From Bleeding Cool / © Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela
I find myself reading the news less and less these days. That’s not just because of the apocalyptic way the world seems to be heading, with a loudmouthed Nazi-facilitating nincompoop in the White House and with the UK locked in a Boris Johnson-inspired Brexiting death-spiral. It’s also because every week, seemingly, I discover that somebody who was a cultural hero to me during my youth has passed away. Last week it was the turn of comic-book artist Carlos Ezquerra – born in Zaragoza in Spain, although he was latterly a resident of the microstate of Andorra on the French / Spanish border – to shuffle off this mortal coil, the victim of lung cancer.
As a kid, I often encountered Ezquerra’s work from the mid-1970s onwards and it had a big impact on me. After drawing war stories and Westerns in Spain, Ezquerra began to get commissions in Britain’s mainstream comic-book industry, which, though it’s next to non-existent today, was immense at the time. I first stumbled across his artwork when I read the war comic Battle Picture Weekly, which seemed special because it was leaner and meaner than the multitudinous other war titles that filled the boys’ comics market at the time: Warlord, Victor, Valiant and the pocket-sized Commando Comic (which somehow remains on the go today, although in 2013 it was announced that its printing operations were being moved to – ha-ha! – Germany).
Responsible for drawing two of its most popular strips, both set during World War II, Ezquerra helped make Battle stand out. Rat Pack was a British version of the 1967 war movie The Dirty Dozen, although the convicts-turned-commandos here numbered less than half-a-dozen: violent simpleton Kabul ‘the Turk’ Hassan, the blade-wielding Matthew Dancer, thuggish Scotsman Ian ‘Scarface’ Rogan and the cowardly and aptly-named Ronald Weasel, plus their commander, Major Taggart, who was a proper, dutiful soldier (and whom they detested). Major Eazy was about an unconventionally laid-back and laconic soldier who spent his time smoking cigars and getting up his superiors’ noses – I’d always assumed the character was inspired by the type Clint Eastwood had played in countless movies, although I read on Wikipedia recently that the inspiration actually came from James Coburn.
© IPC Publications
Ezquerra’s artwork was simultaneously grubby and graceful, hungry-looking and intense. Unlike the solid, square-jawed heroes who populated other British war strips, the characters in it looked like they’d been fighting a long time at the front. Fittingly, Battle marked its 100th issue with an Ezquerra team-up: it featured a new story wherein Major Eazy becomes the commander of the Rat Pack after Taggart is injured and hospitalised. (His new charges hate him even more than they hated Taggart.)
Battle was founded by comic writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and when they moved on to a new project, 2000 AD – which became the most important and influential British comic of the late 20th century and which, with some justification, proclaimed itself ‘the galaxy’s greatest comic’ – it was inevitable that Ezquerra would find work there. With Wagner, he created 2000 AD’s most famous character, the lumbering fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd. Though he wasn’t the first artist to draw the Judge Dredd strip itself, an honour that belongs to Mike McMahon, he did design the character originally.
Imagined by Ezquerra, Dredd’s appearance is epic – and troubling. The immense, sculpted shoulder pads, the huge, engraved badge and the eagle-shaped, flag-emblazoned belt-buckle recall the baroque and ludicrous ornamentation you’d see on uniforms during a parade in a fascist state. Meanwhile, Dredd’s other accessories, the helmet, visor, gauntlets, chains, utility belt and boots evoke a less ceremonial side of fascism, i.e. the side that’s regularly breaking protestors’ heads out on the streets. No doubt Ezquerra drew on his memories of growing up in Franco-era Spain, though it’s said his design was influenced too by Frankenstein, the character played by David Carradine in the Roger Corman sci-fi / exploitation movie Death Race 2000 (1975).
It’s just a pity that Ezquerra never got a chance to work on Action, the wildly controversial comic created by Mills during the period between Battle and 2000 AD. I would have loved to see him take on such key Action strips as Hook Jaw or Hellman of Hammer Force.
© Rebellion Developments Ltd
One comic Ezquerra did work on was Starlord, a title that appeared in 1978. Intended as a sister publication to 2000 AD, it was similarly devoted to science fiction stories. Starlord had high production costs, which quickly made it unprofitable and it was merged with 2000 AD. In the British comic world of the time, ‘mergers’ usually meant that the less successful title soon disappeared without trace within the pages of the more successful one. Gratifyingly, though, Strontium Dog, a Starlord strip Ezquerra created with John Wagner, survived and became a staple of 1980s-era 2000 AD.
Strontium Dog is set in a bleak, violent and racist future where radiation from the Great Nuclear War of 2150 has created an underclass of mutants. Oppressed and mistreated by ‘normal’ humans, the mutants are permitted to do only a few, dangerous jobs, which includes being bounty hunters. Johnny Alpha – ‘Strontium Dog’ is the racist nickname he has to put up with – is one such bounty hunter, tracking down criminals throughout the galaxy on behalf of the Search / Destroy agency. Again, Ezquerra’s artwork creates a cast of characters who look wolfish, brooding and lethal and the strip often feels more like a spaghetti western rather than a sci-fi story. I particularly liked the supporting character Middenface McNulty, a Scottish mutant with a carbuncled cranium from a ghetto called Shytehill, which is presumably a radioactive district of post-apocalypse Edinburgh.
Ezquerra is said to have preferred Johnny Alpha to Judge Dredd, no doubt because, mutant though he was, the melancholic, introspective Alpha was more human than the cold-blooded judge-jury-and-executioner that was Dredd. Accordingly, he was unhappy with 2000 AD’s decision in 1988 to kill off Alpha and he refused to draw what was to be the character’s final story, so that the job of illustrating his demise fell to Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead. Alpha’s death was a traumatic event for British comic-book fans – no wonder the geekish 1999-2002 TV series Spaced contains a line where the Nick Frost character reminds the Simon Pegg one that he gave him a shoulder to cry on “when Johnny Alpha got killed by that big flying monster in 2000 AD.” Happily, Ezquerra got to resurrect Strontium Dog in 1999. Rather than figure out a way of reviving Alpha from the dead, the new strip simply pretended that he hadn’t died in the first place.
Over the years, Ezquerra’s other work for 2000 AD included ABC Warriors, which featured another survivor from the Starlord days, the hulking robot Hammerstein; wartime vampire story Fiends of the Western Front; and adaptations of three of Harry Harrison’s satirical Stainless Steel Rat books. With all this, plus Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, it’s no surprise that 2000 AD tweeted a tribute to Ezquerra the other day describing him as ‘the heart and soul’ of the comic.
And for a comic-book artist, to be the heart and soul of the galaxy’s greatest comic… Well, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that.
© Rebellion Developments Ltd