Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why I love Dick Dillin's art (and you should too), by Kevin Wilson

Bob Temuka is one of my “imaginary friends” as my wife calls them; people I know exclusively from the Internet. I know him by a different name, but like any good confidante I understand the importance of the secret identity and would never dare reveal this information to the world. He recently shared his vacation plans with our covert message board enclave, and solicited guest bloggers. Not being the timid sort when it comes to sharing my opinions, and having some free time between contracts, I boldly jumped up and said, “Well, if nobody else wants to, ummm…I guess I could, you know, if you wouldn’t mind…”

I’ve been reading comics since about 1968. I am the personification of “old school,” and have a great appreciation for the Silver Age artists that I grew up with. Volumes have been written, literally, about Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, and Joe Kubert. Others like Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson and Carmine Infantino are widely recognized as master draftsmen or designers. Even Jim Aparo is finally getting his due in a new “Legends of the Dark Knight” volume.

And I love the work of all of those artists. But there are others who’ve been ignored for the most part or whose work has been denigrated by some. One such artist is Dick Dillin, an iron man whose run on the Blackhawks spans 44 issues for Quality from the early 50’s, plus 134 issues through 1968 for DC when they acquired rights to the Quality titles. He followed that with 115 issues of Justice League of America, a run that ended only because of his passing in 1980.

But it’s not just his longevity on those titles which is noteworthy. At the time, as a child, I didn’t have a full appreciation of his design sense, his figure work, his composition. Over time, I began to pick up a pencil with the idea of becoming an artist myself: went to school, got a degree and everything. Then I decided I enjoyed eating and having a roof over my head. I didn’t want to be a starving artist pounding the pavement with a portfolio under my arms that no one wanted to look at. I realize now if I’d used deodorant perhaps more editors and art directors would have at least flipped through it.

During that period, I was dazzled by the photo-realism of Adams, the naturalism of Cardy and Kubert, and the slick Murphy Anderson-inspired work of George Perez, Romeo Tanghal and early Mike Grell. Artists like Dillin and Sekowsky were, in my mind, hacks who weren’t fit to clean brushes for these other artistes.

But later, with a better understanding of the form, and of art in general, I gravitated back to those elder statesmen of comics. I also rediscovered JLA, and Diana Prince: The New Wonder Woman, and the Super-Sons in World’s Finest, and the undercover Metal Men with their secret identities. And I fell in love with the energy and power of Dick Dillin.

His earliest work at Fawcett and Fiction House led him to Quality Comics in 1952. He worked on some of their war and romance books, but is known mostly for penciling the popular Blackhawk feature during the 50’s. The luminaries of the 40’s were artists like Mac Raboy, Lou Fine, and of course Will Eisner. Dillin, especially when paired with inker Chuck Cuidera, was clearly influenced by their work and carried on that tradition. The cover to Blackhawk #73 shows attention to detail in the folds of fabric, and depicts a nearly static scene that nevertheless conveys urgency and action with its mostly still figures.

The cover from a few issues later shows a strong understanding of composition, with all of the elements leading the viewer’s eye from every corner of the page to the menacing “Flying Flat-Top.” The curve of the rope ladder follows the line of the “Blackhawk” logo down toward the garishly colored aircraft. The angle of the F-90 fighter jets and the lines of their tracerfire also lead to that lower right corner. Even Blackhawk’s hat is a large black arrow pointing toward the villain’s craft. Meanwhile, its angle of ascent leads back toward Blackhawk’s very expressive face, creating a dynamic drawing the eye rapidly back and forth, adding to the energy of the page.

When Quality closed up shop, Dillin’s search for work led him eventually to DC Comics. DC had acquired the rights to Blackhawks and Dillin saw some copies of his work lying on the desk as he was being interviewed. It turns out DC had been trying to get in touch with the title’s longtime artist, and he resumed work on the Blackhawks for its new publisher with the very first issue, which continued Quality’s numbering. Apparently no one had yet figured out the HUGE marketing impact of restarting a series with a bold “#1” screaming from the cover!

When the book's run ended, Dillin did some work on World's Finest and a few Batman specials before being assigned to The Justice League of America. Dillin penciled the series from #64-183 (Aug. 1968 - Oct. 1980), except for four “Giant” reprint issues and a fill-in which was penciled by George Tuska. The cover of his first issue, featuring inks by Jack Abel, shows another example of Dillin’s understanding of how to compose a scene for the page. Here the whirlwind trail of Red Tornado’s punch draws the eye in toward the bottom center of the page, and then the angle of the pieces of the table and the falling and scattering figures draws it back up and out to follow a form similar to the splash of water from a rock or cannonball dive. The eye comes back up to see the cocked fist of the Red Tornado, indicating more potential damage. He’s still in an offensive posture: still threatening. It’s a very powerful and iconic cover.

While Dick Dillin’s work may lack the elegance of Neal Adams or Gil Kane, what it does is convey the frenetic chaotic action of a real world fight similar to the way that Michael Bay does in the Transformer movies. It’s not always neat and clean and slick. It’s not choreographed. But it’s never hard to follow or read, and the composition of the page is never sacrificed.

Dick Dillin’s work was best showcased with “softer” inkers, like Chuck Cuidera on his Blackhawks run, or Sid Greene and Murphy Anderson while at DC. His work was frequently finished by Frank McLaughlin, and the results were mixed. Even Dick Giordano, widely regarded as one of the preeminent inkers of any era, made Dillin’s figures look stiff and awkward. While Dillin’s line work was not his strong suit, with the right inker his figure work was able to stand out and was stunning.

Consider a few panels from early in his JLA run. These two shots of Hawkman taking off and landing show a grace and power that rivals that of Murphy Anderson’s work on the character. This is a figure with weight, with heft, with mass and volume. At their best, Dick Dillin’s figures have the look of those of Michelangelo, the power, grace and solidity of David or The Last Judgment. 

He was also capable of offering up some “Good Girl” art that was as sexy as anything from the 30’s or 40’s. His Black Canary from page five of JLA #73 is fully dressed as she pulls on her boot, but is still as perfectly formed and hot as any adolescent could handle. 

And while he never appeared to deliberately, directly copy another artist’s style, part of what contributed to his longevity in the industry was his ability to incorporate influences to his style, and to evoke the work of others when working on various features. His art on World’s Finest #216 appears to draw from Curt Swan, although admittedly this could be attributed to inker Murphy Anderson. But there’s no denying that the double page splash from JLA #183 - featuring the New Gods - conveys every bit of Jack Kirby’s cosmic otherworldliness in the design of the interplanetary geography and architecture. Even if he may have used some of the King’s work as reference, the result is fully integrated with his own style while retaining the crackling energy of the source material.

That issue would be Dick Dillin’s last published work. It shows no signs that his skills were diminished by age as was the work of some other artists that are no longer with us. I’m sorry I didn’t fully value the work of Dick Dillin while he was alive, but I’m glad I’ve come to understand and appreciate it since. Sadly, that seems to be the way it goes. Great artists are not always appreciated in their own lifetime.


Kevin Wilson was part of the original CBR community, back when it was a site devoted to Kingdom Come. He might be getting on in years, but he is not as old as he says he is.


Anonymous said...

Great article.. I've also rediscovered D.D. over the past few years and now realize how incredibly talented he was.
He was definitely one of the Greats!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I love Dillin's work. I have much of his JLA run, and was stunned when #184 came out and I learned of his death.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved the art of Dick Dillin and Mike Sekowsky, among other unsung "workhorses" who turned in quality work time after time and on time. Al Milgrom is another artist who doesn't get the respect he deserves.