The father of Dredd is dead

 

From Bleeding Cool / © Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela

 

I find myself reading the news less and less these days.  That’s not just because of the apocalyptic way the world seems to be heading, with a loudmouthed Nazi-facilitating nincompoop in the White House and with the UK locked in a Boris Johnson-inspired Brexiting death-spiral.  It’s also because every week, seemingly, I discover that somebody who was a cultural hero to me during my youth has passed away.  Last week it was the turn of comic-book artist Carlos Ezquerra – born in Zaragoza in Spain, although he was latterly a resident of the microstate of Andorra on the French / Spanish border – to shuffle off this mortal coil, the victim of lung cancer.

 

As a kid, I often encountered Ezquerra’s work from the mid-1970s onwards and it had a big impact on me.  After drawing war stories and Westerns in Spain, Ezquerra began to get commissions in Britain’s mainstream comic-book industry, which, though it’s next to non-existent today, was immense at the time.  I first stumbled across his artwork when I read the war comic Battle Picture Weekly, which seemed special because it was leaner and meaner than the multitudinous other war titles that filled the boys’ comics market at the time: Warlord, Victor, Valiant and the pocket-sized Commando Comic (which somehow remains on the go today, although in 2013 it was announced that its printing operations were being moved to – ha-ha! – Germany).

 

Responsible for drawing two of its most popular strips, both set during World War II, Ezquerra helped make Battle stand out.  Rat Pack was a British version of the 1967 war movie The Dirty Dozen, although the convicts-turned-commandos here numbered less than half-a-dozen: violent simpleton Kabul ‘the Turk’ Hassan, the blade-wielding Matthew Dancer, thuggish Scotsman Ian ‘Scarface’ Rogan and the cowardly and aptly-named Ronald Weasel, plus their commander, Major Taggart, who was a proper, dutiful soldier (and whom they detested).  Major Eazy was about an unconventionally laid-back and laconic soldier who spent his time smoking cigars and getting up his superiors’ noses – I’d always assumed the character was inspired by the type Clint Eastwood had played in countless movies, although I read on Wikipedia recently that the inspiration actually came from James Coburn.

 

© IPC Publications

 

Ezquerra’s artwork was simultaneously grubby and graceful, hungry-looking and intense.  Unlike the solid, square-jawed heroes who populated other British war strips, the characters in it looked like they’d been fighting a long time at the front.  Fittingly, Battle marked its 100th issue with an Ezquerra team-up: it featured a new story wherein Major Eazy becomes the commander of the Rat Pack after Taggart is injured and hospitalised.  (His new charges hate him even more than they hated Taggart.)

 

Battle was founded by comic writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and when they moved on to a new project, 2000 AD – which became the most important and influential British comic of the late 20th century and which, with some justification, proclaimed itself ‘the galaxy’s greatest comic’ – it was inevitable that Ezquerra would find work there.  With Wagner, he created 2000 AD’s most famous character, the lumbering fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd.  Though he wasn’t the first artist to draw the Judge Dredd strip itself, an honour that belongs to Mike McMahon, he did design the character originally.

 

Imagined by Ezquerra, Dredd’s appearance is epic – and troubling.  The immense, sculpted shoulder pads, the huge, engraved badge and the eagle-shaped, flag-emblazoned belt-buckle recall the baroque and ludicrous ornamentation you’d see on uniforms during a parade in a fascist state.  Meanwhile, Dredd’s other accessories, the helmet, visor, gauntlets, chains, utility belt and boots evoke a less ceremonial side of fascism, i.e. the side that’s regularly breaking protestors’ heads out on the streets.  No doubt Ezquerra drew on his memories of growing up in Franco-era Spain, though it’s said his design was influenced too by Frankenstein, the character played by David Carradine in the Roger Corman sci-fi / exploitation movie Death Race 2000 (1975).

 

It’s just a pity that Ezquerra never got a chance to work on Action, the wildly controversial comic created by Mills during the period between Battle and 2000 AD.  I would have loved to see him take on such key Action strips as Hook Jaw or Hellman of Hammer Force.

 

© Rebellion Developments Ltd

 

One comic Ezquerra did work on was Starlord, a title that appeared in 1978.  Intended as a sister publication to 2000 AD, it was similarly devoted to science fiction stories.  Starlord had high production costs, which quickly made it unprofitable and it was merged with 2000 AD.  In the British comic world of the time, ‘mergers’ usually meant that the less successful title soon disappeared without trace within the pages of the more successful one.  Gratifyingly, though, Strontium Dog, a Starlord strip Ezquerra created with John Wagner, survived and became a staple of 1980s-era 2000 AD.

 

Strontium Dog is set in a bleak, violent and racist future where radiation from the Great Nuclear War of 2150 has created an underclass of mutants.  Oppressed and mistreated by ‘normal’ humans, the mutants are permitted to do only a few, dangerous jobs, which includes being bounty hunters.  Johnny Alpha – ‘Strontium Dog’ is the racist nickname he has to put up with – is one such bounty hunter, tracking down criminals throughout the galaxy on behalf of the Search / Destroy agency.  Again, Ezquerra’s artwork creates a cast of characters who look wolfish, brooding and lethal and the strip often feels more like a spaghetti western rather than a sci-fi story.  I particularly liked the supporting character Middenface McNulty, a Scottish mutant with a carbuncled cranium from a ghetto called Shytehill, which is presumably a radioactive district of post-apocalypse Edinburgh.

 

Ezquerra is said to have preferred Johnny Alpha to Judge Dredd, no doubt because, mutant though he was, the melancholic, introspective Alpha was more human than the cold-blooded judge-jury-and-executioner that was Dredd.  Accordingly, he was unhappy with 2000 AD’s decision in 1988 to kill off Alpha and he refused to draw what was to be the character’s final story, so that the job of illustrating his demise fell to Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead.  Alpha’s death was a traumatic event for British comic-book fans – no wonder the geekish 1999-2002 TV series Spaced contains a line where the Nick Frost character reminds the Simon Pegg one that he gave him a shoulder to cry on “when Johnny Alpha got killed by that big flying monster in 2000 AD.”  Happily, Ezquerra got to resurrect Strontium Dog in 1999.  Rather than figure out a way of reviving Alpha from the dead, the new strip simply pretended that he hadn’t died in the first place.

 

Over the years, Ezquerra’s other work for 2000 AD included ABC Warriors, which featured another survivor from the Starlord days, the hulking robot Hammerstein; wartime vampire story Fiends of the Western Front; and adaptations of three of Harry Harrison’s satirical Stainless Steel Rat books.  With all this, plus Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, it’s no surprise that 2000 AD tweeted a tribute to Ezquerra the other day describing him as ‘the heart and soul’ of the comic.

 

And for a comic-book artist, to be the heart and soul of the galaxy’s greatest comic…  Well, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that.

 

© Rebellion Developments Ltd

 

Stand by for Action

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For me, 1976 was a transitory period when I finished with primary school and started attending high school.  It was also a period when I remember one topic regularly dominating the conversations I had with my mates in the playground and on the school-bus: what was happening in that week’s edition of Action comic.

 

We’d read comics before, of course.  We’d read kids’ ones like the Beano, Dandy, Sparky, Topper and Beezer.  And we’d read slightly more mature ones that were labelled ‘boys’ comics’, like the Hotspur, Battle, Warlord, Valiant and Victor.  But Action was different.

 

Those other comics provided entertainment that, no matter how kid-centric or boy-centric it was and no matter how much we enjoyed it, had a vibe that suggested it’d been devised by adults and it’d been passed down to us through a filter of what adults believed was acceptable for children.  The stories in Action, though, had a different vibe.  They felt like they’d actually been devised by twelve-year-old boys – or at least, by someone who knew exactly what twelve-year-old boys wanted and were only too happy to serve the stories up that way.

 

And what do twelve-year-old boys want?  Mayhem, basically.  Blood and guts.  Violence.  Nastiness.  No wonder William Golding’s Lord of the Flies still resonates – once those schoolboys had been stranded on the desert island, what else could they become but savages?  Or as Roald Dahl once mused, kids are bloodthirsty monsters because they haven’t been trained to be civilised yet.

 

I was in the Boy Scouts, which meant I was supposed to be a nice, mannerly boy, doing a good deed every day and all that.  Yet I doubt if I’ve heard anything more appallingly gruesome than the horror stories my fellow scouts and I would tell each other around the campfire.  At least, after the adult Scoutmaster had called it a night and retired to his tent.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

The comic-strip stories in Action were certainly gruesome.  They weren’t, however, original.   Death Game 1999 was clearly a rip-off of the recent science-fiction movie Rollerball (1974).  Hellman of Hammer Force, about a tough but noble German Panzer commander on the Russian Front, owed a lot to the vicious World War II novels of Sven Hassel, which in the 1970s were avidly read by young males who’d otherwise never consider looking at a book.  Hellman had the distinction of being the first-ever German hero of a British World War II comic strip; though he despised the SS and the Nazi Party and regularly reminded the readers, “I am a soldier, not a butcher!”

 

Dredger was about a secret agent who plays dirty – ultra-dirty – and its title character was often likened to the one played by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies, though I always thought he was more like a psychotic version of Jack Regan, the tough, craggy police officer played by John Thaw in the popular TV crime show The Sweeney (1975-1978).  And unless your IQ was below room temperature, you’d have no difficulty linking the killer-shark story Hook Jaw to a certain movie directed by a young Steven Spielberg, also about a killer shark, that was doing rather well at the box office at the time.

 

Looking back, I can see how Action had more social comment than was the norm for 1970s British comics.  Dredger contained class tension – Dredger was rough, down-and-dirty working class whereas his sidekick, Simon Breed, was a posh ex-boarding-school type who’d have been the hero in a traditional British spy story (with the oik-ish Dredger as his sidekick).  Ironically, no matter how much Breed disapproved of Dredger’s ungentlemanly way of doing things, it was Dredger who saved the day and saved Breed’s neck at the end of each story.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Hook Jaw, meanwhile, had an environmental theme.  The humans whom the killer shark confronted and, inevitably, ate from week to week were scumbags despoiling his marine habitat – the roughnecks on an oilrig in the original set of Hook Jaw stories, the shysters running a ghastly-looking island holiday resort in the next set of stories.

 

But obviously, what impressed me back in 1976 was the comic’s in-your-face violence.  It had panels that, 40 years later, I can recall more vividly than anything else I’ve ever seen in a comic-book.  For example, a colour panel in Hook Jaw – much of that strip was depicted in colour, for obvious reasons – where Hook Jaw and his toothy pack of fellow sharks devour the survivors (no longer surviving) of a ditched-in-the-sea airliner.  Or a climactic panel in Dredger where the agent, flying a helicopter, takes out a whole rampart of villains by swooping at them, shredding them with the rotors and turning them into a shower of bloody body parts.  (When I saw a scene in the 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later where a helicopter reduces a bunch of zombies to chop-suey, that Dredger image was the first thing I thought of.)

 

Predictably, almost from when Action debuted in February 1976, the comic was under attack for its content.  Within months, an unholy alliance that included Mary Whitehouse’s sanctimonious Viewers and Listeners’ Association, excitable tabloids like The Sun and the junk newsagent chain W.H. Smith were pressuring its publisher, IPC Magazines, to censor or withdraw it.

 

Two strips that appeared a little later in Action poured fuel on the fire.  Look Out for Lefty was an example of that staple of British boys’ comics, the soccer story; but unlike previous soccer stories, it took as much interest in hooligan activities on the terraces as it did in footballing activities on the pitch.  A scene where Lefty’s skinhead girlfriend ‘takes out’ an opposition player by chucking a bottle at him from the crowd sparked an outcry.  What sort of example was this comic setting our children?  Britain’s Football League secretary Alan Hardaker raged that the writer responsible “ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.”

 

Even more inflammatory was Kids Rule OK which, seemingly taking its cue from the nascent – and to the British establishment, terrifying – punk rock movement, posited a near-future Britain where a plague has killed everyone over the age of 20 and gangs of teenagers battle to the death on the nation’s ravaged streets.  An Action cover in September 1976 showing a Kids Rules OK teenager using a chain to attack a man who appeared to be a police constable didn’t go down well with the country’s self-appointed moral guardians either.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Issue 36 of Action appeared dated October 16th, 1976.  But its 37th issue, dated October 23rd, never went on sale.  IPC Magazines surrendered to the comic’s many critics and pulped almost all 200,000 copies that’d been printed of issue 37.  (Only about thirty copies of it survived and they’re worth a fortune today.)

 

After a six-week hiatus, Action reappeared at the end of November, but in the meantime IPC Magazines had replaced its editor, John Sanders, and drastically toned down its content to make it as innocuous as every other British comic on the market.  I remember buying a few copies of the revamped Action and being dismayed by the fact that (a) Hook Jaw was no longer in colour, (b) the shark now only ate about one person each week, and (c) the eating now mostly occurred ‘off-panel’.

 

Without the blood, gore and anarchy that’d made the original Action so thrilling, sales of the comic fell.   It limped on until November of the following year, when it was merged with and subsumed into another comic, Battle.  I didn’t even notice its disappearance.  By then I’d stopped reading it.

 

Still, Action’s legacy endures.  In 1977 much of its creative team – particularly the brilliant Pat Mills and John Wagner – were responsible for the launch of the immensely influential 2000 AD, the self-styled Greatest Comic in the Galaxy, which today is one of the very last survivors from Britain’s once huge and lucrative comics industry.

 

Pat Mills, 2000 AD’s first editor, had clearly learnt lessons from the Action debacle.  2000 AD was violent too, but because its violence took place in unreal, science-fictional settings, it was deemed less offensive.  It also helped that much of 2000 AD’s violence was wreaked by that fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd, a policeman – so that was okay, then.  Actually, some of 2000 AD’s early stories had Action connections.  Shako, about a murderous polar bear, was basically Hook Jaw with fur and claws; whereas Flesh, a time-travelling story about cowboys trying to harvest dinosaurs, was originally planned as an Action strip.

 

In 2016, the 40th anniversary of both its appearance and disappearance, Action is recognised as a ground-breaker in British comic history – basically because it attempted to give kids, or at least boys, what they really wanted.  It seems fitting that filmmaker Ben Wheatley should grant Action a cameo appearance in this year’s High Rise, his kaleidoscopic adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard.  From the doghouse in 1976 to the arthouse in 2016.  How times change.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For further Action, check out:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/21/action-70s-kids-comics-violence-magazine-publishing

http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/2016/10/this-week-in-1976-action-is-suspended.html