This exhibition focuses on original artwork created for the most influential British Comic in the history of the medium: 2000 AD. Drawn as it is from the collection of a single individual, the selection is necessarily a partial one.
In the comic’s twenty-fifth anniversary year, it represents a fan’s-eye view of some of the unsung heroes behind the heroes – the artists.
When 2000 AD first appeared in 1977, the market for British comics had been in steady decline since the mid 1960’s. 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 1950’s and TV21 from the 1960’s – both of which had fed the appetite for S.F. 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 the4 1970’s, 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 1970’s with the growing maturity of the 1960’s 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 1960’s) 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. This exhibition concentrates on artwork dating from that period.
By the mid ‘80’s 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 1980’s 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.