Nothing will ever be real again
Context: the below is an essay written for the gallery catalogue of abstract comics creator Gareth Hopkins’s exhibition The Intercorstal: After Smith in Bremen last year. It was intended for those attendees who had never heard of John Smith’s work. I’m presenting it here first because I’ve been meaning to for a while, and second because Gareth Hopkins has launched a KickStarter for The Intercorstal: 683 which everyone should back right now.
1: Judas, he thought. They’ve sent in the Moist Spinsters
Comics fandom is a cult. The box-office successes of comic characters hasn’t percolated down to anyone actually reading them. And within the cult of comics’ fandom, mainly obsessed with American superheros and the clockwork of their universes, there is a small pocket of cultists, mainly British, who grew up on or read 2000AD, Judge Dredd and the rest. And within that cult are the few thousand people who revere the writing of John Smith.
John Smith is his real name. This isn’t an Alan Smithee thing. Smith is a Lancashire comics writer who began writing for 2000AD in 1986 and has been writing for 2000AD intermittently ever since. He’s written for Judge Dredd: The Megazine, he wrote for 2000AD spin-off Crisis, he wrote a handful of US comics. There have been spatters of an online presence. One long interview, no longer available. And still, every so often, the work: four years ago Indigo Prime, dead for two decades, flared back into life in the pages of an ostensibly unconnected story. But infrequently. You wait years for a John Smith story to turn up. Half a bookshelf could contain his life’s work.
2000AD, for those unfamiliar, is a weekly British science fiction anthology comic that began in 1977 for kids and is still going, approaching 40 years later, catering mainly to the same readers who now have kids of their own. Comics luminaries Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and the Hollywood success Mark Millar wrote for it; pretty much every British comic artist has drawn for it. It imposes limitations, some of which can be repurposed as advantages. You’re never alone, always with other strips surrounding you (and always Judge Dredd), so a story can be a slow burner. You’re restricted to a certain sub-Heavy Metal level of adult – no swears, little nudity – but there’s a huge demand for intelligence and sophistication. Most of everything is sci-fi, but there’s a lot can be done with that palette. Stories are short in chapter but infinite in length. Ownership is rarely disputed. Artists are often either starting out or unknown, and get a big page to show everyone what they can do.
John Smith’s work has been produced within these limitations. His most prolific period – and the source of most of the pages used for this exhibition – was a four-year span more than two decades ago. It was the period when his work was being published outside of 2000AD and he looked the Most Likely To, the writer who would follow in the wake of Moore, Morrison, and the boatloads of artists crossing the Atlantic to US comics. The crossing happened but Vertigo, the British writers’ imprint of DC Comics, didn’t like him and he didn’t like them. He’s been with 2000AD ever since.
Smith’s work, therefore, is genre work. To an unhappy extent most of the medium still is, though the genres are expanding. It’s sci-fi, because 2000AD is sci-fi. It uses many of the common tropes of sci-fi; time-travel, genetic engineering, post-apocalyptic deserts, undersea prisons, seductive technoprimitive alien cultures. It stands out in 2000AD not because nobody’s doing anything similar but because nobody does it like he does. The alien landscapes are truly, jarringly alien rather than backdrops to adventure stories. The apocalyptic threats seem apocalyptic. Sometimes, perhaps, the good guys win, if the continued existence of existence can be considered an aggregate good. Sometimes nobody wins. The landscape is always left irrevocably changed.
I am, self-evidently, one of Smith’s cultists. And recently, thanks to the internet, the cultists have begun to find each other. Dispersed across the UK and across continents, varying in age by decades, they – we – hoard long out-of-print trades or floppies, share digital files of stories not republished in a generation, exchange tweets when an undiscovered piece – an X-Men eight-pager, who knew? – is found on the open market, selling for nothing. Ales Kot, the young Czech comics writer responsible for the stunning Zero, is one of them. Gareth Hopkins, the artist shown here, is another.
I met Gareth – virtually, we’ve still never met in the flesh – because I wrote several thousand words about New Statesmen, a signature Smith work, on this blog where I’ve also written about Smith’s Straitgate, my favourite of his works, and Still Life, a short story I brought to the attention of many who’d never seen it. Consequently, Gareth has asked me to introduce Smith’s work, because each work in this exhibition is based on a different page from a different work by Smith, each drawn by a different artist, and nobody in the real world knows anything about any of them.
2: The Echodrome; the Choir of Babel; the Body Loom and the Knave-Masks. The Water-Crown and the Labyrinth of Wings…
TYRANNY REX was Smith’s first 2000AD story longer than the four-page sci-fi short with a twist always given to new writers. The titular heroine was a lizard-girl with a big tail and bigger guns. She had style, sass, good lines and no real depth; it’s hard to say that any of her stories, across three eras of the comic including a recent resurrection, had any great impact. Compare her to Alan Moore’s Halo Jones, on the surface far more trivial but conceived with intent, and Rex dissolves away. She appeared in a text-with-images story this booklet is based on, with slick, disconnected imagery by Mark Buckingham to match Smith’s whimsical holiday-job text. Rex’s most pivotal role was to introduce Indigo Prime.
INDIGO PRIME is one of Smith’s two continuing works; it, alongside Vatican vampire occultist Devlin Waugh, is one of the few we’re likely to see again. It began stealthily, with a single appearance in a Tharg’s Future Shock in 1986, then a pair of characters called Fervent and Lobe appeared in Tyranny Rex. They got their own series three years later and in a series of shorts we were introduced to Indigo Prime: Seamsters, Imagineers, Sceneshifters and Psilencers standing behind the scenes of reality and keeping it running. As a concept it sputtered along, spending an inordinate amount of time laying the foundations of big concepts that only appeared as two-parters about aliens worshipping Starsky & Hutch. And then Killing Time came along.
Appearing in 1991, five years after the concept debuted, Killing Time is the reason fans care about Indigo Prime. Two agents we’ve met before, Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord, are on board a steam train time machine heading backwards from Victorian London, alongside a varied cast including Jack the Ripper. The elegantly twisted art by Chris Weston, in which surfaces seem plastic, squirmy, moving out of the corner of the eye, depicts a Victorian melodrama turned upside-down. The Ripper is not stopped; his final victim has to die to take everyone outside time and space, to face an almost unbeatable enemy killed by a blizzard of parakeets. It was, in the sea of mediocrity that 2000AD was at that time, revelatory. And it was the last Indigo Prime story, a series that spent ages introducing itself and then blazed out in its first real run.
Except it didn’t. It came back, sneaking up on readers in the guise of another story, Dead Eyes, where just as reality falls apart – pretty much standard in the climax of a Smith story – Winwood and Cord, those ever-dead sceneshifters, step in. Since then there have been three stories over four years, each of them building to something, Neanderthals teaming with 21st-century lager louts who mess up their brief so spectacularly they allow a Nazi to replace Christ with Cthulu. The comeback, drawn by the plastic and endlessly inventive Edmund Bagwell and the moody, textured Lee Carter, is building to a climax that has yet to arrive. It’s a work in progress, but comics generally are.
SWIMMING IN BLOOD introduced Devlin Waugh, Smith’s other continuing character, back in 1992. A gay Vatican exorcist inhabiting an aristocratic occult underworld, he’s part of the surprisingly flexible Judge Dredd universe, and indeed has undergone an intimate cavity search from the lawman. His first appearance, however, was less concerned with the occult than the paramilitary. A Mega-City prison, Aquatraz, buried under the Atlantic Ocean, was the site of a breakout of vampirism. An undersea Con Air, complete with cast of distinctive psychopaths. Devlin half-managed the situation, saving few and becoming a vampire himself. Painted by Sean Phillips in bewilderingly shifting styles, it used multiple perspectives, jarring pacing and a large cast to make the telling as muddled as the art, but Devlin’s character shone through, named the readers’ favourite and usurping Judge Dredd for the first, and only, time.
STILL LIFE is one of Smith’s two published non-genre stories. Eight pages long, it appeared in the Revolver Romance Special, Revolver being a spin-off of 2000AD spin-off Crisis. By the time this appeared it had already suffered a death-merger with its parent title, and within the year Crisis was gone. I take credit for disinterring Still Life by blogging about it; I saw it as a coda, a reflection, of Straitgate, Crisis’s diary of a young man’s decline into insanity, again by Smith and Phillips. This short is about first love, about first sex, la petit mort in reality and symbolism. It’s a perfect piece, Phillips’s art having moved from muddy acrylics to limpid watercolours and inks, less a short story than a poem.
FIREKIND is, to reduce it, Avatar done right. It’s a colonialist narrative, a white man sent to an alien world to observe their customs finding himself seduced, drawn in, fighting the others from his culture who seek to kill and exploit. But here the hero isn’t the saviour who gets to inhabit the alien’s culture better than they do, but a struggling, hapless observer to the end. And unlike Avatar, where the alien culture so richly rendered is like any jungle but glowing and with six legs, the planet is endlessly alien. Frequent Smith collaborator Paul Marshall’s art is perhaps too clean, would sit too easily in a more conventional work to convey this world, but the conclusion resonates.
NEW STATESMEN follows five of 51 superheroes, genetically modified beings created by the US government to impose its will who turn out to have complex wills of their own. Published in Crisis in 15 14-page episodes, mainly drawn by veteran artist Jim Baikie in art with one foot in the black-and-white British war comics of the 70s and the other in the cross-cutting 90s, it was a crass, showy, contradictory, modern and postmodern epic of political intrigue and psychological complexity. The industry still hasn’t caught up with the bisexual and predatory Dalton, and the zeitgeist’s long since left behind the villainous Christian evangelist Phoenix. Unfinished, unmistakeably of its time, it’s a fascinating mess and one of Smith’s few works that has room to sprawl.
And, finally, REVERE. Set in a post-apocalyptic desert London, it’s the writer’s signature work. Presented in three books, each six episodes of six pages each, it’s untroubled by anything it’s supposed to be. You know those supposed theoretical underpinnings to stories like Star Wars? The hero’s symbolic journey, as laid out in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces? Well, Revere’s like that except it ditches all that real world bullshit and just shows you the symbolism. Revere, the witch-boy of London town, beats off the fascist government forces hoarding water in his first episode. After that he’s astrally travelling and off the material plane entirely. He returns, for a single episode’s dalliance with the pleasures of the flesh, before his girlfriend’s taken away to give him the motivation to end the world. Perfectly incomprehensible and incomprehensible in its perfection, painted by Simon Harrison as a high-gloss ultraviolent cartoon, every surface rain-slick and reflective, it’s the one occasion where Smith seems able to strip out all his trappings and present only the glowing, gaze-returning core.
3: The fool who unsung the song
We tend, in the cult of comics, to be suspicious of outsiders. Novelists or screenwriters who come in thinking they’ll give the audience something new because they’re ignorant of the hundreds of times it’s been done before. And the same suspicions bleed over to the abstract comics movement. Too many of the artists involved have failed to understand the medium. Instead they use comics as a shortcut, a way to add the fourth dimension of time to their work without doing their research. Six panel grids show changing shapes, moving patterns, a low-budget strip cartoon, a comprehension of comics reduced to the superficiality of Robert Crumb’s Stoned Agin. The analogy is to those video artists who eschew the long-developed grammar and vocabulary of film, the language their audience is superlatively fluent in, to present long, crude takes. Imagining that their purity of vision communicates what they want to say, eschewing the opportunities to say it with even the sophistication of a daytime soap opera.
There are exceptions: a piece by comic artist Mark Badger in Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics anthology uses the same technique that Gareth Hopkins does, taking existing comics and turning them into abstracts. Badger uses the panels, lines and dynamism from an issue of Master of Kung Fu and translates them, creating a powerful piece that knows how comics work, how the eye moves across the page, where it pauses, the whole-page layout that informs the subconscious while the conscious is reading.
Few artists, and even fewer of the pages, used for After Smith have the same Kirbyesque simplicity as Master of Kung Fu. There is action in Smith but it’s not the heart of his work and in 2000AD, given the limitations, it rarely lasts longer than a couple of pages. Furthermore the many artists in question, and the styles used, don’t share a lot. It is by no means a cohesive body of work. What ties it together, obviously, is what isn’t on the page; the writer. But there are many degrees of separation between the writer and the finished work. So even though there’s the commonality that all these pages began in the mind of John Smith, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the finished page. The Indigo Prime and Firekind pages have a certain psychedelic fantasia in common, but there’s none of that in Still Life or New Statesmen or the hyper-violent, very 90s page of Devlin Waugh punching through a vampire.
But all John Smith’s comics, whether near-future superhero dystopia or council estate horror or post-apocalyptic hero’s journey, share something. Lovecraft is an apposite analogy: both are writers trying to say what cannot be said; trying to describe a new colour in old words, or to explain an ineffable symbolic rotation in terms of a witch boy. Both are committed, ultimately, to making no sense. Smith uses a technique common in science fiction of drowning the reader in neologisms, a blizzard of invented terms meant to dislocate, perplexing from the outset to demolish preconceptions. But in most sci-fi, those rivers of strangeness eventually become limpid, the terms explained so on rereading they make sense, only descriptions of a universe the reader was yet to be introduced to. Smith never goes back to fill in the blanks. The suspicion remains that only half the blanks can be filled in; that a cohesive book of reference exists for some of it, but the rest is the writer reaching for something, naming that which does not yet exist even for him.
And it’s not just the words. Revere’s mother is a floating head, able to breathe fire and survive a headshot. Cord and Winwood are both mauve, the former a sweating bald man in a leotard with a radiation symbol on his bicep, the latter’s ever-morphing hair seemingly living a rich life of its own. At the end of Still Life, the teenage lovers walk pre-ordained into the sea to drown. Devlin Waugh battles a totemic harbinger called the Herod to fail to prevent the ascension of a fish-god. The dying New Statesmen face the Karikura, a black-socketed shock-haired taunter who is a figment more real than real. The survivors of Firekind’s folkloric apocalypse sit in the shadow of a sketched god of unexplained origin and unmeasurable power. None of it is ever explained, the ends of universes as wallpaper, a kaleidoscope to draw the eye in to the real centre, the one that cannot be shown.
The easiest adjective and genre to reach for is surreal, and it’s partially accurate. But surreal – fungi-eaten worlds, floating stone slabs, six-legged newt-dogs crashing through realities – are where these comics start. By their endings, whether it’s Revere draining a reservoir to end the world and begin it again or a cyborg floating in a white space filled only with nude Barbie dolls, they’re something else.
Smith’s art, ultimately, is itself abstract. These are abstract comics. The sci-fi trappings are only the easiest channel to the unknown, to creating a portrait or a landscape in the reader’s head of what is not there, of what cannot be said, of the ineffable inexpressible. Strip away the jargon, the heroes and villains, the characters lifted from every genre and their zigzag motivations, and you’re left with nothing that makes any concrete sense but meets with a nod of recognition somewhere inside. The layers of the work, the art and the captions and the story, drift past each other to line up, to focus, on known unknowns; what we know we don’t know. What we know we can’t know. Comics, like any art, survive on what’s eternal. Usually that’s the human condition. In Smith’s case, the work survives because, without the trappings of one single nation-specific comic and its preconditions, without the work of all those disparate artists and their interpretations, without all the dated predictions of the unsophisticated technological landscape of 20 years ago, one truth remains: there is, there has been and there will be something that is not us.