2000AD's the other day that I spotted the news that Massimo Belardinelli had died.
Belardinelli is almost forgotten these days; even when he's remembered, it's for his later work on the likes of Meltdown Man and Ace Trucking. The stories he worked on tended to be popular with 2000AD's younger readers, and when the comic moved more towards an adult audience at the end of the Eighties, he was left behind.
This reading of Belardinelli's career ignores the key role he played in helping to set the style and tone of 2000AD in its formative years. Carlos Ezquerra is rightly credited for creating the whole 2000AD "gritty future" look with its monumental, organic-looking architecture in the first episode of Judge Dredd; but what tends to be forgotten now is that after that story, Ezquerra left 2000AD until Prog 86.
In the first fifty progs, I'd say the job of defining and refining 2000AD's visual style was really in the hands of three people; Mike McMahon, who started as an Ezquerra copyist but who soon found his own feet and went on to create the defining look for Judge Dredd, Ian Gibson whose bouncy, exuberant take on the future would one day find its best expression in Robo-Hunter, and Massimo Belardinelli.
The reason I pick these three artists is because, as an eager ten-year old reading his mates' copies of 2000AD, they were the ones who seemed to be building a distinctive future world that was utterly different to anything I'd seen before. It has to be remembered that in those days, much of what appeared in 2000AD was not overtly futuristic; M.A.C.H.1 and Shako could have appeared in any boys' comic of the time, and even Flesh, a classic 2000AD concept, was not visually very distinguished. Dave Gibbon's rather orthogonal take on future-tech was lovingly-rendered but seemed to me to fit into an established, post-Hampson tradition; Brian Bolland and the Brett Ewins-Brendan McCarthy* axis seemed uncomfortable with the future and tended to draw it like the present, sprayed silver and with fins glued on. This was doubly true of long term comic stalwarts such as John Cooper, Ron Turner and Barry Mitchell, whose work graced the pages of 2000AD in the early days. Kev(in) O'Neill, who was to become one of 2000AD's defining voices, was the comic's art director at this stage; his influence would not begin to be felt for a year or so.
*at that time; Brendan was to really hit his stride a few years later.
While McMahon and Gibson were powering away within the world of Judge Dredd, it was Massimo Belardinelli who carried the torch in the rest of the comic. Although not as radical or gritty as Ezquerra, his elegant, finely detailed approach to future tech was distinctive and had a real scale and grandeur; to my ten-year-old's eyes it looked like real art. Belardinelli's re-imagined Dan Dare was the lead strip in 2000AD Prog One and his nightmarish Biog aliens with their two-mile-long starships made of living flesh (see above) deserve to be remembered among the comic's all-time highlights. From Dan Dare, he went on to draw Inferno, the sequel to The Harlem Heroes, but possibly his best work is on the slightly-later Flesh Book 2, in which landscapes and seascapes, complex architecture and animal musculature were rendered with an engraver's eye for detail.
It's my belief that in those early days, Belardinelli's distinctive visual style helped to lift the rest of the comic up to the standard that was being set by Judge Dredd - and depending on who was drawing Dredd, he could be left carrying the torch on his own. The first 2000AD I ever owned was Prog 11, in which Dredd was drawn by Ron Turner, an established British comic artist whose work I knew well from the likes of TV21; his work was solid and dynamic, but it seemed desperately old-fashioned next to Belardinelli's Dan Dare, which had a wild, almost alien quality to it - now that was the shape of things to come!
So why is Belardinelli so under-appreciated these days? I think much of it may be that his great weakness was in drawing the human figure and facial expressions; his characters looked more like elegant puppets than real people, and there's a slight sense about his work that he'd rather be drawing the backgrounds than the characters in front of them (something I can sympathise with). The result of this was that he mostly tended to draw either situation-based stuff (Flesh, Meltdown Man), or fantastickal/comical adventures that didn't fit with 2000AD's increasingly hard-edged tone (Blackhawk, Ace Trucking). He tended not to work on 2000AD's mainstream characters (there's one Judge Dredd story where he's obviously not at home, and it's hard to imagine him working on ABC Warriors or Strontium Dog). The one exception is Slaine; Belardinelli drew most of the first series, but it was never put into reprint by Titan, and is now largely forgotten - see Pat Mills' tribute to Belardinelli on Down The Tubes.net for more on this.
An all-time classic; the cover to 2000AD prog 93
The sad thing now is that very little of Belardinelli's work is available in print. Rebellion have put out 2000AD Extreme Editions of Flesh Book 2 (already out of print) Meltdown Man and The Dead. Of these, Flesh Book 2 is the most worth having for the art, though as possibly the last 2000AD strip written in the post-Action sensationalist style ("NOO! Please let me DROWN before the GIANT SCORPIONS get me!") it can be slightly hard going. Meltdown Man is surprisingly readable but very slight, and The Dead is just plain strange. The 2000AD Annual 1978 can often be found in second-hand shops, and contains a full-colour Dan Dare strip by him.
(Since first writing, one of Belardinelli's later series, The Mean Team, has also been released as a 2000AD Extreme Edition).
His greatest legacy is perhaps in the foundations he helped to lay for 2000AD; a tradition of imagination, craftsmanship, boldness and invention. So love his work or loathe it, if you're a 2000AD reader, you do well to remember that the comic you read today owes a great deal to Massimo Belardinelli.