Steve Dillon: 1962 to 2016

This year has been awful. Too many incredibly talented people have died much too young in 2016.  Sadly yet another name has just been added to the list of creators who left us too soon.  British comic book artist Steve Dillon passed away on October 22nd at the age of 54.

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I first encountered Steve Dillon’s work in the mid-1980s when the back-up stories he had drawn in Doctor Who Weekly for Marvel Comics UK were reprinted here in the States. Two of the strips he worked on had lasting impacts on Doctor Who fandom.  “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman” ran in Doctor Who Weekly # 5-7 (1979) and “Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer” ran in # 17-20.  Both stories were written by Steve Moore.

“Throwback” introduced Kroton, a being who despite being converted into one of the ruthlessly logical Cybermen somehow retained his emotions. Kroton was a tragic character, neither human nor Cyberman, trapped between two worlds.  This was some of Dillon’s earliest work.  He had a tendency to draw characters crouching in overdramatic poses or gesticulating wildly.  But even at that point Dillon showed genuine potential.  He certainly possessed the skill necessary to give emotion & pathos to the physically expressionless metal form of Kroton.  The bottom three panels of that final page from Doctor Who Weekly #7 always give me an emotional punch in the gut.

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“Dalek Killer” featured the debut of Abslom Daak, a thoroughly unpleasant career criminal. Having been found guilty on multiple counts of murder & piracy, Daak is given two choices: execution by vaporization or Exile D-K.  The sneering Daak rejects vaporization because it’s quick & painless, and instead chooses Exile D-K, which involves being teleported to a world in the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the mutants from Skaro.

Armed to the teeth, Daak is beamed to the planet Mazam, newly conquered by the Daleks. Despite his fervent death wish, the ruthless & brutal Daak manages to survive, in the process liberating Mazam from the Daleks and winning the heart of its ruler Taiyin.  Tragedy strikes, however, when a lone Dalek survivor kills Taiyin.  The grief-stricken Daak’s suicide-run is now supplanted by a mission of vengeance, as he vows to “kill every stinking Dalek in the galaxy!”

Dillon’s artwork on this serial was amazing. This is only a year after “Throwback” and he had already improved tremendously.  Dillon succeeded in humanizing the thuggish, menacing Daak, making him a character both comedic and haunted.  That final page, with Daak carrying Taiyin’s lifeless body, is incredibly powerful & tragic.

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Abslom Daak proved to be tremendously popular, and he has made numerous return appearances in Doctor Who comic books, most recently in The Eleventh Doctor series courtesy of Si Spurrier, Rob Williams & Simon Fraser. Daak even made it into the Doctor Who television series itself when his mug shot was seen in the 2014 episode “Time Heist.”

In the mid-1980s Dillon was a regular artist on the weekly British anthology series 2000 AD, drawing a number of stories featuring Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. He also worked on the short-lived but influential anthology series Warrior.

Beginning in 1990 Dillon began working at DC Comics, illustrating Tom Veitch’s offbeat stories in Animal Man. Two years later Dillon worked with writer Garth Ennis for the first time on the DC / Vertigo series Hellblazer, chronicling the dark supernatural adventures of  chain-smoking occult detective John Constantine.

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I recall that when I was in high school reading Animal Man and Hellblazer, I found Dillon’s artwork to be rather odd.  It was so very different stylistically from the tone of the flashy, ultra-dynamic work that had become prevalent in mainstream superhero books.  I really don’t think I even realized at that time that Dillon was the same artist who had drawn those Doctor Who comic book stories.  Nevertheless his work stuck in my head because it was so distinctive from ninety percent of what was out there.  It had what I would have to characterize as a starkness to it.

After wrapping up their run on Hellblazer, Ennis & Dillon collaborated on the Vertigo series Preacher, which ran for 66 issues between 1995 and 2000. Dark, brutal, sardonically humorous, and gleefully sacrilegious, Preacher became a critically acclaimed hit.  Underneath all the cynicism and gore, the succession of freaks, degenerates and psychopaths, Preacher was at its heart the story of the relationship between Jesse Custer and Tulip O’Hare.  Dillon ably illustrated all the sick weirdness that Ennis wrote, but he also brought to life Jesse & Tulip, made us believe in their love for one another.

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After Preacher wrapped up, Ennis & Dillon went over to Marvel Comics, taking over the Punisher. The pair transformed the then-moribund series into a ultra-violent black comedy.  Ennis also worked on a number of other Marvel titles, most notably a two year run on Wolverine: Origin with writer Daniel Wray.

I have always found Steve Dillon to be an incredibly effective comic book artist. As a non-artist it is perhaps difficult for me to articulate why this is so, but I am going to attempt to do so…

Dillon had a very straightforward, unvarnished style. He did not rely on overly-complex layouts.  He did not utilize excessive amounts of detail.  Dillon’s layouts and sequential illustration were crystal-clear and highly effective.  He absolutely knew how to create drama and tension.  Dillon could illustrate a multi-page sequence featuring nothing more than two characters sitting around taking over a beer and make it the most dramatic thing you could possibly imagine.

Dillon often illustrated stories that featured extreme violence. I think that its often the case that when an artist possesses an exaggerated or hyper-detailed style, violence comes across as cartoony or unrealistic or even glamorized.  Dillon, however, had a style that was very much grounded in reality, and so his scenes of violence and gore were starkly, shockingly brutal.

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I was fortunate enough to meet Dillon on a couple of occasions. The first time was in 1999, when I was traveling around Britain.  There was a big comic book convention in Bristol, England.  Dillon was one of the guests.  That whole show seemed to revolve around the bar, and most of the guests either had drinks at their tables or were actually doing signings at the pub.  As I recall, Dillon was at one of the tables in the pub drinking a pint.  He was kind enough to autograph an issue of Preacher for me, and to chat for a couple of minutes.  I commented to him that the “Until the End of the World” storyline that ran in issues # 8-12 has seriously freaked me out.  He smiled and responded, “I drew it, and it freaked me out, too.”  I had to laugh at that.

Years later, in 2009, I met Dillon again when he did a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe here in NYC. Once again he struck me as a nice, friendly guy, and he did a sketch for me of Herr Starr, one of the villains from Preacher.

I was genuinely sorry to find out that Dillon had passed away. He was a tremendously talented artist.  Judging from the comments on Facebook from people who were friends with him or worked with him over the years, he was much-loved by those who knew him.

Summertime with the Amazing Heroes swimsuit special

It’s the end of August and summer is winding down.  Yes, technically it doesn’t actually end until September 23rd.  However, the unofficial end of the summer season here in the States is Labor Day, which is only a week away.  Most people regard these as the closing days of summer.

So before all the kiddies return to school I wanted to end the summer with an appropriate post.  Let’s cast our eyes back to 1988 and the pages of Amazing Heroes #138, their second annual swimsuit issue.

For younger readers, Amazing Heroes was published by Fantagraphics between 1981 and 1992.  It featured in-depth articles and interviews on both mainstream comic books and the ever-growing independent scene.  For most of its existence Amazing Heroes was edited by Kim Thompson.

Amazing Heroes had a few swimsuit editions in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Unlike many of the comic book swimsuit specials that would follow from other publishers that were tacky T&A fests, Amazing Heroes approached theirs with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  A diverse selection of artists contributed to their specials.

Amazing Heroes 138 cover signed

The cover to Amazing Heroes #138 is penciled by the legendary Neal Adams and inked by Art Nichols.  It features four lovely ladies from Adams’ creator-owned Continuity Studios books.  I’m not familiar with the gals in the middle.  But on the left is Ms. Mystic and on the right is Samuree.  I always chuckle at this one.  In the Ms. Mystic series the title character’s costume is always rendered by Adams with zip-a-tone.  So the joke here is that, in lieu of a swimsuit, Ms. Mystic is wearing an actual sheet of zip-a-tone to the beach.

I got this autographed by Adams recently.  It’s a lovely piece by him, a playfully sexy pin-up illustration.  I hope one of these days Adams collects his creator-owned material into trade paperbacks.  I feel that is an often-overlooked aspect of his career.

Here’s a look at just a few of my favorites from the many great pin-ups featured in Amazing Heroes #138…

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 31 John Workman Big Barda

John Workman renders Big Barda of Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a bikini.  Workman is best known for his extensive work as a letterer, frequently working with Walter Simonson.  But Workman is also a talented artist.  As can be seen from this, he also possesses a great sense of humor.  This is a cute send-up of good girl art, simultaneously sexy and self-deprecating.  That “tapioca pudding” line totally cracks me up.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 38 Hernandez Bros

If you are Fantagraphics and you’re going to do a swimsuit special, certainly you’re going to ask two of your best artists, Love and Rockets co-creators Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, to contribute a piece.  After all, both brothers are well-regarded for their depictions of the female form.  Of course, Beto and Jaime draw some good looking guys, too.  Here’s a jam piece by Los Bros Hernandez.  On the left is Israel by Gilbert.  On the right is Danita by Jaime.

This pin-up and a great deal of other material that had originally appeared in a variety of places was reprinted in the Hernandez Satyricon trade paperback.  As much as I love Gilbert & Jaime for their very compelling characters & intricate plotting it was also nice to have many of their beautiful pin-ups gathered together in one volume.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 39 Fred Hembeck Ditko Zone

I really enjoy Fred Hembeck’s fun, cartoony artwork.  He is a huge fan of Silver Age comic books, especially the Marvel Comics work of Steve Ditko.  Hembeck has done quite a few loving Ditko homages over the years, including this one, “Surfing in The Ditko Zone.”  It brings a smile to my face seeing Doctor Strange, Clea and the dread Dormammu in swimsuits riding the waves in one of Ditko’s psychedelic alternate dimensions.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 45 Reed Waller Omaha

As I’ve mentioned before, my girlfriend Michele is a fan of Omaha the Cat Dancer by writer Kate Worley and artist Reed Waller.  I’ve never read the series, but Michele has all of the collected editions, so one of these days I’ll sit down and immerse myself in it.  Omaha is an exotic dancer / stripper, and the book is definitely for mature readers.  The series was partly created as a protest against censorship.  It perfect makes sense that Waller would draw Omaha as “Ms. First Amendment” here.  It’s a beautiful illustration.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 72 Bo Hampton

In the late 1980s Eclipse Comics was publishing their revival of the Golden Age aviator hero Airboy written by Chuck Dixon.  The talented Bo Hampton was one of the artists who worked on it.  For this swimsuit issue Hampton renders Airboy / Davy Nelson III, the near-mindless swamp monster known as the Heap, and the femme fatale Valkyrie at the beach.  I always chuckle at the sight of the Heap in a pair of swim trunks!

IDW is currently reprinting Eclipse’s Airboy in a series of trade paperbacks.  I recommend getting them.  They contain excellent writing and artwork.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 84 Evan Dorkin

Here’s a great pin-up of the whole crew from Evan Dorkin’s irreverent creator-owned series Pirate Corp$ / Hectic Planet jamming at the beach.  It always amazes me at the insane amount of detail, as well as the just plain insanity, Dorkin always manages to pack into his artwork.  He draws a huge crowd of characters and successfully invests each one with an individual personality.  Dorkin is definitely one of the most talented and underrated comic book creators around.

In the late 1990s Slave Labor Graphics released three trade paperback collections of Hectic Planet.  You can find them on Amazon at affordable prices.  Again, I recommend them.  Dorkin did good work in those stories.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 81 Bruce Patterson original

Bringing things to a close, here is a scan of the original art for a pin-up of Purity Brown and Nemesis the Warlock from the pages of 2000 AD drawn by Bruce Patterson.  As an inker, Patterson has worked with a diverse number of pencilers.  This piece demonstrates Patterson is also able to do extremely good work on his own.  Purity Brown of course looks damn sexy in her black bikini.  As for Nemesis, there’s comedy gold in seeing the alien chaos lord clad in a black Speedo holding a beach ball.

I won this on Ebay in the late 1990s.  Only a couple other people bid on it, so I got it for an amazingly low price.  I owned it for almost 20 years before eventually selling it to another collector when I had some bills I had to pay.  The art board Patterson drew on had warped a bit by the time it made its way into my hands, but it still looked great.  This is a piece that I feel, due to the subtle shading Patterson utilized, did not reproduce especially well on black & white newsprint.

Older fans often look back at the demise Amazing Heroes in 1992 as an unfortunate setback to serious journalism on the industry.  I think that’s a valid argument.  Even more so when you consider that following in Amazing Heroes’ footsteps was Wizard Magazine.  If Amazing Heroes was the New York Times of comic book reporting then Wizard was definitely the NY Post!

Many of the old Amazing Heroes issues can be found on Ebay for low prices.  They’re well worth picking up for the interviews and the in-the-moment examination of the dramatic changes the comic book industry underwent throughout the 1980s.  And, of course, you also had fun features like their swimsuit specials.

Steve Moore: 1949 to 2014

I was sorry to learn about the recent death of British comic book writer Steve Moore, who passed away at the age of 64 earlier this month.  Steve Moore was a longtime friend & associate of Alan Moore, so much so that they constantly had to remind people that they were not, in fact, related to each other.

Steve Moore was involved in the early days of the weekly sci-fi anthology series 2000 AD, penning several installments of “Tharg’s Future Shocks” in the late 1970s and early 80s.  In late 1979, he became one of the first writers for Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly for Marvel UK, penning a variety of back-up stories spotlighting the aliens & monsters of the television series.

With then up-and-coming artist Steve Dillon, Moore co-created two recurring characters in the comic book back-ups.  The first was Junior Cyberleader Kroton, introduced in “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman,” published in Doctor Who Weekly #s 5-7 (1980).  Unlike the rest of the Cybermen, when he was converted into a cyborg Kroton somehow retained his human emotions, his capacity for empathy.  Struggling with his unexpected feelings, Kroton eventually sided with the human resistance on the Cyberman-occupied world of Mondaran, helping them to escape to the unoccupied jungles of their planet.  However, realizing he was neither fully Cyberman nor human, Kroton elected to blast off into outer space, where he shut himself down.

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The other character conceived by Moore and Dillon was Abslom Daak, the Dalek-Killer, originally featured in Doctor Who Weekly #s 17-20 (1980).  Although they shared a common enemy in the Daleks, Daak was the polar opposite of the Doctor.  Whereas the wandering Time Lord was eccentric, cultured, and sought to resolve conflicts with his intellect, Daak was a brutal career criminal, a cynic with a dark sense of humor and a death wish whose solution to any problem was violence.

On the opening page his debut Daak has been convicted of “23 charges of murder, pillage, piracy, massacre and other crimes too horrible to bring to the public attention.”  Given a capital sentence, Daak is offered a choice, “death by vaporization or Exile D-K.”  Dryly commenting that “vaporization doesn’t hurt,” Daak takes the second alternative.  Exile D-K involves sending an individual by matter transmitter into the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the fascist mutants from Skaro.  This suits Daak just fine.  Armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, including his beloved chain-sword, he is teleported a thousand light years across the galaxy to the planet Mazam, newly invaded by the Daleks.  There Daak plans to go out in a blaze of glory, violently taking as many Daleks with him as possible in an orgy of destruction.

Upon his arrival, however, Daak ends up saving the life of the stunningly beautiful Princess Taiyin.  Daak is all ready to do a reenactment of the ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Taiyin realizes this brutish warrior might just be able to help her escape.  Knocking the Dalek-Killer out, she transports the two of them away from her palace via sky-sled.  Once again attacked by the Daleks, Daak reiterates his hopes of achieving a spectacularly violent demise.  Taiyin reluctantly points him in the direction of the Daleks’ command ship and, against impossible odds, the two manage to destroy it.  Taiyin, who has begun to fall for Daak, asks him to stay on and help rebuild Mazam.  Before Daak can answer, Taiyin is shot from behind by one of the surviving Daleks, and dies in the Dalek-Killer’s arms.

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Moore did an interesting job of developing Daak.  He starts out as a thoroughly unpleasant individual who is looking to cash his chips in.  Along the course of the story, Daak reluctantly comes to realize that he likes Taiyin, and perhaps he could have a future with her, a reason to go on living.  And then all that is cruelly yanked away from him in an instant with Taiyin’s death.  From that point on, Daak vows to “kill every damned stinking Dalek in the galaxy.”  Revenge and the almost impossible hope of somehow finding a way to revive Taiyin are Daak’s only reasons to go on living.  That final page is powerfully illustrated by Dillon.

Moore continued Abslom Daak’s story in “Star Tigers,” which ran in Doctor Who Weekly #s 27-30 and 44-46.  The Dalek-Killer gains a battleship, the Kill Wagon, and a crew made up of exiled Draconian prince Salander, the Ice Warrior mercenary Harma, and the human criminal strategist Vol Mercurious.  The first few installments were again drawn by Dillon, with a young David Lloyd assuming art duties on the later chapters.

(There is an excellent interview with Steve Moore concerning his Dalek-Killer stories online at Altered Vistas.  Check it out.)

Moore intended to write additional installments of“Star Tigers.”  But he was then switched over to the main feature in Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly, scripting the adventures of the Fourth Doctor.  Here he was paired with regular artist Dave Gibbons.  In the mid-1980s, Moore’s Doctor Who work was reprinted in color in the American comic book series, which is where I first had the opportunity to read his various stories.

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Moore also contributed numerous stories to the short-lived anthology series Warrior in the mid-1980s.  Among these were the adventures of the psychotic cyborg Axel Pressbutton and his sometimes-partner, the beautiful & deadly Laser Eraser.

Throughout the 1990s Moore worked as a writer and editor at Fortean Times, the British magazine of strange & esoteric phenomena.  He returned to the comic book field in the late 1990s, when he began writing “Tales of Telguth,” a  horror / fantasy anthology feature in 2000 AD with dark twist endings.  This allowed Moore to collaborate with a number of very talented artists such as Simon Davis, Greg Staples, Carl Critchlow, Dean Ormston, and Siku.

In the mid-2000s, Moore once again became associated with Alan Moore, working on several stories for Tom Strong, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Tomorrow Stories from the America’s Best Comics imprint.  These were illustrated by an all-star line up that included Paul Gulacy, Jimmy Palmiotti, Alan Weiss, Arthur Adams and Eric Shanower.  In 2008, Steve Moore wrote Hercules: The Thracian Wars and Hercules: The Knives of Kush for Radical Comics.

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At the time of his death, Steve Moore was working with Alan Moore once again, this time on The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, to be released by Top Shelf.  Hopefully Alan will be able to complete the tome and it will see publication.

Steve Moore leaves behind a very impressive, offbeat, original body of work.  His two original characters from the Doctor Who comics, Abslom Daak and Kroton, became fan favorites.  Daak later encountered the Seventh Doctor, both in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and in prose fiction.  Kroton, after many years absence from print, reappeared to travel for a time with the Eighth Doctor.  So please raise a glass (or a chainsword) in his memory.

Comic book reviews: Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis

Okay, so I was originally going to do a write-up on Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis in an upcoming post on graphic novels that I’ve been reading.  But then I realized it didn’t quite fit into that category.  Written & drawn by Simon Fraser, The Mines of Charybdis originally appeared as a weekly web comic on ACT-I-VATE in 2009, and subsequently appeared in print as an eight part serial in the Judge Dredd Megazine.  In 2011, Fraser released a limited edition trade paperback collection of the story, and I was fortunate enough to score a copy of that.

The Scottish-born Fraser is probably best known for co-creating with Robbie Morrison the swashbuckling Russian rogue Nikolai Dante in the pages of 2000 AD.  Fraser has worked on a number of other features for that famed British anthology, including flagship character Judge Dredd.  Among his other works was an excellent comic book adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel Hell House done with Ian Edginton at IDW.

Lilly Mackenzie is Fraser’s creator owned series.  Lilly is a sexy space adventurer, seemingly bubbly and carefree, but with a dark family past.  Her best friend is Cosmo Judd, a brilliant scientist who happens to be a midget, and so is consequently underestimated by many people.  Cosmo carries an unrequited attraction to Lilly.

Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis

The Mines of Charybdis sees Lilly attempting to track down her long lost, ne’er do well brother.  The trail has led to the brutal mining world of Charybdis.  The planet is surrounded by an EMP field, meaning that all electronic equipment does not work.  Settlers and prisoners are sent down in unpowered space capsules, where they are expected to spend the rest of their lives.  The only way of launching the mined ore & minerals back into space is via a mass accelerator.  Due to the enormous acceleration needed to escape the planet’s surface, this would kill any human beings attempting to travel on it.

In other words, Lilly and Cosmo need to find a way to sneak onto a planet with no advanced technology, find Lilly’s brother in a desolate wilderness, and then come up with some sort of method of escaping the planet that won’t leave them pulverized.  The problem is pretty well summed up in an exchange between the two, when Lilly asks “Can’t we just, I dunno, improvise something,” and a disbelieving Cosmo shoots back “Improvise? Improvise what? Physics? Maybe Newton, Einstein and Sinclair got it wrong?”

Of course, Cosmo eventually does come up with a plan to get down to Charybdis safely and, in turn, theorizes a brilliant, yet incredibly dangerous, method of possibly getting the pair of them off the planet.  Possibly, because even if he can get it to work, there’s still no guarantee it won’t end up killing the pair of them.  And before they can even attempt this, they have to locate Lilly’s brother while dealing with any number of desperate thugs and crooks who are imprisoned on Charybdis.

Fraser does a superb job of blending two often disparate aspects of science fiction, namely space opera and “hard science” speculative fiction.  He appears to have conducted a thorough amount of research into physics to have devised Cosmo’s ingenious scheme.  Fraser also adds in what you might consider to be high-octane, adrenaline-packed action sequences, with Lilly doing some major ass-kicking.  And at the same time, he makes sure to really develop his characters, to show the depths of their personalities.

It’s unfortunate that economics only allowed Fraser to release the collected edition of Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis in a limited print run, because it is an excellent story, one I highly recommend.  But you can read it in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine #298 to #305.  Those may be difficult to locate here in the States (you can always try to find them on Ebay or something) so if not, then definitely go to the ACT-I-VATE website and read it there.  Fraser’s sequel, The Treasure of Paros, is also online, along with various other excellent series by a number of talented creators.

The ACT-I-VATE Primer

In 2009, IDW published The ACT-I-VATE Primer, a hardcover anthology featuring 16 new stories.  Among the creators whose work is featured in The ACT-I-VATE Primer are Dean Haspiel, Roger Langridge, Pedro Camargo, Molly Crabapple, Tim Hamilton, and Mike Cavallaro.  Fraser’s contribution was “When Lilly Met Cosmo,” a prequel tale that reveals how Lilly Mackenzie and Cosmo Judd first met.  It’s a good story in an excellent collection of material, and I highly recommend purchasing a copy.