Comics, to me, are as important a piece of literature as any other. Like all art some are better than others, some exemplify all that is good about comics others exemplify all that is bad but to dismiss the entire genre as childish or in some way ‘low art’ is itself truly childish. I read both books and comics from roughly the same age. From between the ages six to twelve was my heyday of comic books until they took a back seat and throughout my teenage years read a lot of books I felt I had to read and I now realise wasted a lot of my time in doing so. I returned to comics in my early twenties and read all the comics I should have been reading instead and was rewarded in doing so. I’ve read plenty of great and rubbish comics when I was young but looking back some were absolutely excellent and informed my reading later in life. Throughout my life though some comics persisted, some comics I bought when I could and always returned to characters and strips out of sheer delight and fascination. One of those was Batman in any and all his incarnations, the other was 2000AD.
2000AD celebrated its 40th birthday last week and judging by Twitter it is in rude health, despite certain worrying moments where sales slipped and discontinuing the print edition was mooted. 2000AD is one of the few British comic books still going and more importantly thriving (along with the similarly iconoclastic and anarchic VIZ) which is one of the many reasons I love it so much. It was also an early stomping ground for and launched the talents of some true luminaries of the comic book form. The likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Alan Grant and many more besides were all featured early in their careers by 2000AD and whether you read comics or not believe me the cultural landscape would be MUCH poorer without these people in it. People generally tend to think of Judge Dredd when 2000AD is brought up and he is undeniably the superstar of the comic but the likes of Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog and even its ‘Editor’ the alien Tharg has gone on to achieve wider acclaim. Not least for a largely independent comic to last 40 years is an achievement in and of itself. It continues to foster new comic writing talent and its ‘Future Shocks’ shorts (one of the few comic strips that canvas from open submissions which I myself have submitted to in the past (to no success)) is still going strong too. They even took on characters from discontinued British magazines like Dan Dare from Eagle comics, another character I have an inherited love for. In short 2000AD is nothing shy of a British institution.
I first read 2000AD by mistake. There was a hardware and second hand bookshop in my old hometown (yes such a thing exists) and as a kid I was always on the hunt for books to read. With my chum we’d go to different bookshops in town (of which there are now considerably less) and have a hunt around. In this particular shop there was a bargain bin for old comics in which you could buy a bundle for something stupid like 10p. My friend liked this because he was a fan of old second world war comics of which there seemed to be an unending supply of. Some of these I enjoyed but even at that young age war porn put me on edge. Instead there were several bundles of 2000AD comics from the early 80s and on a whim I bought a couple of rolls. The first thing that surprised me was they were printed on newspaper like my sister’s Beano and my Dandy used to be, by then I was used to the far more glossy (and expensive) covers of American comics. The printing was also a bit more ‘vintage’ as we call it now, serrated page edges, print holes, colour codes on the inside margin, etc which was unusual but what surprised me more was what was inside. First and foremost, blood, guts and boobs were in each ‘Prog’ in some form or other which to a young kid was a fantastic discovery and a thrill that I had somehow got away with buying these comics. More than this was the illicit thrill of actually more dynamics in a comic. I had discovered that in Batman and DC in general things were a little darker and lines of good and bad were blurred a little more but in 2000AD ‘Good guys’ didn’t exist. Everyone was generally horrible or cruel or had their own selfish agendas and wherever there were ‘good’ people, or at least those with morals that extended beyond themselves, they were punished or beaten down or turned. Importantly however this wasn’t portrayed as a good thing, everyone and everything was terrible in 2000AD but it was pointing and laughing and sneering at this. This was basically my first introduction to dark satire, my genre of choice, which I would find later in abundance in the likes of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker. With 2000AD though everything was fair game and it wasn’t simply satirised but lampooned, made grotesque, then violently eviscerated. I read and re-read those 10 or so comics 100 times. I wasn’t allowed to buy the current editions back then as they had that damn warning on the cover ‘Mature content. For adults only.’ Not long later it turned out my father was working freelance with some of the artists and designers from 2000AD and would bring home new Progs every so often so I circumvented this problem but only occasionally. Since then I have only bought the odd prog (again similar to VIZ) but when I do I’m always delighted to find every comic strip is still as dark, as angry, as cynical, as sardonic, as biting, as graphic and as FUN as it was when I read those out of date 80s editions as a 10 year old.
2000AD holds a unique place in comics alongside the likes of the Beano, the Dandy and VIZ because, for me at least, they are exemplars of a certain British way of thinking and our sense of humour. I am not a patriotic man, certainly not these days, but if I were asked to explain what being British meant I would probably say to read these comics for the answer. British comics, like American comics, exist in a fantasy version of their home nation; a world of park rangers and strange garage inventors, eccentric vicars and fascist bobbies, a world where the protagonist is a Menace, a freak, dirty, grumpy, an upstart and all with a pig-headed, stubborn refusal to accept a lesser lot and cow tow to those who tell them not to which is similar to the American comic style but the difference is who they are fighting. Typically Spider-Man fights the purse snatcher for the nice police/state/corporation whereas the Brit fights that establishment tooth and nail. Every character in 2000AD is cynical, skeptical, original and stubborn, unlike America where the heroes are typically squeaky clean or fight for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ or that malleable thing ‘Liberty’, British comics aren’t interested in Heroes, we want actual every people, people from council estates, the working class, the ugly, the unpopular. 2000AD has never attempted to gloss over the disgusting neglect in British society and never afraid of where to lay the blame or point the finger. Where Captain America fights for the maintenance of the status quo, Judge Dredd does the same but in a dystopia where he is undeniably a right-wing, totalitarian monster. It is no coincidence Dredd was born in the UK of 1977 a year of Strikes, a rise in Conservativism in local elections, the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland, the release of ‘Star Wars’ and most soberingly a year in which the Yorkshire Ripper was claiming more victims. Whilst American comics offer an escapist fantasy and obliquely reinforce the will of the state and the American Dream, British comics show life as it is now from the gutter up, aggressively denouncing those in power, be it through the depiction of an imperialistic ‘Teach’ or a fascist cop, or representations, though sometimes problematic – some pretty dubious sexual politics being the worst offences – , of leaders or the general public as gullible or naive fools. These are a far more honest, if extreme, and dare I say it responsible approach to depicting the world.
Today serial print media is in decline, more people read online and spending is at a low and yet 2000AD perseveres. I myself (under-employed yet again) am unable to afford the special 40th Anniversary edition but I would definitely urge you to. The Dandy ended its print edition some years back which broke my heart but was understandable and the majority of kids weekly literature is generally limited to some commercial tie-in that’s either short lived, some imported American run or just plain rubbish. Luckily we have new kid on the block, The Phoenix, which flies the Brit comic flag proudly and whilst it doesn’t go to the extremes of yesteryear it is certainly a breath of silly, weird and action packed fresh air in the comic book market. For me though 2000AD stands front and centre, most certainly not waving a flag, but forging ahead into the dark and scary political landscape of nationalism and fascism that we are witnessing, to mercilessly take the piss, send up, mock and generally laugh at it all. So thank you Tharg and everyone past and present at 2000AD for maintaining an uncompromising publication and remaining resolutely human. Drokk yeah.