John Wagner at the SFX Weekender, 2012
Pennsylvania, United States
The Last American
The Bogie Man
A History of Violence
John Wagner is a comics writer who, alongside Pat Mills, helped revitalise British comics in the 1970s, and continues to be a leading light in the British comics industry, occasionally also working in American comics. He is best known as the co-creator, with artist Carlos Ezquerra, of the character Judge Dredd.
Born in the United States and brought up in Scotland, he started his career in editorial with D. C. Thomson & Co. in the late 1960s, before becoming a freelance writer and a staff editor at IPC in the 1970s. He has worked in children's humour and girls' adventure comics, but is most notable for his work in boys' adventure comics, including helping to launch Battle Picture Weekly (1975), for which he wrote "Darkie's Mob", and 2000 AD (1977), for which he created numerous characters, including "Judge Dredd", "Strontium Dog", "Robo-Hunter" and "Button Man". In the 1980s, he and co-writer Alan Grant wrote prolifically for IPC's boys' comics, including 2000 AD, Battle, Eagle, Scream! and Roy of the Rovers, and also wrote Batman for DC Comics in the US, a series of Batman/Judge Dredd team-up comics, and the British independent comic The Bogie Man. His 1997 graphic novel A History of Violence was made into a film by David Cronenberg. He continues to write for 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, including "Judge Dredd" and "Strontium Dog".
- 1 Biography
- 2 Style and influence
- 3 Bibliography
- 4 Screen adaptations
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Early life and career
Wagner was born in Pennsylvania, US, in 1949,:p. 10 the product of a war marriage. When Wagner was twelve his parents separated and his mother returned to Greenock in Scotland with the children. Wagner describes himself as "a pretty badly adjusted youth" in America, fighting and getting into trouble, and says he "benefited a lot from the added discipline of life in Scotland."
When he left school he joined a printing company, going to college on day release, until his aunt showed him an advert for editorial assistants at D. C. Thomson & Co. in Dundee. He got the job, starting in the Fiction department, and went on to become chief sub-editor of the romance comic Romeo, and also wrote horoscopes. He and Pat Mills, a fellow sub-editor, left to go freelance in 1971, and began submitting scripts to London's IPC, working from Mills' garden shed in Wormit, Fife. Starting with humour titles like Cor!! and Whizzer and Chips, they also went on to write for girls' and boys' adventure comics, including strips like "Yellowknife of the Yard", about a Native American detective in London, drawn by Doug Maxted, for Valiant; "Partridge's Patch", about a friendly rural policeman and his dog, drawn by Mike Western, for Jet; "The Can-Do Kids" for Lion, and boarding school serial "School for Snobs" for Tammy. IPC managers John Purdie and John Sanders began to take notice.:pp. 10–11
After nine months their writing partnership broke up, and Wagner moved to London to join IPC's staff, editing girls' titles Sandie and Princess Tina until 1973, when both were merged into other titles. After that he quit comics for a time, taking a variety of jobs, including as caretaker of an estate in the Scottish Highlands and dredging on a barge.
Battle, Valiant and Action
In the autumn of 1974 Pat Mills, who had been tasked with developing Battle Picture Weekly, a new war-themed title for IPC to compete with D. C. Thomson's Warlord, asked Wagner to join him and help develop characters. Mills and Wagner were dissatisfied with the sanitised nature of boys' comics and wanted to make them harder-hitting, with more working-class heroes. They devised the opening line-up themselves, with the assistance of Gerry Finley-Day, before farming the stories out to other writers. The title was launched with a cover date of 8 March 1975, and was a hit.
Wagner continued to write for girls' comics, including scripting gymnastics strip "Bella at the Bar" for Tammy, and was appointed editor of the ailing boys' weekly Valiant. Characters he created for this title included the tough New York City cop "One-Eyed Jack", drawn by John Cooper, which was inspired by the film Dirty Harry and became the comic's most popular character, and "Soldier Sharp", drawn by Joe Colquhoun, about a cunning coward in World War II. Both strips transferred to Battle when Valiant was merged into it in 1976, with One-Eyed Jack leaving the police and becoming a spy.
Wagner then quit editorial and returned to freelance writing. In 1976–77 he wrote "Darkie's Mob" for Battle, a violent series about a renegade British captain leading a group of lost soldiers in a personal war against the Japanese in Burma during World War II, drawn by Mike Western, which became one of the comic's most popular strips, although Wagner has since said he regrets "some of the jingoistic, racist language" used. A collected edition was published by Titan Books in 2011. Other strips he wrote for Battle included "Joe Two Beans" (1977), about a mute Native American soldier in the Pacific Campaign, drawn by Eric Bradbury, and the naval series "HMS Nightshade" (1978–79), drawn by Western. For Mills' short-lived, controversial title Action he scripted the boxing strip "Blackjack". During this time he shared a flat on Camberwell New Road in London with future 2000 AD editor Steve MacManus.
In 1976 Mills brought Wagner in as script adviser for the new science fiction comic he was developing, 2000 AD. Wagner suggested the new title needed a cop story, and his proposal, "Judge Dredd", took the Dirty Harry archetype further, imagining a violent lawman, empowered to dispense justice on the spot in a future New York. Artist Carlos Ezquerra was asked to visualise the character, but Wagner initially hated the elaborate look Ezquerra came up with, thinking it "way over the top". When a proposed buy-out of 2000 AD that would have improved creators' terms and conditions fell through, Wagner walked away from the comic,:pp. 12–13 leaving Mills to develop the character by commissioning stories from freelancers. The first published episode appeared in issue 2, based on a script by Peter Harris, rewritten by Mills:p. 48 and drawn by Mike McMahon, which alienated Ezquerra.:pp. 22–24, 31 Wagner returned to write the character from issue 9,:34 and has written the majority of Judge Dredd stories since. Ezquerra returned in 1982 to draw the "Apocalypse War" storyline,:p. 87 and continues to draw the character semi-regularly.
Wagner created two long-running series in 1978. One, "Robo-Hunter", a private detective-style character who specialised in robot-related cases, was initially drawn by José Ferrer, but his pages were partly redrawn by Ian Gibson, who became the strip's regular artist.:p. 49 The other, "Strontium Dog", a sci-fi western about a bounty hunter in a future where mutants are an oppressed minority forced into doing such dirty work, was created by Wagner and Ezquerra for Starlord, a short-lived sister title to 2000 AD with higher production values.:pp.39–41 Starlord was later merged into 2000 AD, bringing "Strontium Dog" with it.
During their writing partnership, Wagner and Mills had submitted story ideas to the BBC for the TV series Doctor Who in the 1970s, but Wagner eventually dropped out, tired of the endless rewrites requested, an experience which turned him off TV writing. Mills' involvement came to an end when the show's script editor changed. Artist Dave Gibbons was aware of this, and when he was offered the chance to draw the lead strip in Doctor Who Weekly in 1979, he suggested them as writers. The pair wrote four eight-part serials, based on their unmade TV scripts. They adapted them separately, Wagner scripting "City of the Damned" and "Dogs of Doom", and Mills scripting "The Iron Legion" and "The Star Beast", although all were credited to "Mills & Wagner".
Partnership with Alan Grant
From 1980 to 1988 he wrote in partnership with Alan Grant, an old friend and former D. C. Thomson and 2000 AD sub-editor with whom he was sharing an old farmhouse in Essex, although most stories were credited to Wagner alone (under one of his pseudonyms) or Grant alone – whichever of them typed the script up got the cheque. Wagner (as John Howard or T. B. Grover) was credited with "Judge Dredd", and Grant with the less frequent "Robo-Hunter", "Strontium Dog", and the Judge Dredd spin-off "Anderson, Psi Division", while some strips, like the CB-inspired space haulage comedy "Ace Trucking Co.", were credited to "Grant/Grover". "Judge Dredd" was credited to "Wagner/Grant" starting in 1986.
Other pseudonyms were created, at the insistence of publisher John Sanders, to disguise how prolific the two writers were.:p. 96 For the revived Eagle they wrote "Doomlord", "Joe Soap", "Rebel the Police Dog", "Computer Warrior", "The Fists of Danny Pyke", "Manix" and "The House of Daemon"; for Scream! they wrote "The Thirteenth Floor", for Roy of the Rovers they wrote "Dan Harker's War", and for Battle they wrote "Invasion 1984". During this time Wagner wrote the documentary strip "Fight for the Falklands" for Battle, without Grant who had no interest in war stories, and "Dan Dare" with Pat Mills for Eagle.
Wagner and Grant became part of the so-called "British Invasion" of American comics during the 1980s. In 1987 their first title, a mini-series called Outcasts, was published by DC Comics with Cam Kennedy as artist. Outcasts was well received, though it never sold in great quantities, and this success led to the pair writing Batman in the pages of Detective Comics from issue 583. The pair also created the bleak nuclear dystopia The Last American for Epic Comics with longtime Dredd artist Mike McMahon. Arguments over the direction of that title and the ending of the Judge Dredd story "Oz" led to the end of their writing partnership:pp. 123–124 and they split their work between them: Wagner kept "Judge Dredd", while Grant continued "Strontium Dog" and "Anderson, Psi Division" and became the sole writer of Detective Comics. Although the two continue to collaborate from time to time, they have never resumed a full-time partnership.
In 1987, IPC's comics division was sold to Robert Maxwell as Fleetway Publications. John Davidge was appointed as publishing director in 1989, and within a matter of weeks was confronted by Wagner, who emptied a large bag of Judge Dredd merchandise onto his desk, pointed out he had received no royalties for any of it, and threatened a creator walk-out over the issue. Davidge, whose background was in magazine and book publishing, was shocked, and introduced written contracts and royalty payments for comic creators.:p. 121:pp. 129–130
The Bogie Man and the 1990s
One series Wagner and Grant did continue writing together was The Bogie Man, about an escaped mental patient who thinks he's Humphrey Bogart, or rather a composite of the characters he played, and constructs imaginary cases by associating random events with events in Bogart films. They had previously pitched the series, unsuccessfully, to DC before writing Outcasts. It was first published as a four-part miniseries by the Scottish independent Fat Man Press in 1989, intending to tie in with Glasgow's position as European City of Culture in 1990, and further stories followed from other publishers.
Wagner and Grant were named as consulting editors on a new title, the Judge Dredd Megazine, in 1990. Wagner did most of the development work, and wrote three of the five strips in the opening line-up, including "America", illustrated by Colin MacNeil, which examined the totalitarian nature of the Judge system through the story of a young woman who becomes a pro-democracy terrorist, and "Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend", with art by Peter Doherty, which told the origin of Dredd's arch-enemy Judge Death in humorous style.:pp.138–140 While his efforts were concentrated on Dredd in the Megazine, Wagner took a break from writing the character in 2000 AD, replaced by Garth Ennis,:p. 141 Grant Morrison,:p. 162 Mark Millar and others. He did not resume writing for 2000 AD for more than three years.:p. 167
Wagner was initially involved in Toxic!, an independent weekly anthology launched in 1991, but, aside from two Bogie Man serials co-written with Grant, most of his proposed stories were rejected and he withdrew from the project.:pp. 142–143 One such proposal, "Al's Baby", a comedy about a male mob hitman who becomes pregnant, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, ran in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1991.:p. 194 Another, "Button Man", a contemporary urban gladiator thriller drawn by Arthur Ranson, was published in 2000 AD in 1992.:p. 154 Both spawned sequels.
Wagner and Grant reunited in 1992 for Judgement on Gotham, a hit graphic novel teaming up Judge Dredd and Batman, co-published by Fleetway and DC and featuring painted art by Simon Bisley.:pp. 150–152 Further team-ups between Dredd and Batman followed, but were beset by production delays.
In the mid-90s Wagner worked on a number of licensed properties for Dark Horse Comics in the US, including Aliens, Star Wars, notably solo stories starring Boba Fett and the comics strand of the multimedia project Shadows of the Empire, and Xena: Warrior Princess. In 1997 he wrote his first original graphic novel, A History of Violence, a contemporary thriller about an unassuming small-town man whose background in gang crime comes back to haunt him, drawn by Vince Locke for the Paradox Press imprint of DC Comics. It was nominated for the Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Scenario in 2006.
In 2000 Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra revived "Strontium Dog" (main character Johnny Alpha had been killed off in 1990 in a story written by Alan Grant),:p. 135 based on a treatment Wagner had written for an abortive TV pilot.:p. 211 Initially, stories were set before the character's death in a revised continuity, but 2010's "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha" brought Johnny back from the dead.
Wagner has continued to be the main writer of "Judge Dredd" in 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine. In 2003 he co-wrote the Judge Dredd/Aliens crossover, "Incubus", with Andy Diggle, which was co-published by Dark Horse Comics and 2000 AD.:p. 230 Since 2005 he has shared the character with other writers, including Gordon Rennie, Robbie Morrison, Si Spurrier,:p. 236 Al Ewing and Michael Carroll. Major storylines he has contributed include "Origins" (2006–2007), exploring how the Judge system was established,:pp. 239–240 and "Day of Chaos" (2011–2012), in which many of the institutions of Dredd's world are destroyed, leaving a more dangerous city.
Style and influence
Pat Mills describes Wagner's writing as "romantic but not emotional".:p. 11 His depictions of violent action, from "Darkie's Mob" to "Judge Dredd" to A History of Violence, are unsentimental and laced with mordant humour. Other strips, like "Robo-Hunter", "Ace Trucking Co." and "The Balls Brothers", reveal a more overt comedy side to his writing. He is well known for writing terse scripts, described by artist Dave Gibbons as "exciting telegrams". He says he doesn't think visually, but rather "in terms of plot developments [and] dialogue", preferring to leave the visual decisions to the artist.
Described by Warren Ellis as "probably the single most influential writer in British comics", Wagner is named as an influence by writers such as Alan Grant, who says he "taught me almost all I know about comic writing", Garth Ennis, Andy Diggle and Rob Williams. Alan Moore was inspired by the work of Wagner and Pat Mills in 2000 AD to try and express his ideas in mainstream comics. Wagner's own influences include the comics of D. C. Thomson & Co. of the '60s and '70s. Outside of comics, authors he admires include John Steinbeck, Patrick O'Brian and Michael Connelly.
See also Category:Comics by John Wagner
A TV film of The Bogie Man was made in 1992 by BBC Scotland starring Robbie Coltrane, but was not well received and a series was never made. Wagner and Grant made very little money out of it. Wagner felt that the screenwriter did a poor job adapting it, and Coltrane did not understand the character.
1995 saw the release of Judge Dredd, a big budget version of the comic directed by Danny Cannon and starring Sylvester Stallone. Wagner was unhappy with the result, feeling they had filmed "the wrong script" and that "Stallone was badly advised". A second attempt at adapting the character to the screen, entitled Dredd, was released in September 2012, directed by Pete Travis from a script by Alex Garland, and starring Karl Urban. This time Wagner was consulted over the script, was involved in the promotion of the film, and has described it as "unlike the first film, a true representation of Judge Dredd".
In 2005 his graphic novel A History of Violence was adapted into a film, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris. Wagner had backed the film once he saw the group of actors Cronenberg had gathered. The film was nominated for the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005, and the script, by Josh Olson, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2005.
- Colin M. Jarman and Peter Acton, Judge Dredd: The Mega History, Lennard Publishing, 1995
- Jack McKeown, "Dredd 3D fans owe a debt to the Wormit Thrill Shed, The Courier, 4 September 2012
- Steven McKenzie, Scotland's influence on 2000AD's Judge Dredd, BBC Scotland, 14 August 2012
- W. R. Logan, Interview with John Wagner, Class of '79 (undated)
- David Bishop, "Interrogation: Alan Grant Part One", Judge Dredd Megazine #266, 8 January 2008, pp. 16–22
- David Bishop, "Blazing Battle Action" part 1, Judge Dredd Megazine No. 209, 16 September 2003, pp. 73–78
- David Bishop, "John Wagner: The Quiet American", Judge Dredd Megazine #250, 17 October 2006, pp. 24–30
- Lew Stringer, Christmas Comics: Valiant 1971, Blimey! It's Another Blog About Comics!, 17 December 2009
- Mike Western's Partridge's Patch from Jet comic, Peter Gray's Comics, 16 April 2010
- Dean Simons, "The Father of Judge Dredd", Tripwire, November 2012, pp. 13–16
- David Bishop, John Wagner talks about Battle Picture Weekly, Vicious Imagery, 30 January 2007
- Brave Bella Barlow, Tammy's Most Popular Heroine, Books Monthly (undated)
- "I invented Judge Dredd", BBC, 28 February 2002
- David Bishop, "Blazing Battle Action" part 2, Judge Dredd Megazine No. 210, 23 September 2003, pp. 72–79
- Ian Wheeler, "John Wagner: The Story Man", Eagle Flies Again issue 11, Winter 2004, pp. 5–6
- Darkie's Mob – The Secret War of Joe Darkie at Titan Books
- "Blackjack" at The Sevenpenny Nightmare
- David Bishop, Thrill Power Overload, Rebellion, 2002–2009
- Dave Gibbons, Pat Mills, John Wagner and Steve Moore, Doctor Who: The Iron Legion, Panini Books
- David Bishop, "Interrogation: Alan Grant" part 2, Judge Dredd Megazine #267, 5 February 2008, pp. 16–22
- 2000 AD prog 493, IPC Magazines Ltd, cover date 25 October 1986
- Alex Frith, Review of The Thirteenth Floor reprint collection, 2000 AD Review (undated, via Internet Archive)
- David Bishop, "Blazing Battle Action" part 4, Judge Dredd Megazine No. 212, 18 November 2003, pp. 72–79
- Dan Dare at Barney's 2000 AD Database
- David Bishop, "Interrogation: Alan Grant" part 3, Judge Dredd Megazine #268, pp. 16–22
- Interview with John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, Dark Horse Comics, 1997 (via Internet Archive)
- John Wagner interview, Westfield Comics, July 1999
- Irvine, Alex (2008), "A History of Violence", in Dougall, Alastair, The Vertigo Encyclopedia, New York: Dorling Kindersley, p. 87, ISBN 0-7566-4122-5, OCLC 213309015
- Tony Ingram, Mutant Mayhem in Milton Keynes: The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha, Strontium Dog, Broken Frontier, 19 August 2011
- Interview With John Wagner at the Glasgow Con 2012 by Gordon Mclean for Talk Comix
- Shropshire restaurant name immortalised in Dredd 3D, Shropshire Star, 9 August 2012
- Rick Fulton, "Scots comic legend on the end of an era.. and dawn of a new Dredd", Daily Record and Sunday Mail, 7 September 2012
- Thom Young, Watching the Watchmen with Dave Gibbons: An Interview, Comics Bulletin (undated)
- Laura Sneddon, Comic Studies: Dundee Comics Day, Comic Book Resources, 2 November 2011
- Warren Ellis, Come In Alone issue #14, Comic Book Resources, 3 March 2000
- Oor Authors, ItchyCoo
- Comic Book Day: Getting Closure with Garth Ennis, Nerdist News, 29 February 2012
- Cut to: Andy Diggle (Comic Book Writer), My PDF Scripts, 2012
- Multiversity Comics Presents: Rob Williams, 19 September 2011
- Gary Spencer Millidge, Alan Moore: Storyteller, Ilex, 2011, p. 58
- Luis Leña Velasco, John Wagner (interview in English and Spanish), Club Batman, April 2008
- Set your lawgivers to hi-ex, kids – we speak with John Wagner, Forbidden Planet International, 29 September 2009
- Owen Williams, Exclusive: John Wagner And Alex Garland Talk Dredd, Empire, 2012
- Karl Keily, "John Wagner discusses 35 years of Judge Dredd", Comic Book Resources, 31 July 2012
- Mike Fleming, Nicolas Winding Refn In DreamWorks Talks For ‘Button Man: The Killing Game’, Deadline New York, 31 May 2012
- 2002 interview with John Wagner re Darkies Mob at Battle Action fansite
- August 2005 interview with The Nexus
- John Wagner on Dredd, 2000AD Review, 19 January 2010
- John Wagner at the Grand Comics Database
- John Wagner at the Comic Book DB
- John Wagner at 2000 AD online
- John Wagner at the Internet Movie Database
- John Wagner at Lambiek.net