No one could draw a good snarl like Steve Dillon. The English comic book artist got plenty of opportunity to exercise that muscle over the course of a nearly four-decade career, which started when he was only 16. Had his life not been tragically cut short this past weekend, who knows how many more snarls, grimaces, sneers, smirks, and roars he would have gone on to render. Writing for Vulture, Abraham Riesman offers an excellent tribute to Dillon as a comic book cinematographer, but I’d like to focus on his action and faces.
Dillon specialized in depicting hard men: Abslom Daak, John Constantine, the Punisher, half the cast of the seminal Vertigo series Preacher. There’s an inherent deadpan to the way he posed his figures; any given panel of people talking looks like it could be a shot from King of the Hill. He could draw crowds (there are many busy bars in his oeuvre), but never so cluttered that a reader can’t instantly discern what they’re meant to pay attention to. Despite his telltale long faces, Dillon’s art might at first seem so basic as to be nondescript. But then a scene bursts into action …
Very few comic artists have the ability to spill blood on the page as artfully as Dillon could. Splintered bones, gushing severed appendages, tearing flesh — and vomit. Oh, so much vomit. The queasy attention to detail brilliantly interrupts the simplicity of his character models. Preacher exploded on the US comics scene of the ’90s thanks in large part to its astonishing grossness (something that this year’s television adaptation on AMC has not come close to matching). There was nothing writer Garth Ennis came up with that Dillon couldn’t realize in all its dripping, oozing glory. The quickest glance at some of his panels can be enough to make you feel like you need a shower.
Then again, perhaps any decently skilled artist can make an action scene dynamic. Go back to the conversational panels. Look again, and you’ll find that Dillon’s seeming simplicity belies a sophisticated eye for emotion. In a 1998 interview, he noted, “Garth will give me nine pages of people sitting in one place talking, and he doesn’t want people distracted from what they’re saying … Other artists might tear their hair out on things like that, but I quite enjoy it.” From one panel to another, the reader can note subtle but telling shifts in the same character’s face. Dillon’s comics may have frequently drawn attention for their outsized subject matter (ultraviolent vigilantes, foul-mouthed crews of wayfarers, demon-conning chain-smokers), but his gift for expression helped ground his stories in humanity.
And when the time comes for big emotion, Dillon’s work is searing. In the climactic confrontation in Preacher, former friends Jesse and Cassidy have a brutal fistfight. The two-man scene is nigh operatic, perfectly cross-cutting between close-ups of anguished faces and mid-range action beats, so that every punch has an impact. The word balloons fill nearly as much space as the figures, to emphasize their full-throated invective. You can only read it with an orchestra blaring in your head. Dillon was not one to prettify his characters — even the attractive ones were kept solidly down to earth under his pen. And when they scream and bluster, as Jesse and Cassidy do here, their faces look like masks from Greek theater: heightened and painfully human at the same time.
Dillon’s influence is incalculable. Preacher alone set a standard for longform comic book storytelling which creators still hew closely to, even after 20 years. The long list of tributes that have rolled in from across the comics world in the days since his death are a testament to that. Though the man himself is gone, we can take small comfort in knowing that we’ll continue to see echoes of his style in comics for decades to come.
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