Thursday, April 26, 2018

No. 110 Nick Percival

First Prog: 872 (on the cover and the inside)
Latest Prog: 1978

First Meg: 1.18
Latest Meg: 393

Total appearances: 85

Know your enemy...
Words by Pat Mills

Creator credits:

Sleeze N Ryder
Brit Cit Brute

Other art credits:
Judge Dredd
The Dark Judges
Various one-offs (although, as it happens, not a Future Shock)

Man as vulnerable flesh-thing.
Words by Dan Abnett

Notable character creations:

Notable characteristics:
The horror! The horror! Any excuse to draw flesh and bodies, emphasising sinew, muscle and bulging veins in the living, and the gore, fragility and loose skin in the dead. Also nature, be it green trees, blue seas or raging flame. He also has something of a line in outrageously innocent-looking humans who find themselves caught up in the horror – although not many 2000AD stories feature truly innocent people.

Those ghost skulls are a thing of ethereal beauty.
Words by Pat Mills

And, not at all his fault, but Percival had the bad luck to be associated, in his early 2000AD days anyway, as an artist on some of the least-loved series, even as they covered two of the best-loved characters. Ah, the 90s.

On Nick:
Unlike various contemporaries, Percival seems to have always been a fully-painted artist at heart. Unsurprising, then, that he got his start in the wake of the ‘get me Simon Bisley!’ boom in the early 90s, doing some Dredd covers with an emphasis on Mean Machine, and eventually having a turn on Slaine.

But actually, his art has its own particular quality that isn’t like Bisley at all, and is different again from, say, early Greg Staples or Carl Critchlow. The best word I’ve got for it is ‘elemental’, in the way that old Dungeons & Dragons or Fighting Fantasy books has monsters called elementals, that took on the aspect of earth, air, fire and/or water.

Percival's warp-spasm - ligaments and veins ahoy!
Words by Pat Mills

Percival’s humans are weighed down by life, and by having bodies, and being subject to weathering. His eyes are drowning in tears ever on the verge of spilling. His forests teem with twisting, writhing branches and vines, his undead monsters expose their own frail bodies but also their malignant airy soles, and the colours he uses suck you into the page, like mud.

Where does the earth end ans the castle begin?
Words by Pat Mills

Making the Cursed Earth look genuinely 'cursed'. Even the rocky outcrops have rocky outcrops!
Words by Garth Ennis

Yes, this refers to the muddiness of the repro of his early 90s work (Judge Dredd: Goodnight Kiss and Slaine: King of Hearts being the very worst offenders). But, in recent years, where digital crispness rules, Percival still brings that muddy quality, but this time it has the effect of pulling you into the scene, getting your own feet mired down, allowing you to feel the force and sting of the situation. His track record with rain and oceans in particular is a thing to behold; in the Gyre, he made the Pacific a monster of its own to fear and respect. It’s a very particular talent that I don’t think any other 2000AD artist offers. There’s some Goya in there, too, to name drop a classical painter.
Of course, every artist starts somewhere, and, ironically enough for a painter, Percival’s first printed stories were more traditional looking. Judge Edwina’s Strange Cases was a sort of proto ‘Tales from the Black Museum’ from Volume 1 of the Megazine, designed to give new artists such as Percival a break.

Classic 2000AD-ification of Beano sensibilities; naughty boys playing with monsters.
Words by Dave Stone

It’s pretty cartoony, I can see hints of Peter Bagge in there, of all artists. But there’s also that hint of the interest in darkness and horror, especially in the layout. From here, Percival got the chance to help devise an all-new series, the much-loved Sleeze ‘N’ Ryder*, a rare original creation for 2000AD from the pen of Garth Ennis.

The way the skin is pulled taughtly over the flesh floats my boat.
Words by Garth Ennis

It’s a pretty silly story. So Percival provides art to match. But, you, know, there’s something that’s always appealed about it. The bold colours, thick outlines and general air of ridiculousness helps to set a tone of fun. Also, Percival gets to explore his delight in human musculature.

One of the few successful jokes** across this short series was the character dynamic of the two leads – both easy-going and relaxed, but one so far relaxed to the point of not really needing to speak. Not so special a dynamic in episode 1, but by episode 6 the force of repetition won me over, and it’s Percival who makes the joke work.

Sleeze is cool but not as cool as Ryder, y'see.

For whatever reason, Percival moved away from this more pen and ink style never to use it again. The move to what I think of as ‘typical’ Percival came with the next story, the fondly-remembered*** Brit-Cit Brute. 

The Brute reacts to the latest episode of Michael Fleisher's Harlem Heroes.
Words by Robbie Morrison

Lead character Judge Newt is a hulking great Brute of a man, and he may have had a personality of some sort but the short, mayhem-fuelled stories didn’t do much to explore it. Percival, at the very least, did put in the effort with the character design, and embraced the concept of being as OTT as possible in terms of violence and silliness.

You'd think there'd be something funny going on with this kind of thing. The Brute's deadpan expression works, at least.
Words by Robbie Morrison

And, of course, more work with faces to try to sell whatever jokes the script hoped existed.

Not sure what the in-story reason is here, but at least it gives Percival a chance to show off.

Naturally, this lead into a stint on Judge Dredd, who, in the mid 90s, was all about OTT silliness and desperate jokes, especially under the scripts of Mark Millar.

Child brutality, Judge-style. Seriously, there's some awesome design work going on here!
Words by Mark Millar
Percival is really going for it in the details, and it’s lavish stuff to look at, Bisley-comparisons be damned.

In contrast, Percival’s big Dredd blowout saw him teamed with Garth Ennis in rather more serious mode. He delivered his farewell epic, (well, 9 episodes) Goodnight Kiss, that tied together a couple of dangling plot threads involving the past sins of justice dept and suave assassin Jonni Kiss. Jonni Kiss creator Greg Staples may have given that character a touch of irreverence, but once he made way for Nick Percival, the humour was mostly downplayed.

The Cursed Earth Marshals: straddling the line between human, mutant and ghoul. Yes, they're outrageously rendered weirdos to look at, but there's genuine pathos in their plight.
Words by Garth Ennis

Percival poured all the ink he had into Goodnight Kiss. On its original printing, I could barely read it from panel to panel for the mud, but reprints, including the Case Files, reveal that it’s actually a) a fine story (if not quite at the John Wagner level), and b) it’s very well drawn.

In fact, it’s Percival’s art in particular that elevates the story for me. It’s unlike anything that had gone before, having a real ‘rural gothic’ feel to it, putting me in mind of such fare as Swamp Thing or Pumpkinhead. The basic story isn’t much beyond ‘Dredd + sidekick are defeated by two sets of very strong / determined / cunning villains’ – one of whom is right to hate the Judges, followed by ‘Dredd turns out to be the strongest/determindest/cunningest sunnuvabitch and wins’. Ennis injects some gruff soulsearching, leaving Percival to do the heavy lifting that almost makes you believe Dredd just might not make it back from this mission...

Can even Dredd survive crucifixion? Or the inevitable hallucination sequence to come?

On to Slaine: King of Hearts.

(pausing to acknowledge the time he helped out on a Slaine one-off with Greg Staples, although I don’t know in what capacity – painting on top of pencils at a guess:)

More sumptuous elemental work
Words by Pat Mills
As with his turn at Dredd, Percival is unfortunately tied to the least-fondly remembered period of Slaine. For the early 90s, the titular Celt was time-hopping, reliving British legends, sort of. In 'King of Hearts', it’s the turn of Scottish hero William Wallace. 

Slaine is all about the setting - the purity of nature, untroubled by man
(or at least Mills would like to assert that nature was once untouched by man)

At the time, it felt like a cheap cash-in, frankly. This strip ran in 1996, and WAS surely indebted to the 1995 film Braveheart, a film that pushed Wallace staunchly into the public consciousness if nothing else****. But, to be fair to writer Pat Mills, Wallace’s story is right up his street. He’s a classic working class hero fighting against an entitled oppressor, and in the end he gets hung, drawn and quartered! Social fury + gory death = Pat Mills heaven.

Outrageous! The English cheat at fighting using cowardly longbows.
But we can all enjoy the glorious carnage.

Kind of impressive, then, that Percival actually downplayed the visuals somewhat. The whole thing might have been a bit much if he’d really hammered home Mills’s points. Also, it really didn't help that the Prog's repro values at this time did painted work zero favours. But, as with so much of Mills's post 1990 work, it reads far better in a collected edition, and the artwork shines through, too. 

You can see Percival had come a long way since Sleeze N Ryder, but he still seemed in need of a little more development as a figure artist. And, perhaps because of bad association with disliked storylines, Percival was suddenly no more to be seen in the Prog or Meg. Or, y’know, maybe it’s that he found more lucrative work in the games and film design arena!

But he obviously likes comics and perhaps 2000AD in particular - some years later, little by little, he started to appear in the cover credits box, honing his painting talents, often delivering his unique take on some of 2000AD’s less prominent thrills.

Is now the time to bring back 2000AD's cheerful yet murderous Clown?

Haunted film reels in Chiaroscuro. It's a cracker!

Anyone remember Dead Signal? A proper slice of sci-fi action comedy headtrip weirdness

Ah, Indigo Prime! Percival is ideally suited to brain-jarring Lovecraftian horror, no?

You can't ask for more of a contrast with Brass Sun co-creator INJ Culbard!
A testament to both artists that this character looks proper cool under both styles of penmanship.

...until just a few years ago Percival returned to the Meg with a career interview that seemingly led to new work. It kicked off with a stunner of a tale about the last days of good old Mean Machine Angel. 

The pathos!

The story is clever enough to refer to various details of Mean’s past without overwriting any of them, build to a satisfying and believable resolution to the man’s story, and still leave it open for a comeback. But it’s the artwork that brings pathos along with the humour that is never far away from this most outrageous character.

The contrast of the packaging noodles with the crazy arm is hilarious.
Words by Michael Carroll

Never forget that Mean Angel is capable of hardcore violence!

Scripter Michael Carroll has since reteamed with Percival twice, making perfect use of his watery talents.

I’ll be honest, there are times when Percival’s paintbrush can obscure some details of the action on a panel. But my overall feeling is that he and his collaborators know this, and deliberately harness it. The Gyre is a case in point – it’s set on board a sort of floating collection of mega-rafts in the storm-tossed Pacific. Like Dredd, we’re supposed to feel assaulted by the salt-spray, the swirling, and the general oddness of the setting.

You can almost taste the saltiness of the rain and ocean/
Words by Michael Carroll

Then there’s Traumatown, in which Dredd suffers various hallucinations – and Percival delivers the goods in a way that stands tall alongside the likes of Mick McMahon and Brendan McCarthy, not least because his style is just so utterly different.

More glorious rain!
Words by Michael Carroll

And, perhaps inevitably, the elemental painter is hard at work on the most elemental of characters, the Dark Judges. Dominion is a direct follow-on to the Dredd story Dark Justice. So, as on Slaine decades ago, Percival finds himself picking up a baton from Greg Staples. But this time around the two couldn’t be more different. Where Staples was going for a very realistic action movie vibe, Percival is painting an all-out horror strip.***** Made easier because it’s not even slightly a Judge Dredd story. Instead, it’s about the three remaining Dark Judges landing on a colony world, with all the Aliens/The Thing closed-environment vibe that entails. Or should I say entrails.

Never before has the touch of Mortis brought quite such tangible decay...
Words by John Wagner

That’s a pun, because 'entails and 'entrails' are spelled nearly the same, but 'entrails means people’s insides, and Percival sure does draw a lot of rotting corpses in this story.

In some ways, it’s the most pure Percival strip yet, being all-out horror. There’s gore aplenty, but there’s also despair, fear, suspense and a general air of doom. I slightly wish there were more compelling characters to match all that, but this may come in book 2. Kind of a hazard of the plot, when the Dark Judges just keep killing people! And on the plus side, the whole thing manages to feel very different to Deadworld, that other total horrorshow featuring the Dark Judges (confined to cameos, thankfully).

Snow and isolation and slow-burn creeping dread.
Words by John Wagner

I don’t know what’s in store for Percival beyond Dominion, but I’d lobby for more Dredd, and maybe something untried. I know these two series won’t come back, but I could see him doing a mean Nemesis or Shakara, and maybe the Prog is ready for a new strip about vengeful alien demons…

More on Nick Percival:
His own website
His most recent Covers Uncovered

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: Goodnight Kiss; The Gyre; Traumatown
Sleeze ‘N’ Ryder (for the art, you understand, and the occasional one-liner, not for the story)
Tales from the Black Museum: Rising Angel
…and a whole bunch of covers.

*OK, so maybe ‘loved by a small handful’ would be more accurate.

**OK, OK, I admit it, I still laugh at President Arnie's brain in a jar, quoting his own movie dialogue in a crazy accent.

***Sorry, I meant ‘loved and lamented by literally no-one’.

****I’m not a massive fan, although I can see that it was pretty influential on Hollywood’s approach to battle epics.

*****Splitting apart the two key passions of John Carpenter's film oeuvre, I guess!

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