The McCarthy Paradox


Monday, January 21, 2008

Readers of Comics Comics may know (but more likely don’t) that Frank and I share a fondness for the British cartoonist Brendan McCarthy. Frank reviewed his book, Swimini Purpose, in our first issue. I only knew a little bit about him, but Frank knew and knows a lot, and has shared much. Anyhow, I like McCarthy for some of the same reasons I like Steve Ditko — he combines a nuts-and-bolts drawing ability with a genuinely eccentric vision of human distortion and psychedelia. When he draws astral planes they seem solid, constructed and utterly believable. He doesn’t dabble in flat-planed, cartoony, Peter Max-ian psychedelia (a type I love) but instead sets out to make a “realistic” psych-world. Just like Ditko. That made him the perfect cover artist for Peter Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man and a wonderfully off-kilter realizer of mainstream visions. It also, like Ditko, left him without a good match for his abilities. One needs a special kind of writer (like Milligan or some of the 2000 A.D.) guys to capitalize on those kind of abilities: sci-fi, surreal, and a bit silly. Perfectly British. Like that other great stylist, Steranko, one gets the feeling from reading the occasional interview and his previous web site, that lately McCarthy believes his own hype a bit too much and, as of late is proudly (and depressingly) doing storyboards and the odd comic book cover, as well as a disappointing issue of SOLO. Without strong content the stuff kinda turns to mush (like the drawing above). Remember The Stone Roses second record? It’s like that. So much talent, but not entirely sure how to use it. Anyhow, he has started a blog, and it’s a good way to keep up with his evolving vision. I hope he’ll hunker down, tighten up, and make something worthy of his talents. Presumptuously enough, I have my fingers crossed. It’s a fan’s lament, and not really fair (because who I am to have unrealistic expectations?), but isn’t that what fans are for?

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33 Responses to “The McCarthy Paradox”
  1. Anonymous says:

    “…lately McCarthy believes his own hype a bit too much and, as of late is proudly (and depressingly) doing storyboards and the odd comic book cover, as well as a disappointing issue of SOLO.”

    Another sacred cow tipped. Thank you Comics Comics.

  2. Frank Santoro says:


    DAN!! WTF?!
    there goes my interview!

  3. Brian says:

    I thought that issue of Solo was better than half of the extant McCarthy stuff, (Skin, Freakwave, the recolored Strange Days strips that made up the second issue of Paradax) as well as being better than anything else to come out the same year.

  4. Brian says:

    Or, to go further than just stating an opinion: I get the idea that the way he’s loosened up, without a writer guiding him, could be disappointing, but I think he’s found, in that issue, and in the drawing you post, this sort of unhinged collage aesthetic that goes further, beyond what was in Rogan Gosh.

    It’s kind of the same stylistic evolution made by Marc Bell, but I think McCarthy has a better line and color sense, in addition to what strike me as a more interesting set of concerns.

  5. Frank Santoro says:

    OK OK before this devolves into a cage match, I’ll come to McCarthy’s defense and agree with Brian. He is better, essentially, than anyone out there, and that issue of SOLO was better than just about anything else on the stands that summer. BUT –Dan has a point when he compares McCarthy to Steranko. Think about it. The transistions, the tendency to make every page into a pin up.

    Where’s McCarthy’s basic storytelling skills even in his most “straight forward” work? unlike Shaky Kane or even any of the other Deadline guys he’s the most free, open of the lot, the most painterly, yet he’s also the least accomplished storyteller in the traditional sense. Paradax IS solid but it has very little page turning “Kirby” flow… In Rogan Gosh– there’s nothing undergirding the free drawing, very little structure. Like your favorite rapper who has the same cadence in his rhymes song after song, McCarthy seems to pre-occupied with hitting the same bank shot every rush. It becomes predictable. The flow, the vibe never assembles into a collage of “reality” like Shaky Kane or even Sienkiewicz to use an American equivalent.

    Thats all I gotta say tho, I still LOVE his work. Dan’s just egging him on…

  6. Marc Arsenault says:

    There’s an undeniable sense of loss and disappointment at what could have been with McCarthy that goes back to the short live’s of Strange Days and Freakwave. Well, for me anyway. I think the next thing I saw was Skin when it came in to Tundra, with all its awkward hype copy about the rejected tale of the skinhead thalidomide baby. The general reaction was something like ‘what the hell is this?’. His early stuff really spoke to a wish for what (english language) comics could be and so rarely are in their realization.

    His Solo was half pretty great… but yeah…

  7. Dan Nadel says:

    Oh man, well, here’s the thing: Rogan Gosh is brilliant. So is Skin. And I love Paradax… I just want more of an evolution, and less playing the same riff. I think he’s GREAT. But just not as great as I want him to be. Solo was, indeed, better than lots of other stuff, but still not even close to as good as Rogan Gosh. I think he falls into too many “money shot” traps and also some seriously loopy/lazy digital FX stuff. Frank, you should still interview him. He’s a great one, but even great ones aren’t perfect. Not even Steranko.

  8. Dan Nadel says:

    And, actually, Brian, what do you think his concerns are? That’s a cool way of putting it. I think he’s really interesting and the Bell comparison is fascinating and unexpected. Anyhow, for my own edification, what kinda concerns?

  9. Jog says:

    Aaah, my requested cage match slowly manifests… and fast too! Where are you, Tim?

    I recently got hold of a copy of McCarthy’s and Brett Ewins’ 1977 Sometime Stories… I think it was their first published work in comics? Anyway, I thought McCarthy’s narrative flow was very strong among his solo stories in there, in the ‘guiding the eye’ sense… the late ’70s 2000 AD work I’ve seen of his (mostly A.B.C. Warriors stuff) is pretty solid in that area too, if visually busy… then again, I thought the storytelling in Rogan Gosh was pretty clean in the action-oriented realities, and the less grounded bits were essentially part of the narrative…

  10. Brian says:

    Let me begin by saying that when I said “concerns,” I was mostly referring to visual influences. Partly this is because so much of McCarthy’s work has been collaborative, and mostly with Peter Milligan, who has a wider body of work and his own set of themes.

    However: I do think McCarthy is concerned with issues of masculinity, femininity, and gender. This is present in the Duke Hussy stuff in Solo, the sexuality in Rogan Gosh most evidently, but also in things like the conclusion of the Vanguard Illustrated Freakwave strips, where the characters of Milligan and McCarthy are seen talking. Milligan talks about Borges, whereas McCarthy talks about one of the main characters growing breasts. McCarthy also supposedly cocreated the Danny The Street character in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. These are issues of queerness, essentially. (Did you read the piece, at the Gay Utopia site, about 1920s animation, that ended with an embed of an excerpt of Amy Lockhart’s Walk For Walk? Tom Spurgeon linked to it the other day.)

    There’s also the way the images from popular iconography sort of embed themselves in our subconscious and then get claimed by us- this is most evident in the Solo issue because of all the DC characters he has access to, but it’s also evident in things like the JFK head island and Mickey Death in Freakwave.

    There’s a mutable reality established primarily via drawing. I think he goes back to the root source, dream logic, rather than stopping at its descendant, cartoon logic, and it’s all the more powerful for it.

    And you know, I was talking about concerns in comparison to Marc Bell, who you love, but who I see as mostly dealing with these Bud Fisher/Fleischer cartoons aesthetics and layering them on top of each other, but still mostly just working on the same level of cartoon character dynamics underpinning them, rather than having thematic depth beyond that.

    McCarthy’s visual influences I was thinking of- Ditko and Yellow Submarine, to name the most obvious ones- grant access to a) a color palette that I think is interesting and pleasant as well as b) cultural forces important to the people growing up at the same time as him, rather than things found through nostalgia.

  11. Brian says:

    Geez, Jog, that’s quite the find. Do you have that issue of A1 with the photocollage stuff he did with Milligan that I only have a few odd pages of scans of?

  12. Jog says:

    Yep, I’ve got that too. A1 shouldn’t be too hard to track down from the usual online back issue suspects… Last Gasp is the one with the Sometime Stories cache, btw. They had one of “Grant T. Morrison”‘s writer/artist outings from Near Myths too… excellent prices, although their shipping charge is pretty high…

  13. Frank Santoro says:

    well said Brian! The context, I mean. The same can be said about Shaky Kane reflecting the “sampling” that was going on around him.

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    Paradax & Rogan Gosh were solid –and the abstractions were part of the narrative like Jog says.

    Dammit, Dan –you got me all worked up. Jog’s gonna get that match one way or another.

  15. T Hodler says:

    Hey, nothing is stopping us from writing or arguing about comics outside the cage. But we can put McCarthy on the poll next time around, if you don’t get it out of your systems before then.

    P.S. Despite high points here and there, I found all the issues of SOLO disappointing.

  16. Frank Santoro says:

    Mccarthy just makes it so hard for me to champion him when he says dumb shit like this (below)

    from his blog:
    Brendan: “I recently pitched DC Comics a new Batman spin-off series, a kind of twisted ‘Larry David’ satirical take on the comics’ industry and superheroism in general. Apparently, Dan DiDio loved it, but Paul Levitz, not so much! The Bat-franchise must be kept ‘unpolluted’ from some indolent slacker’s morbidly morbid view of the world”.

    Make your own NEW original work and put it out B, don’t pull a “Toth” on us!

    ” don’t pull a Toth” means: don’t be the most talented man in the room and not have a single contained, original, perfect work from the apex period of ability

  17. JahFurry says:

    Pull a Toth, nice…
    i LOVED the SOLO, mostly eyecandy yes, but as far as that goes.. yeah was abstract without much narrative flow but it was an exquisite, stimulating, spunky, badass psychedelic “something”
    the other solo that was about as badass was Paul Pope’s … some tasty chunks in that

  18. Marc Arsenault says:

    SOLO was a cool breath of fresh air that should have continued. I’d say they were at least half pretty cool, sometimes great. Certainly not a curate’s egg, Tim. Pope, Aragones, c’mon… Wonder Girl doing the batusi?! What were your expectations of such a thing? We all like to get the chance to play around in the corporate toy chest. There’re reasons we like(d) these old characters and stories. So, what’s the scoop? All the issues of solo were disappointing, why? That really does speak more to you than it. What did you think of the Coober Skeeber Marvel benefit issue or those Bizarro books that DC did?

  19. Anonymous says:

    how does tom devlin feel about that dc bizarro book?

  20. T Hodler says:

    Hey Marc —

    It’s cool if we disagree, but I think you kind of picked the perfect phrase — curate’s egg is dead on (IMO). (By the way, I never knew that phrase actually came from an old Punch cartoon until I just looked it up on Wikipedia — funny.)

    But still, I should have said “all the issues of SOLO that I have read“, because I did skip a few, including the Paul Pope one you mention. And even including the ones I did read, I liked the Sergio Aragones one. I didn’t love it, but it was fun. So I may have overstated the case.

    Still, all and all, as I said, despite a few high points, for the most part each issue was ruined for me by the inclusion of mostly lackluster stories, and the overriding feeling that the contents were diluted by editorial control. Nothing felt at all anarchic or unplanned to me — instead, the vibe was constantly one of corporate comfort. I definitely like the IDEA of SOLO, but it didn’t seem to come off to me. Though of course, your mileage may vary, and like I said, I missed the Pope issue and a few others, which might have changed my mind.

    Also, since you asked: Coober Skeeber: fun. Bizarro: not fun.

    I really do agree that there’s nothing that makes it inherently impossible for a cartoonist to create another good Batman story, but at the same time, I think that DC has a vested interest in letting it happen very rarely. (Good stories don’t always lend themselves to long-term toy sales, at least from the short-term perspective of bottom-line businessmen.) But maybe I’ll pick up the Paul Pope issue and be amazed. I’m willing to be won over.

  21. Brian says:

    For what it’s worth, Tim, when you said Solo was disappointing in general, I was with you completely. The Paul Pope issue felt as slight as most of the others, not really playing to what I consider the artist’s strengths, after an extended period of time without new work. (I also didn’t read all of them, although I do think I missed some things I would’ve liked.)

  22. Marc Arsenault says:

    Thanks, Tim.

    It’s an odd quantity, that Solo. Like a lot of other sorta similar attempts I do actually wish there’d been more of it. The sandbox of established comics can be quite fun when not tied to things like continuity, or other strategies.

    You mention the Batman. He really deserves some special mention somewhere, because he may be unique in superguy comics for just never being overly f***ed with in his normal run (are there comics other that Detective that have run so long without a break?). I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I’ve thought about this way too much lately, but he’s mostly immune to ground zero’s and ret-conning unlike the way most every other Marvel or DC characters have been.

    Riffing sortof off what you said, it’s the stuff that flies under the radar and takes these things somewhere else that often excites, because it is out of the corporate game plan and is allowed to happen, to fill the schedule, that makes this whole dialogue happen anyway.

  23. Jahfurry says:

    Speaking of SOLO, and Batman, and PP again, I thought the Robin story in Paul Pope’s SOLO was charming with a nuttyass Joker, and also what does this peanut gallery make of Year 100, those crazyteeth, mexicanwrestler boots, bad bike, although not a revolution, surely an injection of magic sparkle and a lil rocknroll ooomph, though diluted by the machine i’m sure … and re: mccarthy, just pulled out my old strange days, FREAKWAVE is insane, those glorious heads…. re: swimini, maybe picturebox should publish in US 🙂

  24. T Hodler says:

    Thanks, guys. Marc, I’m not entirely sure about your Batman theory in general, but have you seen Josh Simmons’s Batman story? It’s definitely one to check out.

  25. Anonymous says:

    look at mccarthy’s comments on his blog, i bet that bearded guy with the picture attached to his name is going to be brendan’s ed mcmahon for the duration…

  26. Heidi M. says:


    No one should be a Toth. Steve Rude was once warned that he was going to become Alex Toth. He responded with THE MOTH.

    Perhaps not all great artists are great writers or even conceptualists.

  27. Frank Santoro says:

    true enough.
    Toth. The Moth. I still LOOK at’em tho’. lol

  28. Marc Arsenault says:

    Anyone else notice that Paul Pope just posted a page from his Solo book to his blog? Hmmmm.

  29. Frank Santoro says:

    I hope DC wisely lets him do his take on OMAC. Seriously. What, you didn’t like that OMAC story in PP’s SOLO?

    related riff: The best part of that story is at San Diego, Jon Vermilyea (who had never seen Omac, saw PP’s SOLO), asked me about the character and I pointed out some dollar bins that had the famous first issue of Kirby’s Omac (with that crazy cover) and Jon V was hooked!

  30. Anonymous says:

    whatever! no one complains that these indie guys are doing batman. its acceptable. its in fashion. im sick of batman.

  31. Frank Santoro says:

    No whining.
    Why is it always about fashion with you people?

  32. terry says:

    That Batboy stuff looks really good to me. You’re right, it’s definitely related to that strip in the back of his SOLO issue. But I preferred the black character, Slider.
    What’s with the dissing of McCarthy’s work? There was a great interview on the Irish blog “Bad Librarianship” done AFTER his SOLO issue. It’s pretty weird, but really insightful. McCarthy (or DITRANKO as he calls himself) is, I think, a surrealist, like David Lynch, who works in comics on a fairly haphazard basis. He always says his stuff isn’t derived from the usual “film” tropes. He explains his work as being like song rather than movies. Seen like that, it all kinda makes sense! Like doing “I Am The Walrus” as a comic.
    I met him at the San Diego Comic Convention about 3 years ago. He was trying to sell his “visual autobiography” SWIMINI PURPOSE to little success. He seemed very sane, very low-key, almost embarrassed that I really dug his material. I’m a big fan of a strip called MIRKIN the MYSTIC, which I think is the best thing he ever did. Then again, I like psychedelic shit like Doom Patrol and Ditko, Crumb, Woodring and Steranko.
    C’mon DC. Let’s see Batboy!

  33. Frank Santoro says:

    What I object to is McCarthy wasting his talent on movie storyboards and Batman pitches. What has McCarthy shown us? That he’s a great stylist. So when he says “Hey let me do Batman,” –I just think ‘Great another waste of time, another dull diversion.’ I’m a longtime McCarthy fan and I loved Mirkin the Mystic too but that was the mid-80’s for crying out loud! What has he done recently? A disappointing issue of SOLO. I’m a disgruntled fan. Still, I love his work, he’s awesome, ’nuff said.

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