Tony Luke 1970-2016
February 18, 2016 · 3 comments
Jonathan Clements remembers the creator of Dominator
A memorial to Tony Luke, who died yesterday, inevitably must be a collage, like much of his artwork. This is not because of his particular hybrid rock-and-roll style, but because of his undeniable achievements as a self-publicist. Tony knew that he was dying for some time, and took steps to upload as much of his life as he could into the Cloud. This has made him the arbiter and custodian of his own legacy, and steers much of what I am able to tell you about him. Poke around YouTube, and you will find his early dabblings in a Goth band, the pointedly otaku-friendly pop videos he directed for Urusei Yatsura and Digitalis, his talking head appearances on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and numerous incarnations of his Dominator animations about a Satanic rock god. He placed such things there deliberately, because it is how he would like to be remembered.
I have known for some time that I would have to write Tony’s obituary, but there is very little about him of which I can be sure. There were so many promises of Irons in the Fire, so many Great Enterprises about to manifest, so many Explosive Law Suits he was about to unleash in the 20 years that we knew each other, that even I would sometimes accuse him of crying wolf. But I’ll tell you what I can, and I will leave it to others to fill in the blanks (such as John Freeman here).
This much I know: that as a teenage prodigy, Tony attracted the attentions of the media, who lauded him in several “And Finally…” news items as a bright young thing in the world of animation. He was already a fan of Japanese telly, and reported his vain attempts to sell the BBC on Robotech. His earliest splash, in 1987, was an odd live-action photo-story of Nemesis the Warlock, in which the eponymous alien looked like a man in a bin bag. I, like many schoolboys of the day, stared at it open-mouthed, trying to work out if he was taking the piss.*
By 1988, he was drawing his Dominator comic for Metal Hammer, and soon attracted the attention of industry big hitters. I first encountered him in 1993, shortly after Kodansha’s manga magazine Afternoon ran a short-lived Dominator strip, in which a series of super-heroic demons battled it out like Spinal Tap at a fireworks display. Then, and for the rest of his life, Tony would proudly tell his detractors that he had a million readers and was the first Briton to ever sell “manga” to the Japanese. It was a highlight of his career – feted by editors, seduced by supermodels, he hit it off with his Japanese counterpart, the artist and model-maker Yasushi Nirasawa, with whom he would occasionally collaborate thereafter.
But as I warned him at the time, Afternoon was a monthly magazine the size of a telephone directory, of which his Dominator pages formed a mere handful among dozens of meatier, longer-running serials. The pages regularly given over to foreign artists, I suggested, were more of a gaijin petting zoo than a serious step-up to an artistic career – the manga world’s equivalent of an “And Finally…” slot detailing an eyebrow-raising curio. I seriously doubted whether some of the Afternoon readership (a modest 75,000 these days) would even notice Dominator if they were turning the pages too fast to get to the likes of Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte.
Regardless, being the “British manga” man led to more contacts around the periphery of the anime scene. When Manga Entertainment released The Guyver on 12 VHS tapes, Tony was hired to provide a comic, Hellkatt, that ran on the inside of each sleeve. He also commenced work on a bizarre live-action and stop-motion apocalypse in which demonic invaders razed London to the ground: Archangel Thunderbird.
I think Tony saw himself as a cross between Clive Barker and Glenn Danzig, occupying a space between bombastic heavy metal and manga bondage queens. Danzig’s obscure anime video Satanika was very much in the Tony Luke mould, while Tony himself latched onto Barker’s frequent collaborator, Doug “Pinhead” Bradley in numerous ventures. But there was another figure that loomed large in Tony’s inspirations – usually forgotten by audiences, but vital for understanding his attitude towards camp entertainment.
The Archangel Thunderbird short, which eventually played to baffled viewers of the new UK incarnation of the Sci Fi channel, began with a telling dedication to Michael Bentine, the former Goon whose Potty Time specialised in ludicrous puppets, amiable satire and things that went bang, and whose Madabout show in 1982 featured a teenage Tony discussing model-making. It was Bentine, not any of the heavy metal heroes, who truly was Tony’s touchstone, and whose affable, generous nature was just as manifest in Tony Luke as any rock-star swagger. Archangel Thunderbird also showcased Tony’s talents of celebrity blagging to great heights, boasting a script co-written by 2000 AD’s Alan Grant, Neil Gaiman providing the voice of the devil, and horror icon Eileen Daly tied to a computer or something. I met her at the launch party – she was very short, but bewitchingly attractive.
Tony’s magnum opus, sufficient to occupy him in various incarnations for the rest of his life, was Dominator the movie. Depending on whom he was talking to at the time, it was either a jokey fannish effort “made for the cost of a fridge” or a computer-generated masterpiece on the cusp of attaining world-class funding.
But by the 21st century, Tony was ill, suffering from a debilitating lung condition that he claimed to have picked up while working in a comics warehouse. It affected his health thereafter, and led to prolonged fallow periods where he seemed to do little but lie in his bed. I remember agreeing to interview him onstage at a Brighton arts event after he claimed to have had no energy to write the speech he was supposed to be giving. His creative work, such as Dominator, surely suffered from such indispositions, although some might suggest that the same handful of pages from 1993 were being stretched and recycled to ludicrous degrees by this point. It was never clear to me for the last decade who was funding Tony’s work, where he was in the production, or whether the next milestone was the completed film or yet more materials to be written off as “test footage.” His artistic output drifted towards individual illustration commissions, some of which would occasionally turn up on Facebook, displaying his life-long love of mixed media, and a certain sense that digital artwork had caught up with the methods that, in his early life, required lower-tech scissors and glue.
He didn’t want to die, of course. As cancer took hold, he began clutching at straws, and looking for miracle treatments. He came to me for translation one last time, but now to contact a Japanese hospital that was reputed to be working on a cure for his condition. I had to break the news to him that they were 20 years away from a meaningful result, whereas he would be lucky to last 20 weeks. His last few months were a whirl of convention meetings (he seemed to be ticking off selfies with prominent Gallifreyans) and family goodbyes, as he tried to cram in as much as possible.
His art took on an understandably elegiac mood. His last piece, “The End of the Beginning,” was posted on 29th January 2016, and purportedly came loaded with personal symbolism. It also featured a topless girl in suspenders, which was very Tony.
(*He was, he later told me).