Our two-part interview with Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy on their new retrospective hardcover from Dark Horse, The Best of Milligan and McCarthy, concludes today [read part 1 here ]. In this installment, the creators talk about some of their most controversial works, what’s coming up for them, and why you shouldn’t assume their reality-warping tales are drug-induced.
Newsarama: Peter, Brendan – I’d like to get a few thoughts from you on some of the different stories reprinted in the hardcover. First up: Paradax. This one still has quite the cult, and there was talk of an animated pitch a few years ago. I understand it's a mutual favorite of yours; what does it mean to your personally?
Brendan McCarthy: At the time when Paradax was thought up, the only superhero comic character in the UK worth mentioning (other than Marvel’s standard fare Captain Britain/Union Jack) was Alan Moore's Marvelman. It was pretty good and all that, but... I just wasn't a huge fan of it and it wasn't what I wanted to look at. I thought something totally new should exist...
Hence Paradax, aka Al Cooper... He was a character that I liked a great deal because he was an ordinary guy, like someone who lived in your street who had just won the lottery and had turned into a bit of an ego-centric dickhead. Al Cooper liked drinking, f**king, smoking pot and making money and the last thing on his mind was bashing up supervillains. Or being bashed up by them.
A slacker who doesn't give a fuck is now a superhero? Well, that seemed an interesting place to start from, and quite different in its basic attitude from Marvelman. Obviously, as time has passed other creators have milked this, and there was a period when you couldn't move for superhero media-brats in jackets avoiding the paparazzi.
We really didn't do much Paradax material... Once I had “said” it, I wanted to move on to the next thing with Pete. I see Paradax as a great introductory 'pop single' comic that culturally announced that we were here... A bit like “This Charming Man: ” Bright, breezy and utterly essential. The single is the statement.
Peter Milligan: I won't go into where Paradax stands in relation to other comic books, I think we've spoken about this elsewhere and Brendan pretty much covers it in his answer. But on a personal, gut level I was a little surprised re-reading the tale of Al Cooper and his peculiar yellow suit after all these years.
I was surprised how much I liked Al and his sexy girlfriend, Kopper. I loved the way they couldn't keep their hands off of each other. There's an innocence to the strip that I don't quite remember trying to achieve when I wrote it.
After all these years, during which we've had the game-changing pyrotechnics of Watchman, the deconstructions of X-Statix and the continuity-busting antics of DC's 52, Paradax still seems vital and fresh. And I think its secret is, it doesn't seem to try too hard. It has a real whiff of young carefree sex about it. And, just like young carefree sex, it leaves you wanting more.
Nrama: All right, so let's get to the matter of Skin. It was years ago and I'd just moved back in with my parents after school and we were all at a used bookstore and I found a copy and my mom took one look at the cover and said, “That is not going into my house.”
And that should pretty much describe the reaction any number of people have had to the book over the years. It's been out of print for so long that I have to ask how it feels to have it reprinted, how that tale came about, and what you've made of people's reactions to it over the years.
McCarthy: I had this story about a thalidomide skinhead rattling about in my head for years and told it to Pete, who promptly wrote one of his single best scripts... and probably the best script I've ever been given to draw in comics.
We wanted something that was simple in plot, but searing in emotional impact. We've always talked about what pieces of music a strip should resemble and what 'feel' a strip should have before we worked on them, so we would be in sync as to the tone of the piece.
Skin is a very unique achievement in British comics, an absolute gem covered in muck. Crude and awkward, and (seemingly) s**tily drawn and offensively written – it was everything the new aspirational comics shouldn't be.
Comics were being “gentrified” as the last piece of cultural real estate to be moved in on by that nice, well-behaved “graphic novelist” crowd, so I wanted there to be one, last, obstinate mad bastard who wouldn't capitulate and sell up. That's how I came to see Skin and its main protagonist, the thalidomide Martin Atchet.
Anyway, the first publisher got scared and bailed on us and we got passed around for years until Kevin Eastman, laden with loads of Teenage Mutant Ninja cash, God bless him, decided he'd do what all the other spineless poseurs wouldn't. It'll be great to see it back out again. It's a great, troublesome story.
Milligan: It's interesting and telling, the reaction your mother had to the book. Not wishing to make your mum out to be some benchmark for evil and bigotry, but her reaction to the book was pretty much people's reaction to those “Thalidomide Babies.”
This is what Brendan and I set out to achieve: we wanted our book to have a kind of ill-formed quality: A little monster of a book about a little monster. How Martin Atchett reacted to his disability wasn't how comic book characters were supposed to react. They were meant to overcome their disabilities, and their struggle was meant in some way to ennoble us.
Instead Skin presents this little working class f**ker trying to get his hand into a well-meaning girl's knickers. I think the first group who really took offense at the book were the printers working on the anthology Crisis, where Skin was meant to first appear. The printers were offended by Skin and refused to print it. They weren't offended by the barely legal topless teens and the lurid tales of rape and murder that was the common fare of the Red Tops they printed, but Skin outraged their sensitivities.
Draw your own conclusions about the moral priorities of the country. I'm glad to say that Skin still has the power to shock. I can still imagine some otherwise sweet mother (or printer) refusing to have it in her house.
Nrama: In defense of my mom, I think it was the sex and violence, not the physical deformity, that turned her off. Anyway, I want to talk about Rogan Gosh, which is regarded as some of the best work by both of you. How did this one come about, and why do you feel it's maintained its following over the years?
McCarthy: I don't agree that it's our best work... some people have said it and now it's become a kind of default received opinion. My personal favorite is pretty much the entire body of our work as presented in this edition. To me, it's all of one piece, with different facets.
That's not to say that Rogan Gosh isn't a strong story. We did it after Skin – and after the raw simplicity of Skin, we wanted to do something that was more like a tapestry, strands interweaving, different story threads dancing through each other, like an opium dream.
Rogan Gosh has got the feel of ‘Within You, Without You” from Sgt. Pepper... Quite spacey, and the story wanders about a bit. I think it has the best account of an ‘enlightenment’ or spiritual awakening experience ever presented in a comic book. It gets across what it’s like.
Milligan: It's hard to say if it's the best or not. How do you compare the complex labyrinthine non-realities of Rogan Gosh to the all too real brutality of Skin? However I think the reason it's often regarded as our best work is that its complexity means it really does stand the test of time. It's a story that can be read many times, and its dreamlike quality means its open to many interpretations.
Nrama: Have you plans to collaborate on something new, and if so, what can you tell us about it?
McCarthy: No, we don't have any plans, and so I can't tell you about it...
Milligan: No. Not at the moment. I feel that when the time and the story is right we might be moved to lock horns again.
Nrama: I’ll be blunt: What sort of narcotics do you recommend to young writers and artists if they wish to attempt to try to maybe possibly capture your creative mindset?
McCarthy: I've never taken a narcotic in my life. Drugs can of course be useful, but invariably exact a price... If you're a talentless idiot and you create something on a drug, it'll likely be completely worthless drivel. But The Beatles went from “She Loves You” to “A Day in the Life” within four years... and pot and psychedelics are obviously a big factor.
Imagination is the key to creativity. It is a boundless and infinite faculty in a human being. If you allow yourself to be curtailed and too programmed by the prevailing ethos you will never be original. And that to me, is the most exciting element of all creativity.
I love seeing or reading something I hadn't thought of before. I have great trust that somewhere out there are new creative people who are going to revolutionize the culture once again. They'll come out of nowhere and tap us all on the shoulder...
Milligan: I don't think they're helpful, really. Certainly not while actually creating, and of all the pieces of advice you might give a young writer and artist what narcotics to use would come way down the list.
Nrama: What are some current books and creators you're enjoying?
McCarthy: I'm re-reading all of Tony Millionaire's Sock Monkey, which I think is an absolute classic. Thankfully, there is a new collection of all the material, including the picture books, due out later this year. I will be making sure I have a copy. I truly adore that strip.
I have been really enjoying some of the later work of Jack Kirby like Silver Star and seeing a lot of his unpublished photo-collages online. I continually look at Dr. Strange by Ditko, as the strip never fails to reveal new elements to me. I have had a correspondence with Mr. Ditko for quite a while now, and that has been wonderful. What a great, uncompromising soul.
Milligan: When I'm writing comics I tend only to read what's necessary. Other that that I'm working through the many insanities of The Steve Ditko Omnibus.
Nrama: What's next for both of you?
McCarthy: At the moment, I'm working on a new strip called The Deleted for Dark Horse, exploring some new ideas about consciousness and AI in the digital realm. I live out in the wild west of Ireland these days and the deep ancestral history of the place encroaches into my imagination and dream life, and new stories have started to germinate.
All creative people know when they're pregnant, when something is stirring in the deeper recesses of the mind. You have to give ideas “baking time,” to coalesce into a strong story idea.
Also, I'm looking forward to seeing the finished results on Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that I co-wrote and designed many years ago. It's out in 2014 I believe. I was a massive fan of those films and it was a great pleasure to work with the series' original director George Miller on creating a brand new installment from scratch.
I'm going to be very interested in seeing how it turns out with the new cast and designs, etc. We originally wrote it with Mel Gibson in the title role – so it's been a long time coming.
Milligan: I'm working on a new creator-owned series for Vertigo called The Discipline. Also working towards something with Valiant Comics. On top of this I have created a new series for Dynamite, called Terminal Hero.
I'm also working on a few non-comic book projects. I don't really like discussing these until they're more real.
The Best of Milligan and McCarthy is now available from Dark Horse Comics.