Comic Relief

Looking back at the Smegazine comic strips.

Remember that Red Dwarf story where the Cat people return and hold Lister accountable for the holy wars that raged in his name? No? How about the one where Ace Rimmer and Debs Lister get a little over-friendly? Or what about the sequel to Back to Reality, where the Cat has a flashback to the group hallucination and returns to thinking he's Duane Dibbley?

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If you do remember any or all of these stories, then you must have been one of the avid monthly readers of The Red Dwarf Smegazine. The magazine featured some of the only official Red Dwarf stories not to have been written by Rob Grant or Doug Naylor, in the shape of an array of comic strips written and drawn by various early '90s UK comics luminaries.

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Launched at the height of the show's pre-Series V publicity blitz, the Smegazine was published by Fleetway Editions - a noted UK comics and magazine publisher (most famously of weekly sci-fi anthology 2000AD) that was in the process of expanding following its acquisition by publishing giants Egmont. The first issue of the new Red Dwarf Magazine - as it was initially titled - hit shelves with a cover date of March 1992, and was surprisingly low-key in tone, put together by a small editorial team (almost entirely written by editor Mike Butcher and features writers Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons), with a painted cover by artist Jon Rushby rather than a publicity still.

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In among a Series V preview, a Chris Barrie interview, a couple of quizzes and a "Beginner's Guide to Red Dwarf", the magazine set out one of its main selling points: a new and exclusive comic strip adaptation of "The End". At the time, Series I was still not available on video - so this was a rare opportunity for fans to experience the story again (or in some cases for the first time!) The comic's artist Alan Burrows took the opportunity to make some visual tweaks, as well - the crew's uniforms were much closer to Rimmer's Series III outfit, while Lister and Rimmer's bunkroom also matched the "officer's quarters" of those middle series.

The comics also famously introduced a visual indicator for holograms that had actually originally been in Rob and Doug's minds when producing the series - but which cost had rendered prohibitive - by rendering McIntyre and later Rimmer in black-and-white rather than full colour. This was a design choice that would persist through all the strips published across the magazine's life.

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With issue #4 - by which point the magazine had been renamed the Smegazine - the pages given over to the comic were now used for two different, smaller stories rather than one long chapter. While an adaptation of "Future Echoes" began later in the issue, the opening story was, for the first time, an entirely original adventure, written by Howarth and Lyons and taking place in the then-current Series IV/V style and continuity. This began a trend for original short stories about the characters' lives onboard ship - and their exploration of space - that would sometimes reuse concepts from the TV series or flat out tell "sequels" to TV stories. With no budgetary restrictions on the imagination, comics felt like an ideal medium in which to tell these further adventures.

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But it wasn't just straight Red Dwarf stories that the magazine would give page space to, and as the months drew on an array of spinoff strips began to run. The first of these was Ace Rimmer: Space Adventurer in issue #5, where Steve Lyons kicked off an occasional series by having Ace visit the parallel universe from, erm, "Parallel Universe", leading to the aforementioned dalliance with the female Lister. Ace's appearances were sporadic after that, but a particular highlight came in issue #7, when a Roy of the Rovers-esque parody strip was actually drawn by Barrie Mitchell, the ROTR artist of the time.

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Ace was far from the only character to get his own series, however. Aside from a short Mr Flibble gag strip - which recast the penguin as a gun-toting, cigar-chomping, space-faring lunatic - a frequent half-page strip checked in on the soap opera goings on of Androids, while another alternate-universe counterpart got an ongoing story courtesy of the bizarre Jake Bullet and the Case of the Cashed-In Contestant. There was also time for an Inquisitor strip in issue #11 to make a relatively topical gag about newspaper baron Robert Maxwell.

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Meanwhile, the "regular crew" stories were rolling on in earnest. Famed Sonic the Comic writer/artist Nigel Kitching told a "Back to Reality" flashback sequel in issue #9 - in which the Cat temporarily believed that in fact, everything since the episode had been an hallucination after all - while in issue #11's Wetware, a virtual reality interaction with Lister saw Holly given a body, with the first order of business naturally being for the pair to go down to the pub.

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Shortly after its first year concluded, the Smegazine got a snazzy relaunch - and in addition to expanding its page count it even got a nifty new logo, distinctively different from the "standard" Red Dwarf design. With the bulkier length, the comics had greater room to breathe - so in addition to there now being more stories per issue, the strips would themselves be longer. Nigel Kitching kicked things off with the multi-part Lister the God, which saw the crew kidnapped by a race of fierce Felis Sapiens warriors, while a new ongoing Duane Dibbley strip returned once again to the Cat's hallucination.

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Some of the strips became increasingly surreal and esoteric - the unconventional art style of David Lyttleton made series like Mimas Crossing, which was based on concepts and characters from the Red Dwarf novels (including none other than Trixie laBouche), stand out, while there was particularly silly humour at play in Cred Dwarf, which followed the adventures of the alternate crew from "Back to Reality".

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Back in the main strips, meanwhile, change was afoot. In an unusual move, the sixth issue of volume two - published just before the broadcast of Series VI - featured the crew aboard Starbug, chasing down Red Dwarf, and even wearing their VI-style costumes. This also meant that for the first time, Rimmer was rendered in colour - with his greyscale stylings being given a hard-light blue tint. The story itself was another "Polymorph" sequel (some weeks before "Emohawk II"!) which saw a gigantic 'morph memorably masquerading as the ship itself...

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Sadly, however, the writing was on the wall for the magazine, and just a couple of months later, it would breathe its last. The strips in the final issue - a 64-page special, cover-dated January 1994 - only included one "regular" Red Dwarf story, which also had the crew back in their Series IV-style configuration (including, once more, a greyscale Rimmer). That aside, the remaining space was given over for the various, increasingly weird spinoff strips - including a ridiculously over-the-top Young Flibble series - to run on to their respective conclusions. Some of the strips had by this point seemed to turn into pet comedy projects for their creators, rather than serving as proper expansions of the Red Dwarf universe, and while the magazine features remained popular, this may have contributed to a lack of interest among hardcore fans.

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Nevertheless, for a time, the Smegazine had served as an inventive and valuable addition to the expanded Dwarf canon, and to this day the strips remain an intriguing curiosity - while the magazines themselves frequently show up on eBay for those interested in checking them out. Red Dwarf would briefly make a return to comics, meanwhile, courtesy of this very site's own web-exclusive strip Prelude to Nanarchy in 2005 - but will we ever see the Dwarfers in four-colour-strip form again? There may not be any plans at the moment, but as the gang's triumphant return to television proved, nothing is impossible...

Discuss your Smegazine memories on the Forum!

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