What do Charlie Mackesy’s gentle, natural world-inspired The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse and the sprawling post-apocalyptic sci-fi universe of 2000 AD have in common? Aside from both being runaway bestsellers, they are both art-oriented stories that have, against the odds, been reimagined as compelling audiobooks.
“When you’re translating something that visual into audio you can take less from the page. You have to create more from nowhere,” explains Richard Lennon, Audio Publisher at Penguin. “What you’re doing with sound design and music is attempting to replicate the experience of reading the book, but in quite a non-literal way. The music is designed to give you some of the emotional impact that the words and pictures have together.”
Launched in 1977 from the ashes of ‘Action’ comic, 2000 AD used sci-fi, fantasy and the future as a smokescreen for storylines that might have left parents too squeamish if they were set in the modern day. Its artists and writers created some of the comic world's most famous antiheroes – including Judge Dredd – and what began as a title date that seemed almost impossibly far into the future has now receded into the past, but the comic’s success gallops on.
Five stories from the comic have been given the royal audiobook treatment and a cast of dreams, which includes Sheila Atim voicing Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s lead in The Ballad of Halo Jones; Joseph Fiennes playing John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s ultimate law enforcer, Judge Dredd in two stories; Colin Morgan in Sláine: The Horned God, and Richard Armitage and Nina Sosanya in Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard’s space-noir Brink.
“I offered some ludicrous ‘fantasy casting’ suggestions, assuming my unrealistic ideas would be used as a guide for available actors of comparable type,” says Abnett, a comics writer and 2000 AD mainstay. “I was hoping they’d be able to find someone like [Nina], with her intensity, and they didn’t have to!”
The team were keen to cast actors with experience in sci-fi and dystopian settings, who could be authentic to the original characters while still surprising listeners.
“That’s one of the things you can do with audio that’s much harder with film and TV; you can be quite bold with those choices,” says Lennon, who was delighted with how much the cast threw them into the action. “Chris, our producer, was talking about Joseph [Fiennes] doing 30 seconds of shadowboxing in the booth to make himself sound out of breath.”
A further surprise came at Christmas, when the actor Luke Thompson suddenly became world-famous as Benedict Bridgerton in Netflix’s Christmas hit – keep an ear out for him as a crime lord on Dredd’s Mega-City One turf. But a cast is nothing without a script, and that was a massive question. 2000 AD stories have been adapted as audio drama before, but here the team were trying to put the literal book into the listener’s ears. With so many artists integral in the development of legendary characters, how do you turn artwork into sound?
The team began by sitting down with the graphic novels, rather than scripts, and realised that sound design and original music would take the place of the visuals.
“[The music] is the equivalent of the art style, and the sound design is conveying the action,” says Lennon. “If you’re a fan, you know Mega-City One. It’s about conveying the feeling of that rather than literally translating each detail.”
Among the visual aspects that Brink writer Dan Abnett credits his co-creator INJ Culbard with are deadpan intensity, a claustrophobic environment, and a retro ’80s colour palette: “Those things can’t transfer directly but they can be substituted with audio equivalents: a contained feel to the actors’ delivery, the close sound quality of small rooms and quiet conversations, and the sound effects to create a sense of space and environment.”
This fresh appraisal extends to the characters as much as scenery. With a creation like Dredd, for example, how do you avoid it being ‘grumpy man says grumpy things, grumpily’? Lennon says there’s a deliberate attempt to reinvent with this iteration of Dredd.
“Here he is menacing, threatening and quite dark rather than the drill sergeant that you’re used to seeing. It’s completely authentic to the original, but it’s a different take on the character. It would be easy to wind up the super-fans with this,” he acknowledges wryly; “[Dredd] is a character you’re very invested in.”
Fortunately, that outcome looks highly unlikely, not least because Lennon is himself a super-fan. (Is Judge Dredd going to take off his helmet? “No! This is Karl Urban, it’s not Stallone.”) A long-time 2000 AD reader, he is overjoyed at the prospect of bringing the stories to a new audience as well as to existing fans.
With decades of stories to choose from, some with detailed fight scenes, the team deliberately chose stories that weren’t too action-heavy, as Lennon explains: “The Pit is a bit of a police procedural almost, it’s Dredd-as-cop. With America, again, there’s action but it’s much more reflective.” In a twist that nobody could have foreseen, the team were making America while the Capitol was being stormed on 6 January: “It was written in the 1990s, and it feels like it could have been written last week,” says Lennon.
Brink, too, has a different kind of violence, breaking with the old comic book convention of a fight on every page. “Ian [Culbard] and I wanted the action in Brink to feel like real life, not comics: brutal and sudden and shocking,” says Abnett. “I think audio conveys that shock very well.”
Battle scenes in Pat Mills’ creation, Sláine, proved simpler thanks to its Celtic mythology setting. “You have dragons and rattling of swords and you know what that means: you don’t have to have the level of detail you would in a Dredd fight scene,” says Lennon.
However, there were long discussions over how to pronounce Sláine’s name out loud. The team went with ‘Slain’ in the end, in keeping with how it was read on the page, and the pun on the past tense of ‘slay’ (“We felt that would be familiar with fans and it would be the right way to go”) and cast a native Irish speaker as the narrator so that, as Lennon says, every other aspect was “bang-on”.
For the dedicated fan of this compelling universe, the new 2000 AD audiobooks act as beautiful new editions to add to the collection. And for the newcomer, Dan Abnett has some excellent advice: “Read the comic and then listen to the audio – or do it the other way around. It’s not an either/or. Each will give you things the other didn’t, or entertain you in different ways.”
The 2000 AD Graphic Novels published as audio digital downloads are available now.
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