Not content with helping to make the reputations of creators from Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and Dave Gibbons to Al Ewing, Si Spurrier, and Jock, British anthology series 2000 AD continues to offer Thrill Power on a weekly basis with a heady mix of new and classic creators, and new and classic characters… with Judge Dredd leading the charge, of course. Not bad for a comic that’s edging towards its 50th anniversary.
Ahead of the comic’s appearance at the upcoming Thought Bubble convention in Harrogate — which includes a panel we liveblogged — Popverse’s Graeme McMillan sat down with Matt Smith, the longest-serving editor of the anthology, to ask him how it feels to be guiding the path of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic after two decades — and what the unexpected difficulties of editing a weekly anthology title are in the first place.
Popverse: Okay. I've got to ask, having just seen the [Treasure of British Comics] vault, I now feel very aware of the history of 2000 AD. What's it like for you?
Smith: Well, I'm not actually a [2000 AD] reader from the very start.
Smith: I only started reading in 1985, so there's a big chunk that I never read. I caught up on a lot of it, but there's stuff probably in the archives that I don't know about or [am] not familiar with.
That's okay. I mean, how long have you been editing 2000 AD now…?
Smith: I've been editor since 2002, so that's 21 years.
Yeah. I think even the most steadfast fans have probably forgiven you for any lack of credentials by this point. So, 2000 AD is 46 years old now, and you've been editor for 21 of them? How do you feel about it now? I don't mean that in the sense of, “it's your job and you hate it, because it’s a job, but you have been the steward for half of this publication's life.
Smith: I have, yeah. I mean, some of it is the fact that I can't imagine doing another job that's quite as much fun as doing 2000 AD. And part of it is, I’m too nervous to get a freelance job, so I'm sitting in my comfort zone to a degree.
But no, it's pretty amazing really, when you think about it, that half of 2000 AD's life, I've been at the helm of it — and Rebellion, of course is the longest running publisher that 2000 AD's had by quite some margin — so yeah, it feels like 2000 AD is settled with a publisher that supports it and promotes it and wants to see it succeed. And I'm happy to steer it because I enjoy working with all the writers and the artists and coming up with stories.
It's a weekly comic. How much of your job is desperately scrambling towards that weekly drop date and making sure you hit the deadline versus long-term planning? Because I can only imagine that at least three quarters of your week is just being very aware that on Friday, you have to have made sure you’ve got everything done…
Smith: Yeah, it is pretty 50/50 really. It's like looking ahead to what space needs filling and also making sure that you've got everything in place for the next week's prog. It never really ends really, because the issue goes to print on a Wednesday, and as soon as that's gone, then you have to start thinking about next week's prog. Thursday, I start sending off the scripts to the letterers to get the lettering.
So part of it is constantly thinking about the next issue, and then basically looking ahead and seeing how much of a series you've got in already and whether you can run it at a certain time. There was a phrase that I think [former 2000 AD editor] David Bishop coined, the “backwards art of extrapolation,” where you look to see when you need the last episode in full, and then you work backwards from there. And then you can work out what deadlines you can give an artist. Basically, you have hopefully between 50 and 75% of the story already in the bag before you start running it. Because once you start running it, you start hitting that weekly deadline, it becomes a bit of a race to the end. If the artist isn't sticking to their deadlines, then they find themselves chasing that final deadline.
So yeah, the deadlines are the big part of it, especially with it being of a newsstand title. Newsstand is very unforgiving on titles that don't hit their on-sale date, so if the issue doesn't go to print on its particular day, then it gets knocked back and that puts pressure on whether it'll reach the shops in time. And then, if it goes on sale late, then [newsstand retailers] get a bit sniffy and you could end up getting fined for not hitting your own sale dates.
Also, it affects the audience as well. Once the comics doesn't appear when they think it's going to appear, then they start drifting away. You've seen that with other titles that have been and gone, where they start drifting and staggering their on-sale dates, and the audience just loses interest and then gradually the magazine winds up [folding]. So they absolutely have to hit those on-sale dates to keep that audience on board.
21 years, though! You've got to have a formula now where you're like, "I can do it. I know how to do this. I've been been doing it for two decades.” [Laughs]
Smith: Yeah. I mean, even so, it is funny… When [former 2000 AD editor] Steve MacManus came into the office to sign his memoir, he asked me whether I'd had any anxiety dreams about 2000 AD going to print, and I said, "Yes, actually, yeah, I had a couple where you have a dream where it's 6:00 in the evening, you suddenly realize you haven't done the prog." So I don't think you ever lose it even after all those years. You still worry that something's going to go wrong. And the Nerve Center [which combined an editorial essay and contents page] is always the last thing I do, because it's always the thing that I dread a bit. Because you have to sit there and think, “What are you going to write for this week?”
Do you have your Tharg voice down? Because Tharg sometimes can just say nonsense and it's fine, right? [Note: “Tharg” is Tharg the Mighty, the fictional alien editor of 2000 AD since its first issue in 1977. The idea of British anthologies having editors who were themselves fictional was somewhat of a tradition in British comics throughout the 1950s until the 1980s; Tharg is the last of his kind.]
Smith: You can, yeah. I mean, the amount of words that Tharg speaks as each issue's being redesigned has shrunk or expanded and I don't know how many words. It's now about 200 words in this current... If you've got something to talk about, it's great. You can just knock that out, got a new issue or a new book coming out or something like that, you can talk about... But sometimes when there's nothing new to talk about, then you really struggle to pull something, talk about something. So yeah. Andy Diggle who edited it before me, he hated writing the Tharg bits. When I became his assistant, and I was all keen and eager and I was into writing and said, "I'll be happy to do it." So he was very happy. He just passed it straight onto me and I started doing them within the first week or so of joining and done them ever since.
You've been Tharg longer than you've been Tharg! [Laughs]
Smith: Yeah. I was doing all the Tharg bit and the letters page for 18 months before I actually started editing 2000 AD.
2000 AD is so unique now, amongst other comics in that you do have Tharg, and the Nerve Center and all these fictional conceits that you have to carry on. But also, it's an anthology of five stories a week. You can look at what other publishers do and they're doing one book. Do you ever look at other editors and think, "You have no idea how good you've got it, you are so lucky?"
Smith: Yeah. I'm presuming the editors like DC and Marvel are all juggling multiple monthly titles, but yeah, the weekly schedule is pretty unforgiving. And the whole anthology format is really very much a UK newsstand thing. I mean, the Americans have tried it, but they never really get it.
And when other [British] comics come onto the newsstand, they do the anthology thing as well partly because there's that expectation and there's that tradition. I mean, 2000 AD is never going to change because that's its tradition, that's its format, but I think if you were doing something new these days, if you wanted to create a whole new comic for the UK, I would look at doing something different than the anthology. I think [the market] needs shaking up a bit. I think people need to look at where the bookmark is and look at how readership has changed.
Is that something you're aware of when you're planning future 2000 AD things? Are you thinking down the line where you're like, "Is this going to look good when it’s collected?”
Smith: Yes, there is a certain portion of that. I mean, it has become noticeable within the last decade or so of what they call 'writing for the trade.' It's less episodic, maybe 2000 AD was back in the 80s or whatever where it was very much one episode after another and you used get your peaks and then you get a cliffhanger, whereas something like Brink [an acclaimed sci-fi thriller by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard, which launched in 2016] is very slow burn and completely different, something that's never really been 2000 AD in the past because it feels like it's a serialized novel kind of thing.
So yeah, there is a definite awareness that these stories will be collected up and sold. And so you think about length and creative teams and stuff like that and how are you going to sell this?
2000 AD has a history of discovering creators or bringing them to the fore. Even Alan Moore who was doing work before 2000 AD, something like Halo Jones could be considered one of his breakthrough works. With new creators that you're bringing in now, because there isn't the anthology market that there used to be in the 80s or the 70s, do you have to teach people how to tell stories in five page chunks?
Smith: Yeah. I mean, certainly if writers come to 2000 AD who haven't written for it before and are unfamiliar with a certain compressed storytelling you get in 2000 AD. I find myself asking them to maybe speed it up a bit. And there's a certain tendency sometimes to go for a lot of splash pages and that--
And you're like, "We don't have the space. We've got five pages!”
Smith: Yeah. [Laughs] You've got a certain amount of real estate in a 2000 AD episode and you don't really want to blow it all on splash images. Yeah, there is a certain amount of trying to get people to keep it punchy… And 2000 AD is an action comic. There are exceptions of what we run, but by and large, it's an action comic, so it should be exciting. It should be some drama and some excitement and stuff that the reader can't wait to read the next episode. So try and instill that into your story.
Has your idea of 2000 AD changed? When you think about it now, are you completely on a different page from when you started?
Smith: I don't know — possibly, yeah. I think maybe I've become more open to new stuff, new ways of storytelling, new genres and stuff like that. Possibly when I started, I was worried that I had to keep the same things that my predecessors had done and reuse the classic characters. I mean, Dredd, Sinister Dexter every week and others. I mean, Nikolai Dante was running at the time, so they're keeping to those established characters and maybe only slightly dipping a toe into something else.
But now, I think there's nothing to be scared about by trying something new. And I think the readership likes to see new stories, new ideas. They like to be able to come into something where they don't have to know any backstory. We are always getting people that say, "Oh, when's your next jumping-on prog?" So yeah, there's a great opportunity to put in something new that people can jump in straight from the beginning and you can try and balance that with the series that you've already been running to keep a consistency.
So yeah, I mean the general ethos of 2000 AD is attitude. I don't think it has changed at all. I mean, I try and commission stories that I'd like to read if I was just a reader. And hopefully I am on a similar mindset to the general readership.
Okay. Last question: You're four years away from the 50th anniversary.
Are you thinking about it? How far in advance do you plan? Are you just like, "Let me get to the end of 2024 first?" Or are you already looking down the road being like, "Oh, I should start thinking about what we're doing?"
Smith: Well, yeah, we've already had a meeting about possible ideas that we can do for the 50th. I haven't done anything yet. I don't tend to work that far in advance, by and large.
I mean, for a weekly comic working four years in advance is something like 200 issues…!
Smith: But I mean, I've got roughly what I think will be running in 2000 AD in spring of next year. But beyond that, it's just all floating. I don't like having too much set in stone because I think it robs the job of a lot of the fun and the spontaneity if you've got everything planned out for the next 12 months.
That said, one of the problems with being an editor for the length of time that I have is that I've done so many birthday issues. It was the 25th anniversary in February 2002. So I'd only been in the job for a month and a bit.
Smith: Yeah, I mean that was fairly regular prog, with just a couple of special stories. But then obviously, there was the 30th, 35th, 40th, and you start running out of ideas of how you can mark these occasions. You drag out Brian Bolland and make the man to do a cover, but you've done all these things. I’ve done “What If?” stories and I’ve done some funny Tharg stories with Tharg at the birthday party or whatever. But then, you start to run out of ideas. So for 50th, I don't know…
Go wild, kill Judge Dredd! [Laughs]
Smith: Yes, we will. Yeah.