Monday, January 30, 2012
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Thrill Power 25 (2000 AD)
So if you want to suggest that 2000 AD is one of the most important British science fiction publications ever, period, you're not exactly short on ammunition for your case. On the other hand, generally speaking, if you want to argue that it was one of the best... well, now you're in a bit of a harder situation. Because as vital as 2000 AD was and at times still is, it's not exactly... good.
First some background. In late 1975 an editor at IPC Magazines got an inkling that science fiction might hit it big soon and hired Pat Mills to develop it. Pat Mills had overseen two previous comics aimed at the same age group - Battle Picture Weekly and the infamous Action, which was sufficiently violent and blood-soaked to as to piss off Mary Whitehouse. 2000 AD was a stunning example in the same vein. There were five strips in its first issue - sorry, prog - Invasion, Dan Dare, Harlem Heroes, Flesh, and M.A.C.H. 1. Almost all of them are gloriously and tastelessly violent - only Dan Dare, reimagined as a more properly "futuristic" strip, displays even a glimmer of basic taste. Harlem Heroes is about a sport that combines "football, boxing, kung fu, and basketball," while M.A.C.H. 1 was an ultraviolent Six Million Dollar Man ripoff. Invasion was about working class British men violently resisting Soviet... sorry, Volgan occupation. And Flesh, perhaps the greatest of all of them, was about time traveling dinosaur farmers and a particularly murderous T-Rex.
That said, this basic aesthetic of 2000 AD is perhaps better summarized by the strip that replaced Flesh - a sixteen issue job that is rarely mentioned as one of the absolute classics of 2000 AD, despite being absolutely fantastic in every regard. I am speaking, of course, of Shako. Shako tells the story of a particularly homicidal polar bear who has swallowed some vital military hardware and is being chased by government agents. It is, in practice, nothing more than sixteen short strips of a polar bear violently slaughtering people in improbable and needlessly imaginative ways. Though really, little needs to be said about Shako beyond its tagline: Shako! The Only Bear on the CIA Death List! This, in a nutshell, is what 2000 AD was - a comics magazine of completely and utterly insane premises that was willing to execute those premises with a reckless and manic glee well captured by its fictional editor/overlord, Tharg - a futuristic galactic conquerer turned British comics editor who excitedly praised the comic's "thrill power" with a gusto that would make John Nathan-Turner blush if he wouldn't have been instantly vaporized by Tharg for entertainingly specious reasons.
All of which said, the real heart of 2000 AD is Judge Dredd. Originally intended to launch in prog one, Dredd was held back a prog due to not quite being ready in time. But he quickly and understandably became the magazine's signature feature. On a superficial level Judge Dredd is much like all of the other 2000 AD strips. He's a police officer in a futuristic city who is also authorized to dispense justice on the spot and who is a complete authoritarian hardass who thus solves every problem imaginable by shooting it, sometimes repeatedly. But what's interesting about Judge Dredd is that underneath the extravagant violence is a rather wicked bit of intelligent satire. The entire premise of Judge Dredd rapidly becomes that the audience is rooting for a character who is obviously a bad guy.
This move underlies much of what appeals about 2000 AD. In its earliest days what is compelling about it is its stark anti-authoritarian streak. A character like Bill Savage, the protagonist of Invasion, was a classic anti-authoritarian tough guy who defied the rules and saved the day. Even in a strip without such an overtly rebellious lead, though, there's an ostentatious brashness to 2000 AD. A strip like Shako is so needlessly violent and so cavalier with its plotting as to appear deliberate. There's the sense, in other words, that 2000 AD is just trying to piss off Mary Whitehouse so it can laugh in her face after. Tis, at least, is fun, and is what leads to the usual description of 2000 AD having a "punk" sensibility. And notably, thus far the most 2000 AD-style story Doctor Who has televised is probably The Sun Makers.
But as ever, punk's real apotheosis is its destruction and replacement with post-punk. We saw it in Doctor Who, and 2000 AD is no different. 2000 AD's pure punk phase lasted one prog. Prog 2, with the introduction of Judge Dredd, moved on immediately to the post-punk phase in which the anti-authoritarian streak was applied to the ultimate establishment figure. Judge Dredd was a punk who not only worked for the man, he was the living embodiment of the man's power. He's the punk antihero who hasn't so much sold out as existed from the first moment on the side of established power. And the tension implicit in this is simply allowed to stand. Dredd simultaneously embodies a punk sensibility and a biting critique of the impotent silliness of grown men in acting like angry children.
This is the essential genius of a lot of 2000 AD - its awareness of its own excessiveness and its tendency to undercut it. But Judge Dredd, with its absurdly over the top settings (Mega City One was explicitly cited by Russell T. Davies as the inspiration for New New York in Gridlock) and active willingness to play with the unsympathetic nature of its protagonist (one of its best-regarded story arcs is about Dredd violently putting down pro-democracy protesters), pushes this approach to a different level. The undercutting in Judge Dredd isn't just a matter of the comic being ostentatiously over the top but a matter of active self-critique. Judge Dredd is continually calling into question its own pleasurability. It defies the reader to enjoy it even as it wallows in its own over the top excess.
It's a good trick, and one that 2000 AD mirrored in a number of other classic strips - Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, and Sláine all follow the basic approach of juxtaposing excessive and over the top violence with a sort of aggressively materialist and cynical view of the world that subjects that view to active critique. But as I said, it's not quite good. 2000 AD is something that one respects more than one enjoys, if you will. Because its best moments go out of the way to be off-putting and alienating, it actively resists letting you just fall in love with it. And so as clever as this Judge Dredd sort of approach is, it's not a trick upon which you build an entire takeover of another country's comic book industry.
For that we need Alan Moore. To be fair, in my worldview we always need Alan Moore. I spent a while trying to figure out how many different Alan Moore entries to do over the course of this blog before realizing that the correct answer is "write a book on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison as modern day magical warfare after I finish the Wonder Woman project and mostly leave it out of this blog." I mean, obviously the two projects intersect like mad, but yes. One of tentatively three entries in which Alan Moore will be substantively dealt with. (Though the third is a bit nebulous.)
Alan Moore is, at the end of the day, the most important of the British Invasion comics writers. Yes, Neil Gaiman surpasses him in raw popularity, but Gaiman broke in largely because he could imitate Alan Moore reasonably well. Sure, his style has improved since then, but he still started as an Alan Moore clone. Grant Morrison would desperately like to be the most important of the British Invasion comics writers, but the fact that Grant Morrison badmouths Alan Moore almost whenever he gets the chance while Moore has not, to my knowledge, ever spoken Grant Morrison's name out loud pretty much says what there is to say about the asymmetry in that rivalry. No, at the end of the day Alan Moore is the one with the most influence. He's the one who ultimately defines his era. You can tell, because he displays that trait that defines the truly influential - he has a host of imitations, and no two of them seem able to agree on what it is that defines his style. And while 2000 AD is not the start of Alan Moore's career, it's pretty darn early in that career. Which means that this is where we ought square away what makes Alan Moore so distinctive and influential.
The overwhelming majority of Alan Moore's 2000 AD work consists of short pieces that are only a few pages long. He has three longer pieces - the ET knockoff Skizz, the unfinished epic The Ballad of Halo Jones, and the D.R. and Quinch strips. And the latter of those are still fairly short - a series of humor pieces where no story lasted more than five installments or so. Everything else consisted of short four-page stories in the recurring series of Tharg's Future Shocks or Time Twisters.
Given the extent to which Moore is known for a sort of perverse verbosity (he's been cackling madly in several interviews lately about how his new novel is longer than the Bible and how he hopes people will call it the Really Good Book) this sort of ultra-short format is an interesting place to watch him work, particularly so early in his career before he'd really settled into a firm style or voice. One can see what really made Alan Moore stand out, even at the start of his career, from everyone else around him.
The first thing is the one that is most superficially obvious about Moore, which is that Alan Moore is an exceedingly intelligent man. His knowledge of and ability to pastiche genres is startlingly vast, and while it's not until the denser and more sprawling work of the 1990s that this tendency really starts to show, the Future Shocks give him plenty of opportunities to show off his broad mastery of genres. He's also deft at coming up with clever solutions and ideas - few of his stories lack at least one neat or surprising twist somewhere in the story.
He is also an arch-formalist. More than almost any other comics writer Moore has spent an astonishing amount of time thinking about the mechanics of the medium and how to use them to tell stories. This isn't as clear in his 2000 AD work where the constraints of the format naturally limit what he can do, but even in this early work, particularly in his Time Twisters stories, there's moments where you can see the beginnings of his later arch-formalism.
This sort of cleverness is always a sound approach, although of Moore's strengths it is also the one that most lends itself to cynical readings. I rarely end up linking to my more properly academic work from here, but this piece from a special issue of ImageTexT I edited a while back on Neil Gaiman's comic work forms a fairly succinct account of the ethical and aesthetic problems this sort of raw cleverness can form. And, if we're being fully open about it we should note that Steven Moffat, with his tendency to have the resolutions of episodes hinge on things like wordplay based on phone lock screens, suffers from/enjoys the same sort of popularity based on cleverness. In short, Moore, Gaiman, and Moffat are all popular for roughly the same reason - they're very clever in ways that make the audience feel clever for keeping up with or appreciating them. It works, but in and of itself it's not enough.
But there's a second trick Moore has up his sleeve, and it's both the one that really defines him as a comics writer and that is far, far less often imitated. And that's that Moore is unmatched in his ability to get at the emotional content of a fantastic scenario. Even in a relatively early and unremarkable story like 1980's "The Dating Game" he manages to take a drab old "the city's computer has gone mad and is doing terrible things to people" scenario and spin it into a kind of creepily poignant yarn about a computer that has fallen in love with a man and started to stalk him before going a bit Fatal Attraction on him.
But Moore's real strength was in pieces like "The Reversible Man," a four page version of the simple premise of narrating a human life completely backwards in which he wrings delightfully ironic pathos out of moments like coming back from a funeral to meet his mother in the hospital for the first time. (Her condition gradually improves and she moves in with him and his wife.) But even on a smaller level, Moore is meticulous about having emotional motivations for characters. Even in a humorous piece like "The Wages of Sin" he builds his parodic treatment of stereotypical intergalactic conquerer villains around a washed up repairman in the fading Veeblefetzer market.
For all that I adore the arcs of his philosophy and his inventiveness, this, in the end, is the real core of why Alan Moore was and is such a successful writer. He is phenomenally good at finding ways to use high concept science fiction and fantasy as a way into stories about everyday emotional experience. He is not the first or the only writer to do so, but he was very good at it, and his capacity to wed that to a sort of manic inventiveness and formal bravado propelled him to the top of his field.
And this, in turn, explains the other real revolution that took place within 2000 AD and its descendants. Even Judge Dredd benefited concretely from this approach, eventually and in Moore's wake telling stories in which the over the top antics of Mega City One got used as the backdrop for remarkably affecting stories about the city's inhabitants, often treating Dredd himself as a force of nature haunting the city instead of as a character. It wasn't just a new type of comics storytelling, it was in many ways a new type of popular science fiction storytelling - one whose later influence on people like Joss Whedon and, let's be honest here, Russell T. Davies was obvious.
And so while large swaths of 2000 AD are sophomoric and blood soaked odes to ludicrousness (and CIA Death Listed bears) it marked a major shift in what science fiction was and could be in the popular consciousness - one that quickly spread over to the US and became one the dominant paradigms of halfway decent science fiction.
And, of course, the 2000 AD crowd also ended up having a bit to do with Doctor Who, but that's another post.