Friday, April 10, 2009

Wetflower Smithslice

When British writers began making the pilgrimage to New York to work on childhood idols in the 1980s, some were left behind. While the likes of Moore, Morrison, Gibbons and Gaiman have all carved out respectable and rewarding careers working on American comic books, others never made that fundamental connection.

John Wagner is easily the finest action writer in modern British comics, but other than a few brief flirtations with Batman, he has had a miniscule impact on Americans. (Only directly, of course. Many of those British writers who have bought their idiosyncratic styles to the US have freely admitted that seeing what Wagner was doing in Battle, Action and 2000ad in the late seventies was a large influence on their own work.)

There are plenty of other UK creators who have been loved in Britain, only to be ignored in the States. Writers like Gordon Rennie and Robbie Morrison have both produced minor masterpieces in the pages of UK comics, only to get lost in the crush across the Atlantic.

Another writer who started getting attention in the UK at roughly the same time Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar did, but never got the same American attention as his contemporaries, is John Smith. A writer that can sometimes get painfully obtuse, Smith is also capable of crafting some fantastic action scenes and has managed the enviable feat of writing some really good Judge Dredd stories.

(Which is a lot harder than it looks. Ennis, Millar and Morrison have all produced some very poor Dredd stories, trying to hard to emulate Wagner.)

Although Smith’s writing can certainly be an acquired taste, with a tendency towards obscure plots, fractured narrative and silly made-up words, it can also be incredibly rewarding and entertaining.

Appearing in 2000as for the first time in 1986, Smith served the usual apprenticeship on the comic’s Future Shocks series, crafting some creepy little six-page shockers. He soon brought his own creations to the table with the beautifully odd Tyranny Rex. Created with Steve Dillon, the series started off as an odd theme of musical piracy involving clones before branching out into reality shaping and spirituality in cyberspace.

Smith was then chosen to help launch Crisis, 2000ad’s ‘mature readers’ big brother. While Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra kicked off their half of the debut issue with the angry political screed Third world War, Smith and Jim Baikie went for the superhero jugular with New Statesmen, with government-controlled super-people ripping each other minds out in psychic battle as America falls apart.

When it was published in 1988, New Statesmen was one of the crowd of deconstructionist superheroes, but it holds up quite well two decades on. Smith’s genetic tampering themes are a little bit stale a decade into the new millennium, but are still just fresh enough to be tasty. And while there are certainly narrative confusions abounding with the massive cast of characters and detailed world-building, Smith keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, daring the reader to catch up.

Despite gaining a swift reputation for plot confusions, Smith has also shown an ability to tell a simple, straight-forward from the beginning. When Rogue Trooper got bogged-down in a post-war angel of death agenda, Smith teamed up again with Steve Dillon, (ably assisted by Kev Walker) and ignored the current continuity altogether with Cinnabar. Although Smith was still keen to lay on the gooey ultraviolence and organic technology, Cinnabar ended up being the best Rogue Trooper story in years and remains a highlight of the character’s 25-year history.

A couple of years later, he again showed an ability to craft the smartest and funniest action comics with the sublime Slaughterbowl, the only strip not written by Morrison or Millar when the two Scotsmen took over 2000ad for eight weeks. Slaughterbowl was a nasty, venom fueled tale of serial killers achieving fame by running over other killers with genetically bred dinosaurs loaded up with rocket launchers, but it was also a cracking read, rocking along to a magnificent final twist in between panels of men ripping out other people’s throats with their teeth.

While he was showing that he could write a good action scene as well as anybody, Smith still manage to indulge his own fascinations with 2000ad series such as Indigo Prime, Revere and the memorably snappy Danzig’s Inferno. Smith teamed with some fine artists on these stories to produce truly memorable results. Simon Harrison did the best art of his career on Revere, Sean Phillips crafted some extremely strange visuals for the extremely strange Danzig’s Inferno and Chris Weston managed to be occasionally astonishing on Indigo Prime.

Weston and Smith’s collaboration on that strip reached a climax with Killing Time, a stunning piece of work from both creators. The 1991 series saw a group of Victorian English folk on a train taking a jolly adventure into time and space, only for everything to go horribly, horribly wrong when a certain Jack T Ripper amongst the passengers started slicing up the others to call down unimaginable evil. A seriously downbeat ending and some imaginative uses of gore towards the end (Mr Ripper coming to an unfortunate end through the strings of a harp is a highlight), mixed well with Smith’s usual metaphysical musings.

This would have been the best thing Smith ever produced if he hadn’t had the skill and good fortune to unleash Devlin Waugh upon the world. Since his first appearance in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1992, Waugh has been a constant source of wit and energy in a a variety of stories in both the Megazine and 2000ad, never failing to lighten up a tale when he appears.

A camp homosexual exorcist from the Vatican with the face and mannerisms of Terry Thomas and the biceps and propensity for violence of Schwarzenegger, Waugh added vampire to his list of character traits in the first story, while still holding on to his charm.

Waugh is part of Judge Dredd’s universe and has run into the legendary lawman on several occasions, but has also had plenty of his own tales to tell. These include several other encounters with vampires and other demons, as well as the epic Chasing Herod/Reign of Frogs/Sirius Rising story in 2000ad, ably illustrated by Steve Yeowell and oddly moving in its portrayal of a psychic apocalypse.

But while he was crafting out his own corner of British comics that saw characters and themes from one Smith story often cross over into another, Smith joined the other writers looking to crack America. Back to proving himself with a tryout story, Smith knocked his out of the park with Counting To Ten in Hellblazer #51. Working with his old mucker Sean Phillips, (who also co-created Waugh), the issue is a supremely spooky and nasty story that has been justly celebrated. (See the Mindless Ones for the best writing on this issue you’ll ever read.)

That was enough to get him the obligatory Vertigo mini-series designed to star a low-list DC Universe character. The Scarab was originally pitched as a Doctor Fate miniseries before evolving into its own thing. Largely ignored by readers, it has never been reprinted and joined dozens of other Vertigo hopes in the dustbin. Even Smith admitted getting bored with the whole thing and reverting to his own stock cliches to finish it off.

No wonder he never really bothered with any more American comics, (although he did apparently do some Vampirella work a few years back). In fact, his comic work dropped off notably over the past decade or so. This has worked out rather well for the writer, as his usual tics can become irritating if bunched up, but become more charming when spaced out over several years.

Smith has kept his hand in a number of further 2000ad stories, including the Devlin Waugh spinoff Pussyfoot 5, Leatherjack, which took his love of mad scifi words to unnatural lengths, and the recent Dead Eyes, which made up for a lingering sense of drabness by whipping out a great last page twist that tied it nicely into his greater work.

Smith has always done this, with clear lines drawn between wildly different tales that bring it all together. With Smith’s unique worldview, it certainly makes sense to see characters from indigo Prime show up in other stories, or villains from previously unconnected stories appear in the Judge Dredd continuity. It’s Smith’s universe, we just live in it.

And that’s one of the things I like most about Smith’s work. While confined to the ghetto of modern British action comics, he has carved out his own world, his own unique take on the universe and reality that offers a myriad of storytelling possibilities. It can be extremely difficult to get hold of his worldview, primarily due to the aforementioned predilection for mashing up words and plots in equal measure.

But after 20 years of comic writing, John Smith has developed into a genuinely mature comic writer capable of funny and entertaining work that also gets the brain buzzing. What more could a reader ask for?


Zom said...

It's odd, I've never really paid much attention to John Smith - always thought of him as a cheap Morrison knock off. It's only over the last couple of years that I've started to take notice of Bobsy's pro-smithian rants. I feel as if I've missed out.

Christ, I haven't read Crisis for fucking aeons. Like 20 years or something. Would love to get my hands on those comics.

Bob Temuka said...

Smith is a cheap Morrison knock of, but that's still better than, say, a cheap Chuck Dixon knock off. And I like Chuck's comics.

Crisis shouldn't be that hard to find. I got a full set in the late 90s for less that fifty Kiwi dollars, (which is about 16 UK pounds). While there is a lot of rubbish in them, there are also some great stories from Morrison, Ellis and Millar. Pat Mills' Third World War was a good little anchor for the comic too.

The Beast Must Die said...

You just namechecked about three of my favourite 2000ad stories - Cinnabar, Killing Time and Devlin Waugh, 'Chasing Herod'.

Good work. You're spot on about Smith. He always guaranteed good nasty in whichever strip he was writing - if he was writing Robo Hunter, it would still have meat demons and foetus ghosts galore.
I particularly loved his text pieces in the summer?Winter Specials and annuals. I still maintain his prose is better than Morrisons, and comparable with Clive Barker's Books of Blood.

Bob Temuka said...

Actually, I would totally back you up on the quality of Smith's prose work. His stories were often the highlights in some pretty dire special editions. Has he ever written a novel or anything like that?

The Beast Must Die said...

Don't think so - I met him and Sean Phillips once when I was little. He was pretty insular seeming. Probably thinking about skinless babies...

I kind of wish he'd get another crack at the US. Perhaps he just doesn't gel with Sooperheroes. He's one of the most pure Sci-Fi writers around.
His future shocks were the first that really freaked me out.