In the comics field, Wagner is most famous for his co-creation of Judge Dredd with writer Pat Mills and artist Carlos Esquiere in the pages of premiere UK comics anthology 2000 AD in 1978. He has also worked extensively in the American comics market, most notably with DC Comics' Batman on numerous series. Wagner recently gained much acclaim when his comics series A History of Violence was adapted into the critically acclaimed film of the same name starring actor Vigo Mortensen.
Wagner was born in Pennsylvania in 1949 and moved to Scotland as a boy. Alongside writer Pat Mills, Wagner was responsible for revitalising British boys' comics in the 1970s, and has continued to be a leading light in British comics ever since.
He is best known for his work on 2000 AD, for which he created Judge Dredd. He is noted for his taut, violent thrillers and his black humour. Early career
Wagner started his career as a sub-editor at D. C. Thomson & Co. Ltd in the 1960s, where he met Pat Mills. The pair left to go freelance in 1971, writing for various IPC comics. Wagner later edited the girls comics Sandie and Princess Tina, often adding increasingly bizarre storylines in order to not only amuse himself, but to see if anyone actually read the strips! He briefly left comics in 1974, but returned to help Mills develop Battle Picture Weekly to compete with DC Thompson's Warlord title. Battle was the first title in a wave of tougher boys’ comics IPC were to produce during the 1970s. In Battle, he most notably wrote Darkie's Mob, a tough World War II action series which was among one of the most popular strips in the comic. He also edited Valiant, for which he wrote the tough cop series One-Eyed Jack based upon the film Dirty Harry, and scripted the spy strip Dredger for Mills's Action.
In 1976 Mills brought Wagner in as script adviser for the new science fiction title 2000 AD. Among Wagner 's contributions was M.A.C.H. 1, a thinly disguised copy of The Six Million Dollar Man, who appeared in the first issue. A more enduring character, however, had to be held over until issue 2. Judge Dredd began as another tough cop in the Dirty Harry mold, but the strip's futuristic setting allowed Wagner to push the crime and punishment theme to extremes, often to satirical effect. The character was initially visualised by artist Carlos Ezquerra, who left the strip unhappy at having to share it with other artists. Wagner also briefly left in the pre-publication stages over a dispute over ownership, but soon returned. Judge Dredd quickly became the most popular story in 2000AD. Some important early stories, notably "The Return of Rico" and "The Cursed Earth", were written by Pat Mills and contributed much to the character's development.
Wagner also created Robo-Hunter, with artist Ian Gibson, under his 'T.B Grover' pseudonym. This strip also proved highly popular and in 1978, Wagner and Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra went on to create Strontium Dog for Starlord, a spin off title which would eventually merge with 2000 AD. After the merge, Strontium Dog would become as popular as Judge Dredd and Robo-Hunter.
By 1980 Wagner was now writing the majority of his work in partnership with his housemate Alan Grant, although most of their stories were credited to either Wagner alone (under one of his pseudonyms) or Grant alone. Some stories, such as Ace Trucking Co., were credited to "Grant/Grover" to ensure both writers' got an equal share of the proceeds. Throughout the rest of the 1980s Wagner and Grant were writing the majority of strips in 2000 AD, Battle, the relaunched Eagle and others, although writers such as Alan Moore, Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison also created notable strips for 2000 AD during this time.
American work in the 1980s
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. Wagner says it was The Last American which broke his regular writing partnership with Grant, although Grant says a dispute over the ending of the Judge Dredd story "Oz" was also important. They split their work between them: Wagner kept Judge Dredd, while Grant continued Strontium Dog and Judge Anderson 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.
The Bogie Man and the 1990s
In 1989 the first issue of The Bogie Man was released. Published by Fat Man Press, the title was meant to tie in with Glasgow's position as European City of Culture in 1990. Although the title suffered from shipping delays it became Britain's biggest selling independently published comic ever.
Wagner had become disillusioned with 2000 AD and writing Judge Dredd during this time, and set out on what was proposed to be his last Dredd story, entitled Necropolis. He had also become part of the creative team on Toxic!, a new weekly comic set up in direct competition to 2000 AD. Apart from The Bogie Man, most of Wagner's strips were rejected for Toxic! as they did not fit in with editor Pat Mills plans for the comic. Of his other strips, Button Man, with illustration by Arthur Ranson, ended up in 2000 AD, where it has spawned three sequels, while another, Al's Baby, a comedy about a gangster who becomes the second man to carry and give birth to a child, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, was published in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1990.
Wagner decided to remain writing for 2000 AD, and Toxic! was eventually cancelled when the publishers went bankrupt in 1991. In that same year, he co-wrote the Batman/Judge Dredd crossover Judgement on Gotham with Alan Grant, with Simon Bisley providing art. The crossover was a huge hit and helped convince Wagner to remain on Dredd, while writing for American publishers on titles such as Dark Horse Comics' Aliens and Star Wars titles, the latter notably featuring solo stories starring the popular Boba Fett character.
1995 saw the release of the second of his works adapted for the screen (a Bogie Man film had been made by BBC Scotland in 1992 starring Robbie Coltrane, but was not well received and a series was never made). Judge Dredd was a big budget version of the comic based loosely on an early Dredd strip in 2000 AD. Wagner and Grant were invited to write a treatment for the script but were offered no money for doing so, and declined. Dredd was played by Sylvester Stallone and many critics felt this was a poor choice in casting. The film did poorly both critically and at the box office. After this Wagner was reluctant to allow any of his works to be made into a film.
In 1997 Wagner wrote his first original graphic novel, A History Of Violence, drawn by Vince Locke for the Paradox Press imprint of DC Comics. The book was very well received critically but did not sell well. Paradox also reprinted the original Bogie Man story.
Present day work
Wagner remains a prolific writer for 2000AD. He still writes the majority of Judge Dredd strips each year, as well as his Button Man strip among others. In 2002 he co-wrote with Andy Diggle the first Judge Dredd/Aliens crossover, Incubus, which was co-published by Dark Horse Comics and 2000 AD.
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 has been highly praised and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005.
Future mooted film productions include a Button Man movie.
Wagner has said he intends to retire from writing Judge Dredd at some point when a suitable replacement writer has been found, occasionally hinting that he favours fellow Scot Gordon Rennie. However, in the meantime he has launched one of the biggest Dredd 'epics' yet - "Origins", intended to flesh out the still sketchy background for the Judge Dredd character.
He is a supporter on the Moniaive comics festival held annually each September.
John currently resides in the Shropshire countryside with his wife.