Interviews - John Wagner

Interviewed by W.R. Logan of the Class of '79

It is with some sense of fear mixed with excitement that I begin this interview with one of Britain's best writers, someone that since 1977 has written the majority of Judge Dredd stories. He has been known by many names John Howard, T. B. Grover, Ron Clark, Rick Clark, F. Martin Candor, but most readers will know him by his most well known and real title, John Wagner.

Firstly John for those readers who only know your work in 2000AD or in The Judge Dredd Megazine could you give us a brief rundown of some of the comics and stories you’ve worked on over the years?

My first comic, if you can call it that, was Romeo, a mixture of feature and romantic strip for teenage girls, on which I was a young and callow Chief Sub Editor. Also on Romeo at that time was Pat Mills. With him I began my freelance career, working from his garden shed in Fife. We turned out one-page funnies for IPC juvenile comics (Cor!, Whizzer & Chips etc), and some girls’ comic stories.

From there to IPC in London, where I edited two comics for girls, Sandie and Princess Tina. Under my skilful stewardship both of them soon shut down, or rather, were merged into other comics (Sandie, interestingly, at a circulation of around 180,000 - what we wouldn’t give for that now). I began to look on myself as a bit of an undertaker; when I moved in a comic was surely doomed. You’ll notice, no boys’ material up till then, but I must have shown some interest because the publisher asked me to write a report on why IPC boys’ comics were losing out against DC Thomson, their main competitor. It’s a fine example of corporate thinking - you want to know why one half of your business is doing badly, ask the guy who’s busy destroying the other half. Well, I suppose there was more to it than that.

After a break of a year and a bit while I attempted to give up working, I heard from IPC again. They sent me a telegram, in fact. Remember those? They’d asked Pat to originate a new WWII comic, a rival to DC Thomson’s Warlord. Did I want to come down to London and join him? I’ll say. In my year and a bit, I’d discovered that having no money sucks bigtime. That was Battle Picture Weekly, for which Pat and I created most if not all the first run stories and a lot of what came after. Then for me a spell editing Valiant (buried that too) before leaving, no doubt with IPC’s heartfelt gratitude, to become freelance again. That was in 1975 or 76. I’m still at it.

Over the years I’ve created quite a few comic stories and written a lot of others, from Batman to Xena, Warrior Princess. I’ll spare you the full list. Creations I’m fondest of? As a character, Dredd - I’d have to say Dredd, wouldn’t I? Not forgetting Robohunter, Strontium Dog, Button Man, Al Bestardi - and with oft-time writing partner Alan Grant The Bogie Man and Bob the Galactic Bum. Oh, yes, and Shit the Dog.

You spent your first 13 years living in America before moving to Scotland, has it played a major part in the way in which you write, especially Dredd and is it the reason that you have destroyed so much of America in your Dredd stories?

I suppose it must have played a part in the way I write, imparting a peculiar ‘mid-Atlantic’ slant. In the context of British comics, my approach to a subject might sometimes have seemed interestingly different. Others have pointed out to me (though I’ve never accepted it!) how strongly Dredd’s character is rooted on my own. That probably comes from my early years in America and dear old dad, who didn’t take any prisoners and steadfastly refused to be reasonable about anything. Destruction, well, I was always a nasty little bugger.

When you first got into comics I can't imagine that there was the fan following that creators today have to put up with, what was your motive for becoming a comic book writer and how did you get your first break? Did you ever intend to have a scriptwriting career?

When I left school writing of any sort was the last thing on my mind. There wasn’t a lot going on in my mind at all. I had some nowhere job with a printing company, day release to college in Glasgow, you know the sort of thing. I knew I wasn’t going to stay there but I was in no hurry to do anything about it. It was my aunt who showed me the advert - DC Thomson in Dundee was looking for editorial assistants. Thinking back on it, all those years ago now, it sounded pretty damned interesting. And it was. Thomson’s was a fascinating place to work and a terrific training ground. You had to have a fair grasp of the language but mostly they liked their employees to have a lot of common sense. You knew from the start you had six months to prove you were worth keeping or you were out, but they gave you a chance too. There was work to be done, so get on with it - and see you do it right, laddie!

Even when I’d risen to the precarious height of chief sub on Romeo, the idea of a career in writing, as opposed to editing, had still not entered my head. Pat Mills, on the other hand, had a genuine desire to be a writer. He tried his hand at scripting a few stories for Romeo. Their quality surprised me - as good as or better than the stuff we were buying from the usual freelancers. I wasn’t sure if I could do it - despite being in the business I’d never envisaged myself as a writer - but Pat was patently capable. Maybe I could do it too. By now I was looking for a way out of DCT, principally a money thing. Pat and I talked it over on a number of occasions and at last made plans to leave and go freelance together.

To make an impression on a prospective editor we had to do something special. Pat’s idea - a good one as it turned out - was to pick a comic and script every story in it. The one we chose was Cor!. Twenty-three stories, mostly one-page funnies. I can just imagine Bob Paynter’s amazement when he opened that envelope. He bought twelve of them. Not a bad start. We were off and running.

To be honest, though, for most of our time together I felt that Pat was the writer and I was the guy pretending to be one. Until we split up and I was forced to do it on my own I was never sure whether I was really up to it.

In the 70's you shared a flat with Steve MacManus, was this in any way character forming and remembering that the Megazine has lost its 'Not For Sale To Children' tag, do you have a story you can tell us about those days?

I met Steve when he came to Battle Picture Weekly as our young editorial assistant. By the time we shared the flat he’d graduated to being Action Man in Action - you know, the poor sap who had to spend a day eating fire or being walked on by elephants or swimming the London sewers. There isn’t much of note to tell you about our flat-sharing experience. It was a dire little flat on Camberwell New Road that shook and rattled all day and half the night with the weight of traffic rumbling by outside. I hated it, preferring to spend my time in the pub across the street. Our time together - or rather, Camberwell - stirred in me a desire to get out of London forever, which I’m glad to say I did.

Out of all of the characters and comics that you worked on before 2000AD is there any character or comic that you would like to see revived and could you make them work in today's market place?

Frankly, no. To both questions. Can’t think of a comic I’d like to see back, can’t see how I could make anything work in today’s market place. Well, yes, I think maybe I could make a football comic work. It’s a different audience to the one reading this, but there are enough of them out there. The problem is the investment needed. If you don’t have plenty of cash to start with, you’re only going to lose.

Are there any stories/characters which you have actively hated writing and why?

Oh, god, so many. You don’t, of course, know you’re going to hate them till you’ve committed yourself. Sometimes even on a good character you can find yourself stuck in the wrong plot with no chance of scrapping it and starting again. In that case you’ve just got to press on and try to make a decent job of it. Often, if the character’s good enough, inspiration strikes and you end up turning it into something you can be pleased with. But some characters are a pain from the word go. I call them ‘who cares’ stories. Every picture you write, ever scene you try to force yourself to dream up, you’re asking yourself why am I DOING this? Stories like Aliens and Predator, for instance. Both are ‘one-joke’ stories. They have one controlling idea and when that’s been written you can only repeat yourself. The most recent story I found myself regretting was Xena. It wasn’t actually a one-joker, so I thought it would be fun. As such things go the TV series is quite good - a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour, doesn’t take itself too seriously. But for some reason, I hated doing it. I was glad, when the opportunity arose, to give it up.

Before the invention of the information super highway was it an exciting time working on titles like Action and 2000AD in the 70's, or is our notion that you all sat round talking and creating the stories just a fanboys dream of how things really happened? Did you spend time with other creators in those days or was everything done by telephone and post?

No, it’s not your imagination. It’s pretty much how things used to happen. Some of us used to spend a lot of time together. We’d throw stories around all the time, putting in many diligent pub hours. 2000AD ran creators’ evenings, which were pretty well attended. I’d still turn up for them if I didn’t live in Shropshire.

You have worked on 2000AD since its inception and seen a number of Editorial droid's come and go. Who in your opinion has been 2000AD's or the Megazine's best editor, and why?

It’s a bit pointless talking about the Megazine - there has only been David Bishop until fairly recently. He’s done a good job under often difficult conditions. I wish I’d kept my own involvement on a higher level, but it’s hard when you’re not actually there on the scene. You tend to become more of an impediment than a help.

Following on from the previous question, who do you feel was 2000AD's or the Megazine's worst editor?

I’m not going to get into slagging people off, so you can make up your own minds who was 2000AD’s worst. Its best was undoubtedly Pat. The decline, if you accept that there has been one, started when he left. He dreamed it up, he knew it like nobody else. That’s not to say the comic didn’t have good, even great periods after he was gone, maybe better than anything that happened while he was there, but for me it lost something without Pat. He was a tireless worker, imbued with good, solid DC Thomson principles - keep shuffling the stories round, keep the new ideas flowing, don’t be satisfied with second best. Always look for the next thrill, don’t sit on your success. He would never have allowed the long fallow middle period when there never seemed to be anything new, only old characters recycled. That was anathema to us, reminiscent of characters like Captain Hurricane and Billy Bunter and Adam Eterno and countless others whose stagnant and formulaic stories had been killing off IPC’s comics for years.

Apart from 2000AD or the Megazine, who have been the best & worst editors or creators you have worked with?

I’ve only worked closely with two other writers, Pat Mills and Alan Grant, both of whom I have a lot of respect for. You have to or things will never work out. I tried to work with Garth Ennis a few years back, another writer I rate highly, but he was just too young and keen and full of ideas. He made me feel exhausted before we got started, so I backed out. It reminded me too much of the early days. I didn’t feel I had that kind of energy anymore. My partnership with Alan lasted a long time and to a certain extent we still work together. You can’t do that unless you’re fairly compatible and think along similar lines. Some of the best things I wrote were with him, including my favourite character of all, Francis Forbes Clunie, the Bogie Man, who Robbie Coltrane so notably copped out on in the BBC 2 production. Oui, Robbie, j’accuse!

Editors, hmmm. Some of the old time IPC editors were not what I’d consider good. Nice enough people but their comics showed a deep lack of interest or energy or talent or all of those. What did it matter, the comics would sell whatever was in them - and if the figures got too low just start up another comic and merge the two. Can’t get away with that these days. David Bishop and Andy Diggle have to be thinking on their feet all the time.

In the States, as a broad generalisation, I’ve found DC editors good to work with and Marvel editors not so good. One notable exception is Archie Goodwin, the most decent person I ever met in comics - but he moved to DC anyway, which was more of a natural home. Apart from Archie, I’ve especially enjoyed working with Ryder Windham at Dark Horse and Andy Helfer at DC. Ryder’s gone freelance himself now. Andy was a real pain in the butt on our first project together, Outcasts (with Alan and Cam) but a rock on A History of Violence - patient, encouraging, supportive, creatively very helpful, and most important, unwilling to let me get away with second best. And only Andy would have dreamed of giving me The Big Book of Martyrs to do.

When you created Dredd what were your instructions to Carlos Ezquerra?

As far as I can remember, pretty sketchy. I think I sent him the newspaper advert for Death Race 2000 with a picture of a grim bike rider in leathers and helmet and the instructions ‘something like this’. I must have mentioned Dredd’s armament too, but I wouldn’t have gone into it in great depth. If you’ve seen my scripts, you’ll know I don’t use fifty words when I can get away with one. That’s partly laziness and partly that, working with imaginative people like Carlos, I prefer to leave a lot of room for their own input. Some writers like to nail an artist down and seem to get good results, but it’s not my way.

What did you think when you saw those initial visuals?

Way over the top. I’d pictured a plainer, more austere look. Here was this ornate character like something out of the Spanish conquests. Ridiculous, it would never work. Shows you how much I know - another good argument for leaving a lot of the thinking to your artist.

If you could go back to 1976, would you in any way change your description of Dredd?

I might fill it out a bit now that I know what he looks like! Seriously, if there’s one thing I would change it would be Dredd’s gun. I’ve always thought it a bit unexciting. The shape has recently been revamped, but I’d like to see him with something more like a very short-barrelled shotgun, a kind of one-handed ‘gattling’ blaster.

Your once again working with Carlos Ezquerra on another character you both created, Johnny Alpha – Strontium Dog. The original Johnny Alpha will be appearing in the Megazine soon when 'Journey Into Hell', which originally saw print in 2000AD Prog 104 – 118 (17/03/79 – 23/06/79) is reprinted. Also recently started in 2000AD is your new take on Strontium Dog. What is the main difference between the two versions of Johnny and is the new version a way of making the Strontium Dog characters and stories your own once again?

In terms of personality, there’s no difference. Johnny is still the same guy. His mutant powers may seem to have altered a little, but look on that as not so much a revision as a change of emphasis - a grimmer, darker take on what was always there anyway. Had I gone the way I originally intended the changes would have been more drastic, including the writing out of Wulf. Andy Diggle appealed to me to reconsider, as I would be in danger of upsetting a lot of staunch Stront fans (including him). He was quite right - I’d miss old Wulf if I knew he was never going to appear again. I’d probably have to stage another miracle resurrection to bring him back. So really all that’s changed is the chronology and some of the background of Johnny’s world. The Kreeler Conspiracy takes place before Wulf came on the scene and we’ll probably have Wulf back for the second series, assuming David Bishop wants one.

As far as making Stront my own again, I’ve never felt it was anything else. I’ve not read a Strontium Dog or related story since Johnny’s death and don’t feel bound by anything that’s happened since that point. However, as the stories I’ll be doing will be taking place during Johnny’s lifetime - never-before-told adventures - I won’t be going out of my way to contradict anything anyone else has done.

Alan Grant took over as regular script droid on Strontium Dog with 'Death's Head' in 2000AD Prog 178. Why did you give up writing Strontium Dog? (Or was this one of the times during your writing partnership that the person who typed the story got the credit for it?)

We were still writing them together, though they appeared under Alan’s name. In the same way the Dredd's appeared under my name but we actually co-wrote almost all of them during that time. As you say, whoever did the typing got the cash. We had a ‘red book’ in which we balanced it all up. It makes an interesting read, a real trip down memory lane.

Carlos Ezquerra never accepted Johnny's death as part of Strontium Dog continuity, How did you feel about him being killed off?

I can’t remember if I co-wrote Johnny’s last story; I think Alan may have done that one on his own. I could check the red book, I suppose - no matter, I must have agreed to it happening. Do I regret it? I don’t know, maybe a little, but nobody lives forever. Johnny had to die sometime. It doesn’t stop me telling new Strontium Dog stories. Is it only the possibility that the hero might die that makes a story worth reading? Does knowing when and how Johnny will die take away the pleasure of stories that happened earlier in his life? Surely not. You know for a fact when you read a Dredd that he is not going to die, but that doesn’t spoil it for you.

Following on from the previous question, why did you bring him back?

It was when doing the TV bible that the urge came on me. I figured if Showtime didn’t want to use the story I’d worked out then I’d like to do it as a comic strip. After all these years it would be nice to revisit Johnny. I felt I had a better understanding of him now and it would give me a chance to correct the things I always considered weren’t quite right about the story. The computer archivist device I added afterwards. It allows me to make alterations without destroying the things I want to keep, which is pretty much most of the legend.

Is it true your TV bible will not be used?

That’s what I’m told.

Do you think Johnny will ever make it to the small screen?

Your guess is as good as mine. Mine is no.

Have you ever been involved more directly in trying to bring any of your creations to the small or large screen?

No, more’s the pity. TV and movie people don’t generally want to know you once they’ve got the rights to do your story. They’re incredibly arrogant - you’re just a comic writer, a lower form of life. And then look what they go and do with a property. A perfect case in point is The Bogie Man. It showed just after Christmas (92, I think), opposite Gorillas in the Mist, so it went pretty well unnoticed. I used to have it on video but I accidentally wiped it - and I didn’t care. Robbie Coltrane in the lead, a BBC 2 production, you’d think it would be good. It was muddled crap. To start with they got a script writer to adapt it who seemed intent on trying to resurrect a faded career by imposing himself all over our story (mine and Alan’s, art by Robin Smith). When he’d finished the story no longer made any sense. Just before filming was to start (I’m told) the director informed him that it wasn’t funny anymore either. Could he make it funny again? So he went back over it and stuck much of our humour back in - unfortunately, in the wrong places. Then we come to Robbie. Now I used to like the guy. He’s got a lot of presence, he’s a good actor, and I understand now that playing Bogart is one of his big fantasies. So why oh why didn’t he play the part properly? He did it tongue-in-cheek, as if Bogie realises he’s a loon, which is very much not the case. Bogie believes in himself one hundred percent and then some. The result was the whole production didn’t work and didn’t do Bogie justice.

Are you interested in seeing your characters used in other media or are you not really bothered?

Sure, I’m interested. For the money, for one thing (though by the time Fat Man Press’s bank had swallowed up most of the money BBC paid for Bogie - a pittance to begin with - Alan and I made something like £175 each out of the TV production). Then there’s the ego trip - who doesn’t want to see their creations brought to a wider public? I’d just like to see it done right occasionally. That’s hard to ensure unless you can exercise control, which is difficult to achieve. Usually it’s ‘our way or no way’. Look at the Dredd movie - Carlos and I had no bargaining power, we couldn’t even negotiate a credit with the opening titles. Where did our names appear? Did anyone ever stay with the credits long enough to see them? Or like the BBC producer said to us when we asked for more money for Bogie: "If you were Jeffrey Archer I’d say ‘how much do you want, Jeffrey?’ But you’re not, and I’m telling you we’re paying £4000." By the time Kitchen Sink had negotiated a deal for Button Man I was a little wiser; Arthur (Ranson) and I took the contract to a lawyer in New York, who made sure our rights were protected. He also took more of the option fee than either of us, but that was okay, if they’d made the movie we’d have done much better out of it.

Whilst we’re talking…what were your thoughts on the Dredd movie?

I wish they’d done a better job of it. But let’s get one thing straight, there would never have been a movie if it hadn’t been for Stallone. Pressman had had the rights for several years before that, he’d have gone on prevaricating if Stallone hadn’t agreed to do it, so I’m not going to criticise him.

No, the real problem was that they were making the wrong movie. Dredd was never meant to be a dynastic power struggle. Dredd is down on the streets breaking heads and being a bastard. More than that he’s the city and the people of Mega-city One. Stallone was badly advised, that’s all. Maybe I could have done more about it; maybe when I talked to him I should have been more forthright about it, but by then I figured it was all a lost cause. When I went up to Shepperton the first thing I told Danny Cannon was that he was filming the wrong script, but I could see he didn’t want to know. They’d already invested too much in the silly story they had. And anyway, what did I know, I was only a comic writer? I thought the computer FX were really groovy though.

Alan Grant was for a number of years your writing partner, how did that partnership begin and was it a hard decision to stop working together at the end of the 'Oz' storyline?

It began shortly after Alan quit 2000AD editorial. I was feeling at a creative low and the job he’d been promised had suddenly dematerialised. It seemed a good idea to team up. It worked pretty well right from the start. We’d known each other since DC Thomson, we were sharing an old farmhouse in Essex (what I modelled Harry’s place on), we had the same sort of interests.

Splitting up, after all the years we’d worked together, was hard but necessary. We were beginning to spend hours arguing over the slightest point. You can tell a story a million ways, no one way is necessarily better than any other, and sometimes having two minds working on something can be a positive disadvantage. My memory of it is that Oz didn’t split us up, though we had some problems on that, it was The Last American. Ridiculously trivial disagreements. It was just time, I guess. We still worked together after that for a good while, on special projects in the evenings after our normal day’s work, but these days we live too far apart to do much together, which is a pity. We used to have a good laugh, especially on stuff like - well, most of it.

Alan Grant and yourself are credited in the Megazine as being 'consultant editors', what exactly does that involve?

Not a lot these days. In the beginning I was working practically full time on the Megazine to get it up and running. I remained fairly closely involved for a good while after the launch, but gradually began to take a back seat. David Bishop was making a pretty good fist of editing it and I genuinely wanted to encourage different viewpoints from other writers, which would never happen as long as I had too big a role in vetting the content. Recently our input - mine and Alan’s - has been fairly minimal. With half the Megazine reprint there hasn’t been a lot to talk about. Andy Diggle has some excellent ideas for it though and he’s been putting a lot of effort into bringing it back to nearer what it was. With the recent changes he’s made we’ve been ‘consulting’ a bit more. At the moment the first issue with Journey into Hell is about two weeks off and I must admit I’m champing at the bit to get my copy.

Dredd has been tried on the American market a couple of times, why do you think that he has failed to make any real impact in America?

Alan’s theory, and there’s probably a lot in it, is that America is already a Dreddian world, there’s nothing new or startling in the story for them, it’s happening every day over there. We’ve always derived a lot of our Dredd ideas from what actually goes on in America. Another factor might be the cheapskate way Dredd was first introduced to the States. That didn’t do the strip’s reputation any good, that’s for sure.

You have been writing comics for nigh on 30 years now, which is longer than the present editor of the Judge Dredd Megazine has been alive, do you ever get the urge to pat him on the head and call him sonny?

What, and get my rates cut? Gimme a break.

Invariably over the years Dredd has killed most of the villains that he has ever faced, have you ever regretted killing off any of Dredd's villainous supporting cast? For example in 2000AD Prog 958 'Awakening Of Angels' you resurrected Pa & Junior Angel, was that your idea and what was the reasoning behind it?

Sure, loads. The Angel Gang’s a very good case in point, we never should have offed them. We got away with resurrecting Mean Machine, I think. He was just too good a character to throw away, and somehow he suited miracle rebirth, but I confess in hindsight Pa and Junior were a step too far. I don’t think I’ll be using them again. These days I’m a lot more careful about who I kill off. You have to remember that when I moved over to IPC boys’ comics one of the many things that was wrong with them was that characters never died. Stories rolled on and on year after year with the same cast and largely the same plot. I was determined to change things. Maybe I went over the score with it but the bodycount was one of the aspects that made Dredd stand out.

Are there any parts of Dredd's continuity or stories that you wish had never been written, either by yourself or by any other writers?

Once again, lots and lots. Too much to do any sort of full list. There was the city extending as far south as Florida, for instance - Alan and I wrote the Apocalypse War to shrink it again. This was the brainchild of other writers, but I am far from blameless. Vienna, Dredd’s impossible niece, is one good example. I don’t let myself get too hung up on continuity, though - just accept that there are inconsistencies and contradictions and try to avoid creating any more.

With every passing year another year goes by in Mega-City One, Dredd's stories started in 2099 and are presently set in 2122. Are you going to start grooming a new clone Judge Dredd (as per Kraken, but more successful), before Dredd has to start taking Stookie, the anti-ageing drug? How do you see the problem of Dredd's increasing age being solved?

Aha! Keep reading your Progs and you may get a glimmer!

Dredd, is by most standards a really nasty piece of work, he leads a near monastic existence, emotionally completely isolated and his only emotional release is from catching perps. Obviously for the character to work you must have some kind of sympathy for him, to understand how he thinks, but at the same time manage to keep him at the proper distance so we can understand what he is and what he means. How do you manage to juggle this in your own head?

I’ll ask the questions, creep! No, I don’t agree he’s a really nasty piece of work. Let’s say he’s a fairly nasty piece of work. He has redeeming qualities too. I mean, if you were in a sticky spot there’s no one you’d rather have on your side than old Joe - even if you did have to do a couple of years for your trouble. But it’s not so hard to understand him. There’s Dredd in all of us - good and bad. Which of us hasn’t felt the punitive urge, the desire to see someone get their comeuppance? You’re driving along, say, and someone cuts you up, and you think - boy, wouldn’t mind seeing Dredd come along, pull that asshole over and smash his face. And you genuinely - genuinely - would love it to happen. Or am I just a bit twisted?

So no, I don’t have any problems understanding Dredd, and you don’t either or you wouldn’t be reading him.

It took me years to get my wife to read my weekly dose of Thrill Power and she started to enjoy Dredd, especially when her favourite character 'Walter The Wobot' appeared. Then over a period of years you had Walter destroyed, rebuilt, humiliated, rejected and then imprisoned. Walter has recently made his return to the Dredd strip and is now working for Mrs Gunderson. Will we see more of Walter in the future and is he destined to forever have his affections spurned?

You’ll probably see more of him. I’m sure I’ll return to Mrs Gunderson, though I’m afraid Dredd and Walter will never be reconciled. Even if he wasn’t so irritatingly obsequious, there would be no place for him in Dredd’s life the way it is now.

In the introduction you wrote for your Paradox Press graphic novel 'A History Of Violence' you wrote, "I've been writing comic strips for twenty-five years now, but I still can't force my brain (not willingly at least) round super-heroes. Something missing in my upbringing, perhaps." Why do you find super-heroes so hard to write?

Because I don’t believe in them. You can suspend your disbelief only so far, and I’m not willing to travel those extra steps to come to terms with superheroes. An isolated superpower, maybe, but not a whole genre devoted to it. Many won’t agree with me, considering the industry grew big because of them, but I think they’ve been the ruination of American comics.

Judge Dredd is REAL?

Some elements in Dredd can be just as absurd as Superman, say, but with a superhero the whole story is built round their power. That’s a big bite to swallow right from the start. And superheroes as a breed take themselves so damned seriously. There’s a big dollop of black humour in Dredd, as well as a near-real, sinister edge that makes it, to me, more credible and more relevant. The main factor is believability. Do I believe in this? More to the point, do I want to believe in it? For me the same principle applies to other stories, not just superhero material. Red Razors, for instance, might have been the best story ever written, I don’t know; I just couldn’t accept a whole culture based round the worship of Elvis - not one the size of Russia anyway. So the story never had any chance of working for me.

In recent years, you have worked on such titles as 'Star Wars: Boba Fett, Jabba The Hutt & Shadows Of The Empire' & 'Xena: Warrior Princess' to name but a few. Which of your projects outside of 2000AD or the Megazine have you enjoyed and which if any have you found a chore to write?

In general I prefer to write stories I’ve created. That way I make the rules and I don’t have to adhere to someone else’s gameplan. Also, I don’t get tangled up in continuity problems. There haven’t been many I didn’t create that I enjoyed writing. Star Wars was okay, Boba Fett I enjoyed a lot, but he’s a pretty similar character to Dredd. Batman was good too - and before you say it, I don’t consider him a superhero, just a tough guy.

Do you have any say in the artists that work on your scripts and if so what in particular do you look for? Do you have any favourite artists and what makes them especially good?

I have some say, but Dredd, because he doesn’t belong to one artist in particular, seems to get whoever is available, whoever can draw the story in the required time - often short. This has frequently worked to the story’s detriment. Dredd’s had some right ropey artwork in his time. Why, for instance, give Dredd to an artist like Kim Raymond, who was so obviously unsuited? That’s just one example, there have been many. And the wrong artwork can destroy a story.

What do I look for? First and foremost, good storytelling. You can be a wonderful artist and if you don’t care about bringing a story over properly to the readers, if you’re just interested in showing off your great talent, then I’d just as soon have a monkey drawing my story. After that, mood. I want an artist who can capture the atmosphere I want to convey. That’s why I like working with people like Carlos and Cam. They are both great storytellers. I know I don’t have to worry about the flow of a story with them - they’ll do it right. They’ll bring over the mood that’s required, they’ll draw the reader into a story, they won’t short-change you on character. So many great - really great artists have drawn my stories. I don’t want to start reeling off names in case I miss someone out, but I feel genuinely privileged to have worked with people like Carlos and Cam, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon and the others. Sometimes I look back over old stories and I’m just awed by the genius some of them possess. I’m serious, genius. You see some of the stuff that passes for art these days, Turner Prize material, and you can’t help thinking ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I’ll show you fucking art, Tracey - I’ll show you art, Damien. I had to revisit the Uncle Ump story recently -- what beauty, what imagination, what economy, what brilliant storytelling. That happens a lot to me - The Midnight Surfer, Al’s Baby, vintage Bolland, Steve Dillon’s early period, McMahon on Dredd, Colin MacNeil’s America and Song of the Surfer, Ranson’s Button Man, Robin Smith’s painstaking work on Bogie - I start reading and I get lost in it, the art is just so good. I’ve started naming names; I shouldn’t have. These aren’t the only ones. You all know who the class acts are.

Out of all the stories you've ever written do you have any particular favourites?

I’ve already mentioned The Bogie Man. I suppose that’s particularly dear to me partly because it’s set in my old stamping ground. Francis Forbes Clunie was born in the very village where my mother now lives - in the very same house, in fact. Spinbinnie - Bogie’s asylum - is based on the local institution where so many of the good people of Greenock end their days (I sent my sister up there with a camera). A History of Violence is another one that means a lot to me, though I don’t suppose that many people saw it. And Button Man. Good old Harry, as chilling a hero as you could find. Then there’s Bob the Galactic Bum and Shit the Dog

All of those have one thing in common - they belong to me, or to me and Alan (and the respective artist, of course). Nobody else owns them. By the way, if you’re looking for copies of The Bogie Man or Shit the Dog, they can be had from Bad Press, phone 01848 200401 for details. Go on, treat yourself!

If you’re referring to Dredd's, lots and lots of favourites. America, for one - It Pays to be Mental - Buggo - A Death in the Family - Letter from a Democrat - Phantom of the Shoppera - Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart - Midnight Surfer - I could go on. By and large, I’ve enjoyed my work.


The number of people reading comics has been dropping for a number of years now and the comics industry is in a seemingly irreversible nosedive how do we save it and is it worth saving?

Sure, it’s worth saving, but don’t ask me how to do it. Why don’t each and every one of you go out this week and recruit a new reader, even if you have to do it at gunpoint? That would be a start.

Have you ever looked at any of the 2000AD/Judge Dredd websites? Do you think a time will come that our weekly dose of Thrill Power will be through the Internet and if so what if any are your feelings about it?

I do check out the 2000 newsgroup now and then, it helps to give me a line on what people are thinking and what they’re looking for. Comics on the web only? It might well come, more’s the pity, but to me nothing can ever compare with the feel of a comic in your hands.

What is your normal work process, how does an idea turn into a story?

I wish there was a ‘normal’ work process. It seems to me I have to relearn it every time I sit down to write a new story. How does an idea turn into a story? I guess you just keep pushing at it hard enough and in the end something’s got to give.

Have any characters you have written been based on people you know? For example, you seem to have a fondness for Mrs Gunderson, not many of your characters survive meeting Judge Death, in fact not many of your characters survive life in the big Meg.

I’m sure there have been many to some extent based on people I know, but none so strongly as Mrs Gunderson, who is my mother. I like to think of it as an affectionate portrait, though I’m glad she’s never seen it. In common with most mothers of comic writers and artists she doesn’t read my stories, apart from The Bogie Man, and thinks I’ve been very lucky to make a living out of it all these years.

If anyone reading this interview has had counselling, survived the shock therapy and psychoanalysis and yet still has a yearning to work in the field of comics, what advice would you give them?

I’d have to say find something with a future. That’s a very gloomy outlook but I do feel that way about comics. Since I started in the business I’ve seen a steady and seemingly unstoppable decline, with one large blip caused by the distortion of the collectors’ market. When that bubble burst the descent seemed to speed up. At the moment I can’t see any prospect of a resurgence.

Have you and Alan Grant ever been swept out to sea in a rubber dingy, and if so how did it happen?

I can see you’ve been talking to Alan. Back in our relative youth, it was, and we didn’t quite reach the sea. It was in the Cromarty Firth, during my year-long sabbatical. I’d taken over from Alan as caretaker of a mansion there and figured it would be a good idea to bring a rubber dinghy with me. There are fierce currents in the firth and when we hit them we had but two flimsy plastic paddles. You’ve never seen two comic writers paddling so frantically to get back to shore. We thought we’d had it that day.

And finally, have you ever worn a caftan, or had a skinhead haircut?

You’ve definitely been talking to Alan. The less said about the caftan the better. The skinhead, I quite liked that and intend to do it again sometime. It’s interesting, seeing the top of your head and you save a helluva lot of money on shampoo. At the time I was about 18 stone and heavy boots were my footwear of preference. I looked a bit like Buster Bloodvessel without Buster’s genial nature. People used to cross to the other side of the street when I came along.

And with that picture stuck firmly in my mind, all that remains is for me to thank John for his time and patience.

La Placa Rifa,

W. R. Logan