When I were a lad, living in a ditch by the side’o t’road and getting out of bed five minutes before we went to sleep, comics here in England were very different to what we know today. I used to buy 2000AD with my meagre pocket money. It was about thirty-two pages long, I suppose. Magazine-sized. Cost a full eight pence. Four or five Yankee cents, I guess. A weekly science fiction comic, nominally aimed at older kids. I started reading it when it began, just about a week after my ninth birthday, in 1977. Available in every newsagent’s in the country. The cover and back cover were colour. So was the centrespread. The rest of it was black-and-white, all inky on pulp paper. Your hands used to get sooty if you re-read it too much. The ink was so badly fixed that you could lift entire images off the page with Blu-Tack. There’d be five stories in each issue. JUDGE DREDD was in there every week, of course – it got the colour centrespread as well as the three or four pages that followed. At least three of the four other stories would be episodes from serials. Usually, one of the stories was a “Future Shock”, or one of its variants like “Time Twisters” – a self-contained science fiction short, usually with a hard twist in the tail. DREDD, too, did the self-contained single thing more than it did major serials. Mind you, when DREDD did story arcs, it didn’t fuck around. DREDD epics like THE JUDGE CHILD and THE APOCALYPSE WAR would run for twenty-six weeks or more.
These were comics with guitars.
The editorial drive, as originally supplied by innovative writer/editor Pat Mills, was to provide the energy of novelty to fairly basic sf concepts. To keep things new. 2000AD was driven by change. I remember picking it up one week to discover that they’d started telling DAN DARE from the front cover, the way the old EAGLE used to. Dave Gibbons was drawing DAN DARE then. Six pages of Dave Gibbons a week. I bet he trembles on his commode to imagine that kind of output these days, the poor old bastard. (I’m drinking with Gibbons this weekend, but I think this column goes live just as he gets on the plane to the meeting point. Thank God for that.) Brand new original series rotated in fairly frequently – 2000AD very rarely felt stale during its first ten years or so.
2000AD very much informed the approach to comics for at least one generation of British comics writers. Comics should be about new things. Grant Morrison and Mark Millar are typical British comics writers in that regard – they fire out brand new stories and concepts by the truckload. In fact, they briefly took over 2000AD in a “guest editorial” situation. Something like eight weeks. Stuffed full of brand new stories. Just keeping 2000AD the way it used to be. This is why we’re different to “mainstream” American creators. They grew up seeing the same old characters and therefore being imprinted with the desire to write them. We grew up seeing brand new stories every week, and were therefore taught that what you do is get up on stage and do something brand new too.
Three things about 2000AD bear mentioning. One, it was cheap. Started out at eight pence, way back then. Probably around fifteen American cents, at the time. By ’82, with inflation running out of control, it was eighteen pence, but a seven-inch single still cost a lot more than that. Today, 2000AD is one pound forty, which an online currency converter tells me is a hair under two American dollars today. Which, frankly, still ain’t that bad for what are 30 outsize full-colour pages. Just a little more expensive than music, today, if you take into account point two. 2000AD was weekly. You can’t underestimate that point in its success. It was and is as regular as television. The outside world understands weekly frequency in its narrative fiction. It’s not as good with monthly frequency.
The third important thing about 2000AD gets its own paragraph. It was lo-fi.
Black and white. Crappy printing — you could lift images off the page with Blu-Tack. The colour was dodgy to say the least. The paper was one step above toilet roll, and it was trimmed with bloody crimping scissors for years. And none of it mattered. It was low-fidelity comics. Stories delivered as quickly and cheaply and easily as possible. And it was selling in the hundreds of thousands at its peak.
Not any more. I hear it’s doing 40,000 at best, these days. It’s one-pound forty – which compares well to American comics, but still isn’t cheap – and full colour. Thin paper, rather than the chunky pulp of yore, makes it a comic that no longer stands up when you put it in a shelf. 2000 got the colour bug back in the Nineties, which ushered in an awful lot of people who could produce painted pages very quickly. Most of whom no longer work in the medium. Somewhere in recent times, 2000AD forgot what it was supposed to be.
I have in my hand right now two wonderful comics that could be termed lo-fi; issues four and five of Chester Brown’s excellent historical biography LOUIS RIEL. Chester Brown – and I have the first photocopied issue of YUMMY FUR around here somewhere, I’ve been following his work a long time – is summoning his powers again and producing a superbly controlled, brilliantly polished comic. Twenty-eight black and white pages on pulp paper, colour cover. Two dollars ninety-five American. Two pounds in real money. Available in a few thousand specialist locations across North America and Britain, and a scattered handful in other Anglophone locations.
Brown, as a committed creator of his own stories, remains a comparitive rarity in a North American medium where new, original creator-owned work can be described by important figures as “a secondary consideration” without anyone batting an eyelid. I have no idea how much LOUIS RIEL is selling, but I can’t imagine anyone’s getting rich off it. I imagine that there are more than a few of you reading this who have never heard of it (by the way, if your local store hasn’t got it and can’t or won’t get it for you, I found some on http://www.marsimport.com while researching this piece. Go and buy some. Five issues to date.). You all know what condition the American comics market is in. He’s working on a continent where ideas have to be thirty years old and owned by a corporation before they are loved.
Somewhere else in the house I have another lo-fi comic. A Japanese comic. Kodansha’s MORNING. A weekly. And it’s printed on crap. I mean, absolute bog paper. Not being able to read a damn thing of it, I’m going to refer to Frederik Schodt’s excellent DREAMLAND JAPAN for the essential details, with the proviso that DREAMLAND JAPAN is four years old and some numbers may have altered slightly. In 1996, MORNING was around three hundred and seventy pages long, and cost two hundred and fifty yen. That’s one pound sixty. Two dollars thirty. Its estimated circulation in 1996 was something over a million.
Think on it.
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