Sunday, January 29, 2017

No. 95 Ben Willsher

First Prog: 1096
Latest Prog: 1994 (on the cover); 1910 (interior strip)

First Meg: 3.62 (164 in old money)
Latest Meg: 375

Total appearances: 93

An untypical but stunningly realised Willsher painting

Art credits:
Sinister Dexter
Judge Dredd
Dredd (the movie spin-off series)
Damnation Station (1 episode)
The Ten Seconders (filling in on a couple of episodes)
Lenny Zero
A handful of one-offs

Notable character creations:
Nadia, the assassin who brought the Chaos bug to Mega City 1.
Shuggy Bear (a proper 2000AD in-joke brought to life)

Notable characteristics:
Dynamic action - with figures spilling off the panels in crazy directions, usually while firing a gun (or two), being shot at, and falling through a glass window.

A much more typical example of Willsher at work.
I'm embarrassed to confess that many of the scans here will go uncredited - I just can't always remember
which Dredd tale is which these days. Sorry, script droids.
Vehicular motion:

I don't know how he pulled it off, but this image really pulls off the trick of showing Dredd
pondering, making up his mind, and then reversing on his bike (it's a future bike) to
show some love for the Rookie. The whole thing hums with life.
Lots of lines. Cheekbones. Overtly sexy men and women. There’s something that feels kinda modern about Willsher’s style, even as a lot of the details within are a bit throwback. It’s as if he learned to draw by reading 1990s US comics (Image crew, I’m looking at you) but made sure he put the effort in to include proper storytelling, not just ‘kewl’ poses and crosshatching and such.

On Ben:
Ben Willsher has been on the scene for a lot longer than I realised, getting his start on a couple of Sinister Dexter stories back in the days when that was a continuity-light, comedy-heavy strip. Although he did then work on the story Re-Lode, which is arguably when the series kicked into that status it still holds where they keep getting mixed up with alternate dimensions.

Finnigan Sinister gets in on the Willsher trademark - spinning around, punching and firing all at once.
Words by Dan Abnett
Anyway, these early outings have a lot of the charm he now seems to dash off with effortless ease, but you can sort of tell he wasn’t quite in the big leagues yet.

Those sunglasses; those lips - it's all a bit too 90s.
Words by Dan Abnett
He got there pretty soon after, mind! And all the way, the key word is dynamism. It’s in the poses that are meant to be still:

Early Willsher
and also in the poses that are, well, meant to be moving at supreme velocity:

Contemporary Willsher
There’s something about Willsher’s violence that is both extreme but also casual. This is a 2000AD trait generally - partly because there is so much violence meted out in every Prog that you kinda become immune – but also because the tone of the comic is, more than anything, fun. So when you see someone getting mashed in the face or run through a grinder, you know you’re allowed to smile in response. Except for the times and stories when you aren’t.

This is one of the cold, nasty Dredds. Willsher knows it, too - nothing funny in this 'stalk n flens' sequence.
Words by John Wagner
Willsher, for me, is one of those artists whose approach to violence made me sit up and pay attention. His anatomy is just realistic enough that I really feel it when a bullet rips through one of his perps, or a set of teeth is bashed out with a daystick. Making me wince a bit – but also revel in the fun side.*

There's a hint of fun just in the very outrageousness of that exit wound / gaping hole.
Any fun in seeing Dredd kick someone down is tempered by the horribleness
of watching a man's teeth scarping across concrete. Brrr!
Probably the ultimate expression of this was in recent Megazine series The Cop, which is as neo-noir as they come. It’s still a Judge Dredd tale (although one of those ones narrated from the point of view of his antagonist), but it’s also Al Ewing deliberately not being funny. The theme is revenge, as a dish served not just cold, but after years of careful preparation. So yes, the violence is earned and felt. A modern classic, too.

A Dredd-less sequence sets the scene. Minimal detail; maximal impact.
Words by Al Ewing

This brings me onto a small digression: the Dredd movie. Bear with me! My experience seeing it in the cinema, in that glorious 3D**, was one of discomfort. It was Judge Dredd all right, the protagonist I know so well from the comics, but it felt a little off. And I think it was the ultraviolence. It’s entirely in keeping with how McMahon, Ezquerra, Kennedy, MacNeil and all the greats have delivered it, but seeing it done with actors - with both practical and CG gore flying – was another level of dark. I’m used to laughing at the guts n gore in Dredd, not to recoiling. The way the violence is handled is not, in itself, different from how it's done in the comics - but there was a shock value in seeing that selfsame violence created by, for want of a better term, a new artist - a vast team of artists, really, using a far more realistic style than I'd seen before on Dredd.

I got over it on a second viewing.

But yes, this was a similarity to the Willsher experience. And in due course, he’s become a rotating regular on the Dredd comic strip series. A darned good one, if you ask me.

Same chin, same scowl, but visibly Dredd, not Judge DreddWords by Arthur Wyatt
Willsher's action-packed art suits the sensibility of the Dredd movie-verse to a T.
Words by Arthur Wyatt
In a similar way, I also feel I notice his sexualisation more than many other artists. 2000AD has used artist who love the human form since the very beginning – Ian Gibson, I’m looking at you – but it’s another thing Willsher brings to the table that is somehow very noticeable. If I’m honest, I find his approach to beauty (both male and female, but moreso with the females) to be a little bit fashion catalogue-y for my tastes, and, perhaps, can come across as more pin-up-like than in-story art fun.

At least it's equal opportunity gender ogling, sorta.
Sometimes, Willsher's propensity toward naked flesh is pushed in unusual directions

Why yes, the judge badges on that naked jimp ARE all named after Thargs past and present.
Can't remember if that means anything, in story.
and he did a tremendous job of storyboarding this post-coital man-on-man sequence from Damnation Station that manages to be both a little bit sexy, and a little bit matter of fact.

Two men naked from the feet up
Words by Al Ewing
Totting up his published work, I actually thought he’d have a higher count than he does. In my head, Willsher has become one of the more regular Judge Dredd artists. I guess it's aprtly that's he's been involved in some of the epics, including several stints on one that biggest of all epics, the whole ‘Day of Chaos’ storyline. 

Bonus points for working his signature into the background organically
Most significantly, setting the scene with Orlok’s heir apparent, Nadia:

That's some gorgeous city block arranging there in the back, too
He was also picked to deliver, more controversially, that continuity-centric story in which Dredd receives full-body rejuve treatment, rendered by Willsher in all it's Hellraiser-y goo glory. 

You really wanna know what Judge Dredd looks like underneath his helmet? You sure?
Words by Michael Carroll
But he hasn’t delivered as many series as I thought, and sadly few long ones at that. His longest remains Zero’s Seven, and you can sort of tell he was struggling to keep the pace, as it’s a little scratchier than his other black and white work. For example, here's a neat, chilling little Terror Tale that deliberately echoes film noir, full of confident black lines:

I'm always a sucker for clothing creases. But the posing is just as much part of
conveying the atmosphere, and he's nailed that, too.
Words by Alec Worley
Compare with the bouncier look of Lenny Zero:

With all that character design work going on, and all the cards on the table, he's hardly skimping on effort,
but the effect renders the story a little slighter.
Words by Andy Diggle
No denying Willsher's facility with delivering the easy laughs that pepper Diggle’s script,

Meet Shuggy Bear, the only bear on the CIA's 'let's engineer him to have opposable thumbs' list.
Words by Andy Diggle
nor indeed his continued commitment to sexy times, in this case very much inherent to the plot.

What does love potion 69 do? You should see the next page after this one.
Words by Andy Diggle
Zero's Seven is enormous fun to read, no denying it. But for me, Willsher’s at his best when he’s delivering high octane action, that combines both a fun tone but also a serious undertone. This describes Judge Dredd (and Dredd, too) of course – but to my mind it describes another series even better, one that, I suspect, Willsher will never get the chance to have a crack at: Strontium Dog.

Now that's a cover that makes me want to read the story immediately!
His style is just wonderfully suited to Johnny Alpha and his world. I’m sure he’d be first in line to say “God no! That’s Carlos Ezquerra’s property all the way.” And he’d be right. I still think he’d be a superlative fit for that strip, though.

Let’s end with a slew of covers, showing the man’s progression as an artist of increasing confidence…

Interesting posing, not quite the Willsher finish we know and love today

the comedy's in place, but something's missing...

That's it! Shattering glass. Love this cover.

If there's no glass available, a dirty great nail will do. And a pun worthy of 1985, too.

More on Ben Willsher:
His own Website
...and again
An interview on Geek Syndicate

Personal favourites:
Sinister Dexter: Word is
Judge Dredd: Day of Chaos; Violent Night; The Cop
Dredd: Dust
Lenny Zero: Zero’s 7
Pulp Sci-Fi: the Shutdown Man
Terror Tales: Poison

Willsher's killer Santa - a Christmas treat for all readers
Words by Al Ewing
*I realise I’m saying a lot more about me than about Willsher’s way with a pen here!

**Definitely one of the best uses of 3D I’ve experienced yet, and I think it’s something about the film that hasn’t been talked about enough by general cinema fans (as opposed to us Dredd fanatics).

1 comment:

  1. You shouldn't feel bad about liking the sexy ladies.

    Julius Howe did a great interview with Willsher, which touches on why there was such a long gap between his breaking into 2000ad and actually producing regular work. Their archive might prove useful when researching future features: