By Charles EP Murphy
2000AD is one of the big successes in British comics – forty-two years and counting of existence, surviving while most of the UK industry has died, and future fascist cop Judge Dredd is known worldwide. In its time, it has had a wealth of spinoffs and sister titles, the most successful being Dredd’s own Judge Dredd Megazine from 1990.
It’d be no surprise to learn that plans were made for a Dredd spinoff before that. Then-publishers IPC ordered one made in 1984, capitalising on the success of Titan’s Judge Dredd reprint albums and the Eagle Comics reprints in America. Judge Dredd Fortnightly was eventually rejected but half its strips would see print in 2000AD: comedy soap opera The Blockers was printed as a one-off special, while sci-fi western Helltrekkers and a solo strip for Psi-Judge Anderson ran in the main title.
John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s B.A.D. Company – a sci-fi update of Wagner’s Darkie’s Mob war strip, where former Judge “Titan” Kano leads the remnants of Mega-City One Irregulars in war against “the Nurds” – would be picked up and heavily reworked by Peter Milligan and Brett Ewin two years later, as the surreal sci-fi ‘Nam strip, uh, Bad Company.
(Sadly, the two lost strips include Alan Moore and Mike Collins’ The Badlander, about an elderly Judge on a Long Walk to bring justice to the Cursed Earth. Moore would never otherwise work on Judge Dredd.)
Is there a point of diversion that could see this comic made, and if so, what would it have been like?
The former is easy: two reasons Judge Dredd Fortnightly was cancelled was because IPC felt kids wouldn’t buy a fortnightly comic or spend a whole 35 pence on a comic. If it was proposed as a cheaper weekly (which would mean some strips don’t make the cut), it’d exist. And since many of its strips did came out, we can tell what it would have been like: a very good British ‘boy’s comic’ set in Dredd’s world. Much like 2000AD itself began to shift towards older readers, this title would too.
The differences between Judge Dredd Fortnightly and the Megazine we eventually got can tell us a lot, however, about how the UK comics market changed in the 1980s. For a start, just six years after a 35p fortnightly for kids was rejected, out comes a monthly aimed teens and adults costing £1.50! Look too at the strips: the failed pilot is trying the old-school method of having strips from multiple sub-genres and tones, from comedy to war, and while everything’s set in Dredd’s world it’s not entirely reliant on kids knowing all about him. Judge Dredd Megazine’s first issues would primarily focus on pre-existing characters in the now-codified Judge Dredd tone and format of being violent, blackly comic sci-fi action, as this is what would be expected from a character-attached spinoff in 1990.
The big exception to the Megazine tone is America, an acclaimed moody strip about the oppressive nature of living in Mega-City One and which would not have existed back in 1984.
(In one way, Megazine and Fortnightly are exactly the same: they both are almost entirely by Dredd’s main writers John Wagner and Alan Grant!)
However, Dredd wasn’t the first plan for a 2000AD character-led spinoff.
That honour fell to M.A.C.H. 1, back in the very first year of the comic. And that’s where the potential for alternate history gets both really interesting and really depressing.
M.A.C.H. 1 was about British secret agent John Probe, turned into a cyborg ‘Mach Man’ – “Man Activated by Compu-puncture Hyperpower” – to fight threats to Queen and Country. Basically, The Six Million Dollar Man but British and a bit more violent. In the early days, he was the most popular strip in 2000AD (because he was The Six Million Dollar Man but British and a bit more violent) before being dethroned by Joe Dredd. His run went from tales of boys’ own derring-do to more cynical stories about him clashing with his handlers and their dirty deeds.
After M.A.C.H. 1 became less popular, sub-editor Nick Landau decided to kill him off – explicitly telling 2000AD’s official history Thrill-Power Overload that it was because he found the character too boring. (“We had Probe die a slow, torturous death. It had been like that for us, editing such an incredibly boring strip.”)
This is what, more than his strips, poor old John Probe has become famous for: it was nearly unheard of for a British comic to outright kill off a character like that. Other than his death, his legacy consists of being the inspiration for the late 90s satire trip B.L.A.I.R. One and Pat Mills’ (also the creator of M.A.C.H. 1) spy strip Greysuit, as well as being lampooned in an Al Ewing Zombo.
However, at the height of his popularity, the early 2000AD editorial team of Mills and Kelvin Gosnell were thinking of a spinoff title centred around him. Specifically, a monthly comic. Let’s call it M.A.C.H. 1 Megazine for the sake of a name.
Gosnell revealed this plan to Thrill-Power Overload and said that if it had caught on, they’d hoped to use it for monthly spinoffs of the other main strips. He lamented that “the little Hitlers in management” wouldn’t sign off on this: it was too different to the hatch-match-dispatch policy. (This was the old policy of releasing a title, then releasing a similar title, and finally killing off the one that sold less and merging the two to boost the sales of the survivor. 2000AD would indeed have two ‘spinoffs’, Starlord and Tornado, that merged with it)
“If we had done the monthly spinoffs,” Gosnell believed, “the face of British comics today could be much different, perhaps closer to the European model.”
What actually would have been in M.A.C.H. 1 Megazine is lost to time – based on Gosnell’s quote about the “European model”, that of the slim album, possibly this would have been a single long M.A.C.H. 1 story every month. Would it have worked? While this wasn’t the normal format for UK comics, the monthly Marvels and DCs did sporadically make it over to British shores in the 70s. Marvel UK would try and fail to publish monthly comics in the late 1980s but these were deliberately designed to be the same size and shape as US monthlies to get into the comic shops, whereas the average UK comic was taller. Our hypothetical Megazine would likely be aimed at the UK newsagents primarily and so be the ‘right’ size.
So likely this works, at least for a bit and in the cutthroat world of 1970s British comics, “a bit” is pretty good.
This would have had a huge impact: a whole new format of comics would exist that are commercially viable. Once IPC was doing it, so too would DC Thomson. When the Americans came looking at 2000AD, they’d find a lot of British comics packaged in a way that would make American sales so much easier. Once the format is established, the traditional way of reprinting Marvel Comics – “cut them up into pieces and serialise” – can be dropped, a boon for Marvel UK.
(As a side-effect likely means no UK Transformers strips to keep a weekly schedule and so an entire generation of creators, and several decades of Hasbro toys, aren’t influenced by Transformers mogul Simon Furman’s writing.)
When the desire for adult comics came in, these would probably – as with Judge Dredd Megazine – be monthlies, tying into the trends coming from America. Today, we might have a larger UK comic industry split between weekly anthologies for all ages and monthlies for older readers with more income. M.A.C.H. 1 Megazine might still be going, now a grim, gritty tale of blood and conspiracies akin to how Dredd aged up.
What happens to comics publishing if this monthly doesn’t work? Marvel UK were aiming at a different market and DC Thomson had the monthly Beano Superstars comics in the 90s, long after the M.A.C.H. 1 Megazine would have failed: neither would likely remember a short-lived title from 1977.
And here’s where it gets depressing. What almost certainly would happen is IPC would hold the failure against Mills and Gosnell.
Histories of 2000AD, Battle, Jinty, and others are rife with tales of IPC management and senior editors chafing at Mills, Gosnell, Wagner, and other outsiders foisted on the company to update it for the 70s – in an interview with David Bishop’s book Blazing Battle Action!, former editorial director John Sanders bluntly said, “We were losing out to TV, nobody realised this” and because Mills “talk a lot, and he talked sense… Of course the old guard hated him.”
If M.A.C.H. 1 Megazine happened and failed, people who had it in for Gosnell and Mills would have their chance to put the boot in. That means what we lose is potentially all the work Mills did later – ABC Warriors, Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock – and all the influence that had on other people.
So that’s the possible impact. But what about the POD?
Here’s where it stays depressing: we may be no plausible one.
When I contacted Pat Mills about the M.A.C.H. 1 Megazine plans, he told me he believed the comic would have succeeded. However, he compared it to attempts by Steve McManus to try a junior 2000AD in the 1990s (known as both Earthside 8 and Alternity) and a pitch he did with Wagner for a junior Mad Magazine called Krazy: all ideas Mills said “bottled out”.
In his view, this was a structural problem with IPC:
“IPC staff had to pretend to come up with new titles because it was their job. But - although they're unlikely to admit it - they had no enthusiasm and were far better at letting these different projects 'die on the vine'. The reason is important: they were on salary and if they were shown up for the incompetent characters they really were, they'd still get their salary. When I did Battle, Action, 2000AD and Misty it was as a freelance. So I HAD to make it work.
“Frankly, they didn't give a fuck, but they were very talented at pretending to, in order to keep their cushy jobs where many of them sat around all day doing other work.”
What would be the POD to get M.A.C.H. One Megazine made? You’d need Pat Mills to not be a freelancer, so he’s no longer a threat if he does too well; and you’d need him and Gosnell to be better liked by certain bosses at IPC, so people will listen more. Neither of these PODs are plausible without PODs of their own, ones that alter the actions and attitudes of two specific humans, and at that point you may have butterflied away M.A.C.H. 1 being in 2000AD altogether!
Or you need a POD that makes IPC more open to change, so John Sanders never needs outsiders and freelancers to kick the company up the bum.
Here is a problem that will come up again and again in comics history: structural problems prevent change happening when it’s needed, and so the industry and the creators suffer. Here too is a problem with discussing alternate history: sometimes, there just isn’t going to be any different way things turn out. A bullet not hitting a president is a lot easier to pull off than having hidebound staff at a company listen to the freelancer they think is too loudmouthed.
And so instead of being remembered for changing the very industry like Dredd is, poor John Probe is remembered for dying.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.