Believe it or not, I’ve never known a John Smith. They say it’s the most common male name in the English language, but seriously — I never went to school with one. I’ve never worked with one. I’ve never heard one talked about (“I was out with my buddy John Smith last weekend and lemme tell ya what that crazy fucker did”) — for all I know, I may never even have met one in passing. They certainly tell us that there are a lot of John Smiths out there, but don’t ask me where to find them. Maybe they’re all in hiding or something. Or all hanging out down at the local secret John Smith Club and I’m not invited because my name’s not — well, John Smith. Anything’s possible, I suppose.
Nevertheless, John Smith is a name that British comics fans, particularly readers of the venerable weekly 2000 A.D., know pretty well. He’s written some of the more well-regarded Judge Dredd stories of the past couple of decades, he’s created popular characters and concepts such as Devlin Waugh and Indigo Prime, and his strip Cradlegrave is one of the best-reviewed horror comics of the still-young millennium. Shit, the guy’s practically an institution in the UK comic scene, and his work is known for consistently being transgressive, funny, and eager to push the limits. He’s got a fine ear for naturalistic dialogue, a sharp sense of the absurd, and a vivid — if a bit scatter-shot — imagination. He shares at least a passing interest in the occult and other purportedly “taboo” subjects along with Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, and while some of his early works are both stylistically and thematically derivative of the writings of both of those gentlemen, it’s more than fair to say that he’s since gone on to craft a voice that’s uniquely his own over the course of his now lengthy, if a bit intermittent, career.
Yup, there’s no doubt about it — John Smith is household name among UK comics readers. Across the pond, however, it’s a different story.
Go into any American comic shop, ask somebody if they’ve heard of John Smith, and the answer you’re most likely to get is probably “doesn’t he usually stop by and pick up his pull list on Fridays or Saturdays?” Or maybe they’ll say “that’s my brother-in-law — why, you know him?” Or maybe you’ll just get a blank stare. What you probably won’t hear, however, even though all of the following are indisputably true, is “didn’t he write New Statesmen back in the late ’80s/early ’90s?” Or “he wrote that one really cool issue of Hellblazer, didn’t he?” Or “shit, man, that Straitgate thing he did with Sean Phillips is one twisted little yarn.”
And that’s a shame. In many ways, the dominoes were all lined up for Smith to “break though” in the American comics market in a big way in, say, 1991, ’92, or ’93, but it just didn’t happen. Fate can be a fickle mistress, dear reader, and John Smith probably knows that all too well. His series with Jim Baikie (and a very young Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo pitching in), New Statesmen, had been an “A-list” feature in the now-defunct “mature readers” 2000 A.D. companion title, Crisis, but in fairness that strip was, in fact, something of a mess — a revisionist super-hero story rooted in the then-nascent (and wildly misunderstood) science of genetic engineering, it had some nifty little concepts scattered about here and there, but it didn’t seem terribly focused, and when the plug was pulled on it prematurely due to space constraints in the magazine, Smith had to toss in a quick and clumsy deux ex machina “ending” that was both unsatisfying and, in all honesty, confusing. Still, its publishers at Fleetway/Quality thought there was enough there to see that it was reissued in both a deluxe-format five-part miniseries for the US market and, later, a trade paperback. It makes for an interesting enough read, but it’s more notable for its glaring flaws than anything else, and with the sequel Smith and Baikie had cooked up never materializing, it feels more like an unfinished work than anything else — which, I suppose, it is. Still, considering that he was only 19 or 20 when he wrote it, you have to say that it at least showed Smith had some real potential.
That potential began to be realized in a big way with Straitgate, a decidedly non-sci-fi, non-super-hero work set in the “real” world that saw the developing-at-the-time author paired for the second time with then-emerging artistic talent Sean Phillips (yes, folks, before Brubaker/Phillips there was Smith/Phillips) and was featured, once again, in pages of editor Steve McManus’ Crisis. Sure, it’s fair to say that Straitgate is again a flawed work, but it’s a highly ambitious and distinctly memorable one, which is probably inevitable given its highly explosive subject matter.
Or should I say, highly explosive now — in 1990, before names like Columbine and Dunblane and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook were seared into the public consciousness, maybe the idea of a story about a young. sexually repressed, self-loathing young immigrant with a dead-end job and a violent psycho-sexual fantasy life who goes on to commit a mass-murder/suicide wasn’t quite the piece of political dynamite it is today, but fuck it — Straitgate is still risky, audacious storytelling, especially given that Smith and Phillips eschew the safe option of portraying their protagonist, Dave, as an all-out, one-dimensional monster and instead make him out to be a real, living, breathing, human being, complete with the complexities, foibles, and contradictions that plague us all. He’s not a sympathetic figure, by any stretch, but he’s not entirely unsympathetic, either, and that led to something of a brief kerfuffle of the “what are our kids being exposed to in the comic books they’re reading?” sort that erupts for a few days in the British tabloid press every half-decade or so.
Choosing to blunt the bubbling of criticism before it became a tide, editor McManus did, in fact, smooth over some of Straitgate‘s rougher edges to make it all somewhat more palatable for public consumption, but by and large this is still a risky, and in many ways supremely assured, piece of work from two talents where were quickly establishing themselves as being the “enfants terribles” of the UK comics scene.
The tabloids weren’t the only ones paying attention, either — American publishers, specifically DC, were actively looking for “the next Alan Moore” all the time, and had found some solid talents in the likes of , Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, and the aforementioned Grant Morrison. We’re sold the bill of goods that this was entirely a creative decision, that the UK was where the talent was and forward-thinking editors like Karen Berger were eager to keep the transatlantic pipleline flowing, but let’s not kid ourselves — the real reason that the British Isles were even tapped for new creators in the first place in the early ’80s is because the Brits, eager for their first “big break,” often worked much cheaper than their American counterparts, since even the reduced rates DC offered their foreign talent were more than homegrown publishers like Fleetway offered. Of course, many of those creators went on to become top earners in the field, and deservedly so based on the quality of their work, but I’m dead sick of the mythology that’s sprung up that this was done purely for the most noble of artistic intentions. Hell, Moore himself has admitted that, unbeknownst to him at the time, one of the primary reasons he was offered Swamp Thing over other, more established writers, was because DC was scared shitless that their American creators were about to go on strike sometime around 1981 or ’82 and they wanted to have eager low-cost replacements groomed and ready to take over everything if the need arose.
Still — base as the initial motives for plumbing the depth of the UK talent pool may have been, the fact remains that by 1991, a veritable “British revolution” was in full swing at DC, and Straitgate got its creators noticed on this side of the Atlantic (so will somebody finally put out a trade paperback collection of it already?). Sometime late that year John Smith got a phone call. Then-editor of Hellblazer Stuart Moore was on the other end of the line. Jamie Delano had just informed him that he was planning on leaving the book soon, and Moore wondered if our intrepid young scribe might be interested in making a pitch to take over the reigns on the series.
And that’s where things really start to get interesting —
In our next segment, we’ll take a look at how a Hellblazer series proposal became a one-off fill-in issue became a series pitch for Dr. Fate became “the new monthly Vertigo title” Scarab became the eight-issue Vertigo mini-series Scarab. In that order. Join us, won’t you?