Caught In The Nexus: Alan Barnes

Interviewer: Will Cooling
Interviewee: Alan Barnes

Alan Barnes is the editor of 2000AD’s four-weekly sister title Judge Dredd Megazine. As editor he has overseen two redesigns and the launch of successful new characters such as Black Siddha, Cursed Earth Koburn and The Simping Detective whilst also welcoming back returning favourites such as Missionary Man, Devlin Waugh and PSI Anderson. In addition he has commissioned such classic Judge Dredd stories as Sturm Und Dang and Six and the reprints of classic stories like Darkie’s Mob and Charley’s War. All this has seen the Megazine reach new heights of quality with many of its readers believing it to be better than ever at the moment. Alan recently agreed to answers some questions to us not only about the Megazine but also his additional role as editor of 2000AD’s regular reprint magazine 2000AD Extreme Editions…

Will: Thanks for agreeing to do an interview with us Alan. As the editor of Judge Dredd Megazine what would you tell the fool who doesn’t pick up Judge Dredd Megazine to convince them otherwise?

OK – for the uninitiated we’re the four-weekly stablemate of 2000 AD. I would say ‘sister publication’, but 2000 AD’s sister wouldn’t be pretty …

We’re 100 pages long, with one 12-page Dredd strip and five more eight-page strips each issue – mostly featuring characters from Dredd’s world, like Psi-Judge Anderson, Jack Point, the Simping Detective, grizzled Cursed Earth Judge-Marshal Koburn and Hondo-Cit ronin warrior Shimura … although there’ll usually be something sui generis in the mix, just to keep everyone guessing: Hindi hero Black Siddha, for example, or our GM dinosaur saga XTNCT. We’ve got some of the best British talents aboard as regular and enthusiastic contributors: on the writing front our consultants John Wagner & Alan Grant, obviously, plus Pat Mills, Robbie Morrison, Gordon Rennie and Si Spurrier; and in the last few months alone, artists including Carlos Ezquerra, Arthur Ranson, Frazer Irving, Chris Weston, John Burns, John Ridgway, Si Davis … I could go on, but I won’t.

Although the Meg went through a long period where it was heavily dependent on reprint material, from issue 224 we’re down to just 12 pages’ worth of stuff from outside the 2000 AD stable – at the moment, Pat Mills’ and Joe Colquhoun’s brilliant WWI epic Charley’s War, from Battle. Like an awful lot of people, I suspect, I bought the Meg religiously until the late 90s, when the number of reprint pages began to swamp the original material. That’s not been the case for some time now – I’d be buying it again, if I’d not been press-ganged into joining Tharg’s merry band of wage slaves. So, er, come back!

Oh – and we’re up for an Eagle Award this year, which is nice.

Will: The past two months have seen the launch of a new line up, how do you think its going?

It’s pretty good at the moment – a lot of our guys are on a real roll. In just three or four months, The Simping Detective has established itself as a dyed-in-the-wool, stone-cold classic – it’s been really exciting watching it come together. And Cursed Earth Koburn reads like it’s been going for years, not months.

Will: The highlight for many was the now concluded Judge Dredd story Six, which not only saw the return of PJ Maybe but also of Chris Weston to Judge Dredd. What made the story amazing was that you had managed to keep quite that PJ was returning. How tempted were you to advertise that fact?

Not at all! I like surprises, and I think it pays to keep a few things back. Say too much, and you risk publishing a great big fat anticlimax. I know a lot of PR zombies would disagree, but I’d sooner the Meg was unpredictable. I do try to think about how exciting it’d be to be a punter, sat on the bus or in the bath, turning the page and – bugger! It’s PJ Maybe, or the Raptaurs, or … well, the surprise we’ve got coming up in Meg 224 …

But I love being evil. I’d like to think that if we were going to kill off a major, major character – a legend, even – we’d do it with no teasing, no warning: just bang, splat, aargh; cut to Resyk.

(He said, bluffing ominously. Or double-bluffing. Bwa-ha-ha!)

Will: Chris Weston and yourself have said that he has a second project planned for Judge Dredd Megazine. Can you give us any details about it?

Way too early – Chris is tied up with some US work right now, not to mention paternal duties! But I know he really enjoyed doing Six, and I found it a total pleasure to work with such a thoughtful and creative guy, so I hope it won’t be too long …

Will: Another returning favourite is PSI Anderson in WMD, which along with Half-Life marked a return to her and the series’ occult horror roots after a decade of emotionally charged stories. How do you think the change in focus is going?

I wouldn’t say it was a deliberate change of emphasis so much as a natural consequence of where we ended up, with Cass in a coma after being chucked off a rooftop in My Name Is Death. The whole ‘Half-Life saga’ is being told across several stories, each of which (I think) has its own distinct atmosphere – ‘Half-Life’ was definitely gothic horror, but ‘WMD’ is almost a fantasy epic (some of Arthur’s pages in the second half are truly breathtaking). Don’t really want to say where we’ll be going with ‘Lock-In’ and ‘City of Dead’ [sic], the stories following directly on from WMD, but they’ll definitely be different again …

Will: This year has also seen Megazine veteran Gordon Rennie return to the character of Koburn, who he had introduced in the Judge Dredd Story Sturm Und Dang. Whose idea was it to do a spin-off series?

As I remember, although I may be wrong, Carlos Ezquerra mentioned to Gordon that he’d love to do a desert rat story, not a million miles away from his Major Eazy in Battle. Knowing that I’m a sucker for old war comics, Gordon tried me with the idea … which, yeah, I was salivating over, but I wanted the new character to be more than a mere homage – which’d be fun for 12 pages, but that’s all. So Sturm und Dang was very consciously put together as an audition for Koburn. I think that Koburn is one of those rare characters for whom you can tell stories in almost any idiom – straight adventure, laugh-out-loud-comedy, weird parody and even deadly serious tragedy. There’s a story called ‘Burial Party’ coming up which is a mix of the lot …

Will: The final Dredd-world story of the line-up is another spin-off with the Simping Detective starring Jack Point a character in the first Mega-City Noir one-off. Due to his success the Mega-City Noir project is on hold; is it your intention to revive it?

There’s a one-off called Goons Goons Goons in the drawer, featuring a character who’s already appeared in the background of a Simping Detective. I don’t see why it shouldn’t continue as an occasional fixture.

Will: What was it about Jack Point that made you (and others) want him to have his own series?

Obviously, he looked fantastic – a clown detective, you don’t get much madder than that – but it was his voice, I think, as much as anything else. Reading his narrative panels, you know exactly how he sounds. I think it’s very very difficult for any writer or artist to sit down and say, ‘Today, I shall invent a new character who will appear in a long-running series of exciting adventures.’ Point was only meant to be a six-page wonder, but by the end of those six pages I actually wanted to hear him speak to me again, simple as that – I wasn’t being baited with teasing promises about his future, or the dark secret of his past, yadda yadda yadda. He. Just. Was. You know, you read new stuff sometimes and it’s just so artificial – ‘Here is my debut adventure, I shall meet my Eternal Nemesis in Issue 3 and you will learn all about my Mystery Origin next September .’ But the thing is, you just don’t care. Jack Point was a real person, straight off; interesting, straight off. That’s so rare. And I’ll exploit him till his pips squeak, dammit!

Will: Its artist Frazer Irving said that the project was originally meant to be in colour, what prompted you to change it to being in black and white?

First, we were still calling the strip Mega-City Noir at that point, and you couldn’t call a colour strip Noir, right? Second, it seemed to go with the territory, and maybe the full horror of Point’s multicoloured clown costume would have worked against the strip in its more serious moments (remember Colin Baker’s Doctor Who!). Third, I didn’t have a colour slot available for months – and I loved him so much, I wanted him in print as soon as possible.

Will: All these stories are set in the Dredd World and along with the majority of the strips for this year mark a return to the Meg’s original aim of exploring said world after a period when a majority of the new strip was non-Dredd World material. What has prompted this change?

When I started, I felt that in the past the Meg had done one too many ‘other countries’ Judges’ stories – you know, Judges on surfboards, Judges in igloos, Judges up the Khyber … I exaggerate, but that was certainly one enduring perception of what the Megazine was all about, and I really wanted to break with that. It’s a bit weird – all Judge systems are (essentially) fascist to some degree, but you can’t even begin to take some of the other countries’ Judges seriously: you know, Here’s a stereotype in a silly hat. So I definitely reacted very strongly against that at first – but I now think I was in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; there were several characters who, in time, I found I really wanted to see again. I don’t think it hurts characters to rest them a while, though.

Will: The sole non-Dredd World story currently running in the Megazine is Black Siddha: Kali Yuga. It’s an unusual story being a mixture of fantasy and superheroes, two genres that don’t often appear in the Meg and has predictably been a controversial series. How do you think it’s fitting in at the Meg?

Like you say, it’s a mix of two genres that haven’t always worked in 2000 AD, and never a part of the Meg – which makes it absolutely worth doing, far more than another grizzled space marine, or Justice Hawaii 5-0 or whatever. I think you do need to be prepared to go out on a limb, sometimes – you’re aiming for variety and contrast as you turn the pages. Black Siddha is pretty bonkers, which is what I love about it. Pat and I wanted to do something about a relatively normal guy in contemporary Britain, who then gets involved in a weird fantasy situation; something with a protagonist who wasn’t a middle-class white boy, but not as a mouthpiece for poltical/cultural ishoos. Rohan’s an almost entirely apolitical protagonist – he’s a horny geek, not a ‘token Asian’. The tension comes from this mad world of gods and monsters attempting to engage him in their battle.

The volume of work that Pat and Simon have put into the series really shows. There’s a perception, I think, that the godfathers of 2000 AD – Pat, John Wagner, Alan Grant – could do it in their sleep by now. Let me tell you, these guys work so bloody hard at what they do, it’d put a few younger, more fashionable creators to absolute shame. Pat I’ve found to be endlessly inventive, happy to indulge suggestions and comments and the odd edit, and my God, does he put the hours in! I remember getting a 70-odd page document stuffed full of notes and story beats for the first series of Black Siddha. Reams and reams of it. Astounding.

After the first series, we got together and decided to concentrate more on the contemporary and comedy side of Siddha – the fantasy elements we’ve pushed slightly more to one side for now. I think the second series was tighter as a result – it’s probably fair to say the first series tried to do a bit too much, especially for something told in six-page chunks told over a seven-month period. I think a lot of people started to get into it more this time round, which is extremely gratifying.

Straying well off the point, it’s got to be worth sticking with a good idea in the face of a bit of reader resistance, sometimes. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, or edit by focus group – that’s a prescription for blandness. If you’re publishing an anthology, you can afford to stretch the boundaries a bit. But that’s nothing new for the Meg – Al’s Baby was in Volume One, 14 years ago!

Of the non-Dredd stuff, I was most disappointed by the response to Family. I thought Family was one of the best things we’d ever done, and I’m really hoping it’ll get collected sometime – it’s a fantastic read. But that’s a great example of William Goldman’s maxim – ‘Nobody Knows Anything.’ I commissioned Family and XTNCT at exactly the same time, but ran Family first because I thought it was the guaranteed, sure-fire hit, whereas XTNCT was the ‘difficult’ weirdo freak-out which’d have the traditionalists cancelling their subscriptions en masse. Family fell flat; almost everyone adored XTNCT. Go figure.

Will: The Meg regularly features prose features such as histories and interviews. Two of the most popular features have been the histories on 2000AD and Battle, which raises the inevitable question of when the Meg itself will be given that treatment. Do you have any such plans?

Well, I think I’d want to find an idea to hang it around, rather than run it randomly, just for the sake of it.

By the way, the 15th anniversary Meg is issue 237, on sale 21 September 2005. (Hint.)

Will: The current feature is The Dredd Files, a recap of every Dredd story in alphabetical order, which has met to a decidedly mixed reaction. What’s your opinion on the series and the reaction its been receiving?

I think it might have been a bit much to expect it to shoulder the burden of all the Megazine’s feature content – it was only meant as a bit of trainspottery fun. With the increased feature content from 224 – full career interviews with guys like John Burns, plus the ‘Heatseekers’ columnists – it’s been reduced in prominence (and length), and it seems happier that way.

Will: How long do you plan it to run?

The initial intention was to survey the development of Dredd up to (at least) The Apocalypse War, by which point the Dredd world is, I’d argue, fully-evolved into its present-day form.

Will: An increasingly popular feature is Gordon Rennie’s column. Have you considered approaching other writers to contribute columns?

Yes – the ‘Heatseekers’ columns start in 224. We’ve got Si Spurrier doing a movie-geek column; Jonny Morris, who wrote the brilliant Big Finish audio I Love Judge Dredd, on Cult TV; another BF writer, Jonathan Clements, on manga and anime – he’s probably the foremost UK authority on the subject; and Scott Gray, who wrote the Doctor Who strip for me back in my Doctor Who Magazine days, on comics outside the mainstream superhero/action bubble. Maybe we’ll add one or two more if they go down well. I think they’re going to add a lot to the texture of the mag – what we didn’t want is a spurious block of nonsense reviews: you know, ‘Here are some random freebies we blagged at the office.’ Roxilla, I mean you! (Old Squaxx dek Thargo ref.)

Will: The Meg regularly reprint stories with the two current ones being Helltrekkers and Charley’s War. Charley’s War has inspired an amazing reaction with rumours that it’s increased sales of the Meg. How do you explain its popularity and power after all these years?

I think it explains itself! Charley is our Maus. That gets published by Penguin; but cos Charley was first published in a boy’s adventure comic, it risks being marginalised. You know, all the original film was destroyed, sometime in the late 80s/early 90s? That’s just … heartbreaking. So I’m very proud to be keeping it alive.

Will: How long do you plan it to run?

Ultimately, I’d like to do the lot – Egmont, the copyright holders, permitting. (A lot of people seem to think Rebellion owns Battle – it doesn’t; only 2000, the Meg and the titles merged into 2000.) I may well rest it for a few months next year, though, at a suitable point in the narrative. It is very long!

Will: Charley’s War along with Darkie’s Mob have preference for classic British comic stories in the Beyond 2000AD reprint slot, which had earlier seen such modern works as Hellboy and Lazarus Churchyard. Is there any chance of seeing a return to a more eclectic reprint selection, possibly including European comic translations?

Possibly. But once you get into translation/relettering costs on top of syndication/creators’ fees, you’re starting to look at something not far off the cost of an original mono page of new material. And the new stuff is why we’re here, let’s be honest. If I remember right, each page of Hellboy cost me a half-page of new mono strip, and over twice what it cost (in creators’ fees) to run a page of something from the 2000 AD archive. It’s a juggling act, and I have to balance X budget across Y pages.

Will: You are also editor of the quarterly reprint comic 2000AD Extreme Editions, how do you go about selecting material for it?

I always favour stuff that hasn’t been reprinted before – and there’s a surprising amount that hasn’t. I’ve also got half an eye on posterity, in that we’re trying to scan as much as possible from the film that survives and preserve it, permanently, on CD. So I am slightly biased towards material from the first five years or so – if only because the film that survives from that era (about 60%? – that’s a guesstimate) can no longer be used by a non-specialist printers. And it’s dirty, you know? Some of it’s filthy – I’ve learned not to wear a white shirt anywhere near it. A few packets have got damp over the years, and when film gets damp it fuses into a big lump – then it’s gone, forever, and you’re forced to scan from yellowing original Progs, and spending hour after hour trying to clean it up on screen. So Extreme is a great opportunity to fund the preservation of the archive.

Will: The current issue is a selection of parodies, what would you like to see go in future issues?

Oh, all sorts – Meltdown Man’s on my list for 2005, cos I’m always being asked for it; I’d like to do a selection of MACH 1 (some of which is shockingly under-rated); Firekind (in order!); there’s a huge chunk of mid-period Dredd, between the tenth birthday Prog and the start of Garth Ennis’ run, which has barely been touched. And masses more. But – here’s an exclusive for you! – Extreme is going bimonthly from issue 6, out 3 November. So we’ll be able to get through a lot more material.

Will: You recently apologised for what many saw as a homophobic comment in an editorial for Issue 220 when you said that maybe the reason you were attracted to the semi-naked Dredd as a child may have been because you were “a bit of a perv”. Although you’ve apologised perhaps you’d like to offer a present to your gay and bisexual readers (like myself). I’ve thought up the following ideas:

a) Tom of Finland drawn 2000AD/Judge Dredd Megazine Calendar featuring all our favourite hunks such as Dredd, Slaine, Johnny Alpha, Dexter and Rogue Trooper
b) Strontium Dog photo-strip as written by Gordon Rennie with photography by Francois Rousseau
c) Free Cher CD

What do you think?

Actually, Tom of Finland was Colin MacNeil’s starting-point for his interpretation of Devlin Waugh in Red Tide. So I’ve beaten you to [a]!

And as for Johnny and Wulf getting down and dirty in Stront (a running Rennie gag, for the uninitiated) – naah, it’d be like Moonlighting after Maddy and David got it together, take away the sexual tension and it’ll never be the same … sigh …

As I said in Dreddlines re that editorial – well, it was a crass, throwaway comment, and I should have known better. I came here from Doctor Who Magazine, after all.

Will: Many people say that under your stewardship the Meg’s never been better. How does that make you feel?

Phew … er … um. Well, it’s not a competition, everyone who gets their hands on the Meg, or any other title, does their best with the brief and the resources they’ve been given. It’s nice to be appreciated, but I’d sooner sell a few hundred more copies. It’s a bit disappointing that only 50% of regular 2000 readers take the Meg as well – bar crossovers, that’s always been the fact for the whole of its life. I’d love to crack that 50%, I really would. What’s wrong with you, you bastards?!?

Will: What do you have planned for future Judge Dredd Megazine Issues?

Ooh, what haven’t I mentioned? … Christmas, there’s a very rude 12-page Devlin Waugh one-off called Vile Bodies – that’s got art by Dave Taylor, who did a great Dredd a couple of issues ago. He’s the Moebius of Merseyside, you know. The Johns Wagner and Higgins are doing a fabulous Fatties story for that issue … oh, and John H is working on a great new character with Rob Williams, that’s for later in 2005 … more Shimura from Robbie Morrison and Andy Clarke … and for January/February (I hope) Mr John Wagner and Mr Cam Kennedy have collaborated on a two-part Dredd featuring a much-loved character from the past …

Will: Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish?

It wasn’t me, Your Honour. Have mercy, I came from a broken home …

Thank you to Alan for sharing his time with us. Judge Dredd Megazine is available from all good British newsagents and comic shops every four weeks and world through airmail subscription. Check Previews for American Direct Market listings.