John Wagner is a legend of the British comic book scene. Having created Judge Dredd and a host of others, he pretty much re-energised an entire industry in the late 70s. Add in his work with the Batman character and writing the powerful A History of Violence and it’s fitting that Mr Wagner is rightfully a part British comic book royalty. I recently sat down with John after his successful book signing in Glasgow where he discussed the new Dredd movie, writing Batman, and the shift to digital comics.
The way John engages with fans, poses for pictures and jokes is genuinely pleasing to watch. One by one people left with a smile (when they weren’t gently blowing on their autographed books). Much of this is to do with his laid back attitude and an accent that registers as soft on the West of Scotland scale.
He’s here to promote Fox’s new take on his iconic Judge Dredd character, and admits his role on the project was that of ensuring the script and dialogue matched up to what he expects of his character. “I was strictly limited to Dredd, what he would do and how he would behave.” John said.
“Any plot points that as a writer just wouldn’t work for me I’d say ‘well there’s something wrong here’ or ‘this ending maybe needs a different approach to it’. And mostly they listened to me, and often Alex (Garland, Dredd screenwriter) explained why things couldn’t be done the way I wanted to.”
One particular plot point John pushed for was the use of Dredd’s nemesis Judge Death, but Fox weren’t so keen on introducing the leader of the Dark Judges. “They wanted more nuts and bolts and to introduce the whole world of Dredd before bringing in these supernatural elements,” John explained.
John’s liaisons with Alex have worked well, as many critics have praised actor Karl Urban for his portrayal of Dredd. But there was one moment that set alarm bells ringing when going over the script: “For instance, one time I thought Alex was kidding me. At the end of one of his scripts he actually had Dredd kissing (Judge) Anderson, and I thought ‘C’mon Alex really!?’ I think he was kidding me on as he said ‘Aw I thought you’d like it John’ but for a bit he did have me going!”
John’s career is dominated by Judge Dredd, and the amazing amount of work that he’s put in to the universe around the character. But he’s also made a very important contribution to the Batman universe when he created the Scarface/Ventriloquist combo. Having one of his own villains become a mainstay in the Dark Knight’s Rogues Gallery is something he is immensely proud of:
“The very first story we (John and co-writer Alan Grant) did was the most rewarding of all of them. In terms of reward for time spent, it has probably been the best thing I’ve ever done, because the character of Scarface and the Ventriloquist were taken into that Batman pantheon of villains. Sometimes they use them in computer games and you get this unexpected royalty cheque coming through the door. Even if it’s only $100 it’s a nice feeling to have that coming in. That’s probably the best week’s work I ever done. Not many villains actually make it into the main Batman world, so to have the very first one we wrote to become a regular villain, it’s great.”
John feels Batman is one of the few American comic book heroes he can happily write, due to the grounded nature of the Bat’s powers. “He is one of the few American characters that I actually could write because he’s not a superhero,” he said. “In many ways he is just like Dredd. He is just a man, not with special powers, but a man that has honed his body to perfection. And that’s what you and I could be. And that’s why I wrote him because I identified with him. I would never have attempted to write Superman, because I just didn’t believe him. And that’s the thing that gets me about most American comics, the whole superhero genre. One? Yeah ok you can accept one, but when a whole genre is built around it then it’s just too much for me.”
Another thing Wagner isn’t so keen on is the recent shift to digital comics on read on tablets, and how swiping a screen just doesn’t compare to the tangibility of paper comics. “My opinion is they’re for other people. Not me,” John summises. “I had a fella interviewing me a couple of weeks ago and he’s got hundreds of them on his iPad, and he prefers to read them like that, but not me. I like something I can shove in a pocket and take with me. I used to really like when they were on ‘bog paper’ the black and white art on that terrible paper. Once they got shiny something just went out of them, they lost their shine.”
“I guess it’s the thing’s you grow up with are the things that stick with you. I like the old comics with 12 to 15 frames on a page I felt you could get a lot of story packed into three pages, whereas now you’ll get the same amount of story over six pages. You get better art sure, but in terms of story content there’s not so much.”
With the movie in the bag John has already written his next book in the Dredd universe, but says that now it’s perhaps time for a break: “I don’t really know what happens next. I’m taking a long break from it (the Dredd character). Although I have done a new Judge Death arc. I’ve brought back the four dark judges and I’m doing an 11-part story with (artist) Greg Staples. The artwork on that is just gonna be superb, his art is so good. So I’m looking forward to that, but that might not be til next year or even the year after. He’s taking his time on it.. I’m also working on Strontium Dog and hoping they actually make a film of Button Man so I can take a couple of years off and work on novels or whatever else I want to do, something new.”
John Wagner was signing in Plan B Books, Glasgow. Follow them on Twitter here.