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Home ¦ Reviews ¦ Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood

2000AD Review Extra 9th April 05

2000 AD - Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood
Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood
By John Smith, Sean Phillips, Siku, Michael Gaydos

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What to Expect: The Vatican's envoy goes up against a horde of Vampires and runs into Mega city one's top lawman...

Review by Gavin Hanly

As one of the main new characters to help launch the 1st of many revamps of the Judge Dredd Megazine, Devlin Waugh became an instant hit with the readers and, in many respects, it's easy to see why. After all, who wouldn't be at least intrigued by a story that starred a musclebound, extraordinarily camp, English gentleman as the Vatican's leading expert in the paranormal. On sheer curiosity value alone, it's worth a look.

But this first Devlin Waugh collection is a very difficult book to review. It's almost because the first tale, Swimming in Blood, in particular has been held up as one of the great classics of 2000AD's history. It must be said, there is a lot to praise about the book. Smith manages to build up a large supporting cast well, giving even minor character a small arc to go through, a notable one being the Warder who exercises to keep himself from going mad. There are loads of neat little touches all throughout the storyline that make this a worthwhile read. Plus it's one of those Dreddverse tales that sits far enough on the sidelines to retain its own unique identity.

2000 AD - Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood

But it's oddly missing something and part of the reason for this is the character of Devlin himself. Waugh takes a backseat supporting role in this first adventure, and often spends time hindering the overall flow of the story (stopping for a "spot of tea" for example). Even the rest of the time, he doesn't seems to be driving the story, merely being swept along with it. You can almost see why Smith does this - he seems to want to keep an air of mystery about Devlin Waugh, so we don't really understand his intentions. Unfortunately, this makes the reader seem curiously uncaring about his fate. The same can also be said for the arch vampire Landis. He uses his minions to do most of his dirty work, and Smith spends a decent amount of time building up their backstories, but by the time we reach the denouement, Landis himself is a little understated and doesn't come across as a completely realised villain.

However, this showcases the rather incredible art of Sean Phillips, a man who has gone onto many great things, especially with Sleeper in the States. His painted artwork here is indeed a joy to behold, even if it does occasionally fall victim to the curse of many 2000AD painters from those days - that you can have some truly excellent pages, followed by some clearly rushed ones, and so on. Overall, though, he doesn't fall into this trap too often and produces a clearly excellent job, that when taken alone can seem to justify Swimming in Blood's classic status.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Siku's art on the next main tale in this collection, Fetish. As opposed to being a Devlin Waugh tale outright, this is a Dredd starred offering, with only a guest appearance from Waugh over half-way through. Once again, Waugh takes a background role and in many ways acts as merely an expositional device, falling into the role of telling Dredd what to do next. As a Dredd tale, it works well enough, with the overall arc of the story forcing Dredd into another continent to see how they do judging out there. It's entertaining enough but, once again, the bad guy's reasoning doesn't seem to be explored enough so when the denouement comes, you've actually forgotten why he was fighting Dredd in the first place. The strip doesn't start to really improve until Waugh gets on the scene. He brings much needed humour to the tale which was starting to grow a little long in the tooth before his arrival.

2000 AD - Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood
As mentioned above, many 2000AD painters in the 90s fell into the unfortunate trap of looking for that wonderful splash page. They then appeared to spend far too much time on it, before suddenly realising there were another 4 pages of that week's tale to go through. Whether or not this assertion is at all close to the mark, there's certainly a sense of this in Siku's work on Fetish. Occasionally you'll come across an incredibly well illustrated page, especially when things reach Africa, but far too much of the story remains incredibly hard to follow. Even with better printing than the Megazine would allow, much of the time the reader is left peering through the haze, wondering what the hell is going on.

There are also a lot of pages where the action moves horizontally across two pages. This almost never works in comics unless it's comprised of one big splash image and I pray for the day when artists (and quite possibly writers) will realise this. I've been reading comics for way too long now, but there were far too many times in Fetish where I couldn't work out what panel I was supposed to be reading next.

That's not to say Siku doesn't have his good points. I happen to rather like his stylised Dredd look, and as mentioned before, he does occasionally produce some astoundingly well put together pages. It's just that the quality has a tendency to vary wildly.

And this brings us to the final tale in the series: A Mouthful of Dust, drawn by Michael Gaydos. And finally everything seems to click. Part of the reason for this is that Devlin is finally centre stage. With a narration from the man himself, the tale is imbued with that sense of 19th century fiction storytelling, where we are reading the memoir of Waugh as opposed to being more of a bystander. This story is hugely entertaining, and the closer connection between the two main leads, Waugh and his friend Jerry Beidekker, makes the whole story much more satisfying. The art by Michael Gaydos is also arguably much more accessible than either Siku or Phillips and there's never a situation where the reader becomes lost. A much simpler structured tale than either Fetish or Swimming in Blood, but much the better for it.

2000 AD - Devlin Waugh - Swimming in Blood

And I can't end this review without mentioning the supplements. Finally we actually get something worthwhile, with a pair of text tales and, more importantly, some background behind the creation of the character. This sort of thing, very much Thrill Power Overload in its execution (and may well be pulled from that series) makes an excellent closing section for the book, and helps to give American readers in particular some background into where all these 2000AD characters came from. The thumbnail sketches, too, are another great addition. This sort of thing is sorely missing from all the other collections I've reviewed so far, and I look forward to seeing more features like this in future.

So what's the conclusion? If you're a fan of either Sean Phillips of John Smith, then this book comes as an easy recommendation. For the rest of you? Much of it takes some stamina to get into, but Waugh is ultimately an engaging character and one that deserves the persistence. After all, American comics publishers may occasionally boast about their gay superheroes in their more obscure books, but only British comics could get away with as outrageously camp a character as Devlin Waugh.

The next book in the series features Red Tide, an altogether more accessible Waugh tale, which comes highly recommended. But if you've never read Waugh before, then certainly pick up this collection as a taster for the next volume.

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Original content (c) 2002 Gavin Hanly (contact 2000AD Review).