Friday, February 5, 2016

No. 59 Arthur Ranson

First Prog: 635
Final Prog: 1429 (strip work); 1542 (cover)

First Meg: 2.10
Final Meg: 241

Total appearances: 166

Creator Credits:
Button Man; Mazeworld

One of the most memorable covers in the Prog's history, no?

Other art credits:
Anderson, Psi Division
Judge Dredd
A couple of Future Shocks

Ranson is generally thought of as a 'serious' artist (whatever that means).
But he sure can play up the slapstick (or should I say splatstick?)
Scenario by Alan Grant

Notable character creations:
Harry Exton
Adam Cadman
Juliet November
Psi Judge Shakta
Satan (not the actual fallen angel…)

Notable characteristics:
Photo-realistic faces. Lines everywhere. Hyper-exaggerated facial expressions, coupled with hyper-subtle expressions. Nihilism. Boundless imagination. Drawing attention to the design and layout of a page, especially through panel shapes. Drawing outrageously weird things in such as way that it looks is if they’re from a photograph, even though they couoldn’t possibly be... Teasing out themes, emotions and human psychology through art. Matter-of-fact cruelty.

The spider in its web is a visual metaphor. I wish more comics artists would do this sort of thing.
Words by John Wagner

On Arthur:
Arthur Ranson exploded into 2000AD with this nifty little sequence that sets off a mystery for Psi Judge Cassandra Anderson.*

Never pick up Hitch-Hikers in Mega City 1.
Words by Alan Grant

That’s a hell of a way to grab the readers’ attention! I’d not seen the man’s work before, but he was, at this point (1989) something of a UK comics veteran, most known I gather for drawing TV tie-in comics that drew heavily on his ability to draw photo-realistic looking characters.

From the little I’ve seen of his early work, Ranson’s basic style didn’t change all that much on his time with 2000AD. But then, it didn’t need to. He’s another artist in the vein of Brian Bolland whose work can be intimidatingly good, utterly uncopiable. (That said, plenty of artists have followed the Bolland style, not sure I can think of one who’s at all like Arthur Ranson.** )

I’m going to go ahead and assume that Ranson did indeed use photo references for much of his work – presumably, like plenty of artists, actually staging and taking photographs before rendering them as often as not – and leave us not forget that photography is every bit an artform.

Not meant to be a slight, but this kithcen sink scene
feels not unlike a UK tabloid photo-strip.
Words by Alan Grant

 But then he seemed irrationally capable of bringing to life things that he couldn’t possibly have photographed for real, such as a room full of people being on fire…

This never happened in a tablid photo-strip! And it's from the very next page of the same story.

…or being plagued by a flying ship full of demons.

If your writer asks you to draw a sky-ship full of demon pirates,
THIS is what they want to see. Gorgeous blue and brown painting, too.
Words by Alan Grant

But to be honest the real draw of Ranson, for me, is not the straight-up brilliance of his draughtsmanship, it’s the imagination he brings to the characters and above all they way he plays around with the form of comics. Yes, he’s benefitted from basically only working with John Wagner and Alan Grant, two of the best writers in comics, but his work with those two is also some of their own very best work, and that’s no coincidence. It's also no coincidence that Tharg himself, who very rarely pays to print creator-owned strips, made exceptions for Arthur Ranson TWICE: Button Man is © John Wagner & Arthur Ranson, and Mazeworld is © Alan Grant & Arthur Ranson.

I've no idea how he achieved this affect in 1989 - I guess photocopiers were involved.
Ther point is, it's playful and serves the story well.
Words by Alan Grant
I admire Anderson: Shamballa far more than I actually enjoy reading it, and I think perhaps both aspects are largely down to Ranson’s art. He fully embraces the mysticism the underpins the main part of the story, from the god/demon war for the world aspect to the falling in love subplot. But it’s not exactly a hard-action classic. And no, they don’t all have to be action stories, but there’s something about the formalism on display that made the story feel a bit too much like homework. Sure, homework set by Alan Grant***, who would be the most fun teacher ever, but still homework, y’know?

The panel layout does a lot of the heavy lifting to show these two telepaths falling in love.
2000AD's most literary strip?
Words by Alan Grant

The circles! The detail! Is it trying too hard? Or just hard enough?
Words still by Alan Grant

As it happens, Ranson’s very next project would prove to be one of 2000AD’s best-ever hard action classics, Button Man. A whole heap of the praise goes to John Wagner, but the way Ranson guides the reader through the locations, the suspense and above all the a-b-c thread of each button-man battle is just exquisite.

Pitchfork beats gun
Words by John Wagner

Harry Exton is indeed a cold fish.
Words by John Wagner

It’s the exact opposite of Michael Bay style editing craziness, in that you can see who is doing what to whom, where they are, and how every punch, kick, stab or gunshot makes perfect sense.

And then there’s the matter-of-fact nihilism.

So much thought into the panels, adn the thigns you see within each panel.
And a little homage to Hitchcock's Psycho, just for fun.

 Again, this is as deeply Wagner-esque**** trope, but Ranson must have an affinity for it, too, as he imbues Harry Exton with such a cold personality, and the whole series has such an air of emptiness and lack of hope. And let’s not forget the character design for Harry’s Voice, one of 2000AD’s most cruel villains.

Apologies for the visual spoiler...
Words by John Wagner

People talk about the nadir of 2000AD in the early 90s, and I totally see why, but my first thought is always that sequence where Harry realises who he’s talking to, where he is, and then the drugs kick in. I suppose it’s not that big of a trick, artistically speaking, but it sure packs a punch.*****

Books II and III of Button Man increased the action and intrigue (and the Mel Gibson)

Come on, that's 'The patriot' era Mel Gibson, right?

and if they didn’t quite reach the same emotional/thriller highs as Book I, they absolutely increased the nihilism. Harry’s ability to fake his way through a marriage and indeed through a life in isolation were in equal measures abhorrent and compelling.

Meanwhile, Ranson was busy bringing a much-needed touch of class to the Judge Dredd Megazine. The long-running Anderson vs Goon plot in Anderson, Psi Division genuinely kept me waiting for each new issue, and it’s obvious that Ranson was a big part of this when poor newcomer Yan Shimony was dropped in the deep end with his chapter.

Anderson's encoutner with a vampire, and then Jesus, sets off a long-lasting chain of emotional and story turmoil.

Also, punching.
Words by Alan Grant

The much-heralded Satan storyline was perhaps the big draw for the launch of Megazine Volume 3. Storywise, it didn’t live up to its billing, but by gosh there’s some meaty artwork to enjoy there. I have to admit to being a little let down by Ranson’s design of Satan himself – but by the end of the story it’s clear he couldn’t go any other way than depicting a medieval-style version of an actual fallen angel with massive horns.

Hope you've guessed his name
Words by Alan Grant

Perhaps by direct contrast, his next major Anderson epic, R*Volution, was all the better because villain Vernon D’Arque had one of the best ever character designs.

Towards the end of the story, deep inside Vernon D'Arque's addled mindscape,
Aa snkae and a gorilla fight for their souls. No holds barred weirdness!
Words by Alan Grant

I remain mystified why this story isn’t much more fondly remembered and talked about – possibly it suffers from its context of a not-great period of 2000AD, and the valid complaint that the events affecting Anderson, Psi Division where almost entirely ignored by contemporary Judge Dredd stories.
In any event, Ranson put Anderson aside for a time, and birthed Mazeworld. And, in a way, this series is the ne plus ultra of Arthur Ranson. There’s nihilist characterisation left, right and centre (but especially in the ‘real world’ portions).

Adam Cadman's journey begins. Was this effect achieved with computers? I don't think so.
Words (here and below) by Alan Grant

Adam Cadman is quite the cad, man

In case you're wondering why the dude was comdemned to be hanged in the first place...

When a ray of hope does come, it's all the more moving.
Look at the joy in their eyes!

There’s wild flights of imagination, not least in the architecture of the Mazeworld, and of course there’s huge helpings of playing around with panel structure, page layout and formalist comics goodness. I mean, it’s called bloody Mazeworld and he draws a whole bunch of panels to look like mazes! It would almost be offensively dumb if his labyrinth designs were any less gorgeous.

I've yet to gush over teh exquisiste detail in Ranson's backgrounds. Just look at the wear on those stones!

Designing a function maze is NOT easy, I tells ya

After the tale of a hanged man living in a fantasy world that may or may not be all in his mind, we segue to Ranson’s final cycle of Anderson, Psi Division – in which our Cass lies in a coma (sort of?), with her mind free to exist in a fantasy world that may or may not be the actual homeworld of one Sidney D’eath, teenage superfiend.

Ranson puts Anderson through a whole heap of emotional paces over the next four stories, which sort of merge into one (although that’s partly a side-effect of the way they appear in the Case Files reprint). Half-Life, the parasitic Psi-demon implanted by the Sisters of Death – or at least, I think that’s what it is – is creepy as hell.

More fun is ditzy pyrokinetic not-really-a-Judge Juliet November, an original creation Ranson dashed off for a Dredd episode over in 2000AD, but a delightful supporting player in Anderson, Psi Division. She’s overdue for a re-appearance!

Oh Juliet, will you ever get it together?
Words by Alan Grant

Some choice covers and a hilarious Dredd episode aside, Arthur Ranson retired from regular comics in 2007, I think related to health problems. His penmanship and brainmanship is sorely, sorely missed, but it will live on in print forever, and may yet be immortalized on screen if the Bad Robot Button Man project springs to life…

More on Arthur Ranson:
Start with the official website, including his ongoing comic series, Sirius
A very recent interview on Judgement in Cardiff
And there's a bit on his pre-2000AD work here

Every long-running comics hero has a montage page of all their old foes.
Here's Ranson doing that for ol' Cassie Anderson.
With added symbolism

Personal favourites:
Judge Anderson: Triad; Reasons to be Cheerful; The Jesus Syndrome; The Protest; R*Volution; Half-Life; Lock-In
Button Man – the whole boiling lot of it
Judge Dredd: Pyrokinetics; PF
Mazeworld: definitely for the art more than the story, although the story has many merits, too.

I also especially like this cover to an old Virgin Dredd novel (I ahnve;t read it, mind), chiefly this cracking creepy countenance:

*OK, so technically his first was a Judge Dredd story from a special, but this Anderson may have seen print first.

**Michael Dowling, maybe? Jerome Opena is not a million miles away, too

***Grant sometimes strikes me as the real-world equivalent of DJ Chris Stevens from Northern Exposure. But this isn’t the place to go into that.

****‘Wagnerian’ is already taken, sadly…

*****And it’s only just occurred to me that at roughly the same time, Carlos Ezquerra and Alan Grant where putting Durham Red through very similar paces, to equally good but less celebrated effect.


  1. John Bolton's art is reminiscent of Arthur Ranson's, although I'm not suggesting there's any copying going on.

  2. Yeah, Dowling is the obvious inheritor of Ranson's crown, but I think that may be a direct result of his working on Ranson's signature strip. I'm not sure Dowling's work was quite so Ransonic (c) until he was given a crack at Mrs Anderson's little girl.

    R.E. Ranson's use of photo reference, his daughter is called Cassandra. Her face is as familiar as her name, which may explain his affinity with the character:

  3. A year late but... Can confirm Ranson's technique regarding the Triad art. Image is photocopied multiple times, sliced and then stuck down. I have this hanging on the wall of my den