Art For Art’s Sake Special: Saying A Fond Farewell To Kevin O’Neill (1953-2022)
by Richard Bruton
This week was yet another terrible moment in comics in what’s become a particularly bad year. Sadly, this was the week we lost Kevin O’Neill.
It has been a terrible year for losing the best and the brightest in the comics industry. And it seems that, sadly, we haven’t finished with the bad news quite yet for 2022.
On Monday 8 November, we began to get word that Kevin O’Neill, artist on so many great creations including Nemesis the Warlock, Marshal Law, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, passed away last week after a long illness. He was 69.
In a medium where we throw around words like genius and unique perhaps too often, I doubt there’s anyone that loves comics over the past five decades that wouldn’t agree that Kevin O’Neill covered both of those. He was unique, he was a creative and artistic genius. But more than that, he was inventive in the extreme, indeed, he was extreme in the extreme when it suited him – although by all reports, you couldn’t meet a nicer, gentler man, as far from the extremes and boundary pushing you’d find in his art as it was possible to be.
His work was innovative, iconoclastic, with cutting-edge stylings, work that always looks fresh and inventive no matter when you first experience it. And as for pushing the limits – well, let’s not forget this was the only artist whose entire body of work, whose very style was described the Comics Code Authority in the USA as “objectionable”.
Kevin O’Neill was born in London in 1953, a fan of The Beano and The Dandy before being introduced to MAD Magazine, whose anarchic satire would play heavily in his artwork over the years.
Not able to take up his places at London art schools due to family circumstance, O’Neill began working in comics at the age of 16 – as office boy at UK publisher IPC, graduating eventually to doing small art and letters corrections and pasting up reprints.
In time, O’Neill became assistant art editor on the new sci-fi weekly from IPC, 2000 AD. Working alongside Pat Mills, it would be O’Neill who would shape the face of 2000 AD for several years, giving it much of the punky edge that felt so right to so many kids in the tail end of the 70s. It was also down to O’Neill that creators in 2000 AD had their own credit boxes, practically unheard of in UK comics to that time.
As an artist alongside his editorial duties, O’Neill contributed plenty to the pages of 2000 AD over those early years, including Future Shocks, Bonjo From Beyond The Stars, Ro-Busters, A.B.C.Warriors, Captain Klep, and Dash Decent. But it was only once O’Neill left IPC and became a full-time artist that his truly found his style – and what a wonderful unique style it was.
First came Nemesis The Warlock, O’Neill’s 2000 AD masterpiece written by Pat Mills, something far better, nastier, darker and funnier than anything else before then in 2000AD – equal parts social commentary, satire and out and out action Sci-Fi.
Here, humanity is the villain and the aliens the oppressed heroes. Nemesis is a cloven hoofed disciple of chaos, with torpedo shaped head and bizarrely twisted body leading the alien resistance movement against the tyranny of the Human Termight Empire and its leader Torquemada. It was O’Neill’s art that captured the sheer otherworldliness of Nemesis best, getting every dirty, grotesque detail onto pages of incredibly detailed, unsettling and graphic artwork.
After he left Nemesis at the beginning of ‘The Gothic Empire‘ (Book 4) in 1984, there were a few Judge Dredd strips by O’Neill, wonderfully disturbing and visually magnificent things such as ‘The Law According to Dredd’ and ‘Varks’.
But from here it was off to the USA, co-creating Metalzoic with Mills and published by DC in 1986, and later by 2000 AD. Then there was the somewhat controversial (for DC at least) artwork for Alan Moore’s Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual No. 2 in 1986. As the story goes, DC submitted O’Neill’s art to the Comics Code Authority, who rejected it out of hand, calling the work ‘objectionable’. DC enquired what elements they particularly objected to and the Code simply came back and said it wasn’t the strip or anything in it, it was O’Neill’s style they found so offensive. It was published – as it should have been – without the Code stamp.
After this, O’Neill had some limited DC work, including Lobo, Death Race 2020, and most memorably Batman: Mitefall with Alan Grant.
Next came the second of his major works, again with Mills, as they introduced one of the darkest satires on superheroes there’s ever been, Marshal Law. Violent, nasty, funny stuff, it saw O’Neill flourish with a creator-owned series that started at Epic Comics in 1987, before moving to Toxic!, Dark Horse Comics, and eventually Titan Comics.
And finally, the third of O’Neill’s major works, with Alan Moore once more, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (LoeG) Initially set in alternative Victorian times, LoeG took Moore’s concept of all fictions are real to the nth level, allowing all the great characters of fiction to co-exist. Across multiple volumes, O’Neill’s artwork would delight and amaze as he brought everything to the page, from the classical fictions of Victorian times all through to the present day. If Moore could imagine it, O’Neill was more than capable of bringing it to vivid, beautiful, unique life on the page.
In the latter years of his career, O’Neill carried on working with Moore on Moore’s short-lived Dodgem Logic magazine and co-created, again with Moore, Cinema Purgatorio magazine, where O’Neill provided art to the title strip. He also made something of a slight return to 2000 AD, when he and Garth Ennis brought back the infamous Action strip Kids Rule OK for 2022’s Battle Action Special.
Fittingly, his final works, both published posthumously, will be a final collaboration with Moore and a return to the pages of 2000 AD. He contributed art to Moore and the late Steve Moore’s Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, which is meant to publish in 2023 from Top Shelf and Knockabout, and he features in the 2000 AD Christmas Prog #2022 with the return of Bonjo From Beyond The Stars.
Invention beyond measure, a fearless pursuit of his own style, Kevin O’Neill was everything comic art should aspire to be – it challenged, it provoked, it entertained, it amazed, and it was never, ever dull.
We remember Kevin O’Neill today, but his art will outlive us all. We hope that’s some condolence to his family, friends, and fans, to whom we send out best wishes.
—- Kevin O’Neill – 1953 – 2022 —-
Now, we’ll end with a run-through, incomplete of course, of Kevin O’Neill’s career in comics, wonderful and strange that it is…
2000 AD Work:
Tharg’s Future Shocks: Wings (2000 AD Prog 28, 1977)
Bonjo from Beyond the Stars (2000 AD Progs 41–50, 1977)
Ro-Busters (with Pat Mills)
Hammerstein’s War Memoirs (2000 AD Prog 88, 90, 1978)
Fall & Rise of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (2000 AD 103–115, 1979)
Art below from the very first Ro-Busters – Prog 88…
A.B.C. Warriors (with Pat Mills)
A.B.C. Warriors (2000 AD 119, 1979)
The Order of Knights Martial (2000 AD 123–124, 1979)
Again, art below from the first A.B.C. Warriors from Prog 119…
Captain Klep (First appeared in Tornado in 1979 and then moved to 2000 AD where it ran in 1980)
Ro-Jaws’ Robo-Tales: The Inside Story (with Pat Mills, 2000 AD 144, 1979)
Dash Decent (with Dave Angus, 2000 AD 178–198, 1980–1981)
Nemesis the Warlock (with Pat Mills)
Terror Tube (2000 AD 167, 1980)
Killer Watt (2000 AD 178–179, 1980)
The Sword Sinister (1981 Sci-Fi Special)
The World of Termight (Book 1) (2000 AD #222–244, 1981)
The Secret Life of the Blitzspear (2000 AD Annual 1983, 1982)
The World of Nemesis (Book 3) (2000 AD 335–349, 1983)
The Gothic Empire (Book 4) (first two episodes only, 2000 AD 387–388, 1984)
Tubular Hells (2000 AD 2000, 2016)
Judge Dredd (with John Wagner/Alan Grant)
The Law According to Dredd (2000 AD 474–475, 1986)
Varks (2000 AD 503, 1986)
Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2: ‘Tygers’ (1986)
Metalzoic graphic novel (with Pat Mills, DC Comics, 1986, reprinted in b&w in 2000 AD 1986)
Marshal Law (with Pat Mills)
Fear and Loathing (collects Marshal Law #1-6, Epic Comics, 1990), Blood Sweat and Tears (collects Kingdom of the Blind, Hateful Dead, and Super Babylon, Dark Horse, 1993), Fear Asylum (collects Takes Manhattan, Secret Tribunal, and vs The Mask, Titan Books, 2003)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (with Alan Moore)
Volume I (1999–2000), Volume II (2002–2003), Black Dossier(2007), Volume III: Century(2009-2012), Volume IV: The Tempest (2018-2019)