“He was a SKIN.” A talk with Brendan McCarthy

The British comic strip Skin – conceived and drawn by Brendan McCarthy, written by Peter Milligan and coloured by Carol Swain – was commissioned by Fleetway Publications, who intended to publish it in Crisis magazine in 1990. The story revolved around Martin Atchet, a young skinhead whose arms are malformed from birth. Like so many real-life children in the 50s and 60s, the Martin character is born deformed because his pregnant mother is prescribed thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug whose effects on pregnant women are not properly tested.

Due to the raw and potentially controversial subject matter, the publishers soon changed their minds and withdrew their offer, however, and Milligan and McCarthy’s splendid work remained in limbo until 1992, when Kevin Eastman – co-creator of the Ninja Turtles alongside Peter Laird – finally made it available to the public via Tundra Publishing.

In Italy, Skin was published in three parts in Tank Girl magazine, namely from November ‘95 to February ‘96, and this original Italian edition is quite difficult to find. However, Hellnation Libri are now issuing a new Italian edition, edited and translated by Flavio Frezza (of Garageland magazine). For this interview, Flavio and the skinhead artist Alessandro Aloe (of Moriarty Graphics) had a chat with Brendan McCarthy, who like his co-author Peter Milligan was a skinhead in the very early 70s.

This interview was originally published in Italian on the Crombie Media blog.

You lived through the latter part of the original skinhead era when you were young. For how long were you involved in the subculture?

I was aware of the skinhead movement coming up in about 1971. That summer I got a Harrington, some Levi’s Sta Prest and a Ben Sherman shirt. I was too young to go to the pubs and clubs, but bought a few ska and bluebeat singles. That was about my involvement, as glam rock happened the following year, in 1972, and I moved on to Bowie, Roxy Music and the Velvets. The film A Clockwork Orange was a big influence too.

How did the collaboration with Milligan come about? We heard that he too has a skinhead background, but that you come from two different parts of London.

Pete was from North London, Muswell Hill, and I was from Hanwell, West London. We met through Brett Ewins, who was also a skin at the same time as me, and he lived just down the road. I used to draw skinhead comics in the back of my school exercise books and pass them round the school to be read. This bought me a degree of safety from being duffed over by some other thuggish kids.

Then I heard Brett was into comics too, so we became mates and like me, he dropped the skinhead thing when Bowie came along in 1972. Can’t tell you much about Pete’s skinhead adventures though.

Your representation of the subculture is extremely accurate, even in the details. For example, Martin wears a shirt with vertical stripes, which fell somewhat out of fashion after the original era. In fact, when Skin was first edited in Italian in the 90s, it became a minor cult comic – anyone who grew up a skinhead in those years remembers it very well. Have you had a good response from the skinhead audience?

Yeah, the skins liked it. There wasn’t much about skins in the culture except those Richard Allen paperback books and the film Bronco Bullfrog. But the music was popular. Everyone else hated the Skin comic and it was slagged off in the media when it was banned. It was a pain in the arse getting it published! Thank god for the Ninja Turtles. [interviewers’ note: at the time of going to press, the printers refused to go ahead with the job and Fleetway Publications, on the advice of their lawyers, decided not to publish it].

When people talk about the original skinheads, a recurring topic is prejudice against Indians and Pakistanis and phenomena such as ‘Paki-bashing’. Some original skinheads confirm that it did happen, but that it wasn’t confined to skinheads and that it is often exaggerated today, at least based on their experience. What are your memories of it?

Well, I lived next to Southall, the biggest Indian community in London, and I would often go down there on the local bus to check out Indian comics. At their markets I’d swap my Marvel or DC comics for Amra Chitra Katha comics from the local Indian lads. So I never saw any bother going on, but heard about it in the media. I have observed that the British and the Indians seem to get on very well, generally. I think it’s something to do with Hinduism and a basic compatibility between the two cultures.

Did you also have contact with other ethnic groups, such as Jamaican immigrants, or did you just listen to their music and maybe borrow some ideas for clothing?

There were some Jamaican kids who lived down the road and they were into ska, and later reggae. They wore crombies and oxblood plains and loafers – again, never any bother. It was pre 2-Tone, so it wasn’t a self-conscious ‘movement’, just ordinary kids at a young age around the early 70s who were into the same things.

Frankly, I got more aggro when I went all glam rock and aped Bowie and Eno. I developed a strong skill in running – you had to be nimble on your feet back then, otherwise you’d be given a good kicking by the local Neanderthals.

Did you have any other musical interests besides reggae? In Skin, Marc Bolan is associated with hippies, while today glam is recognised as an influence on Oi music. Also, many of today’s skinhead bands are strongly influenced by working-class glam bands such as Slade.

Oh yes, Slade were acceptable as they were an ex-skinhead band. We liked Slade. But there were a bunch of awful glam bands that we stayed clear of. They were strictly for the wankers to get into. Us more sophisticated artier types were busy aping Bryan Ferry and Lou Reed.

Let’s stay on topic. Were you in any way interested in the skinhead revival of the mid-late 70s and the early 80s Oi skinhead scene?

Never got into Oi but definitely liked 2-Tone. Did an indie 2-Tone inspired comic Doctor Cypher around the time that scene was happening. It was all done before I got my name established in comics.

It seems to us that your work, above all Skin, has a surrealist and expressionist streak running through it. We believe we can see these influences in the strokes of the illustrations, as well as in other details. Martin’s eyes, for example, are sometimes blank and dark, while other times his gaze is very intense, expressing his rebellion and tremendous anger. How did you get these results? Is expressionism part of your influences?

Well, both Milligan and I went to art college and got exposed to Expressionism and Surrealism and Dada. We started bringing those philosophies and art styles into our comics. With Skin, I contacted the indie comic book artist Carol Swain, one of the best UK artists of that era. I asked her to help me colour it as it was a mammoth job and I loved her work, which had a great street edge to it, and I thought she’s be perfect to collaborate with. Sometimes I’d draw over her colours to sharpen an expression up or whatever was needed, but mostly I’d leave her stuff alone as long as it worked on the page.

The punk years

The lack of real panels in the strips, with the story unfolding freely in the drawings, make Skin a masterpiece with strong surrealist and psychedelic connotations. Would you like to tell us about the techniques you used?

I pencilled the strip on coloured paper and then did an ink line, then erased the pencils so that Carol would have a simple clear line on the paper she could work with. You can see that line here and there in the art. I left it in, I didn’t care, as the roughness suited the book. I was very into choosing a style that worked for each project. For example, the Indian sci-fi strip Rogan Gosh was done in a psychedelic style that resembled the Indian-themed psychedelia that was around in the culture, especially in Jimi Hendrix album covers.
I didn’t want to do all the pages with panel boxes, I thought a free-flowing narrative would be held together by Pete’s great script, where the text balloons and captions were placed so that your eye keeps the narrative flow going — which worked really well. It suited the book.

In punk, Surrealist, Dadaist and Expressionist influences manifested themselves in clothing as well as in music and the visual arts, which wonderfully added to the expressiveness of punk and its desire to break down customs. Have you had any contact with punk?

Punk was a bigger influence on me than the skinhead stuff, honestly. I loved Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols graphics and you can see that post-Warhol abrasiveness in my work to this day. Punk coincided with my time at art college and I made a lot of punk-inspired paintings and collages. The punk influence was big in my first published work, The Eletrick Hoax for the UK music paper Sounds. That was my first collaboration with the Milliganista. The punk ethos had a big anarchic Dada influence to it.

Speaking of punk, did some of your experience with the world of subcultures go into your work for Mad Max: Fury Road?

Yes, I had done a Mad Max: Road Warrior inspired comic called Freakwave with Pete writing it. I was obsessed with Road Warrior for quite a few years. So when I met George Miller in Hollywood, I chewed his leg off asking all about that movie, how he shot it, why it was so great, those first two movies being a kind of ‘guerilla filmmaking’ and not the typical Hollywood nonsense. They had a gritty reality to them that I loved. “The Sistine Chapel of punk” as the writer JG Ballard dubbed them.

I pitched George an idea for a new Mad Max movie which he loved and he asked me to write and design it with him. So I was locked in a room with him for two years and we nutted out the story, script, characters and designs, and then storyboarded it. I was working on it when Mel Gibson was reprising the role. I still prefer Mel’s Max over the new guy, but that’s showbiz. Anyway, the film came out well in the end and was a more than worthy follow-up to the first three.

What about your literary influences? We believe we can detect an influence from 1970s pulp literature in Skin – even if the story is decidedly more reflective and intelligent than the books of Richard Allen, which was mainly exploitation-based and often had a conservative, if not reactionary, subtext.

Like everyone else at that time in the early 70s, those books were a cult and I read pretty much most of them. They certainly showed me that skinheads could be a good source of subject matter for comics. I wasn’t aware of the politics in them back then, I was too young to care — I was just into the story and characters and the gleeful recognition of a culture that I knew a lot about.

When I spotted a thalidomide skinhead in Ealing one day, the image stuck in my head and years later after I worked out the story and ending, I told it to Peter who wanted to write it. And he did an amazing job – it’s easily one of the best things he’s done. It’s very powerful, very moving and packs a punch, dealing with the brutal violence of corporations versus the later gang violence of skinhead culture. It’s probably the graphic novel I’m most proud of. It’s so relentlessly mental.

In my view it’s still one of the best British comics ever done, but it’s pushed away and unacknowledged by the UK comics crowd, who tend to be largely woke nerds. Because Skin is about skinheads, it’s ignored as being unsavoury and politically incorrect. I never had much in common with that comics scene and have mainly kept my distance from it. Everything a skin like Martin Atchett would hate. Kinell! [for the non-Brits among you, that’s “fucking hell” – Editor]

What are you doing right now – any new projects you want to tell us about?

I always have things on the go. I live in the west of Ireland these days and I continue to do my own art, paintings and pastel drawings mainly. I please myself, as usual.

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2 thoughts on ““He was a SKIN.” A talk with Brendan McCarthy

  1. Pingback: Skin, il fumetto: intervista con Brendan McCarthy – Crombie Media

  2. Pingback: He was a skin: a talk with Brendan McCarthy – Crombie Media

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