A Chat with Dredd himself. Mr John Wagner
Paul Neal talks to John Wagner.
Interview with DREDD himself!
The chance to talk to the man that has guided Judge Dredd’s stories for many decades was a thrill. I feel if Dredd’s helmet was ever removed it would show the face of this fine gentleman. I also discovered he is a Manchester United and Morton football fan.
Paul: I like to start these things with the same question. Can you remember the first comic or comics you remember reading or especially enjoying? Or perhaps the first comic you remember buying?
John: I suppose the first ones I read were either DC Batman or Superman - other people's copies - back in the days when they used come-ons like Superman getting married to Lois etc. First one I enjoyed was an Uncle Scrooge. But I didn't really get 'into' comics till I moved to Scotland and started reading DC Thomson boys' titles. I liked the shorter format, numerous stories and diverse range of subjects in the anthologies, and the fact that you could always skip one you didn't care for and still enjoy the comic.
Paul: Your 2000AD legacy is forever set in stone now, but I would love to ask about some specific stories. America is often cited as the greatest Dredd story. Was that a passion project for you? It certainly reads as if it may have been. The art is spectacular. Was Colin MacNeil always the first choice artist for this important story?
John: I put a lot of heart into it, but the motivation was primarily that it was the lead story in a new Dredd publication that I was deeply involved in, and it had to be good. I was looking for a broader, more mature take on Dredd's world, one that didn't show him as an out-and-out hero as he's often portrayed - in fact, more the villain of the piece, the quality I think that has always set him apart from your average lead character.
John: I'm not sure if Colin was always in the frame for the job, but I can't remember ever considering anyone else, so he probably was first and only. I'm glad to say that on my latest story - another surfing tale - Colin is returning to fully painted art. Can't wait to see the result.
Paul: Necropolis is a much loved Dredd epic.
Having re-read it recently I got the impression it must have been a few years in the planning to get all the "chess pieces" ready. Would that be a fair interpretation? Also, it must have felt like a remarkable accomplishment for Carlos Ezquerra to complete the storyline in colour single-handedly.
John: It often looks like I do more planning than I actually do. Carlos was amazing - to be able to draw that well, that quickly. I don't know any other artist that could have done it.
Paul: Chopper was another wonderful character you seemed from a fan's perspective to have an affinity with for a long time. Song of The Surfer is
also regarded as a classic collaboration between you and Colin MacNeil and other talented artists. The ending was left open ended a little. Did you intend for the character to survive for further adventures?
John No, that was supposed to be the end, but with Garth Ennis available to write a follow up - and I think his partner in crime John McCrea on the art - I thought it was worth making an exception. The ending, the way it was left, had a little wriggle room in it.
Paul: You have worked almost exclusively in the UK comic Industry, but you have had some great success in the American side of the industry. I'm thinking specifically of A History of Violence. Did you find it a different experience working for an American Publisher? It must have been gratifying for your story to have been turned into a well-regarded film.
John It was a mixed experience. Some American editors were good to work with, some not. I've never really taken to working with other people's characters, though, so some work for hire could be more than a bit tedious. It's one of the good things about working for the old IPC/Maxwell stable, and now Rebellion - I have worked almost exclusively on stories I created. After the first Dredd film, and the BBC's terrible adaptation of the Bogie Man, I decided it was best just to take the money and try not to care about what they did with the material - so it was pleasing that A History of Violence actually turned out well.
Paul: You mentioned the BBC's adaptation of The Bogie Man. Casting Robbie Coltrane was odd enough, but the whole thing struck me as a bit weird. Did you and Alan have any input into that project?
John: No. Precious little return, either. A pitiful fee, and the publishers' bank swallowed most of it. Alan and I received, I think, £175 each. I didn't mind Robbie Coltrane in the lead. The trouble was he played it like Bogie knew he was a loon, sort of tongue in cheek, and Bogie was not that self-aware. Plus, they fucked up the script. If only they'd just largely stuck to what we wrote.
Paul: Perhaps it is as well it was never released on DVD. Although having said that I'd buy a copy, but I'm a completist.
Paul: Can you discuss any of the Judge Dredd movies. I'd be foolish not to ask you. What level of input did you have? As the main Judge Dredd writer for 2000AD which of the two do you personally prefer?
John: The first one had a big budget and excellent production, including the recreation of the city, but the plot had little to do with the real Judge Dredd. The second one was true to Dredd and although it was low budget was the much better movie. I had little input into the first movie but was a script consultant on the second.
Paul: A favourite short story for Dredd amongst fans seems to be "Bury My Knee At Wounded Heart" with Peter Doherty. Do you have any short Dredd stories that you are especially pleased with?
John That's one of them certainly. There's something particularly satisfying about getting a short story right. There are a few I think worked particularly well - off the top of my head Finger of Suspicion / Love Story / It Pays To Be Mental / Letter From a Democrat. It helped that the artists concerned were in top form - I can think of one or two stories I thought were very good that didn't work that well in the hands of the wrong artist. That's the thing about picture strip - it's the perfect collaboration that makes a story sing.
Paul: In addition to Dredd you will likely always be remembered for the tales of Johnny Alpha and his mutant friends. The Final Solution is a much discussed story line in part because of the dramatic shift in art styles toward the end of the long story, and the dramatic conclusion. Did you intend for the ending to be set in stone? And can you discuss the production of the story at all?
John: To be fair I didn't write the story, Alan did. I didn't want a part in it. The reason we did it was because of my bad experience handing Robohunter over to another writer. We didn't want the same thing to happen again with Johnny Alpha so we decided to kill him. Though I was, many years later, reluctant to start bringing characters back. I felt I owed it to Johnny and the readers.
Paul: Another artist you are famous for collaborating with is Ian Gibson. He speaks very highly of your sense of humour on your work together. He highlighted Return of the Taxidermist as being particularly fun. Is it fair to say your writing varies between very dramatic to moments of almost slapstick?
John: And everything in between.
Paul: Is there a tone you find easier? Does writing the comedy elements come naturally to you? I've read that writing comedy is often harder to get right than pure drama, would you say that is true in your experience?
John: Writing comedy is easy. Writing good comedy is hard. It's very
subjective. What amuses one person leaves another flat. It genuinely helps to have a writing partner, someone to bounce ideas off, an instant editor. It helps also to have an artist in tune with what you're doing. Cam Kennedy is one of my favourite artists, for instance, partly because he always got the funny side of things.
John: There was usually a slight comedy element to his art even when the story wasn't supposed to be funny. As someone who sees the humour in most things, I liked that a lot. Ian Gibson is another artist I enjoyed working with on the funnies. Some of his characters, like Hoagy and Stogie, are just brilliantly imagined and rendered. His work on Return of the Taxidermist helps make it one of my favourite stories. I can’t be bothered with the Olympic Games - it's so overblown, full of events that oughtn't to be there, so it was easy to satirise. In fact, I'd much rather watch some of my Olympic events - like Olympic staring...or Olympic sex. Now that I remember it, Cam drew the first Taxidermist story - so it was my luck to have two great comedy artists working on the same character.
Paul: On the other side of things. Some of your stories have been very dramatic and more serious in tone. I'm thinking of Button Man. To my mind it was a very cinematic series. I'm not sure it would have ever worked as well without Arthur Ranson. I was once told it was never originally intended for 2000AD, Is that the case? Can you discuss the series at all? It is a personal favourite of mine if I'm completely honest.
John: Button Man was originally meant for Toxic, but it was decided (not by me) that it was too close to Accident Man, and that was their preferred choice. Also, I think there was some resistance from the artists to Arthur because his art was so 'photographic'. Not a position I ever agreed with. You're right, though, the story wouldn't have been nearly so good if it hadn't been for Arthur's work. He introduced a lot of symbolism - something he was unfairly criticised for by some. It gave the story a very individual look and fleshed out my very spartan scripts. It was a fine example of collaboration between writer and artist.
Paul: I have spoken to numerous artists that you have worked with. Without exception they all compliment the quality of your scripts for being artist friendly and giving a great deal of freedom to create their art. For aspiring writers can you say how you mastered writing scripts that are so appreciated? Do you tailor your scripts when you know the intended artist in advance?
John It's partly because I don't like wasted effort. The more succinct I can make descriptions the better; just tell the artist the things he/she needs to know to convey the story. Plus, why work with talented people with more graphic vision than me if I then choose to nail down every little aspect of the art. Give them room to breathe. Sometimes I do tailor scripts for a particular artist, but often I don't even know who the artist is. Not so much these days, but in the past.
Paul: Can I ask if you have a perspective about how technology has altered the way people read comics? Do you prefer people read your writing on paper OR on a tablet etc? There has been a huge shift in the way comics are read in recent years. You may have a unique perspective with such a long career in the industry your point of view would be very interesting.
John: I prefer paper, but it doesn't bother me how people read them. The fact is not enough people are, and you can largely blame technology for that. Too many competing interests these days.
Paul: Because of COVID I'm guessing you missed a few conventions? Is it part of your job you enjoy?
John Conventions were making me ill. I was doing too many, trying to build a bigger fanbase for Rok. They can be very tiring. I've been much healthier since the virus arrived and stopped all that. So, I will be doing far fewer, and I'm sure enjoying them much more.
Paul: It is good to know you are healthier. COVID hit everyone in so many different ways. I'd love to ask about the Dredd / Batman crossovers. Can you share any memories about how they initially came to be, and whether it was a complicated process working another publisher? DC comics in this case.
John: It wasn't difficult at all working with DC, Alan had a very good relationship with them, and they were pretty amenable to what we were doing. The first crossover was a perfect example of the exception disproving the rule. The plot was the very first idea we came up with - then we wasted the next three months trying to come up with a better one, because 'the first idea you come up with is never the best'. It was, and we were pleased with how the story came out, and Simon's art as well. The next two books should never have happened. We had expected to do a follow up with Glenn Fabry on art, but Glenn's unavailability meant we had to go with two fill-in books while we were waiting. The scripts on these didn't do justice to the artists involved, I regret to say.
Paul: In my interview with Liam Sharp, we discussed P J Maybe. He illustrated the character's first appearance, and we were reflecting on PJ's longevity. Is that an example of a character that took on a life of his own? Was it ever planned for him to be such an enduring threat to Dredd?
John: Yes, to your first question, no to the second. I liked writing him, so I kept him alive as long as I could. But I couldn't let him keep making a fool of Dredd forever, so I had to let him die. Assuming he's dead.
Paul: Certainly, constantly coming up with a challenge for Dredd to face constantly must be difficult. Is that what inspired the Mechanismo storylines?
John: I just like the idea and prospect of robots fulfilling everyday tasks. One of my big regrets is that I won't live long enough to see the full fruition of the robot.
Paul: Are there any 2000AD related projects that never came to be? Were there ever any storylines or ideas you had planned that were rejected by Tharg?
John: To be honest, not that I remember.
Paul: Do you have any 2000AD related unfulfilled ambitions?
John: Personally, I can't think of any. I'd like to see a Strontium Dog film, and another Dredd film, or at least the promised TV series, but that's out of my hands. One or other will probably happen in the long run.
Paul: I always thought it would be fun to see Chopper on the big screen. I'd love to know who you might currently cast in that role, or for that matter J Alpha?
John: No idea. I stopped paying attention to actors a long time ago, couldn't tell one from the other.
Paul: Not too long-ago Rebellion recently bought up the whole IPC back catalogue. Is there anything from that library, not even necessarily your own work, you'd love to see reprinted for a new generation of readers?
John: They've already reprinted the best of Alan and my stories, to be honest I’m not that familiar with others.
Paul: I'd love to see a reprint of Comrade Bronski myself. Purely for Carlos's art from that series. Please forgive the question, but do you prefer Rugby of football? I gather you are fan of both.
John: I prefer rugby - played it in school and afterwards till I broke my ankle. Football genuinely is a beautiful game when played very well, but I've seen too many dull games among the gems. You seldom see a boring game of rugby. Worried, though, about the damage it does to the players. I didn't come out of it without a few scars and chipped teeth.
Paul: As a young man I played Rugby too. A few concussions later and I decided to just watch it on the telly. Well sir, I think that concludes our interview. I thank you so much for all your wonderful answers and your time.