British comic creators, publishers and fans have paid tribute to Judge Dredd artist and former Spitfire pilot Ron Smith, who passed away aged 90 early yesterday, after a long battle with Parkinson’s.
Ron began his long and much-admired creative career in animation at Gaumont British Animation after World War Two, before moving into comics for Amalgamated Press, then DC Thomson, before moving to 2000AD and Judge Dredd.
A hugely talented veteran of the British comics industry, at DC Thomson he brought one of the UK’s few superheroes, King Cobra, for DC Thomson‘s Hotspur, to amazing life, drawing almost every episode of the crime fighter’s stories for the weekly comic, and creating unforgettable villains along the way.
Colin Noble documented Smith’s incredible comics career for downthetubes in a three part feature back in 2015 (links below), from the 1950s onwards, and we only recently recounted how his work on The Beezer adventure strip “The Heroes of Paradise Rd” in 1961 helped publisher DC Thomson pioneer wartime family drama in comics.
“When, as the “apprentice” in DC Thomson’s art department, I was aware of the the effect Ron’s work had when it hit the scene,” Commando and Eagle artist Ian Kennedy recalls. “Mind bending, explosive, call it what you will, it certainly brought a whole new slant to the job of illustration – just in time for yours truly!
“The effect Ron’s clean, no nonsense approach, plus the speed at which he turned stuff out was, back then, nothing short of electrifying!
Sad to say, there were one or two rather envious and snide remarks, such as “He won’t last” from some expected quarters – which sums up the effect Ron had rather neatly.”
RON SMITH, THE ANIMATOR
Born in 1928 in Bournemouth, Ron was forbidden from going to art college as a young man and followed his father into engineering but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two. Enlisting as a pilot with the Empire Flying Training Programme, by 1945 he was a Spitfire pilot, and travelled to Europe as part of the Royal Air Force’s Army Co-operation Squadron – No. 2 Squadron, also known as No. II (AC) Squadron.
Demobbed in 1947, he got work at J Arthur Rank’s Gaumont British Animation, working at Moor Hall in Berkshire on animated shorts in the Disney style, the best known being the Animaland (many written by Reg Parlett, better known later as a humour comics artist) and Musical Paintbox shorts.
(Ron kept a mouse in a cigar box under his drawing table, fed with scraps and a spoonful of Huntsman’s Ale: “He had no cage, because there were no cats – if they got out and started swishing tails around it would have been chaos.”)
“In the 1920s and 30s the depression was so bad that in the boy’s schools art, drama and music were considered weekend activities, so you went for a recognised career like engineering, banking, insurance or the armed forces,” Ron told Paul Duncan in an interview for the fanzine Arkensword (Issue 16, for which he also provided a Judge Dredd cover) in 1985, recalling his break into drawing through working for G.B.Animation Ltd, under the directorship of David Hand, an American who had been Walt Disney’s first director, and the director of Bambi, for the princely sum of £4 10 shillings a week, £2 of which went ion bed an board.
“Although I was interested in art I couldn’t do it. I went straight from Grammar School to college to read Physics, and worked in an engineering drawing office. I accepted the King’s Shilling – volunteered for the Royal Air Force – in 1944, but I didn’t see any action because I hadn’t completed my training by the time the war ended.
“When I came out in 1947, I saw an advert in John Bull magazine for an animation studio in Cookham. I had an interview and joined. Everyone got the basic six months training. It was almost like a home from home, because it was filled with people from out of the services being trained as animators. We lived in and had our own bar. Nobby Clark [who later created characters for Buster] was one of the people… Bob Monkhouse was another character.”
Other future creative luminaries at the company included Eric Bradbury, Bill Holroyd, Harry Hargreaves and Mike Western.
“I came in late, and all the character animators had already been picked, so when I finished the course I could only be an effects animator or an inbetweener. There was no way I was going to be an inbetweener… I was an effects animator. I animated water, rain, falling leaves etc.
“It was excellent, because it had all the speed and energy that I later put into picture strips. You learnt how to make the background help the action.
“The studio folded when J. Arthur Rank closed a whole lot of studios, even though we were making money. So you had 200 artists suddenly down at Fleet Street, with more or less the same thing in their folders.”
Smith headed for London in 1949 and, even before finding lodgings, went to the offices of publishing behemoth Amalgamated Press, where he got his first comics work on The Sun and Knockout before moving on to Western comics, such as Comet.
Head-hunted in 1952 by AP’s main rival, DC Thomson, Ron moved with his wife to a company house just outside the firm’s headquarters in Dundee, Scotland. He then spent 21 years drawing everything from historical epics and cracking yarns in Adventure, Hotspur and Topper, to romance and slice-of-life tories for Bunty and Judy.
His credits at DC Thomson also include an adaptation of The Black Arrow for The People’s Journal, also published in The Topper, and amongst the many characters he drew were Lone Wolfe in The Beezer, dancer Moira Kent in Bunty, and in addition to King Cobra, Nick Jolly the Flying Highwayman for Hotspur.
In 1976, he created King Cobra, DC Thomson’s first superhero in the American style, which was a massive hit with readers, showing off Ron’s inventiveness and knack for action. It was a strip that also saw syndication in Europe and such was its impact that along with Billy the Cat, was one of the characters licensed by the short-lived STRIP Magazine in 2014 for its news stand edition, redesigned by Wamberto Nicomedes and also drawn by John Ross, with another, unpublished strip drawn by Batman artist Trevor von Eeden in Ron’s style.
As part of that project as its writer and series editor I re-read many of the original King Cobra adventures and the often bizarre storylines aside, Ron’s art was simply breath taking, his villains unique. It’s no wonder it was such a popular strip thanks to his work.
“We’re very sad to hear of the passing of artist Ron Smith,” commented the classic comics team at Hotspur‘s publisher, DC Thomson.
“He had an astonishing career, including some amazing work on DC Thomson titles like Wizard, Warlord, Bunty, Beezer, Victor, and on Hotspur’s superhero, King Cobra. Our thoughts go to his family and friends. He will be missed.”
A LOST COMICS PROJECT?
In 1979, Ron was commissioned to draw some pages for an unrealised comics project that was being assembled by Ron Holland. The project seems very focused on real-world, rather than SF stories, with believable action heroes at the fore.
Sadly, little is know about the project, but some of the art was sold on eBay recently, and downthetubes contributor Richard Sheaf has reported on the mystery project here on his own Boys Adventure Blog, but note this was not a project instigated by Ron Smith, which the feature currently suggests.
Ron Smith at 2000AD
But it is undoubtedly his work for 2000AD and Judge Dredd that comic fans will most remember Ron for – and publisher Rebellion has paid tribute to Ron across social media to mark his passing.
“We’re very sorry to hear that Judge Dredd artist Ron Smith has passed away,” the publisher announced on its web site.
“From co-creating Chopper to the weird Otto Sump and the wonderful Mayor Dave, he was an incredible artist with a career spanning decades. Our deepest sympathies to his family.”
“During 2000AD’s 1980s heyday, he was one of the five iconic Dredd artists,” notes Rebellion, “alongside Carlos Ezquerra, Mick McMahon, Brian Bolland, and Steve Dillon, and many of the strip’s most unforgettable moments – from ‘The Judge Child Quest’ to ‘UnAmerican Graffiti’, from ‘The Hotdog Run’ to ‘The Day the Law Died’ – have the name and style of Ron Smith stamped all over them.
“The most prolific Dredd artist in the character’s history, from 1981 Ron also drew the daily strip for the Daily Star newspaper – one of the longest running in British newspaper history – which showcased his talents perfectly as he compressed entire epics down into a handful of panels.
“His style deftly mixed action, humour, and pathos. Thanks in part to his seemingly incongruous ‘punk’ eye for design, Smith was the bizarre, warped imagination that took the biting satire of John Wagner and Alan Grant’s scripts and turned the city into a character of its own. He, arguably more than anyone else, defined the citizens of Mega-City One with characters such as Chopper, Otto Sump, Dave the Orangutan mayor, Pug Ugly And The Bugglys, The Stupid Gun, Citizen Snork, the Blobs, and so many more. And above it all stood his vision of Dredd – lithe, athletic, stoic, but with a knack for the darkly comic.
“Even at a furious rate of work, the quality of his art rarely – if ever – dipped. Close up, his lines are clean and precise, panels perfectly balanced and yet losing none of their energy, their remarkable movement or scale.
“2000AD has lost another of its most treasured artists, a man whose unique work entertained millions over the course of five decades and who is sorely missed.”
Matt Smith, 2000AD’s current editor, said: “Ron was one of the artistic stalwarts of 2000AD during the 1980s, and his Judge Dredd strips in particular were instrumental in making the Galaxy’s Greatest the cult, counter-cultural game-changer that redefined British comics.
“Like Carlos Ezquerra, his style was uniquely his own – you never mistook a Ron Smith strip – and he filled his panels with comical grotesques, his Mega-City One full of living, breathing loons.
“Capable of amazingly detailed work – check out his episodes of ‘Block Mania’, where he dealt with thousands of rioting citizens – and professional to a fault, it’s no wonder he was one of Tharg’s regular go-to Dredd guys.
“A 2000AD legend, he will be greatly missed by fans and fellow creators alike.”
Moving back to Surrey, he became a fully-fledged freelancer and it was during this time that he further developed the lightning-fast working techniques that allowed him to churn out illustration after book cover after comic strip.
He told the Judge Dredd Megazine about his famous technique in 2009: “People talk about this alarm clock – that is actually very real. The only thing that an artist can control is his hourly rate; you’ve got a fixed page, so right from the start they said to me a page of cartoons is ten pound and I had worked out that to survive in London I needed two pounds an hour, so you just divide one into the other and so you’ve got to do a page in five hours. So you set the clock, and you may not finish it but you start to get into this rhythm.
“It used to be three pages, not six, and when I finished I was up to twenty pounds an hour – two hundred pounds a page, ten hours. But still with the alarm clock. This kept me going and meant that the bank always saw a similar amount coming in at the end of each month, because it was very hard to get banks to do things for you when you’re a freelance artist.
“When it went ping I would literally put that page down and start on the next one. And then I would go back and sit up late at night, which is outside of my hours, and finish it off. But this got me into this way of working that meant that I could live this little middle-class life with four daughters, put them through school and on to university. Having the agent do all the leg work also meant I was sitting at home earning more of his twenty per cent – better to get him to do the leg work.”
As well as providing painted album covers for Def Leppard and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Ron also worked Marvel UK on the TV tie-in series such as Transformers, Zoids and MASK.
At 2000AD, he moved off Dredd and onto “Chronos Carnival“, as well the early 1990s re-imagining of Rogue Trooper, Mean Team and Harlem Heroes.
Married twice, Ron had four daughters. After retiring due to problems with his eyesight, Ron suffered from Parkinson’s and moved into a care home in Leatherhead, where he passed away in the early hours of the morning on 10th January 2019.
“We all follow the Yellow Brick Road,” Ron told Judge Dredd Megazine in 2009, “we’re all off to see the wizard and you should just stay on course, even if people say it’s a bloody stupid thing to do – if you’re genetically programmed, bloody go for it. It’s all part of that road… and this has been a part of mine. Yet there but for the grace of God go I.”
CREATOR AND FAN TRIBUTES
Tributes to Ron have been legion from comic creators and fans, who sent #RonSmith trending on Twitter in the UK as news broke yesterday.
Tributes included fellow 2000AD artist Jock who describes him as “one of a small handful of iconic Dredd artists.”
“Ron is maybe my fav
#JudgeDredd artist,” commented artist John McCrea. “[I] prefer him to Bolland, possibly just pipped at the post by McMahon…. such a great talent, my thoughts are with his family>”
“I never knew that Ron Smith flew Spitfires,” former 2000AD editor Steve MacManus told downthetubes. “His enemy in action, post War over Europe, wouldn’t have been enemy pilots but it would have been Time — the need to keep an eye on his fuel gauges, mentally calculating how long he had to remain airborne.
“I mention this, because I know Ron set a certain amount of time aside for each page of artwork he drew — and when that period had elapsed, he would put the page aside and move on to the next. His deadlines came first, and he never missed one that I can recall.
“Farewell, Ron. Per ardua ad astra.”
“It was Ron’s art, and not perhaps that of more celebrated names, that first popularised Dredd with so many readers,” 2000AD writer John Wagner told downthetubes. “Truly one of the greats.”
“Very sad to hear of Ron Smith’s passing,” says writer Antony Johnston. “He was one of the definitive Judge Dredd artists, a superb storyteller whose Mega-City One was grounded through his naturalistic art style, yet utterly surreal thanks to his outlandish imagination. Never forgotten.”
“Sandwiched between Bolland and McMahon, Ewins, McCarthy, Gibson and Dillon, Smith’s work was sorely underrated by many fans, myself included, possibly because he was just so reliably there,” argues artist and letterer Jim Campbell. “However, when you wanted simps or punks or uglies or muties, Ron was the artist you’d go to.
“Although he never really got an epic he could call his own, so many of those ‘slice of life’ strips that defined Dredd were brought to vivd, absurd life by his brush that it’s hard overstate his contribution to the strip.
“Truly one of the greats whose work will always be remembered and admired,” notes fellow artist and comics archivist Lew Stringer on his Blimey blog. “Ron was a popular artist for DC Thomson throughout the 1950s up to the early 1970s, drawing for story papers such as Adventure and comics such as The Topper.
“Although respected by his peers in the industry, it wasn’t until he freelanced for 2000AD from 1979 onwards that he came to the attention of organised comics fandom.”
“I’m sad to learn of the passing of veteran Brit comics artist Ron Smith,” says downthetubes contributor, writer Joe Gordon. “I’ve been reading 2000AD since the very first Prog, and in those early years Ron’s artwork on Judge Dredd was gorgeous, detailed, clear-line work.
“As the years passed his name seemed to be forgotten as people discussed the early Dredd work of Mick McMahon, Brian Bolland and the late Carlos Ezquerra, and right to discuss them as their work was fabulous and iconic in building that major character, but so too was Ron’s. And he also gave us the fabulously, lovably grotesque Otto Sump!
“RIP, Ron, you made a lot of readers happy.”
“A genuine professional,” commented artist Staz Johnson, “he was sadly and unfairly often overshadowed by his ‘fan favourite’ contemporaries.”
“Ron wasn’t my favourite Judge Dredd artist but he was the definitive one,” notes 2000AD artist Steven Austin, “in that he was the first I remember seeing in the pages of the collected newspaper strip editions of Judge Dredd which, if memory serves me correct, I read before picking up my first copies of the prog itself.
“Ron will live on through his work, as another 2000AD legend takes the Long Walk.”
“Ron drew a dynamic/action Dredd, a big influence on the character’s development,” says 2000AD artist Henry Flint. “Thanks for the great art.”
2000AD included a beautiful tribute to Ron by artist Pye Parr in their online tributes yesterday.
“I’m very sad about Ron,” he told downthetubes, “One of those artists you have to grow into i think. I’ve seen lots of posts expressing the same thing I feel – you didn’t ‘get’ it at the time, as McMahon and Bolland where so much ‘cooler’, but his art was brilliantly bonkers – a great sense of weirdness and madcap situations.”
“He was an an absolute master of black and white line art,” commented artist Lee Sullivan.
“Smith was one of those unique artists that really came into his own on 2000AD,” feels artist Simon Fraser. “His Dredd might be my secret favourite.”
downthetubes extends its sympathies to Ron’s family and friends at this time. Another British comics legend has passed, but brought inordinate joy to many through his work. We thank him for that today.
Read Colin Noble’s three-part gesture on Ron’s comics career
• ComicsFlix: Remembering Ron Smith 1928 – 2019 by Chris Hallam
• CBR – Ron Smith, Longtime Judge Dredd Artist, Passes Away – tribute by Brian Cronin
RON’S GIRLS COMICS WORK
• Toonhound – Musical Paintbox – sadly unavailable on DVD
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Tribute with thanks to Michael Molcher at 2000AD, Darren Gregson, Ian Kennedy, Steve MacManus, Colin Noble, Philip Rushton, John Wagner and many others
All art © respective publishers and creators including DC Thomson and Rebellion