Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Steve Dillon, 1962-2016

Posted by Don MacPherson on October 22nd, 2016

Like a lot of North American comics enthusiasts, my introduction to Steve Dillon’s art was in the pages of DC’s Hellblazer in the mid 1990s. I had just finished with my post-secondary education, and I was emerging into full adulthood. Relocation, independence and a burgeoning career. A real paycheque meant my love for comics could be indulged further. I remained (and still do) a fan of super-hero comics, but my eyes had already been opened to more mature fare exploring other genres. I’d discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman during my university years. I think it was in 1994 that someone at the comic shop I was frequenting at the time insisted that I look at Hellblazer. I wasn’t all that familiar with or enthralled by John Constantine, as I hadn’t been a reader of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, which introduced the character.

I don’t specifically recall if it was the first Garth Ennis/Dillon issue I read or not, but the memory that sticks with me to this day was Constantine’s journey through a nightmarish American purgatory, guided by the grotesque, post-assassination form of John F. Kennedy. (A quick web search reveals it was the “Damnation’s Flame” storyline from Hellblazer #s 72-75). Though I’m not an American, I immediately recognized that the use of Kennedy, open head wound and all, as a key figure in the storyline would be practically blasphemous to my neighbors to the south. I was struck by the daring of it, by the sheer gall and bravery of the storytelling choice.

While I recognize it was a choice made by Ennis, it was Dillon’s artwork that had the most profound impact. His unflinching and realistic depiction of a dead man, his head ravaged by a bullet, was what made the concept so powerful. As ballsy as it was for Ennis to come up with the idea, it was Dillon’s meticulous, unflinching portrayal of that idea that slapped the reader in the face and screamed, “Pay attention, you little shit! This is important!” And it was important – ugly but important. Ennis and Dillon were opening their readers’ eyes to truths… cultural, political and socio-economic truths. It’s OK to enjoy a sausage, they told us, but you ought to know how the sausage is made. As a 20-something who’d only left his country once as a kid to visit Disney World, I had a lot to learn about How Things Worked. My life had been (and would remain) a thoroughly comfortable existence, and Dillon drew uncomfortable, intense things that educated me, that made me question my world and that helped me appreciate my privileges.

Hellblazer, practically by definition of its title, cast demons – literal and figurative – in the roles of the villains, but Ennis and Dillon’s next collaboration, Preacher, put things considered forces for good (or of good) on trial. The larger arc of the series was taking God to task for abdicating his responsibilities, but Ennis and Dillon also took aim at faith and family. Whereas the protagonists were often figures that were traditionally the bad guys (an assassin and a vampire, for example), the villains in Preacher were the church and kin. Things that were meant to be sources of comfort without question were challenged and exposed. Dillon designed them to be twisted, distorted monsters, from Jesse Custer’s inbred cousins to Herr Starr to the Allfather.

I’m pleased he lived long enough to see his seminal work adapted for a much wider audience with AMC’s Preacher TV series, which debuted this year. It was amazing to see so many of his designs come to life on the small screen. Cassidy, Odin Quincannon, Arseface and Jesse himself — Dillon’s mark was apparent on each of them on television. Listed as an executive producer, I hope the show enabled him to reap the fruits of his labor, but more importantly, I hope he was pleased with the new life his characters were enjoyed and the fact so many more people were discovering his work, albeit indirectly.

It was only upon learning of his death today that I discovered he created the weird and oddly popular Dogwelder character from Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman series in the 1990s. Until that realization, I was confused as to why Dillon had been providing covers for the new Sixpack and Dogwelder: Hard-Travelin’ Heroz limited series from DC Comics. In a remembrance posted on Facebook on the day of Dillon’s death, Marie Javins, an editor at DC, noted that she spoke with the artist recently on the phone. “We chatted a bit, and he told me when he was drawing the last Sixpack and Dogwelder cover,” Javins wrote. “He’d created Dogwelder, I bet late one night in a bar with Garth.” It sounds like he likely submitted that final cover before his death. It may even have been his final illustration.

Ennis and Dillon’s frequent and long-running collaboration continued at Marvel when they took over the Punisher, rescuing the character from obscurity after a poorly received and fortunately brief turn as a slayer of mystical demons. The singular intensity that Dillon instilled in the vigilante continues to define him to this day. He never portrayed Frank Castle as a hero or even an anti-hero; instead, Dillon drew him as focused anger given form. Ennis’s plots would occasionally offer softer, more human moments, but the Punisher shone darkly just through the wide eyes the artist would give him in key moments. He also crafted another array of bizarre people-turned-monsters as the antagonists for the Punisher to face.

While Garth Ennis is an amazing writer and has a number of other highly successfully collaborations in comics, it’s safe to say his career wouldn’t be the same without Dillon. Both creators posted their most lauded and memorable works together, and they clearly elevated each other. Dillon recently returned to the Punisher with another relaunch, this one written by Becky Cloonan. It mirrored his work with Ennis seamlessly, but it seemed to me like a misstep on Marvel’s part to use Dillon’s talents to look back instead of employing his artistry in a new corner of its weird world.

Steve Dillon’s crisp linework, elongated figures and textured backdrops seemed at home in so many genres — horror, western, super-hero, crime. One could describe his distinct and immediately recognizable style as a cross between the art of Brian Bolland and Alan Davis, though that seems like an oversimplification of his skills. Like Davis and Bolland, Dillon started out on the British comics scene. I’ve sampled little of it, sadly, but that’s no doubt due in part that I never felt much of a connection with such publications as Warrior, 2000 A.D. and Judge Dredd. I acknowledge, however, that without such material by Dillon and an array of amazing British and Scottish talent, the American comics scene would be a very different entity today.

I’ve been to a number of comics conventions over the years – even made it to San Diego twice. But I never met Steve Dillon, never got a chance to add him to my con sketchbook or tell him what a tremendous impression his storytelling made on me over the years. He’s left us too soon, but the fact he affected so many people with his work and will continue to do so now that he’s gone makes it clear his was a life well lived.

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