I was in college when I first read “Preacher.”
At this time in my life, you could say I was in the typical “rediscovering comics” phase: someone who had read comics as a kid, bounced out due to bullying (back in the days before superheroes were a cultural norm — remember that?) and then came back when I realized, oh, hey, I don’t need to be the person other people want me to be all the time. Granted, my return to comics was still to go after the “dark”, “mature” subset that had been popularized as opposed to exclusively capes and tights again, but, y’know, baby steps to eventually starting or writing for a blog.
So when I went to college, there weren’t that many comics in my dorm room. I had a small box so I could keep buying specific single issues on my budget (or lack thereof), but what I lacked in single issues I made up for with a healthy display of graphic novels I’d procured — and pronounced among them was my collection of “Preacher.”
There are many things that made “Preacher” a revolutionary read for me, as I am sure it did many of you. Even pushing past the dark maturity bullshit that brought me in care of that Vertigo logo, the book was an intense dissertation on the soul of man, what lies at the heart of darkness; the book was a beautiful balance of characters driven by clear and complex intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and each side of the argument was so fully realized that you wouldn’t be blamed for siding with the bad guys. Heck, the lead characters (one in particular) were all bad guys, pretty much.
But if all I wanted to read was a meditation on good and evil, a deep exploration of humanity, I could pick up any mass market paperback found in my local Stop & Shop. This is comics; I was here for the art, and no one illustrated humanity better than Steve Dillon.
Often times, as someone who has tried to pretend I understand what makes comics “work,” I’ll spend a lot of time staring at single panels of a comic book. There are different things that work for different artists, and you can see trends in praise that is lobbed sometimes; fans and critics alike both tend to love inventiveness in structure, or intense visceral landscapes and detail. Some of the most popular artists gain their popularity for their ability to bring a certain well-rounded touch to their characters (not to be confused with realism), and you can see that in their sales of prints. But when it comes to that special something extra, Dillon was chief among them — for a very special reason.
See, Steve Dillon’s people weren’t real or realistic… and yet, they absolutely were. It was clear that he wasn’t trying to draw his characters as some kind of exercise in a college life drawing class; what he was doing was getting under the skin and bringing an individual’s inner machinations to the surface. I don’t see people that look like Dillon’s illustrations, but I do see the truth in people in Dillon’s illustrations.
Take “Preacher” as the prime example: this is a book that exists as a fight for the soul, metaphorically and literally. The pain Jesse Custer feels as the man he grows up to be is rendered irrelevant by a faithless God; the complex and unsure decisions Tulip makes regarding the difficult people who populate her life; the torture found in the weariness around the Saint of Killers’ eyes; Cassidy’s duplicitousness is there the entire time and yet is so subtle on a first read; even bombastic characters like the Marquis or Herr Starr all had that ring of truth to them.
No one can draw these characters like Steve did. No actors in a television adaptation can truly bring them to life in the way his art does.
There’s something incredibly powerful contained within that: the notion that something ostensibly static or still can be teeming with life and vitality. Good comic artists get this; great comic artists re-invent this. Dillon did it with all of his characters which made his work such a draw for me, whether in Vertigo books like “Preacher”, “Hellblazer” and “Animal Man,” or even recently in one-offs on “Hulk” with Jason Aaron or short runs on “Thunderbolts” with Daniel Way. You may have forgotten it, but Dillon also had a lengthy — and great — run on “Wolverine: Origins,” a (maligned, but whatever) series that had Wolverine go through his greatest hits and revisit past villains like Nuke, Cyber and Deadpool — all wonderfully brought back to life by Dillon’s expert ability to find their inner truth.Continued below
And, before we go further, it’s important to note that Dillon brought Deadpool back into relevance. We wouldn’t have Deadpool around at all if it weren’t for the “Wolverine: Origins” arc where Deadpool and Wolverine fought. If you like Deadpool as he exists today, you literally would not have him without the success of Dillon’s Deadpool arc with Way in that title (and if you hate Deadpool, go back and read that arc anyway).
Consider, even, just why Dillon drew “The Punisher” for so many different writers / runs (Garth Ennis, Jason Aaron, Daniel Way, recently Becky Cloonan). There’s a reason that Dillon was the most consistent voice to take on Frank Castle, and it’s not because he spent his early years drawing Judge Dredd and knew how to draw a souless killing machine. Quite the opposite, in fact: Dillon keeps drawing the Punisher because Dillon is the only one who can really pronounce the last elements of his frayed humanity. To many the Punisher is a guy that picks up guns and shoots up mob types; under Dillon’s pen and ink, the Punisher was a man who survived the unthinkable repeatedly, and didn’t just lives to fight another day but carried that actual weight with him. Steve Dillon didn’t draw the Punisher; Steve Dillon drew Frank Castle.
I wrote much more than I planned to write here. I actually kind of hate when these kind of in memoriam pieces take a personal slant, because to be honest I never had the opportunity to meet Steve and I’m afraid all of this comes off as facetious. I wish I had the chance to meet him; I would’ve loved to chat about comics for this site or just in general. So when I write this piece, and I tell you about the trouble I had putting this article in past tense instead of present tense, I don’t want it to seem like I’m making this about me — especially to those who personally knew him and loved him much more deeply than I can.
Rather, what I hope you take away from reading this is just how important the man’s work was, is, and will continue to be. Dillon’s legacy will be something for us to treasure through the coming years, and his body of work both big and small contain much that is worth going back and rediscovering now in his absence. Living in a world in which there will never be a new “Punisher” comic by Steve Dillon is sad, but we are lucky to have lived in any world where Dillon’s “Punisher” was a thing we could have and treasure at all.
Steve Dillon left us in an unexpected fashion, but as a lapsed fan who came back through a book like “Preacher” — which I will happily go on record as saying was the best series of that era of Vertigo, and is a must read for any comic fan ever — I’m happy I got to see the world through his eyes; to see that even in the darkest, most morally ambiguous and yes, mature areas, light and hope and humanity can still be found.
A small bit of comfort from a man of tremendous accomplishment. We miss you, Steve.