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Year of the Artist, Day 247: Brendan McCarthy, Part 1 – The Electric Hoax and Vanguard Illustrated #1

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Brendan McCarthy, and the comics are The Electric Hoax, which was published in Sounds in 1978 and “Freakwave: A Stranger in Paradise” in Vanguard Illustrated #1, which was published by Pacific Comics and is cover dated November 1983. These scans are from The Best of Milligan and McCarthy, which was published by Dark Horse in 2013. Enjoy!

I first saw Brendan McCarthy’s work on the covers of Shade, the Changing Man, but little did I know that his relationship with Peter Milligan went back over a decade, to the late Seventies. As I got to know his work more, I wished for access to those older stories, so when Dark Horse published this nice hardcover last year, I snapped it up, and it’s a tremendous book. It features McCarthy’s strip The Electric Hoax, which he drew while he was a student in art school. So let’s start with that!

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Even early in his career, McCarthy showed that he had a wonderful line and a tremendous imagination. First, you’ll notice that he was using images from pop culture (at this time, probably photographs from magazines) in his artwork, as the top row shows. The rocket taking off is not drawn, while in Panel 3, McCarthy drops in Patrick McGoohan, a Dalek, a camera, and some other stuff, as well as cut-and-pasted type. In the second row, we get straight pencils, and we can see how brilliant McCarthy is already. His designs reflect a punk sensibility (it’s London in 1978, so that’s not surprising), as even the “thought police” in the final panel are a bit punkish. McCarthy fills the bar with odd ducks, showing a predilection that he would never shake, even in his very recent work. To me, this feels very “British” – I don’t mean the British cultural references, but the style seems to me very “2000AD,” for whom McCarthy would do a bit of work over the next several years. But maybe that’s just me.

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Here’s another amazing page from McCarthy. Again, we get some masterful designs, from Rudcliff and his blank face and bowler hat, which makes the blank face more terrifying, if you ask me, to the decrepit old man in the final panel, with his giraffe-like neck and long face. McCarthy makes the most of his space, turning the tower into a nightmare of perspective in Panel 1 and using intricate line work to make the stony surface more medieval, while using a kind of makeshift Zip-A-Tone in the sky to make the clouds drearier. McCarthy’s characters are weird, sure, but notice that he knows how to draw a “normal” person, as Phoebe, despite her eye piece, appears to be a regular human, while O’Rotten (the dude with the top hat) has a slightly larger face than we’d expect, but he’s a good representation of a down-and-out squatter. McCarthy uses thick lines on the ancient dude in Panel 3 to make him look even older, while making his eyelids appear heavier, his nose longer, and his chin saggier than normal, again making him look more ancient. McCarthy’s inking and spot blacks are already really well done, even this early in his career.

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McCarthy has always been willing to show horrible violence, especially because he usually does it far more satirically than most, and here we get a violent scene that turns less violent when we see what happens to Human Ken. McCarthy does anger really well, as he clenches Sidney’s face well, crooking his eyebrows so they almost cover his eyes and going with his mouth open at the corners and bent in toward the center. His swipe with the chain saw is a bit awkward, but it’s probably because McCarthy was trying to fit it into the panel. He uses a lot of inks on both Sidney and Human Ken, which makes the scene a bit more brutal, even though he shows playing cards, not blood, spurting from Human Ken’s neck. McCarthy, as you can see, uses a lot of details – not only is the inking thick, but there’s a lot of it, showing the blood on the chain saw (Sidney has already killed some people) and the toughness of both characters’ skin. I imagine McCarthy added the text to all the pieces of paper fluttering around, too, even though Milligan is credited with the script. It just seems like something McCarthy would do on his own.

Over the next few years, McCarthy seemed to draw mostly for 2000AD, but I don’t own those stories and it seems like he’s credited as co-penciler with Brett Ewins, whom McCarthy was friends with. So I’m not sure I could have used them anyway, because I’m not sure if I could have figured out what was McCarthy’s work and what was Ewins’s. In 1981 he drew a story with Alan Moore, and I do own that, but it doesn’t show as much growth as I’d like, so I’m skipping it. In The Best of Milligan and McCarthy, the next story chronologically is Freakwave, so I’m going to show that. I still don’t like cheating, but McCarthy has changed his style quite a bit, so I’m trying to fit it all into five days, and needs must occasionally! So this is from 1983, after McCarthy had gone off to Australia and become obsessed with surfing and The Road Warrior. Those aren’t bad things to be obsessed with!

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McCarthy is already more accomplished, as we see with this page, as he uses a semi-splash to show the Drifter looming over the scene and him wind-surfing along. McCarthy’s face isn’t as odd as they would get, as the Drifter looks like a perfectly normal, good-looking dude of the 1980s. McCarthy is still very good at details, as we see the gear he carries and the way the sail is wrapped around the mast, with the inking creating the shadow of the mast quite well. If you notice, McCarthy is already doing some interesting things with coloring. He’s credited with “art,” but I have to believe he colored this himself, and notice that in 1983, he’s not using lines on the Drifter’s face, just shading, so that this coloring job looks more “modern” than a lot that was coming out at the time. His choice of pinks and blues is strange, but in this weird future, it makes a bit of sense. He wants to use pinks to make the water look alien, while he colors the surfboard and the Drifter blue to create the marine feel to the page. They’re interesting choices.

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More of McCarthy’s cool designs, as one of the wind-surfing bad guys is wearing a top hat and tails, because why wouldn’t he? I don’t know if McCarthy is known for action (I would think not, but who knows), but he does a nice job with it here. That final panel is fluid and laid out very well, as the Drifter shoots poor Top Hat. He keeps the panels where the characters speak to each other small, because we don’t need to see what they’re doing too much, and it opens up the page for the final panel, where McCarthy is able to show the duel nicely. Notice again that he uses a lot of inks, so even though his lines are fairly crisp, we get a lot of thick blacks that help blend elements of the scene together – the edges of the waves are clearly defined, but within the water, McCarthy uses spot blacks and colors to make it more roiling and rough. The colors, once again, are terrific, as McCarthy uses paint very well to create moods – Top Hat is colored a sickly yellow in Panel 2, while the Punk has green hair but a lot of orange, making him angrier. As we saw on the first page, McCarthy uses these paints to create spots and stripes on the sails and boards without any line work, which is more “realistic” and also somewhat unusual for the time period. It’s beautiful, though.

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McCarthy got stranger and stranger as he went along, but this page shows an interesting mix of the odd and the more mundane. Obviously, in Panel 1, we get two VW bugs strapped together as some kind of boat, arriving at “Paradise Found,” a settlement partly made out of abandoned vehicles. McCarthy uses solid line work to create this weird place, and he makes it look like a realistic if strange depot. Then the Drifter meets Tia and Nogo, and McCarthy makes her a beautiful but not insane-looking woman. Nogo is a bit more of a lunkhead, but he’s not too crazy either. McCarthy gives her cornrows and some exotic jewelry, but she wouldn’t look out of place on a beach anywhere in the world in the early 1980s (or even today). McCarthy, obviously, is already trying to do some weird stuff, but he’s perfectly capable of “normal” art, which is why his weirder stuff works so well.

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McCarthy introduces us to “Mickey Death,” which is an obvious parody of Mickey Mouse, although I’m not sure what happens with the character (as this is the end of this chapter and I haven’t read any more of it). Panel 1 gives us a nice view of the kinds of people McCarthy was drawing at this time – Captain Roaring is drawn more severely than Tia, with a thin, more angular face, far more hatching, violently raised eyebrows, and McCarthy gives him one thin eye and one wide eye, which as we’ve seen this year is a universal symbol of evil. Meanwhile, everything about Tia is more open – her eyes are wider, her face is wider, her nose is wider, and no lines crinkle up her face. Then we get Mickey Death, and McCarthy uses wonderful blacks to make him far more menacing, while still having a little bit of fun with the character, as the Mickey Mouse ears are prominently displayed. Mickey’s outfit is pretty typical for post-Apocalyptic garb, especially if we remember that McCarthy had seen The Road Warrior, as he gives Mickey shoulder pads, chains wrapped around him, and giant spiked gauntlets. In keeping with the twisted sense of humor that McCarthy often displays, his head piece is ridiculous, but it does allow him to display all those skulls, so he has that working for him.

(Coincidentally enough, a few hours before I posted this, I was dumpster diving in my comic shoppe’s 50-cent boxes and found Vanguard Illustrated #2, which continues the “Freakwave” story. For some reason, Dark Horse only reprinted the first issue’s story, not the next two – I think it only ran in three issues. Why they didn’t reprint the entire thing is beyond me. Anyway, I would have used that issue if I had found it earlier, because I like to get as close to the original as possible. The colors aren’t as bright in the original as they are in the reprint, but it doesn’t look like Dark Horse touched them up too much. I just wonder why they didn’t continue the story!)

This kind of surreal, detailed, colorful, amazing artwork would become McCarthy’s trademark. He was also very productive during these years, which makes it hard to decide what to show next. I’ll figure it out! While I’m pondering, you should really check out the archives!

11 Comments

I should read this hardcover.

His issue of Solo or Saucer of Zilk would be good recent choices.

Bill: Yes, you should. It’s awesome.

And that’s Zaucer of Zilk, mister! :)

Huh, that DH HC doesn’t have all of Freakwave? WTF? Glad I’ve got an issue of Vanguard Ill. with the completion of that story (I think).

Travis: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s a thick book and the story isn’t that long, so the page count wouldn’t go up too much. Who knows?

Hi Greg

Nice analysis and cracking choice of artist. I loves me some McCarthy.

Re his 2000ad work I think you may be confusing him with his brother Jim who worked with Brett Ewins and Milligan on, the excellent, Bad Company. (Well, first two books are excellent anyhow!)
They also did Bix Barton Master of the Rum and Uncanny together

Brendan’s 2000ad work is pretty stunning, some early ABC Warriors, designs for Grant Morrison’s Zenith and Judge Dredd’s Atlantis and mega epic Oz. All worth checking out.

Mind you now I’ve done a bit of actual research rather than just relying on memory I see that Brendan did some work with Ewins as well in late 70s.
I’ll get me coat.

Looking forward to your choices!

I love the art, especially on Freakwave – the coloring really makes the difference for me – and I think it was always the coloring in later McCarthy comics (esp. the covers) that immediately made me recognize his work.

Shade was my first McCarthy as well.

Man I miss this era, with so much variety coming out of the indies. Pacific, Eclipse, First, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, Vortex, Apple, etc, etc…. So much good stuff. Well, maybe not Continuity. Neal did put out some garish, bizarre stuff.

Dan: Don’t get your coat! :)

I imagine that since McCarthy was friends with Ewins, it’s not surprising that his brother was pals, too.

I’d love to get more of the 2000AD stuff from the early 1980s. They have collected some of it, and I’ve gotten some of it, but I need to find more. Usually it’s really good stuff.

David: McCarthy doesn’t always do his own coloring, but even when he doesn’t, he has good colorists working on it. That’s pretty neat.

Jeff: Poor Neal Adams, getting picked on like that! :)

Trying to think of when in 2000AD McCarthy broke away from the ‘McCarthy/Ewins’ style to his own. Probably ‘Sooner or Later’ with (surprise) Milligan which would have been around 1985/86.

The earliest McCarthy work on 2000AD I can recall was a cover somewhere in the #30s which would have been late ’77. It actually depicts one of the best monsters Kirby never drew. Whether it was McCarthy/Ewins or credited to Brett, I’m not sure.
Definitely credited to McCarthy were a few Judge Dredd The Day the Law Died (the Judge Cal epic saga) episodes around #95 by 1978. And ABC Warriors around #125 (Steelhorn) was superb – what a great series with O’Neill & McMahon too.

Another great choice!

Pulled the hardcover off the shelf to follow along with you, Greg. I remember there were a number of inclusion/exclusion choices I found a bit odd the first time reading through… Of course the book is called THE BEST OF MILLIGAN AND MCCARTHY, but, at least for me, a number of the stories it collects became hard to piece together or simply ended due to what didn’t make the cut. Certainly doesn’t hurt the art, though! I had trouble really getting into THE ELECTRIC HOAX but your breakdowns made me go back and appreciate it as art, with a less stringent aim of keeping the story straight. Love McCarthy and am looking forward to seeing some of his art I haven’t seen before in the coming days.

pandrio: Yeah, I couldn’t figure it out. If the first part of Freakwave is “the best,” why wouldn’t the rest of it be too????

I think appreciating The Electric Hoax just from an art viewpoint is probably the best way to do it! :)

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