Turn and Face The Strange
Creator Droid John Smith : A Selective Bibliography
By Luke Williams
With his seeming recent excision from the Prog and the the Meg on two of his most significant creations, Luke takes a look at the work of the enigma that is cult script droid John Smith and comes over all wibbly and fanboyey’
John Smith – A deceptively innocuous name but with the writing style of a man with a head full of broken glass, or at the very least someone who must live his life through a series of acid flashbacks.
I believe that the Smith droid is one of the unsung heroes of 2000AD. His profile lately has dropped within the prog’, particularly as two of his most famous creations have been assigned to different writers. Smith is one of the second generation of 2000AD creators, following on from Wagner, Grant, Mills, Day et al joining the prog’ with the likes of Milligan (beavering away since the early eighties), Morrison, (and later) Millar and Ennis.
At its’ best his work is the definition of “unsettling”, but occasionally it can be impenetrable (or at least to this thicky Squaxx), particularly in the early years. His work has become more accessible over the years, but retains that disturbing, visceral and atmospheric edge, with its’ regular themes of religion, body horror and sexuality. At his most “John Smithiness”, reading his stories is like being ridden with a fever and having your skin scraped with wire wool. It leaves a metallic taste in your mouth, like licking batteries. But in a good way, or maybe I’m the weird one.
The hemorrhaging of talent to the States, the shift in tone of the ‘prog and the distinctive writing styles of some of the newly constructed droids led to this (amusing to me at least) panel from “A Night 2 Remember” in Prog’ 1280, the 25th anniversary issue (as drawn by Dave Gibbons)
Harsh but fair? I leave that up to you.
I can’t promise this will be an all encompassing, comprehensive bibliography and objective assessment of one my favourite writers. However, I am confident it will be a skewed, biased ramble or in other words
“John Smith, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways”
Various Thargs have praised his writing, but have acknowledged that he isn’t the fastest scribe. Curiously, from what I can tell, his work outside the House of Tharg has been limited to DC/Vertigo, Harris Comics and a couple of “Starblazer” strips for DC Thompson.
So, in no particular order, we’ll go through the highlights and most significant stories of his House of Tharg career.
Following a selection of “Future Shocks” Smith then moved onto his first character for the Prog. Co created with Steve Dillon was Tyranny Rex, a busty, scaly female reptiliod troubleshooter for hire.
We’re introduced to Tyranny whilst she is dabbling in body piracy. She and her accomplice cloned famous 20th century pop stars to sell on, echoing the “home taping is killing music” campaign of the late seventies / eighties (perhaps you need to ask your parents), and a recently deceased purple perpetually priapic pop star takes a starring role. The early strips are beautifully drawn by the late great Steve Dillon, and are fairly straightforward compared to how the strip develops, Tyranny taking a series of kidnap / protection / hit jobs. More in the range of guns, goo and guts.
And then we had “Soft Bodies”.
This is when things started to get a bit weird. Convoluted if I were being kind, obtuse if I were being honest. Ably drawn by Will Simpson and co-written with Chris Standley I lost track quite quickly and thought “well this this is a tad weird”. The strip also introduces the freelance silencers Fervent & Lobe, who would later star in their own series and pop up in “Indigo Prime”.
Tyranny Rex kind of lost its way when it became more serious and philosophical. Tyranny retired to a nunnery, but later came back to her action roots.
Collected : Best of 2000AD Monthly (BO) 109 for early Steve Dillon strips and “Soft Bodies”. Then once you’ve read “Soft Bodies”, please explain it to me. See also Extreme Edition 20 and the meg floppies for 366, 368 and 369
Starting in the Prog’ by the traditional means of “Future Shocks”, his third introduced “Indigo Prime” or as it was named then : “Void Indigo” and two of its’ operatives, Harry Basalt and Jerry Foundation. Described on Wikipedia as “Continuity Watchdogs” ensuring that reality doesn’t contradict itself, removing major catastrophic events from timelines and keeping the multiverse in check. It was clear from the start that these characters and his approach were a little different.
A reductive description of Indigo Prime would be to imagine a metaphysical “Ghostbusters”, but with purple prose and stream of consciousness dialogue.
Smith took sometime over developing “Indigo Prime”. After its’ initial appearance in “Future Shocks”, the organisation pops up in “Tyranny Rex”, before graduating to their own series where it’s fleshed out and expanded, and lays the groundwork for further development.
There was a short run of 2-3 parters drawn by Chris Weston introducing the different branches of the agency, such as Imagineeers, Seamsters, Sceneshifters etc.
The first phase of Indigo Prime ends with what is often considered to be one of the best 2000AD stories ever – “Killing Time”, where Winwood & Cord travel to the Victorian Age to deal with a threat to the multiverse involving Jack The Ripper. Great work, and worth hunting out.
Along the way there have been various spin offs, including Fervent and Lobe in the Issigri Variations, and cameos in Tyranny Rex. The strip took a long break and returned in 2008 via “Dead Eyes”, one of a number of “trojan horse” strips commissioned by Tharg directly related to an existing strip (see also, “The Dead Man”, “Malone” and “The Vort”). Lee Carter was on art chores and remains with the strip, a good pick. If you are picking up the prog’ at the moment, you’ll see that Mr. S has written the first two episodes, but was replaced by Kek – W.
Collected : The aforementioned “Killing Time” in various editions, “Anthropocalypse” which collects the more recent stuff. “Change of Scenery” can be found in BO2000AD 109. The older stuff, including the first run drawn by Chris Weston and including the “Fervent & Lobe” stuff drawn by Mike Hadley can be found in the “Complete Indigo Prime” which I think will be a bit of a bugger to get hold of now.
Smith was clearly seen to be a writer of no mean talent by Fleetway editorial. Steve MacManus was developing “Crisis”, their “mature readers” politically orientated companion comic to 2000AD. Two strips were commissioned ,one was Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s “Third World War”. The second was Smith and artist Jim Baikie’s “New Statesmen”.
“New Statesmen” takes the premise that by the 21st century human eugenics development had come of age. 50 human embryos were modified as America’s super weapons, and handed over to the country and each became a representative of their respective states.
It all starts to unravel as Phoenix, Statesman for Arizona, runs for President. 5 of the statesmen : known as the “Halcyons” are tasked with investigating Phoenix and derailing his bid.
Little do they know that there are new models of the statesmen in development, and they are set to replace them.
Beautiful art from Baikie, with nice fill ins from a very young Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo. Easy to follow it is not, not quite as difficult to follow as “Soft Bodies”, but close. It needed some strong editing, but there is a decent “Watchmen” pastiche cum political thriller in there. It is ambitious and it’s a shame it ended when it did.
Collected : Trade paperback (out of print) and US comic sized 5 issue reprint.
Smith’s breakout hit and possibly Smith’s biggest success is “Devlin Waugh” the vampiric freelance exorcist and former Vatican enforcer. Described as being Terry Thomas’s head on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body, Devlin is a muscle bound occult investigator with very refined and sophisticated tastes. Co created by Sean Phillips, but has gone through a number of artists including Michael Gaydos, Steve Yeowell (on a marathon 6 month long sequence in the prog’) , Colin MacNeil (gorgeous work) and Peter Doherty.
No shortage of artistic talent. The strip has flitted from the Meg’ to the Prog’ and back again. Beginning with the absolute classic “Swimming in Blood” – essentially “Aliens” underwater, with vampires instead of xenomorphs and the survivors led by Noel Coward instead of Ripley.
Devlin has fought alien, metaphysical and spiritual threats to the world, and crossed swords with Old Stoney Face on three occasions.
Smith has recently been replaced as writer on the strip by the talented Rory McConville. It’s early days, but it’s not bad so far. However I think that Smith’s creations are so intrinsically linked to the writer and his sensibilities that someone else scripting them doesn’t seem right some how.
The one thing that let it down was the length of time between stories. Which could be why Smith has been replaced?
Anyway, all the strips are worth reading, fantastic stuff.
Collected : Various trade paperback collections, Mega Collection (MC) issues 14, 15 & 16.
There are two spin offs from “Devlin Waugh” The first was “Pussyfoot 5”, a group of occult agents working for the Vatican that featured in the Devlin strip “Sirius Rising”.
They led on two separate series, “Fast Breeder” saw 4 members of the team on a mission to recruit/ rescue their 5th team member and “Alien Sex Fiend”, drawn by Nigel Raynor and Steve Yeowell respectively. Fun, but unessential.
Collected : Reprinted in Meg collection 282
Now this was just bonkers. Set in a near future following an ecological cataclysm and mixing science and the occult. “Revere” follows the titular character – the witchboy of old London town, guided by the floating head of his mother’s head through the maturing of his powers and the identification of his purpose. Simon Harrison’s art is the definition of “Marmite”, and combined with Smith’s esoteric script, made it almost incomprehensible to yours truly. It lasted 3 books and looked fab’, it probably had a lot to say, but it went straight over the top of my head.
Collected : 2000AD Extreme Edition 20
Created with the sadly recently late Edmund Bagwell (nee Perryman). Described as a “hoody horror”, our hero returns from prison to the housing estate he calls home to find it’s being run by the local thug.
That is not the only element of danger, it soon becomes clear that there is something horrific and insidious lurking in one of the houses of the estate that threatens to engulf the local residents
Atmospheric and disturbing, it’s recently been discussed at the Mega City Book Club here : But only listen after you have read what is one of Smith’s finest works.
Collected : Trade paperback
One of Smith’s departures into world hard edged sci fi.
Terran Hendrick Larsen lives alongside the Gennyans, the natives of the planet Gennyo Leil, to study the planet’s flora and fauna. But poacher humans seek to exploit the resources of the planet regardless of the consequences to the indigenous population and its’ environment. But they hadn’t considered the relationship between the Gennyans,
the dragon like Kesheen and the planet itself. If you liked the idea behind the concept of the movie “Avatar”, this is the same, done first and done better. Beautiful art by Paul Marshall. There has been no sequel and all the better for it.
Collected : Extreme Edition 9, criminally nowhere else. BUT I have heard that it maybe featured in one of the Ultimate collections
Smith is an underrated Dredd writer, he manages to get the “voice” of Dredd right, more so than some of his contemporaries (Grant and Mark, I’m looking at you). Most notable was “Fetish”, the occult thriller which sees Dredd team up with Devlin Waugh in a adventure across Pan Africa, only spoiled by slightly murky artwork from Siku.
“Darkside” with his regular collaborator Paul Marshal, was quite conventional. Dredd’s corpse from the “City of the Damned” future comes to life and starts committing murders. Dredd is framed and on the run, only “zombie Dredd”can prove his innocence.
Collected : “Fetish” – MC 16, JD Case Files 26. “Darkside” – Extreme Edition 11 and MC 44, JD Case Files 25. Various other bits and pieces for Dredd in MC 56, 76, 41 & 46, plus scattered through the JD Case Files.
The final strip prior to the Dave Gibbons scripted reboot of Rogue, and my favourite Rogue Trooper story, “Cinnibar”. Rogue has been captured and tortured by unknown assailants.
He is rescued by Souther deserters who are on their way to the settlement of Cinnibar. Cinnibar is populated by Souther and Nort deserters and is established as a “party” city,
where anything goes, a citadel of pure hedonism. Rogue and his Souther rescuers reach Cinnbar, where he finds he was captured and tortured as a part of a game arranged by the rulers of the city for entertainment. He is brought back to full health and entered into a game of survival, Rogue versus the giant genetically engineered monster Charybdis.
Beautiful art by Steve Dillon and Kev Walker, Smith’s debauchery and fascination with body horror distinguishes it from other “Rogue Trooper” stories. Definitely Rogue, but with enough John Smithiness weirdness. This is essential reading. Perhaps he would have been a little too esoteric as regular scribe, but I would have been happy to give him a chance (Guy Adams the same). Smith also wrote a selection of the “Friday” version of “Rogue Trooper” in various annuals and specials which are worthwhile checking out.
Collected : BO2000AD 107, Extreme Edition 16, Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu Earth volume 4
Stream of consciousness, deeply messed up teenage angst, or pretentious bollocks. Jury is out. Almost incomprehensible, clearly Mr. S was not in a good place at the time, our unnamed protaganist is sexually confused and tormented, dreams of violence and self harm.
Think of a less whiney, more disturbed Holden Caulfied from “Catcher In The Rye” with added sharp objects and arterial spray. It’s an experience to say the least.
Collected : Nope. It ran in Crisis 50-53
More hard edged sci fi, but this time with a sprinkling of black humour. The titular hero has been raised from a young age as agent of the Khmer Noir and has been sent to the library planet Shibboleth to recover “the Book of Sighs” before the Khmer Noir’s enemies, the Empire of Spinsters, destroy the planet.
Leatherjack takes the book and is pursued by both sides. Completely mad and guest starring an enhanced and blood thirsty host from an early 80s lunchtime children tv’s programme.
Nuts, but great.
Collected :Trade paperback, but out of print. Digital version (if you like that sort of thing) available.
Ah the heady days of the “Summer Offensive” of 1995 when Smith, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison took over the Prog’. The results were hit and miss, and still attract controversy today.
Smith’s contribution told the tale of an unassuming, mild man called Stanley accused of murder. He’s given a chance of freedom and a way of paying for his wife’s medical fees by entering the “Slaughterbowl” where alleged serial killers are thrown into a televised competition with genetically engineered dinosaurs.
One shot, violence, big guns and dinosaurs. What’s not to like?
Nicely drawn by Paul Peart this is fun, but throwaway. After some very complex and dense scripts, Smith goes all 80s action movie.
Collected : 2000AD Extreme Edition 23
A Love Like Blood
Before the release of the “Twilight” films, Smith did this mash up of Romeo & Juliet, Vampires and Werewolves, drawn by the amazing Frazer Irving. As you can imagine, this isn’t so much about teenage angst and repressed teenage sexuality as those films, it’s bloodier than that.
Collected : “Tharg’s Terror Tales” trade paperback
First featured in the JD strip “Father Earth” many, many years ago . The Holocaust squad are ex cons, unstable judges etc who are willing to leap to certain death to prevent greater disaster, then these are your guys.
Two runs of this strip , both co-written with Chris Standley, first run drawn by Jim Murray, second by a young Clint Langley. It’s fun, but unessential
Collected : JD Mega Collection 55
A bizarre two parter painted by regular collaborator Sean Phillips. Reality is breaking down and the titular (not to mention, dead) Danzig is resurrected to restore normality.
Collected : JD Meg’ floppy 367
Strange & Darke
Another of John Smith’s dabbles into the Dredd universe and the second spin off from “Devlin Waugh”. Psi Bekky Darke and Jericho Strange are the Brit Cit judges that protect and conserve the supernatural and mythical creatures that lurk in the fringes of Brit Cit.
Think of Chris Packham working on the “X Files”.
Quirky, with some lovely line art by Colin MacNeil, their sole tale involves the newly formed duo tracking down the birth of satyrs in South Wales. We should definitely have seen more of these two. It’s also notable for being quite “graphic” in places, shall we say. This is a great read, and will be featuring in a Mega City Book Club Podcast sometime in the future.
Collected : Brit Cit Noir collection alongside the John Reppion Leah Moore and Tom Foster “Storm Warning”
One Offs / Future Shocks / Tharg’s Terror Tales /
Pulp Sci Fi etc
Starting as he meant to go on, Smith uses the Future Shocks to introduce early versions of his longest running concepts and the basis of his own little universe within the confines of 2000AD. He’s done quite a few of these, and in the latest Meg’ floppy you can find two of his “Terror Tales”. Without going into a comprehensive listing, all of his one offs are well written.
Smith has also written a number of short one offs for other fillies in the Tharg stable. Special mention needs to go to the short “Still Life” by JS and Sean Phillips in the “Revolver Romance special”, it details the story of a young couple’s trip to Brighton. Beautiful for many reasons, besides the stunning art, and remains a favourite even for cynical old me.
Aside from the classy “Rogue Trooper” one offs he did in the annuals and specials, Smith also did a “Robo Hunter” for a Sci Fi Special, drawn by Chris Weston. It’s a bloodier version of the character, but that was the point of the special, swapping creators to strips they are not normally associated with. But it was still better than the Millar stuff being done at the time
Collected : No complete collection. But various specials, collections etc
Significant Non House of Tharg Works
Scarab 1-8 DC / Vertigo (significant for featuring members of Indigo Prime), I loved this originally solicited as an ongoing series and was meant to be a revamp of Dr Fate, but curtailed to an 8 issue mine, with pencils by Scott Eaton and Mike Barreiro, covers by Glenn Fabry and Tony Luke. I don’t think that this was ever collected
Hellblazer 51 DC/Vertigo (surreal filler issue during Ennis’s run – definitely worth picking up)
Vampirella : Harris Comics 4-12,9-31 (2001-2003)
Pantha : Harris Comics (Apologies, I can’t find any further details)
Starblazer “Head Hunter” No. 163 & 1985 “Timeslay” No. 168, 1986
Hopefully, Smith will continue to contribute to the ‘prog. He is a unique talent he has a fantastic imagination and compelling writing style. Wherever his work appears, it’s worth picking up.