Over the past century, the word “queer” is one that has taken on a whole host of different meanings. In its most original form beginning around the 16th century, queer meant something (or someone) strange, bizarre, or exhibiting peculiar behavior — hence the old English expression “there’s nowt so queer as folk,” meaning “nothing is as strange as people”.
Around the early 19th century, however, “queer” took on a much uglier meaning — using the idea of being peculiar or grotesquely bizarre to describe people in same-sex relationships. (More than a fair share of us LGBTQIAA2S folks over a certain age are most familiar with this meaning, with it’s painful connotations resonating on the playground well into the start of the millennium.) The 1980s saw the beginning of a reclamation of sorts, however — taking the word “queer” in its ordinary-usage-turned-hurtful, and turning it into something powerful. To be queer was not only an umbrella term to describe a variety of sexualities and genders, but to be bold enough to say, “My strangeness is no longer strange, but beautiful and strong, if it is mine.”
How does this bizarro history lesson relate to comics? Honestly, in many cases, not very much. Comics — particularly American comics if we’re pointing fingers, thanks to the Comics Code Authority which ended only in 2011 — have a notorious history of tamping down notions not only of “queer” (meaning “not straight/cisgender”) comic stories and characters, but “queer” (as in “bizarre and disgusting”) stories, as well, with the closest we ever got perhaps being early Vertigo content.
From the UK, however, like a beacon of saturated sunshine, came John Smith. And though his name is one that is often used a pseudonym for the generic everyman, John is — by every fantastic meaning of the word — the most unapologetically queer writer in contemporary Western comics.
A queer writer writing “queer” things does not an infallible Queer text make, though. In fact, of the many titles that Smith has become known for in his nearly four-decade long career — including Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Tyranny Rex, Cradlegrave, A Love like Blood, Indigo Prime, and Pussyfoot 5 for the legendary 2000 AD, as well as New Statesmen in late ‘80s anthology Crisis, and plenty others — are not something that would easily be classified as something even the gayest of readers could consider a queer subtext; instead leaning more towards the older, more archaic version of the word, providing readers with a wholly immersive and utterly decadent reading experience.
As the British Invasion of the U.S. comics industry started to ramp up in the 1980s, Smith seemed to be the odd man out — standing on his own with a shortened eight-issue run of Scarab (Smith’s mutated retelling of DC’s Dr Fate, an early release from the Vertigo imprint), and a single, bitterly-received issue of Hellblazer as Gaiman, Moore, and Morrison sailed into the glorious light that was American comics fandom of the 1980s and 1990s. This snub from the Vertigo love train, however, ended up being one of the greatest gifts to British comics as Smith returned to his home writing turf within the pages of 2000 AD. At this time, he created not only several remarkable runs on several big-name anthology strip staples, but — most notably — Revere and Firekind; both stories that are entirely different from one another ,but do nothing if not showcase the queerness and luxurious peculiarity of Smith’s lyrical storytelling.
Firekind, in particular, is best noted for being Smith’s version of James Cameron’s Avatar — but created long before Cameron ever had the twinkle in his eye. A part of the “Spring Fever” promotion from 2000 AD in 1993, Firekind tells the story of Hendrick Larson, a long-haired, purple-suited colonist exploring worlds that may be suitable for charter who finds himself transported to the primitive planet Gennyo-Leil where the longhouse-dwelling, red-eyed, incestuous Gennyan’s reside. Along with the Gennyans and their blue-skin, red pupil-less eyes, and public mating rituals, the planet is also inhabited by an exotic variety of flora and fauna; not least of which include the Gennyan’s most precious creatures, the Kesheen — a race of dragons which produce a hallucinogen with impressive healing qualities. With the dragons in such high demand for their secretions, it’s up to Larson to imbed himself into the Gennyan community and help save the peaceful race of all-God worshipping creatures from the very people he, himself, used to come from.
While it’s the same sort of colonizer story that we’ve seen since in Avatar (as well as in Dances with Wolves, which might have provided unlikely inspiration for Smith), the writer adds a level of obscurity and “otherness” that takes the story to a new place entirely. If there’s one thing that Smith is most known for, it’s his lyricism, and Firekind proved to be the exact right outlet for that; allowing him to provide more narrative than dialog and painting a picture for the audience in written textures and tones that mimic the saturated art from Paul Marshall.
Beyond just the beautiful words — the first page alone is one of the most stunning pieces of comic writing I have ever read — Smith isn’t afraid to take readers outside their usual comfort zone for sci-fi, and into a world more alien and bordering on horrific. Even at it’s most confusing, trippy, and disgusting (a whole page dedicated to sucking egg sacks out of back pouches; or dead baby aliens on trees— yum!), however, Smith’s words envelop the story and create a velvety narrative that reads as a full sensory experience. Is it always pleasant? Perhaps not. (Again, egg sacks. Dead babies on trees.) But the description alone will make you believe that the most textural and visceral narrative of alien life are not something to hide from at all, but merely something beautiful and new.
Smith’s gift for language predates Firekind, of course. Ask anyone who’s been reading 2000 AD long enough how they feel about Revere and the answer will nine times out of ten amount to something like “I still have no idea what it was about. And it was literally perfect.” Revere, for all that it was very much Smith’s re-introduction to the British comics scene after his work with Vertigo, is a comic that defies expectation in both storytelling and art; paired with painter Simon Harrison (whose art feels very manic and Dave McKean-esque, in this humble writers’ opinion), Smith tells the story of Revere, a witch-boy living in a very environmentally telling apocalyptic London, now a dry, irradiated, thirsty wasteland whose water and precious resources are controlled by a crypto-fascist dictator called The Baron.
Around here is where Revere begins to fall apart in terms of narrative cohesion, as Revere’s astral projection — it was the 1990s, okay? — is hacked into by a mysterious hermit who addresses him as The Aquarian and tells him that he is destined to save the world, but only by destroying it. This is achieved the way most things in the ‘90s were, with Revere unraveling some psychosexual kinks, magic, chakra opening, lots of shiftlessness, a pretty cool training montage, and crossing dimensions to reach his destiny-driven destination. In that this description has likely left you dizzy and somewhat confused, you can only imagine the astonishing level of absurdity the finished work offers readers… And yet, almost anyone will tell you that the story as told across the complete three book structure is entirely worth it.
To be a bit blunt, the true reason behind Revere being quite the queer book that it is, is that Smith was coming down from an pretty impressive LSD trip during the majority of the story’s finish — “writing his way back to sanity” even; noting that the story was something of a psychotic break powered by new age thinking and hallucinagens. No excuses for Simon Harrison, however, whose fully-painted artwork for the series is chaotic and brash in a way that is bordering on off-putting, but instead creates a textural sludge that begs the reader to find a deeper meaning behind the visual aspect of the madness. Luckily, John Smith is not here to give you answers, but he is here to make sure you’ve gotten a good impression of exactly who he is as a storyteller — mythical, intoxication, and honestly just a little too much. The perfect juxtaposition between harmonious beauty and unintelligible meandering.
So, why exactly does Smith’s traditionally queer writing work if it’s the madhouse of beautiful chaos that I continue to describe it as? It’s relatively simple: Smith refuses to apologize for not meeting your comics expectations.
While much of the comics world has dipped its toes into the world of strange comics — drawing from the wholesome strangeness that comes from indie comix and self-published work, to larger publishers capitalizing on the benefit of counter-culture on the rise — most stories feel somewhat safe in hindsight; staying within themes that are still familiar to the mass market and greater audience for benefit of sales. (We can all appreciate the counter-culture feelings we grew up on with The Sandman or The Invisibles, but can you really say that they’re as strange — as wholly queer — as you remember them being back then, now?)
But Smith, with his descriptions of body horror, sexual kinks, thirst in ones’ mouth, or the starlight of being transcended into the aether that never quite line up just right with how you picture them, doesn’t care that it’s not how you pictured it. There’s value in being queer, and Smith proves that it lies in the same place that queerness as we know it does: I am telling my story. I won’t be made to feel sorry for how uncomfortable that makes you.
All of this talk of the metaphorical, descriptive use of “queer” needn’t be mistaken for the fact that John Smith himself was a gay man. Not only a gay man, but a gay British man who grew up in a less-than-open-minded era of British mindsets towards homosexuality, gender, and class, and therefore had more than his fair share of fodder to use when it comes to real, properly-queer stories and characters. The difference is, however, that Smith was entirely unafraid to turn the coin of queerness so that we could see each side, as fantastic, magically ordinary, bombastic, and disturbing as they may seem.
This obviously wouldn’t be an article about John Smith if I wasn’t going to talk about Devlin Waugh — the delightfully creepy, doubly camp creation of John Smith and highly-revered artist Sean Phillips that debuted in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1992 —and honestly, this wouldn’t be a essay on queerness in comics without him either.
Devlin Waugh is, to put it simply, a sadistic, gay, bodybuilding vampire exorcist occasionally in cahoots with the Judges within Vatican City. (The notoriously straight-laced Judge Dredd, notably, doesn’t like him at all.) It helps that Devlin also looks not unlike the lovechild of Freddy Mercury, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and camp British comedic icon Terry Thomas, and that he is not afraid to make a pretty impressionable entrance at any given opportunity. With fully-painted art by Sean Phillips, Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood — the first in a recurring series of appearances for the character — tells the story of Devlin being sent to an underwater prison to investigate a deadly presence that is so horrifying it might even make him break the famed Queensbury Rules in order to make it out alive.
Needless to say, we have established that this is a queer concept, but what truly makes Devlin special as a queer character is Smith’s ability to place emphasis not on the fact that Devlin is gay, but the garish, bombastic nature of his personality. Despite the word “queer” being the butt of nearly every joke for decades, in this instance the fact that Devlin is queer never comes up aside from the instances where he is clearly amusing himself by flirting shamelessly with a guard (or in later cases, Judge Dredd himself). Instead, Smith removes gayness as the butt of the joke and plays on the camp factor, the element of queer culture that would soon become widely accepted, and even admired, within the breadth of mainstream British pop culture.
More than anything else, there never feels to be a need for Devlin to “come out” to his audience. Whichever way you turn it, Devlin is something special. He’s different, queer in every sense, and he refuses to apologize for how he carries himself; choosing to instead jump loafers-first into scenarios with a fantastic mustache, designer clothes, and a high-key penchant for violence and a good one-liner. The queerness of Devlin Waugh is undeniably magnetic regardless of how you choose to read him.
There are, many ways to choose to read or write queerness as an identity, though, and sometimes that identity is one that is wrought with pain, anguish, and confusion. This more somber aspect of queerness — in a very extreme sense — is more than apparent in the precursor to Swimming in Blood, Smith and Phillips’ earlier collaboration Straitgate.
While Devlin Waugh is more than happy to take you on a journey to the vibrant aspects of being queer, Straitgate— created in 1990 as a serial for Crisis, the more political spin-off of 2000 AD — is nearly exactly the opposite, painting the picture of a character whose mixture of psychosis and self-loathing over his own sexuality turn the story to a much darker place than any queer storyteller dare normally tell.
Across the series’ six chapters, Smith corrupts what audiences have come to recognize as the staples of the traditional coming out story, as the protagonist struggles with his own desires, lashing out at his friends even as he loses his grip on reality. Smith plays to his strengths by mixing an unusually lyrical take on teenage angst and hormonal desires with an increasing sense of dread that transforms the tale into something resembling magical realist horror all the way until its horrific, sudden shock of a climax.
(I’m trying my best not to ruin the twist at the heart of the serial, although it’s remained stubbornly out of print since its original publication; at some point, someone will collect all of the many John Smith stories that have fallen through the cracks of comics history in the last few decades, and Straitgate will have pride of place there. Let it keep its secrets until that time.)
Though both stories are cut from two entirely different cloths (and thus, perhaps, two different versions of Smith’s own relationship with being considered queer), the commonality between them is the core of both stories: Smith’s unwillingness to explain the queer message to the reader. Both Straitgate and Devlin Waugh simply are, in regards to their queerness, markedly lacking the usual “coming out” story where either version of queerness — whether it relates to sexuality or the unusual — is said outright to the audience to put them at ease.
In this vein, there is no supportive text or structure to act as the queer character winning out over adversity, as is often exhausted by queer comic stories and characters as a focal point of the narrative. Rather than explicitly explain what is happening, Smith asks readers to use their own imagination and context to see exactly what needs to be seen: that these are stories surrounding queer characters, in queer scenarios, and that their queerness neither helps nor hinders them — it simply is.
In using these versions of “queer” so interchangeably in this way, it can be argued that the word is reclaimed in its own right, stubbornly existing with a cheeky grin of “This is a story…and this story is queer”. Take from that what you will, but few things feel more relatable to being queer than just wanting to exist without explanation.
John Smith, and the bizarre journey that his stories encompass, are more than just a poetic ride through genre storytelling; for many of us they act as a reminder that queer — in any sense that one can choose to use it — will always find a way to be complimentary and beautiful.