Beyond Dredd & Watchmen: the Art of John Higgins
The Victoria Gallery and Museum is in a beautiful listed red-brick building, holding an imposing position in the knowledge quarter of Liverpool. With its Gothic turret, it is surrounded by a vast array of buildings of education, be it Liverpool University, John Moores University Liverpool, the Science park or The John Lennon Art and Design Building, it is perfectly situated a short and pleasant walk from Liverpool Lime St. Station. Inside the building, there is a breathtaking atrium, which houses a café.
I am here for the John Higgins art exhibition, and, once up a set of stairs, immediately one is confronted by a classic John Higgins Judge Dredd on the double doors into the gallery area.
This image is the one from the 1986 Sci-Fi Special, a quintessential Dredd, strong chinned and stoic, but also unmistakeably John Higgins by the lines, and so strong with the bight colours.
As I took this image in, the first of many larger than life presentations of John’s art, it was hard not to get excited – if this was the entranceway, what lay ahead?
A long corridor beckoned, but here, like elsewhere in this large exhibit, incredible use of space has been made, but something special is going on. The Victoria Gallery and Museum is part of the University of Liverpool, and has a considerably large collection, and so they have spent time with John Higgins, extracting influences, and inspirations, and then displaying art that complements John’s.
Next to Twisted Bitches from Razorjack there is the massive Euan Uglow, his Nude, 12 Vertical Positions from the Eye, the across from that there is a Judith Riley above a Watchmen colour proof, and the colours seem to sit ever so well together. St Michael’s Mount by Turner is next to Worlds Without End, Swamp thing is next to The Capture of the Inner Person by Freud. It is just amazing, and astounding, each piece there is a connection, a comparison to be made, something to be understood, why they have been brought together, juxtaposed, compared and contrasted yet aligned for the viewer to consider.
John Heritage’s End of Meeting is next to World Without End, the florid brush work being a common factor, William Hunter’s Gravid Uterus next to a dissection drawing that John did while at the Royal Marsden. Huge cartoons that were the basis for stained glass windows in St Giles in Edinburgh sit next the cover for The Chronicles of Morgaine, written by C.J. Cherryh. An Augustus John self portrait next to a sketch entitled A Lone both in black and white, both with staring piercing eyes looking our. The distinctive Higgins’ chin and eyes on the A Lone and there is a wonderful horizontal contrast with the cheek bones.
Displaying art from the university collection is an inspirational move. This level of thought is incredible, and soon I come to realise that it is indicative of this whole fabulous exhibition, which challenges what viewers have come to expect. This is a perfect introduction, and ascribes a respect and gravitas to the comic work, and is indicative of how his work is being held.
One is visually assaulted as one enters the exhibitions rooms, I went in from the back, and straight ahead is a huge mural, combining Megacity, the world of Razorjack and the Victoria Gallery and Museum, fused in one wall filling mural, about sixteen feet tall.
On the walls of this room, there are incredible Dredd original pages. An image from the comic on display has been taken and blown up to fill the wall space, upon which then pages of original art have been placed. A system of magnets and a huge perspex sheet presents the art, so the full page can be clearly seen, important for those blue pencil notes, and the effect is incredibly appealing. John Higgins himself is on hand, and you can see how much he likes this ‘framing’ or presentation method, s one can see beyond the frame. The museum have applied a real process here, looking at how best to display the art to its fullest.
One background is the Cursed Earth, while another is a side on view of a late eighties Higgins’ Dredd, the colour of both lifting the black and white original page, while another is pale blue, allowing the full colour pages to stand out. Higgins has changed his style on Dredd over the years and this is well represented, with a lovely selection on display.
A quad set of pictures, demonstrating the process for a Judge Dredd Film image show what goes into creating a full colour piece, while comics in display cabinets allow one to see the final version of the art on display. This is a part of the remit, it feels of the museum, and indeed Higgins himself, while he is so proud of this exhibit, his pleasure is palpable, he is also earnest in his desire to help others learn from his experience.
In conjunction with the University he has produced a massive tome, going into his history, ‘Beyond Dredd & Watchmen: the Art of John Higgins‘ with an introduction by Dave Gibbons, and edited by Michael Carroll. At 272 pages and 200 colour illustrations, this is a lovely work that allows those that appreciate it to enjoy the best of Higgins’ work. As well as the choice works there are ‘never before seen preliminary drawings of now iconic characters’, the book includes insights into the career of the comic book artist. It all combines into being an incredible insight into his artistic process, the tools he uses, and a lot of commentary that is obviously aimed at those who wish to enter the profession.
Showing how things are done is key, and a page from Killing Joke is presented in a number of formats, the colour proof, a ‘flip’ image, where the black inks can be removed on acetate to show the colours below, and then the original and more recent coloured comics. I think this is fabulous, it allows viewers to see the process in a new light. A cabinet is full of sketches, inks, brushes, pens, and materials that have been taken from his studio, another shows the restricted pallets, colour proofs, final proofs next to the original Watchmen Comics, all showing the tools, the working side of John’s craft.
Higgins has had a rich career, and it is demonstrated in just how much space is dedicated to his work. A whole wall is full of Razorjack art, next to a bust of the afeared creature. Full colour spreads of Dredd work sit next to a Laurel and Hardy portrait. The Gallery & Museum again make fantastic use of space, and an image combing Dredd biking away from the Building fills a whole wall, a bench strategically placed so one can view the comic art on three adjacent walls in moment contemplation.
The process is a factor in many places, the Worlds without End presentation containing around fifteen images, include a variety of stages of the process, sketch, pencil drawing, ink colours which look stunning, and the final comic. A series of Before Watchmen images demonstrate the importance of colour selection, and the notes guide one to an understanding of how important Watchmen was from a colourist perspective. Everything takes one through the process, sharing an understanding and indeed appreciation of what has gone into the work. The Crimson Corsair is represented with Thumbnails, roughs, finished ink artwork, likewise Thunderbolt Jackson has a wonderful selection on display.
The big mural from a book of monsters, the Scales of justice the university & Gallery building, it just all adds up. John explains that he was more than happy to mash up art, plundering his own artwork and helping to create visuals to bring it to a new audience and new use.
Michael Carroll was on hand, he helped edit the book that accompanies the exhibition, and we just geek out at how amazing the whole exhibit is, while colourist Sally Jane Hurst was with John and again the appreciation is there for what the Museum have done, it is truly amazing.
I count over thirty pages of original Dredd artwork alone, and there are over a hundred pieces of original art on display, and equally as many artefacts available to be seen. There are quotes from Higgins in large writing on the walls, and the whole exhibit has been laid out and presented with a beautiful attention to detail, level of thought and care.
I think that the Victoria Gallery and Museum have done this son of Liverpool very proud, I felt as I wandered around that as well as totally exploring the artistic process and presenting what has to be considered a first class selection of original artwork, it has set a bar for the gallery community, as I can only imagine other artistic peers enquiring if their artwork would be displayed to the standard that John Higgins was.
John Higgins is a fabulous artist, but here one can really admire and appreciate it in all its glory, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey from London up to Liverpool, and then back again, excited by what I had seen and so impressed by it all.
Beyond Dredd and Watchmen: The Art of John Higgins is at the Victoria Gallery, Ashton Street, Liverpool L69 3DR, England, running until October 2017