Interview: Brendan McCarthy
"My own interest in comics has always been anti-filmic. I am very bored with cinematic 'film licks' as the main narrative techniques. That's alright if you want your comic to be easily assimilated by the film business."
I'm nicking a term being bandied about all too often in footballing circles these days, but to British comic fans of a certain age, Brendan McCarthy is a member of 2000AD's golden generation. If Mike McMahon is our Picasso, and Bolland our Magritte, then McCarthy is our Dali. Reading a new strip by McCarthy, you always knew you were going on a long, strange trip.
After years of television and movie production, he dramatically re-emerged in 2005 with his "visual autobiography" Swimini Purpose. It served as a vindication for his fans' years of patience – the book was a treasure trove, an opulent feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, the book was also a self-published limited edition, it sold out in two weeks, and is currently an elusive collector's item. Now DC Comics are about to publish Solo #12, which will be his first comic book work for nearly fifteen years. It is also the last issue of this acclaimed anthology. It hits the comic shops on August 30th in the U.S, and one day later this side of the pond.
So, Solo #12. How come? Did (series editor) Mark Chiarello just ask nicely, or were you actively pursuing a return to the field of comic books?
Mark Chiarello saw a copy of Swimini Purpose when DC expressed an interest in publishing it last year. He tracked me down via Scott Dunbier at Wildstorm, a longtime advocate of my work. Mark asked if I would be interested in doing an issue of Solo. I had reservations, mainly because I hadn't done any comics for nearly 15 years, and felt my 'art robot' mojo may be somewhat rusty... And also, with the Solo deal, DC Comics take all the rights of ownership... so I would have to be careful in what I created for them, other than in revamping their 'established brand' heroes. I held back a lot of new original stuff and that's why there's a bit more about DC characters in it than I would have naturally have produced. Frankly, I have very little interest in mainstream superheroes. Except Paradax! of course.
My initial pitch was for a humourous story on Dr. Manhattan's massive blue penis and balls from The Watchmen... I liked that when he became a giant, his privates also grew enormously huge. I wondered if it would now be OK to view The Martian Manhunter's green J'onn Thomas, for example... But this was a case of only highbrow 'arthouse' nudity being allowed ("Glenda Jackson's tits syndrome") and it was rejected straight away. So I was getting an education in getting to know the boundaries of what is permissible in a DC Comic these days...
Mark Chiarello was very patient! We finally agreed on a running order of material. So over the course of about 5 months, I produced 48 pages of Swimini Purpose type of content: Lots of weird 'one pagers' and a set of short stories. I do think I have ultimately been more influenced by the contents and layout of The Dandy and Topper comics I read as a child, with lots of little odd stories, rather than the one continuous story you get from the American comics.
You've been working with some outside writers for Solo #12 (including 2000AD regular Robbie Morrison, punk comedian Tom O'Connor, and animation stalwart Jono Howard). Anything nice to say about those guys?
Absolutely not! They are a disgrace to the human race. But, I always enjoy the process of collaborating with another new talent. Especially a writer who may not be too well known yet... Just looking for a 'new voice' with something else to say, keeps it all fresh. I like to give somebody an idea or outline, and then see what they come up with... and then rewrite it and pass it back and forth, like a 'creative writing' game of tennis. I always look for something original and new.
Has producing this issue of Solo seen any changes in your working practices? How do you work these days: traditionally to some extent, or have you gone all-digital, like your contemporary Brian Bolland?
I'm semi-digital, in that I still like to draw on paper first. Then I scan it in and add the effects, this time using the 'digidelic' skills of Howard Hallis. The artist Steve Cook also produced a photoreal graphic page, similar to his work on his great Alternity website.
I approached creating this Solo comic in a similar way to a musician producing a solo record. Employing other talented artists etc under my direction when needed. I used a lot of random digital processes, kind of like Eno or Hendrix in music, to give the artwork an 'electronic feedback' wash, particularly in the Johnny Sorrow strip. On other pages, I left it very 'organic' with no digital treatment at all. It just depends on the 'feel' of the story.
With the copyright deal Solo is created under, "Young Darwyn Cooke" and "Young Paul Pope" are theoretically now characters in the DC Universe. Do you foresee a future where Duke Hussy, Slider or The Lord of Nothing get drafted into the Justice League Of America?
I decided to bequeath these original characters to DC Comics, just to get them out there into the world and also, to introduce myself to a whole bunch of new readers — I would say I'm pretty unknown to most Americans. I'm usually very opposed to creating new characters for corporations with no ownership. And I'm sure DC won't really see their potential until someone else comes along, like a hip 'name' creator, and says, "I want to do that new version of The Flash, or Johnny Sorrow..." I think this final issue of Solo will be like the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, in that it is presenting a new approach and a bunch of new characters... I mean, it's obvious to me that even my short teaser "Paradaxed" version of The Flash is better than DC's own recent feeble relaunch.
Fifteen years between comics. That's longer than it takes Scott Walker to produce an album! How long until the next one, now you've broken your dry spell?
Well, I left comics to design the computer animated TV series Reboot, which at the time was a totally new artform. But CGI animation has sadly become very corporate and boring these days... it's just so expensive. Also, I had spent 10 years drawing comics, which means sitting indoors on your own for most of that time. I was bored and was in the mood to interact with other people, and I felt I had said what I had to say (in comics) with my writing partner, Pete Milligan. Image Comics were then starting to take over everywhere, and I realised that my 'era' as hot young turk in comics was probably over... But honestly, I was fed up with the whole scene anyway.
I got asked to write and design another sequel to my favourite movie ever, Mad Max 2, so I committed to that for two years in Sydney on Fury Road, and ended up doing another movie there as well. But this time it was my own creation, the surreal animation Fur Brigade. One thing just led to another, and there really was no great plan...
But, as the years have gone by, I have still been drawing and writing new material, which I think will be best produced in the comic book idiom. Getting stuff published with a decent deal is the hard bit... everyone wants all the film rights etc these days. The new Solo material is a reaction to recently moving to America: 'Governator' Arnold Schwarzenegger's preening machismo is satirised in the 'Brokeback Terminator' strip Duke Hussy... the thousands of homeless people laying around Los Angeles feature in The Lord of Nothing, and Clerks type slacker mallrats informed Slouch World (well, the first bit of it anyway).
My feelings about DC's silver age comics permeate the whole thing, especially evoking my teenage obsession with Saturn Girl. Somehow, there was something incredibly sexy about that bossy little blonde! They all wanted her, but nobody could have her! In the end, I just wanted to throw something new out to the comic-buying punter and see what kind of reaction I get... I'd like to think there may be some hip teenager in suburban Detroit or somewhere, who really gets it, and sees something a little bit different, and maybe, is inspired to create his own unique take on things.
This is nominally for a literary website, so, read any good books lately?
I tend to read non-fiction. So I've been reading lots of books on subjects I may want to create stories about in the future: I'm specifically interested in Advaita (non-duality, Zen "no-mind"), altered states, 'deep politics', dreaming, nano-technology, alternative technology, mythology etc.
And seeing how this is to promote a comic book, have you read any good comics lately?
Hmmmm... Although it's not my usual fare, I was pretty impressed with Mark Millar's Civil War... I think he's a really great commercial superhero writer. It's a very sharp, well-plotted comic and it moves along at a fair clip. WE3, Night Fisher and Eightball: Death Ray were all superb, although technically, they were all last year's offerings. And I thought Darwyn Cooke's issue of Solo was the best so far... He deserved his Eisner award.
Any news on getting Swimini Purpose published more widely? I've pretty much came to the conclusion that it should be distributed freely on a global scale anyway, like Gideon's Bibles.
It would be a great idea for Swimini Purpose to be widely available in Trust House Forte motels and Holiday Inns, worldwide... I have followed up leads on getting Swimini Purpose published, but all have been dead ends so far. So treasure your copy, if you have one - any new version will probably be a different kind of book, with some different artwork and text etc.
I'm amazed that DC/Vertigo doesn't package up their material by Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis and Pete Milligan in a designer Swimini Purpose style series for the indie book trade readership. A 'best of' type collection for the college hipster Fantagraphics audience. I should edit and design them of course...
Thumbing through Swimini Purpose, the comic creator Steve Ditko is referenced as an influence upon your work. Anyone else you could have mentioned? Brits, Europeans, Americans?
Uh, here's a top ten, in no particular order: Steranko, Liberatore, Alfred Bestall, Curt Swan, Ditko, Jamie Hewlett, classic Red Nails Barry Smith, Moebius, early Brett Ewins, Will Eisner's Spirit... God, there's loads more...
There are so many wonderful artists out there. Robert Crumb is the greatest artist of all, I think. And let's not forget Daniel Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, Frank Hampson, Mike McMahon, Royer-inked Kirby, Infantino, Basil Wolverton, Wrightson, Lou Fine, Bernet, Joe Kubert, Corben, Frank Quitely... Good God, the list is infinite, darrrhling.
I always think of all you Strange Days guys as being ahead of the loop in the 1980s, with a lot of references to music, and rock culture in your work back then. For a brief shining moment, I thought comics would team up with rock’n’roll to take over the world...
My own interest in comics has always been anti-filmic. I am very bored with cinematic 'film licks' as the main narrative techniques. That's alright if you want your comic to be easily assimilated by the film business. I've always loved music more than films anyway. Is it possible for the comics form to produce a classic like Revolver or OK Computer, rather than a version of some great movie? The relationship of lyrics to music seems to me to bear more original fruit than that of script to celluloid. And also, I love fine art and find the endless variety of styles in the history of painting to be really exciting, compared to the stylistic monoculture of most American (and increasingly, European) comics. I have explored this a bit in my issue of Solo. It's all like one 'musical piece', rather than just a random collection of short stories.
It's a long time since Rogan Gosh, your East Indian themed comic, came out. Now we're just seeing the launch of Deepak Chopra's Indian comics line with Virgin, and then there was Vinamarama from Vertigo recently too...
I always felt that Indian comics would one day catch on... But it's a pity that they're just aping western superhero crap. It's weird, we could put out Rogan Gosh now and it would still be ahead of the pack... Rogan Gosh was created over twenty years ago, although Pete Milligan and I didn't get round to doing it until a few years later. I think the legal bullshit with Skin put us off somewhat.
Seen any good movies lately? I'm guessing seeing a big event movie like Pirates of the Caribbean 2 would leave you thinking, "Ooh, look at the conceptual artwork on that," and little else.
The big problem with those kinds of movies is that they are generally so poorly written that in the end, the production design is all you're looking at. I have found most of those new 'tentpole' movies to be completely flabby and a real chore to sit through... I thought Superman Returns was deeply tedious.
The most interesting thing about Superman for me was that they couldn't bring themselves to actually say "... and the American Way." Because it now stands for torture, war, brutality and stupidity. Not Truth, nor Justice. It's significant, because it feels like his era has passed...
The problem with a character like Superman is that he could impose world peace in a day if he wanted to. So why doesn't he do it? That's why the (very beautiful) All Star Superman comic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is essentially, nostalgic.
And along those lines, how's life in Hollywood? All unremitting glamour, or too damned hot and no Marmite?
Please understand that Hollywood is just an imaginary place of "glamour", a dream state created by some very disturbed and sociopathic people over the years. That's why it's full of lawyers! I am here to see if I can sell some film projects I've created. That's all. It's just an "industry town" and instead of cars, they make films. Because of the big money and 'prestige', it also attracts lots of insane and insecure people. Otherwise, apart from the pleasant weather, Hollywood itself has little to offer. But Los Angeles has its own art and music scene with a big Latino influence, which I find pretty interesting. And, to be fair, being here has inspired my new mega-pitch: Hollywood Blandroid.
And in closing, what are your thoughts on the current state of the comics industry at the moment?
I have to say, I feel like producing some good new British comics work. Isn't it astonishing that there is no decent comic platform in the UK, other than dear old 2000AD, which has, it seems, become a promotional tool for the games industry and it's lost its former cultural relevance.
Just think about the sheer talent located in the UK... Imagine a UK produced monthly comic, with a good rights deal, with creator-owned stories that could be reprinted in the USA or Europe, made into movies, games, etc, from people like Alan Moore, John Wagner, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman... and drawn by say, Kev O'Neill, Frank Quitely, Bryan Hitch, Jamie Hewlett, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Shakey Kane, just to name a random bunch of outstanding talents. What an amazing outlet that would be.... It's something I'd like to try and get together at some point, maybe as an editor, but definitely as a contributor.
So, keep an eye out for Solo #12, due out at the end of August.
Brendan McCarthy was interviewed by Mark Cardwell.