Thursday, December 15, 2016

No. 92 Stephen Watson, Paisley

First Prog: 1049 (I think?)
Latest Prog: 2011 (no, not the Xmas Prog from 2010, the 'real' one, the Xmas Prog from 2016. Definitely not confusing at all.)

Watson's first appearance on the short-lived 'reader profile' slot.
First Meg: beats me
Latest Meg: he’s basically in every Meg that has a letters page at this point…

Total appearances: 94
- and let’s pause here to acknowledge the delightfully bizarre fact that Mr Watson (aka Button Man, aka Comic Book Guy, aka Jolyon Wagg, to pick out his internet handles / avatars) has had more of his work printed in the Prog or Meg than the likes of Simon Bisley or Bryan Talbot, to name just two all-time comics legends. He’s even been paid for it, in the form of postcards, Heroclix figures and no doubt a library’s worth of 2000AD collected editions. Zarjaz!

The Three Torquemadas!

In celebration of reader’s letters and reader art:
Don’t worry, I’m not actually going to spend a blog post analysing the style and content of Stephen Watson’s writing. Frankly, he’s done that plenty enough all by himself.

But I will say that Tharg’s Nerve Centre / Input page has ever been a vital part of the Prog reading experience. 

Classic era Nerve Centre, with editorial and letters all on one page. I'd guess Steve Cook is on layouts at this point, and Alan McKenzie is doing the Tharg thing with words (Burton on editing).
I miss the three-handled scissors joke.
Sometimes, it’s the reader’s letters that raise a smile, more often it’s Tharg’s withering replies and effortless ability to never answer specific questions about when a favourite series is coming back, unless it’s in the very next issue. And of course there’s the sense of community it brings. Even people who would never dream of writing in (and I was such for at least 15 years of being a regular reader) can enjoy the fact of seeing other fans giving an opinion.

Before the internet, or more specifically, before the 2000AD forum opened up, these letters were the only way I had any sense of what any other 2000AD fan liked or hated about the comic. And boy, do people have some contrary opinions sometimes.

McGrath has a point - you gotta watch to ensure any given Prog meets its gore quotient.
But yes, this sort of letter genuinely made me think that Inferno had gone down with the readership
as a stone-cold classic, which confused me.

No less a person than Pat Mills has often stated how much readers letters and polling charts were taken very seriously by editorial. For whatever reason, letters from children are seemingly listened to more than internet postings from adult fans. I wonder if it’s just a matter of numbers? There are surely more people who’ve had letters published in 2000AD than have posted something on the forum, for example. And that’s not counting the many who wrote in but weren’t printed.

I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to say that someone who writes a letter to a comic is inherently more ‘mainstream’ than someone who posts on an internet forum, but what do I know? I’d like to think of myself as someone who approaches 2000AD with a mainstream sensibility, but I’m also aware that I’m an obsessive who has surrounded himself with comics his whole life, 2000AD especially.

Back to the celebration of letters pages! For a long time, it was pretty unusual to see a reader’s letter – or drawing – from a name you recognised. But then in the 90s some names started to recur. 

Two big names in letters on one Input page!

Partly it’s because they had unusual names – Floyd Kermode and Linton Porteous, I’m looking at you – but partly it must have been because fewer and fewer people were writing in – even when email took over and made it all easier, I imagine the numbers were down on the heyday of 1986. Heck, by the mid 2000s, I was recognising even the more ‘anonymous’ names, (no offence, Steve Frame and Ashley Beeching). As a forum regular, the letters columns can sometimes be an extension of my forays into internet fandom. A letter from Grant Goggans, for example, carries a certain weight, because his love for 2000AD is well documented.
Or one from Dave Evans commenting on the quality of strip and art has the ring of truth from a working editor.

 The first letter writing stars I noticed were in fact in the pages of the Megazine. Then-editor David Bishop clearly enjoyed the reader interaction bit, and encouraged debate. 

Bishop liked to run letters that gave strips a kicking.
(Although the flattery at the end couldn't have hurt)

Two names, of people who may or may not have actually been chums, came up a bunch of times, often as a double-act, and often under attack for their forthright views: it's Matt Nixon & El Sloano.


I’ve already name-checked Floyd Kermode*, but one can’t underestimate his presence in the Prog. It got to the point where other letter-writers referred to him in their own letters. And it didn’t hurt that he wrote well. He certainly earned his spot as a 2000AD fandom-celeb in his own right, with a delightful monthly column once upon a time.


I won’t go through the list of other prolific writers one by one – because I don’t need to! Stephen Watson himself has famously logged EVERY SINGLE READER LETTER into a massive spreadsheet, known affectionately as ‘the Beast’. Here’s the Top 28 letter writers, as of February 2016 (and I’m sure he’ll send you an update if you ask him nicely):

Yup, that’s me at number 12. I’m not proud.

And yes, that’s THE Simon Spurrier at Number 27, the most prolific letter hack turned script droid. Other big names on that front include Warren Ellis.

Spurrier plugs a fanzine and the career of a promising young editor...

But let’s move onto the Reader Art. Much harder to get a picture published lately, especially since Tharg unofficially stopped printing anything other than photos of tots with Progs, Tooth Tattoos, and a slew of amazingly impressive fan-built models, replicas and other such creative delights.

Back in the good bad old days, we used to get puntastic efforts like this:

Reader art - the secret inspiration for Droid Life
Or just delightful goofiness like this:

 And the ever-popular mash-up:

(The Samurai in question is celarly inspired by Cam Kennedy's
work on Judge Dredd: The Warlord)
  The mash-up often extended to real-world figures. 

A lovely piece of art, which fits into 2000AD not because
John Major, Pinhead or even Clive Barker have any connection to the comic,
but because good old Tory-policy-bashing, and above all, pun-based art was a thing
Very occasionally, we'd get treated to a comic strip:


It probably wouldn’t sell too well (Wardog / Bison levels, not Case Files levels), but a collection of 2000AD reader art would be tremendous. Flog it to Hipsters in Hoxton and you’d get several pounds at least.

I couldn’t resist compiling a few examples here, especially the long-running Dredd’s Dark Secret series that was in full swing when I first laid eyes on the Prog in 1985/6/7. All credits are on the scans. And yes, Dark Secret #3 is missing! Couldn't find it for the life of me, but it's lurking somehwer in the mid-400s, or maybe a Special?





J D Tomlinson... Hmmm.

Simon Spencer? Could it be..?
The list of future art droids who had reader art published is an ongoing project. Much of it listed here.

I've stumbled upon some other who may or may not be eligible to add to the list (hard to be sure it’s not just a double-name coincidence):

Alan Barnes (pretty sure this IS the man who would go on to edit the Megazine, since he confesses in one of his editorials):


Eoin Coveney:


Jim Vickers:


Kev Hopgood


Back to the 'Dredd secret' meme...



What I'm saying is, hold onto your old Progs! Until it's all digitzed, there's no other way to preserve these lovely slices of fandom.

More on letter writers:
All from the 2000AD online Forum:
(a forum posting that stretches to an extraordinary 36 pages!)
-more of the same, but only 2 pages-worth this time.
Letters of note (Tharg edition)
– a 2016 variation compiling examples of future writers/artists to have appeared in the Prog.
More on Stephen Watson:
The ‘W’ moviechallenge is endlessly delightful. Well, not endlessly. I guess there’s a finite number of eligible films…

What's your dream 2000AD 5-a-side team? (with 2 subs)

*Fans from the late 90s may recall that Kermode lived in Saitama, Japan at the time. Not because of him, but I ended up there myself for six months in 1997. I can see why he wrote a lot of letters (not because it’s boring, but travel/going out was hella expensive).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

No. 91 Steve White

First Prog: 880
Latest Prog: 1068

Total appearances: 96
-including two art credits on the cover, but not including his work as colourist on various issues of Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future.

This is Steve White on art duty

Co-Creator Credits:
Black Light

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd (one episode in a special)
Rogue Trooper (Fr1day style)
Venus Bluegenes
Urban Strike!*
Vector 13

Notable character creations:
Emma Paris
Midge (Fr1day’s back-up girlfriend after Gaia died and before he bumped into Venus…)
Notable characteristics:
Military jargon. Over the top action barking. Procedure. Loud shouting. Not taking anything too seriously. And he has a love of dinosaurs that he really didn’t get to show off enough in 2000AD, even with a series of Flesh under his belt.

Playing around with a mix of actuion cliche and military speak.
Art by Steve Tappin

On Steve:
I don’t know anything of how most creators got there start in 2000AD, but Steve White, I think, was a tried and tested comics pro already. In my head, he’s a writer brought into the fold at a time when 2000AD was starting to lose its second wave of reliable scribes (the likes of Ennis, Milligan, Morrison and Millar), and needed people Tharg could turn to for reliable quality while also training up some newbies (mostly in the Megazine).

White's first published work for Tharg was a fun TMNT pastiche
Art by Dermot Power

But more than that, he’s clearly a fan of all things military. Whether he has a background in the armed services I don’t know, but I’d bet he’s read a lot of Andy McNab (or even some more hardcore military thriller writers I haven’t heard of). And so it is that his main association with the Prog was to tackle something like a three-year continuous stint on Rogue Trooper.

"Let's knife!" is a phrase you're never far from in White-penned Rogue Trooper
Art by Henry Flint
It was a poisoned chalice, to be sure. By the time White took over, any connection to Gibbon’s and Simpson’s War Machine was long gone – no room for the artiness or angst of that series. Fleisher’s action-based run was the template, hampered by a gaping problem that there wasn’t any overarching plot or series hook. Readers kind of know what to expect from a generic Rogue Trooper story, but it always worked best when the hero had a mission.

White sets out his vision for what Rogue Trooper is.
Art by Henry Flint

 In my head, a basic Rogue Trooper template involves our man stumbling into a war zone, encountering some sort of Sci-Fi idea, be it a community, a team of soldiers, or most often some crazy weapon idea. He gets shot at, picks a side, takes out the baddest guys, then mumbles something pithy about war being bad, but it’s the only thing he knows.
Compared to Finley-Day and Fleisher, White turned the mumbling into shouting, was a little less apologetic about the gung ho of war, while at the same time being perhaps more honest about the horrors of war. He also went quite a little less Sci-Fi, showing off his knowledge of contemporary military procedure, tactics and even weapons. I’m guessing he sci-fi’d it all up a bit, but it felt kinda modern. To me, anyway, who knows nothing of actual war, or even military history.

I do know my way around wordplay and tenuous metaphors, though.
Art by Steve Tappin
Over many short, sharp bursts White built up a supporting cast for Fr1day, including mercenary Midge, a set of biochips with distinct personalities (some of them more annoying than others…)

Eightball was, for some reason, infantile, and believed Venus was his mother.
Art by Henry Flint

Top was a leader and strategist; Lucky was a risk taker
Art by Steve Tappin

 and the reintroduction of the original Rogue, Gunnar and Venus Bluegenes.

The original bio-chips, not so much.
Note the doubling up of the insignias on the vests.
Art by Edmund Perryman

He managed to put the war into some sort of context, developing a plot about religious zealots taking over Nu Earth city by city, which I was quite excited by. This plot took a twist of involving evil alien lizards as the ‘gods’ manipulating the zealots**, which I was also interested in.

Rogue must be a good guy, because he has no truck with religious extremists.
Art by Henry Flint

Venus is awakened to the truth - there is no Karvanu...
Art by Greg Staples

But by then Tharg had got bored and the plug was pulled. The overwhelming legacy of the series, in my head, is the endless procession of hard talkin’ tough jokin’ military hardware lovin’ war comics. In which any plot was secondary to running, jumping, shooting, shouting and above all, exploding…

Skoshi Tiger! Skoshi Tiger! Let's Knife!
Art by Steve Tappin

Venus Bluegenes got her own, brief series, in which White delivered more delightful trademark one liners.

It doesn't count as a clean kill if you don't make a joke at the same time.
Art by Simon Coleby

 If that’s your thing (and if you’re a 2000AD fan who isn’t, I commiserate as it means you probably hate 50% of all strips), the ne plus ultra was definitely Urban Strike!. It’s an uber-comedic take on a video game that I’ve never played but I imagine simply involves shooting lots of targets from a moving helicopter, with no stories or characters to speak of. Hence this sort of thing in the comics version:

Art by Mick Austin

Somewhat reviled at the time, I’ve a feeling a fair number of squaxx remember it fondly for the full-on silliness that it was. Certainly better than Wardog, another video game adaptation, but that one was played more straight than silly.

Makes Predator's dialogue look po-faced.

White could do serious too, being one of the rotating team of Vector 13 scribes. ‘Serious’ might be pushing it, but the point is it involved tone, atmosphere and was not big on jokes, even if the underlying tone was kind of funny.

Using natural prehistory to create science fiction. Yes please.
Art by Henry Flint

In turn there was Black Light, another White/Abnett co-production, sort of set in the world of Vector 13. It’s a quality thrill that could’ve gone on longer in my view. I barely mentioned it on Dan Abnett’s entry (or co-creator John Burns, for that matter), so let’s give it some love here.

Don't mess with Emma Paris
Art by John Burns

Emma Paris, the lead character, was clearly something of a Scully, but was also her own thing. Throwing the Men in Black into the mix added a level of intrigue – you immediately knew that she could never really trust her supervisors. Sure, the whole thing was super X-Files-y, but goddamit I liked the X Files, and I’ve never had a problem with 2000AD stories that had TV-inspired origins. A couple more stories from Black Light and it could’ve been a proper contender. 
Art by Lee Sullivan
In some ways it set the scene for the likes of Caballistics, Inc. Not the same story at all, but it has a pretty similar set up – a small team of interesting characters with a slowly-revealed background, who investigate Fortean shizz, while always working to uncover a wider conspiracy.

The horrors of contemporary war writ large and vengeful
Art by John Burns
Which leaves us with Flesh: Chronocide – again co-written with Abnett, but possibly more of a White strip since it’s about dinosaurs and those are totally his bag, baby. Check out his books.

I’ve no idea if Mills gave his blessing to this strip (it doesn’t seem to have caused the ruckus that Satanus: Unchained! caused), but Abnett and White do a neat job of bringing Earl Regan back, this time mostly at see, with the inevitable plot of eco-terrorists mixing it up with (un)common thieves. And all getting eaten by huge dinosaurs (and tylosaurs, which like all underwater reptiles are not dinosaurs)

The other White cover, curiously foregrounding not the prehistoric beastie he'd
be amazing at rendering, but the fleeing human. Still v. dramatic!

It’s funny and clever, if perhaps too light on the dino-based carnage one likes to enjoy in Flesh. (Although since Prog 1, it’s always been the evil corner-cutting, wealth-driven humans who are the real villains and cause of misery).

Earl regan, still struggling with upper management
Art by Gary Erskine

There’s been a bit of chatter lately about the editorial history of 2000AD, and how it used to be a mainstream comic (i.e., a comic designed to attract casual readers), but by the 90s it gradually morphed into a cult comic (i.e., designed to attract hardcore readers, and people who like outsider/obscure things). This may or may not be objectively true, but I wonder if Steve White was a victim of this very thing – a decidedly mainstream comics writer edged out of 2000AD in favour of more idiosyncratic fare. Not that he suffered overly, what with his continued career writing and editing with Titan comics (and now Marvel reprints with Hachette)!

More on Steve White:
For the dinosaur love
ECBT's 'potted history' series, always worth reading, has a feature on the Fr1day era of Rogue Trooper
An interview on MyMBuzz covers his early days as well as more recent Dr Who work. 

Personal favourites:
Rogue Trooper: Mercy Killing; Rogue Troopers
Urban Strike!: it’s not big or clever, but it is funny
Flesh: Chronocide
Venus Bluegenes: Bitchin!
Black Light

*I guess Urban Strike the comic strip counts as a Steve White co-creation, but since it’s based on a computer game it doesn’t quite count?

**This from the final series, co-written with Dan Abnett, and it might’ve been he who added in the aliens?