Pop culture in 1977 is remembered for punk rock and the first Star Wars film, but this year also saw the launch of a weekly combining the best elements of both phenomenon, the anarchic science fiction comic 2000 AD. Created as an action-adventure anthology for boys, the futuristic weekly
evolved into one of Britain's most important and influential comics.
Science fiction was nothing new in the illustrated strip medium - Superman was a strange visitor from another planet, while Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon both made early appearances as newspaper strip heroes. Before 1977 Britain's most celebrated science fiction comic character was Dan Dare, pilot of the
future and icon of The Eagle from 1950-1969.
But 2000 AD made the upper class hero look dowdy and dated. The new weekly borrowed from popular contemporary films and TV, adding a sci-fi twist. The Six Million Dollar Man became M.A.C.H. 1, a British spy aided by compu-puncture hyper-power (above). Ultra-violent film Rollerball become future
sport saga Harlem Heroes. The new title's star was Judge Dredd, a futuristic Dirty Harry.
The new launch succeeded all expectations, becoming a smash hit. Attempts to clone 2000 AD failed. Something the self-proclaimed Galaxy's Greatest Comic had captured lightning in a bottle. It developed a stable of classic characters like Robo-Hunter (a detective stalking deviant droids, inspired by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon), the bounty hunting mutant Strontium Dog, and the A.B.C. Warriors (robot rebels akin to The Magnificent Seven).
The comic had the good fortune to showcase a new generation of great artists, all looking for a place to showcase their talents. 2000 AD nurtured outstanding illustrators like Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Kevin O'Neill and Mike McMahon - all of whom went on to successful careers in US comics. But it was the quality of the comic's writing that distinguished it from other titles.
The British comics industry was in decline, the glory days of million selling weeklies now a distant memory. New titles launched well but sales quickly fell away and cancellation followed. 2000 AD was unique because its sales remained steady, shifting 100,000 copies a week during the 1980s.
For decades comics had been perceived as disposable entertainment for children. Only underground titles, heavy on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, had used comic strips to tell adult stories. But 2000 AD grew up with its readers, publishing stories of increasing maturity and sophistication.
Scribes like Pat Mills and John Wagner were not content to spin the same tired old clichés out for months on end as writers on more traditional titles did. The new wave of talent chose to tell tales with wit and menace, challenging reader expectations. In 1980 they were joined by Alan Moore, a massively influential creator who revolutionised comics on both sides of the Atlantic. He brought new depth and ambition to the medium, pushing the boundaries.
In 1982 former Doctor Who Weekly editor Dez Skinn launched Warrior, an independent monthly SF anthology comic that outdid 2000 AD for a while. It presented cutting edge tales like the anarchist fable V For Vendetta by Moore and David Lloyd, or Moore's daring deconstruction of an old British superhero, Marvelman. Alas, the monthly lacked the financial muscle to
By the mid-1980s American comic publishers began waking up to new wave of talent emerging in Britain. Soon US companies were wooing the top talents with better pay, more recognition and the promise of royalties. In the UK comics industry page rates were low and royalties unheard of. Just getting creator credits on strips was a battle with 2000 AD leading the way in 1977. To this day one major publisher refuses to acknowledge the names of writers or artists.
Creator rights and career opportunities in America accelerated the talent drain from British comics, with 2000 AD becoming a portfolio for US publishers to peruse. Almost every significant British writer or artist of the past twenty years passed through the weekly on their way to the US market.
Meanwhile, Alan Moore's revival of the moribund DC character Swamp Thing became the catalyst for a new style of American comics - the mature readers title. Four colour thrills didn't just have to be two men in tights and capes hitting each other or threatening the universe. New possibilities were opening up.
In 1986 the mature readers market become a pop culture phenomenon. Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic Maus won a prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Brits Moore and Gibbons created Watchmen for DC, a novelistic maxi-series about superheroes that gave them a real world setting and relevance. Writer-artist Frank Miller re-envisaged Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, a grim and gritty tale that inspired dozens of pale imitations. All three of these projects sold briskly at bookshops in collected volumes known as graphic novels.
Back in Britain the mature readers trend was also capturing imaginations. 2000 AD's publishers launched Crisis, a science fiction fortnightly for adults that become a politically correct polemic in the dying days of Thatcherism. Former 2000 AD artists Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon created Deadline, a hip monthly comic to give new talent a chance to make their mark. Never a financial success, the title did give the world feisty female hero Tank Girl and launched the careers of more than a dozen fresh young creators.
In the early 1990s DC created a new imprint, Vertigo, as a home for its mature readers titles. The most successful inmate of this superhero-less ghetto was The Sandman, a gloomy and portentous serial written by Neil Gaiman. Other publishers tired to follow suit but Vertigo remains the market leader, and the first port of call for British scribes making the jump to US comics.
In recent years the fortunes of comics have waxed and waned in the US, while an increasingly cut-throat British publishing market is squeezing the life from any title not linked to a TV, film or toy licence. But the graphic novel has prospered, attracting a new generation of readers with reprints of Japanese manga. Comics are finally being taken seriously in bookshops, they aren't just for kids anymore.
A quick science fiction comics primer.
Mega-City One: Future metropolis sprawling from New York to Florida. Population varies according to periodic cataclysms. Sidewalk executions by local lawmen not unknown. Interesting to visit, dangerous place to live.
Alan Moore: Bearded mystic, writer of classics Watchmen and The Ballad of Halo Jones. Hairstyle akin to a Spinal Tap roadie. Spearheaded 1980s invasion of US comics by Brit scribes.
Dan Dare: Born in 1950s weekly The Eagle. A stiff upper lip space pilot with kinky eyebrows, Dare fought alien threats to Britain. Now a CGI hero on TV.
Animals amok: Deadly creatures abounded in early 2000 AD. Time travelling cowboys hunted dinosaurs in Flesh, Shako was a murderous polar bear and giant insects tormented South America in Ant Wars.
Bionic Blair: 2000 AD hit the headlines with a satirical serial about a bionic PM. B.L.A.I.R. 1 featured on Have I Got News For You, but readers hated it.
Watchmen: Twelve-issue maxi-series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Revolutionised American comics with intelligent, thoughtful storytelling. Long touted as a film project with ex-Python Terry Gilliam attached.
Blood suckers: 2000 AD loves vampires. Fiends of the Eastern Front went for Nazi vamps, Durham Red was a vampire bounty hunter and Devlin Waugh is a camp vamp.
Vertigo: A mature readers imprint launched by America's DC Comics, incorporating Neil Gaiman's acclaimed fantasy work The Sandman. Vertigo is often dominated by ex-2000 AD scribes from Britain.
Drokk and roll: Anthrax wrote a song called I am the Law while The Cure composed Dredd Song. Others to embrace thrill-power are Madness, Shriekback, and Pop Will Eat Itself.
Graphic novels: Once cheap, disposable entertainments, comics are now invading bookshops via the graphic novel. Japanese manga is crossing over, from girl-friendly Sailor Moon to the ultra-violent Battle Royale.
Mind readers: Judge Cassandra Anderson is 2000 AD's best known psychic character, but the first to see print was telepathic teen Wolfie Smith - no relation to Tooting Bec's Citizen Smith.
Beyond belief: Perhaps 2000 AD's worst strip was Angel, about a fighter pilot whose body absorbs a computer during a mid-air explosion. Inane and lame, it was mercifully short-lived.
Brit pop art: Jamie Hewlett achieved comics fame for co-creating and drawing Tank Girl before forming the pop group Gorillaz with his former flatmate, Blur lead singer Damon Albarn.
Big Dave: One of 2000 AD's most controversial series, this 1990s satire of tabloid louts saw Big Dave invade Iraq before having a royal sex romp with Princess Diana and Fergie.