'2000 AD' and the British comics industry
When 2000 AD first appeared in 1977, the market for British comics had been in steady decline since the mid 1960s. Beset by competition from sharper, more glamorous American imported titles, British publishers failed to recognise that the increased demands being made on the pocket money of its traditionally youthful readership was likely to go to products capable of matching the visceral appeal of film and television. Instead, they continued to churn out formularised genre stories, in over-familiar formats reflecting cheap production values.
Both the publishers D.C. Thompson and IPC/Fleetway, who dominated the British market, did so with a raft of titles created by a factory production-line style editorial system which had changed little since the war. 2000 AD (IPC/Fleetway,1977), although in most respects a typical product of that system, was crucially different in one significant way: in spirit, it was clearly of its time not behind it.
Consciously designed to exploit an adolescent market weaned on the fad for Science Fiction films (the vogue for which had been steadily growing during that decade) its stories and characters recycled and re-mixed elements discernible in existing S.F. sources.
As such, it can now be seen somewhat as the natural successor to the The Eagle from the 1950s and TV21 from the 1960s – both of which had fed the appetite for science fiction action yarns in their respective generations. But whereas these predecessors had an essentially benign, utopian take on technological fantasies of the future – catching the optimistic mood of the Britain of their period – 2000 AD was an animal of an entirely different nature.
A new generation
It was a product of the grim economic climate of Britain in the 1970s, reflecting an essentially urban landscape beset by social and industrial strife. Consequently, the comic shared with Punk, then only recently emerged, an aggressive attitude, full of violent energy and laced with a gritty, cynical and very British sense of humour.
In this, 2000 AD captured the style and mood pioneered in the short-lived 'Action' (IPC,1976) – the comic which had directly spawned it. Before widespread complaints about the violent and frequently yobbish elements it contained shut it down, Action firmly established that a strong, youthful readership existed for material of this ilk.
At this point the writers Pat Mills and John Wagner, under the senior editorial direction of John Sanders, were the key creative force injecting new life into British boys comics at IPC. It was they who had created Action and, in the process, established the creative contacts with writers and artists who would go on to work on 2000 AD. Although the editor of the new title was to be Kelvin Gosnell, it was Pat Mills at the helm as commissioning editor who was the true guiding light. Under his direction the content and style of 2000 AD was forged from the contributions of both staff and freelance talents at the company. In this, the new title was very typical of most mainstream British comics.
Key writers of this generation included Pat Mills, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Alan Grant; the key artists included Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, Carlos Ezquerra and Kevin O'Neill.
This generation established the style which has remained the basis of the comic ever since, although as the importance of the fan market (its core-readership) has grown, the creative content has developed a strong bias towards it.
Adult readership for '2000 AD'
2000 AD has shown greater longevity than all its genre predecessors. The fundamental reason for its success has resided in its ability to simultaneously appeal to a young, unsophisticated audience and a more knowing, older fan market. The phenomenon of the fan market arose in the 1970s with the growing maturity of the 1960s generation of readers. The crucial ingredient that 2000 AD added to the visceral thrills which had proven so popular in Action, was a vital injection of ironic humour. This made the new title more palatable than its precursor and also extended the age group of its readership into the student/young adult range.
The use of satire and thematic subtext familiar to fans of the mainstream and underground American comics of that generation (particularly those of Marvel, which had been very popular in the U.K. since the 1960s) meant that when these elements appeared in 2000 AD, there was a sizeable student readership primed to appreciate it. This additional audience undoubtedly helped it outstrip the sales of its competitors and helped keep it buoyant in leaner market conditions to come.
The adult aspects also attracted other writers and artists to work on it who were quick to develop that direction further. By combining it with an exciting action-packed narrative which demonstrated the influence of American comics had had on this generation of creators, 2000 AD achieved a distinctive style which led it from success to success. The period of greatest creative development for the comic is generally agreed to have extended from the end of 1978 to 1985.
By the mid 1980s Britain had, for the first time, a comic which was able to gain a significant U.S. readership something which would elude other similar British titles following in its wake. At home, the numerous imitators it spawned, rejuvenated the industry and created work opportunities for new artists and writers.
The names establishing themselves in the credits of 2000 AD, drew such positive critical and professional attention to the title and themselves, that the major U.S. publishers began to poach them. As one generation of staff were drawn away to more lucrative American work, space was made for the next. Consequently, the title was able to regenerate itself another important factor in its longevity.
Directly due to the success of individuals associated with 2000 AD, the 1980s saw British artists and writers involved in a wide range of important projects which helped the creative revitalisation of American comics seen in that decade. Key examples might be Alan Moore's work on Swamp Thing (DC Comics, 1983) and (with Dave Gibbons) on Watchmen (DC Comics, 1986-87); Alan Grant's work on the DC Batman franchise; Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (DC Comics, 1989); Jamie Delano's work on Hellblazer (DC Comics, 1987-); Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum (Warner, 1989).
Thus, they established an unprecedented major British presence in the most important global market for comics. To this day the doors remain open in the U.S. for new British talent in a way that was unthinkable prior to 2000 AD and to a degree unmatched by any other European country.
British comics in the wake of 2000 AD
One knock-on effect of the success of 2000 AD in Britain was that a number of new more adult-orientated titles arose to cater to the emerging market of readers it had apparently revealed.
Titles like 'Crisis' (Fleetway, 1988), 'Deadline' (Tom Astor,1988), 'Strip' (Marvel UK, 1990), 'Revolver' (Fleetway; 1991), 'Toxic' (Apocalypse, 1991), '>Meltdown' (Marvel UK, 1991), 'Blast' (John Brown, 1991) and 'Overkill'(Marvel UK, 1992) created something of mini-boom in British comic book publishing.
Unfortunately, the number of 'mature' readers was insufficient to support such a plethora, and none of these titles have survived. However, for a while they provided an important training ground for creative talent and spawned some very good strips (the most obvious single example would be Tank Girl by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin working for Deadline).
Although the boom turned out to be more of a blip, it gave a generation of newcomers a vital opportunity not only to establish themselves but to go on to work successfully both in Britain (often on 2000 AD) and in America. It was also an extraordinary period in the publishing history of the British comic book.
In the assembly-line approach to the production of comics favoured by D.C. Thompson and IPC, the creative process was very much story-led and controlled by a commissioning editor who was invariably a writer trained under the company system - as were Mills and Wagner at D.C. Thompson.
Typically, having established a thematic direction for a title, the editor juggles the writers and artists at his disposal to generate characters and feed a pipeline of stories to meet regular deadlines. Thus, the characteristic format which emerges is typically a weekly anthology themed to target a particular market segment.
On the one hand, the high frequency and variety of stories appeals to young readers with a low boredom threshold and encourages a buying habit. On the other hand, it is a modular form which lends itself to a flexible use of the creative resources at the editor's disposal.
Artists tend to work at variable rates depending on the individual. By having different artists working on different stories relating to a single character, the editor is able to hold back the appearance of a story illustrated by a slower paced artist until it is ready, either by using quicker artists in the meantime, or alternatively drawing upon a stockpile of ready prepared stories. In such a system, the use of freelance writers and artists to supplement that of staff artists is obviously an advantageous way to avoid workflow problems and is a common practice.
A new character can sit on the sidelines being developed in a piecemeal fashion via the contributions of a number of different writers and artists. Because it is generally possible for a writer to produce a script quicker than an artist can visualise it, most new characters tend to originate from writers. However an artist's visual interpretation of the writer's concept invariably involves the introduction of innovations which may stimulate the writer, editor or other writers to imagine the character differently and modify the original concept. Furthermore, the process of designing strips can lead artists to develop original character/story ideas themselves.
The essentially collaborative nature of the system is such that although it accommodates the enthusiastic vision of individual creators, it tends to promote the evolution of a character beyond a single vision. The brevity and frequency of the stories (be they complete or episodic) permits different approaches to be tried and helps to avoid boredom setting in for reader and creator alike.
Pressure of work means that the panel sequences and imagery are written as directions in a script so that it will still work effectively even if only illustrated directly as instructed. In practice however, the interpretation of experienced artists leads to far more of a creative exchange between the two. Experienced writers and artists understand each side of the equation perfectly well and know how to bring out the best in each other to, hopefully, achieve a seamless conjunction of word and imagery. They aim to achieve a symbiotic relationship of word and picture. Mainstream professionals focus on skilful genre manipulation and are more interested in creating a popular hit than in formal innovation. They tend to be fans of the pulp tradition and that is the aesthetic which informs their work.
Since production budgets assigned to titles tend to reflect their market share, the creative process is decidedly driven by commercial constraints. In the case of comics, budgets tend to be lower because the market for them in this country is dominated by a youthful readership, smaller in size than the adult one for magazines and with less spending power.
Historically, the cheap production methods common to mainstream British comics (typically line illustration with spot colour on pulp paper dominated until about the mid 1980s) helped to keep the cover price down. Particularly since the 1980s though, with the advent of computerisation in the printing industry, it has been possible to produce cost-effective titles to much higher production values, and 2000 AD today is full colour and glossy.
Inevitably the cover price has risen, but so has the spending power of the average reader. Today's youth is exposed to a glut of sophisticated visuals from competing media such as computer games, film and videos. Comics have attempted to match these to meet the higher visual expectations of the modern reader be they young newcomers or older established fans. In both cases, they expect their favourite comics to keep apace with the advances in production values visible in the world of comics generally.
From both the publisher's and the artist's point of view, this situation has obvious technical ramifications. Publishers have always favoured paying an artist by the page because this is less expensive than an hourly rate - and more productive since it forces the artist to produce more. The rapid linear style common to most comic book artists facilitates quicker page production.
Since the dawn of comics in the late 19th century, a simple line based style, drawn oversized and photographically reduced to make the plates which will result in the printed page, has been the most effective way to produce graphic clarity on pulp paper. Most of the artwork in this exhibition is of this type since it dates from the late 1970s to mid 1980s before the advent of digital printing technology became widespread and revolutionised commercial printing production.
Historically, artists have been quite ruthlessly exploited by publishers keeping the page rate as low as possible and claiming ownership of creative content. Since the 1970s artists' creative rights have improved though, with popular artists being able to charge high fees.
Although the page-rate is now better than it was, it remains a problem for another reason. Whereas full colour painted artwork used to be limited to covers or key spreads where a special impact was required to draw readers, today's digital technology makes it possible for full colour painted artwork to be used throughout and the artist is no longer restricted to a linear style. However, such work is far more time-consuming to produce. The editor may have to wait a week, a month, or even longer for a full colour five page spread to be completed, depending on the artist. Consequently such work may prove financially insufficiently rewarding for the artist to justify the effort involved. And yet it continues to appear because, at the end of the day, comic book artists are fundamentally driven by enthusiasm for the medium.
Few artists working today are able to make a living by working in comics alone. Most do additional work in other areas such as computer game development, film production, animation, and other areas of commercial production. Free-lancing, always important to comic book artists, is now even more so.
With the rise of the fan market in the 1970s (established earliest and most strongly in the U.S.), certain artists assumed star status. The leverage this gave them with publishers led to more lucrative contracts which, when worked out on an individual basis, may have included the yielding of royalty percentages and also greater creative autonomy - including ownership of artwork. As time went on U.S. publishers were pressured into recognising greater creator rights generally, so that by the 1980s more and more original artwork emerged for sale on the fan network via individual artists and dealers.
Collecting original artwork
This sub-market developed to the point where institutional collecting began and prices for certain classic examples of work by key exponents escalated beyond the pocket of the average fan.
In Britain this phenomenon has lagged behind. Here, comics remain underrated by the arts establishment generally, although that perception is gradually changing. Major publishers continue to totally disregard the cultural merit of the work, seeing it simply in terms of an archive of material to cannibalise via re-print projects which constitute relatively modest commercial value. As such, often little archival care may be taken over it. The scarcity of classic early period 2000 AD material is partly due to flooding which occurred at IPC/Fleetway, for example.
Furthermore, the issue of creator rights was never properly addressed here as it was in the U.S. When British artists left to pursue more lucrative American contracts, British publishers did not think it worth matching the American offers. Instead, they concentrated on finding new talent to fill the gaps. Consequently, artists did not tend to retain ownership rights of the material and far less of it was able to find its way onto the British fan market. What little did, frequently went to U.S. buyers who have a much more highly developed sense of the value of this material.
British collectors are few and far between and tend to be older fans or dealers in comic book related material. The work comprising this exhibition has been skimmed from a private collection falling into the first category.
Rufus Dayglo is a professional animator, life-long fan of comic book art and an avid reader of 2000 AD from its start. He began collecting out of admiration for the artwork and the artists behind it - many of whom are personal friends. His collecting focuses mainly on early period 2000 AD partly because it is his favourite, but also because he is concerned to save key examples of what survives before it disappears into foreign collections.
This historic early-period 2000 AD artwork is much sought after by American collectors. The reason why Brian Bolland is not represented in this exhibition, for example, is that, never a prolific artist, his work is scarcer than most and greatly prized in America where it fetches a high price - beyond the means of most British collectors.
Interestingly, in the year 2000, IPC sold ownership of 2000 AD to Rebellion, a young computer games company which counts amongst its directors, old fans of the comic. Indications are that they are bringing fans' values to bear on the title, which may also impact favourably on the collectors' market.
The National Art Library
The National Art Library collects comics as part of its mission to provide a key reference source recording the formal development and publishing history of all aspects of the visual arts.
2000 AD official web page. http://www.2000adonline.com
To locate material in the National Art Library, please search the Library Catalogue.
This text was originally written by Richard Loveday and Carlo Dumontet to accompany the exhibition Art droids>2000AD, on display at the V&A South Kensington in 2002.