Tuesday, June 2, 2015

No. 21 John Smith

First Prog: 473
Latest Prog: 1887 one hopes there is more to come from the world of Indigo Prime, and indeed some completely new story that pushes yet more undreamed of boundaries.

First Meg: 1.17
Latest Meg: 323 Again, one hopes for more to come! In particular some new Devlin Waugh and Strange & Darke, at the very least, would be smashing. We don’t mind waiting.

Total appearances: 368 and counting
- not including a handful of text stories

Smith's mission statement?
Art by Dougie Braithwaite

Creator credits:
Tyranny Rex, New Statesmen, Indigo Prime, Straightgate, Revere, Devlin Waugh, Slaughterbowl, Firekind, A Love Like Blood, Holocaust 12, Pussyfoot 5, Leatherjack, Dead Eyes, Cradlegrave, Strange & Darke

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Rogue Trooper
A whole lot of Future Shocks and other one-offs. Good ones, too.

Notable character creations:
Tyranny Rex
Fervent & Lobe, Winwood & Cord, various other pairings that are worth celebrating for the names alone!
Devlin Waugh
Strange & Darke would count, I’m sure, if only he’d craft a couple more stories for them.

Notable characteristics:
If there’s one thing that unites John Smith’s work, it’s a whole heap of notable characteristics. Where to begin? Clever names. Combining two words into one to form lyrical/weird-sounding new words (what noted 2000 AD fan Floyd Kermode calls ‘Gerard Manley Hopkinsing’). Louche villains. Louche heroes. Louche antiheroes. Playfulness. Northern accents*. Complicated plots. Big, and I do mean BIG themes: God; The nature of everything; Love; Death; Sex; Bodies; Flesh; Creation; Disassembly; Otherness; Oneness; Grime.

Smith sets the scene as only he can.
Art by Marshall/Elson

Unfiltered Smithiness.
Art by Paul Marshall (I think)

The thing is, although it sort of sounds like nonsense, it does actually make total sense.
A rare talent.
Art by Steve Dillon

On John:
Is John Smith 2000AD’s best-kept secret? He’s produced work elsewhere for other publishers, but not to the same standard of his 2000AD output. Perhaps his name helps him keep a low profile.

Smith's muse?
Art by Ashley Wood
Smith is known for working at his own pace. Clearly not at all short of ideas, it can take time for individual ideas to cohere into actual stories, and for him to find the right hole to slot his colourful characters into.

Indigo Prime (which first appeared under the soubriquet ‘Void Indigo’ in a Future Shock) is a case in point. Smith had the idea for an organisation comprising teams of deceased humans who would fix problems behind the scenes of reality in various ways. It’s a marvellous excuse to set up vast arrays of characters from across time and space with delightful names and bizarre appearances, who actually have to be weird to do their job properly. And he’s got the imagination to make those characters work. Sadly, finding the right stories to tell with this delicious set up has not proven so easy, meaning we’ve had just 12 Indigo Prime tales told in the last 20 years…

The newly decesaed are introduced to Indigo Prime.
Art by Chris Weston

Some of these were downright bizarre – Soft Bodies, I’m looking at you** - some were pretty much silly (the Starsky and Hutch episode), but when it works you get Killing Time, one of my all time favourite 2000AD stories. And what you always get is some delicious character design, combining grit with wit; rough-edged people with the ultra-refined. This tends to bring out the best in imaginative artists such as Chris Weston, Edmund Bagwell and Lee Carter, who are absolutely keen to embrace the outré.

Even more of a case in point is New Statesmen, produced very early in Smith’s career for ‘grown-up’ comic Crisis. In an unfair way, it’s easy to say New Statesmen was a naked attempt to re-do / outdo Watchmen. In its defence, it ended up one of the very best attempts in comics to take on Watchmen, since it is actually about imagining a society where super-powered beings are tools of the government and celebrities in a real-world sense, and isn’t about exposing childish understandings of human psychology and glorifying in ultra-violence (not really what Watchmen itself was doing, but definitely what a lot of post-Watchmen superhero comics did). Less in its defence, New Statesmen suffers from too many narrative jumps that leave the reader uncertain of just what the heck is going on and why a lot of the time.***

And this leads into another thing I think Smith is known for: creating stories that can be confusing. Sometimes this is fair, especially in his earlier work, but 2000 AD is the kind of comic that expects its readers to try a bit harder, and good for it. The fact remains that Smith has a tendency to pepper his expository captions and dialogue with made-up slang. This makes the captions more interesting, but often to the detriment of explaining the plot. I’ve certainly had to re-read certain episodes a few times in order to understand the story.

They're called soft bodies for a reason...
Art by Will Simpson
Smith doesn’t like to hold a reader’s hand. He’ll jump points of view, leap through space and time, and expects the readers to keep up. When paired with ethereal artists such as Simon Harrison (on Revere), this can make the narrative appear to be much more elliptical than it actually is. Similarly, when he produces such imposing (and winning) characters as Devlin Waugh or Tyranny Rex, the force of their personalities has a tendency to overwhelm the storyline. You expect the story to be about these characters, when often they are stumbling through a narrative along with the reader, making it harder for us to get an handle on what is going on.

I’ve mentioned it already, but the Tyranny Rex outing Soft Bodies, one of Smith’s earliest in the Prog, was deliberately all over the place as a narrative. It kind of set a tone that he’s not entirely escaped from. The apotheosis of this style of writing was Danzig’s Inferno – a two-part oddity drawn by Sean Phillips that remains, for me, the single most impenetrable work published by Tharg.

One hilarious upshot is the sad truth that when Firekind ran in the Prog with an episode missing, a lot of readers didn’t notice and just thought. “H’mm, there’s been a bit of a jump here. Oh well, that’s Smith for you.” Having the missing episode re-inserted helps, but in fact this story is strong enough that it’s not vital. Many others have pointed this out before: if you liked James Cameron’s Avatar but wished it had a proper grown-up plot instead of a string of clichés, then read Firekind.

Larsen learns the truth in Firekind.
Art by Paul Marshall

In fact, if I’m making any kind of point here, it’s that you should go back and re-read some John Smith comics right now! You’re sure to get something out of it you didn’t the first (few) times.

But really, Smith is perfectly capable of crafting some straight down the line action stories – A Love like Blood; Pussyfoot 5; Slaughterbowl; Leatherjack (although this last has themes and meta-narratives coming out of every orifice). 
A Love Like Blood: a vampire falls for a werewolf. With blood and guts instead of moping.
Art by Frazer Irving

Mild-mannered murderer Modest gets ready for Guns 'n' Dinos in Slaughterbowl.
Art by Paul Peart-Smith

Even most of Revere, on the surface something of a fever dream, is at heart a pretty straight action tale about a reckless youth who has run-ins with the law while trying to pursue a girl. He gets caught up in some mystical slightly drug-hazed shenanigans, but these scenes are more of a pause in the action than anything else.
Revere: a violent, stabby moment.
Art by Simon Harrison

Revere: a peaceful, romantic moment.
Art by Simon Harrison

Devlin Waugh, on the whole, is pretty straight (if you’ll pardon the pun) action comics storytelling, too. Swimming in Blood, the first tale, felt to me like a pretty brash Silence of the Lambs riff, with a bit of Aliens thrown in – just held together by a startlingly exciting main character. 

When Devlin met Dredd.
Art by Sean Phillips
He’s generally described as Noel Coward’s head (and brain) on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body. And then by the second story, he’s a vampire as well. Later Waugh stories have focussed more on said character’s personality, but there’s usually a rollicking yarn going on around him, especially in the globe-trotting Herod epic. 

Bon mots flow from Waugh's tongue.
Art by Colin MacNeil
I would say that in general that John Smith’s work has become tighter with age/experience. The scripts flow more easily, the neologisms have faded, but the challenging ideas remain. I’d kind of love him to re-do New Statesmen now that he’s a more mature writer just to see what it was really all about!

Underneath it all is horror. I think some editors have gone on record as saying that Smith is fundamentally a horror writer – something I’d take to be an enormous compliment since he’s written very few straight-down-the-line horror stories. But it is true that those stories rank amongst his very best – Cinnabar, Killing Time, his two ‘Tales from Beyond Science’*** and, most recently, Cradlegrave. Each is a work of full on body horror, so be warned! If you don’t like lashings of gore with your chills, stay away from John Smith when he’s in unrestrained horror mode.

Cradlegrave: the horror comes in what you don't see...
only to be turned up to 11 by the horror you eventually DO see.
Art by Edmund Bagwell
Of course, there are horror elements to an awful lot of his work, not least in his predilection for villains that like to indulge in obscene acts and unseen tortures.

Meet (one of) the bad guys from Leatherjack
Art by Paul Marshall

You don't have to be neatly coiffured, elegantly dressed and a bit camp to be a John Smith villain...
but it helps. Art (and perhaps some of the design responsibility) by Paul Marshall.

Here's a hired torturer from Pussyfoot 5
Art by Nigel Raynor

And here's a callow youth from Holocaust 12.
Art by Clint Langley
Alll the villains on one page! Scary animal - check; drooling peadophile - check;
officious crone - check; unknowable golems - check.
Art by Paul Marshall

And I think it’s fair to say that much of his Dredd output involves a lot of gore, and not just from gunshot wounds as in a typical Wagner or Rennie episode.

The Jigsaw Murderer.
Art by Xuasus

Life in Mega City 1 isn't all headbutting eggs into a bowl.
Art by John Hicklenton
The great thing about Smith is that you just never know what you’re going to get from him. He’s been a 2000 AD mainstay for so long, but remains unpredictable. You might get a new hit of Indigo Prime, Tyranny Rex or Devlin Waugh out of the blue. Or maybe you’ll get a stand alone epic such as the breathtaking Firekind, or the breathless Leatherjack, or the beautiful Cradlegrave. Or you’ll get Strange and Darke, a superbly scripted opening series for a pair of characters that may never return.

And sometimes, Smith just says "screw it, here's nuns with guns".
Art by Mark Buckingham
Now get back to work, Mr. Smith! We need more thrills.

Personal favourites:
Rogue Trooper: Cinnabar (that one everyone says is like the best post-GFD story ever. And they’re right!)
Indigo Prime: Killing Time
Heavy Metal Dredd (what can I say, I’m a gorehound)
Devlin Waugh: the Herod epic; Innocence & Experience
Dead Eyes
Cradlegrave (This really is a masterpiece – one of a handful of 2000 AD stories that I think could thrive beyond the realms of Tharg. It makes me shudder just thinking about it)
Strange & Darke

Art by Cliff Robinson

More on John Smith
I'm struggling to find interviews, so instead two other reviews
Here's the Slow Bullet on Indigo Prime
And Douglas Wolk on Devlin Waugh
Grant Goggans, the Hipster Dad himself, with his take on Indigo Prime
Steve Mace teases an interview with Class of '79 here, but the link is broken, boo hoo.

*seriously – go and re-read Dead Eyes and Cradlegrave in a northern accent and they come alive in new and wonderful ways. I wonder if it works for Revere, even though that’s a specifically London-set story? You can tell I’m a dirty Souther, can’t you.

**technically a Tyranny Rex story, but it spent as much if not more time with Fervent & Lobe, two Indigo Prime operatives.

***I’d cite this work as a key piece of evidence that Smith is something of an opposite to his contemporaries Mark Millar and Grant Morrison. Those two titans of comic sales are, I think, great at the craft of telling a story and at making readers think they’re getting an intelligent exploration of a theme – while often it’s pretty dumb (I’m being a bit harsh on Morrison. A bit.) Smith is the real deal when it comes to intelligent themes, but his early levels of craft where perhaps too oblique to bring in the punters and rack up the sales…

****When you can get Rian Hughes to draw pictures in his normal, incredibly warm but also mannered style, and make them f*cking terrifying, you know you can write good horror. Go re-read The Eyes of Edwin Spendlove...


  1. Thanks for all the kind words! Had an awful 2015, but hope to get back to proper work this year. Hit me up on Facebook, if you like? I'm on holiday in Lanzarote at the moment thinking up a new horror story! Laters!

  2. Can I ask what story that absolutely traumatic picture from Hicklenton is from ?

  3. It's definitely from a Heavy Metal Dredd episode; I think the one called Mort Rifkin Rises Again. At least, that's what it says when I hover my cursor over the image, and I have to hope that 2015 me wasn't lying or just plain wrong!

    1. Thanks for the response. These kinda things disturb me, but my morbid personality makes me dwell on them even when I don't want to XD

      I was trying to find some information on this story and I just found a bunch of listings, I'd have thought something like this would have at least raised some eyebrows if it came out in the Megazine ?

    2. I have that. Think I know where it is. Let me see, I'll get back to you.