On this day, 31 October 1981: 2000AD (Prog 236)
On this day, 31 October 1981 … Happy Halloween! Forget the spooks and witches and zombies, here’s true terror. 2000AD has always been an incredibly prescient comic. It predicted the rise of the authoritarian state, a clampdown on human rights, sugar sanctions, smokatoriums, the growth of obesity, a nation glued to their screens, the Cal/Trump, the Dave-ape/Boris, and countless other echoes of the future that seem to have become more reportage than satire since we passed the year 2000. Judge Dredd: ‘Block Mania’ is perhaps the scariest of the lot.
Looking back, I think this issue illustrates a point of my own comic-reading maturing. I’d read The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic since the summer of 1980, but for the first year or so it had been the fun strips Ace Trucking Co and Dash Decent, and the beautifully-drawn fantasy and sci-fi of Nemesis the Warlock, Meltdown Man and Strontium Dog, which had captivated me. But Prog 236 has a harder edge. The Mean Arena is dark, urban and violent; Rogue Trooper is bleak, cold and militarised (with technically-fantastic Colin Wilson artwork). Ace Trucking Co is still there for light relief (are those the original Sensitive Kleggs in this week’s issue?); and then there’s the nightmarish, dimension-warping Tharg’s Future Shocks tale ‘Space to Let!’ by Kelvin Gosnell and Tony Jozwiak.
But it’s Judge Dredd that packs the hardest thrill-punch. We didn’t know it at the time, but episode one of ‘Block Mania’ gave us not only a superb Brian Bolland wraparound cover (which I had on a mug at work until our sales director took it upon herself to throw it out a few years ago) but the start of the 35-week long ‘The Apocalypse War’ saga. This epic resonates still today and at its time edgily played on Cold War fears and tensions of the early 1980s. Interestingly – and perhaps not coincidentally – this prog also sees the first of a three-part text feature by Tharg himself (was this Steve MacManus, I wonder?) on how the US v USSR Space Race could herald the start of World War Three.
Cleverly, ‘Block Mania’ starts with the tiniest of incidents – ‘even something as innocent as the dropping of a 4-cred Freezy Whip’ – and rapidly escalates into a series of conflicts that grow ever larger until they encompass the whole world. Mega-City One society becomes factionalised, and violent, turning block against block and sector against sector, and we’ll discover in a few progs’ time that this is because those dirty East-Meggers have infected the city’s water supply. It was a compelling storyline – gripping and calustrophobic, yet not without the humour that characterises the very best Judge Dredd strips, and of course truly wonderful artwork from Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Brian Bolland and the late, great Steve Dillon – but of course completely fantastical. Civilised societies don’t really turn in upon themselves, do they?
I’m sure this would never happen today.