John Wagner Discusses 35 Years of Judge Dredd

For fans of "2000 AD," John Wagner is a man who needs no introduction. It could be said that his work has done more for the success of not only "2000 AD," but of the entire UK comic book scene than any other creator alive.

In the United States, Wagner is best known as the writer of "A History of Violence," which was turned into a 2005 David Cronenberg film starring Viggo Mortensen, and for his stint on "Detective Comics" in the '80s. In England, however, he is synonymous with his most famous creation: Judge Dredd. For 35 years, Wagner has told the continuing saga of Dredd weekly in the pages of British anthology "2000 AD." This year, Wagner and "2000 AD" are gearing up for the release of "DREDD 3D," the second major film to feature the character. Karl Urban takes up the chin in "DREDD," replacing Sylvester Stallone and his highly criticized performance in 1995's "Judge Dredd."

Beyond shaping the story of Judge Dredd for over three decades, Wagner has also contributed dozens of other characters and stories to "2000 AD," including fan favorites like "Strontium Dog," "Al's Baby," "Chopper" and more. Wagner spoke with Comic Book Resources about what it's like to see "2000 AD" hit 35 years, whether or not we'll ever see Judge Dredd become a bleeding heart, why making "DREDD" was a better experience than "A History of Violence" and much more.

CBR News: After writing for "2000 AD" for 35 years, what's your fondest memory? Your proudest?

John Wagner: If I had a particular favorite memory, it probably occurred so long ago that I've forgotten it. It would be hard to pick a single one out. The comic has been so much a part of my life for most of my life. I suppose what I most value about my "2000 AD" days is meeting and getting to know the many extremely talented writers and artists that have passed through its galactic portals, some of whom have become firm friends.

Proud? Probably today. 35 years is a fantastic achievement in the British comic market as it is and was. I have my fingers crossed the old girl lasts another 35.

Do you get to put any input into the overall direction of the main "2000 AD" book today?

That's pretty much down to its editor Matt Smith. No doubt he listens to all the suggestions he gets from people like me, and the nature of the stories we freelancers produce must influence direction, but Matt and his team at Rebellion are the ones who make the decisions.

You walked away from writing "Judge Dredd" shortly before "2000 AD" first launched, way back in 1977. Pat Mills and Mick McMahon famously did the comic's first chapters before you returned to the character you co-created. What drew you back to the character?

The need for some income. Though I had issues with the management at the time, working for "2000 AD" was tempting, too, for the range of stories it could carry and for the longer page count that allowed you to expand a little, to maximize the potential of a script for an artist. On old-style comics, we generally worked to a cramped 9-12 pictures on a page format. On "2000 AD," we were encouraged to give the artist more room, to use splash pages when appropriate. Pat Mills really hammered that home. The comic had to be a visual treat.

How do you think your career would be different today if you hadn't returned?

It's one of those imponderables. Who can say where I'd be? Perhaps not writing at all. I might have thrown myself under a truck, or be car park attendant, say. Still could. After 40 years writing comics, it's about all I'm qualified for, and I'm not even sure I'd even be much good at that.

You and artist Carlos Ezquerra have created more classic comics than any other UK-published comics team, including "Judge Dredd" and "Strontium Dog." What's your relationship like today?

Carlos and I are close friends still, despite the unreasonable demands I often make of him. Pat and I spotted his art in a rival publication in the mid '70s when we were developing "Battle," a war comic. Back then it wasn't the practice in the UK to give writers or artists credits on their stories, and companies guarded their better contributors from scavenging editors, so we had no idea who he was. Undeterred, we showed the story he was drawing (I think it was called "Chained to His Sword") to every art agent that came into the office. Finally, one owned up to representing him, but even then he was reluctant to let him work for us. We couldn't provide a guarantee of work. The comic might be a dreadful flop, then where would Carlos be? Somehow we convinced him, I'm glad to say, though I never dreamed I'd still be working with Carlos nearly 40 years later. The bonus was he turned out to be such a wonderful character creator that when Dredd and Johnny Alpha ("Strontium Dog") came along, he was a natural first choice to visualize them.

You age Judge Dredd and Mega-City One in real-time, making them now 35 years older than when they started. Did you imagine that this type of real-time storytelling would actually last almost four decades?

I gave it four or five years at most, but then I didn't think "2000 AD" itself would last longer. That's the way comics were, then: Run them till the sales dropped too low, then merge them into another comic, then another, until any identity had been lost.

Dredd's aging hasn't been a problem yet, though it's is a perennial subject of interest with the readers. How long can he go on? Who will replace him? Big questions. It would be interesting to answer them.

Which series would you say best epitomizes "2000 AD" in each of the past three decades?

I'm too close to my own work to be a fair judge of that. It's one to put to the "2000 AD" fans, I think. Post it up on the message board if you have time, and see what answers you get.

Who are some of your favorite newer writers and artists currently working on "2000 AD?"

I like what Al Ewing is doing in his occasional scripting duties on "Dredd." Intelligent stuff. He's going to go far. But I hate to single anyone out. There are lots of good new people always coming along. To keep up with them, I'd suggest you take out a regular subscription!

There have been many, many writers over the years who have been called "the next John Wagner." What does that phrase mean to you?

Never heard the expression, myself. I assume it means cynical, world-weary and grumpy. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

It's been said many times and by many people that Judge Dredd is John Wagner. Dredd started out as a no-nonsense, anti-democracy, authoritarian figure, but has seemed to inch closer and closer to a more liberal viewpoint over the decades. Is that an indication of how your personal politics have swayed during that time as well?

I suppose there is a lot of Dredd in me, but isn't there a bit of Dredd in most of us? I'd describe my politics as fairly left wing. Any kind of police brutality appalls me, and yet -- and yet -- I admit there are times when I fantasize about Dredd appearing and giving this or that creep a whack with his daystick.

As far as Dredd the man is concerned, there was a need to allow his character to develop without altering the essentially retributive nature of his role or indeed his attitude to the job. He's changed, but never make the mistake of thinking he's some bleeding-heart liberal.

Which non-Dredd "2000 AD" character that you write is your favorite? Are there any that you wished had been better received?

"Strontium Dog" is high on the list, just pipped at the post, I suppose, by "Button Man," though you have to be pretty deeply into any story to write it well. I thought the "Balls Brothers" was a decent enough effort, very nicely rendered by Kevin Walker, but it wasn't a big hit with the readership. I don't waste time bemoaning the fact. The readers know best. Take it on the chin and move on.

You recently brought the original Johnny Alpha back to life in the pages of "Strontium Dog." Was that a difficult decision to make? Do you have any regrets about undoing one of the greatest deaths in "2000 AD?"

I can't say I thought about it for years before taking the plunge. I had no intention of bringing him back. That's one of the good things about "2000 AD" -- heroes can die. So when the urge came to return to Johnny Alpha, I chose to chronicle the early cases. They were generally well received and I had a lot of fun writing them, and yet there was always something slightly unsatisfactory about the set up. It was all in flashback, it wasn't "real time." Once I'd begun to think the unthinkable, I did mull it over for a month or two. It had been what -- fifteen or twenty years since his death? Surely that was a decent interval.

Misgivings -- sure. Even now I don't know if I did the right thing. Time will tell.

Do you know how Judge Dredd's story ends yet or have any idea when we'll get there?

After I'm gone...probably.

The character of Beeny debuted as a child in 1990's critically acclaimed "Judge Dredd: America." Over the years you have shown her grow up, enter the academy and become a full Judge. With Dredd, you started with a man, but with Beeny you essentially created a person's entire life. Does that make you feel more connected to her than other characters?

Yes, it does. I'm very attached to Beeny. She and I have done a lot of miles together. Doesn't mean her life is sacrosanct, but she's got a lot more chance than most of making it through.

You recently got a chance to see "DREDD." How do you rate it?

Here's what I said on my Facebook page:

"I went up to London yesterday to see the completed 'Dredd' film. What a lot they've added. Music is on the button. SFX are excellent. Filming is impressive. I've not seen a modern 3-D movie before but I like it. I found myself reaching out trying to touch things that were dancing before my eyes. Karl is a great Dredd and Olivia gets Anderson completely. This is Dredd as it should be done - true to character, visceral, unrelentingly violent (but not off-puttingly so)." 

That still holds good. I've removed the one minor negative from my comment because people strangely, despite all the positives, focused on that and made far too much of it. I liked the movie. It was, unlike the first film, a true representation of Judge Dredd. Did it exceed expectations? Yes. Karl Urban was a fine Dredd and I'd be more than happy to see him in the follow up. Olivia Thirlby excelled as Anderson. Lena Headey was very convincing as the villain of the piece.

I'm not aware that they made that many changes. A few tweaks to the uniform. The character and storyline are pure Dredd.

How much does it matter to you if the new "DREDD" film is more successful than the original?

When the first movie flopped, the head of steam "2000 AD" and related publications had been building up evaporated fairly quickly, so it's obviously important. I think the new movie has a vastly better chance of succeeding. Nobody could watch it and say, "That's not Dredd."

Were you asked to help write the script at any point?

I was a consultant. There may be a line here or there of mine, or a plot suggestion that was adopted, but it's pretty much Alex Garland's story all the way. He was an old time Dredd fan, so that helped enormously.

If "DREDD" does well, are there any "2000 AD" storylines or characters you would like to see be brought into the Dredd film universe?

I think Alex's original script used Death and the Dark Judges. I hope that a future one will actually feature them. Visually, they'd be terrific.

David Cronenberg directed the film version of your graphic novel "A History of Violence." How was the experience of getting that film made different from "DREDD?"

In my experience, at least the way movies work, is that once they've obtained the rights they don't want to hear from you again. That's why working with DNA ["DREDD's" production company] was so unexpected and very refreshing.

How did you feel about the changes made to "A History of Violence?" Did you have any interaction with David Cronenberg?

Cronenberg, no. I'm not sure he even knew the source material until well into filming. I liked the film a lot. The actors were excellent and Cronenberg is a beautifully edgy director. I am, however, still puzzled about why they changed the ending. It gave the film an abrupt and somewhat jarring change of tone. No doubt they had their reasons. Perhaps they thought my ending was -- just a little too gory?

Are there any other film projects coming up that have you excited?

"Button Man" has been optioned by DreamWorks. Recently they announced that Nicolas Winding Refn would be at the helm. I'm very excited about that; he's just right for it.

"2000 AD," featuring the adventures of Judge Dredd, is available weekly in comic shops and digitally at www.2000adonline.com

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