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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

'Best of 2000 AD' Proves Why the Comics Are Classic

At first glance, even the name feels ambitious: Best of 2000 AD. How can anything, even a six-volume collection of anthologies running more than 200 pages each, live up to that ambition?

After all, it’s not as if 2000 AD is just any comic book series. Launched in 1977, the British weekly has become recognized as one of the most important science fiction titles in comics history—and not just for the characters and stories published, but also for the sheer volume of creative talent that has built reputations thanks to work published in the title. It was 2000 AD that teamed the Watchmen duo of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for the first time, and published important early work by the likes of comic book legend Grant Morrison, current Marvel mainstay Al Ewing, Mad Max: Fury Road writer and visual artist Brendan McCarthy, Gorillaz cocreator Jamie Hewlett, and many more. It’s something that’s been cited as a creative influence by musicians, movie directors, and novelists alike, and a long-standing part of British pop culture for nearly half a century. 2000 AD is, bluntly, a big deal.

What is perhaps the most surprising thing about the new Best of series launching later this month is how successfully it manages to deliver on the promise of its title. A significant part of that success comes down to curation. While the six volumes in the collection haven’t been officially separated by theme or any specific criteria, they each have an individual identity that allow them to stand alone for readers looking to pick up just one book for a particular experience.

The first volume, by accident or design, pushes back on the idea that the title is filled with boys-only adventures (an understandable assumption, given that it was officially part of publisher IPC’s boys comics line at launch; things were different back in those pre-punk days). It does this with a trio of stories centering important women in the title’s history, devoting significant real estate to “Shamballa,” arguably the finest of the Judge Anderson stories by the late Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson, and the first volume of the beloved Ballad of Halo Jones trilogy by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson. Both are fan-favorite stories from 2000 AD’s back catalog that avoid making their central characters into femme fatales or helpless maidens, but allow them an emotional depth and messiness that even the title’s male characters weren’t awarded at the time.

The third of the woman-led strips in the collection is a contemporary one, and the only strip to run through subsequent volumes. It’s a smart choice for this role; Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard’s “Brink” isn’t just one of the finest stories 2000 AD has published in years—it’s just finished its fifth run in the weekly—but one of its most complex in terms of subject matter and tone. By the end of its most recent run, it’s tackling how societies treat unions, mental health, and journalistic ethics. Its inclusion demonstrates that 2000 AD is as creatively vital today as it’s ever been.

Of course, there’s more to Best of than just those three entries; Judge Dredd, the unofficial mascot and obvious breakout star of the series, is present in two stories that demonstrate his own complexity and intensity with seeming effortlessness. One of those, in the first volume, is an ideal example of the strip’s ability to mix political satire and action unlike anything else, with a metaphor about attitudes toward immigration that also manages to read like The Raid 2; it’s an impressive demonstration of just how vital the character (and the character’s co-creator, John Wagner, still contributing 45 years later) remain. Other fan-favorite mainstays like Strontium Dog and DR and Quinch—another Alan Moore co-creation—make appearances in the first volume as well, demonstrating the traditional mix of comedy and adventure that’s been central to the title’s DNA since its origins.

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Things get stranger in the anthology’s second volume, which showcases the genre-defying Nemesis the Warlock, and its third, in which “Leviathan,” an existential horror story, appears. As the Best of series continues, it becomes more and more clear how vast the scope of 2000 AD actually is, and just how well the title has handled so many types of stories throughout the decades. For newcomers and lapsed readers alike, it acts as a near-perfect primer for what makes 2000 AD so special. Fans might quibble with some of the choices made in terms of story selection—that is what fans do, after all—but, as unlikely as it might seem from the outside, Best of 2000 AD shows off the iconic title in its best light.

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