Programme 1 (26-Feb-1977)

I have a long history with 2000AD. While searching for a comic to read as a young child, I happened across something called Judge Dredd, published by Eagle Comics. Luckily my parents had no problem with me reading these patently inappropriate funnybooks, so I began collecting everything the company published. Trips to comic book stores and conventions allowed me to track down every available American Judge Dredd reprint comic, first from Eagle Comics, and then afterwards, from Quality Comics, which took over publishing them in the mid-80s. When I ran out of Judge Dredd comics, I moved on to their host of other reprint comics, including Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, and 2000AD presents, which featured miscellaneous serialized stories. Eventually, these ran out as well when Quality went bust, and I had only one avenue of access left open to me, tracking down the comic that all of these were being reprinted from: 2000AD.

Since the comic didn't have wide enough distribution to reach my neck of the woods, this proved quite a chore. I managed to find a store that carried it, and for a few months purchased every weekly issue, basking in the Thrill-Power they offered. Like all my other avenues to 2000AD, though, it soon petered out. The store stopped carrying it, leaving me with issue 535, and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Did Judge Dredd escape from the crocodiles? Did King Clarkie manage to marry Vera Duckworth, his mutant paramour? Would the character named “Zenith” ever show up in the comic strip named “Zenith”? In the years following I was able to pick up a good amount of issues, or “Progammes”, as 2000AD refers to itself, leaving me with a decent collection stretching back to the time that a pyrokinetic mutant torched people in Mega-City 1, while Halo Jones' robodog Toby ran around threatening people.

I was even able to pick up a few more recent Progs, although, hundreds of issues later, I barely recognized it. Tharg, the genial totalitarian alien editor-in-chief, had been replaced by some kind of stereotypical Man in Black. Other than the omnipresent Judge Dredd, I didn't recognize any of the characters, and it featured a short story that was among the worst things I'd ever read at the time. Dispirited, I gave up on 2000AD, save for a nagging interest in the back of my mind to someday track down and read all of those early issues I'd missed.

Well, after years of waiting I finally have access to all those issues, and I've decided to, in addition to reading them myself, review them here at Castle Vardulon. It's rare that I get to read something almost completely clean, without knowing what to expect or having had it spoiled in some way for me. Not being from England, other than the stories I've come across in collections and digests, I have absolutely no idea what's contained in these issues, and I want to share that experience.


Cover: I'm not sure what a Space Spinner is, because this copy has long since lost the one that came packaged with it. However, I'm going to assume that it was a pretty impressive product, if they were willing to forgo decent cover art in order to offer it as a free gift. Tharg makes an appearance right at the centre, but for some reason it's his only appearance in this, the inaugural issue. I'd imagine it was fairly confusing for readers back in '77. Just who was this strange alien offering the reader a free Space Spinner?

Truth in Advertising: This cover is light on amazing claims. With no cover art to make wild promises, all that's left are the content notes, assuring me that there's a new Dan Dare story inside, that Flesh features Space-Age dinosaurs, that Great Britain has been invaded, and that M.A.C.H. 1's incredible Hyper-Power will amaze me! Amazingly, there is one false claim here on the title page – did you spot it? I'll point it out at the end.

Introduction: Rather than a temporally-impossible letters page, the first two pages of this Prog feature quick synopses of the stories contained within. These are all fairly brief and incredibly hyperbolic. The only notable part is the introduction to Dan Dare, which is twice as long as the rest, owing to the fact that offering brand new Dan Dare stories was meant to be 2000AD's main selling point in the boy's magazine market.

Thrill 1: INVASION! (No Credits Listed)

The least futuristic of the 2000AD stories, this one is actually in 1999, one year before the comic's title. It opens with a splash page of Volgan (fake Russian) paratroopers attacking England, then goes on to, in a brisk four pages, explain how England was overrun by the Volgans in just eight hours. King Charles the Third flees with his family to exile in Canada, while an unnamed city in the Midlands is Nuked! They go out of their way to mention tanks rolling down the M-Four expressway to London, which must have been absolutely chilling for people who knew what that meant.

(A thrifty nation, the Volgans purchase much of their equipment from surplus stores)

The Volgans are quickly established as incomprehensibly evil, not just because they kill civilians and execute politicians, but because they're clearly carrying MP40s here, German weapons from World War 2. That's right. They're not just Commies. They're, to quote The Simpsons, Commie Nazis.

The strip's main character, Bill Savage, doesn't show up until page 5. A lorry driver, he returns to his street to find his house destroyed – his family collateral damage of the Volgan invasion. Savage roots through the rubble of his house to find his shotgun, which he then uses on a armored personnel transport that's patrolling the area. A neighbor tells Bill that the war is over: England has surrendered! Of course, a little thing like surrender won't stop a bloke like Savage. Because if there's one thing history (by which I mean fiction) has taught us, there's no evil so great that one man with a shotgun can't deal with it.

I can't explain just how happy reading this strip made me. I'm sure that, at the time, the idea of a Russian invasion of England was a horrifying threat, far more possible than the Communist invasion of America that Red Dawn fetishists enjoyed fantasizing about throughout the Reagan era. These days it's hard to take seriously, especially with the wonderful final panel, which literally has Savage standing on the corpse of his fallen enemy. Frankly, I can't wait to discover how Bill Savage thwarts the entire Volgan invasion force single-handedly.

Thrill 2: FLESH (No Credits Listed)

By far the best concept in the first issue, Flesh is set both in the 23rd century and 65 million years in the past. It seems that by the 2200s real animals have grown so scarce that humans are forced to get their meat through the use of time machines! Flesh was one of the strips that was reprinted in North America, and I've got a general sense of what happens in the story.

The first strip does an exceptional job of setting up the premise while introducing the characters and still managing to be action-packed. It opens on a 'cattle drive', as rangers use futuristic jeeps and electric prods to keep a herd of dinosaurs moving. The two characters we meet are Earl Regan, the old-fashioned trail boss, and young Joe Brontowski, on his first trip back as a dino-ranger.

After setting up camp, one of the sentries is swallowed whole by a 50-foot long prehistoric crocodile that somehow managed to sneak up on him, despite being fifty feet long. This is the first of the strip's horrifying gore scenes. The second comes moments later, as a group of Tyrannosaurs attack the camp, hoping to eat a few of the herd. Joe is quick with his blaster, and this is the result:

Of course, all this action starts a stampede, which Earl has to stop by leaping onto the head of the lead dinosaur and directing it away from the cliff it was leading the other dinos towards. There's a quick wrapup at camp, where the cost of the drive is laid out. Apparently in addition to the six dinosaurs that went over the cliff, some TWENTY rangers were eaten by Tyrannosaurs, or trampled during the stampede. That's a lot of brutality to have happen off-camera, but the comic doesn't stop there, taking time out for a cliché among all the bloodshed: the ranger who was eaten by the Crocodile was on his cattle drive before going back home to the future.

I thought my memories of Flesh were pretty good, but it turns out that it was far more dark and violent than I had recalled. Speaking as someone who also read a lot of mainstream North American comics during his childhood, it's amazing to see just what could be done when there's wasn't as bad of a censorship organization hanging over the heads of the writers, artists, and editors. Given my fuzzy memories of the rest of storyline, it's only going to get worse from here on in.

Thrill 3: Dan Dare (No Credits Listed)

According to the intro at the beginning, since the reader last saw Dan Dare, he was horribly injured and put in cryo-stasis, then thawed out in the distant future, where his injuries were healed, and he was given plastic surgery, thus explaining why these space adventures take place far beyond the 1990s setting of the original Dan Dare stories, and why he looks completely different.

Apparently Dan has become the captain for a space freighter, which, just three panels into the first story, is sucked into the red spot on Jupiter. Dan's escape craft is the only one that makes it away intact, but he gets a glimpse into the red spot, and sees something alien and alive down there. When he gets back to SASA headquarters, though, no one believes him, and he's forced to stow away on a spacecraft heading for Jupiter so he can investigate the red spot himself. A surprisingly dull and uneventful opening outing for Dan Dare, pilot of the future.

What left me so befuddled by the Dan Dare story was how In Medias Res the whole thing was. Other than that little blurb in the opening, no attempt is made to bring the reader into the world of the comic. It's as if they were just assuming everyone reading would automatically know who Dan Dare was, and beyond the change in setting and appearance, would be totally comfortable with everything going on. Suffice to say, as a North American child of the 80s, I don't have the slightest idea who Dan Dare is, so the whole thing left me a little cold. Sure, I'm interested to see what's inside Jupiter's red spot, but I'm not on board right away, the way I suspect I would be if Dan Dare had the same sort of iconic resonance with me that Batman and Superman do.

Thrill 4: M.A.C.H. 1 (No Credits Listed)

The story of John Probe, MI6 agent turned superhero, is in every way just an attempt to rip off of the then-popular television show, the Six-Million Dollar Man. Just how cheesy and awkward is this comic? Look no further than the explanation for Probe's acronym title: “He's the first Man to be Activated by Compu-puncture Hyperpower”! Although, to be fair, he also has other attributes, as listed in this great schematic:

After a brief introduction where Probe is given his powers by having needles inject him with electricity over a six-month period. This is all overseen by Probe's boss, Sharpe, who immediately sends him off on a mission to battle terrorists who have captured an RAF base.

As Probe is running to kick down a door, the computer in his head informs him of just how much speed and 'hyperpower' will be required for the action. By following its directions, he's able to kick down a nuclear-bomb proof door, crushing most of the terrorists underneath it. One of the terrorists escapes on a motorcycle, and rather than just chase him down, Probe pauses to ask his computer aloud whether he'll be able to chase the man down. The computer assures Probe that he can, raising my hopes that he and the computer in his brain are going to develop a Michael Knight/KITT-style relationship.

Probe kicks the man off his motorcycle, fracturing his bones to the point of near-mortality (according to the computer). It looks like everything is wrapped up, but with his dying breath, the terrorist announces their real plan: to steal a vulcan bomber so that they can drop nerve gas on London!

As silly and simplistic as MACH 1 is, I can't fault the storytelling. This is a by-the-numbers action story at its most basic and effective. Set up the premise, announce the threat, end on a cliffhanger. As unoriginal as it may be, I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't interested to see what happens next.

Thrill 5: HARLEM HEROES (No Credits Listed)

Harlem Heroes opens in the year 2050, with an introduction to the “Sport of the Future”, Aeroball! The comic jumps right into the story, as the Harlem Heroes, an all-black Aeroball team playing in the first round of the Aeroball World Championships against the Greek City Gladiators, whose ethnicity isn't clearly established. Aeroball (the sport of the future) is played by people wearing jetpacks, who fly around a ring, trying to throw a metal ball into a score tank, a metal cube full of holes. How does one team get the ball from another? By viciously beating up the player holding it. So, in theory, it's the greatest sport ever. But how does it work out in practice?

The four Harlem Heroes we meet, Slim, Hairy, Louis, and team captain Giant, are the stars of the team, whose members are famous for opting to wear no armor. This allows them to fly with more agility and speed than the other players, but leaves them more prone to injury. They quickly win the match, to the cheers and approval of their fans. They all hop into their roadliner and head home, but then tragedy strikes! The Heroes' roadliner careens off the road, killing all but four of the Heroes! By an amazing coincidence, the four heroes who survive are the ones that we've already been introduced to, thus saving the writer from having to come up with any new character names.

Three of the Heroes, Hairy, Giant, and Slim come to visit Louis in the hospital. Then the big twist comes: Louis's body was destroyed, leaving him nothing more than a brain in a jar, capable of communicating only through a voice box! He tells the remaining team that, despite the fact that they were decimated, it's vital that they put a new team together and get back in the game, to show the world the Harlem will can't be destroyed!


Best Story: Flesh – I'm astounded at the amount of story they were able to cram into six pages, and besides which, Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs is a great premise to build a series around.

Worst Story: Dan Dare – This was by far the worst kick-off in the issue, probably because, as I mentioned above, they figured people were so excited to see the character they wouldn't care about the details. Without that excitement, though, it's pretty weak outing.

Biggest surprise: MACH 1 – while not a great story by any means, MACH 1 at least has the fundamentals right. How crazy is it that in the first issue of a comic with five separate continuing action stories, only one of them ends on a cliffhanger with any immediate peril in it? Isn't that how you convince people to buy the next issue?

Well, I guess people did buy the next issue, because there are like fifteen hundred more of these things for me to read. Really, being honest with myself, if I'd been the right age to read this back when it first came out, I would have bought the next issue, too.

Oh, and to answer the quiz above, the lie told on the cover was the line “Space-Age Dinosuars”. Although it features time travelers, Flesh takes place in the proper time period for dinosaurs (although I'm sure anyone with more knowledge about paleontology could tell me just how ludicrous the idea of Tyrannosaurs and Phobosuchus' living at the same time), so that's a blatantly misleading title. Also, the time travelers are from the 23rd century, and since they've clearly mastered time travel, hasn't technology moved forward enough that it shouldn't be called the 'Space Age' any more?


This is some of the oddest phrasing I've ever scene. Is English not supposed to be Louis' first language? Is he from outer space?

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