2000AD (Doctor Who “Gridlock” Edition)
Sometimes you just get a weird confluence of circumstances. With a high improbability factor, this weeks collaborative viewing offers City of Death and Douglas Adams other work, Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It has a distinctive late 70s feel which is complemented by RTDs Gridlock. Wait… Gridlock!?
Yep – Gridlock. The one with Ardal O’Hanlon as a cat. Released in 2007, this episode made a few deliberate call-outs to another cultural Sci-fi Icon – 2000AD, to celebrate its then 30 years of publication. I thought a general explanation of the comic, some content I’d recommend, and some handy spots in Gridlock would be in order.
A year before Ford Prefect appeared in the Radio version of Hitch Hiker’s (1978), a fellow Betelgeusian, Tharg The Mighty, founded the Galaxy’s greatest comic. He was a hoopy frood who drove his writing and art droids hard to deliver maximum thrill-power to thrill-seekers such as me. Zarjaz!
Both Hitch Hikers and 2000AD benefited from the sudden explosion of commercial interest in Sci-fi whipped up by a small, low budget affair called Star Wars, both were peculiarly British, and both would have an impact on future writers of Doctor Who.
2000AD is a serial anthology, released weekly in “Progs”. The only character who appears regularly is the most popular – Judge Dredd, hard-as-nails cop of the future. Typically it contains five or so strips, a mixture of ongoing shorts and longer arc stories by a mixture of writers and artists. It was joined much later by the Judge Dredd Megazine, a monthly that uses the same blend of stories, but expanding the Dredd universe.
The roll call of talent that has featured over the years is a true who’s who of British writers and artists, many of whom have gone onto bigger and more lucrative careers in the US. Neil Gaiman, for example, had his first comic strip (A “Futureshock” short story, “You’re never alone with a phone”), published in Prog 488. Many of the early regulars also had a big impact on Doctor Who in comics, as @wolfweed discusses in his blog.
Many of the contributors and their story strands deserve their own blogs, and all I can do is feature but a small sample of the wonders that Tharg has presented over the years. Two have distinct relevance to Gridlock, but let’s take a diversion first.
Skizz (Alan Moore – Jim Baikie)
I was 13 in 1983, living in the West Midlands. It was rubbish. Unemployment was high, opportunities seemed few. Nihilism looked like an attractive lifestyle choice. 2000AD regularly made plays on what was occurring in other media at the time, and a film called ET was doing well. 2000AD decided that they too would have some stranded alien action. It could have been awful. Then Alan Moore was commissioned to write it and this happened:
Interpreter Zcchhz of the Tau-Ceti Imperium crashes on a small blue planet his people have assessed as a Hellworld. The Planet “Burmy Gam” (as he comes to know it) is a strange and terrifying place, alleviated only by meeting a young ape who seems to want to help him, Roxy. Through her he meets Loz (Jack-the-lad, endlessly trying to impress Roxy) and his mate Clarence Cardew.
I guess as a teenager I was meant to identify with Roxy or Loz, but Clarence was the one I immediately recognised. Unemployed at 37, he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, got one O level, learned a trade and was unsuitable for anything else. Increasingly introspective and a mountain of barely suppressed rage, I think everyone in the industrial heartlands knew someone like Clarence in the 80s. Someone who couldn’t adapt to changing times. He too, wonders if he’s from another planet.
It’s a condition that spreads, as Roxy finds her compassion alienates her from friends, family and wider society. With Skizz captured by the authorities it’s up to Roxy to forge alliances with strange new lifeforms (that’ll be Loz and Clarance), convince them to do the right thing and help her free him. In doing so, they rediscover what’s important in life. To get your dreams back.
Baikies artwork is masterful. His Birmingham is instantly recognisable to me, capturing iconic landmarks, but above all the dirty reality of the UKs Second City in that period. It always surprised me when he said he’d had limited exposure to the City. A friend of his took the time to wander around and send him extensive pictures of it to work from.
Alan Moore is perhaps best known for his darker material, but Skizz is a reminder of the lighter touch, the sense of humour and keen observer of absurdity. It’s warm, funny, sad and inspirational. I’ve managed this far without using the phrase “It’s ET meets Boys from the Blackstuff”, which has become a cliché for Skizz. That’s because I think it massively undersells it.
Originally published in Progs 308-330, many collected editions over the years.
The Ballad of Halo Jones (Alan Moore – Ian Gibson)
Ian Gibson contacted Moore on the strength of Skizz, particularly the down to earth characterisations. He wanted to pitch an idea of a future heroine who might feasibly be considered real. Alan Moore agreed, suggesting he didn’t want to unleash “yet another tough bitch with a disintegrator and an extra Y chromosome” upon the world.
Starting out as a relatively ordinary inhabitant of “The Hoop” – a kind of vast floating estate/ghetto for “increased leisure citizens” in the 50th century, the three books cover her everyday life, her desire to escape the mundane to get out among the stars, her experiences as a soldier, with occasional flash forwards to a future where her story has achieved near mythical status. For a strip that was initially aimed firmly at the small but loyal female band of thrill seekers, Halo seemed universally popular. The only criticism I can really remember was the uncompromising slow start to the books, with its own language. It relied on the reader having patience to get a feel for the society gradually.
Halo had a massive impact on many. One of them was Andrew Cartmel who apparently made his new band of screen writers for Doctor Who read it as an example of the kind of storytelling he wanted to aim for. Ace (and by extension the type of newer companions) owe Halo a lot.
Cartmel himself went full circle, and in 1995 ended up writing for Dredd in the Megazine (Blood Sports). The same issue saw a strip by Paul Cornell (Father’s Day, Human Nature/Family of Blood). In the episode Gridlock, the holo-vid character Sally Calypso shares more than a few traits with “The Hoops” holo-vid presenter Swifty Frisko.
Halo, while I firmly stand by and recommend it, also shows one of the downsides of 2000AD in that sometimes things don’t pan out. The Ballad was envisaged as 9 “books” covering key points of her life from young to old age. We got three. A dispute about creator control and rights forced a parting of the ways between Moore & Gibson and the publishers of the time, Fleetway. The problem seems intractable, unfortunately. Decades later, Halo often tops polls in characters readers would like to see return to the fold. Think of your typical disgruntled Firefly fan, and that’s how I am about Halo.
Book1 Prog 376-385 Book2 Progs 405-415 Book3 Prog 451-466 Many collected editions available.
Judge Dredd (Created by John Wagner – Carlos Ezquerra)
Probably the best known character in the 2000AD stable, and the longest lived.
Following a nuclear war in the late 21st century, most of the world’s population live in vast Mega City conurbations under the totalitarian control of the Judges. Mega City One occupies the eastern seaboard of the United States, centred and built above the ruins of New York. Basically, Russell T Davies asked the CGI team to go look at some picture of Mega City One in developing the look of the New New York.
Most of the inhabitants of the City live in cramped conditions in vast City Blocks with entertaining pop culture names. Dredd himself used to live in Rowdy Yates Block (Clint Eastwood, who played Yates in Rawhide, was the inspiration for Dredd through the Dirty Harry movies). Some inhabitants can go from birth to death without leaving the block as they contain shops, indoor parks and other amenities. In many ways they’re the lucky ones. An alternative existence gives us our next reference point, as some inhabitants have to live forever on the move in “Mo-Pads”. If you have access to enough cash, you could have a luxury model (complete with roof pool) but living your existence in a transit bijou apartment is no life at all.
Dredd and his fellow Judges are such an extreme solution to law enforcement (being Judge, Jury and occasional Executioner) that the society they patrol has to be similarly extreme. The reasons are many, but the high unemployment in the City is a key factor. The story Sunday Night Fever gives us an insight into this, with a depressed citizen losing it and accidentally killing someone.
A case of mistaken identity with the victim results in a “Job Riot” at a facility to produce a rodent control gas. The riot causes a leak and 15,000 causalities result. The job opportunity? To be a canary-person to test for gas leaks (robots and automation do all the work). It’s that streak of black humour and social satire that makes the world of Dredd so engaging to me.
To cope with the endless boredom there are myriad opportunities to keep yourself engaged, but inevitably most of these will bring you into conflict with the Judges. You could meet with like-minded people and do charitable work, like a sponsored suicide. Or join the Hunters Club and do a sponsored kill.
You could partake in a competitive sport, such as the highly illegal sky-surfing championship, or take up human taxidermy to Olympic level. You could lose yourself in the various fashions and fads (cosmetic ugliness, competitive eating, extreme fashion). Many Citizens select utter insanity as the only sane option.
The odd eccentrics of Gridlocks motorway are familiar enough that they wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Mega City One . Particularly as one shares a look with Dredds one time Nark, Max Normal – Pinstripe Freak.
Originally conceived as a satire of Police brutality, and the increasing authoritarianism of Government, it can be odd to find yourself cheering for a fascist in some of the Epic stories. However, the world of Dredd evolved to meet him. A wonderful strand of stories in the 80s and 90s saw Dredd begin the question the rule of law as the Judges were shown to be corrupt and their leaders increasingly mad. The suppression of a political movement for the return of democracy (through peaceful and violent means) is presented in vivid, uncompromising detail in stories like the wonderful “America”.
These lead up to Dredd, after one of the frequent apocalypses that engulf Mega-City One, supporting holding a referendum on the Democracy question even though he opposes it. He fights to prevent ballot rigging by rogue Judges to let the people have their say.
Political Cartoonist for the Guardian, Martin Rowson, said of it:
“Maybe we should see it as a dark satire on the failures of democracy, not as an ironic celebration of the triumphs of fascism… The greatest enemy of democracy is not fascism, but apathy. In the referendum, the Judges won with 68% of all votes cast. But there was a turnout of only 35%. In other words, the Judges won with the backing of only 23.8% of the possible electorate. And that is just 2% less than the percentage of the American population which first elected Ronald Reagan in 1980.”
I was reminded of the story a while ago, as the UK directly elected, for the first time and to a groundswell of apathy, Police Commissioners. The National turnout? 15%.
Producer Phil Collinson remarked that Gridlock displayed Russell’s ability to write about topical issues in a fantastic way. Referencing 2000AD in the story gives us a good indication, perhaps, of where some of that drive came from.
Most of these stories I’ve highlighted come from the 80s/early 90s. Your teenage years are spent trying to make sense of the world and forming your own opinions on life. 2000AD certainly helped me with that while keeping me entertained. It still continues to plough its own way, although I think it’s lost some of its immediacy for me. That, I think, is pretty natural. New generations of writers highlight their own concerns and satirise aspects of life I’m possibly disconnected from. Like Doctor Who, interpretations of 2000ADs “heyday” can vary with your age.
I hope others familiar with the worlds will recommend other material.
The Pit – John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra Prog 970 (Entire story Progs 970-999)
Sob Story – John Wagner, Ron Smith (Progs 131-132)
Max Normal – The Pinstripe Freak – Alan Grant Jose Casanovas (1983 Dredd Annual)
Death Aid – Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra (Progs 711 to 720)
Sunday night fever – T B Grover and Cam Kennedy (Progs 416 to 418)
America – John Wagner Colin MacNeil (Judge Dredd Megazine #1.01 – 1.07)
Twilights Last Gleaming – Garth Ennis John Burns (Progs #750-756)
Many thanks to @wolfweed for help with the Mo-Pad image.
Many collected Graphic Novel formats exist for Dredd, and they are currently undergoing a new series of “Complete Case File” Collections in print and digital download. Learn more at the 2000AD shop.
All images found on this blog are copyright of their original publishers and are used for review/promotional purposes only