2000 A.D. is best known as the magazine that launched Judge Dredd as Mega-City One's top lawman. But it also helped give science fiction some of its greatest creators and weirdest ideas, including launching Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and others. David J. Williams, author of The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Sky and the Machinery of Light, explains just why 2000 A.D. was such an important milestone in the genre's history.
Q: What was it about 2000 A.D. that had you hooked?
A: It was the intensity of the fiction...
—Warren Ellis, as interviewed in Writers on Comic Scriptwriting
When the weekly science-fiction anthology 2000 A.D. kicked off, there was little reason to believe it would last more than a few years. That was the average shelf life for British comics in the 1970s, and the market was as crowded as the competition was fierce. But 2000 A.D. was nothing if not precise in its timing: the summer of 1977 was when Star Wars hit the big screen, and science-fiction was going mainstream; riding that wave, the comic targeted pre-adolescent boys looking for something edgier then the war and sports comics that dominated the U.K. newsagents' shelves in their demographic. 2000 A.D. became an immediate hit.
Of course, had the comic remained at the level of the middle-grade constituency, it's unlikely I'd be penning this article. But this year's celebration of the comic's 35th anniversary is a testament to 2000 A.D.'s ability to adapt to its readers while competitors fell by the wayside. Shapely females started to appear by the early 1980s as the audience hit puberty; more importantly, the storylines became ever more sophisticated, fueled by a group of artists and writers who can only be called rising stars if one is given to extreme understatement. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland... the list reads like a Hall of Fame, and all of them cut their professional teeth in 2000 A.D. Remembering those early days, writer-editor Alan Grant recalled fishing Alan Moore's first submission out of the slush pile:
... As soon as I read the script, I knew we had a new writer for the comic. Only problem was, the story was too wordy. I sat down to cut it, and was amazed to find I couldn't do it. Alan had written a script which was so well-integrated that I couldn't cut it without rewriting the whole thing! So I took the diplomatic route out—I wrote back to Alan and told him if he could cut the word count by around 30/35% we'd buy it. He did, we did, and look where he ended up.
In their individual career arcs, Moore and his colleagues achieved what the comic that launched them did not: they went on to conquer America, breaking into (some would say dominating) the Marvel and D.C. universes, redefining their possibilities even as 2000 A.D.'s own success remained confined largely to Britain. While management missteps arguably played a role here, part of the problem was the anthology formula; though this allowed 2000 A.D. to run several different stories at once and rapidly drop the ones that weren't well-received by readers, it also made it more difficult to launch wholesale into the already-saturated American market.
Thus most of the attempts to gain the attention of the U.S. audience involved specific characters, most notably Judge Joseph "Joe" Dredd as he fights crime in Mega-City One, which stretches down the entirety of the U.S. eastern seaboard at the dawn of the 22nd century. Since his creation by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd has appeared in every issue ("progs", as they're termed) save the first one — his is without question the flagship story, since he's been virtually synonymous with the 2000 A.D. brand for his entire run.
Indeed, Dredd is a good example of how the comic has evolved — originally almost a parody of "rough justice", Dredd gradually begins to doubt his duty, from the suppression of Democracy activists to enforcement of his city's stringent anti-mutant laws. Crucially — perhaps even unfashionably — there are no reboots in 2000 A.D., just one of the longest continuities in comics history, for today's Dredd is simply a much older version of the man whom fans were first introduced to more than three decades back. Anti-aging treatments notwithstanding, he feels his mortality creeping up on him: the younger judges are faster, their reflexes quicker, and increasingly he only stays ahead by sheer force of will and experience.
Of course, with the upcoming release of the new movie (which promises to right much that the first got wrong), he may yet gain a new lease on life — even as he gives 2000 A.D. one more shot at the proverbial title. This would be a good thing for all of us, because a single article can do no more than scratch the surface of the myriad stories contained in the more than 1,800 issues to date. From Pat Mills' epic SLAINE (think Conan the Barbarian gone Celtic and crazy) and Alan Moore's forgotten classic THE BALLAD OF HALO JONES to Gerry Finley-Day's HARRY TWENTY ON THE HIGH ROCK (the best orbital-prison saga ever written), to more recently introduced sagas like LENNY ZERO (an undercover judge in Mega-City One!) and Robbie Morrison's SHAKARA (take space-opera, and then take acid), the variety and scale and scope of what's become the spearhead of British science-fiction are nothing short of astounding. It's strange at the age of 41 to be writing about something I was introduced to in the fourth grade, but — a little like Dredd himself — there are perks to getting older, and I daresay this is one of them.