Friday, August 14, 2015

No. 40 Peter Milligan

First Prog: 216
Latest Prog: 1277, although he’s due to resurface with Prog 1950 very soon!

Total appearances: 207 and counting
-including Rogan Gosh from Revolver, but not including Skin, which should have run in Crisis but didn’t, ending up as a standalone graphic novel printed by another publisher.

Creator credits:
Sooner or Later; Bad Company; The Dead; Freaks; Tribal Memories; Shadows; Bix Barton; Hewligan’s Haircut; Rogan Gosh

Other writing credits:
Rogue Trooper (in a handful of annuals and specials)
A whole pile of Future Shocks
A single, and incredibly weird, Judge Dredd story (in a Mega-Special)

Notable character creations:
Micky Swift
Danny Franks
-and almost every other character from Bad Company
Bix Barton and Michael Cane (no ‘I’ because he’s literally a cane, you see)
Hewligan and Scarlet O’Gasmeter
The God of leaning against hot radiators
Banal and bizarre in one breath.
Art by Jim McCarthy
Notable characteristics:
Wit; sarcasm; big ideas; poking fun at clever people, stupid people, stupid people pretending to be clever and indeed clever people pretending to be stupid; silly jokes; literary (and not-so literary) references; Having what appear to be versions of himself as the protagonist, and often not a very sympathetic one at that*

Milligan champions outsiders - because, frankly, there are no insiders.
Art by John Higgins

War of (t)wits
Art by Eric Bradbury

On Peter:
Peter Milligan taught me that it’s OK to be pretentious. It’s ok to explore high-minded concepts in the guise of an action comic (Bad Company), and it’s also OK to mock the very idea of high-mindedness in the guise of an avant garde art comic (Sooner or Later; Hewligan’s Haircut). He taught me that if and when writers name-drop famous philosophers, you’re not missing out on the joke if you haven’t heard of them – thinking you’re being clever for having heard of any given philosopher IS the joke.

Righteous anger coupled with wordplay
Art by Brendan McCarthy

And, for a writer with something of a reputation for being tricksy (The Dead; Rogan Gosh; Hewligan’s Haircut), he’s actually written a whole lot of straightforward narratives (Bad Company, obviously, but also Freaks; Tribal Memories; Shadows).

Going back to the beginning, Milligan sure had to put in a lot of hard graft. It’s long been the case that new writers had to break in by writing Future Shocks and other one-off stories with surprise endings. Milligan may have written more than almost anyone**, and didn’t get to write his first proper series for 5 years after his first saw print!

Newspapers that report on the future: a beautifully simple premise
Art by Jose Casanovas

Hailing a taxi on the De Niro planet - not gonna end well.
Art byJohn Higgins
Later Future Shock hopefuls may complain that Milligan got in early and used up a lot of simple ideas that play on expectations of who is the narrator / the alien / the robot / the clone and such. But the fact is these stories worked, and many still have a kick today. He also had the decency to cut them down to as little as one or two pages, as the twist dictated.

Biblical reference, there
Art by Brendan McCarthy
Most of his one-offs were pretty classic sci-fi. Not so for his first series, Sooner or Later. For me, this series is the ne plus ultra*** of late 80s pretentious ‘comics about real people’. Of course, it’s one of the most unreal comics ever. The first episode did have quite the slice-of-life feel to it, with professional layabout Mickey Swift getting up to not much, before falling through a plot contrivance into the far future. But as the narrator, he did, sort of, keep the focus on things like unemployment, fashion, taste in music and all the other good stuff that trendy comics of the late 80s were actually about. 


With the help of co-conspirator Brendan McCarthy, Milligan dreamed up a pretty fantastical future to go with the moaning. A delicious slice of weirdness like nothing else before or since. Given how well the pair work together, it’s a shame they only had one other series together for Tharg, and even that was for fringe comic Revolver. Rogan Gosh, very vaguely informed by the pair’s childhood in Indian-infused West London is incredibly beautiful and incredibly odd. Well worth seeking out.

The Todds - 2000AD's best-coiffed villains
Art by Brendan McCarthy
Referencing polo mints and Beatles songs.
Art by Jamie Hewlett
Swifty’s Return, with uber-art-comics bad boy Jamie Hewlett, was decidedly different and decidedly similar at the same time. See also Hewligan’s Haircut, which isn’t as clever or groundbreaking as the hype at the time suggested, but is still fun. Of course the best joke in it is the not-endorsement from hair-brand Vidal Sassoon that appears on the collected edition.

Long before then, Milligan had served Tharg his masterpiece, and a perennial contender for all-time best series ever: Bad Company. This was, originally, a Wagner-penned war story that was meant to run in a proto-Megazine. When that fell through, Milligan was given the series. He turned it into a straight-up 'war is hell' story that kept its debt to John Wagner by being a sort-of remake of Darkie’s Mob. Like that series, it is narrated through letters from a raw recruit who is something of an intellectual. Even more like the old Battle strip, lead character Kano is a scary man-beast with a secret past – one that connects him to the enemy – just like Darkie himself.

Kano's brain is not right
Art by Ewins & J. McCarthy

Previous 2000 AD thrills had tried to tease mysteries (Project Overkill; Return to Armageddon, kind of; Halo Jones II had a murder mystery of sorts) – but none pulled it off with the same aplomb. The secret of Kano’s black box was questioned early, but only answered in the last episode, and - for me, at any rate – managed to bring an answer that was both surprising and satisfying. That there were other secrets to come was an added bonus! (Predicting who would live and who would die was way harder than any 80s slasher/action films would achieve, too)
But it wasn’t just the plotting – if anything, it was the characters. Bad Company is especially fondly remembered for the motley collection of weirdoes and mutants that bicker and tease each other even as they die together. Kano aside, it's not entirely clear how they got to be quite so weird, but the theme is clear – to cope with the rigours of that kind of war, you've got to be pretty messed up.

Being able to cope with war is itself proof of madness
Art by Ewins/J. McCarthy

Sheeva and De Racine
Art by Ewins/J. McCarthy
Just to be annoying, Milligan then comes up with another perhaps less loved but no less fascinating crew of refined weirdoes for Bad Company II, and again for Bad Company 2000 (although with just 6 episodes, these didn't have a chance to breathe). He even managed, along the way, the come up with a final mission and 'how the war ends' story that was entirely satisfying. God, he's good.

So good, in fact, that the secret weapon of the wider story is the odd one out – Kano. This tale is something of a murder mystery, but it also has a lot of the feel of a western to it (one of the revisionist ones, like Unforgiven). It's also a proper science fiction story, with its setting on an alien planet where time occasionally flows backwards. And it's also a horror story – one of the really devastating ones where the horror is brought about by personal tragedy and grief, although also by monsters.

Somehow you don't believe Kano has found a happy ending.
Art by Ewins/J. McCarthy

Yup, it's definitely a tragedy.

In ambition, Kano might only be matched by much earlier work The Dead, which I keep failing to understand, but admire for actually being about life and death and what those might mean.

Fludd's quest gets off to a false start
Art by Massimo Belardinelli

Where Danny Franks is, on the whole, someone you root for, Milligan does a good line in irritating idiot protagonists, too. Carl Woolf, from Freaks, is one such. That he is narcissistic and ignorant sort of ends up being the point of the story (in which he is kidnapped by aliens), but it mostly serves to make the story funnier.  

Mushroom atoms, man.
Art by John Higgins
Tribal Memories, and even shorter series, is another such. It nods towards Brave New World with its theme of bringing an old world 'savage' into the future to be gawked at by pseudo-intellectuals who should know better. It's also pretty hard not to read into it a swipe at white people who trade on black culture 'cos they think it's cool.

Mohammed (dude at the back) is also the self-aware narrator.
Art by Riot
 Shadows, a longer series, gives it hero a chance to overcome her ignorance and prejudice and embrace the plight of the homeless/downtrodden. Then something weird happens with computers/the internet that I didn't entirely follow, but it was rather moving.

Do you remember when no one really knew what the internet was?
Art by Richard Elson
A withering look to match an intolerant attitude
Art by Jim McCarthy
Which leaves us with Milligan's final gift to 2000 AD, Bix Barton. Apparently the character/series is in part inspired by the person and work of Steve Ditko, comics legend and recluse. I don't know enough about Ditko to understand the references. Instead, Barton seems to me to be another Milligan protagonist who you root for and kind of despise at the same time. Bix Barton is a 'proper' Englishman from between the wars who is roused in the near future to deal with bizarre crimes and mysteries. He likes rugby, tea, and being horrible to people who don't share his values. He's nothing like them, but you can trace a line from Barton to Harry Kipling and Ampney Crucis if you wish.

Anyway, it works. Barton is witty with his mean quips; his trappings, including a flying car and a talking walking stick are delightful, and above all the ridiculous cases he confronts are diverting. Silly, yes, but still diverting. It's the kind of stuff that you can't really see fitting into any context, which is what make sit such a good fit for 2000 AD.

By this time, Milligan was already turning heads over in America with his trippy and confusing (but often also coherent) grown-up comics such as Enigma and Shade, the Changing Man. I strongly recommend his work on X-Force/X-Statix, too – one of the best teen superhero comics ever, especially if you love but also hate the X-Men. (And while I'm recommending things, do check out his pre-2000 AD work, too: Paradax and Johnny Nemo, for more likably unlikable protagonists)

But the good news is, he's coming back! A new series of Bad Company is already written and probably drawn by now. Just maybe it'll inspire Milligan to some new offering that could only have a home in the Galaxy's Greatest Comic.

The Smiths: very important band, apparently.
Art by Brendan McCarthy

More on Peter Milligan
There's a neat fanpage here
An old TV clip here, where he talks Bad Company with Brett Ewins
One of many recent pieces about his upcoming return, this one from Comics Alliance
-but really, disappointingly little out there, especially covering his 2000AD stuff.

Personal favourites:
Sooner or Later
Bad Company: every last goddamn frame of it
Bix Barton: Lovesick World; Nigel, the Napoleon of East Finchley
Future Shocks: The Man who was too clever; Bad Timing; Extra! Extra!; But is it art?; The Thought that counts (and probably lots of others I haven’t re-read in ages)
Tribal Memories
Rogan Gosh

*Actually, this is more prominent in his later work, I think. But I'd include as examples Mickey Swift; Danny Franks; Peter Finnigan (from Skreemer); Patrick Mulligan (from Marvel series Toxin)...
Bix Barton looks kinda like Milligan, at least his haircut.

**Yes, I’m sure one day soon I’ll scratch the itch to count that all up…

***I love being pretentious.


  1. Awesome post! Like you said, it's hard to find websites about Milligan's early days as a creator. Anyway, I just wrote about Milligan & McCarthy in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.



  2. That's an excellent review of Sooner or Later right there, Arion. Recommended for anyone with fond memories of the strip, or people who know nothing of this under-discussed and utterly unique comic.