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Year of the Artist, Day 249: Brendan McCarthy, Part 3 – A1 #1 and Skin

by  in Comic News Comment
Year of the Artist, Day 249: Brendan McCarthy, Part 3 – <i>A1</i> #1 and <i>Skin</i>

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Brendan McCarthy, and the comics are “The Hollow Circus” in A1 #1, which was published by Atomeka Press and is cover dated 1989, and Skin, which was published by Tundra and is cover dated 1992. These scans are from The Best of Milligan and McCarthy, which was published by Dark Horse in 2013. Enjoy! (There’s some Not Safe For Work stuff below the cut, just so you know.)

I put these two comics together, with tomorrow’s entry seemingly in between it, because Skin, of course, was delayed a few years because the original publisher, Fleetway, was terrified to publish it. Why were they scared? In The Best of Milligan and McCarthy, the introduction isn’t sure. I don’t know who writes the introduction, but they speculate that because Martin is lower class and he really doesn’t change at all throughout the story, it scared the delicate sensibilities of Fleetway’s lawyers. Beats me. Fleetway published a lot of subversive stuff, so who knows what they thought about. Anyway, McCarthy was working on Skin in 1989, it seems, as it was supposed to be published in 1990, and the first issue of A1 also came out in 1989, so McCarthy was probably working on them at about the same time (as well as, probably, tomorrow’s entry as well, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it). Let’s check out A1 #1 first, shall we?

A1 #1 is, well, the kind of comic that makes you wonder why anthologies don’t do better in the market. It was 1989, and we got a Barry Windsor-Smith story, an Alan Moore and Garry Leach story, an Eddie Campbell story, a John Bolton story, a Dave Gibbons and Ted McKeever story, a Brian Bolland story, an Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse story, a Bill Sienkiewicz story, a Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean story, a Dean Motter story, a Ted McKeever and Dave Gibbons story, a Glenn Fabry story, a Bob Burden story, and this story. That’s some good value! “The Hollow Circus” is a creepy story, as you can see from this page and the subsequent ones, and it’s also, it seems, the most McCarthy ever used multimedia, as he places a lot of obvious photographs into the artwork. The background of this page, for instance, is a photograph of a dark church, while the teddy bear-as-boy’s head also appears to be an actual bear, not a drawing (although it’s so crinkled I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s papier-mâché or something like that). The heavy white paint on the body is haunting, as it makes the entire scene rough, leading us down to the terrifying crying baby in his stomach. McCarthy continues to show his fascination with the body, as the hands don’t look quite proportional, which foreshadows the fact that Joseph is a hunchback.

McCarthy uses what appear to be actual people wearing masks as Joseph’s brother and the policemen, which shows Joseph’s state of mind, as he is hallucinating about what they look like. McCarthy drenches the page in shadows, presumably to match the tone of the story but also to overshadow that he’s using photographs. In the foreground, he draws a lump of flesh with three knitting needles puncturing it, and it appears that they’re roughly inked pieces of paper that McCarthy cut out and affixed to a board. I could be wrong, but that’s what they look like!

Just one more example of McCarthy using actual props in his artwork, as it’s clear that none of those figures are drawn. It certainly adds to the creepiness of the scene, but I wonder if McCarthy was going through a “Dave McKean” phase at this point in his life. Whatever it was, this is the only time he tried this. It’s a weird detour. But let’s move on to Skin!

The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is a big book, so the entire page doesn’t fit on my scanner, which is kind of a pain for a book like Skin, which doesn’t have panel borders in the traditional sense. So I had to cut that dude’s head off. Sorry!

Anyway, Skin is about a thalidomide baby named Martin, who goes around being a horrible person. I’m not the biggest fan of Skin, because it’s so misanthropic and nihilistic that it depresses me, but it does feature this unusual art from McCarthy, colored by Carol Swain. The line work is only vaguely reminiscent of McCarthy’s earlier work, and it’s clear he’s trying to make this as “realistic” as possible – it’s a brutal tale about a brutal time in England – the 1970s – so McCarthy doesn’t go too nuts with the work. He uses very solid lines, without a lot of hatching and detail, which helps ground the work. The coloring is amazing – Swain uses impressionistic work for the backgrounds quite a lot, as we see here, while using what looks like colored chalk to achieve the gauzy effect.

Martin really, really wants to get laid, but at this moment, all he can get is a live show when he hangs out with some hippies. McCarthy, as we can see, is still reining in his detailed work, giving us very basic shapes that help show off the simple pleasures and desires of Martin’s life. Swain’s colors remain amazing, as she uses blues and pinks very well to create a hypnotic effect, while the blue/tan of the hippies’ skin makes almost an electric effect, which is balanced by Martin’s face in the middle and its ruddiness. It’s a fascinating contrast.

McCarthy gets weird only once in this book, but the effect is very cool. We’ve been conditioned to expect the art to continue in its semi-realistic mode, but when Martin starts getting fuzzy in the head, he imagines the woman he’s having sex with turning into this crazy creature while the hippies in the background become more like Dr. Seuss characters. McCarthy makes the woman’s breasts sag, gives her that insane mouth, sinks her eyes into her head and turns her raised arms, which she’s running through her hair, into weird horns. He makes her hair riotous as it tumbles down around Martin. Swain, again, does wonderful work, as she bleeds the green of the woman’s skin into the hair, making her less a person and more a monster, while the jagged chalk lines emanating from the woman make the scene more electric. Martin snaps back to reality in the second panel, and McCarthy and Swain snap back as well. In a book that is mostly a mundane examination of Martin’s life, this scene stands out. McCarthy uses his more esoteric skills to good effect, and Swain keeps right up with him.

Martin ends up killing an executive at a pharmaceutical company that produced thalidomide, and he rips the dude’s arms off and attaches them to his. McCarthy does a wonderful job showing Martin’s mental instability in this panel. Obviously, he does a precise job showing Martin with the arms stuck to his shoulders, but the face is very nice, with Martin’s eyebrow cocked approvingly and the wry half-smile on his face showing that it is indeed “fukkin all right.” Swain, you’ll notice, uses darker colors that fit the overall scheme but show the very disturbing place Milligan and McCarthy have gone. The continuity is there, but the tone has definitely shifted.

At about the same time these two guys were working on Skin, they were working on another comic that might be their masterpiece as a team (Milligan’s Shade is still better, but McCarty only did some covers for that and one issue of interior work, which I’m not going to show). You know you want to come back tomorrow to see what it is! And check out some other weird art in the archives!

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