In the autumn of 2017, graphic novelist turned film costume designer Glyn Dillon took an unusual trip to New York. He checked in to a particular hotel, requested a specific room to sleep in and spent his time in the city wandering around a select handful of streets. He was, he says, hoping that he might bump into his older brother Steve, a renowned comic book artist who had worked on strips from Judge Dredd to Doctor Who. Steve was nine years older than Glyn and had been a mentor to him, introducing him to comic book drawing and to Star Wars. This area of New York was one of Steve’s favourite haunts but it was unlikely that Glyn would bump into him: one year earlier, in the same room that Glyn was staying in, Steve had died of a ruptured appendix.
“I knew, obviously, he was dead but there was still a feeling that I might see him,” says Glyn today. “It’s not logical but … it’s there.”
Steve was a legend in the world of comics. He was perhaps best known for creating the Preacher strip, alongside writer Garth Ennis (it later became a TV show), and for founding the magazine Deadline, which nurtured emerging comic artists such as Jamie Hewlett. Steve’s drinking and smoking had left him looking a lot older than his 54 years, but on doctor’s orders he was amending that. At the time of his death, he hadn’t touched a drink for a year. “The colour had returned to his cheeks and mentally he was in a good place,” says Glyn. When Steve started getting stomach pains one night in his hotel he assumed it was food poisoning and, rather than get on his scheduled flight home, he decided to ride it out in his room. “Had he just called an ambulance he would have been fine,” says Glyn.
Steve’s death changed his younger brother’s life in all sorts of ways. When it happened, Glyn was working at Pinewood Studios as a costume designer on the latest Star Wars movie. It was work he loved but it also involved long, stressful hours and it had been nagging away at him that what he really wanted to do with his life, ever since he was a teenager, was paint. This family tragedy gave him the push to pursue his dreams.
“At first I thought about doing a comic [about Steve’s death], but the feelings felt too big for that medium,” he says. “I needed to do something different, more physical, standing up, climbing a ladder.”
We’re meeting today at Glyn’s studio, squeezed into a building around the back of the Hoover building on the outskirts of London. It’s a cluttered little space filled with books, pop culture paraphernalia (a signed Withnail picture calling Glyn a “terrible cunt”) and about a dozen large oil paintings that all reflect on his brother’s death. Becoming a painter has been a swift learning curve for Glyn, who had never used oils before, and he says he doubts he could recreate some of the pieces if he tried.
The first one I spot as I arrive looks like a dashed-off child’s attempt at a cartoon, but hanging on the main wall next to it is a realistic rendering of the lobby of the Wolcott Hotel where Steve, and then Glyn, had stayed. Why did he choose to paint this?
“It’s a waiting space,” he says. “That idea of a liminal space of one thing leading to another.” This is a theme of many of Glyn’s paintings, the moving from one world to the next, with spirit guides and river underworlds providing a comic-book sense of atmospherics. Another painting shows Glyn fiddling with a locked door in his hotel room that seems to lead to nowhere. The metaphor isn’t hard to interpret but it also shows the ultimate mundanity of his New York experience. “You have all these expectations of what it might be like, but it’s not as poetic… it’s just a normal hotel room.”
There’s barely room to swing a cat in Glyn’s studio, let alone a painting, but he has a good go at moving them around so I can view them all. There are recreated moments of panic from the natural disaster scenes Glyn found himself obsessively watching on YouTube in the wake of Steve’s death. There are children caught in car headlights, and blown-up pages from old comics. The style changes frequently: some are hazy or filmic, others almost photorealist, such as his corridor within Pinewood Studios, which you could almost walk down were it not for the distraction of a strange stick man figure graffitied on the floor. This spaceman-like motif occurs in several of Glyn’s paintings. At first, he says, he didn’t understand what it was – the circular head reminded him of a space helmet and how he and his brother shared a fascination with the moon landings. Then he started reading about characters known as psychopomps, which are said to guide deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. “Just reading about that makes me think it’s probably what it is. It feels like some kind of conduit, which is helpful to me.”
I spot this little figure on a painting of a bedroom ceiling. It’s a recreation of the view from the bed Steve must have died in, with the creature seeming to step out from a hole above. It may be the most intense of all the paintings, but for me the most moving ones are the first ones Glyn did: gigantic recreations of Steve’s comic book pages. One is a Nick Fury strip Steve drew for Hulk Comic at the age of just 16. Glyn points to a panel containing an aeroplane which has his name and age written backwards on it: NYLG-7. Steve would put these into his comics as a treat for his little brother. Another strip from Judge Dredd shows a character wearing a Glyn name badge.
There’s something incredibly sweet about Steve doing this for his little brother, while still only a teenager himself. Glyn retains vivid memories of the garage in their semi-detached house in Luton where Steve would draw – the smell of Indian ink, the clutter that mirrors his own studio. Recreating those brush strokes himself seems to have been an especially cathartic experience.
The final picture we look at together is the child’s drawing I first spotted when I entered the room. It’s yet another recreation – this time of the Star Wars comic strips Glyn himself was drawing at the same time that his brother was starting out professionally. “This was where Luke sees Ben getting killed by Darth Vader,” says Glyn of the screaming face. Underneath the panel it says “the end”, which has then been scribbled out with pencil (“I must have changed my mind”). What had looked like a crude, dashed-off painting on first glance is actually a rather moving dialogue between two extremely close siblings.
“He was a really excellent big brother. He gave me all the good stuff,” says Glyn, pointing towards an extremely well-thumbed copy of Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. He tells me a story about the first time he ever googled himself. “It said: ‘Glyn Dillon, the less talented brother of Steve.’ That burned a little, but it was also true because he was so precociously talented.”
Glyn remembers one birthday when his brother was holed up in his room working on a secretive project. On the big day, Steve produced a handsewn Batsuit and Robin suit for Glyn’s Action Men. “Such a sweet thing to do,” says Glyn. “It’s not like he was into sewing.” And it seems particularly poignant now. Shortly after Steve’s death, Glyn was asked to design the Batsuit for the latest film, starring Robert Pattinson. He gave the cultural icon a tattier, more utilitarian look that felt more grounded in reality than some of the sleeker costumes of the past. It saddens Glyn that Steve was not around to witness any of this, but Steve did at least see Glyn getting his Star Wars break. “He was never overexcited about anything,” says Glyn. “But he was calmly pleased about that. You could tell by the way he smiled if he was into something.”
For Glyn, those things are the high points of a career that has involved drawing comics alongside Hewlett and publishing his own acclaimed graphic novel, The Nao of Brown. Yet painting may be the calling he’s most comfortable with. When he started, there was never any intention of it turning into a show. Now they are about to go on display at London’s NoHo studios. The process has been “amazingly helpful” at helping him come to terms with Steve’s death. And although he says it will be hard to part with one or two of them if they sell, he’s hoping that they do so he can continue doing this full time.
“It would be nice to get some of them out of this room,” he says, looking around it with a smile. “Because it’s getting really cramped in here.”