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.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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