Mind the oranges, Marlon: Douglas looks at 2000 A.D.

I got my first look at the weekly British anthology series 2000 A.D. sometime around 1980 or 1981, when Mile High Comics had a "five bucks for ten randomly selected British weeklies" special--the issues I got included a couple of the Judge Dredd stories that Brian Bolland drew, and I was pretty impressed, especially by how tightly constructed the stories were. With only five or six pages to an episode and at least five stories in each issue, there was a lot happening in very little space. In 1982, I got to visit England, went to Forbidden Planet in London, and bought a pile of 15 or 20 recent issues (excuse me "progs"), in the 250-275 range. This time I was riveted: the enormous, roaring Apocalypse War storyline was going on in "Judge Dredd," and there was also Alan Grant and Ian Gibson's "Robo-Hunter," Massimo Belardinelli's totally silly artwork for "Ace Trucking Co.," Dave Gibbons occasionally popping in to draw "Rogue Trooper"... I read them over and over, and after that, I made a special effort to find stores in the U.S. that carried the series.

It may be hard to imagine how exciting 2000 A.D. was in the early '80s if you've only read individual series in collections, but it was usually at least 3/5 awesome. And it kept getting better and better over the next few years, especially after Alan Moore started writing a bunch of serials--"The Ballad of Halo Jones," "Skizz," "D.R. and Quinch." Series I hadn't liked much at first, like "Nemesis the Warlock" and "Strontium Dog," started to grow on me. Even the lamer stuff had its charms--"Harry Twenty on the High Rock" was a by-the-numbers defiant-prisoner story that just happened to be set in outer space, but it had some nice art from Alan Davis. ("Sláine" never did much for me--somebody got sword-and-sorcery in my SF comic!--but I grudgingly accepted it.) And "Judge Dredd," usually written collaboratively by John Wagner and Alan Grant in those days, was always a treat. The setting was much sharper satire of American culture than I noticed at the time, and their Dredd was a fascinating character: a despicable hero, unutterably brave and devoted to his city but also an inhuman fascist.

In retrospect, 2000 A.D. had probably peaked by around 1987 or so, but it didn't decline quickly--there was Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's "Zenith," some really nice Simon Bisley art on the still-not-my-thing "Sláine," amusing weirdness like Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett's "Hewligan's Haircut," Garth Ennis and Mark Millar cutting their teeth. And Dredd, semper Dredd. By '92, there were signs of decline, like a Moore-less sequel to "Skizz" and updated callbacks to not-exactly-thrilling early series like "Flesh"; by the mid-'90s, I realized that it had been a good long while since there'd been a new series I'd really liked, but Dredd--once again written by John Wagner--and the occasional Morrison/Millar serials were good enough to keep me seeking out the series as it showed up in the U.S. (usually in clumps of four or five weekly issues at a time).

I finally stopped buying it a few years later--Dredd usually still delivered the goods, but the now-full-color-and-glossy 2000 A.D. Weekly had gotten awfully expensive in the U.S., and the "Nikolai Dante" and "Sinister Dexter" serials kept going and going and going and never caught my interest. But I still check in every year or so, when they published a special issue. And when the Complete Judge Dredd books started appearing, I snapped them up--the first few years' worth are pretty dodgy, but after that, they really hold up.

This brings us to Prog 2008, published last week--not the 2008th issue (this week's issue will be Prog 1567), but the end-of-2007 special. It's 100 pages long, with a bunch of features, but what's particularly interesting about it is that it's the first issue that Clickwheel is offering for sale as a downloadable PDF; each issue will be available for download a week after it comes out. Which is to say: it's in a time-frame and a format more sensible than any of the major American comics companies have yet offered.

The lead story is a Dredd Christmas special, written by Wagner (who's been writing the series on and off for the last few years), and it's built around a character moment that doesn't quite scan to me, since I haven't been following Dredd lately--but at least it makes me want to find out why it's so important "to put the mutant question to another vote." Beyond that, there's the first episode of something called "Shakara the Defiant," which has rich, intriguing art by Henry Flint (entirely brown, black and white, except for a few flashes of bright color), and a totally incoherent story; the first episode of "Kingdom: The Promised Land," which I should've given up on as soon as I saw that the post-apocalyptic barbarian hero who looks like Cable is called "Gene the Hackman"; a pretty but dull Nikolai Dante quickie; a beautifully rendered (by D'Israeli) black-and-white piece called "Stickleback: England's Glory" whose plot I might have found comprehensible if I'd read earlier installments; a Sinister Dexter one-off, arguably a little too conventionally nicely drawn for its jokey tone, that's effectively about what a one-note gun-for-hire cliché that whole series is; and an episode of another series that's apparently been running for a bit, "Caballistics, Inc.," that has the look of old-school 2KAD high-contrast black-and-white, but takes ten pages to accomplish what would once have been done in four. Finally, there's a Strontium Dog story, by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (with wretched computer coloring); it's fine, and I always like seing Ezquerra's work--he's been drawing for 2000 A.D. since the beginning--but Strontium Dog never had a sense of forward motion like Judge Dredd, and it's an exercise in nostalgia at this point.

So is a lot of the non-story material this issue. A few pages are devoted to "Great Moments in Thrill-Power," new illustrations of memorable bits from the past: the apparent suicide of Dredd from #262, the Angel Gang from #158, a nice Bryan Talbot drawing for the Nemesis serial "The Gothic Empire" from #387-406. There's a feature where fans are asked for their favorite 2000 A.D. covers. They name progs 5, 85, 112, 216, 230, 406, 469, 473, 620, 669, 686 and 883--most of them in that 1981-1990 sweet spot, none after 1994. (Also worth noting, on 2000 A.D.'s own site: the list of readers' twenty highest-ranked stories from the history of the series. Aside from three Wagner-written Judge Dredd serials, they're all pre-1993.) In some sense, it's kind of nice to know that other people agree with my sense of 2000 A.D.'s golden age, but it's depressing to think that the last 15 years' worth have produced so little of note.

The art in Prog 2008 is better than it's been the last few times I've picked up an issue--in particular, I'm going to be looking for more of Henry Flint's work (his Omega Men series wasn't nearly this cool-looking)--and reading the Dredd story made me want to catch up on the last few years' worth of Wagner's stories, at least. But I can't give this more than an Eh, because there's nothing else I want to keep reading--the delicious hypercompression and barbed comedy I associate with vintage 2000 A.D. isn't there any more. Tweaking them for their title isn't a new joke, but the fact that they're stuck with it suggests what's gone wrong: their aesthetic once implied the looming future, and now it's stuck in a past that's still sort of close but getting farther away, week by week.