Practitioners 18: Mike McMahon

Mick McMahon is a British artist who has ebbed and flowed in and out of the comics industry for 30 years. His work has braced the pages of 2000AD, Toxic!, Tank Girl, Rugrats and Sonic the Comic. But his work has moved well beyond his pages, inspiring some of the most prominent graphic artists in the industry today. Some of the most prominent and successful characters around today owe a debt to McMahon’s constantly evolving style – proving without a doubt his incredible talent. But, more than that, he’s just plain funky.

Judge Dredd was created in 1977 to appear in 2000AD by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, but problems with pre-publication ked to both of the previous creators walking off the project. Both Wagner and Ezquerra would return to the pages of 2000AD and the Dredd himself but in the intervening time the toughest lawman on the streets of Megacity 1 had to be given a face and a pair of boots to stride in. Pat Mills and Peter Harris took over and were responsible for the first published Dredd comic book, and was drawn by an inexperienced yung artist called Mike McMahon.

He was chosen primarily by Mills (who was editor at the time) because he could do a passable impression of Ezquerra’s work. However, it didn’t take long for McMahon’s style to take hold. It could’ve been said that he had inherited the greatest British Comic Book character to date by chance but to flip it, perhaps more logically it seems more likely that McMahon developed the lawman to become this. His style, more angular and abstract than Ezquerra’s more organic style; notable for its sharp lines and clear, crisp contours and clearly, nigh caricatured features on the characters he drew became the default with other artists such as Ian Gibson and Brian Bolland taking his lead and introducing their own spin on the way McMahon was developing the character.

In the early period of his career, McMahon’s style was characterised by a ‘quick, spontaneous approach that verged on the messy’. His figures were gaunt compare to Ezquerra and Bolland’s interpretations, with pen lines thrown down spontaneously and hatching completed with a fully-charged brush his work set the bleeding edge of visceral and unrestrained artwork for the environment and content expected in Judge Dredd and 2000AD itself. While John Wagner returned to his creation, McMahon continued on as the lead artist on Judge Dredd.

In 1979, taking a break from art droid duties on the Dredd, McMahon began on Pat Mill’s Ro-busters (following a freelance agent pursuing rogue or out of control robots in the future) and the more brutal and savage spin-off, ABC Warriors, alternating with Kevin O’ Neill. While working with O’ Neill, McMahon’s work became tighter and his characters began to become meatier and fuller in stature.

McMahon returned to Judge Dredd for ‘The Judge Child’ and introduced high contrast artwork for the following series ‘Block Mania’, separating more clearly black and white in his compositions. Due to complete 9 episodes, McMahon bowed out after only 2 due to the punishing nature of his newfound detailing and Mill’s introduction of extensive crowd scenes for the battle between the blocks depicted in the episodes. The work was completed by Ron Smith, Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland. Having handled 2000ADs primary character, McMahon needed a new character to draw.

As McMahon returned from a 2 year gap from 2000AD (in which he brought his distinctive style to Doctor Who Magazine), a character that had suffered initial difficulties reared its unwashed celtic head. McMahon met Slaine and applied a new style, unleashed from the sterile science fiction he introduced a more naturalistic, compositional and flared style to his work. The tones were deep and luxurious, the action visceral, uncontained and brutal where necessary and light and human when necessary. His character’s remained grotesques with elongated or extended features but upheld natural structure and anatomy at the same time. McMahon was applying abstraction and realism in equal measure to pages crowded with detail.

In 1984, McMahon disappeared from the scene only to return again after a long illness that prevented him from drawing in 1991, with the Last American, written by Wagner and Alan Grant, for Marvel’s Epic imprint. His style had evolved once again and met perfectly with the stark and deranged story of a US Soldier placed into suspended animation before a Nuclear War in order to restore order after it. Ulysses Pilgrim, the last American the title refers to spends three issues trying to find survivors, accompanied by three slightly malfunctioning robots, and struggling not to lose his grip on his own mind to despair. McMahon’s art is ‘blocky, all straight, edgy lines and enclosed areas of flat deep, vivid colour, stylised yet straight faced, perfectly straddling the low-key realism of the story and Pilgrim’s increasingly desperate mental state.’

From this McMahon has worked predominantly in games design and his distinctive comic works have become few and far between. He featured in Hellraiser, an Alien Legion One-shot, an unfinished comic strip, ‘Mutomaniac’ in the doomed 2000AD spin-off Toxic!, occasional returns to Judge Dredd and a futuristic take on Batman in Legends of the Dark Knight, all of which saw him with a more simple and flattened style. New depth returned to his work in Sonic the Comic, Tattered Banners for DC Comic’s Vertigo, a return to ABC Warriors and a short Batman Black and White back-up story.

He applied his distinctive style to the Marvel Uk/ Panini Rugrats series which was cancelled early on in its run. He returned to the Judge in Prog 1539 of 2000AD. McMahon also worked on Tank Girl (made famous by Jamie Hewlett) -Carioca, a six-part mini series with Tank Girl creator Alan Martin.

Mick McMahon’s style drags complacent onlookers out of the read-and-wander-off-the end-of-the-page mind set that is prevalent in modern comic books. His stylism and distinctly vehemently organic style, backed with a consistently evolving and altering pack of methods and techniques which he seems to apply to each and every new project that he comes across has kept his work engaging, relevant and challenging for 30 years and ticking.

He is referenced by many influential artists as an inspiration, including Mike Mignola, Jamie Hewlett and Dave Gibbons. His unremitting stylism expanding well beyond the small number of comic works he may have comparatively created. The mark of a true practitioner.

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Practitioners 17: Brian Bolland (Part One)

Brian Bolland (born in 1951) is a british comic artist known for his meticulous, highly detailed line work and eye catching compositions. Reknowned as one of the ultimate Judge Dredd artists for British comic anthology 2000AD, he spearheaded the ‘British Invasion’ of the American Comics Industry with Camelot 3000 (with Mike W. Barr), the first ever 12 issue Maxi-series to be released by DC comics.

Most notable, however is his masterwork. Along with writer Alan Moore Bolland created one of, if not the definitive examples of Batman in the critically acclaimed Killing Joke.

Drawn into comics in 1960 – a couple of years after they began to arrive on the shores of England (in 1958) – by Dell Comics Dinosaurus! which appealled to his love of Dinosaurs at that age. Turok, Son of Stone and DC’s Tomahawk furthered his childhood fascination with the form and before long he was writing and drawing his own work from his home in Butterwick, Lincolnshire. A fascination with DCs heroes, in particular Batman and Robin was formed from seeking covers featuring ‘any big creature that looked vaguely dinosaur-like, trampling puny humans.’

It was in 1962, aged 11, most likely from comic books bought on a family holiday to Skegness that he came across Carmine Infantino’s Flash and Gil Kane’s Green Lantern and the Atom. His interest locked firmly on the artists of DC at the time, not favouring Marvel, feeling the covers were crude and the paper quality crude. Even at so young an age Bolland remembers taking direct reference from the early artists of the classic superhero series – including Joe Kubert (dad to Andy and Adam of X fame) and Mike Esposito. His appreciation of the work of Jack Kirby came through the eyes of a seasoned professional much later. His interest was in no way limited to US imports as he enjoyed the comparable UK strips of Syd Jordan’s Jeff Hawke and David Wright’s Carol Day as well as Valiant, a weekly comic book collection by Brit practitioners such as Eric Bradbury (Mytek the Mighty) and Jesus Blasco’s Steel Claw.

Coming from a quiet household Bolland embraced the cultural revolution taking place throughout his country while studying O Levels and A Levels in art, moving on to five years at art school in 1969 learning graphic design and Art History.In 1973 he wrote a 15,000 word dissertation on Neal Adams – an artist his teachers had never heard of. He is sited as saying that ‘During my five years in three art schools I never learnt a single thing about comics in any form from any of my tutors.’

His feverish need to understand the form led him to study off his own back the American legends of the burdgeoning art form from across the pond; Foster, Herriman, Alex Raymond and Winsor McCay, Noel Sickles, Mily Caniff and Roy Crane as well as the Europeans… Moebius, Manara, Breccia. Later the Filipinos – Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo. Discovering an untapped resource in these incredible figures of a seemingly undiscovered art form was like sailing the coast of a country no one around him knew existed. In a world in which comic creators are responsible for some of the most influential cultural icons and most reliable film franchises in popular culture its perhaps difficult to understand how exciting this glance at the edge of a culture formally unrecognised in the halls in which he was learning yet precise and clear in its form and intention might have been but I think its a position most of those who collect comic books would wish they could experience. And there he was at the edge of it – having familiarised himself completely with the form. All that was left was to try out for himself.

Bolland self-published fanzines which was published in underground magazines Friendz, International Times and OZ. Following a cover design for RDH Comix featuring Norwich Cathedral. But it was an underground magazine about to hit the big time as ‘the biggest weekly listings magazine’ named Time Out that gave Bolland his ‘first paid job’ producing a proper illustration of Jazz bassist Buddy Guy.

Meanwhile, he produced the first episodes of an adult Little Nemo in Slumberland parody entitled Little Nympho. This took off and he continued to design full page strips for a 50-copy fanzine entitled Suddenly at 2’0 Clock in the Morning as well as smaller strips entitled ‘ the Mixed up Kid’ to the Central School of Art’s college newspaper The Galloping Maggot.

But it was meeting and befriending Dave Gibbons (later of Watchmen / Green Lantern fame) at a comic convention at the Waverley Hotel in London, joining Art Agency Bardon Press Features. A couple of two-page strips featured with DC Thomson but Bolland would refer to this as his ‘lowest time’. However, it was a title through a client called Pikin that offered Bolland a chance to get his hands dirty. It was for a title to be sold in Nigeria (the first of its kind) and was a weekly comic book featuring an African Superhero named ‘Powerman’. He quickly realised that Gibbons could produce a page a day and struggled initially to keep up the pace. The pages had to simple and numbered because of the lack of familiarity in Nigeria to this form of work. Not only was this work “the best way to learn the simple rules of comic book storytelling,” but “better still, it was going someplace where nobody I knew could see it.” He “drew around 300 pages of that very straightforward, simple-to-follow work, and I guess the storytelling flowed naturally from that.” Even so friends from his school days had to help him occasionally to complete as he ‘was always struggling to get the last eight to ten pages finished’. A little help was also offered from Dave Gibbons and 2000AD and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’ Neill.

But it was here he struck a particularly lantern jawed law man associated with the success of so many of the greatest artists from the UK. As Gibbons joined Carlos Ezquerra at 2000AD for Prog 1, Bolland remained on Powerman but as it dropped monthly his agent at Bardon, Barry Coker offered him a cover on 2000AD. From his first he created more than a third of the first 30 covers. Moving inside 2000AD as well as taking on occasional inking duties on Gibbon’s Dan Dare was the dream and for prog 41, editor Nick Lauman called on Bolland to complete an unfinished Judge Dredd story from when on he became a regular artist on the title. He offered art to the most prominent Dredd storylines ‘Luna-period’, The Cursed Earth’, ‘ The Day the Law Died’, The Judge Child Quest’ and ‘Block Mania.’ He found it difficult to deal with the requirement to produce double page spreads (as Dredd started at the time) and Bolland struggled to complete the required work, eventually splitting it between himself and Mike McMahon.

Bolland was heavily influenced by McMahon’s ‘impressionistic’ style and described McMahon as ‘ the real idea man on Dredd,’ although acknowledging that ‘the average comics reader, certainly at the time, does tend to prefer realism.’ Aping the impressionism of McMahon and applying his own realism ‘finally cemented the iconic image’ according to Mark Salisbury. It was Bolland who created the look of iconic characters featured in Mega City One – namely Judge Death (and the other three Dark Judges) and Judge Anderson. Judge Death was drawn as ‘just another villain in just another excellent John Wagner script’ and was inspired by the look of Kevin O’ Neill’s Nemisis the Warlock. He also drew the great majority of Walter the Wobot: Fweind of Dwedd strips in 2000AD and the first three Dredd issues for the united states as well as a number of covers.

Mix that together with magazine covers for Time Out and every major comics publications (according to Wikipedia) and fanzines such as Nick Landau’s Comic Media News and Arkensword and the ‘hazard cards’ for a game called Maneater. And, as will be remembered around the age of 30 in the Uk completed two covers of the Fighting Fantasy Adventure Game Books and RPG scenario pamphlets for Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

He handled ad work through the agency – in particular Palitoy’s Star Wars toys 1n 1977 and on the associated material for the opening of the comic book shop Forbidden Planet. But his future lay across the sparkling Atlantic Ocean with a comic company that had spawned his interest to begin with…..

CONTD IN PART 2 (THURSDAY).

Practitioners 14: Pat Mills

Pat Mills is the ‘Godfather of British Comics’ but also its conscience. In spite of being at the birth of some of the most debilitatingly imaginative and indelible characters to grace the pages of British comics, Mills is driven by his views and beliefs. An iconoclast and sensitive and emotive writer at times he also has a light hearted darkness in his writing. His writing carries a very ‘english’ sardonic and ironic stance to propel his writing with intelligence and brevity while still imparting perspective and opinion. He trusts his readership and as such has seen success after success throughout his career. His books are notable for their violence and anti-authoritarianism but they offer an alternative view to more media friendly fare.

Born in 1948, he became a Sub-editor for DC Thomson & Co Ltd (Publisher of 2000AD, Beano and Dandy among others) where he met his perrenial collusionist John Wagner. In 1971 both left to go freelance and bizarrely given their later careers found themselves writing scripts for IPC’s girls’ and humour comics. In an act of delightful subversion seemingly more typical of later projects, both used their positions in the girl’s department as a convenient front to secretly create Battle Picture Weekly, along with Gerry Finley-Day at the request of IPC to offer an alternative to DC Thomson’s Warlord title. More violent and working class, Battle met with great commercial success perhaps as it had more of a plausible and wide reaching perspective than its competitor at DC – but having made it ready for launch, Mills resigned as Editor.

Creating a yet more controversial and gritty title in the boy’s title, Action in 1976 the title floundered against media protests in response to its high violence and anti-authoritarinist viewpoint and the title folded within 2 years and merged into Battle.

His next creation was the most legendary of all British comic books. The most successful Science fiction weekly in British comic book history was born. 2000AD was launched in 1977. As was typical of Mill’s generous creative stance he developed most of the early series before handing it over to other creators. He took over the development of Judge Dredd – 2000ADs most enduring character when John Wagner left.

Through the pages of 2000AD, Mills created indelible characters that would pock mark the face of British comics with shell holes, blade wounds and gunfire damage. Developing from Ro-Busters (a series about a robot disaster squad – surely due for a revamp soon) a mini-universe of anti-establishment titles formed taking in the incredibly enjoyable ABC Warriors (Battle droids for hire in a authoritarian universe built to withstand Atomic, Bacterial and Chemical warfare) and culminating in the absurdist Nemisis the Warlock (and incredibly anti-establishment anarchist chaos junky alien warrior). With these, Mills investigated themes of subversion, violence, dictatorship, the destructive nature of unabated imperialism and capitalism but did so with shiny robots and lunatic alien species. This proved Mill’s great ability to imbed clear politics and philosophies into popular culture, aided by Kevin O’ Neill (present for the creation of all three) and greats such as Simon Bisley, Mike McMahon, Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy.

His chaotic, anarchist tendencies burst out in a warp spasm of celtic might in Slaine, a juicy barbarian fantasy based on Celtic mythology and neo-paganism, which he created with his then wife Angela Kincaid (with whom he also created a series of Children’s books; The Butterfly Children) who he continues to write today with some of the most innovative artists such as Clint Langley and continues to break the boundaries of wild art ever since Simon Bisley’s tenure on Slaine: The Horned God which cemented the title into an ageless classic for future comic book fans.

Globally, Mills has broken the US and more successfully (and rewardingly as it had been one of his life goals) the French markets. The first with Marshal Law, a savage superhero satire (common place now) published by Marvel Comics’ Elite imprint in the late 1980s, drawn by O’Neill. The second was cracked with Sha, created with French artist Olivier Ledroit.

Match that with a hand in IPC’s Horror comics aimed at girls, Chiller, Dice Man, featuring characters from 2000AD and more anarchic and deliberately subversive work such as Crisis (1988-1991) – a politically aware spin-off from 2000AD for older readers (including a Carlos Ezquerra drawn tale, The Third World War, a polemical critique of global capitalism and the way it exploits the developing world). Crisis launched the careers of Garth Ennis, John Smith and Sean Phillips. In 1991, almost in reaction to his own work in Crisis – less politically worthy and anarchic title, Toxic was founded – along with Tony Skinner, including Accident Man (a hired killer who makes every assassination look like an accident). The title lasted less than a year but launched the careers of Duke Mighten and Martin Emond.

Mills continues to write Slaine, Bill Savage, Black Siddha and ABC Warriors in 2000AD as well as the franco-belgian comic Requiem Vampire Knight, with art by Olivier Ledroit and its spin off Claudia Chevalier Vampire, with art by Franck Tacito.

But it is the First World War series Charley’s War, written by Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhorn reprinted in hard back recently that might live beyond its associated characters. Depicting the days of the First World in brave and unflinching writing and appearing in the pages of Battle from January 1979 to October 1985, Mills made clear through the eyes of his central character, 16 year old Charley Bourne, the reality of that great conflict without diminishing the characters into victims or unrealistic heroes but normal men diligently vying to reach the far end of a savage and clandestine war. His depiction of Shell shock harrowing and poignant it is my firm hope that this piece is offered to future generations to enjoy and understand.

More projects continue to appear. Greysuit, a super-powered government agent and Defoe, a 17th century zombie hunter drawn by Leigh Gallagher began recently in 2000AD. Mills has formed Repeat Offenders with Artist Clint Langley and Jeremy Davis ‘to develop graphic novel concepts with big-screen potential’ – an eventual plug-in to the way the rest of the industry is heading, beginning with American Reaper (optioned by Trudie Styler’s Xingu films), Mills has written the Screenplay.

Whatever lies ahead for the Godfather of British comics I hope his future doesn’t lie too heavily in the US or France or Belgium. Because uniquely I think, Pat Mills belongs to us. A writer who personifies, perhaps better than any, what it is to be English. A realist, surrealist, idealist and pragmatist rolled together. With a head nod to the absurd and the edgy and a knowing and wise grip on otherwise difficult or divisive subject matters he sees the light in the dark. His clanking monstrosities battling zombie bikers on Mars carry the same determined fatalism and charm as a mud soaked soldier in the trenches of Charlie’s War. America go hang; we’ve got the Mills.

A typical look at the life (and deaths) of English servicemen on the frontline (Charley's War, Battle, 1979-1985)