As a comic fan of long standing, one of my real pleasures is identifying and applauding some of the artists that I feel never got the appreciation that they so richly deserved. But I have found that even with the artists who are well known, such as veteran comic artist Ron Smith, perhaps best known for his art for 2000AD‘s “Judge Dredd” and as principal artist on DC Thomson’s “King Cobra” for Hotspur, there’s still a great body of his work that goes unremarked.
In Ron’s case, I recently attended a comic mart and, while waxing lyrical over some comics that I had been given, I mentioned his work prior to 2000AD seems to be almost forgotten. At which point, one of the traders stated that they had never thought of many artists having work before working for 2000AD.
This conversation proved the starting point for the train of thought that has led to this article, coming to a head when I was fortunate to talk to someone on social media who turned out to be Ron’s grand-daughter. And that was when I realised that he was the creator of a rather large body of work that has not been on sale in the UK for decades. Work going back almost 60 years that is still as fresh and appealing as it was when it was first published.
For those that don’t know, Ronald George Smith was born in 1924 in Bournemouth. His father was a structural engineer and this led Ron to begin to study to become an engineer himself, but he abandoned his studies to enlist in the Royal Air Force during World War Two, serving as a pilot from 1943 until 1947.
After his demobilisation, Ron joined the Gaumont British animation studio and worked there until it was closed due to the bankruptcy of the Rank Organisation in 1949. Ron’s art style must have caught the eye of someone at Amalgamated Press as he moved to work for them until 1952.
During his time at Amalgamated Press, he was employed on Knockout drawing humour strips such as “Brit and Bash”, “Deed-a-Day Danny” and “Young Joey” for Sun comic. Alas, for this article, the only examples of these humour strips that I can find are those drawn by Hugh McNeill.
His first adventure strip, that can currently be found, was an adaptation of the film The Flame and the Arrow which was printed in Knockout in 1951 (my thanks here to Steve Holland for allowing us to borrow an image from this from his Bear Alley Blogspot). More adventure work followed which included an adaptation of the Zane Grey western Buffalo Stampede and an adaption of the Ronald Reagan movie The Last Outpost for The Comet. During this time, he also drew “Speedway Thrills” for Champion.
Alas, I have not been able to find examples of all of these early pieces, but I hope what I have unearthed gives a flavour of the extent of Ron’s work in the early 1950s.
Ron was not an instant hit at Amalgamated Press. He recalls one of his encounters with editor Leonard Matthews having a fairly strong impact on him, who on one occasion was so unhappy with the work Ron had produced, he took it off his desk, threw it on the floor and stamped on it!
Ultimately, Ron’s tenure at Amalgamated Press was short-lived as someone at D C Thomson must have been a fan and lured Ron North from London to Dundee to work as a staff artist for D C Thomson from 1952 until 1972. When you consider how war-torn London still looked in 1952 before the massive redevelopment of the 1960s, then it was perhaps no surprise that a young man with a family to support would be happy to move.
When we consider the extent of Ron’s work for D C Thomson, it is astounding that so much of it has been all but forgotten, and I must admit that I have had a lot of enjoyment finding so much of Ron’s work. This first article barely scrapes the surface of the work he has done.
One of the earliest works that I could find is “The Tiger Of Kashgar”, a serial that featured in The Topper, set on the North West Frontier. The Tiger of Kashgar was a lean-limbed fighting man, hunting for a missing scientific expedition lead by a Professor Barton, aided by his trusty manservant Mung and Mung’s younger brother, Sala. The series ran from Issue 31 to 71 (5th September 1953 to 12th June 1954).
Another of the early serials, where I am able to provide some imagery is “Lone Wolfe” in The Beezer. This was a cowboy story with Lone Wolfe and his Indian friend Prairie Flower, in which Lone Wolfe would be involved in different adventures, doing his best to right wrongs and help people against outlaws, greedy landlords and hostile Indians. The format was single page stories and most were self-contained, but the occasional story arc could run for several issues. It ran for over two years from Issue One dated 21st January 1956, finishing in Issue 121 dated 5th October 1958.
Ron also illustrated the “Lone Wolfe” stories in The Beezer annuals.
This rodeo example is from The Beezer Issue 52, dated 12th January 1957.
During this time, Ron would also draw many half or full page features and we can really see Ron’s artist style begin to develop.
His credits at this time include an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Black Arrow, which was the back cover of The Topper from Issues 165 to 192 (31st March to 6th October 1956). This had originally appeared in The People’s Journal, a Scottish paper published on a weekly basis by D C Thomson, during September to December of 1952, and an example is my lead image for this article.
One of the ways that many annuals would be filled would be by full page or double page splash features, scattered at strategic points throughout the annual. I am unsure what process went into deciding what the features would be and who would be the lead artist, but after discovering that many features such as the “True Stories” and the associated articles would usually be chosen by whichever article had the most information available, I strongly suspect that this was how the splash features would be chosen for the humour annuals. And I also strongly suspect that the lead artist would be chosen by either who was cheapest to commission (if they were a freelancer) or who had the least work (if they were a staff artist) to do.
No matter what the method, Ron ended up creating some wonderful splash pages such as the “For Valour” series in the 1968 Beezer annual and the “Into Battle” series for the 1967 Beezer annual. But I’ve selected one of the splash pages from the “At War” series that featured in the 1964 Beezer annual as my personal favourite.
My reason for selecting this piece is not only is it one of Ron’s finest, but it is so unusual to find a vindication of the role that females play in society in any pre-1970s publication, without needing to be the adjunct of a relationship to be validated in society. Plus, Ron was one of the few artists that you could trust to draw the female form so that it was not hyper-exaggerated, as we see done so often by quite a few of the more popular artists of today.
There is a fuller listing of Ron’s work for the weekly humour comics on ComicsUK’s Ron Smith thread, which has been researched by Ray Moore. It does not feature a full listing of Ron’s work in the annuals, but every time an article like this is produced, we get a little closer to having a fuller picture of the work produced by that artist.
This first article has largely focused on Ron’s stories for humour comics. In my next article, I’ll aim to look at the stories that Ron had illustrated for the Hotspur comic.
All art © respective publishers