You Are Judge Dredd, You Are Nemesis, You Are Having A Great Time In The “Choose Your Own Adventure” Gaming Of 2000 AD’s ‘The Complete Dice Man’
by Richard Bruton
Finally collected, The Complete Dice Man is a choose-your-own-adventure with a difference – it’s all in comic form. So, grab a pencil, grab two dice, we’re going to play a game!
So, It’s 1986 and you are Pat Mills. You co-created 2000 AD in 1977 and have been responsible for so many great characters and strips in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic – including Nemesis, Sláine, and ABC Warriors. You notice how incredibly popular the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books are and have an idea…
That idea was Dice Man, five issues of role-playing, choose-your-own-adventure, dice-rolling comics featuring some of the best artists from 2000 AD and beyond – and now it’s all been collected as The Complete Dice Man.
The whole choose your own adventure book thing had been around for a while, but 1982 saw the publication of the first in the incredibly successful Fighting Fantasy series. Frankly, to readers of a certain age (including me), just the mention of Warlock of Firetop Mountain e.t al. will trigger wistful reminiscences of days of total immersion in the fantasy that the books offered.
So Mills picked up and ran with the whole Fighting Fantasy idea with Dice Man – creating a whole comic of stories combining the choose-your-own-adventure page movements and the dice rolling of Fighting Fantasy, but with each strip having its own unique set of rules, catered to the nature of the character and the story.
Dice Man impresses from the off, with the three stories that were in issue one, Judge Dredd, Nemesis, and Sláine, really setting a high bar for everything to follow.
You Are Judge Dredd has a very well-crafted haunted house spookfest from John Wagner and Mills, featuring Judge Death and the Dark Judges and, doing some beautifully atmospheric artwork reminiscent of both his Luther Arkwright sci-fi and his Nemesis gothic-infused work, Bryan Talbot on the first of just five Dredds that he would ever do. It’s also quite a shock to read/play a comic where you get to see Dredd die on the page – or Slàine, or Nemesis!
And speaking of Nemesis the Warlock, Kevin O’Neill returns to the character for The Torture Tube, giving it absolutely everything you would want and expect, with a high-speed dash in Nemesis’ Blitzspear surrounded by all that magnificent O’Neill devilish detail.
And the final strip in that first issue was Sláine: Cauldron of Blood – incredibly, the only time we’ve seen David Lloyd’s artwork in 2000 AD. Looking at his Sláine, you really do start wondering just how incredible seeing Lloyd’s characteristic artwork on Dredd et al would have been.
Other highlights include Garry Leach and Glenn Fabry on another Sláine, more wonderfully grotesque O’Neill art on Torquemada: Trapped in the Garden of Alien Delights, plus Steve Dillon’s art on ABC Warrior: Volgo.
There’s also a character created just for the series, The Diceman (no space in the character name, space in the comic title – no, didn’t make a lot of sense.) Mills created Diceman, Rick Fortune, with artist Graham Manley as a psychic investigator in 1930s America. There’s four Diceman tales in total, with art Manley, John Ridgeway, and two episodes from Steve Dillon – all of them looking absolutely great, three very different artists but each of them giving us a cracking noir style.
Anyway, The Diceman uses a pair of stone dice from Atlantis (because why not?) for anything and everything, from giving him that little bit of extra luck to summoning up various powers and magical thingies – including the three-headed demon Astragal.
It’s a little bit Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, a heavy sprinkling of Indiana Jones adventuring, and a dark dash of something Lovecraftian to give us a punky noir pulp horror. It might sound strange, but it actually works, with Mills altering the gameplay accordingly to take account of the spooky goings on – it wasn’t enough to keep Fortune from dying, you also needed to keep his sanity score high to prevent him going crazy.
Finally, best of all, in the fifth and final issue we got to see something completely different and absolutely the best thing in here, You Are Ronald Reagan! by Mills and Hunt Emerson.
It’s absolutely brilliant stuff, a spot-on satire of the doddering President, with Mills’ invective pouring out in a screed pretty much straight out of Spitting Image. And all illustrated by the genius that is Emerson, a completely different look from anything we’d seen in Dice Man thus far, but all of it simply fabulous, as you’d expect from one of the legends of Brit comics who can turn his hand to seemingly anything, whether that’s work for The Beano, existential tales of the perils of modern media through Calculus Cat, adaptations of the likes of DH Lawrence, Coleridge, or Dante, or the rather explicit adventures of Firkin the cat.
The object of the game in You Are Ronald Reagan! was to keep the world from being obliterated in nuclear Armageddon, but the gameplay was something completely different. In a perfectly Mills-ian twist, keeping an eye on Ronnie’s sanity score was important, but only to stop him having any ideas that were approaching anything sane – otherwise Ronnie’s Secret Service detail would spring into action, assuming he’d been replaced by a far saner enemy imposter instead.
It all meant a couple of things – Mills got to eviscerate Ronnie, Maggie, and contemporary politics in one go AND you got to play a weird game that you could only win by making the most ridiculous decisions. And of course, this being Mills’ game to play, pretty much anything you did was going to end up, sooner or later, with Ronnie’s fingers on the button and the world going up in a radioactive mushroom cloud.
It was the You Are Ronald Reagan! strip that gave us an idea of just how flexible a comic Dice Man had the potential to become. Sure, it might feature 2000 AD characters, but there was no end to what else could appear there – the cutting-edge satire of Mills and Emerson’s Ronnie strip could have been just the start of something very different. Indeed, that strip did lead to another Mills and Emerson collaboration, just not in the pages of Dice Man, as Titan Books released You Are Maggie Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game in 1987. It could easily have fitted into future Dice Man issues, if only there had been any.
Sadly though, Dice Man was just that little bit too radical, too inventive, to last. This was a polished black and white magazine-sized comic printing some stunning artwork on its glossy pages from a veritable who’s who of Brit comic talent, featuring all your favourite 2000 AD characters in their very own graphical versions of the insanely popular Fighting Fantasy series… but it failed to find an audience.
Sadly, all we saw of it was what’s here in The Complete Dice Man, just those five issues plus a slight return to the idea with Slàine: Tomb of Terror that saw publication in the Prog after the cancellation of Dice Man. It failed for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the hugely expensive cover price of £1.45 (this was in 1986 when 2000 AD cost just 24p). Then there was the bi-monthly publishing schedule and the fact that each issue was marketed more as a one-off special, a problem recognised in Thrill Power Overload, David Bishop’s fascinating history of 2000 AD. In there, he quotes managing Editor Gil Page as saying, “The trade viewed it as a series of one-shots, instead of treating it like any regular publication. There was no loyalty so it wasn’t a major success.”
Mills, with characteristic candour, has said that “the publishers at the time were crap, they weren’t supportive and they didn’t care.”
However, if it was a failure, it was a wonderfully made, fabulously inventive failure that really deserves this definitive reprint.
Dice Man really was innovative, spinning out of one idea and creating something else entirely, combining all the interactive excitement of game books and RPGs with the thrilling visuals from the best UK comic artists of the time.
It’s an important part of 2000 AD’s history and having it all together in this definitive collection, restored and beautifully presented, means we can all get the chance to get the pencils and dice out and have a great time playing comics!
The Complete Dice Man
Devised by Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill,
Published by 2000 AD on 24 May
Originally serialised in Dice Man issues 1-5 and 2000 AD Progs 447-461
Contains the stories/games…
Judge Dredd: House of Death – Game by Pat Mills, Story by John Wagner & Alan Grant, Art by Bryan Talbot, Letters by Tom Frame
Slàine: Cauldron of Blood – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by David Lloyd, letters by Gordon Robson
Slàine: Tomb of Terror – Game by Pat Mills, Art by Glenn Fabry, Garry Leach, Nik Williams, UNa Fricker, Letters by Steve Potter
Slàine: Dragoncorpse – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Nik Williams, Letters by Tom Frame
Slàine: The Ring of Danu – Game & story by Pat Mills, Pencils by Mike Collins, Inks by Mark Farmer, Letters by Mark King
Nemesis The Warlock: The Torture Tube – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Kevin O’Neill, Letters by Steve Potter
Torquemada: Trapped in the Garden of Alien Delights – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Bryan Talbot, Letters by Mark King
Rogue Trooper: Killothon – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Mike Collins & Mark Farmer, Letters by Tom Frame
Rogue Trooper: Space Zombies – Concept by Pat Mills, Game & story by Simon Geller, Art by Mike Collins, Letters by Richard Starkings
A.B.C. Warrior: Volgo – The Ultimate Death Machine – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Steve Dillon, Letters by Kid Robson
Diceman: In the Bronx, No One Can Hear You Scream! – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Graham Manley, Letters by Mark King
Diceman: Dark Powers – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by John Ridgway, Letters by Gordon Robson
Diceman: Bitter Streets – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Steve Dillon, Letters by Tom Frame
Diceman: Murder One – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art by Steve Dillon, Letters by Tom Frame
Ronald Reagan: Twilight’s Last Gleaming – Game & story by Pat Mills, Art & letters by Hunt Emerson