Today sees the release of The Best of Milligan & McCarthy, a bumper hardcover from Dark Horse Books collecting almost every page produced by the team of Pete Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. Their collaboration stretches from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and encompasses strips for music weeklies and national Sunday newspapers, the dawn of the American indie-publishing boom, 2000AD and its creator-owned spinoff Revolver, an Eisner-nominated graphic novel, and ended at the birth of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint.
It’s fair to say these were my favorite comics during my formative years, so I was both honored and surprised to be asked to provide the introduction in the book. I protested, saying there’s bound to be someone better qualified for the task, but McCarthy insisted he wanted it by someone who had felt the impact of these comics at the time. Hence my nostalgic waffling at the start of the book; ignore that, and skip straight to the book’s meat, some of the funniest, angriest, saddest, smartest, dumbest, most transcendent work the medium has ever seen. To quote my own essay, “a secret history of the comics that followed them, the most influential comics you never see credited as such.”
I abused my access to these two men to ask them some questions, while trying not to gush too badly. I probably failed.
Robot 6: Let’s lay a little chronology down for our readers. When did you guys meet? Did you hit it off straight away? What did you bond over? What was the first thing you worked on together?
Pete Milligan: We met when we were both at different art schools. I believe it was Brett Ewins who introduced us. I think we got on well straight away, yeah. I’m not sure about bonding (it certainly wasn’t comics) but the first thing we worked on was ‘”he Electric Hoax,” an insane punk-sensibility, stream of giddy madness that Brendan had got going with the British music publication, Sounds.
Brendan McCarthy: There wasn’t anything specific we would “bond” over. … Frankly, that sounds a bit “Lifetime biopic” to me. We were both the same age, from similar backgrounds, both at art schools, so there was a lot of innate understanding already there. Most of it was unspoken and humor-based. I think we both shared an absurdist view of the world. Comics were, to me, a viable vehicle for self-expression, even though when we were starting out, they were seen as being for kids, or smelly people in Star Trek T shirts. I aimed to change all that.
Over the years this material was produced, did you guys ever develop a set method of working? I remember old interviews in assorted fanzines that suggested “Freakwave” and “The Hollow Circus'”had oddly symmetrical-but-opposite working practices. One had Brendan delivering completed pages, that Pete would letter over himself, improvising, like an extreme version of the “Marvel-style”; the other had Pete writing a fantastically bleak short story, which Brendan then produced a series of (frankly, downright terrifying) collages to go under.
Milligan: I don’t think there was a hard-and-fast method for working. It’s true to say that my work with Brendan tended to be very different from my work with other artists. With other artists it had has followed the full-script method, and then perhaps a bit of input from the artist, depending on my relationship with them. With Brendan it was different, but also with each story it was different, too. “Freakwave” was quite unique, and I did improvise over the artwork that appeared, which would then of course influence the next artwork that was produced. “The Hollow Circus” was different again. I wrote a piece of (bleak and disturbing) prose, which was very personal and drew on some remembered family history/myth. But this was a long way from being a script, with art instructions. Brendan then produced art. I then refined the prose piece to better suit the art, and so on.
McCarthy: Well, Pete has summed it up there. … Let’s see. One of the things that’s important is that we were both exposed at art school to things like the Dadaists and Surrealists … and if you study people like Duchamp, Breton, Joyce and Tsara, you will have absorbed things like “cut-ups,” stream of consciousness, the interplay between collaged image and word, and gotten a broad understanding of many techniques – not just how things are used in comics grammar. The problem with the comics industry is that it is mainly run by English lit university grads, and so the bias is towards writing and a “storytelling” that conforms to “Literature,” or movie and TV tropes. The very mention or reference to Shakespeare in a comic is sure to elevate (what is privately seen as) low-brow dross to an art form worthy of consideration, largely by a bunch of pundits who don’t get it, never got it and never will get it. The understanding of the art of comics is laughable in this medium. I can’t think of many people writing on comics who have had much insight into our material as other creators like Jamie Hewlett, who “get it” at a very core level.
When you see all the body of work together, it makes a lot of sense. It holds together well as a single body of work, various themes fade in and out and back in again (bloomin’ Wagnerian, mate). It was very far-out for its time, but a lot of it looks like it could have come out for the first time last week. What did it feel like to be creating all these mini-masterpieces and then to have been generally ignored by the audience?
Milligan: I don’t know if it was ignored, exactly, though I take your point. It would have been nice for it to really garner a bigger audience — as opposed to a relatively small but dedicated group of cultists — but I don’t remember us ever doing this stuff for the popularity. I think “Paradax” really deserved to be massive. “Freakwave” and “The Hollow Circus” is probably just too weird, and Mirkin is probably too intelligent or perverse or something.
McCarthy: Yes, I think “Paradax” had the potential to be a big mainstream success, but I think we needed to do more than two stories! Personally, I found the repetition in drawing comics very tedious. That’s why my work keeps changing so much. There is a high degree of “novelty” in my art. I was always more interested in nailing a great concept, character and story and then moving on to the next thing, than in doing the same story for years on end. Pete could do that much more readily than I. Shade carried on for about five years, as I recall. I sometimes wish I had that ability, but sitting at a drawing desk for days and weeks on end was really fucking boring to me. It’s why I left comics in the end. I needed to get out and interact with other people and travel and see the planet before I died. Recently, I have come back to comics, but I’m still somewhat antsy about it all. … I’ve always been amazed at those artists who treat it like a job and get started at 9 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m. with a lunch break. Man, I am a chaotic mess. I somehow get it done, and never miss a deadline, but sometimes I just can’t go near a pencil for a week. I could just as easily start work at midnight as at noon … it’s incredibly random. It’s always been like that.
There’s no escaping it: Your work is psychedelic. Did actual psychedelics ever play a part in the creative process for you?
Milligan: Nothing while I was working, besides coffee or tea.
Of course, the most psychotropic comic of them all, Ditko and Lee’s Doctor Strange, was probably produced under the influence of nothing stronger than coffee.
McCarthy: Like many people growing up with a ’60s influence, I have taken psychedelics and had wonderful spiritual experiences of the Absolute and had my mind opened up to cosmic realms. Like Steve Jobs, psychedelics changed my life. Experiencing reality outside of the usual ego constraints and social conditioning is something everyone should try! And I have returned with magnificent jewels – ideas that glitter with possibility. … But you must have developed sufficient creative skills in order to build on what has been revealed to the imagination. Otherwise these prized visions will fade away.
When I was a kid, reading those Ditko Doctor Strange stories, I found them actually pretty scary. The Kirby stuff was grounded, technological and optimistic, but Ditko conveyed a psychological uneasiness in his art, a lurking sense of unhinged, angry madness, as well as a stunningly original vision of occult dimensions and phantasmagorical beings.
Ditko’s creation of Doctor Strange is certainly equal to, and in my view surpasses, that of Austin Osman Spare, the (in)famous esoteric artist so beloved of contemporary “magickians.” Wouldn’t it be great if Marvel didn’t ruin the character in the upcoming feature film, and captured that creepy psychedelic atmosphere of the Ditko original? Perhaps they will be brave and give it to David Lynch, who I’m sure, if he disciplined himself on the storytelling (like with The Elephant Man), could do it justice.
The work always has a strong emotional charge to it. There’s a lot of raw feeling evoked, when I look at “The Hollow Circus,” or Skin in particular. There’s a lot more politics in there, too, than maybe people remember. People tend to focus on the psychedelia of your work together and forget the punky anger.
Milligan: I agree. It’s easy to be blown away by the admittedly astonishing barrage of psychedelia, but that was only one part of our work.
McCarthy: Yes, there was a lot of sardonic bite and piss-taking going on in our stuff back then. I mean, “Paradax” reads quite “cute” now, and to our modern, more brutarian sensibilities it seems strangely innocent. But there is a political attack going on underneath it all. Obviously Skin is the most upfront “kick in the bollocks” strip in the book. It’s an aggressive little bastard! There is absolutely nothing like it in comics. It’s very unique.
The creation of a “personality” in a comic character is something that few creators discuss. In just a few pages of Mirkin or Paradax you absolutely “get” who they are. They seem to live on the page. How do you achieve that?
Milligan: Both Paradax and Mirkin were very specific characters who occupied very specific worlds. Both characters have very particular voices and attitudes to everything.
McCarthy: Yes, I’ve always been interested in this subject: How you create a singular character that “lives” vividly in your imagination during the reading of the comic and for some time afterwards. The art of creating strong characters has died out in a way. Very few creators know how to do it. And I certainly don’t get it right every time. Kirby/Ditko/Lee formed the bedrock of Marvel with very strong characters both in personality and in visuals. Other than Wolverine, it’s hard to think of another great Marvel character that wasn’t dreamt up by those three geniuses.
I think Daniel Clowes did a good job with the two girls in Ghost World. And Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey worked very well. Jim Woodring’s Frank has achieved a kind of fucked-up Tom and Jerry stature, endlessly caught in dreamlike events that seem to go on forever and seem to go nowhere.
Pete and Brett Ewins’ Johnny Nemo was a great example of a vivid personality created in a comic strip. (And thankfully, all the stories will be collected together next year in a companion volume to The Best of Milligan & McCarthy. Can’t bleedin’ wait.)
And Mirkin the Mystic, just a few pages long, but you both state he’s your favorite creation, that you should have done more with him, and his strip ends “Mirkin shall return!” Ever feel tempted to do more?
Milligan: God, yes, I’ve often been tempted. In some ways, though, maybe it’s been best that that temptation was never fulfilled. There’s something quite “Mirkinian” about an exquisitely forestalled desire.
McCarthy: Yes, like Peter, I’ve thought about mo’ Mirkin, but I think he may well be a creature of his time. I’d much rather do something brand new with Pete, if ever that situation arose again. I adore Mirkin and really think we were remiss in not doing a few more stories when he was floating about in the comics ether back then. I’ve always harbored a secret desire to do one of those big stories that features every character we’ve ever invented … Mirkin, Paradax and Rudciff and Williams, and Captain Cracking and the Karmanaut, all in one giant, mad yarn. Yeah, it would be nice, but don’t hold your breath.
There’s a lot of playful sexiness in your work, and lots of smutty innuendos, too. Your comics are a strange mixture the low brow and high art, of Carry On films, James Joyce and Steve Ditko!
Milligan: Well, yes, especially when you look at a collection like this one and can see the extent of the things we got up to. In a way it’s reflection of the way Brendan and I spent our time together. One moment we were quarreling over Bloom’s Western Canon, the next falling off our stools telling fart gags.
McCarthy: I think the “fart gags” were more from Milligan’s Department of Flatulence …
I used to love all that filthy Joe Orton stuff, of rewriting sections of famous novels as graphic smut and pasting them into library books. A good dose of smut is a great antidote to all those humorless politically correct fuckers who tut-tut their way through life. They seem to have taken over.
Of all of this stuff that’s been out of print for so long, the work that has been most ill-served by its absence from the shelves is Skin. It’s a bona fide lost classic. Hard as nails, but essential reading. One to wave under the noses of the Late Review panel of critics, shouting “sod yer Maus, this is what comics can do!”.
Milligan: I’ve often thought that the public’s attitude to Skin is telling. It’s a little malformed monster of a story and a lot of the public find it hard to look at it. You may draw your own conclusions.
McCarthy: I suppose Skin is the most beloved of all my stuff … the poor little guy had such a hard time getting himself out into the public eye. Skin carries an enormous emotional charge. It’s in the drawings and in the dialogue. There was something very special happening with myself and Carol Swain on the art. There are some expressions on Martin’s face that are heartbreaking, and also really funny. The art is like the vocal performance, the script is the lyrics … and both propel the emotion. I think the image at the end, where he stands up with the other guy’s arms tied onto himself, mad lopsided grin across his face, saying, “Fuckin’ alright!” – at last, he has arms, he’s “normal” … that to me, is a great moment in comics. The equivalent of the finale of Taxi Driver.
I’ve often mused that comics have little emotional resonance. It’s a stultified medium in a way, it never reaches the emotional heights of music, film or literature. It does Wonder and Shock and visual Dynamism well, but that’s a lot to do with that stunted “geek” culture that smothers everything. I mean, fuck emotions – what’s going on with Cyclops’ new visor?
Of the next generation of creators, Jamie Hewlett and Grant Morrison seemed most overtly influenced by the sensibility in your work. It seems you created a different type of comics that ran alongside the more mainstream “filmic” material produced by the Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman axis, which has pretty much become the standard way of doing comics these days. But every now and again, a few creators pop up either side of the Atlantic claiming Strange Days as an influence. How does your own work appear to you now, looking back on it?
Milligan: What struck me most, looking through these stories again, was just how bloody fresh they seemed. I really believe that most of this work, if published today, could still be hailed as ground breaking.
McCarthy: It’s insanely vibrant and bursting with ideas and creativity, looking back on it. And some of it is quite innocent. But it captures its time well. From punk graphics through to Madchester psychedelia, from sulphate to ecstasy. You live through a certain time span, in our case the decade of the eighties, and what’s going on around you informs the art.
But what I really liked seeing again, was the absolutely confident conviction that comics were a worthwhile medium and that the content should be as good as anything coming out of literature or film or music. I wanted our comics to be as good as The Beatles were in music. That’s what I was aspiring to.
It’s hard for readers now to even know what it was like over 30 years ago in the U.K. scene. Comics were nothing back then. There were only about 20 people getting anywhere near to producing material that was actually worth looking at. There were only a few of us. Those ’80s British Invasion comics were the making of what we have now.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a line describing the end of your working partnership as you head off in different directions that, for fans like me, is a little bit heartbreaking: “and that was it.” It’s a bit anti-climactic, innit? Couldn’t you have fabricated some epic falling out to spice it up a bit?
Milligan: “Epic falling outs ” are so boring. There’s a profound, albeit sly, truth in the ending to this book.
McCarthy: There wasn’t any great “falling out,” as you say. I had come to a point where I wanted to do something different and I was having a lot of fun designing pop promos and being at the start of the revolution in animation with computers. I was learning totally new things as well. I felt that I’d said what I had to say in comics, so best not to outstay one’s allotted time in the spotlight … I’m very pleased with this collection of our “greatest hits” in comics. I think this is a worthy testament to a wonderfully inventive and original body of work. In the end, this will be a little flickering beacon in the development of British comics, itself a minor tributary in the great ongoing flow of culture. And in the end, it will all be forgotten. As of course, will you and I.
Have you kept up with each other’s careers during your years apart? Ever feel a little twitch of jealousy when you see them produce something great with someone else? And what would it take to get you to get the band back together again?
Milligan: What I don’t do is compare or judge what Brendan does with others with what we did together. My work with Bren feels as though it’s ring-fenced, in some way. And I don’t have a jealous bone in my body.
McCarthy: Nah. I keep an eye out for Pete’s stuff. It’s always worthwhile to have a read. He’s a talented man is Milligan. And he made me laugh.
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