There are few artists who exemplify the anarchic, irreverent and anti-authoritarian British take on the comic book the way Steve Dillon does. Born in London and raised in Luton, Dillon died in New York in 2016, at the age of 54, following complications arising from a ruptured appendix. What remans is a remarkable body of work that includes the seminal UK comic magazine Deadline, which he co-founded; his illustrations on a fan-favourite run of Hellblazer, the Alan Moore-created comic that follows British chaos magician John Constantine; and most notably, the critically acclaimed Preacher, which he co-created with famed comics writer Garth Ennis.
First published by the US company DC in 1995, Preacher told the story of Jesse Custer, a small-town minister who is accidentally possessed by the offspring of an angel and a demon, and who goes on the road with his ex-girlfriend and an Irish vampire, searching for a solution to his problem. The comic ran for five years and was followed by a TV series starring Dominic Cooper, on which Dillon was executive producer.
Dillon’s adopted home town of Luton is currently running an exhibition at the Hat House’s Basement Gallery, featuring work from the artist’s early days through to his illustrations for the satirical dystopian lawman Judge Dredd from British weekly comic 2000AD. There are also pages from Preacher and Warrior, the magazine that launched the careers of a number of British comics luminaries in the 1980s.
“Steve has a special place in this town,” says Samuel Javid, creative director at the Culture Trust Luton. “We have roads called Preacher Close and Cassidy Close, some of his ashes are buried here, and his local pub has a picture of him behind the bar, sticking his middle finger up … ”
Ennis, who also collaborated with Dillon on Judge Dredd and Marvel’s gun-toting antihero the Punisher, first got to know the artist in the early 90s. “I recall sitting up with him one night in the spring of 1990, long after everyone else had crashed, and killing off a bottle of Jameson while we talked about what we thought we could do in comics,” Ennis says. “There was an almost audible click as we realised we’d make a good creative partnership. Each of us simply trusted the other to do the job. I didn’t ask him for the impossible – no 10-panel action-packed pages loaded with dialogue – and he turned in perfect storytelling every time.”
Although Dillon was at home with the exaggerated macho heroes beloved of the genre (his Judge Dredd and Punisher depictions bristle with guns and ultraviolence), he also brought a more grassroots, individual look to his characters; he was renowned for drawing the type of people you might see in the pub. Moore once wrote that if you shaved the heads of every female Marvel character they would be almost identical. Dillon, however, put as much care into the expressions and looks of his characters as he did the dynamic, detailed panels of his narratives.
“Steve’s passing was an absolute sickener,” Ennis says. “He was doing some of the nicest work of his career at that point. There were a couple of massive piss-ups after he died, one in New York, one in Luton, and at both of them I had the same feeling: this is a great celebration of a fantastic guy’s life, and he’d love seeing everyone like this, but tomorrow we have to carry on with a huge gap in our lives. I’d give anything to have one more pint with him.”
Werewolves of Luton: four more works from the exhibition
“One of the storylines towards the end of our run: Damnation’s Flame. Maybe a bit overwrought on the script side. Steve was doing a lot of heavy rendering. He eased up for the move from Hellblazer to Preacher.”
“This demonstrates my point about his [Dillon’s] faces and emotion perfectly. The narrative was paramount. Conversation scenes were no problem for him because he got so much emotion into his characters’ faces. He did a lot of storytelling simply by capturing people’s expressions.”
Early draft for Preacher
“Early, but it’s all there, fully formed. I remember telling Steve I always thought he drew Jesse as a highly idealised version of himself; he eventually drew a cover for a fanzine with him and Jesse sitting together at a bar. He was mercilessly accurate with his self-portrait and I had to concede that: no, Jesse was not Steve.”
Punisher and Wolverine
“We didn’t work on Wolverine together – he must have done that later. But our Punisher run was good fun; we both treated it as a bit of a palate cleanser after Preacher. Neither of us took it very seriously. Our Punisher was a lot more lighthearted: weaponised polar bears and fun and games with multiple amputees.”
Preacher, Punisher and Judge Dredd: The Work of British Comic Book Legend Steve Dillon is at the Basement Gallery, Luton, to 7 July.