Tuesday, December 1, 2015

No. 51 John Higgins

First Prog:  43 (as cover artist); 108 (as strip artist)
Latest Prog: 1911; but more recently in the 2015 Sci-Fi Special

First Meg: 4.12 (aka 194)
Latest Meg: 317

Total appearances: 186 and counting
- with double points for the stories he has written as well as drawn
Such sublime texture to that skin! It's like the best practical effects from 80s horror movies.
Despite being rendered by computer.
For the life of me I can't remember which Prog this is from (I think a recent special?).
Pretty sure this was a Future Shock written by Higgins, possibly in collaboration with someone else.

Creator credits:
Freaks; Greysuit; Meet Darren Dead

Other art credits:
Judge Dredd
Joe Black (a Future Shock original who earned a brief spin-off series)
A large pile of one-offs, from all eras

Whatever happened to Darren Dead?
(co-created by Rob Williams)
Notable character creations:

Carl Woolf and The Kakkaians*, mainly Kilquo
The Hyman family – long-running Democrat activists in the world of Dredd
-not nearly as notable in terms of continuity, but as a reader who first came to 2000AD in the mid-80s, I’ll always remember Russell Muscle and the Phantom of the Shoppera.
John Blake, hero of Greysuit

Kilquo gets cross
Words by Higgins and Mindy Newell

Notable characteristics:
Super-strong scene setting, especially in his painted work; idiots being idiotic; an ability to cross from very cartoony to proper high-end work; lush landscapes

Classic comedy
almost certainly written by John Wagner

On John:
John Higgins is one of those very rare creators who has been in and out of the Prog basically from the beginning. 

One of the better Supercovers

He was something of a mainstay for a while, starting on Future Shocks in the 200s before becoming a Judge Dredd semi-regular from the mid-400s-600s. But even after that, he’s been in the Prog and Meg just often enough that it’s never the feeling that he’s having a comeback, he’s just coming back. In that time, he’s turned his hand to writing, for Judge Dredd and Future Shocks as well as co-authoring a sequel to his first proper creation, Freaks

Convincing crowd scenes and fun period details: the hallmarks of a Future Shock.
Words by Alan Moore

He’s also done a lot of spectacularly inventive colouring, although nearly always over his own art**, with the help of a nebulous entity occasionally referred to as ‘Turmoil Colour Studio’ which seems to be a combination of himself and wife (I think?) Sally Jane Hurst. I could be very wrong on this! Higgins's outing as the artist on Chopper (the generally best-forgotten Alan McKenzie series) was I think the first to show off his new computer-aided colouring collaboration:

Some lovely glowing, and, as always, reliably dramatic palette choices.
Words by Alan McKenzie

Joe Black fancies himself.
Words by Kelvin Gosnell
Unsurprisingly, across 35 years of work Higgins has refined and experimented with his style quite a bit. I’d say he’s always had an eye for a funny face, and certainly for faces loaded with between-the-lines emotion. Perfectly suited to deadpan king Joe Black, who likes to think himself the cleverest man in the room, even when he’s being a dick.

In general, his black and white work tended to be unfussy and unshowy – good solid comics, if you like – but for all that it turned out to be terrifically moving when, quite by chance, Higgins ended up illustrating what would turn out to be one of the more important Judge Dredd stories, Letter from a Democrat. Terrorists hijack a radio station with a serious purpose in mind, and Higgins sells it perfectly.

Dredd is full of death scenes, but rarely poignant death scenes
Words by Wagner & Grant

 This powerful one-off soon got a sequel, also ably illustrated by Higgins, but most memorable, for me, in his achievement at summing up an entire storyline in a one-two punch of classic covers.

The increased presence of colour in the Prog was good news for John Higgins. He was, I assume, deliberately tapped to be the Dredd artist for Prog 650, the first all-colour issue. The Shooting Match was a cinematic delight, calling to mind psychedelic delights such as The Man with the Golden Gun and the old Avengers TV show.

Love that crazy link muzzle flash
Scenario by John Wagner

A few years later, he got to draw the team-up story no-one was asking for when Dredd met Friday. It’s a strange story in lots of ways, and Higgins makes a good fit for a sort of dour Sci-Fi ish story that is rooted in soldier/action film tropes but is sort of about self-examination. Verdict: weird. 

A Higgins trope: showing a close-up of the face, cutting off the top and bottom.
Words by John Wagner
Similarly weird was Higgins’s  a Dredd two-parter that he wrote and drew. It’s about a mutant who thinks / wishes he was his own motorcycle. It’s also coupled with a new, extra-lush palette that Higgins has been working with, on and off, ever since. Set in the Cursed Earth, there’s some amazing scene setting, and the tone is one of alien worlds and a sort of childish excitement about the future. The basic idea is very suited to Dredd, but the art plays it so sombrely that the ridiculousness ends up a little lost, I think.

Higgins’s version of Dredd, for me, straddles perfectly the gruff action hero of Ezquerra, the steady hand of Bolland and the straight-up crazy behemoth of Brendan McCarthy. There’s a straightness and a cartooniness that go hand in hand with Higgins, is what I’m getting at. And he’s very strong on the comedy goods, with Dredd staples such as the Phantom of the Shoppera, in which a crazed robot falls in love with a human – and not the one readers expect.

Higgins has a great facility with designing future fashions and low IQs

Higgins's evolving art styles
Words by Garth Ennis

And this time a different colouring style, too. Brings the city-as-nightmare theme to life, this does.
Words by John Wagner

Despite being a Dredd mainstay across so many years, Higgins may end up being more closely associated with two other series. Freaks, in its original incarnation, was a simple short story about an intelligent alien meeting a pointedly pathetic human. As before, Higgins does an amazing job contrasting the wonder of interdimensional travel and alien worlds with the mundane idiocy of a preening prat. Carl Woolf, the protagonist, is a well-rounded character, just likeable enough. Kilquo, who becomes his alien girlfriend, manages to look properly weird yet also believably attractive (which probably says more about me than the art, but I think the intention is there…)

And sometimes, a picture of a London bus taking off into another dimension is all the charm you need.
Scenario by Peter Milligan
Honestly, the decades-later sequel Faces simply isn’t as good a story, playing up the comedy with out the big ideas – and Higgings shoulders some of the blame for that as co-writer (with Mindy Newell). But the, characterisation is just as good, and the cartooning is fuller and lovelier.

Wait, isn't that a Greysuit operative? Nope, it's a government goon from Faces....
Words by HIggins and Mindy Newell

With 30-odd episodes of Greysuit under his belt – and potentially more to come? - Higgins may well end up doing more on that series than all his Dredd work combined. And really, without him the series would be, for me, a total bust. It’s a modern re-working of MACH-1 – I think that’s commonly agreed, right? Only instead of fitting the super-secret spy antihero with computerized parts, there some sort of drug / brain conditioning based technique that allows John Probe Blake to function with superhuman strength, speed endurance and so on.

With emphasis on punching people so hard that their jaws fall off.

2000AD: a reliable source of ultraviolence
Which is where Higgins comes in, and excels. He also draws a neat-looking man in a suit, which comes up a lot.

Most recently, alongside bouts of Greysuit, Higgins has been going back to the ultra-lush Sci-Fi/fantasy book cover style of art. This has hit the odd Future Shock type story here and there, and it’s deeply gorgeous. It can also end up doing a lot of heavy lifting to make a story appear much better than its plot suggests, but comics in general has ever been a place to let artists shine even if the writer isn’t on top form.

This is so gorgeous, it kinds makes you wonder why 2000AD doesn't go in for more old school SF/Fantasy tales.
Words by Gary Blatchford

 So yes, John Higgins is an artists who has survived the generations, who has produced as varied a set of styles as anyone could ask, and has worked in all genres from comedy to tragedy to way-out weirdness. Nice one!

More on John Higgins:
Official website here
A general interview at the Mindless Ones blog

Higgins's emotional farewell to one of Judge Dredd's ugliest supporting characters.
Words by John Wagner
Personal favourites:
Joe Black: Horn of Plenty; The Hume Factor
Judge Dredd: Letter from a Democrat; Russell’s inflatable Muscles; Phantom of the Shoppera; Revolution; The Shooting Match; Citizen Sump; Monkey on my Back; Caught Short; Generation Killer
Greysuit: Project Monarch; Prince of Darkness (for the art specifically, I stress…)
Future Shocks:  Last Rumble; the two recent works from the Sci-Fi and Winter Specials, whose names escape me…

*Not the name of a 70s pop band, but it really could be.

**In the pages of 2000AD, at any rate. To the comics-reading world at large, he may end up being most famous as the colourist on Watchmen and the original colourist on The Killing Joke. CoughthesuperiorversionCough

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