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Remembering Steve Dillon and How He Helped Save the Punisher

2016 has been a year where we've lost quite a bit of talent, and with less than three months to go, the comics world lost yet another titan Saturday morning with news of the death of artist Steve Dillon.

Those who know Dillon's work well best remember him as one half of the creative team responsible for Preacher, the story of a Texas preacher carrying the burden of Heaven and Hell's love child, as he seeks to wage war on God. The same Preacher that's now enjoying a new life as AMC's newest hit drama, starring Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer.

In addition to Preacher, Dillon eked out an impressive resume both collaborating with co-creator and writer Garth Ennis, as well as on his own. He started working with Marvel UK at 16, and his career moved at a lightning pace ever since. He's done Judge Dredd, John Constantine, Deadpool and a host of other, memorable characters, all with a clean, simple, distinct style that made his depictions of violence feel almost satirical as it's presented with a subtle plainness that should feel boring, but instead is visually compelling and often humorous.

For all the work Dillon did, between himself and Ennis, he should find more praise for his part in resurrecting a flagging Marvel anti-hero.

Frank Castle, the Punisher.

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By 2000, Marvel had gone as far as they could go with the madman vigilante. At the time, X-Men and all things Mutant were the order of the day; the last thing that pushed buttons on the comics landscape was a man dressed in black with no superpowers not named Batman. However, a new day was dawning, as Joe Quesada found himself parlaying his success with the nascent Marvel Knights imprint into a full-blown leadership role at the House of Ideas, and that meant shaking up the status quo.

When Marvel decided to farm out four of their titles to independent creators Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, it was regarded as a desperate attempt to help the publisher emerge strong from their 1998 bankruptcy. The four titles, Daredevil, Black Panther, Inhumans and The Punisher. Each title had varying levels of success, but of the four, The Punisher fared the worst, largely due to the radical change in character from revenge-driven vigilante to an angelic spirit of justice or some other such nonsense. 

Undeterred from the poor performance of the series, Quesada decided to return to the well, this time picking Ennis and Dillon to do an all-new take of the Punisher, resulting in not only the character's best story arc to date, but the sort of jumpstart that made Frank Castle a star again.

2000's "Welcome Back Frank" 12-issue series brought back the man in black, free of any spiritual mumbo jumbo, and full of the good old-fashioned ultra violence that was a hallmark of Dillon's style, applying it to a character perfect for it.

Much of that initial 12-issue run (and the subsequent follow up) featured both heavy satire and poignant moments that brought a gravity to violence, and a bitter realism to the world of superheroes that simply never existed in this way.

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Take for example, this scene where Castle gives Daredevil an unenviable choice of either stopping him or allowing him to kill, something that flies in the face of Daredevil's personal code, a code shared by many heroes. This served as an opportunity to take a shot at the very idea of what it means to be a hero, and while the plot is all Ennis, the story is completed by the way in which Dillon juxtaposes strength and weakness, just by using facial expression.

While one of the things critics regularly knocked Dillon's art was on the way in which all his characters looked alike, what he does here with Daredevil and Castle is particularly striking, because of the horror clearly present in Daredevil's face, and the cold determination locked onto Castle's face.

The effectiveness of the scene is clear as it was later used, almost verbatim in the second season of Netflix's Daredevil series. One could even argue that the near-perfect casting of Jon Bernthal as Castle is largely due to Dillon's look and feel.

In fact, practically every on-screen depiction of the Punisher since the 2000 Marvel Knights series has featured something from that series, and one could even argue that the very success of that series ties in to the reason why we have the Punisher on screen in the first place.

It's hard knowing that we'll never see more of Dillon's take on the Punisher, or any other character for that matter. At the time of his death, Dillon was working with writer Becky Cloonan on a new Punisher series, the latest issue of which is in stores November 2. There's no word on who will be taking over, but it's certain that whoever does won't have a fraction of the impact Dillon brought to the character.

Steve Dillon will be greatly missed by fans and friends alike, but we should never forget that his impact as an artist was so great that he could save and even grow a character he never even had a hand in creating.


Hashim hathaway

Hashim R. Hathaway

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