Comics: Celebrating Forty years of 2000 AD in Enniskillen
Celebrating Forty Years of 2000 AD l – 5th May 2017
A brilliantly eclectic evening with a fabulous cast of 2000 AD creators, looking back at the history of the Galaxy’s Greatest comic from their perspectives across the decades.
Barely outside Enniskillen, set in idyllic surroundings is the lovely Ardhowen Theatre.
As one walks through lush green grounds, the bending Erne river widely languishes, and a small Marina made me wonder who had come by boat. It is a picturesque setting. The outside terrace and bar were busy, and I met some friends, some unexpectedly, but soon enough we were ushered into the 290-seater raked auditorium, which was spacious and comfortable.
The compère for the evening was Enniskillen Comic Fest organiser Paul Trimble. A series of video clips, including the brilliantly funny Camber Meg Green a digital mash up between classic children’s animation Trumpton and Judge Dredd was shown to rapturous applause, and then a clip of Life on Mars, brought the setting to 1973, where the context could be set for the genesis of 2000 AD.
Soon, the large screen had covers from The Mighty World of Marvel, then the launch of Warlord in 1974, which is described as a ‘Grittier’ comic from DC Thompson. Hot on the heels of Warlord is Battle, and with the screen showing us this key comic, Paul invites the first group of guests to come to the stage.
In a moment that was dealt with by Paul Trimble with calm and stoicism, the guests seemed to get waylaid; was this a Spinal Tap Moment back stage? Regardless, the audience found it amusing and the spirit in the room was high, with laughter and anticipation and then adulation as onto the stage came Alan Grant, Cam Kennedy, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner, Steve MacManus and Alan Hebden.
The history indulgence continued, and Steve spoke of going from Valiant to Battle as a Sub-editor, and how they had two freelancers in Pat Mills and John Wagner, which at the time was unheard of, working for editor David Hunt. Wagner spoke of going to work in disguise, and this set the humour of the whole evening.
John spoke of how they had sought out Carlos Ezquerra, but due to the lack of accreditation on comics, this proved difficult, as no one could identify the artwork to the artist. This was because DC Thomson did not want IPC to steal their talent. John explained that there was no-one better at character creation than Carlos, and how he would take the words from a script and create a wonderful character. He started work on Rat Pack for Battle, and then Major Eazy.
(Major Eazy and the Rat Pack, art by the one and only Carlos Ezquerra)
AIan Hebden, who I will freely admit, is an incredible plotter and has a stunning intellect for story telling, spoke softly of how he had issues writing Rat Pack, as there was too many characters, and how he much preferred Major Eazy which he came up with, and Carlos Ezquerra drew. He admitted that he preferred the characters he creates and one could see a quiet passion here. Major Eazy was seen as an anti-establishment British officer, with influences of 1960s and 70s Spaghetti Westerns and the look of James Coburn. Alan has written over three hundred issues of Commando, and later spoke of his love of Mind Wars from Starlord, drawn by Jesús Redondo.
Darkies Mob was described as ‘Vicious’ but John qualified this, saying that war itself is vicious. One felt that although excitement and action were key, the message of an underlying anti-war message was important. The talk was mixed with footage on a screen, and a very young Steve MacManus was talking about Battle, and then soon we were onto Action, launched in February 1976. Given the moniker of ‘Seven Penny Nightmare’ the panel seemed to feel that the press were harsh for harshness sake.
John spoke of writing what Paul reckoned was the first British Black lead comic character in Action, Jack Barron, appearing in the story Blackjack, as a boxing character, ‘I felt that black people weren’t being represented in comics, and should get their spot’. When asked if Muhammad Ali was an influence, he went on ‘the character would have been boring, it would be dishonest to have a white character’.
Then up came an image of an Action cover on the screen featuring ‘The Kid’ in a fighting pose, swinging a chain at a downed older gent, a police officer’s helmet on the ground, in the distance a riot, and ‘AGGRO’ in big letters across the cover. Paul made mention that this was the comic that brought Action to its end. Much laughter and mirth was showered at the feet of Carlos as he explained it was ‘my fault’ and spoke of coming up with the cover. Wagner felt that the comic management caved too quickly to what was a slow press day, looking for manufactured outrage.
The cover from Battle 100 filled the screen, and talk of Joe Two Beans, who was based on the ‘Chief’ character from One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so that a different type of story, with a different and much slower pace could give a different take on war.
There was a four page insert into Battle promoting the new 2000 AD, which was a reason some readers would have come from Battle comic straight to 2000 AD. Pat Mills had decided that stories should be longer, some five or six pages as opposed to the three in Battle, which allowed much more space for the art, and allowed big splash pages to become a feature of 2000 AD that set the comic apart. The first publication of Dredd was in the second Battle insert where Dredd was mentioned as appearing in Prog 2 of 2000 AD. The advent of Star Was was recognised as a key to 2000 AD.
The discussion moved back to Battle and El Mestizo, the Alan Hebden created character, a mercenary who was in the American civil war, but on neither side, rather his own from 1977. This was noted as an important distinction. El Mestizo was described as ‘The Wrong Character, at the Wrong Time, in the Wrong place’.
The first episode was four pages, appearing in Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant, 4th June 1977 and in that Mestizo had his first adventure in the civil war crossing into Texas and heading north hunting down a brutal murderer. He has all the makings of a Battle hero, skilled, determined, fair minded. He stops two Union soldiers being hanged unfairly, and saves a Confederate boy dispatch rider from a death-trap bridge, yet he also hunts down his quarry relentlessly. The first page nicely introduces us with beautiful pace to the character and the racism of the time is clearly set out, as is his resolve to not take any shit.
The character was considered by all to be very good, but Carlos was clear that a Black character with African Slave, Mexican and Spanish heritage was just not desired by readers at the time and there was a momentary connection to modern politics, and disdainfully acknowledged how some people do not want such people now, some forty years later. It was pretty clear though that the audience liked the character, and would have loved more than the sixteen episodes that were published.
Talk moved to character creation, and John Wagner spoke of trying to find a name for his Johnny Alpha story, and that he spent weeks trying to find one, and once he found ‘Strontium Dog’ how it all fell in place, then Carlos created the character with ease, finishing off the look and style, and adding considerably. When asked by an audience member about Starlord’s demise, the reckoning was that Starlord was too expensive, that it was originally meant to be fortnightly, and there was some humour around the editor, being so different to Tharg.
Throughout a variety of comic covers went on screen, and footage of Pat Mills, Kevin Gosnell, Alan Moore and others were shown, marking or talking about key points and giving some context and a jumping off point for Paul to pose statements or questions to the panel. Steve gave some real insight into the editorial side of things.
Throughout there was great sense of humour especially with Alan Grant, who regaled the audience with some excellent stories. There was then was a welcome refreshment break. The atmosphere and vibe was really lovely, the audience were loving this format, a mix of raw first person. When we returned, Michael Carroll and Glen Fabry had replaced Alan Hebden and Steve MacManus.
Issue #200 of Battle went up on the screen, which saw HMS Nightshade by John Wagner début, as well as Charley’s War written by Pat Mills. John described Charley’s War as ‘inspired’ and said that ‘it is the finest British comic I know’ this was echoed, and one could feel the true admiration for this comic, which is without doubt the seminal work on World War I in the comics form and an absolute jewel of British comics. Talk turned to Tornado, which was described as lacking a heart, and Alan Grant made a bet that it would not last six months which, was true and the managing director honoured the bet.
Images of Carlos’s Judge Dredd, the first story, went up on screen. This story was not published for many years after it was written and drawn. John explained how they had made Dredd a fascist, and how it was based on Thatcher, but that how at a later stage, Alan Grant went on to explain, that in a poll of their readers, they all wanted Dredd to be tougher, harder, more ‘right wing’.
I should have asked then about the initial race of Dredd. I understand that Carlos Ezquerra’s original had the character purposely drawn ‘to put a mystery as to his racial background’*, and I understood that Mick McMahon portrayed him as a black character although it was black and white art, so hard to know, and by Prog 18 and the characters portrayal on the cover, a pink pigment is used. Next time.
Carlos spoke of the joy of writing Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, and how he reckoned at one stage that Angelina was the most popular female science fiction comic character.
(Slippery Jim di Griz meets Angelina – unfortunately for him the unreconstructed, psycopathic version of Angelina – in 2000 AD’s adapatation of the great Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, art by Carlos)
Up on the screen appeared another Battle, with Alan Hebden-created ‘War Dog’ on the cover, which Cam Kennedy drew. When asked about it he quietly said ‘I am not really a dog person’ and the audience lost itself in the laughter, he went on to plaintively explain that he could either buy an Alsatian, or find reference material, so he used Lady Bird books for reference, to which the room cracked up.
Paul took the audience and panel through a variety of characters and stories, The VC s which Cam started his 2000AD work on (one of the earliest “future war” series in 2000 AD), and The Fiends of the Eastern Front that Carlos drew, both written by Gerry Finlay Day. Carlos spoke endearingly of the story, how the unusual setting of vampires in the second world war with quite a beautiful story was really enjoyable.
(Prog 158 and the still fondly remembered Fiends of the Eastern Front, art by the mighty Ezquerra)
The difference between Violence and Action, was explained by Alan Grant who said ‘You say that it is action but mainly for the management.’ Alan Hebden and Cam Kennedy then spoke about Fighting Mann, as did others on the panel. The setting of the Vietnam war being very early in the cultural cycle of post war presentation. John Wagner mentioned how it was barely over and how the concept was very clever. Cam spoke about how much he liked the hardware, and indeed, everything from Jet Planes, to Huey’s to aircraft carriers are spot on and have a level of meticulous detail which does his engineering heritage proud.
As an Alan Moore clip went across the screen, speaking highly of John Wagner, you could feel the whole audience agreeing with Alan.
The various Judge Dredd series had been talked about, The Robot Wars with Call-me-Kenneth, which had been an important point for Judge Dredd, making him the lead story in 2000 AD by popularity, and then the Cursed Earth Saga, the psychotic nature of The Angel Gang, who could match Dredd in their extremeness, and now it was the turn of The Apocalypse War to be on the screen.
John spoke of Carlos’ skill at consistently producing work on time, able to get out six pages a week, and Carlos said he is ‘The fastest pen in the west’. The influences for the Apocalypse War were spoken about, but John and Alan felt that the real reason for the War was because they wanted to reduce down the size of Mega-City 1 which was now the whole Eastern Seaboard, and just too huge, with 900 million people.
When Skizz came onto the screen the whole panel agreed that Skizz was much better than ET, which inspired it.
Cam spoke of starting on Rogue Trooper on Prog 285, and then John Wagner and Alan Grant spoke about how ‘Bad Company’ came about, doing a first episode, a pilot of sorts, but then passing it to Peter Milligan who did better than make it is own story, but make it brilliant.
Glen Fabry then spoke about his path to becoming a 2000 AD artist. He had done a foundation course in art, and at the end was working pumping petrol, but did a comic for a Stranglers fan club, and then did a self published comic with some friends, and they went to sell them in comic marts. The art was seen and soon the chance of possibly working for 2000 AD was real, and then nothing happened. Then Pat Mills wanted someone to draw Sláine and an opportunity arose for Glen. He took over Sláine after the Sky Chariots story line by Pat Mills and Mick McMahon, which he and others on the panel reckoned was one of the best Sláine stories.
A wonderful story was then recounted about the ‘Outcasts’ a 12-part comic that was published by DC comics, and how Cam Kennedy who was working on it with John and Alan went over to the DC offices in New York to speak to Denny O’Neil, as he was the nicest. When Cam did find Denny and introduced himself, as ‘Cam Kennedy’ Denny responded with ‘Kenny who’ and so the Judge Dredd story Kenny Who was waiting for Cam nearly upon his return.
(Above, Prog 477 featuring unlucky Scottish comics artist in the Big Meg, Kenny Who?, art by a rather more fortunate Scots artist, Cam Kennedy; below: the landmark Prog 500 – who knew back then we’d still be reading 2000 AD decades hence?!)
As the comic ran up towards Prog 500, the wonderful reminiscences and history was brought to an end. There was a changing of the panel, as Cam, Alan, John, Glen and Carlos left and Michael Carroll, who as the last man sitting was joined by P.J. Holden, Clint Langley, Eoin Coveney, Ian Richardson and Ryan Brown .
Michael Carroll took on the moderating duties and went through each creator’s starting point with 2000 AD. There was a lot of talk about the first story not being as difficult to get as the second one. The process of how each creator was successfully published was retold, and it was good to hear.
PJ mentioned that he had now drawn over five hundred pages of Judge Dredd, something he could never have imagined in his early days. There was not as much time for this section, as the evening had gone by, but the audience got to hear and appreciate some nice stories.
Throughout the evening, there was so much laughter. Steve made mention of his book, The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre quite early and showed it to the audience, thus setting up an ongoing gag when he or someone else would pimp it. When we started John claimed it was all Carlos’ fault, to which Carlos gently acknowledged, and Alan Grant’s involvement with certain stories was greeted with a wonderfully clear ‘No’, Michael Carroll is naturally funny, and Ryan Brown just created comedy, so these moments kept the audience laughing hard.
The evening was far from over, and the Theatre bar was busy; many had drawn up seats to chat to various creators, who were welcoming. As that bar closed, there was a mass exodus down to the Westville hotel bar, where conversation continued on for some time.
(people at a comic con going to a bar afterwards you say?? Never heard of such a thing!!)
Indeed, at this point I got chatting in depth with Alan Hebden and some friends over from Belfast. I was not aware that Alan’s father, Eric who had been a Major in the army, had also written Commando comics and the Day of the Eagle for Battle. As we discussed character creation one realised just how smart and clever he really is, and as he talked about writing, it was insightful and entertaining.
Fans bring their enthusiasm and energy, and without doubt this was here by the truck load, and the earnestness of the evening was warming to all, from the roaring cheer that Enniskilen Comic Fest had been bestowed official Forty Years of 2000AD status by Rebellion, to the intent listening and brilliant questions from the floor. The was a feeling of welcome here, pride that in this small town some of the greatest comic creators ever from 2000 AD were present to engage, talk frankly and entertain.
A cracking good night.
Editorial End Note: I had a pleasant time and photographic evidence exists of me eating smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches while swilling a mug of Pimms at 3am, reportage and quotes are from this unreliable narrator’s hand-written notes, and may contain the odd error or inaccuracy, but in the spirit of the evening, we apologise but reckon and hope I got it about right. Our thanks to Paul Trimble and the Enniskillen Comic Fest team.
*Judge Dredd: The Mega-History by Colin M. Jarman and Peter Acton.