For many longtime 2000AD fans, the Rogue Trooper story created by Gerry Finlay and Dave Gibbons in 1981 was one of the most iconic titles the Galaxy's Greatest Comic produced. A full on future action war story about a renegade, genetically engineered soldier, seeking revenge for the massacre that killed his clone-brothers across a war-torn far flung planet, the warring factions loosely standing in as allegories for the Allies and Axis powers of World War II, rapidly became one of the comics most popular stories. The story included what was then a rather far out concept, that upon death, the memories and personality of a GI could be extracted on a biochip and slotted into other soldiers equipment, to keep it 'alive' until it could be uploaded into a new clone body - thus saving time and resources on training new troopers to such a high and costly degree. This idea wasn't new in science fiction but was still mostly unexplored in comics at the time; now of course, popular culture has caught up to wilder science fiction ideas and the biochip idea is getting more well known thanks to shows like Altered Carbon.
The story ran for 8 years, encompassing Rogue's quest to find the traitor behind the massacre, a story conceit that was the backbone of the bulk of the run...a run that slowly started to run out of steam, to a degree, after that storyline was resolved. Attempts were made to open up the story by expanding Rogue out into the role of a hitman on a mission, however these were short-lived. By 1989, Dave Gibbons had decided he wanted to reboot the concept, to freshen the story and go back to some of the original ideas regarding the character.
So, in what was inarguably 2000AD's first Golden Age, at a time when both Slaine The Horned God and Judge Dredd: Necropolis were warping minds - both culminations of years and multiple stories leading up to mega-epics the likes of which even 2000AD had not attempted until then - Rogue Trooper: The War Machine had its debut. Against such incredibly well made stories as competition in the Prog, it would take something really special to stand out. Gibbons, with incredible art by Will Simpson and lettering by Bambos, not only managed to equal them and to hold its own, but their new version of Rogue, along with them, elevated the Prog to a higher degree than we had seen before. 2000AD had always, from the start, used social commentary to fuel their stories, they'd opened the minds of thousands of readers to new concepts, social awareness, given warnings of what might be if we didn't mend our ways. A lot of it though had been delivered with humour, or at least sarcastic knowing winks - in The War Machine, as with The Horned God and Necropolis, the Prog took a big jump into adulthood.
The War Machine was a treatise against war, the movement of corporations into governance and warfare, being a slave to the systems put in place before we were even born to keep those at the top at the pinnacle, while the rest of us scratch and claw and die for their comforts. For me at least, it still stands as probably the most effective and incisive anti-war/anti-capitalism stories 2000AD has ever printed. Whether Gibbons intended it to be so when he wrote it, or that commentary came about naturally as he progressed the story he was writing, I don't know, but it was something that has stuck with me ever since. It's one of those touchstone moments in your life that sticks with you, is never far from your mind when you are confronted with the injustices of the twisted societies we have created. Well, it is for me, as I said. The genius of Gibbons' story though, is that none of this is preachy, none of this is so in-your-face that it is a detriment to the movement of the story. It is so woven into the nature of the piece, it is such well written drama for the character to deal with, that at no point does it feel like an agenda piece.
Instead, what it is is one of the best short-run stories 2000AD ever published. A war story that takes the core of the original Rogue Trooper and turns it into a perfectly paced journey. Still a quest for revenge, the story eschewed a scenery-chomping villain like the Traitor General to pursue, instead providing the much more insidious and far more realistic villain of the piece, Clavil - the troopers own genetic template 'father', the Eustace Fargo to the new Rogue, a corporate leader whose only interest was testing a genetic product to destruction in order to increase his profitability and business orders down the line. The entire war itself started as a way to stimulate business, with no care for the deaths of the ordinary people caught up in it. A tactic we thought was a dystopian future then; a reality we are seeing the beginnings of now, openly, with the behaviour of a businessman President using threats and fear to inflate his own wealth. Again, 2000AD was ahead of the curve.
Gibbons' writing was sharp, utterly to the point. To de-clutter the story he stripped away some of the iconic elements of the original story - no conveniently named biochips here, instead the equipment the new Rogue carries is gifted to him by the deaths of his comrades. Upgraded pieces due to their specialties, a more adult way to provide the gear capabilities from the original story while also providing emotional anchor points to the quest he puts himself on. His own name, instead of another convenient title card name given without much thought to the logic of it, is changed to Friday - something that has meaning to the story itself and his character, as he is a 'Friday-job", the last genetic alteration on the tech's assembly line before the weekend, an alteration to modify each foetus to be more obeying of commands, an alteration that didn't take in this GI and was never fixed. Friday is the one GI that is capable of disobeying commands when pushed too far, and the deaths of his friends, the abandonment of the survivors to their fate awakening his very human need to make someone pay for it all.
Here we don't get the very black and white bad Norts vs Good Southers of the original, we get a full exploration of the original massacre that was never fully detailed in the original, and then a trek across the land to an objective, a way off-planet and back to Highside, the one place to find his answers and his revenge. A trek that gradually shows everyone, regardless of side, is just trying to survive the meat grinder they've been thrown in. We also get an ecological message as we go along with Friday - this is no Nu-Earth, no far flung battlefield. This is our Earth, ravaged by war and exploited by corporations to ecological collapse. Truly, Friday is searching for revenge on monsters, the kind we allow ourselves to be ruled by today, let alone a thousand years from now.
The War Machine is a distinct counterpoint to the original Rogue story. My love for the original will never diminish, the concepts it explored alongside its Commando/Action inspired simple future war tale were mind-bending at the time, formative ideas even that pushed me into reading more and more serious-minded sci-fi literature. A true great of the early 2000AD lineup that still resonates through other stories and attempts to revive the universe still today - look to the masterfully done Jaegir as an example of one that got it right by trying to deepen the universe. However, the original tale never got to be the deeper story it should have been. The War Machine was Rogue Trooper for a growing readership, a stronger tale that not only made the character and mission he was on more relatable, but brought home the horror of war and the insidious nature of capitalism taken to extremes that perhaps a lot of us in the 2000AD readership hadn't been thinking of at the time. It wasn't ra-ra-shoot-the-Norts simple stories connected to a general arc, it was a more complex story of "why the hell is this going on and who is responsible for this horror". I think this deeper dive into reality through sci-fi is why I currently identify so strongly with Kek-W and Dave Kendall's Deadworld saga - they too took what was beforehand mostly dealt with in a superficial manner, and they turned it into a whole universe that was not only horrific, but real. Fantasy turned more to our reality, with something to say about where we are right now. 2000AD has always been at its best when it does this. Which leads me onto my final point regarding The War Machine - the only, ONLY quibble I have with it is that it was not left alone. As a standalone story, it is magnificent. Absolutely some of the best writing and the best artwork that I have seen in any comics publication. A story that you can race through as it builds and builds to a tremendously well-earned and satisfying conclusion. It absolutely should not have been followed up with the lesser stories, returns to the bang-bang simplicity of filler stories that started to creep into 2000AD in the early to mid-nineties, that it was. Friday suffered from this unneeded dilution, unfortunately. So for me, The War Machine stays a one-and-done epic, and my advice to anyone looking to familiarize themselves with Rogue Trooper as a whole is that they should leave Friday at the end of his quest in The War Machine. You'll be happier for it.
And now of course, we have one of the best working directors of our time, Duncan Jones, a man who like a lot of us grew up on a steady diet of 2000AD, making a Rogue Trooper film. A man who knows Rogue Trooper and Friday inside out as many of us do, who is going to introduce him to a whole new and larger audience. Mr Jones absolutely has to put his own stamp on Rogue Trooper as a movie, and I have no doubt whatsoever he will nail it; but my own selfish hope is that he will take the aesthetics, the depth and the commentary of The War Machine as the backbone of his story, but add back in the iconic elements of the original such as the biochips to please the other fans. I'm keenly awaiting all the coming news on this project and wish it nothing but success; and if he suddenly announces he's adapting The War Machine itself, fully, I doubt I'd be able to get the smile off my face without surgery.
Rogue Trooper is one of the iconic, historic pieces of 2000AD, of that there is no question. But the War Machine - that is where, for me, 2000AD grew up.