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Why Judge Dredd is still in charge

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written by Mic Moroney for The Irish Times, Monday 19th Febuary 2001

Why Judge Dredd is still in ChargeEdit

Life has certainly not yet imitiated 2001: A Space Odsyssey, but I suddenly recalled recently, from my extended adolescence, 2000AD, the blackly humorous, hyperviolent, ironic super-hero comic. Had it folded, rather than become some futuristic sci-fi set in the past?

Nothing like it. After 24 years this month (having first mutated from a British war comic, Action, on February 28th, 1977, costing eight pence), 2000AD turned a corner last year when Rebellion, the computer games company (makers of Aliens Versus Predators) brought in from Fleetway Comics.

Rebellion owners, Jason and Chris Kingsely, grew up with 2000AD, which is encouraging. As one artist said, Fleetway was marketing titles such as My Little Pony, "while 2000AD was a snarling beast they didn't know to do with, but people kept buying it. Rebellion now controls more than 700 2000AD characters and storylines for computer games, movies, action figures, etc. It's already working on a game of Judge Dredd (2000AD's beloved lead strip), while Rebellion's Gunlok game may become a 2000AD strip.

Many now reckon the mag is moving back towards when a creative high, after some years when full-colour and Photoshop often eclipsed good stories. Revisiting it now, after nearly a decade, it remains a great satirical, sci-fi vehicle, for all the hokey puff of "thrill-power" promised by an editor called Tharg.

Tharg is really a chipper Londoner, Andy Diggle who, with an assistant and an art director, works with writers and artists remotely, who sent their images down the line via jpegs and ISDN lines. So, what about the past-tense title? "Well, it's a brand isn't it?" sayes Diggle. "A bit like the Radio Times, which has TV listing as well, but everyone just accepts that."

In its 1970s heyday, 2000AD sold more than 120,000 copies per week, but despite the devastation of the boys' adventure comic market, it sells 20,000 with a monthly "megazine" accounting for 10,000. 2000AD still makes money, Diggle sayes, and his annual creative budget alone is over £500,000.

The readership is "90 per cent male, aged 15-35 - although we get people in their in the 40's, 50's and even 60's, some of whom have collected all 1,200 odd issues. My editorial policy would be old-school, trying to bring the mag back to its disreputable, punky kind of roots."

Diggle himself saw his first 2000AD "when I was about 10. on holidays on the Isle of Man. I still remember the Brian Bolland cover with Judge Dredd firing a cannister of liquid nitrogen at a guy, snarling 'Freeze, Punk' - it blew a hole out the back of my head."

The lead strip remains Judge Dredd, the grit-jawed, horrendously ruthless but weirdly lovable, 22nd-century bike cop. Created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd remains a virulant satirical opening for say, Wagner's recent skit on Big Brother, "Bad Mother", in which viewers voted which TV celebrities they wanted to see destroyed. Meanwhile, the strips have moved well on since my day: Rogue Trooper has been overtaken by Tor Cyan, another G.I. - or Genetic Infantryman, a cloned super-solider with blue skin. Then there's Sinister Dexter, a high-octance blast-'em-up, with artist Simon Davis's rather distracting Jackson Pollack-style spatter-finishes.

"Necronauts" is portentous occult sci-fi which pits Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and Charles Fort against the forces of the Abyss. Meanwhile, Wagner's back with a new strip, Button Man, a long manhunt yarn destined to become a graphic novel.

Both Wagner and Ezquerra are quintessential 2000AD creators, conjuring up worlds full of hilarous mohawked creatures and mudflaps mouths and mutant appendages. Their violence quotient was always high, but today's 2000AD is even heavier on dynamic exit wounds and smouldering, blood-spurting holes where faces used to be, 2000AD is coy about sex, although women's body parts are closely obversed and pushed to an extreme. There was even a recent soft-core orgy in Nikolai Dante, a swashbuckling Russian warhero strip, like Tolstoy viewed through a hail of futuristic mega-artillery.

I talked to Paul J. Holden, a 31-year-old Belfast comic artist who has just drawn a six-page Dredd strip, due out out on March 14th: a spoof Triad shoot-out yarn written by Gordon Rennie. He dismissed any imaginative overlap with the Troubles. "It's cartoony violence, except Quentin Tarrantino cartoony rather than Warner Brothers cartoony. There's nothing cooler than shooting off a load of rounds with bullet shells all over the place..."

After reading 2000AD from "Prog 1", he started drawing seriously around 1988 when John McCrea (who drew Hitman for DC Comics) set up the Belfast comic shop, Dark Horizons. McCrea and fellow Belfastman, Garth Ennis, teamed up to do Troubled Souls, a tough contemporary action-strip set in Belfast. It was serialised in Crisis, an adult spin-off of 2000AD in the early 1990s, and is now a graphic novel.

Ennis is now one of the biggest names in the industry. My eyes were opened all over again by reading his Preacher, created with artist Steve Dillion. Issued as a series of comics and graphic novels (which finally end next April) by DC's "intellectual" wing, Vertigo, it's a vast arc of narrative, full of a jet-black humour of cruelty and the most hard boiled writing you're ever likely to read. Interestingly, Ennis returns to 2000AD with a 12-episode Judge Dredd strip, starting issue 1250 next July.

Ennis would earn good, but Holden wouldn't give up the day-job as an IT consultant. He once did a 79-page graphic novel called The Moon Looked Down and Laughed - about the possible morality of a lethal act of violence - Malachy Coney (who works in Belfast's other comics comics shop, Talisman). "This was for Fantagraphics - the well-respected indie label - and I got $180 in royalties and a follow-up cheque for $4, I also 30 pages of artwork for a US outfit called Nifty Comics, who promptly dropped off the planet."

Holden also works with people over the internet, and is big into shareware comics, and the fact that comics are disposable. "Some people paint in oilsand acryils, but my ambition is to be the perfect storyteller, so you nearly don't notice the art. Otherwise, it's like getting a Hieronymous Bosch paintingg snd sticking captions and speech bubbles all over it.."

Once 2000AD went full-colour in the late 1980s, painter Simon Bisley influenced a generation of illustrators such as 33-year-old Dermot Power, from Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, who painted Dredd strips and covers for 2000AD since his early 20s. He's now a production painter in top-end cinema (Star Wars, John Boormans's films), "doing creatures and costumes and sets, mostly". He was storyboarding a horror film in Luxembourg when we spoke.

"2000AD was, and is, a great training ground for a lot of names in the industry, and the great thing is you get to do a lot of wacky stuff. My theory is that, because it's weekly, there no time to edit it heavily, or stamp it like a corporate brand, so you get a lot of stuff which is very different, very experimental."

"My ambition was always to do Sláine" - a brooding variant of Cúchulainn ,who explodes into eye-popping 'warp-spasms', invented by Pat Mills - "because all my favourite artists were doing it - Bisley, Mike MacMahon, Glenn Fabry, Brendan McCarthy and Greg Stapleton."

Meanwhile, for all our exports, an Irish comics industry hardly exists. The most recent hope is Brendan Byrne's anarchic new Toenail Clippings, which, as you'd expect, comes somewhere between snickersome humour and dope comics, with a bleak strain of existential narrative. Issue two appears next week in a comic store near you.

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