Monday, 24 October 2016

Steve Dillon - A Farewell Interview

Its been said that 2016 has been the worst year ever and it certainly has been grim. Weve seen the deaths of Prince and David Bowie, the rise of racism and bigotry around the world, and the deaths of several notable comic creators and friends including Darwyn Cooke, Tony Luke, Alan Mitchell, Chris Andrew and then, over the weekend my old friend, Steve Dillon.

Like most of my comic friends I cant remember when I first met Steve but itll be around 1988/1989. But I do remember seeing his work in 2000 AD (in particular the 1983 Judge Dredd: Cry of the Werewolf series) and Warriors Laser Eraser & Pressbutton. As a youngster I became obsessed with his and Garry Leachs artwork and spent days copying their art, trying to decode the secret of their talent (obviously I failed). 

I spoke a lot about Steve in my memoir, Comic Book Babylon:
After everyone had returned from the various publisher-paid parties and meals, they would all congregate at the hotel bar and continue imbibing until dawn. Things could get pretty chaotic and often the bar staff would close the bar in a vague hope to dissuade the non-residents, and to encourage the residents to go to bed. It never worked. More often than not Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis led the Charge of the Light Ale Brigade, passing a couple of pint glasses around and getting everyone to chuck in a quid or two in order to bribe the staff to keep the bar open. It worked every time.”

Renowned for being the last man standing in nearly every bar he was in, Steve had a well-founded reputation for drinking prodigious amounts of Guinness. So it was perhaps unsurprising, in the last few years of his life, when he was told by his doctor that if he had one more drink itd kill him. In typical Steve fashion he simply quit. No wailing or gnashing of teeth. No huge fanfare. He just quietly and simply switched to soft drinks. And the good news was his liver was recovering and repairing itself and he was on the mend.

One word that has come up more than once regarding Steve is humble. He wasnt a bloke for hogging the spotlight or attention-grabbing antics. He simply got on with honing his craft and being the best he could be, which was being one of the best. Likewise, if he had any personal problems or grief, he was never one to share his burdens or want to trouble you with his woes (and he had been through some very hard times). No ranting and raving on Twitter for Steve. Typically this stiff upper lip eventually was what did for him, as it turns out it wasnt the booze, that many thought would kill him, but rather that other word I associate with Steve, stoicism. Apparently, he’d had a burst appendix whilst in New York for the comic con, and starting having nausea and other symptoms. The pain must’ve been incredible, but he typically put a brave face on it, waiting until he could see his doctors back in the UK. Sadly Peritonitis beat him to it.

There are far too many anecdotes I could share (Being at the launch of Deadline, the hilarious late night drinking sessions with McCrea & Ennis, etc.) but right now it just feels a bit too painful. So instead, heres an unpublished interview I did with Steve way back in 2005, before the Preacher TV series was even a glint in Seth Rogans eye. I was saving it for a potential Preacher companion book, but that seems unlikely now. So here are some insights into our dear departed mate.

Steve Dillon Interview
The Bricklayer’s Arms and his studio, Luton

TP: You’ve stated in the past that all your family drew including your father, Bernard.

SD: By trade he was a signwriter, he went to the London School of Printing where he did an art course, but as another string to his bow he could earn money doing painting and stuff. So, say for a florist’s he could do the sign outside, but also some flowers on the side of the wall. In the days before they could blow-up photographs really large he would do big paintings of cruise liners for the Boat Show, six-foot panels. So he could always draw, and me brother [Glyn Dillon] can draw, but it seems to run in the males as my sister can’t draw! A couple of my sons can draw, so it’s just something that’s run through the family.

TP: What were your earliest experiences with comics and how did you break into the business?

SD: I used to get TV21 and Countdown and all that sort of stuff. I used to get a Saturday morning comic delivered before the days of Saturday morning telly. That was something to look forward to every week. Occasionally I’d come across some American comics in the local newsagent, which were different, but you could never get the next episode. So you’d buy a bunch of comics and there’d be this big cliffhanger at the end of it and you’d never know what happened to the hero. Then I found one newsagent in Luton that did get them in on a regular basis, so I could follow the story. What really got me into comics was the Planet of the Apes TV series, as I was a big fan of them. So I bought the Apes [black and white] reprint that Marvel were doing in the UK, and in the back of that was an advert for Colin Campbell’s mail order comics. So I could get any comic I wanted delivered to the house on a regular basis, so that’s what really pulled me into American comics. Me and a friend started a little photocopied comic which we sold for 10p at school. I did my own adaptation of the Planet of the Apes movies. I did the whole of Escape from Planet of the Apes. Which I adapted just by reading the whole of the book, based on the movie. I’m drawing it, while reading the book, editing down the dialogue and I did manage to get down to doing the whole of that movie. I was around 14. When we were 16 me and my mate decided to do another comic. My mate’s dad used to work at this place that had a photocopier, so we got free photocopying. But then we thought we’d splash out on a bit of litho printing. So I’d write and draw one, and he’d write and draw one and we actually got that on the counter at Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed, before Forbidden Planet opened. That was our first venture into publishing and I got to know Richard Burton, who was editing Comic Media News, a fanzine about American comics and I did a few things for him. Then he ended up getting the job as assistant editor at Marvel UK under Dez Skinn, who was editor there. This was when Marvel UK was starting to originate material using British writers and artists based on Marvel characters.

Richard showed Dez some of the stuff I’d done for him and I’d had some stuff that I’d done for fun and I sent that in. I was 16 and I’d just started a foundation art course, and after three months on the first Christmas holiday I got a call from Richard who said, “Dez likes your stuff and wondered if you wanted to try out by doing a three-page Hulk strip.” So did it over the Christmas holidays and took it down to the Marvel offices, which were in Kentish Town. Christmas 1978 is when I did my first professional comics work. They liked it and basically Dez offered me the job and asked, “Do you want to work full-time?” And I said, “Wooah, I’ve just started college, what if you don’t like my stuff in a month’s time?” Because I’d have to have left college. And I would have had nothing. No job. No college. So Dez, very kindly – a rare thing for a freelancer to be offered – year’s guarantee of work, at three pages a week. So that was enough security for me and my parents to say, “OK, leave college.” I persuaded my parents by saying “I’m at art college to get a job in the art field, preferably in comics, and I’ve just been offered one after three months.”

TP: Do you think, if you’d stayed at college, it would have helped or hindered you?

SD: It’s hard to say really. One of the advantages of going to college or university is that you get to experiment with things and whether I’d have disappeared up my own arse with fancy-dan art student ideas I don’t know. Or I might have got bored with it and ended up doing photography. You just don’t know. But it’s a time to practise and a time to socialise as what I ended up doing really was sitting in my bedroom from the ages 16-18 doing nothing but drawing comics.

They say you know you’re getting old when the policemen start looking young. Well, when I reached the point that there were people in the business younger than me, that’s when I realised I was getting old. Because for ages all the people I knew in the game like Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, and Mick McMahon were all quite a few years older than me at the time. They don’t seem it now, when you’re older, but when your 16 and they’re in their early 20s they seemed so much older. And now I’m the least fit out of all of them, most probably! It was a young age to start, but when I left home and moved to London I made up for it. I didn’t do much work for a couple of years and I had quite a bit of money in the bank from working and not playing so I played and didn’t work for a while. I made up for lost time on the social front.

TP: How did you and Garth Ennis meet?

SD: He was working on Crisis and was still living in Belfast and we happened to bump into each other, and it’s always nice to meet people in the business that you haven’t met before, and we did seem to get on. Obviously, being a bit younger than me, he’d grown up seeing my stuff in 2000 AD (Rogue Trooper and Judge Dredd) and I loved his stuff on Crisis. It was a bit of a surprise to see how young this fella was and how good he was for that age. We seemed to click pretty well. I can’t remember the first thing we worked on together offhand, because we’ve done so much together. We did the Irish Judge thing [Emerald Isle in 2000 AD Progs 727-732], and that might have been the first thing we worked together on, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

I was living in London at the time and if you wanted to get some work that week in 2000 AD - it was all a bit hand to mouth – unless they said “OK, you’ve got six episodes of Dredd in this story arc” or “You’ve got six episodes of Rogue Trooper for this run” sometimes you’d just have to be in the office when you thought the scripts would come in, because the editor would go “Here, you’d be alright for this one” and hand you the script, just because you where there. So I don’t think the writers and artists got together and said, “We must do something together” it was like, the writer sent a script in “Who’s the nearest artist? Ah, there you go…”! That makes it sound more unprofessional that it was, but there was a bit of that going on. Right time, right place always helped. It was a weekly comic and often artists couldn’t do more than three issues at a go, so stuff did get spread around more. I can’t remember how we ended up working on the same thing, whether Garth was the writer and it was my turn to do an art job or whether we actually said to each other…

Because when I moved to Ireland, I think that’s when we did the Irish Judge story. Garth was in Belfast, I was in Dublin and it’s only a two-hour train journey between us, and we thought it would be a laugh to do an Irish Judge story, as they’d done a British Judge before and Hong Kong and Russian ones. Plenty of potential for Guinness humour, so it was right up our alleyway. So I really enjoyed that.

Funnily enough, I was offered Hellblazer at the same time Garth was, but I was working on Animal Man at the time and Art Young was editing, and I didn’t want to let him down, because he’d been really good to me. So I turned it down. So Will Simpson, who did a lovely job on it, he started Garth’s run. Funnily enough, after I turned it down, Art Young left DC Comics anyway, so I thought, “I could’ve gone to Hellblazer and not let Art down”. Then when Will decided to come off Hellblazer I said I was up for it, and Garth was happy, DC was happy, and that was it.

I was more than happy to do it as I ended up not being that happy on Animal Man, as it wasn’t the book for me. Because I hate drawing animals, so it was rather silly of me in the first place to say yes. But it was the first offer of a regular (ongoing) comic book, which, for me, was a big thing. I done a fill-in issue and when the regular artists finally quit they offered me it, and I thought, “I can’t really turn this down. It’s a year’s work” Which I wasn’t used to working for weekly comics, which just didn’t work that way. In general I’d get work, but you honestly didn’t know – at the end of each episode, or series – you might be a week or two without work. And I had a second kid on the way and stuff, so the security of someone saying “Well, you’ll be on this for a year” and I thought, “Oh, fair enough.”

TP: How do you stop yourself being bored after 27 years of drawing comics? And how do you avoid doing comics-by-numbers?

SD: I’ve probably been guilty of that on a number of occasions. I know I’ve been bored on a number of occasions, and I know that I’ve done by the numbers on a number of occasions. So the way to avoid that is to work with people who you respect and respect what they do. So you don’t sleep walk into it. When I start work with a new writer, they often ask “What do you like to draw?” and my pat answer is always, “A good story”. I’m not one of these artists into drawing giant robots or soldiers or big-titted women. Because for me, it’s all about the story. I used to like writing as a kid as well, I wasn’t just into the drawing, I was into the whole storytelling thing. And Garth tells good stories, with good characters you can relate to, and so you’ve got to be able to relate to – or at least like – the characters you’re drawing. Because the acting side of comics is quite important to me. The facial expressions, how they interact and all that sort of thing. But some people are just into drawing big fight scenes, but I’m not one of those artists. I can if I need to, but not as good as some, because some people have a love for it, so that love shows through. I have a love for drawing people sitting in the pub talking. My specialised subject!

TP: How would you say your art style has developed over the years?

SD: It’s difficult because you’re close to it. There were a number of factors that would change it. The colouring was one, how people coloured things. I started out working in black and white, all of 2000 AD was in black and white really, the Marvel UK stuff was in black and white. When they started doing fully painted Dredd spreads I started doing those, but it was very time-consuming for the money I got. So I wasn’t into full-painted spreads particularly. With someone like John Higgins, who trained as a painter, that was easy for him. He felt more comfortable without the line work. So when I started working for American comics sometimes less was more. The colouring has gone through an evolution, as you used to have flat colour therefore I didn’t have to put Letratone over everything like I used to in black and white, to give the art a bit of depth or whatever, because the colour could do that. As the colouring got more complicated, with subtle grads and a bit of moulding then it would conflict with too much line work. So you’d end up just indicating stuff so the colourist knew where the light sources were. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, just because there’s less lines on it, because a multitude of lines can cover a multitude of sins. Trying to do something more minimalist can actually be harder than just bunging a whole load of lines all over it. Alex Toth was the man. If you go through his career and how he got it down to the barest minimum, but everything required was there. The knowledge and experience you need to be able to do that is immense. I’ll never be in that class, that bloke was a genius.

The other thing is the time factor. Your family gets bigger, your house gets bigger, your bank overdraught gets bigger and unless you’re in the lucky position of being able to spend two days on one page, that’ll effect your art style.

TP: Do you consider yourself an fine artist or a commercial artist?

SD: According to the Irish VAT office I’m in the “service industry.” So I can’t really argue. It’s a strange mix between commercial art and show business is comics. If you are working on say, Spider-Man, Marvel owns it and is hiring you to draw it so they can sell it. But, it’s being creative. You’ve got the writer coming up with the story. The artist has got to tell it in a creative way, like a film director interpreting a script, so it’s a bit of a crossover. You can have your creative, arty-farty moments that you can’t help, but, at the end of the day, you are selling comic books.

TP: Do you not have the urge to do more writing?

SD: I’d love to. But, again there’s a time/money issue. For me to write something, because I’m not in the habit of writing comicbook scripts – I can do it, but it would take me a hell of a lot longer than someone like Garth who’s been doing it for years. So I get a lot of creative satisfaction out of doing it, but the money per month would be less, purely on the time factor. With something like Preacher we were lucky, because it was our baby, and we came up with it, it was a very personal story for us (six and a half year’s worth). And luckily it sold! We’ve seen a lot of good Vertigo books that haven’t hit that main market. We didn’t really hit the main market; we were a large cult favourite. We were never selling as many as Batman or Superman, but it did well enough for Vertigo to be happy that it was making money. So it gave us a bit more leeway. If a thing is selling, you can get away with a bit more and say, “People like this, it’s selling. Can we do this please?” We were definitely lucky with Preacher. But you can be creative with Spider-Man even though you don’t own it. If you come up with a great idea you can be proud of it and get your creative jollies out of that.

TP: What are your feelings on Preacher now?

SD: I haven’t re-read it yet. I probably said to Mark I’d probably leave it a few years before I re-read it, but I still haven’t re-read it and that would be interesting. Occasionally I see pages from it, and probably like most comic artists, the moment you see a drawing you did – no matter how many years ago – you can remember exactly how you did it, what the situation was when you were doing it, what time of night it was, whether you were drinking coffee or whether you were half-pissed! It all comes flooding back, just like smells or music bring back memories. So it’s always strange when I look back on that stuff because it was my life for such a long period of time. I still miss the characters. I still miss drawing Cassidy, Jesse and Tulip. Even at this stage it’s a large amount of stuff to look back on. I forget whole story arcs!

I know which issues I wasn’t so happy with because I had to do them quicker that I’d have wanted, or because I’d been lazy. And the same people bought it every month, so you don’t like letting them down, and sometimes I get a bit embarrassed for myself going “Ah, I didn’t do so well on that one.” And others I can look back on and go “oh That’s better than I remember” so sometimes I can be pleased with myself. Because it was a personal story. It brings up different thoughts than say if I look back on my Dredd work. Much as I enjoyed Dredd, no insult to John Wager obviously, but it wasn’t my baby.

TP: You did virtually no prep work for Preacher.

SD: I did one of Jesse, and as far as I was concerned that was him. Funnily enough, for a preview book that Vertigo put out, I inked up a thing with Jesse and he was wearing the collar the black shirt and the reverend’s collar, but it was a black biker’s jacket I put on him. So that was the one thing that changed from the early thoughts. So, I put in just a normal black jacket from then on. I can’t remember if that’s because I thought it would be a pain in the arse to draw a biker jacket for that length of time, with the zips and the buttons and all that nonsense. It just seemed to work. Garth had his own ideas of what the characters should look like.

TP: Did you change art techniques throughout the series?

SD: One of the major things that changed there if I remember correctly was halfway through the story about Serial Si. That was all pure brush inking. There was no pen work. So you get a very distinctive line from that. But I think around then I started using pens like this [holds up an Edding 1880] or whatever’s handy, Stadlers, whatever I’ve got on me. You experiment. It does help make things a bit quicker. Dip pens give you a lovely line, but you have to sit back a good ten minutes after you use them, to let the ink dry otherwise you end up spreading it all over the page. I don’t think I ever used a dip pen on Preacher. I used it on Hellblazer. So if you’re trying to work quickly, and like me, just getting into the flow of laying down the lines, laying too much wet ink on the page can be a drawback.

If you use these sorts of marker pens you want one with a bit of life in it, so you can get a bit of thick and thin line. Which you don’t always do, but you don’t want dead rapidograph style line, where everything is .3mm thick. You want to be able to put the pressure on and get a slightly thicker or thinner line. I’ve got different sized pens here, at the moment I’m using a .3mm because I’m doing a relatively small face, so I want to be able to clearly draw the eyes so you can actually see what’s going on. Whereas on a bigger face I’d use .7mm for exactly the same sort of thing. And for even big splash pages I’ll use an even bigger pen.

TP: Have you ever used a brush pen?

SD: Yes, but unfortunately I’ve never found the ink dark enough for repro. They’re quite handy as they always keep their point. That’s another trouble with working with brushes is that they split, they fuck up and end up knackered. And they’re quite expense and if one fucks up in the middle of the night, you can’t work, unless you’ve bought a huge store of them, which none of us are prepared to do! Whereas you can buy a whole box of markers and you know what you’re going to get. But you do have to be careful as it can give you a dead line and I’ve been guilty of that.

I’ve changed my technique a few times in my career. I’ve gone from brush to marker to dip pen back to brush and everything. Sometimes you just change to challenge yourself. But also over the six years of Preacher, your style will change a bit. It’s unusual to have a run that’s so long that you can actually notice how the characters change. If I’d only done it for a year it wouldn’t have changed that much. The characters just evolved naturally.

TP: How did you come up with the design of heaven?

SD: [Laughs] What a brief to have! “Can we have a scene set in heaven please?” Well, what do you do really? Because the angels…That’s a dodgy one isn’t it? So I tried to make it as strangely mundane as possible for one bunch of them – except for the funny haircuts – and put them in jogging suit-type things [laughs]. Just practical, pull your top on, pull your bottoms on and get on with your work. And then you’ve got the others, with the big wings and strange eyes and tattoos, it was a contrast thing. The only exterior scene of heaven can be explained away as a type of science fiction way of trying to hold this spread powerful thing [Genesis].

TP: Who did you enjoy drawing the most in Preacher?

SD: That’s difficult…Doing that first shot of Jesse’s Grandmother I actually rang Garth up and said, “Look, it only took you a couple of seconds to write this horrendous description of this woman, I had to spend all day drawing her and I don’t feel very well” [Laughs]. There was a lot to get my teeth into. Starr was always fun, as he was always sneering a lot. Cassidy had his moments…I dunno…I don’t tend to think of it that way as “enjoying drawing” thing. I just started thinking of them as people in the end, who I liked or didn’t like.

I could draw John Wayne, he’s pretty easy to draw, but it was partly legal and partly that it’s never actually said it is John Wayne. There’s so many heavy handed hints that it’s obvious it’s John Wayne, but the legal aspect was there because the John Wayne Estate could be pretty litigious, I believe, so best not to spell it out too much. And I think it worked better that way anyway, to have the mysterious face.

I watched a lot of the same movies Garth had watched, which formed his sensibilities about it. Sometimes we wanted that Paris, Texas feel, a bit of The Searchers thrown in occasionally. We had similar sensibilities so I knew what he meant and what he was after for certain things. So it was all stored up there in that laughable hard disk I call my brain, so it comes out when required. Sometimes it’s best not to have the actual reference in front when required because it’s best to get the general feel for it rather than having it in front of you as you might be picking up on the wrong things.

TP: What’s the worst thing Garth’s asked you to draw?

SD: Oh, Christ! I haven’t got long enough to answer that question! There’s been some bizarre stuff though.

Theres lots more to this, but I think thats enough for now. Apologies if this all feels a bit random and rambling. Theres so much to say, but cant bring myself to write any more right now.

Rest in Peace, Fella, we all miss you terribly.