Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Simping Detective



(Reprints Mega-City Noir story from Judge Dredd Megazine #220 and The Simping Detective stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #221-227, 234-239, 253-257)

This week's special guest is Tim Callahan, who blogs at GeniusboyFiremelon, has been writing about most of Alan Moore's work at Tor.com, and has a weekly column at Comic Book Resources. He's also the author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years. We got to discuss the collection of Simon Spurrier and Frazer Irving's collaboration on "The Simping Detective." Tim?

TIM: I still don't have as much background with Judge Dredd as I would like. I really got into the character and the world of Mega-City One and its surroundings when I picked up the Titan edition (with constantly cracking binding that spits out pages) of the Pat Mills and mostly-Brian-Bolland "Cursed Earth" collection, and then grabbed an early edition of the Judge Dredd role-playing game back when Games Workshop published a version. The RPG was a great crash-course in the history of the character and the city, but it wasn't a game I ever actually played. And since 2000 AD was pretty impossible to find where I grew up, those late-1980s experiences with Dredd were pretty much it, and in all the years since, I've only dabbled with Dredd. I've looked at a lot more pages of "Judge Dredd" art then I have actually read Judge Dredd stories, you know?

But I have read "The Simping Detective" stories, which at least intersect with Dredd's world. Well, I've read the ones collected as a book, anyway. Pure Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving. I bought it for the Irving artwork -- probably not too long after I first saw him blast into American comics with Seven Soldiers: Klarion -- but I found the conceit of the series pretty fascinating, particularly the way Spurrier absolutely tears into the hardboiled cliche language of the genre and shows off his verbal dexterity. It's a pastiche of detective noir, but Spurrier goes for incisive wit rather than clownish gags, even if the protagonist wears floppy shoes and a rubber nose to work every day.

DOUGLAS: The "Simping Detective" stories collected here were all there was until about a month ago, when the excellent new serial "Jokers to the Right" started running in 2000 AD (with Simon Coleby replacing Irving). And I imagine that if what you've read of Dredd before is the Cursed Earth stuff, looking at this has to be a little bit like... going straight from Kirby's Demon to the Seven Soldiers Klarion!

The conceit of "The Simping Detective" is ridiculous enough that it was originally planned as a one-off six-page story: an undercover cop whose cover is that he's a P.I. But it does make for a terrific series. Spurrier's enthusiasm for Jack Point's wordplay ("Clever scum. Like the froth on a Mensa milkshake...") keeps it really funny, page for page--Spurrier mentions here that his favorite Point-ism is "more layers than a dyslexic dragon." In fact, the whole concept of the series is a multi-layered pun: Jack Point's name previously belonged to the jester in The Yeomen of the Guard (another comedy with tragic undercurrents), and the main character of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective is Philip Marlow, as in the Philip Marlowe whose narrative voice Point's parodies.


Irving has a similar gift for twisting the visual language of noir. (Doorways! Canted angles! Venetian blinds! White shapes that emerge out of black space!) My favorite thing about his artwork here, though, has to be the spot colors that pop up in an otherwise black-and-white story (a gesture that's turned up again in "Jokers to the Right"--and, in fact, made a memorable appearance in Low Life last year).

A lot of the fun of this project is that it can take advantage of the massive amounts of prefabricated world-building associated with Dredd's history without having a tone anything like the main series. There are cast-offs from Dredd continuity everywhere--Jack Point's "pets" Cliq and Larf are Raptaurs, ravenous creatures from a story that appeared ten years earlier, for instance. But "Simping Detective" always seems like it's lurking on the fringes of the main event, which gives it license to do pretty much anything.

That said, a lot of the "heeeey, do you recognize this?" gags are clustered into "Fifteen," which is by far my least favorite story here: it was put together for the 15th-anniversary issue of Judge Dredd Megazine, and if it wasn't at least something of a rush job, I'd be surprised. It's also one of a few stories that do the only thing that actively frustrates me about "The Simping Detective"--turning DeMarco into a boop-be-doop "sexy" caricature. The essence of the character as she'd appeared earlier had been that she wasn't that, just a super-competent, driven cop whose libido was her Achilles' heel.

I get the sense that Spurrier, at least, had some plans for further Simping Detective stories that he didn't get to carry out at the time--like, what's the story with Miss Anne Thropé and her crack team of ex-Judges? (To be fair, there's more of her in "Jokers to the Right.") After "No Body, No How," the Spurrier/Irving team shifted to working on the long-delayed Gutsville--although, at New York Comic-Con, Irving noted that he was going to be finishing Gutsville this year, so that's a good sign.

So here's a question for you: what do you make of this book in the context of Frazer Irving's work before and since?

TIM: I suspect a reader going straight from Kirby's Demon to the Seven Soldiers Klarion would be confused and yet completely thrilled by the possibilities of comics. That sounds like an ideal progression to me!

Anyway, back to Frazer Irving and how "The Simping Detective" fits into the larger scheme of his work.

When I think of Irving's work, I don't picture it in black and white. For me, his use of color is an essential part of who he is as an artist. I think of Irving's painterly approach to shapes and compositions, and I picture the bold oranges of Xombi or the soft blues of Klarion or the vibrant-but-pastel shades of Silent War. Even though I knew "The Simping Detective" was mostly black and white -- with distinctive flashes of color -- from when I first picked up the collected edition, I still thought of it as a bright, colorful comic when I sat down to read the whole thing for this discussion. I was surprised by how proportionally little color there actually is in the comic.


I know much of Irving's early work -- or at least other things I've read like Fort or Necronauts -- were also black and white comics, but I place "The Simping Detective" outside of the "early work" category, I guess. It seems more confidently Irvingesque.

He also does this thing throughout "The Simping Detective" where he seems to invert the normal black-and-white approach to making art. He works digitally, of course, and that's obvious looking at the rounded globs of brush strokes on every page, but he's apparently working from a black canvas and painting the grays and whites on top. The comic repeatedly has the effect of inky blackness with process white splashed on top to highlight this dark, weird underbelly of Mega-City One. Stylistically, it's fascinating, because the globs and splashes of white are almost completely abstract shapes when you focus on them, but when you pull back to look at a panel as a whole, the balance of light and shadow creates a clear composition that's easy to read and yet maintains an unsettling quality. It's as if the whole world is a bit unstable, or that the world is illuminated by flashlights in back alleys, and you're a bit frightened to peek outside the shaft of light to see what else is out there.

And all of this is in a comic about a detective dressed like a full-on clown, which makes it even weirder.

DOUGLAS: I'm pretty sure the simps first appeared in Prog 527, in an episode drawn by Cliff Robinson; for a little while, Robinson seemed to be first in line to draw any simp-related stories ("Simp About the House," "Dead Simple"). At first, the idea was pretty uncomplicated--"It's the new look! You wear whatever you want - the dumber the better! Guy over in Timmy Mallett started it..." The first clever move John Wagner (and, initially, Alan Grant) made was on the simp front was to bring it back a few times; the second was to set it up as a growing subculture; the third was, in a very Wagnerian long-game way, to let it very gradually become a religious and political force (via Bishop Desmond Snodgrass and, more recently, Ribena Hardly-Lucidberry).

Wagner's never really gone too far into what's involved in simping, or why people would be attracted to it other than that it's a stupid idea; he just tosses it into the story and keeps moving. But that leaves lots of room for writers like Spurrier to play around with it. In "Jokers to the Right," it turns out that simping has become a full-on, officially recognized religion that gets special breaks from the government. Fantastic.

Irving is indeed digitally painting with white on a black background here, according to his interview in that Modern Masters volume that came out last year; as he puts it, "the light is the star, not the shadow." (That book also points out a Jack Point-ish character he'd drawn on one of a set of sample pages when he was auditioning to draw for 2000 AD!) His earlier black-and-white work had generally been much starker-looking, but while working on a serial called "From Grace," he decided to keep some gray tones in his pages too.

I'd actually remembered The Simping Detective very differently than you had--I'd thought of it as black and white with few gray shadows (and those occasional bursts of color). In fact, there's relatively little undiluted white anywhere in it: lots of specific gradations and painterly textures, but the light that's the star is always at least a bit elusive. I love Irving's color work too--he's one of the few comics artists I can think of who obviously works up a new palette for every project--but I think this counts as color considered in terms of its absence. Neat!

I also love that Irving draws all of these characters with slapstick-comedy body language (in noir compositions and lighting). The extra-armed, windmilling Jack near the end of "Crystal Blue" would never pass in a Dredd story, as such--or even in most of Irving's other work--but here it totally works.


One more question for you, Tim, since I think you've read more of Spurrier's comics than I have (although I'm going to have to remedy that); how does this fit into his body of work?

TIM: I'm afraid I'm woefully underinformed about Spurrier's work. I doubt I have read much more of his work than you have, though I did read some of his American work over the past couple of years, like the still-unfinished Gutsville and his initial dabblings at Marvel with a Ghost Rider and Punisher War Journal Annual. I know he's done a billion things for 2000 A.D. that I haven't read, and while my revisit with The Simping Detective has made me more inclined to check out his other work, I still can't generate enough enthusiasm for his new ongoing American project, the son-of-Professor-X-focused X-Men Legacy series. If I do explore more Spurrier, I'll likely go deeper into his back catalog.

I have some curiosity about his prose novels, too, since his verbal showmanship is such a powerful aspect of his work with Frazer Irving here. But can he really show off his prose stylings in a work-for-hire Strontium Dog novel? I don't know if I'm that curious.

What I can say about the little Spurrier that I have read is that The Simping Detective is far more exuberantly expressive than what I've seen in his American superhero work. His Ghost Rider and Punisher seem to be on par with someone like Daniel Way -- completely perfunctory and dots-connecting -- but this sly, energetic Simping stuff is on a whole different level. It looks like Spurrier doesn't quite have a strong sense of how to balance the pastiche with the verbal gamesmanship and still balance out a satisfying plot (endings feel abrupt, particularly in the later stories), but I'd read these comics a hundred times before I'd read another rote tale of Marvel vengeance.

*****

Thanks again to Tim! Next week, Dredd Reckoning stays in spinoff-land for Hondo-City Law, a second cross-section of the Shimura/Inaba material. 

4 comments:

  1. "I have some curiosity about his prose novels, too, since his verbal showmanship is such a powerful aspect of his work with Frazer Irving here. But can he really show off his prose stylings in a work-for-hire Strontium Dog novel? I don't know if I'm that curious."

    He has a crime novel called A Serpant Uncoiled, for which he did a rather amusing YouTube video to promote it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abOuVyX_68c).

    For other 2000AD work, I'd recommend (possibly his first?) collaboration with Irving - From Grace - and the excellent Lobster Random series, which is similar in tone and filth to The Simping Detective.

    Great blog! If only Rebellion would get a move on and publish those JD Case Files a bit quicker!

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  2. It turns out that I DID end up reading X-Men Legacy because I had to see what Spurrier did with issue #1 and it was a pretty strong opener after all. I may even check out #2 and see what's what. That Spurrier kid's goin' places!

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  3. In terms of Simon, I'd nod towards the crossed webcomic he's doing for Avatar. There's about 300 pages of the thing up there, and I think it's strong.

    http://www.crossedcomic.com/category/the-webcomic/

    Lots of things to love, not least the particularly harsh autobiographical lead. Also, of course, free.

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  4. A fine set of stories but DeMarco is completely wasted as a character.

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