DVD review: The Story of 2000AD

Future-ShockImagine it’s March 1977, you have 8p and you want a comic. Let’s assume you want a boy’s comic: it was a sexist world back then. There are lots to choose from. Perhaps you want a funny one like The Beano, The Dandy, The Beezer, The Topper, Whoopee!, Buster or Whizzer and Chips? Or something harder edged? Tiger, Battle or a new science fiction comic with a free “space spinner” on the front?

2000AD emerged from the ashes of Action comic, which was withdrawn due to its violent content in the mid-1970s. Did anyone present at 2000AD’s creation, imagine it would still be going in the then far flung futuristic year of 2000AD? A year by which time most of the children who had bought Prog 1 would be in their thirties, many with children of their own? It seems unlikely. It is now 39 years on from that first issue. Those same readers of Prog 1 would now be in their fifties, at least. None of the comics mentioned above are now going with the exceptions of The Beano which began in 1938. And 2000AD itself.

This documentary tells the story of the galaxy’s greatest comic which despite Action’s fate (or perhaps because of it) has always been pretty violent. After an exciting animated opening sequence in which many of the comic’s monochrome heroes – Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, Zenith – move very slightly against a thumping rock soundtrack, it’s perhaps disappointing that most of the film is spent in the company of a group of ageing, sometimes not very articulate men. Some are enthusiastic. Some are quite bitter.

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Pat Mills is the star. Passionate and profane about the early days, angry about the 1990s days of decline, he is still with the comic. Others left during the 1980 s comics “brain drain”. Neil Gaiman seems genuinely emotional about Alan Moore’s failure to complete his brilliant Ballad of Halo Jones a full thirty years later. Some rage at the appalling way some artists’ work was treated. Others praise 2000AD for crediting its writers and artists properly (in a special “credit card” box) something few British comics did up until then. One fan, Ex Machina director and author of The Beach, Alex Garland wrote the screenplay to Dredd, a huge improvement on the disastrous 1990s attempt to film the 22nd century fascistic lawman starring Sylvester Stallone. Other films seem to have liberally stolen from the comic.

None of the writers seem to have liked Tharg the Mighty, the comic’s fictional alien editor very much, presumably because most have presumably endured a stint answering letters on his behalf (including, two from a teenage “C Hallam, Peterborough” in 1993). Tharg also introduced the occasional Twilight Zone-style Futureshock stories, often used as a testing ground for upcoming writers and artists.

A fine tribute anyway to a fine comic. Until next time: Splundig Vur Thrigg Earthlets!

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Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016 and The Roger Mellie Telly Times

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(Trigger warning: Rude words ahead!)

Is Viz as funny as it used to be? It’s been well over thirty-five years since the teenage Chris Donald first started selling his own self-produced adult comics in Newcastle pubs as a means of escaping unemployment in 1979. By the end of the next decade, it was a massive success story selling more than almost any other periodical except the TV and Radio Times.

I started reading it myself at about that point and to me it will always seem funnier then, partly because of the novelty and danger factor (reading it at school risked confiscation) and partly because I was barely into my teens. Just the name of the story Buster Gonad and His Unfeasibly Large Testicles was enough to send me into paroxysms of chuckling mirth for minutes on end. Other comics of the time were always promising to generate this sort of reaction. Viz was the only one that did. Buster and The Dandy could only offer mild amusement.

Some of my favourite strips are long gone: Finbarr Saunders and his Double Extenders, Roger Irrelevant (“He’s totally hat-stand”) and Victorian Dad and Modern Parents. I never liked the Fat Slags (to date, the only Viz story to hit the big screen, albeit in disastrous form) which is still going.

Roger Mellie The Man on the Telly is still here too both in this annual and in this new anthology of his old strips The Roger Mellie Telly Times, both available now.

One suspects the idea of a foul-mouthed TV presenter like Mellie is less shocking now than it was in the Eighties. But in truth, he has his moments.

And yes, Viz still is funny. Even if you don’t warm to the comic stories (the long running Sid The Sexist, Ivan Jellical, Gilbert Ratchet, Raffles The Gentleman Thug most of which derive a little from the traditions of British children’s comics, try the news stories (“Donald Trump’ s World of Pumps”) or better still Letterbocks, always Viz’s funniest section. “Do you think it’s possible to train a hedgehog to walk up and down a table with cubes of cheese stuck to the end of its spikes?” asks one reader who is planning a party.

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Or maybe it’s not for you. As the editor of Punch once said when asked if his magazine was as funny as it used to be, he simply replied: “it never was”.

Or as Roger Mellie would put it: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

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Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016

The Roger Mellie Telly Times

Both published by Dennis

Thirty years of The Ballad of Halo Jones

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If you were reading the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 20000AD, thirty years ago this month, you would doubtless have noticed a new character.

The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Ian Gibson first appeared in July 1984. 2000AD, which had started in 1977, already featured many of its best known science fiction and fantasy strips notably Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine. Ian Gibson had, in fact, drawn many Dredd episodes as well as the more humorous Sam Slade: Robohunter.

Alan Moore is a legend in the world of comics today. This was less true in 1984, but he was hardly unknown then either, having already penned both the futuristic drama V For Vendetta and Marvelman (later known as Miracleman) for Warrior, a title Moore had largely dominated but which was on its way out by 1984. He was also doing Swamp Thing for DC and had produced the extraterrestrial fantasy Skizz and D.R. and Quinch for 2000AD.  He had also written many Tharg’s Futureshocks; the Twilight Zone-style one off stories which many 2000AD staff first get established on. Moore had worked once with Gibson on one of these, “Grawks Bearing Gifts”.

But the first Halo Jones story wasn’t a hit. Lance Parkin in his biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore writes: “Now, Halo Jones is regularly cited as a high point of the magazine’s long history. Then, it was a different story. Every week, the magazine polled its readers on their favourite strips, and Halo Jones was notably unpopular during its first run (#376-385, July-September 1984)”. What was the problem?

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Was it because most of the characters were girls? Halo is introduced as a teenager, one of a group of female friends (plus Toby, a robot dog) who live on the Hoop, a large crime-infested artificial population centre constructed off Manhattan Island. It was fairly unusual for 2000AD to have a female lead character at this time but it is probable a few factors conspired against the strip. Readers complained of a lack of “action”. Moore assumed they meant a lack of “violence”. Cynical but perhaps accurate, there is little of either in Volume One (at least, not until the end). The story also features a fair amount of futuristic slang which may have alienated some readers. Although to be fair, the slang “Squeeze! Squeeze with a bare arm!” isn’t that unusual bearing in mind the strip is set in 4949, nearly 3,000 years in the future. Another possible point against it is that there is also little interesting to mark out Halo at this point. She is just another one of the girls.

Volume Two which appeared in 1985, however, was much better.

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For one thing, the intriguing prologue features a lecture, set even further in the future which not only updates us but hints for the first time that Halo might be destined to become a figure of genuine historical import. Halo also develops more as a character, working as a stewardess on a space cruise liner the Clara Pandy during a year long voyage and leaving her less ambitious or unlucky friends back on the Hoop.

The ship turns out to be a perfect vehicle for all sorts of great stories, many working as stand alone strips. Toby, Halo’s companion reveals a ferocious dark side while a particularly strong story concerns The Glyph, a soulless sad character rendered invisible after countless sex changes have robbed him of his true identity.

Volume Three, is by Alan Moore’s own admission, the best of all.

Although it appeared only a year later, in 1986, ten long years have passed for Halo and she has become a more cynical, harder and more interesting figure. Washed up, she bumps into her old friend Toy Molto (a giantess) and the two decide to join the Army.

Predictably, this ends badly with the two becoming involved in the encroaching war in the Tarantula Nebula, a Vietnam-style conflict, periodically alluded to in the strip since Book One. Funny, ingenious and at times, moving, (one episode sees Halo talking for some time to a wounded colleague before realising with total horror that they have been dead for some time), Halo experiences the full indignity of combat. The war on the planet Moab, particularly leads to a memorable battle in which the strong gravity of the large planet leads time to be distorted leading the conflict to literally be appearing to pass either in slow motion or sometimes even accelerated speed. Halo also becomes embroiled in an unwise love affair with the monstrous General Luiz Cannibal and loses her innocence in more ways than one.

Adverts for the Titan anthologies of the story at the time hinted at ten volumes of Halo even suggesting she became a pirate queen. But, in fact, Volume Three would be the end. Moore fell out with 2000AD and went onto The Watchmen and phenomenal comic success. Only Neil Gaiman has come close to his status amongst contemporary British comic writers.

The Ballad of Halo Jones remains his overlooked masterpiece. I urge you to seek it out.

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RIP 76 years of The Dandy 1937-2013. A timeline

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The Dandy, Britain’s longest running comic has gone forever. After ceasing to exist on paper last December, it now no longer exists in digital form either.

As a tribute to the comic which brought the world Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat and Bananaman, here is a timeline of The Dandy’s long history:

1937: The Dandy begins. It is originally called The Dandy Comic and is unusual for a comic of the time in using speech bubbles. Korky the Cat is on the front page. Inside, Desperate Dan, an incredibly strong man from the Wild West also features in the comic from the start. He is “desperate” in the sense that a desperado is desperate.

Another story in the first issue is Keyhole Kate, a nosey girl prone to looking through keyholes. She proves remarkably enduring, appearing until 1955 before (after a ten year break) enjoying a long return run in Sparky comic in the Sixties and Seventies. She returns to The Dandy in the Eighties and Nineties appearing on and off until the end.

1938: The Beano, The Dandy’s sister paper, which eventually features Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids, begins. It continues to this day.

The first Dandy-Monster Book (later The Dandy Book or Annual) appears for the first time too.

1939-1949: Wartime (and post-war) paper and ink shortages force The Dandy and Beano to go fortnightly. The two comics come out on alternate weeks.

1940: Korky the Cat starts to speak. Initially, he was a silent character.

1945: Keyhole Kate appears on the cover for one issue only, breaking an otherwise uninterrupted 47-year run for Korky the Cat.

1944: Black Bob, a fictional Border collie, first appears in a text story. He later appears in The Weekly News and in eight books during the 1950s and 1960s.

1954: The first Desperate Dan Book appears. Technically, it was not an annual and only appeared again in 1978, 1990, 1991 and 1992.

1961: Public schoolboy, Winker Watson first appears.

1963: A Dandy-Beano joint Summer Special appears. The first Dandy Summer Special appears in 1964.

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1967: Bully Beef and Chips first appears. Bully bullies Chips until 1997.

1975: Peter’s Pocket Grandpa appears in the comic lasting until the early 1980s. It has a similar premise to the early 21st century BBC children’s series Grandpa in my Pocket although also resembles the 1940s Dandy strip, Jimmie’s Pocket Grandpa.

1984: Korky the Kat is replaced on the cover by Desperate Dan after a long run. Korky continues inside, however, and appears next to the front page logo until 1998.

Dimples – a tearaway toddler – begins in The Dandy.

1980-1985: DC Thomson produces Nutty comic featuring spoof superhero Bananaman. The strip is a huge success and is turned into a memorable TV cartoon between 1983 and 1986 voiced by the performers from TV’s The Goodies (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie). The strip, Cuddles also begins in Nutty in 1981.

1982: The first Dandy Comic Libraries appear.

1985: Bananaman’s popularity doesn’t save Nutty (although doubtless prolongs its life). The comic merges into The Dandy in 1985. The strip Bananaman continues to this day. Cuddles from Nutty becomes the lead character in a new comic, Hoot in 1985.

1986: Hoot folds and merges into The Dandy. Cuddles and Dimples – two quite similar strips – merge into one. The two toddlers later mysteriously become twin brothers and later, mysteriously again, older and younger brothers.

1984 – 1987: Bananaman has his own annual. He is the only Dandy character to ever get his own annual for four consecutive years although technically was still in Nutty for the first two of these (Nutty, unusually for the time, never has its own annual).

1993: The Beezer and Topper merges into The Dandy. Beryl the Peril which began in The Topper in 1953 appears in The Dandy on and off until the end.

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1999-2000: Cuddles and Dimples briefly replace Desperate Dan on the front page. This proves unpopular with readers and Desperate Dan replaces them again after the two are found to be “too naughty”.

2004: The comic is dramatically revamped becoming glossier, bigger, more TV-orientated and more expensive. The price was raised from 70p to £1.20. This is the first of a series of big revamps which, depending on your view, prolong the life or help finish off the already ailing title. It is a challenging time for the industry: most long-running British comics (except The Beano, Dandy, 2000AD, Viz and Commando) folded in the Eighties and Nineties.

2005: Korky the Cat is dropped after 68 years in the comic. Reader polls suggest he is much less popular than he was. The strip had been undergoing various upheavals since 1999.

2007: The Dandy had another update, going fortnightly, becoming more magazine-like and being renamed Dandy Xtreme, priced at £2.50. The first issue has Bart Simpson on the cover. Regular characters no longer regularly appear on the cover. Some feel the comic has lost its identity.

2010: A counter-revolution! Of sorts. Dandy Xtreme becomes The Dandy again and goes back to being weekly. Every story from the Xtreme era with the exception of The  Bogies, Desperate Dan and Bananaman is dropped. Korky returns. More celebrity parodies appear.

2012: The Dandy’s 75th birthday turns out to be a sad time. The comic ends and goes online. Bananaman, now The Dandy’s third longest running story starts appearing in The Beano and The Dandy online.

2013: The Dandy Online ends bringing to an end the Dandy Era.

Farewell. Thanks for everything. You will be missed!

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80 years of The Beano : A timeline (1938-2018)

Happy birthday Beano! If you’ve never read it, here’s what you’ve missed…

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1938: The first edition of the Beano appears, dated 30th July. The Dandy started the previous year. Stories include Big Eggo (the cover story centred on an ostrich), Pansy Potter: The Strongman’s Daughter and the more enduring Lord Snooty and his Pals which lasts into the 1990s.

There are only twelve copies of the first issue known to still be in existence.

1939 -1949: Due to paper rationing, the Beano and Dandy both appear on alternate weeks, rather than weekly.

1940: The first ever Beano Book. If you own one without a year on the front, it must be from between 1940 and 1965. If it’s called The Magic-Beano Book, it must be from between 1943 and 1950 (the regular comic was never called this). The one below is from 1948.

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1940-43: Musso The Wop appears, the racist title of a strip mocking Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. The real leader was overthrown in 1943 and the strip ended.

1948: Biffo the Bear appears and immediately knocks Big Eggo off the front page. Eggo disappears forever in 1949.

1950s: Despite (or perhaps because of) the threat provided by TV and new comics like The Eagle, the Fifties is something of a golden age for The Beano with most of its most famous stories starting during this decade.

1951: Dennis the Menace appears, undoubtedly the comic’s most popular and famous story.  By strange coincidence, a US strip with the same name about a similarly mischievous but blonde brat started in the same week. The American one was usually just called “Dennis” in the UK to avoid confusion. Cartoons and films of the US version started to appear in the UK after the Eighties.

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Biffo remains on the front page. Dennis’s distinctive black and red jumper appear after a few weeks and Dennis’s friends Curly and Pie-Face as well as Softy Walter all appear from the early Fifties onward. Gnasher comes later.

1953: Three major stories Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum all begin. Little Plum (“your redskin chum”) ceases to appear regularly after 1998.

1954: The Bash Street Kids (initially called When The Bell Goes or When The Bell Rings) appears. There were initially a vague and often changing large group of pupils eventually settling down to a hardcore of eight: Danny, Sidney and Toots (brother and sister), Smiffy (stupid), Erbert (short sighted), Plug (ugly), Spotty (spotty and has a very long tie), Wilfred (face partly obscured by jumper) and Fatty (obese)

Cuthbert Cringeworthy (the teacher’s pet) first appears in the Bash Street Kids from 1972.

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1955: The first Dennis the Menace book appears. It is available most years until 2010.

1959: The Three Bears, a Wild West take on the fairy tale featuring blunderbusses appears (until 2011).

1964: Billy Whizz races onto the page for the first time.

1966: The Beano Books have the dates on the cover from now on.

1968: Gnasher appears alongside Dennis the Menace for the first time.

1972: Babyface Finlayson – appears (on and off) from now into the 21st century.

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1974: Dennis replaces Biffo the Bear on the cover after a twenty-seven year run. Biffo ceases to be in the comic regularly after 1986.

1975: The football-obsessed Ball Boy kicks off.

1976: The Dennis the Menace Fan Club begins.

1979: The Bash Street Kids book (just called The Bash Street Kids) starts appearing most years until 2010.

Rasher, Dennis’s pet pig gets a story of his own.

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1980: Smudge (a bath-averse boy) appears in the comic, lasting into the 1990s.

1982: The first Beano Comic Libraries (small book-like comics with one long story in) appear.

1985: Ivy the Terrible, the Toddler Terror,. makes her first appearance.

1986: The terminally unlucky Calamity James arrives at The Beano.

Gnasher goes missing in a well-publicised story, only to return with a new puppy Gnipper who has one solitary tooth (a new story Gnasher and Gnipper appears). Gnasher is male. Who Gnipper’s mother is, is never explained.

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1988: The comic is revamped for its 50th birthday. Extra pages appear and more colour is used. Many other British comics fold in the Eighties and Nineties (The Beezer, Topper, Buster, Whizzer and Chips). The Beano does well to survive.

1991: The comic’s oldest story Lord Snooty ceases to appear regularly. Some blame John Major’s “classless society.”

1993: The Beezer and Topper merge into The Beano.  The Numskulls – who live inside and operate a human body – now appear in The Beano. The comic goes into full colour for the first time.

1994: A new look politically correct Bash Street Kids are unveiled. The new look is quickly abandoned after a fierce public backlash. Some suspect it is just a publicity stunt.

1996: A Dennis the Menace cartoon appears on TV. Voices include Billy Connolly and Hugh Laurie.

1998: Birth of Dennis the Menace’s sister Bea.

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2002: The Beano Book becomes The Beano Annual.

2004: Dennis the Menace becomes the longest running strip in Beano history (it became the longest-running front page story in 2000). As of 2013, the most enduring strips are Dennis the Menace,  Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger, The Bash Street Kids followed by the previous longest-running story, Lord Snooty.

2007: The Dandy undergoes a dramatic and probably ultimately fatal revamp, becoming Dandy Xtreme.

2009: Another new TV series, Dennis and Gnasher begins. It continues until 2013.

2012: The Dandy ceases to appear in print and becomes The Dandy Online. Bananaman, the third longest running strip in The Dandy now appears in The Beano and Dandy Online.

2013: The Dandy Online formally ends. The Beano has another revamp for its 75th birthday.

2016: Beano Studios is launched. It is described as “a brand new multimedia Studios set up to create, curate and deliver mischievous entertainment for kids worldwide”.

2018: With weekly sales figures hitting an impressive 37,542, The Beano approaches its 80th birthday.

May there be many more!

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Is Judge Dredd gay?

ImageSo Judge Dredd is gay. Or rather, he probably isn’t.

The latest Dredd story Closet which featured in the long running comic 2000AD, appeared to show the 22nd century Mega City One lawman entwined with another man in a gay club. The caption read: “I guess, somehow, I’d always known I was gay. I was just too scared to admit it.”

Judge Dredd, lest we forget, is an ultra-macho big chinned lawman of the future has been appearing in the British comic 2000AD since 1977. Inspired loosely by the characters Clint Eastwood played (particularly the Dirty Harry films) but transferred to a futuristic setting, Dredd dispenses instant justice to the masses of Mega City One, a chaotic post-apocalyptic metropolis built on the ruins of New York. Dredd is just the foremost of many “Judges” who are effectively imbued with the powers of police and judiciary and can sentence “perps” on the spot.

So is Dredd gay? Certainly, I never remember much about him having any sort of love life when I read the comic. But it seems not. Apparently the character in the strip is not Dredd at all but someone in fancy dress as the judge, at a gay club. As Dredd never removes his helmet and all judges look pretty much the same with their helmets on, this would actually be a fairly easy disguise to perfect, assuming you had the requisite chin. Presumably the story was a ruse to boost sales just as the second film version of Dredd comes out on Blu-ray/DVD.

The news is a bit disappointing in a number of ways. Firstly, the current author of the strip, Rob Williams has said Dredd “may well be gay, straight or bi” but that was secondary to his passion for the law.

“Although, can you imagine what would happen if that repression ever fell away, just for an instant? Sure, Dredd could be gay,” Williams said.

So why not make him gay then? Dredd is often referred to as a “fascistic” anti-hero but only in the sense that civil liberties and democracy are ignored in his world. Sexuality rarely comes up in 2000AD. And making Dredd gay could have been a major coup for the comic. It is a missed opportunity.

Worse still, is the reported reaction of some fans to the news of Dredd’s possible sexual orientation. Some have apparently threatened to burn their 2000ADs.

I’ve always liked to think sci-fi fans are an open minded, liberal bunch. Unfortunately a fair bit of evidence suggests that at least some of them are anything but. Witness the absurd reaction to the news that Star Trek Voyager was to feature its first woman captain in the 1990s.

Similarly, some seem to have missed the satire of a story set in a fascistic future by reacting to the news of Judge Dredd’s rumoured gayness by responding in a decidedly fascistic way themselves.

It is odd that science fiction fans so accustomed to stories set in the 22nd, 23rd and 24th centuries, so often still seem to have attitudes rooted in those of the 19th.