Post-apocalyptic surfers. Superheroes who aren’t very heroic. Thalidomide skinheads. A psychedelic SF epic named after Indian food.
Comic book readers have just gotten a mega-dose of the weird and wonderful with The Best of Milligan and McCarthy from Dark Horse Comics. Collecting a number of short stories, graphic novellas and more by the British writer-artist team of Peter Milligan (Shade, the Changing Man, X-Force/X-Statix) and Brendan McCarthy (Judge Dredd, Spider-Man: Fever; many, many film and TV projects).
Collecting such brain-bending and sometimes controversial works as Paradax, Freakwave, Skin and Rogan Gosh, The Best of Milligan and McCarthy has already earned widespread acclaim as one of the year’s best archival collections. We spoke to Milligan and McCarthy for a special two-part interview looking back at their careers, their collaborations, and more.
Newsarama: Peter, Brendan – how did this collection come about?
Brendan McCarthy: About a year ago, I was talking with Mike Richardson at Dark Horse about another comics project and Mike let me know he was a great fan of our ‘80s output, all the classics like Paradax, Rogan Gosh, Freakwave and Skin.
As the material was owned by us, and had been out of print for the last 20 years and never been collected, he pitched Dark Horse doing the definitive collection and most importantly, we would have the final edit. So it felt like a no-brainer.
I also felt comfortable that we would see a high quality production, given the standard of Dark Horse's previous editions. Our editor Brendan Wright stayed on top of things and made sure it was all done properly.
Peter Milligan: All of the above. Brendan told me he'd spoken to Dark Horse and they were into publishing all this material and I naturally went along with it. I was very comfortable that we'd be working with someone like Dark Horse, and was really excited about the idea of having all this stuff in one easy to access place.
Nrama: What was it like looking back over your different collaborations?
McCarthy: For me, it's the sheer variety of the strips and the originality of the material at the time, created mainly throughout the decade of the ‘80s. The novel take on superheroes in Paradax, all that sexy fun and me-me-media frolics, which is now of course very commonplace in the genre, still holds up. It’s pretty silly and flip.
In fact, Paradax seems quite cute looking back on it from today's brutarian perspective. Still, even The Beatles were revolutionary in their day! All the strips have vivid characters at the center of the action, and that is what still appeals to me.
Creating memorable characters seems like a dying skill in comics these days. It's why the early Marvel Kirby/Lee material has lasted, and is now engaging a whole new audience at the movies. Character always trumps plot.
Milligan: My over-riding feeling was how fresh and new all this material felt. Work changes over time, as you change and the world changes. Paradax, for example, has a kind of innocence that I don't remember it having at the time. Though that might have more to do with your memory of yourself creating it than the material itself.
I was also struck by how truly insane a lot of it really was and remains. I really feel that if a lot of this material came out now it will still feel groundbreaking and in its own way revolutionary. I suppose my overriding feeling was how much good stuff there was. It seemed that every story we worked on was some kind of classic.
I had wondered whether the book would feel a little thin – I was comparing it in my head to the fat Marvel collection of my X-Statix and other recent “Best of”s – but in fact the book seems amazingly full.
Nrama: Why do you feel you work so well together?
McCarthy: At a certain point in time and usually only for a limited period, creators can come together and the chemistry is such that something greater than the two can be generated, just like Lennon and McCartney or Morrissey and Marr.
I love the work I did with Pete Milligan. It's certainly my favorite comics work. It's peculiarly “British” in tone, very funny, subversive, very idiosyncratic and has a lot of heart. There wasn't much like it before – although there has been much since!
Milligan: It's hard not to get away from that hoary old cliché “chemistry,” but it's a good description of the sometimes mysterious creative process between two people. I think Brendan and I shared enough experience to be able to understand each other, but there were also sufficient differences for us to bring diverse things to the mix.
I wasn't particularly immersed in the comic book tradition back then, so I think sometimes came at writing comics from a slightly different angle, which complemented Brendan's own idiosyncratic creative urges.
I love most of the work I've done with Brendan, it sits right up there with some of my other favorite stuff. In fact, it's hard to compare it to anything else I've done as it seems to have a quality or flavor all its own.
Nrama: How did you two initially come together as collaborators?
McCarthy: I met Peter through my artist pal Brett Ewins. All three of us were at Art Colleges in London. I had sold a surreal “punk” strip to the UK musical magazine Sounds called The Electrick Hoax. I asked Pete to give me a hand on the writing when I was a few episodes into it as the text took much longer for me than the art.
After that, I asked Pete if he'd like to write a strip I had an idea for called Freakwave, which was essentially “Mad Max goes surfing” – a post-nuke action satire. We sold it to Pacific Comics in the US, after I saw The Rocketeer strip by Dave Stevens, which I liked a great deal – and to my mind was possibly the first shot of the coming comics revolution of a few years hence.
They bought it, liked it, and later offered us our own mini-series, which turned out to be Strange Days, created with Brett Ewins. We then became a kind of comics “art group” trio and created that comic series and influenced the strata of works that followed on, including Deadline (edited by Brett and which gave us Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl and Shaky Kane).
Milligan: I can't really add anything to what Brendan says here. Meeting Brett and Brendan was quite a turning point in my life. Until that time I'd taken little interest in most comics. Meeting them I began to see how pictures and words could work together to make something creatively worthwhile.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about your collaborative process.
McCarthy: It varied wildly. Mainly, I would approach Pete with a good idea or character drawings, sometimes a worked-out storyline, and we would talk about the story more, who the characters were, what 'voice' it would be fun to write the script in. Sometimes it would be written in the style of Oscar Wilde, sometimes as a working-class British skinhead...whatever worked.
Pete would then pass me a script and I'd draw it, adding bits as I went along, which he would then add new written material to. It was a very loose approach. In the case of The Hollow Circus short story, I just asked Pete for a random chunk of writing and said I wanted do something psychologically unnerving with it visually...
Milligan: There was no one process. Often things would start with a drawing or idea from Brendan, and then we'd talk it through and over a period of time it'd grow and develop.
With Hollow Circus, I used a family story that haunted me as a kid, one of those anecdotes about a family member that would rarely be spoken of in front of the children. This became, if you like, transmuted through the agency of comic book writing and Brendan's haunting art style into something truly strange and, I think, moving.
Next: Our interview concludes as Milligan and McCarthy look back at Paradax, Skin and more.
The Best of Milligan and McCarthy is now available from Dark Horse.