Sunday, September 2, 2012

Devlin Waugh: Red Tide

(Reprints Devlin Waugh stories from 2000 AD Progs 1149-1173 and from Judge Dredd Megazine #201-213)

It's been a bit since we've had any guests here, but we've got a fantastic one this week. I've known my former Techland comrade Lev Grossman for a couple of decades now, on and off; among other things, he's the author of the remarkable novels The Magicians and The Magician King, and TIME magazine's chief book critic. So I was delighted to discuss the second Devlin Waugh collection with him...

LEV: I got into Judge Dredd during a particularly low moment in my personal and professional life, when I was living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere in Maine after college. My one source of joy was this ratty drugstore where you could buy packets of old 2000 AD's three for a dollar. I think the grimness suited my mood. I got very emotionally invested in it.

But I never really followed any non-Dredd stories in the Dreddverse, and I'd never even heard of Devlin Waugh before I started reading Red Tide. I flashed on it because of the name -- I'm also a committed Evelyn Waugh fan. Obviously it's just a throwaway gag, but Devlin's not miles away from a pumped-up vampire superhero version of Sebastian Flyte (or maybe Anthony Blanche). He's campy as hell, obviously ("Why should I be forever expected to martyr myself for the world's misfortunes when I can't even decide which cravat to wear?"), but the writer (John Smith) lets him have real emotions underneath it.

I was worried that we were in for yet another can-I-be-a-good-guy-if-I'm-a-vampire story, but the source of Devlin's dark side seems to be elsewhere. He's not defined by his vampirism; it doesn't even seem to come up that often. He's just a guy with a manic-depressive streak. The artist does his mania especially well -- he's always grinning a bit too broadly, with that ludicrous gap in his teeth. Devlin often looks ridiculous, and you can tell he's not really aware that he's looking ridiculous. Which makes me like him more. 

DOUGLAS: I think Anthony Blanche is a fine reference point--I'm remembering Waugh's line about how Blanche's "vices flourished less in the pursuit of pleasure than in the wish to shock." That's probably the case with Devlin Waugh; I get the sense that he loves to stay just barely, technically on the side of the angels. But he knows where to draw the line--I crack up when he sternly reminds his mother, with her Bride of Frankenstein hair and her Dan Dare eyebrows, that his brother was "a roue and a libertine." He, on the other hand, is simply a gentleman! (And his face, including the moustache and the gap, is straight-up Terry-Thomas.)

Red Tide is actually the second collection of Devlin Waugh material--the first is Swimming in Blood. (It's also worth noting that several chunks of dialogue were inadvertently omitted from the Red Tide collection--an eagle-eyed reader has reproduced them here.) The character was wildly popular from the outset, but he's appeared remarkably little for that: apart from the half-year that the "Chasing Herod"/"Reign of Frogs"/"Sirius Rising" sequence ran weekly in 2000 AD, there have been just 36 episodes' worth of Devlin Waugh stories published over the course of the 20 years since he first appeared in the Megazine (plus two text stories and appearances in a pair of Dredd serials), none in the past five years. That seems to be partly because of the false starts that bedeviled the feature early on, but mostly because John Smith's attitude is "it'll be ready when it's ready." So be it! After all, Devlin's not getting any older any more...

One of the things that's particularly neat about Smith's writing, I think, is that he's a really enthusiastic worldbuilder--he likes to construct enormous amounts of information that his characters take for granted but that is unknown to his readers, and eventually let us have some of it. He's gotten more adept at that over time, too. I was reading his old 2000 AD project Firekind recently, and that one's almost nothing but "check out this crazy world!" with a pre-formed plot stapled on; the marvelous Cradlegrave, on the other hand, lets its worldbuilding, and even the fact that there is worldbuilding in the sense beyond "here's a variation on a familiar urban setting," trickle out subtly.

Smith isn't at all subtle about building Devlin's part of the world of the Mega-Cities, of course, but I really enjoy what he does here instead of subtlety, which is bombarding us with exposition, some of it relevant and some of it just entertainingly phrased, with the very occasional addition of a reference to something longtime readers will recognize. Devlin mentions a Black Museum in passing; the Vicomte Henri LaBas--great name, funnier explanation ("Born in Paris in 1849 but got catapulted into the future when he activated a freak window area during a botched sex magic ritual")--name-drops Sabbat the first time he shows up. And you can tell how much Smith loves writing lines of dialogue like "Seems that ruddy cockatoo of his is a black ectoplasm homunculus." The point isn't to make everything clear, it's to demonstrate that there's way too much going on for anything to be explained, so shut up and hold on and enjoy the ride.

A question for you: as somebody who's obviously thought a lot about magic in fiction, what are your impressions of how the magical and Lovecraftian stuff works (or doesn't work) here?

LEV: As somebody who does his own professional line of sorcerous crypto-babble, I'm simply in awe of Smith: il miglior fabbro. The way he improvises the technical vocabulary of magic-working is just remarkable: it has approximately the same fullness and complexity that the real world does, and creating that effect takes either a lot of hard work or a little bit of genius. It's master-level stuff, literally sublime, in the Burkean sense: you feel like you're glimpsing just one corner of a vast, orderly, self-consistent body of theory and terminology.

To cite just one example: watch when they send Pussy Willow into India, after its center of pestilence "goes critical." She checks for "damage to the aethyric levels," recalibrates her mismatched steampunk goggles, the rhetoric downshifts abruptly and:

"Oh. Wow. A spirit engine in the sky."

I felt actual awe. (With an assist from the trippy psychedelic palette of the art.) It's not far off from perfection.

Mind you, as you say, it's mostly Lovecraftian horror-magic: twisted shapes, psionics that drive you mad, garbled prophecies, that sort of thing. Man and beast in the grip of irresistible, unspeakable forces. I wouldn't have minded seeing something more in the practical, Harry Potter style -- watching somebody throw around some Dr. Strange-type force bolts now and then. But that's just personal taste.

I confess I wrote my last post before I'd finished the actual "Red Tide" half of this diptych, and now I realize I sort of don't understand the rules of vampirism that Devlin is operating under. I get that the aquatic vampires are all mutated and evolved, and that's why they don't look human, and Devlin and Lilith do. (Devlin's dashing good looks seem to have been passed down to his spiritual descendant, Shore Leave on The Venture Bros.) But how does he control his bloodlust? How does he slake it? Do we ever find out how he feeds?

I very much like the well-judged note of amorality at the book's end (mild spoilers): everyone's raging at Lilith for being a horrible semi-immortal daywalking vampire queen. But Devlin just treats her as an equal, a formidable fellow traveler. He acknowledges her gift, and then spends the last couple of panels preening. Which seems about right.

DOUGLAS: I assume Devlin feeds the way vampires tend to--there's that early scene where we see him asking his boyfriend Antonio for "a little liquid refreshment before the premiere... I promise I shan't take a drop more than I need." (We also see him looking in the mirror in that scene, so I assume that these vampires do appear in mirrors; I don't see how Devlin could bear it otherwise!) There's also that sequence early in "Reign of Frogs" where Devlin's in a funk and talking to his Surinamese houseboys (while holding a snifter of some red liquid we can assume isn't wine), and they try to distract him: "We'll run you a blood bath, then Philippe will give you a nice long massage."

As for "Red Tide"-the-story: I don't quite know what to make of it either. It's slicker-looking than the long Steve Yeowell-drawn sequence for sure--Colin MacNeil renders it in a particularly gorgeous fully-painted style that he doesn't pull out very often (it's turned up before in America and his Chopper storyline, among others), and given that "Red Tide" ran in the first year's worth of the revamped Megazine that launched in 2003, I can only guess that the art budget of the Megazine had briefly gone way up again.

But I think I actually like both the story and the appearance of "Chasing Herod"/"Reign of Frogs"/"Sirius Rising" a lot more. Yeowell's a terrific artist in a post-Steve Ditko vein: he strips his images down to their essential figures and forms, but then he lets facial expressions and body language do a lot of work for him, and when he has to deliver a knockout of a weird image, he's always got one at hand. The Catechist--and what a name/schtick he has!--is a particularly Ditkovian design, with his short-cropped hair and little white glasses. (I also tend to associate Yeowell's artwork with Grant Morrison's freakier writing, thanks to his work on Zenith and the early sequences of The Invisibles, and Smith's better work often owes something to Morrison's better work.) And as much as MacNeil's storytelling decisions on "Red Tide" make a lot of sense conceptually--everything dimly-lit and soft-edged, almost every scene dominated by a single color--in practice they make it harder to read and to follow, and when you're dealing with a writer who has as little interest in Smith in spelling everything out, Yeowell's here! look at this thing! sort of clarity is probably a better idea.

"Red Tide" seems to be partly a homage to a particular strain of British comics that Smith must have grown up on, a formula that I suspect was created with "Hook Jaw" in the British Action series (no relation to Action Comics), and continued later with Flesh and Shako and Helltrekkers and even, in its way, "Wilderlands." You put an ensemble cast together; you set them against a catastrophic force of nature; then you kill them off, one by one. But Smith partly bobbles the setup--we never get much of a sense of who the people on the boat are, or why we should care one way or the other about who gets slaughtered and who survives--and, for that matter, the story is sort of a rewrite of "Swimming in Blood," the first Devlin Waugh serial. He's supposed to be the world's greatest occult investigator; it'd be nice to see him investigating something other than more underwater vampires...

I'm totally with you on Smith and "glimpsing just one corner of a vast, orderly, self-consistent body of theory and terminology." I'm pretty sure he actually knows how all of it works--even his minor characters appear to have wandered in from some other wildly complicated story. (Sometimes they have: Pussy Willow eventually turned up in another Smith-written series, Pussyfoot 5, and various other Smith-written stories turn out to be loosely connected to each other.) The flip-side of Smith's gift for world-building is that he sometimes tries to shoehorn in some clever idea or other just because it happens to be in his notebook. There's an interview with him somewhere where he mentions that he had the character of Eddie Whyteman sitting ready to be used for many years before "Reign of Frogs"--and, having finally gotten to introduce him, he promptly killed him off.

One final question for you: as someone who's probably read a lot more of the literature Smith has read than I have, how do you see the Devlin Waugh stories connecting to other fiction about magic, and to the sort of fiction with hyper-British, stiff-upper-lip protagonists of whom he tends to seem like a parody?

LEV: Taken as a story about magic, as fantasy literature, Devlin Waugh (I know that's not the name of the book, but it seems less confusing somehow to call it that) is hard to place in the magical landscape because it's so aggressively syncretic. Smith seems to have no fear of or even awareness of genre boundaries: he throws sorcery and technology and horror and new-age psychobabble into the mix and then blends them so smoothly that you can't tell what came from where. What I particularly like is his instance on magic being a technical field -- there's no soft focus or cutaways, you see exactly what's going on all the time, on a very granular level, and the people interacting with the supernatural treat it like yeah, this is just my day job. Smith describes mystical phenomena the way you'd explain how to use a dishwasher. Like when that fat dude with the headset (never figured out who he was) mutters "That's one of the sunless ones. A qlippothic parasite from the transyuggothian spheres. Critter shouldn't even be in this reality ... " 

Taken as piss-take of the great lineage of debonair, boy's own adventure British heroes, it's rather devastating. Devlin seems to have infinite resources when it comes to displaying sang-froid in the face of other people's suffering -- he's a low-empathy guy, though always in a charming way. Which is nicely balanced by his willingness to go completely to pieces when his own life is on the line (e.g. screaming "I'M TOO YOUNG TO DIE" as he's airlifted out of the clutches of the Herod).

And there's another distinctive quality to the parody that I'm tempted to tag as more broadly and characteristically Dreddian: the way that they take the piss out of their hero, but they don't set up any particular ideal in his place. As a result the books have a centerless quality -- there's no safe place to put your sympathies, nobody is entirely reliable or exempt from mockery. If someone is good, they tend to be weak or ugly or ridiculous too. "Chasing Herod" opens from the POV of a callow papparazzi who's watching an equally callow celebrity, i.e. Devlin. There's something chillingly, recognizably bleak about that kind of echo chamber; voids gazing at voids. 

Are there actual good, relatable people in the Dreddverse? A guy like Whyteman seems like the closest thing one gets to a solid fellow, and that's just because he's so underdeveloped as a character. (Though he does a nice line in neo-noir patter: "If luck was a lady she was my goddamn ex-wife.")

DOUGLAS: That's true about the general unsympatheticness of everyone in the Devlin Waugh stories: they invert the usual order of things, but they don't really give you even an admirable antihero to cling to. I'm not quite so sure it's true of Dredd stories. Dredd himself is a cruel cipher in a helmet--he's not usually the sympathetic figure--and it took a while for supporting cast members to show up who weren't just caricatures of one kind or another. It's usually women who've ended up filling that role, interestingly: Anderson, very tentatively, at first, and later Castillo and DeMarco and (especially) Beeny. (I suppose Bekky Darke, from Smith and MacNeil's recent Strange & Darke serial, counts as one of those as well.) The only major male character that we're encouraged to genuinely cheer for is Chopper, who has his deep personality flaws for sure, but is absolutely Our Guy in the context of Judge Dredd. --And, of course, Chopper's survived two attempts by his writers to kill him off, and by now is really too old to be pulling his sky-surfing routine. (Incidentally, I don't know if you saw that image of the new Dredd movie's poster "defaced by Chopper graffiti" recently, courtesy of a very clever Photoshop job by ...)

There's also the received wisdom on Dredd stories, which I think isn't far off: that the actual point of sympathy is not any of the characters in particular, but Mega-City One itself--a recognizable version of Western-and-especially-American culture in which everything gets a "but more so"--and that Dredd just serves as the catalyst for action. (A.k.a. violence, or "thrill-power.") In that case, our protagonist has had a hard time of it. At the beginning of the series, there are 800 million people living in MC1 (the voice-over that opens the new movie concurs). Following the Apocalypse War, there are 400 million. As of the end of "Day of Chaos," there are 40 million left. It's no wonder John Wagner's returning to the idea that the Judges' authority deserves some serious examination, even by the Judges themselves--they've done a remarkably poor job of protecting "our protagonist."


Thanks again to Lev! Next week, we've got another guest--Ben Saunders, author of Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, who will join me to discuss the clonetastic Brothers of the Blood.


  1. "Red Tide" reads great in the TPB, in one sitting, but it was ridiculously slow on the monthly Megazine (as opposed to the weekly installments of 2000 AD). I remember EIGHT whole months had passed and the plot was still stuck on neutral. Nothing but Devlin & crew being chased by vampires. Over and over again. Let's not forget that even "Swimming in Blood" only had a 2-week gap back in the day.

    For that reason, I remember the "Chasing Herod"/"Reign of Frogs"/ "Sirius Rising" epic more fondly, despite being 25 (!) episodes long. Also, I've always enjoyed Yeowell's minimalist style.

  2. I really liked Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood, one of the best 2000AD stories I've read outside of Dredd.

    And that Chopper graffiti is just pure gold.