I find the concept of comic books significantly more interesting than most of the best-known examples of them. The most popular and visible comics still, despite the significant increase in attention given to innovative and interesting niche-interest titles, are continuity-heavy and forebidding stock superhero ranges which could be argued to have long passed the point where they were fresh and interesting. What ultimately put me off was how seriously everything was taken yet how empty it seemed; there was little distinction being made in discussion between something being not for children in content terms and being mature in writing terms.
This was in turn compounded by the way in which comics were written about in the media; a kind of awkward middle-ground existed. On the one hand was excited reporting of the small steps made by mainstream comics towards avoiding the stereotypes associated with them (Green Lantern comes out! Spider-man is no longer a white nerd!) and hyping up of plot points as being hugely interesting when the very examples provided were overwritten and often risible. On the other, endless articles about how the presence of more norm-challenging comics – and these being nominated for awards and getting the attention of literary circles – was a sign that finally the much-maligned medium was a serious literary form. Neither of these extremes were useful; while conceptually interesting “literary” comics indeed existed, they were still not getting the promotion and shelf space of the more mainstream DC and Marvel titles, not getting the big-budget film adaptations and were largely existing in the sidelines. On the other hand, hyping up what seemed to be unremarkable superhero stories as being great works of significance seemed to be over-egging the pudding.
DC Comics’ New 52 series, a total relaunch of its entire range of titles, was supposed to be evidence of this new era of “cool” comic reading, intended to find new fans. However, when I tried the debut issue I was left feeling it was still being written for the previous fanbase; the result was something that seemed unsatisfying for new readers but which, according to fans of the past issues, was inadequate for them too. When I heard that 2000AD were attempting a similar relaunch, I decided to give it a try; much was made in the buildup to its release that it would not invalidate past issues, but instead focus on all-new stories both within established settings and in completely original works. I had previously enjoyed reading older 2000AD and similar comics such as the old Judge Dredd series and some of the earlier Black Library lines like Inferno, and I hoped that these new issues would recapture some of that tone. DC’s New 52 had missed something of a trick in not cleaving closely to the tone and style of the films that ultimately define the image of its core characters in the popular mind, but 2000AD’s issue 1800 felt very much like little had changed since the older strips I had tracked down.
What made issue 1800 also significant was it began with its headline character, Judge Dredd, starring in a standalone adventure; this contained some exposition about the setting for new readers but quite specifically had no continuity or foreshadowing; it was a complete story so that a new reader could get a clear picture of what the comic would offer without feeling compelled to keep buying. The issue also included a number of other stories that did lead into ongoing series – a mixture of old characters in new adventures with the ABC Warriors and completely new stories such as Brass Sun. Importantly, 2000AD comics were ensemble works; even stories in the same settings – as would be the case when The Simping Detective and Dirty Frank strips were added – would have different tones so that each single issue offers a wide range of subjects and styles. This mixture of one-off complete stories and ongoing plots makes 2000AD still among the less forbidding comics for a new reader to enter into; each issue is almost guaranteed to have some standalone piece which may be unique in setting or character but remains tonally consistent with the others. What is more, this tone is pleasingly satirical for the most part; the main Judge Dredd setting stories are the same gentle mockery of consumer culture and fascist dystopia that they always have been while the ABC Warriors stories lean more on topical commentary about war and international intervention.
Since issue 1800, the series has gone from strength to strength, culminating in a very innovative sequence of issues where three apparently unrelated stories – one about a private eye in noir pastiche style, a stock Judge Dredd adventure and an absurd comedy about a tramp in space all turned out to be different viewpoints of the same story, finally coming together to conclude the plot – with the characters turning up in different visual styles as befitted each separate strip. It was a sequence of issues that made the most of the anthology style of the 2000AD series; after establishing for some issues that it could contain both unique stories and those within a common setting but from different perspectives, it then told a single story across three apparently unrelated strips. Ultimately it is innovation like that and the often satirical tone that sets 2000AD apart; it forms a good compromise between the longrunning Marvel and DC staples and the more conceptual and elevated niche comics, using the superhero and pulp serial format in interesting ways.