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.

doctor-who-soul-of-a-cyberman

“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.

Darwyn Cooke: 1962 to 2016

Comic book creator Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. He was only 53 years old.  Cooke was an amazing artist, and his death at such a young age is a tragedy.

The first time I ever noticed Cooke’s name was in 1999 for the credits of the animated series Batman Beyond. He designed the stunning title sequence for the show.

Cooke’s work with writer Ed Brubaker on the first four issues of the revamped Catwoman series for DC Comics in 2001 was amazing. Cooke both wrote and illustrated the epic, beautiful DC: The New Frontier miniseries published in 2004.

Wonder Woman and friends Darwyn Cooke

There was a quality to Cooke’s work that stood out for me. He successfully took the colorful, upbeat qualities of DC Comics in the Silver Age and blended them with a hardboiled, noir sensibility, resulting in a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Cooke’s art was both atmospheric and fun.

Cooke also rendered incredibly beautiful women. I love how he depicted both Catwoman and Wonder Woman.  His drawings of Selina and Diana were sexy, confident, strong and graceful.

For all of their titles cover-dated February 2015, DC Comics published variant covers illustrated by Cooke. He created some incredible images for these.

To me, the timing of these covers was so weird. DC’s New 52 reboot was entering its third year.  Most of their titles were grim and downbeat, bereft of joy, featuring busy, hyper-detailed artwork.  The variant covers by Cooke for these issues were a complete 180 degrees apart.  They were colorful and exciting and fun… yes, I used the “fun” word again.  I remember looking at these covers by Cooke, then looking at the interiors, which paled by comparison.  I found myself wishing that DC would ask Cooke to work on an ongoing series for them.

Supergirl 37 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

One of my favorite of these Cooke variants was Supergirl #37. It was such a cute depiction of the Maid of Steel and the Super-Pets.  I especially loved Cooke’s adorable Streaky the Supercat.

Another one of these variants that stood out for me was Batman / Superman #17. For the past three decades, ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the relationship between Batman and Superman has been characterized as adversarial and tense.  Numerous stories have seen the two of them butting heads over ideologies and methodologies.  It would be fair to say that they fought each other more often than they actually worked together to save the world.

In contrast, on his cover for this issue Cooke shows the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel as close friends, allies in the war on crime who, in spite of their differences, like and respect one another. In that one image Cooke perfectly encapsulates how the relationship between Batman and Superman should be.  I’m not saying they should agree with each other all the time, but neither should they be at each other’s throats the instant they both enter the same room.

Batman Superman 17 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

Last year Cooke illustrated The Twilight Children, a four issue miniseries from DC / Vertigo. It was written by Gilbert Hernandez, with coloring by Dave Stewart.  As he had done in the past on Love and Rockets, Hernandez blended elements of sci-fi and magical realism for this story.  Cooke’s artwork was excellent, very much suiting Hernandez’s sensibilities.

Recently talking to Comic Book Resources about their collaboration, Hernandez had this to say…

Working on “The Twilight Children” with Darwyn Cooke was perfect timing because they asked me to do it and I took a look at Darwyn’s work — I know his work, but I looked at it closer and I go, “This guy knows how to make a comic.” He doesn’t need me, but let’s do this. Let me write this story, but I was gonna write it as simple as possible, As directly as possible, mostly dialogue, not a lot of description of what’s going on, just letting him know it’s a little fishing village, it’ll move along at a certain pace and this and that. And he just ran with it, beautifully, he just knew what to do. So the synergy was there, and he hooked up with his friend and colorist, Dave Stewart, who just made the beautiful colors. It was just an ideal situation because we let it happen. A lot of times when people collaborate who have their own careers separately collaborate there’s a lot of head butting. We were head-less. [Laughs] We basically just let it happen. Let it happen the script, let the art happen, he just let himself do it. That worked really well. We’d like to do another project together later on where he writes and I draw, so we’ll see about that.

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Cooke’s artwork on The Twilight Children featured very powerful layouts and storytelling.  He invested the characters with real, palpable emotions.

I was fortunate enough to meet Cooke last October. He was in town for New York Comic Con to promote the upcoming release of The Twilight Children.  Cooke and Hernandez did a signing at St. Mark’s Comics.  Cooke was definitely very friendly, laid-back, and possessed a really good sense of humor.  He made us fans feel welcome.

I had brought along my convention sketchbook with me, just in case Cooke was willing to do sketches. I asked him and he said okay.  I handed my sketchbook to him and asked him to draw whoever he wanted.  He did a nice head sketch of Catwoman in my book.  I really appreciated his generosity.

Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke

From what I have heard, this was typical of Cooke. Everyone regarded him as a genuinely nice guy.  Reading the online reactions to his untimely death, it is apparent that his passing at such a young age is all the more tragic because not only was he an immensely talented artist but also a good friend to many people.  He will definitely be missed.

Happy birthday to Elaine Lee

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to writer Elaine Lee, who was born on April 22, 19XX (I’m not going to guess the year, because it is impolite to speculate about a woman’s age).  I first discovered Lee’s work back during the summer of 1994.  Lee had collaborated with artist William Simpson and cover artist Brian Bolland to create Vamps, a miniseries about a quintet of sexy vampire bikers crisscrossing the highways of America.  The book was published by DC Comics under their Vertigo banner.  Lee was doing a signing at the Heroes World comic shop in White Plains NY, and I picked up the first issue there.  Lee had come to the signing with her friend Rachel Pollack, whose bizarre writing I had been enjoying on Doom Patrol.  It was there that I learned that Pollack was also a prose author, and soon after I picked up a copy of her excellent novel Unquenchable Fire.

Vamps #1
Vamps #1

Vamps was a pretty good read, and I was interested in finding some more work by Lee.  I soon discovered that she had written the sci-fi series Starstruck, which ran for six issues under Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint in 1985, as well as a graphic novel.  I found a copy of the first issue, and was totally blown away by the amazing artwork by Michael Kaluta.  Truth to tell, I was a bit confused by the events in Lee’s story, but Kaluta’s art was simply amazing.  This was the beginning of my love affair with his work, and I soon became a huge fan.

This was also the first time I learned that Starstruck had originally begun life as an off-Broadway play, via the cute editorial cartoon on the inside cover, wherein a robotic Archie Goodwin presented the readers with a striking portrait of Elaine Lee herself in the role of freedom fighter Galatia 9, as seen below:

Archie Goodwin presents Elaine Lee as Galatia 9
Archie Goodwin presents
Elaine Lee as Galatia 9

A few years later, I started running into Kaluta himself at several NYC comic conventions.  He must have mentioned that the original Starstruck script could be found on Amazon.  I ordered a copy and when I read it, I was laughing out loud almost non-stop.  The script was written by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet Lee and Dale Place.  Michael Kaluta did the imaginative & intricate costume and set designs.  A funny & clever homage to and parody of space opera, it had two month-long runs, first in 1980 and then in 1983.

Early on, Lee and Kaluta decided they wanted to expand the Starstruck universe and characters beyond what was seen on stage, and planned out a whole series of comic books & graphic novels.  Starstruck, in addition to the Epic issues, appeared in the pages of Heavy Metal, through Dark Horse, and then finally a 13 issue miniseries published by IDW starting in 2009.  That was a combination of “remastered” older material and brand new work by Lee & Kaluta.  Having met both Lee and Kaluta at different comic book conventions throughout the years, I knew that they had a wealth of unpublished stories that they’d one day hoped to bring to print.  So I was thrilled when the IDW series was released, although I did end up waiting for the trade paperback edition so I’d have everything in one handy volume.

Starstruck script book
Starstruck script book

Currently Lee and Kaluta are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in order to publish a new graphic novel, Harry Palmer: Starstruck.  I definitely wish them the best of luck.  After so many years of dormancy, it’s great that they have these opportunities to return to the Starstruck universe.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. The second time I met Elaine Lee was, I believe, a year later.  She was at a comic con in upstate NY, somewhere in the Hudson Valley.  One of the books she had for sale was her graphic novel anthology of erotic sci-fi stories, Skin Tight Orbit.  I really wanted to get a copy, but back then I was only 19 years old, plus my father was with me at the show, so I was much too embarassed to buy it!  Hmmm, all these years later, and I still don’t have that book.  Time to look for it on Amazon, I guess.

But, anyway, each of the times I’ve met Elaine Lee, she’s always come across as a very friendly person.  It’s always a pleasure to see her at a convention or on Facebook.  So, once again, let us wish a very happy something-something birthday to the talented, lovely, and very pleasant Elaine Lee.  Here’s hoping for many more years of amazing stories from your pen.