Husks (Book Three, Part 26: Insiders, Skin)
If you enjoy Last War in Albion, you might also enjoy my new comic series Britain a Prophecy, which is so overtly in the same tradition of 80s/90s British comics that I even called the first arc The Last War in Albion. The first issue is available on a free/pay what you want basis.
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Garth Ennis exemplified a tension within the British comics scene of the period, oscillating between strong political investments and vapid edgelording. The latter aesthetic, however, was exemplified by Mark Millar.
The qlippoths are generally understood as hells, although the word means husks or shells. It’s what remains once the sacred energy in things has departed. The sacred energy is meaning. When the meaning of a thing moves on, that thing becomes a husk. -Alan Moore, Promethea
Millar made his Fleetway debut late in the run of Crisis and Revolver. His first such effort, a one-off called “Her Parents” in Crisis #31, is a curious thing; the story of a boy enduring the attentions of his date’s parents while waiting for her to finish getting ready. It is essentially a comedy about how desperately unpleasant the parents are—bellicose, bigoted, and obsessed with football. The story does not really have a plot—it simply ends when his date finally comes down with no real reveal or resolution, as though the sole point had been to tarry in the unpleasant space of the parents’ living room for the sake of being there. Another strip, in the Revolver Horror Special, takes a similar general approach, following a sexist asshole named Brian who’s obviously obsessed with his mother before an ending reveal that his mother is an emaciated figure handcuffed to the bed so that he never has to leave her. This at least has something resembling a plot—there’s a reveal at the end that pays off and shades what came before instead of just “the person he was waiting for comes downstairs.” But the overall point is still simply to depict the unpleasantness, not to mock it or satirize it as Garth Ennis does, but simply because misogyny and homophobia are viewed as worth spending time with.
The picture becomes clearer when you look at Millar’s longer works of the period. His professional debut was a series called Saviour that managed six issues at Trident before the company went bankrupt, the first drawn by Daniel Vallely, the rest by Nigel Kitching. It is undoubtedly an ambitious comic, weaving a vast mythology about a superhero named Saviour (modeled after television presenter Jonathan Ross, an early example of Millar’s ruthless savviness in attention-getting decisions) who presents himself as a messiah figure but is in actuality the antichrist. But there is also the same fascination with ugliness—a plotline about a young girl being sexually abused that spends all of its time on her terror and confusion, or a sequence that revels in Desmond Tutu being shot in the head. His other Trident series, Shadowmen, which saw two of a planned six issues published before the company went under, has a similar focus on gruesome violence, the bulk of it against women, lingering over things like an extended sequence of state violence being enacted against two women as an intimidation campaign, ending in one of their murder or a scene in which a female police officer is mind controlled into shooting first her fellow officers then herself by a man who keeps calling her “honey” while forcing her to do it.
Perhaps most indicative, however, is his six part story Insiders late in Crisis’s existence. It’s a story about a man in prison, which is a perfectly interesting idea—one in line with the social justice positions Crisis took in Third World War and Troubled Souls. Millar’s treatment of it at least nods to this, with frequent depictions of the squalid and brutal conditions inside the prison and allusions to Erving Goffman’s theories about total institutions. This, however, is not the point of the strip. Instead the strip is, like Millar’s short pieces, about the aggressive unpleasantness of people. The main character, Frank Murray, is a domestic abuser and bagman for a loan shark, in prison for beating a woman to death with a wrench for being £200 in arrears. This is revealed when he talks to the prison chaplain, who is depicted as taping stories like his so he can masturbate to them. This is not particularly uncommon for the prison, which is steadily revealed to be a desperately unpleasant place in which the guards routinely rape prisoners.
The overall tone of the strip is characterized by the monologues at the end of the first and final installments. In the first, Frank reflects, “I bet you think of me sometimes. I was the guy at school who screamed at you and hit you if you let a goal in. Who spat on your blazer and laughed. I was the one who swore at the teacher that day in primary school. You remember me now, don’t you? I know when you see me on the street with the trail of kids and the moaney wife, you walk past, pretending you can’t remember me… can’t remember lying awake on school nights, thinking of ways to torture me… ways to humiliate me… you hated me! I always knew you hated me. But think back and remember… I hated you first.” Returning to this theme in the final issue as he stands atop the prison roof in the middle of a riot flicking off the reader, he reflects, “I want you to remember something. I’m glad I hit you whenever you let a goal in. I’m glad I swore at the teacher and spat on your blazer in front of the girls. I’m glad I laughed. I know you and the teacher shared your wee private joke about what would happen to me one day. What was it the teacher said? That I’d die a nobody and she’d look around at you and smile and tell you that you could be anything… well, up yours you bastards. Cause I’m the star of the six o’clock news.” It is, in many ways, the logical endpoint of the crass transgressiveness of the era. Shorn of the puerile glee and humor that Ennis and Tank Girl could bring to it, Millar offers only cruelty for the sake of it, transgression not because it’s funny or pleasurable but seemingly just because he wants to depict cruelty. It is a body of work that is almost inhuman in its cynicism, the most nihilistic and viciously unpleasant approach to exist so far within the scope of the War to date.
For all that Crisis and its generation trafficked in content that ranged from transgressive to offensive, only one major censorship scandal emerged out of it. This happened in Crisis at the end of 1989. Issue #28 of the magazine concluded with preview of a forthcoming strip called Skin from Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, to begin in issue #30. When issue #30 rolled around a month later, however, Skin was absent, with the opening page explaining that “The reproduction company who make our printing film refused to handle the strip because of its content. We are currently taking legal advice, trying to find another repro house and placating the understandably miffed creators” and calling it “one of the most important graphic stories ever, and a groundbreaking event for the comics medium.” The next issue, meanwhile, explained that Skin would not be appearing in Crisis at all because “the lawyers advised them not to publish, on the grounds that the strip would ‘deprave and corrupt our readership,” while stressing again that “it’s a great story and one that deserves all the accolades that will eventually be heaped upon it.” Instead it came out a full three years later from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman’s Tundra Publishing as a graphic novel.
Upon arrival it became clear that the controversy, and to a lesser degree the hype, were both rather overblown. Skin was explicit and in places vulgar, but not in substantial excess of The Insiders or even, on its day, Third World War. What it was, however, was bracingly confrontational, as the second page, which featured its main character loudly and repleatedly outing “BOLLAAAARKS!” at the reader, made clear. This brashness, however, was a reasonable and indeed necessary extension of what the book was actually doing. The book was, after all, about a skinhead kid. Skinhead culture is a complex thing, not least because of the subculture’s eventual associations with white nationalism. Initially, however, skinheads were a working class subculture heavily inspired by Jamaican rude boy culture and largely into Black music such as ska and early reggae. As Milligan and McCarthy (who’d been a skin in his youth) put it in the intro to the trade paperback, “skinhead life centered around music, fashion, sex, fighting, alcohol and having a laugh—particularly at some other tosser’s expense… Abuse of all forms was held in very high esteem in skinhead culture. The language was violent and crude and often very funny.” And indeed, this describes the comic.
The other major strand of the comic, however, came from the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, in which a drug developed by the German company Chemie Grünenthal and marketed as a treatment for, among other things, morning sickness turned out to have not actually been tested on pregnant women, and to lead to severe birth defects characterized, in those infants that survived, by malformed legs and arms. Both Milligan and McCarthy separately recall seeing a skinhead in their youth who had the characteristic foreshortened arms, and so came up with the idea of a story focusing on such a character. The boy in question, Martin Atchinson (“Martin ‘Atchet” to his friends), is an odd sort of lead—one who sexually assaults and verbally abuses his female friends, and is generally a complete asshole. Nevertheless he comes across as largely sympathetic, his violent alienation immediately explicable.
The comic’s resolution, in which, after reading about Thalidomide and how it happened, Martin storms into the office of a pharmaceutical executive, kills him, hacks his arms off with a hatchet, and ties them to his own so that he finally has full length limbs, then dances around the room in front of the horrified office workers before jumping out a window to his death, does little to sell the comic as a sensitive and humane treatment of disability and isolation instead of a piece of tiresome shock for its own sake, although it’s hard not to have some love for a comic in which a corrupt pharmaceutical executive is beaten to death and has his arms ripped off by one of his victims. Milligan and McCarthy admit as much in the introduction, noting that “Skin is told from the point of view fo a fifteen-year-old skinhead, a working class kid who doesn’t give a toss about leitmotifs or dénouements,” and the ending, in which the narrator explains over an image of Martin’s ded and bloody body, “And that’s the fukkin story of Martin Atchinson then. He might have looked like a wanker who couldn’t wank but he was one of us. We called him Martin ‘Atchet. He was a skin. All right?” has an odd poignancy that fits with this, although it fit just as well with an interpretation that this was exploitative and ableist trash more interested in treating people affected by Thalidomide as freakshow objects than as people.
In the end, the real story of Skin was its censorship, and the larger implications this had for the British market, which, for all that it had a renaissance in the wake of Moore, was headed towards a swift and imminent crash. There is no single reason for this. One of the factors, however, was certainly that the brash and innovative creators the industry was supposed to produce could find far more artistic freedom by going to American companies. A bigger one was that they could find more money there, which meant that the British market was a feeder market whose best talent left faster than it could be replaced. Meanwhile American comics were getting more reliable distribution in the UK market, competing with the homegrown product. Regardless, circulation numbers dropped swiftly in the early 1990s, and the wave of creative growth quickly rolled back. It began with Revolver, which went under at the start of 1991. In October, both Toxic! and Crisis went under. The losses on the former destabilized its owners, Neptune Distribution, which had also owned Trident Comics, which quickly went under as well. Deadline limped along for a few more years, mostly on the back of Tank Girl, but finally succumbed in 1995 after the Tank Girl film flopped. The explosion of creativity was over, as indeed was the bulk of the British comics market, with only stalwarts like 2000 AD surviving.
By this time, however, Peter Milligan had firmly made the jump to an American career. [continued]
October 19, 2021 @ 2:37 am
Ten years after this, Milligan was vetoed in his attempt to make Dead Princess Diana a central character in an X-Men book. So it’s not like the edgelording ever went away.
Honestly, Milligan looks like a pretty minor character in the War; it’s hard to see much long-term influence from his work. Millar is much more important (unfortunately).