The first time I read Preacher, I was 20 years old on the other side of the world.

My year abroad at Oxford was coming to an end – and about time, too, because for this socially awkward kid from Hawaii with extremely working-class parents, the Oxbridge milieu was confounding. Before coming to England I’d spent two years of undergrad in the midwestern US, so figured I could handle another cultural adjustment.

Ha ha.

The academic system was different from anything I’d ever experienced. The sociocultural codes bordered on the downright inscrutable. The tutors expected us to know all about subjects we’d barely even touched upon in our previous education (here’s a note for any Oxford lecturers reading this: American schools don’t use the English Civil War as a primary historical touchpoint).

And in the midst of the incomprehension and fear, I discovered Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

The Borders bookstore near campus – I remember how surprising it was that Oxford had a Borders – stocked most of the trade paperbacks in their comics section. Luckily, its employees were either too oblivious or too apathetic to stop me from holing up and reading each volume cover to cover, which is what you do when you’re a broke student. That’s where I first met Jesse Custer, where the bottom of my heart fell out when I learned about Cassidy’s monstrous nature, where I weighed the benefit of continuing to read one hell of a comic against consuming 66 issues plus specials of raging blasphemy (I was raised in a speaking-in-tongues evangelical church), and where I learned the term “reach-around”.

I didn’t realize at the time how special Dillon’s art was, because it drew me in without even giving me time to blink. It all seemed real. More than that, it all seemed accurate. That’s exactly how it looks when someone machine-guns a report to bits in the office, I thought. That’s totally the pose you fall into when your friend’s ex-friend sends you into a voodoo trance.

Of course, these weren’t conscious thoughts; Dillon’s work invited you to react subconsciously first. It was a lot like reading comics as a kid, if you disregard all the sodomy references and profanity. My childhood comics reading experiences were immersive, or rather, I judged comics on their immersive capacity. Did I feel as though I were on that gargoyle-studded rooftop beside Batman, narrowing my eyes at the criminal scum/people failed by Gotham’s mental health care system on the streets below? If yes, then it was a good comic.

As I got older, I learned to spot badly proportioned bodies, static poses, overly photorealistic likenesses, and other artistic touches that push readers out of the action. Coming from a performing background, the best analogy I can think of is that it’s like watching an actor who’s clearly Doing A Character, or this piece of brilliance from Derek Jacobi’s guest star spot in Frasier.

Preacher was none of that. Preacher simply…was. Dillon wasn’t Doing A Comic. It felt like Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy had allowed him to observe their exploits for the purpose of documentation, because that’s something real people can do, and under Dillon’s hand they were as real as the rustle of Batman’s cape once was in my child-ears.

It was a comfort, not only for the sharp wit cloaked in splashy vulgarity, but for the surety of those good old Dillon lines. Everything around me was unknown and scary, except this. Here, in Preacher, art by Steve Dillon, was a world where even the most outlandish could be familiar, like a welcome I didn’t know I needed.

I met Steve Dillon once, at London Super Comic Con 2016 – his last UK convention. Coincidentally I was dressed as Lady Dogwelder, who of all the characters he created was probably the one he least expected to encounter in cosplay form, let alone from a short foreign woman.

At first I didn’t recognize him at all, since most publicly visible photos of him had been taken years before. Who’s this guy sitting at Steve Dillon’s table? I wondered. Later, I learned that he’d been ill for some time; that plus the toll mortality takes on all of us created a gap between the Steve Dillon I saw and the ruddy, Guinness-hoisting fellow from photographs.

He signed some of my Preacher comics, plus a genuine B&W proof of Preacher: Blood and Whiskey that I’d bought off eBay. I said the normal stuff about how much I loved the comic and Cassidy and his art and the Punisher and…I was nervous! It was Steve Frickin’ Dillon, in person. On top of the usual “I’M MEETING MY HERO” butterflies, I was dealing with the cognitive dissonance of realizing that said hero was ultimately just a guy who made conversation with fans, had to step away from his convention table to stretch his legs or go to the bathroom or whatever, drank lemonade, all that stuff. You know, things real people could do.

A note on the Dogwelder thing: yes, ol’ D-W is from Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman, but Dillon was the person who dreamed up the character concept and is credited as Dogwelder’s creator in the comic. Somehow I missed that the first time around; it was McCrea who reminded me of it during the Saturday post-con drinking session. (Does this make me the worst Ennis fan? I hope not. I like to think we are all the worst Ennis fans.)

This may well be name-dropping, by the way, of which I am not blameless. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know various comics pros and critics through my work, through downing too many drinks in post-con bars, and – in the case of Dublin International Comics Expo 2014 – through conventions that actively facilitate socializing so I don’t have to take that first step. Taking that first step can be terrifying. Always has been. Whatever is going on in my brain, it’s not the work of neurotypicality.

Ever since I can remember, social behavior seemed to be bound by so many arcane codes and rules and worries that somehow we were just supposed to get. Over time I developed basic interactive scripts in order to connect with people, leaving increasing room for improvisation as I went further away from home (I live in Scotland, so that’s probably as far away as you can get), but it was all so unsure. Although it’s easier now, there are still times when I wonder: what is it real people do again?

Turns out they sometimes feel isolated. Frightened, even. Floundering their way through social situations, counting each word as it slides off their tongue. Real people can be drawn with strong lines, but my – our – their – supposed imperfections are what make those lines interesting.

When I was 20, I thought a) everyone who could create a good comic was a proper adult and b) everyone who was a proper adult was sure about how the world worked.

Now I’m about the age Dillon was when Preacher debuted, give or take a year, and at least seven years older than Ennis was at the time. In the intervening twelve years I’ve realized that adulthood is largely about coping with your increasing awareness of your own ignorance. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. Only Steve Dillon’s art knows, to a degree that drops my jaw. How could one person understand so much about so many people?

As proof, check out his portrayals of Judge Dredd, Cassidy, and the Punisher: characters who barely ever alter their facial expressions and/or always keep their eyes hidden.

It takes an extraordinary talent to convey reactions in a guy who never smiles and who never reveals any part of his face above the nose; to tell us whether the man who lives for death-dealing and who also never smiles is satisfied, furious, irritated, troubled, etc at any given moment; to draw a lie in the mouth of a monster who survives on charm and keeps his shades on in the dark. A more callow artist could exaggerate the expressions as though their characters were mugging for a camera (imagine if Kevin Maguire was real shitty). Dillon never needed to.

I don’t know exactly how he made that work, at least not from a technical standpoint. The closest I can come is to reiterate the reality of his art – not realism, because what good is realism when you’re drawing a man who’s very serious about punching a polar bear in the face?

Besides, realism is a facsimile, an attempt to ape a concept of reality that only exists within certain constraints. Reality is often outlandish; outlandish but affecting, the sort of thing that pops up in your mind at inopportune moments.

I know how the Punisher is feeling because, thanks to Dillon’s art, I know that guy. I can tell whether Cassidy is lying to me because each Dillon line carries truth or mendacity or fear, to an extent that’s nearly too believable. Steve Dillon gave his characters the kind of life where – when you know someone well, you learn to sense their emotions and what have you, even if their external changes are imperceptible. “Trust me, I know Frank Castle,” you could say, “and that guy is pretty thrilled about the way events have turned out.”

I know Frank Castle.

I know Cassidy.

I know.

It’s such a short phrase, but it means the world. In his art Dillon gave us something alive, an honesty that didn’t patronize or underestimate our empathetic capacities. His deceptive simplicity drew us in; his quite frankly staggering insight kept us there, among people who it seemed we’d known forever. They were real. And if they were mortal…well, the greatest of us are mortal, too, and yet their names echo through history.

This past Sunday marked a year since we began referring to Dillon in the past tense. It’s sunk in that he won’t be coming back for art duties on anything. For now, that’s about all I can handle, because I don’t know how to move on from this, not yet.

What I know is the pages he imbued with a reality I can only hope to one day understand. I know how it felt when Preacher found me, when Steve Dillon threw me that spark –

– and I still wait for the day when I can, somehow, throw it back to thank him.

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