Even though we live in a golden age of reprints, there are still deserving comics that, for one reason or another, fail to get collected, translated, or reprinted in nice, shiny, new books. This monthly column is dedicated to those books that, we feel, need another round in the spotlight.
The welcome return of artist Brendan McCarthy to the world of comical books with Spider-Man: Fever got me thinking about how most of the comics he’s done (mostly with Collect This Now’s patron saint Peter Milligan) are sadly out of print. That’s a shame, as his bibliography contains a lot of great work that deserves re-examination, including Rogan Gosh, Paradax and the topic of today’s column, Skin.
One of the more interesting things about Skin actually is that it had a bit of trouble getting published initially. Originally Skin was supposed to be published in 1990 in Crisis, a spin-off of the classic British anthology series 2000 AD. The printers refused to handle it, and the publisher got cold feet, and it didn’t end up seeing the light of day until 1992, when Kevin Eastman’s Tundra press released it with little fanfare.
What made so many of these fine folks reluctant to print the comic? Well, for one thing, it could have been the subject matter. You see, Skin is about a Thalidomide baby. More specifically, it’s about a Thalidomide kid who’s a skinhead, has sex with hippies and eventually ends up getting revenge on the people who made the drug by going after them with an ax. (oops, spoilers!)
I know what you’re thinking, but Skin takes place in a time before neo-Nazis basically took over the whole skinhead ethos, when they were more a group of young toughs who liked to shave their head rather than a bunch of racists. Their attitude — and the attitude of the book in general — is more punk rock than David Duke.
Now thalidomide, in case you don’t know, was a drug that was given as a sedative and all-around wonder drug until they realized it caused severe birth defects. It never was used much in the United States, thanks to the efforts of FDA inspector Frances Oldham Kelsey, but more than 10,000 children in Europe and elsewhere were born with deformities or other problems.
Martin Atchinson, the main character of Skin, is one such victim. Nicknamed Martin Atchet by his mates, Martin is possesses two useless arms, which he is very obviously self-conscious and upset about, but he tries not to let it prevent him from having a good time, which usually involves getting drunk and busting someone’s head open.
And, in case you haven’t guessed it by now, Skin isn’t some Hallmark tearjerker of the month where the victim is so noble that he inspires us all to better our lives. Martin’s a bit of a jerk, honestly, He gets into fights, is angry at everyone and everything around him and insults and attempts to molest the one girl who shows him some sympathy (she’s cross-eyed so she sort feels his pain you see).
This is an extremely short (only 48 pages) story and McCarthy and Milligan (along with Carol Swain, who provides the fantastic coloring job) don’t mess about too much with plot and character development. Just by the time you’re settling in and getting accustomed to Martin and his world, you’re at the denouement and the book’s over. As a result, Skin has feels more like a modern-day EC story than the sort of pre-Vertigo material that was popular at the time.
This is also an extremely angry work, and its brutality still carries something of a concussive force after all these years. Milligan’s prose, though it hurries along a bit too much, remains sharp and to the point and captures Martin and his milieu rather well.
The real reason to read Skin, however, is to drink in McCarthy’s visuals. Eschewing panel borders entirely, he lets the images flow into the other, with Swain’s psychedelic, at times gritty, color scheme giving the book an almost fable-like atmosphere. It’s a real tour-de-force performance and reminds me just how underrated and under appreciated McCarthy is by comics fans.
Looking at most modern mainstream comics today, where arms get pulled off with alarming frequency, little girls get crushed in collapsed buildings and Wolverine gets eaten alive by an inbred Hulk before clawing his way out of the brute’s body — all in luscious detail and full color — it seems odd that something like Skin would ever generate such trepidation among publishers. It was a simpler time I suppose, when it was thought that comics should just stick to happy thing and not concern itself with “serious” matters.
We know better now. Or at least we should. One way to show that we do would be to get this book out in the public once more.
My thanks to Joe McCulloch for loaning me his copy of the book.