Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #242: The Best of Milligan & McCarthy

Most books of comics privilege story: they collect an arc of Batman, or encapsulate a year of a webcomic, or present a brand-new graphic novel. That's the current model, born of comics' engagement with the book market over the last decade or so, and it works quite well: each volume is relatively accessible and is at least somewhat a thing in itself.

There's another model, though: of comics as art and the history of art, presenting a gallery of images and moments and ideas, hitting the high points without spending too much time mucking around with all of the fiddly bits that came in between. And it's not surprising that two ex-art school guys like Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy choose that other, now less common model to gather and celebrate the best work from their decade of collaboration in The Best of Milligan & McCarthy.

So you won't find a table of contents or an index here: Best of opens and closes with panels blown up to oversize-page size, signposting that this is a book primarily about eyeball kicks and isolated moments, ruthlessly culling all of the work that these two men did from 1983 to 1994 into about two hundred and fifty pages of heavily-designed art-comics, with each section smash-cutting into the next without half-titles or other book-design fripperies. It even disposes of page numbers the vast majority of the time, to let McCarthy's vibrantly bright and unsettlingly detailed images fill the reader's entire visual field.

It does collect a lot of Paradax and Freakwave pages, along with lesser-known Milligan-McCarthy work like The Electric Hoax (from UK music newspaper Sounds), and Summer of Love (another newspaper strip, from an unnamed UK Sunday paper), and Sooner or Later (from 2000 AD), but all of those are presented in pieces: some pages here and there, with notes about what happened in between and afterward. Freakwave in particular comes out badly battered by this; they include a lot of grotesquerie and atmosphere and random oddness, but don't have that leading anywhere, so it feels like a sequence of ideas in search of a plot.

Shorter works come out better -- both of the major Milligan-McCarthy one-shots, Skin and Rogan Gosh, are presented whole, as are a number of shorter stories including the only extant tale of Mirkin the Mystic, who they always intended to do more with. And all of the excerpts are well-chosen pages that showcase Milligan's philosopho-mystical dialogue and McCarthy's colorful near-anarchy.

Best of Milligan & McCarthy just might send some readers looking for a complete collection of Freakwave (which doesn't exist) or Paradax (I think this book has nearly all of the Paradax pages), but it's a big enough meal in itself: two hundred and fifty big pages from a fizzy, artistically exciting collaboration from the over-the-top Eighties. McCarthy left comics for the movies after this period -- and who can blame him? -- but fans of Milligan's later work might be interested to see what their man was doing before X-Statix, before Shade the Changing Man, before even (most of it) Skreemer.

This is a deeply idiosyncratic book from a deeply idiosyncratic comics team: this work was all very much of its time and place, and that time has been gone for two decades now. But The Best of Milligan & McCarthy drags those stories out of buried longboxes and shoves them back under our eyes -- and they're well worth the time and effort to remember or recreate that time and place.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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