Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood

John Smith, Sean Phillips & others
Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood (2004)

I bought the Judge Dredd megazine for a while then eventually drifted away without really taking any of it with me, and certainly nothing resembling either nostalgia or pronounced affection for anything I'd read therein. It wasn't that it was bad so much as that it just didn't do a lot for me, and so I picked up this reprint principally because it's John Smith, a writer I always thought had more potential than that for which he has generally been given credit.

Devlin Waugh was proposed as Noel Coward as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and takes the role of one of those demon-hunting exorcist types in the Judge Dredd universe. It's a bit of an obvious idea in some ways - one of those characters bolted together from a combination of dramatically absurd contradictions - and yet it sort of works and even succeeds, because John Smith generally seems to know what he's doing and has a talent for working the essentially ludicrous without quite letting it all slip over into the realm of Bugs Bunny. That said, Swimming in Blood was a bit of a shaky start - nice ideas which don't quite come together in what is basically a generic eighties action movie, and while Devlin Waugh as Terry Thomas is a delight, there are a few points where Smith's revelling in Wildean dialogue forms self-conscious clots in what is already turning out to be a bit of a plod; and a plod further encumbered by the unsavoury note struck when Waugh exposes his darker side - his sadistic impulses and a deeply unappealing misanthropy expressed in his regard of the mutant inmates of Aquatraz as a vile slurry of inhuman filth.

Additionally, Sean Phillips artwork was really muddy and inconsistent on this one, torn between imitating Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewicz - as was fucking everyone at that end of the nineties - but without the basic understanding of human anatomy which allowed those guys to get away with it. Phillips has never been my favourite artist, but this is fanzine level stuff compared to what he's drawn since - a fair quota of which has been at least reasonably breathtaking.

Fetish, the second story in the collection, works much better. Being a Dredd saga in which Waugh features, with the shift of focus working in the character's favour, allowing for the kind of mystery which is somewhat lost when he's grinning away and describing something as utterly ghastly on every other page. Ajibayo Akinsiku's art suffers from some of the same issues of contrast and basic figure work as that of Sean Phillips, and he draws Dredd as a chin wearing a helmet, but his better pages are mind-bogglingly hallucinatory. I have some reservations about the story using Africa in pretty much the same way as everyone else uses Africa - the dark, scary continent of mystery and nature red in tooth and claw - but Fetish is nevertheless a thoroughly satisfying effort showcasing the best of everyone involved.

Waugh finally convinces in A Mouthful of Dust with the art of Michael Gaydos perfectly attuned to the story it tells, sort of like Eddie Campbell with less scratching about.

Finally, there are a couple of prose stories in support of my feeling that comic book writers either need to stick to strip fiction, or accept that unillustrated text really isn't just a comic strip without artwork, or the hard-boiled voice-over delivered in short sentences at the beginning of something starring Bruce Willis.

And now he was dead. Cut and mutilated. Lying in a cold locker in a cold Monaco morgue. Dead like all Devlin's other friends. Like Pedro and Sanchez and Joel. Like dear old Bunny Beaumont. Like all the others.

William Burroughs got away with it, but if you're not William Burroughs and particularly if you're writing this kind of prose, use a comma, because distinguishing cut and mutilated as a sentence in itself just looks like you can't fucking write. John Smith patently can write - although both of his prose stories in this collection have essentially the same plot - but the occasional text stories you used to get in 2000AD specials were always pure arseache.

So that's been a fair bit of whining on my part, none of which alters the fact that I enjoyed this one a lot. That which this collection has in its favour greatly outweighs a few blanks fired here and there, and John Smith having delivered a not so much openly as rampantly gay character in the form of a mainstream comic strip without a trace of tokenism has to be applauded; and he did it with humour and genuine wit, and - if memory serves - just ahead of the curve regarding not only demon-hunting exorcist types, but vampires as good guys.

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