The death of Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, brings to an end a unique era in comics history. Chris Hallam looks back on a golden career…
Carlos Ezquerra was there right from the start.
It was the mid-seventies and writers John Wagner and Pat Mills were working on a new character: a futuristic cop. Perhaps his name would be Judge Dead or Dread? Or Dredd.
Wagner had worked with Ezquerra, on war comic Battle. Mills approached the young Spanish artist (all three men were then in their twenties) in search of design ideas for the new character. Wagner sent along an advert for the film, Death Race 2000 (1975), in the hope of stimulating ideas. The ad featured a grim, leather-clad motorist in a helmet. Ezquerra took the idea and ran with it, drawing inspiration from his own experience growing up in General Franco’s Spain. Wagner was initially unimpressed. However, Ezquerra had essentially created the visual image of the futuristic lawman we know today. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was a look which would subsequently be emulated by countless artists, would inspire two films and would ultimately endure well into the 21st century, perhaps even beyond.
Then came Ezquerra’s drawings of the city which would form the backdrop to Dredd’s adventures. Pat Mills was blown away. “It was absolute genius,” Mills said later. “Few subsequent artists have done it justice.” Now full of inspiration, Mills and Wagner envisaged a story set in the distant future – initially 2099 – in a massive futuristic metropolis: Mega City One. The writers had initially planned a small-scale cop story set in the near future. Carlos Ezquerra’s achievements are many but perhaps his greatest legacy is this: without him we would certainly not have the Judge Dredd we know today.
Ezquerra had started out on British girls’ comics Valentine and Mirabelle before working on titles in the Pocket Library range and Wizard while still living in Barcelona. Moving to Britain, his work was soon appearing in Action and Battle Picture Weekly and then 2000AD. It’s probably fair to say his career has been dominated by the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic although he also collaborated often on entirely separate projects with Garth Ennis and produced Third World War with Pat Mills for the short-lived political comic, Crisis.
As it was, Ezquerra’s 2000AD career almost ended before it began. “In the first story I developed the major visual elements of Dredd – his uniform, his bike, his gun – even the Mega-City,” he explained later. “Imagine my surprise when I saw issue two and found
another artist had drawn the first Dredd story to be published.”
The first ever Judge Dredd story (Judge Whitey) to be published was, indeed, drawn by Mike McMahon. Ezquerra was especially furious about how the appearance and style of his creation had been replicated. He refused to draw any more Judge Dredd stories until The Apocalypse War epic in 1982. Even then, he stipulated that he alone should be able to provide art for that particular Dredd story.
In 1978, a new comic and character, however, seemed to present themselves: Strontium Dog, the adventures of mutant bounty hunter, Johnny Alpha and his sidekick, bearded Viking warrior, Wulf Sternhammer in a new sister comic to 2000AD, Starlord. Starlord, in fact, turned out to be very short-lived, lasting only a few months. Strontium Dog, however, would merge into 2000AD and would prove much more enduring. Ezquerra would be pretty much the only artist on the strip for the next decade.
“I made his face hard but not as hard as Dredd – Johnny Alpha was more human,” Ezquerra explained how he designed the character. “His helmet was softer too, away from the coldness of a code of laws. Choosing green, yellow and orange as the colours of his clothes, that was inspired by nature. The most dangerous creatures often have bright colours to warn other predators.”
Ezquerra would also draw ABC Warriors and Anderson PSI amongst many other strips. But his Strontium Dog featuring glorious visualisations of characters like Durham Red, Nelson Bunker Kreelman, the Torso from Newcastle and Middenface McNulty became very familiar to 2000AD readers in the Eighties. The story also featured guest appearances from the likes of Adolf Hitler and US President Ronald Reagan while Portrait of a Mutant and Ragnarok explored Johnny and Wulf’s origins while Rage depicted the aftermath of Wulf’s murder.
Special mention should also go to Ezquerra’s sterling work on Kelvin Gosnell’s comic interpretations of three of US author Harry Harrison’s books, The Stainless Steel Rat, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World and The Stainless Steel Rat For President between 1979 and 1985. Ezquerra consciously modelled his version of the main character, Slippery Jim diGriz on actor James Coburn while his portrayal of his temperamental spouse Angelina was unforgettable.
Ezquerra continued producing art for Judge Dredd well into the 21 st century, notable highlights including the Mega City catastrophes of Necropolis and Inferno and his contribution to Dredd classic, The Pit. He also provided the visuals for light-hearted Mega City spin-off, Al’s Baby. Occasionally, Carlos was assisted by his son, Hector Ezquerra, on various strips. Fittingly, Carlos also provided the art for the long-awaited Dredd prequel, Origins.
He quit Strontium Dog in 1988 on hearing of (ultimately ill-judged) plans to kill Johnny Alpha off. Happily, in the 21st century, Carlos was involved in the resurrection of the character he had co- created in 2000AD.
Ultimately, the death of Carlos Ezquerra at the age of seventy, after a bout of lung cancer brings to an end not just the life of a major artistic talent but also the end of a distinct era in 2000AD history. For his style of art was utterly unique. Nobody else could have produced metallic East Meg warriors advancing through the devastated remains of Mega City One or the fury of Wulf Sternhammer in combat quite like the Ezquerra Droid.
Without him, not just 2000AD, but the world of comics in general and, indeed, many of our childhoods would not have been quite the same.
Adios, Carlos Ezquerra.
The next issue of ComicScene UK (The War Issue) celebrates a lot of work by Carlos for Fury, Third World War, The Rat Pack and El Mestizo with exclusive sketches submitted to ComicScene UK by the great artist himself.
You can see the magazine in digital now for £3.99 at https://comicscene.tictail.com/product/comicscene-uk-issue-3-pdf
Other print and digital options available.