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Hail to the King: The Art of Carlos Ezquerra

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This is part of 45 Year Of Thrills, How to Love Comics’ celebration of 2000 AD’s 45th anniversary throughout 2022. Find out more and read other posts in the series here.

There’s never been an artist quite like Carlos Ezquerra. Immediately recognizable, these small jagged lines, ‘fish-tooth’ he called them, made everything he would do stand out. Immense populist appeal, not many people can boast designing one of the most iconic characters in comics (Judge Dredd), but ol’ Carlos had many more to his name (Johnny Alpha, Durham Red, Major Eazy, Cursed Earth Koburn etc.). Great with action scenes, his montage-style shootouts are still the best in the biz. And yet, for all these qualities, and many more, there are no imitators or inheritors. Seventy-five years since his birth and four since his death, Ezquerra stands alone. No one even tries to touch that peak.

This is probably for the best. The last time someone tried to out-and-out swipe his style, when young Mick McMahon got the job to draw Judge Dredd in his absence with the King’s particular line, Ezquerra wasn’t happy. Would you like the ghost of a comics great haunting you? The other explanation – no one else can make it work.

The Art of Carlos Ezquerra cover
The Art of Carlos Ezquerra cover

2000 AD’s new historical retrospective collection, The Art of Carlos Ezquerra, takes on the impossible task of summing up five decades of comics work, though focusing only his output for British publishers. ‘Impossible’ because there’s bound to be choices that disappoint and annoy people; and even worse, omissions that you will find unforgiveable. Thumbing through pages I couldn’t help but grunt and lack of “Costa Del Blood” (Dredd vs. Dracula) or “Incident on Mayjer Minor” (one of my favourite Strontium Dog serials) or “The Law of the Cursed Earth” (one of Ezquerra’s final longer works). Of course, some of his best work was found in longer stories, such as Strontium Dog: Rage or Judge Dredd: Necropolis, that cannot be reproduced fully without taking up all the space. 

Which is to say, to include all of his good pages the book would have to be slightly longer. I’ve never seen a bad Carlos Ezquerra page in my life, even if sometimes his great pencils were in the service of bad storytelling (Inferno) or hidden beneath overpowering colours (Wilderlands). If Ezquerra had a shaky start, a period in which he failed to find his footing, I haven’t seen it. Ezquerra was apparently a natural storyteller from the get-go, looking through this art book is less like seeing an evolutionary process, not much change occurs, but more like seeing something being refined. Like a sculptor looking at a block of concrete and knowing, in his heart of hearts, what the statue would look like before they pick up a chisel.

This isn’t a unique Ezquerra trait, many of the greats found their style early on and stuck to it. What did make him unique was his ability to keep that same recognizable style while constantly adopting with times. Going from the black and white pencils of the early 1970s, to the painted model of the late 1980s and to the post-2000s fully-coloured stuff… he never seemed out of step or fashion, never struggled with the times. Instead, he made each dominant fashion his own, seemingly a natural part of his outgrowth.

'Mr. Mystery Voice' art by Carlos Ezquerra.
‘Mr. Mystery Voice’ art by Carlos Ezquerra.

At the same time this sort of refinement also meant he didn’t have far to go. Take a note of the first two stories in this collection: a surprising duo of romance tales, hardly the thing one would expect from the master of grizzled action tales. While Ezqerra draws them with his usual professionalism, I particularly love the pattern that seems to dominate the lead’s dress in “Mr. Mystery Voice” and gives it a slightly space-age feel, you can see his heart’s not fully in it. The best part in “Flood” is the attention-grabbing opening panel in which the life of the main character is threatened, not the personal drama moments.

'The Killing Ground' art by Carlos Ezquerra.
‘The Killing Ground’ art by Carlos Ezquerra.

For the rest of his career would be defined by the boy’s comics aesthetic of British comics (back when comics anthologies were separated on a strict gender base) – explosions, shoot-outs, harsh faces defined by scarred lines. His most famous figures, while diverse in appearances (especially all the wild-looking mutants and monsters in Strontium Dog) are all of a type: the emotionally-sealed hard man; the dude who never utters two words when one would suffice. Maybe we lost something when he didn’t experiment more with his style, working with more emotionally-charged stories, and maybe it was never meant to be.

The standout pieces here are not the ones that feature his familiar icons, these have been reprinted many times over, but the short war comics that most readers would probably see for the first time here. The writing on these isn’t always stellar. The small page count and fast turnover rate meant there wasn’t much opportunity to develop the idea beyond the surface details. However, Ezquerra’s small and harsh lines give them an extra biting edge that help them stand out.

'The Iceman' art by Carlos Ezquerra.
‘The Iceman’ art by Carlos Ezquerra.

If the script is mediocre, he elevates it to good; if the script is good, he can make it into a bona fide classic. “The Iceman,” a short story in which a Nazi officer takes a bit too much satisfaction in disrupting the allied supply lines in the bitter cold, has a particularly great panel of the two lead soldiers walking into the woods. It’s all spare details, their footprints are just black marks on the overpowering white snow that fills the frame; the trees in front just bare branches that appear to have all life drained out of them. It’s like the two soldiers are walking straight into hell, or a particularly grim black metal album.

“Vultures,” a nasty piece worthy of the best of the EC war titles of old, has a particular grim ending. You would not be disappointed to discover the Nazi lead falls victim to same carrion eating-birds he so enjoyed watching feasting on his enemies. It’s a pretty obvious bit of karmic storytelling, I doubt even the eight-year-olds who were meant to read this story when first published, were surprised by that turn, but it’s preformed with such gusto. Ezquerra couldn’t draw any R-rated stuff for these titles, but the close-up on the still living Nazi’s face as the talon hover above his eyes in one panel, followed by a final of all the vultures gathering up for a feast, feels as raw as it could be.

Janus: Psi-Division: Will O’ the Wisp art by Carlos Ezquerra.
Janus: Psi-Division: Will O’ the Wisp art by Carlos Ezquerra.

The rest of the picks are to be expected: Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd abound. As previously mentioned, these parts are hampered by not being able to print the mega epics that were Ezquerra’s bread and butter. Still, it’s nice to see stuff like the comedic “A Day in the Life of Mighty Tharg” positioned right after a Janus Psi Division story. Not because the Janus story, “Will O’ the Wisp,” is particularly well-written, but because it showcases Ezquerra’s brilliant colour work of the period. Note especially the chilling scenes with the green phantom figure, it manages to have tactile sensation on the page while still being ethereal.

'A Day in the Life of Mighty Tharg' art by Carlos Ezquerra.
‘A Day in the Life of Mighty Tharg’ art by Carlos Ezquerra.

Meanwhile the black and white “A Day in the Life of Mighty Tharg” is as straightforward a piece you would find, pencil-wise, which highlights Ezquerra’s strength in straightman-style comedy. While other 2000AD artists, like Ron Smith or Cam Kennedy, would play up the cartooning when it comes to comedy, Ezquerra would illustrate the wildest out-there ideas as if they are the most natural thing in the world… which would actually make them funnier.

Looking through this book, seeing stories I’ve read a dozen times before alongside some I never even heard of, I couldn’t help but being astounded all over again by what we lost with Ezquerra: an artist who could do everything. Not in the sense of being a mimic, he couldn’t be anyone but himself, but in the sense of taking on every script and story with the same level of investment and ability. A man to whom every story was worthwhile and thus made them worthwhile to the readers. Even the bad scripts, the terrible ideas, the ill-thought concepts… even these could be made better with those fish-tooth lines.

When the scripts were good, the ideas smart, the concept well thought-out – that’s when the magic happened. From his first line to his last, Carlos’ work has been nothing short of masterful. This book might not sum up his career fully, I suspect no single book (no matter how well-edited and curated) could, but it’s another chance to remember. Which is what this book is, other than a nice-looking hardcover, an act of memory.

The Art of Carlos Ezquerra is available in all good comic book shops, online stores, Amazon, Forbidden Planet, and the 2000 AD webshop.

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Comments (3)

  • I tend to prefer Carlos’ more comedic work. His style is somehow realistic and unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the same time, and that lends itself to the black humor in a lot of the stories he illustrated. Not to disparage his action work- it’s second to none obviously, but to be able to do both so well is a rare thing.

  • Despite having such a distinctive, gritty style, I can’t think of another artist whose work draws such universal admiration: all really do hail this king. I think I’ve come to appreciate his work more as I grow older. The WW2 comics were terrific (I loved Major Eazy in particular) but his hard boiled art was perfect for grounding the weird sci fi of Dredd and Strontium Dog. Up there with Bolland and Gibbons as my 2000AD favourites.

  • Everything I have with art by Carlos is deeply treasured. He was and is still one of my favourite comic artists.

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