Steve Dillon, Comic Book Artist from a fan’s perspective
Steve Dillon’s artwork in 2000 AD was attractive, clean, and neat, able to portray scenes and actions dynamically, grabbing the reader and telling the story at a pace that was electric.
I had stopped reading Battle as it merged with Eagle. Although I was a late joiner in 1989, and it was some time after I had read my first Dredd story, I happily admit that I started to pick up 2000 AD on a weekly basis at Prog 650, with fully painted stories, John Higgins’ Dredd, Will Simpson on part 1 of Rogue Trooper War Machine and Simon Bisley on Sláine —a fabulous starting point. I wasn’t to know then that my favourite writer with Charlie’s War at Battle, Pat Mills, was so involved with 2000 AD.
Soon I was buying back issues at a phenomenal rate. I was fifteen. My local second-hand comic shop, Phantasia in Dublin, where Mick O’Connor worked, was selling back issues at four or five for £1, and this was my regular haunt. I learned more about artists and writers here, I made friends, Mick who was life long, Pádraig O’Mealoid who has graced this blog numerous times, and many others. Cheap comics and great convo, all thanks to Mick, with a foul bunch of science fiction and comic fans. Soon it was six for a pound. I was a valued customer; it was all new to me.
At this stage I was enjoying 2000A Ds in blocks. I would go back fifty comics and start to fill in the gaps, I refused to read Zenith till I got back to Phase One, but the Horned God part 1 was good enough. Indeed, I would forgo school lunches to buy comics, use any spare pocket money to buy comics. Mick reorganised the comics to make my task of finding progs easier, I was reading and re-reading them at an incredible rate.
Steve’s work was everywhere. It was like I had hit gold and even though Steve was working on comics like Skreemer and editing and working on Deadline at this time, I was encountering his work in the five hundreds of 2000 AD. Characters like Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Tyranny Rex and Hap Hazzard, all favourites, were all drawn by him.
Steve’s portrayal of movement, action scenes, and bullet shots were all fabulous. Up close, hand-to-hand fighting seemed to always capture the fraught action, and it was all so neat and clean, fine, crisp line work, shading and black and whites that were definite and clear. His panels always flowed, setting the scene, preparing the reader, sequential art at its finest. You could get any story by scanning it quickly without the words. He could change angles brilliantly, looking down the sight to up the barrel of a gun.
He had a distinctive style, a thin mouthed look for men, athletic women and men, no muscle bulging, and his faces always told as much of the story as anything. Be it between Anderson and Dredd, or the hints of smugness as a Judge goes wrong, or fear in a perp’s eyes, facial descriptiveness as part of the art was key. Whether it was Rogue with his bio-chip buddies, Venus Bluegenes, Tyranny Rex, all emotions anger, horror and frustration, relief, joy and adoration he could capture easily, offering a vast range of looks, width of eyes, beads of perspiration, all giving the reader an exact understanding of that character’s emotional and psychological state.
Dillon’s Dredd was straightforward, clean and realistic, a sensibly styled helmet, a strong but natural jawline, a physique that looked right, and distinctive characters. From Anderson to Giant to Orlok, they all looked the part. His Lawmaster bike and Lawgiver gun were perfect. You never really got much of the city-wide vista with Dillon, but that was okay, as the action was where it was at.
I, of course, was consuming a lot of comics, so I got to recognise artists by their style, Steve drew thirty-odd 2000 AD covers, and I’d love finding that he had done a cover on a story I had not expected. His Maximan covers for Zenith were amazing, Progs 535 and 538 both fantastic moments. He wrote Rogue Trooper – Through the Eyes of a Gun and five episodes of Hap Hazzard, and although he did not do much wordsmithing I loved them too. The 500s were a hectic time, well from a reader’s perspective. 569 had a cover, and two stories drawn by Steve, all in one Prog.
At the time, back in the late Prog 600s the New Harlem Heroes were drawn by Steve, which had stunning covers and pin ups, and Judge Dredd Nightmares, with Yassa Povey from ‘The Dead Man/Necropolis’ storyline, was drawn by him, and so amongst the greats were the steady weekly stream,
Of course many would point to Judge Dredd – Block War, Night of the Werewolf, The Hunter’s Club and City of the Damned as key Dredd works, by Steve and I would eventually work my way backwards, and indeed, they are stunning. I had lucked out, a friend of a friend had a couple of hundred progs and wanted a no-hassle cash deal, and so I bought these for a vast amount of money, £12 (it seemed a lot back then!), exchanging cash for a double wrapped bin bag full of progs, at a Black Sabbath gig in McGonagle’s.
It had been an incredibly productive eighteen months as a comic fan, learning, watching, attending events in Dublin, meeting fans, and finding a most amazing group of friends into comics, science fiction, great writing like Hunter S Thompson and beer. I was 17.
Then along comes the pairing that has stood the test of time. In 1991, in April, the cover of 2000 AD featured Dredd’s grimace, but with him was a Judge with a cheeky smile, a pint of porter, the island of Ireland behind them with the announcement of the start of the Emerald Isle. I nearly fell over reading the comic from purchase point on Henry Street at the Grafton Arcade to the bus stop.
Here was a Judge Dredd story set in Ireland. It was a huge deal to me. Colin MacNeil’s Sadu from Hondo City, Will Simpson’s Banana City Judges, McCarthy’s Brit-Cit Judges, it felt like everywhere had a Judge, and then here comes Ennis and Dillon and they present a hilarious episode of Dredd. Judge Joyce, the spud gun, the Charles Haughey Port, St Stephen’s Green, everything seemed tongue in cheek, a slight absurdity that resonated with me, perfect for my schoolboy humour sensibilities, and rebellious attitude. I was ecstatic.
The partnership of Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis was one that would last and be extremely fruitful, but I wasn’t prepared or expected more than being a loyal reader.
Steve Dillon, Garth Ennis and John McCrea swaggered into a Dublin science fiction convention, swashbuckling style, the three Musketeers, full of confidence, charm, laughter, and looking for a good weekend, and so I had the opportunity to meet them. It was an incredible pleasure, but also a revelatory time.
I was an obtuse teenager, engrossed in my 2000 ADs, eschewing ‘American’ comics, focussed on expanding my knowledge of 2000 AD and now reading Crisis, adoring Troubled Souls, but I was also naïve, and my friends even had to tell me to bring some comics to sign. And so I got them signed, but then something, one of many moments that remain with me occurred. It was put to me that it might be appropriate to ask for a sketch, and I was a bit flabbergasted. We were in The Powers Hotel, sitting near the bar.
Steve Dillon offered me a sketch, it was like he had to. It broke me. Comics were these amazing things that I read, that my Dad read to me when I was too small, and the artwork therein was to be revered and adored, stories that entertained, but actually having a sketch, a piece of art.. That was like, surely not allowed. I was lost for words, I’d been babbling anyhow, excited and pleased to meet these creators of fun, and now here I was owning a piece of artwork. It was incredible.
John likewise obliged, and I loved it, was indeed suddenly addicted, and over the weekend, got many sketches from them both, I even got one from Garth, and John had some unused pencils from a comic layout, that he just gave away. I was, well, it was unreal. I got to chat, drink and hang out with them. Steve was like the senior person in the group, that was for sure, you sensed John and Gareth’s respect yet they were comic book professionals, colleagues and I loved the way Steve was always smiling and laughing, and just so pleasant, but they were all the best. John would do rather wild things for the laugh.
Now, there was drink involved, and they were all very kind and put up with a troublesome teenager, and at one stage, Geoff Ryman took me for a sandwich. I needed it. That was science fiction conventions, they were fun places, with great people.
Garth had heard my dismissiveness about American comics, but he did not mock me, or dismiss me, no, he found a quiet moment, and from an inside pocket produced a piece of art, a cover for a comic. It was a Glenn Fabry cover, it was Hellblazer number 52, and he said, this was an American comic he was writing, and so I was quickly convinced, my fickle youth ignoring previous protestations, and I remember afterwards Steve giving me this knowing look, and a nod and saying I would really like them, and of course, I did not even realise at that stage, that he was working on them.
Garth, Steve and John came to a number of conventions and events in the early 90s. Steve lived near Raheny, in north Dublin, and they were so accessible to fans. This of course led to a slight addiction for me, and when I saw Steve, or John, I would ask for a sketch, and by golly, they would oblige.
I look at these sketches now, and can tell where and when they occurred, as the paper is indicative of time and place. The idea of a sketchbook was lost on me, indeed, a lack of any preparations initially led me to utilise hotel paper, so many of my sketches are on a lovely heavy beige paper, and on the reverse, the hotel heading, be it Powers Hotel on Nassau Street, or The Royal Marine in Dun Laoghaire. Occasionally the opportunity occurred, and Steve who came to other events, would never have a problem doing a sketch, and so my Dredd sketch is on the back of an A4 page of graph paper, from my school copy book. He was good to me, but clever enough to keep me calm, and indeed, one time did a self portrait, mouthing ‘Christ it’s James’ which everyone thought was very funny, and his smile and tap on the shoulder as he gave it to me with warm eyes, and I smiled and so I offered him a pint; I had learned.
Hellblazer was amazing straight away, starting as I did at issue 41. Will Simpson, whom I knew from 2000 AD, was doing the art, and I was so impressed, and then, issue 49, and it was a joyful Christmas issue, and by Steve Dillon. The last few pages though, were Garth and Steve walking home after a session, and I knew it was them, and was taken by their friendship and that such a realistic and natural thing could be in a comic, it felt amazing but also so unique, real people in the pages.
Steve’s run on Hellblazer was excellent. Garth’s run, I loved it all. Will Simpson who also soon came down to Dublin and later John Higgins’ artwork. It felt like a different type of read; love, sex, racism, violence, hurt and of course John Constantine, all seemed magical yet grounded. I thought Kit was amazing, and was so pleased that she got to tell her own story, with Heartland, but the dam burst of comics also presented so many options and so my friends guided me, as best they could, but everyone recommended Skreemer and Pádraig insisted I read it.
Skreemer was just phenomenal, and I think one of the most overlooked comics from DC. Peter Milligan did an amazing job, and Steve’s art, the use of colours, was fabulous.
I grew a bit and got involved with these conventions, and soon Steve Dillon was kind enough to be a Special Comics Guest of Honour at Octocon. He attended anyhow, but he gave so much, he attended Irish Science Fiction Association talks, and was happy to be interviewed but here as a GoH he was amazing, Garth was also along and both participating in panels, and indeed making time for fans. I remember him showing a group of us thumbnails and scripts and going through the process. It was all so natural to him.
(photos from the 1993 Octocon – the major SF&F con in Ireland – by and (c) Paul Sheridan)
He was an amazing guest, and indeed, I think the first comic book guest of honour for that SF con Will Simpson, Paul Peart, John Higgins J.G Jones, Mike Carey and Gail Simone have all been guests at Octocon since, but Garth, John and Steve were the first ones there, and indeed, initially they just paid their way and enjoyed the weekends with fans.
As I moved forward in time, my collecting went backwards too. Pádraig Sold me his Warrior comics, and I was taken by both David Lloyd, Steve Parkhouse and of course Steve Dillon art, and was amazed to see how young Steve was when he started, but his style was immediately recognisable and I loved that. As I found my way, writers and artists would become favourites, and so I would buy the comics by creators I liked. This would not always result in the most enriching experience. Some comics looked amazing, but the story was not as entertaining for me. I just about figured this out, so I was always a bit nonplussed by Judge Dredd City of the Damned, and have a run of Animal Man’s because Steve drew it that was maybe a little too introspective for my liking.
Steve was a gentleman, in the sense that he was good to fans, so when I pitched up with some Animal Mans amongst Hellblazers to get signed, he was cautious about asking me what I thought of them. I love the artwork, I said, unsure, it is a tricky place, even now, how does one say to an artist that the writer is not for me, or to a writer that the art sits oddly with me. It is such a personal and subjective issue. Yet in my insecurity and his honesty, it came out that he did not really enjoy drawing all the animals, and there was relief as I admitted it wasn’t my absolute fave, and Hellblazer which was running concurrently, was a favourite.
The image of The Punisher punching a polar bear often makes me smile, as I imagine it is some sort of retribution for all those Animals in Animal Man.
How were these comic book creators to know that my love of comics and enjoyment of conventions would see me leading conventions where their peers from Charlie Adlard to Bryan Talbot and David Lloyd to Glenn Fabry would be honoured and I’d work to ensure comics creators were a material fabric of what makes a science fiction convention a whole, welcoming as many as possible from Liam Sharp to Audrey Niffenegger.
Hellblazer delighted and then ended, and within six months, Preacher happened. I started at the beginning and saw it through to the end. It was beautifully drawn, doing a lot of what Steve was really great at, capturing close moments, portraying Garth’s writing with real sense of storytelling, a flow, crispness and clarity that made each comic feel too short, and of course that sense of artistic timing and perspective. I loved it.
I also had a great time with it. Pádraig and myself owned a book shop by that point and Pádraig turned up some gems, and so I ended up with scripts and art from Garth, and even though Steve had moved back to England and soon Garth would be away to the States, the way Cassidy’s story began in 1916 in the GPO was an incredible link and it all felt magical.
I had grown up a bit, and had taken to buying artwork. This was started by Will Simpson, who sold me a number of pages out of the boot of his car, Hellblazer, fabulous stuff. I was lucky to buy pages by Steve, from Tyranny Rex, Judge Dredd Both classic Hunters Club and my favourite, because it is a starting point for me, a page from Nightmares.
I was gifted a page from When Irish Pies are Smiling, and so a Judge Joyce adorned my wall, and then bought I bought pages from Preacher. That I could frame and hang these artworks on my wall was incredible, but seeing the art up close always fascinated me, the blue lines, pencils, how lettering was attached and the fading of different pieces of paper. One could see up close the skill of the lines, and indeed, not the cheats, but the ways that Steve made the artwork work, he was fast, crikey, everyone in Dublin who was a fan, or most of the fans I knew had a Steve Dillon sketch. It was adored, and treasured, but he was fast at them, deceptively so, his line was always right, his hand confident, and spot on, never did I see a sketch that did not look exactly right. That is a natural ability and skill, but also training and work.
Preacher came to an end, and I trekked up to Belfast where John and Mal hosted a final issue event, and it was an amazing day. Afterwards I ate with them all and had some drinks in the Queens before heading south. Steve had drawn a lovely print. Somehow this was just the perfect ending to the story. Indeed, I read the final issue down the back of the shop, and was so impressed and pleased and loved it, it was perfect. It was as if other readers, or in the case of Mal and John, retailers, naturally understood that this was worth celebrating. It was a story that went in many directions, encompassed many characters, and it had a beginning, many fantastic middles, and a definite end.
As if the pairing was bound to continue, Punisher had begun already and so fans were able to immediately continue with the team of Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis, and Steve brought his style to the comic. While the stories went in many directions, there was a thoughtfulness to a character that I had just seen as a brutal simplistic vigilante. The variety of stories were brilliant. The breadth has been wonderful, from a focus on realistic crimes that infect humanity to the wonderful issue featuring Daredevil, Ennis can really twist the knife sometimes, and it was perfectly drawn, Steve using perspective and angles and the close up of facial expressions and features to their best advantage.
Punisher was a constant at that stage, but other comics, Gen 13, Ultimates, Global Frequency, Supreme Power, would pop up, and I would pick them up assured of a good job on the artwork while his run on Wolverine Origins and more recently Thunderbolts all have a spot on my shelf.
In 2008 I went to the Studio Space signing at Waterstone’s in Oxford St. This is a fabulous book by Joel Meadows and I of course bought a copy. Steve and Bryan were both doing sketches in the book. I already had a lovely Luther Arkwright, so I was happy with just a signature from Bryan, who is always kind and offered a sketch, and Steve was happy to sketch, and had no problem doing it in my sketch book rather than in the book. I asked for Preacher. He looked surprised when I said I hadn’t had a sketch of this, one of my favourite characters, but with skill and some speed, soon Jesse was looking out of the corner of his eye. Perfect. Punisher continued and then there was Thunderbolts.
Then Preacher hit the news as it was picked up by AMC and the idea of it actually at long last making it as a TV series was fantastic. This was great news, and I realised not so much as I was desperate to watch the TV series, but rather so pleased that it would be made, a type of vindication for a comic that I feel is ripe for such an adaptation and pleased for Steve and Garth. As the actors were made known, I was again amazed at the connectivity as Ruth Negga who is half Irish was announced as Tulip. It made me smile. My pal Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez went to South by Southwest in March and was sharing images and reportage as he went, and even got to see the screening and meet the various members of the creative team and spoke about it. It all sounded so good.
Concurrently, the news that Steve Dillon would be returning to Punisher with Becky Cloonan doing the writing was like an alarm going off in a U-boat of comic fans. Cloonan has secured herself as an excellent writer in my mind and this was a fabulous teaming.
Off I went to Forbidden Planet, but that wasn’t good enough, in the fan boy sense.
Becky Cloonan was signing in Austin Books & Comics in Texas, not far from where Pablo lives, and so we coordinated. I have taken to buying multiple copies of comics and getting them signed to pals. It is an amazing thing to turn up in the post, a great way to start or reacquaint someone with a comic, and supports the creators. I had only been in Birmingham a short time, weeks beforehand, and gotten John McCrea to sign a bunch of comics, including his All Star Section Eight and Mythic, and I had just received a signed Dreaming Eagle from the States, where my friend Dave Farmer had a relative attend a Garth Ennis signing of said comic. Synchronicity was as ever at play and I initially thought the cover to issue #1 was by Steve, but it was by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, another Irish connection. Although timing wasn’t perfect, I’d hoped I might get or find the free AMC reissue of Preacher #1 with Steve’s cover, but with the TV cast, but it was not to be.
So I queued, and I was impressed with the diversity of the queue. I was definitely older in the age curve of those who were here. It felt like a lot of younger readers—well younger than me—were here, and the gender mix was impressive. Good news, I thought, and I was pleased that in general the queue represented what I see as London. The first lady in the queue was very pleased. I smiled, and we could all hear the few words pass between them, about Becky in Austin, and as ever he was so friendly. Here was Steve Dillon, twenty-five years on from when I first met him, gladly and happily signing comics, chatting and being so courteous. I picked up a bunch of Punishers, and adorned them with Post It notes, with the names of the people who would be getting them, from Morpeth to Santa Clara, and of course for Pablo in Austin, they would journey away, and as ever I was surprised that Steve remembered who I was, and was happy to chat. It was lovely. And the comic is excellent..
And so, I was saddened to hear of Steve’s passing. Yet I only met him, for hours spread over the years, maybe countable on the fingers of my hands, my early connections so important in my forming as a comic book fan, leaving much more meaning and importance to me, of course disproportionate in experience.
Steve was an incredible artist, but he was really great to his fans. I would love to write more about him, but I only saw glimpses, moments in time, and at all times, he exemplified everything that is just great about comic books. Generous, kind, thoughtful, with a great sense of humour and he gave so much to so many. I am just one fan, of tens of thousands, mourning his passing, so many fans in Dublin shared sketches and encounters, their Steve Dillon moments cherished and the images cared and loved, and the moment special. Ah Dogwelder, he had an incredible sense of humour.
As a fan, it was unexpected, it still is, the generosity of time is incredible, I don’t feel I deserve any more than a great read when I buy a comic, but for some reason, the kindness exists and is real and is an affirmation of what can be fabulous within the comics and books community and amongst humans.
I cannot imagine how hard it is for Steve’s family, his friends and colleagues, those who spent time with him, all I can do is record that his impact was important, in a wonderfully positive way. Be grateful for the appreciation of art that he helped nurture, grateful for an incredible body of work.
He is a real loss to those who knew him, I am certain there are many and I am certain that Garth and John especially will feel the loss and heartache. With the rest of us here in the Parish of Forbidden Planet Blog all we can offer is our condolences, say we are sorry for their loss but know that he will not be forgotten, and always remembered well.
Notes to readers: