Tuesday, March 23, 2010

127. John Hicklenton, 1967-2010

This week, we have an unfortunate departure from the regular Thrillpowered format, because the House of Tharg lost one of its most radical art droids over the weekend. Graphic novel editor Keith Richardson broke the sad news that John Hicklenton passed away from complications with multiple sclerosis a few days ago at the age of 43.

For the 2000 AD family of titles, Hicklenton certainly made an impact with his confrontational, aggressive artwork. His first two appearances were in one-off Tharg's Future Shocks in 1986-1987, illustrating scripts by Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. Later in 1987, he worked with Pat Mills on the first of two Nemesis the Warlock serials. The first of these, Book Seven, featured two of the series' most shocking and grisly moments, first when Torquemada hunted down Thoth and butchered him with a chainsword, and, the following week, when Nemesis avenged his son by sealing his arch-enemy in a suit of armor and sending thousands of flies in through a crack to eat him alive. Some of us still have our jaws on the floor.

Hicklenton collaborated with Mills several more times over the next twenty years, including five episodes of Third World War, a miniseries for Dark Horse called Zombieworld, and a very controversial 2007 Judge Dredd serial called "Blood of Satanus III." Hicklenton's often grotesque work, marked by wild-eyed madmen, rippling muscles and creatures from violent nightmares, had always been confrontational, but possibly never so much as on Pandora, a 1995 serial about an undercover officer for Judge Dredd Megazine written by Jim Alexander. To be fair, few readers, including myself, ever had anything good to say about the strip, in which Hicklenton seemed to be going out of his way to obscure the narrative by throwing conventional panel transitions right out the window and doing things entirely his way. It's fair to say that I didn't like Pandora at all, but in its considerable defense, its failings are down to deliberate, supremely confident gauntlet-throwing on the part of the artist, and not incompetence. Hicklenton did things his way, and Pandora is probably due for a reevaluation one day, purely on just how utterly bizarre and unlike anything else in mainstream comics it is.

2007's "Blood of Satanus III," which I believe was his final strip work, was praised for its surreal, Bosch-influenced depiction of the various circles of Hell and an instantly-unforgettable villain, but also pilloried by fandom for its head-scratching script, in which Mills, who's been so darn good the last decade, didn't seem to have a single defender. But this wasn't Hicklenton's first work with Dredd, nor his most controversial. He'd been periodically called on to illustrate one-offs and short stories several times previously, perhaps most memorably on a terrific little three-parter in 1991 called "Black Widow," which set Dredd up against a shape-changing alien.

His most famous Dredd work was on a series referred to as "Heavy Metal Dredd." These, initially, were a short series of ultraviolent one-offs penned by John Wagner and Alan Grant and painted by Simon Bisley for the European magazine Rock Power, exploiting Dredd's popularity among various metal bands like Anthrax and Motorhead. Reprinted in the early 90s in the Dredd Megazine, the six stories were successful enough to warrant follow-ups, written and drawn by various creators. Hicklenton was probably the most notorious of them, illustrating, among others, the completely eye-popping "Big Hit," in which massed fatties leap to their deaths in an over-the-top spectacle of blood, guts and spinal columns, in 1993. All 21 of the episodes under the "Heavy Metal" banner were reprinted by Rebellion in 2009, with a new cover painted by Hicklenton. This would be his last work for the comic.

Here's Johnny, a documentary about his battle with MS, was produced by a film company called Animal Monday and screened at SXSW in Austin in 2008, airing a year later on Britain's Channel Four. Hicklenton took on MS with gleeful, gallows humor. Pat Mills sent word to Rebellion that he had a final conversation with John shortly before he died, and that he remained in good spirits, joking that it was the disease that had less than a week to live, and not the man. Here are some examples of his work, proving that Hicklenton will always be with us, and probably in bad dreams. I'd like to think that he's giving the angels some real humdingers of nightmares right now.

"The Invisible Etchings of Salvador Dali," 2000 AD # 515, 1987

Nemesis the Warlock Book Seven, 2000 AD # 556, 1988

Third World War: "The Word According to Ryan", Crisis # 25, 1989

Judge Dredd: "Black Widow," Judge Dredd Megazine vol. 1 # 8 , 1991

Pandora, Judge Dredd Megazine vol. 2 # 77, 1995

Judge Dredd: "Blood of Satanus III," Judge Dredd Megazine # 261, 2007

Goodbye, John.

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