Practitioners 19: Steve Dillon

Steve Dillon is a British comic book artist from Luton, England. He has worked on a number of titles. He was penciller for some seminal works including the ‘Satanic Verses’ of Vertigo – Preacher, written by his consistent creative partner Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hellblazer, Punisher). Finding information on him is nigh on impossible as he seems to be as mysterious as The Saint of Killers, the iconic and legendary hunter of men designed by Dillon for the previously mentioned Preacher.

Dillon realised his potential as a serious comics artist during the production of a school comic book called ‘Sci Fi Adventures’ with school friends Neil Bailey and Paul Mahon in 1975. Dillon’s first strip in this comic was the brilliantly named ‘The Space Vampire’. This was followed by ‘Escape from Planet of the Apes’ which was drawn to a standard well beyond his years. In the late seventies Dillon wrote and illustrated a strip ‘Pi’ ina fanzine produced with Bailey called ‘Ultimate Science Fiction’.

To illustrate how far in advance of his age his drawing was Dillon secured his first professional gig in the first issue of Hulk Weekly for Marvel UK at the age of 16. He later worked on the Nick Fury. In the 1980s he also drew for Warrior and Doctor Who magazine, where he created the character Absolom Daak, Dalek Killer, a convicted killer given a reprieve for the death penalty in exchange for battling the bread bins from space. His concepts were significantly sharper and more broad than the children’s story of Doctor Who required but Dillon was going to get to sharpen his pencil for significantly darker story lines later on.

His work for 2000AD was prolific, from 1980 in Ro-Jaws’ Robo Tales: Final Solution with Alan Moore, through to a prominent position alongside Judge Dredd legends such as McMahon, Bolland and Ezquerra from 1981 to his last in 1987 and taking in Ro-Busters, Rogue Trooper, ABC Warriors and Bad Company and one shots and short runs like Hap Hazard (Prog 561 & 567, 1988) and Tyranny Rex (Prog 566-568, 1988).

In this time he completed initial redesigns for DC’s The Wanderers (a super hero team introduced in Legion of Superheroes – killed conveniently (redesigned) by Clonus, their Controller mentor and restored to a 13 issue story in the late 80s. These designs were abandoned and replaced by Robert Campanella. The series itself was drawn by Dave Hoover and Robert Campanella. Although frustrations occurred in the early days this shows signs DC were interested in the man himself as part of the British Invasion that was taking place at the time.

Along with Brett Ewins, Dillon started the comic magazine Deadline in 1988, which continued on for another seven years. Deadline was incredibly representative of the popular music/ comic book culture of the time and was to be the most successful of the 2000AD spin-offs of the period. It introduced the world to Jamie Hewlett and Tank Girl and championed the Brit Pop era that ultimately killed it off. However, by this time Dillon was working on US titles.

Finishing up with 2000AD with Harlem Heroes: Series 2 (Progs #671-676, 683-699 & 701-703, 1990) the move to the US happened with a shift over to Animal Man (now made popular by Grant Morrison’s 26 issue run) working alongside Tom Veitch for 18 issues.

Following this, Dillon worked on the gritty supernatural thriller Hellblazer, following down trodden semi-twat John Constantine through the dark confines of the supernatural underworld. Although incredibly popular and with a significant following and a feature film this was effectively a training ground for what came next. The critically acclaimed Preacher, following Jesse Custer ,disillusioned pastor struck by the supernatural power of Genesis and sent on a pilgrimage with his briefly estranged girlfriend Tulip O’ Hare and Irish Vampire Cassidy to find God and answer as to what he thought he was playing at.

In this series, Dillon brought his distinctive and clear cut artwork to life. It was written by Ennis with Dillon in mind and the majority of the action takes place in wide empty landscapes and run down detailess motels of middle America (and France). Dillon’s unambiguous artwork matched perfectly the unflinching content of Ennis’ writing: taking in sadism, masochism, buggery, a bulimic cardinal, a constantly physically humiliated villain, and the effects of an unkillable gunman from the depths of the earth facing off against an unwilling platoon of guardsmen. And thats just the beginning. I didn’t even mention the man with a face of an Arse.

Indeed, Arseface is potentially one of Dillon’s best designs, simultaneously massively deformed (everyone spontaneously vomits at the sight of him) and tragically, sensitively gallant. It makes the creation at once sympathetic and hilarious. Hard to explain, I encourage you to take a look for yourself.

Preacher ran for 66 glorious, sweary issues before concluding in 2000. It represents still a master work of irreverant character design and spacious, effective graphic story telling – at once representing romantic and traditional ideals with graphic and appalling violence and criminal scale debauchery.

From this (aside from an Atom special for DC) Dillon has continued to work with Marvel (and Ennis in part) beginning with transferring the mindless violence of Preacher to the pages of Punisher for Marvel Knights. This worked to great effect, with Dillon’s light touch and cinematic compositions offering an alternative version of the Punisher that had been prevalent since John Romita Jr’s run on Punisher: War Journal in the early 90s. Concentrating on Marvels MAX imprint Dillon drew for Straczynski’s Supreme Power spin off : Nighthawk and then to the 5 issue mini-series Bullseye: Greatest Hits (2005) – mixing it up almost immediately after with Punisher Vs Bullseye 5 issue mini series from 2005-2006).

Dillon went A-list with Marvel when offered a run with Wolverine: Origins 1-25. While his unfussy panels reduced the gravity and roughness of the central character, the violence and brutality of the title was understandably well realised.

Then it was back to Punisher with Garth Ennis in 2009 for a 6 issue series of Punisher: War Zone and Punisher MAX with Jason Aaron, an ongoing series still running now.

The high point of his career was perhaps Preacher as it utilised his skills most keenly with landscape, composition, content and characterisation but Dillon is a commercial artist hard to beat – offering accessible, enjoyable and clearly depicted panels that allow the writer’s story to flow through. This is often underestimated but as a storyteller Dillon is an exceptional practitioner. Who else can show you a Vampire getting his nuts blown off and raise a smile?

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Practitioners 14: Pat Mills

Pat Mills is the ‘Godfather of British Comics’ but also its conscience. In spite of being at the birth of some of the most debilitatingly imaginative and indelible characters to grace the pages of British comics, Mills is driven by his views and beliefs. An iconoclast and sensitive and emotive writer at times he also has a light hearted darkness in his writing. His writing carries a very ‘english’ sardonic and ironic stance to propel his writing with intelligence and brevity while still imparting perspective and opinion. He trusts his readership and as such has seen success after success throughout his career. His books are notable for their violence and anti-authoritarianism but they offer an alternative view to more media friendly fare.

Born in 1948, he became a Sub-editor for DC Thomson & Co Ltd (Publisher of 2000AD, Beano and Dandy among others) where he met his perrenial collusionist John Wagner. In 1971 both left to go freelance and bizarrely given their later careers found themselves writing scripts for IPC’s girls’ and humour comics. In an act of delightful subversion seemingly more typical of later projects, both used their positions in the girl’s department as a convenient front to secretly create Battle Picture Weekly, along with Gerry Finley-Day at the request of IPC to offer an alternative to DC Thomson’s Warlord title. More violent and working class, Battle met with great commercial success perhaps as it had more of a plausible and wide reaching perspective than its competitor at DC – but having made it ready for launch, Mills resigned as Editor.

Creating a yet more controversial and gritty title in the boy’s title, Action in 1976 the title floundered against media protests in response to its high violence and anti-authoritarinist viewpoint and the title folded within 2 years and merged into Battle.

His next creation was the most legendary of all British comic books. The most successful Science fiction weekly in British comic book history was born. 2000AD was launched in 1977. As was typical of Mill’s generous creative stance he developed most of the early series before handing it over to other creators. He took over the development of Judge Dredd – 2000ADs most enduring character when John Wagner left.

Through the pages of 2000AD, Mills created indelible characters that would pock mark the face of British comics with shell holes, blade wounds and gunfire damage. Developing from Ro-Busters (a series about a robot disaster squad – surely due for a revamp soon) a mini-universe of anti-establishment titles formed taking in the incredibly enjoyable ABC Warriors (Battle droids for hire in a authoritarian universe built to withstand Atomic, Bacterial and Chemical warfare) and culminating in the absurdist Nemisis the Warlock (and incredibly anti-establishment anarchist chaos junky alien warrior). With these, Mills investigated themes of subversion, violence, dictatorship, the destructive nature of unabated imperialism and capitalism but did so with shiny robots and lunatic alien species. This proved Mill’s great ability to imbed clear politics and philosophies into popular culture, aided by Kevin O’ Neill (present for the creation of all three) and greats such as Simon Bisley, Mike McMahon, Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy.

His chaotic, anarchist tendencies burst out in a warp spasm of celtic might in Slaine, a juicy barbarian fantasy based on Celtic mythology and neo-paganism, which he created with his then wife Angela Kincaid (with whom he also created a series of Children’s books; The Butterfly Children) who he continues to write today with some of the most innovative artists such as Clint Langley and continues to break the boundaries of wild art ever since Simon Bisley’s tenure on Slaine: The Horned God which cemented the title into an ageless classic for future comic book fans.

Globally, Mills has broken the US and more successfully (and rewardingly as it had been one of his life goals) the French markets. The first with Marshal Law, a savage superhero satire (common place now) published by Marvel Comics’ Elite imprint in the late 1980s, drawn by O’Neill. The second was cracked with Sha, created with French artist Olivier Ledroit.

Match that with a hand in IPC’s Horror comics aimed at girls, Chiller, Dice Man, featuring characters from 2000AD and more anarchic and deliberately subversive work such as Crisis (1988-1991) – a politically aware spin-off from 2000AD for older readers (including a Carlos Ezquerra drawn tale, The Third World War, a polemical critique of global capitalism and the way it exploits the developing world). Crisis launched the careers of Garth Ennis, John Smith and Sean Phillips. In 1991, almost in reaction to his own work in Crisis – less politically worthy and anarchic title, Toxic was founded – along with Tony Skinner, including Accident Man (a hired killer who makes every assassination look like an accident). The title lasted less than a year but launched the careers of Duke Mighten and Martin Emond.

Mills continues to write Slaine, Bill Savage, Black Siddha and ABC Warriors in 2000AD as well as the franco-belgian comic Requiem Vampire Knight, with art by Olivier Ledroit and its spin off Claudia Chevalier Vampire, with art by Franck Tacito.

But it is the First World War series Charley’s War, written by Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhorn reprinted in hard back recently that might live beyond its associated characters. Depicting the days of the First World in brave and unflinching writing and appearing in the pages of Battle from January 1979 to October 1985, Mills made clear through the eyes of his central character, 16 year old Charley Bourne, the reality of that great conflict without diminishing the characters into victims or unrealistic heroes but normal men diligently vying to reach the far end of a savage and clandestine war. His depiction of Shell shock harrowing and poignant it is my firm hope that this piece is offered to future generations to enjoy and understand.

More projects continue to appear. Greysuit, a super-powered government agent and Defoe, a 17th century zombie hunter drawn by Leigh Gallagher began recently in 2000AD. Mills has formed Repeat Offenders with Artist Clint Langley and Jeremy Davis ‘to develop graphic novel concepts with big-screen potential’ – an eventual plug-in to the way the rest of the industry is heading, beginning with American Reaper (optioned by Trudie Styler’s Xingu films), Mills has written the Screenplay.

Whatever lies ahead for the Godfather of British comics I hope his future doesn’t lie too heavily in the US or France or Belgium. Because uniquely I think, Pat Mills belongs to us. A writer who personifies, perhaps better than any, what it is to be English. A realist, surrealist, idealist and pragmatist rolled together. With a head nod to the absurd and the edgy and a knowing and wise grip on otherwise difficult or divisive subject matters he sees the light in the dark. His clanking monstrosities battling zombie bikers on Mars carry the same determined fatalism and charm as a mud soaked soldier in the trenches of Charlie’s War. America go hang; we’ve got the Mills.

A typical look at the life (and deaths) of English servicemen on the frontline (Charley's War, Battle, 1979-1985)