Ron Smith RIP

If you throw out names of 2000AD artists over the year, specifically Judge Dredd, you can’t avoid the name of Ron Smith who has sadly passed away.

Other names like Brian Bolland, MIke McMahon or Carlos Esquerra over the years got the critical and fan love, but Smith never got the credit he deserved from certain parts of fandom. Fans loved his work though, and for me his finest Dredd stories are the Otto Sump ones where he indulges himself in drawing some glorious grotesques in one of the best storylines of the 80’s.

Personally I loved the Satanus story just because it looked great, and Judge Dredd always works when you throw him against a fantastic monster, and Satanus was a great monster.

With Smith’s passing another of the grand old greats of British comics goes with him along with a style of his own. He can’t be replaced and will be greatly missed.

RIP Carlos Ezquerra

Carlos Ezquerra passed away today. This is a loss not just personally to his family and friends as Carlos was a profoundly decent man, but to comics where in terms of influence, ability and creativity Carlos ranks up with the best so there’s a place next to Steve Ditko, Moebius and Jack Kirby as this was someone who co-created not just one classic character in Judge Dredd, but two in Strontium Dog.

Carlos was one of those Spanish artists in the 1970’s that IPC would use because he was quick and cheap, but he had a style unlike many of the older artists who were sometimes elegant, and smooth. Carlos’s art was heavy blacks and sketchy lines which made his work, well, edgy to pre-teen boys like myself who found his Major Easy character the entrance to his work.

And of course, his Action cover which wasn’t just as Punk as fuck in 1976, but it also helped the comic get banned.

However the minute you saw his splash page for the then new Judge Dredd strip in the new 2000AD in 1977, you knew you were seeing a talent erupt.

That one page still sums up what Judge Dredd is. Dredd is a fascist keeping law in a spectacular future city which doesn’t look like a dystopia, but is very much one because there’s cameras watching your every move when the Judges aren’t. Even in the design Carlos makes clear what Dredd is by slipping in symbols of fascism he lived with in the Spain of the fascist Franco.

Thanks to scripts from co-creator John Wagner, not to mention Pat Mills and Alan Grant, Dredd’s fascism wasn’t just a thing of black and white as weekly the Dredd strip ensured kids around the UK were exposed to intellectually and moral grey areas which for me hit a height with the superb Apocalypse War.  Dredd’s Mega City One and the remnants of the Soviets battle it out with the spectre of nuclear destruction being there on the page at all times as the reader battled with the prospect of real life nuclear destruction.

Carlos didn’t just work on Dredd; as said, he co-created Strontium Dog, but he also drew covers and strips at an enormous rate  never dipping in quality and we as readers probably took his work for granted as he was consistent.

By the 90’s Carlos saw Dredd on film, which we’ll draw a line under however he was now working in American comics mainly working with Garth Ennis and getting the sort of credit and recognition outwith of the UK and Europe he deserved while still working and producing lush work. In more recent years his son was helping him as he struggled with poor health thanks to cancer, and only a week or so ago was posting on his Facebook that he’d come out of a major operation and was in recovery. Sadly he lost this last fight and passed away at 70.

He is irreplaceable. There is nobody out there able to do what he did.I met him a few times at various comic conventions over the decades and he was always charming, if somewhat overawed that his work is so appreciated and loved but this is a man who saw his work shape lives, and culture, so he’ll be missed for the artist, and human being, he was.

The ‘Treasury of British Comics’ panel from SDCC 18

I know there’s a few folk who read this blog who are big fans of British comics, so this panel from this year’s San Diego Comic Con which discusses the history of British comics. There is an over-long explanation of the concept of girls and boys comics not to mention other diversions, but for fans and historians it’ll be an interesting 45 minutes of your time.

What I thought of Glasgow Comic Con 2017

I’ve attended more comic conventions and marts as an ordinary punter rather than a dealer or publisher in the last three months than I have for the last 35 years.The latest is the Glasgow Comic Con (GCC) which is a well established con having started in 2011 and seemingly growing every year.

I’ve discussed often on this blog the state of British conventions and how they split into two; the San Diego multimedia type and the one where comics are still the primary focus. GCC falls firmly in the latter type which is good as the former comes with issues which I’m not going to spend too much time on but the main one is that there doesn’t seem to be much love for the comics medium itself at these shows. This cannot be said of GCC where creators ranging from small press to established creators rub shoulders, and they do rub shoulders as the venue (Royal Concert Hall) is simply impractical as the convention has simply outgrown it.

Take the dealers room. Not a huge selection of dealers but getting through the aisles was a chore, especially if you’re disabled as I am or if you’re in a wheelchair. Now this wasn’t anything as bad as the Bristol Comics Expo in 2014 which was frankly, fucking recklessly planned on part of the organisers but put it like this; I had more people bump into me nearly knocking me over in a day than I did during the week I was at Glastonbury. Now I don’t know if they can find a hotel, and I don’t know what the place is like since the refurbishment, but the Central Hotel did us right when we organised Glasgow’s first comic convention 32 years ago. Whether it can be got for the right price is another matter but I can’t see the current venue being practical in the long term.

This aside, the convention is astonishingly professionally run. Far too many cons have staff who seem to have no skills in actually dealing with people, but this wasn’t the case here as a one-day con fairly rattled through a programme of talks featuring 2000AD creators such as Pat Mills and Fraser Irving, not to mention signings from John Wagner, Jamie McKelvie and Keiron Gillen.

The small press row/room endured the usual sub-superhero nonsense or elves (bloody elves!) I’ve been seeing in small press rooms going back decades but there was enough originality not to mention talent on display to suggest some of the folk there have a career in an industry which is utterly unforgiving and brutal. Look though to Gillen and McKelvie. I remember the Bristol con in the early 2000’s where they launched Phonogram as a sharp injection of thrilling originality from two talents who were ahead of the game. it was a breath of fresh air to see creators try hard to make something new and that for me is your gold standard if you’re an aspiring creator in the 21st century. Superheroes and fantasy are genres where you wade through them but if you do use those genres make it personal and most of all, good!

Highlight of the day was former UKCAC organiser Frank Plowright interviewing Pat Mills about all the things Pat likes talking about, though I must say Pat was very chilled when mid-90’s 2000AD was brought up.

Overall this is a nice medium sized one-day event that’s grown out of the venue and the one day and we need comics conventions that are still about comics, rather than media or cosplay. Let the megacons soak up that market and it’s nice to know all these years after a load of us kicked off Glasgow’s comic marts/cons in the 80’s that they’re still going strong today.

40 years of 2000AD

2000AD is 40 this year. Recently there was a convention celebrating the comic and those who created it and still produce work for it. Thankfully for those unable to attend the convention panels were put online and one (The Originals) stood out for me as it featured not just Mick McMahon and Dave Gibbons who were there at the very start, but Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy who came along not long after.

It’s a cracking bit of viewing and a bit of comics history. Enjoy.

 

 

Happy birthday 2000AD

40 years ago this week I had in my hands the first issue of a new weekly boy’s adventure comic called 2000AD. It had a shite free gift as was the way with comics back then.

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The first issue featured Flesh!, a story about time-travellers coming from the future to harvest dinosaurs to help feed the future population’s desire for meat which was eagerly lapped up by me who’d lapped up the gore-soaked pages of Action. Excitement had been built up for some time as after all, Action had been neutered, and thanks to some gloriously cheesy adverts I was dying to get my hands on 2000AD.

It may look cheesy to jaded 21st century eyes but this was brilliant and along with thousands of other kids we enjoyed the first issue, and looked forward to the second which promised a new strip called Judge Dredd which surely couldn’t be as fun as Flesh! or as bizarre as the revamped Dan Dare which was no longer tired and old, but a bit disco.Whatever it was, it looked like no other comic out there in 1977.

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Of course Judge Dredd was an instant favourite as what boy wouldn’t love an ultra-violent fascist as a role model?

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1977 was a transformational year for the UK as the Queen’s silver jubilee rubbed against the growth of the Punk movement, while in the background Thatcherism bubbled away Sauron-like waiting for its moment to strike. Thanks to Pat Mills (who acted as father and midwife to 2000AD) Punk was very much written into the DNA of 2000AD and new, younger artists like Mick McMahon epitomised that new ethic.

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The Golden Age of 2000AD lasted years. For me the first 500 issues are brimming with creativity and I can’t think of a comic ever published that was so consistent in what was still basically children’s comics.

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Yet as I got older I drifted from 2000AD, especially in the 1990’s when the comic published some utter shite like Mark Millar’s Robo-Hunter. Possibly some of the worst comics I’ve ever read. In the 90’s the comics seemed burdened with bad editorial decisions or more realistically, the editors in the latter part of the 1990’s didn’t have a clue how to do their jobs hence why the comic came close to extinction.

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Yet it was saved thanks to Rebellion who cleared out the baggage, stripped the comic back to something it was previously and was left facing the 21st century looking positive. 2000ad2000 So happy birthday 2000AD. You’ve seen me through most of my life and in your own way have helped shape it and all the bad days are hopefully behind you now, and here’s hoping for another 40 years of thrills.

The closest thing we have to a documentary about Action

Action is the legendary British comic that was essentially the precursor of 2000AD thus cementing its history as one of the most influential comics ever published in the UK. With 2000AD being 40 this year, and Action celebrating its 40th anniversary last year we’re getting further and further away from an important piece of comics history.

Imagine then my joy at stumbling across a number of videos on You Tube with interviews from Jack Adrian, Ramon Sola and Pat Mills. It looks as if an Action documentary was being made but these tantalising wee snippets are all we have of it which is a shame as it really is a piece of comics history which needed documenting like this.With Titan Comics publishing new Hook Jaw comics it seems relevant to document this now for the next generations. I’ve included in this blog all the clips I could find but if anyone finds or knows more feel free to point it out on the comments.

Steve Dillon’s death is a massive loss for comics

This afternoon the brother of British comics artist Steve Dillon confirmed that his brother had passed away.

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That’s all the detail we have, and we should have now because the details are for friends and family. We don’t need to know anything else bar that the world of comics has lost someone who for decades had been lynchpin of British comics. Indeed, friends of mine who’ve known Steve for years are in mourning as this was utterly unexpected, and that this comes after he’s enjoying the financial rewards coming from the success of the TV adaptation of Preacher, which allowed him the freedom to do what he wanted is painful.

Like many fans I first saw Steve’s work in Hulk Weekly, the flagship title of Dez Skinn’s Marvel UK revamp, where he not only drew the Hulk, but a Nick Fury strip written by Steve Moore. He was 16 and this was 1979.

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These early strips are rough in places, but for a 16 year old to turn out such a high quality level of work with his own very distinct,clear style was extraordinary, so its no surprise that Steve was not only finding more work with Skinn at Marvel UK, but 2000AD leapt in to grab him. During this period he and Steve Moore created the popular Dalek killer Abslom Daak for Doctor Who Weekly.

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While for 2000AD, he worked on a variety of strips (including some Future Shocks with Alan Moore) before bagging the art duties for Judge Dredd.

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I loved Dillon’s Judge Dredd work. True it was smoother than Esquerra or McMahon’s art who I adored, but this was a crisp, clear Dredd who wasn’t boring which is what I found Brian Bolland’s too smooth Dredd. If you’re reading this with only knowledge of Dillon’s DC or Marvel work, then it’ll read like he was massively prolific which is because he was. During the same period he was also doing art for Dez Skinn’s Warrior and the Laser Eraser and Pressbutton strip, again written by Steve Moore. This I think is my favourite work of this early period of his career.

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He could have also been the artist for the return of Marvelman too as Alan Moore suggested him as a possible artist to Dez Skinn, who went for Garry Leach, but we did get a tease of what could have been in Warrior #4 where Dillon did draw a few pages of a Marvelman strip,

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Dillon had also picked up a reputation by now of being fast, talented and quick. He was also great fun at marts and conventions where you’d see him in the bar, and at the first big Glasgow comic convention in 1985 I had to try to find him from the loo when he was a bit too tired and emotional. Steve had a bit of a reputation as a drinker, though friends have said in recent years he’s come off the bevvy but let me make it clear here; in the 80’s and early 90’s there were a number of creators and fans in the British scene who could drink all night at cons and often did, myself included.

Steve though was a nice guy. Even when years later at a party in London for Deadline, the magazine he helped launch and edit,when I brought it up he laughed it off, thanked me, and bought me a pint.

By the late 80’s Steve’s work filled 2000AD, sometimes it was brilliant, sometimes it looked rushed, but it was there for not much longer as Steve was being courted by DC Comics, as were many other creators from the UK, but Steve took time to break. Skreemer was his first taste of DC Comics, but it remains still a sadly under-appreciated work.

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Then in Hellblazer #49 he drew a John Constantine Christmas story. Entitled Lord of the Dance and written by Garth Ennis it was a little bundle of joy for those who enjoyed the drink.

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Ennis and Dillon clicked as a creative team. Both liked going on the piss, both were from working class backgrounds and they started a run on Hellblazer from #57 that was magnificent. The pair then created Preacher for DC’s Vertigo imprint.

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Preacher was the perfect mix of Ennis and Dillon. As a comic it was probably DC’s finest comic of the 90’s and last year a television adaptation was finally broadcast which managed to capture some of what was in the comic. Sure, his superhero stuff was alright, but I always felt him wasted on spandex, as he was able to make pages of people just sitting around talking to each other seem extraordinary. Not in a flashy sense, but in a ‘I’ve managed to capture a truth’ sense, something few artists for Marvel or DC have managed to do in the last few decades.

Lured to Marvel, Dillon drew a number of titles, from the Punisher with Ennis again writing, to Wolverine. Although his work was fine here, I wasn’t taken with it. It didn’t have that joy his other work had, and it felt odd seeing him doing material as mundane as superheroes though when he worked with Ennis (who despises superheroes) it worked a treat. Few creative teams have a spark where both feed off each other. Ennis and Dillon had that. That team is now never going to create anything new ever again, and a number of people who knew Dillon as a friend, or knew him through his amazingly long career and body of work are at a loss tonight as this is a loss. He had years left in him and 54 is no age to go these days.

So I wish well for his friends and family, and I extend a debt of gratitude for his work from those early days at Marvel UK to his recent success with the Preacher TV series.Thanks for the work Steve and thanks for the pint..

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40 years ago Action changed the face of comics forever

In the year 1976 British weekly comics were stuck in a rut. Roy was still of the Rovers, Commando Comics killed more Nazis than the Allies and Russians did in WW2, Billy still had his Boots, and the Boy’s Adventure Comic needed something to drag it kicking and screaming into the 1970’s. Publisher IPC had tried something different in 1975 when they let Pat Mills and John Wagner loose to create a new war comic called Battle Picture Weekly. More visceral than the 1950’s style of war comic published for decades in the UK, Battle sparked something in kids that read it, and with strips like Major Easy, Darkies War, Johnny Red and probably the finest comic strip published in British comics, Charley’s War, Battle made a name for itself but it was just a taster for what was to come.

In 1976 saw the next creation from the mind of Pat Mills. On Valentines Day 1976 Action was published for the first time and it’s effect on kids all across the UK was extraordinary.Myself, I never got on the bandwagon til the second issue because it had a cool picture of a shark on it and I nagged my mum to buy it for me as it had an iron-on transfer.

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I utterly LOVED that transfer. I also loved the fact that the cover stars were a tough looking bloke threatening to kick your face in by leaping off the cover and a shark called Hook Jaw that did things like this…

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To a horror film obsessed child this was gold dust. I could read violent, gory fun every single week for only seven pence an issue and the creators seemed to be talking to kids like me. Sure American superhero comics were fun, and the odd issue of Creepy or Eerie managed to sate my prepubescent urge for violence and gore but Action had a sense of humour decidedly British plus it seemed like the creators didn’t give a fuck about upsetting people. In that time just before Punk broke this was a revelation, especially to people far, far outwith the London bubble that Punk existed in at the time.

Imagine seeing this cover. You’d be insane not to buy it with your pocket money or pester your folks to buy it for you!

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For 36 glorious issues Action gave us the adventures of Dredger, a British secret agent that wasn’t bred on the fields of Eton; Death Game 1999, a Rollerball rip-off (all of Action’s strips were ”dead cribs” meaning the basic idea was lifted from a film of the time) given a outrageously more violent twist; Look Out For Lefty, a football strip unlike any other previously in British comics; Blackjack, a story about a boxer which is the first time a British comic had a black character as a lead; and of course Hook Jaw.

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Kids had found a Boy’s Adventure Comic that spoke to them in 1976. They owned it. Kids like me owned it. Kids like me ran out to the shops to buy it and read it first every week. I still read some of the other titles IPC and DC Thompson produced, but Action was something special and we knew it. Today with the internet it’s impossible to not find something that speaks to you, but in 1976 that wasn’t the case. Action was seismic. It changed everything, shook up the industry in the UK, proved Pat Mills was a genius and set the ground for IPC to commission a new science fiction comic called 2000AD that’d cash in on the projected SF boom that’d come from some film causing a buzz in America called Star Wars. If they got a good year out of it then they’d be happy. 39 years later 2000AD is still going strong.

Yet 2000AD would never have existed were it not for Action, nor would it have happened had Action not been banned with #36, though some copies of #37 were printed and indeed, one sold recently for £2555!

Once the likes of Mary Whitehouse had trained their eyes on Action and declared it morally bankrupt the game was up. Our comic was taken from us and although after a hiatus of a few months the comic did return it wasn’t the same. Dredger was a bit less course. Lefty was a bit nicer. Hook Jaw even ate people off-panel and only ever ate bad people. Everything kids like me loved was gone. Action limped on for a while before it was eventually absorbed into Battle, but by this point most people didn’t care.

Action’s legacy though is enormous. It gave birth to 2000AD. It pushed British comics on, and injected a rebellious Punk attitude into comics not to mention those that read those comics. It made us consider other things we’d never thought of before while enjoying heaps of violence and gore but it also showed to kids the power of the establishment in censoring something that threatened them. After all you can’t have kids reading comics that question authority that they can buy from anywhere? No, much nicer to go back to nice heroes.

2000AD managed to hide much of it’s rebelliousness in it’s SF settings, so it was ignored til it was too late to do anything about it. Action in that sense acts like a herald proclaiming the greater thing to come. Reading it today four decades on many of the strips don’t hold up. The scripting is clunky, not to mention flat, but when it shines, dear, god, it shines bright still. Hook Jaw especially is simply demented reading, even today nothing comes close to it.

I’d recommend searching out Martin Barker’s excellent book, Action – The Story of a Violent Comic for the comic’s history. Back issues are easy enough to come by, but complete runs of the essential 36 issues plus a summer special are harder to collect. Do so though because this is a vital bit of British comics history. For me it makes me feel like a wee boy enjoying the thrill of Hook Jaw devouring his next victim for the first time over and over again…..