We’re not too far away from the release of Dredd, the new film adaptation of the long running comic strip Judge Dredd, and expectations are surprisingly high. I say surprising, because the last time we got a Judge Dredd movie – the 1995 release directed by Danny Cannon and starring Sylvester Stallone – it was god-awful.
            To be fair, some of the production design and costuming was good, and there was a certain frisson in seeing characters like Mean Machine Angel and (in defiance of canon, but who cares?) Hammerstein up on the big screen. The cast – Rob Schneider notwithstanding – was solid too: Stallone is, well, Stallone, but he was ably supported by Diane Lane, Armand Assante, and Max von Sydow. Still, in every other respect, it was a failure, taking a unique and powerful character, an authoritarian defined largely by his contrast with the subversive anarchy of the world he inhabits, and cheerfully sawed off all the bits that didn’t fit neatly inside the mid ’90s action movie paradigm.
            So getting a new film, directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame) and written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), is inherently a good thing. Response to the sneak screening at ComiCon was extremely positive, and even if they’re wrong – how do I put this delicately? Sometimes science fiction fans actively suppress their critical thinking skills when it comes to beloved properties – its relative quality compared to the extant flick is pretty much assured: it literally can’t be worse.
            There have been some grumblings, though. The decision to film in 3D has been met with the usual derision from the usual corners, as has the relatively low budget; clearly this will not be set in the towering future metropolis of founding artist Carlos Ezquerra’s fevered imagination, but in a more gritty, cyberpunky milieu best realized in Cape Town, South Africa.
            (It’s been argued that this is unfaithful to the source material, but that’s rubbish, frankly; like Batman, Dredd has passed through the hands of numerous writers and artists, and been subject to many interpretations, from jackbooted fascist antihero to subversive comic relief, encompassing all points in between. If you can reconcile Walter the Wobot coexisting in the same fictional universe that hosted the stunning political tearjerker “America,” you should be able to get your head around this without crying foul, but I digress.)
            What we know about the plot seems fairly straight forward, but that’s no sin – the vast majority of Dredd strips are short and sweet, and it’s not a bad way to test the waters; why blow hundreds of millions on “The Cursed Earth” or “Apocalypse War” when you can find out if Dredd as a concept resonates for much less, and with a much better chance of turning a profit. For those unfamiliar with the comic, think “Dirty Harry in bondage gear polices a teeming post-apocalyptic metropolis filtered through Thatcher’s Britain” and you won’t go far wrong. The film sees Dredd (Karl Urban, and it’s about time he got a franchise of his own – if he doesn’t, I’m convinced I’m gonna see him and Jeremy Renner grimacing their way through a buddy cop movie in the not too distant future, and nobody needs that) and rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) fighting their way to the top of a gigantic skyscraper (in the Dredd universe, we call ’em citiblocks) to take down big bad drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, of Game of Thrones fame). In the broad strokes, it’s coincidentally similar to the recent – and excellent – Indonesian film The Raid, but parallel production timelines indicate that it’s no rip-off.
            With a little luck, it’ll be a solid sci-fi actioner full of wit, grit, and anarchy, and kick off a franchise that does the character justice. But I’m not so much concerned about Dredd’s sequel possibilities, as puzzled by the lack of similar films out there. My question is this: why have we not seen a flood of 2000 AD film adaptations?
            For the uninitiated, 2000 AD is the granddaddy of British comics. Founded in 1977 (hence the now-retro tile – they never thought it’d last this long) it’s a science fiction anthology series that frequently comments on contemporary politics and trends. It’s also the place where a lot of now-revered comics talents got their start; Alan Moore, David Gibbons, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Steve Dillon, Simon Bisley, Kevin Walker, and numerous others either got their start working on the comic, or at the least got published there early on in their careers.
            As an anthology, it’s hit and miss, as is the nature of such things. Some strips were brilliant, and ran for years – or, as is the case with Judge Dredd, are still running. Others, not so much. I’m convinced that the various editors over the years frequently took a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach, and that’s all to the good; it means they published some of the most outlandish, edgy, and downright bizarre comics this side of Metal Hurlant.            
Speaking of the editors, they all operated under the nom de plume of Tharg the Mighty, the magazine’s green-skinned mascot, hence the title of the piece. A Betelgeusian who favoured styrofoam cups for a snack and tormenting art and script droids (another conceit – the comic was produced by robots) for a hobby, Tharg is the public face of 2000 AD editorial.
            But the point is, with 2000 AD being such a goldmine of IP, and us being – taking 2000’s X-Men movie as a workable but somewhat arbitrary jumping-off point – twelve years deep into the comic book movie boom, should we not have seen more than the two and a half films based on 2000 AD strips that have so far come into existence? (That’s counting both Dredd films and Richard Stanley’s Hardware, a film that started out with no official connection to 2000 AD, until people saw it and realized it was an adaptation of the comic strip “SHOK!,” and after a bit of back and forth, Steve MacManus and Kevin O’Neill received “Story By’ credits.)
            There are a couple in the pipeline that I’m aware of, both at various stages of preproduction. Perhaps the most interesting is Button Man, based on a strip by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson. A rare non-science fiction story the eponymous antihero is Harry Exton, a former soldier who becomes involved in an illegal game where hired killers like him are pitted against each other for the entertainment of anonymous, wealthy patrons. With its contemporary setting and moody, washed-out artwork, in tone it recalls nothing so much as the brilliant British TV series Edge of Darkness. It’d be a simple adaptation job – it relies more on mood and suspense than big action beats, and perhaps that’s why it’s not been greenlit yet. On first reading it, it was immediately obvious that i had all the makings of a great movie, and though I was fifteen at that point, time and distance have changed nothing. It’s been in development for a long time now, and the latest news is that Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive, is in talks, which is exciting.
            The other one is Rogue Trooper, which is apparently being written by lauded comics scribe Grant Morrison for Sam Worthington’s production company. Rogue Trooper tells the tale of the last of the Genetic Infantrymen, a bio-engineered combat trooper on a war torn planet, as he searches for the traitor whose betrayal resulted in the massacre of his comrades. Created by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons (his name’s on the credits of the Watchmen movie, if you need a frame of reference) it’s a fun but uneven comic, which lurches from gritty “war is hell” pathos to high sci-fi silliness without even blinking. It also has a convoluted storyline, complete with flashbacks, reboots, and canon reconciliations, but like most 2000 AD fare it can be dipped in and out of without too much head-scratching.
            It’s also another property whose absence from the big screen is puzzling. It would have been a perfect vehicle for an early ’90s Jean-Claude Van Damme to slip into, right around the point where he was dabbling in larger budget stuff before being sucked down into direct-to-video hell. Oddly enough, one of Van Damme’s films from this period, Universal Soldier, shares a title – although nothing else – with a 2000 AD strip. The reboot, Rogue Trooper: War Machine, which was written by Gibbons and featured beautiful painted artwork by Will Simpson, is a nicely constructed, self-contained origin story that would translate to the screen with minimal tweaking, although I couldn’t say if that’ll be the main source Morrison’s script draws from. I can say that it seems like Worthington has developed a taste for playing blue people.
            That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. There are dozens of stories that could work well as films – and, as I mentioned before, plenty that wouldn’t, but let’s not worry about them. Here, in no particular order, are a few. Also, a caveat: I haven’t read every issue (or prog, as we call ’em) of 2000 AD, and it’s been a while since I picked one up. They’re around twenty bucks an issue hereabouts, and I’m a writer, so that’s the end of that. Suffice it to say, these are just my opinions, so don’t lose your grip if your favourite doesn’t get a mention.
In post-apocalyptic Britain mutants – ugly, messed up mutants, not photogenic X-Men mutants – are the underclass, and one of the few jobs open to them is that of bounty hunter – Search/Destroy Agents, commonly known as Strontium Dogs. Johnny Alpha is the toughest of the lot, and the series follows his attempts to eke out a violent living in a world that hates him.
            This is another strip that is tonally all over the place, encompassing everything from space western tropes to time-travelling high adventure to race relations allegories. It’s also a defiantly British strip, as are many of 2000 AD’s; Milton Keynes is a mutant ghetto in the Dogs world, and writer John Wagner used the comic to talk about all manner of political and social issues of the day. It also boasts one of the most colourful supporting casts ever, with Alpha’s offsiders including the time-displaced Viking, Wulf Sternhammer; the shapeshifting mutant, Feral; the vampiric Durham Red; and the cheerfully violent and hideously deformed Scottish mutant, Middenface McNulty. There’s a few directors who could make a fist of this – Walter Hill springs to mind for reasons I don’t entirely understand- but my gut says that British genre specialist Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is the man for the job.
Essentially a silly sci-fi take on hardboiled private detective tropes, this strip, created once again by the prolific John Wagner, along with artist Ian Gibson, sees an ageing, cigar-chomping bounty-hunter tracking down malfunctioning robots in a future where droids are ubiquitous. It’s less Blade Runner, more Looney Tunes, although there were later attempts to darken it down a bit, written by Mark “Kick-Ass” Millar, but they were fairly unsuccessful. This is a big, brash, sci-fi action comedy, and so it seems that Barry Sonnenfeld – on a good first Men in Black day, not a bad Wild Wild West day – might be a good choice to call the shots.
The mid ’80s were a fine time to be writing superhero metafiction, as a cursory examination of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returnswill attest, and in 1987 a young Grant Morrison threw his hat into the ring, with artwork by Steve Yeowell. A commentary on superheroes and pop culture, with everything from Nazi black magic and Lovecraftian horror to Top of the Pops thrown into the mix, Zenith centres around the titular second generation superhero as he comes to grips with his origins and destiny while living the life of a spoiled, narcissistic rock diva.
            Unfortunately, squabbles over the rights have meant that even seeing Zenith reprinted in trade paperback is unlikely to happen, and so the odds of a film version are fairly remote. Still, the notion of a oblique stab at the ephemeral nature of consumer culture that looks like the very thing its slyly parodying is an attractive one, and someone like Todd Haynes or Michael Winterbottom might have the cultural nous to ensure that the vast, transdimensional superhero war (I may have forgotten to mention that) doesn’t completely overshadow the series’ more subtle charms.
I’ve never figured out how to do the accent over the n, and I’m not going to bother now. Pat Mills is the man chiefly responsible for this, along with a raft of other truly weird strips that tend to centre around paganism, chaos magic, nature worship, and the nagging feeling that the powers that be are Not Your Friend. Slaine started out as a fairly straightforward Conan pastiche, with the added twist that it was nominally set in the far past of mythic Ireland. As it progressed, Mills’ ambition and skill as a writer grew, and it ended up being an epic retelling of the bloodier parts of Celtic myth, before gradually succumbing to sillier and sillier storylines (Slaine travels through time to help other Celtic heroes, such as King Arthur and William Wallace) and ugly artwork (Clint Langley’s photo montage/digital mashup is appalling).
            As a film, it could be everything the recent Conan the Barbarian wasn’t, which is to say “good.” A big, bloody, rip-roaring British fantasy would be just the ticket, and although he’s been mentioned not too long ago, Neil Marshall’s work on both Centurion and Game of Thronesindicates he’s my pick once again. There’s a beautiful fan trailer – in Italian, oddly enough – floating around on youtube that’ll give you a good idea of the desired tone and visual style.
            Mills’ other major works are worth considering as well. While I don’t think Nemesis the Warlock would fly, commercially speaking, dealing as it does with an alien resistance against an oppressive human state, A.B.C Warriors (renegade robot soldiers at war on Mars, or at the end of time, or on a world that is the embodiment of Chaos – Mills is that kind of writer) might work, perhaps as a CGI animated project. And Finn, which deals with a coven of pagan eco-terrorists fighting a covert war against the alien gods who secretly control a near future Britain, might do well as a low-to-mid budget effort. Perhaps that’s something Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) should look into, once he’s done with Snow Crash.
            All that, and we’re barely scratching the surface. Timur Bekmabetov directing Nikola Dante? I’m in. Sinister Dexter, starring Colin Farrell and Idris Elba? I’m in. Ace Trucking Co.? Boy am I in, although I may be the only one. What I’d really like to see is a 2000 AD anthology television series. Give us a mix of animated shorts and fifteen to thirty minute longer pieces, with the mix of the political and the profane, the silly and the serious, and the downright gonzo that makes the comic great.
            And it is a great comic; one of the best. But it’s high time it staked out a place for itself at the big table, before the boom and bust nature of the film industry does its thing, and the comic craze is over.  I don’t think I want to live in a world where goddamn Green Hornetgets a go deal, and Summer Magicremains unproduced.

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