During the late 1980s, DC Comics put out what can most appropriately be described as “a metric shit-ton of beautifully rendered fever dreams”. This was, obviously, partially in part to the so-called “British Invasion,” which saw a small hoard of British creators including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Jim Baikie, and Grant Morrison, breaking into the American comics market and, ultimately, changing it forever. Some more than others, of course, with Moore’s Watchmen taking center stage for the majority of comics fandom there-on-out, Morrison’s run on Animal Man cementing them in the quintessential reading Hall of Fame, and Peter Milligan blowing post-apocalyptic fans out of the water with the likes of Skreemer and Johnny Nemo.
And then there are the titles that, honestly, did surprisingly well in terms of initial sales… but, perhaps in hindsight, no one really checked to see if the creators were really ready to switch into the American market. Hopefully you’ve guessed by now that I'm talking about John Wagner and Alan Grant’s DC Comics debut, the 12-issue 1987 series Tharg’s Future Sho — I mean, Outcasts.
(I joke, but the tagline on the cover of each issue describes the series as a “12 Issue Future Shocker,” a description perilously close to the high-profile anthology series Tharg’s Future Shocks that had been running for close to a decade in 2000 AD by that point.)
Readers may be familiar with the names of both of these creators for various reasons. While John Wagner has continued to absolutely kill it for over four decades when it comes to co-creating countless strips for Rebellion’s sci-fi weekly 2000 AD (as well as continuing to write Judge Dredd, a character he co-created with the great Carlos Ezquerra), Alan Grant — also known for his extensive 2000 AD work, often co-written with Wagner — arguably became best known to American audiences through his work on Detective Comics and Batman from the late 1980s well into the 1990s. Throughout both of their careers,, it’s undeniable that the pair not only have a knack for humor, but also a breathtakingly deft ability to make sci-fi and fantasy something dark, horrifying, and utterly addictive. (Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t read Strontium Dog.)
Combined with the serially underrated and mind-glowingly clean artwork of British artist Cam Kennedy — another 2000 AD veteran who’d previously worked with Wagner on Dredd — Outcasts is, unfalteringly, one of the best, and strangely one of the most unknown, gems of the late ‘80s British Invasion era.
Outcasts tells the story of a future where the rich live in enclaves inside a walled city and the poor and mutated are relegated to ghettos and shanty towns on the outskirts. The police forces are out in droves at all times, and are not afraid to beat down any poor soul who dares sneeze wrong in public; businesses and media are all based around filth, sex, money, and scams; and on top of everything else, something called Mutant Clearances have begun all around the city, courtesy of Mayor Boss Angel.
In the shadows of the rich side of town lies Kaine Salinger — heir of the city’s murdered wealthy Public Defender — a mutant who lives in secret, the power to rapid-age her victims with one touch, and is bound and determined by her desire for revenge to create a team ready and willing to fight for the rights of the public and for all mankind. After gathering her new team of Outcasts — Yancy Queeg, a man cursed with the inability to die, a blue mutant with extreme electrical conduction powers named Shock, and of course B.D. Rickenbacker, a cyborg former-Slaughterbowl champion — Salinger unveils a truly grotesque and painful wrong being done to the mutant population that only the Outcasts themselves can make right.
Now, this all sounds very dramatic. The reason for that is, for much of the first six issues, the comic very much is. As news stations announce that mutants are being shipped off-world to the dark side of a moon, where they can live harmoniously and out of the way of the “normal people”, it’s revealed not only that the male mutants are being immediately shipped into a gas chamber upon their arrival, but that mutant children’s pituitary glands are being used to harvest a special serum of immortality for the rich, with the women being kept as “breeding stock” to keep the mutant children production going.
Wagner and Grant certainly know exactly how to create a dystopia so horrific that readers may need to take a moment. But…to be fair, this isn’t exactly new territory for either Wagner or Grant, even less so if we’re talking about their career as a writing partnership.
One of the stranger parts of Outcasts is that any self-respecting fan of British comics may be left with the distinct feeling that they’ve seen this before. For any other creative team, this would feel like the ultimate insult, but Wagner and Grant got away with it because American audiences had almost no connection to the pair’s previous series, with 2000 AD little seen in the U.S. at the time, and reprints receiving limited distribution due to their independent publishing origins. (Eagle Comics and Quality Comics, which both carried 2000 AD material in the U.S., were relatively small companies.) The irony is, of course, that, for the most part, Outcasts is the pair’s previous work with the number plates filed off and stamped over with a DC logo. Never read those Judge Dredd guys’ work before? Well, you’re about to read their entire catalog in one maxi series.
The Big City setting of the series is laid out almost identically to Mega-City One in the Judge Dredd mythology, with named tower blocks (Reagan Heights; Kennedy Towers, etc) lining an otherwise grey and grim neon-sign city advertising suicide booths, prostitutes, cheap alcohol, and…well, more suicide booths. It would be easy to dismiss this as a one-off for Wagner giving a call back to his established career with the grumpy geezer of 2000 AD fame, but the hits just keep coming as police officers of The Big City are shown wearing eerily similar uniforms to that of the Judges — covered eyes, helmets, padded armor, and unsettling anonymity aside from their badges.
Much like the Mega-City Judges, these forces can also be seen throughout the series taking down whomever they feel is just not doing the right thing the right way — perhaps blinking too long or walking too funny down the street. Not to mention the city’s use of degrading reality TV shows to humiliate guests for pay; a common trope used throughout the various Mega-Cities for entertainment. But, to be fair, the sheer presence of Cam Kennedy’s exquisite, idiosyncratic penciling is a pretty big flag to mark the influence of Dredd.
The, uh, homages don’t stop there though; even as Judge Dredd was becoming popular under the hands of Wagner (and later Grant, of course), so did the lesser known Strontium Dog — Wagner and Grant’s more anarchic mutant revolt answer to Marvel Comics’ X-Men — which ran alongside Joe [Dredd] in 2000 AD’s sister magazine at the time, Star Lord. (Upon Star Lord’s swift cancellation, Strontium Dog was picked up by 2000 AD and ran regularly for the next decade or so.)
It’s not enough that Outcasts is literally another comic tackling the mistreatment of... well, societal outcasts; several of the mutants bear a fun resemblance (in both aesthetics and personality) to Wagner’s Strontium Dog cast, such as Shock, whose bizarre eyes and electric powers that shoot from his hands could potentially be credited to Wagner’s Strontium Dog lead Johnny Alpha, who had special mutant eyes and patented “electronic” shock gloves. The parallel stretches beyond just similar characters though, with the main storyline of Outcasts (mostly) concerned with the team exposing the mistreatment of humankind after a government official calls for their extermination… just as happened in a Strontium Dog storyline some years earlier.
Almost every one of the characters present in Outcasts gets this treatment of being the upcycled concept for the bigger American audience, and I don’t mean that as an insult. The unfortunately ever-living Yancy Queeg — who arguably has one of the best names in comics history — echoes the wild, vacant expression of Wagner and Grant’s not-quite-dead/not-quite-alive character GBH of the intergalactic humor strip Ace Trucking Co.; B.D. Rickenbacker’s design and flare for temper is not unlike Mean Machine Angel of Judge Dredd, with elements of the hyper-violent sports of early 2000 AD strips Inferno and Harlem Heroes tossed for good measure. (His sports injuries also make B.D. those most lovable idiot possible, of course.)
Even Boss Angel’s mass-murdering computer ORCOM lends itself to the unsuspectingly charming narrative behind Max, the murderous but beloved computer of Wagner and Grant’s 1980s horror strip The Thirteenth Floor, as unexpected a lift as that is. For each character that provides a strong statement in the first half, or the absolutely bonkers last half, of the series, there’s a whole history of characters from the writers’ extensive back catalogs to be drawn on, pushing readers to seek out a whole hoard of external Wagner and Grant projects.
Now, I don’t want you thinking that Outcasts is entirely one big rip-off and that you could just go read a bunch of old 2000 AD collections instead to save yourself time. Though the premise and character designs may lean towards Wagner and Grant being cheeky sods about low-key sneaking in old concepts, the way both writers approach the series is something entirely alien from the way many of their comics published in the UK have been handled. Though Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Ace Trucking Co., and all of the other countless stories that the two have collaborated on often touch on both the darkness of a dystopian future as well as the humor and absurdity of it, few cover the emotional and truly disturbing ground that’s found in Outcasts.
As the mutants are being herded into the space shuttles headed for what they believe to be an all-mutant safe-haven to help “balance the population” of The Big City, it’s soon revealed that mutant kind — ordinary people with abnormalities ranging from subtle to bizarrely grotesque — are treated as if they’re the scum of the Earth; separated upon arrival between the men and the women and children as the men are soon herded unknowingly to their doom inside of a gas chamber. In a Holocaust-esque fashion, mutants righteously scream “murderers” as government cronies rid the world of what they see as “real problem” plaguing cities across the world.
Because of both its horrific nature as well as the business and absurdity of the rest of the comic, readers may be quick to forget that women and children mutants are still alive, but now with specific purposes. Later revealed by Kaine Salinger in her last effort for justice, mutant women are locked up to be used as “breeding stock” to create mutant children who are being harvested for their enlarged glands which secrete a serum used to make Immortalis — a drug that allows the rich who can afford it the chance to live forever, unnamed. With the primary user of this drug being Vernon Niedermeier, criminal kingpin of The Big City with a stranglehold over the government inner workings, production of the drug is considered priority number one. Top all of this off with a few panels of a man capable of swallowing a woman whole, and a computer made up of mutant brains and you’ve got yourself a whole host of body-horror and nightmare fuel.
It’s no wonder that we get the chance to see this from Wagner and Grant, however. 2000 AD has, since it’s conception, traditionally run single five-page strips within the weekly anthology (known as “progs”), giving very limited chances for big reveals and immediate upset. With the newfound freedom of writing for not only writing for a clearly more adult audience, but having an entire 12 issues of full-length comic books to fill — nearly 336 pages! — the two were able to spread their horrible, disturbing wings and really let readers have it. (This is, perhaps, why Wagner never really gained a massive career in the States, but that’s another discussion.)
For all of its horrifying moments, however, the comic pleasantly hoists itself up onto the shoulders of Wagner and Grant’s sense of humor, as well as Kennedy and Steve Montano’s artistic contributions. Though the team is made up of some of society’s most vengeful outcasts, characters like B.D. Rickenbacker— which stands for either Bo-Bo Dan or Brain Damage Rickenbacker depending on who you ask — provides wholesome glee... a familiar, some would say classic, vibe of the Wagner/Grant collaborations.
Truly, I don’t believe that this series would be what it is without what can only be called the Wagner and Grant version of Sanctioned Buffoonery. There’s no shortage of humor to be found throughout Outcasts — I point to the very existence of characters with names like B.D. Rickenbacker and Yancy Queeg as evidence of that, with the former’s astonishing level of rough-and-tumble optimism consistently playing out like he’d wandered in from another, happier, comic at all times -- with the second half of the series in particular ramping up the absurdity and comedy as if both writers looked at how bleak the story had become after the revelation of what happened to mutantkind and realized that they probably needed to lighten things up as quickly as possible. Even what should, by all rights, be moments of high drama in the back half of the series become increasingly dark jokes, as when Yancy’s apparent death instead ends up with him being a boneless bag of living flesh carried around in a bucket marked “DO NOT EMPTY.”
Even the villains of the series turn out to be great comedy characters. What else to make of The Satan Brothers, two mysterious characters — are they robots? Are they cyborgs? How do they fry people to death with their hands? Why are their eyes like that? It’s unclear, but so is whether or not their dog Spot is actually a dog, or just some kind of nightmare fuel made out of literal shit — who prove to be charming and almost well-mannered even as they threaten and kill all manner of characters in pursuit of what they want.
In fact, it’s pretty easy to say that genocide aside, the darkest moments of Outcasts are arguably the filler jokes that are, once squinted at, quintessentially the mark of Wagner and Grant. Things like Suicide Park — a government-funded theme park for members of society who are ready to end it all, but at least make it fun on the way out — set the tone for how things operate in the background of the city while still making an impolite jab at just how flagrant the idea of killing onesself is when living in a desolate, over-populated future. The same can be said for the TV programs featured in the story such as a wolf-man who claims to catch a silver bullet in his teeth before having his head blown off, or even newscasters, whose blasé announcements about mass killings and poverty are treated no differently than announcing the weather or the lottery numbers.
To a lot of readers — particularly those just becoming familiar with the bigger, bombastic works of Wagner, Grant, and Kennedy — Outcasts could easily be seen as “lesser,” as something that is merely a copy of things that the duo had accomplished earlier (and more famously) on their home turf of Fleetway’s publishing empire in the UK. I think it’s a more persuasive argument that, despite being mostly forgotten to the times, Outcasts ends up being one of the most essential works of Wagner, Grant, and Kennedy separately and as a creative unit. There’s no pretension, there’s no pretending that the story is written by anyone else then who it is, and the art is unequivocally Kennedy in nearly every fashion. Outcasts as a series is, much like the characters that it introduces, delightfully unapologetic in its existence, and should be held up as nothing less than an example of the prestige humor and sci-fi genius that could come from no one else but John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Cam Kennedy.