Fingers all greasy, the three of them – the cartoonist, his partner and his best mate – sat in the Swiss sunshine sharing a joke or two.
Loading article content
The story of John Hicklenton – 2000AD cartoonist and Judge Dredd artist, friend, lover, son, multiple sclerosis sufferer – could begin any number of ways. But there’s no doubt where it ends. On that sofa, in the Swiss countryside, 30 minutes from Zurich. That was the way it had been planned. A few days earlier he, his partner Claire and his best friend Adam had boarded a plane knowing that only two of them would return. Some months earlier Hicklenton had contacted the controversial Swiss assisted dying group Dignitas – which has helped more than 1000 people to die – to lay the groundwork for this final day. For 10 years he had been suffering from the worst form of MS. For 10 years he had been fighting the disease which had robbed him of the use of his legs and might eventually rob him of his life. He wasn’t going to give it the chance.
This is not a story about the morality of this action. This is not a place to discuss Margo MacDonald’s doomed assisted dying bill in the Scottish Parliament. That’s for another day. This is a human story. A story about life and death.
Fast forward six months. I’m sitting outside a Brighton cafe sipping coffee in the weak autumnal sunlight with Adam Lavis – Hicklenton’s best friend. All around, people are talking about holidays, about work, about family gatherings and about nothing at all.
Lavis is telling me about that morning. “It was a difficult thing to witness because he was so alive,” he says. “We had a real laugh that day,” he continues, “and it would almost have made it easier if I was wheeling him in on a gurney and he could hardly speak. I would have found that easier to deal with. ‘Oh God, at least we’re ending this.’ But he made a joke after he’d swallowed the liquid about holding my hand. ‘I understand if you feel a bit weird about holding my hand, Adam. It’s a bit of a weird thing for men.’ Just classic Johnny, taking the piss.”
Adam Lavis is a film-maker who started as a fan of Hicklenton and then became his friend. Wildness is the word he uses when I ask him for his first impressions of his friend. “A bit of a wild man. A bit crazy but as I got to know him I realised that actually he was a very sweet, decent guy and that’s what I love about him. There was this dichotomy between a very aggressive – ‘I will tell you truths that you may not want to hear’ – mixed with this little boy who had this childlike wonder at the world.”
He sips his coffee. “The weird thing is it’s been six months since he’s gone. I was saying to his sister the other day that what I’m noticing is the lack of joy. He was such a joyful person. You feel the lack of it. It’s actually by its absence that I realise how joyful he was.”
Pat Mills is telling me about the nature of comic book art. “You have a number of different artistic styles. You have great storytellers but their artwork is a little bit boring and then you have artists whose work is sensational, riveting, but you have to work to follow what’s happening in the story. Johnny falls into that second category. But it’s rather like music you have to get into. Do you want Barry Manilow or do you want Jimi Hendrix?”
Mills is the godfather of British comics. He was instrumental in the creation of 2000AD, and has written many of its seminal characters – from Judge Dredd to Nemesis the Warlock (his sci-fi take on the Spanish Inquisition) and Slaine. He first heard of John Hicklenton when the latter was just 20 years old. “He rang me up direct because he wasn’t getting anywhere with his agent. Somehow he got my number and he said he’d really like to work with me.
“I needed an artist on Nemesis and I said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”
Hicklenton’s art came ready-flayed. It was raw, dark, brutal, as if drawn with a flensing knife. “The stuff that I do is aggressive art,” Hicklenton once said. “All aggression comes out of fear. I think violence is fascinating.” But, as Mills suggests, it was also darkly beautiful, even if he was drawing Judge Dredd in the 10th circle of Hell.
Not that everyone could see that. “He wouldn’t be compromised and I think he shot himself in the foot in a career sense,” says Lavis, “because he wouldn’t bend to people’s will. He was commissioned to do something for Marvel in America when the Spider-Man film came out. They commissioned a few artists to pitch for the adult Spider-Man. He was one of their first choices. He did a great shot of Spider-Man but with quite hefty genitalia under his suit. He said he had a great conversation with Marvel: ‘Johnny, we love your art. Could you tone down the genitalia a bit?’ And Johnny said, ‘It’s adult Spiderman,’ and he wouldn’t do it. There’s a lot of artists who would have gone, ‘Yes sir, three bags full sir.’ Whatever it takes to get the gig. But he was like, ‘No, you’re not getting it.’”
It was just his destiny. He always said, ‘Maybe I should do some nice paintings of badgers or lakes or stuff …”
But Hicklenton wasn’t one for taking the easy option. He’d always fight to have his own way, but there were some fights he was never going to win.
Hicklenton was in his late 20s when he began to realise something was wrong. Playing tennis, one of his legs started dragging. Others noticed too. “We went to Germany,” Mills recalls, “to visit a publisher. And I remember we did one of those arm-wrestling things and Johnny is much stronger than I am and I was surprised he didn’t have any strength.”
The diagnosis, when it came, was devastating. By then Lavis and Hicklenton were good friends. They’d met and bonded at a kickboxing championship, started hanging out, even worked on various film projects. “I spent more and more time with him,” recalls Lavis. “And I’m starting a production company and finding interesting, charismatic people to make films about. It suddenly dawned on me, ‘Hang on, I’ve got one right here.’ Because he’d just been diagnosed.”
The film, Here’s Johnny, followed six years of Hicklenton’s life – from diagnosis, to despair, via denial, ending up with some form of accommodation. “Initially the documentary was going to be in typical Johnny fashion: ‘I’ve got MS and I’m going to beat it.’ But as the years rolled on we realised that he wasn’t going to beat it and it was going to get worse.”
The film and Lavis present a picture of a fighter, of a man who wanted to meet the disease head-on, take it on. “I think he did something very, very effective,” agrees Mills, “which was to personify his illness as an entity, as something to defeat.”
“He called it a demon,” agrees Lavis, “saw it as a real presence and saw it having a personality. I think psychologically that helped him feel like he was in a fight. He loved mixed martial arts and that was the terminology he used. He liked that imagery. He liked the war. He liked the fight because again it stops him being passive. It stops him being a victim.” (It’s maybe just a verbal tic, but both Lavis and Mills constantly switch between past and present tense when they talk about Hicklenton, his memory still so alive to them both.)
Yet for all Hicklenton’s desire to square up to his MS, the disease was relentless. Soon he needed a stick to walk and then he couldn’t walk at all. Eventually it would confine him to the house. Eventually, he knew, it would kill him. “I think he could have gone one of two ways,” Lavis says. “He definitely had the potential to become a bitter, nasty person. He didn’t go down that road. He ended up just being inspirational.”
Why was he able to do that? Love perhaps, Lavis thinks. “Love, art, his partner Claire.”
By the time she and Hicklenton were a couple he had already been diagnosed with MS. Lavis says: “I think that made a massive difference. Because if you’re with someone and they develop MS you’re always going to have that feeling, ‘Maybe you don’t want to be with me. But you’re going to stay with me because of the illness.’ There was none of that. She knew the deal, was well aware of what could happen. And he idolised her, he thought she was this gorgeous, intelligent, awesome, hardcore woman.”
Hicklenton described his illness as “the daily insult”. What he could do one day he would find himself incapable of the next. “He gave himself markers,” says Lavis. “He said he wouldn’t sit down for MS. He said he wouldn’t lie down for MS. But he did. He said he’d never get in a wheelchair but he did, and he accepted that and he got over that. But then he kept moving his own goalposts.
“Then it got to the point where it’s, ‘I’m not going to get to a point where I can’t move in a bed.’ That was too much for him. I think once he got into the wheelchair and still it was getting worse and worse and worse and he was still having spasms and he had really bad mobility problems – even getting in and out of the wheelchair was becoming a hassle – that’s when it really started to hit home and about a year and a half before we went, they approached Dignitas just to have that as a safety net.”
By this time the film was long finished. Hicklenton had moved into the same block of flats as Lavis and they saw each other every day. Lavis began to work with him on what would become his last book, 100 Months, a violent, strange fable about environmentalism and mankind’s propensity for destruction. “I think in the last year particularly, 100 Months was a lifeline for him. I joke that he did more work during the day than most people. He got up in the morning, he’d play his Xbox fighting game. We made a character that was a version of him and we got it almost looking like him. So he had this little three-dimensional waking character who he could beat people up with for a couple of hours, get himself feeling pumped and then he’d draw for 10 hours and paint and he did that right up until we went.
“I don’t know how he did it. He could hardly write but he could paint. He’d have spasms, his legs were really bad and his fingers were numb, he used to say, ‘I don’t know how I can still draw.’ Yet the drawings he did four days before he went [to Switzerland] are some of the most amazing in the book. By the end the final signature he did for me looks like it was written by an old man, he could hardly hold the pen. And yet he would put that down and do a drawing and have the control. I think he would have been a very different person if he’d lost the ability to draw. He would have ended his own life. He just wouldn’t have carried on.”
Instead, he decided to finish the battle on his own terms. Even when we went to Dignitas,” Lavis recalls, “it was, ‘I’m pulling the pin on the hand grenade. I’m murdering MS. It’s not murdering me.’”
Before I go to Brighton I’m not sure how I feel about Dignitas. I’m not sure I know even now. I do know I’m not strong enough to accompany anyone there. Hicklenton asked his mate to go with him. Was he ready to go? “I never questioned it,” says Lavis. “I knew it was going to be difficult, but I thought I would regret not going.”
Before they went Hicklenton said his goodbyes to his family. “That was hard. He was pissed off that he had to go to Switzerland and he wasn’t allowed to do it in his own home.
“The flipside to that was it gave him the ability to say goodbye to everybody and we can have a few days in Switzerland to settle, psyche himself up for doing it. I’m glad we had that. I wish his mum and his sisters had that as well. In the long run that will help me deal with this. I said everything I had to say to that guy and he said everything he needed to say to me.”
And so we return to that Swiss sofa and the reality of death, the reality of choosing to die, of swallowing a bitter drink that will kill you. “It was a groundshaker, it really was,” admits Lavis. “For both of us, me and Claire. I’m so glad that we could be there because they [Dignitas] said a lot of people go there on their own. But it was lovely. We all sat on a sofa together. We had really nice music, we had candles. It was as beautiful and dignified as you could want it to be. But three of you are entering a room and he ends up a corpse.
“After he died we had a few hours with his body. It meant that we had some time to let the situation sink in. He was laid out like a Roman senator with this beautiful red blanket and he didn’t look dead, he looked like Johnny. It had a sort of tribal laying on of hands feeling.” He stops speaking. Catches his breath. “Sorry man.”
John Hicklenton was 42 when he died. He has left us his art, his books and, for those who knew him, for those who loved him, the memory of a wild man, a joker, a friend.
Lavis adds: “Bravest man I know. Sitting next to him with that little thing of liquid, I don’t know how he did that. I don’t think I could have done that.”
The rest is silence.