“Show the absurdity of totalitarianism…” The Big Interview: Comic Artist John Higgins

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He’s an artist responsible for drawing some of popular culture’s most iconic characters, including Batman, The Watchmen, and Judge Dredd. But why does the satire of Dredd still sting? When did he start to make a living from drawing? And who decided what shade of blue Dr Manhattan should be? C. James Fagan quizzes John Higgins…

40 years ago, an object appeared. An object which would affect the minds of everyone who came in contact with it. This object would offer a less utopian, more dystopian view of the future: one that was darker, grittier, funnier, more violent. Less Star Trek, more, well… British. This object was the comic 2000 AD.

Entering the weekly orbit of its readers from 1977, 2000 AD was a heady mix of robots (Ro Busters) time-traveling cowboys (Flesh), alien resistance fighters (Nemesis​ the warlock). And from the second issue, a no-holds-barred future lawman called Judge Dredd.

2000 AD would become a hotbed for the best in British comic talent. Many influential writers and artists would make their mark in 2000 AD: including Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, Chris Cunningham. Those names would fill paragraphs, and they changed comics, film and music industries.

“It was by looking through the pages of 2000 AD that my young mind first understood that​ images were created by humans”

Some of artists who would spark the imaginations of its readers didn’t go on to gain that level of same recognition. For me, those influential, lesser-known people include Ron Smith, Ian Gibson, Steve Yowell. It was by looking through the pages of 2000 AD that my young mind first understood that​ images were created by humans putting pen onto paper.

In essence, it was an introduction to art. Which leads me here, to a major retrospective of Walton-born artist John Higgins at the Victoria Gallery and Museum (VGM), in his home city of Liverpool. Higgins worked on some of the most important comics of the 1980s; his most iconic characters included Batman and Judge Dredd.

Upon entering the VGM’s galleries, the first pieces to strike me are prints of the Watchmen characters The Comedian and Silk Spectre, as well as a wall full of lush paintings. This is Higgins’ work for a six issue mini series entitled World Without End, written by Jamie Delango (Hellblazer) and published by DC Comics in the ‘90s.

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I meet Higgins in the gallery. Speaking about this mini series, he says it offered him a chance to do something unique: “something I dreamt about all my life! To produce a fully painted comic strip. Because that’s what  I grew up reading[T1] . The Frank Thompson Dan Dare (from the Eagle) and the Trigan Empire in Look and Learn.”

The Dan Dare and Trigan Empire strips (drawn by Don Lawrence) featured at least two pages of fully painted artwork; a process of creating comics which is time consuming and expensive. Though the results are often worth it.

In a nearby vitrine, I see Higgins’ work as a colourist for Watchmen – quite possibly the most important comic of the ‘80s. A yardstick to which other comics are judged. Higgins is, rightly,proud.

“There wasn’t a right shade of blue for Dr Manhattan”

“It’s in Time Magazine’s 20 best-selling novels of the 20th century”, he beams. “That’s novels, not just graphic novels. So you have it on a list with the likes of Catcher in the Rye, or the Grapes of Wrath.”

I ask him, maybe flippantly, how do three people (Alan Moore as writer, Dave Gibbons as artist and Higgins himself) agree on the right shade of blue for a character like Dr Manhattan? This leads to a conversation about the collaborative nature of the Watchmen and comics in general.

Higgins’ preferred method of working, he explains, is through collaboration. Giving him the chance to work with new talents and form friendships. It’s no surprise, then, that Dave Gibbons spoke at the opening of the exhibition. Higgins joined the Watchmen relatively late, after Moore and Gibbons had sold the idea to DC Comics. Once all this was done, the three of them understood that a character like Dr Manhattan could effect his environment; this was shown through the use of colour. In answer to my question, there wasn’t a right shade of blue for Dr Manhattan. The shade of blue depended on the actions he was undertaking in the story.

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On the overall process, Higgins tells me: “The great thing was working with [Moore, Gibbons] very, very early on [in my career]. It made me realise that it was not the normal approach. The way I was employed, they wanted my input. They wanted my creativity in a way I hadn’t been asked to do before.”

Higgins was a part of the British Invasion of American comics of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This put him amongst fellow comic peers, like Neil Gaiman, and 2000 AD alumni Mark Millar and Grant Morrison. What, does he think, is the stand-out influence that UK creatives have had on this slice of American culture?

“It’s writing, which is driven by education and culture. The British writers went to America, they had influences other than comics. When I got into comics in America, I found that 90% of the people who wrote comics, read comics; and ​were basically rewriting those comics. But because of our cultural approach we changed things, we made those superheroes real and relevant.”

“Dredd is my favourite character; second is Batman; after that, John Constantine”

It was while he was working on Watchmen that Higgins felt his professional comic artist career occurred. When dropping off work for another project in 1986, he decided to visit the then editor of 2000 AD, Steve MacManus; who offered him the chance to draw a Dredd strip. Dredd, as a character, had already been around for about 10 years. I wonder how interested Higgins was in working for 2000 AD, seeing as he sought out the editor?

“Oh yeah!”, Higgins enthuses; “I’m a huge fan! I’ve got the fan’s perfect job! I’m doing what I would of dreamt of doing if I wasn’t doing it. Just to be a fan, and be working on your favourite character Judge Dredd. Who is my favourite character; second is Batman; after that, John Constantine [the gone-to-seed magician of the Hellblazer comics].”

Technically, this wasn’t the first time Higgins had produced work for 2000 AD, having​ previously worked on a few Future Shocks (2000 AD’s Twilight Zone-esque strip) with Alan Moore. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that he actually made enough money to live – perhaps not a surprise to anyone who works in the creative industries.

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Higgins, we discuss, joined the Dredd team at a quite important time; during a shift in the direction of the strip. Over the next few years, a number of stories under the collective title of Democracy, the character of Joe Dredd would face questions about who he is and the right of his actions.

This is one of the strengths of the Dredd strip. It’s ability to explore different facets of its own world; to move from a serious story, like Democracy, to stories where an orangutan is elected major. Part of the joy on working on Dredd must have been the flexibility it offered, to both artist and writer. Higgins agrees:

“What Steve MacManus, Brian Holland and, of course, Carlos Ezquerra [Ezquerra being the first artist to work on Dredd] did was create an almost perfect template. The uniform Ezquerra created is so perfect for a totalitarian judge. You see that in any contemporary riot officer’s outfit: knee pads, shoulder pads, fire-proof leather. That’s what Dredd’s been wearing since 1977.”

“Everything around him is wonderful, absurd, poignant, entertaining, satirical”

Another element in Dredd’s armoury is the relative simplicity of his personality. This is a man who has binary view of the world; a concrete integrity about the letter of the law. He IS he law. Higgins sees Dredd’s rigidity as something you can “bounce things off and show the absurdity of totalitarianism.”

This might paint a picture of a grim character. But if this where true, then he and 2000 AD wouldn’t have lasted for 40years. Higgins points towards another element of Dredd’s staying power: humour. Often this is a kind of hangman’s humour, and usually it leads to a satirical point.

“Judge Dredd stories are the funniest stories ever”, Higgins says. “He’s not a funny character but everything around him is wonderful, absurd, poignant, entertaining, satirical. Making political points better than the editorial pages of The Guardian.”

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And it still does pack a punch; I defy visitors to this show to look at the Dredd strips and not be able to see some biting commentary on contemporary politics. Through the guise of exciting stories, and of incredible things in far away places, a generation’s politics were moulded, without being harangued. This message didn’t have to picked up by every reader, but it was there. On newsagent stands across the land, and in the grubby mitts of children and adults alike. And in this way, Dredd is still important.

“People don’t realise they’re being educated”, continues Higgins. “Education isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. The point is entertainment. The fact you can be educated and entertained is the best form of entertainment.” This is, of course, something that science fiction does so well. “Science fiction has always been the best way to say: ‘Look at this, ain’t it mad!’”

What Higgins is able to illuminate is the magic of comics; a medium that allows people to create worlds, that can be complex in thought and deceptively simple in execution. A medium which softens the boundaries of creator and participant. As I said earlier, it was a comic that helped me to make the connection between the movement of pencil on paper, with the creation of a thing called art.

At the centre of this exhibition at the VGM, and through its accompanying book, is the potential to inspire others to take up pen, pencil or brush. To create new worlds.

C. James Fagan

@CJamesFagan

See Beyond Dredd & Watchmen: The Art of John Higgins, until February 2018 at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool — FREE

@RazorJackRealm @VictoriaGallery #BeyondDredd

Images, from top: exhibition installation view from Beyond Dredd & Watchmen: The Art of John Higgins at the VGM. Original artwork made for the VGM exhibition, referencing the gallery and Liverpool. Higgins outside the VGM, © McCoy & Wynne, 2017. All images of Judge Dredd®. © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Judge Dredd is a registered trademark

Posted on 13/06/2017 by thedoublenegative