This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
I can easily pinpoint the comic book that made me love comics. It’s War In The Sun, the sixth volume of artist Steve Dillon and writer Garth Ennis’ wonderful 1990s Vertigo Comics series Preacher. I was about 12 or 13 and a hardcore Marvel Comics nerd. I’d heard about this comic about a Texas preacher called Jesse Custer going on a road trip across America to literally find God, that was supposedly was filled with violence and swearing and sex and blasphemy. It has the same dangerous appeal to young teenage me that Quentin Tarantino movies or Eminem albums had.
The local WH Smith had the sixth book in the series, and unlike an 18-rated DVD, they sold it to me oblivious to the obscene content that was inside.
It definitely didn’t disappoint in terms of adult content. But that’s not what stuck with me. There’s a scene where Jesse and his estranged girlfriend Tulip are in bed together, talking. It’s not essential to the plot or anything, but it’s a vital character moment. It was something I’d never seen in a comic before. It was just a few pages of a couple talking. Of course, part of it is Garth Ennis’ masterful dialogue. But Dillon’s art, subtly depicting the characters acting, facial expressions and body language, made these few pages of two people talking about feelings as riveting as any fight scene. I knew comics could do explosions and superheroes and aliens, but I didn’t know they could do that. It was like seeing Lost In Translation when all you’ve seen are Michael Bay movies.
Steve Dillon passed away over the weekend, at the disgracefully young age of 54. Even before Preacher, his place in comics history was assured. Born in 1962 in Luton, by his late teens he was drawing for Marvel’s UK office, and quickly moved onto 2000AD to work on the likes of Judge Dredd. Then in 1988, along with Brett Ewins (another great comics artist who died too young), he launched the influential underground British comic Deadline, which gave the world Tank Girl from future Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlitt, and helped launch a new generation of British comics talent including Peter Milligan, Phillip Bond and Shaky Kane.
Dillon came through at the tail end of the ‘British Invasion’ of the 1980s, that saw creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison revolutionise American comics, predominantly through their work for the DC imprint Vertigo. He started working on Vertigo’s flagship title Hellblazer, about the British working class magician-slash-conman John Constantine, originally created by Alan Moore. And this is where he would first team with his greatest collaborator, the Northern Irish wirter Garth Ennis. Hellblazer was already an acclaimed book, but Ennis brought it to the peak of its success. He defined Constantine, turning from a mouthpiece for the book’s anti-Thatcher politics into a fully three-dimensional tragic figure. And Dillon’s art was essential to conveying that emotion. He drew people that looked like real people, that were not sterioded musclemen but instead looked like the people you actually see down the pub (drinking and pubs are a recurring theme in Ennis and Dillon’s work).
After leaving Hellblazer, Dillon and Ennis would re-team for their masterpiece: Preacher. The 66-issue series ran from 1995 to 2000, and concerned the adventures of Texan preacher Jesse Custer, possessed by the offspring of an angel and a demon, who along with his hit-woman ex-girlfriend Tulip and a century-old vampire shitbag Cassidy, are trying to literally find God, who’s gone walkabouts from Heaven. It was as controversial as it was successful, filled with swearing, shocking violence, real heart and tender examinations of friendship, responsibilities and the American Dream. It was also where Dillon truly proved himself to be a superstar.
Most comic book artists seem to want to emulate Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott or even Michael Bay. They want to use the medium’s infinite budget to show the biggest action scene, or the craziest alien landscape or whatever. Steve Dillon was different. As was most appropriate to Preacher’s Western aesthetic, the director he was most like was Clint Eastwood. No flash for the sake of it, but a complete master storyteller. He generally stuck to simple grid panel layouts, as opposed to pushing what the comic book page was capable of. But that wasn’t because he lacked imagination — it was because he could do everything, and make you feel everything, without having to go outside the box. It was all about character.
One of the most famous scenes he drew was when he and Ennis ended up doing The Punisher for Marvel. By the 2000s, The Punisher had fallen out of favor, but their 12 issue limited series Welcome Back Frank revolutionised the character, merging the inherent darkness in Frank Castle with a hilarious jet black humour. One of the most famous scenes from Welcome Back Frank shows Dillon at his very best. The Punisher is being chased through Central Park Zoo by mobsters, and finds himself cornered. He has no bullets left, and he is also trapped in the polar bear enclosure. So he punches a polar bear in the face, and then runs off, leaving the irritated bear to take out his pursuers for him.
Again, it’s a wonderful concept from writer Ennis. But Dillon is the one to make this farcical scene work. There’s an old line about comics actually being about what happens between the panels — and Dillon was a genius at making that timing work. First The Punisher and the bear stare at each other really awkwardly. Then straight away the next panel is Frank Castle having already thrown the punch, and the bear’s startled face. That face is possibly the best facial expression in the history of comics. He looks like the reader does — ‘Oh my god, did this really just happen!?!?’. Then when you flip the page, there’s the bear and his two mates, starring down the gangsters. It’s as good a payoff as any joke in cinema you can think of.
The Punisher would become probably the character Dillon was most associated with, even more than the cast of Preacher. He’d draw writer Jason Aaron’s follow up to Ennis’ long tenure on Punisher, as well as also depicting him in the 2012 version of Thunderbolts. He was even working on the current Punisher comic, written by Becky Cloonan, at the time of his death. But it was that run with Jason Aaron, under Marvel’s adult’s only MAX imprint that to my mind might actually be his finest work. I’d like to point out one page in particular. That MAX series reimagines Frank Castle in a new, grounded continuity, alongside other street level characters like Kingpin, Elektra and Bullseye.
There’s one bit in the arc with Bullseye, where he’s trapped behind sound-proof glass. Bullseye is an insane killer, who’s trying to get into The Punisher’s head. Unable to be heard, he scrawls on a bit of paper “What’s your favourite colour? Red, right?”. Frank doesn’t react. There’s an awkward pause. Then he puts a bomb on the glass. Bullseye thinks, then shows him a note that says “Blue?”. That description might not sound that great. But Dillon was such a master at pacing, and at facial expressions, that it’s perfect. Bullseye goes from optimistic to disappointed to scared to quizzical to blindly hopeful in just four panels. It also completely conveys the madness of his character. It is both hilarious and terrifying. Dillon was the single greatest comics artist at character acting.
Having only the singe-frame glimpses-in-time that comic panels work on, a lot of artists chose to constantly change perspective in order to create action and tension. Dillon on the other hand knew how to use stillness and repetition to incredible effect. A lot of this is shown in his work on Herr Starr, the head of the mysterious Grail organisation and main antagonist in Preacher. Starr suffers constant humiliation at the hands of Jesse Custer, but it’s the quite moments after the battle, where he reviews his injuries that makes the character both so funny, yet also never belies his genuine menace. At one point Jesse cuts him across the top of his head, so that it resembles, well, a penis. Starr’s reacting to this once he gets back to his base is another masterclass set-piece from Dillon.
Starr stares into a mirror, and the image doesn’t change. His disgruntled expression is enough to carry it for a full nine panel gird page. Finally in the last panel, he just utters “Shit.” It’s the perfect punchline. It gets even better though. That page repeats throughout the issue,, but with him trying on various wigs and then hats to cover up the unfortunate scar. Each hat or hairpiece is accompanied by exactly the same expression, and it’s the juxtaposition of the ludicrous hats and the stern face that make the humour so brilliant. Finally in the ninth panel, he hits the panama hat he will wear for the rest of the series. Nothing changes, apart his lip curls up from a frown into a smile. The subtly is earthshaking. That is the power of sequential comic book panels.
There’s more I could write about Dillon’s work — how he brought that incredible deadpan style all his mainstream superhero work, yet was still able to depict scenes of epic widescreen action; how his art slowly evolved in that instantly recognizable flat, matter of fact style; and his incredible character design on Preacher. Preacher itself was recently adapted for TV by AMC — despite an amazing cast, and great reviews I haven’t brought myself to watch yet because I just can’t image any real actors being able to deliver lines like Dillon’s drawing did. A lot of comic book criticism puts the writer over the artist. I’m not going to say that’s right or wrong, but Dillon was a true auteur. His books felt like no one else’s, no matter who was writing, just through his mastery of staging, timing, and acting — his runs on lesser titles on Marvel books like Thunderbolts and Wolverine Origins were elevated to must-reads due to prefect control of the medium, despite the stories often just being standard superhero tales.
He was my favorite comic book artist of all time. Dying so young, we were robbed of hundreds of pages of future comics from him, but there are already hundreds of pages out there for us to enjoy. There are loads more panels and issues I could point out to highlight his genius. All I can say is that if you haven’t read them, pick up Preacher, or Welcome Back Frank (both with Garth Ennis) or his Punisher MAX run (with Jason Aaron). You won’t be disappointed.