John Wagner is an American-born Scottish comic script writer whose most famous co-creations include the character Judge Dredd for the British comic 2000AD (1977) and the graphic novel A History of Violence (1997). Wagner’s career spans the creation of British comics as an international cultural force in the late 1970s and 1980s as well as the influence of comics as source material by Hollywood in the 1990s and mid-2000s. His career also reflects the industry trend of comic writers and artists producing works based on licensed properties aimed at expanding the universe of established media franchises such as Doctor Who, Batman, Xena: Warrior Princess, Star Wars, and Alien vs. Predator

Born in the United States in 1949, the relocation of Wagner’s family to Scotland in the early 1960s greatly contributed to his opportunities in the comic industry. Not only did Wagner begin his comic script writing career at the Dundee-based DC Thomson & Co., one the United Kingdom’s largest publisher’s of comics. But his working friendship with comic writer and editor Pat Mills at Thomson led to their freelancing as story writers for IPC (International Publishing Corporation), the other largest publisher in the UK comic market. It was Wagner and Mill’s working relationship with IPC that resulted in writing for its weekly anthology comics such as the gritty war-themed Battle Picture Weekly (1975) and Action (1976), which drew heavily on popular 1970s film and television, as rivals to DC Thomson’s own comic anthologies. When IPC wanted a comic property to capture the market generated from the wave of science fiction films in the 1970s, Wagner and Mills worked on character-based science fiction storylines for the anthology comic 2000AD. The influences of New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s on comic writing continued with Dirty Harry (1971) as Wagner’s inspiration for the character of the futuristic law-enforcer Judge Dredd. The shifts in Wagner’s writing career from romance comics, to adventure comics aimed at boys and girls, to British war comics and science fiction not only reflect changes in domestic market demographics driving genre innovations for ever more competitive titles, but also how international films and television shows were impacting on comic creation.

While Wagner’s creative involvement with 2000AD has made him the longest running writer of Judge Dredd storylines for the comic, his creation of other 2000AD signature characters such “Strontium Dog” (1978), “Robo-Hunter” (1978) and “Button Man” (1992), are reminders of the crucial issues copyright for writers and artists, especially with regard to international comic markets. With IPC, Wagner’s arrangement had been a one-off page rate payment with no royalties despite worldwide sales or monies from licensed merchandising.

In 1997, Wagner and artist Vince Locke’s A History of Violence was published by Paradox Press, an imprint of DC Comics. With a storyline involving the violent mob past of a man who has concealed it from his family, Wagner continued his themes of violence and criminal life outside of the law. It would take the 2005 film adaptation of Wagner and Locke’s work to get it into print again and recognised and reviewed more as well.

With the 35th anniversary of Judge Dredd in 2012, three major films had been adapted from characters and storylines created by Wagner, all of which reveal, across three decades of international film production, different developments in the mainstreaming of comic culture.  Judge Dredd (1995), like the film version of Tank Girl (1995), was based on a contemporary British comic property which departed from decades-old American comic franchises given Hollywood treatments such as Batman (1989), Dick Tracy (1990), Batman Returns (1995) and Casper (1995). But Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, also continued Hollywood’s reliance on bankable film stars, big budgets, special effects and action driven storylines to warrant studio investment in comic properties. The screenplay merged storylines by Wagner and Mills, but neither of them nor any other 2000AD writer or artist had any input. The film was a commercial failure. It was critically panned and widely regarded a disaster by Judge Dredd fans.  A History of Violence (2005) reflected a different cultural legitimation of comics as film properties other than as blockbuster franchises. Released the same year as other filmed versions of comics such as Sin City (2005) and Constantine (2005), the marketing for A History of Violence reinforced its art film status by its association with a largely unknown independent comic in much the same way the independent comic sources adapted for the films Ghost World (2001) and American Splendour (2003) enhanced their independent film status. And yet, despite the film version of A History of Violence rescuing its director David Cronenberg’s commercial career, Cronenberg himself was unaware of the graphic novel origins of his film during much of its production. With Dredd (2012), Wagner was involved in the film’s production process as a consultant. And his endorsement of the commitment by both Dredd’s director and lead actors to realizing the key characters and Mega-City One setting was echoed in the positive reviews from fans and film critics.

Wagner’s career also highlights how the readership base for comics has been expanded through the world creation of spin-offs and crossovers involving popular television and film properties. Wagner’s storylines capitalized on the trans-Atlantic success of the BBC sci-fi television show Doctor Who with a weekly serialized comic in the UK, while Marvel Comic’s reprint of it in the United States in 1980 marked the first reappearance of Doctor Who in comic form in the US since 1967. Wagner’s own co-creation Judge Dredd has also battled other franchised media characters such as Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham (1991), Predator vs. Judge Dredd (1997) and Judge Dredd vs Alien (2003). As the writer for the comic version of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (1996), Wagner contributed to one of the first transmedia forms of storytelling involving franchise characters. Wagner’s Star Wars: Boba Fett storylines based on a secondary Star Wars character for Dark Horse Comics as well as Xena: Warrior Princess is indicative of the international role of comics in “sharecropping,” which refers to the work artists and writers do in creating fiction set in an already established universe created and under license by another author or owner.

Jason Davis

Further Reading

  • Beaty, Bart. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Toronto: Toronto University of Press. 2008. Print.
  • Bishop, David. Thrill-Power Overload: The Authorised History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic! Oxford: 2000AD. 2009. Print.
  • Chapman, James. British Comics: A Critical History. London: Reaktion Books. 2011. Print.
  • Williams, Walter Jon. “In What Universe?” In Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Edited byPat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, 25-32. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009.