Thrill-Power Overload: Celebrating 2000 Issues of Groundbreaking British Anthology '2000 AD'

Editor Matt Smith tells Heat Vision about bringing back classic creators, looking to the future and living up to the history of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic.
Glenn Fabry/Rebellion

This week sees the release of the 2000th issue of British anthology comic 2000 AD — and that's not counting the annuals, seasonal special issues or additional material that the title has also published since its debut in 1977.

Best known in the U.S. as the birthplace of Judge Dredd, 2000 AD holds a unique place in comic book history, publishing work from the likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland and almost every major British comic book creator of the last four decades. Given the impact of creators whose reputations were launched by work published in the title, it's safe to say that, without 2000 AD, the history of comic books over the last few decades would have been very different indeed. Imagine no Watchmen, Killing Joke or Preacher… or Walking Dead, for that matter, considering that artist Charlie Adlard cut his teeth on 2000 AD spin-off title Judge Dredd Megazine.

Despite this, 2000 AD remains a mystery to many U.S. readers. Part of this is down to irregular distribution for much of its existence — now that the series is available digitally internationally, that problem is partly solved — but the format may also seem unusual to many.

A weekly title featuring five serials in every issue (or "prog," short for "program"... this was a sci-fi comic created in 1977, after all), each running just five or six pages per episode, 2000 AD could feel alien to those used to 20-pages-a-month issues… especially given the conceit, dating back to the title's origin as a kids' comic, that it is edited by an alien called Tharg from the planet Betelgeuse who describes the strips as being filled with "Thrill-Power," and launches every issue with an editorial that begins "Borag Thungg, Earthlets!"

In reality, Tharg is actually a human being called Matt Smith — no, not the Eleventh Doctor — who has been editing 2000 AD since it was purchased by video game publisher Rebellion in the year 2000. Under Rebellion's watch, the title has undergone both a creative resurgence and also a business expansion, with the creation of a collected editions program (published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster) and co-publishing programs with both Dark Horse Comics and IDW Publishing — not to mention the cult Dredd movie and a prose line of Judge Dredd material published by Rebellion's Solaris Books imprint.

Heat Vision talked to Smith about editing the 2000th issue of the title, and what it takes to sum up almost 40 years' worth of weekly comics in just one issue.

How long has this issue been in the works? And where do you even begin to plan something of this scope?

I started planning it out early this year — given that I was thinking of asking the likes of Brian Bolland, Mick McMahon, Kevin O'Neill and Dave Gibbons to contribute, I thought I'd get in there as early as I could and give them as much lead time as possible. As it turned out, Brian — doing his first interior strip work for 2000 AD since 1987 — was one of the first to deliver his page. I start by boiling down which are the most popular characters, and then choosing a creative team that I think would best fit.

2000 AD has, historically, been integral to the British comic book industry, and the comic book industry as a whole. Without it, its unlikely that Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and the like would have had the careers they did. How conscious of the importance of the series are you on a day-to-day basis? Obviously it has to be in the forefront of your mind while working on an anniversary issue…

I was a reader of 2000 AD from 1985, when I was aged twelve, and continued getting every week, even through the lean times of the early 90s, until I became assistant editor in 2000 when Rebellion acquired it. The comic means an awful lot to me, and remains, in my opinion, one of the best titles out there. There's a humor, irreverence and imagination to its stories that you just don't find elsewhere.

I'm committed to making every issue a good-looking comic, because it deserves to — and does — stand up against the best the US has to offer. You can't escape the weight of history behind it, and that what you're doing now is being compared to what was being published at the height of the comic's success, so I'm always aware of the energy that needs to be poured into every page to give the reader that kick of Thrill-Power.

Prog 2000 feels like part-primer on the history of 2000AD, and part-statement of intent for the comic. Was it a conscious decision to celebrate the history of the title while also acting as an introduction for newcomers?

Having been editor for fifteen years now, and having handled many anniversary issues, you struggle a bit coming up with new ways to celebrate 2000 AD's legacy. I had all the characters going to a party for the 25th, there was a history of 2000 AD in five pages by [artist and former art director for the series] Robin Smith in the 30th and a "Great Moments in Thrill-Power" series of pin-ups and "what if" alternate takes on characters for the 35th.

Coming up with a fresh slant is a challenge. So for Prog 2000, I went with showing the history of the comic through its most famous strips — start with Dredd, move through the 1980s with Nemesis the Warlock and Rogue Trooper, in the nineties with Anderson, Psi-Division and Sinister Dexter, and ending on the start of brand-new series, Counterfeit Girl, to represent the future. In between these are the Tharg interludes, where he walks between the various worlds the characters inhabit and introduces them.

You do feel beholden to make every new special landmark prog better than those that have come before it — you're under constant scrutiny from the fans, and the 2000th issue of a comic is a hell of an achievement. So I did really want to make this look good.

How important was it to introduce an all-new series like Counterfeit Girl to the title in the anniversary issue? You mentioned it representing the future…

There's a danger with celebrating a comic's legacy that that's all it becomes: Wasn't it great in the '70s and '80s? Too many people are still surprised that 2000 AD is still going — "I used to read that" is the standard response — and there's a fixation on the usual characters and creators. So I wanted Prog 2000 to end on the start of a brand-new series to show where the comic was now, and demonstrate that it was going forward into the next phase of its life.

Were there other strips you wished you could've put into the 2000th issue, either in terms of classic material, or more recent work?

As I say, you boil down the most popular characters, but there wasn't room for everyone. Slaine is an obvious omission — though he appears on Mick McMahon's interlude page — but he'll have his own story in [next year's] 40th anniversary prog. I suggested Hammerstein and Ro-Jaws [characters from the ABC Warriors and Ro-Busters series] possibly featuring in the Nemesis story but Kevin [O'Neill] couldn't fit them in, and, again, Ro-Busters will feature in the 40th. Nikolai Dante is one of the successes of the last decade, but since that was a finite series, I wasn't sure about including it.

To be honest, there's very few strips from the past that haven't already been revived or rebooted, and I can't think of any more that require bringing back. There's so many good new series being created like Brink, Absalom, Kingmaker or Lawless, that I'll keep the mix of new characters and classics that are still going like Slaine, ABC Warriors, Strontium Dog, Anderson, etc.

So, where next for 2000 AD? Besides, you know, Prog 2001 the very next week. The 40th anniversary is just around the corner... How do you top this anniversary issue?

Thanks to Betelgeusian synchronicity, I've only got about four months between Prog 2000 and the 40th anniversary in Feb 2017, with the traditional 100-page end of year bumper Xmas prog in-between. I've already planned out the birthday issue — it'll be separate to the weekly, a 48-page special that'll come out 1 March alongside that week's prog. Characters and writers/artists are being assembled as we speak. Needless to say, I've got to make this one even better!

2000 AD Prog 2000 is available in print in the UK, and digitally worldwide, now.