Saturday, April 15, 2017

Ranking the Red Dwarf Smegazine strips

I didn't collect the official and improbable Red Dwarf magazine at the time ('92–'94 – I was busy collecting my glow-in-the-dark T-rex skeleton). I only caught up on scattered issues a few years later, courtesy of Crewe's sole comic shop. You know, the one tucked away in the back of APS Records & CDs run by the bloke who looked like Garth from Wayne's World.

A treasure trove of interviews, time-capsule fandom and unusable blurry posters, perhaps the Smegazine's least impressive feature was its original comic strips, which are the most fanwanky tales I've ever seen in an officially licensed publication. As well as below-par adventures with the main Red Dwarf characters, we're invited to take extensive tours of  various alternative universes spinning off from specific episodes and to catch up with all manner of minor characters from the series and the novels, including long-running strips based on Rimmer's sock puppet and a Neighbours parody that had already ran its course over a few seconds in the show.

But was any of it actually any good? It seems unlikely, but let's be optimistic. Here are The Top 45 Smegazine Stories.

Key for goits:

Boys from the 'Dwarf
Ace Rimmer
Mr Flibble
The Inquisitor
Back to Reality universe(s)
Novels universe(s)
Misc (even more so)

45. One for All, by Andy P & Tom Eglington (#2.7)

Did we need to see the further adventures of Rimmer's personified character traits? I didn't even find them funny in 'Terrorform.' And sure enough, this is more of the same metaphorical tot.

Besides, series five was last year, granddad! We want uninspired yankings of series six plot threads now.

44. A.J. Rimmer, P.M., by Hari Wilson (#2.8)

The Ace Rimmer chronicles come to a decidedly dull end with this story of Ace helping out a version of himself who's a successful Prime Minister, but bored by that success. Diddums. They wouldn't have got away with this shit on Quantum Leap.

I have no idea whether the money-haemorrhaging Chancellor is supposed to be someone we'd recognise in 1993. It's a suspiciously detailed drawing, and that whole ending feels nonsensical if he isn't. I wouldn't know, I was eight.

43. Ace of the Rovers, by Billy Dane (#1.8)

I'm sure there's some overlap on the Venn diagram of people who like sci-fi comedy and football, but I'm not in that minority. You could say I was prejudiced going in, and didn't give this a fair chance. I'd reply that my prejudice against Ace Rimmer Smegazine stories is already sufficiently powerful for that not to be an issue.

Like Hari Wilson, Billy Dane doesn't seem to be a real name. I assume Howarth and Lyons wrote it and considered it poor even for them. If you're not into football for some weird reason, they throw in some smegs, Hammond organ references and cameos that are impossible to justify no matter what warped reality you're in. These concessions only make it worse.

42. Ace of Black-Hearts, by Kev Sutherland (#1.14)

The only time a Smegazine strip behaves like a proper (i.e. American) comic, I suppose it's possible you could enjoy this fight between Ace Rimmer and a bionic evil warlord Rimmer if you were a tiny child. It's not like there's any irony or parody for older readers to enjoy; it's Ace meeting his evil counterpart, explaining how their lives turned out differently, then fighting until he wins.

Possibly noteworthy as the only time someone actually smokes a kipper for Ace. That's how far I'm reaching for a positive.

41. Cat and Dog, by Paul Burns (#2.8-2.9)

It's not exactly Garfield. They may be the shortest strip in the magazine (presumably long-running and easy to churn out if they hadn't arrived at the end), but even at only four panels, I managed to be annoyed.

Are we to assume these hilarious antics occurred off-screen during 'Parallel Universe' or the second jaunt to deliver the kids between series, or does Cat make regular trips just so he can then run away from Dog? I always thought Dog was rubbish anyway.

40. Fashion Victims, by Steve Lyons (#1.7)

Some quite nice art of a steampunk city and scantily-clad Valkyries save this a few places in the ranking.

You might also consider it noteworthy that it's the first Cat-centric story, 24 years before he'd (arguably) get the limelight in a proper story with 'Can of Worms.'

If you're wondering why stories don't tend to be based around this shallow character very often, this story should make that a bit clearer.

39. Mr Flibble Gets P%@*ed!, by Adrian Dungworth (#1.14)


38. Sadvertisement, by Vicky Lacey (#1.12)

A spoof commercial, but not one for the ages. In 1969, Monty Python asked astonished housewives if they could tell the difference between Whizzo butter and a dead crab. In 1993, Kryten removes the sentimental stains from Lister's favourite shirt and makes him sad.

Lister's a slob; Kryten likes cleaning. Detergent adverts are cheesy; a lazy parody will kill a couple of pages. Why's Kryten filming this anyway? What's going on?

37. The Skutters: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!, by Steve Lyons (#1.12)

The rhyming adventures of the service robots was thankfully a short-lived series. Considering they can't speak and can only express themselves in one obscene hand gesture, it wouldn't have been riveting.

In this incredible episode, the spare Polymorph that's supposedly been hanging around since series three inconsequentially attacks the Skutters and then goes away again. Want more thrilling Skutter adventures? Write in and let us know!

36. Super-Ace, by Steve Lyons (#2.1)

A grotesque caricature of a hero meets an even more grotesque caricature of a hero. It's not only Arnie who gets an unimaginative superhero makeover, as all your favourite Dwarfers and assorted villains get cameos too, some of them bloody desperate.

It's better than 'Ace of Black-Hearts,' because at least it's obviously a joke this time rather than embarrassingly sincere. Nice to see another future Sonic the Comic alumnus with Nigel Dobbyn's art too. This is more childish than any story he was asked to illustrate in that kid's comic.

35. Mr Flibble Goes Asset-Stripping, by Pat Kelleher & James Hill (#2.3)

I sort of admire the can't-be-arsed stream-of-consciousness sloppiness of these Mr Flibble stories.

In a way.

They'd be better if they were actually funny, but at least they're short.

34. The Scoop, by Jim Alexander (#2.8)

The Dwarfers find a time-and-space machine once again, and their effort to return to their contemporary Earth goes awry again. This time they wind up in the time of the dinosaurs, which Rimmer lampshades as a badly judged Jurassic Park tie-in. That's at least a better excuse than the 'Pete' two-parter had, when Doug Naylor was told he could get a CGI T-rex on the cheap.

On an inappropriately serious note, it's disappointing how casually Lister slaughters the non-descript theropod. He does at least have a bigger issue with causing the extinction event in the first place, though Kryten takes it in his stride. This is moronic.

33. The Inquisitor: Mirror Image, by Nigel Kitching & Steve Noble (#1.11)

The Inquisitor is a cool-looking character who lends himself to a Judge Dredd style strip. If only they could come up with anything interesting for him to do.

In this thrilling installment, the Inquisitor makes a bit of a boo-boo and realises he's infallible, but we can't take this self-discovery any further because he's scheduled to appear confident and swaggering before the Red Dwarf gang at the terminal end of his timestream.

If this story had to justify its existence before the Inquisitor, it would be shitting itself. It brings nothing to the table beyond reprising catch-phrases from an episode we all like. An older and wiser Kitching has admitted that his Smegazine work often suffered from fanboy syndrome, and this is the worst of that.

32. The Cantabelis Tales, by Kev Sutherland (#1.14)

Everyone loves a Chaucer parody, don't they? And if they don't, we're not going to start worrying about what people actually want to read at this stage.

Most of this is dictated in insufferable verse, with only a few interruptions by the Red Dwarf crew as they discover what caused a shipful of pilgrims to kill each other. It wasn't hallucinogenic squid ink, at least.

31. A Day in the Life of a Bogbot, by Pat Kelleher & James Hill (#2.4)

Red Dwarf isn't famous for its gross-out humour. But this was also the era of Bottom, so enjoy the chance to see through Kryten's eyes as he cleans shitty toilets and struggles to retrieve flushed fish.

We also get to see him handling his groinal attachment and Holly conjures the mental image of Rimmer masturbating over porn. Fun for all the family.

30. Androids, by Kev Sutherland, Pat Kelleher & James Hill (#1.8-2.9)

Marks for effort... though I would have preferred if they hadn't bothered.

A cheap, quick gag about bad Australian soap operas in a series two episode is extended WAY out of proportion to become the Smegazine's longest running series (outside of the Red Dwarf strip).

I wonder if anyone's ever read all 20 parts of this deliberately shit serial back-to-back before? I wouldn't recommend it.

29. The Amusing Adventures of Mr Flibble: Mr Flibble’s Surprise, by Pat Kelleher & James Hill (#1.8)

'Quarantine' was my favourite episode growing up (I'd probably favour the early character pieces more these days), but Rimmer's psycho Sooty offered diminishing returns.

It's not surprising that Mr Flibble promptly got his own on-and-off Smegazine strip, even if his only dialogue on screen was some appalling ventriloquism via Chris Barrie. You could see his lips move and everything.

The juxtaposition of violent and depraved images with deceptively friendly captions might make this story hilarious if you're under 12. Presumably, enough readers were.

28. Young Flibble, by Pat Kelleher (#2.7-2.9)

This series has no idea what to do with itself. We've gone from ultraviolence through silent slapstick and now, in its terminal incarnation, we backtrack to see Mr Flibble's youth amid fairy tale cliches.

Why was this story allowed to run to six parts? Its only real appeal, if you can call it that, is the appearance of Robbie Rocketpants, who was briefly discussed in quite a funny scene in 'Terrorform.' Not as funny when you actually see him. Just a bloke with jet-powered rocket pants.

27. Evolution, by Ann Wright (#1.12)

Kryten finds a machine and it doesn't work as expected. How do they come up with these novel ideas?

The shaky science is on the Red Dwarf VIII level (the series that resulted when someone pointed a devolution ray at Red Dwarf), but at least the female guest character isn't pointlessly slaughtered at the end, so it's not as bad as some of series X.

Roger Langridge's weird art is refreshing, but I'm not sure why Lister's black.

26. Mutinous Pursuits, by Chris Howarth & Steve Lyons (#1.4)

The comic's first original story sets the mediocre benchmark. It'll be just about acceptable if they're all this poor, but if they're any worse, there'll be trouble.

The only good jokes are completely recycled, and Rimmer's petty vindictiveness was already a cliche in 1992. There just aren't enough pages available for Lister, Kryten and Holly to do anything of interest, but at least the Cat gets to keep the panels busy by juggling fish and wearing a collar of mirrors. He's vain, see.

25. Time After Time, by Steve Lyons (#2.4)

It's a strange decision to do a clip show when you're in a medium where that doesn't save money. But that's what this results in, as a pre-accident Lister is pulled through time to various stress points, so Alan Burrows can draw all the big baddies.

The only saving grace is that we're privy to a couple of scenes that happened off-screen, namely Lister giving birth between series and Winnie the Pooh's bullet-ridden corpse, which was previously left to our imaginations. Also, series one Rimmer is wearing his correct series one uniform now, so all that revisionist crap in the early episode adaptations has apparently been abandoned.

24. Ace Rimmer Space Adventurer, by Chris Howarth & Steve Lyons (#1.5)

The end of 'Dimension Jump' promised untold encounters with thousands of alternative Rimmers. Getting to actually see them promises to be less meaningful than the forking paths thought experiment that made the original Ace Rimmer episode such a classic, but on the bright side, they might be better than its canonical sequel.

It would be too much of a stretch for Howarth & Lyons to come up with something original, but mashing up 'Dimension Jump' with the female counterparts from 'Parallel Universe' is at least a combination that never occurred to me. Mainly because I've never written lazy fan fic for cash.

That also means getting to see how their universe has been getting on since we last crossed streams: there's a female Kryten, Hilly's had a female-to-male head sex change, and the twins that were conveniently abandoned there have seemingly matured into mute zombies. Wasn't worth it.

23. Wetware, by Pat Kelleher & James Hill (#1.11)

Another day, another derelict harbouring strange technology for Lister and Cat to fuck up. They're riffing on 'DNA' again, I'm still optimistic there'll be an original story somewhere down the line.

A sentient fluid data matrix is sooooort of like a Grant Naylor sci-fi concept, but aside from allowing a virtual Lister to interact with Holly (just how much interaction isn't made clear), the story doesn't really do much of interest with it. The psychedelic philosophising isn't exactly Alan Moore.

22. Greetings from GELFWORLD, by Jim Alexander (#2.2)

The further the Smegazine wanders from run-of-the-mill Red Dwarf, and the weirder it gets, the fonder I become.

Alright, so this isn't a great example of that. But I still enjoyed observing an abrupt Pleasure GELF revolution more than I would another story where Kryten explains how a thing works, the thing goes wrong and Lister eats a vindaloo. The Wayne's World reference is adorably 1993.

21. Jake Bullet – Bring Me the Head of AlFresco Guacamole, by Steve Noble (#1.7)

Kryten's hallucinated alter-ego will get his own strip soon enough, but for now, we'll have to settle for this two-page pulp yarn.

That's not long enough to tell a decent story, obviously, but the relentless machine/law enforcement/dining puns might potentially crack a smile, if you're in the right mood. It's sub-Naked Gun, but at least it knows it.

I'm confused about why Jake Bullet's a hardboiled detective now. The joke in 'Back to Reality' was that he had an inappropriately macho name for a traffic control officer. Not that I'd rather be reading those adventures.

20. Dead Man's Bluff, by Steve Lyons (#2.5)

Yet another Terminator-inspired homicidal cyborg tricks its way aboard, but this time its quarry is Rimmer. Cat's fine with this, but Lister heroically defends his already-dead friend and Kryten saves the day with convenient logic.

By this point, it was already known that Holly wouldn't be appearing in the forthcoming sixth series, so her absence may be an effort to modernise or just more proof of how disposable that character had become.

19. Cred Dwarf, by Steve Noble (#2.4-2.6, 2.8-2.9)

In willfully obscure Smegazine tradition, we follow the adventures of a more successful set of Red Dwarf players, as glimpsed briefly on a monitor in 'Back to Reality.'

Seeing the muscle-bound stand-ins being ludicrously heroic and deciphering impossibly cryptic clues is quite funny the first time. As usual, they don't know when to quit, or just couldn't come up with a suitable replacement.

18. The Geap, by Ann Wright (#1.6)

It's not a 'Polymorph' sequel, which shows some restraint at least, but it's more or less the same thing.

In touching on so many familiar story beats without being a direct rip-off – bringing aboard yet another escape pod containing a slightly different type of GELF that affects the characters' minds a bit differently – this would feel right at home in Red Dwarf XI.

Vince Danks' art is the most palatable thus far, but he clearly had a bit of trouble drawing Kryten. Those publicity poses are embarrassingly familiar.

17. Dwarf Eager, by Kev Sutherland (#2.9)

The last strip to ever appear in the magazine is also one of the most enjoyably random. This piss-taking guide to DIY merchandise could actually be useful to young fans without disposable income, and I certainly hope there were some child readers who didn't get the joke and tried it out.

Shame we never got to find out how to build our own Starbug, I might even have tried that one.

16. Heady Metal, by Steve Noble (#2.9)

I remembered this being an alright story. It's not as alright as I remembered (mainly because of the time travel plot hole at the end), but it's a fine example of the comics making the most of their medium to explore exotic vistas that TV budgets simply wouldn't allow. Not for a few years until the advent of cheap, crap CGI anyway.

It's surprising that it took until the last issue for Spare Head 3 to make an appearance. He's another of those popular one-time characters I've always found more annoying than endearing, so by rights he should have had his own strip.

15. Tomorrow Trouble, by Chris Webster (#2.5)

The Inquisitor casts judgement on his own worthiness, like he should have done in his last story. So just two installments in, there's nowhere left for this strip to go and they call it a day. We don't want another Ace Rimmer.

It's Carl Flint's art that makes this standard time-bungling story stand out. Another artist probably wouldn't have made every character pointlessly grotesque, they would have just been regular people or something boring like that.

14. In Living Memory, by Steve Lyons (#1.9-1.10)

The fate of the Cat race is one of the oldest unsolved mysteries in Red Dwarf, so it's just the sort of thing these expanded universe works should set their sights on. Sadly, it doesn't go any further here than one random, abandoned Cat colony.

Instead, this is by-the-numbers early-'90s Red Dwarf with its gimmicky device of the week, icky monster and totalled Starbug (at least they have the courtesy to be self-referential with that one). It's probably the most on-brand story that ever graced the magazine... so it looks like I appreciate the strange and outlandish ones more after all.

13. Flashback featuring Duane Dibbley, by Nigel Kitching (#1.9)

Nigel Kitching makes his Smegazine debut ahead of his more celebrated work on Sonic the Comic, and while this is just as overly self-referential as the average 'Dwarf strip, it's the first one that's actually made an impression. Admittedly, that may be just because it's Kitching and the morbid humour brings pleasant flashbacks of Decap Attack.

Like Mr Flibble before him, Duane Dibbley was a recent addition to the TV canon who was bound to get his own stories sooner or later. But this is only a closed prelude of more substantial things to come, and it makes the same disappointing decision as the much-lauded 'Back to Reality' by spoiling the ambiguity too early. Why clarify reality at all?

12. The Shadow Time, by James Hill & Pat Kelleher (#1.13)

Androids is pretty damned obscure if you didn't catch that one episode or remember the brief scene it features in, but at least it was televised. When the mag lets its writers dip into the exclusive continuity of the novels, they know they're only catering to the hardcore fans. It's an attitude to be applauded. I had this issue as a kid, and I could hardly believe I was getting to see the green glass continent of Garbage World visualised.

Although it's basically just another emotion-sucking Polymorph story, the exotic setting and epic time scales involved make a refreshing change. It would almost be Lovecraftian, if it didn't feature argumentative furniture and whitegoods.

11. The Aftering, by Pat Kelleher and James Hill (#2.9)

True to their word, Kelleher/Hill/Lyttleton deliver the follow-up to 'The Shadow Time' and it's just as nice to look at (occasionally nicely unpleasant).

Garbage World and the Polymorph come out of hibernation to catch up with the events of the second Red Dwarf novel in real time. There's no editor's note clarifying that you should really read that book first, so I like to imagine the confusion on new fans' faces as they struggle to understand why Lister is old and farming cockroaches now. An expression we all get to share when the horny Polymorphs get down to business.

10. Space Monkeys, by Nigel Kitching & Steve Noble (#1.13)

Could it be? Just over half-way through the magazine's abrupt run, have we finally told a new type of Red Dwarf story that isn't wholly indebted to an earlier episode?

I suppose there's a trace of 'Polymorph' in there. And the Space Monkeys being mutated by the radiation is a bit like what happened to Lister's flu. But otherwise, this is...

They're Tribbles, aren't they?

9. Home of Lost Causes, by Nigel Kitching (#2.6-2.7)

The comic finally catches up with series six just before the end – missing Red Dwarf, hard-light Rimmer and all. That's nice.

By resurrecting the original crew – sham or no – Kitching also foreshadows series eight, except this is less annoying. Even when the mystery promptly dissolves and it's revealed to be just another Polymorph story, at least it's a creative one.

8. Red Dwarf USA, by Steve Noble and Nigel Kitching (#1.10)

If you didn't know already, they made one-and-a-half pilots for an Americanized Red Dwarf around this time that weren't especially well received. The Smegazine spent several issues exploring exactly why it was a failure, capped off with this dystopian imagining of what the series might have become.

Unusually for the Smegazine, it's pretty gosh-darned funny. Genuine executive decisions like "lose the death angle" and "insert aliens" are extrapolated to their logical conclusion, featuring family man Dave and his wholesome wife Holly, wheelchair-bound Arnie and their teenage daughter Cat (instead of "some kind of fag.")

7. A Jake Bullet Mystery: The Case of the Cop’s Comedown, by Steve Noble (#2.6-2.9)

I'm not sure whether this is incomplete or was supposed to end on that cliffhanger, to be continued in a future story that never materialised on account of cancellation.

Either way, it's not as good as the last Jake Bullet story, but it still has its charms. The biggest is Carl Flint's ghoulish art, which freaked me out a bit as a kid.

6. Duane Dibbley, by Steve Noble & Nigel Kitching (#1.14-2.5)

Kitching couldn't resist opening the door of ambiguity again after his previous Dibbley story supposedly closed it for good, and this time we come down on the side of the Dibbley reality being the real one. Who knows what to believe?

This is most noteworthy for its extensive crossover with the Jake Bullet strip, which enriches both tales. Its biggest disappointment is that it ends on a cliffhanger never to be resolved.

5. Lister the God, by Nigel Kitching (#2.1-2.3)

The Smegazine's less long-lived second volume saw a bigger format, more features and better stories. That latter one's not strictly true, but the main Red Dwarf strip did finally come into its own under Nigel Kitching. When the mag collapsed, he took his showrunning vision to Sonic the Comic instead, and made that flimsy tie-in a lot better than it deserved to be.

This is the follow-up to 'Waiting for God' that Grant Naylor never had the story (or perhaps the budget) for, as we get to see the holy war between the rival Cat factions taking place through the ship's innards.

Fans will also be pleased that it's actually funny, written with a trained ear for the pace and tone of the early '90s sitcoms. Kitching oddly goes for the novel continuity's Cloister/Clister schism rather than TV's red hats/blue hats, if that sort of thing's of any interest at all. I don't know, thought I should mention it.

4. Mimas Crossing, by Pat Kelleher & James Hill (#2.3-2.6)

You won't know what the hell's going on here if you haven't read the novels. But if you're reading the monthly magazine, it's a safe bet you've already got the paperbacks.

It's been yonks since I read them, so I can't be sure how much this hodge-podge of its seedy backdrop holds together continuity-wise, especially when Rimmsy and Listy make their cameos. Regardless, it's one of the best tangents the comics went out on.

3. Jake Bullet in The Case of the Cashed-In Contestant, by Steve Noble (#1.10-2.2)

Kryten's hardboiled alter ego first graced these pages in a pun-obsessed prose piece. Now he's graduated to his own comic strip, things are a lot more serious and sinister. This is actually a decent murder mystery, and the crossover with the Duane Dibbley strip that lasts several issues is probably the most exciting thing to happen in these comics. The bar was set pretty low.

Carl Flint's grotesque photofit art is the best the comic ever had, and might be the reason this 14-page story had to be drip-fed to us over seven months.

2. The End, by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor (#1.1-1.3)

Now merely an annoying waste of paper, adapting and serialising the early episodes wasn't a bad idea back when those were lesser-seen and not out on video yet. Artist Alan Burrows may or may not have had access to the tapes as well as the scripts, because he makes the bizarre decision (the first of oh so many) to change the way everything looks, from the sets to the costumes and the supporting cast.

Sometimes these changes reflect the new look of the show from series three onwards, sometimes they're inspired by the novel, but mainly he's taken the opportunity to replace the cheap grey colour scheme of a low-budget sitcom with sickly browns for no discernible reason. Unless he had cataracts.

1. Future Echoes, by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor (#1.4-1.8)

The second straight episode adaptation cheats its way into first place on virtue of its excellent script. They abandoned that practice after this one, which is for the best – fans don't need a third version of stories they already own on video and in paperback. And at this pace, we barely would have made it out of the first series before the magazine was cancelled.

John Rushby's visual interpretation is a lot less annoying than Burrows' last time. His palette doesn't entirely consist of brown, for a start, and apart from choice scenes like being privy to the hideous, hideous death of Lister's son, his creative licence mainly extends to substituting pointlessly exotic ship-board locations in place of the repetitive sets of the original. He was probably just bored.


  1. They were all shite to be honest.

    1. If I'd remembered that, I could have saved a lot of time. A lot of the features were completely pointless too, and even the generally interesting articles and interviews clearly ran out of topics after a while. Probably a lesson not to publish a monthly magazine about a sitcom that only produces three hours of material a year.