‘The Best of Milligan & McCarthy:’ Advance Hardcover Review

Prepare yourself for a bizarre, intellectual, violent, comical, absurd, and surreal trip into the eighties and nineties' burgeoning mindscape of two comics revolutionaries in Dark Horse’s hardcover collection The Best of Milligan & McCarthy.  Those initial adjectives only scratch the surface of the enigmatic creativity, subversive chicanery, and working-class empathy that are found in the early work of writer Peter Milligan and artist Brendan McCarthy.  Both Brits, their writing, story, and art styles combine to create many a comic the likes of which I had never experienced before.  For me, the closest I had come to this kind of cerebral complexity and aloofness in structure was in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, and so this was a trip into the unknown for me, a step off a cliff into sheer, unadulterated imagination and artistic freedom.  At over 200 pages, I was sucked into the mind-bending, heady world of Milligan and McCarthy’s creations, living amongst the pages of these concepts, characters, and comics from the early eighties and nineties, and my mind was blown open more than once, both by the creators’ innate grasp of surrealism and absurdity, and the pure versatility in their abilities.

This book is a veritable smorgasbord of ideas, some insane, some ahead of their time, some almost packing more emotional intensity than you can handle, and all stemming from the minds of Milligan and McCarthy.  Many of the works here appeared in British comics anthologies, including the well-known and highly regarded 2000 AD, and Milligan and McCarthy even ended up creating their own series entitled Strange Days that acted as a framework for them to exhibit a plethora of unusual and exciting stories and characters. The book runs the gamut from comic strips, one-shots, one-page concepts and pin-ups to serialized stories and anthologies, and spans almost two decades.  One of the greatest aspects of this collection is the running commentary by both Milligan and McCarthy, which creates a timeline of their work as they go into detail about what was happening when they created a specific title, or what influenced them at different times, or why a story turned out the way it did, or even came into being in the first place.   

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not discuss the stories, or at least a handful of them, as the book contains more titles than I can cover here, so here is a sampling of some of my favorite titles from Milligan and McCarthy’s oeuvre.  Paradax is the story of an everyday schlub who becomes a superhero, only to remain an everyday schlub, but now with the opportunity to cash in on helping people and saving the world . . . and also with getting himself killed.  Paradax is filled with sex and mayhem and turns the super-serious style of superhero storytelling of the eighties on its ear, with rude and enjoyable results.  Freakwave initially started as a back-page strip in the anthology series Vanguard Illustrated, where it was a kind of Mad Max on the water, with a surfing protagonist known only as The Drifter.  Once it became part of Strange Days though, the comic underwent a total creative shift and involved gigantic, mechanical floating head ships, mutant oracles, and Tibetan mythology, all with an eighties punk aesthetic.  The art of the floating heads alone is astounding as there is so much detail poured into them that they capture your gaze, and the absolute bizarreness of the world that Milligan and McCarthy create just grabs your brain and won’t let go.   

Rogan Gosh is a tandoori-fired fever dream full of Indian mysticism and imagery, which the creators themselves say is not worth trying to explain, because it is unexplainable – you simply have to read it to believe it. The dreamscapes are mind-altering, detailed visions that expand the limits on what you thought comics were capable of, and then blow those visions apart and reconstruct them anew, again and again, and you feel as if you are caught inside a lucid dream. And, even if you don’t understand Rogan Gosh, there is no denying the comic is a feat of intricate, stream-of-consciousness-style storytelling and remarkable, fluid artwork, which changes numerous times throughout the elaborate story.  Finally, there’s Skin, the disconcerting and unvarnished look at a young boy with Thalidomide, a real condition that leaves the arms undeveloped, growing the length of a seal’s fins.  And, he also happens to be a skinhead.  This is an emotionally intense and raw story, and the art style matches the brutality of the main character’s life.  Milligan and McCarthy talk about how long it took them to get distribution for Skin due to the visceral and unflinching look at its subject matter, and it is true that the story is not for the faint of heart, as it deals with the real world of skinheads and, therefore, has a more cavalier and frank view of sex and violence.  But, the motivations behind its main character and the rough voice of the unknown narrator are powerful and immensely sad and moving.  Skin relates a troubled tale that is very important as it sheds light on an often-ignored issue, especially during the seventies and eighties, and relays the reality of that issue and the life of a skinhead in all its grim harshness.       
The colors in most of Milligan and McCarthy’s work explodes off the page, especially in Rogan Gosh and Freakwave, and Skin has its own muted, somehow disturbing or off-putting color palette that is perfectly in line with the dark, tragic tone of the comic.  The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is more than simply a collection of unique and groundbreaking stories, it is a living, breathing time capsule, narrated by the men from whose imaginations sprung all that you see.  And, it is also an experience, and one you won’t soon forget.  It is possible that not everything in this book will be for you, but if you enjoy groundbreaking ideas, taking a sledgehammer to creative barriers, and smashing pre-conceived notions into tiny little bits, then inject yourself directly into the imagination of Milligan and McCarthy.  Once you pick up this book, hold on for dear life, because these guys are going to take your mind to totally new planes of reality, unreality, and to the limits of true creative excess and excellence.      

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