2000 AD, 1987 Annual (review)

Unless you Were There or have really read up on comics lore, trying to read a 2000 AD annual is a work of anthropology. Which of the many pieces are snippets from long-running serials? Are the pieces within the annual largely so short because the comics as a whole were only comprised of very short pieces, or because only short pieces were selected, to give the annual a sense of breadth and variety? Is this content reflective of the magazine in general, or of the annual’s (presumably) child-friendly project? I understand, from the range of content presented even here, the world of Dredd as a dystopia, ably interrogated by the stories set within it, but how does that interact with Dredd’s status as a quasi-heroic ‘protagonist’ of a long-running narrative, and how did creators and viewers receive the comic’s totalitarian-fascist content, which was so poignantly relevant in Thatcher’s Britain?

Unfortunately I was 0 when the 1987 annual was published, and am not deeply in this fandom. It’s hard for me to know what I’m looking at, and harder still to become informed on these matters. World Book Night did an anthology collection of Dredd’s alternate-universe Dark Judges stories, and at the very end was a snippet of the Terra-Meks Robusters story “The Eve of Destruction”. This really engaging story cut off at an inconvenient point, but what should have been an advertising teaser was instead something of an invitation to hell.

Even with the internet it is bloody hard to figure out how to read 2000 AD. Where was this story in the comic? Was a base form of it online? Not that I could find. What would I have to buy, and could I buy it? No clue. I had to send Lawrence Miles phone pics, and he kindly lent me this annual, but ffs, by the time I have to ask someone who’s written for the damn comic to tell me what I want and to lend me his, you know your Discoverability to interested new readers is through the floor, lingering somewhere down in the magma layer surrounding the Earth’s core.

Why are comics LIKE this? For a long time, due to my general interest in closely-related British SFF products and things like the Who comics and audios’ homage/parodies of 2000 AD (Izzy Sinclair’s fandom for ‘Courtmaster Cruel’), I’ve wanted to explore the comic. The only real chance I ever got was the sodding World Book Night title: a well-collated, singular narrative I could follow from a point of no knowledge. I can’t come to 2000 AD as a researcher, let alone a reader, without serious work on my part. FFS, make it easy for me to get into this and spend money on content that’s lying around, doing you no good!

Let’s talk about Everything Else, then Terra-Meks story, the biggest and best item in the annual.

Annuals, for non-Brits, are a whole genre of–I think?–Christmas books for children, often about a pre-existing property: Doctor Who, or a comic strip, or a sports’ team, that sort of thing. They’re colourful and jaunty, and were sometimes produced for screamingly inappropriate titles, like Blakes 7, due to a vague popular understanding that all SF was inherently child-friendly–even a show that famously began with its protagonist being framed for child molestation. The closest American analogue for an annual I can come up with is a cross between an old children’s magazine and the bright booklets at a grocery story check-out, but seasonal, and mostly About a given thing–not like Frozen, but a longer-running, established Thing. There’s a lot of knowing play with the structures of British media in these strips–a Dad Joke about Postman Pat, a mock-up of the Sun’s coverage of the comic’s plot events. Again, I’m not connecting with all this because I lack context, and Advanced Britishisms often miss me. The fanart section makes this feel like a club newsletter, a Christmas wrap-up for a set group of fans.

Colour and non, a lot of the frame compositions of these panels and page designs just please me. The action is conveyed in surprisingly effective ways. The panels are full but not to the point of becoming screaming noise. This strikes me as quite connected to the tone of the whole project, which is variously deeply dystopian (in an unsettling way, in that I’m not quite sure how to read its intentions) and SFF pulpy, even going so far as to borrow visuals and story structures from Golden Age content. I think my uncertainty about 2000 AD’s politics comes more from the specificity of my weird atypical encounter with the text, a lack of context and the fact that in order to be satirical, the comics need to deal with uncomfortable subjects. “Strontium Dog”, for example, does neat work following the ‘mutant’ group outside a Megacity, positioning them as sympathetic and deeply wronged, and the Justices’ efforts to or complicity in rooting out mutants as fairly mindlessly evil. There’s a rich density of background or story-enabling worldbuilding detail, casually well-done, and the camp register the stories can inhabit is really enjoyable.

There’s some weird recurring fatphobia shit, and some wincy stuff with women (not unfeminist, but too Basic–the “Ladies Night” strip in particular, which isn’t transphobic so much as evidence that British people perennially find men in drag funny as fuck), but otherwise I’m not blindsided by rogue depressing awfulness, at least in this annual. I can’t blanket-vouch, not having read enough. It’s good that we’re telling a series of stories about an awful society without re-enacting the isms and inflicting them on the audience, if that makes sense?

The “Golem” story from Anderson’s Psi Division was intriguing (though I’ve got questions about why the Golem didn’t work properly as a Golem, a protective creature, and why the recipe they were using to make it was in English and not, idk, Yiddish), but it exemplifies the tendency of the annual’s stories to end before they’ve begun.

Critically I guess I’d say that the story of Charlie the shipping robot and Northpool is simplistic, a bit rah-rah. But fuck it, this is exactly my crack and I like, tear up reading it. It’s a really elemental story about love and community. It’s hard to be down on it at all when simplistic though its message is, it remains so deeply relevant. Because it’s SO hard to track down via other means, I’ll include it here.

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PS: Lawrence gave me some very helpful context on the annuals!

“[S]ince it never became mainstream the way Marvel and DC did, [2000 AD] remains rooted in a specific time and place [.] But it should be noted that the 1987 “2000 AD” annual, like most of the annuals, is largely a bag of dog-ends. The fact that the best story’s a reprint is telling: the editors were given minimal budgets for the annuals, which means they tended to use left-over scripts and second-tier artists. Which is my way of saying that “2000 AD” in its heyday really *was* better than this. [A/N I’d assumed the annual was always like, ALL reprint content.]

Historical footnote: “Terra-Meks was originally published in February 1979, three months before Thatcher came to power. So a little ahead of the curve. Its author, Pat Mills, was perhaps single greatest driving force behind early “2000 AD”. And he *always* did the black-comedy anti-Tory thing. It was marvellous.

[…]

In fact, it took several years for the “2000 AD” editorial team to get even *this* much control over the annuals’ content. Annuals were a different department of IPC, so the earliest examples (from the late ’70s) had almost no input from the weekly comic’s editorial staff, which meant – for example – badly-drawn “Judge Dredd” strips written by people who had no idea who Judge Dredd was. By modern standards, this is inconceivable. So while this is what “2000 AD” actually looked like in 1978 (exciting, dynamic, vaguely topical)…

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…this was the cover of the 1978 annual.

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Before “2000 AD”, most of the “boys’ comics” published by IPC were war comics. “2000 AD” inherited some of the better staff from these (Pat Mills first earned distinction on a strip for “Battle” called “Charley’s War”, a strip about the First World War that shocked everyone by actually being an honest portrayal of the First World War), but it’s notable that even before “2000 AD”, the artists on these titles were clearly getting sick of having to draw Tommies shooting at Germans. There’s a strip in “Battle” that’s meant to be about English vs Japanese, but the Japanese wear demon masks in combat because THE ARTISTS REALLY LIKES DEMONS.

However, the less-great staff from the war comics were the ones who tended to end up working on the annuals. This means that while the makers of proper “2000 AD” tended to be leftists with a sense of irony and a penchant for macabre humour, the makers of the early annuals… were still fighting the Battle of Britain.

My favourite example of Annuals Weirdness is a “Harlem Heroes” strip. Now, in the comics, “Harlem Heroes” was as ’70s-hip as a strip could get: a sport-of-the-future story about a black American aeroball team from the mean streets who end up winning the championship despite evil corporate machinations. All good so far.

And then, in the annual:

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Ah. Suddenly the Harlem Heroes are up against a German team. You can tell they’re German, because. (N.B. Note that the annuals were so cheap, they didn’t even use a proper letterer.)

Check out the German side’s fans.

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They just keep doing this ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE STORY.

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[Me: Did they like think this was edgy and funny, or?]

No, this is a war-comics hack trying to do a “2000 AD” strip without any editorial input from the “2000 AD” creators. German = evil. Even if it’s set in 2070. This is just *normal* for a British comics writer pre-1977.

Whereas the proper “Harlem Heroes” strip at least *tries* to be subtle in its portrayal of racial issues in corporate America, the annual version… just goes there.

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Since I’m making the broad point that “2000 AD” was actually *good*, I feel I should show you what the real “Harlem Heroes” strip looked like in the same era. The difference is crippling. (Art by Dave Gibbons again, as with “Terra-Meks” and “Watchmen”.)

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In 1977, “2000 AD” had better art, better composition, better ideas, and better storytelling than literally anything else on the shelves. It really *was* a massive deal. But everyone else caught up with it (not least because IPC was such a terrible employer that most of its best creators emigrated), and by 1990 it was all over. But that, as you can probably tell, was My Generation of comics.”

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