Sunday, November 11, 2018

No. 123 Steve Sampson

First Prog: 1080
Final Prog: 1158

First Meg: 1.15
Final Meg: 3.19

Total appearances: 73
-including a handful of strips and some pin-ups in Crisis

2000AD's most used cover pun?

Creator credits:
Brit-Cit Babes
Culling Crew

Steve Sampson likes to draw chequered flooring.

Other art credits:
Anderson, Psi Division
Judge Dredd
Sinister Dexter
Tyranny Rex
Pulp Sci-Fi

Harmony remains hard to pin down as a character, but this image is perhaps the closest we get:
she's a non-nonsense tough bounty hunter, most at home in the Arctic wastes of Alaska.
Words by Chris Standley

Notable characteristics:
If you ask me, Steve Sampson has one of THE most distinctive styles on his 2000AD/Megazine work, but I’m struggling to work out how to describe it. I guess there’s the photo referencing, in particular the use of his girlfriend (I think?) as a model – and I’m not telling tales out of school here, he literally credits her and thanks her on the page at one point!*

This inset panel even fits the story tonally; something of a farewell piece.
But it’s probably the colours. I don’t think he used felt-tip pens, but it kind of feels like that at times. There are solid blocks of vibrant colours aplenty, often highlighting the bare flesh of various characters and helping that to stand out. Sometimes to prurient effect, but often rather tasteful.

A pin-up page from Crisis. Of course it's from Crisis!

It reminds me a little of Julian Opie, and has a hint of that whole ‘New British Artist’ thing that was all the rage in the 1990s, you know, generally a bit more Deadline than 2000AD as far as comics go, and even more a thing in the world of pop music and Youf TV than comics. And, although it may reflect various writers' passions at the time, a bunch of his work was what you might called Tarantinoesque. Lots of obviously 'quirky' characters who present as cooler-than-thou, and are typically dishing out and/or receiving bloody violence.

Recognisable hench-villain in cool coat: check.
OTT comedy bloodsplat effect: check.
Distinctive sound effects (noise and lettering style!): check.
Words by Chris Standley

I suspect Sampson’s style is one that put plenty of readers off, but I confess I’m a fan, and thought his work got better with practice, too.

He's also got a very particular way of creating hair. Big, flowing hair.

On Steve:
Steve Sampson had something of an unfortunate start as a Megazine artist – he delivered the first and only series of Brit-Cit Babes. A strip written by legend of legends John Wagner, and with a cover that couldn’t be more enticing by another legend, Brain Bolland.

Steve Sampson’s interior strip work practically had to be a let-down with all that promise. Of course it didn’t help that Wagner’s script couldn’t have lacked much more lustre. So readers were left with an artist who wasn’t Bolland drawing with an in-your-face style on a strip that basically seemed to exist only on T ‘n A and bloody violence – as opposed to the sophisticated adult storytelling delivered previously in the Megazine with the likes of America and Young Death.

Yes, that it a sex-pinball machine; it's a little bit Barbarella.
Words by John Wagner
Luckily, editor David Bishop didn’t lay the blame on Sampson, who picked up steady work in the Meg with some odds and sods. Bearing in mind that Sampson's basic style hasn't changed much, and was first published too early to be a reaction, it seems to me now that he straddles a weird line between the super-cartoony work of early Frank Quitely and the trendy painted/art-y world of, say, Greg Staples or even Simon Davis.

And also, yes, he's clearly being asked to draw a ton of seXXXy laydeez, not unlike near contemporaries such as David Roach. Check out one-off tale Culling Crew, basically about a crazy assassin lady with massive hair and tiny clothes.

This is the basic Sampson hair look. It gets more detailed with time.
Words by Dave Stone

Which is openly a better drawing than this rendering of a man with a gun...

Words by Alan Grant

Sampson's basic draughtsmanship did get more sophisticated pretty quickly, and his Dredd improved, too. He's one of those young artists who had to do his learning and improving on the page, although his basic style was pretty fully formed from the off.

There's a lovely subtle texture to the hands, there. Painterly.
Words by Robbie Morrison (of COURSE it's Robbie Morrison)

Still sticking with the chunky outlines, thick swatches of colour look, mind.
Words by John Wagner

Sporadic efforts on Dredd and Anderson turned into a regular series, as Sampson took over from Trevor Hairsine and Jim Murray on Harmony - the most Tarantino-y of the Megazine strips.*

Biggish guns, trendy fashions (maybe?), scowling/smiley faces. This is light entertainment at its most 90s.
Words by Chris Standley

Spot the baddy. He's the one calling himself 'Slaughter Jack'.
Words by Chris Standley

A horrible picture, but one that sticks with me. In case you want context, Harmony is being beaten up by a robot -
this image is not actually as triggering as it looks, when you read it in the story.
Words by Chris Standley

Ah, the classic 'shoot a baddie through the dead body of a previously murdered friend' shot.
And some classic Sampson blood streaks, to boot.

Sampson’s lasting legacy would be on Anderson, Psi Division, on which he shared art duties with Arthur Ranson, swapping out series between them.

Not subtle, but actually I rather like his little 'psi flash' grawlixes (or are they emanata? Quick, someone call Scott McCloud)
Words by Alan Grant

Notably, he worked on a few key episodes of Postcards from the Edge, the series in which Anderson takes time off from being a Judge to travel the Galaxy and, perhaps, discover herself. If Grant had written it 20 years later, it'd be pastiche of Eat, Pray, Love. Some of the story was offputtingly not like Anderson, Psi Division of old - but much of it is actually some very neat character work in the vein of Halo Jones. Less consistent, artwise, than that all-time classic, but I stand by the comparison. Sampson, for his part, was obliged to render ol' Cass Anderson in various different guises.

Kick-ass hero; saintly nun; non-nonsense sex worker.
aka "previously, on Tyranny Rex..."
Words by Alan Grant

He moved over to the Prog to have a little go on those most 90s of characters, Sinister Dexter:

Tarantino time again! Although this one's just as much
Robert Rodriguez.
Words by Dan Abnett

Sometimes, Sampson's determination to give you HAIR and JACKETS gets in the way of the faces.
But you can;t fail to notice that these three characters are all meant to be 'cool'.
Words by Dan Abnett

Before resuming duties on Anderson, Psi Division for a couple more years. Let loose on some fairly wild Alan Grant stories (if, rather sadly, forgotten stories), Sampson showed off his increasing confidence as a comics artist.

See, I rather like this method of drawing wrinkles on an elderly lady just by drawing big effing lines all over her face.
Its' not 'real', but it is distinctive and just interesting to look at.
Words by Alan Grant

More photo-referencing in action, but he's captured the mood and the expressions well.
Still got the 1980s BASIC drawing programme look to his Dredd, mind.
Words by Alan Grant

He even got as crack at an Anderson epic, the much-maligned Crusade. It's remembered as 'that story where all the children were absconded from Mega-City One, but no one even mentioned it in any contemporary Judge Dredd stories'***. What it should be remembered as is the story that culminates a whole load of Anderson subplots, chiefly the lovely twins from Triad and the freaky baby from Engram. It even sees Anderson butting heads with the Council of Five, in classic 'Anderson disrespects authority and cares too much' vein. Sampson does his thing to convey the relevant emotions, some pretty intense crowd scenes both in the city and in the Cursed Earth, and of course there's plenty of death.

See, this vision of Mega City One as a meat-grinding hell is just gorgeous.
Words by Alan Grant

More exploding head goodness, and a key character moment for one of the young twins from Triad - a story much more fondly remembered than Crusade

Ultimately, Sampson's fate seems to have been that he was a favourite of David Bishop who fell by the wayside once other editors took over. Or maybe he just got bored with comics?

More on Steve Sampson:
Pretty sure this is the same guy; he's got some pretty sweet pop culture poster art going on under the handle 'The Dark Inker'
If you want interviews or in-depth analysis of his work on 2000AD / the Megaizne, you're outta luck.

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: Poor Johnny
Harmony: Hell Gate; Killer Instinct
Anderson, Psi Division: Postcards from the Edge; Something Wicked; Crusade; Witch; The Great Debate; Semper Vi
Sinister Dexter: Dead Cert

*If you are looking for in-school stories of Steve Sampson, then you need to check out the truly excellent 2000AD ProgSlogBlog. Creator Paul B. Rainey went to school with Mr. Sampson and references this occasionally.

**Yes, even more than Sleeze 'n Ryder, flashback-era Armitage, and the more gonzo episodes of Shimura.

***See also, Judge Hershey: Harlequin's Dance

Sunday, November 4, 2018

No. 122 Mick Austin

First Prog: 609 (cover) 612 (interior)
Last Prog: 991

Total appearances: 73
-including those fun ‘Things to look forward to’ back cover japes, and almost as many cover appearances as interior strip pages.

Creator credits:

Urban Strike!*

Disappointingly, not about inner city black people refusing to work until everyone stops being racist.
Other art credits:
Judge Dredd
Anderson, Psi Division
Tales from the Doghouse
Various one-offs

Notable character creations:
The Chieftain
Vatican Judge-Confessor Cesare

…the poor bastard.

Notable characteristics:
Stylish, bizarre and occasionally notorious covers.

(That impenetrable tagline is a reference to the Dredd story in the Prog, about an intelligent dog)

Having the misfortune to work on two of the very worst Judge Dredd stories.
Being a classically trained fine artist who nevertheless clearly understood and enjoyed the fun side of comics art.
And, looking at his strip artwork, he’s noteworthy for some hyper exaggeration in his faces and figure work, often enhanced by elegant but also simplistic-looking brush strokes to sketch out his outlines of both people and objects. He does this very simple thing with lines to make characters leap out of the page. It’s basic comics stuff, really, but done super well.

OK, so he's drawing a mutant with an elephant head, but by golly does he run with the concept
and make it burst out of the page!
Words by Stewart Edwards
I can’t articulate it, but his colours are very distinctive, too. Kind of pastel and restrained, very much the opposite end of the painting spectrum from your Bisleys.

On Mick:
Although he did get his start on interior strip work, Austin made a pretty big mark early on with his covers. Some of them stunning, others of them so weird that I was put off at the time, but find that these same covers have lingered in my mind in a way that makes me wonder if they aren’t in fact works of bizarre genius.

Straight up stunning!

Just plain... weird.
Although as the years go by, I admire it more than I ever thought I would.

And yes, it’s worth noting a mild controversy that arose over his decision to base at least one cover on a pin-up page from a porn magazine.**

This image is based on a photo of actress Toni Shiletto. Find out more here, on another fine 2000AD blog, the Hall of Homage. As the purveyor of sexy lady artwork in the late 80s, Austin inevitably had a go at Anderson, Psi Division. But in fact his work on the strips wasn’t at all sexy, instead more about atmosphere.

Sexy lady in a sexy pose, sure, but something about the face, the lighting and certainly the context somehow
make it feel more sinister than sexual.
Words by Alan Grant

No sex here, just ethereal Judge Death fun
Words by Alan Grant
It’s Austin who drew the story Judge Corey: Leviathan’s farewell, an incredibly poignant tale about endangered animals and human suicide, and one that marked a pretty big change for Anderson, Psi Division, which turned from an action-adventure-ghost romp into a very mature strip about introspection and character (with the odd bout of action and comedy, of course). I hate to say it, but while Austin did beautiful work with the city and the sea, his depiction of Empath Judge Corey did not work for me.

Perfect atmosphere, really clever posing of the characters, too.

Probably says more about me than Austin, but I just don't read this face as a super-thoughtful, emotionally overloaded Judge.
Words by Alan Grant
As with many artists, Austin’s early work was scattered across a mix of one-offs – a Dredd tale here, a Future Shock there, and a couple of Tales from the Doghouse episodes, from back when Tharg knew that Strontium Dog was kind of played out as a strip, but the world was too rich to just leave alone. The scripts on that series didn’t create too many memorable tales, but Mick Austin sure did draw some mean-lookin' mutants.

A perfectly rendered haunted house and gaggle of mutants. Carlos himself would be proud of the storytelling chops.
Words by Stewart Edwards

These one-offs were all a showcase for Austin’s atmospheric black and white line work. It’s artfully scratchy, and desperately moody. And very much speaks to his skill as a comics artist, well worth remembering in light of his later work as a full-on fine art painter. Not many who can do both!

Words by John Smith

Why yes, that IS a Freddy Krueger riff.
Words by John Wagner
He did get to do one fully painted piece at this time – a Dredd story from the 1988 annual. It has the same atmosphere as the black and white work, but it really sings in colour. Austin also had the luxury, if that’s the word, of presenting his painted style at a time before Bisley’s Horned God existed as a point of comparison. It’s a cartoonier way of painting, and to an extent it’s a shame more people didn’t try the Austin method.

If you know what you're doing, you can make simple colours and lines do a ton of work.
There's something very Austin-y about the twisting body in that final panel, too.
Words by John Wagner
For whatever reason, after these early strips Austin remained a firm fixture only on the front covers - and the occasional back covers. He produced a nifty run of comedy skits called ‘Things to look forward to’ – and I always did look forward to them appearing. There’s as much story in there as a typical future shock, but it always gets to the point nicely.

Goodness, that naughty schoolboy giving us the finger looks an awful lot like future PM Tony Blair.
(In fact, the rest of them may be other Labour MPs from 1990ish, with a worried Neil Kinnock as the bus driver.
Another challenge for the 2000AD Hall of Homage, I guess!)
In the fullness of time, Austin was ‘promoted’ to a series regular artist on Judge Dredd, this time drawing some longer stories. Unfortunately for him, it was just at the wrong time, leaving him to carry the can of the comedy/pathos mix from Garth Ennis, on the Chieftain

Some really quite beautiful art, along with some deliberately cartoony art, ideally suited for a story that was trying to be silly, fun and poignant but was mostly just silly.
Words by Garth Ennis.
...and endure the gruff and grim comedy stylings of Millar n’ Morrison on Crusade

Does the concept of an ultra-lethal Vatican City Judge make any sense to anyone?***
That said, it's a lovely bit of imposing posing.

Dumb fun, with some truly excellent colouring.
Words by Mark Millar and Grant Morrison
Austin put a lot of effort into this work, and in fact he puts across the themes and tones of both stories rather well – it’s just a shame that I didn’t care for them.

Confident painting, and for some reason I'm drawn to the background washes especially.
Words by Mark Millar

There's another Austin trademark - it's almost as if he's cut out the Dredd figure to stick on top of the lush background.
Words by Garth Ennis

Even paired with John Wagner Austin didn’t have the best of times, parachuted in to help out a sick Carlos Ezquerra on an episode of Wilderlands, although he did get to deliver that epic’s epilogue, a much better fit for his abilities to focus on procedure and atmosphere.

A rare example of Dredd doing some actual detective-style investigating!
Words by John Wagner
Austin’s final legacy for the Prog was a single Vector 13 episode, with an especially grumpy Man in Black…

Words by Dan Abnett

..and of course his one and only series as artist, the curiosity that was Urban Strike!. Technically this was little more than an advert for a computer game (not my area of expertise, I’m afraid), but along with writers Steve White and Brain Williamson, Austin was more interested in delivering an over the top comedy vehicle both lampooning and celebrating the worst excesses of early 1990s violent action thrillers from the USA.

As one of the chief architects of the 'Dredd as muscle-bound violent quip-meister', Austin was a natural fit for this series.
Words by Steve White and Brian Williamson

Certainly, there was a plot and there were recurring characters (although there’s a pretty high death tally along the way), but mostly there’s violence, emoting and explosions, alongside all the fake swearing they can fit onto each page. 
Also bleeding nuns, combining sex appeal and violence appeal in one image for... reasons?
Words by White and Williamson

Charming nonsense, and kind of completely forgotten as part of the Prog’s history, but weirdly it hasn’t aged a day since it was published, it’s like the movie Sharknado two decades before that style of entertainment was done on purpose. That said, it’s not really a fair swansong for an accomplished artist like Austin, who could’ve been better served by painting some of that period’s pastiche-y Dredds by Alan Grant, if you ask me.

More on Mick Austin:
There's a short bio on his website, and indeed all sorts of fine art goodness.
I get a kick out of seeing the stylistic similarities used in his early portraits that very much follow his work in 2000AD. Very different, but also very much the same. (See also Simon Davis, of course)

Sadly I can't find anything (beyond Megazine 320) where he talks about his time with Tharg.

...but you could do worse than heading over to Goodreads to see a large number of people saying nice things about Crusade. It does well to remember that people who've spent their whole life reading Dredd (and 2000AD) have no idea how the wider world relate to this material, and people have all sorts of different reasons for embracing humorous action comics!
...and then you can see what top-end comics critic Douglas Wolk had to say about it

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: Birdman; An Elm Street Nightmare; The Candidates
Tales from the Doghouse: Froggy Natterjack; Ratty
Future Shocks: Opening Moves
Things to Come
...and this wonderfully sinister Finn cover.

*Technically based on a computer game series not designed by Austin, but I imagine the characters in the comic strip were all his.

**Editor Richard Burton apparently took umbrage at this, although he misremembers the offending artist as being David Roach in this interview. Speaking personally, I remember the cover, remember vaguely thinking – even as a 12-year-old – that it was a bit ‘why are you trying to make 2000AD look like a Lads’ mag?’, but beyond that there was no actual controversy to my knowledge!

***Although I gather many a 2000AD writer went to Catholic School and learned to resent the church as little more than a hotbed of bullying.