The Best of Milligan & McCarthy: A Review by Rob Pickering
We welcome Rob Pickering as our first “Guest Writer.” Check out his great review of The Best of Milligan & McCarthy written by Peter Milligan, art by Brendan McCarthy.
The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is not a terrible compilation CD of an obscure yesteryear folk rock duo, full of Casio beats, ideal for fireside romancing. Instead, it is one of the most significant graphic novels published in 2013. Some time ago—or “back in the day,” if you absolutely must hear that phrase again—novels featuring Kurt Vonnegut’s literary alter ego Kilgore Trout obfuscated the lines between literary storytelling and science-fiction. Similarly, writer Peter Milligan and artist Brendan McCarthy’s long-term working relationship produced a body of work that successfully married postmodernism with comic books. Collected in this volume, published by Dark Horse Books, are the strange, sometime bastard brainchildren of these two British imaginations. The collaborators’ ideas work harmoniously and in distinctive ways, very Zen.
Brendan McCarthy’s art makes every page look like a flyer for a punk concert. Even in comic book narrative, an image can “tell” its viewer rather than “show”; one panel depicts a tight close up on the face of Drifter, the protagonist of “Freakwave.” The caption tells the reader that he is in the bowels of Captain Roaring’s ship, “The Red Herring,” and there are some visual clues to support this, but when the perspective pulls out in the next panel, one sees the dark and expansive corridor he has found himself in, and so is shown the immensity of what lies before him. McCarthy’s experience as a graphic designer for television shows here, as no panel is wasted, and every image is extremely kinetic, moving the eyes forward even as they struggle to take in at once all of the details of his lavishly painted art. They are an excellent complement to Milligan’s storytelling.
Peter Milligan is not given to writing cliché stories of spandex clad heroes fighting the forces of evil. For example, “Rogan Gosh” is a semi-autobiographical Vedic science-fiction, the adventures of the titular hero, a “karmanaut,” used as the vehicle to explore shared spaces, both figurative and real. The juxtaposition of multiple voices here can be challenging to follow, but the pay-off is well worth patience. “Paradax” is probably as close to a traditional superhero story as the contents of this book comes, but the hero, Al Cooper, cannot be confined to the archetypes typical to that genre. After an enigmatic fare leaves a costume in his taxi, Cooper realizes that with great power, comes great celebrity status. “Freakwave” can best be described as a post-apocalyptic surfing story, but like all of the tales herein, is more profound than its superficial appearance. The stories “Electric Hoax,” “Skin,” “The Hollow Circus,” and “Mirkin the Mystic” are also included.
These are not stories intended for children or for the thirty-something-year-old fanboys worrying their lips in anticipation of the next Avengers movie. The collected comics were all originally printed in the 80s, but this book is not a fixed point in time. This is a travelogue for narrative possibilities. Peter Milligan uses postmodern storytelling as a means of defamiliarizing readers from both the comic book medium, as well as from science-fiction and more explicit forms of satire, and McCarthy’s art brings every idea to life. The Best of Milligan & McCarthy challenges notions that the graphic novel medium cannot deliver in terms of narrative sophistication. Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god herein depicted with a bowler derby, reminds us, “What lies behind you and what lies before you is of little consequence to what lies within you.” This is indelible advice for approaching the stories contained in The Best of Milligan & McCarthy.