by Shea Hennum
Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy are, individually, two of the most underrated comic creators of all times, both producing incredibly diverse bodies of work that have influenced their peers and subsequent generations. Many of their collaborations have been out of print for nearly twenty years, but Dark Horse has done a good job of collecting them — some of them for the very first time. In The Best of Milligan & McCarthy readers are provided with a mostly-complete overview of their collaboration.
Some of their works aren’t actually that good, but they do provide a nice contrast for their higher quality work. The Eletrick Hoax, for example, was a newspaper strip — and actually the two’s first collaboration — that was produced when the creators were still in art school, and the art and writing are much rougher and experimental than their later stuff. It bears the mark of layman craftsman toying with a medium in which neither of them has ever worked. As an art artifact it works well, and it does help trace the stylistic arc of the creators. And the same can be said about the original Freakwave short, which is a much more conventional a story than the ones the pair are famous for. It does happen to essentially be “Mad Max plus Waterworld,” and so it’s a little weird — but nothing too far afield from the sci-fi being featured in 2000 AD at the time. It’s a little more humdrum and mundane than the rest of Milligan and McCarthy’s work, but, like Electrick Hoax, it provides a nice counterpoint to the more accomplished collaborations and adds to a more complete picture of their time working together.
However, the rebooted Freakwave is much more in line with the rest of the works featured in the book. It’s a mostly mainstream comic and serves as a good bridge between the original Freakwave and their later work, like Skin or Rogan Gosh. Milligan includes a little bit of metaphysical and existentialist narrative technique and poetic/romantic narration, while McCarthy retains very conventional page layouts. And McCarthy’s rendering is still very mainstream, with his pages not yet chaotic and surreal like the more recent Zaucer of Zilk or his issue of DC’s Solo. The abridged Sooner or Later strip has the same kind of blend of conventional McCarthy art with the beginnings of Milligan’s more esoteric style of writing, acting as a sort of missing link between the original Freakwave and the likes of Rogan Gosh.
Summer of Love, another short-lived comic strip-format series, acts as a good mid-point between their more mainstream and more experimental works. It’s a primarily straightforward romantic comic with elements of bizarre sci-fi. It’s a nice mix of pastiche and the absurd, and it’s actually a pretty good comic. But it lacks the real art comix panache of, say, Mirkin the Mystic — a humorous and lavishly illustrated fantasy short featuring Oscar Wilde’s skull, also collected here.
The real draws of the collection, though, are three stories: Paradax!, Rogan Gosh, and Skin. Paradax! is the story of Al Cooper, a working-class man who finds the titular suit in the back of his cab and uses it to earn a little dosh and maybe impress his girlfriend. Sure, he’ll fight the likes of Dr. Sex — with his virility-stealing sex pistol — but only if President Reagan can convince Mayor Clint Eastwood to shell out $1 million. The roots of Grant Morrison’s Zenith are here, and they’re obvious — and the book will actually make you think less of people like Morrison, who owe large chunks of their career to straight ripping off McCarthy (something addressed in the book’s introduction). There’s a lot of nice, really funny satire here, and I was reminded of Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law. The Paradax! stories hint at McCarthy’s later, more experimental art, particularly the second story — and his caricature-like rendering of the people that populate the world of Paradax! heighten the humor the stories.
The long out-of-print Rogan Gosh is the single longest story in the collection and is my personal favorite. It draws heavily on the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as Indian mythology and literature. Milligan mentions, in the short preface to the piece, that the series was inspired by himself and McCarthy growing up in predominately Indian neighborhoods and his readings of the Vedas. It’s been described as an “Indian science fiction” series, but there’s not a whole lot of sci-fi here. It feels more fantastical, if anything. But the writing is more in line with metaphysics, philosophy, and religion than with fantasy. Milligan is drawing on the same influences that peer Grant Morrison would later draw on for Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, and Rogan Gosh is easily the peak of Milligan’s writing. The story artfully draws together three primary narratives, brought together through karma and nature, and uses them to tell a single actioner with more substantive commentary than many better-known or more highly revered comics. And McCarthy skillfully combines the philosophical underpinnings of Milligan’s writing with psychedelic, colorful, and entrancing art — with some, myself including, believing it to be the best of McCarthy’s career.
The real oddball of the collection, though, is the incredibly controversial Skin, which tells the story of Martin Atchison — or Marty ‘Atchet — a young skinhead, deformed by thalidomide. The series is incredibly violent, climaxing in the young Marty chopping off an executive’s arms and gleefully attaching them to his own. But it has absolutely no genre elements. No bits of crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, or anything; it’s a socially conscious angry-young-man story in the grand English tradition. Milligan’s writing is as skillful as ever, though markedly different in terms of style. Similarly, McCarthy’s pencils are different from his other work and lack the poppy, fluorescent colors he’s famous for. Carol Swain’s muted, autumnal color palette produces a very gritty realist aesthetic that compliments the narrative well.
Skin predates Rogan Gosh in terms of production, but it wasn’t published until years after because of its provocative subject matter. But the quality of it is on par with everything else produced by Milligan and McCarthy — its characters are sympathetic, though not necessarily likeable, and each scene springs organically out of the previous scene, racing towards its inevitable conclusion. The finale is well-earned, but it’s clear why a number of publishers felt it wasn’t in their best interests to publish it.
Also included in the collection is The Hollow Circus, a disturbing story that feature’s one man’s self-pseudo-crucifixion. The art is collage-like full page splashes with expositional narration boxes, and the story is — McCarthy agrees in his preface — disturbing. The art compliments that mood, with bleak, dark images similar to the ones used in David Lynch’s music video for Nine Inch Nails’ Came Back Haunted. The Hollow Circus really is the two creators working at the very extremes of their respective styles, and, like their early work, a fascinating look at their collaborations, if not a necessarily “good” work, in and of itself.
The collection itself is, as a physical object, well-designed, and the art is reproduced at large enough size that you can really appreciate the exquisite Rogan Gosh and the landscape-format strips like Electrick Hoax and Summer of Love. Not everything included is revolutionary or groundbreaking, but the quality ones are of the highest caliber, and the ones that aren’t great are still interesting enough as a look at the shape of Milligan and McCarthy’s fruitful partnership.
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