Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sorry, Johnny

Beating up kids is never a good look, but if I could go back in time to 1988, I’d find my 13-year-old younger self and give him such a slap.

Because I hated John Hicklenton when he took over from Bryan Talbot as the artist on Nemesis The Warlock so much, and I was such a dick about it, cursing the artist and the 2000ad editorial staff for ruining the strip. There may have been actual tears.

What an arsehole.

* * *

Nemesis The Warlock was always the freakiest looking series in 2000ad¹s stable of stars. Judge Dredd was the Lawman of the Future, Rogue Trooper was an outlaw soldier in a chemical war and Strontium Dog was the bounty hunter who fought prejudice and bad guys with no faces across the galaxy.

But Nemesis was something else. Created by the mighty Pat Mills and the even mightier Kevin O’Neill, he didn’t look like any other hero in comics, with his hooves and utterly unique snout. I still can’t quite figure out how his mouth worked, but the design was so striking that it really stood out as a unique character. Especially when he didn’t even appear in his first two stories.

And he was the alien, and our descendants were the bad guys, but it was the old story of fighting against prejudice. It just happened to take place in a world where people skated along the edge of vast stalagmite apartment blocks on electric boots and drove in and out of black holes. It had zombies and aliens with sharp mouths where their hands should be, and magnificent armour and architecture.

After O'Neill's first Nemesis story wrapped up in a glorious baroque apocalypse, Jesus Redondo stepped in as artist for Book Two and contributed a thoroughly acceptable effort with some really neat giant spiders. O’Neill was back for part three and got to draw giant robots powered by pulley and rope tear into each other.

Bryan Talbot came in three episodes into part four with another brilliant interpretation – moody as hell, with a wonderfully '80s design sense and a flair for action that is still woefully under-appreciated. By 1987, Talbot was off and O’Neill came back for five issues with the twisted melodrama of Torquemada the God – another brilliant headfuck.

And then John Hicklenton came along, and I hated his art from the first issue.

* * *

It was messy, it was anatomically dodgy, it was dark and dank, he couldn’t draw mouths properly, his characters were all ugly, necks don’t work like that and there was something terribly wrong with Torquemada’s nose.

* * *

I’m looking at that art from The Two Torquemadas again right now and I can’t believe what a wanker I was. This stuff is 22 years old and still looks rich and full of texture and personality. It’s mental and messy, in all the right ways.

Sometimes the pacing gets a bit skewed and his panel transitions are a bit muddled, but there is just so much goddamn raw talent on these pages. This sense of design in the armour and clothing and buildings, which actually repulsed me at a younger age, was just so far ahead of its time, it’s still fresh and interesting.

Go forward a year to Book Nine: Deathbringer and it’s even better. At this stage of the Nemesis cycle, the eternal enemies have popped up in modern Britain. And since this is written by Pat Mills in the late eighties, it gets a bit Right On, but Hicklenton excelled at the contemporary world. The art is all gloomy horror, kitchen sink despair and shapeshifting nasties in the dark.

Hicklenton went on to do some Dredd comics and other bits and pieces during the 1990s that were even more wonderfully repulsive, but it still took years to appreciate. He was back with Pat Mills in 2007 with the remarkably incoherent Blood of Satanus III and while the hand seemed a little shakier, it was still a bold line when it needed to be.

It was while reading that last story that I was inspired to dive back into Hicklenton’s past work and take a look with a mature eye. And I did a complete about face. I had hated his art for decades, but had to admit I’d always been wrong, because this shit was brilliant.

When I did a bit of internet trawling and discovered that he had produced much of his work while multiple sclerosis was kicking the shit out of his body, my admiration for his talents was only amplified.

* * *

John Hicklenton died earlier this month. He was only 42.

Sorry it took me so long to get into your art, man. I’ll do better next time.

* * *

I would also like to say sorry to Dick Giordano, but I don’t really need to, because I always thought he was a deadset legend.

Although I knew he’d been having trouble with leukaemia, it was still a shock to hear of Giordano’s death, a week after Hicklenton passed on to the next world. Sadly, it wasn’t shocking that when I involuntary cried out “Oh no! Dick Giordano is dead!”. Nobody in the room at the time knew who I was talking about. I should have got used to that reaction when the same thing happened when Kirby died, but it still burns a bit.

Because Giordano was a legend, and like his sweet little TwoMorrows autobiography pointed out, he changed comics, one day at a time. He was a smart editor with a genuine editorial voice, and a sharp artist who knew what worked on the comic page. Anybody who grew up reading DC comics in the eighties knew Dick well from his “Meanwhile…” columns, a refreshingly open hype page, and he had a hand in almost everything of note produced by DC during his time as executive editor.

And I liked Dick because after he went into semi-retirement, he would still do the odd bit of inking. And he only seemed to do it on comics that were reasonably worthwhile, popping up in the credits of things like Starman and The Invisibles. After a while I figured out that if Dick was helping out with the pen, then it was a little seal of approval that invariably turned out to be right.

Dick Giordano always knew what made good comics, and he never stopped trying to make them.

* * *

You can find some good examples of Hicklenton’s art here, there is a really neat 2006 interview with him here, and Pat Mills gives him a proper sending off here. If you want to see what Dick Giordano left behind, open up any DC comic since 1973, and his fingerprints are all over it.

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