Tuesday, June 9, 2015

No. 23 Simon Davis

First Prog: 992
Latest Prog: 1935 Slaine: the Brutania Chronicles is coming to a close all too soon (but gearing up for a third book at the very least). I feel we’re owed at least one more Ampney Crucis, too, to tie that story up, but I could be wrong. And maybe, just maybe, there'll be a final last and ultimate Sinister Dexter story from his pen.

First Meg: 2.30 (or 50)
Latest Meg: 327 (on the cover; not seen inside since Black Siddha ended in 252)

Total appearances: 361 and counting*
-including 85 covers**

Creator credits:
Black Siddha, Stone Island, Ampney Crucis Investigates, Damnation Station, BLAIR 1

Other art credits:
Judge Dredd
Missionary Man
Sinister Dexter
A small handful of one-off stories

Notable character creations:
Well, he didn’t create the character, but Davis is, I think, credited with the definitive look of Finnigan Sinister as a white-faced, red-nosed, red gloved, clown-alike.

Scary clowns with big guns.
Words by Dan Abnett
Likewise, he didn’t invent Tony Blair, but he did work out how to render him as a pseudo-superhero.
He did invent: Rohan / Black Siddha; the Jester; Kal Cutter; Ampney Crucis; Harry Rivers and the alien ‘others’ of Stone Island; the cast of Damnation Station, noteworthy for its deliciously outrĂ© alien(s).

Notable characteristics:
Fully, fully painted art - except when it’s the sketchiest of sketches. Exaggerated facial expressions. Using photo reference, and especially self-reference.
Also, a way with extreme gore:

Melting man in the mighty Mississippi
Words by Gordon Rennie

Total skin removal!
...and a cheeky predilection for splashing human anatomy onto the page, although it is somehow always justified, even on the cover. Honest.

Wait, is that a giant man-eating plant, or is it man-eating fanny?
Words (and suggestion?) by Ian Edginton

What's that sticking out of the face on the left? Why is it dripping?

A short list of strips in which Mr Davis can be seen…
Stubbly Davis as the Missionary Man himself, Preacher Cain
Words by Gordon Rennie

Neat mustache and goatee; Davis is Dexter
Concept by Dan Abnett

Full-on moustache to play the role of  Cromwell.
Words by Ian Edginton
Letting the beard grow to embody middle-aged Slaine MacRoth
Words by Pat Mills

On Simon:
Unlike a number of art droids who got their break in the early 1990s - post Bisley - Simon Davis always wanted to paint. Inspired by the work of the same Simon Bisley to believe that a painter could actually produce comic strip art, Davis found a way in. It’s noteworthy, therefore, that unlike some artists of the day who either wanted to or were asked to be like Bisley, Davis’s art has never looked even remotely Bisley-like.

Come to that, he’s not like any comics artist I can think of at all. There’s a touch of the European about it, and a big dollop of British, but it’s quite apart from the fleshy fantasy of a Frazetta or the conservative heroism of an Alex Ross.

Creepy and moody
Words by Pat Mills

Davis mixes shadows and light, and super-rough with hyper-realism

In your face action
Words by Pat Mills

Clearly an incredibly competent painter from the start, his early strip work didn’t really grab me. Sure, it livened up episodes of Missionary Man with the gleefully OTT expressions on Preacher Cain’s stubblicious, eyebrow-covered face, but it felt a tad stilted. 

Half-way between drawn and painted; 100% 90s style
Script by Gordon Rennie

Davis's Dredd - none more grizzled.

 But then David Bishop, evidently a big fan, had the bright idea to put him on Sinister Dexter, and suddenly Davis came to life in my eyes.
Simon picks up the pencils to render Judge Anderson. Dude can draw!
Words by John Wagner

The sort of clowns Sinsiter Dexter used to battle on a weekly basis. Davis takes the writer's basic idea and runs with it...
Words by Dan Abnett

I’ve assumed, perhaps wrongly, that Davis uses a fair bit of photo-referencing to get human poses and facial expressions right. As with photo-strip comics, this can result in stiff-looking panels and, at its worst, distracts from the storytelling. But I’ve found that Davis knows how to add either atmosphere, humour or both to great effect, making his strip work come alive. Honestly, a lot of this is in the costumes but mostly it’s the gurning that Davis puts his characters through that is every bit as ‘cartoony’ as Ron Smith, Ian Gibson or even Leo Baxendale, to slot in a Beano reference. It meshes well with Abnett’s machine-pun writing, too.

With his background in portraiture, it’s not surprising Davis has been called upon plenty of times to have a go at likenesses, most overtly BLAIR 1, but here he is casually dropping Amitabh Bachchan and Peter Stringfellow in Black Siddha (at Pat Mills's request?).

Words by Pat Mills
 On first viewing it does lift you out of the story, but by the second or third panel the humour kicks in again and it just seems to fit. Byt the time he began working on Ampney Crucis, I’ve found that Davis’s art has lost pretty much all trace of the photo-referenced feel – despite the overt self-portrait of one character. Maybe it’s the period setting and stiff-upper-lip tone, but for whatever reason the style fits the story.

He’s also unbelievably quick! I mean, he gets through a heck of a lot of multi-episode series in a year. And yet it retains that finished painted look, really not a million miles from his fine art work. I’m sure Tharg has faster pensmiths on his head dial, but when you factor in the detail and sheer amount of paint Davis splashes on the page, it’s worth celebrating. I will concede that sometimes, Davis prefers to nip in and out of a panel quickly, rather than letting anything linger…
Dredd and Orlok shootout. Amazing.
Words by John Wagner

But he’s made this something of a stylistic flourish, and it generally works in service to the story. And no one would accuse him of not being able to draw! Especially when another Davis trick is to liven up dialogue sequences with extreme close-ups, still fully painted:

You don't even need the whole face to demonstrate body language.
Words by Ian Edginton
All this said, I’m aware that the same photo-protraiture style turns plenty of people off. A shame.

But painting well and throwing in comedy expressions isn’t Davis’s only trick – he’s something of a horror great, crafting some eyepopping  / skin-flaying gore in Stone Island, while also mixing up one of the best ‘alien body trapped in a human housing’ monsters. (Actually, I’m not especially keen on the look of the aliens as aliens, but when housed in human felsh, they’re amazing). 

Harry Rivers, the shell of a man housing the body of an extra-dimensional beastie.
Laughter by Ian Edginton
And then in Damnation Station he did something amazingly ethereal with his colours to create a truly horrific extra-dimensional being(s). (I'm afraid I don't have a scan of this at the moment; had to steal from Colin Smith again)

This creature is creepy enough in the scratchy style; imagine the full-on face front version!
Words by Al Ewing

Most recently, on Slaine, Davis is bringing a new game to the table, full of greenery and blood and bodies and world-weariness. It’s a classic in the making (I wouldn’t mind a bit more clarity in the plot department, but I’ll forgive that if it gives Davis the chance to craft truly giant giants, and hordes of rampaging Trojans).

Of all the new breed that started working for Tharg in the 90s, I doubt I’d have picked ‘SB Davis’ as one who’d go on to become a 2000 AD mainstay, but here he is, a twice-annual fixture (at least), and getting better all the time.

Personal favourites:

Judge Dredd:  The Secret Life of Judge Pal
Sinister Dexter: Murder 101, Eurocrash, Oh Kal Cutter, And Death shall have no Dumb Minions
Black Siddha
Stone Island: Book I in particular
Ampney Crucis: Vile Bodies; the End of the Pier Show
Damnation Station
Slaine: the Brutania Chronicles

Davis and Dexter: both quick on the draw.

More on Simon Davis
Here you can see him bang out a Slaine painting on YouTube

*Davis and Flint are essentially neck and neck at this point. I guess whoever gets the next cover or full series in print will take a short lead for a while.

**the third highest cover count behind Carlos Ezquerra at number 2 but he's closing in fast!
And number 1? That would be telling (but it won't be a surprise, I'm sure)

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