2000 AD: A British institution

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: Colin Smith speaks to Al Ewing and Henry Flint.

2000 AD artist Henry Flint still recalls the excitement of encountering the first issue of the weekly SF-adventure comic. It was, he says, "nasty, brutal. Parents hated it. The morality of the heroes was questionable. After the Beano, I was a little scared. I loved it."

It's hardly surprising that his seven-year-old self would feel that way. 2000 AD was nasty and brutal and purposefully so. A long-pent up snarl of frustration and ambition from creators weary of profoundly conservative comics, 2000 AD featured the grimmest of anti-heroes in absurdly amped-up, fantastical tales with more than just a taste of radical agitprop. An America devastated by nuclear war and ruled over by one-strike-and-you're-executed blackshirts! Giant intelligent dinosaurs warring with time-travelling cowboys sent back to slaughter them from an environmentally-depleted and meatless 23rd century! Like so much of the best pop culture, 2000 AD took a generally dismissed form and infused it with innovative storytelling, challenging politics and a gleefully taboo-busting sense of the transgressive. "As a kid, 2000 AD was a friend, it was my secret," remembers Flint. "I felt like I'd been accepted into a secret club."

Writer Al Ewing, a frequent collaborator of Flint's, was similarly impressed by the copies which his elder brother brought home every week:

"2000 AD taught me the first lessons about how deft and intelligent comics could be, while at the same time being a thrill-ride suitable for all ages. After that I kind of stopped paying attention to the people trying to teach me that comics were inherently junk."

The past year has been a remarkable success for 2000 AD and its publisher Rebellion Press. The transformation of the entertainment landscape means it's no longer able to rely on a mass audience of young readers inculcated with the habit of reading comics. But Rebellion has responded by nurturing new markets for its huge library of characters and stories through book collections, digital distribution, films, gaming, audio plays, and more.

Even while the movie adaption of its flagship character Judge Dredd topped the British box-office earlier in the year, the comic itself continued to focus on ingeniously-crafted "thrill-rides" (the comic has its own joke vocabulary – stories are "thrills", issues are "progs", and the whole thing is "edited" by an alien from Betelgeuse called Tharg). The content itself is typically a touch more measured now, aimed at an older audience. But the comic's never lost its signature fusion of out-there excitement, ever-ambitious craftsmanship and smart, challenging content. As Flint says, "It can't be what it was in the 80's, but it's evolved into something relevant for today. It seems to have settled into a new identity which still delivers the pathos and humour while offering a mirror to the modern world."

Whether working together or with other creators, Flint and Ewing's contributions to 2000 AD are marked by a determination to be both accessible and innovative, populist and experimental. There's nothing precious or pretentious about their pages, but there is a fierce conviction that empty-hearted retreads of past features and complacent narrative shortcuts are to be avoided at all costs. (Ewing: "When you look at your work and think how perfect it is, that's the start of the long decline.") As such, their body of work together is notably versatile and entertaining, packed as it tends to be with a willingness to hybridise 2000 AD's strips with a broad range of cultural influences. Their recent, claustrophobic noir-tinged take on Judge Dredd – the future's most fascist super-cop – unexpectedly drew from the paranoia and scheming of John Le Carre's spy novels. In contrast, their horror-comedy Zombo mixed precisely calibrated farce with broad political satire, as they lashed out at reactionary politicos, 21st century celebrity culture and slack-minded genre clichés alike.

Both men are quick to praise the way in which the current regime at 2000 AD under longtime editor Matt Smith supports their ambitions. Ewing refers to Smith as "one of the best editors you could possibly have", and Flint lauds the "freedom to experiment, change style, pick and choose who you want to work with and which projects you'd like to work on." Ewing values the fact that "once someone creates a new strip, it's generally understood that nobody else will be working on it, so I won't open the comic one day and see my character taken over by someone else."  Some writers and artists working elsewhere in the comics industry on company-owned properties may find such a fundamentally respectful situation difficult to believe in. But it's certainly paid dividends for 2000 AD and its monthly sister title, the Judge Dredd Megazine.

A comic that's approaching its 36th year in print might be expected to be heading for heritage status, safely churning out approximations of old glories for an ever-diminishing audience. But no one could hold on to such an assumption after interviewing Flint and Ewing. Both speak enthusiastically, for example, of their involvement in the recent Trifecta crossover, in which a trio of apparently quite separate strips by entirely different creative teams were slowly revealed to be telling the same story from multiple perspectives. The equivalent of three prime-time cop shows reaching mid-series before unexpectedly beginning to merge, Trifecta presented the reader with an unusually complex and inventive cross-narrative about a coup in Judge Dredd's beloved Mega-City One. An experiment the likes of which the comic had never seen before, it's been greeted with unanimously positive reviews.

Yet no matter how enthused by that experience Flint's been, he's still playfully sure that the next Zombo series will be, all "modesty set aside… brilliant". But then, as Ewing argues, "the best thing we've done together is always the newest thing".

The last word should perhaps go to Ewing, a novelist as well as an author of comics. When asked whether 2000 AD was still an important comic in 2012, his response was unequivocal:

"It's always been an important comic."

With thanks to Henry Flint and Al Ewing for their aid.

A slice of the front cover of 2000 AD #1812. Image: Rebellion Press

Colin Smith is a comics critic who writes the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times