Making comics for adults — not stolid, "highbrow" comics, but explosive, shocking comics that tickle grownup palates — is a challenge for many creators, but it's one that artist Steve Dillon embraced with gusto. Dillon, known for his work on such pathbreaking titles as DC Comics/Vertigo's Preacher, died this weekend in New York City at the age of 54. His passing was confirmed on Twitter Saturday by his brother, fellow artist Glyn Dillon, who wrote, "Sad to confirm the death of Steve, my big brother and my hero. He passed away in the city he loved (NYC). He will be sorely missed." No official cause of death was announced, but longtime collaborator Garth Ennis told The New York Times that Dillon had suffered a ruptured appendix that he at first assumed was food poisoning.
Dillon was legendary in the world of comics for his expressive style and accomplished craftsmanship. He depicted individual characters with depth and richness while making action-heavy panels seem to erupt from the page. He recently achieved recognition from Hollywood when Preacher, which he co-created with Ennis, was adapted into a TV show on the AMC network. It began airing in May, and has been renewed for a second season. The show's executive producer Seth Rogen tweeted, "Devastated by the loss of Steve Dillon. My favorite comic artist who drew my favorite comics."
Preacher ran for 66 issues from 1995-2000, winning an Eisner Award in 1999. "Nothing like it had been done by a big, mainstream comic publisher before, and I wondered if we'd get away with the stuff we wanted to do," Dillon told Entertainment Weekly in May. "I remember drawing the first issue thinking, 'This is either going to bomb completely or enough people will get it to make it a cult success.'"
At that point Dillon was already an industry veteran. Born on March 22, 1962, the British native made his debut as a professional artist at 16 with a story in Marvel UK's Hulk Weekly. He went on to work for Doctor Who Magazine, and by the 1980s he was contributing to the award-winning British magazine 2000 AD — for which he drew the character Judge Dredd — and the Warrior anthology. In 1988 he co-founded and co-edited the cult anthology Deadline, publishing the work of such figures as Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, artist Philip Bond and artist/writer Nick Abadzis. Along with Abadzis and Bond, Dillon was part of a group of British artists recruited by DC Comics in the 1980s to bring a new sensibility to the US market.
Fans have long revered Dillon — along with Ennis — for breathing new life into two well-known titles: Marvel's The Punisher and DC/Vertigo's Hellblazer. Tweeting on Saturday, Descender creator Jeff Lemire wrote, "Hellblazer helped me survive high school and keep my dream of making comics alive."
The list of other projects that kept Dillon busy during the 1990s-2000s is dauntingly long, including Wolverine: Origins, Ennis' Hitman series — for which he created the character Dogwelder — and Ultimate X-Men. In May he teamed up with writer Becky Cloonan to begin a new Punisher run.
But Preacher was a kind of apotheosis for Dillon. Ennis' tale of a small-town minister possessed by a supernatural entity featured hard-bitten characters that Dillon invested with vivid, gritty individuality. The series' endless opportunities for dark humor were made to order for an artist celebrated for his comedic edge. Reviewing Preacher in 1998, the Washington Post wrote, "there are ... a few artists and writers out there who are trying to see if drawings and speech bubbles can tell a story in ways a traditional novel can't ... This series is just about the best thing to come along since comics started finding their way into books."
In Preacher, Dillon got to exercise his skill in drawing ever-changing faces and subtly imparting energy to dialogue segments. "It's a project that is character driven, it's dialogue driven ... Flashy artwork can be detrimental to it," he told the website Sequential Tart in 1998. "Garth will give me nine pages of people sitting in one place talking ... Other artists might tear their hair out on things like that, but I quite enjoy it."
Such a modest comment belies the remarkable knack for characterization that was the emblem of Dillon's artistry. Immediately recognizable, quirky and disturbing, his style defined the look of the '90s and influenced such diverse artists and writers as Mitch Gerads, Kieron Gillen and The Walking Dead artist Tony Moore. Over his career, cut short far too soon, Dillon proved again and again that comics for adults can be as thought-provoking as they are emotionally potent. And if you aren't an adult quite yet, they might even help you survive high school.