Set your lawgivers to hi-ex, kids – we speak with John Wagner
Folks, you’ve heard me gushing like the fanboy I am over some of the classic 2000AD material we have coming up for you as well as reminiscing about the comic back in British Comics Month and blogging on the new Dredd: Origins story arc. I can’t help it, I grew up with 2000AD, being right there at the first issue (or ‘prog’) back in the 70s and I’m sure plenty of you know just where I am coming from on that score because so did you. Well, today it is a real pleasure and privilege to be talking to a man who has been incredibly productive in British comics for a long time and is all but synonymous with 2000AD, not to mention one of the fathers of Dredd himself, the great John Wagner. As John and Carlos Ezquerra take readers on the new Dredd epic Origins (just started in Prog 1505), finally exploring the history of the character and his world, it seemed like a good time to ask John a few questions about Britain’s biggest comics character and just why he has been drawn back to writing him time and again over the last three decades:
FPI: Hi, John and thank you very much for taking some time to talk to us. Yesterday 1977, today 2006; here you are back working your magic on Judge Dredd. I was reading it back then and I’m still reading it now, as are countless others, so obviously you have been doing something right all this time. Did you have any inkling of how big a character Dredd would become, or how broad a canvas for stories his world would offer to creators?
John: None at all. The thought that he would still be going after 30 years – for that matter, that 2000AD would still be going – never entered my head.
FPI: How does it feel to be working with Carlos again on Dredd?
John: It’s not like we’ve ever stopped.
FPI: Good point – although there is something extra-special about having a Wagner-Ezquerra team-up for this special tale at this time. Like most fans I’ve picked up little hints and fragments to the history of Dredd’s world over the years, starting right back with the Cursed Earth epic in the 70s where he comes across Robert Booth, the last president of the United States, which I think is the first time we got a glimpse of the events which had brought the Judges to power. Birthdays and anniversaries are often a time for reflection as well as celebration – did the impending 30th anniversary of 2000AD play any part on your decision to embark on this story now?
John: That wasn’t a motivation, but just like the comic I’m not getting any younger, so if I was going to do it, it had to be fairly soon.
FPI: Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
John: It’s been crying out to be done for a long while, that’s certain. I’ve always been fearful of tackling it because of the level of difficulty. I’m fairly pleased with the result but no doubt readers will soon let me know where I went wrong.
FPI: Will you be exploring the mythos of Dredd as well as the history of his world?
John: It’s all in there. The real trick was to make sense of the seeming contradictions, fill in the history and still tell an entertaining story. There will be quite a few surprises along the way. Hop on for the ride.
FPI: Already jumped on my Lawmaster and following you down the trail. You have had many notable successes in your career, having written work as diverse as the brilliant Bogie Man (with Alan Grant) and you’ve seen your History of Violence turned into an acclaimed movie by David Cronenberg. And yet the long arm of the law has reached out to you once more – what is it about Dredd that brings you both back to him again?
John: I feel very much at home with the character. There’s a lot of Dredd in me, I guess – not least my desire to shoot a lot of people.
FPI: Well, most folks have days like that and it is hard to resist switching to hi-ex sometimes. We’re just at the start of the tale right now, with Dredd forming a posse to find Fargo’s body. Naturally you can’t give away too much at this point, but can you tell us anything about what we can look forward to as Origins progresses?
John: Shocking revelations, white hot action, twists and turns, all the fun of the fair. I hate to spoil a story by signposting it. Better to leave the details to the reader to discover. There’s enough speculation as it is without throwing in a few more hints.
FPI: Very true, but can’t blame me for trying! Are you and Carlos following the story arc all the way through or will other writers and artists be involved?
John: No, just us. Unless Carlos breaks down on me. It’s quite a task he’s set himself, and he’s not strong these days. Still, as long as he can push that zimmer to his work desk…
FPI: Some writers such as Joss Whedon have pulled away the safety blanket fans used to have in the form of knowing that whatever danger threatened, their heroes would always survive at the end. The fact he is prepared to sacrifice major characters has been praised as more realistic and dramatic and yet this isn’t a new thing, its been happening for years in Dredd as we’ve seen beloved characters like Giant or Dekker killed in action – actually as a kid Dredd is probably one of the first places I saw a major character killed. Do you think the fact that the reader can’t take the ultimate safety of their favourite characters for granted is a good thing?
John: Generally, yes. Though there are a lot more ways to lose than merely to die.
FPI: Does it offer the creators more room for emotional involvement and drama?
John: It gives you something else to work with, sure. It’s helpful, but not always essential.
FPI: Would you ever hesitate to kill off any character if you thought the story demanded it?
John: Yes, of course. I used to have a real throwaway attitude, but these days I would always think long and hard before killing an important character. Readers get very attached to some of them – their feelings need to be taken into account.
FPI: Dredd’s been allowed to age, question his role, even resign and take the Long Walk; he’s travelled the galaxy, fought nuclear wars and hordes of the undead, dealt with werewolves and Grud knows what else. Can you imagine the character’s stories ever ending or do you think that as long as the readers want him he will go on?
John: Well, yes, I can imagine Dredd ending. If, Grud forbid, 2000AD ever reaches the end of its life, or if the quality of the stories should drop for a prolonged period. If a character becomes tired you have to be ruthless. I and others will do our best to see that doesn’t happen with old Joe.
FPI: I’m very glad to hear it and certainly your track record for the last three decades bodes very well on that score. Dredd is often referred to as the UK’s biggest comics character, even over the great Dan Dare. And yet for some reason, even although the setting is in a future America, Dredd has never quite entered the comics consciousness in the US as he has so firmly in Britain. Why do you think that is?
John: Alan Grant believes it has a lot to do with America itself being a country of extremes. The weirdness of Dredd’s world seems somehow less remarkable to the American reader. I’m not convinced. It probably has more to do with the haphazard way his stories have been published there and the fact that his adventures are designed essentially to be read in shorter segments.
FPI: If Hollywood were to announce a ‘proper’ Judge Dredd movie would you be interested in collaborating on that.
John: Sure, if they had a change of attitude and decided to pay me for it. Can’t see that happening though.
FPI: Do you think he could be successfully transplanted to film?
John: Without a doubt.
FPI: You’re obviously up to your knee pads in work with Origins right now, but if you do get a chance to do some reading can I ask which books and comics you’ve got on your bedside table?
John: At the moment I’m reading Michael Connelly’s new one, Echo Park. He’s one of the few writers I follow. His plots use one particular device a little too often for my liking, perhaps, but it’s a minor criticism. Overall he’s just about the best thriller/detective writer working today.
FPI: Any new writers and artists coming up who you think readers should be watching out for?
John: I’m sure readers know a lot more about them than I do.
FPI: John Wagner, thank you very much for talking with us, it’s been a pleasure. The Judge Dredd: Origins tale is running right now in the weekly edition of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD, while the collected trade paperback volume will be due from our friends at Rebellion next spring. You can still check out the Origins animated trailer on the 2000AD site.