Wednesday, July 24, 2019

No. 131 Alex Ronald

First Prog: 984 (interior strip); 1869 (cover)
Latest Prog: 1183 (interior strip); 2138 (cover)

First Meg: 3.34 (that’s issue 137 in old money; interior strip); 341 (cover)
Latest Meg: 394 (cover)
Total appearances: 70 and counting
(Of which the last 22 have been covers, and not including a brief run on Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future)

Hot leaden death made somehow beautiful horrible, palatable and even charming all at once.

Art credits:
Judge Dredd
Rogue Trooper (Fr1day edition)
Sinister Dexter
Missionary Man
Vector 13

Notable characteristics:
Phase 1 Ronald is all about the hollow cheeks, washed out skin and haunted atmosphere. He’s got a very slight case of the John Ridgways, in that he likes to draw lots of incredibly thin lines to denote the fact that people’s skin and clothing is in fact covered in lots of little lines, which makes his characters often look a bit older, wearier and more vulnerable. I like it.

The Ronald face and hands are v.distinctive.
Words by John Wagner
Phase 2 Ronald is all formal composition and colouring pizzazz. As with a number of digital colourists, I often find his work has most impact when viewed on a screen as opposed to in print, even though it’s usually bigger on the printed page. It’s that pesky CMYK/RGB rivalry at work, I suspect…


If there’s anything that exists in both phases, it’s that his characters tend to be lithe – more Clint Eastwood, less Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On Alex:
Alex Ronald’s is a career very much broken into two distinct parts, with two distinct voices at work. First, there was Alex Ronald, young hopeful strip artist working his way up through the 1990s ranks of Judge Dredd, Vector 13, Friday Rogue Trooper, and a handful of Sinister Dexter. You can see his work developing and improving on the page, and you can also see a very definitive style that is all Ronald and not at all anybody else.

Then, nothing for many years. At the time I wondered if Tharg had just gone off his work (exactly at the point when he’d become, frankly, much more confident) – but in reality it seems he just wanted to try other things. Which included, ultimately, switching to a very different style of art and indeed a different method, working with computers to create sleek, stylish and above all very modern-looking* covers.

We’ll get back to that later. First, let’s unleash some scans of Ronald’s super early work, no doubt to his embarrassment but actually it’s already pretty damn decent.

Ronald's tenure on the Pit told the sad tale of Struthers and the Priest.
Words by John Wagner
So that thing I said about Ronald’s style being his own and no-one else’s? I stand by it, but there’s no denying that his very first Dredd work is cast from the mould of Colin MacNeil. Now, bear in mind that poor teenage Ronald was jumping in at the deepest of ends, coming onto a Dredd Mega-epic mid flow, following on from no lesser lights than Carlos Ezquerra, who designed all the characters Ronald would be drawing, and then Colin MacNeil, as ever Tharg’s go-to man for ‘who can I draft in to help while Carlos is unavailable?’

That filtrum, those helmets - it's MacNeil all over, yes?
Words by John Wagner
So it’s entirely possible Ronald was actively asked to do his best Ezquerra/MacNeil impersonation. To his credit, it works very well, and, though I feel mean saying it, his work was a lot less jarring than Lee Sullivan’s, another newcomer thrust into the world of the Pit.

With each subsequent Dredd outing, Ronald tried out different looks for his Dredd, channelling the likes of Frank Quitely…

Those micro-thin lips!

…and John Hicklenton…

Those hyper-exaggerated jowl-lines!

..before ending up with his own signature ‘haunted’ look (well, that’s how I read it anyway).

That glint of light on the visor!

It’s this style which works like gangbusters for the gothic charms of Oola Blint

Caldwell's pale palette emphasises Ronald's gaunt tendencies.
Words by John Wagner
 And he's another artist who blends horror and comedy in the way you need for mid-period Judge Death stories:

Death has the skinniest, boniest butt.
Words by John Wagner

But for me he was on fire when tackling those occasional episodes of Dredd where the evils inherent in the system are exposed. Heartbreaking.

It's an ancient comics reference, to be sure, but the impassive faces combined with button eyes reminds me of Winsor McCay. It all combines to say 'life goes on, even when confronted with horror.
Words by John Wagner

The same tone is exactly the right fit for a rare John Wagner misfire, that one story where he held forth his opinion on the OJ Simpson trial in a fashion that, as of 2019 understanding, isn't thinking even slightly of the long history of racial oppression in the US. Nonetheless, we get Dredd's seething but unspoken rage, and Ojay's impassive yet somehow smug face.

Judge Dredd: for a satire on extreme policing based in North America,
it's never been able to tackle contemporary race relations.
While he wasn’t in the Prog every week, Ronald was becoming a more and more regular contributor, alternating Dredds with Vector 13 (and the first appearance of a stock character for Ronald, with various interchangeable accessories)…

Meet sinister man with moustache...

Here's sinister man with an eyepatch, no moustache
Words by Gordon Rennie (I think)

Now with eyepatch AND moustache (and in Judge uniform)
Words by Gordon Rennie
…and Sinister Dexter. That series in particular is a great one for letting artists really go to town pushing their own style, and seeing what it does to our two protagonists. I find Ronald’s Sinister to be a vision of moral decay, while his Dexter is especially troubled by the morality (or otherwise) of his profession.

There's even something kinda pleasing in the idea that Sinister and Dexter have the same facial structure
Words by Dan Abnett
Ronald then inherited the somewhat poisoned chalice of Rogue Trooper. Wrestled into something resembling modernity by artists Henry Flint and Steve Tappin, the actual story was stuck in limbo. Steve White had brought back the Biochips, and even re-introduced the original Rogue Trooper alongside his own now personality-less and regened biochips (to little effect), and old favourite Venus Bluegenes (to better effect). But there still wasn’t quite a narrative to hang it all on.

You’ll be forgiven for not remembering, but eventually the team (now including co-scripter Dan Abnett) tried its very best to give Rogue a clear mission, in this case fighting religious zealots. A minor subplot had introduced Karvanu, a sort of deity that was gaining favour with the regular citizens of Nu Earth (or actual Earth whatever planet this was all happening on). White even conjured up a certain Reverend Carwardine, who was to be the new ‘Traitor General’ of the series.

Of course, no sooner do we get this new villain and new mission than Rogue is killed, while Friday and Venus are kidnapped and sent to a Skumak Big Farm, which may or may not have a link to Karvanu. And it’s at this point that Alex Ronald steps in, roughly alternating episodes with Greg Staples. Frankly the pair of them make Rogue Trooper look more dramatic than it has done in years, matching the melodrama of the story.

Ronald's default skin texture works perfectly on Rogue 2.0, who was all
about reptilian enhancements (according to Dave Gibbons, if not any actual in-story text)
Words by Steve White / Dan Abnett

Ronald’s version of Reverend Carwardine is especially sinister.

I'm hard pressed to imagine a more horrible leaning in depiction by a priest. Shades of Winsor McCay again, too.
(I'm thinking Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, for anyone interested)
Words by Abnett / White

Don't feel sorry for him, even if his facesoul is melting
Words by Abnett / White

And there’s a neat chapter where Rogue mind-melds with a child who has been brainwashed by the Reverend. It can’t be the first time this visual trick has been used to represent telepathy, but I can’t recall another example, and it’s damn effective.

Like, their heads are literally blending into each other. Nifty visual shorthand.
Words by White / Abnett
It fell to Ronald to draw that fateful final episode, in which readers, unknowingly at the time, said farewell to Venus Bluegenes and poor old Fr1day…

Spoiler: it never did return. Still, cool final panel!
Which leaves us with Ronald’s most high-profile tenure, the 2000AD years of Missionary Man.

The essence of Missionary Man: gruff, elderly gent with a double-barreled revolver.
Word by Gordon Rennie
I’ll be honest, Missionary Man is another strip that I kind of got lost with, narrative-wise. Early episodes were mostly about a hard man being hard with guns and pseudo Bible quotes in small towns. Then at some point he started on an anti-corruption kick in slightly bigger towns; by the time Ronald is on art duties, Preacher Cain’s backstory as a Texas City Judge has been revealed, and he’s being hunted town by Corrupt TC Judges on the one hand, and voodoo-inspired witches on the other. While also attempting to take on the Moses role of leading a band of mostly god-fearing Cursed Earth folks into some sort of Promised Land, free from Judges and Voodoo.

Have I got that right?

Ronald is having a ton of fun with his comics fundamentals - establishing shot, clever use of panel borders,
comedy erupting from the final corner of the final panel. Love it.
Words by Gordon Rennie

No matter, this blogpost is all about the art, and the main thing to note is that Cain is not in a good place physically or mentally, he’s kind of in bayou country, and Ronald draws the heck out of suffering Cain, sinister witches and freaky monsters.

It takes effort to draw in each and every sore.
Words by Gordon Rennie

Not so much a struggle with a swamp monster, more a struggle with the futility of the mission.
Words by Gordon Rennie

You can also see his confidence building as a storyteller.

More nifty fight choreography, this one in 'cool action' mode rather than comedy mode.
Vocalizations/context by Gordon Rennie
Although I would say that it’s not the most coherent story he’s being asked to tell, with scribe Gordon Rennie climbing up a steep hill to finish off his first epic.** Anyway, with Preacher Cain’s mission in the Prog complete, Ronald disappeared, perhaps into a Promised Land of his own (I think involving some computer games work, and definitely ending up with steady involvement in Dundee University’s ‘Comics Masters' course).

And then, seemingly out of the blue, he reappeared in the Meg and Prog as a digital cover artist extraordinaire.

The basic premise of Storm Warning is shown off to its fullest in this top notch cover

Yes, that's definitely movie Anderson, not comics Anderson.

Is it just me, or would that jawline not look out of place on the Farmer from Shaun the Sheep..?

He's done plenty of Dredd - to my mind, going back to his roots with a Colin MacNeil-type Dredd, although the 3D effect puts me in mind of Aardman. Now there's an outfit who could be the ones to strike it big with a Dredd movie! And speaking of movies, it's a brave artist who can movif-y Sinister Dexter, a strip still most known as being 'that one that ripped off the two best characters from Pulp Fiction'.*** Ronald somehow makes you believe you could cast a SinDex movie without having to go anywhere near Messers Jackson and Travolta.
Compare and contrast with the SinDex scan above, if you want to see how far Ronald's style has come on.

But most delightfully, Ronald's covers run the gamut of 2000AD, and if you ask me it elevates the material. I'm a fan of Ulysses Sweet, but I'll admit that the actual series never conveyed the menace of this cover:

This guy is super into the details of murder, whereas the character inside, perhaps more palatably,
is more about taking pleasure in general mass mayhem
and I'm very much a not-fan of Project: Greysuit (I guess most of book 1 was pretty great, but it was a steep, steep drop from there), but again, here's Ronald classing up the final series:

That's canny design that is

Perhaps the ultimate affirmation of any cover artist is a commission to do a '2000AD itself' cover - one of those ones showing Tharg (and maybe a minion or two) at work...

I'm guessing we won't see interior strip work from Ronald anytime soon, but I always enjoy his regular appearance on the front page.

More on Alex Ronald:
He has a Facebook presence
And, befitting a covers artist, several appearances on Covers uncovered
I especially recommend this one, which isn't technically a 2000AD cover, but which does go into detail on his digital process:

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: True Grot; A Walk in Gang Alley; Angel of Mercy; Termination with Extreme…
Rogue Troopers
Sinister Dexter: both his episodes
Vector 13:
Missionary Man: Mardi Gras

Ronald taking his 'hollowed out human' look to its logical extreme!
Words by Gordon Rennie

*I’m old enough (at 41) to consider any art that clearly looks like it was created on a computer to be ‘modern’.

**And on the verge of delivering a string of all-time classic thrills including Necronauts and Caballistics, Inc. Why not read more about Mr Rennie here…

***And for a good couple of years, that series was served by cover artists doing various movie poster pastiches, to rather good effect.

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