¦ Features ¦ John
Interview by Gavin
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
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.
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.
how did the Nemesis gig start?†
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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!
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
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!
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!
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
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.”
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?
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!
So now you’re
back on the comic – how did the Satanus job come about?
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…
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.