Monday, 10 February 2014

On Al Ewing, Henry Flint & 2000AD

With this blog only a month away from closing, I thought I might nostalgically post an article that I did for Newstatesmen.com at the end of 2012. The story behind this opportunity can, should anyone be at all curious, be found in a short post from the time here.  My thanks again to Al Ewing, Henry Flint and Alex Hern, all of who were outstandingly kind and helpful while this was being researched and written.
   
   
 2000AD: A British Institution 

2000AD artist Henry Flint still recalls the excitement of encountering the weekly SF-adventure comic’s first issue. 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. 2000AD was nasty and brutal and purposefully so. A long-pent up snarl of frustration and ambition from creators weary of profoundly conservative comics, 2000AD 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 on time-travelling cowboys sent back to slaughter them from an environmentally-depleted and meatless 23rd century! Like so much of the very best pop culture, 2000AD 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, 2000AD was a friend, it was my secret.” remembers Flint, “I felt like I’d been accepted into a secret club.”

Writer Al Ewing, who’s been a frequent collaborator of Flint’s, was similarly impressed by the copies brought home every week by his brother; “2000AD 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 same old tiresome debates about whether comics are a legitimate form are still being played out in today’s Sunday supplements. But out in the real world, the past year has been a remarkable success for 2000AD 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’s responded by nurturing new markets for its huge library of characters and stories through book collections and digital distribution, films and gaming and audio plays, and so on.

With the movie adaption of its flagship character Judge Dredd triumphantly topping the British box-office earlier in the year, the comic itself has continued to focus on ingeniously-crafted “thrill-rides”. The content itself is typically a touch more measured now, aimed as it is 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 2000AD 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 2000AD's strips with a broad range of cultural influences. Their recent, claustrophobically 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. Yet in an extravagant contrast, their horror-comedy Zombo mixed precisely calibrated farce with broad political satire, as they exuberantly 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 editorial regime under Matt Smith at 2000AD supports their ambitions. Ewing refers to Smith as “one of the best editors you could possibly have”, while 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.” It’s a style of management that's helped the comic thrive every bit as much as Rebellion’s innovative approach to marketing. 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 2000AD and its monthly sister title, Judge Dredd: The 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. Yet 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 quite different perspectives. The equivalent of a series of prime-time cop shows reaching mid-series before unexpectedly beginning to merge, Trifecta presented the reader with an unusually complex and inventive cross-narrative concerning 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 a comics’ scripter. When asked whether 2000AD is still an important comic in 2012, his response is unequivocal;

“It’s always been an important comic.”

.

4 comments:

  1. Amazingly, I've never read a single issue of 2000AD - No.1 came out a few days after my 11th birthday so I was the perfect age for it but at the time I was a huge Marvel fan and not interested in anything else but of course I've heard of Judge Dredd and Slaine etc. I really should buy a copy. I didn't realise this blog was closing - that's a real shame!

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    1. Hello Colin:- I didn't reach much of the early 2000ADs either. Like you, the American books were my favourites, and it wasn't until Nemesis was reprinted in colour in the American Quality Books line that I saw the light. Still, now you've got 45 years or so of 2000AD to cherrypick from. I'd advise Nemesis, Judge Dredd: The Dead Man and Trifecta as starting points. The collections can be better starting points than the weeklies, but they'll get you too :)

      Thanks for the kind thought as regards the blog. There'll be one more wave of posts here in March before TooBusy closes. If you've a moment a kill, you'd be very welcome to pop over.

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  2. Thanks for reposting this, Colin. I hadn't read it before, and I'm glad to have any additional thoughts of yours before the lights go out on Too Busy. As luck would have it, I've recently been connected with a source in England who's got a stack of more recent 2000 AD progs that will soon be headed my way. I look forward to catching up on all the great work you've previously discussed!

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    1. Hello Brian:- As always, it's splendid to hear from you again. And it's always good to hear of someone who's got a stack of comics coming their way. The great thing about receiving an aid parcel of 2000ad is that you're unlikely to hit a run when there's nothing at all worth reading. Sadly such spells in the comic's history have existed, but then, I doubt there's any decades-old comic which hasn't hit the odd dodgy period. Overall, I think it's likely you'll find some VERY fine material, and if you're lucky, you could chance into one of those golden periods when just about everything was inspiring. Good luck!

      Thanks for your kind words. They're appreciated, I assure you.

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