2000AD: Controversial or Just Another Prog?

By Colin Noble

For those that have seen the statement put out by Rebellion over its recent 2000AD cover, it will come as no surprise to many that the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic is once more sailing close to the edge of what is deemed acceptable – but it isn’t the first time, by any stretch.

2000AD Prog 2184 Cover - Judge Dredd by Steven Austin and Quinton Winter
2000AD Prog 2184 - Publisher Statement
2000AD Prog 2184 – Publisher Statement

What genuinely surprised me, after the statement was issued, was the amount of people who do not seem to be aware of 2000AD‘s credentials when it comes to making a political statement or causing controversy. For me, the impetus for this article came from this tweet. I have removed the name to protect the innocent.

2000AD Tweet - Solace

When I read this, I was a bit stunned. Has this person been reading the same 2000AD as I and managed to miss every single bit of political nuance over the past 43 years?

If they have and you, dear reader, know them, please point them in the direction of this post as I present the first ten controversies / political arguments that 2000AD got itself mixed up in…

Action is savaged in The Sun, Friday 30th April 1976
Action is savaged in The Sun, Friday 30th April 1976 – read the background here

2000AD was the comic that nearly wasn’t. After the moral panic that was Action, where Fleetway had been accused of corrupting the morals of the young generation in the court of public opinion by the media of the day and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, Fleetway were not exactly in a rush to repeat the experience. This meant that editor Pat Mills and the creative team around him were subjected to closer supervision than most freelancers were subjected to.

2000AD - Up From The Ashes
An early dummy cover for "AD2000", cover artist unknown
An early dummy cover for “AD2000”, cover artist unknown

While most of the drama of this time is well documented elsewhere, including by Pat himself, I would like to remind readers that Sci-Fi was deliberately chosen as 2000AD‘s theme as it meant that the editorial team had a better chance of getting violent content through – as nobody cared if robots or aliens got killed!

The oversight did not end there, as Steve MacManus detailed in his book The Mighty One, progs were still scrutinised by senior editors five years after the first one hit the shelves.

2000AD - "Laugh This Off, Twinkletoes"
2000AD - Prog 2 - Invasion

Any 2000AD fan worth his salt will know that this quote is from “Invasion!” Prog 2, when Bill Savage begins to exact his revenge for the murder of his family in the titular invasion.

However, are all 2000AD fans aware of the cover up that featured in Prog 1 of 2000AD? Remember, we are dealing with a society that has spent every year since 1949 half expecting the world to be incinerated in a nuclear maelstrom from which few of us would survive let alone be able to deal with.

Considering many of the Armed Forces based in Germany expected to have a life expectancy measured in days if the Soviet horde came charging through the Fulda Gap in the opening act to Whoops! Apocalypse: The Reality Show, you would expect it to be acceptable for the British press to use quite strong terms to describe the Soviets and even to portray them as the villains of the piece in at least one comic.

The original art for "Invasion" for the first issue of 2000AD - before the bodgers got their hands on it and change the Soviet symbols to "Volgan"
The original art for “Invasion” for the first issue of 2000AD – before the bodgers got their hands on it and change the Soviet symbols to “Volgan”

But yet again, before a single page had been run hot off the press, the Senior Management of Fleetway were having a quiet meltdown. Cue the faithful bodger being called from his lair to paste an effective alternative symbol to disguise those hammers and sickles. After all, it wouldn’t be British to call people names before you start shooting them.

As a result, the Soviet hordes became the dirty Volgans named after the Volga river which ran through… I think you get the point. If not, use the search engine of your choice to find out where the Volga is.

“Invasion!” was collected as Invasion! by Rebellion in 2007

Script: Pat Mills, Gerry Finley-Day, Nick Allen, Chris Lowder
Artists: Jesus Blasco, Eric Bradbury, Luis Collado, Mike Dorey, Ian Kennedy, Carlos Pino, Sarompas, Pat Wright
Letters: John Aldrich, Tony Jacob, Tom Frame, Peter Knight, Bill Nuttall, Jack Potter

2000AD - Woke form Day One
2000AD Prog 1 - Harlem Heroes

This is not so much a controversy as a political statement, as Prog One featured a story that broke a glass ceiling in British comics very few people noticed. All the stories but one featured fairly standard hero types of white male adventurers, but one – “Harlem Heroes” – featured a sports team… and there was something a little different about them. Every member of the team was black.

I realised that I had subconsciously assumed the basis for this story was probably the Harlem Globetrotters, who were superstars in the 1970s. To this day, I defy anyone that grew up in the 1970s and watched them to be able to whistle “Sweet Georgia Brown” and not think of the world-famous basketball team.

However, what was more important was that this eight year old never saw anything odd or unusual in a person of colour being a hero, or the central character of a story – and that’s something that has run as a thread through my life.

If you don’t understand just how important this was in 1977, I suggest you take another look at recent headlines and hope a few more of us can see that anyone can be the hero in their own story.

• “Harlem Heroes” appeared in Progs 1 to 27

Script: Tom Tully, Pat Mills
Artists Include: Dave Gibbons, Carlos Trigo, Massimo Belardinelli
Letters: Dave Gibbons, Bill Nuttall, John Aldrich, Peter Knight

2000AD - I Don' Need No Steenkin' Badge!

Ultra-violent. Fascist. Judge. Jury. Executioner. Biker. No one can talk about 2000AD and controversy without mentioning the character who has cast the longest shadow.

Judge Dredd first appeared in Prog Two, using a story that neither of the creators had a hand in resulted in some interesting times within the comics industry. But I am not here to rake over old wounds. Let’s have a look at what Judge Dredd was and still is.

Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, he was an emotionally suppressed individual with a monomania for the Law of Mega City 1. Critics were split on whether Judge Dredd was either an emotionless tool of an autocratic dictatorship or the natural result of an ever increasing nanny state.

Let’s be honest, few who were there at the start have changed their position on Dredd over the past 40 odd years.

2000AD Prog 7 - Judge Dredd Page 1
2000AD Prog 7 - Judge Dredd Page 2
Pages from the “Judge Dredd” story from 2000AD Prog 7

In the first couple of years, the charges of being too political, too violent, too authoritarian and too whatever rubbed someone up the wrong way were often laid at the editorial doors of 2000AD. With effusive thanks to the efforts of Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Nick Landau and Steve MacManus, these attacks on the independence of the comic were blunted and deflected. This allowed 2000AD and Judge Dredd to grow and develop for the first ten years without any major interference.

Early episodes of “Judge Dredd” are collected in Judge Dredd: Case Files Volume One

2000AD - Miles to the Gallon

2000AD had a scatter-gun approach to development in the first couple of years. When you consider it was a product of the “Hatch, Match and Dispatch” mindset that prevailed at Kings Reach Tower at the time, it’s not really surprising that ideas would be chucked at stories to see which worked and which didn’t.

By the time 1977 rolled round, we had been through the Winter of Discontent, queuing at petrol stations (yes that scene from Superman III was pretty much on the nose), and rubbish in the streets creating health hazards, to one and all and struggling to get essential goods in shops.

We were also beginning to become aware of the damage humanity was doing to the planet with the explosion of travel and an ever increasing reliance on disposable packaging that was going to cost the Earth.

It should have come as no surprise that an early Dredd story – “Muggers’ Moon“, in Prog 19 – would feature green politics but to see a Morris Minor considered as an antique in the future had me giggling. One thing the story did was plant a couple of seeds in my mind. The first seed would ripen once I passed my driving test as most of my cars have been hatchbacks.

2000AD Prog 19 - Muggers' Moon

The second seed planted in my brain was if someone thought that one car was so polluting, they had to have special filters added to it before it could be driven in a city, how much pollution was being pumped into the atmosphere by the cars and vehicles of 1977?

Events since then seem to have borne out Pat’s predictions with many of us looking for the best mpg rather than the best on reaching 60mph from a standing start.

Early episodes of “Judge Dredd” including “Muggers’ Moon” are collected in Judge Dredd: Case Files Volume One

“Muggers’ Moon” was written by Gerry Finley-Day, with art by John Cooper, lettered by Jack Potter

2000AD - Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
2000AD Prog 23 - Judge Dredd

2000AD‘s “Judge Dredd” story in Prog 23 introduced a new type of building to the readers: the Smokatorium. Back in the 1970s, the idea of smoking being limited to only one building was not so much controversial, as beyond belief.

Those of you reading this in the 2020s will no doubt be used to the limits placed on smokers, but in 1977 these limits were all but unknown. You would go to the local cafe and smoke while drinking tea or coffee. There was also a good chance that the person serving you or making your order would also be smoking.

Every nightclub would be filled with smoke and you would return home smelling as if you have smoked 20 John Player No 6.

People knew the risks associated with smoking, but the idea that you could somehow force people to segregate to get their nicotine fix was beyond consideration in 1977. Once again, 2000AD was eerily prescient with an idea that would and did upset conventional thinking.

Remember at the start of this article, I said that 2000AD was not only political but also controversial for the way it treated many subjects? Well, one story was held back from Prog One for being too graphic for the core readership.

Early episodes of “Judge Dredd” including “Smoker’s Crime” are collected in Judge Dredd: Case Files Volume One

“Smoker’s Crime” was written by Gerry Finley-Day, with art by Mike McMahon, lettered by Tom Frame/ Peter Knight

2000AD - I've Resigned!

When I read it back then, the graphic nature was part of the appeal for me. I grew up on a farm and I had a rough idea of where different bits went due to being on a dairy then a beef farm, but to actually see where the organs were supposed to be was more informative than gory – as was the case with “The Visible Man“, which appeared in Progs 47 – 52.

But the writing of Pat Mills got several other points passed the eagle eyes of the Senior Editors. And if these points are not controversial, I don’t know what are.

The first point was suicide could be justified, if someone was pushed so far down, they had no other option to escape. Some of you might think that’s no big deal. Keep thinking that if you are blind to the fact that in 1977, the act of helping someone to commit suicide was (and still is) a criminal offence and the song Suicide is Painless (the theme from M*A*S*H) with lyrics was still banned from being played by BBC Radio. It would take until 1980 before the version with lyrics would be played more often than the instrumental version!

It also raised the controversial point of drug testing. The 1970s saw the rise of Animal Rights Activists and the Animal Liberation Front in 1976. The point of testing on a person who has not given their consent sits uneasily against the millions of tests carried out, annually, on animals who could not give their consent.

A third point was raised about the disposal of nuclear waste from the British nuclear reactors. Obviously, it was used here as a plot device to create the story in the first place, but few of us were aware of how governments were disposing of nuclear waste that would be radioactive for thousands of years. Remember, this was written before the disasters at Three Mile Islands and Chernobyl.

2000AD Prog 48 - The Visible Man

One more thing before I move on to the next reason why I know 2000AD was radical, controversial and political is this is a story about an officer, a Army veteran – and he’s treated like some lab rat to the point where he’d rather leave the human race behind than face an endless barrage of tests. In almost all adventure stories, officers would be the villains of the piece or the hero. Here, he was a victim, an anti-hero not only pitted against the Establishment but against the entirety of the human race.

I can already hear many of you experiencing high blood pressure – so go for a nice long walk before you continue reading or you will turn your phone / iPad into a pretty collection of printed circuit boards.

• “The Visible Man” appeared in 2000AD Progs 47 to 52 and was reprinted in Judge Dredd Megazine 4.08 and The Best of 2000AD Special Edition (1994)

Script: Pat Mills
Artists: Carlos Trigo, Montero
Letters: Jack Potter

2000AD - Burger Barons

Throughout the 1970s, there was much discussion of how we Brits were subsuming our culture and adopting American ways rather than continuing to value our own customs and pop culture. To a greater or lesser extent, this conversation continues to this day where we see US domination of the cinema and certain topics of news.

The opening spread of the "banned" Judge Dredd episode from 2000AD Prog 72.
The opening spread of the “banned” Judge Dredd episode from 2000AD Prog 72.

In the 1970s, there was no more obvious symbol of this culture creep than the opening of the burger chains McDonalds and Burger King in London. Pat, never known for his subtlety, created a scenario where these two chains operated in post-Apocalypse America and rather than being at metaphorical war with each other, the knives were out for anyone who asked for a Big Mac in a Burger King town.

Pat was never a fan of us sacrificing culture for American pop culture where style won out over substance. This story illustrated that point with a clarity and emotional impact that a dozen editorial columns in The Times would never have equalled.

Pat’s story also had one unexpected side effect, but let’s look at Point Nine before I go into depth on it.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth has been reprinted in several editions and is available as a game | The Cursed Earth Uncensored features the controversial episodes featuring “The Jolly Green Giant” and Ronald McDonald

“Battle of The Burger Barons” ran in Progs 71 to 72 and was written by “TB Grover” – John Wagner – and drawn by Mike McMahon

2000AD - Giants Aren't Gentlemen

To a certain extent, this is a continuation of Point Eight, but this time, in another story that formed the Judge Dredd “Cursed Earth” saga, writer Chris Lowder (wiring as Jack Adrian) probably just wanted to see how many corporate logos he could fit into one “Judge Dredd” story and not attract the attention of any of the companies he was sending up.

As we all now know, that plan had all the likelihood of success as Sean Connery making it through any film without reverting to his normal accent!

The opening page of the 'banned' Judge Dredd episode published in 2000AD Prog 77.
The opening page of the ‘banned’ Judge Dredd episode published in 2000AD Prog 77.

2000AD did not make it through this little episode unscathed. The use of at least six corporate logos had corporations lawyering up and having very strong words with Fleetway Senior Management.

One result of this little ‘chat’ meant that the Burger Wars and Giants Aren’t Gentlemen sequences could, for many years, never be republished or the libel laws of the time would be used to sue Fleetway into the ground. Nestlé went further and demanded that a written apology be published to clarify that ‘their’ Jolly Green Giant was in no way associated with the work of Dr Gribbins. This was published and the corporations were satisfied that Fleetway understood the strength of their resolve and the effectiveness of their lawyers!

This grudging (or should that be grudding?) apology to the Green Giant featured in a later issue of 2000AD
This grudging (or should that be grudding?) apology to the Green Giant featured in a later issue of 2000AD

However, when the laws changed in 2015, Rebellion were smart enough to schedule a full reprint of the Cursed Earth featuring these four banned issues to allow readers to have the full glorious epic in one volume.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth has been reprinted in several editions and is available as a game | The Cursed Earth Uncensored features the controversial episodes featuring “The Jolly Green Giant” and Ronald McDonald

“Giants Aren’t Gentlemen” ran in Progs 77 to 78 and was written by “Jack Adrian” – Chris Lowder – drawn by Brian Bolland and lettered by Tom Frame

2000AD - Fat Bottomed Girls

I realise that all the points I have put forward so far all occurred within the first 18 months of 2000AD. There are many other points throughout the history of 2000AD I could add in – such as B.L.A.I.R. One, Big Dave, Dead Meat, cross-dressing robots and dodgy South Africans, but for my last point, I am sticking with the first year of 2000AD and going back to one of my favourite stories “Invasion”.

Most comics published for boys, if they had a female character, would find the reader looking at some nubile young lady with some appeal for their big brothers if not for themselves. For kids TV, this was called the ‘Dad Factor’.

2000AD was a beast of a different stripe. The first two female characters were Nessie McNairn and Rosa Volgaska. Neither would be classed as having any Dad Factor, but both were women that any reader was more likely to encounter during their day. To see that reflected in a comic you read was a powerful symbol.

2000AD Prog 46 - Invasion

Neither was a character that depended on the men in their lives to give them meaning or direction. They were not going to swoon at the sight of Prince Charming riding up to carry them off to a Happy Ever After. They were more likely to tell him to get off his horse, grab a shovel and move what came out of the back end of his horse and dump it in the compost heap!

The character of Nessie was easy for me to identify with. A woman who could hold her own and had no fear of the men around her. That was basically Mum and any of her sisters! They knew what needed to be done and would not baulk at doing any job no matter how nasty it was.

Rosa was different. She was the nasty version of Nessie. And that dualism must have subconsciously attracted and scared me at the time. Her character was a case of stuff the expectation of an airhead in uniform, this was a villain who you could expect to cheerfully rip the nails from her victims.

Reading the story, you saw that she was as happy to sacrifice Volgan troops as Resistance fighters as long as she could land the big fish of Bill Savage.

The stereotype of helpless female was railed against time and time again. This was against a background of casual misogyny in society and the media. Don’t believe me? Check out how victims of the Yorkshire Ripper were portrayed in the press of the time or how many of the Red Tops ran with a Page Three feature.

2000AD was one of the few comics that cheerfully embraced feminism and equality – and we have seen this with characters such as Hershey, Anderson, Lorna Varn, Roxanne O’Rourke, Halo Jones, McGruder and many, many more.

If, after reading this, you can still convince yourself that 2000AD has never been political nor controversial, I really want to read your explanation in the comments.

Colin Noble

2000AD is online at 2000ad.com

2000AD and all characters featured (apart from trademarked characters mentioned) © Rebellion Publishing Ltd

Categories: 2000AD, British Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News

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4 replies

  1. Great piece, Colin, having been a 2000 AD reader since the start I was likewise astonished at some complaining that it had suddenly “gone political” (i.e. they mean it said something they don’t agree with). It’s littered with political and social commentary (and deliciously dark satire). Just finished reading Judges Volume 2 for review and an online interview, and it was so on the nose it dovetailed with the events happening in the US right now to an almost terrifying degree. I wouldn’t have my 2000 AD any other way…

  2. Is it not a universally acknowledged fact (!) that any publication whose views accord with those of the reader cannot be biased? Although Judge Dredd is a totally fictional invention, don’t his morals have to accord with those of his readers? Otherwise, why do they read him?

  3. So funny – and you didn’t even get past Prog 78 – out of 2185! I can’t help feel that person was just trolling!

    • Sheridan, I saw the context in which the tweet was put and unfortunately the tweeter was tweeting in earnest. Even worse is that they are not the only one to think that way.

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