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.

Photo: Alamy
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Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder