Kevin O’Neill: 1953 to 2022

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.

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.