Anybody who has been in a long-term relationship with the British comics institution 2000 AD – ritualistically reading a brand new dose of total thrillpower every week – might not notice how the whole look of the comic is always changing around them.
The decor of the comic has changed a lot in its 45-year history. Sometimes it’s just because they stopped printing it on newsprint that was little more than toilet paper and gave everything an incredible new shine with 21st century paper stocks; and sometimes it’s because you get an artist like Bolland of Bisley, who blows everyone away instantly and has everyone following in their footsteps for the next decade.
And sometimes a talented and extremely distinctive artist - even one who could even be accused of getting too cute and cartoonish for the gritty worlds of 2000 AD - can change everything with their radiant eye. It might take some time, but the comic will reach its 2300th issue this year and has decades of history and growth behind it, it can afford to take a few years to change.
The great secret of 2000 AD’s long-term success is that it provides space for all types of artistic flavors and there is always room in the anthology for a bit of fun cartooning. And when that cartooning is stylish as hell, while still built on a dedication to craft and the absolute basics of storytelling, it can change the entire look of the comic for the better.
D’Israeli did it, and because where 2000 AD goes, other comics follow, he has just quietly become one of the major influences on the entire look of early 21st century comics.
D’Israeli – aka Matt Brooker – produces art that is always precisely distinct. It’s constantly striking and alive, with the simplicity of his line-work somehow able to bring a complexity to the characters.
The people and architecture in his panels are always sturdy and inviting, with thick, heavy lines and emotive work that is just on the right side of caricature, (but only just). It generates new artistic riches when used in a variety of genres - sharpening the horror, soaring into fantasy and highlighting the absurdity.
He has also managed, through his remarkable coloring, to introduce vibrant new palettes to the prog, while still making the classic black and white shine.
Despite growing up on a steady diet of 2000 AD, D’Israeli still took the long way around to join it. Part of the UK’s Deadline generation, his earliest work on weird little alternative things was so solid and so established that he was quickly snapped up for art duties on Hellblazer comics and the Third World War serial in Crisis, though his time on those was notably short. That kind of talent doesn’t stay hidden for long, and D’Israeli was soon doing comics starring Lazarus Churchyard and Mr X, with art that hasn’t aged at all. He was inking Marc Hempel – a clear influence – on some late Sandman comics; did a couple of sharp Grendel stories and even some Batman, with a weird two-parter during the No Man's Land storyline in the late 90s.
(He wasn’t asked back by DC, probably because his Dark Knight looks gloriously goofy, the artist’s blocky style giving Batman an inevitable air of classic absurdity. There’s definitely a great Batman comic in him, if he got the chance, and a story with the right tone.)
A reader of the progs during its glory days of the early 80s, D'Israeli drifted away from 2000 AD in the 90s when his beloved nuts and bolts storytelling was replaced with a devotion to the spectacular image in the 90s. The artist, who dedicated everything he did to the sole goal of helping tell the story, felt there was no place for him on Tharg's team.
All the same, he backed into prog life through some sharp coloring for established artists like Steve Yeowell and Cam Kennedy, and deserves special recognition for getting paid for doing the color work on some black and white art by the legendary Jesus Redondo.
His art only really became part of the scene after a Future Shock he’d written appeared in prog 1207, but soon became an integral part of the book’s aesthetic.
Even with comics that many would instantly deride as too cartoony for the very serious 2000 AD, his art was so strong, the storytelling was there, and it generated such a positive response from readers that D’Israeli was used on a variety of stories in a range of genres. There was his work in the Judge Dredd Megazine on the XTNCT strip and its gender-fluid dinosaur hit squad with writer Paul Cornell, and space war horror in The Vort (also making the twist at the very end of that tale really bite).
And while he has delved into the Mega City grit of some of Rob Williams' most notable Low Life stories, the few Dredds he has produced tend to be more towards the silly side of things. He gets a Sensitive Klegg story that is Dredd at its absolute funniest, or the ongoing misadventures of a troublesome time traveler. (One notable exception is the Horror in Emergency Camp 4 story, where his clear line makes the horror of an alien monster committing mass slaughter at a refugee even more jarring.)
These would all have been enough to secure his reputation, but he also has three great series –Leviathan, about a mile-long ship powered by hellfire and trapped by that curse, as well as Stickleback, a steampunk crime tale – both with writer Ian Edgington and all showcasing the artist's formidable talents in different ways.
The duo also did a highly successful adaptation of the original War of the Worlds, but haven’t stopped there with the story. They have - over the past few decades - produced a number of volumes of *Scarlet Traces, a sequel series of massive scope, spanning decades of time and across the echo of the interplanetary void. Only a stiff upper lip stands against forces bent on the annihilation of the solar system, and they don't come any more stiff than D'Israeli's bold heroes.
There is real science-fiction horror, as screaming innocents are massacred in their thousands, but it also has giant heaving space battles and last-ditch efforts to save the world, with an apocalypse of a Gerry Anderson universe. D’Israeli’s experimentations with layers of gray in the first two stories pushed black and white comics to the sheer limit and produced startlingly incandescent results, but he also has a very peculiar color sense, as indebted to the story as anything else.
There’s less of that shine of the earlier series, but the added color - with shades and textures rarely seen in regular mainstream comics - give his images extra heft and weight, and add to their cartoonish unreality, the results of which can be truly spectacular:
(There is a potential fourth great 2000 AD series from the two creators in Helium, a series about a new world above toxic clouds which showed real promise, only to have its extraordinary world-building crumble under the weight of an unresolved cliff-hanger.)
All of these major series have a completely different look from each other, and while they are also distinctly D’Israeli, his influences are all there on the page - there's a lot of the consummate Rian Hughes in his directness, but also the dramatic poses of Neal Adams, with figurework which has the simplicity of a Paul Grist or a Seth.
D’Israeli grew up on the absolute correctness of classic British artists like Ron Embleton, Mike Noble, Frank Bellamy and John Burns, and he has times when things look very Ted McKeever or Jose Munoz. Which sounds heavy, but there is a real lightness to his work.
After all, he’s also out there to impose a tiny bit of his own brand of silliness on the world, with his use of that absurd pen-name, and the copious references to fish-paste in his work. You can’t take things too seriously.
D’Israeli’s example has helped create a whole new appreciation for that kind of cartooning brilliance, showing other artists that you don’t have to grit up your own style to make a mark. None of the best artists to follow in the 21st century - creators as diverse as Ian Culbard, Neil Googe and Dan Cornwell – really look like D’Israeli, but they’re following in his footsteps. And American mainstream comics have been trying to copy the wit and wonder of 2000 AD for decades, and all this influence will seep through.
Opening up to a more cartoonish outlook also invariably draws in a younger crowd, because kids can always appreciate these kinds of things way better than grown comic snobs. D’Israeli’s art is simple and inviting, and while a lot of his stories are very clearly not for kids, it’s arguable that he’s also responsible for the success of 2000 AD’s special Regened episodes. That’s where things can get really goofy in an attempt to grab the attention of the next generations.
Like the changes in Judge Dredd - he’s still the ultra-fascist he was in the 1970s, but under the guiding hand of co-creator John Wagner, he has immeasurably grown as a human being over the past 45 years - this change in the overall look of the comic has been so gradual that it can barely be seen when you’re reading it every week.
Step back to look at the past two decades of the comic, however, and it's there in all its artistic wonder. If the mix of styles and stories is2000 AD’s greatest strength, its willingness to change with the times and slowly evolve its look over decades can never be discounted -- especially when D’Israeli and the dedication to solid storytelling beneath that inimitable style has become such a vital integral part of the comic’s current vibe.
It’s always a pleasure to see a new issue on the shelf with some D’Israeli art in it, because even if the stories he illustrates often take place in the past or some strange sideways history, they have still blazed a path into a glorious future.