Irish Comic News

2000AD at 2000: An Interview With Michael Carroll

As part of the lead up to issue 2000 of 2000AD, I thought I’d ask a couple of Irish creators who will be talking part in the 2000th issue celebration at Big Bang Comics about their connection to the book. First up is Judge Dredd writer, 2000AD expert and, well, just a huge fan of the comic, Michael Carroll.

I’ve heard you tell the story of being one of the first people in Ireland to get a copy of 2000AD issue one.

This is true! Well, it’s true as far as I can be bothered to check, which is not very far, and with the understanding that it was a long time ago so much of what I remember is open to doubt… Back in those days, the weekly comics used to arrive in the shops on Thursdays, so on Thursday afternoons after school I’d race up to the local newsagent’s to purchase whichever comic was my weekly fix. Usually only one comic per week, mind you: this was the 1970s and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around.

At the time 2000AD was launched, my favourite comic was Bullet, published by DC Thomson. I’d mostly given up on Marvel UK’s reprint titles because they’d canned The Avengers – it was absorbed into their longer-running title The Mighty World of Marvel – plus their process of reprinting the US monthly titles on a weekly basis meant that they were running out of material and had taken to splitting the stories into smaller and smaller chunks: with The Superheroes title, for example, the first few issues used to reprint one whole issue of The Silver Surfer plus a half-issue of The X-Men. But by 1977, the Marvel UK titles generally contained five or six different strips… Just like the IPC titles, you might think, but the Marvel strips had not been designed to be split into three- or four-page chunks, and it was very obvious.

But I digress… I was familiar with IPC’s titles Battle Picture Weekly and Action, but didn’t collect them regularly. Battle was all war stories, so that wasn’t really my thing, and Action didn’t seem to be as much fun as Bullet. Looking back… Yeah, I was definitely wrong about that! A lot of Action’s stories still work but the adventures in Bullet have not aged well at all.

I was aware that 2000AD was on the horizon because I’d seen an ad for it in Action or Battle or some other IPC title, and I was looking forward to it: I was a huge science fiction buff so this looked to be right up my street. Plus I was ten years old – almost eleven – which made me the ideal age.

On the week that 2000AD was due to be published, I just happened to be in the newsagent’s on the Wednesday evening when the weekly delivery of comics arrived. Perhaps they came early that week, or perhaps they were always delivered on Wednesday evenings; I might never learn the truth. But it matters not: what does matter is that the newsagent knew I was interested in 2000AD because I’d been asking him about it. He opened the bundles of comics right in front of me, and handed me the first one. So, I might not have been the very first person in the whole of Ireland to own a copy of 2000AD, but I’m pretty certain I was the first person in Ballybrack.

And skip ahead many years later… When the 2012 Dredd movie was coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray, Leonia and I just happened to be in HMV when the boxes of new stock arrived. One of the store assistants opened the box of Dredd DVDs there and then, and we got the first one! So there!

What was your first impression of the comic?

I loved it instantly. On TV, science fiction was pretty well represented by Doctor Who, Star Trek, Gerry Anderson’s stuff and the occasional US TV show (Planet of the Apes, Land of the Giants, The Gemini Man, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel) but not everyone had television – there was certainly a good stretch of the 1970s when we didn’t have a TV at home – and not every show was available back in those days when there were only four channels (BBC1, BBC2, RTÉ and a random ITV channel – in our case that was HTV so half of that one’s content was in Welsh). There were science fiction books in the library, of course, but I’d read them all. Movies were just too expensive, plus they didn’t really cater to our needs: the SF movies were either ponderous affairs like 2001: A Space Odyssey or kids’ stuff like The Cat from Outer Space. Now and again a fun movie like Planet of the Apes would come along, but not often.

In comics, science fiction came in the form of the occasional strip in the British anthology comics such as The Whizzers from Oz in The Topper, Adam Eterno in Lion (or Valiant, or Thunder, depending on your age!), or an adaptation of a TV show (Doctor Who in TV Comic, Thunderbirds in TV Century 21), or reprints of old Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby strips that could be found in the Alan Class comics or padding out the Marvel UK titles. So there was not a lot of fresh, new stuff around for the discerning ten-year-old SF buff. Remember, this was before we’d ever even heard of Star Wars!

And then 2000AD landed… It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it exploded onto the scene, but it’s true. The only comic that came close to matching 2000AD in intensity, imagination and execution was its predecessor Action, which had recently been pulled – and subsequently neutered – for being too violent (actually, there’s a lot more to the demise of Action than that, but this isn’t the time to go into it!). With 2000AD, the creators could indulge in all the violence they wanted because the SF settings provided an extra “remove” for the concerned parents.

It’s been said that 2000AD arrived at the perfect time to catch the Star Wars-led wave of SF popularity that’s been going strong ever since, but I believe it’s more accurate to say that 2000AD was instrumental in creating that wave of SF popularity, at least here and in the UK, if not elsewhere.

Sure, we know that behind the scenes Jack Adrian in IPC learned that a movie called Star Wars was in production and figured that once again SF might get a temporary surge – as it had with Planet of the Apes and, before that, 2001 – but because 2000AD pre-empted Star Wars it wasn’t just chasing that bandwagon in the way that, say, Battlestar Galactica did: the contents of 2000AD were very different to Star Wars’ laser-swords and space-ships.

In that first issue, we had Britain invaded by a foreign power, time-travelling cowboys hunting dinosaurs for their meat, a computer-enhanced secret agent, frenetic jet-pack-based future sports action, and the return / reinvention of classic British SF hero Dan Dare. Then, a week later, issue two introduced a future cop character who has since proved to be rather popular.

2000AD has lasted longer than a lot of its competitors. What do you think helps it endure?

2000AD is still going because of three things:

First, there’s Judge Dredd. He’s a great character in a wonderful setting that allows for almost endless variation without self-contradiction. He’s appeared in all but three or four issues of 2000AD, and has never needed a reboot. Dredd ages in real-time, too: the first story was set in 2099, and now in Dredd’s world it’s 2138 – he’s an old man who’s been a Judge for almost sixty years. You don’t get that sort of continuity and consistency with any other comic character! And let’s not forget Dredd’s own monthly comic – Judge Dredd Megazine – which has now been running for twenty-six years (or, to put it another way, the Megazine is two thirds of the age of its parent title 2000AD).

Second thing that keeps 2000AD going: strong editorial control. The Mighty Tharg, ably assisted by Matt Smith, keeps a very tight grip on the reins. Because 2000AD is an anthology comic there’s always a mix of old and new stories (and old and new creators) and that helps keep everything fresh. And the creators are the best in the business (myself excluded for reasons of false modesty). Alan Moore, John Higgins, Brian Bolland, Colin MacNeil, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Jock, Kevin O’Neill and Charlie Adlard – to name but a few – all got their “big breaks” working for 2000AD. Plus there are creators who were already established in the industry before they joined 2000AD but have been hugely influential: John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, Steve Dillon, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot…

Third thing: It’s not just Dredd. There’s also Strontium Dog, Sláine, Kingdom, Judge Anderson, Nemesis the Warlock, Durham Red, ABC Warriors, Jaegir, Shakara, Rogue Trooper, Nikolai Dante, Zenith, Sinister Dexter, Red Seas, DeMarco P.I., Button Man, Fiends of the Eastern Front, Robo-Hunter, The V.C.s, Cradlegrave… Seriously, don’t get me started on this – we could be here all week! The point is that 2000AD hits the target a lot more often than it misses, and it breaks my heart that so many so-called comics fans will happily spend two hundred quid a month on American comics and never think twice to look at 2000AD.

Do you have any particular favourite stories or runs?

Far too many to list them all, but let’s start with Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War, the three adaptations of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels, Strontium Dog: Rage, Sláine: The Horned God, ABC Warriors: The Black Hole, Judge Anderson: Shamballa, Robo-Hunter: Day of the Droids, Judge Death, ABC Warriors: The Volgan War, Strontium Dog: Portrait of a Mutant, Cradlegrave, Nemesis: The Gothic Empire, Leviathan, Meltdown Man, Return to Armageddon, Necronauts, Zombo, D.R. & Quinch. And Zenith, of course. And I’ve got a soft spot for the original Ro-Busters, too…

… And let’s not forget 2000AD’s version of Dan Dare! I loved that story back in the day, but it was generally considered to be a pale imitation of the original character from Eagle, even by The Powers That Be at the time: they kept retooling the character in an attempt to make it work. The original was all stiff-upper-lipped WWI RAF pilot stuff straight out of the boys’ story papers and seemed very dated in 1977, so a reinvention for 2000AD was necessary. Here, Dare started out as a spandex-wearing, buzz-cut-haired, butt-kicking Space Hyper-Hero and when that didn’t work, he was turned into a sort of grittier, leather-jacket-wearing Captain Kirk in charge of a mighty starship exploring strange new worlds, etc. Eventually that, too, was given the Extreme Make-Over treatment and Dare became a proto-superhero complete with a unique powerful weapon called The Cosmic Claw. And when that version fizzled out, the strip was put on hiatus. That was issue 126… Or 1874 issues ago. I’m still waiting for him to come back!

In the years since, the 2000AD Dare became something of a joke. Readers and reviewers would scoff at how it was a huge badly-judged misfire and was a sort of black mark on the comic’s otherwise pristine early years: 2000AD had deliberately exploited a beloved British comics icon and shamefully warped him into something unappealing and utterly unrecognisable. When the new version of Eagle comic was launched in 1982, it featured another interpretation of Dan Dare, this one much closer to the original. The 2000AD Dare was swept under the carpet, and everyone pretended that it hadn’t really happened. Except me: I was still championing its virtues!

And last year, after decades of dwelling in both Copyright Limbo and Rampant Reader Apathy, 2000AD’s version of Dan Dare was finally reprinted in the first of two gorgeous hardbacks, to much acclaim. The reviewers – while still acknowledging the huge gulf between it and the original Dan Dare – loved the imagination behind the stories, the frenetic pacing, and of course the sublime artwork by Massimo Belardinelli and Dave Gibbons. (Volume 2 is coming out soon, folks – add it to your Christmas list!)

You’ve gotten to put you’re stamp on 2000AD’s main man Judge Dredd and have worked with some iconic 2000AD artists. Do you have a particular favourite story, scene or something from your run?

“Caterpillars” is one of my favourites from my first year on Dredd because the living legend that is Bryan Talbot returned to 2000AD for the first time in over twenty years just to draw my story! Bryan did the pencils for the strip and his massively-talented son Alwyn painted it. OK, to be honest, it’s more likely that Bryan contacted Matt and said, “I’ve got a free week coming up: do you have anything you’d like me to draw?” and by chance my story happened to be close at hand, but I prefer to think that The Mighty One loved the story so much that he hunted down Bryan specially for it.

“Unchained” was also a big deal for me because it was drawn by John Higgins. I’d been a huge fan of John’s work for years, and he’s a great friend, so to finally get to work with him was fantastic. Even better, that story was coloured by the wonderful Sally Jane Hurst, who is also a long-time friend and an exceptionally gifted artist (and singer!).

I’m also pretty happy with my story “Downtime” which was an interlude into the huge Day of Chaos epic: Tharg contacted me out of the blue and said that there’d be a delay with the ongoing Day of Chaos story and he needed a single-issue fill-in strip. I sent him the script the next morning and it was in print four weeks later: that means that the artist (Ben Willsher), colourist (Chris Blythe) and letterer (Annie Parkhouse) all had no more than a week to create that strip – but then they are among the best in the business, working at the top of their game! Now, “Downtime” is perhaps not the best Judge Dredd story ever written (it’s not even included in any of the Day of Chaos reprints), but it’s memorable for me for more than just the speed at which it was produced: when it first appeared, some of the reviewers initially didn’t realise that it wasn’t written by the main writer of Day of Chaos (and Dredd’s co-creator), John Wagner, so they sung its praises. And then when they spotted that I was the writer, a couple of them turned on me! I was accused by one of defrauding the readers, and by another of stealing work from under Mr Wagner’s nose… Ah, that was fun!

“The Forsaken” is another favourite because it gave me a chance to play with the format a little: it’s a six-part tale, but each part is almost its own stand-alone mini-adventure. My old pal PJ Holden was on art duties for that one. He’s an awesome artist and for this one he totally knocked it out of the park!

I think that my one-off Mean Machine Angel story “Rising Angel” worked pretty well. Mean was a pretty important Dredd character whose tale sort of fizzled out. The artist Nick Percival suggested to me that he’d like to return to the character, so I worked out a story and we pitched it to Matt. Nick did some stunning work on that one and – if he never comes back again – I think we gave Mean Machine the send-off he deserved.

More recently, I’m very happy with how my “stealth epic” (as one reader called it) worked out. Writing it was a tough slog because the story crosses over into the Judge Dredd Megazine. Previous crossovers between 2000AD and the Meg have not been well-received, mostly because of the need to read each part in the right order and that can get completely screwed up if one of the titles is delayed. Judgement Day, in particular, suffered in that regard: at the time, the Meg was a fortnightly publication, so the readers needed a map to be able to tell that was going on.

So inter-title crossovers have been frowned upon… But avoiding them completely is a mistake, too: with Day of Chaos, for example, that story ran in 2000AD every week for half a year, while at the same time the Meg had its own Dredd adventures. In terms of continuity, which story happened first? DoC or the Meg tales? If the tales take place after DoC, then they should reflect the changes to Dredd’s world that happen in DoC. If they take place before, then they seem almost throw-away tales in comparison.

Early last year Matt asked me to develop a follow-up to the Blood of Emeralds story, which had been received rather well. I already knew where I wanted that story to go, but I realised that I could broaden the scope a bit and also deal with a major aspect of Dredd’s world that I felt had been pretty much ignored. I won’t say exactly what that aspect is because I don’t want to spoil too much for those who haven’t read it yet but are planning to buy the graphic novel edition – Every Empire Falls – which is coming out next February (subtle hint!), but the upshot is that Matt and I looked at the publication schedule of both the weekly 2000AD and the monthly Megazine and figured out where to split the story between the two publications in such a way that it would be possible for those who only read one title to not feel like they were missing out too much.

On the whole, I think it worked out rather well. It’s by far my longest published Dredd story, clocking in at 148 pages over twenty-two episodes, plus – and this is pure solid gold as far as I’m concerned – the final episode was drawn by Dredd’s co-creator Carlos Ezquerra! I’ve been a fan of Carlos’s work ever since his days on Battle Picture Weekly, so to have the great man draw my script was a dream come true! (The other artists on the saga are Colin MacNeil, PJ Holden and Henry Flint – I feel unworthy to be associated with such talent!)

Do you have anything on your 2000AD bucket list that you want to write or someone you’d like to work with?

I do indeed! There are some artists with whom I’d love to work, and more than a few characters I want to tackle… But I won’t dwell on them here because, well, you never know what’s in the pipeline that I can’t talk about. That said, will everyone please ask The Mighty One to give me a crack at finishing off that long-dormant Dan Dare strip? Thanks!

With the recent Dredd epic I was lucky enough to be able to use characters like Judge Beeny, Judge Giant, Judge Rico and Cursed Earth Koburn for the first time: the latter in particular was a treat because I adore the character. He was created by Gordon Rennie and Carlos, and was very much inspired by Major Eazy from Battle, which I’ve always loved. Gordon recently decided that he was done with the character and gave me his blessing to do what I will with him.

I’d also like to write an original non-Dredd strip at some point, but, again, let’s not linger in that area for fear of tainting the future…

As we reach issue 2000, is there anything in particular you’d like to see in the comic’s future?

More female creators would be nice! There have been hundreds of male creators and only a handful of women. Emma Beeby is doing some stunning work on Judge Anderson at the moment, and Leah Moore is totally bringing her A-game to Black Shuck (which she co-writes with John Reppion), and thankfully there are stalwarts like the great Annie Parkhouse (my most frequent collaborator!), but we need more diversity among the creators. In that regard, 2000AD has long been seen as a “boys’ club” by some people but I think that it’s not that female creators are excluded: there’s just not enough of them submitting work.

I’d like to see more diverse stories, too: The Ballad of Halo Jones is a great example of how it can work when it’s done well, and the much more recent Brass Sun is just utterly brilliant and shows that not every successful story has to be about a male muscle-bound hero in a war situation!

But even if none of that comes to pass, I think that 2000AD still has a very strong future. We’re coming up to forty years now: there are people working on the comic who weren’t even born when it was launched. This is as it should be! Yes, the name 2000AD possibly seems archaic to younger readers (it still sounds futuristic to me!), but the message behind the comic is still solid, and just as important as it was back in 1977: The future is still out there, waiting for us to forge a path to it.

As part of the 2000th issue celebration, Michael Carroll will be doing a signing at Big Bang Comics in Dundrum this coming Saturday at 1pm.