In the last several months a number of very talented comic book creators have passed away. To my regret I have unfortunately not had enough time to eulogize all of these losses. But I really wanted to take some time to put together some thoughts about British artist Kevin O’Neill, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 69.
Words like “unique” and “distinctive” get tossed about a great deal when discussing artists. But I truly believe those adjectives apply to Kevin O’Neill. He was a creator with an incredibly bizarre, hyper-detailed style who composed some genuinely dynamic & offbeat compositions in his work.
Probably the first time I saw O’Neill’s work was on “Legend of the Dark Mite” which appeared in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38, published by DC Comics in 1992. The insanely surreal “Legend of the Dark Mite” was written by Alan Grant, another singular talent who sadly also passed away this year.
I did a blog post about “Legend of the Dark Mite” about a decade ago. It was one of those stories that really lodged itself in my subconscious. And I immediately recognized that O’Neill was a striking, offbeat artist with a distinctive sense of humor.
I subsequently learned about the Green Lantern Corps story “Tygers” written by Alan Moore that O’Neill illustrated in the mid-1980s. “Tygers” was rejected by the Comics Code Authority, and when DC Comics requested clarification about what precisely the CCA was objecting to in the story, the response from the Code was that O’Neill’s entire style was objectionable. DC published “Tygers” without the CCA seal of approval in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 in 1986, a definite rarity in mainstream comics at the time.
The point at which I really became a fan of O’Neill’s work was in the late 1990s. Three things occurred in quick succession.
The first of these was the two issue Savage Dragon / Marshall Law miniseries published by Image Comics in 1997. I bought this one because I was a huge fan of Erik Larsen’s character. I hadn’t previously been familiar with the brutal superhero satire Marshall Law which O’Neil had co-created a decade earlier with Pat Mills, and this was certainly one hell of an introduction!
I feel that Savage Dragon, as another violent, bleakly comical creator-owned series, is far enough removed from mainstream superheroes that Mills & O’Neill were able to make the crossover with their character work quite well. I certainly enjoyed O’Neil’s absolutely insane artwork on Savage Dragon / Marshall Law.
The second event was that I spent six months in London, England, where I was able to purchase a number of back issues and collected editions of the weekly science fiction anthology series 2000 AD.
Among the 2000 AD material I discovered was Nemesis the Warlock, a sci-fi / dark fantasy series created by O’Neill with writer Pat Mills in 1980. Nemesis the Warlock revolved around the bizarre alien agent of chaos Nemesis and his struggle against the genocidal xenophobic tyrant Torquemada, who sought to “purify” the universe of all non-human lifeforms.
O’Neill designed the incredibly weird-looking Nemesis, the brutal Torquemada, Nemesis’ associate the beautiful freedom fighter Purity Brown, and the entire look of the world & technology of the series. Earlier today I took a glance though the first Nemesis the Warlock collected edition for the first time in a number of years, and the artwork & designs by O’Neill are even more strikingly dynamic & unsettling that I remembered.
O’Neill was the primary artist on the first and third “books” of the Nemesis the Warlock saga. Unfortunately, after drawing the first two chapters of Book Four for 2000 AD in 1984, O’Neill was forced to seek better-paying work in the American comics market. The equally-talented but stylistically very different Bryan Talbot took over as the artist on the feature.
A decade and a half later the tenth & final installment of Nemesis the Warlock, was serialized in 2000 AD, and O’Neill returned to the feature to illustrate the last chapter, which featured the long-awaited final confrontation between Nemesis and Torquemada.
At the time it was really great to be able to read the collections of the early Nemesis the Warlock “books” and to then get to follow “The Final Conflict” weekly in the pages of 2000 AD. O’Neill was in fine form as he reunited with Mills to bring the saga to its epic conclusion.
The third & final event in the late 1990s that cemented my interest in O’Neill was that the first The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen miniseries. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by O’Neill, it was published by the DC Comics imprint America’s Best Comics in 1999. So soon after thrilling to O’Neill’s work on Nemesis the Warlock, I also got to see his art on Moore’s mash-up of disparate Victorian literary works.
I have to confess that I’ve never been a huge fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A significant part of that is due to the fact that the majority of the frequent literary, historical, musical & cultural references and allusions Moore made throughout the varies LoEG series went completely over my head. And I was actually a Literature & Communications major with a minor in History in college!
Nevertheless, I thought O’Neill always did absolutely stunning, and frequently unsettling, work on LoEG. And whatever my feelings about the often-oblique quality of Moore’s writing on the series, I was nevertheless glad that, after his disputes with DC Comics reached a final tipping point, he & O’Neill were able to take the series to Top Shelf Productions in 2009, where the two of them subsequently produced several more gorgeous volumes over the next decade. I bought the Century trilogy specifically for O’Neill’s artwork, with the intention of taking my time reading each of them in order to more fully parse the content & context of Moore’s scripts.
I consider myself very fortunate to have met O’Neill on a couple of occasions.
The first time was in November 2007 at Jim Hanley’s Universe in Manhattan. O’Neill was doing a signing to promote the release of the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. He was drawing sketches inside the book for everyone who bought a copy, and I requested Mina Murray.
While I was waiting on line to meet O’Neil I skimmed through the first chapter of Black Dossier. One of the things I was struck by was Mina’s characterization in that segment.
In the first LoEG series, Mina sought to be independent, but ended up finding herself in situations where she had to be rescued by her male teammates. One particular instance was in chapter six. Cornered on an airship by Professor Moriarty, an unsettled Mina attempts to reason with him as one intellectual to another. Moriarty’s response is to contemptuously sneer to his underlings “Throw this smelly little lesbian over the side.” It falls to Allan Quartermain to distract Moriarty and his men, at which point Mina is finally able to sabotage the airship.
In contrast, in the opening segment of Black Dossier, a macho, swaggering British secret agent named “Jimmy” (obviously an ultra-obnoxious extrapolation of James Bond) attempts to sexually assault Mina… at which point she proceeds to give him a serious @$$-kicking.
I was struck by how much more assertive Mina was and so I asked O’Neill to sketch her. I even pointed this out to O’Neill, and he agreed that she had grown & developed as the various series had progressed. He did a great job sketching Mina holding the eponymous Black Dossier.
I met O’Neill again in June 2009 when he was a surprise guest at Big Apple Comic Con. I had just started a “villains” theme sketchbook. I really wanted to get a diverse selection of characters, not just the usual Marvel and DC baddies. So I asked O’Neill to draw Torquemada from the Nemesis the Warlock serials. Pretty much everyone else at the show was asking O’Neill to draw characters from LoEG, and I got the impression that he was pleasantly surprised that I requested one of his other characters. I asked O’Neill if he remembered how to draw Torquemada. He proceeded to quickly knock out a great sketch, leading me to observe, “Well, I guess you still do know how to draw him.”
Both times I met O’Neill he came across as a good person who made time for his fans. He was an amazing artist with a genuinely distinctive style, and he will definitely be missed.
I recommend reading the tributes assembled by 2000 AD and Down the Tubes for a comprehensive look back at Kevin O’Neill’s life & career, with a large selection of his incredible artwork.