Friday, 8 September 2017

2000 AD and Me - James McBride

Sector House 13 is Belfast’s own 2000 AD discussion group, it is made up of dedicated fans of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comics including some of the most impressive cosplayers in these islands.  In this, the first in a series of posts where members of the Group will talk about their introduction to 2000 AD, veteran cosplayer, (I added that bit after he approved the text. ) James McBride writes about how he discovered ‘The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic’.

Commando 869 with the Belfast-built Short Sterling Bomber
I was born in 1969 and I guess I became aware of things like TV, films and comics around the mid '70's.   As I moved away from children TV it was mostly football and the westerns and war movies that the few channels available constantly repeated that caught my attention.

Peter Flint on the cover of Warlord 5
This led to me reading comics like Commando, bought for a few pence in the local corner shop, and my favourite weekly at the time, Warlord.  Published between 1974 and 1986 by D.C. Thomson, Warlord had some stand out characters.  ‘Union Jack Jackson’, A British marine fighting with US forces in the Pacific campaign and ‘Lord Peter Flint: Codename Warlord’, a 007 style, all action, WW2 secret agent and spy were foremost among them.
Warlord survived a merger with boys comic Bullet in 1978 before it was itself merged into the long-running Victor in 1986.  Its 627 issues a very respectable total for an industry where titles could come and go very quickly.
Interest was waning for war comics with the growing popularity of the American superheroes of Marvel and DC in the UK.  I had been reading the occasional copy of the Marvel reprints of Spiderman and Fantastic Four in Commando sized ‘pocket books’.

A Marvel-UK pocket book
These were more fantastical than the war stories I had been reading with superhuman heroes that no human soldier could ever compete with.  My interest in fantastic worlds filled with extraordinarily strange and wonderful characters had begun.
Late in 1976 promotional stories began to emerge for a sci-fi film due for release in 1977. This being pre-internet, any information was gleamed from newspaper and magazine articles or from the radio.  There was never anything like a TV clip to whet our appetites.
That movie was Star Wars and Science-fiction had well and truly entered the mainstream.  It seemed every new film and TV show had a science fiction or space angle. I quickly became hooked, buying the comic version of Star Wars, watching repeats of Star Trek, Dr Who and Planet of the Apes on TV along with new shows like Buck Rodgers and Battlestar Galactica. The later even having a number of episodes compiled to be shown in the cinema.  A trend had begun that I would still be continuing almost 40 years later!
I’d read several sci-fi comic titles during that time but nothing had really stuck and I wasn't buying anything regularly.  I did try the newly launched 2000AD but a story about a fishing boat captain who was abducted by aliens before getting his brains sucked out by a terrifying alien tentacle had completely freaked me out!  I now know this was one of Thargs’ Future Shocks but it had worked a little too well and I resolved to never read that horrible title again.

From 2000 AD Prog 26, the story that horrified young James - spot the EC comics reference?
Luckily an Aunt bought me the first issue of a comic that she spotted in the newsagents, probably noticing the "Star" in the title, and thinking it was something to do with Star Wars.  The comic was Starlord and I was completely wowed and my love for British science-fiction comics had begun.

The first Strontium Dog story
First published by I.P.C in 1978 to cash in on the new wave of sci-fi and the success of its sister comic 2000AD, Starlord was a superior quality publication with improved paper and colour printing.  Stories included ‘Strontium Dog’ by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, ‘Ro-Busters’ by Pat Mills, Kevin O'Neill, Carlos Pino and Dave Gibbons and ‘Mind Wars’ by Alan Hebden and the wonderful Jesus Redondo.
There were other stories including more by Mills and Hebden with titles like ‘Planet of the Dammed’, ‘Time Quake’, and ‘Holocaust’.  Even today the stories in Starlord still hold up and are a credit to all involved in their creation. Johnny Alpha, the star of ‘Strontium Dog’, is probably 2nd only to Judge Dredd himself in terms of popularity for a British created character whilst Ro-Busters eventually morphed into the mega successful ABC Warriors which still runs in 2000AD today.
Unfortunately the British market wasn't large enough to sustain 2 science-fiction based comics and the decision was made to merge Starlord and 2000AD in 1978. Despite Starlord being the bigger seller of the two titles it had been decided that because of the higher production costs dictated by better quality printing and paper the merged titles would fall under the 2000AD banner with its newsprint format.  Starlord had become an underling to the Mighty Tharg !
This left me in a major dilemma, did I walk away from my beloved Starlord or throw my lot in with 2000AD, the comic I had vowed never to read again.  There really was only one choice and I followed Johnny Alpha et all into 2000AD Prog 86 in October 1978.

First issue of the merged Starlord and 2000 AD
The first issue of the merged comic wisely featured two stories from each comic.  The Judge Dredd episode ‘Crime and Punishment’, the first story following his return from the Cursed Earth and the first part of the Dinosaur-wrangling western, Flesh’s second series came from 2000AD.   
While Strontium Dog, ‘The Galaxy killers’ and Ro-Busters, “Death on the Orient Express” came from Starlord.
Perhaps it was because I was a little older than on my previous attempts to read 2000AD or maybe it was the inclusion of characters I knew and loved, but the "new" publication felt very different.
As it turned out it was the perfect time for the titles to merge.  2000AD needed a reboot as much as Starlord.  Long running story, Ant Wars had just ended while the ill-conceived Dan Dare reimagining had finished its latest run.  Sadly though it would return like an unwanted relative at a family reunion before being finally put to rest or rather farmed out to the new Eagle.
Even Judge Dredd had just finished his mega trek across the radiated wasteland of the future America, attempting to take a vaccine to Mega City 2. Thankfully, my first few episodes of reading Dredd coincided with the start of the massive ‘The Day the Law Died’, to this day one of the greatest Dredd stories ever and very much part of a golden age of Dredd.
It felt like a new era for British science-fiction comics. Writers and artists were able to concentrate on one publication, stories felt fuller and more detailed with the characters allowed to be multi-dimensional and to grow and mature with the audience they were aimed at.
I recently reread the first couple of hundred progs.  Some of the early stories were very basic with simple, one-dimensional characters.  Perhaps this was understandable considering they were aimed at such a young age range.

Starlord’s target audience were slightly older and brought a need for the characters to grow, to question their own actions and the repercussions of what they had done.  It is to the credit of the many talents behind the comic that 2000AD was allowed to grow and expand in real time and not be afraid of change, something which has ultimately saved it and kept it in production for so long after all of its rivals have disappeared.

Like anything running for over 40 years 2000AD has had many ups and downs. There have been many wonderful stories and well as miss-hits that I haven't cared for.   

Blackhawk as a Roman Warrior as seen in onr of the final issues of Tornado
The merger with Tornado in prog 127 didn’t fare as well as that with Starlord.  Blackhawk was a superb character, a Nubian former slave fighting against the Roman Empire but because of the need to make him fall into a sci-fi category he was transported to a space gladiatorial academy before embarking on a hokum mission to reclaim his soul from a galactic soul sucker ! He deserved better and I'd hope today 2000AD would be brave enough to leave Blackhawk to continue his original story.

and just a few weeks later in his first 2000 AD appearance

2000AD and its sister magazine, the Judge Dredd Megazine, are once again in a good place with great characters new and old, and somehow it became cool again.  The upcoming Mega City One TV series will open up a new audience that the previous Dredd films failed to bring.  It may have always been the Galaxies greatest comic but I believe it got even better with the addition of Starlord in prog 86 ! 😊

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