Love it or hate it (and most fans hate it), there’s no denying that the 1995 Judge Dredd movie shone a much-needed spotlight onto the character and the magazine he came from: 2000AD. It was probably my first exposure to the character – at eleven years old, I have vague memories of the Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future magazine, released in July 1995 to coincide with the film’s release. There was even an ad on TV to promote the comic – something that has seldom been done since, and might actually work if it was placed on the right channel. I’d had a passing flirtation with US comics, introduced into the hobby that would eventually become a passion by a school chum. Ironically, bumping into the same school friend ten years later, I discovered he’d given up comics for football unaware he’d set me off on a long journey of spandex-clad superheroes and dastardly villains.
My main comics of choice were Spider-Man, Wolverine and Spawn – the biggest hitters during the mid-nineties. Spider-Man was beginning to become entrenched in the Clone Saga, Wolverine had lost his adamantium and Spawn was developing into one of the strongest independent titles out there. But Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future seemed totally different from all of those – firstly, it was readily available in the newsagents and it was on bigger paper! The artwork inside was darker and this futuristic city with Futsies, Fatties and other extreme fads was strangely intriguing and alien compared to the modern-day America seen in my other comics. I eagerly devoured the magazine from cover to cover, and then discovered that there was a second, more adult-focused Judge Dredd magazine that came out on a weekly basis called 2000AD. I was about to go on a summer holiday trip with the Cub Scouts to Sweden, yet I managed to convince my mum to buy me a copy of Prog 950 to take with me on the plane.
Capitalising on the Sylvester Stallone connection, the cover featured a fully-painted interpretation of the movie version of Dredd – although he actually had his helmet on in this picture! Dermot Power’s wonderful artwork was given extra emphasis with the shiny silver background that heralded the issue as a special jumping-on point for new readers. The popularity of the film meant that this issue featured two Judge Dredd stories – one regular adventure and a flashback retelling of the iconic “Return of Rico” storyline which formed the basis of the movie. Elsewhere in the Prog was a short Rogue Trooper storyline, dealing with the ramifications of the previous adventure which saw Rogue, Helm and Bagman killed off. There was also a new Slaine story, drawn by Greg Staples, that stood out from the rest of the Prog and demonstrated the versatility of the sci-fi anthology. Rounding up the thrill-count was Urban Strike, based on the game of the same name. An odd choice for the Prog, it focused on ultra-violence and near-the-knuckle storytelling, but it did have some interesting cliff-hangers that appealed to the less discerning eleven-year-old me.
Tharg had done it – I was hooked. I carried that comic with me throughout my holiday to Sweden and read it again and again, until the cover fell off. Disaster! To make things worse, when I returned I had missed the next Progs when I returned – I eventually managed to find a copy of Prog 951, but quickly lost track. However, I maintained my collection of Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future as it had a fortnightly schedule. Eventually, things subsided and I drifted away from comics, even those colourful costumed superheroes from Marvel. However, this was just a taste and a precursor of what was to come.
Two years later, and I was back on the comics beat, this time collecting Astonishing Spider-Man and Savage Wolverine – two UK reprint magazines from Panini – and I happened to spot a copy of Prog 1041 on the newsagent shelf. There was nothing remarkable about this comic – it featured a scene from Mercy Heights on its cover – yet something called me from within its pages. Once again, I was hooked. This time, however, I didn’t have the benefit of a jumping-on point to get me acquainted with the stories. In some ways, this was the key – even with partial knowledge of the characters and their situation, I was enthralled by this new mix of adventures. Dredd had taken a group of cadets into the Cursed Earth as part of “The Hunting Party” story-arc, Mercy Heights was this tense, hospital-based murder mystery, Slaine was still lopping heads off various ghoulies and finally, there was this Russian swashbuckler named Nikolai Dante.
Without a doubt, Nikolai Dante was the catalyst behind my second flirtation with 2000AD. I was thirteen, pubescent, awkward and sprouting hair from the most unusual of places, and this was a cocky, suave adventurer who could summon metal blades from his hands. I was in awe! Through boot-sales, comic shop bargain bins and even charity shops, I managed to source the missing issues between Progs 951 and 1041, wherein I learned about Dredd and Demarco’s complicated relationship in “The Pit”, I also discovered the absolutely gorgeous Mazeworld from Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson. And of course, I filled in the blanks with Nikolai Dante – catching up on his past as his present unfolded before my eyes. He was later joined by Sinister Dexter, who also became a firm favourite. Tharg wisely let these series develop and grow over the next few years – offering a semi-residency to Nikolai Dante and Sinister Dexter in the same way Strontium Dog and Rogue Trooper built their fervent fanbases.
It worked – I absolutely loved this time period in 2000AD’s history. It was great watching Nikolai Dante’s journey unfold over the course of many months. My weekly allowance was gladly spent on a Wednesday to pick up the latest Prog, and I found myself struggling to wait the mandatory seven days between installments. Those were the formative years of my life, and I found myself learning so much from the magazine… until Prog 1066 – the dreaded sex issue.
Still thirteen – all acne and braces – I was crestfallen to discover that Prog 1066 would be marketed strictly towards adults and sold in a polythene bag. Dare I ask my parents to buy me a comic that had the word ‘SEX’ emblazoned on it, or do I attempt to purchase the magazine myself? Harnessing all the confidence I could manage at the time, I went to a newsagent that I seldom frequented (I couldn’t bear the shame of being refused sale in my local!) and hurriedly placed the magazine on the counter. There was a moment as the shop clerk eyed the comic – a lump in my throat formed and my grip tightened around the one pound twenty in my hand. “How much is this?” the man asked me. I pointed at the price in the corner, exchanged the sweat-covered coins and scarpered out of the shop with my prize.
Ironically, the notorious sex issue was merely the first crack in the dam as 2000AD would continue to push the envelope without needing to poly-bag the comic. Over the next few years, I continued to pick up my weekly dose of 2000AD and everything was grand – I remember picking up Prog 2000 (at the age of 16) and having mixed emotions over the long-awaited romantic pairing of Nikolai Dante and Jena Makarov. The “will they or won’t they” relationship had been consummated and quickly dashed by the outbreak of war. At this point, it was only Nikolai Dante and Sinister Dexter that I was reading religiously, with the majority of the other strips being “saved for later”. Shortly after Prog 2000, I moved away from 2000AD again and focused on being a sixteen year old boy – which basically meant beer, video games and girls.
But like a moth to the flame, I found myself coming back again and again. Key anniversary issues were the biggest draw, and Tharg begun carefully formulating regular “jumping-on points” to target lapsed readers like me. It worked – I came back for Prog 1300, but the comic had undergone some changes in my absence. Nikolai Dante was still my favourite but his appearances had become few and far between. One highlight was the blockbuster Judge Dredd vs Aliens crossover – another high profile moment for the comics that succeeded in luring back those foolish enough to think they could quit. It was at this point that I first took my stab at reviewing Progs for the now closed 2000AD Review website – I was a terrible reviewer, often late with my reviews and probably missing most of the subtext of the stories. Eventually, I drifted away again – I was at university, so you can probably guess the competition for my attention and finances.
It wasn’t until much later, in 2008, that I would return to the fold. It was Prog 1600 (another anniversary Prog!) and I was now working in my first proper full-time job. The monotony of the work week was getting to me, and a brand-new Prog every Wednesday just sweetened “hump day” tenfold. I loved walking up the long hill towards the newsagents to pick up the latest Prog to read on the train home from work. It was a great routine, and many of my old favourite strips were still running. Nikolai Dante had moved from swashbuckler to pirate, Sinister Dexter had gone from being enemies on opposite sides of the law to friends again, “dying” numerous times in the interim and Judge Dredd seemed to be softening up in his old age.
I continued to dip in and out, based on whatever stories were running at the time, and every now and then I delved into the back issues to fill in the blanks. It was around this time that I picked up the graphic novel collections of Nikolai Dante (unfortunately out of print, but available digitally) and found myself even more invested in the character than I was when I was thirteen. Now, in my mid-twenties, I had grown up with this story over the past ten years and was determined to see how it ended as Robbie Morrison began to tie the various plot threads together, reuniting Nikolai with the Tsar and the Romanovs. I have to admit that I become quite fixated on Dante in those final years, missing out on some key moments in Judge Dredd’s history such as the momentous “Day of Chaos“, which still haunts the series to this day.
Nikolai Dante eventually came to an end in Prog 1791, and it was at this point that I wondered whether my love affair with 2000AD was finally over. I had invested so much time and emotion into this one series, and now it was done. There was a sense of emptiness – much like when LOST ended – and I felt a void in my life. In the past, I would tend to drift away from the magazine, but this time I did the opposite and begun reviewing the Prog again – but on my own blog. I would endeavour to write a new review every week, and this time I stuck to my self-imposed deadline for over four years, writing reviews for each Prog from Prog 1824 right up until Prog 2017 (a fitting number to end on!) and during this time, I fell in love with the galaxy’s greatest comic all over again.
2000AD has hit a creative zenith over the past five years or so, thanks mostly to the keen direction of its publisher Rebellion. There has been plenty of brilliant new series that have debuted since I begun my weekly reviews and I can honestly say that 2000AD is unlike any other comic out there. It is a hive for creativity and its no surprise that its many creators are poached by Marvel and DC to work on their characters. While I no longer have the schedule to write weekly reviews, I remain committed to following 2000AD and reviewing key stories from its past and present. Moreso than any other comic I collect, 2000AD has been a firm part of my development from spotty-faced teen to bearded thirty-something – it has shaped my personality in ways I am probably unaware of, and is more of a lifestyle choice than a comic. If you’ve drifted away from the weekly Prog, do yourself a favour and reconnect with 2000AD with its next jumping-on point – it may just change your life.