This is a great collection from Dark Horse. Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy make up one of the best long-time collaborations in all of comics. They’re not as famous as other creative teams such as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon or Joss Whedon and John Cassaday or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but some people would argue they should be. I’m not entirely convinced of that but The Best of Milligan & McCarthy sure makes a strong argument for it. I think the collection isn’t as much a collection of the best as much as it’s the most comprehensive collection of the creative team’s work to date. That’s the reason I bought this collection because it collects some very hard to find and out of print works from this British duo. I’ve enjoyed they work separately before but this, I think, is the first time I read one of their comics-by-collaboration.
One of the better stories collected in this volume is Paradax!. The story is quite simple; a young unemployed man finds a superhero costume in a book. When he wears the costume he discovers that he has gained the ability to walk through wall and move his body through objects. Instead of deciding out of the blue that he will fight crime and uphold justice with the help of his new powers, he decides to do something altogether different: get famous. Paradax! is an honest satire of the superhero job and it revels it’s in hipster attitude and the slacker ways in which its hero prances around town and occasionally fights crime. I quite like McCarthy’s art here. The clear line work is very effective when combined with the bright, day glow colouring. Unlike other more famous comics of the late eighties, the colours aren’t dark and muddy; they’re very bright, boldly announcing the arrival of a new hero on the streets. It’s a shame that he’s not really up to much good but he doesn’t have to. There aren’t any rules governing the actions of people who stumble upon magic costumes. All Al Cooper really wants to do is drink beer, have sex with girlfriend and strike it big in celebrity circles.
Hands down my favourite comic in The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is Rogan Gosh. It’s a masterpiece. Rogan Gosh presents the reader with multiple paths than can lead to transcendence or maybe it’s the illusion of multiple paths as there is only one true way to achieve enlightenment. Some will chose to pursue other things in life, such as love and caring for the fellow man. Others will foolishly be tricked into thinking that a life spent in an extended dream state is the same thing as enlightenment. I could go on and give you a synopsis of Rogan Gosh but that would be pointless for me and you both. Besides, it would sound like gibberish because Rogan Gosh masquerades as a comic that isn’t really about anything beyond a collage of Indian imagery and bright colours. In truth, it’s a comic that is as rich and complex as the best curry dishes. It seemingly combines a few different storylines that are all really the same stories from different dimensions (reality, dreamscape, a combination of the two, etc), all of them occurring simultaneously, commenting and contrasting with each other to give the reader a single story that echoes beyond the panels with each additional passing page.
I liked to you. I’ll attempt a synopsis. It begins with Rudyard Kipling who is in India. Having just experience a difficult time in his life and amassing bad karma, he decides to find the legendary Rogan Gosh (the man, not the dish). Rogan Gosh is a Karmanaut, a type of person who specializes in getting rid of bad karma. Kipling visits an opium house because Rogan Gosh does not live is the physical world. Meanwhile, a young man is trying to order a meal at a curry house only to end up decapitated along with his waiter. The two are now bound for the spiritual plane where they embark on a journey of enlightenment. Rogan Gosh is trick bed the god of lies and his most recent body is growing old. He patiently awaits his next reincarnation while also trying to save himself from the curse of Kali. There’s also a pretty heart-warming story of a broken love that learns to heal but that’s not all. There are even more things happening within the pages of Rogan Gosh. It’s about many things and about nothing. Rogan Gosh is best described as an experience. They weren’t just being boastful with the title; this is truly the best of Milligan and McCarthy.
The last major work included in this collection is Skin. Skin had a rather controversial publication history. It tells the story of Martin Atchison, a skinhead during the 70s in England. Martin was born with severe birth defects after his mother was poisoned because she took thalidomide to relieve her morning sickness during her pregnancy. The story is pretty straightforward, recounting a regular day in Martin’s life and his interaction with the group of skinheads he hangs out with. The story spirals downwards after he experiences a traumatic series of events highlighting how he will never lead a normal life because of his disability. It’s violent, rude and kind of a dumb comic but it’s intentionally dumb, hiding a smarter narrative and a poignant critique of larger corporations taking advantage of consumers.
The art seems regressive compared to the artwork of others comics McCarthy’s illustrated. It’s obviously intentional and I believe it was done to make the art look as dumb as the story. It’s as if McCarthy is trying to show us how Martin views the world. Everything looks a bit strange because Martin sees the world differently than others. The colouring by Carol Swain makes everything look poisoned or sick which again alludes to Martin’s birth defects. The sickly colours are applied in a brush stroke pattern reminiscent of wax crayons. It’s a very peculiar look but it works in the context of the story. Much like in Paradax!, what makes this comic good, what makes it memorable, is how brutally honest Milligan and McCarthy are with their storytelling. They present their critiques of large corporations and wealthy fat casts in an unapologetic way which isn’t only refreshing, it’s also crucial to the quality of the comic and the message of the story.
The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is a fascinating comic. It’s especially interesting if you’re familiar with the history of England during the eighties. Milligan and McCarthy really play up the satire in aloud of these comics. They really get that feel of oppression of youth and labourers and as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister has influenced culture during and after her time in office for the Vertigo line of American comics, it’s even more obvious in this collection. There is a raw energy to the comics and the satire reacts to what then was recent and immediate changes taking place in the country. These comics in this collection, which includes other shorter and less impressive works, aren’t just a visual feast, powerful satire of politics and superhero comics and ground-breaking stories, they’re all of these things combined. It’s not often that you get a chance to read comics that are historically important that also happen to be good comics and some are event great (Rogan Gosh). If you like any of these things, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.