Darran Anderson interviews David Bishop
Darran Anderson: Thrill Power Overload has just been released, was compiling the history of 2000AD a satisfying experience or a masochistic one?
David Bishop: Both. Thrill Power Overload started life as a series of articles to celebrate the comic’s 25th anniversary. It grew into a massive hardcover book that’s coming out this year to mark 2000AD‘s 30th anniversary. I’ve been working on TPO for six years now, conducting more than a hundred interviews and transcribing thousands of hours of conversations with writers, artists and editorial team members. You don’t do all of that if you don’t love your subject, but it also requires a certain masochistic bloody mindedness to keep going. There’s an amazing affection for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic among those who’ve worked for it, and that made my task easier – people wanted to talk about their time on the comic, and had fond memories of that time. I hope that shines through in the book.
DA: When did you first encounter the comic and how did you end up becoming editor?
DB: I grew up in New Zealand where supplies of British weekly comics were fitful at best. They came by ship and were always at least three months out of date — it’s something of a New Zealand tradition to read Christmas around Easter time. Fickle youth that I was, I preferred colour comics and 2000AD was still mostly monochrome when I was growing up. But I had a friend at school that liked 2000AD and I used to read his issues. I still distinctly remember early stories like the Visible Man, Ant Wars and a character in Judge Dredd who wore an entire coat made out of ring-pull tabs from old Coke cans. It’s the striking visual images rather than the stories that stuck in my childhood memory.
I emigrated to London in 1990 as a trained journalist and applied for every job I found in the Guardian on a Monday. That led to me becoming assistant editor on the Judge Dredd Megazine when it launched later that year. I learned the craft of editing from my mentor, former 2000AD editor Steve MacManus, and I learned the art of storytelling from the great creators who worked on the Megazine – writers like John Wagner, Alan Grant, John Smith, and artists like Colin MacNeil, Carlos Ezquerra and Arthur Ranson. By the end of 1995 I was ready to move on, but was persuaded to stay in comics with the offer to take over as editor of 2000AD. I grabbed it and stayed until the summer of 2000.
DA: What were your intentions taking it on, considering its position in British comics and the perceived decline it had undergone in the early 90s?
DB: Sales had been declining by 8000 copies a year since 1988, for many reasons — the newstrade shifted from firm sale to sale or return, a switch in distributor cost the comic thousands of sale that were never recovered, a management campaign to rapidly increase the cover price, the advent of competition from satellite TV and increasing visual excitement in computer games. The talent drain of key creators to US comics had an incredibly detrimental effect on the editorial quality of the comic, through no fault of the 2000AD editorial team at the time.
My intentions were to stem the decline in sales and, hopefully, reverse them. I managed the first intention to some extent, but nobody’s achieved the second in the past twenty years.
2000AD moved from being a mass market title to a niche title, despite my best efforts and the work of many, many others. I also wanted to introduce new, long-lasting characters and fresh creators to the pages of 2000AD. Some of that worked, a lot of it didn’t. The beauty of 2000AD is its anthology format. Even when the editor gets a story completely wrong, that story is only one among five, and there’ll be a new issue seven days later anyway.
DA: What were the highlights of your time at the helm?
DB: The introduction of 27th century Russian rogue Nikolai Dante — he’s become an enduring icon of the comic, and a personal favourite for me. My predecessor John Tomlinson had commissioned Dante from creators Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, so it was already in development when I arrived, but it took another 15 months to see print. All that effort paid off in the long run.
Prog 2000 was another highlight. To celebrate 2000AD making it to the year 2000, I pushed to publish a 100-page end of year special, bringing back some of the comic’s greatest creators and characters alongside the new talent and tales we’d introduced. Management were nervous but we won that argument and the result was a triumph. Sales spiked by 30% for that issue and it’s a genuine landmark in the comic’s history — plus there’s some great strips inside.
DA: What series, artists or writers would you advise people to revisit from the comic?
DB: From my time on 2000AD, I think the space medical drama ‘Mercy Heights’ is underrated. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but there’s some wonderful writing and art in there. ‘Judge Dredd: The Pit’ is a stunning piece of work, turning the future lawman into a gripping police procedural – like Dante, it was started before I arrived as editor. Contemporary thriller ‘Black Light’ was an odd fit in 2000AD, but told a good yarn. Amongst creators, there’s so many whose work I adore, it seems unfair to single individuals out. I think it’s easy to take the talents of regulars like John Wagner or Carlos Ezquerra for granted. The letterers never get the appreciation they deserve, either. It’s one of those jobs like scoring the music for a film or editing it — done brilliantly, the audience should never notice.
DA: Any disasters that are best left buried?
DB: Too many to list here, but there’s a few obvious candidates: adapting the film A Life Less Ordinary into a 48-page comic strip seems daft in retrospect, despite the best efforts of artist Steve Yeowell; embracing overt, on-the-nose political commentary such as the ‘B.L.A.I.R.’ one strip in a science fiction and fantasy comic; listening to marketing managers instead of listening the readership. I won’t pick out individual stories or creators because nearly all were doing the best job they could at the time, even if the results weren’t quite good enough.
DA: How did you take any backlash against your decisions?
DB: It’s all too easy to adopt a siege mentality when you’re editing 2000AD. You have to fight so many battles on so many fronts, it can feel as if the editorial team are your only allies in the world — and sometimes not even them. When the comic is working well, readers praise the writers and artists inside the pages; when the comic is misfiring, readers blame the editor. That’s as it should be. The editor is responsible for commissioning the content, so the blame should fall on their shoulders. But there were times when I felt the editorial team got little or no recognition for the good work it did.
When I took over as editor of 2000AD, I knew I would have to make unpopular decisions, such as dispensing with creators who’d been working on the comic for years, even decades. There are a few writers and artists who would cheerfully see me guillotined, I suppose. But my goal was always to make 2000AD the most exciting and entertaining comic I could, while keeping it going. No editor wants to be the person that presided over the final prog, the last person to turn out the lights. Happily, the comic is still going and still publishing great material. That’s a credit to the editors that followed me, Andy Diggle and especially Matt Smith. Matt’s got a tough, lonely job and he does it well.
DA: You edited Judge Dredd the Megazine as well as 2000AD and have written Judge Dredd novels and audio dramas; what’s it like taking on the big man?
DB: Nobody writes Dredd as well as John Wagner, who created the strip with artist Carlos Ezquerra. Some people can do a fair imitation of Wagner, others bring their own take to the characters, while some merely make a dreadful hash of the job. My best efforts on Dredd are serviceable, but little more than that.
DA: During your time in charge you seem to have had a serious skill for discovering talent particularly Trevor Hairsine, Dean Ormston, Frank Quitely and Chris Halls (Cunningham)? How did those come about?
DB: Steve MacManus told me I had to find a new generation of writers and artists to sustain the Judge Dredd Megazine when it launched in 1990. Many of the great British creators to emerge in the 1990s got a break in the Megazine. Some sent in material, others were introduced to us, some came along to conventions and showed their portfolios. Identifying an artist with potential isn’t that hard – talent shines through if you’re paying attention, even though their grasp of storytelling craft may be sketchy. Trevor sent in some samples of US characters like Lobo and the Punisher, and his talent was obvious. Dean Ormston brought in some paintings he’d done and you could tell he had something. Frank Quitely was in the Glasgow anthology Electric Soup before he sent me pages, but it took a while to find a strip that suited his style. Chris Halls had worked in films before coming to the Megazine, he’s got talent to burn but comics were not a perfect fit for him.
Finding great new writers is so much harder. It’s much harder for writers to introduce their talent, their voice. Artists can go to life drawing classes, but writers just have to write. They need to produce so much material before they produce anything worth publishing, but where are they going to do that? British comics have unearthed one great new writer a year for the past thirty years, if that. There’s a limited amount of work around and you’re up against the likes of John Wagner or Pat Mills, men with shelves laden with awards and thirty years experience. It’s a problem not easily solved. The best thing would-be writers can do is hook up with an artist and self publish, get some material under their belt before approaching the likes of 2000AD. Learn the craft, learn to walk before running to Tharg for a job.
DA: What would you like your legacy to be from your time onboard?
DB: I’d like to think the comic was a better read when I left. I helped introduced two enduring series in Nikolai Dante and Sinister Dexter. The weekly had access to a stable of young writers and artists who were helping to revive it creatively, and many more have been added since. Sales were still declining when I left, but the comic’s financial future was secure thanks to measures I introduced while editor.
DA: What, in comic terms, has blown you away in the years since?
DB: New talents and new stories. Writers like Rob Williams and Si Spurrier, artists like Frazer Irving, Jock, strips like ‘Caballistics Inc.’, ‘Low Life’, ’13’ and ‘From Grace’.
DA: If you could have a shot at any character or collaborate with any artist now, who would they be?
DB: There’s so many – too many! I’d love to do a ‘Fiends of the Eastern Front’ strip with Chris Weston. There’s a gothic fairytale I’ve written that would be perfect for Frazer Irving, but it’s not really 2000AD material. I’ve wanted to work with Colin Wilson since I was a wee boy back in New Zealand, his art’s simply stunning.
DA: Your own recent writing has been diverse (a return to the classic Fiends of the Eastern Front, Nikolai Dante, Doctor Who, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Phantom), what have been the highlights for you?
DB: Writing three Nikolai Dante novels was a blast. He’s such a fun character, and you can tell such outrageous stories. Working with Colin MacNeil on a ‘Fiends of the Eastern Front’ series for the Megazine was something of a dream come true. I think some of my comics work has been guilty of trying to give the readers what they want, instead of telling stories I’m passionate about. You can over-think and over-analyse something, but passion is always best — particularly if combined with a grasp of storytelling craft.
DA: Having recently made the move into drama (his radio play Island Blue: Ronald featured on BBC 4 last year), how different is screenwriting to your experience in comics?
DB: At its best, comics are a collaborative storytelling medium where two people — the writer and the artist — combine to produce a single vision. [That’s where great writer-artists have an advantage over mere writers.] Writing for radio or the screen, the script is the blueprint for a much large effort involving many, many other people. In film, it tends to be the director’s vision that predominates. On television, the executive producer holds sway. In American TV, that executive producer is often the writer, a position known as showrunner. In British TV, showrunners are few and far between — Russell T. Davies on Doctor Who is the best example. So comics are much more personal, and the creative vision can be much purer than in film or television. But the rewards are smaller and so is the potential audience. Still, good stories well told, that holds true across all media.
DA: And finally what are your hopes for the future?
DB: I want to write more radio drama. I’d like to write for television, and I’m interested in pursuing a career in script editing or storylining TV drama. In the meantime, I’m still writing comics, novels and working as a wordslinger.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.