Caught In the Nexus: John Wagner

John Wagner is a legend in British comics being responsible for co-creating iconic characters such as Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and The Bogie Man. He is responsible (along with Alan Grant) for writing the bulk of Judge Dredd stories for its first thirteen years and then taking a leading role in launching the 2000AD spin-off title Judge Dredd Megazine. Since 1995 he has written most of the Judge Dredd stories for both 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine. He has also written Lobo, Batman and History of Violence for DC Comics. Last month he was kind enough to spare some of his time to answer our questions.

The Nexus: Thanks for agreeing to this interview John. The recent Cannes Film Festival saw the premiere of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of your Paradox Press Graphic Novel “A History Of Violence”. Could you please summarise the graphic novel for those who haven’t read it?

John: It’s a story about revenge, about a man caught up in events beyond his control. I won’t say any more. I managed to write the introduction to the book without giving anything away (even though they managed to defeat the object with the cover blurb) and I don’t want to start now.

The Nexus: What are your thoughts on getting it adapted?

John: At first it was take the money and run. They always screw up comic movies, don’t they? Then I heard Cronenberg was to be director and I saw the list of actors he’d gathered round him and I began to think they might for once come up with something good. From the reviews from Cannes it looks like they’ve done better than good. The New York Times, among others, thought it the best movie on show. I try not to be optimistic about such things, but I must say I’m fairly pleased.

Will: There are rumours that the producers behind this adaptation are also keen to another of your works, this time Button Man. Can you confirm this?

John: Yes.

The Nexus: Moving to comics, at the recent Bristol Comics Convention it was announced that for the New Talent Winter Special you’d be writing two five-page Judge Dredd stories whose villains will have been designed by readers in a special competition. How did this idea come about and what are your thoughts on it?

John: It was presented to me full-born. I agreed to do it with a slightly heavy heart. It can be difficult to come up to readers’ expectations for their creations. But I’ll give it my best shot.

The Nexus: You’ve just finished working with Carlos Ezquerra on the Judge Dredd Megazine’s “. The two of you (sometimes in conjunction with Alan Grant) have produced some of the most popular and acclaimed stories in British comic history. What has made your partnership so successful?

John: Friendship and mutual respect. Carlos is generally happy with the style and variety of things I’ve given him to draw, though he complains a lot. In turn he’s the best character creator I know. He has worked the trick and time again. And he’s at his very best when he’s stretching himself, exploring new territory.

The Nexus: In the Megazine, we have seen Dredd follow former child killer PJ Maybe to Central America after the events of last year’s thriller “Six”. What is it about PJ Maybe that makes him one of the most popular characters in the Dredd cannon?

John: His history as a child criminal genius, I think, endeared him to the readers. He’s not quite as popular now that he’s older, though he’s still a favourite. I personally like writing PJ stories. He’s the kind of psycho who dwells in us all, in our dark corners.

The Nexus: It has been announced that there’s going to be a collection of the major stories in the long running Dredd “bloodline” story arc. Now five years on since the introduction of the “new” Rico how has the storyline developed from your original plans?

John: As far as character is concerned, I felt when I developed him that we’d had too many ‘bad clone’ stories, and so far I’ve stayed pretty true to that. What happens in the future is another matter. There’s a lot of speculation – will Rico go bad? – will they transplant Joe’s brain into Rico’s body? – will Rico become the new Dredd? All I’ll say is that all options are open.

The Nexus: Although you’ve developed it over the past twenty-six years the idea of Joe Dredd as a clone with a flawed bloodline was first introduced by Pat Mills in “The Return of Rico”. What was your reaction when you first saw that story and what Mills had added to your character?

John: It was a powerful story and an interesting development. It opened up all sorts of avenues for later exploration.

The Nexus: Yourself and Pat Mills have had a long and varied relationship with much of your early career devoted to working in concert with him on writing, editing/launching Battle, developing concepts for 2000AD and later on Toxic. What is your opinion on him and his impact on the comics industry?

John: I regard him as the modern-day father of British comics. No one has given more to them than Pat. As well as his creation of 2000AD and others, he’s originated a battalion of fantastic stories and characters, including the best British strip I’ve ever read, Charlie’s War.

The Nexus: Returning to Judge Dredd, you seem to be going through a revival phase at the moment with your work over the past two years featuring iconic characters such as Judge Death, Rico, PJ Maybe, Vienna Dredd, Chopper and Mean Machine Angel. Is this a conscious decision? If so what motivated it?

John: It just happens. I’ve originated plenty of new characters in that time too, I think, it’s just that the old standards stick in the memory. From a personal point of view it’s fun to revisit them and find out what’s going on in their lives.

The Nexus: Last year Garth Ennis said that no one ” but the aforementioned Mr. Wagner has done anything particularly inspired with Dredd either, not in the past 15 years”. Do you think this is a fair statement and even if it isn’t why has Dredd been such a difficult character for so many talented writers?

John: I honestly don’t know. I’m perhaps too close to the character to be able to judge. I do think that other writers must feel some restrictions on them, with me as this grey presence in the background and the wealth of Dredd background that they can’t possibly know. Alan Grant’s fond of saying there’s a lot of me in Dredd, and I suppose he’s right. That said, Gordon Rennie’s been making a pretty good fist of his stint and he’s got a bit more leeway to do what he likes. But then he’s a grumpy bugger as well.

The Nexus: This year has seen the first in a series of reprints of the early Strontium Dog stories. How do you think the early adventures of Johnny Alpha stand up some 20 years later?

John: Some okay, some not so. Portrait of a Mutant still worked pretty well. Journey into Hell seemed pretty crude, though some of Carlos’s visuals were excellent.

The Nexus: Alpha and Wulf were last seen in the emotional story “A Traitor To His Kind”. How pleased were you with how the story went?

John: Did it go well? I’m never sure. It was a more ‘serious’ story, which readers seem to prefer.

The Nexus: What does the future hold for Alpha and Wulf?

John: There’s a six part adventure coming up, introducing Shaggy, a relative of Clacton, Walton and Frinton Fuzz – and an interesting villain by name No Bones Jones. After that something of a more sombre tone. I’ll let that one brew for a while. I’m not in a hurry to rush another story out. Don’t want to see Johnny become too much of a regular fixture again. The intervals between stories since he returned have been about right.

Will: The past year has seen the return of The Bogie Man, your popular creator-owned series written with Alan Grant. How pleased are you with this latest story?

John: Not as happy with it as with earlier stories. I don’t think the 8-page format helped much, though we’re all very grateful to Alan Barnes for giving us an opportunity to try it. Bogie stories rely on a gradual build up of insanity throughout the episode – 8 pages didn’t give us too much time to get it moving, and also affected the flow. It will probably read much better as a complete story.

The Nexus: Do you have any plans for more?

John: It was pretty difficult getting this one together, as Alan and I live so far apart now. Done best, Bogie has to be face to face, bouncing ideas off each other. We could only snatch a day here, a couple of days there. So I was going to say no, but some recent developments have made a new story look more possible. It could include a link up with a famous pop group and an interesting way of financing it. I see it as an American style comic, like the original Bogies, but Alan Barnes has been so helpful to us that we’d no doubt give him the opportunity to run it, if he wants to.

The Nexus: Alan and yourself have forged one of the most legendary writing partnerships in comic history even though it’s now been around fourteen years since you stopped writing together full time. You’ve had success together and separately but in your opinion, which method produced the better stories?

John: Hard to say. We produced some good stuff (and some not so good!) when we were working together, but we’ve both gone on to prosper in our solo careers. I believe that the general quality of material put out under my name improved after we started working together. I’m sure we both learned a lot from the experience and continued to employ what we’d learned after we split up. My favourite story, though, remains The Bogie Man, very much a joint effort.

The Nexus: Together you were very prolific writing for a variety of British comics including genres such as football and horror in addition to your own experience on war and girls romance comics. Yet today most of these comics and genres are gone. Do you agree with Alan Grant that the Anglo-American style of comics is dying?

John: It’s not looking that healthy. As far as the Anglo part goes, apart from the funnies 2000AD remains the only traditional British comic still on the market – from a market that once boasted twenty or thirty. I’m glad to say it still retains a strong core audience.

The Nexus: You’ve been writing for comics for over thirty years now and yet still your considered one of the most modern and challenging writers around. How much thought and energy do you devote to evaluating and modernising your writing style to ensure that it doesn’t become old-fashioned?

John: Probably more than I’m consciously aware of.

Will: If you had to pick one story you’ve written as your best what would it be?

John: Bogie Man: Chinatoon (with Alan Grant)

The Nexus: What do you have planned for the future?

As well as the old standards I’d like to develop some new stories and new characters. Something fresh. Plus the long-awaited Dredd origins story, which I really must get down to soon.

The Nexus: Thank you for sharing your time with us John.

John Wagner’s work regularly appears in 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine.

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