Saturday, September 8, 2018

No. 119 Steve Roberts

First Prog: 1320
Latest Prog: 1518

First Meg: 240
Latest Meg: 280

Total appearances: 76
-including his episodes of Metro Dredd and Metal Hammer SinDex that were reprinted in the Megazine, and a small handful of colouring jobs.

Creator credits:

Bec & Kawl
Black Atlantic

Other art credits:
Sinister Dexter
Banzai Battalion
The Angel Gang
Metro newspaper version of Dredd
Future Shocks + one offs

Notable character creations:
Bec(ky Miller)
(Jarrod) Kawl

Simon Davis's paints over Steve Roberts' pencils makes for a powerful image!

Notable characteristics:
Just about one of the cartooniest artists to have worked as a 2000AD regular. By which I mean, his characters and backgrounds often don’t try to look real, but rather to evoke ideas of real things in a simple way. Almost certainly as a result of this style, Roberts is pretty exclusively linked with funny stories…

Sometimes, all you need is a little bug-eyed jump scare to get you laughing.
Words by Dan Abnett
 …although in fact he achieved a pretty neat line in genuinely spooky moments.

Even though Kawl is trying not to be scared, Roberts' evil clown can't help but press the fear button in my brain.
Words by Si Spurrier

Also, he likes drawing curly noses and elbows, craggy hands and, perhaps above all else, pouty lips.

On Steve:
Steve Roberts was a pretty consistent artistic voice during the Andy Diggle / early Matt Smith years, very strongly associated with two writers, Dan Abnett and Si Spurrier. It’s nice to think he was and is good friends with both, as they meshed together pretty well, but I’ve no idea if that’s the case – it’s not uncommon these days for writers and artists to only ever talk by email, and even then it may go through the editor rather than person to person!

However it happened, Roberts got his break not through the classic Future Shock route, but on that other 2000 staple of one-off anarchy, Sinister Dexter. Back in them days, Sinister Dexter was largely an excuse for Abnett to throw in some puns and try out all sorts of writing style pastiches, while a large roster of artists played up a mixture of exaggeration, coolness and ultra-violent gunplay.

Not sure I’d describe Roberts’s vibe as ‘cool’, but he’s certainly into exaggeration and not shy of ultra-violence, although his cartooning makes the most horrific deaths seem oddly palatable.

Shocked expressions by Steve Roberts; muzzle flash by Chris Blythe; Words by Dan Abnett

Only Roberts' second story, but already his line and confidence has improved markedly!
Words by Dan Abnett

Craggy hands in action! There's something about the way he shapes his phalanges.
Words by Dan Abnett

He really nails the two characters' body language here. Dexter holds himself fully upright, looking suave, while Sinister holds his neck forward and own, and his whole body is generally more hunched and relaxed.
Words by Dan Abnett (and nifty colours here by Simon Gurr)

This style is not a million miles from an old 2000AD legend, Ron Smith. He was, of course, the go-to man for drawing idiots being idiotic and, where possible, ugly. Which leads nicely into Roberts’s first brush with the world of Mega City One, a couple of episodes of ‘Whatever happened to…’ that ran in the Megazine.

Spot the hapless Imelda Dreep...
Context by Alan Grant
And at this point Roberts was ready for a proper series, partner in crime this time round being Si Spurrier, and a full-on trying-really-hard-to-be-funny actual comedy strip, Bec and Kawl. I’ll be honest, I never liked Bec and Kawl quite as much as I wanted to, but I was always glad to see it in the Prog, with its guarantee of a gentle smile if not a belly laugh. It’s unfair to compare, but the strip is a comedy set in the world of workshy students, and, as such, it’s kind of a half-way house between the ultraviolent lunacy of DR & Quinch, and the more sardonic lunacy of Survival Geeks. And it’s not as good as either of those, even if its heart was in the right place.

Do people still watch Army of Darkness? It was a big part of my growing up, surely.
Words by Si Spurrier

Bec and Kawl is also the strip where Roberts found his footing. The early series have a slightly scrappy quality to the lines – which, on a meta-textual level, kind of lines up with the way it felt as a first year undergraduate, not yet having a comfortable personality.

Early Bec and Kawl has a rough quality, while still delivering the creepy monster goods.
Words by Si Spurrier
But as the series continued, (and the students aged) Roberts’s confidence seemed to grow, too. His lines smoothed out he seemed to exaggerate his faces and body language more effortlessly.

Late Bec and Kawl is much smoother, somehow. Our heroes are more comfortable in their own skin (and indeed clothes).
Words by Si Spurrier 

Whether or not you like the lead characters – genial, slightly bumbling stereotype of a young 2000AD fan Jarrod Kawl and goth-ish, vamp-ish, not nearly as cool as she thinks she is Becky Miller, you can’t deny that Steve Roberts captured them both perfectly.

But the true delight for me is in his scenery, whether it’s a folk-horror countryside, or the sheer hell of a motorway. The 2000AD-ish point of the series is its bizarre monsters, derived from a mix of British legend and frankly Spurrier’s warped imagination*, and Roberts never lets the team down on that front.

It's the smoking cauldrons that really sells this folk horror delight.
Word by Si Spurrier

Someone's been watching Brian Yuzna's Society. And a good thing too! Props also for the mad science machine in the background.
Words by Si Spurrier

More mad science, and do you know what, there's that beautiful  lo-fi charm to the line work that puts me in mind of no less a legend than Peter Dohety.
Words by Si Spurrier

In between episodes, The Spurrier/Roberts combo also produced a short string of Metro Dredd newspaper strips

Mad citizens and general lunacy - perfect. Weirdly geriatric Dredd - probably wouldn't work in the actual Prog...

And even a weird little series on the BBC website, of all places, but specifically linked to and indeed printed in 2000AD.
(You can still read that 4-parter here)

Supremely confident cartooning. Love it.
Words by Si Spurrier

Back in the Prog, alongside the odd Future Shock:

When Roberts does his own colouring, he really knows how to exaggerate the mood.
Words by Gary Wilkinson
Roberts landed a pretty prestigious gig drawing the final series of Banzai Battalion. This hilarious robot action romp never had a series regular artist, so it put Roberts alongside a pantheon of 2000AD legends – Henry Flint, Ian Gibson and Cam Kennedy. Robert’s work on Robot Wars stands up to them all pretty damn well. His style really reinforces the ‘Toy Story’ aspects of the series, which is about inch-high robots fighting bugs and then crime – and, ultimately, each other.

Expert action cartooning.
Words by John Wagner

For this last go around, writer John Wagner puts the focus on Captain Bug Stomper's sense of his own mission. He had always been a bit too gung-ho and here descends into full-on battle craziness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the Norman Bates pastiche from the final page of Banzai Battalion is one of my favourite visions of a man** gone mad.

One of my all time favourite 2000AD pages
Words by John Wagner

Somehow this ended up being Roberts’s final work for the Prog (well, except for a stint colouring Richard Elson on the first series of Kingdom),

This is Roberts colouring Elson - a nice counterpoint to Elson's work colouring Bec and Kawl.
Words by Dan Abnett
but he was kept busy developing a couple of series for the Megazine.

First, teamed up again with Dan Abnett, an all-new comedy series, Black Atlantic.
The pair came up with a cast of characters, and used a new setting to tell what short have been short, sharp, fun romps.

Nothing wrong with the set up or character design, but Black Atlantic never really found its headwind.
Words by Dan Abnett

At its best, it’s basically Ace Trucking Co but at sea, in the world of Dredd. A series that Roberts himself claims as a personal favourite, and he’s an excellent fit for that kind of comedy action. Sadly, Black Atlantic only ever hit those heights in the odd panel here and there, with neither of the two stories quite gelling.

Rubber ducks with evil tentacles: awesome; narration by scared 'ordinary boy': bit dry.
Words by Dan Abnett

Frankly far more successful was another collaboration with Si Spurrier, retelling lost tales of the Angel Gang. For this strip, Roberts developed a new black and white style that almost has a lino-cut quality to it.

Now that's how to fill a page with weirdoes and oddballs!
Words by Si Spurrier
Not quite full McMahon Slaine, but not a million miles off, and very deliberately (well, I think so) evoking a period western feel. Yes, technically that period is 100 years into the future***, but as with Missionary Man and the like, there’s definitely a sense that the Cursed Earth is not unlike a Sergio Leone western (or perhaps Corbucci is more in Spurrier’s pretentious film-school based wheelhouse). And, as such, the sepia / black-and-white early photography look really works.

The Angels themselves are a horrible, ugly, silly bunch. The people they interact with are typically also silly and occasionally ugly, if less horrible. As such, it’s an absolutely perfect fit for Roberts. Even better was his solo story tackling the Fink. Again, the series is pretty much all comedy, but you can’t have a lead character who is basically a decaying pseudo-zombie and not have some creepy horror elements.

More terrific contortions
Words by Si Spurrier

After seeing Roberts develop this new style and delivering arguably his most accomplished work, it was kind of sad that he bade farewell to Tharg. On the other hand, after my children were born a few years later I was delighted to encounter his work again in the form of DipDap, and absolute gem of an animation on CBeebies.****

Yes, that is a dude with a T Rex sticking out of his head. Literally.

More on Steve Roberts:
Frankly, I’m stumped. You’ll need to get hold of Megazine 278 for a print interview…

Personal favourites:
Whatever happened to Imelda Dreep
Sinister Dexter: Dirty habits
Bec & Kawl: Pest Control, Attack of the Cones, Freakshow
Banzai Battalion: Robot Wars
The Angel Gang: Before they wuz Dead; Pizen: Impossible


*These monsters are pointedly not drawn from fantasy/SF pop culture, a la Survival Geeks, if you’re wondering how this older comedy strip about whiny students is different!

**OK, robot.

***Hmm, thinking about this a little further, it’s perhaps more like 75 years into the future, if we’re talking about the Angel Gang a few years before the events of the Judge Child Saga, set in 2102…

****Apologies to people who don't pay the license fee needed to watch BBC stuff. You might be able to find it on Amazon Prime?

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