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Home ¦ Features ¦ John Hicklenton interview

Ian Edginton - A 2000 AD Review Interview
5th September 2006

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Blood of Satanus 3
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Interview by Gavin Hanly

John Hicklenton was one of the big 2000AD artists of the 80's and 90's. His work, which mainly graced Nemesis and many Judge Dredd strips, is best known for its no holds barred attitude and he is an artist whose work has certainly proved to be controversial in the past. Now, he's returning to the Megazine with the next chapter in the Blood of Satanus saga, and we took the opportunity to catch up with him.

First of all, thanks for doing the interview.

Thatís no problem Ė in fact, Iím drawing as we speak.†

So, how did you start out as an illustrator in general?

Well, there’s a young version and a slightly older one.

The younger version is sort of a 3 stage thing. When I was at school, I was quite good at art and not much good at any other subject. There was another bloke at the school – you know I’m nearly 40, and was about 13 when this happened and I still remember his name as Rupert Gibson. He was slightly autistic and drew 1000’s of little birds – as small ticks. I’d spend ages drawing this picture and he tore it up - I couldn’t believe what he’d done! I drew this 3 headed great white shark for a school project and actually sent it to Tony Hart, was gutted when he didn’t respond and then this guy ripped it up! So after that I laid off for a bit.

Later, I was reading 2000AD (from about prog 4 or 5) at a recreation ground – it’s a very clear memory. I opened it up and, at the time, Flesh was in there and a Stegosaur or a Tyrannosaur was being dropped into a mincer. I literally just gave my mates my football, went home and just drew obsessively every day for 8 hours a day. I lived for it.

Later, I was good friends at college with a girl called Hannah Smith and at the time I had no idea that her dad was Ron Smith. She’d seen that I’d done a little doodle of Dredd, because I’d done a lot of classes with her, and said “my dad draws that!” She told me who he was and I was already a massive fan by then. So it was near Christmas and, very calculatingly, I did her a fully painted Christmas card with an image of Judge Dredd that I’d spent about 6 weeks doing. After seeing that, he asked to meet me and told me he thought that “the card was really good and you obviously love Dredd”. I said “oh, it wasn’t really anything, but if you want to see my portfolio..?” So I went down that route. He introduced me to his agent, I did one or two Future Shocks and Pat Mills bust into my life, thank god, and we started doing Nemesis.

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Torquemada
So how did the Nemesis gig start?

Well, I’d done these Future Shocks and, because I was new, I wasn’t getting any proper respect or response from these people at IPC. I was seen as the new boy and lucky to be working for the comic. I used to deal with the editor over the phone and he basically said to me – You’ve had your one shot and that’s it. You’re not getting anything more because you’re phoning me up too much – I was really hustling, I knew I had to do this.

Then my mum said to me why don’t you just ring Pat Mills direct? This guy had given me his number but I didn’t want to ring Pat because I was a complete fanboy and still am. But I rang him and he said – right! I’ve seen your work! I’ll give you some Nemesis scripts – do 3 maybe 4 pages of script work, hand it in and we’ll tell you what we think. So I handed it in and about a week later I got 12 scripts for the Two Torquemadas and I was off!

I do remember when you first started on Nemesis, and it seemed to be a complete change not only in the artwork but in the tone of the story as well – taking it back to 80s Britain. How did the collaboration on that with Pat work – do you talk beforehand?

Well on that one we didn’t – he’s a close friend of mine now, but at the time it wasn’t really like that. Now when we do things, it’s different. Pat is a very rounded writer – he can write on his feet and suddenly change the story in the middle of a conversation and make it work. He also carefully studies his references. This is how me and Pat do it now. He initially says he has an idea for what he wants, I’ll send him some drawings, he’ll bounce back off that and we’ll continue bouncing to and fro till we’ve got something together.

I really love Pat – he IS my career in many ways as I haven’t really worked with too many other people – but I’m planning to and I’ve spread my wings into other areas. But with Pat & me it’s a good friendship/business relationship.

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Painting - "He contemplated the cross"
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Looking back at Nemesis, there was a shift between your work and that of Bryan Talbot in that you got to show Torquemada as more of a person as opposed to someone in a costume – how did that come about?

Well, I’d seen the Bryan Talbot work and I was a very big fan of him. He had a scene where Torquemada took the helmet off. I’d never really pictured him without the helmet before, as a skinhead. It had a kind of pathos about it as I was expecting a triangular head! So I just played with that. I don’t think it’s something that Pat would have agreed to initially if I’d just said I was going to take it down that route, but as I said, he thinks on his feet and when he saw that it could be justifiable, he allowed me to carry on taking it on and off.

I actually wanted to DE-humanise him in a way, because if he’s got a helmet, he’s a bit like Dredd. If ever I was to do a drawing and suddenly die, I’d want to do what I think Judge Dredd looks like under that helmet.

There’ve been rumours (although apparently already shot down) that it might happen in the upcoming Origins – perhaps you should get on the phone?

Well, I’ve never met John Wagner, but when I saw a History of Violence I was punching the air for him. It’s a good film and I think it’s worth everyone noting that the kind of people who have been very influential in contemporary visual arts culture are the sort of people like Chris Cunningham and Jamie Hewlett, who worked for 2000AD.

Pat has also had a huge influence on a whole generation and I think he will again with his Requiem Chevalier Vampire. It’s a vampire tale that’s beautifully drawn by this French artist, Olivier Ledroit. Pat came down over the Bank Holiday to spend some time and we were working out some stuff on Dredd. He’s got 12 projects on the go but he keeps all of them locked. Before I came onto the phone with you, we were working out what we were going to do with Dredd.

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Blood of Satanus 3
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So youíre working on Blood of Satanus 3?

Yes, and I’ll be working on Satanus 4 too if he’s kind enough to give it to me – although that’s maybe more Matt’s call. I haven’t met Matt Smith yet, but I love what he and Rebellion have done to the Megazine. I just like the whole slick presentation of it.

The story I’m doing now is in black & white and the digital printing they’re doing now captures absolutely everything. I’ve put everything I’ve got into this story – I got married a year and a half ago and I even was doing it on my honeymoon – and you’re really not meant to be drawing Dredd then. I was by the pool and these waiters were coming up to me and saying “ah! Sylvester Stallone!” – and I said “No. Judge Dredd. Judge… Joseph… Dredd”.

There are a lot of different incarnations of Dredd and some of them are very distorted. I obviously think that diversity is the essence of competition, but what I wanted to do was to impose a look in the same way I was inspired as a kid myself by people like Brian Bolland doing the Cursed Earth.

Talking of the Cursed Earth, I remember that once I deliberately lost a race on Sports Day so that I could go back to my dad’s car and read 2000AD, because I knew that he had bought it. Tweak was getting some hassle from slave traders on the Cursed Earth. Dad wasn’t happy at the time when he caught me reading it in the car, but I think he knew at that time that I really meant business. So he always believed in me and always pushed me. He had a huge amount to do with how I started. Because when I did put that ball down in the recreation ground I meant it. He later told me that I said to him - I’m going to draw Judge Dredd one day. I don’t remember saying that but he says that I did.

I’ve done a lot of other stuff and worked in the music industry but I absolutely love Dredd. I’m a proper old school fanboy who’s been lucky enough to get in the pages. And I have a real urge in me to make sure that no one ever says “Ah! Sylvester Stallone!” again. I want to make people feel like I did when I deliberately lost that race.

I think that enthusiasm is a great thing. I like unusual artwork. I don’t know if you remember when Steve Pugh did Slaine. His stuff didn’t get reprinted because I don’t think that Nick Landau at Titan was that keen – and that’s his decision. But I loved the stuff where Slaine had a warp spasm and met Elfric on the battlefield and Elfric had this strange almost Moon-like face. There were broken chariot wheels, bodies flying 50 to the left and right and I though this was epic – proper epic.

The only thing about my work that I get a little frustrated by when people keep bringing it up – which is totally fair enough, actually – is the violence.

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Painting - Iblis, the Devil
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How do you draw these days Ė is it all done on a computer?

What I do is Pen & ink on A3 as I need that room - I quite admire people who can work tighter, but I need the room to let loose with a pen. Then I have those shrunk down at a local printer who reduces them all to a 2000AD page size and then I work into that with inks – because I couldn’t possibly draw my kind of stuff at that size. †

What about colouring?

Well I’m currently working in black & white and pencils. If ever anyone was to colour my work, it would have to be me, Clint Langley or Dark Horse’s Dave Stewart. Clint’s exhibition of the Slaine Carnival stuff was awesome. He had frames from that that were really big – I bought some stuff from him – and they were just flawless.

I’ll always stay in art, but I really love the medium of comics. There was a big slump, as you know, and I think that panicked everyone. At the same time, computers panicked illustrators, but now I’ve found out that the two do link and they link beautifully. Where I would see a good use of computing is something like the Middenface stuff from Shaun Thomas. I really like the way he’s blurred his pencils and I’d like to explore that.

I don’t think that painting is my strongest suit. I can do standalone single images, but then I’ll go round to Bisley’s house and I’ll see stuff stuck on a wall. The last time I went there some years ago, I got back and I considered giving up my whole career!

Where’s your career taken you in the years that you’ve been away from comics?

I've been working for nearly 6 years with Optiv’s Red Light Records in Switzerland and I’ve been doing record covers for their labels. We’re starting to get a real base there. What will happen is, this guy will give me a track called something like Soul Cube and I’ll ask – well, what do you want me to do? “Well just do anything you want”, he’ll reply and he’ll just walk out. So I just did this woman with an anvil for a head. I delivered it – and he was happy! The record’s come out and apparently it suits the track. I’ve done 11 covers and never heard any of the tracks…

I love drum n bass – but I just haven’t got a record player – they’re very old school and the tracks come out on vinyl, but I have done quite a gory record bag…

That brings us back to the violence issue….

When I was last on Dredd, I was reading the stuff that people were writing in about me. I think that any letters where people take an interest in your stuff is a compliment, although they were saying that I was perverting the youth. Maybe I did want to do that, or maybe I just wasn’t patronising the youth. I do think that in Satanus, you’re going to see a more fully rounded version of major childhood issues that I still haven’t got over!

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Painting - Dredd at the gates of Hell
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When you talk to people who maybe read 2000AD in the past but don’t any more, it’s the violence that they remember most. It’s what they loved about it!

As I’m talking, and I’m going to put my pen down for a moment, I’ve been drawing Dredd (for Satanus). He hasn’t got any weapons for this episode so he’s doing it with boot and fist, so I’ve been watching a lot of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) for research.

I want to work with Todd McFarlane, with Clive Barker and I want to get into working with UFC too. It’s been legal for years now, but it’s a very gnarly mix of martial arts fighting – like street fighting but made legal and with medical teams on standby. It usually ends up with people looking like sandwich meat covered in ketchup…

I’ve been watching a lot of that and I’d like to approach Ian Freeman, who’s a brilliant UFC fighter in Britain. I’d like to do a UFC comic – based on Ian Freeman. This guy is wider than he is tall, and I don’t know how his mum gave birth to him! Recently, they had the UFC championship which the Yanks brought stupidly to the Albert Hall to see if they could deal with the British. I popped out to replace a battery and by the time I got back, the heavyweight champion was covered in blood and I’d missed it. This guy from Sunderland, Ian Freeman, had simply smashed his face in about 10 seconds.

What I laughed about was this ex-champion Frank Mir, quite a good looking guy, was sitting there with his hair gelled but blood everywhere! And in the middle of all of that, Ian Freeman said “I want to dedicate this fight to my father.”

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Painting - Dredd head
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  But I think violence is fascinating. I’ve seen someone beaten half to death, and I was very disturbed by it. I can’t watch operations and if I have an injection I have to look away. If it’s real, then I can empathise with the suffering there. But I sometimes get frustrated with the reactions when I do violent stuff. There’s some good gory stuff in Satanus, but it’s just fantasy. No one’s suffering except me… and Claire (John’s wife). It’s not real, but I think that every human being, if we’re honest, is fascinated with the power, viscera and beauty of violence because of its purity.

You can also get away with a lot more in comic strips than in pretty much any other medium. Something like Dredd, I guess, gives you the opportunity to completely lash out?

It’s like I want to bare my teeth at the world. Have you ever heard of an artist called the Savage Pencil?

I have…

Well if he’s savage, then I don’t know what I am. I’m the savage pencil and the nightmare ink!

I know the readers are about half and half, and it was the same when I worked on Zombie World for Dark Horse. Half of them were saying “how dare he waste the trees” and other people write in saying that they loved it. So I’m expecting a similar reaction (with Satanus).

All the viscera of it is in honour of the pure raw power of 2000AD at its conception, because it affected a whole generation the way acid did in the 60s. I truly believe that 2000AD and Dredd changed the youth of Britain. When I opened that comic at 12 and saw those dinosaurs in that mincing machine, I really did give my mates my ball and obsessively draw and here I am!

2000 AD -  John Hicklenton
Blood of Satanus 3
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So now you’re back on the comic – how did the Satanus job come about?

From a phone conversation with Pat Mills while he was walking down the street, when it just came up. I think Alan Barnes thought I might be a bit of a liability (I even heard a rumour he’d considered sealing my pages). But I’ve really turned my life around, to be honest. I mean I don’t want to do a confession, but I’ve changed. I was a bit of a prick. I still am, but I’m different. When I started working on the first Future Shock, it was 2 days before my 19th birthday and I’m 40 next year. I’ve been drawing every day since, even if it hasn’t always been for comics. But I think it’s a brilliant medium. I’m really proud of the people from 2000AD who’ve made it like Jamie Hewlett, but for me I’m just happy being a grafter working down in the basement…

That’s a good place to wind things up. So, when can we expect Blood of Satanus?

It’s up to Matt Smith, but I’m just about to deliver episode 6 and I find finishing them quite time consuming. I can flesh out maybe one or two pages in a day, but it’s the detailed finishing that takes the time. There’s 3 to go after that, so I would expect it to come out next year and I’d be very pleased for it to come out on Dredd’s 30th Anniversary. I would consider that to be a great honour.

So as Freeman dedicated that fight to his dad, I’ll dedicate this story to my dad.

Thanks to James Mackay for his help in getting the interview.

Blood of Satanus 3, by Pat Mills and John Hicklenton starts soon in the Megazine.



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Original content (c) 2002 Gavin Hanly (contact 2000AD Review).