by Tharg et al
385 pages, Prion
Review by Pat Black
I’ve got a soft spot for Dan Dare and Roy of the Rovers, but you’d have to accept that they’re not the world’s coolest characters. Dan had the ray guns and Roy was the sports star; both winners, sure, but as characters they were always a bit clean-cut. There was very little dirt in Dan’s Z1000 engines, and Roy always played fair.
2000AD probably marks the high point for British comic books. It began life as a curious sci-fi fusion of the punk spirit of the late 1970s and the post-industrial wasteland that was Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s. If anyone like Dan Dare (ignoring for a moment 2000AD’s aborted attempt to re-launch him) appeared in its pages, he would most likely meet a sticky end, or at the very least get the futuristic equivalent of tar and feathers.
Although it was very English in tone, some of 2000AD’s content simply wasn’t cricket. From Judge Dredd’s approach to justice in Mega City One, to the slavering dinosaurs’ eating arrangements in Flesh, the comics were absolutely stuffed with violent death from the first issue.
And little boys – like me - couldn’t get enough of it.
Today, outwith TV tie-ins and commercial offshoots, 2000AD is just about the only home-produced comic book still available in newsagents in the UK. It’s still edited by Tharg the Mighty, and he’s still saying “Borag thungg, earthlets!”
It wasn’t all about violence, though – much of it had a satirical bent, including the infamous “banned” issue in which Judge Dredd took on the might of a burger corporation, run by psychotic, cannibalistic clowns.
McDonald’s – then only just opening its first branches in Britain – took umbrage at this, for some strange reason. The copies of this issue which escaped a pulping are known to change hands for a high price among collectors.
Then there’s a simple case of talent to consider. 2000AD helped launch the careers of, among others, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Pat Mills; like them, a lot of the artists and writers who worked for Tharg went on to become famous in the States at DC and Marvel. Alan Moore could be said to be one of the few comic book writers to enjoy a reputation as rich as any prose novelist.
This book collects some classic strips from 2000AD’s 34-year history. Like any Best Of, there’s a few omissions - where the drokk was Zenith and Ace Garp, Tharg? – but the magazine’s banner heroes are all present and correct.
So there’s Judge Dredd, the lawman of the future, ready to dispense instant justice with a kind of cynical humour only really matched in popular culture when Robocop lumbered into view in 1987; the ABC Warriors’ zombie-mangling team of robot mercenaries; bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, aka Strontium Dog, whose death (despite subsequent reanimation) I’ve never quite gotten over; lonely old Rogue Trooper, the genetically-engineered super-soldier with only the three computer skulls who live in his equipment for company; Slaine, the warp-spasming Celtic warrior with his axe, Brainbiter; Nemesis the Warlock (though only in an unseen cameo appearance); and for the girls, Alan Moore’s inspired Halo Jones, drifting around futuristic malls with her alien friends.
If you haven’t spent any time in these guys’ company for a while, I would recommend that you do. If you’ve never encountered them before, this is an excellent starting point.
I was pleased to see two of my personal favourites, Flesh and Bad Company, making the cut. Flesh features futuristic cowboys travelling back to the Cretacious period to harvest the great dinosaurs for meat; unfortunately, who’s eating who becomes an issue, in a story only matched by Action magazine’s Hook Jaw the Shark for carnage at this time in British comic book history. (Giant Monsters Attack!)
Bad Company was an oddity; it came out in the mid-late 1980s, when Hollywood was turning out the big Vietnam movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. As such, it features a ragged bunch of soldiers fighting hideous aliens the Krool out on a distant planet, led by the deformed, Frankenstein-esque Kano. I was slap bang at the right age to be impressed by its blend of violence and eerie horror as a youngster; it took me until I bought the collected series in graphic novel form that I picked up on the existential issues. I still think that story and its sequel mark the high-point for British comic books. What a movie Bad Company would make.
The less well-known strips from the early days are eye-openers, too. Invasion features the UK being taken over by some decidedly Chinese-looking foreign forces called the Volgans; only shotgun-blasting Bill Savage, London taxi driver, can stop them! This guy would have been an ideal poster boy for idiots like the English Defence League or the BNP, but I have to give this strip maximum points for showing the execution of an un-named female Prime Minister, undoubtedly Mrs Thatcher.
The Harlem Heroes were an all-black futuristic sports team, taking part in Rollerball-style combat; I thought it was a curious choice to include the similarly themed Mean Team, too, but there you go. Both tales pack a punch; Roy of the Rovers, they’re not. I wonder if the rising tide of football hooliganism in the UK in the 70s and 80s was in the minds of the writers as they penned these tales of 21st century bloodsport.
A final word must go to Tharg’s Future Shocks, a series of one-off twist-in-the-tale stories in which Alan Moore’s work became very prominent. Moore created the anarchistic duo, DR and Quinch, who rather blithely skip through the universe causing chaos – and in one episode, affecting the course of human history after they play truant from college.
It makes me smile to think that so many mothers would have bought this brilliant, subversive magazine for their children, scarcely realising what carnage its pages would unleash. I’m forever thankful that my own old dear was one of them.