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Home ¦ Features ¦ Alan Grant interview part 5

Steve Parkhouse - A 2000 AD Review Interview

12th January 05

Part 5

Back to part 4

2000 AD - Alan Grant interview
Strontium Dog (Art by Carlos Ezquerra)
You also wrote 'Strontium Dog' with John Wagner and art by Carlos Ezquerra. Originally this was Starlord's answer to 'Judge Dredd', but Johnny Alpha was a much softer character than Dredd's and much more human. With a sort of 'Shane'-like Western feel to the strip, you seemed to really enjoy writing the character, is this correct?

Both John and I have always maintained that Johnny Alpha is a superior character to Joe Dredd. Johnny is a human being, a victim fighting back, the underdog; Dredd is a machine with limited discretion, an oppressor, the tyrant.

Any attempt to soften Dredd destroys the character, so he's locked into something unchanging; fortunately, Mega-City One takes up the slack by producing an infinite variety of stories.

Yes, I really enjoyed writing Johnny Alpha--though as with Dredd, the character was always more John's than mine.

How did the epic 'Portrait of a Mutant' storyline for 'Strontium Dog' come about?

When John and I first started writing together, he already had a page or two of notes on an epic about Johnny's childhood. He was keen to do it sooner rather than later, while I wanted to wait till I'd found my feet on the character.

John prevailed, quite rightly. And it was a great story. There's actually a bit more to it, but because other people are involved ('the innocents', as it were) I'd prefer to say no more.

This was perhaps the pivotal defining moment of the series, humanising Alpha as a character, as well as bringing up many overtly political points, dealing with fascism and racism (the quasi-fascistic police force 'The Kreelers' are replaced at the end with a new police force, but one made up of all the disbanded Kreelers, for example). Also, at the end, mutants are still treated as second-class citizens, whilst their leaders are exiled from Earth. Did you think that people would be able to deal with such political complexities in what was
ostensibly a children's comic?

Unfortunately, Portrait of a Mutant wasn't the most popular Stront story we ever did. That honour falls to Bubo and the Bad Boys, an all-action 4- or 5-parter than we rattled off in one day...whereas we were lucky to get one part of Portrait written in the same time.

It was always one of the beauties of 2000AD that stories could be told on two levels, whether consciously or not. Many Dredd and Stront tales are superficially just action and killing, so can be enjoyed by our younger readers, while those older can appreciate what subtlties lie behind

How did you come to decide to kill of Alpha's Viking partner Wulf? And did you enjoy the compelling consequences of this in 'Rage', the story in which Alpha tracks down and murders Wulf's killers?

John, more than me, was tiring of Strontium Dog. He really wanted to kill Johnny off, but not in a rush. So killing Wulf came first, which led to one of our best Stront stories, "Rage". I think it inspired Carlos, too, because his art was superb on the series.

When we split our partnership, I took Strontium Dog. Knowing John wanted him dead, so nobody could ever write the character again (ha, some hopes!), I finished him off.

I'm pleased to see that events --i.e. writing an unused Stront movie proposal-- have brought John and Johnny back together.

2000 AD - Alan Grant interview
The moment that many 2000AD fans would have trouble forgiving (Art by Colin MacNeil)

And why did you decide to kill off Johnny Alpha? Did you think it would be such a longstanding fan 'controversy', and what do you make of the recent revived 'Strontium Dog' by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra?

No, we didn't think it would be a long-term controversy. You'd have to ask John what his precise reasons for wanting the character to perish were--I really only enacted them. I know that he didn't want anybody else to write it. In the same way, of course, we didn't want anyone else writing RoboHunter...and Mark Millar's stab at the series demonstrated precisely why we didn't want anyone else writing it.

The most recent Stront story, Traitor to his Kind, is John on top emotional form. More power to his creative elbow. If publishers had half a brain, they'd be lining up to pay John millions for creating, say, 20 new characters for them.

When you joined Robo Hunter alongside John Wagner and Ian Gibson, the strip moved more into the realm of out and out comedy. How did you handle the balancing of black comedy with drama in these strips?

The reason RoboHunter went for comedy at the expense of drama is that --at least with 2 writers-- humour is much faster to produce than emotional work. Humorous writing is a synergy, greater than the sum of its parts, whereas emotional or dramatic writing (with 2) is always a compromise.

I'm going to try to reclaim the darker side of RoboHunter with the next Samantha Slade series, which I should be working on now rather than answering questions.

2000 AD - Alan Grant interview
Slade starts slaying (Art by Ian Gibson)
Was Ian Gibson a good collaborator to work with? As you still work with him on the same strip today, how has your working relationship developed?

Ian is a great humour artist, one of the very best, and it's another of life's unfair jibes that lesser artists have achieved more, while his full potential has never been appreciated. He almost always brought more to the story than the script asked for--that said, however, it's not a hard task to look through the latter RoboHunters and pick out the pages which he didn't bother pencilling before he inked.

It's a great shame Alan Moore went off to work for the US when he did, as the Halo Jones series was dear to Ian's heart; had it been completed, I'm sure it would stand today as his meisterwerk.

Although we were quite friendly at one time, Ian and I haven't seen each other or spoken for about 15 years. He still draws a great RoboHunter, though.

How did you originate Sam Slade's two foils: Hoagy and Carlos Sanchez Robostogie, two characters you obviously enjoy writing?

John has the credit for both characters. He created them while we were sharing the house in Essex while I worked editorially for 2000AD, so I was aware of them and gave John feedback. But they're all his. Stogie by the way was based on Carlos, who likes to chew on a good cigar.

How did you come to create 'Ace Trucking Co.', one of the most successful humour strips in 2000AD's history? Was it simply an obsession with CB radio?

I don't think John or I has ever listened to or spoken into a CB in our lives. John's brother was visiting us from the States around 1980, and he brought one of those dictionaries of truckers' slang language. John and I figured (how wrong can you be?) that CB would take off in Britain, too, and set out to create a series that would get there first. Well, we got there first, but nobody else ever followed.

It was a laugh, though.

2000 AD - Alan Grant interview
Ace and GBH (dead) (Art by Massimo Bellardinelli)
The series provided the venue for Italian artist Massimo Bellardinelli's best ever artwork. What was he like to work with as a collaborator? There is much Internet speculation as to his whereabouts – are you still in contact?

Having worked with Massimo on Blackhawk, I was an ardent fan of his art. Knowing he was going to draw Ace, we tailored the story to his strengths. We never met him, never spoke to him --all contact was via his agent, a guy called Giolitti. I started writing little messages to him in my scene descriptions, and he'd often send replies with the art. He sent me several original drawings he'd done of characters from the Blackhawk series.

I've since heard this questioned, but I was told a couple of years back that Massimo had died of cancer.

Is it true that 'Bad City Blue' was originally part of a pitch for America, some of which eventually found its way into The Outcasts?

Not as far as I recall. Bad City Blue was written specifically for Robin Smith, because he wanted to do an SF story.

Q: You not only wrote a multitude of strips, for 2000AD, but also contributed with John Wagner to Eagle, Scream and Roy of the Rovers, amongst many others. In fact you wrote so many stories that IPC management decreed that you had to hide your names under a multitude of pseudonyms, such as T.B. Grover, Alvin Daunt and F. Martin Candor, amongst many others. At that time, was writing for comics just a question of quantity – write as many as you can 'before the balloon goes up'?

It was more a question of--companies like Titan were coming in, republishing our work, making a lot of money, and we get frag all. Movie options were being bandied about, with sod all for us. Also, we discovered --usually by accident-- that our stuff was being reprinted in Malaya, Singapore, Spain, Denmark, even apartheid South Africa... without a single kroner, rand or bean to us.

Writing at high speed was the only way we could justify what we were doing, and earn a decent wage, instead of pitching for TV or movies. We wanted to work in comics, but IPC and other publishers seemed to be intent on dissuading us from staying.

At one time we were writing under 14 different aliases.

(Re-reading this, I'm worried that I sound mercenary. Maybe I am, but we all have to earn a living. Imagine writing Dredd for 10 years, then meeting a guy at a party who says "Now that's a coincidence. I'm being paid £100K for the Dredd movie script and I think the concept is shite." Do you tell him how much you admire him, or do you headbutt him all the way to the bank? And how do you feel about the company which
makes it possible for you to be humiliated like this? Or say you're doing the San Diego convention, and a guy comes up wanting to shake your hand and say thanks for all the great ideas. "What ideas?" "The ones in the Lobo comic. I'm the Lobo screenwriter,
and I'm just lifting whole swathes from the comic and putting it in the movie." "For how much..?" "$100K." No fraggin' wonder he's thanking me, and no fraggin' wonder the amiable though muscular Val Semieks had to physically restrain me from pummelling the fellow. Take it from me, it becomes your hatred of the company, rather than the
money or the quality of your work, that keeps you writing.)

Back to part 4

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Original content (c) 2002 Gavin Hanly (contact 2000AD Review).