In 1995, Sylvester Stallone put on a plastic codpiece designed by Gianni Versace, then smirked and bellowed his way through 96 minutes of nearly 20 years' worth of Judge Dredd comic storylines mashed together into a gaudy highlight reel of a motion picture. It was a commercial and critical flop, emerging at the tail-end of one of the worst creative slumps that the UK comics industry had ever seen.
Yet somehow, 2000AD persevered. Founded in 1977 and continuing to this day as a weekly British sci-fi anthology comic, no other title has evolved and survived trends in comics, society and culture quite like it. It's why it endured long enough to see its principal character Judge Dredd again revived on screen – this time successfully – by Karl Urban in 2012's Dredd. But it isn't the spin-off films and video games that have placed 2000AD in the comic book firmament. Born out of punk and political frustration, that all started in the 1970s, when it first began to shake up newstands.
2000AD is the Black Mirror of comics, able to give a dark and absurdist inversion to whatever cultural or social ill is terrifying the British public on any given day.
Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD is a new documentary that chronicles why 2000AD has been able to call itself "the galaxy's greatest comic" since 1977. Among those interviewed for the documentary – alongside Neil Gaiman, Alex Garland and Portishead's Geoff Barrow – is the founder and first editor of the title, Pat Mills. Still writing for the comic today, some of his creations – Nemesis the Warlock, The A.B.C Warriors, Slaine – are among the most popular of the comic's near-40 year run.
"It's the last man standing, isn't it?" he says. "It's the last significant British comic. There's a great affection towards British comics, and a lot of people grew up reading 2000AD and they're going to carry that onward into adulthood. It's subversive in a way that mainstream American comics are not. It has a….particularly British quality."
Among Mills' launch stories in the first issue of 2000AD was Invasion! – a twisted what-if scenario where the "Volgons" (a rather transparent analogue for the Soviet Union) invaded Britain and gunned down "Dame Shirley Brown" (an equally transparent Margaret Thatcher stand-in) on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. The story then follows a shotgun-wielding East End truck driver Bill Savage as he resists the occupation. The story was the exact kind of violent and paranoia-stoking stuff that 2000AD used the pretence of a science-fiction banner to deflect criticism with.
But it hasn't been an easy ride for 2000AD. As the 1990s rolled in, the comic's former publishers decided to move with the times, chasing lad-mag titillation and cheap headlines. The effects were disastrous. Fans are divided as to exactly when the comic truly hit rock bottom – some say it's the universally-loathed Space Girls, a sexualised parody of the Spice Girls (but in space), with nicknames Baby, Scary, Sporty, Posh and Ginger replaced by Deep, Inner, Hyper, Free and Wide-Open Space (a blonde nymphomaniac with the superpower of being irresistible to all men).
Others, however, argue that its real low was the self-referential satire B.L.A.I.R.1 – a hellishly unfunny amalgam of 2000AD's own 1970s Six Million Dollar Man rip-off, M.A.C.H.One, and the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. It featured a bionic Blair fighting an evil supercomputer by the name of Dr Spin. The subversive, degenerate, but above all intelligent comic that had once been an incubator for the cream of the industry's talent had been reduced to peddling cheap shots, cheap cleavage, and sterile cinema adaptations.
In 2000, however, the comic was bought up by video game developer Rebellion. "What the readers wanted was 2000AD," Pat Mills remembers. "They didn't want Loaded, they didn't want it to be a disciple of NME. In the past, all of those publications had an unwarranted influence of 2000AD. But we didn't need them – so we decided that basically, they could just fuck off."
So in 2004, he rebooted he rebooted his Invasion! storyline with truck driver Bill Savage making a return in the titular Savage. Updated so the occupation allegories now echo the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Cold War paranoia fantasies, Savage has covered abuse of power by occupiers, the morality of Abu Ghraib-style torture facilities, and more recently, mechanised drone warfare. Although this being 2000AD, the drones aren't flying missile pods, but 12ft tall hammer-wielding war robots at the command of a Richard Branson-esque figure called Howard Quartz. Who, incidentally, eventually gets killed by his own creations and became a talking brain in a jar.
"There's a fascination that people have with alternative histories, and the idea of an enemy occupying Britain has always been of interest," says Mills. "But even in the original Invasion!, there was always an element of science-fiction as well. When I began the reboot, I felt we could retain that noir element with little bits of science fiction."
As the clock ticks past another year in the real world, so does it with the comic's main character Judge Dredd. His origin in the middle of the 70s punk explosion might have been as a parody of Thatcherite authoritarianism, but compared to the conservative nature of his transatlantic rivals, Dredd is as progressive as comic book creations get. In Dredd's world, there are none of the flimsy reboots and reimaginings that sees Marvel and DC's flagship characters die, marry, and stay encased in inky-amber. Stories in 1977 depicted a young Judge who still believed in maintaining the letter of 2099's oppressive laws; Dredd in 2015 is an old man in the year 2137, hardened by the practicalities of decades on the streets and a more nuanced understanding of the difference between law and justice. It's how a comic can continue to push boundaries when a generation has been raised since its inception being able to watch the worst that the real world has to offer on LiveLeak.
Take the recent story of 'The Beating' – over the past month, 2000AD has run a Dredd story where Dredd is filmed beating a suspect to death, with the footage going viral over social media and the consequences threatening to destabilise the entire justice system of Dredd's world. It covers surveillance culture, privatisation of public services, police corruption, citizen journalism, and delivers a twist to give Dredd's behaviour a less brutal, but no less sinister motive to our modern mindset. And it does it in just 18 pages of strip.
"One of the arguments is that kids today don't look at comics; that they're more interested in video games. That there's changing technologies, and changing demographics," Pat scoffs. "That's all weak and rather pathetic excuses for complacency… if you maintain the style and give the readers what they want, you will never lose them."
It's that kind of pragmatic approach that has made 2000AD the Black Mirror of comics, able to give dark and absurdist inversion to whatever cultural or social ill is terrifying the British public on any given day – if that means running a story where gang riots are melded with Cronenburg-esque body-horror, or illustrating the horrors of autocratic states via swashbuckling Russian lothario Nikolai Dante then 2000AD will, and has, done it.
2000AD is - and always will be - just that kind of comic.