Sunday, October 14, 2007

The real Superheroes are off the page

"I've been told that I'm the most exciting artist in Britain, which is very nice, but it means nothing, it doesn't make any difference when I'm doing it, when it's just me and that blank sheet of board. What I'm trying to be is the best artist I can, and that's about hard work, not fretting over my place in the scheme of things."

Those are the words of Mick McMahon, the artist formerly known as Mike McMahon and a hero to a generation of artists like myself who 'oohed' and 'aahed' and 'what the fucked?' over his comicbook work during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Mick was and still is a pioneer in the comics field. Constantly evolving, constantly changing, constantly pushing the boundaries, Mick was the man who, more than anyone (except Brian Bolland maybe) defined that most iconic of British comic characters - 2000AD's Judge Dredd. While regular superheroes bulged muscle-bound in their spandex with steroidal ferocity, McMahon's Dredd was a skinny-legged, lantern-jawed anti-hero in oversized boots. He may not have had the sculptured torso of a Greek God but you just knew that he could kick the shit out of you. And once McMahon had helped to define this most fascist of coppers, he went on to do the same for the ABC Warriors (paving the way for later innovators like Simon Bisley) and the axe-wielding Celtic beserker known as Slaine.

While working on Slaine, McMahon produced what many claim is his best work to date. Like Dredd before him, Slaine was a fallible, wiry figure and as unlike the stereotypical superhero as you can get. While Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian was a pink-skinned Cimmerian Hulk-alike, Slaine relied on ale, his wits and the occasional warp-spasm to twat his enemies. McMahon's line work on the title is exquisite; every texture - leather, bone, wood - meticulously drawn and every figure bursting from the frame with barely-restrained energy.

But then, just as we all thought that Mick had reached the pinnacle of his career, he suddenly seemed to vanish from the mainstream. Occasional work surfaced, such as his much-applauded Last American mini-series with Pat Mills for Epic in the USA, Muto-Maniac for the short-lived creator-owned UK comic Toxic, and Tattered Banners for DC. Then came a stint on Sonic the Hedgehog. But this was not the same Mick McMahon we'd last seen drawing a million scratchy lines per panel to simulate the blades of grass in an Irish meadow; this new McMahon was angular and minimalist and anatomically strange. Durer had suddenly become Picasso and not everyone was happy with the change. Many comic fans were dismayed and confused, others angry. But McMahon was unrepentant. As he explained in an interview with Comics International:

'As long as I can feel that I'm making some sort of progress, however slight, from one job to the next, then I'm satisfied with how things are going.'

Since then, McMahon's work has been sporadic and infrequent. He's been mostly involved in the world of video game design work but he did recently return to 2000AD to draw Judge Dredd on the occasion of the comic's 30th birthday.

All of which brings me to the reason why I decided to pen this blog entry. Mick was one of the guests of honour at this year's International Comics Show at Millennium Point in Birmingham, along with Kevin Nowlan, Mike Mignola, Doug Braithwaite, Mike Carey, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Sean Phillips, Duncan Fegredo and many others. I was there as part of the Tripwire posse and, to my utter delight and fan-boyish glee, I got to talk to the great man. He's a shy and unassuming chap who shares many similarities with the characters he draws; edgy and vulnerable while Dreddishly unrepentant and bold. When asked for a sketch, he grabbed up his classic green Pentel and attacked my sketchbook like he was committing a homicide. Slash. Slash. Slash. And suddenly, there was Dredd threatening me from the page. Genius. The pic is at the head of this blog entry BTW.

So I asked him the question everyone's been asking for the last ten years, 'Where the Hell have you been for 10 years Mick?' 'Oh, I was around', he explained. 'I did all sorts of stuff. I just didn't do comics. But because that's what I'm best known for, everyone thought I'd vanished.' I put it to him that we need people like him to be more proactive in comics; we need innovators to fight against the generic computer-coloured slush that's become the comics mainstream. He shrugged and said, 'I just do what I do.'

It was typically modest of the man. And yet, for me, Mick is like the great fashion designers who turn out the weird, the wacky and the bizarre for the catwalks of New York, Paris, London and Milan. They look to push fashion forward by doing things that the rest of us haven't even thought of. And though some may scoff and point and ridicule, you can guarantee that watered-down versions of their outlandish new designs will be in the High Street the following year. So too with Mick McMahon. If it weren't for artists like him and Frank Miller and Brian Bolland and Mike Mignola and the late great Gil Kane and Jack Kirby, comics would all be as dull, uninspired and anodyne as the myriad reality shows that clog the arteries of our television schedules.

I want to see more Mick McMahon artwork. And I want it to be as dangerous and daring and completely bonkers as his previous stuff has been. I love Mick's artwork for the same reasons that I love listening to Bjork, Nine Horses, Radiohead, Jim Moray and Liquid Tension Experiment; for the same reasons that I watch Dexter, Charlie Jade, Ugly Betty, Jekyll, My Name is Earl, Chuck, Peep Show and The Mighty Boosh - They're all trying to break new ground. Some are more successful than others. But at least they're all trying.

Imagine a world where no one tries any more. It's a world of flaccid comics, unchallenging novels, impotent boy bands and 24 hour Big Brother.

Shoot me now.

Mick's Official Website
The Art of Mike McMahon Fan Site

More on the comics show in future bloggings.


Me said...

An unabashed homage to the 'off the wall.'
Good on you - you are clearly utterly 'geekily' into it and the passion in your writing encouraged me to search out more info.

jorge f. muñoz said...

amazing entry