Saturday, January 12, 2019

No. 127 Tony Skinner

First Prog: 727*
Latest Prog: 999*

Total appearances: 71
-counting all his Barney credits, but based on his in-prog credits the total may be as high as 104, which I'll unpick more in due course. And that's not counting his various strips for Toxic!, i.e. Accident Man, Psycho Killer, Sex Warrior, Bratz Bizarre, Fear Teachers

Creator credits:

Art by Jim Elston

Other writing credits:
ABC Warriors
Nemesis & Deadlock
Judge Dredd/Hammerstein

That time Hammerstein showed up in Judge Dredd - at this point it's neither in continuity for Dredd nor for ABC Warriors. Or is it??
Art by Jason Brashill

Notable character creations:

Morrigun is sexy, hyper-competent and sinister, in that order. But she looks cool, so there's that.
Art by Kevin Walker

Notable characteristics:
Being a practising chaos / khaos magician. Making sure pretty much every character comes across as an idiot at some point, very pointedly including any khaotic practitioners – although I would say that as these same people like to point out how ridiculous they find themselves, it can comes across as a bit smug. Yes, points for being self-aware, but it doesn't count if you still think you're cool.

Khaos magicians are NOT ponces who dress up in robes.
They're NOT.
Art by Carl Critchlow

Deadlock - good on being mysterious and promoting philosophies of life. Less useful at practical suggestions.
Art by Kevin Walker

But surely the number one most notable characteristic of Skinner's work for 2000D is the absolute rejection and hatred of anything that smacks of authority. The more it looks like the UK establishment, the better (very much including the Church, although this specific piece of vitriol may be more Mills than Skinner).

Not sure this scene is doing anything other than saying 'religion is evil!'
But it sure gets that point across succinctly!
Art by Carl Critchlow

A neat summation of Skinner's views on mainstream society - or at least, what he thinks the establishment think.
Goodness knows, he might be right.
Art by Kevin Walker

Pretty anyone who tells anyone else what to do is a bad person; Skinner's heroes epitomise that old saying “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”- only, when you actually let people live this way, it can be proper terrifying. And Skinner seems committed to that viewpoint, at least in terms of storytelling. Points for following through on philosophical ideas!

On Tony:
OK, let's get some caveats out of the way! I'm sure Skinner himself couldn't give two hoots what a nerd on the internet has to say about his work (even if it's mostly positive), but I suspect that Pat 'go on, make me angry' Mills would be fiercely protective of his friend, should he find himself reading this entry. So I jolly well ought to get my facts straight...

...but I don't think that's entirely possible. Basically, the line between who wrote what is very blurred, and as with all collaborations it's hard to credit any given plot point, idea or line of dialogue to one writer or the other. In this case, there's the added complication that every line as printed may have in fact come from the pen of Pat Mills, with Skinner more of a partner in crime than an actual keyboard jockey. Or that may be nonsense, and he wrote plenty himself. Suffice to say, all panels posted herein may contain words written by Mills alone, Skinner alone, or both together.

This strip is credited only to Pat Mills. But this particular sequence smacks of chaos magic speak, and the confusion of Nemesis and Deadlock is a nifty metaphor for the confusion of Mills n' Skinner.
Art by Carl Critchlow 

As I understand it, the reason Skinner got the co-writing job in the first place was that Pat Mills wanted to write more and more about magic and chaos magic in particular, presumably while researching the relevant parts of Slaine, Nemesis and ABC Warriors in the mid 1980s. So he went and hung out with actual practising chaos magicians, in particular Tony Skinner. At some point during the late 80s, Mills finds he is relying on his friend for input so much he goes ahead and gets him a co-writing gig. Perhaps at first this was Mills simply feeling that Skinner ought to take credit for work Mills was writing that was deeply inspired by his new friend. But certainly at some point around 1989/1990, Skinner seems to have been literally co-writing scripts – or maybe even writing them solo, with Mills providing polish and a 'name' that would get Skinner an 'in' with 2000AD.

Whatever the truth of this, there's a received wisdom that this period of the Mills/Skinner combine coincides precisely wit the point where Pat Mills stopped being the God of all things 2000AD, with no duds to his name, and started being Preachy McPreacherson, more interested in communicating ideas than in telling stories.

This argument is, to my eyes, an analogy for British colonialism, and undoubtedly evil part of our history. Shame Deadlock has to be so patronising about it.
Art by Kevin Walker

For my money, I agree that these period of Mills is not his best, but it's still mostly excellent. I also contend he's always been into selling ideas as much as stories, and adore him all the more for that. Even if said ideas often rub me up the wrong way!

How about that collaboration, then? Sources seem to vary! In the Progs (but not in the collected editions), Skinner is given a co-credit on both ABC Warriors Khronikles of Khaos and Hellbringer. He's not credited on the first Nemesis/Deadlock crossover – although it smacks of his philosophy – but is on the second. However, he's not credited anywhere on any of the solo Nemesis the Warlock stories that ran during this time. He's co-credited on all of Finn, although Barney only lists his co-credit on the first two books. The Prog co-credits Skinner on Judge Dredd: Hammerstein – that attempt to reconcile Hammerstein's appearance in the Stallone movie – but not on any other Pat Mills Dredds. Finally, Mills retains solo credit on all Slaine stories, however much they, too, began to reflect khaotic ideas and ideals. And, to add final confusion, Pat Mills in his intro to Hellbringer suggests Skinner was given the boot by Tharg around Prog 900*** (his final in-Prog credit is actually in Prog 999, but of course some stories have a very long lead time while the artist completes work).

Right, that's enough of that. Going forward, let's just assume that Skinner had a serious hand in the story and dialogue of all scans on this blog entry! Certainly his early work in Nemesis 'n Deadlock and ABC Warriors is steeped in the fundamentals of khaos/chaos.

Nemesis and Deadlock are quick to turn on each other, and point out each other's flaws, all part of the chaotic scheme of not taking yourself too seriously.
Art by Carl Critchlow
Which is to say – rejecting anything and everything that smacks of fitting in, towing the line, conforming to society's values. And, more importantly, it's about doing what you want, when you want to – being careful to unlock your own mind so that it's what you really want to do, not just what you think society / your programming tells you you should want. And, as far as the depictions in ABC Warriors go, what everyone really wants is to get drunk, have sex, and get into fights.

The aptly named Froyds, like their namesake Sigmund Freud, think that everything is really about sex and violence.
Art by Kevin Walker
(The fact that I, for one, don't often want to do any of those things, just goes to show that I am deeply in thrall to conservative societal values. Presumably I have yet to truly embrace khaos. Why yes, Hammerstein IS my favourite ABC Warrior.)

There is actual magic involved, mind. It's just not the kind of magic that can be quantified, analyzed and unpicked in written rules. My cursory reading of Wikipedia's entry on chaos magic suggests one key feature is neither discounting ANY system of 'magic', nor believing that any one version of it is true or better than any other. Which is pretty much the thematic plot of The Enigmass Variations.

The Sorcerer has studied all forms of magic equally, giving no preference to any one system - but even he's not quite embraced true chaos.

Ah, the unholy truth... it's all bollocks. But it works anyway!
(At least, I think this is the message?)
Art by Carl Critchlow

What Skinner (and/or Mills) want to emphasise further is that one needs to ignore concepts of good and evil, or any sort of moral code. Nemesis and Deadlock are constantly trying to outdo each other in the 'I'm more amoral than you' stakes.

What about us followers of the magic of reading and over-analysing comics?
Pretty sure that's even more amoral than both sex and death, the subject of pretty much ever moral tract ever written...
Art by Carl Critchlow

And that's to be approved, if you ask me. Very much not something I believe or subscribe to in my own life, but I like my reading materials to challenge me on this sort of belief. And frankly, the problem with trying to 'be good' or following any given 'hero' is that there is no way to know for sure what IS good. It's notable that this era of ABC Warriors is all about the struggle between Hammerstein, the noble/good/soldierly hero figure who Pat Mills knows full well most (or at least, many) of his readers want to emulate, and Deadlock, the amoral/weird/cool figure who everyone likes but few actually want to emulate.

OK, so Hammerstein is a bit of an idiot, and made to look like one plenty.
Art by Kevin Walker

Speaking personally, it's the 'cool' factor that puts me off. I mean, having cool characters makes for cracking comics, especially from the art side, but I can't help but think that Mills and Skinner both have pretty set ideas on what 'cool' is, and it involves things like rock music, leather jackets, drinking and drugs, and not minding a good punch-up. Sure, those things are cool – but maybe only as far as 1970s pop culture goes. Not sure it's inherently cool, except for the part where it involves really irritating people in power. Leather jackets and excess boozing can both be pretty damn tedious. Or maybe I'm just jealous because instead of doing those thing I spend my time indoors reading and writing about comics.

At leas the music choices are ridiculous, unless that's artist Kevin Walker cheekily sending up the idea that a big piss-up is really especially chaotic.

So, on the surface, some Skinnerisms rub me up the wrong way. But I do admire at least one key part of his central message. Famously, one big pay-off of Deadlock's khaos teaching is that Joe Pineapples discovers (briefly) a taste for wearing women's underwear. And, in the context of the time, that's reasonably subversive. Yes, to some extent it's played for laughs (not cool), but in the actual story it's just an example of Joe finding out something about himself and feeling empowered to express it (very cool). It's a real shame that editorial mandated he stop it by the time of the next series.

Preach, Deadlock, preach! He's totally right for a change.
Art by Kevin Walker

Meanwhile, Hammerstein's khaos conversion didn't kick in until the end of Hellbringer – when he has learned to say 'no' to a new mission, and by extension, overcome his programming telling him to follow orders. A fitting thematic end to the 'Deadlock is the boss' era of ABC Warriors.

So, as far as the characters go, I got a kick out of the Khaos preaching. I was less enamoured of the head-hammering along the way, particularly the parts where Mills/Skinner bash on teachers and scientists.

Pretty sure even in the most militaristic academies the basic concept of learning to read and thus educate yourself
must sneak through into most minds, surely? Teaching, historically, was one of the original acts of rebellion against authority, mate. That said, most of us will have had awful classroom experiences that render this scene cathartic.
Art by Kevin Walker.

Given the didactic nature of pretty much all of Skinner's written output it's a bit rich for him to hate on teachers. Yes, I know that he means 'people who train children to fit in', but on the page, and perhaps even at heart, they appear mean 'anyone who dares to say that they teach anyone anything'. It's probably a semantic argument, but 'teaching' is such a broad word, and for me it means someone who opens you up to new ideas you wouldn't have found by yourself. Which a) describes 2000AD (and Pat Mills above all writers) and b) 80% of the 'teachers' I had at my ultra-establishment posh British Public School. Which has nothing to do with the lazy characterization of teachers as 'people who want to cane British values into your buttocks'.

So much annoying with this panel! Ignoring the morality, the fact is you don't KNOW what will happen until you've tried it, and even then, someone else might find out there was a different cause. Yes, the eyelid-sewing thing is both true and arguably wicked science, but at least it's actual science, which is not the same as knowledge. And it's far from pointless to find out if this is true. Rant over.
Art by Kevin 'blameless' Walker

The science thing is about hypocrisy. Why is it OK for 'chaoticians' to do what they like for no reason, but not for scientists to do evil experiments? Presumably because some scientists are good at persuading powerful people that they're doing something monetisable, which magicians tend not to be...

Skinner knows that true chaos has the ring of what I might call evil, and he's not afraid to acknowledge it. Powerful and chilling bit of comics here.
Art by Kevin Walker

Let's not forget, though, that Khronikles of Khaos and the second half of Hellbringer are both brimming with fun, not to mention action beats and SF/Fantasy ideas. The storytelling is witty and gorey and satisfying. (The first part of Hellbringer aimed for funny but didn't hit the target with me, but points for trying). Skinner may have a reputation as a preacher, but he never forgets to fill each episode with meat.

If I'm honest, this kind of catchphrase comics has the ring of Mills, but shared credit where shared credit is due.
This is one of 2000AD's all time fist-punchingly ridiculous and awesome panels.
Art by Kevin Walker

How about that Finn, then? Finn for me is the pinnacle of Skinnerisms. Best of all, Finn himself is the version of a 'cool' guy who is made to look foolish an awful lot, which takes care of the aura of smugness that infects Deadlock. Is Finn Tony Skinner in disguise? I do not know, but I enjoy imagining that he has a fair bit of Skinner in him.

Finn is the kind of hero who spends as much time being beaten up and even losing as he does in triumph. It's a good look.
Art by Jim Elston and Kevin Wicks
In essence, Finn is about a witch (Paul the cabbie) who completes missions set by the Earth Goddess (Mandy), in which he lures, hunts and kills first Shining Ones – evil human-looking agents who control society, and ultimately Newts – evil inter-dimensional beings who worship 'order' and hate 'chaos'. These bits are pretty fun, with Finn combining his witch-knowledge with his training as a squaddie, and Skinner/Mills loading up on the details of evil human weaponry and callous behaviour. Before any given villain is dispatched, we're sure to hate them a lot!

There's also an eco-thread running through Finn, which is seriously overdue for a revival.
Art by Paul Staples
But around all this, there are the episodes where Finn explains his philosophy – or rather, the philosophy he has chosen to buy into but is still learning about. It's kind of more of the same as ABC Warriors, but by putting it into contemporary Earth, specifically Cornwall/Plymouth, it's far easier for Finn to point out the flaws in the ideology. There's a ton of local detail in there, which I assume is Skinner bringing local knowledge?****

Ah, the delights of the Tamar Bridge. More West country comics, please, Tharg.
Art by Jim Elston

And there's this intriguing taste of trying to make sense of the problem that amorality / chaos looks an awful lot like evil, if its condones/encourages supposedly 'natural' behaviours such as murder.

See, now we're getting into it - learning to embrace the dark because it is necessary to, not just enjoying murder for its own sake. But, because it's necessary, it's OK to enjoy it as well. That's what I call a subversive philosophy, but it has a ring of real truth.
Art by Jim Elsotn and Kevin Wicks

Wish we'd had time to dig into this idea a bit more. As it stands, it's kind of a proto-Dexter. It's OK to kill, indeed it is cathartically necessary, so long as you're sure you're killing really horrible people.

Finn also makes explicit various long-standing ideas Mills has expressed about women. Skinner clearly shares them, but between the two of them they seem to have created an idea that women are somehow a different species from men, who need to be respected / treated in a certain way, rather than attempting to include women as characters in their own right. It's a weird kind of hyper-masculinised feminism that, to my eyes as a man, isn't quite good enough. Heart in the right place, I guess.*****

Sitcom funnies with Finn
Art by Jim Elston and Kevin Wicks
After the first two, mostly extremely fun books, Finn returned after a long break to kind of more of the same, but with perhaps a bit more preachiness, and the return of some old Third World War characters. And it's really not at all like Slaine. Sure, the way Slaine was going at the time it's possible he could have gone through another time portal and been resurrected as Finn to help him out with his mission (And yes, the Newts ARE rather similar to the Cythrons from Time Killer), but the tone isn't the same, and there's the overt class -consciousness / politicking of Finn. I could have gone for more, although ultimately the series didn't seem to be going anywhere beyond Finn getting more adept at his role, and as such it's less fun each time. Paul's cluelessness in the first two books added a lot to the charm.

A theory about Flesh: it's not about how dinosaurs became extinct because of over-farming by humans; it's really about a far future dystopia in which society has determined the best way to rid itself of undesirables (or baskets of deplorables...) is to get them jobs farming dinosaurs in the Palaeozoic. 
The thing about Flesh is, the dinosaurs are both the heroes and the villains. Any human characters are incidental.
Art by Carl Critchlow
See, the thing with all Flesh, and especially book 3, is jut how awful all the humans are. You've got your super-capitalist bad guys who just want to make a buck, and will cut any and all possible corners to do it, especially if it involves screwing over the working classes. But you've also got your working classes, who are the most rapey/frat-boyesque bunch of muscleheads ever to wield a vest and a chainsaw, who are so repellent that we cheer as they get ate by dinosaurs. Sure, the biggest cheer is for the corporate types who get theirs in the final episode gore-nanza, but it's not as if anyone covers themselves in glory.

It seems necessary for Skinner and Mills that the people in charge are not simply incompetent
(my general view of the real world truth), but are actively evil.
It certainly makes for a fun bit of sinister comics art by Carl Critchlow, so there's that.

Skinner's part in Flesh covered book III: the Legend of Shamana. It's not a well-loved entry in the Flesh canon, but frankly that's a bit unfair. It delivers on the central premise of showing horrible humans farming animals and then being devoured by said animals who really aren't that easy to farm – especially when your supervisors are deliberately skimping on all health and safety rules. And it probably has a more coherent overall plot than any other book, even if it's less gonzo fun than the original.

Of course, what Shamana is really about is Shamana, a human girl raised as a dinosaur, Jungle Book style. In common with that much-loved tale, Shamana is also about inter-species co-operation, of a kind that has nothing to do with actual observations of the natural world, except probably some super-bold scientific paper Mills read once that says all animals get along really if they are forced to hate humans enough. And, you know, as with all Mills's work, it's a fun idea and just possibly may turn out to be true. Or at least, to gain more scientific favour one day in the future.

Flesh III has a ton of crazy science, including loads of cross-species dino fun, here shown with a symbiotic drug-munching herbivore.

Frankly, this is the sort of Science Fiction I'd like to see more of! Yes, on one level it's beyond stupid, but on another level, what if it was true? And it probably IS based in a genuine scientific hypothesis somewhere.

What does this have to do with co-author Tony Skinner, then? Well, for one thing the inter-species angle may have been his idea. But I'm more inclined to think his part of the theme was about how all animals, including humans, should really just follow their 'nature' and stop trying to control anything around them, especially other animals.

Once again, we learn that one 'true' part of any animal's nature is the drive to kill.
I'm inclined to disagree, but it's an argument well worth exploring in comics form.
Art by Carl Critchlow

So we get the 'hero' team of Shamana + various dinosaur brothers and sisters, who look after each other, kill food / enemies, and occasionally scrabble around looking for herbs to get them high. Or a dressing-up box.

This is pushing the story well into the realms of the ridiculous. But if you can't be ridiculous in Flesh, then where can you?
There's still a worrying undercurrent of 'isn't it funny when male-coded characters dess up in female-coded clothes'.
Art by Carl 'also blamless' Critchlow

Now, it's one thing for dinosaurs to cooperate against a common enemy. Even khaos can support this. But apparently doing anything that smacks of actual planning or deliberate action is not in the spirit of khaos. Don't be clever!

Mills and Skinner posit the evolution of big-brained, bi-pedal dinosaurs, who have smarts. Of course, they die on the next page...
Art by Carl Critchlow

On the one hand, a funny page, and a cathartic concept that neatly fits into the world of Flesh. And I can certainly imagine Pat Mills cackling with glee as he typed it into the keyboard (if indeed it was he and not Tony Skinner) On the other hand, as an actual philosophy of life, it's properly hateful. Look up the Khmer Rouge if you want a real-world example of this sort of thing. Plus of course, Pat Mills is one of the cleverest dicks around, who combines a fierce work ethic with both field research and a heck of a lot of reading. So who's he trying to kid?

I reiterate, rounding up and killing clever people isn't necessarily what Tony Skinner actually thinks is a good idea -, and even if it IS what he thinks, I applaud his chance to air the idea in 2000AD, a comic that could and should force me to challenge my way of thinking. (Still a terrible idea, though).

Of course, if being clever is a sin, the worst of all Flesh's villains are not the brutish dino-herds, despite their low opinion and mistreatment of women, or their corporate overlords, who just want to get rich and tread on poorer people (and are clearly rather stupid when it comes to the logistics of running a farm). No, the very worst villain is the scientist who tries to condition Shamana into being 'human', in part by torturing her hadrosaur friend.

Properly horrific, especially the way the dinosaur is posed as if it's human
Art by Carl Critchlow

On a technical level, there's nothing wrong with Flesh III – it delivers on all the classic trappings of a Flesh story – but something didn't gel. Never mind.

I feel I've managed to ramble on without ever quite saying anything coherent. Let me attempt to sum up. Tony Skinner racked up an impressive number of scripts across a span of 300 Progs, all them of them packed with action, humour, properly comedic violence, and more than a hint of philosophy about why chaos is good. Specifically – stop doing what you think society wants you to do, stop trying to conform, and just be yourself and have fun.

There's definitely more to it than that, and frankly I don't agree with this philosophy, but I kind of admire it, and I maximally enjoyed seeing it play out in the form of gonzo sci-fi adventure stories. If you want the most OTT version of Skinner, read Khronikles of Khaos. If you want the more nuanced, relatable version, read Finn. But do yourself a favour – read it! It's better than you remember.

A fitting final page tribute for Tony Skinner, his final in-prog credit on the final series of Finn.
Art by Paul Staples

More on Tony Skinner:
The internet is not brimming with Skinner stories. Certainly the best place to go is to the man's right hand at 2000AD, Uncle Pat Mills, starting with his own blogpost about 2000AD unsung heroes...

And there are a few pieces, mostly about Toxic, on Mills's older Wordpresssite.

If you want to buy Accident Man, which Pat Mills says is the most Skinner-y of all their collaborations:

Personal favourites:
ABC Warriors: Khronikles of Khaos
Finn: Books 1 and 2
Nemesis & Deadlock

Good, clean fun in the mighty 2000AD tradition!
Art by Carl Critchlow

*These are his first and final in-Prog credits. He may well have contributed in various ways to previous and post Millsian stories, too. Or, indeed, he may not have contributed to some strips his is listed as co-writer on. Accounts vary! (and perhaps he wouldn't have it any other way)

**Finn, technically, first appeared in the Crisis Story Third World War, which Skinner didn't write. However, the 2000AD incarnation that Skinner did write is quite a remove from that guy. Furthermore, I have a suspicion that the personality, and perhaps even the look, of both versions of Finn was in part been inspired by / based on Mr Skinner...

***Say what you like about Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie, they appear to have been more open to Skinner's input than Tomlinson or Bishop.

****East Cornwall is a place which I have come to know quite well since first reading Finn, for reasons that will delight Mills and Skinner – my father-in-law has a holiday cottage there. I am so destined for the wall when the revolution comes.

*****Let's not get started on Morrigun. I'm trying to say nice things here!