Known for the Watchmen, Judge Dredd and Batman, comic artist John Higgins has a major exhibition that he hopes might inspire a new generation of colourists and illustrators to emerge in his home city
By Simon Bland
Artist and writer John Higgins was just a boy when he first crossed paths with comics. Little did he know then the impact they’d have on his life and career.
“When I was a kid, I use to stay with family over in Wallasey,” he tells Big Issue North. “We were off to church one Sunday and on the way back my Uncle Joe popped into a newsagents and picked up The Eagle comic.
“I was just blown away by Frank Hampson and the artwork he did for Dan Dare. The alien worlds were completely and utterly believable and full of beautiful colours. We all loved The Beano and The Dandy but that was the one that really made me think science fiction comics were something special.”
That chance encounter sparked a fascination with science fiction comics that’s led him from the streets of Walton in Liverpool, where he was born, to the corridors of publishing giants 2000AD and DC. Today Higgins is famous for his work with helmet-headed lawman Judge Dredd for 2000AD, as well as Alan Moore’s transcendent Watchmen and broody Batman tale The Killing Joke – defining texts in DC’s extensive back catalogue. Higgins says his humble roots played an important part in this remarkable journey.
“It was like looking at what Americans did incredibly well and then forgot how to do.”
“Growing up in Liverpool was probably one of the best ways of discovering American comics,” says Higgins, explaining that the city’s ports and foreign visitors provided great exposure to the super-powered comic world that was unravelling across the pond. “I probably saw Marvel superhero comics a long time before lots of other people did.
“When I was growing up I use to read Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man and Jack Kirby’s The Hulk. I just wish I’d kept those originals. I had quite a good run of original American comics. Not reprints – they were the originals, so they would’ve been worth a fortune now.”
This was the beginning of a deep relationship between British writers and American graphic novel storytelling, something that ultimately became integral to the medium’s survival. “It basically starts with Alan Moore going over to America and shaking up what the American companies had gotten used to doing,” says Higgins of the comic revolution of the 1980s. “I think we put literature into American comics.”
That’s not to say American writers were lacking creative flair. But they had begun to repeat past tropes and storylines. “British writers brought in new influences. They loved American comics. That’s why they wanted to go to America,” says Higgins.
“It was just a different slant. It was like looking at what Americans did incredibly well and then forgot how to do. We went over and showed them how they did it and they rediscovered it. The Americans have some brilliant writers over there now. They always have done but it just needed us going over to shake it up a bit.”
Higgins had already gained experience using his pencil to shake things up with perhaps the UK’s most well known – and consistently relevant – comic offering, Judge Dredd. “I still can’t believe I’m working on him 30-odd years later,” grins Higgins when conversation turns to Mega-City One’s street lawman and one-stop judge, jury and executioner.
“I keep coming back to Dredd because I’m a huge fan. He’s just a touchstone for what great British science fiction can be and there’s no limitations on what you can do.
“I was involved in a story arc where there’s a movement to create democracy for the people and marches in the street. Dredd says to the husband of someone he’s just executed: ‘Let this be a lesson to you, citizen: democracy is not for the people.’ That works on so many levels. It’s the sort of thing great writers like John Wagner put into Dredd’s mouth and it’s probably more relevant now that it was in 1986 when I did it.”
Dredd success aside, it was when Higgins worked as colourist – alongside illustrator Dave Gibbons – on Watchmen when things really skyrocketed.
“It was first written in 1986 and has never been out of print since,” says Higgins, still a little awed about Moore’s post-modern dismantling of the entire superhero genre. “To have the opportunity to get involved with highly talented collaborators… we were all just having so much fun. We used to have editorial meetings in the pub and talk ideas over. It was just a rollercoaster ride. Alan and Dave had complete confidence in what they were doing but I was just starting out. It was brilliant fun to work with these two masters of their particular field.”
Hot off the heels of Watchmen’s surprise success came another Moore collaboration, this time with parent company DC giving the duo (and illustrator Brian Bolland) the keys to the Batcave and their flagship character Batman.
“The approach I wanted to take was very similar to what I’d done on Watchmen – dark, humorous,” says Higgins. “I wanted to approach it from the Joker’s mindset, which was completely mad. It’s the way he sees Gotham City. You can see by Brian’s artwork that everyone uses what he did with Batman and the Joker as a template. It still stands up.”
More recently, Higgins has taken the reins of his own comic creation as writer and illustrator of Razorjack, the eponymous femme-fatale demon who’s due to make an exciting crossover appearance on Judge Dredd’s turf. Then there’s Beyond Watchmen & Judge Dredd: The Art of John Higgins, a new exhibition currently on show at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, and its companion book.
“The gallery space is stunning,” says Higgins of the red-brick museum. “To get my stuff on the walls blows my mind. Comic strips are meant to be read so they’ve grouped things together so you can see a sequence or a scene. Also, they’ve blown up small panels of my storytelling to six foot by six foot and it goes into a completely different world of perception.
“It’s exciting and hugely complimentary but what we’re trying to do is show people that kids from the back streets of Liverpool can go on and have a career doing something they love. If we can get the next generation of comic book artists coming from the back streets of Liverpool, Manchester, Dundee or Glasgow, that’d be great!”
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