"Britain's most influential comics creator of the last twenty-five years." 1
"The quintessential British comics writer." 2
You'd be forgiven for thinking these quotes referred to beardy druid and oft-acclaimed demigod Alan Moore - however, they were the verdict of Ninth Art and Alan McKenzie on John Wagner.
No profile of Wagner can go for long without mentioning his most popular and enduring character - Judge Dredd. Created in co-operation with Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd has been a mainstay of the British science fiction comic 2000 AD since its second edition on 5 March, 1977. Wagner himself says he never believed he would continue writing for 2000 AD for even three or four years after the comic's debut - he remains one of their core writers twenty-six years later. His career did not end there; neither did it begin with fascistic future cops.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1949, Wagner's family moved to Scotland in 1962. This transAtlantic background has been seen as the key influence behind Dredd, and goes some way towards explaining the series' mix of elements. While Dredd's large-scale conurbation setting is pure American metropolis, its large helpings of black humour could only be British. As the man himself says, "I never thought of setting [Dredd] anywhere but the US." 3
Leaving school, Wagner started a "nowhere job" 4 at a printers while on day release to college in Glasgow - by his own admission going nowhere fast. This changed when he took a post as an editorial assistant at DC Thomson (DCT) in Dundee, his aunt pushing him into applying. He credits this with shaping his professional attitude, and after an initial six-month evaluation period he advanced to the heady heights of sub-editor of Romeo, a fiction and adventure magazine for girls. This experience introduced him to another young Thomson editor, Pat Mills. Mills had his sights set elsewhere on the creative ladder, submitting several of his own stories to Romeo as well as scripts to several Thomson comic book titles. The money he made on these impressed Wagner enough to try his hand at scripting himself, the two of them eventually leaving DCT to freelance from Mills' garden shed in Fife.
Having impressed the International Publishing Corporation (IPC) enough to become editor of two girls' titles, Wagner took a sabbatical with another DC Thompson alumnus and future colleague, Alan Grant. This ended when IPC offered Pat Mills the chance to edit his own comic. They contacted Wagner to bring him on board their new project. The new comic was Battle Picture Weekly, an assortment of war stories set up to directly rival DCT's Warlord. Battle was notable not only for what Wagner acknowledges was one of his most influential strips - Darkie's Mob - but also for his first collaboration with Ezquerra, on The Rat Pack.
After again pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in "kids' comics" with the (for the time) ultra-violent Action, in 1975 Wagner and Mills were tasked to creating another new comic, this time with a science fiction theme. This was to become 2000 AD. Its name was, at Wagner's suggestion, a wry allusion to the average shelf life of the comic book titles on the market. A canny IPC manager had spotted the growing number of Hollywood science fiction pictures, and had read how a director was spending large sums on a blockbuster to be released the following summer. 2000 AD was designed as a cash-in on this trend, expected to be quietly folded or merged after the sci-fi film boom peaked.
While developing stories for this new comic, Pat Mills came up with a story concerning a hanging judge investigating occult goings-on at Stonehenge. This character was named Judge Dread. While the story was rejected for 2000 AD, the name found itself appropriated, somewhat modified for spelling, by John Wagner for an idea he'd had about an authoritarian future cop. Wagner found himself putting in "a lot of imagination and creativity into it [Dredd] - more than just the usual work for hire deal." 5 The picture references he sent to Carlos Ezquerra to develop Dredd's look included the poster from Death Race 2000, a 1975 picture starring David Carradine (and, coincidentally, a young Sylvester Stallone). Ezquerra took the visuals far further than expected, prompting a less than positive reaction from Wagner. The exact quote is recorded as: "Fucking hell! He looks like a fucking Spanish pirate! I'm not writing him, he looks fucking stupid!" 6
This, combined with a contractual spat, meant that although Dredd ran in every edition of 2000 AD after the first, Wagner did not actually script the story until Prog 9. He did, however, script M.A.C.H. 1, a fairly blatant rip-off of the Six Million Dollar Man that appeared in Prog 1. Also at this time Wagner created Strontium Dog Johnny Alpha, another collaboration with Ezquerra, this time for the comic Starlord.
From this point, Wagner scripted Dredd off and on for the next two years. His first multi-part saga was THE DAY THE LAW DIED, beginning in Prog 89, published 4th November 1978. From here on in, he wrote almost all the Dredd stories, as well as regularly scripting Strontium Dog and Robohunter. These were often in collaboration with Alan Grant. Wagner frequently used pseudonyms to mask the sheer volume of work he was doing for 2000 AD as well as to maintain in-jokes that had appeared - supporting characters from 2000 AD's early days frequently shared names with editorial or writing staff. From 1978 to 1987, he was known variously as John Howard, T.B. Grover, Ron Clark, Rick Clark, F. Martin Candor, Mike Stott, Keef Ripley, Brian Skutter and sundry others. The Grover pen name was most often used for a Wagner/Grant joint effort.
Their partnership continued throughout most of the eighties, dissolving (on Dredd, at least) after the Oz epic. The split was a result of the usual reason cited - creative differences - and, although Dredd continued to be credited to both writers, from this point it was written solely by one or the other. Wagner took the lion's share of scripts.
Thankfully for the comic reading public, these differences related solely to Judge Dredd and the development of the character. Wagner and Grant continued working together on other projects, including their first commission for DC Comics, Outcasts. Published in 1987, this 12 part mini series had art duties by another long-time Wagner collaborator and personal friend, Cam Kennedy. The double act briefly continued as they scripted Batman, but this was left to Grant alone when Wagner quit to work on his own labours of love.
Disillusionment with the growing popularity of Dredd came to a head when a new manager took over 2000 AD for new owners Fleetway. After dumping a suitcase full of Dredd merchandise on the hapless managing director's desk, Wagner gruffly informed him he had made "not a fucking penny" on any of it. Promising to put things right, the manager began changing contracts. This led to a better deal for all creators at 2000 AD, including - shock - creator owned series, as well as reprint and merchandise royalties, all of which had previously been pocketed by the company.
This new policy allowed Wagner link up with Ezquerra to create Al's Baby. Under the old system, Ezquerra had been loath to create any more characters for IPC/2000 AD, due to his feeling wronged after Grant wrote Johnny Alpha's death in THE FINAL SOLUTION. Al's Baby was a creator owned series for a new sister title of 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine. This new publication was edited by Wagner along with Grant in its early years, although they now are willing to take a back seat, retaining a credit as 'consultant editors'.
For the Megazine's 1990 launch, Wagner contributed AMERICA. This is widely regarded as simply the most outstanding Judge Dredd story ever published. Indeed, Wagner himself cites it as his favourite Dredd story. Heartbreaking, breathtaking and ultimately very, very troubling, AMERICA cuts right to the heart of Mega City One, its police state and its policemen. It has recently been reprinted by Titan Books, and it is difficult to recommend it enough.
Many of the recurring themes touched on in Dredd are personal to Wagner - writing a six page story every week for twenty-six years, the inspiration must come from somewhere. His own theory is that much of Dredd's character is related to that of his own father - taking no prisoners, terse and stern. This is disputed by some, who point out that there is a similarly abrupt and gruff man much closer to the scripting process. Several times Dredd has arrested cigarette smokers or smugglers, a fact probably related to Wagner's own heavy use of the demon weed. Likewise, the story IN THE BATH - in which Dredd arrests two burglars without ever leaving the tub - was written after a fellow writer commented on Wagner's frequent aquatic writing habits.
Following a further, two year sabbatical in 1992, Wagner returned to the fold at 2000 AD and the Megazine, and has continued chronicling Joe Dredd's life and times since 1994. Like his main character, he shows few signs of letting age slow him down, although fill-in stories are periodically contributed by other staff writers.
As a footnote, John Wagner appeared in 2000 AD's celebratory Prog 2000, published at the tail end of 1999. Written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Cam Kennedy, OLD FRIEND'S ACT featured Joe Dredd arresting him for use of illegal stimulants (namely caffeine and nicotine) as well as multiple false identities. Following an attempted escape in a rocket-propelled bath, Wagner was shot down and summarily executed by his most famous creation.
Writing credits (selected):
1 Thumbnail: John Wagner, Nick Brownlow, Ninth Art. http://ninthart.com/display.php?article=458
2 Alan McKenzie, quoted in The Dredd Generation, Brent Keane, Ninth Art. http://www.ninthart.com/display.php?article=318
3 "I invented Judge Dredd," BBC News RealTime. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1820832.stm
4 Interviews - John Wagner, William Logan, Class of '79. http://members.fortunecity.com/ukko/scifi/jwagner.htm
5 Judge Dredd - The Mega-History, Colin Jarman et al., Lennard Publishing 1995. p19.
6 Op cit., p24
Also invaluable was 2000adonline.com.