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Karl Stock and Ben Willsher entwine JUDGE DREDD and STRONTIUM DOG in JUDGE ALPHA

Rebellion has just launched Stories From A Sideways Universe, the 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 2024, which includes some inventive crossover stories within the Rebellion roster. Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog are brought together by Karl Stock and Ben Willsher in Judge Alpha, joined today by Interviews Editor, Andrew Irvin.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Karl and Ben, thank you for stopping by the Yeti Cave! How’s the start to summer in the UK so far?


BEN WILLSHER: It's HOT... My art studio isn't air-conditioned (nothing really has aircon as standard in the UK), so at the moment I am sweltering over a drawing board. But not complaining, this happens every summer, we should be used to it by now!


KARL STOCK: You can tell Ben and I aren’t being interviewed in the same room at the same time, because it’s cold and a bit drizzly here. Those late autumn, ‘winter’s almost here’ vibes. It’s July!



CBY: Glad you both made the time to chat, regardless of the weather. So both of you have a history with Rebellion publications; Karl, I’d love to find time to discuss Comic Book Punks when I finish reading it, and Ben, you’ve done numerous covers for 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine over the years, as well as various Strontium Dog stories. How’d you two pair up for this project, and how have you found working together?



KS: Thanks for reading Comic Book Punks, I really hope you’re enjoying it! It’s a monster, but also an absolute labour of love, and my attempt to give a very exciting and creative time in late 20th century British comics the same pop cultural status as a band, record label or group of filmmakers or contemporary artists who defined their era. Out now from Rebellion (SALES PITCH ENDS).

 

I also write comic strips and creator interviews for other Rebellion titles, including 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, and occasionally I ask editor Matt Smith if there’s anything I can work on. He presented me with the idea for "Judge Alpha" – a mash-up of brutal future cop Judge Dredd and fierce mutant bounty hunter (‘Strontium Dog’) Johnny Alpha – and selected Ben Willsher as artist for the strip. It’s been great to see what Ben’s done with it. His art is dynamic and action-packed, with a real understanding of both the classic 2000 AD worlds involved in the story, and just enough of an old-school flavour to call to mind Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog’s artistic co-creator Carlos Ezquerra.


BW: Well… I almost missed out being the artist on this story as I was away deep in the British countryside, on holiday, when Tharg/Matt the editor of 2000 AD contacted me asking if I wanted to draw this mash-up story of Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog


I think Matt is aware that I am a massive fan of Johhny Alpha (Strontium Dog's protagonist), and obviously, I have done a huge amount of Dredd stories in the past, so he might have thought I would be a good match for this pairing. Unfortunately, where I was staying was so remote I had no wi-fi, and very, very little signal, so I wasn't able to receive the emails. I finally came back from holiday and I found a number of emails asking me if I wanted this gig, and to get in touch with the editor. The final one said, could I get back to him, otherwise he would need to find another artist. This email had been sent on the Friday, and I was now reading this on the Monday. So I quickly sent him a reply saying I wasn't ghosting him and that I was away and would love the chance to draw this strip! 


I was relieved that I got a reply with Karl's script attached. I genuinely would have been gutted to have missed the chance of drawing this particular story, so I am so happy I got the chance.


Karl and I have had a working relationship before, in the fact that he has interviewed me several times in the past, but this is the first time we have worked together as an artist and writer team on a story. It has been a great experience for me, as his script was full of action and gave me a chance to draw some characters that are no longer around in the regular Strontium Dog continuity, so that was an amazing opportunity.



CBY: I'm glad the first opportunity to produce a story together provided some unique options to play around with the world in ways beyond the standard continuity. When did you personally first start reading 2000 AD, and when did you meet Dredd and Johnny as a reader?



KS: Back in the early ‘80s, when I was either much too young or just young enough for it, depending on your point of view. I was given a batch of then-recent copies, which included Strontium Dog’s grisly, ‘The Moses Incident,’ and the trigger-happy, ‘The Killing’, and Dredd’s, ‘The Graveyard Shift’ and, ‘The Haunting of Sector House 9.’ Mind blown.


BW: Oh, I was 4, nearly 5. I was probably slightly younger than the target audience, but as soon as I saw it, I was blown away, and there was no turning back. I had completely missed the comics that were meant for my age - I had never read a single Beano or Dandy (standard British humour comics for younger readers) at that point, but I had probably had the odd IPC (rival publisher) knock-off here and there.


The only comics I had up to this point were either Batman and Superman annuals, or Asterix books. Don't get me wrong, I loved these comics (and still do), but the moment I opened my first 2000 AD, Dredd was my instant favourite as it was this strange world of killer robots, evil Dark Judges, odd fashion trends like becoming ugly or faceless blobs, city blocks declaring war on each other, sky-surfboarding graffiti artists or people growing their nose to beat a world record… all over seen by a rather unimpressed, bad ass lawman who was not to be messed with, and he had this killer costume/uniform. Man, that Helmet with x visor still looks as good today as it did back then.  


As for Strontium Dog, and Johnny Alpha? I came to them a lot later. He had originally been first published in a comic called Starlord, but I was first introduced to this world when Starlord folded and its stories and characters were amalgamated into 2000 AD. And, like my first introduction to Dredd, Strontium Dog had the same instant effect on me. I was blown away.


Whereas, I loved Dredd's cold emotionless love of the law, Johnny was different, he was this cool mutant bounty hunter taking out bad guys for cash. Dredd was a jobsworth, but Johnny was all fun, and he also had a pretty amazing costume- At the time I had no idea that both were created by the genius that was Carlos Ezquerra. America had Jack Kirby as this one-man character design giant, but we had Carlos... Everything he designed was incredible. He thought differently, and is still hugely missed since his death back in 2018.   



CBY: It's fortunate the Rebellion fandom had him around until the age of 70, but he still left too soon. This story is set in an alternate universe, so the usual Dredd rules – like he has his helmet on at all times – can be broken. What conventions did you get to break in your story? 



BW: Probably the biggest convention break in our story, for me at least, is the fact that there are Muties (Mutants) allowed in the Justice department. This just wasn't allowed under the draconian laws of Mega-City One. They just about tolarated Psi users - psychics and precogs - but this was always a big no-no. It’s nice to have broken that rule, and you can see how it would be to their benefit to change these rules. You are definitely going to be stronger with some powered mutants on your side, and if you don't believe me, ask Professor X.


KS: It wasn’t so much about breaking convention, as stitching two sets of conventions together – after all, there’s no rule about Dredd not taking his helmet off in a world where Dredd doesn’t exist!



CBY: Certainly true. As you were building out this story, what parallels and contrasts between the two worlds did you get to bring to the forefront? Was there anything in particular you’ve wanted to see mashed-up for a long time?



KS: What I really wanted to do – what I think readers would expect, in fact – is have it feel like Mega-City One and the world of Strontium Dog at the same time. Of all the outstanding British creators who came out of the era when both these series were being instigated and developed (Comic Book Punks is out now from Rebellion SALES PITCH ENDS), John Wagner and Alan Grant were the ones whose work I loved the most, for their great characters and brutally sacred cow-destroying Scottish sense of humour, but also because they just knew how to create a bloody gripping ongoing weekly serial.


Imitating their distinctive voice would be a very tall order, but I’m at least fortunate to have it buzzing away in the back of my mind while I’m writing, which gives me a bit of a head start. Beyond that, stir the Cursed Earth, a heavy dose of Dredd’s police state authoritarianism, a couple of familiar faces, Johnny Alpha’s impressive arsenal of weapons and – most importantly – a few thoughts on what would happen to gifted mutants like Johnny in a Dredd timeline where ‘muties’ are still banned from Mega-City One into one big pot.

 

Remember those great Dredd crossovers with Batman, Aliens and Predator? He’s so inflexible that he actually has great versatility as a foil for almost any character, and I’d love to see him in more crossover situations. I guess Doctor Who is the obvious one which springs to mind, two great British genre characters, but imagine him alongside just about any other property you can think of. Judge Dredd vs The Punisher? Judge Dredd in Game of Thrones? Judge Dredd vs Star Trek? Take my money.


BW: Ooh, good question! There's the Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill character Marshal Law who hunts superheroes, so might be fun seeing him take on the Marvel or DC universe. Failing that, Deadpool and Dredd... DREDDPOOL?? 


It isn't exactly mash-up, but I - along with a Batman writer - were in talks with DC about a Batman '66 and Doctor Who cross-over which we thought would have been fun, sadly it didn't pan out in the end. I think that would make an amazing mash-up with the 60s Batman piloting the Tardis and Robin as his assistant/companion. K-9 as Ace the Bat-hound... come on! Now we're talking!



CBY: It sounds like you've given Tharg and the licensing team plenty to mull over! Given John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra created both Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, they come from the same point of origin in both narrative and visual style, respectively. Both have also served as platforms for geo-political commentary on authoritarian systems and structural power imbalances, including inter-generational conflict. You’ve tied elements from both together succinctly in this one-off special - what sort of editorial direction were you given around the boundaries this story was expected to operate within?  


KS: None, really. Only that this is a world where Dredd doesn’t exist and Johnny Alpha is the main character, when my original pitch suggested a story where they existed alongside one another. Both John Wagner and Garth Ennis have written stories where Dredd and Alpha have time-travel team-ups – this is something different.


BW:  Karl did ask if this could be drawn with an "Old-school" 1978-1984ish feel. A classic Wagner, Grant and Ezquerra-style Dirty Harry Dredd / Spaghetti Western Stront vibes. And I was more than happy to try and capture this look to the art.



CBY: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the lettering contributions from Annie Parkhouse on this story. Noting her role, I realize I’ve never asked before about the design standards for 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine stories. We talked about breaking from narrative conventions within the world of each comic, but what sort of visual conventions make Rebellion publications stand apart?



BW: Oh, we should never forget the work and effort of the letterer. That is a job which is often overlooked, and especially if they do their job well - the better it is the more invisible it becomes. You tend to only notice it when they do a bad job, so I am more than happy to shout out the likes of Annie and her peers. 


As for the aesthetics of Rebellion's publications, and especially 2000 AD and the Megazine, there was always a policy of employing artist with a very distinct and individual style. There was no house style like the American comics had for decades, although that trend has changed now they hire a worldwide group of talent. But this was something we have had as a publication since the beginning, so you could have artists like Brian Bolland and Mick McMahon with almost polar opposite styles, but they fitted together perfectly. 


However, we also need to call out another under-sung group of artists, and that is the designers, the people who create the logos. Ever since the early days of 2000 AD, the logos have been an important visual to the stories. They were and are so much more than a font that has been manipulated, they are crafted and drawn, and that goes a long way to adding to the distinct look. Karl was keen that took inspiration from the old Dredd Logo, so I tried to recreate my version as if it had been drawn in 1984. I even added Alpha's profile face to replace the Dredd face from the original logo. 


KS: Annie Parkhouse has been a big part of British comics for many decades now, it’s always an honour to share a credit box with her. As Ben says, one of the best things about 2000 AD and the Megazine’s house style is that there is no house style, with a diversity of looks and storytelling tones in each issue. As a weekly anthology packed with gripping cliffhangers, it usually has something for everyone – as more than one person has said to me, its USP is that ‘if you don’t like a story, there’ll be another one you do like along in a minute’.

 

That ‘Judge Alpha’ logo Ben has created looks great, by the way. For more on 2000 AD’s design history, look out for the upcoming Cover Story: The 2000 AD Design Art of Robin Smith, with text by me (SALES PITCH ENDS).



CBY: Thanks for digging into the details and contributions that give Rebellion publications their unique character. Speaking of visual conventions, there are a number of panels both explosively violent, and violently explosive over the course of the story. I love some of the splatter effects, Ben, and there are lots of great moments for the gore to take the spotlight. How do you decide the level of violence which is right for each story?



BW: Well, obviously I wouldn't dream of drawing something like that in a more mainstream book, or something aimed at a younger reader, but I tend to treat the traditional 2000 AD characters when I am drawing them as extensions of how they were originally depicted, which typically had a laissez-faire attitude to how they presented violence, especially to wrong doers. 


Those early days seemed to have been a bunch of highly creative young anarchic Baby Boomers who were trying to appeal to an even younger more bloody thirsty bunch of Gen X'ers and later Millennials... And they ate it up. It was almost like they were saying, "well, you can't see Dirty Harry or Jaws, so here you go!" Times and tastes have changed, and you would never be allowed to draw something like that in an all-ages comics today, but I am drawing for the post "all ages" mature audience, so I am following in the footsteps, or maybe that should be exit wounds of the great comics artists before me.     


KS: If any editors out there need a blood-splashed exit wound drawn, I highly recommend Ben Willsher. Hopefully he puts this on his LinkedIn profile.


CBY: Taking the process up another level - what sort of techniques and tools do you both employ for your writing and illustration process? What software, tech, and tried-and-true writing/drawing utensils have you developed a penchant for using in your professional work? 



BW: So, this is all traditionally hand drawn. Pencil, pen and ink on paper! 


My method of working is I read the script thoroughly first, and once I have done that I do thumbnail roughs to layout the page. It can be pretty basic scribble, but it helps me get a rough idea of how the story telling and panel layouts will work.


Also, have I left enough room for the dialogue and word balloons? This is vitally important as if I don't leave enough space for the words, the letterer might have no other option other than to cover an important piece of art, let a face with a word balloon, and this would be my fault, not theirs. Once I’m happy with the general layout, I pencil the page fully based on these initial roughs. And after that I ink the page... And there's a lot of ink on these pages. Lots of ink being splatted across the page for gunshot wounds. So, lots of ink on my hands, and crossed fingers you don't splatter ink across anything important and obscure it. 


Once that process is done, I scan it in, and digitally colour it on a Wacom Cintiq. 


KS: For me it’s just a laptop, my brain and some bookshelves heaving under the weight of many dozens of 2000 AD graphic novel collections.



CBY: Thanks for walking our readers through the process involved in bringing this story to the page. Now, beyond the pages of 2000 AD, what sort of comics and other media have you both been inspired by lately? What should our readers check out once they’ve read Judge Alpha and the rest of the Sci-Fi Special 2024’s stories?



BW: Well, I promise he hasn't paid me to say this, but I am thoroughly enjoying reading Karl's book called Comic Book Punks. It covers the history of the British comic industry and some of its extraordinary creators who went on to dominate the comic book industry globally. It is a brilliant read, and I recommend it highly. 


My other suggestion is Petrol Head by Pye Parr and Rob Williams from Image Comics. The art is breathtaking and with a tight fun action packed story.... And I am not just saying that as I provide one of the variant covers.


KS: Aw thanks Ben, I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying it! Great sales pitch too. Yeah, I was going to say Petrol Head too – everyone knows what Rob’s capable of as a writer, but Pye is a design genius who really deserves to be a star of American comics. The same goes for Henry Flint, who’s arguably THE great contemporary Judge Dredd artist. 


Beyond that I’m reading (*looks at bookshelf to remind myself*) Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Cities, I’m listening to LCD Soundsystem after I saw them live again the other day and they blew my tiny mind, and I’m looking forward to finding a few hours to watch season three of The Bear.



CBY: Thanks for the fresh recommendations, and thank you both for joining us in the Yeti Cave today! For our readers at home, please feel free to include any portfolio, publication, or social media links below where they can further engage with you and your work. We look forward to seeing what you come up with next! 


BW: Well probably best checking out my Instagram page which has a real mix of my art, from my more cartoony stuff, to traditional comic art, with lots of fun and silly mash-ups to boot. So follow me here. 


KS: My pleasure! Just keep reading 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine. And did I mention I have a book out…?

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