RIP John Hicklenton

Writer and editor Pat Mills looks back at the career of comics artist John Hicklenton who passed away last week

The extraordinarily talented 2000 AD artist John Hicklenton passed away on Friday 19 March 2010. Comics writer and editor Pat Mills sent us this tribute, which you can also read in the pages of the Judge Dredd Megazine:

A year or so ago, I showed some of Johnny’s pages from Judge Dredd - The Tenth Circle to my co-creator on Requiem Vampire Knight, artist Olivier Ledroit. He looked at them in awe and exclaimed. “How does he sleep at night?!” If you’ve seen the Tenth Circle, you’ll know what Olivier means. Actually, I took it as a compliment as Requiem is also pretty dark. And Johnny slept very well. His art might be disturbing for some, but never for me, for reasons which I think 2000 AD fan Jonathan Fisher has summed up best: “John's work is subversive, sublime and perverse yet beautiful and intriguing.”

For me, Johnny is the Jimi Hendrix of comic artists. Easy viewing comic “muzak” he’s not. His grotesque images bear comparison with Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman and are not for the squeamish. Yet his elegant thin line work has much in common with Aubrey Beardsley. Internationally rated by artists such as Moebius, let me take you now on a brief tour of some of his creations.

Johnny’s first work was a future shock written by Neil Gaiman (curiously, the only story of Neil’s that 2000 AD ever published). Johnny sent it to me and on the basis of this and other grotesqueries, I asked him to draw Nemesis. He at once brought a scary organic sensibility to the Warlock and a psychotic look to Torquemada. This psycho-look he recreated later in the Inspector Ryan stories from Third World War. The racist, deranged Ryan was conceived by my co-writer Alan Mitchell and Alan brilliantly directed Johnny on the story, choosing Angela Kincaid to colour it which she did beautifully without destroying the artist’s black line, a common problem with colourists. Many regard the Inspector Ryan series as his finest work and certainly they did in Europe. It was reprinted in graphic album form in German, French and Dutch editions in an elite masterwork series. But never in the UK, alas, although I hope reader requests might persuade Rebellion to follow suit one day.

Then there was our Zombie World Tree of Death saga for Dark Horse USA, about a Satanic cabbalistic map based on the London Underground which brings demons into our world. It was reprinted recently in the collection “Winter’s Dregs” (Johnny is credited as Johnny Deadstock after the band he was a part of). We went to the catacombs in Kensal Green Cemetery to research the story and had an enjoyable Goth day out wandering underground amongst the Victorian caskets wondering, “What if…?”. The black comedy results included exploding coffins with a zombie stuck to the ceiling. The demons featured are also brilliant – my favourite is a wolf with a huge distended belly elevated high above us on tripod-like legs.

The German publisher Extreme, backed by top German band Die Arzte, also loved Johnny’s work. They said they wanted extreme, so we produced the graphic novel Torturer for them set in Cathar France. This was a return to the demonic Inquisition world Johnny first captured in Nemesis. His range of demons seems inexhaustible. Many of them have appeared in his Judge Dredds and especially in The Tenth Circle when Dredd visits Dante’s Inferno. Reproduction problems may not have shown this story to best advantage but I think that’s being looked into now. And who else but Johnny could create man-mountain Hungry Jacko? X Face? Or Darcagis, the demon with stakes through his eyes? And the triple George Bush bleeding oil? I always regretted that Johnny never drew my recent Dredd story “Birthday Boy” about a villain with candles stuck in his face and body. If he had, it would have become as memorable as Pinhead.

Johnny started a biographical novel based on his multi-award winning documentary about his fight against MS. It was great, but then he decided to write and draw a fantasy story instead as his final work: 100 Months. He completed it just last week. Once again, it’s other countries that often seem to recognize his talent: 100 Months first sold to two countries in Europe, although I’ve just heard a UK publisher has also picked it up.

But 2000 AD was always his first love. His wonderful partner Claire told me, “Please know that Johnny, my beautiful Johnny, was funny, wise and brave to the last - just as he was every other day of his war. The day before 'D-day' he wrote the afterword for Slaine and drew two wonderful sketches to sit alongside it.” Clint Langley and I intend to feature these sketches and words in a future Slaine volume dedicated to Johnny.

Sleep well, my dear friend.

Pat Mills (23 March 2010)

SFX's thoughts are with John Hicklenton's friends and family. You can read this article by Pat Mills in the Judge Dredd Megazine , we thank him and them for permission to print this tribute on SFX.co.uk today.