Nostalgia is a strange beast, particularly when expressed by someone who wasn’t actually there at the time. There is a tendency to look back on the past and believe that the best of that era was representative simply because that is what has been preserved, thus the late seventies for some is a dizzy haze of Star Wars and Tom Baker as the Doctor and Kate Bush and Queen and Led Zeppelin, even the Queen’s jubilee, but there was also another side to that decade.
There was unemployment, there were riots, strikes and shortages, there was social upheaval, there was all the anger and disappointment and frustration and lack of opportunity which gave rise to the age of Thatcherism, conditions which are terrifyingly echoed in the modern policies of “austerity” which serve only to exacerbate the misery they are supposed to alleviate.
This was the time that gave birth to the nihilistic anti-authoritarian and often violent escapism of the legendary British comic 2000AD, celebrated and examined in the feature documentary Future Shock, now re-released in a packed edition by Arrow Films and Video featuring contributions from writers, artists, editors and others associated with the publication.
Hoping to ride the wave of science fiction excitement generated by the release of Star Wars, 2000AD launched in February 1977 and has been in print ever since, an astonishing feat far beyond the expectation of any who were involved in the initial launch considering the state of the industry.
“Boys’ comics were going through a bad time,” says Pat Mills, the outspoken writer and co-creator of Judge Dredd who was one of the key figures in the conception of 2000AD and served as editor for the first sixteen issues. “I couldn’t go on writing this rubbish, so I had to create my own vehicles.”
Springing from the controversial pages of the discontinued Action which had been condemned for contemporary depictions of violence in what was seen to be a medium aimed at children, like so many Mills saw science fiction as an opportunity to explore the same radical themes but through the veil of the fantastical, a position whose protection was often little more than superficial.
“People thought because we were a science fiction comic we were going to be nice and middle class,” Mills laughs. “Boy, were they wrong.” Citing the cinematic influence of Jaws, Rollerball and Dirty Harry, the visual direction of 2000AD was more European than American, the costumed heroics of Marvel and DC a far cry from what David Bishop, editor from 1996 to 2000, describes as 2000AD‘s timely blend of “nihilism and brutality” which was reflected on television in the same era in the bleakness of Blake’s 7 and through the eyes of an older generation in the despondency of the final Quatermass adventure.
The opening titles of Future Shock offering a cascade of iconic images, black and white but as vibrant and evocative as any live action film, the roster of characters and stories which have come from the pages of 2000AD are legendary: Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, Sláine, Ro-Busters, the most famous undoubtedly Judge Dredd while the most missed would perhaps be The Ballad of Halo Jones, created by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson.
With only three books of the proposed six ever published following Moore’s departure from the comic over their refusal to grant him full rights over his creation – a common theme repeated by many contributors throughout the documentary – Neil Gaiman recounts his tears as one night Moore told him the full tale of what would have become of Halo Jones as she took herself further and further from civilisation. “What a huge tragedy it was it didn’t get finished. Had Alan completed Halo it would have been up there with Watchmen and V for Vendetta.”
The presence of a complex, driven and independent female lead character, albeit written by a man, was not lost on novelist Lauren Beukes who was all too aware that most women in comics at that time were typified by “giant tits and not much personality,” but 2000AD offered more than just that single empowerment.
“People tend to think of comics as throwaway but this was deep political stuff.” Growing up in apartheid South Africa, Beukes saw parallels with the second class mutants such as bounty hunter Johnny Alpha in Strontium Dog. “To be able to explore that in inventive storytelling was exciting. People were engaging with politics, with social circumstance, with poverty, with segregation, but in a fun way.”
With a counter-culture attitude informed by the punk revolution, 2000AD developed a reputation for mowing down sacred cows, a character bearing a remarkable resemblance to Margaret Thatcher executed by machine gun squad in a panel of Invasion, the villainous Torquemada of Nemesis the Warlock and his devout followers modelled on a fascist version of the Catholic Church as they crusaded against any deviation from their purity, but towering above all that was the might of Judge Dredd.
The only character to have officially made it from the pages of the publication to feature film – twice, though the first attempt is looked upon with feeling somewhere between disdain and mortification by all in the know – the teasingly animated interludes in Future Shock are a hint of what might have been had the numerous owners of 2000AD handled their property with more respect, diligence and foresight, though the influence upon many other works is undeniable, from RoboCop to …28 Days Later and beyond.
Throughout there is joy, anger, frustration, and justified pride, but unlike many comparable works examining popular culture these stories will be new to most viewers, the divide between creators and consumers having been insurmountable during the most significant years of the 2000AD‘s run with even a fictional editor, Tharg, rather than a human who could be contacted or interviewed, and while Mills in particular can channel a righteous fury – a “Mills bomb” as it is known – he is never less than articulate in his tirades or absolutely specific in his targets and the reasons for his ire.
Director Paul Goodwin captures the undiminished enthusiasm of the contributors and their continuing love both for their work and these particular creations, Future Shock offering an insight and understanding of the wider world of comics and publishing which is accessible even to those with only passing familiarity with or interest in 2000AD itself, while those who grew up in those pages and consider themselves old friends will want to revisit their subversive favourites.
An unbroken forty year legacy of enormous productivity encapsulated in two hours, it is apparent that were there time there would be much, much more to say, and accordingly the special features include extended interviews and in-depth examinations on some of the most famous series, fascinating insights and anecdotes which didn’t fit into the flow of the more structured main feature but are equally worth the time invested.
Future Shock – The Story of 2000AD is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Films and Video