EXCLUSIVE: Andy Diggle Celebrates 35 Years of "2000 AD"

Andy Diggle is best known in North America for his work on the Vertigo series "The Losers" with artist Jock, which was turned into a 2010 film starring a then virtually unknown Chris Evans. However, Diggle is best known in the UK as one of the driving creative forces behind comic anthology "2000 AD," having served for 18 months as its editor-in-chief and launching his writing career from its pages.

Diggle has written classic stories for the book, including "Lenny Zero" with frequent collaborator Jock, "Judge Dredd vs. Aliens: Incubus" co-written by Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner and "Snow/Tiger," an espionage action series featuring the art of Andy Clarke. After a long hiatus, Diggle returned to "2000 AD" this summer with the Jock-illustrated, creator-owned "Snapshot" before orchestrating the return of fan-favorite "Lenny Zero" with artist Ben Willsher.

Diggle spoke with CBR News about the 35th Anniversary of "2000 AD" as part of our continuing look back at "2000 AD's" architects and greatest contributors over the past three and a half decades. He discussed what it was like working at the book when its future future was in doubt, his recent return to the "2000 AD" fold and responds to criticism laid out by Pat Mills, legendary writer and original EIC of "2000 AD."

CBR News: Let's start at the beginning: What' is your earliest memory of "2000 AD?"

Andy Diggle: I remember a friend of mine bought prog 2 back in 1977 and gave me the bionic stickers that came free with the issue. I never read the issue, but I remember getting in trouble at school for wearing the stickers on my arms and legs! I guess I would have been 6 years old at the time.

The first issue I ever read was prog 210, when I was 10. Looking back now, I can see that was the "Golden Age" of "2000 AD," filled with some of the best work by some of the UK's finest creators. I didn't understand at the time who they were or what their contribution was, of course; I just knew that I loved it with a passion. That comic literally changed the course of my life.

What was it that makes this period the book's "Golden Age"?

I'm sure everyone thinks that whenever they started reading "2000 AD" was a "Golden Age" -- nostalgia works that way -- but 1981 featured some all-time classic stuff. John Wagner, Alan Grant and Pat Mills and were regularly writing for the comic, plus you had the early Alan Moore "Future Shocks." Art-wise, you had Brian Bolland on "Judge Death Lives," Carlos Ezquerra on the "Strontium Dog" origin story, Kevin O'Neill's amazing "Nemesis the Warlock" and Dave Gibbons on the original "Rogue Trooper." The first issue I ever bought had a front cover by Brian Bolland and a back cover by Steve Dillon -- and it only cost 15 pence!

Moving forward a couple decades, how did you come to be employed at "2000 AD" in the late '90s and when did you take over as the book's editor-in-chief?

I'd run the comics department of Sherratt & Hughes bookshop in Croydon as a weekend job while I was still at school, and then went on to study comics for my university dissertation. I did a succession of meaningless admin jobs until I heard "2000 AD" were advertising for an editorial assistant, i.e. office dogsbody. I knew nothing about publishing, and it had never even occurred to me to pursue an editorial career. But I loved "2000 AD," so I applied, and after a couple of interviews, I landed the job. I'd been running my own online fanzine for a while, which probably helped, along with my dissertation.

What was your dissertation about?

It was a Media Studies degree, and I wanted to apply the same kind of formal analysis we'd been taught in Film Studies to comics. It was basically a checklist of storytelling techniques -- no great insight on my part. My tutor had initially told me there wasn't enough to say about comics to fill a 10,000-word dissertation (!), but after a year of interviewing creators and studying the craft, I convinced him otherwise. In fact, a few years after I left university, that same tutor invited me back to teach a Media Studies module on comics that he'd launched, so I guess he saw the light.

I had thought about turning the work into a book called "How to Read a Comic," but then Scott McCloud brought out "Understanding Comics," which is roughly a gajillion times smarter and more insightful than anything I could ever have done.

"'2000 AD' is like a shot glass of rocket fuel." Great Andy Diggle quote or greatest Andy Diggle quote? You brought action back to "2000 AD," a trend which continues in the best thrills of today.

People do seem to like that line. It comes from the mission statement I wrote to all the creators when I was promoted to editor. I've always thought "2000 AD" works best when the storytelling is very fast, dense, super compressed. So I suggested we should aim to "distill a barrel of story into a shot glass of rocket fuel," or words to that effect. I guess it struck a chord.

At its heart, "2000 AD" was primarily an action comic. Obviously it has always been very diverse, and more so in later years, but I felt that in diversifying it had lost sight of the action component; the thrills in the Thrill Power. So I wanted to put some of the kaboom back in there. Maybe I went too far in that direction. You need variety.

What are your fondest memories of editing "2000 AD?"

All the great friends I made there -- and I'm proud to say those friendships have lasted. From the old guard to the new bloods, the writers and artists of "2000 AD" are just a lovely bunch of people, and it's always great catching up over beers at a convention or one of our regular monthly get-togethers in London. It's a small industry and everyone knows each other, so the arrogant arseholes tend to get filtered out of the social mix pretty fast.

I'm proud of all the guys who pitched unsolicited submissions to 2000 AD and are now highly sought-after professional creators -- guys like Jock, Rob Williams, Frazer Irving, Mike Carey, Laurence Campbell, Ben Oliver, Boo Cook and Si Spurrier, who was only four years old when he pitched us his first "Future Shock." I always thought it was a shame we didn't get more story and art submissions from women, but I'd say over 90% of the stuff we received was from guys.

Would you have quit being EIC if your "2000 AD" writing gigs hadn't been so successful with stories like "Lenny Zero?"

No, I'd have kept at it until my writing got better. I had already taken evening classes and read writing textbooks and so on. But of course there's no better training ground than to work editorially with some of the best writers and artists in British comics. I learned a huge amount there.

Being completely immersed in the comics-creating process, you can't help but absorb a lot of it by osmosis. Nuts-and-bolts toolbox stuff like outlining, scripting, page layout and composition, lettering placement and flow, pacing and structure. And, most importantly, what to cut. Less is more, especially when you have to pack a lot of story into five pages.

You only served 18 months as EIC. Why did you leave your dream job so quickly?

It was never my dream job. As I said, it had never occurred to me to pursue an editorial career before I heard about the vacancy. I'd always intended to be a writer. In fact, I was in the process of preparing some "2000 AD" story pitches when the position opened up. I spent four years there in total, but after 18 months as editor, I felt like I'd done everything positive I could do to steer the comic in the right direction. Rather than stay and become embittered, I figured I should put my money where my mouth was and go and do my real dream job, which was writing.

Did any of those pitches you worked on before getting to "2000 AD" ever see the light of day? Either in their original form or dissected for other projects?

I can barely remember them, to be honest. This was 15 year ago. One was a sky-based adventure with floating junk islands, and I'll probably re-tool some of that imagery for a book I'll be writing later this year. But apart from that, no. You have to keep creating new characters, new settings, new stories, or you get stale. I'm not terribly interested in re-heating my old leftovers. 

What are your favorite comics that you commissioned?

I really enjoyed Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving's "Necronauts." That was a beautiful piece of work.

"2000 AD" fans have had differing opinions over the late '90s period when the book was almost cancelled, a time when you were working there. In your opinion, how should that period be viewed by those looking back on it?

It's not for me to judge how that period "should" be viewed; everyone's entitled to their own opinion. "2000 AD" had been bought by Egmont as part of a job lot of children's titles they'd purchased from IPC. They only wanted the licensed children's magazines like "Thomas The Tank Engine" and Disney titles, and they really had no idea what "2000 AD" was, who read it or why. Egmont prided itself on being a "marketing-led company," which meant the editor answered to a marketing manager rather than a publisher. Their view was that parents bought these magazines for their kids solely for the free plastic gift on the cover; so the idea that grown adults would buy "2000 AD" purely for their own reading pleasure, based on the quality of the writing and art within, was completely alien to them.

When I arrived on the scene in September 1997, "2000 AD" was in a fairly beleaguered place, and hovering close to cancellation. The marketing bozos were ready to pull the plug on it. But rather than returning the comic to its core values to try to win back the readers they'd lost, they decided instead to alienate those who had remained, in a misguided bid to win over a completely new readership. It was madness.

They'd concocted this incredibly sexist and offensive ad campaign to run in lads' mags like "Loaded," with the tag line, "2000 AD: Women Just Don't Get It." This over the vehement objections of then-editor David Bishop. I took one look at it and immediately joined David's side; so I was at odds with our bosses literally from day one. We were right, of course, as demonstrated by the letters we began to receive from outraged female readers who'd seen the ads, telling us to cancel their "2000 AD" subscriptions. And of course we couldn't say in public, "It wasn't us, it was the marketing bozos!" So that wasn't the most auspicious of beginnings.

At the same time, I personally felt that the comic itself had lost its way somewhat. There had always been a streak of knowing black humor in "2000 AD," but it had become a little bit too knowing, a little bit too smug and self-aware. It's supposed to be Sean Connery, not Roger Moore. They'd been commissioning these cutesy gag strips like "The Space Girls" and "B.L.A.I.R. 1," which were designed to generate media interest but just turned the readers off. "Slaine" had started out as this ballsy Celtic barbarian hero, but by 1997 he was attending parent-teacher meetings at his son's druid school. I really felt that we needed to give "2000 AD" its balls back, and I said so.

Of course, I was young and cocky and arrogant -- despite knowing precisely bugger all about publishing. I rubbed a few of our managers up the wrong way and quickly developed a reputation as a "troublemaker" -- their word, not mine. But I knew in my gut what "2000 AD" could be and should be. David Bishop and I butted heads quite a bit -- we're both pretty obstinate -- but even when we couldn't agree, he'd always take the time to explain his position and he'd listen to mine. So I asked a lot of questions and learned as much as I could.

David was always much better at the business side of things than I was, but he gradually began to let me take over more of the story commissioning. Of course there had been a lot of material commissioned by previous editors that still had to see the light of day, so it took time for any editorial changes to appear in the comic. David always said it was like trying to turn an oil tanker -- it takes a while [to alter course].

I enjoyed working with the writers, and I started asking for complete story outlines in advance, rather than just let them make it up as they went along. The readers responded positively, and the falling sales began to level out. When I meet "2000 AD" fans nowadays, they only ever have positive things to say about my tenure, so I can only hope they aren't simply sparing my feelings.

What was the transitional period between Egmont and Rebellion like for the book?

Thankfully, it wasn't as disruptive as it might have been, though the hunt for a new office did take up a lot of time that would have been better spent making comics. I believe Rebellion had been in negotiations to buy the comic for two or three years, and the week they finally signed ownership was the same week I was promoted to editor. So that made for a fairly seamless transition. And I got married that same month, July 2000. That was quite a summer!

Did Jason Kingsley's vision of the book or it's properties conflict with yours at all?

Not at all. Jason is an old-school "2000 AD" fan just like me. Unlike Egmont, he bought the comic because he loved it. So he was very hands-off; he trusted me just to get on with it and do what was best for the comic. He trusted my judgment, and I was always very grateful for that.

You handed off the "2000 AD" reins to Matt Smith in 2001. What departing advice did you give him?

I'm not sure I had any great pearls of wisdom to impart. "Don't fuck it up," I suspect. Matt was always the right man for the job; he didn't need any advice from me.

How do you think he's handled the book?

I think he's done, and continues to do, a brilliant job. There's a real creative energy in the comic right now, a great variety of genres and styles. And Matt has a good eye for new talent, which is an important part of the job.

What are your favorite classic thrills?

Old school "Judge Dredd" and "Strontium Dog." Big Johnny Alpha fan, me. You can see a lot of him in my characters. Early "Nemesis" and "Slaine." I was always very fond of "Robo-Hunter," too. I can't wait for my son to be old enough to read that stuff. He's obsessed with robots. It's going to blow his mind.

We already know about "Snapshot" and "Lenny Zero." What's your next thrill, new or old, that you'll be bringing back to "2000 AD?"

I'd love to do some more "Lenny Zero" or "Snow/Tiger," but it's just a question of being able to fit it into my schedule. I have quite a lot on my plate at the moment -- a mix of work-for-hire and creator-owned comics, plus some screen work -- so I think I just need to make it through the rest of this year before I think about what comes next.

One of my favorite Dredd stories of all-time is the crossover tale "Judge Dredd vs. Aliens: Incubus." You got to co-write that story with John Wagner. What was it like to co-write Dredd with his co-creator and how did the project come about?

Thanks, man. That was a lot of fun, and a great honor. I set the deal up with Dark Horse with the intention of John writing it solo. He asked me for ideas, so I pitched him a bunch of stuff to throw into the melting pot. I was surprised, to say the least, when he invited me to co-write the series with him. John is one of my writing heroes and probably the single biggest influence on my own work, so it really was incredibly flattering. I learned a lot working with him, especially when it comes to pacing and team writing. I spent a few days at John's house, where we hammered out the basic storyline. Then he'd write the first few episodes and I'd rewrite them; then I'd write the next few episodes and he'd rewrite them. Before long you couldn't see the join. It worked out really well, and was a lot of fun.

John Wagner and Andy Diggle with artist Henry Flint on a "Judge Dredd" comic is an insane team. When are we going to see part two?

Maybe we should drop Dark Horse a line! I've always wanted to write "Judge Dredd vs. Superman," too, but I suspect DC are less interested in doing cross-company books these days.

"Lenny Zero" returns to "2000 AD" later this summer, correct?

I'm writing the new "Lenny Zero" series right now. It's called "Zero's Seven" and it's being drawn by Ben Willsher. It's a big crazy heist caper, with Lenny putting together an oddball crew -- including a talking polar bear and a sentient ATM called Johnny Cash -- to steal a billion creds from Justice Department. Complications ensue. There are a couple of old familiar faces in there too, which I won't spoil here. It's been fun to write.

Who would play the character of Lenny Zero in a movie? The seedy underworld ex-Judge seems like a perfect fit for the gritty real-world way the film producers envision Mega-City One.

I think in the very first script I suggested a Steve McQueen or George Clooney "type," but I never really had an actor in mind for him. He's not really a tough guy, more of a chancer. I'm going to go slightly left-field and say Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In a recent CBR interview, Pat Mills had some less-than-nice things to say about the "2000 AD" editorial team from 12 years ago, which was when you were with the book. Care to respond to his comments?

It's kind of painful to dredge it all up, to be honest -- it was quite stressful. But Pat seems to nurture old grudges like prize orchids, and proudly puts them on display at any opportunity. He's had a go at me in several interviews over the past few years, so I'll take this opportunity to put across my side of the story.

First of all, it's worth stressing that Pat deserves a huge amount of respect as the launch editor of "2000 AD" and main driving force behind its creation. His reputation as the "Godfather of British comics" is well deserved. I believe he spent something like a year preparing material for the launch in 1977, though it's my understanding that he resigned as editor within a year of the first issue seeing print. I didn't discover the comic myself until a few years later, but Pat's writing on strips like "A.B.C. Warriors," "Ro-Busters," and "Nemesis the Warlock" was inspiring. I can still re-read those old stories with a huge amount of pleasure, and I'd encourage anyone to seek them out.

As a teenager I started up a written correspondence with Pat, along with several other "2000 AD" creators, which helped put me on the path to becoming a professional writer. And when I studied comics for my degree dissertation, Pat was one of many creators who kindly offered me his time and advice -- as well as buying the drinks! -- so I have a great deal to thank him for.

Sadly the experience of working as Pat's editor was very different. As I said earlier, I felt that the comic had lost its way somewhat by the time I came on board. One of the first things I did when I became editor was to write a two-page "mission statement" laying out what "2000 AD" meant to me, and how I felt we could and should try to bring it back to its former glory. I sent it to every writer, artist, colorist, letterer and designer working on the title, and everyone reacted very positively -- except Pat.

Pat isn't exactly the shy and retiring type, and I suspect he was used to getting his own way. For most writers, pitching story ideas and getting some of them knocked back is part and parcel of being a freelancer. It's a normal, everyday part of the job. But I suspect Pat wasn't used to hearing "no" for an answer. He still complains in interviews about the fact that we turned down his "Requiem Vampire Knight" pitch; but honestly, what comics writer has never had a pitch turned down?

Pat brought great vision and leadership to his "2000 AD" editorship, commissioning and personally rewriting every strip in those early issues. It's the editor's job to apply quality control and to lead from the front, rather than just wave everything through and get it to the printers on time. That leads to crappy comics, falling sales and everyone out of a job. Sometimes you have to ask for a second draft. Otherwise you end up with "George Lucas Syndrome" where nobody dares tell the great man that the work isn't up to scratch.

Pat's manner was often confrontational and accusatory. He once told me that, because he'd had bad experiences with editors and publishers in the past, he now preferred to, as he put it, "shoot first and ask questions later." Which personally I don't think is a terribly constructive way for a freelancer to approach his dealings with his editor, but that's how he chose to play it. He would use phrases like, "Don't make me throw my rattle," and "Don't make me get out of my pram," basically threatening to throw a tantrum if he didn't get his own way.

And Pat's tantrums are legendary. In the old days they apparently used to call them "Mills Bombs," or so I've been told. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of one of his hour-long hectoring rants will know exactly what I'm talking about. One well-respected artist told me about an angry phone call he'd received from Pat where he couldn't get a word in edgeways, so he went downstairs, got himself a beer from the fridge, drank it, went back upstairs -- and when he picked up the phone, Pat was still complaining.

Pat once did it to me at our Christmas drinks, when we'd invited the creators to a pub in London. He never bothered to introduce himself to the two dozen or so fellow writers and artists who were gathered there. He just made a beeline straight for my table and lectured me for an hour about why I was such a terrible editor. Then he turned around and left. It did amuse me when I subsequently read an interview in which Pat complained about his fans' supposed lack of social graces.

So having had a very positive experience with Pat as a student, I was doubly shocked to experience the flipside when I began working with him editorially. I was employing dozens of different creators at the time, publishing 5 different stories a week; 1500 story pages a year. That's a lot of juggling, a lot of deadlines, and it's the editor's job to make it all fit together, on time and on budget. But dealing with Pat, and his unhappiness with my tenure, took up an increasing amount of my time and energy. As the saying goes, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil."

He accused me on more than one occasion of trying to "replace" him on stories like "Nemesis" and "A.B.C. Warriors," which was simply not true -- even though Jason Kingsley, the new owner and publisher, told me I was welcome to do so if I wished. But I didn't want anyone else to write those characters. I just wanted to raise the bar.

Pat complained that I had "taken his artist away from him" when I offered Henry Flint the choice of more "A.B.C. Warriors" or the new series "Shakara," and Henry chose the latter.

Pat complained, after the fact, that I had commissioned several different artists to draw subsequent "A.B.C. Warriors" stories, though he never raised any objection with me. My intention had been to try to recreate that "jam session" vibe when multiple artists drew the early strips (Mick McMahon, Kevin O'Neill, Brendan McCarthy, Carlos Ezquerra, Dave Gibbons), but I would have been more than happy to find a single artist for the whole series if Pat had simply asked.

Pat got upset that I turned down his initial pitch for the sequel to "Deadlock" on Termight (which had been my suggestion in the first place, incidentally), and instead of rewriting the pitch or coming up with another story, he complains to this day that I "refused to commission" any more.

Pat got very upset when I asked Gordon Rennie to write a "Satanus" story, because he had originally created this tyrannosaurus who, twenty years previously, had appeared in the company-owned, shared universe "Judge Dredd" strip which has been written by literally dozens of different people.

The publisher and I were more than happy for readers to use "2000 AD" characters in fan fiction, but Pat threatened them with legal action. I could go on.

It was exhausting and stressful, and in the end I just lost patience. I found out some time after the fact that one script, which I had been particularly unhappy with, had actually been co-written with another writer, though Pat had never mentioned it to me, nor asked for the co-writer to be credited. And yes, I did re-write some of the dialogue in that script, which made Pat absolutely furious. I can quite understand that. But editorial re-writing had been part and parcel of "2000 AD" since Pat himself instigated the practice back in 1976, and it was far, far less prevalent under my tenure than it was under his. It's not something I'm proud of, and I wish I hadn't done it, but I'm not going to deny it.

I also changed some dialogue in Robbie Morrison's "Nikolai Dante" scripts; Robbie was similarly upset, but he acted like a professional, took it up with me, and I agreed not to do it any more. Robbie and I are still friends. I once asked John Wagner to rewrite a six-page "Judge Dredd" story, and he asked me to rewrite it for him. Me and John are still friends. This is the job.

Obviously I made mistakes. I could have handled the situation better, and with more experience, hopefully I would have. But I think it's telling that, of the dozens of creators we employed at "2000 AD," Pat was the only one I had this persistent problem with. When I tried to be tactful and diplomatic, he accused me of being like an untrustworthy "double-glazing salesman." When I tried to be frank and forthright, he accused me of being a rude and disrespectful "creator baiter."

Doubtless I would have stayed longer at "2000 AD" if my working relationship with Pat had been better, but in the end I just couldn't face it any more. It was like rolling a boulder up a hill, and I was miserable.

Pat has claimed in several interviews that I'm the worst editor "2000 AD" ever had. Maybe he's right and I'm wrong. But if so, why did no-one else seem to have a problem with me? Why am I still on friendly terms with the other creators I worked with at "2000 AD?" Why have Pat's contemporaries like John Wagner, Alan Grant and Carlos Ezquerra been so complimentary about me? John invited me to co-write "Judge Dredd vs. Aliens: Incubus" with him; Carlos said he was very happy with my editorship and has asked me to collaborate with him on new projects; and Alan recently said he thinks I'm one of the two best editors "2000 AD" ever had, and that I was "a delight to work with."

Perhaps Pat thinks they're all poor judges of character who allowed me to pull the wool over their eyes. Or maybe they all secretly hated me but were too cowardly to say so, and Pat was the only man courageous enough to speak out. You'd have to ask them.

Anyway. That's a horrible note to end the interview on, so let me just say that I'm glad "2000 AD" is still thriving under Matt Smith's editorship, and I'm hoping the new "Dredd" movie will help to bring in a whole new readership for 35 years of classic material, the best of which is still available in trade paperback form.

And despite everything, I'd very much encourage people to pick up those early Pat Mills books like "Nemesis the Warlock," "Ro-Busters," "A.B.C. Warriors" and "Slaine." They really are great.

"Lenny Zero: Zero's Seven" by Andy Diggle and Ben Willsher debuts in "2000 AD" prog 1792, on sale now in the UK and digitally at 2000adonline.com and in print August 1 in North America.

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