With 45 years under its belt as of today, it’s fair to say that British anthology comic 2000 AD is nothing if not enduring. Over the course of that four-and-a-half decade-long run, it would be the best fan service I could ever provide to say that the publisher is, unequivocally, the best there is at what they do and have been since their humble beginnings printing solely in monochrome on newsprint paper — but, in my opinion, both as a rabid Squaxx dek Thargo (or “fan”, if you’re not in the know) as well as an admirer of comics history, that would be doing 2000 AD a disservice. In so many ways, and thanks to so many hilariously bad, and bizarre examples of comics, 2000 AD may be hard to classify as the best publisher of comics throughout its history, but despite those reasons – or, perhaps, because of them – its claim of being the greatest comic in the galaxy still after 45 years feels more true than ever.
In writing this, I worried that the idea of saying “2000 AD isn’t utterly perfect from beginning til now” would ruffle a lot of feathers. After all, for nearly all 45 of its justly celebrated years (Okay, the 1990s were a little shaky), the publisher has enjoyed a — and this is putting it lightly — die hard fandom, that for better or for worse, is willing to come at your kneecaps with a bat if you have the “wrong” take on the sci-fi of their childhood. For many, 2000 AD’s beginnings as weekly “Progs” (or issues) shaped the very ideal for sci-fi comics, if not comics in their totality; finding its footing in its early years under the leadership of Pat Mills — whose experience with British war comics Battle Picture Weekly and Action would come in handy when it came to setting up the dominoes for the publisher’s big lineup — and shortly thereafter, longtime editor Steve MacManus.
Among the first strips to be published in 5-6 page installments (just as they are still to this day) were Dan Dare — revamped from his bygone days at classic title Eagle to be more action-packed and sci-fi focused — with Italian artist Massimo Bellardinelli on art; Harlem Heroes, a violent, action-packed, and jet-pack-fueled sports comic drawn by Dave Gibbons (who would later exchange strips with Bellardinelli to work on Dan Dare and vise-versa); a bionic secret agent strip inspired by The Six Million Dollar Man called M.A.C.H. ‘, and of course – as of Prog #2 – the lawman himself, Judge Dredd. It’s easy to say that the early years of the publisher overall saw tons of new stories and talent, most notably the addition of writer John Wagner, who would become the godfather of Judge Dredd, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon, Kevin O’Neill, Ian Gibson, and host of the early and most legendary creators in the business still to this day.
After eating up and absorbing the parasitic publishing siblings of Star Lord and Tornado, the publication entered into the first of its glory day periods with some of the title’s historical biggest hits including Strontium Dog, Ro-Busters, ABC Warriors, and Rogue Trooper, and a growing talent roster that included early work from the likes of Alan Moore, Steve Dillon, Brendan McCarthy, and Alan Davis. As the title continued to grow through the 1980s, it continued to discover important new talent – writers Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and John Smith all made their debuts in the weekly in quick succession, as did a newcomer by the name of Neil Gaiman, who only contributed a handful of stories; whatever happened to him…? – and add to its portfolio of classic strips with titles like Bad Company, Zenith, and Pat Mills’ celtic fantasy Sláine.
True, the title fumbled in the early ‘90s as the so-called “boys’ comics” market started to falter outside of material based on existing toys and cartoons. By that point, 2000 AD had started to outgrow the label anyway, as both the title and its readers grew up together. Even as new creators arrived – Garth Ennis and Mark Millar were both mainstays of the comic at the beginning of their careers, visibly honing their skills and making mistakes in public on a weekly basis – the publishers tried to use 2000 AD as the launch pad for a series of graphic novels and spin-off series, to greater or lesser success… mostly the latter. (The holy trinity of Crisis, Revolver, and Judge Dredd: The Megazine remain a high point of British comics in the past half century, even if only one of those titles is still being published today, I don’t care what you say.)
Florix Grabundae, then, to games publisher Rebellion Developments, which purchased 2000 AD and its back catalog in its entirety at the start of the 21st century, not only ensuring its survival when freed from its original increasingly confused and disinterested publisher, but beginning what might be the most sustained period of critical and artistic success as a result. The past two decades have seen the launch of strips such as Low Life, Zombo, Brink, Leviathan, Cradlegrave, Brass Sun and The Out, as the comic once again focuses on building the future by… well, actually looking to the future to create something new.
I’ve been a fan of 2000 AD since I discovered the Progs at a family members’ house when I was a teenager. I’ve read as much of the catalog of stories as I reasonably can since that discovery, I sing the praises of every creator I can manage to find a history on, and I even have Judge Dredd tattooed on my body… but even the biggest fans have to admit faults in their faves. In the case of 2000 AD, those faults happen to also be what makes it so wonderful – namely, that not everything has been an immediate winner in the traditional sense, but often gains its audience through time, experimentation, and a willingness to lean into the aged camp. This is not to be read as a condemnation or a sign that 2000 AD is a publisher of poor comics by any means; instead, it’s a statement intended to demonstrate that the series is one of the true pioneers of innovation — even if the larger audience’s appreciation for it comes eventually with age.
Somewhere out there, after all, there is a person who thinks that John Smith and Steve Yeowell’s Devlin Waugh spinoff Pussyfoot 5 is the best damn comic they’ve ever laid eyes on, despite the overall dislike of the all-girl occult agents upon their release. Even the ozone layer of guilt and apology for Mark Millar that still lingers to this day over the greater UK region clears a bit every time some good-natured, unknowing sod talks about how the 1990’s reboot of Robo-Hunter was a “good attempt to revive a classic”. You can even go so far back as to look at The Mind of Wolfie Smith or Ant Wars — both products of the early early 2000 AD days — and find someone who loves it for what it is: absolute rubbish that has aged like a loaf of bread– and I say that myself with no small amount of love for both titles, I need to point out.
All of this isn’t even mentioning Shako, once famously bombed for being one of the most disliked strips in the progs of the time, only for the “only bear on the CIA death list” to see a resurgence (Even a revival!) in the last decade with fans all over the world who were finally ready to support Shako’s message of equal parts violence and a plea for peace. (What, you think that a bear would end up on the CIA death list for anything other than fighting for the greater good?)
Much like how we rediscover old movies that were surely going to go down as the worst in history according to critics and the box office – I’m looking at you, Blade Runner…or Clue…or Citizen Kane, ya know, no big deals – the audience, regardless of if they’re simply looking for the mainstays of Judge Joe Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Nemesis, Slaine, or something a little more out there, will eventually find what it needs. Even if it should take years, if not decades, for it to happen, the worst and most unhinged and bizarre stories from 2000 AD have, wonderfully, thankfully managed to make their way into the hands of their chosen people. Sure, it sometimes meant waiting 30+ years for it to happen, but it was something that was always meant to happen eventually.
The beauty of 2000 AD is simply that it does not stop trying to do something different. Regardless of how well its stories land at the time, or how well they’re regarded among the hallowed halls of successful British comics canon, they are something stood-by and supported inside 2000 AD as a title and an editorial concept, occasionally waiting in the wings for its audience to arrive and appreciate these off-beat concepts for what they are: a reach into the future, or a striving for something new.
In the last ten years alone we’ve seen titles like Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard’s Brink, Alex de Campi and Edwardo Ocaña’s Full Tilt Boogie, Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher’s Kingmaker, and a host of other titles (including the four-times-a-year Regened issues, where 2000 AD seems to have rediscovered its child-friendly roots), all of which have brought a new sheen to the world of sci-fi comics and Thrill-Powered originality.
While we can, and should, celebrate 80 years of Batman, 60 years of Spider-Man, or nearly 10 years of Saga (kind of), the celebration of 2000 AD’s 45 years is a triumph not only in date, but of the very spirit of comics as an evolutionary process. Celebrating 45 years of Thrill-Power doesn’t end at the idea of thrill-sucking aliens that look like grumpy mushrooms irritating a styrofoam cup eating editor, as fun as that is. It truly means 45 years of striving for something better. Sure, that might not always mean the best or the even the most coherent – I see you, Revere – but it does mean that whatever seems confounding, confusing or downright weird is out there now, and will, inevitably and without question, become the greatest thing for someone now, tomorrow, and well into the future. (Well, maybe except for Junker.)
Happy Birthday, 2000 AD. Cheers to being without a shadow of a doubt the galaxy’s greatest comic.