Thursday, July 26, 2012

175. Speaking Sick of the Dead

May 2007: On the front cover of Meg 259, Clint Langley brings vivid, weird computerized color to John Hicklenton's pen and inks, and a truly vile and nasty villain is brought to life. He's called, alternately, Lord Omega or X-Face, and he's the antagonist in the controversial and very weird "Blood of Satanus III," in which, well, heck, I don't know. This is a story that absolutely defies conventional description or a simple recounting of the plot, because it is more dense, more weird, and more challenging than just about anything that Pat Mills has ever written, and that includes Requiem. There are no mild reactions to it. A few people embrace it for its gauntlet-throwing spectacle; many, many more loathe it utterly for gobbing in the eyes of comics, but, in the wake of Hicklenton's sad end a couple of years later, denying the multiple sclerosis that was ravaging his body any more success by kicking the disease in the head and ending his life prematurely at the Dignitas center in Switzerland, the skeptics took a kinder view, and said no more about it.

I do recall reading Hicklenton's first work in 2000 AD, 1986's "You're Never Alone With a Phone" - written by Neil Gaiman, it was - when it was first published. The second, 1987's "Invisible Etchings of Salvador Dali" - that's right, he started his professional career by illustrating first Gaiman and then Grant Morrison - eluded me for quite some time, owing to erratic distribution in the US. His artwork on the "Phone" story struck me as weird and wonderful from the start. There's a panel depicting the smell-a-vision phone, where the person, repulsed by her correspondant's garlicky meal before calling, turns her head in such a way that it looks like her nose and mouth are trying to crawl away from her face.

And then there was Book Seven of Nemesis the Warlock. I remember seeing episode one of that beast and lingering over how dense and full the panels were, how it looked like Hicklenton spent more time on each individual drawing than I had spent over the previous seven years of trying to think I was learning to draw on stacks and stacks of notebook paper. Nemesis himself didn't show up until the final panel, and if Hicklenton's depiction of him didn't make your eyes pop out of your head the first time you saw him, then you were not paying attention. Hicklenton's Nemesis was all visceral and organic, with the real curvature of nature's ugliest animals, a hideous mating of a water buffalo, a giraffe and some undersea beast - a very far cry from Bryan Talbot's superhero with a funny head and knees. Just that one panel - Purity Brown reinvisioned as a nose-broken, plain, anti-heroine and Nemesis, beady eyes atop a curving stalk of a neck - demanded the arrival of episode two immediately, in a way that the usual cliffhanger, dependent on a plot twist, never can. The writing threw no surprise at the reader - Nem and Purity were in 16th-Century Spain along with their enemy Torquemada - but we had to see the next episode to see more of the artwork.

Nemesis Book Seven is more packed with powerful, unforgettable images like that than just about any other storyline that has ever appeared in the comic. Torquemada having his feet oiled. Torquemada in that torture chair. His namesake smiling pleasantly, encouraging his future self to tell him more. Nemesis throwing his arms back and filling the air with flies. Torquemada spitting on his chainsword, the reflection of Thoth running from him. Thoth bidding farewell to Satanus in the Cretaceous Period - "it was the end of an era." Oh, and that utterly horrific, final shot of Thoth, his small body cruelly and savagely... yeesh. If you read this story just one time, you recall every one of those images.

Hicklenton certainly came up with memorable work after that - nobody's going to forget those fatties hitting the ground in that episode of Heavy Metal Dredd, ever - but that was, to my mind, his crowning glory. Nothing that he ever did matched Nemesis Book Seven for detail and imagination. Certainly we can forgive "Blood of Satanus III" for lacking the intricacy of his early work, because just holding a pen in 2007 caused him incredible discomfort, but over the course of his career, Hicklenton set out to challenge readers and break the rules.

His panel compositions and breakdowns started getting very obtuse on both Heavy Metal Dredd and, most thunderously, in a 1995 serial called Pandora, which is just so damn weird that I'm not convinced that Hicklenton wasn't deliberately trying to alienate everybody who wanted to read it. It's something like thirty-six pages without a single transition or establishing shot, where a solid third of the panels don't seem to depict anything from the script whatever. Having found his specialty in depictions of brutality and ugliness, he was unhappy doing anything conventional.

"Blood of Satanus III" is certainly not easy to follow either, and it's not easy on the eye, but what hurts the most is looking at the parade of nasty imagery and demonic nightmares and knowing that the artist was less able to depict them than he was twenty years previously. Only the sickest of minds could come up with a design like the living mountain of shifting, fluid fat, or the politicians with two mouths, but Hicklenton's weak body simply couldn't draw it with the intensity that you just know that he wanted. The inks are solid blacks and thin lines, with none of the splatters of detail that marked his early work.

As for the story's plot, I don't think that it really matters. It's something to do with a portal to another dimension, and hellish beasts who've been influencing all of humanity's bad behavior getting the chance to act overtly and do horrible things, and Dredd spearheading a mission into the circular world from which they came to strike back. But what it really is, bluntly, is a good opportunity for Hicklenton to unleash his freakish, nightmarish and brutal imagination one last time. We can all wish that maybe it would have hung together as a story a little better and been a bit more comprehensible, but we got a long, last, ugly, ugly look at Hicklenton's demons before he left us. That's a good thing.

This issue of the Megazine also features a tribute, written by Michael Molcher, to the late, great Massimo Belardinelli, who had passed away a couple of months previously. Here was an artist who I only came to appreciate after some time. The first I remember seeing of Belardinelli's work was likely a one-off (a Future Shock without the Future Shock masthead) called "Bad Vibrations" from the early 400s, and an Ace Trucking Company story, "The Nightlight Flight," that I could barely understand because the writing was so incredibly weird. (What was with this author? Grant Grover? Did this guy just not speak English or something? I caught on eventually...) Oh, and Mean Team, which was hopeless. He seemed like an ordinary and nondescript artist stuck with the crummiest and lousiest scripts, when, of course, Massimo was very, very far from ordinary.

Belardinelli's best work was behind him when I discovered him, although he still had some occasional terrific things to come, like 1987's The Dead. I just caught him in a mid-career lull, a short break in a spectacle of hyper-quality. Had I been following 2000 AD from the beginning, and seen his amazing work on Dan Dare, on Inferno, on Meltdown Man, on the first fantastic run of Ace Trucking, alternating with Mike McMahon on the first thirty-something episodes of Slaine, then I would have been a fan much earlier on.

He never seemed to be driven by nightmares in quite the way Hicklenton was, but there was often something ethereal, dreamlike, and really uncanny about his alien worlds and landscapes. Ace Trucking let him design dozens of freaky aliens doing weird stuff in the background, but it was a thoughtful and surprising and often very funny sort of weird, and not a nauseating one. He was never as imaginative or powerful in his designs for human characters, or the force and impact that they brought to the page, but when it came to aliens or technology or humanoid animals leaping out of the page, he was in a class by himself. That whole sequence on the frozen lake in Meltdown Man, where the evil, mind-controlling snake makes a break for it, is simply one of the most frantic and exciting sequences in the comic's history. You couldn't film it and make it more thrilling!

Mills has eulogized both of these artists, and been extraordinarily gracious and complimentary to the work they did his scripts. He's recently called for Rebellion to negotiate with the owners of Dan Dare's copyright to get the 2000 AD version reprinted. Some of it was, in the lousy American format in the late eighties, but only starting with Dave Gibbons' run. Those first six months, with Belardinelli in charge and Dan fighting the Biogs, have never been reprinted anywhere, meaning only the hardcore collectors have seen just how inventive and fun it was. He's also said that, until Simon Bisley painted the Slaine epic "The Horned God," nobody but Belardinelli had depicted the hero's warp-spasm right. Mills has often been very, very gracious to his artists for doing such great work on his scripts. They weren't always to my liking, but we were, honestly, really lucky to have so much great work from these two.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: "Street Fighting Man" in Lenny Zero & the Perps of Mega-City One (Amazon USA)

Next time, hey, speaking of Mills, you wait around for ages for a new Pat Mills creation, and then two come at once: Defoe and Greysuit. See you in seven!

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