Legendary comic artist Tony DeZuniga, co-creator of Jonah Hex and Black Orchid, passed away early Wednesday at Las Piñas Doctors Hospital in the Philippines after suffering from a stroke, heart failure and brain damage, GMA News reports. The 79-year-old artist was surrounded by wife Tina, his daughter Sheryl and his sisters-in-law.
“Tony is very smart, clever, and funny,” Tina DeZuniga told the website. “He is my knight in shining armor.”
DeZuniga was admitted to the intensive care unit in mid-April following a stroke, leading friends and fans to rally to help cover his medical expenses. On Free Comic Book Day, Filipino artists came together to sell sketches and T-shirts to raise money for the fund.
Born in Manila, DeZuniga began his comics career at the age of 16 as a letterer for a weekly magazine then moved to the United States in 1962 to study graphic design. He returned to the Philippines to work in advertising before heading back to New York City, where he was hired by DC Comics editor Joe Orlando, making DeZuniga the first Filipino artist to work for a major American comics publisher.
He used the opportunity to open the door for other Filipino creators, convincing Orlando and DC Editor-in-Chief Carmine Infantino to visit the Philippines in 1971 to recruit such artists as Alex Niño, Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, Fred Carrillo, Vicatan and Gerry Talaoc.
That same year DeZuniga collaborated with writer John Albano to create Jonah Hex, the disfigured Western antihero with whom the artist is so closely associated. "[John] asked me to draw the concept for the character, and one day I was at the doctor's office and I saw this chart with a man, showing him half muscle and half skeleton," DeZuniga recalled in a 2010 interview with Comic Book Resources. "I thought to myself, 'This is neat,' and I got the concept. When John Albano saw it, he was very happy."
Although perhaps best remembered for his work on DC's Jonah Hex, Arak, Son of Thunder, The Phantom Stranger and Weird Western Tales, he also drew Dracula Lives, The Savage Sword of Conan and Thor for Marvel.
"He was, and still is a huge inspiration," cartoonist Gerry Alanguilan wrote on his website. "I’m not exactly a very young man anymore, but whenever I think of Mang Tony, who was still active and still pushing his artistic boundaries well into his 70′s, it was terribly, terribly inspiring. I wish I could be as active and creative when I reach his age. Now that he’s gone, I have no doubt that he will continue to inspire us. And while our conventions may seem empty now without him, as if something would always be missing, his memory will help keep us going, and keep us making comics."
DeZuniga returned to Jonah Hex in 2010 with No Way Back, a 136-page graphic novel written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, and released to coincide with the character's big-screen debut.
"I really enjoyed doing Jonah Hex again," he told CBR at the time, before expressing his distaste for the way the character has been depicted in more recent years. "I have seen the new comics, and I am not too happy with some of the artists making him [more like] Clint Eastwood; exaggerating the scars; wrong hats," he said. "See, small things are important in a character. That's always a part of making it whole."