Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No. 25 Colin MacNeil

First Prog: 508
Latest Prog: 1935 (currently on Judge Dredd: Blood of Emeralds)

First Meg: 1.01 (or 1)
Latest Meg: 342 - but he'll surely be back before long.

Total appearances: 292

Creator credits:
Shimura*, Maelstrom, Vanguard, Insurrection, Strange & Darke

Other art credits:
Ulysses Sweet (or Fruitcake & Veg, as it was known for MacNeil’s short outing on the character)
Judge Dredd
Strontium Dog / Tales from the DogHouse
The Corps
Calhab Justice
Missionary Man
Satanus Unchained!
Devlin Waugh
Fiends of the Eastern Front

Notable character creations:
Judge Inspector Sadu
America Jara
America Beeny
Bennett Beeny
Strange & Darke

Notable characteristics:
Entrance wounds and exit wounds. Stern faces. Tight lips. Filtrums. Wiry limbs.

Stern look: check
Long nose: check
Filtrum: check
Lips: no
Words by Robbie Morrison
Bullets don't really do this. But they should!
Words by John Wagner

On Colin:
If I’m honest, I didn’t like Colin MacNeil at first. He was the guy who did that one Strontium Dog that wasn’t proper-looking. He worked on that first extra-whiny Chopper solo story, where Chopper looked, to my eyes, kind of weird. Then he painted the next Chopper story that everyone loved so much but 11-year-old me didn’t really get. And then he killed Johnny Alpha.

Actually a damn fine Ezquerra impersonation job.
Words by Wagner and Grant

Ah, those gritted teeth.
Words by John Wagner

Gotta respect a man who draws a gigantic kneepad, mind.
Words by John Wagner
But after that came the Judge Dredd Megazine, and the story America. By this point I was all of 12 years old, and I’d never read anything quite so grown up – not in comics, and not, I think, in prose fiction either.** And as sophisticated and adult as the story was, it was MacNeil’s art that really made me sit up and take notice. Yes, the nudity was part of that, but I was especially struck by how chaste the nudity was – it came across like nudity as actual humans experience it in life, not as 80s action films present it to an ogling audience. And alongside this was the detail of America and Beeny’s somewhat scummy Block, their idiot friends, and the contrast with the rich isolation Beeny ends up with as a mega-rich singer.

Proper grown-up stuff.
Words by John Wagner

MacNeil’s next trick for the Megazine was to go in completely the opposite direction – the comedic ultra-violence of Mechanismo, which gifted readers with a mash-up of Judge Dredd and the Beano. By this point, it was love at fifth sight, and MacNeil has become one of my most favourite artists ever. His name on the credits is a guarantee of fun times and a steady hand, even when the script isn’t up to it (Vanguard, I’m looking at you…)

More tasteful nudity.
Words by John Wagner

What do you do with a robot frozen in mid-kill?
Scenario by John Wagner

By the time I tracked down a copy of the 1991 2000 AD Annual, many years later, it seemed perfectly reasonable that MacNeil should be the artist who got to pair up Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha for the first time.

My research has revealed one fact that people may have suspected but hasn’t been discussed before, to my knowledge: Colin MacNeil is the king of the Judge Dredd Megazine. 112 issues feature MacNeil artwork on the inside or the cover (or both), as opposed to just 63 from the irrepressible Carlos Ezquerra, next on that particular list. More than that, he’s worked on most of the best stories, too: America, Mechanismo, Shimura, Malestrom (OK, I’m in a minority on liking that one), America II, Devlin Waugh: Red Tide, Fiends: Stalingrad, Insurrection I, II and III, Strange & Darke…

Many comics in the 90s were grim 'n' gritty.
But only the Megazine was ballsy enough to shout it from the cover!
Editorialising by David Bishop

In fact, you could argue that outside of his Judge Dredd work for the Prog, MacNeil has been far better served by the Megazine than by 2000 AD proper. Aside from Song of the Surfer, I’m not sure he’s had a universally acclaimed stone cold classic, in the way that he has with many a Meg series.

Did he cross the line? We'll never really know.
Scenario by John  Wagner

But what about the art itself? Well, MacNeil has used, and continues to use, a variety of different styles, but his basic drawing is a) great and b) always recognisable. He likes his figures wiry and sinewy – MacNeil’s version is surely the least muscled of all Dredds. His features are sharp, with well-defined noses, mouths and cheekbones. Mostly using a minimum of lines on the page to get this across.

MacNeil's first machine-man: Ulysses Sweet.
Basic pencil and ink
Words by Grant Morrison
Shimura: one of many hardmen.
Lavish pencil and ink
Words by Robbie Morrison

He never skimps on backgrounds, and he gained an early reputation (thanks in particular to Song of the Surfer) for being the master at drawing exit wounds. I guess it’s because of the little details in tiny bits of charred and torn flesh that hang half-off the actual holes, although I confess I didn’t notice that until I started reading about people’s love of his wound art.

Atmospheric paint
Words by John Smith

Shiny paint
Words by Gordon Rennie

Luscious black and white
Leaving room for Chris Blythe to fill with his magic colours.
Words by Robbie Morrison
MacNeil coloured by Len O'Grady - moody
Words by John Smith

He’s suffered from a curious problem of producing such epic work that he’s beaome something his own enemy at times. It’s absolutely not his fault that America II and Insurrection III suffer in comparison to the earlier books (which he also drew), as he was forced to use a different technique on them through ill-health. In their own right, these two works are excellently rendered, and would I think be roundly celebrated, but they just look less luscious than his own previous work on the same series.

MacNeil inks coloured by Alan Craddock - l;ess lush, still great.
Words by John Wagner

The fact is, although his figures and character designs are instantly recognisable, he’s a master of many different styles. MacNeil has proven his worth and then some just with pencils and inks – perhaps best seen in his black and white efforts, e.g. Maelstrom (again!) and Shimura: Outcast. He pushed through to greatness with the fully painted joy of America book 1 and a few other Dredds, and then found a new expression again with some sort of ‘painting with pencils’*** technique he used on Fiends and Insurrection. Blooming marvellous.

MacNeil has worked on many of the more serious/important Dredd stories, and of course on series with Robbie Morrison, so I’m not sure how much it’s his style and how much it’s what he’s been given, but he’s perhaps 2000 AD’s premiere artist for showing hard men struggling with emotion. Angry Chopper, Dredd, Hershey, Sadu, Shimura – the entire casts of Vanguard and Insurrection… But despite this, I still think of him as a comedy great. Maybe it’s the exit wounds thing - he’s had to conjure up some of the best OTT violence in the Prog, which always brings a smile. This is the sort of mix being a 2000 AD artist demands!

Super serious, deeply emotional
Words by John Wagner

Super gory, deeply hilarious
Words by Gordon Rennie

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: America; Mechanismo; Terror; Tour of Duty; Mega-City Confidential
Chopper: Song of the Surfer
Shimura: Outcast
Insurrection: especially books 1 and 2 (but really all of it)
Strange & Darke

More on Colin MacNeil
If you haven’t checked it out already, MacNeil is the star interview of the very first 2000 ADThrillcast.
Before that, he was on episode 5 of the Megacast.
There's a print interview on author/journalist Wayne Simmons' blog.

*I’ve an idea that the MacNeil-drawn ‘Outcast’ was always meant to be the first Shimura tale, until editor David Bishop told Robbie Morrison to give readers a chance to get the know the character and world better. So I’m assuming that MacNeil (who certainly was the first artists to draw Hondo City and its Judges on Judge Dredd: Our Man in Hondo) may have drawn up some character designs for Shimura before Frank Quitely came on board. But I may be wrong wrong wrong! In which case, apologies to Frank Quitely.

**Well, I’d read a whole lot of Asterix, but didn’t realise until re-reading it as a teenager how grown up and sophisticated it actually was.

***I’m sure this isn’t what he was doing, but I’m struggling to describe what it looks like.

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