Monday, December 05, 2011

2000AD: Shot Glass of Rocket Fuel

Most of my public online interaction is done on Twitter these days, and 2000AD's Tweet Droid has just re-posted the submissions guidelines document I wrote back when I was Tharg's Representative On Earth a decade ago.

Not being an artist, I don't have anything terribly useful to add to those art guidelines, but I would say this to aspiring 2000AD script-writers:

Take the "twist ending" of your Future Shock and put it at the bottom of page one. Then explore the ramifications. Instead of the punchline, make the twist your premise. Trust me, your story will be 1000% more interesting, and more personal. Find your own voice.

It also occurs to me that I sent a "mission statement" to all the established 2000AD writers and artists as soon as I was appointed Editor in the year 2000, right when Rebellion bought the comic, and it hasn't been easily accessible online since.

Somebody quoted me the "shot glass of rocket fuel" line at Thought Bubble last month, and it's being discussed on Twitter right now, so I thought it might be worth publishing that mission statement in its raw, unedited form. I'm not the same man I was back then (I would hope I'm slightly more self-aware and diplomatic these days) but, for what it's worth, it was very much written from the heart.

Here's how I felt about 2000AD in July 2000:

2000 AD: A NEW BEGINNING
A call-to-arms for 2000 AD’s creators

THE PROBLEM

“2000 AD just isn’t as good as it used to be.” That seems to be the consensus opinion of the 25,000 readers who have stuck with us over the last 23 years… not to mention the 100,000 who have abandoned the comic during that time. Sure, nostalgia plays a part, but that’s not the whole story. On the whole, I think 2000 AD is better right now than it has been for several years – but at the same time, I can read progs from 20 years ago that still pack more of a punch than some of the stuff we’re publishing now. So what’s gone wrong?

2000 AD was created with a powerful sense of energy and vision – you can still feel it in those early progs. But over the years, that original vision has become diluted. For quite a while now, 2000 AD seems to have been running on autopilot, and somebody needs to stand up and question whether it’s actually heading in the right direction.

I believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broke, we’d better figure out what’s wrong, and fix it - sharpish! That’s what this document is all about. I believe we can make 2000 AD a lot more fun and exciting than it is at the moment.

What follows is basically my vision for the future of 2000 AD, and the kind of stories I think we should be publishing. It would be na├»ve of me simply to try and set the clock back to 1977 – the world, the market and the readers have obviously changed radically since then – but a lot of the core values of those early days are sorely missing now. 2000 AD used to appeal to readers young and old alike – and it should do again. I really believe that if we can put some of that energy, that imagination and that attitude back into the great work we’re already doing, we can once more make 2000 AD a creative force to be reckoned with.

THE HIT

2000 AD readers talk about getting their weekly ‘hit’ or ‘fix’ of Thrill-power, and they’re only half joking. The comic should be a drug; a jolt of raw, unrefined energy and imagination. We aren’t there just to raise a faint ironic smile on the readers’ lips; we should blast them into a whole new reality! 2000 AD should be fast, dense, bizarre, twisted, funny, insane, rebellious, dark, ironic, imaginative and exciting! We should blow the readers’ minds wide open, and give them something they can’t get anywhere else!

What we should not be is bland, derivative and familiar. 2000 AD should be the comic other people copy, not the other way round.

We may all have different ideas of what 2000 AD is all about, or what it should be. I think it’s the editor’s job to provide a vision for the comic, a common goal for us all to aim for. So let’s get down to the basics, and build it up from there.

WHAT IS 2000 AD?

2000 AD IS A SCI-FI ACTION COMIC. The three pillars of its foundation are sci-fi, action (ie. violence!) and humour. Any story that doesn’t include all three is liable to run into trouble… unless it’s very, very good! Almost all the stories in 2000 AD include some element of humour, but out-and-out comedy strips that don’t put an emphasis on physical action and jeopardy tend to get crucified by the readers.

I want to make the readers happy… because I’m one of them. I’m a 2000 AD fan. I want to publish the kind of stories I like. The kind of stories that blew the back of my head off 20 years ago, and have kept me hooked ever since. Let’s give 2000 AD its balls back.

What follows is a general call-to-arms for every 2000 AD creator. Much of it is undoubtedly grandmother/eggs stuff, but it never hurts to re-state the obvious…


DENSITY

One of the reasons ex-2000 AD writers have been so successful in the American comics market is that 2000 AD (and the whole British boys’ adventure market of old) teaches writers how to condense. When you can tell a complete action story with a beginning, middle and end (and a point!) in five pages, you’ve cracked the art of comics writing. So let’s keep it dense, tight, snapping along at a cracking pace. Never use two panels (or pages, or episodes!) where one will do. In comics, less really is more. Condensing the action down into the least possible number of panels actually increases the drama; it’s like a form of distillation. Boil that barrel of beer down into a shot-glass of rocket fuel!

Atmosphere is all well and good, but when it takes six panels for somebody to find their car keys, the readers just aren’t getting their money’s worth.

CONCEPT

The best 2000 AD series are based around a single character with a strong defining motivation, simple enough to be summed up in a single sentence. For example, “He's Dirty Harry in New York of the future; judge, jury and executioner!” or “He's a genetically engineered soldier who goes AWOL to search for the traitor who killed his fellow GIs;” or “She’s an ordinary girl living in a futuristic slum who dreams of just getting out.”

Plot and setting are important, but still very much secondary to the core character concept: Who is the hero, and what does he/she want?

EYE CANDY

There are too many ‘talking heads’ stories in 2000 AD. There’s nothing wrong with good dialogue and character interaction, but conversation itself must never be the be-all and end-all of the story. Stories must unfold though visual action, not verbal exposition. The rule of thumb is; no more than three balloons/captions per panel, and no more than 25 words per balloon/caption.

If a casual browser leafs through the pages of 2000 AD and just sees a succession of talking heads, he’ll probably put it straight back on the shelf. If he sees big, eye-grabbing visuals, weird locations, cool-looking hardware and exciting action, he might just stop and read it long enough to decide whether he wants to buy it.

This applies to characters as much as situations. 2000 AD used to be full of bizarre-looking aliens, cyborgs, robots, freaks and mutants – and they were the heroes! Nowadays, most of our characters look like they just stepped out of a mainstream Hollywood movie. Let’s remember to create characters with a bold and unique visual style.

Comics is a visual medium, and we’ve only got five or six pages to grab the reader and give him that hit. Writers need to give the artists plenty of incredible, dynamic images to draw which will fire their imaginations. Okay, so we can’t expect a big, in-yer-face ‘money shot’ (so to speak) on every page… but let’s aim for one on every other page, where possible – especially for the cliffhangers. Speaking of which…

GRAB ‘EM BY THE BALLS!

2000 AD is an action comic, remember. It’s in danger of becoming too ‘sophisticated’ for its own good. Sure, a touch of knowing irony is one of the key ingredients for a successful 2000 AD story - but at the same time, we should never be too ‘sophisticated’ to go for the big, cheesy, grab-‘em-by-the-balls cliffhanger. There used to be an energy and rawness to the action which is missing nowadays. It’s all part of the ‘hit’ the readers crave – they want thrills, dammit!

End every episode on a high note, and leave the readers gagging to find out what happens next. It’s the only way to maintain a weekly readership. If they don’t care, why should they pick up the next issue?


GET WEIRD!

Another of the dangers of becoming too ‘sophisticated’ or, dare I say it, ‘mature’ (shudder) is that it can stifle the imagination. If, when you’re writing a story, there’s a little voice inside your head saying, “Yeah, but that would probably never happen in real life,” take it out and shoot it! We need to take the readers to the weirdest, most whacked-out fringes of our fevered imaginations. That’s what they’re paying us for!

We should give the readers something they can’t get anywhere else – be it movies, TV, video games, whatever. When 2000 AD looks bland and conventional compared to the average computer game, we’re in trouble. First and foremost, let’s BE ORIGINAL!

ENOUGH, ALREADY…

So there you go, that’s what I’d like us all to aim for. Shouldn’t be a problem – most of the creators I’ve spoken to have echoed similar sentiments. The fact is, everybody loves 2000 AD – they just don’t all love what it has turned into. I think the comic has been steadily improving over the last few years, so we’re heading in the right direction. Now that 2000 AD has a new look, a new editor and a new owner, let’s have some fun with it!

Andy Diggle
Editor, 2000 AD
July 2000