One of the great comic book artists of our time, Steve Dillon, passed away on Saturday October 22, 2016. Many of Dillon’s fellow comic book creators have reacted to his death. While I don’t measure up to the stature of people like Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker, and Gail Simone, I can attempt to relate how Steve Dillon’s work affected me personally. His work drew me back to comic books and made me appreciate a true artist’s work.
Steven Dillon is most famous for his collaborations with Garth Ennis: Preacher, Punisher, and Hellblazer. Whether they were creating new material with Jesse Custer and company, updating and redefining a Marvel mainstay, or continuing a grand tradition of the English magician, the duo’s work was always offbeat and gruesome at the same time. Dillon’s artwork makes you laugh and cringe in the same panel. While I had not read anything recent, these three series are more than enough to make a career.
R.I.P. Steve Dillon.
Preacher was one of the comic book series responsible for bringing me back to the medium after a brief hiatus. I had grown weary of all the antics and cross-overs of the cape and cowl crew. But I soon discovered two series from DC Comic’s imprint Vertigo: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Garth Ennis’ and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. While Sandman delves into myth and fantasy, Preacher is a supernatural romp through religion and vengeance. And Steve Dillon’s artwork helped bring Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy to life for millions of dedicated fans. If you only know the AMC show, you owe it to yourself to check out the comic book source material for all those television visuals.
The entire 66 issue run of Preacher is epic. It’s also bloody, vulgar, sacrilegious, hilarious, powerful, and touching. What else would you expect when Garth Ennis creates a character literally given the voice of God, which impels whomever hears it to obey the speaker’s commands. Jesse Custer is one of the most interesting, conflicted characters in all of comics. He’s joined by his tough as nails love interest, Tulip O’Hare, a woman that easily stands on her own as she stands up to Jesse and his behavior. Rounding out the trio of main characters is the Irish vampire Cassidy; Louis or Lestat, he is most certainly not, and thank goodness. The tragic Arseface haunts the crew, while the indomitable Saint of Killers guns down everyone unlucky enough to cross his path. The meglomaniacal Sacred Executioner Herr Starr and corpulent Allfather D’Aronique are both members of The Grail, a secret society charged with protecting The Messiah.
All of these unique characters are brought to vivid life by the inestimable Steve Dillon. The three main characters, Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy, are the most normal looking. But that belies their strengths, struggles, and secrets. Jesse appears calm on the surface but his inner turmoil quickly rises to the front when he activates the voice of God. Tulip’s hard-bitten appearance highlights her no-nonsense mentality. The flippant Cassidy can be snarky with a grin one moment then toasting your health with a smile the next. Arseface is one of the most visually memorable characters ever to grace a comic book page. Herr Star continues the facial deformities, complementing his demented attitude; his scarred eye illustrates his single minded purpose. Allfather D’Aronique barely fits in a comic book panel. His girth is a repeated theme in Dillon characters (see Mr. Bumpo in Punisher). The Messiah’s goofy appearance visually represents his deteriorated family line and sharply contrasts with the other grim characters. The steely eyed Saint of Killers evokes every bad-ass cowboy with a hint of Stephen King’s Roland Deschain. And God’s luminosity outshines his almost mortal personality.
Creating a series like Preacher with Garth Ennis is clearly the crowning achievement of Steve Dillon’s career. It’s the work he is best known for, and rightfully so. DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint was at its height with the combination of Preacher, Sandman, and Transmetropolitan. But Sandman utilized an array of artists and Transmetropolitan is mostly remembered for Warren Ellis’ writing. Only Preacher employed a singular artist that could provide artwork equal to the renowned writing.
Welcome Back, Frank was the story that introduced me to the Marvel vigilante Punisher, one of the greatest anti-heroes ever created. Garth Ennis’ wild ride put Frank Castle through the wringer. Every major character is instantly memorable, both in characterization and visual presentation. Frank Castle himself is vaguely reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone as he wages his one man war on the Gnucci family while battling a motley crew of wannabe imitators. The villains are outrageous in their actions, and Dillon’s illustrations drive home their insanity and violence. Dillon especially did an excellent job with using each character’s eyes to instill his or her persona. Just look at the crazy eyes on Ma Gnucci and The Holy, the malevolent glint in the eyes of The Russian and Mr. Payback, and the privileged distance behind Elite’s eyes. As vivid as the bad guys are, each member of Frank’s friendly crew of neighbors stands up just as well. The timid Joan the Mouse offering Frank cookies, Mr. Bumpo jovially eating himself into a death dealing blob, and brave Spacker Dave’s facial piercings used to inflict pain during his torture. And before they met on Netflix, Punisher and Daredevil had an encounter depicted by Steve Dillon.
While I can’t think of any images from Dillon’s run on Hellblazer as iconic as those from Preacher or Punisher, the series shows the artist adapting his style to mesh with those that came before him. A great artist needs to have an eye for the unique elements that stand out and differentiate him from the crowd. But it’s also a credit to step into an established work and continue it smoothly. Dillon’s John Constantine may look slightly different than the preceding versions but he’s still completely Constantine. The art in these issues is the oldest of the three series I covered, and as such it’s definitely a child of the 1980s, for better and worse.
Steve Dillon isn’t the most famous or celebrated comic book illustrator. But his work is unforgettable. To lose such a talent at a relatively young age is a tragedy heaped upon an already sad event. As the comics community continues to react, expect the adulation and acclaim to pour out as we celebrate the man’s life and work.
Raise a pint in his name.
R.I.P. Steve Dillon.