IIn the fall of 2017, graphic novelist-turned-movie costume designer Glyn Dillon took an unusual trip to New York. He checked into a mansion, requested a specific room to sleep in, and spent his time in the city wandering a handful of streets. He was hoping, he said, to bump into his older brother Steve, a renowned comic book artist who had worked on comics ranging 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 Star Wars. This area of New York was one of Steve’s favorite haunts, but it was unlikely that Glyn would cross paths with him: a year earlier, in the same room that Glyn lived in, Steve had died of a ruptured appendix.
“I knew, obviously, he was dead, but I always had a feeling that I might see him,” Glyn says today. “It doesn’t make sense but…it’s there.”
Steve was a legend in the comic world. He was perhaps best known for creating the strip Preacher, alongside writer Garth Ennis (it later became a TV show), and for founding Deadline magazine, which nurtured comic artists emerging companies such as Jamie Hewlett. Steve’s drinking and smoking had left him looking much older than his 54 years, but on doctor’s orders he was changing that. At the time of his death, he had not touched a glass for a year. “The color had returned to his cheeks and mentally he was in good shape,” says Glyn. When Steve started having stomach pains one night in his hotel, he assumed it was food poisoning and, rather than catching his scheduled flight home, he decided to get away. come out to his room. “If he had just called an ambulance, everything would be fine,” Glyn said.
Steve’s death changed his younger brother’s life in all sorts of ways. When this happened, Glyn was working at Pinewood Studios as a costume designer on the latest Star Wars movie. It was a job he loved but also involved long hours of stress and it nagged at him that what he really wanted to do with his life, ever since he was a teenager, was paint. This family tragedy pushed him to pursue his dreams.
“At first, I thought of doing a comic [about Steve’s death], but the feelings seemed too big for that medium,” he says. “I needed to do something different, more physical, standing up, climbing a ladder.”
We meet today at Glyn’s studio, crammed into a building at the back of the Hoover Building on the outskirts of London. It’s a cluttered little space filled with books, pop culture paraphernalia (a photo signed Withnail calling Glyn a “terrible jerk”) and a dozen large oil paintings that all reflect the death of his son. brother. Becoming a painter was a quick learning curve for Glyn, who had never used oil before, and he says he doubts he could recreate some of the pieces if he tried.
The first one I see upon arriving looks like an attempted cartoon of a wiped out child, but hanging on the main wall next to it is a realistic rendering of the lobby of the Wolcott Hotel where Steve, then Glyn, had stayed. Why did he choose to paint it?
“It’s a waiting space,” he says. “This idea of a liminal space of one thing leading to another.” This is a theme of many of Glyn’s paintings, the passage from one world to another, with spirit guides and riverine underworlds providing a cartoonish atmosphere. Another painting shows Glyn playing with a locked door in his hotel room that seems to lead nowhere. The metaphor isn’t hard to interpret, but it also shows the ultimate banality of her New York experience. “You have all these expectations of what it could be, but it’s not as poetic…it’s just a normal hotel room.”
There’s barely room to swing a spade in Glyn’s studio, let alone a painting, but he’s good at moving them around so I can see them all. There are moments of panic recreated from the natural disaster scenes that Glyn found himself obsessively watching on YouTube in the wake of Steve’s death. There are children caught in car headlights and enlarged pages of old comic books. The style changes frequently: some are blurry or cinematic, others almost photorealistic, like his hallway within Pinewood Studios, which you could almost walk down without the distraction of a weird stickman graffitied on the floor. This spaceman-like motif appears 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 moon landings. Then he started reading about characters known as psychopomps, who were believed to guide deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. “Just reading about it makes me think that’s probably what it is. It feels like some sort of conduit, which is helpful to me.
I spot this little character on a painting representing the ceiling of a bedroom. It’s a recreation of the view from the bed Steve must have died in, with the creature appearing to emerge from a hole above. This may be the most intense of all the paintings, but for me the most moving are the first ones Glyn did: gigantic recreations of Steve’s comic book pages. One is a Nick Fury comic that Steve drew for Hulk Comic when he was just 16 years old. Glyn points to a sign containing an aircraft on which his name and age are written upside down: NYLG-7. Steve would put them in his comics as a treat for his little brother. Another Judge Dredd strip shows a character wearing a Glyn name badge.
There’s something incredibly sweet about Steve doing this for his little brother, when he was just a teenager himself. Glyn has vivid memories of the garage in their semi-detached house in Luton where Steve drew – the smell of India ink, the clutter that reflects his own studio. Recreating these brushstrokes himself seems to have been a particularly cathartic experience.
The last image we look at together is the child’s drawing that I first spotted upon entering the room. It’s yet another recreation – this time from Star Wars comics, Glyn himself was drawing at the same time his brother was starting out professionally. “That’s where Luke sees Ben getting killed by Darth Vader,” Glyn says of the screaming face. Below the sign is written “the end”, which was then scribbled in pencil (“I had to change my mind”). What at first glance looked like a rough, dotted painting is actually a rather moving dialogue between two extremely close siblings.
“He really was a great big brother. He gave me all the good stuff,” Glyn says, pointing to an extremely well-punched copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema. He tells me a story about when he first googled himself. “It said, ‘Glyn Dillon, Steve’s least talented brother.’ It burned a little, but that was also true because he was so precociously talented.
Glyn recalls a birthday where his brother was locked in his room working on a secret project. On the big day, Steve produced a hand-sewn Batsuit and Robin costume for Glyn’s Action Men. “Such a sweet thing to do,” Glyn says. “It’s not like he’s into sewing.” And it seems particularly poignant now. Shortly after Steve’s death, Glyn was asked to design the Batsuit for the final film, starring Robert Pattinson. It gave the cultural icon a more worn, utilitarian look that felt more grounded in reality than some of the sleeker suits of the past. It saddens Glyn that Steve wasn’t around to witness all of this, but Steve at least saw Glyn take his Star Wars break. “He was never overexcited by anything,” Glyn says. “But he was calmly delighted with it. You could tell by the way he smiled if he was into something.
For Glyn, these 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 is perhaps the vocation with which he is most comfortable. When he started, he never intended to turn it into a show. Now they are about to go on display at NoHo Studios in London. The process was “surprisingly helpful” in helping her come to terms with Steve’s death. And while he says it will be difficult to part with one or two of them if they sell, he hopes they will so he can continue doing it full time.
“It would be nice to get some out of this room,” he said, looking around with a smile. “Because it’s getting really cramped here.”