Saturday, May 26, 2018

No. 114 Will Simpson

First Prog: 408
Latest Prog: 1247

First Meg: 1.10
Latest Meg: 1.10

Total appearances: 79
-not including Sex Warrior for Toxic!, hilarious though it is.

Creator credits:

Universal Soldier

Rogue Trooper unleashed for the 90s!

Other art credits:
Judge Dredd
Anderson, Psi Division
Venus Bluegenes
Tyranny Rex
Witch World
A handful of Future Shocks

Notable character creations:
Max Brewster
Armon Gill
The Spider Woman
and, although not a character, he did create the design of the 'Banana City' Judge look.

My favourite Mega City tragedy.
Words by John Wagner

Notable characteristics:
Glowering eyes; thin noses. Swooshing action with twisty limbs. Dirty shadows.

Aquiline nose, squinty eyes, bulging lips - gotta be a villain!
(or possibly a Rutger Hauer homage)
Words by Dave Gibbons

Muscles ahoy! Also vigorous action, the way you like it.
Grunting by Alan McKenzie

On Will:
For a little while there, as the 80s turned into the 90s, Will Simpson was a proper mainstay of 2000AD. He got to do a number of key stories for Judge Dredd, developed a couple of major new series (Universal Soldier and the reboot of Rogue Trooper), and helped out on some other strips when the ‘main’ artist was busy (Anderson, Tyranny Rex).

Simpson's early style was heavy on the inks, adding a layer of grunge. Luscious hair!
Words by Wagner and Grant

Very unfairly, he’s also a forgotten legend of fully painted art. At the time, Tharg certainly crowed about Simpson’s stellar work on the likes of Rogue Trooper: The War Machine, but frankly since those days people who talk of such things always point to Simon Bisley and the Horned God as the birth of fully painted weekly comics, rather overlooking the work Simpson had already been putting in first on Judge Dredd, and then, contemporary to Bisley’s Slaine, on Rogue Trooper.

Not that Simpson had a rough time of it. For whatever reason – I believe Vertigo had something to do with it – he moved on from 2000AD pretty quickly after finishing that first (and best) Friday outing, only coming back several years down the line to do a bit of Dredd and to make his mark on a major new series, Witch World.**

Anyway, we’ll get back these glories later. Because he didn’t start out a legend, indeed, one of the best things about this kind of career trajectory is that we readers got to see Simpson develop from a proper novice:

It's good, but this art would get a LOT better! The main thing is you can see the man's face melting, so no major complaints.
Words by Peter Milligan

to a dependable regular:

Ah, those panel-breaking poses and in-your-face guns! The 90s is coming.
Words by Alan Grant

to one of the best painted artists ever:

The painted work not only makes the page sing, you also know it just wouldn't look that great in black and white.
Words by John Wagner

and, eventually, to a long-standing professional with a unique style:

There's something very comic about this panel. Delicate blacks, simple outlines, more superb grime.
Words by John Wagner
After some early Future Shocks and an Anderson fill-in, Simpson really got to strut his stuff on Universal Soldier. The grit is what shines through to me. It’s so delightfully reminiscent of low-budget 80s action / Sci-Fi video aesthetic. But the good ones, with a charismatic leading actor and a script that was slightly more intelligent than it needed to be. 

I always admire an artist who isn't afraid to draw rain.
Words by Alan McKenzie

The premise is that Max Brewster has been operated on…

…so that his brain is somehow psi-linked to warriors from across human history. In times of danger, he ‘timeslips’, meaning that his brain merges with the brain of one of those warriors, allowing him to pick the perfect fighting style (and witty banter) to match any occasion.

From Mad Max on a prison planet... a Guy Ritchie movie

This time it's back to old Japan for some sweet Samurai action.
Words (and encyclopaedic film knowledge) by Alan McKenzie

Also, the whole is told as a field report presented to some shadowy corporation figure. If it was a film, it would be a mock-documentary with loads of found footage + some nifty camera effect to show the timeslip sequences from some sort of futuristic brain camera. My point is, if it was a film it would be way better than the actual film called ‘Universal Soldier’***, which has no connection other than a squad of soldiers who’ve had their brains operated on.

He got his first Dredd work shortly after, as part of the massive team of artists on the Oz epic. I think he got the second-most episodes after Brendan McCarthy. Memorably, he did the ‘mad ship robot Cookie’ sequence, where Chopper encounters a murderous droid while at sea. Deliciously loopy, especially for the part where Chopper realises what’s actually in ‘Bosun’s broth’.

It's a perfectly posed panel, cementing Cookie in our nightmares for years!
Words by Wagner and Grant
After Oz, Simpson essentially graduated into one of the chief Dredd architects, handling some of the more prestige episodes. 

Most obviously there’s a couple of tales involving rookie Judge Kraken: Bloodline and Tale of the Dead Man, major bridges between the Judda part of the Oz epic and the upcoming Necropolis.

Bloodline was especially memorable to me because it was, kind of, the first time there’d been lush fully-painted artwork on the interior of the comic.**** It was only for the colour centre spread, but by gosh did it have an impact on me. In all honesty, the first time I saw it this style was actually a bit of a turn off. I was reading my big brother’s old Progs, that I hadn’t dared touch before, and had come off the high of Oz – basically an exciting sports story to my 10-year-old eyes, and then I got this:

Judge Dredd had been getting more and more grown-up, sure - but never quite this grown-up!
If this was a video it'd be an 18 for sure (in 1988 at least)
Words by John Wagner

It's not all gore and tensed muscles. There's also shadowy conspiracy going on here, as Dredd's world gets more and more into the politics of Justice.

It was just well grown up – too much for my young eyes, and very much a herald of things to come, 2000AD was definitely not a comic ‘just’ for 8-12 year-olds any more. As I read further Progs, I came to Simpson’s pair of Spider-Woman tales, which were proper body horror in the vein of Cronenberg’s ‘the Fly’, a film I had just recently seen and loved. The Wagner/Simpson version was and is bloody horrible, but also charming and very moving, and I love every page.

More luscious hair, coupled with more emotion than you'd expect from a 'boy's action comic'.
Words by John Wagner

Extreme detail in the foreground allows Simpson to lean hard on the colours alone to delineate background detail and, of course, the emotional tone of the tale.
Words by John Wagner

Talking of body horror, how do you categorise Tyranny Rex in Soft Bodies? I’m sure I’ve noted before that it’s one of 2000AD’s all-time least-coherent stories, but in a way that feels deliberate. Tyranny herself doesn’t entirely know what’s going on, and I think that’s meant to be part of the point of the reality warping world of Indigo Prime – for indeed, this turned out to be a sort of warm up for that strip.

This time it's fun!
Words by John Smith

Smith is actually a perfect partner for John 'Body Horror' Smith - he's got a real knack for making humans look like fragile bags of flesh, and for making any sort of machinery look deeply sinister.
Words by John Smith
Back in the world of Dredd, Simpson was also the key artist to tackle the idea of our hero aging. It’s the stubbly chin that sells it for me.

Like, he's clearly shaved but the stubble is already poking through
Words by John Wagner

It’s kind of funny now to look back on 1991 and think ‘ooh, Dredd’s 15 years older than he was in 1977, he must be getting on a bit, wonder how that’s gonna affect his way of thinking and his ability to do all the stunts’. I guess if Wagner had known quite how many more decades Dredd was going to be around for, he wouldn’t have started on this beat! Nonetheless, a whole lot of the Necropolis extended saga was about that very thing, and Simpson’s work on the prologues put it foremost in our minds.

Old Dredd meets young Dredd; snarl meets smirk, and thus an epic tragedy is born...
Words by John Wagner
Time now to step into the world of Rogue Trooper. But before we get to the big man himself, one can’t ignore this slice of classic early 90s pretentiousness…

More spooky future tech, more thick, fleshy inks.
Words by Grant Morrison.
From a Sci-Fi Special story featuring Venus Bluegenes, a character everyone knew was cool but no one had really worked out what to do with – ironically, she mostly came into her own only after teaming up with Fr1day many years later.
Outside of Dredd, Simpson is surely best remembered for rebooting Rogue Trooper, as written by original series artist / co-creator Dave Gibbons. It’s a perfect match of style and tone, and, yes, it’s also more pretentiousness. Nothing really pretentious in the way Simpson depicts his soldiers, and especially the mud and blood-scarred landscape they fight in. It’s very much the comics equivalent of those late 80s, ultra-bloody Vietnam movies (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill). The art speaks for itself, really…

He sure gives good trouser, Will Simpson
Words by Dave Gibbons

There's a final act on board a space station, but otherwise this page beautifully sums up the tone of the whole story.
Words by Dave Gibbons
Of course, painting that much detail takes its toll, and The War Machine was another victim of erratic scheduling, printed in bursts of 4 or 5 parts across a year. But worth it! And, as that story has been collected several times since, one suspects many readers think it was well worth it, too. Indeed, Tharg of 1991 thought it was such a big deal he commissioned a whole Rogue Trooper annual, and an ongoing series based on the new hero, Fr1day. Sadly with neither Gibbons nor Simpson carrying on, it wasn't what you would call a big hit.

After one final hit on Dredd for the Megazine,

Simpson's paints had already become a little looser. But Dredd is still the big chin.
Words by Alan Grant
Simpson was off…

…until he was, quite without warning, back again but with a very different style – perhaps one honed on various American comics that presumably demanded he find a much faster way to produce many more pages than 2000AD needed. Still colour, still painted, but very much looser and more comics-ish. All in the service of Witch World, a sword ‘n sorcery saga that decided to take itself very seriously (and credit to it for that, at a time when the rest of the world was desperately trying to be arch and knowingly funny). Simpson’s art, accordingly, is pretty sober. There’s room for some gore in there, but basically he’s got a plucky heroine and an aged knight trapped in a weird alchemy lab dungeon thing. He only did the one storyline, as the series itself never made it beyond an initial airing.

That's some gorgeous fantasy art right there!
Words by Gordon Rennie

And now we're back to weak flesh and sinister science.
Somewhere on the way, Simpson has started using a much thinner brush for his inks, too.
Words by Gordon Rennie
To date, Simpson’s last hurrah for Tharg was some years later, on The Chief Judge’s Man. This was the first part of a continuing storyline around a top secret Judge assassin, and of course a foil for Judge Dredd. Armand Gill is a troubled man with a hint of crazy, that little something that Simpson knows how to embed in his characters.

It's almost the work of a different artist, but the defined musculature and grimacing faces give it away.
Words by John Wagner

Since then, I believe he’s been in the world of Film/TV design work. Of all the strips in his 2000AD career to draw from, crazily enough Witch World is probably the most similar to his latest and highest profile job – Game of Thrones.

More on Will Simpson:
There's a neat biography on IrishComicsWikia (he's from N'orn Ireland don'tcha know)
-but otherwise I got nothing, unless you wanna see some Game of Thrones concept art

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: Oz, Bloodline, Curse & Return of the Spider-Woman, Letter to Judge Dredd, Tale of the Dead Man
The War Machine
Tyranny Rex: Soft Bodies

Dredd dressed in Banana City judging gear - it's a heart beat away from the Terminator!

*As a reboot of Rogue Trooper, Fr1day isn’t exactly a new creation; indeed, Dave Gibbons had drawn his own redesigned version. But frankly, Simpson’s vision of the character and especially of the new Nu Earth felt like a whole new ballgame.

**Yeah, that one didn’t work out so well. But at the time, it was billed as being like the new Slaine or something.

***Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, starring Scott ‘Accident Man’ Adkins, is actually pretty decent, although it’s astonishingly bleak.

****I’ve no knowledge of how the colour pages were being put together at this point, but I think Simpson’s were the first that obviously looked like painterly watercolours. There may have been similar / previous published work in a Special by someone else, mind.

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