hint (only a hint, mind you) of the wood-cut feel from McMahon's Slaine days. I find it makes the gore more palatable, although it retains a serious tone that scripter Worley is surely aiming for. I mean, you can't take it seriously on one level, but then what if you could? What if there really were demon overlords with devoted human followers? It would look a bit like this, don't you think?

That's some serious face-ripping horror right there.
Words by Alec Worley

Pinpointing Parr’s general contributions ot the Prog/Meg is trickier. I suspect he was heavily involved (more than Smith?) in the sort of minor tweaking that makes the majority of covers so brilliant. And I imagine it was his job to do any, probably rare, but likely not that rare redrawing of bits of panels here and there to keep the storytelling on track.*** (Probably a whole lot less whiting out of blood that O’Neill had to do in the early days!)

But it’s the joint stuff that’s perhaps most rewarding of all. Most especially, new talent will need to impress both, and take direction from both. Here’s just a sample of people who’ve produced major works of Thrill-Power under the aegis of this Thargian duo:
Rob Williams; Si Spurrier; Boo Cook; Ian Edginton; Al Ewing; Leigh Gallagher; Jon Davis-Hunt; Lee Carter; Michael Carroll; Bob Byrne; Dom Reardon; Tiernan Trevellion; Edmund Bagwell; Karl Richardson; Ben Willsher; PJ Holden; Nick Dyer; Alec Worley…****

A list of names to be proud of, and an era of glory to cherish for 2000 AD fans.

And what about their work on the Judge Dredd Megazine?

Art and design by Simon Parr
Love that Dreddhead design!
Parr has now worked on 163 individual issues (so far!) of the Judge Dredd Megazine – more even than even David Bishop, which is saying something. Smith is barrelling towards that figure, too, although he’s a way behind Bishop. In their tenure, the Meg has continued its reliable mix of consistently high-quality Dredd stories, returning old characters, new series (including two of the best Meg series of all time, Insurrection and Lawless), creator interviews, text pieces, and, best of all, a fantastic training ground for new talent (Arthur Wyatt, Michael Carroll, TC Eglington, Jon Davis-Hunt have all benefited hugely; let’s not forget that Tales from the Black Museum began only under Smith’s tenure – I’m assuming it was his idea – and it functions superbly as a Future Shocks style breaking in opportunity for new droids, as well as being reliably fun).

I’m assuming it’s also Smith, in particular, who has control over the reprint section of the Meg. I’m not thinking of the bagged reprint booklet, which I suspect is someone’s else’s area to curate. I’m talking about those non-Rebellion commissioned strips that appear in the Meg. Or, as I like to think of it, the chance to read stories that I would never otherwise have heard about, let alone seek out. For me, this goes all the way back to Preacher, but I’m thinking more recently of Lilly McKenzie, Numbercruncher, Ordinary and Man from the Ministry – four of my favourite ever strips to run in the Megazine – that all feel naturally at home there whilst being, technically, created to run in other sources. If the promise from Smith of a berth in the Megazine was even partly responsible for motivating the creators involved to make those stories, that’s worth a big thank you.
Logo and cover art by Simon Parr

Finally, it would be very remiss not to spotlight the latest epic reprint series, Judge Dredd the Mega Collection. Smith has the incredibly envious but also very difficult task of deciding which Dredd stories, in which order, tell the story of Mega City 1. The sort of project where the inner fan takes over, but the outer editor has to have a firm hand to keep it accessible. Parr, meanwhile, is caning it on the cover deisgns. Lush on the inside, lush on the outside.

Art by Colin MacNeil, Carlos Ezquerra and Brian Bolland.
Design by Simon Parr

Let’s all say it together:

More on Smith & Parr
You can hear from the horseses mouths at:
Episode 2 of the Thrillcast
Episode 9 of the Inky Fingers podcast

Or read this interview from The Beat

*full disclosure – I applied for the same ‘editorial assistant’ job that Smith, and no doubt lots of other squaxxes, applied for back in the year 2000. Jealousy aside, I’m sure glad Tharg picked the right droid for that position!

**Given name ‘Simon’, but he appears to go by Pye. I assume he prefers it that way, too!

***I’m making some pretty gross assumptions here, and I apologise if I’m way off the mark. I’m assuming that Rebellion’s design team functions in largely the same way to the design dept. in my office (I work as an editor for a children’s publisher†, and yes, we produce the odd bit of comics, and yes, some panels always need redrawing).

****Yes, many of these people had worked for Tharg before the Smith/Parr era, or had made a name already in other comics. Certainly credit for giving them work in the first place may well properly belong with David ‘champion of new talent’ Bishop and Andy ‘shot-glass of rocket fuel’ Diggle. But I think Smith/Parr deserves the lion’s share of respect for giving these creators a chance to try and try again until masterpieces of story and art were, and continue to be, delivered.

*****News as of Prog 1931 and Meg 360 reveals that Pye Parr is leaving the fold. Farewell and thanks for all the logos, Pye.

† I promise to stop banging on about this. One day.

Friday, March 27, 2015

No. 6 Carlos Ezquerra

First Prog: 2 (I'm counting his panel of Dredd that opens that first story)
Final Prog: please, not too soon.
(Last seen on Judge Dredd in Prog 1909, with new Strontium Dog just around the corner.)
First Meg: 4
Final Meg: not seen since illustrating a text story in Meg 324, but there’s always room in the Megazine for Carlos, surely?

Total appearances: 1010 (and counting!)
-including covers and interior strip work in the Progs, Megs, StarLord, Crisis and various Annuals and Specials from that stable…

…but not counting the many stories he drew for Battle/Action that might be considered part of the 2000 AD stable.

Creator / co-creator credits:
Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Fiends of the Eastern Front, Third World War, Al’s Baby, Armageddon, Cursed Earth Koburn, Janus Psi, Durham Red

Gratuitous panel choice to draw in readers
Words by Alan Grant

Other 2000 AD story credits:
ABC Warriors, Tharg the Mighty, the Stainless Steel Rat, Anderson PSI Division, Purgatory, Bob the Galactic Bum, a couple of one-offs

Notable character creations:
What, besides Judge freakin’ Dredd?? Dredd’s bike and the basic look of Mega-City 1, check. Individual, distinguishable clones of Dredd, check. Many individual judges, including DeMarco, Guthrie and the current incarnation of Judge Giant, check (first seen in Prog 650, and still popping up with some frequency). 

Words by John Wagner.
Three generations of Dredd clones, all the same but all different.
And then there’s everything about Strontium Dog, including too many different mutant designs to count.
Worth singling out: Durham Red, Middenface McNulty, Judge Janus and Judge DeMarco – all of whom went on to have their own solo series. This is presumably based on the character’s popularity, and you can bet that this was massively enhanced by Ezquerra’s sterling design work.
And, yes, it’s worth dwelling on the above-mentioned Fiends and to a lesser extent Koburn (based very explicitly on his early Battle hero, Major Eazy, in turn derived from James Coburn’s character in the Magnificent Seven*), who have stuck in mind far longer than there actual presence in the Prog/Meg.

Notable characteristics:
Thick black outlines. Incredibly, and I do mean incredibly clear storytelling skills. 

Words by John Wagner
Gunplay by Carlos Ezquerra

Intricately realized weapons and vehicles that look as if they have working parts, not just random twiddles drawn on top. The ability to make characters distinguishable by their noses alone. A fearless and seemingly inexhaustible imagination that can conjure up delightfully weird looking mutants and aliens for throwaway usage. Tackling epic weekly runs without missing deadlines or suffering any drops in quality.

Words by Wagner & Grant

On Carlos:
Carlos’s rise to UK comics prominence began long before 2000AD, but for me the real heart of his career begins with a story of genius, pride and tenacity. First, the genius part: he designs Judge Dredd, who will go on to become the UK’s most enduring comics character, and I suspect its best known, internationally speaking**. Then, he suffers the frustration of seeing said creation drawn by a different artist in the first episode to see print. (Ezquerra’s own pilot episode was banned for being too violent / not futuristic enough, and didn’t see print until an Annual three years later). Being proud, he quits. Being tenacious, he decides to have another go. Not at Dredd (yet), but, ever the gifted creator, he goes on to come up with Strontium Dog for StarLord – a character and concept that will rival Dredd himself in popularity, if not in international recognition.

And speaking of tenacity, Ezquerra’s workrate is something of a wonder to behold. I suppose any professional artist is theoretically capable of working to order almost continuously, but the man was prodigious! Once he started on Strontium Dog in StarLord 1 (folding into Prog 86), he seemed to be in some Tharg publication or other almost continuously until, what, the last few years? And since then it’s been a case of getting at least two Ezquerra treats every year, many of those being good long 12-week runs. To a certain extent, this sustained association with the earliest decade of 2000 AD means Ezquerra’s art cannot help but have an old-fashioned quality to it, but it’s never less than delightful, and it’s sufficiently idiosyncratic that one imagines new readers who are unfamiliar with his style are wouldn’t dismiss it as ‘retro’.

Let’s do a run-through of the great man’s Thargian career, eh:
Words by John Wagner
  • Phase 1 (StarLord 1-22  + Progs 86-118): Strontium Dog. A run that sees Carlos develop and refine his version of Johnny Alpha, but really only a little bit. Visually and thematically, this strip was pretty much perfect from the outset. Journey into Hell provides an artistic peak, especially with some dramatic full-colour centre-spreads.
  • Phase 2 (Progs 129-177, with gaps): Bit of a break to dabble in different genres: an arc on ABCs, (and, to my mind, one of the few times the great man has not proven quite so great. Something about his thick lines seems to work against robot designs); war/horror with the Fiends; space opera romping with a couple of Stainless Steel Rats. A Tharg the Mighty here and there, cementing the new look and attitude of the green one (as a bad-tempered jumpsuited super powerful egomaniac) that will last for the next decade, as well as establishing (I think?) the look of his Nerve Centre droids.***
    Words by Kelvin Gosnell (with a debt to Harry Harrison, of course)
    And let's pause to appreciate Carlos's facility with drawing sexy ladies without veering into brokeback territory.
  • Phase 3 (Progs 178-233): An unbelievably strong run of Strontium Dog, including Portrait of a Mutant, one of the best origin stories in comics.
  • Phase 4: (Progs 245-334) Barnstorming return to his creation, Judge Dredd, beginning with the Apocalypse War, and then continuing on to a run of shorter but equally brilliant series (Fungus, anyone? The Starborn Thing? The Executioner? Classics every one. Meka-City, not so much…) 

Words by Wagner and Grant

Warping Judges. I love these pre-computer effects panels.
Words by Wagner & Grant
  • Phase 5 (Progs 335-573, with very short breaks): Back to Strontium Dog for an indecently extended run of punishingly long epics, including Outlaw! (23 episodes); The Ragnarok Job (21 episodes); Rage (21 episodes); Bitch! (25 episodes) - pausing only to dash off the final (and best, artistically) Stainless Steel Rat serial.

Words by Wagner and Grant

  • Phase 6 (Crisis 1-21): Third World War. Frankly this was always a bit of an odd fit. I mean, you can see why Mills wanted to get Ezquerra on board to set the tone for the comic and especially for the strip, which needed well-defined characters to take the edge off the scripts, filled as they were with overt messaging. But in the end, the overly political/moralizing nature of Third World War just didn’t gel with straight-up action storytelling. The strip almost demanded one of those pretentious, impenetrable hot young artists that rose to prominence in the early 90s (several of whom, in fact, did go on to continue the series). As things went, Ezquerra stopped after providing a couple of 6-issues runs. I’ve no idea why, but it allowed for…
  • Phase 7 (Progs 650-1110, with gaps): Back to Dredd, with the build up, execution and epilogues to Necropolis, another enormously long, unbroken run of weekly comics – this time in full colour! Ezquerra, I believe, started off using watercolour swatches that work wonders with the unsettling atmosphere of the Dark Judges, keeping them creepy. Soon enough, he’d dare to teach himself computerized colour methods that produced mixed results with the Wilderlands epic, before settling into a more straightforward look that saw readers through the Pit and Bad Frendz chapters of Dredd’s life.  
Words by John Wagner
But the palpable fear is all Carlos Ezquerra.

    Words by John Wagner
  • Phase 8 In between Dredd epics he produced Al’s Baby for the Megazine, part of the top-tier team needed to launch the new comic, and a showcase for Ezquerra’s excellent touch with comedy, and bashed out a respectably fun Durham Red series. This same talent for comedy helped to elevate a number of Dreddworld scripts produced by the likes of Ennis, Millar and Morrison during the same period. For the sake of saying something nice, to my mind Ezquerra was ideally suited to bringing out the OTT violence this new breed of writers all seem to love. Exhibit A:
Words by Grant Morrison
You gotta admire the way it goes right past unsubtle and into 'holy God, he's not even joking'.
It's also worth noting that Ezquerra produced a good run of comics in the US written by Garth Ennis, which continue the ultra-violence and comedy.

  • Phase 9: (Prog 1174-today): Periodic, and sometimes concurrent work on longer Dredd serials and new, Wagner-penned Strontium Dog tales, with a bit of Koburn along the way. If anything, the wait between serials just makes the art more glorious when it returns.
I’ve not covered absolutely everything the man has drawn or achieved, but by God if this little run-through isn’t enough to make you rummage through your collections for an eyeful then I haven’t done my job properly.

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: the Apocalypse War; Requiem for a heavyweight; Young Giant; Necropolis; Sector House; Brothers of the Blood
Strontium Dog: Journey into Hell; Outlaw!; The Rammy; Roadhouse
Fiends of the Eastern Front
The Stainless Steel rat for President
Judge Anderson: the Random Man 
Durham Red: Isle of the Damned
Al’s Baby: the art across all three series is hilarious.

Carlos Ezquerra, may you live a long and continually fruitful life. We salute you.

Words by John Wagner

If you want to hear from the man himself, check out episodes 3 and 4 of the 2000 AD Thrillcast.
To hear his thoughts on Strontium Dog, here's a neat interview from Dogbreath magazine.

*not to mention Coburn generally; a charismatic screen presence, to be sure, but not noted for his range.

**Reckon he took that crown from Dan Dare at some point around 20 years ago. Dennis the Menace would’a been a contender if it wasn’t for his irritating, unrelated, but similarly-monikered American counterpart, Dennis the Menace (sometimes known as Denis in the UK, to avoid confusion).

***Where Ezquerra had the chance to come up with the look of the robots himself, they work perfectly.

Monday, March 23, 2015

No. 5 Steve MacManus

First Prog: (as sub-editor): StarLord 1 / Prog 86
(as scripter): 14
Final Prog: (as managing editor) 1199
(as scripter): 1034

Total appearances: 1114
This requires a bit of unpacking, and, I’ll be honest, making a whole lot of assumptions about what, exactly, Tharg’s editorial minions actually do…

MacManus in his dorid incarnation, Mac-1. Robots with moustaches, man.
Art by Eric Bradbury

Writer/co-creator credits:
MacManus generated more than a few freelance scripts in his time (including a short stint on that notorious proto-2000AD comic, Action). On the whole he worked on existing properties, rather than creating and writing new ones (which makes sense, from an editorial perspective; more on this controversial theme in later entries, one imagines…)

I can’t be sure, but MacManus, credited as Ian Rogan, is, I think, the creator of MACH 0, 2000AD’s answer to the incredible Hulk. I’m a big fan of MACH 0 the character, from the pun of the name itself, to the delightfully brutal way the character was drawn and dialogued. WUUUURRGHHH!  

Art by Mike Dorey

I also suspect MacManus had a pretty strong hand in defining The VCs (for which he wrote some early scripts), and was certainly part of the brains trust that developed Rogue Trooper. (Not to take away, in either case, from the vital contributions of writer Gerry Finley-Day and then sub-editor Alan Grant.)

Art by Garry Leach

MacManus (again, credited as Rogan) wrote a heap of MACH 1 stories, too, especially the later run where the conspiracy stuff hots up. They were a shot in the arm after the basic formula of 6-page spy/action thrillers started to get stale. He’s also noteworthy for penning the one-off story Shok!, that was turned into the film Hardware. That story holds up beautifully (in large part thanks to Kevin O’Neill’s designs, it must be said).*

MacManus may or may not have written the occasional tales of Tharg the Mighty that used to appear every now and then back in the early years. These stories are hard to assess as pieces of work in their own right, outside of their original context - but as part of the flavour of 2000AD, they were great. I’m too young to have read them when they were first printed, but they were always a treat when stumbling across one in a back prog purchase, or in a Best of reprint. Other opinions are available.

On Steve:
Here are the details of MacManus’s service under Tharg:

Cover art by Ramon Sola

Stage 1:
MacManus moves from Battle to be a sub-editor on StarLord. You know, the bi-weekly comic that launched Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters. The comic sells well and is generally held to be ‘better’ than 2000AD of the same era (roughly speaking Progs 40-85). Nonetheless, StarLord is ‘matched and dispatched’ to join with its sister title.

Cover art by Dave Gibbons

Stage 2:
MacManus moves with the merger, and is installed as 2000AD’s editor from Progs 86 to 519 (the last of the newsprint progs). This is, of course, widely held to be 2000AD’s most resplendent Golden Age**, and likely includes the era when the weekly sales figures were at their highest***

Cover art by John Higgins

Stage 3:
From Progs 520-1180 MacManus becomes Managing Editor of ‘the 2000AD stable’. (aka the period between the Maxwell take-over and the Rebellion rescue). In particular he helps launch, and had a strong editorial hand in, Crisis (up to issue 50); Revolver (which only lasted 7 issues); Judge Dredd Megazine (he masterminded the development work, I beleive, and was the main editor up to issue 12). He was also involved with the running of 2000AD up until Prog 1199, and the Megazine up until issue 3.63 (after which point 2000AD moved to its current home, Rebellion, and MacManus went elsewhere). How much editorial input MacManus had on any given 2000AD Prog during this period of time I do not know. According to this informative Hibernia interview, he says he had a laissez-faire attitude; according to his interview with David Bishop for TPO he basically ceded full control of 2000AD itself to Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie. Those confessions aside, I doubt his contributions during this time equalled zero. I’m erring on the side of bigging up Steve MacManus – so I’ve totted up a heck of a lot of Progs in his name.

Cover art by Carlos Ezquerra

Cover art by Glenn Fabry

Leaving the Prog aside for the moment, let’s think about how important both Crisis and Judge Dredd theMegazine were at moving comics into a different realm. They may not have been as ground-breaking as the likes of Deadline, but they sure were trying something new, something bold, and, most especially, they really gave a chance for new writers and artists who wanted to make comics entirely for grown ups. I’m not saying this is better than making comics for children, but making children’s comics is hard, and not everyone can be a Wagner or Mills, with the talent to make stories child-friendly and sophisticated at the same time.

Even putting it on a simplistic level, Crisis and the Meg (at first), acted as a stepping stone for new creators who wanted to get work in the Prog (and in comics in general).

Now, some analysis:
Received wisdom (aka David Bishop’s analysis in Thrill Power Overload) has it that MacManus identified talented creators, did all he could to support them, perhaps most importantly lobbying for increased reprint revenue for their work, and then got out of their way to let them create the stories they wanted to tell.

This is all well and good, but presumably as an editor he also had a hand in such tasks as:
a)      deciding what sorts of stories to commission
b)      reading and approving scripts + artwork
c)      an amount of tinkering with said scripts and artwork after they were completed to make them better

And this is not to mention the editor’s ability to pick out quality new talent, and to nurture new writers and artists so that they could deliver work that fits the 2000AD mould. MacManus is very gracious in crediting his own training to Pat Mills, John Wagner and Gerry Finley-Day, but he in turn, as editor, surely helped nurture no lesser writers than:
Peter Milligan, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, John Smith…
and no lesser artists than:
Cam Kennedy, Brendan McCarthy, Cliff Robinson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips…
Now it may well be that all he had to do was look at their work, deem it worthy, and run it in the comic, but I bet he’ll have tinkered here and there in small ways that only added to the betterment of everything that saw print, and sowed seeds in the minds of these men that blossomed in their later work.

Here's a quick gander at what was in the Prog under the direct helm of Steve MacManus:

With a hint of Crisis thrown in...

And let's not forget the first year of the mighty Megazine:

Am I laying too much credit on the shoulders of one behind-the-scenes editor? I don’t think so.

More on Steve MacManus
As the well as the above-mentioned Hibernia interview
there's a lengthy chat on the Thrill-Cast
and the super-exciting news that MacManus has a book about his time with IPC/Fleetway coming out in the back half of 2016!

*After reading about the controversy in a Nerve Centre shortly after the film Hardware came out in 1990, I was desperate to see it. I only managed to track it down a few years ago when it finally got a DVD release. Frankly, it feels dated in a 90s straight-to-video way, but is not without its own charm. To my mind, the best bits of the film are largely those that are nothing to do with the source comic, like the weirdo neighbour and his creepy song. I’m quite prepared to believe that Richard Stanley, the writer/director of Hardware, genuinely had no idea / had completely forgotten he was copying an existing story, for whatever that’s worth. (Mostly because I don’t like to believe that the sort of people who are prepared to go through the hell of producing a low-budget film would just knowingly rip someone else off. OK, Maybe LaBeouf would do it.)

**‘Golden Age’ is a very loose term used in all sorts of contexts, especially comics for some reason. It is sometimes taken to refer merely to the earliest times, but usually also refers to the best times. 2000AD has, arguably, had three golden ages: the original run of about 16 Progs, when Pat Mills was in charge; the bulk of the mid-section of MacManus’s tenure (especially Progs 178-600ish), and, finally, the bulk of Matt Smith’s tenure, around Prog 1400ish - the present day. More on that coming soon…

***assertion entirely made-up. Prog 1 was probably the best-selling single issue, I shouldn’t wonder. Likely followed by progs 2 and 3. TV ads and free gifts, man. But one assumes that sales must have been pretty good in the mid 80s for the moneymen to even consider producing spin-offs such as Crisis and the Megazine, at a time when most newsagent comics had died off.

Friday, March 20, 2015

No. 4 Pat Mills

First Prog: (as editor and as scripter) Prog 1
Last Prog: may the day never come! Just started on a new Slaine; Flesh, ABC Warriors / Savage / Ro-Busters (are these now basically all one and the same series??) and, I hope, Defoe coming along too, presumably. And maybe something all-new!

First Meg: 202
Last Meg: 259 sees the final epsiode of American Reaper - but more Mills work is as likely to appear in future as not, I imagine.

Total appearances: 1275 (and counting!)
-covering Progs, Judge Dredd Megs, StarLord, Tornado and various Annuals and Specials from that stable…

…but not counting the many, many, stories he has written for publications such as Eagle, Toxic!, Scream, Battle/Action, Misty etc that might be considered part of the 2000 AD stable.
...except it is counting the episodes of Charley's War that were rreprinted in the Meg, because according to my own rules, that's legit. And, in my defense, it's the only place I've actually encountered and read this much-celebrated Mills epic.

Creator / co-creator credits:
The actual bloody comic itself! And, within its fine pages, Flesh; Invasion / Savage; MACH 1 / Project: Greysuit; Harlem Heroes; The Visible Man; Judge Dredd; Shako!; Ro-Busters; ABC Warriors; Nemesis the Warlock; Slaine; Metalzoic; Diceman; Third World War / Finn; Dinosty; Black Siddha; Defoe; American Reaper

Other story credits:
Dan Dare – the only character Mills has worked on for 2000AD that he didn’t help create? He’s certainly pretty keen on the idea that it is best for a creator to work on their own ideas, and for creators not to work on someone else’s ideas. On a tangential note, perhaps this explains why the first 2000AD incarnation of Dan Dare is the worst least best story of the original line-up, saved only by phenomenal art and joyously OTT dialogue.*

Words by Kelvin Gosnell; Art by Massimo Belardinelli
(with a touch of Frank Hampson)
Planet of the Damned, a fun if generic ‘people trapped in an alien wilderness’ story for StarLord that didn’t yield any lasting characters, but did, arguably, help fertilize some Zombo-shaped seeds. I understand that Mills worked out the basic idea, and wriote the first episode, but then handed over scripting duties. Had he liked it better, it may have ended up in 2000 AD Prog 1! (thanks to David from Hibernia for the tip off)

A handful of one-off tales, all in the twist / come-uppance vein.

Notable character creations:
Even more than John Wagner, Mills has a penchant for designing, naming and introducing fantastic new characters for 5 page episodes, and then ignoring them entirely in future. From the venal humans in the classic Ro-Busters ‘Death on the Orient Express’ 2-parter, to the murderball team from recent 3-part Slaine serial The Mercenary, these delights come and go. Frankly, he’s so good at character creation that it’s frustrating he doesn’t keep more of them alive. Perhaps he’s waiting to gauge response to see if it’s worth his time developing any particular creation?

In terms of those characters Mills does keep on writing about, his hit rate is outrageously high. Let’s go ahead and examine just a few…

Torquemada – voted comics’ best villain multiple times. And the real genius, is, perhaps, that his antagonist Nemesis the Warlock also functions wonderfully as both a classic hero and utter dastard villain, to boot.
The original 7 ABC Warriors. All f’in seven of them! Seven robots all with unique looks, personalities and, I have no doubt, each one a beloved favourite of some reader somewhere. It’s to Mills’ credit that in each new series he has forced himself to invent a new 7th ; a bit of a shame that none have ever quite lived up to the others.**
Old One Eye and Satanus. Everyone loves dinosaurs. And of all dinosaurs, most love T rex the best. (I mean, come on.) But who else has managed to create two separate and distinct T Rex characters that linger in the mind for so many years? No one.***
Slough Feg (and other drune lords), and the Guledig. Yes, it’s true that these characters, in name at least, are derived from mythological sources - but Mills has inarguably put his own stamp on them. For all the counting I’ve done for this exercise, I couldn’t actually tell you how many Progs either of these two have appeared in – but I bet it’s less than 30 out of 1920. But boy have they stuck in the mind (acknowledging, of course, the sterling design work by Berlardinelli, McMahon, Pugh and Bisley (pretty sure it was Pugh not Fabry who dreamed up the look of the Guledig, no?).

Art by David Pugh

Judge Dredd. Very hard to determine whose brain led to which situations that had what long-lasting impacts on a character, but it is said that Mills pushed through the idea of Dredd as a proper hero who helps people in need, and turned him away from being too villainous a character. Most obvious evidence cited for this comes from a) the creation of Judge Rico, Dredd’s evil twin, who makes Joe Dredd’s position as ‘goodie’ more obvious. b) the Cursed Earth saga – Mills wrote the framework episodes, and indeed most of the better short stories told within. He certainly penned the immortal speech “When someone calls on the law for help - be he mutie, alien, cyborg or human - The Law cannot turn a blind eye... and I am The Law!”, which is a pretty decent template for Dredd as hero, alongside Dredd as staunch upholder of the law. I’ve no qualms about giving Mills a chunk of credit for Judge Dredd’s creation and lasting success as a character.****
Cover art by Mick McMahon
Defoe and his supporting cast - a cast that grows larger all the time (and, by virtue of being a zombie series, means that characters who are killed off don’t necessarily stop appearing in later episodes! Brilliant.)

Notable characteristics:
Intense research; soundbite dialogue; preposterous-sounding stories and technologies actually derived from real world sources, often turned into comicbook gold; promoting life philosophies through story and character (perhaps most obviously the bashing of organized religion, specifically of a Christian flavour); championing the underdog and railing against the middle and upper classes. Cocking snooks in every direction, as much at his own heroes/protagonists as at any other target.

On Pat:
He may not have written as many episodes for 2000AD as John Wagner or Alan Grant, but it can literally be said that there would be no 2000AD without Pat Mills. In case you didn’t know, he put the whole comic together in the first place, developing no fewer than 6 strips that launched the comic (plus two more that followed when the first scheduling gaps appeared), as well as conducting intensive editorial work (i.e. re-writing scripts and suggesting improvements to artwork) on every story in the first 12-16 Progs.

With a keen eye for commercial and aesthetic success, Mills went on to develop yet more new strips after 2000AD was already a proper hit. Two of these were, I think, as important as Judge Dredd at keeping the comic going beyond the death of UK newsprint comics in the mid 1980s: Nemesis the Warlock/ABC Warriors and Slaine. Both series lent themselves perfectly to a repeatable formula of episodes, yet also to a longer, ongoing storyline that kept readers wanting more – the sort of long-form storytelling that has become the norm in US superhero comics. [I struggled with Mills’ Slaine stories in the 1990s, but on re-reading them in the recent collections, it turns out they’re actually very good. Mills was writing for the trade, ten years before most comics pros started doing it!]

Beyond the stories and scripts themselves, Mills’s involvement in choosing and nurturing new art talent on his own stories played a huge part in keeping 2000AD alive and vital in the 1990s, particularly with John Hicklenton on Nemesis, and Simon Bisley on ABC Warriors and Slaine. I mean, the artists get the credit for blowing the backs of our heads off, but Mills deserves praise for putting them to work – and, although it’s proper to go into more detail on those two fine gents’ own entries, it’s worth noting just how shockingly new their style felt at the time, a major part of the whole ‘comics are growing up’ narrative that the news media latched onto during the late 80s/early 90s.

On a more personal note, one reason why I never even considered stopping my subscription to 2000AD during the so-called dark days***** was that I didn’t dare miss an episode of the ongoing Nemesis saga during the epic wait between books IX (ended Prog 608) and X (stared Prog 1165). [There were about 12 Nemesis episodes in between that served me nicely. Hell, I even loved the Nemesis/Deadlock team-up – comics need more murder mystery stories.]

I’ve gone on a bit already, but to do the man even a little justice, let’s have a little look at his 2000AD career, through one particular lens: message comics.

You see, Pat Mills is not afraid to make a point with the stories he tells. I don’t know if it’s because he really wants to promote a point of view (although I’m sure this is the case a lot of the time), or just because he’s found that having a not-so subtle message makes for better and more popular comics, but he does it a lot. [Please note, I wish to make no judgement about the messages, as I read them, in Mills’s serials, I’m just pointing out that they’re there. I’ll read almost anything Mills writes, he’s the bee’s knees in my book. And I say this as a godfearing Church of England supporter of organised religion.]

Exhibit A: Flesh. The message: corporations, and the individuals in charge of them, want money so badly that they don’t care about things like causing the extinction not just of a species, but a whole clade of animals – the dinosaurs; or, sometimes more to the point, the health and safety of the people they employ to do their dirty work.

(see also MACH One and Project Greysuit, which has an added undercurrent of ‘absolutely anyone with any sort of political power is entirely corrupt and uses their power basically only to cover up their own misdeeds’. I will say that this latter depiction is, to me, so much of an exaggeration of the truth that I’m not the biggest fan of the series. I do love the concept of John Blake and how he gets his powers, mind, and the lovingly drawn ultra-violence.)

Art by Felix Carrion (I think)
There is a lot about the set-up of Flesh that makes no sense at all (a meat-hungry future society has time machines, but instead of, say, bringing a few cows into the future and re-starting beef farming, they herd frikkin’ dinosaurs???), but this is 100% not the point. The point is that corporations are evil, and readers love seeing bad guys doing their thing and then getting spectacularly killed as a result of their own corner-cutting ways. There’s also a secondary message about all humans, good and bad, misunderstanding the terribleness of nature. And getting eaten as a result. Werner Herzog would make a brilliant film out of this, I’m telling you.

Mills explains why dinosaurs are better than people (and you suspect he believes it, too...)
Art by Carl Critchlow
Exhibit B: Ro-Busters. The message: rich bastards like to exploit people. The whole idea of a class structure is bad, because it allows for this.

I’ll concede I’m painting a pretty bald picture of what Ro-Busters was actually about in most episodes, but the interplay between Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein, Mek-Quake and Mr Ten Percent are basically a satire on the old (or not so old…) British class structure that is centred around the concept that everyone ‘knows their place’.
Art by Carlos Pino
Evil businessmen / politicians: two of Mills' favourite targets

Exhibit C: ABC Warriors. Let’s just start by pointing out that their very catchphrase is “Spread the Word!”
Unsurprisingly, a long-lasting strip like this gets through a bunch of different messages. The very first is a Mills favourite from his Charley’s War days – during war, upper class officers have no conception of the reality of death and fighting (or at least, they don;t care); lower class troops are used as nothing more than objects.
Then there’s the inevitable message behind almost any humanoid robot story – is there a difference between programming and free will? I especially love Blackblood, a robot who is actively programmed to betray his companions and ‘be evil’, and may or may not have any understanding of what this means.
Later on (Black Hole through to Hellbringer), there’s a clear message about not giving in to society’s norms, and daring to let go and generally have fun more often, if not always. Turning everything on its head is a good thing and to be encouraged.

Art by Mick McMahon
Robots with perversions - the unkonwn future of A.I. research?
The most recent run of ABC stories have sort of been about modern ‘civilized’ humans trying to impose their value systems on ‘uncivilized/indigenous’ peoples (first touched upon in the old ‘Cyboons’ story); frankly I need to re-read the whole Volgan War epic to make more sense of it.

Exhibit D: Nemesis the Warlock. The message: hating anything just because it’s different from you is wrong (duh); this is still true even if the thing you hate actually is evil (a bit less duh in later stories). There’s also, even more deliciously, a bit of a message aimed at would-be dictators: even if you find a way to police the very thoughts of your subjects, the people will always find a way to rise up and overthrow your regime. And a little bit of poking fun at goths, too...

Art by John Hicklenton
The hero relaxing - not your typical superhero fare.

Exhibit E: Slaine. The message: celtic / prehistoric Earth mother religion = good; Christianity / historical era religion = bad. Actually I’m never really sure if Slaine is a very unsubtle attack on the Catholic church as an institution, or if it’s just a fantasy that posits the question ‘what if Christianity is, in fact, a religion set up by evil extra-dimensional beings who just want to suck energy out of human beings’.

Whether or not this is an important part of Slaine’s DNA (yes and no), it’s pretty much the only part of the DNA of Exhibit F: Finn, which very, very explicitly has the message that Earth mother religion = good (if dangerous), while Patriarchal organized religion, represented here by the Freemasons = bad as well as dangerous. 

Art by Paul Staples
In Mills comics, women usually come out on top.

Exhibit G: Savage. The message: put yourselves in the shoes of the people of Iraq/Afghanistan in the early 2000s; how would you react if a foreign country invaded and basically took over your country, setting up their own puppet government? Of course, there are some major differences between what actually happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Volg invasion of Britain as depicted in both Invasion and Savage. I don’t think Mills is making a point about the ethics of interventionist foreign policy (maybe this was covered in Third World War? I pretty much zoned out of that series around episode 20) – it’s simply about the idea of being invaded and wanting to reclaim your homeland.

Savages explores his feelings.
Art by Charlie Adlard
It would be remiss not to note that from the years 1990-1995, Mills enlisted a writing partner, Tony Skinner, to help with his scripting for 2000AD (and other comics, too). I’m not clear on how much Skinner actually wrote, or whether it was Mills being incredibly generous with his credit on the grounds that he felt he owed Skinner a huge debt for giving him lots of ideas (maybe a bit like Robert Rodriguez giving Frank Miller a co-director credit on the Sin City movies?). Not much point in speculating! From the relevant sections of Thrill Power Overload, it seems that Skinner’s main message was best exemplified in Finn and the Kevin Walker drawn ABC Warriors stories about celebrating the relaxed/chaotic nature of the earth goddess.

Let me re-iterate that this is not my attempt to closely analyze all these long-running stories! Just an observation that they all, to my eyes, contain a pretty strong message from author to reader. There’s also a lot else going on in each story, especially Slaine, which has endured for so long and covered so many themes.

One common thread that I think is worth bringing up is Mills’s tendency (by his own admission, not just my observation here) to focus his stories around a type of character that, back in the 1970s, may not have been the most typical choice. For want of a better phrase, the man or woman from the ‘wrong side’. In most cases, the ‘right side’ often means the UK upper class establishment realm of, for example, the original Frank Hampson Dan Dare.

Art by Mick McMahon
Is Ukko an antihero? Is there
even a word for what Ukko is?
To explain what I mean by heroes from 'the wrong side', here’s a list of some of Mills’s heroes: Bill Savage, Earl Regan, Slaine, Ukko, Finn, Ro-Jaws; even ultra-establishment Dan Dare became an anti-establishment rebel in his first 2000AD incarnation; Hammerstein may be mocked by Ro-Jaws as posh, but he’s effectively a non-commissioned officer type rather than a blue-blood (whatever that would be like in a robot!). In these post Han Solo days, casting a rogue as the hero is no longer so unusual, but at least Mills is not interested in making them ‘loveable’. And he hasn’t stopped flying the common-man flag with new hero Titus Defoe, a Roundhead and commoner.

At other times, the ‘wrong side’ means ‘the enemy’, as in telling WW2 stories from a German soldier’s point of view (e.g. Hellman of Hammer Force, which I think was origiially a Mills idea, scripted by Gerry Finley-Day for Battle comic?), and of course Nemesis the Warlock, where the weird-looking evil alien is the goodie, and the humans are the baddies. I’d even be tempted to stick Rohan from Black Siddha in this list – Mills making an effort to build a story around a British Hindu, a very rarely represented ethnicity in UK comics.

Of course, Mills is making (I think) an explicit point – most heroes/protagonists in stories of old were privileged people, and this fact is outrageous. Why should class/upbringing have anything to do with a person being ‘special’ or noble or worth reading stories about? Mills is far from the only author to pursue this line of thought, but where I think Mills goes one better than most is his decision to make his protagonists even more flawed than your typical 1970s antihero. No hearts of gold here; some, such as Savage, aren’t even remotely motivated by a sense of doing good, just of getting what they want (revenge / freedom). Of course, in doing this he often ends up making his villains a) from the so-called ‘right side’, and b) even more flawed than his flawed heroes, which sometimes results in cartoonish fun (Trans Time Corp; Torquemada), and at other times just reads like exaggeration gone beyond the point of satire (the aforementioned Greysuit, and also, if I may dare to be sacrilegious, Marshall Law – a work so biliously angry that I don’t recognise the superheroes it is purporting to rail against.)

Art by David Pugh
Slaine gets his priorities right.
Mills uses Slaine particularly well to poke fun at the very concept of ‘hero’. Slaine is brave, but often because he is foolish, or motivated by wanting to avoid shame. Slaine becomes a King, but is frequently subjected to humiliating tests/rituals, to make the point that kings are no better than anyone else. Slaine completes quests, but is often motivated mostly by lust, hunger and thirst for battle, as well as by the desire to do the right thing. Even honour, a virtue espoused by many a work of heroic fiction, is questioned by Mills as not an especially worthwhile idea. Quite right, too.

I could go on, but I'd better not, save to note that Mills also writes comics for the French market, too. They wouldn't be at all out of place in 2000AD and are, as of relatively recently, available to buy in English!

The one 2000AD creator who deserves the title of top dog, Pat Mills must never die!

Personal favourites:
MACH 1: intro; the final encounter
Judge Dredd: the Cursed Earth
Ro-Busters: Murder on the Orient Express; Fall and rise of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein
ABC Warriors: Red Death; the Black Hole; Khronikles of Khaos
Nemesis the Warlock: Books I, IV and VII
Deadlock (aka Nemesis Book XI)
Slaine: Bride of Crom; Dragonslayer; Time Killer; Spoils of Annwyn; The Grail War; (Books of Slaughter is pretty great so far, too!)
Defoe (I know it’s split into separate chapters but frankly this, more than most of Mills’s output, really does feel like one long epic – and a fantastic one, too)

More on Pat Mills
There's no shortage of resources of you want to find out more about Mr Mills.
For a start there's his own Millsverse website; and an earlier blog-based incarnation of it here.
He's been a frequent guest on 'Everything comes back to 2000 AD' podcast
and was an excellent guest on 'Everything starts with 2000AD', too, which goes into lots of detail about the creation of 2000AD, and the first few Progs in particular.
Here's a link to an interview from US comics friendly-site Comic Book Resources, if that's your thing.

Hopefully at some point in the near future, 2000AD documentary Future Shock! will be available for general viewing. I was lucky enough to see it at the London premiere, and Mills is the lynchpin of the whole thing. Glorious.

*Episode by episode, early Dan Dare is great fun. As a whole story, its incoherence is, for my taste, a bit too much. The Dave Gibbons-drawn Star Trekkish run was generally excellent, though. I’ve no idea if Mills had any input into that.

**I’m not counting Mek-Quake and Ro-Jaws, occasional ABC members who are lasting treasures, but were pre-existing creations. Teri from the Black Hole was a lot of fun, sure. Morrigun and Zippo have nice visuals but, arguably, ill-defined personalities. The less said about Hitaki, the better.

***Seriously. Can you give a name to another T rex? Even the one from Jurassic Park is just a generic fierce animal, with less personality than the Velociraptors.

**** More recently, Mills barnstormed his way through ‘Blood of Satanus III’, a completely insane serial that ran in the Megazine with reliably demented art from John Hicklenton. Not necessarily a great plot, but it was a fascinating exploration of Dredd’s character, and showed Mills’s willingness to try something very different with a Judge Dredd story, the sort of thing he can get away with because he helped create the character.

*****Very roughly, the period between Progs 650-1100, and frankly there was a lot of good stuff during this time, if mixed in with some uber-pretentious guff as well as some horribly juvenile strips. And lots of brown painted artwork that didn’t survive the repro process especially well.