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!