Saturday, September 8, 2018

No. 119 Steve Roberts

First Prog: 1320
Latest Prog: 1518

First Meg: 240
Latest Meg: 280

Total appearances: 76
-including his episodes of Metro Dredd and Metal Hammer SinDex that were reprinted in the Megazine, and a small handful of colouring jobs.

Creator credits:

Bec & Kawl
Black Atlantic

Other art credits:
Sinister Dexter
Banzai Battalion
The Angel Gang
Metro newspaper version of Dredd
Future Shocks + one offs

Notable character creations:
Bec(ky Miller)
(Jarrod) Kawl

Simon Davis's paints over Steve Roberts' pencils makes for a powerful image!

Notable characteristics:
Just about one of the cartooniest artists to have worked as a 2000AD regular. By which I mean, his characters and backgrounds often don’t try to look real, but rather to evoke ideas of real things in a simple way. Almost certainly as a result of this style, Roberts is pretty exclusively linked with funny stories…

Sometimes, all you need is a little bug-eyed jump scare to get you laughing.
Words by Dan Abnett
 …although in fact he achieved a pretty neat line in genuinely spooky moments.

Even though Kawl is trying not to be scared, Roberts' evil clown can't help but press the fear button in my brain.
Words by Si Spurrier

Also, he likes drawing curly noses and elbows, craggy hands and, perhaps above all else, pouty lips.

On Steve:
Steve Roberts was a pretty consistent artistic voice during the Andy Diggle / early Matt Smith years, very strongly associated with two writers, Dan Abnett and Si Spurrier. It’s nice to think he was and is good friends with both, as they meshed together pretty well, but I’ve no idea if that’s the case – it’s not uncommon these days for writers and artists to only ever talk by email, and even then it may go through the editor rather than person to person!

However it happened, Roberts got his break not through the classic Future Shock route, but on that other 2000 staple of one-off anarchy, Sinister Dexter. Back in them days, Sinister Dexter was largely an excuse for Abnett to throw in some puns and try out all sorts of writing style pastiches, while a large roster of artists played up a mixture of exaggeration, coolness and ultra-violent gunplay.

Not sure I’d describe Roberts’s vibe as ‘cool’, but he’s certainly into exaggeration and not shy of ultra-violence, although his cartooning makes the most horrific deaths seem oddly palatable.

Shocked expressions by Steve Roberts; muzzle flash by Chris Blythe; Words by Dan Abnett

Only Roberts' second story, but already his line and confidence has improved markedly!
Words by Dan Abnett

Craggy hands in action! There's something about the way he shapes his phalanges.
Words by Dan Abnett

He really nails the two characters' body language here. Dexter holds himself fully upright, looking suave, while Sinister holds his neck forward and own, and his whole body is generally more hunched and relaxed.
Words by Dan Abnett (and nifty colours here by Simon Gurr)

This style is not a million miles from an old 2000AD legend, Ron Smith. He was, of course, the go-to man for drawing idiots being idiotic and, where possible, ugly. Which leads nicely into Roberts’s first brush with the world of Mega City One, a couple of episodes of ‘Whatever happened to…’ that ran in the Megazine.

Spot the hapless Imelda Dreep...
Context by Alan Grant
And at this point Roberts was ready for a proper series, partner in crime this time round being Si Spurrier, and a full-on trying-really-hard-to-be-funny actual comedy strip, Bec and Kawl. I’ll be honest, I never liked Bec and Kawl quite as much as I wanted to, but I was always glad to see it in the Prog, with its guarantee of a gentle smile if not a belly laugh. It’s unfair to compare, but the strip is a comedy set in the world of workshy students, and, as such, it’s kind of a half-way house between the ultraviolent lunacy of DR & Quinch, and the more sardonic lunacy of Survival Geeks. And it’s not as good as either of those, even if its heart was in the right place.

Do people still watch Army of Darkness? It was a big part of my growing up, surely.
Words by Si Spurrier

Bec and Kawl is also the strip where Roberts found his footing. The early series have a slightly scrappy quality to the lines – which, on a meta-textual level, kind of lines up with the way it felt as a first year undergraduate, not yet having a comfortable personality.

Early Bec and Kawl has a rough quality, while still delivering the creepy monster goods.
Words by Si Spurrier
But as the series continued, (and the students aged) Roberts’s confidence seemed to grow, too. His lines smoothed out he seemed to exaggerate his faces and body language more effortlessly.

Late Bec and Kawl is much smoother, somehow. Our heroes are more comfortable in their own skin (and indeed clothes).
Words by Si Spurrier 

Whether or not you like the lead characters – genial, slightly bumbling stereotype of a young 2000AD fan Jarrod Kawl and goth-ish, vamp-ish, not nearly as cool as she thinks she is Becky Miller, you can’t deny that Steve Roberts captured them both perfectly.

But the true delight for me is in his scenery, whether it’s a folk-horror countryside, or the sheer hell of a motorway. The 2000AD-ish point of the series is its bizarre monsters, derived from a mix of British legend and frankly Spurrier’s warped imagination*, and Roberts never lets the team down on that front.

It's the smoking cauldrons that really sells this folk horror delight.
Word by Si Spurrier

Someone's been watching Brian Yuzna's Society. And a good thing too! Props also for the mad science machine in the background.
Words by Si Spurrier

More mad science, and do you know what, there's that beautiful  lo-fi charm to the line work that puts me in mind of no less a legend than Peter Dohety.
Words by Si Spurrier

In between episodes, The Spurrier/Roberts combo also produced a short string of Metro Dredd newspaper strips

Mad citizens and general lunacy - perfect. Weirdly geriatric Dredd - probably wouldn't work in the actual Prog...

And even a weird little series on the BBC website, of all places, but specifically linked to and indeed printed in 2000AD.
(You can still read that 4-parter here)

Supremely confident cartooning. Love it.
Words by Si Spurrier

Back in the Prog, alongside the odd Future Shock:

When Roberts does his own colouring, he really knows how to exaggerate the mood.
Words by Gary Wilkinson
Roberts landed a pretty prestigious gig drawing the final series of Banzai Battalion. This hilarious robot action romp never had a series regular artist, so it put Roberts alongside a pantheon of 2000AD legends – Henry Flint, Ian Gibson and Cam Kennedy. Robert’s work on Robot Wars stands up to them all pretty damn well. His style really reinforces the ‘Toy Story’ aspects of the series, which is about inch-high robots fighting bugs and then crime – and, ultimately, each other.

Expert action cartooning.
Words by John Wagner

For this last go around, writer John Wagner puts the focus on Captain Bug Stomper's sense of his own mission. He had always been a bit too gung-ho and here descends into full-on battle craziness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the Norman Bates pastiche from the final page of Banzai Battalion is one of my favourite visions of a man** gone mad.

One of my all time favourite 2000AD pages
Words by John Wagner

Somehow this ended up being Roberts’s final work for the Prog (well, except for a stint colouring Richard Elson on the first series of Kingdom),

This is Roberts colouring Elson - a nice counterpoint to Elson's work colouring Bec and Kawl.
Words by Dan Abnett
but he was kept busy developing a couple of series for the Megazine.

First, teamed up again with Dan Abnett, an all-new comedy series, Black Atlantic.
The pair came up with a cast of characters, and used a new setting to tell what short have been short, sharp, fun romps.

Nothing wrong with the set up or character design, but Black Atlantic never really found its headwind.
Words by Dan Abnett

At its best, it’s basically Ace Trucking Co but at sea, in the world of Dredd. A series that Roberts himself claims as a personal favourite, and he’s an excellent fit for that kind of comedy action. Sadly, Black Atlantic only ever hit those heights in the odd panel here and there, with neither of the two stories quite gelling.

Rubber ducks with evil tentacles: awesome; narration by scared 'ordinary boy': bit dry.
Words by Dan Abnett

Frankly far more successful was another collaboration with Si Spurrier, retelling lost tales of the Angel Gang. For this strip, Roberts developed a new black and white style that almost has a lino-cut quality to it.

Now that's how to fill a page with weirdoes and oddballs!
Words by Si Spurrier
Not quite full McMahon Slaine, but not a million miles off, and very deliberately (well, I think so) evoking a period western feel. Yes, technically that period is 100 years into the future***, but as with Missionary Man and the like, there’s definitely a sense that the Cursed Earth is not unlike a Sergio Leone western (or perhaps Corbucci is more in Spurrier’s pretentious film-school based wheelhouse). And, as such, the sepia / black-and-white early photography look really works.

The Angels themselves are a horrible, ugly, silly bunch. The people they interact with are typically also silly and occasionally ugly, if less horrible. As such, it’s an absolutely perfect fit for Roberts. Even better was his solo story tackling the Fink. Again, the series is pretty much all comedy, but you can’t have a lead character who is basically a decaying pseudo-zombie and not have some creepy horror elements.

More terrific contortions
Words by Si Spurrier

After seeing Roberts develop this new style and delivering arguably his most accomplished work, it was kind of sad that he bade farewell to Tharg. On the other hand, after my children were born a few years later I was delighted to encounter his work again in the form of DipDap, and absolute gem of an animation on CBeebies.****

Yes, that is a dude with a T Rex sticking out of his head. Literally.

More on Steve Roberts:
Frankly, I’m stumped. You’ll need to get hold of Megazine 278 for a print interview…

Personal favourites:
Whatever happened to Imelda Dreep
Sinister Dexter: Dirty habits
Bec & Kawl: Pest Control, Attack of the Cones, Freakshow
Banzai Battalion: Robot Wars
The Angel Gang: Before they wuz Dead; Pizen: Impossible


*These monsters are pointedly not drawn from fantasy/SF pop culture, a la Survival Geeks, if you’re wondering how this older comedy strip about whiny students is different!

**OK, robot.

***Hmm, thinking about this a little further, it’s perhaps more like 75 years into the future, if we’re talking about the Angel Gang a few years before the events of the Judge Child Saga, set in 2102…

****Apologies to people who don't pay the license fee needed to watch BBC stuff. You might be able to find it on Amazon Prime?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

No. 118 Mike White RIP

First Prog: 93
Final Prog: 897 (but before that, 516)

Total appearances: 77
-including work for Tornado, but not for Action.

Even the safest artists can deliver the 2000AD goods!

Art credits:
Abelaard Snazz
Mean Arena
Several of the best Future Shocks and Time Twisters

-and a whole bunch of fill-in work on:
The Lawless Touch
Wagner’s Walk
Disaster 1990

-Plus a memorable turn on an episode of Armoured Gideon

Notable character creations:
Agent Rat (star of my favourite Future Shock, who went on to have a whole two further solo adventures)
The Reversible Man (to be fair, not necessarily the most memorable character as such, but it’s a super memorable story.)

Notable characteristics:
No-frills, no-nonsense, super clear and easy-to-read storytelling. There’s also something about White’s style that, to me, is incredibly British. Perhaps even more specifically than that, 1960s-1980s British. The clothes people wear, the suburban setting, the general atmosphere of a country that is starting to pull itself out of wartime austerity and into affluence, with a renewed sense of class division.

The fashions of the far future never felt so from the past. Not to mention the attitudes... or are they???
Words by Grant 'class conscious' Morrison
(Or maybe that’s a reflection of scripts from Alan Moore, who had some opinions on this sort of thing).

What’s definitely Mike White is a way with facial expressions, effortlessly conveying the classics of disgust, ennui and of course, evil genius…


This whole sequence may be simple, but deeply effective both at communicating character and story. Top marks!
Words by Alan Moore

On Mike:
Let’s be honest here, Mike White was never 2000AD’s flashiest artist, and his style is so specifically old-fashioned that he was commissioned to draw a couple of mid-1990s episodes of Armoured Gideon in which the action pointedly shifts back to the early 1970s days of 2000AD / IPC comics. But you know what? That doesn’t mean he’s no good! On the contrary, Mike White fulfilled a very important role – being accessible and reliable.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re a long-term comics reader. But you’ve probably had experiences of trying to get people to read comics and discovering that they simply don’t know how. It is a skill, similar to but not exactly the same as reading prose. Why not give them a Mike White comic to read? If it’s a grown-up, I recommend his Future Shocks and Time Twisters, being as they have some sophisticated writing (looking at you, Steve and Alan Moore).

You've got all the fun of circular and trapezoid panels, but no confusion about what's going on.
Words by Chris Lowder
If it’s a child, you could do worse than a hit of late-period Mean Arena. Sure, the overall story will make no sense, but the panel-to-panel action storytelling is clear, simple and approachable. They might even be fooled into thinking that Mean Arena is story worth tracking down in its entirety.

Simple, clear choreography, with a running undercurrent of violence that is actually far nastier than this art implies.
I mean, imagine the same sequence illustrated by Chris Weston, it'd be obscene!
Words by Tom Tully
And that’s the key to teaching anyone, young or old, how to read comics – showing them something that’s just plain simple sequentials. With Mike White, it’s never unclear who the story is about, where the action is happening and above all, what each character is doing and thinking. Super basic stuff that you can never take for granted, and the mark of a good comics artist if they get this stuff right. Sure, it’s not often flashy or splashy, but boy does Mike White nail the fundamentals.

If there’s one quirk he displays that doesn’t always come off, it’s his desire to break out of the grid structure. Look at a Tintin or Asterix book and nearly every page has a very rigid 9 by 9 square panel layout, with the immediate advantage that you can’t possibly read the panels in the wrong sequence. White, on the other hand, clearly found this too boring so he often arranged his pages with panels that push out of the grid, or fit around circles, trapeziums and other shapes. It can help bring a whole page of art to life, give it some dynamism – but occasionally it creates sequence confusion.

Adding in curved borders for extra dynamism.
Words by Alan Grant

Let’s look at the stories themselves. Before 2000AD started, Mike White was already go-to artist for IPC in the 70s, and worked on the full range of action, adventure, sports and girls’ comics (as near as I can tell, anyway). He made his way onto 2000AD somewhat sideways, after producing strips for Action*, before pitching in to help other artists out on Tornado, and then getting the odd bit of work on Future Shocks.

Never sneeze in a minefield.

Wagner & Co encounter one of those 'not really fatal' nuclear explosions so popular in 1970s dramas.
Words by unknown.**

True, he didn’t get to create any of the characters from the early days, but he did pitch in, presumably helping out artists who needed some breathing room to hit their deadlines.

White pulls off an impressive Vanyo pastiche - it's the extra ink that does it.
Words by Tom Tully
If there’s a niche White was put into, it’s a mix of action stories with contemporary settings coupled with ultra far-future stories that are, on the whole, making some pointed comment about the contemporary world. Yes, I know that’s kind of the deal with Science Fiction, but there’s something about the way White’s stories work that led him to make even the 32nd century feel specifically like 1970s Britain - but with shinier clothes.

Now that's what I call an establishing set of panels to introduce setting and characters! Masterful.
But also retro-future to the max.
Words by Steve Moore

More angry mobs from the 30th Century, 20th century style.
Words by Gary Rice

Not least Abelaard Snazz, a far future 1970s character if ever there was one, and, I suspect, the strip most readers of this blog will think of when they hear the name ‘Mike White’. He didn’t create the character (that was a young Steve Dillon), but he did draw the bulk of the man’s misadventures, and absolutely nailed the ‘failed game show host’ aesthetic that Snazz embodies. I mean, he never was a game show host, but you gotta admit there’s something of the Michael Barrymore, Noel Edmonds and above all, Alan Partridge about him.

There's simply no way to misread the set-up here of obnoxious buffoon, simpering Droid and irate gangster.
Words by Alan Moore

Well, what do YOU think a Neuron whisk would look like?
Words by Alan Moore
White’s single biggest stint as a regular artist in the pages of 2000AD was on the back half of Mean Arena. A story that was part sports comic, in which ‘our team’ of Slater’s Slayers took on a string of opponents dressed in themed costumes, playing the ultra-violent game of street football. White gives us the goals and the glory.

Yes, to some extent this arts lacks lustre, but it's at least clear.
Words by Tom Tully
This, on the other hand, has it all going on! Awesome ant-based costume design, clear location, and intense action.
Words by A. Ridgaway (most likely a pseudonym of Tom Tully)

…and part murder revenge evil conspiracy comic. This side of Mean Arena, with its robot sidekicks and grisly deaths was occasionally compelling, often weird, and to be honest not the best fit for White. 

Sure, there's typically great work with emotions, and a gloriously rendered dead robot boy -
but what's the tone of this thing? Serious? Grisly? Silly??
Words by Tom Tully
This kind of macabre antihero storytelling needs either a murkier artist (as we got occasionally with Eric Bradbury), or an out-and-out gnarly action artist (as we got occasionally with Steve Dillon).

And after all the murder and mayhem, this is the big send-off?
Words by Tom Tully (writing as A. Ridgway)

With Mean Arena sent off to the Thrill Palace in the sky, White’s slate was clear to get back to delivering Future Shocks and Time Twisters, which suited his skills perfectly. Oh, and the odd Tharg story, which frankly suit no one’s skills. There is generally some fun to be had seeing Tharg interacting with the real world; certainly the episodes based around the Nerve Centre tend to be the better ones. The ones where he’s fighting his own alien foes (or naughty nephews), not so much.

Nice dynamism, and a decent Ezquerra pastiche, too. (But you can tell it's Mike White from the nose and cheeks I reckon)
Words by TMO (probably Steve MacManus)

By story's end, it's no longer a superhero comic, more of a British humour tale complete with a young menace getting a spanking.
Words by Macmanus

Back to the Future Shocks! From an artist point of view, what you want is to create clearly defined characters, a setting you can get your head around, and some facial expressions ranging generally from smugness at the start to horrific realisation by the end. In other word’s Mike White’s personal toolkit.

The archetypal Future Shock protagonist - a nobody with a sneaky idea, on his way to becoming a somebody.
Words by Kelvin Gosnell

More expert superhero comic stylings. Could it be that Mike White deserved to join Dave Gibbons et al in the great DC stealing of British artists?
Words probably by Alan Moore

Another gloriously anguished man.
Words by Alan Hebden

This might be my single favourite Mike White panel. I'm a sucker for detail, and those ragged clothes turning to dust are stunning.
Words by Mike Cruden
Ironically enough, White’s most famous effort (and perhaps many people’s favourite ever 2000AD one-off story) involves neither smugness nor horror, but a simple life of happiness, sadness and occasional boredom, with a killer punchline of an ending that works precisely because it’s rooted in the mundane. It’s the Reversible Man, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should!

The detail is dialled way, way back to let the story and simple, real world emotions take centre stage.
Hard to imagine any other artist providing a more effective rendering of this classic tale.
Words by Alan Moore

After 2000AD, White was one of the longer serving Roy of the Rovers artists (talk about a comic for children who don’t normally read comics!!), some Commandoes, and, like many a 2000AD alumnus, he worked on Sonic the Comic, too.***

In amongst all that, he found time to do that one episode (plus a couple of panels) on Armoured Gideon. You can see that his style has moved on a fair bit from the early 80s stuff, but it’s very deliberately using his beloved panel layouts, and is very much in on the joke of reviving long-forgotten 2000AD action heroes, and a long-forgotten aesthetic to match.

Instant retro! Click here to see what the series art style is normally like...
Words by John Tomlinson

White didn't draw the old 2000AD runs of Dan Dare, MACH O, Wolfie Smith and Bill Savage, but you'd believe it if he did.
Words by John Tomlinson
(and bonus points if you can figure out who the two heads in the background belong to. Robot Archie here is borrowed from Lion comic, via Zenith, and in fact still isn't technically part of the 2000AD/Rebellion line...)

A long career behind him, Mike White passed away in 2012.

More on Mike White:
A lovely obituary from Lew Stringer

And another career overview on the Illustration Art Gallery

Agent Rat is the business.
Words by Steve Moore 
Personal favourites:
Abelaard Snazz: all of it
Mean Arena: Allerton Ants; Mother Vlad’s Vampires
Future Shocks: Pandora’s Box; the Sound of Silence; Slashman, Kowalski and Rat; Big Trouble for Blast Barclay
Time Twisters: The Reversible Man

*He was the initial artist on Hell’s Highway, and later took over the art on Kids Rule OK (aka the strip that got Action banned, and then watered down).

**Wagner's Walk is almost entirely credited to 'R.E. Wright', which I believe was a generic pseudonym used by IPC authors who felt their strip had been 're-written' too much to count as their own work. 2000AD fans will be SHOCKED to learn that Pat Mills was known to use this particular pseudonym, but it's not clear to me that Wagner's Walk was one of those examples, although Barney says it is Mills's work. I can see the premise as being a Mills joint, possibly one created for Battle that an editor re-purposed for Tornado and handed over to another writer. Apparently, no one who might know cares enough to remember!

***This comic was edited by long-term Tharg sidekick Richard ‘err, um’ Burton, so it’s no surprise there’s an overlap of talent, really.