August 6, 2018

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Hey, You! Buy 2000 AD's Summer Sci-Fi Special, Then Pick up the Progs, too!

You should buy the 2000 AD Summer Sci-fi Special. It’s Monday now, and chances are good that whatever little stock your LCS ordered has dwindled. I always advocate finding a print copy of an issue, but these are unique circumstances. You can buy the digital issue directly from 2000 AD here. If there is still a barrier to purchasing it, you can call me, and I can read the prog to you while describing each panel. 


I could end this essay there. In general, I'm of the belief that 2000 AD deserves a bigger place within North American comics fandom, and I’m not necessarily an avid reader of the publication. After all, 2000 AD's prime character, Judge Dredd, is nearly ubiquitous in comic culture despite a fairly sparse readership. For people my age (Xenials – call me a millennial and we're going to have to go outside), Dredd likely entered the zeitgeist during a mid-90s American flirtation with the character that saw a few popular crossovers (Batman, Aliens), two short-lived DC Comics series, and a terrible film adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. Newer readers likely know of the character through the IDW adaptations, reprints and the vastly superior Karl Urban/Lena Headey/Olivia Thirlby film, Dredd. 

2000 AD itself, though, is likely most famous with American readers because it spawned or helped to spawn some of the greatest creators who have worked with prime big-two properties – Morrison, Moore, Gibbons, Jock, GaimanAbnett, etc. In that way, 2000 AD has always reminded me of Blur. If you're the average music fan of a certain age demographic, you likely most remember Blur for hits like "Song 2" and "Girls and Boys." If, like me, you had a roommate from Buffalo who grew up on a steady diet of Canadian radio, you may have a slightly more intricate knowledge of Blur. But, if you're like most Americans, you might only have a vague knowledge of Blur, while easily recognizing lead singer Damon Albarn's much more commercially successful project, Gorillaz. Similarly, comic fans probably know something about 2000 AD, but they probably know much more about Peter Milligan's other comic efforts.

Thus, 2000 AD and Dredd occupy a particularly unique place in American pop culture. There's a deficit ratio between recognizability-to-readership that is significantly higher than most American characters. But why is this? 

The answer requires a return to the Blur analogy. Blur has had arguably as successful a career as Oasis, who achieved much more American attention. 2000 AD is an incredibly influential publication, the premier comic in Great Britain, and the breeding ground for an inordinate number of popular creators. Despite that, 2000 AD's North American readership could be lower than 500 readers a month, at least via physical/direct market purchases.* [I highly recommend you look at Mike's note here about North American Direct Market sales, available at the end of this essay/review. -Rob] If it were a traditional comic, that would place it near the end or entirely out of the Top 500 comics. IDW's Judge Dredd series chart anywhere between two and seven thousand copies. Judge Dredd archive editions, The Mega City Masters, sell approximately 2000 copies through the direct market. I've long assumed 2000 AD does well with digital sales through their, but there's no way to gauge that. 

There are two specific factors that come to the forefront of my mind when I try to diagnose the lack of 2000 AD interest in the North American comic market, and most of them stem from a cultural divide. It's odd to think of a cultural divide between the US and the UK, but the Blur example further illustrates the phenomenon. One of the reasons Britpop didn't cross over as well to American audiences the way the original British Invasions had is because it stood in stark contrast to the American grunge movement that emerged from 80s indie underground and hardcore scenes. The original two British Invasions did more to appropriate American music. It was stylistically similar enough that it was palatable to the American ear. Similarly, 2000 AD is perhaps too British in its approach. Thus, the three barriers tend to be: 
  • Genre – The US comic market is defined by superhero stories. 2000 AD tends not to publish traditional superhero stories. It's a true science-fiction publication. Sci-fi has been a growing focus of the US market, though, with the emergence of the big three sci-fi publishers – Aftershock, Black Mask, and Vault – alongside offerings from Titan [also UK based], Lion Forge, and Alterna. Nonetheless, superhero comics tend to dominate North American sales charts. 
  • Format – 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine are anthology publications. Anthologies have had a hard road in modern American comics. In the past ten years, Dark Horse Presents has come and gone twice, and DC Comics tried a few times to get an anthology to build momentum. American readers have consistently gravitated to collected editions, as well. The fact that 2000 AD comes out weekly and in magazine format probably makes it all that more confusing to the American eye.  

But, just like some of our more intricate American comics, 2000 AD definitely has a learning curve. It wouldn't be particularly easy to jump into randomly. Fortunately, the folks at 2000 AD know that, and they have deliberate ideas for how to facilitate transitions for new readers. First, are the publicized "jumping on points," progs offered a few times a year that feature a lineup of entirely new stories. The next jump-on Prog will be 2100. Second is the Summer Sci-Fi special. 

Each year, 2000 AD offers the Summer Sci-Fi special to both bring in new readers and to highlight up and comping talent. This year, the issue features an entire issue with only female creators – writers, artists, colorists, and letterers. 

And, knowing that alone, you should purchase this issue.  

(Sorry. Prog. They're called Progs. It doesn't flow off an American tongue.)

I'm going to devote a few paragraphs below to the content of this issue, which is equally worth your ten dollars, but yes, I'm advocating you to buy this issue on premise alone. 
In case you've missed it, there's a loathsome group of reactionaries roaming social media attempting to stamp out any signs of diversity in comics, attacking both diverse creators and diverse characters. It’s indicative of the particularly disturbing world where the gender who make up the majority of the world population are classified as diverse, but such is the case in both comic books and sci-fi, where, despite remarkable authors and creators, women from all backgrounds still have a difficult time finding acceptance. 

I know. It’s insane. The world of science fiction comics and prose owes a remarkable debt to its female creators. I don't know what science fiction would look like without Octavia Butler or Margaret Atwood. I’m not sure what comics would be like without the contributions of Louise Simonson and Kelly Sue Deconnick. In fact, the last two science fiction books I’ve read have female authors - 84K/Claire North and The Fifth Season/N.K. Jemisin.  

Do we need to mention that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley essentially invented the modern version of the fantasy genre? 

But still, there are those who feel that diverse viewpoints hold little value or that they are thrust upon us in order to achieve some nebulous agenda. It's repulsive, retrograde whining, and there are numerous ways we can combat their ignorance. One way is to deliberately support diverse creators. The other way is to reward the companies who make commitments to diversity with your dollars. Purchasing the 2000 AD Summer Sci-Fi special accomplishes both. It also introduces you to some new characters and provides a reading style different than what you're likely used to seeing. And, hey, expanding your horizons is the bonus. 

You'll recognize some of the creators here, namely Babs Tarr, Alex de Campi, Leah Moore, and Emma Vieceli. You'll recognize the Judge Dredds and Judge Andersons of the world. But so much of this issue will be new, and that's one of its other big selling points.  

This prog features eight new, self-contained stories. Rudimentary knowledge of Dredd helps, but it's not entirely necessary. I’ll give quick analysis of each story, with a little extra involved for my three favorites.

 
From the first story of the anthology, "The Feels."

Babs Tarr, Emma Beeby, and Annie Parkhouse offer the first story, a spot-on Dredd tale rife with irony. The story is fun enough, but it's Tarr's art, including the colors, that makes the first story a keeper. Her use of contrasts and perspective establishes the tone of both Dredd and the neo-hippie cult he pursues. It's funny in both the "haha" and "hmm" way. There’s a particular art to the short story, both prose and graphic. Especially in a page-count anthology, there can’t be any wasted space. What these creators (and the rest of their cohorts throughout the issue) do in a mere six pages is more than some monthly books accomplish in twenty. In “The Feels,” Dredd encounters a threat, neutralizes it, faces a moral quandary, and then co-opts it all in the name of justice. It’s succinct and tight. It could easily be multi-issue arc of a Batman run, but Tarr and company cut out all the filler. It sets a great tone for the book, especially if you’re neither familiar with 2000 AD or anthology comics in general. The creators at work in this issue have to trim stories in a different way. Even though a traditional anthology tale is shorter than the average comic book, it’s still a serial offering. Creating a fully developed story in six comic pages takes both patience and diligence.  

The next story is a Tyranny Rex tale, and it might be the most off-the-wall contribution in the prog. I'm not too familiar with the title character, and I had to re-read the first page twice to grasp the central conceit, but once I did, I slid right into it. Katy Rex, Liana Kangas, Gab Contreras, and Ellie de Ville provide us with a short story about Tyranny (a reptilian humanoid) who downloads a bizarre, grotesque model for her 3D printer. The story is fun, quick, and charming. Its bright colors lighten the mood, and it feels goofy and fun – the perfect combination for a summer special. 

Alex de Campi scripts the next story, a Rogue Trooper tale, alongside Sam Beck, Eva de la Cruz, and Annie Parkhouse. This is probably the most intriguing story in the prog as, after reading it, I'm probably most inclined to seek out more Rogue Trooper stories. It's the most complete story of the prog as well, showing off de Campi's veteran skills and her experience working with 2000 AD. De la Cruz's colors help carry this story. She has a color pencil style pallet, and it works well for the story set in the woods where the colors of nature and the soldier’s camouflage both blend and contrast with one another.  


From Tillie Walden's touching "Delivery."

Next comes a Future Shocks story by Eisner-winning cartoonist Tillie Walden. Future Shocks are short, self-contained stories that don't necessarily connect to the 2000 AD universe. Walden's contribution is the most touching in the prog. Her heavily contrasted, thickly shaded black and white artwork is the perfect combination for a Spielberg-esque creature story. “Delivery” is the offering that harkens most to the world of comix, and actually might be the most engaging to an American audience (provided said audience wants Adrian Tomine to inject more monsters into Optic Nerve issues). The other reason American audiences will find an easy entry point to “Delivery” is because it is entirely self-contained, as opposed to a self-contained story within a larger mythos. Walden's comic is tender and touching, heavily contrasted against the over the top Judge Death story that arrives next.  

Leah Moore scripts the Judge Death story, “Darkness Descends, with Xulia Vicente on art, Pippa Mather on colors, and Annie Parkhouse on letters. (For American comic fans, Judge Death is in many ways the visual inspiration for the Batman Who Laughs.) [That's an understatement. -Rob] Moore channels Dark Angel, an 80s American metal band, as well as the Rolling Stones for Judge Death's lyrical melee. Vicente's art is wild and expansive, and it reminds me of a deliberately looser Hayden Sherman. This story simultaneously goofy and gory.   
This is a page from the Dark Nights: Metal . . . I mean the Judge Death story.

The next story features Demarco, P.I., and breaks with the heavier sci-fi theme of the book. In 1990s style black and white, storytellers Laura Bailey, Dani, and Ellie de Ville embrace equal parts noir and Steven King to create a creepy mystery story that's probably the saddest entry in the prog. Like its fellow black and white offering, “Delivery,” “Love Remains” is subtle and expository. It uses the world of Demarco, P.I. and the Judges and the conventions of noir detective stories as overlays for a postmodern romance. It has a little steeper of a learning curve than “Delivery,” but it’s equally accessible once you're engaged.  

Tharg’s Terror Tales are similar to Future Shocks in that they are shorter, self contained stories. As the title suggests, the stories lean toward horror. This Terror Tale, featuring a script by Olivia Hicks, art by Abigail Bulmer, and letters by Annie Parkhouse, is a short story of a girls field hockey (just hockey in the UK, you know) team and a deal with a demon. Bulmer usually works as a colorist for 2000 AD, but you might know her colors from HuckHit-Girl, or Superior. You can also read the webcomic she composes with her husband, Gumbo, here. I’m not necessarily a horror guy, but this story is really more humor than it is horror. Bulmer’s art recalls both classic Disney animation and Gene Luen Yang, and it’s a hysterical contrast for a cautionary tale about conjuring demons for field hockey glory. 

The last story is a Judge Anderson: PSI Division tale. You may recall that Anderson worked alongside Dredd in the 2012 movie. Maura McHugh, Emma Vieceli, Barbara Nosenzo, and Ellie de Ville combine for a story about the hardships of the PSI division (psychic Judges). More than any other story in the prog, this is the one that I wanted to see fleshed out into an entire arc. It’s my favorite story of the prog, and I think the ladies create real conflict and tension in a mere six pages, but I think this concept has more to it that can be completely extruded in a short story. This is a story of friendship, abuse, neglect, and resignation. It’s also one of duty, as Anderson seems to understand the alleged “greater good” of her role overwhelming the resulting traumas she endures. I was intrigued by Anderson’s character when I watched Dredd and read some of her stories both from 2000 AD and the IDW adaptations. And I think I want to read more. 
Anderson: PSI Division

If you actually made it through this entire rundown, good for you. I hope you’ve been intrigued enough to purchase this prog. A few closing thoughts, to cap this essay. First, these characters are intriguing. There are core familiarities, but they differ from American characters enough that they are novel. 2000 AD’s cast is darker than American comic characters, and there’s a certain verisimilitude that, despite obvious science fiction genre choices, permeates the characterization in a way that doesn’t always happen for, say, The Avengers. That’s not to say one is superior to the other, but this one is different in real, meaningful ways that I believe warrant deeper readings (at least from me). 

Second, I obviously appreciate the fact that this special features an entirely female creative team, but I even more so appreciate the fact that 2000 AD opened the gates for these creators and let them at all of the major characters. Yes, we do need more female characters, but we also need to see women tackling major properties and turning out solid stories. Third, I remember how much I loved anthologies, and I pine for an American super-hero anthology.

So if you're headed back to the shop, make sure you look for the 2000 AD Summer Special. And then go back next week and ask for the Progs, too. There's a whole world of sci-fi comics out there waiting for you, along with the chance you can say "you read her way back when" once one of these women is the next UK creator to explode on the US scene. In the meantime, I guarantee great comics.

*I'd like to thank John Jackson Miller for his help with sorting out sales figures for 2000 AD both through Comichron.com and Twitter. 

The 45 minutes I lost of my life sifting through Comichron data shows that neither IDW Dredd nor true 2000 AD titles crack the top 500 comics threshold with any degree of regularity. The Dark Horse published Predator vs. Judge Dredd vs. Aliens sold about 1700 copies via the direct market in 2017. One of the most recent times a Judge Dredd book cracked the top 500 was January 2018's Judge Dredd: Blessed Earth # 8, selling nearly 3000 copies. Oddly enough, the only other issue in the series to notch a top 500 spot was the 4700-copy-selling debut issue. The last time multiple Dredd books entered the top 500 was February 2016. IDW's Judge Dredd # 16 sold almost 6500 issues, while the Mega City Two and Classics series sold 5700 and 2588, respectively. In May of this year, Judge Dredd: Under Siege # 1 sold 5343 copies, and a reprint of Judge Dredd: Mega City Zero # 1 under IDW's Greatest Hits banner sold just over 2000 copies. In April, we actually saw a 2000 AD published comic breach the top 500, Judge Dread Furies One Shot. This issue was also a reprint of the official Dredd movie sequel.