2000AD: first impressions 2012

Late last year I did something that I ought to have done a long time ago: I subscribed to 2000AD magazine. I’m interested in comics as a medium, and 2000AD is the big influence in British comics, where a lot of creators have got their start. I was at the SFX Weekender a few weeks ago where there was a big 2000AD presence due to the magazine’s 35th anniversary, and now the 35th birthday issue has arrived through my door. I thought this would be a good time to write something about my first impressions of the magazine and this year’s stories so far, from the perspective of a newcomer.

Judge Dredd

Despite coming in part way through a long story arc, I found Judge Dredd easy to pick up. I already knew the premise of Dredd through general popcultural osmosis, but even if I hadn’t, one of the appealing things about Dredd is its simplicity. The future world is a twisted reflection of our own with everything turned up to eleven (it reminds me of Transmetropolitan in that respect, although I know Dredd predates that). The Judges are badass cops, and the story plays out as the kind of police procedural you’d get if Dirty Harry were the establishment figure.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Judge Dredd himself has been aging in real time since the ’70s, and in the main strip at least he’s showing that age in the pitted granite cliff-face of his epic chin. Dredd himself seems to be at the centre of a network of Judge characters: rather than doing everything himself, he’s calling the shots, and he’s the big gun that gets wheeled out when the going really gets tough. Right now the storyline is doing a good job of slowly building up to a disaster, punctuated by the Judges dealing with individual crises. There’s been a lot of build-up, so fingers crossed that it pays off.

The extreme setting lends itself to quirky, larger-than-life (and thus easily memorable and distinguishable) characters, something that makes the strip easy to get into despite the large cast. I don’t always get on with the writing, in particular the use of omniscient third-person narration in the captions: I keep expecting them to be from a particular character’s point of view. Generally I’m enjoying it, though, and it’s certainly doing its job as the flagship strip to draw me to the comic every week.

While I’m on Judge Dredd, I have to mention the one-off Dredd strip that appeared in the 2011 Christmas issue. It was a very clever non-linear ‘choose your own adventure’ type thing, which was both great fun, and played with the medium in several increasingly unexpected ways. Something to read several times and then go “Oh, I see…” Great stuff, and something that couldn’t have been done in any other medium.

Grey Area

I’m loving this brand-new strip by Dan Abnett which started in the Christmas issue. A squad of armed guards patrol a brutal holding area for extraterrestrial immigrants to Earth, of which there are remarkably many for this near-future setting, but I’ll let that slide as it’s necessary for the premise. Unlike Dredd, this has a clear point of view character, that of a rookie squad member, and the captions take the form of excerpts from her letters home. There aren’t too many captions anyway, as the strip knows how to tell the story visually. The story is transparently a metaphor for real-world immigration systems, and the sci-fi trappings act as a kind of shading to bring out the brutality and ambiguous morality of such places.

Absalom

This is (I think) a continuation of an older 2000AD strip, which I hadn’t heard of, but it explains the premise clearly enough that I had no trouble picking it up. I like the grumpy, anti-heroic central character and I like the concept of a special branch of the British police that deals with the supernatural. If I have a complaint is that it can be slow-moving, especially in the first few episodes of the story arc that’s just finished. There’s lots of stuff happening per panel, but sometimes it doesn’t add up to anything besides “there’s scary ghost shit going on!” That said, the story arc has reached a satisfying conclusion, even if it took longer than I would have liked to get there.

Nikolai Dante

Now we’re getting into the couple of strips I’m not enjoying so much. Nikolai Dante is another continuation of an older 2000AD strip that had been on haitus, but this time we start in the middle of a larger story and the strip seems to expect me to know who everyone is. The very basic premise is explained, but not the characters or how we got to where we are.

It also has a lot of wordy captions that often do little but repeat what I can see happening on panel, and which are framed as excerpts from a history book written after the events. I imagine this is meant to make the story seem like Grand Historical Events, but to be honest I’m finding the captions annoying. I think I prefer my comic stories to be more visual and to rely less on big blocks of prose.

Strontium Dog

I’m having the same problems with this as I am with Nikolai Dante. It’s a continuation of an older strip whose premise I was only vaguely aware of (Johnny Alpha is a mutant bounty hunter). As a new reader, I don’t think it established clearly enough that Johnny Alpha’s Mutant Power is to see through walls. The cast of characters is pretty small and the story here at least has a clear starting point (Johnny comes back from the dead), so I’m not having trouble understanding it, but the lack of context means I’m having trouble caring. Plus, one of the characters speaks with a phonetically-spelled-out accent which honestly I just find hard to read.

Final thoughts

But on the other hand, maybe those last two strips aren’t meant for me. A magazine as long-running as 2000AD has to balance the needs of its new readers with those of its long-term followers, who don’t want to see the central premise of Strontium Dog or Nikolai Dante rehashed at the start of every story arc. Plus, we have the internet now, and the magazine knows it. Maybe I should just look this stuff up.

2000AD doesn’t hit the high notes all the time, but there’s always enough good stuff in each issue to keep me reading; and the beauty of an anthology comic with a rotating selection of stories is the anticipation that there might be something truly brilliant appearing any week.

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