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Judge Dredd on the cover of 2000 AD prog 889, 1994, art by Mick Austin (character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra

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.


Early life and career[]

Wagner was born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1949,[1] and spent his first thirteen years in the States before moving to Scotland.[2]

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 DC Thomson in Dundee. He got the job, and went on to become chief sub-editor of the romance comic Romeo,[2] and also wrote horoscopes.[3] He and Pat Mills, a fellow sub-editor, left to go freelance in 1971, and began submitting scripts to London's IPC.[4] They started by picking a title - Cor!! - and writing a complete issue. Of the 23 scripts they wrote, editor Bob Paynter bought twelve. Other titles they wrote for include Whizzer and Chips.[2] later also writing for girls' and boys' adventure comics, including strips like "Yellowknife of the Yard" for Valiant, "Patridge's Patch" for Jet, and "School for Snobs" for Tammy, working from Mills' garden shed in Fife.[5] IPC managers John Purdie and John Sanders began to take notice.[1]

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,[5] when both were merged into other titles.[2] After that he quit comics for a time, taking a variety of jobs,[5] including as caretaker of an estate in the Scottish Highlands[3] and dredging on a barge.[6]

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.[4] Mills and Wagner were dissatisfied with the sanitised nature of boys' comics[5] and wanted to make them harder-hitting, with more working-class heroes.[4] They devised the opening line-up themselves,[5] with the assistance of Gerry Finley-Day,[4] before farming the stories out to other writers.[5] The title was launched with a cover date of 8 March 1975,[4] and was a hit.[5]

Wagner continued to write for girls' comics, including scripting "Bella at the Bar" for Tammy,[7] and was appointed editor of the ailing boys' weekly Valiant, where he created the tough New York City cop "One-Eyed Jack",[5] inspired by the film Dirty Harry, who became the comic's most popular character,[8] and "Soldier Sharp", 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.[9] Wagner quit editorial and returned to freelance writing.[5] 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.[9] A collected edition was published by Titan Books in 2011.[10] 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-), drawn by Western.[9] For Mills' short-lived, controversial title Action he scripted the boxing strip "Blackjack".[11]

2000 AD[]

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". But when a proposed buy-out of the comic that would have improved creators' terms and conditions fell through, Wagner walked away from the comic,[12] leaving Mills to develop the character by commissioning stories from freelancers.[5] The first published episode appeared in issue 2, written by Peter Harris and drawn by Mike McMahon, which alienated Ezquerra from the comic.[12] Wagner returned to write the character from issue 9,[12] and has written the majority of Judge Dredd stories since.[5]

He created two new 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.[12] 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,[5] a short-lived sister title to 2000 AD with higher production values.[12] Starlord was later merged into 2000 AD, bringing "Strontium Dog" with it.[5]

Doctor Who[]

In 1979 Wagner and Mills collaborated on a series of stories for Marvel UK's Doctor Who Weekly. They pitched ideas to the Doctor Who TV series, but soon tired of the endless rewrites requested. The experience turned Wagner off TV writing.[5]

Partnership with Alan Grant[]

From 1980 to 1988 he wrote in partnership with Alan Grant, his housemate and a former 2000 AD sub-editor, 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.[2][13] 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".

Other pseudonyms were created, at the insistence of publisher John Sanders, to disguise how prolific the two writers were.[12] For Eagle they wrote "Doomlord", "Joe Soap", "Rebel the Police Dog", "Computer Warrior", "The Fists of Danny Pyke",[13] "Manix" and "The House of Daemon"; for Scream! they wrote "The Thirteenth Floor",[14] for Roy of the Rovers they wrote "Dan Harker's War",[13] and for Battle they wrote "Invasion 1984".[15] During this time Wagner wrote the documentary strip "Fight for the Falklands" for Battle, without Grant who had no interest in war stories.[13]

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.[13] Arguments over the direction of that title and the ending of the Judge Dredd story "Oz" led to the end of their writing partnership[12] 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.[13] Although the two continue to collaborate from time to time, they have never resumed a full-time partnership.

Creators' rights[]

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 week was confronted by Wagner, who emptied a large bag of Judge Dredd merchandise onto his desk and pointed out he had received no royalties for any of it. Davidge, whose background was in magazine and book publishing, was shocked, and introduced written contracts and royalty payments for comic creators.[12]

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, which they had previously pitched, unsuccessfully, to DC before writing Outcasts.[13] 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.[12] 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,[12] Grant Morrison,[12] Mark Millar and others. He did not resume writing the strip for more than three years.[12]

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.[12] 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.[12] Another, "Button Man", a contemporary urban gladiator thriller drawn by Arthur Ranson, was published in 2000 AD in 1992.[12] 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.[12] Further team-ups between Dredd and Batman followed, but were beset by production delays.[16]

In the mid-90s Wagner worked on a number of licensed properties for Dark Horse Comics in the USA, including Aliens, Star Wars, notably solo stories starring Boba Fett[17] and the comics strand of the multimedia project Shadows of the Empire, and Xena: Warrior Princess.[18] 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.[19] It was nominated for the Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Scenario in 2006.

21st century[]

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),[12] based on a treatment Wagner had written for an abortive TV pilot.[12] 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.[20]

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.[12] Since 2005 he has shared the character with other writers, including Gordon Rennie, Robbie Morrison, Si Spurrier[12] Al Ewing and Michael Carroll. Major storylines he has contributed include "Origins" (2006–2007), exploring how the Judge system was established,[12] and "Day of Chaos" (2011–2012), in which many of the institutions of Dredd's world are destroyed, leaving a more dangerous city.[21]


Wagner has written under a variety of pseudonyms as well as under his own name. In 2000 AD in the 1970s and early 80s he mostly wrote as John Howard and T. B. Grover; between 1980 and 1988 most stories under these names were co-written with Alan Grant (see above). Wagner and Grant also used numerous pseudonyms to disguise how much they dominated IPC's comics, including Ron Clark, Rick Clark, Ian Holland, F. Martin Candor and The Beast. Wagner used the pseudonym Keef Ripley for the 1989 2000 AD strip "The Dead Man" to disguise the fact that it was a Judge Dredd tie-in, and wrote "Young Death" in the Judge Dredd Megazine under the name of Brian Skuter, a character in the story.

Screen adaptations[]

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.[2]

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".[2] A second attempt at adapting the character to the screen, entitled Dredd, is due for release 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 and has been involved in the promotion of the film.[22]

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. 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.

It is reported that Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is in talks with DreamWorks about a possible Button Man film.[23]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Colin M. Jarman and Peter Acton, Judge Dredd: The Mega History, Lennard Publishing, 1995
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 W. R. Logan, Interview with John Wagner, Class of '79
  3. 3.0 3.1 David Bishop, "Interrogation: Alan Grant Part One", Judge Dredd Megazine #266, 8 January 2008, pp. 16-22
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 David Bishop, "Blazing Battle Action" part 1, Judge Dredd Megazine #209, 16 September 2003, pp. 73-78
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 David Bishop, "John Wagner: The Quiet American", Judge Dredd Megazine #250, 17 October 2006, pp. 24-30
  6. David Bishop, John Wagner talks about Battle Picture Weekly, Vicious Imagery, 30 January 2007
  7. Brave Bella Barlow, Tammy's Most Popular Heroine, Books Monthly
  8. "I invented Judge Dredd", BBC, 28 February 2002
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 David Bishop, "Blazing Battle Action" part 2, Judge Dredd Megazine #210, 23 September 2003, pp. 72-79
  10. Darkie's Mob - The Secret War of Joe Darkie at Titan Books
  11. "Blackjack" at The Sevenpenny Nightmare
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 12.13 12.14 12.15 12.16 12.17 12.18 12.19 12.20 David Bishop, Thrill Power Overload, Rebellion, 2002-2009
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 David Bishop, "Interrogation: Alan Grant" part 2, Judge Dredd Megazine #267, 5 February 2008, pp. 16-22
  14. Review of The Thirteenth Floor reprint collection, 2000 AD Review (via Internet Archive)
  15. David Bishop, "Blazing Battle Action" part 4, Judge Dredd Megazine #212, 18 November 2003, pp. 72-79
  16. David Bishop, "Interrogation: Alan Grant" part 3, Judge Dredd Megazine #268, pp. 16-22
  17. Interview with John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, Dark Horse Comics, 1997 (via Internet Archive)
  18. John Wagner interview, Westfield Comics, July 1999
  19. Alex Irvine, "A History of Violence", in Alastair Dougall (ed.), The Vertigo Encyclopedia, Dorling Kindersley, 2008, pp. 87
  20. Tony Ingram, Mutant Mayhem in Milton Keynes: The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha, Strontium Dog, Broken Frontier, 19 August 2011
  21. Interview With John Wagner at the Glasgow Con 2012 by Gordon Mclean for Talk Comix
  22. Owen Williams, Exclusive: John Wagner And Alex Garland Talk Dredd, Empire, 2012
  23. Mike Fleming, Nicolas Winding Refn In DreamWorks Talks For ‘Button Man: The Killing Game’, Deadline New York, 31 May 2012

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