Under the radar, quietly reading in the corner, the kids of 1980s Britain were absorbing a different message from the ones we got from our educators and the media. While politicians ranted and many people looked back to a bygone age of triumph, we were clutching tales of science-fiction adventure that seemed harmless to disinterested adult eyes.
The 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of 2000AD, Britain’s sci-fi comic. Then, as now, it came out weekly. Printed on shabby paper and sold for small change, it didn’t look at all like the sort of thing that would have an effect on anyone, but for me, it was another sort of education entirely.
2000AD featured four or five continuing stories every week, in black and white with one colour spread. Judge Dredd, the 21st century’s fascistic lawman was almost always on the centre pages. Rather than being an out-and-out attack on police states, Judge Dredd was a sly criticism of Thatcher’s Britain. One example is the high school class who have lessons in Unemployment (2000AD Prog 206, Script: John Wagner, Art: Ron Smith):
In fact, Judge Dredd himself was not amiss in sticking up for the innocent, as in this epic moment from the Cursed Earth saga (Script: Pat Mills, Art: Brian Bolland):
Silly? In the eyes of many adults, for sure. Powerful? It hardly needs spelling out who is calling on the law for help in our world today.
Prejudice was also a common theme, especially in the adventures of Nemesis the Warlock. This was a nifty twist on the alien invasion storyline, where humans invade alien space and systematically exterminate all other species for being different. My favourite moment was when the Chief Bigot discovers that they have massacred so many aliens that they need to replace them with a new target to hate (2000AD Prog 482 Script: Pat Mills, Art: Bryan Talbot):
Years before President Bush sr was ridiculing environmentalists for their desire to protect owls at the expense of jobs, 2000AD also had a green message about our abuse of animals and the environment. This might take place in the far future, such as when mutant bounty hunter Strontium Dog discovers an alien race that is factory farming human captives (from 2000AD Prog 428, script: Alan Grant Art: who else but Carlos Ezquerra?):
Foie gras, anyone?
Anne Frank’s father once said words to the effect that all children educate themselves. That’s true, but it also helps a lot to have a bit of subversive literature delivered once a week by our very parents.
For all that these comics were bizarre with their undead ghouls, psychotic cyborgs and dog-headed mutants, they were nowhere near as bizarre as some of the ideas and principles that were being drilled into my youthful head by the adults of the day. We were so lucky to have 2000AD – and that our elders often saw it as little more than garbage, leaving us alone to enjoy it in peace. And to slowly absorb its message.