I’m not sure if it’s a law or anything but it’s a rule of thumb: if you read comics and you’re British, then you read 2000 AD at some point in your comic-book reading life. For some, it’s a lifelong connection; for others, it’s a phase but it’s a phase that sticks with you, and the characters that you read during that time stick with you no matter where you reading tastes take you.
The latter is the case for me: I started reading and collecting 2000 AD around 1986 (I wish I had made diary notes of what I was reading and when – it would’ve made writing blogs about it easier in the future …) and the stories I read then would linger. I was helped in my immersion of 2000 AD by the fact that there was a monthly Best of 2000 AD magazine published at the time, reprinting early classic strips that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to read and which contained some classic stories.
2000 AD was a real mix of different things – the main element was sci-fi mixed with war, but it had a lot of other different concepts. Ace Trucking Co. was an odd comedy mixing trucking with sci-fi. Sam Slade: Robo-Hunter was a comedy noir-style future story (with some lovely art by Ian Gibson). Nemesis the Warlock was a mix of sci-fi and magic and religious imagery. Slaine was a mix of Celtic historical folklore and violent action (with early art from Glenn Fabry). DR & Quinch was an out-and-out comedy in a sci-fi setting, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Alan Davis. ABC Warriors was about seven robots fighting for humans (I was hugely impressed by the early art of Simon Bisley on this strip, the hypermuscles with lots of background details). It was perfect entertainment for a teenage boy with an interest/obsession with science fictional adventures and fantastical ideas. I’m amazed that the comic was allowed to be published – the violence in it was phenomenal, which was part of the appeal for teenage boys, but I have no idea how they got away with it.
I should point out that my top five does not include Judge Dredd, the face of 2000 AD (apart from Tharg, of course), the most popular character, the basis for a film which I really enjoy, and the character so popular that he gets his own US-published comics (despite the fact he has his own Megazine in the UK in addition to the stories in 2000 AD). Judge Dredd is a good character and there have been some great stories by some great artists (in addition to classic tales such as Judge Death and others in the aforementioned Best of 2000 AD, I vividly remember two minor one-offs: a Barry Kitson-drawn story where Dredd had to fight a Bruce Lee-like character; and a story called Bat Mugger, the only time Alan Davis drew Judge Dredd, in which Dredd had to face off against a mysterious character dressed as a bat …) but I’ve never particularly liked him as a character. I think the whole point of Dredd is that he is a violent fascist who is made the protagonist by the fact that the world in which he lives is so much worse – I don’t believe he’s supposed to be likeable. The fact that he has been around consistently for so long means that the hit/miss ratio (pardon the pun) for his story quality is higher than usual. So, onto the five characters that mean more to me than the most well known …
5. Halo Jones
I hadn’t read the first two books, but I started collecting 2000 AD just before the weekly publication of The Ballad of Halo Jones Book 3, and it made a huge impact on me. I hadn’t read anything like this before – I hadn’t read any Alan Moore yet, except perhaps for a collection of his Time Twisters in Best of 2000 AD – and certainly not an ordinary female protagonist in extraordinary circumstances. It had beautiful art from Ian Gibson and it twisted my brain with the concepts of fighting a war on a planet so large that its gravity warped time to such a degree that a battle on the ground that lasted minutes took place in slow motion over six months to outside observers. Lyrical, heartfelt, emotional, exciting – the story still haunts me after all this time, and it’s a shame we won’t get to see the full nine books that might have existed.
4. Bad Company
This is a bit of a cheat – the title says ‘characters’ not ‘team’ – but the team had so many characters that the effect is the same. Another story I read in the weekly publication, it was also my first exposure to Peter Milligan (and it’s one of my favourite works by him) and his mind-expanding literary style in the midst of a futuristic war story. With wonderfully stylistic art by the late Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy, Bad Company was a brutal tale of soldiers fighting in a vicious war and the desensitising effect on those fighting, in particular the narrator character of Danny Franks. There was also some depth to it, some twists in the tale and a lot of ultraviolent murdering of enemy aliens (the unsubtly name Krool) on a weird alien planet. Quite a heady brew for an impressionable teenager.
3. Strontium Dog
This is the first character where I have the Best of 2000 AD to thank for being able to read some early great stories, such as Portrait of a Mutant, which was essentially the origin story of the hero: Johnny Alpha. In the future, nuclear war wipes out 70% of Britain’s population, leading to huge increase in mutant births and prejudice against these muties. The only job they could get was as bounty hunter for the Search/Destroy agency – SD – hence the nickname of Strontium Dogs. Johnny Alpha has mutated eyes what allow him to see through walls and read minds, but he can pass for human unlike most muties (like his colleague and friend, Middenface McNulty, nicknamed for the hard knobby bumps on his head, who introduced me to Glaswegian slang such as Jings, Crivens, Help ma boab, Bampot, Numpty). The combination of John Wagner and Alan Grant on writing and Carlos Ezquerra’s wonderful art made reading these adventures a delight. I mean, who can’t love The Schicklgruber Grab, where they go back in time to bring back Hitler to be tried for his crimes in the future? The stories were extremely violent but there was a lot of humour and some things to say about prejudice and corruption. For me, I’ll always remember Max Bubba (essentially the origin of Wulf, Johnny’s S/D partner, who was a Viking brought into the 22nd century by Johnny while on a time job) and in particular the follow-up story, Rage!, in which Johnny hunts down Bubba for killing Wulf – the lengths to which Johnny goes to exact as much vengeance as possible is chilling, and Ezquerra’s art really sells the intensity of his fury.
2. Rogue Trooper
This was another Best of 2000 AD win, where I was able to read the good stuff (Eye of the Traitor, Milli-Com Memories) that had been published before I started reading 2000 AD. Rogue is the last of the blue-skinned Genetic Infantrymen (GIs), genetically engineered soldiers designed to survive the poisoned atmosphere of Nu Earth, the battleground for a future war between Norts and Southers (which is closely modelled on the American Civil War, with hints of the Second World War). Betrayed by a traitor, the rest of the GIs were killed at the Quartz Massacre, but the bio-chips of three of Rogue’s friends, Helm, Gunnar and Bagman were saved by Rogue and placed in the chip containers of Rogue’s equipment (his helmet, his gun and his backpack, respectively). Rogue goes AWOL to find the traitor and avenge his comrades. That’s a great concept for an ongoing 2000 AD series, and there were some great stories and impressive character work considering three of them are just voices.
Strangely, for a character who is almost a pure distillation of the 2000 AD ethos, Rogue Trooper was created in response to a readers’ poll that said that futuristic war stories were popular. The task was given to Gerry Finley Day and Dave Gibbons, who drew the first stories, but Gibbons didn’t stay on for long. Other great artists who worked on the character included Colin Wilson, Brett Ewins and Cam Kennedy, perhaps the artist I think of when I remember Rogue, but all the artists put their own stamp on the character. Rogue Trooper is a prime example of 2000 AD, and I can’t wait for the film by Duncan Jones …
Another indication of how contradictory I am regarding 2000 AD characters: my favourite is the least 2000 AD figure on the list. A British superhero in 2000 AD? I don’t know how that happened but I’m glad that it did. Zenith came out soon after I started collecting 2000 AD and it blew me away; it was my introduction to Grant Morrison and I was never the same again.
Zenith was something entirely different in 2000 AD – he was the son of two members of Cloud 9, a super-team in the 1960s genetically engineered by British military but who rebelled to become psychedelic fashion icons. Zenith has strength and flight but they are dependent on his biorhythms; however, he doesn’t fight crime – he’s a pop singer who is shallow and spoilt and completely self-centred. With great art from Steve Yeowell, Zenith was unlike anything in the rest of 2000 AD, and I was mesmerised. It also helped that it was contemporaneous and set in the UK – the only superhero stuff I’d seen was set in the US, so this was mind-blowing.
When I was reading 2000 AD weekly, I read Phase I and Phase II of Zenith’s adventures. In Phase I, Zenith (very) reluctantly teams up with surviving members of Cloud 9 to defeat the Many-Angled One called Iok Sotot, while Phase II had a bad guy who was a media tycoon modelled on Richard Branson who wants to use Zenith to impregnate his female superhuman clones to create new superhumans with whom he will achieve world domination. I wouldn’t get my hands on the other Phases until I picked up the first collected editions, where Morrison really went full-out with the superhero multiverse crossover that was something else. Zenith was Morrison at the start of his career, working on something he created, fully unleashed and full of the youthful vitality of someone with something to prove. I can still remember panels and dialogue vividly from that first encounter (and the many re-reads) and Zenith will always be my favourite 2000 AD character.
I confess that I stopped reading 2000 AD in the late 1980s and haven’t checked in with what’s going on with these characters, so I can’t be called a true fan. But this encapsulates a couple of years when I was a hardcore fan and couldn’t get enough of the best weekly comic book about extremely violent science fiction in the galaxy.