Wednesday 7 September 2016

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

Mills And Boom

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD
UK 2014 (released December 2015)
Directed by Paul Goodwin
Metrodome DVD Region 2

When I heard there was a (relatively) new documentary focusing on the story of “the galaxy’s greatest comic” I got quite enthusiastic. I haven’t picked up an issue of 2000AD in about 14 years but, up until then, I had every single issue they published (and still have those boxes full of the first 1000 plus issues to this day).

I remember back in 1977, I was recovering from a fairly brutal car accident (long story and I’m not going to bother going into it here) and the first issue came out. It had a new feature on an important new movie I was just hearing about in those days. Something called Star Wars, which was due out in cinemas at the end of the year over here in the UK. However, this was not the main selling point to me or my dad. It wasn’t even the free Space Spinner (aka cheap frisbee) stuck to the front cover. We’d seen an advert on television, I think, for the comic which was basically a cartoon including some of the characters, referred to even then as ‘hyper heroes’ (presumably to avoid copyright issues with DC and Marvel) and among them was... the new Dan Dare.

I’d been hearing stories from my dad about how good Dan Dare in the Eagle comic was all my life (I was 9 years old) and so we both decided that this comic was something we should have. I read it first, loved it, and then passed it straight on to my dad to read... which was pretty much the way it was for the more than 20 years we were buying it... at first as a standing order from the local newsagents and, later, as a subscription direct from the publishers. I remember how cool the second issue was with its “biotronic man” stickers which you stuck on your arms and legs to show your machinery innards... it was one of the most painful free gifts to remove from young, hairy arms ever... even in the bath. We already had some cool strips presented to us from the comic’s host alien, The Mighty Tharg, such as Dan Dare, MACH 1, Invasion, Flesh and Harlem Heroes but, the second issue also debuted a comic book character fairly important to this day... Judge Dredd (which also crossed over into Harlem Heroes on occasion). It was all good and the cool Summer Special, out around the same time as the first couple of issues, was also pretty amazing.

I stuck with it for years but my absolute favourite strips all coincided at a period in the early to mid 1980s... Sam Slade - Robo Hunter, Ace Trucking and, the absolutely brilliant, stupendous literary masterpiece... The Ballad Of Halo Jones. It was a great time to be reading comics but the quality did dwindle by the time I gave it up, that’s for sure.

So, yeah, I was positively salivating to see what truths  and ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories to some of my favourite strips and certain famous incidents would be in Future Shock - The Story of 2000AD and... this documentary only half delivers as far as I’m concerned. Which I hate to say because there are some great talking head interviews in here with some of the great comics creators including Pat Mills, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman and even a quick nod from the last Dredd actor, Karl Urban.

Now the main problem is not the abundance of interview footage... far from it. There are some nice illustrations to split these up from time to time with comics either brought to life by panning around a multi-planed version of various panels (either done for real or digitally) and even some animated sections. These were quite cool although... I think there should have been more of them, to be honest.

No, my main problem is just the wealth of stuff not covered in this documentary. There were some key moments in the early history of 2000AD which I think weren’t covered here. Also, although it does at least have a few minutes on the comic’s predecessor Action (in many ways it could be seen as that, I think) and the subsequent banning of that comic by the British government, I think it could have done with a lot more exploration of the British comics scene before 2000AD to really bang home the context of how important it was, at the time, to the people reading it.

And then there were some pretty big incidents that I really would have liked to have seen covered with a little more knowledge of what was really going on that the public didn’t know about at the time.

For instance, when the second Judge Dredd multi part epic The Cursed Earth ran in the comic (if you count The Robot Wars as the first but not counting the Lunar City One stories as a multi-part tale), it got into a whole lot of trouble. Why? Well there were issues where you had Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders sadistically beating or killing other advertising slogan characters like Speedy the Alka Seltzer boy. There was the Jolly Green Giant, a famous frozen brand’s mascot character, who would yell “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, just like he did in the adverts at the time.... but then eat people in this particular incarnation. Or the infamous Burger Wars chapters... where rivals Ronald McDonald and Burger King would whip and kill their employees until they got it right etc. I remember a few weeks after the Jolly Green Giant stuff there was a small strip in the comic by way of a retraction, with Judge Dredd and character Spikes ‘Harvey’ Rotten eating the frozen food products and saying how good it was. I still have all these issues of course, although I haven’t read them in decades. They’ve never been allowed to be reprinted and trade paperbacks of The Cursed Earth have always been pretty light in content up until... as it happens... July 14th this year, when an uncensored reprint has finally been allowed to come out in a new hardback edition.

However, this whole incident was not covered in this documentary and it would have been nice to have known just what was going on behind the scenes at the time... how the many varied companies responded to these stories and also, how were the artists and writers allowed to get away with it by management in the first place. We loved it at the time but... I just don’t know how they had the gumption to even try to get cynical satire this dark published in a popular, weekly comic.

Another thing which seemed to go completely unmentioned in this documentary were the comic’s other related publications. For instance, they talk about, or show, characters like RoJaws and Hammerstein from RoBusters and Johnny Alpha from Strontium Dog but they actually originated in the comic StarLord. The comic was cancelled and folded into 2000AD which took on the name 2000AD and StarLord for a while. Similarly, sometime after the comic had reverted back to its lone 2000AD title, the newish comic Tornado also failed and then it became 2000AD and Tornado for a while. None of this stuff was mentioned even once in the documentary. Nor was their more mature sister publication, which I also used to love, called Crisis.

Various people in the interviews here were quick to point out how much they hated the alien editor of the comic, The Mighty Tharg but... most of the readers loved him and I would have liked to have heard more tales of how he came into being. Also, again, I would have liked them to say a few words even about the two companion comic’s hosts StarLord and Big E (Dave Gibbons in a ridiculous costume, as I recall) but there's nothing about them on here. Nor about any of those cool ‘free gifts’ the comic used to sometimes have in the early days... like the aforementioned Space Spinner, the Biotronic stickers and the Red Alert Survival Wallet! Would have been nice to have heard about this stuff, to be honest.

Then again, the documentary does give us some interesting stuff, like the ego clashes between Pat Mills, who comes across as very professional and easily ‘the man’ to be talking to in this film, and various other editors who worked on the comic later. It also charts the dip in quality, which I suspect is when I decided I’d finally had enough of the mediocrity which was going on under the name of 2000AD at a particular time, and how it’s been subsequently bought and rescued by a publishing company that understood how the comic worked and why it was so successful in the first place.

The highlight for me, in this documentary, is Neil Gaiman telling us why Alan Moore walked away from the comic and that, after the first three books of The Ballad Of Halo Jones, he had a load more books planned and how he’d once told Gaiman the story of where it was going, ending up with Halo as an old woman. Gaiman says there were tears in his eyes when he heard it and, remembering how powerful and influential to me that strip was, I still can't believe that Moore has never been offered gazillions of pounds to carry on with it.

One of the good things the documentary does do is highlight the poor working conditions, in terms of basic, decent rights for the various writers, artists etc. It also dovetails that into the time when the American comics basically poached all the best of the talent from British comics to work over there... with 2000AD being a primary source for top British talent. It talks about the big talent "defection" to the successful DC "adult brand", Vertigo Comics, and even talks to their most famous editor/nurturer of talent, Karen Berger. It spends a while on this subject and this is all fascinating stuff but, again, while I was watching all this, I was wondering why there wasn't less of this stuff and more about 2000AD itself... especially when there was so much essential stuff missing.

The purloined Tharg's Future Shocks short story that became the basis, unofficially, for director Richard Stanley's classic sci-fi movie Hardware is touched upon, especially since it really highlights, again, the poor working conditions the staff were having to suffer at the time. Of course, this leads in nicely to the obvious but perhaps often overlooked fact that 2000AD has been a major influence on all kinds of film, literature and even music in the intervening years since its inception. However, what it really doesn't touch upon too much is the amount of shameless rip-offs the writers and artists of 2000AD perpetrated themselves. Practically every time a new issue would arrive,  me and my father would read the comic and we would trade "references" we'd spotted in the issue and marvel at how these creator's were getting away with nicking it week after week. It's touched on very obliquely in a blink and you'll miss it sideways look at the reflection of the media at the time but when it comes down to mentioning things like Strontium Dog, pretty much, being a futuristic Spaghetti Western, for example, it just doesn't go there at all.

The only extras on the DVD are digital reprints of single episodes of some of the strips but the quality didn't seem that great to me and most of the double spread openings are badly split between two screens and, in the case of The Ballad Of Halo Jones, for example, doesn't retain the colours of those first two pages as they originally appeared as the colour centre spread of the issue... so not very good as a historical document either, I reckon.

All in all, this is not the best review of Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD, I know. I guess I could half recommend it to people who are totally unfamiliar with the comic but, really, it seems light on the more interesting chapters in the comic's history. Comic book  readers will no doubt find it at least, in some ways, interesting because a fair few good creators are included in the interview footage. For old school fans of the comic, however, I would say this may not be a film which covers what you would be wanting to see here. Still, at the moment it's the only documentary movie I know of that at least tries to cover this material so, not exactly a recommendation, maybe, but well done for giving it a bash, at least.

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