Many talented comic artists have turned their hand to the challenge of drawing the brutal 22nd century lawman, Judge Dredd. Few, however, have done it with such style and distinction or so often as Ron Smith, who has died at the age of 90.
Ron first took on Judge Dredd in 1979, two years after the strip started, finishing off the epic, The Day The Law Died! in which Mega City One is taken over by the arrogant and insane Chief Judge Cal. Although Ron didn’t create the character, his artwork certainly represented an important stage in the evolution of Judge Dredd, the character and the story. Observers noted approvingly that Ron tended to emphasise the lawman’s physical stature, rather than exaggerating the many features of his futuristic costume as other many artists did.
Ron had some tough acts to follow, producing art for the strip initially at the same time as such Mega City luminaries as Brian Bolland, Garry Leach, Mike McMahon, Steve Dillon and Carlos Ezquerra. Ron Smith’s style was more understated than some, but it was also very distinctive. Ron became a consistently reliable figure, sometimes finishing off Mega epics like The Judge Child and Blockmania started by other artists. He soon became the most prolific Judge Dredd artist of all.
He also undeniably made his mark with a number of memorable and enduring creations. He was always good with dinosaurs and some have hailed his early work on The Blood of Satanus as his best Dredd work. It was also Ron who first drew the young Marlon Shakespeare aka ‘Chopper’ in Unamerican Graffiti, initially, a sort of 22nd century version of Banksy and one of Dredd’s most enduring and popular adversaries.
Ron also had a genius for producing grotesques such as Otto Sump and the obese heavyweights of the League of Fatties, Dave the Orangutan mayor of Mega City One in Death of a Politician, Pug Ugly And The Bugglys, the Starborn Thing and Citizen Snork. Otto Sump, originally conceived as a bizarre parody of Citizen Kane, proved a particularly popular creation. Sump, a hideously ugly but good-natured man set up a range of beauty clinics across Mega City One with the aim of ensuring nobody would ever have to be as ugly as he was. However, when Sump proved hopelessly incompetent as a surgeon, ultimately making his customers even uglier than they had been before, he inadvertently started a new fad for extreme ugliness, making himself rich in the process. The story led to a series of Otto Sump “Stay Ugly!” t-shirts in the 1980s.
From 1981, Ron and writers John Wagner and Alan Grant produced a separate and distinct Judge Dredd strip for the Daily Star. Ron Smith’s concise style suited the tabloid newspaper format perfectly. It became one of the longest running of any such strips in British newspaper history, lasting until the mid-1990s.
Dredd writer, Alan Grant, in particular was impressed by Ron’s speed. In the book, Thrill-Power Overload: Thirty Years of 2000 AD, Grant quotes Ron as explaining how he worked:
“It’s easy. It all depends on the money I’m being paid. I know my page rate. I know how much I want to earn per hour. So, I set my alarm clock and start drawing a page. When my alarm goes off, the page is finished.” Grant added: “He realised he was never going to get rich, so he opted for volume.”
Ron Smith’s career was not just about Judge Dredd, however. He also drew episodes of Rogue Trooper, Tharg’s Futureshocks and Harlem Heroes for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. His writer for Chronos Carnival, Hilary Robinson described him in Thrill-Power Overload: Thirty Years of 2000 AD as ”a real gentleman and true professional.”
Ron Smith was not just about 2000AD either, indeed born in Bournemouth in 1924, he was in his fifties when 2000AD first appeared in 1977. Initially studying to be an engineer like his father, Ron served as World War II Spitfire pilot, seeing action in Europe as part of the Army Co-operation Air Squadron. After the war, he dabbled in animation before getting his first comics work on titles such as Sun, Knockout and Comet. From 1951 and 1972, he lived in Dundee producing vast amounts of diverse and varied artwork for Beano and Dandy publishers, DC Thomson. Amongst other things, Ron drew Adventure strips and worked for Topper and Hotspur. He also helped co-create the popular British superhero character, King Cobra.
He later moved back to Surrey. He produced painted album covers for the bands, Def Leppard and Sigue Sigue Sputnik. In the 1980s, in addition to his 2000AD work, he drew for the comics Mask, Transformers and Zoids.
‘We all follow the Yellow Brick Road,’ Ron said in an interview 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.’
Ron Smith retired in the 1990s following problems with his eyesight. He later suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
The current editor of 2000AD, Matt Smith (no relation to Ron) has written about the artist since his death on January 10th, 2019:
‘Ron was one of the artistic stalwarts of 2000 AD 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 2000 AD legend, he will be greatly missed by fans and fellow creators alike.’
Ron Smith’s death comes after that of fellow Dredd artists Brett Ewins in 2015, Steve Dillon in 2016 and Carlos Ezquerra in 2018. He married twice and had four daughters.