Wednesday, July 10, 2019

No. 130 Bryan Talbot

First Prog: 257
Latest Prog: 504, with a one-off story in Prog 2002 (the one released the week after Prog 1272), and a Dredd episode in Prog 1730.

First Meg: 257 (cover)
Latest Meg: 265 (cover)
-and in fact he’s only contributed these two covers to the Megazine, although he’s been interviewed / essayed about a whopping 5 times to date. He’s earned it.

Total appearances: 69

ABC Murder mayhem
Words by Pat Mills

Art credits:
Nemesis the Warlock
Judge Dredd
Various one-offs
-assists on Slaine

Talbot inks on Fabry pencils. The mini-Elfrics feel especially Talbot-y, if you ask me.
Words by Pat Mills

Notable character creations:
Hitaki and Mad Ronn, short-lived but memorable ABC Warriors, not necessarily for the right reasons
Nostradamus de Torquemada - don't worry, I'll remind you who he is later!
The face of Fear – Talbot didn’t design the overall look of Judge Fear, but he was the first – in Diceman 1 – to dare to draw a face so horrific it would send a man mad.*

Just imagine those eyeballs squirming in and out of focus in front of you...
...or rather, don't!
Words by Pat Mills

Notable characteristics:
Detail, detail, detail. You never saw a Talbot panel of art that didn’t look as if he was poring over it for hours, filling in every last brick outline, fold of clothing or crease of skin, first in meticulous pencils and then in careful ink. That may not be how he actually worked (then or now), but that’s what it looks like.

His relatively thick ink lines, in particular, make me think of his 2000AD output as ‘earthy’. It may not be the right word, but it’s what your trowel looks like after a bit of gardening.

You want detailed backgrounds, including a fully realised city? Talbot's got your back!
Words by Pat Mills

You want an exquisitely-rendered black tyrannosaur in his lair? Talbot's got your back again!
Words by Pat Mills

To make another crude analogy, Talbot’s work in this period is like a practical effects movie from the early 1980s versus today’s CGI. There’s an awful lot of blood and goo and melting faces and general scrunginess, and it’s beautiful. 

Best melting face this side of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin!
Words by Pat Mills

Even his violence packs a visceral punch, as if the ‘actors’ were actually hitting each other.

Punch, dive, gouge, pull, kick! A fight choreography masterclass.
Words by Pat Mills

Finally, he’s an exemplary storyteller, always bothering to show details of place and action. And, of course, not forgetting that when we’re reading, say, a Judge Dredd story, we’d damn well better see plenty of action panels of Dredd doing some judging!

Dredd as action hero, in one of those sequences that feels quintessentially comics.
Words by John Wagner and Alan Grant

Oh, and on a smaller note, Bryan Talbot is the king of swoopy hair and snarling noses...

It's not just the swoop of Candida's hair, it's also the way he's used the same inking angle
for her clothing and the sea spray at the bottom. It all communicates a certain mood. Clever.
Words by Pat Mills
Just those four lines on the nose are doing a lot of work!
Grand Dragon Mazarin has quite the telling expression, too, the lying little bastard.
Words by Pat Mills

On Bryan:
It’s hard to overstate how present Bryan Talbot was in my very early days of 2000AD fandom. The first Prog I ever saw was in the middle of his work on Nemesis Book V. Just a few weeks later, he turned up on Judge Dredd in the Prog and that year’s annual, and then again in 2000AD spin-off comic Diceman with ‘House of the Dead’ and ‘Garden of Alien Delights’. 

Where do you even begin to caption a pair of panels like this?
This pair of 'weird aliens' were indelibly printed on my brain from a young age.
Words by Pat Mills

And the first 2000AD collection I ever bought was Nemesis: the Gothic Empire.** It very much made me think of Talbot as a quintessential 2000AD artist, even though, in the grand scheme of things, his tenure was relatively short. (And at that time I didn’t even have the 1987 Judge Dredd Annual, in which Talbot is the featured artist, following in the footsteps of no lesser Dreddlights than Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra. Clearly, Tharg knew a talent when he had access to one.)

It’s worth saying that I was also reading old Nemesis and Judge Dredd strips thanks to ‘the Best of 2000AD Monthly), so I knew that Kevin O’Neill was the ‘real’ Nemesis artist, and Bolland the ‘real’ Judge Death artist – but even as a substitute it was evident to young me that Talbot was a force to be reckoned with.

I suppose one could argue that Talbot is every bit the skilled character designer that O’Neill and Bolland are, with the added bonus of being a more fluent action artist with superior storytelling chops. He sets the scene, introduces the figures, and shows us what they’re doing without making any of the poses stilted. 

It's a whole story in a single page, and yet more comics structure goodness.
That's how to use panel layouts to show the passage of time.
Words by Pat Mills

Plus, he can add the hyper-detailed touches of weirdness that O’Neill revels in, and the OTT facial emoting that’s Bolland’s stock-in-trade.

Never has a person looked happier to be slapped.
Words by Pat Mills

However, I can’t deny that young me rather took Talbot’s skills for granted. Where I was wowed by the likes of O’Neill and Bolland for pure spectacle, Talbot (like Ezquerra), was simply an artist who sucked me into the story being told. Going to stop making these false comparisons now, it’s not fair on any of these master artists! Although here’s at least one example of Talbot drawing a Torquemada pin-up that, to me, functions as a tribute to Kevin O’Neill’s style and sensibility.

It's the tube vehicles and the touch of the mum talking to her child that echoes O'Neill the most, for me.

Let’s step back a little to Talbot’s 2000AD debut, on one of the most beloved Future Shocks

The level of detail on that Villain School design is just staggering, especially in such a small panel.
Words by Alan Moore

Here's the 'after' picture of the same character from the panel above. Brimming with confidence!
Words by Alan Moore

…so good, in fact, it’s available in its entirety online over at Barney. Enjoy it for all the usual Talbot beats: facial emoting, scene-setting and just plain baroque fun.

And, commissioned at probably the same time, here’s a glimpse at his first rendering of Hammerstein, in one of those Alan Moore Ro-Busters stories people say they like so much.

Hard to put my finger on it, but there's something cruder in Talbot's style here, compared to his later work on Nemesis.
But still the same fierce commitment to showing muck and debris in all its hyper-detailed glory.
Words by Alan Moore

I'm being a bit of an arsehole. It IS a fun story, making up for a basic plot with some neat details, and really just for giving Talbot an excuse to do a bit of an 'ABC + Ro-Busters greatest hits' type number, where 'greatest' means 'most violent'. But it's far from the best work of either illustrious creator.

On from there, a good two years later, Talbot takes the reins of Nemesis the Warlock, picking up where O’Neill left off, at his mostest weirdest to boot! The story goes that the early episodes of ‘The Gothic Empire’ were originally intended by Mills and O’Neill to be the opening part of Nemesis the Warlock, Book 1. But Tharg said ‘it’s too weird. Give us some more background and we’ll get to it in time’. However, when that time came, O’Neill wasn’t available to draw the rest of it (or maybe was just too burned out after the insanity of Book III?). Enter Bryan Talbot, and what an entrance it is!

Torquemada, all at once being the Invisible Man, Frankenstein's Monster
and, especially, Jack the Ripper. The wind and fog are superbly realised, no?
Words by Pat Mills
This pseudo-Victorian setting, complete with Torque as Jack the Ripper, was an especially obvious fit for the artist who was then in the middle of drawing his own comic strip, Luther Arkwright, about a time-and-alternate-reality hopping hero who spends a fair bit of time in a sort of ‘endless British Empire’ milieu***. Lots of brickwork and self-deluding upper-class Brits, of the type that Mills loves to send up. Kind of like the Gothic Empire that Nemesis visits in Book IV.

More Euro-comics-style building design genius, and again all in service of just a single panel!
Words by Pat Mills

As well as awesome architecture, Talbot gets to draw super-tentacle ectoplasm-form Torquemada,

Which highlights the quintessential difference between Talbot and O'Neill.
O'Neill is all industrial sharp lines, Talbot is all organic squishiness.
Words by Pat Mills
 and of course a gang of robots, as we rediscover the ABC Warriors.

Just don't ask your parents to translate the tagline...
(Those words by Simon Geller)
The re-introduction of Joe Pineapples, over a 3-page sequence, remains the character’s definitive moment and certainly cemented his place as my default favourite Warrior.

It's all about the helmet in the style of a 'pineapple' grenade. Such a simple touch, so effective.
Words by Pat Mills
 Equally definitive is his depiction of a cowering, fear-filled Blackblood... 

How does he do those wonderful Bridget Riley style lines?
There's no way he could've done it on computer in 1984, is there??
(And by the by, we never do find out who it is that Blackblood fears so much)
Words by Pat Mills

Over the course of two more books of Nemesis, Talbot delivers yet more world and character building goodness, and gamely attempts to squeeze as many images of the ABC Warriors into the background as he can. He’s juggling a cast of about 15 main characters, while Mills is mostly focussing on just 5…
Three of the Five: Torquemada, Mazarin and Thoth
Words by Pat Mills

The other two: Nemesis (looking oddly conservative) and Purity (decidedly not conservative!).
Words by Pat Mills
 After the conceptual wonders of Book VI, which covers everything from funeral procession to fan conventions

How to draw a crowd scene (with apologies for terrible scanning quality)
Words by Pat Mills

to the literal end of the world, including the psychic manifestation of all human goodness and evilness****, Talbot decided he’d had enough.

Talbot goes big, before going home.
Words by Pat Mills

Arguably, he’d done more good for the comic than the comic had done for him, given that he walked straight back into the world of self-penned work, rather than doing work for hire, with increasing levels of artistic and commercial success. (Although, if I’m honest, I do still hold those Nemesis episodes as my favourite of his output. Partly because I was the right age, and partly because Pat Mills is, dare I say it, a better writer than Talbot).

But from my point of view, 2000AD put him on my radar as a comic name to seek out and enjoy, and I’ll always be grateful for that!

Let’s have a look here at his handful of Judge Dredd bits, which put the big man front and centre, as well as giving Talbot the chance to show off his mutant design skills, typically even more grotesque than even King Carlos,

...and sneer again

More glorious head bulges
Words by John Wagner and Alan Grant

Yes, that is a mutant with the power to look just like Sly Stallone.
Words by John Wagner and Alan Grant

Here's Tablot's game interpretation of that 1980s ‘comedy’ staple, the alpha-male who is obliged to dress up in women’s clothes:

One of the more potent kick panels in all of comics!
Words by John Wagner and Alan Grant

It’s not as though Talbot had burned any bridges. He did in fact return to 2000AD (and the Megazine) a handful of times, and I can well imagine him dropping by the deliver a story again one day. He classed up a deeply average Future Shock in the 1987 Sci-Fi Special…*****

Humans at war with aliens - when its drawn with this much care, does it matter that it has cliches dripping from every pore?
Words and pencil art by Mike Matthews

...and turned out a wordless story in the end of year special Prog 2002, more or less explicitly as a thumbed nose to Marvel comics, who’d delivered their own gimmicky ‘Nuff Said’ set of comics earlier that year. 

Not as easy as it looks, silent comics. And frankly, it doesn't even look that easy!

And, on occasion, Talbot graces a front cover.

I can’t help but think Talbot will re-appear in the Prog one fine day, when the mood takes him. You know, like when he turned up on a random Judge Dredd episode a few years back…

Colours here by Alwyn (son of) Talbot, hence the radical shift in style
Words by Michael Carroll

I tend not to talk too much about the careers of 2000AD creators once they've moved on - a job for other folks, I feel - but one can't stress enough how Bryan Talbot in in the top tier of Comics creators of all time, dabbling in work for all ages and all genres, including perhaps the two toughest: social issues (see the Tale of One Bad Rat), and literary (see Alice in Sunderland). The sort of comics you'll find on lists of '100 Comics you really should read', that you genuinely really should read if you want to see the breadth of what comics can do...

More on Bryan Talbot:
He has one of the more professional websites in the world of comics creators here
Including a nicely detailed biography
...and a separate one designed especially for 2000AD fans.
I'm struggling to find any interviews or essays focussing on his 2000AD period, but why not have a read of a career-spanning interview on the Guardian?
Or a more irreverant session with Page 45?

Talbots up to tricks again, matching the loops on the time tunnel to the loops on Satanus's tail and leg.
Words by Pat Mills

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd: House of Death
Nemesis the Warlock: just all of it
Future Shocks: The Wages of Sin

One of my all-time fave panels from 2000AD!
It's Nostradamus de Torquemada, the man with a face that puts Freddy, Jason and even
the Incredible Melting Man to shame.
Words by Pat Mills

*Well, a lesser man than Joe Dredd.

**Released by Titan as Book III, even though it’s actually Book IV.

***This isn’t the place to get into it, but if you like Mills and Talbot era Nemesis, Luther Arkwright is highly recommended. The story is quite dense, and it’s the sort of plot you need to be patient with to follow the various timelines, but it’s ultimately a pretty straight ‘good guy has to save the world’ narrative with an anime vibe.

****Or, as Talbot put it, a bunch of weirdoes having a chat on the beach.

*****Shamelessly bringing it up so I can plug my guest appearance on an episode of SpaceSpinner 2000!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

No. 129 John Hicklenton RIP

First Prog: 488
Final Prog: 608

First Meg: 1.07
Final Meg: 265

Total appearances: 69
-including his work in Crisis, but not including his work for Toxic! comic

John Hicklenton: King of Sex, Death and body horror...
Words by Jim Alexander

Creator credits:

Art credits:
Nemesis the Warlock
Third World War
Judge Dredd
Mean Machine
Heavy Metal Dredd
Blood of Satanus
A couple of Future Shocks and one-off Dreddworld tales

Dig those sunken cheeks and that forced doubled chin. Hicklenton 101.

Notable character creations:
Judge PandoraX-Face (or Lord Omega, as he prefers to think of himself)

Beating Hellraiser at its own game?
Words by Pat Mills

Notable characteristics:
Frankly every single aspect of Hicklenton's work is notable! A more distinctive (not to say divisive) artist you'd be hard pressed to find in 2000AD. But, within that, it's especially notable how much he's into the grotesque. More specifically, you've got contorted bodies and faces, long necks, rictus grins, heaving bosoms, the thickest blacks and dirt-flecked whites. Plus, I get the impression that in practically ever panel he was trying his hardest to give the reader something to really look at, y'know?

The kind of ugly that goes so far its well into beautiful territory.
Words by Jim Alexander

This is what I used to think 2000AD readers looked like / aspired to look like (circa 1989)
Words by Pat Mills
You've also got that thing that was kinda popular in the late 80s / early 90s where an artist would spend so much time rendering exquisite detail in some panels that others would come across as, shall we say, rushed. (Looking at you, Simons Bisley and Davis).

Oh, and any given Hicklenton story has the potential to unleash buckets of gore!

All the spines! All of them.
Context by John Smith

On John:
I don't quite know how it happened, but John Hicklenton passed me by at first. I started out on 2000AD with Prog 439, reading my older brother's Progs, but kind of stopped around the time of Bad Company, when it was all getting a bit grown up and, dare I say it, pretentious. I didn't get back into the weekly fold until Prog 650, although I did steal glances at covers in between, and sometimes got hints of the contents. So, I was aware of things like Zenith being a big deal, and I sure as hell noticed the craziness of Simon Harrison taking over from Carlos Ezquerra on Strontium Dog. Fate, however, had hidden Hicklenton's work from my eyes...

So, when I finally sat down to re-read all those missed Progs, nothing prepared me for the jarring shift in art on Nemesis the Warlock. I'd been used to the sumptuous and accessible Bryan Talbot, with a taste of hyper-stylized Kevin O'Neill from the Best of Monthly reprints. And then there was The Two Torquemadas...

Nemesis is, somehow, about to get even nastier and weirder...

There's a famous story about Kevin O'Neill's artwork being judged as just too nasty by the Comics Code Authority of America*. Not fit for publication to children. Imagine what those same minds would've thought had they been confronted with Hicklenton! And this is just based on the way he draws his characters, never mind the fact that, by the end of that first episode, several of them are being burned alive at the stake.

This is exactly what not to show your teacher when she asks what you're reading for Literacy hour.
Words by Pat Mills

Another less famous story is that young John Hicklenton (we're talking teenage) worked up the courage to contact Pat Mills and show him some work samples, and it's largely off the back of this that Mills that pushed for Hicklenton to take over on Nemesis the Warlock. And, to be fair, some credit is due to then-brand new editor Richard Burton for running with this largely untried upstart, and indeed letting him even further off the leash with Nemesis Book IX.

Is that the texture of his skin, or is he wearing a fishnet onesie? Does it matter?
Word by Pat Mills

I must have missed Hicklenton's debut Future Shock, which was actually a rather fine start for a very young new artist. Shades of Spitting Image / Viz in the caricatures there, but no bad thing to bring some humour, especially to a Future Shock

Already in place: grotesque faces and elongated, twisty necks!
Words by Neil Gaiman

His second effort pushed more into the weird, but that's mostly to do with the content of the story, which was well matched to Hicklenton's sensibilities!

The surreal imagery is the basic requirement here. Hicklenton elevates it with blotches and sweat.
Words by Grant Morrison

But even this couldn't prepare readers for the unbridled horror of 16th Century Spain as rendered by the most warped of 2000AD imaginations.

Why is everyone grimacing and crying? And how has he made the monk look so utterly evil?
Words here (and below) by Pat Mills

Pure horror

Pure body horror!

Next level body horror!

I mean, it's beyond insane. Torquemada (both versions) carry themselves in ways that shouldn't be possible. Yet it never looks like bad anatomy, it's just Hicklenton's style, his natural ability to convey character and emotion through body pose. What I found (and still find) most disturbing is an element of realism, as compared to O'Neill and Talbot's styles before. I mean, there's nothing 'real' about the way the figures are drawn, and yet the choice of line, and the detail on the skin and muscle does convey something more real than your average cartoon art.

 It's not just the Torquemadas who stick out, but they do seem to get special treatment, I guess reasonably enough as they're the titular protagonists – even more than Nemesis himself, in this story. They're also both thoroughly evil, and it seems this is an interest Hicklenton has. Mills, in the story, pays special attention to the self-knowing evil of future Torquemada, versus the slow realisation that past Torquemada gains that he, too, is properly evil, and not actually doing good work. (Whether or not God himself is evil is left for the reader to judge, I guess).

That's some glorious humility in the final panel.
Words by Pat Mills
True enough, there is also a plot going on here, and it's perhaps this part that Hicklenton struggles with. I would caution new readers to take Nemesis Book VII on slowly. The storytelling is all there, present and correct, but it's not the sort of thing you can pick up at a glance, you need to work to decipher some of the action. 

New artists take a while to work out the best way to fit all the panels in, don't they.
Words (and presumably panel descriptions) by Pat Mills

Mills, one suspects, was still interested in the narrative he was telling, but Hicklenton chooses to emphasise two key bits of it: the accounts of historical evils perpetrated by the Spanish Inquisition, and the character analysis within the two Torquemadas, alongside Nemesis and Purity. By contrast, poor Thoth gets short shrift for the most part, although he does at least get this amazingly touching cuddle with Dad, reminiscent of no less potent a piece of culture as the 'Baby Mine' sequence from Dumbo. Only this time it's horrendous devil-aliens cuddling, not cute elephants.

This is an all-time great 2000AD page, no question.
Words by Pat Mills

Whether by Mills' choice or not, by the time Nemesis Book IX: Deathbringer rolls around, narrative has largely flown out of the window. I certainly find it easier to read the book as a series of vignettes, rather than trying to make sense of it as an action plot. My best guess, it follows the exploits of Torquemada, now trapped in late 20th century Britain, where he appears to be all at once: a landlord stalking one of his tenants; a chief of police for a local gang of Brownshirt-type; and maybe even a politician. 

The Torquemada of 1990s Britain inspires the rise of the OyBoys.
(un)subtlety by Pat Mills
The passage of time in Deathbringer is not, shall we say, evident. Also not evident is whether all these characters are the Torquemada we know, or the 'real' Torquemada and one of his archetypes, who are just drawn the same. See also all the women, especially the one who is meant to be an identical match for Candida, but frankly looks a lot like Purity as well.

It's all a long, long way away from the Nemesis of old, with it's far future SF/Fantasy feel. But no less interesting, and boy has Hicklenton's art improved. Sure, he delivered some all-time pages on Book VII, but the level of detail is upped here, and he really leans into the running subplot whereby Torquemada's body is constantly deteriorating.

A Hicklentonian twist on the 'Here's Johnny' moment from the Shining, feat. the real Torquemada (I think?).

I don't know if there's an intentional reading of Torquemada as coke-fiend, but he's sure got the whole 'boy, is my nose falling off or what' thing going on.

This might be an imaginary late 20th Century Torquemada. Either way, he's got the bulging neck and rotting nose for it!

For reasons that I don't know, and would probably make me angrysad if I found out, there was no more Hicklenton Nemesis, and indeed the whole Nemesis saga basically fizzled out at this point. To some extent, it may just have been the result of the UK comics scene at the time. Alongside 2000AD, there was now Crisis, and, just over the horizon, the Judge Dredd Megazine. If there was one thing that set both apart from 2000AD, it's that these were explicitly aimed at grownups, and 'needed' to have content to match. If you want to stick a 'not safe for children' sticker on your comic, Hickleton's your man**! He helped out a bit on Third World War in Crisis, but one suspects couldn't quite handle the churn even of fortnightly publication, so he never got a whole run to his name. (Already Nemesis Book IX was printed in little chunks with gaps between several episodes, a problem plaguing the Prog at this time).

That's Finn, that is.
Words by Pat Mills

In colour, Hicklenton's work becomes a little easier to parse.
But never a straight head when a titled one will do.
Words by Pat Mills

And there was that one episode of Rogue Trooper from his one Annual, back when there was a chance the character could be following the Will Simpson template of 'war is hell' imagery (rather than the Dave Gibbons template of 'war makes for pretentious caption-writing' that Michael Fleisher ended up running with).

Rendering Rogue as a sort of Frankenstein monster actually makes a lot of sense for the character.
Words by Michael Fleisher

Then in the Megazine he part of an early wave of next-level-nasty Dredds, with the body-horror-tastic Black Widow, a story that properly gave 12-year-old me weird sex feelings while also repulsing me.

And that's how you draw 'adults only' material that still technically passes as child-appropriate. Glorious!
Words by John Wagner

Add one more to the 'visible penis in a panel of 2000AD' count...
Context (but probably not that detailed a panel description) by John Wagner

He also delivers a very distinctive Dredd, notable not so much for the outside chin (although that is present and correct), but for extremely hollow cheeks, thin lips and sinewy face muscles. One of the strengths of Dredd as a design is that the best artists bring their own twist him; Hicklenton is firmly in that category.

A strong reminder that Dredd's face is very much hewn from the rock that is Clint Eastwood.

Hicklenton's Dredd has to use all his strength to pull those leathers around his muscular frame.
Tight boots not tight enough, I guess!

Frankly it's a shame Hicklenton wasn't given more hard-edged sex horror to draw, as he has a great feel for this crossover. Instead, the editors pushed his gore-love, with Hicklenton as the man to follow Simon Bisley on Heavy Metal Dredd. Remember those splatting fatties from the top of this blogpost? Take a look at how Hicklenton drew them before their big leap...

Mega Citizens - reliably stupid and ugly since 1977.
(Also, they're us! reflected back at ourselves!)
Words by John Smith

Around this time Hicklenton got his first and only crack at an all-new series, the ultra-loopy Pandora. It's another Wally Squad story, only it doubles down on the 'who is doing what to whom?' stakes. If you like your comics beautiful but incoherent (quite the fashion in 1994), Pandora is for you. You could argue that it's Hicklenton's most polished work to appear in either the Prog or Meg. He's got some real tight inking going on, and he explores the Justice Department leather fetish to its fullest skin-tight, super shiny extreme. There were two Pandora stories, one short and one long. Don;t ask me what either were about, but there were definitely drugs involved. In the plot, that is.

I think that's our hero, Pandora, at the bottom, getting beat up by a Judge gone bad.
Words by Jim Alexander

A long gap followed, during which the man pursued other projects, including some zombie comics in the US, and, more famously, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I have to confess that I have neither seen his movie nor read his autobiographical comic about fighting MS, but I really should, as everyone says their brilliant. It's not clear to me if this physical affliction affected the way Hicklenton drew his comics and/or the types of things he chose to draw, but it's hard not to make some link between the rigours of MS and all the bodily contortions so associated with his drawing.

The only body of work I have to judge this on is Hicklenton's final effort for the house of Tharg, the much-reviled Blood of Satanus III.

As an excuse for bringing back everyone's favourite black tyrannosaur, I'm prepared to forgive it a lot of sins.
Who wouldn't want this piece of original art hanging on their wall??
Words by Pat Mills

At the time BoSIII ran in the Megazine, letter writers were pretty quick to chastise it as both the worst written and drawn strip of all time. In an interview, Hicklenton himself agreed with one critic that the early episodes were untidy, and in fact the second half of the series does have noticeably tighter ink lines, especially in the background details.

I guess if you don't like the man's style, or his subject matter, you're not going to like this series. But if there's any of Hicklenton you do admire, you've got to check BoSIII out for yourself – it features some extraordinary character designs, including some of THE most grotesque grotesqueries ever to appear in comics, which are at the same time playful and even charming.

Words and concepts by Pat Mills

The story needs a bit of dissecting. Frankly, it's a super bizarre - nay, the MOST bizarre version of what is, technically, a Judge Dredd story. Dredd himself is one of the main characters, but he's not really carrying the story – he's basically there to function as a 'hero' archetype, while Pat Mills explores what, to me, reads like a cross between Jung and Plato. Two world-famous thinkers whose ideas are, largely, thought to be wrong these days.***

The Jung bit is all about heroes and villains, and the idea that people need to believe in goodies and baddies, and especially that there ARE good people whose will is enough to overcome evil people. The Plato bit is a version of his suggestion that there's no such thing as a perfect 'chair'. Instead, when people see real-world examples of chairs, we're all actually comparing them to an imagined 'perfect chair' that exists outside the real world (Plato paints a picture of this imaginary chair as being like a shadow projected onto the wall of a cave).****

ANYWAY, in Blood of Satanus III, Mills uses Satanus as a conduit to open up a gateway from Mega City 1 into Hell, and it's in this Hell that the Platonic ideal forms of various kinds of evil exist as demons. When people in the real world are being evil, it's because they're channeling these demons. Dredd's mission is to cross through all the ten circles of this Hell, and defeat each demon along the way, thus proving he is a real hero who can prevent utter evil from overtaking Mega City 1.

Real heroes keep their jaws clenched firmly shut.

I think that's the overall plot, anyway. There are subplots about cults in there, too.

Hicklenton's task, then, is to get us into Hell, and to depict various humans who court evil, but most importantly, to render demons that personify the ideal form of different types of evil. Man, if there's anyone who could do a better job, I'd love to see it!

This Janus isn't just two-faced - he's got mismatched pairs of everything, including one arm made of a chainsaw
and one that is very short with weirdly misshapen fingers.
Words by Pat Mills
Also, did I mention, this whole thing is played for laughs? (Because it's so ridiculous that is has to be). Horrific as they are, the demons are always laughable. Various background horrors have a Beano / Leo Baxendale-esque quality to them. They're just there for readers to enjoy, while not getting in the way of the story.

The demon dog's not part of the plot, even less so the unfortunates it has been nibbling upon

Dredd heroic 'super-punch', as rendered in Hicklenton's best Beano-vision.
(and yes, this is a panel form one of those early 'untidy' episodes)
Although, in practice, sometimes they DO get in the way of the storytelling. Frankly, Mills isn't making it easy for Hicklenton, jumping from one level of Hell to the next, and sticking in various commentary characters between the action beats, but you do need to read the strip carefully if you want to find narrative coherence. I'd argue it's not worth it; better just to enjoy the visions of Hell.

I've an idea Hicklenton was hoping to do some work on Slaine next, and there's a magnificently weird sketch of his on the endpapers of the collected 'Slaine: the Wanderer' which gives a hint. But, as far as 2000AD goes, Hicklenton never did get back into its pages after that last Nemesis episode. While I can't immediately point to a strip he would have suited, I do think it's a shame.

Nemesis and Torquemada, in Mills's final vision, are locked in an eternal embrace of combat
-arguably never shown better than in this panel by Hicklenton.

More on John Hicklenton:
He still has a Facebook presence
A lovely obituary from Lew Stringer
Find out about his documentary, Here's Johnny
A review of his 100 Months book on the Hi-Ex! blog

Personal favourites:
Nemesis the Warlock: Books VII and IX
Judge Dredd: Black Widow
Blood of Satanus III (There, I said it!)

Sorry, couldn't resist posting this panel!
Bile by Pat Mills

*In Kev's own words here (scroll down a bit) 

**I feel obliged to add, I don't personally hold with the idea of 'not safe for children' as a literal concept. Children can handle difficult things, too. But I have no problem with labelling things so that both children and adults can make somewhat informed choices. (Plus there's the benefit of the added frisson of reading something with the belief that it's going to be truly nasty...)

***Although Jung's 'archetype' theory and Plato's 'idealism' are still taught and used quite a lot in literary academia as a way to deconstruct what works in storytelling. Don't think they're used much in 'actually making sense of how the world works' any more.

****Mills and Hicklenton may or may not have been explicitly channelling Jung and Plato. That's just my reading of the madness!