by Jarrod Jones. In the winter of 1989 John Wagner and Colin MacNeil brought the boy known as Chopper to a heroic and tragic crossroads with “The Song of the Surfer”: The powerboard ace had successfully navigated the deadly Supersurf 11, defeated the contemptible Stig, fell atop his board and drifted towards the finish line as the final panels drifted up into the Oz skies. The story left the reader looking down on one of 2000 AD‘s most unique and daring creations, considering his great worth as the boy known as Marlon Shakespeare floated towards an unknowable fate.
Thrilling, concise, poetic, perfect. That could have been the end for Chopper, but of course it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. What happened next? What would a dance with death do to the spirit of such a vibrant and rebellious character? Tharg wasn’t done with ol’ Chopper, and new creators were chomping at the bit to soar the megathermals of the Oz Radback alongside this former Mega-City rebel. Chopper lived on!
Enter: Brendan McCarthy. Surreal artist and Thargian creator bot turned film designer and journeyman, McCarthy had just returned to comics after a storied career in Hollywood. His contributions to the George Miller-directed Max Max: Fury Road (he co-wrote and designed the Academy Award-winning film) had left him feeling he’d “likely never top” the film’s aesthetic and critical successes; all it took was a fateful phone call to lure him back into the sequential fold—creatively seasoned, centered, and ready to push the form towards new and exciting places. And Tharg was there, as ever, waiting to see what he had planned.
Or, as McCarthy puts it: “I wanted to get back to basics and just draw some damn comics.”
Chopper: Wandering Spirit is a collection that celebrates a character known for defiance and spiritual rebirth, but it also serves as a tribute to one of 2000 AD‘s most daring artistic voices. It doesn’t take much reading through the volume’s collection of stories to notice that McCarthy—whose own journey has also reaped grand rewards, spiritual and otherwise—shares a sort of connection to the character. When he talks about Chopper, and about his career across multiple mediums, it’s clear that the artist knows that he’s precisely where he needs to be, and he knows exactly what he wants, creatively, from all future endeavors: “I don’t want comics to replicate films, I want them to exist on their own terms.”
DoomRocket spoke with Brendan McCarthy about this upcoming collection from 2000 AD and Rebellion Publishing, his time working in film and his subsequent return to comics, and the impending arrival of a certain Glammatronic Fantasia. (A surprise announcement follows, Earthlets. Read on…)
1. These days it seems you attach yourself to comics projects that inspire you to go buck-wild in that patented Brendan McCarthy manner. Surfing the sands of the Oz Radback seems a perfect fit. What was it about Marlon Shakespeare that brought you back to the Megazine?
Brendan McCarthy: Coming back to live in the UK after years in Hollywood, I was struck that 2000 AD and the Megazine were the only British comics that had original material and were for sale in ordinary newsagent outlets across the land. The other UK stuff is mainly either in comic shop ghettos, or is licensed children’s toy product or reprints of US superhero comics. I wanted to do new stuff and have it seen by ordinary readers, just like when I casually picked up 2000 AD as a young guy. I had a desire to make 2000 AD a ‘must read’ comic again. I think it’s a very important venue for UK comics creators.
I also felt that I wanted to get back to basics and just draw some damn comics after many years designing and writing films and TV series. After creating The Zaucer of Zilk for 2000 AD (with the very talented Al Ewing) and doing a few warm-up Dredd shorts, I wished to take on something longer, set in the Mega-City universe.
With Matt Smith, the current editor, we cooked up a Chopper story with the initial hook that it would feature the return of The Judda (who, in the end, didn’t feature as prominently as we’d first envisioned). David Baillie was picked by Matt to turn the storyline into a script and he produced a nice, fast-paced script that had some good cliffhanger moments. He did a great job of combining Aboriginal mythology with far-out science tech, like the nano-clouds.
2. In “Wandering Spirit” you revisited the Oz Judges, a facet of the Dredd mythos you had a hand in designing years ago. Could you tell us a bit about that design, how you wanted to make them stand apart from the Mega-City One brand? What kind of padding could possibly prepare a Judge for the dangers of the radback?
BMcC: Yes, that’s correct, I invented the Oz judges and designed their costumes (as well as the Brit Cit and Japanese judges). It’s about 30 years on from when I last thought about them, so I kept the basic design but sharpened things up. They’re still wearing shorts inside the Mega-City environments and have that larrikin easy-going vibe. It gives them a collective personality that’s different to the the more overtly fascist Mega-City One judges.
After having made my definitive statement on post-apocalyptic costuming with Mad Max: Fury Road, I didn’t want to get into a big tribal thing with the Radback muties, so I just made them kind of generic punky ‘road warrior’ types.
Frankly, I was more interested in creating the characters of the Aborigines, particularly Wally the ‘clever man’. Often, it’s harder to create a believable ‘ordinary’ character. With David’s very nice character writing, I think it worked well.
3. Let’s talk about the margins of the pages in “Wandering Spirit”. At times there seems to be an order to these background patterns, like an array of black holes, and in others things get more intense, like the swirling chaos parade your eyes give you after you’ve briefly glanced into a bright light. Why did you model your pages this way?
BMcC: I’m very bored with comics that just ape film and TV storytelling. I know everyone wants to sell their strip as a Netflix series, so comics have become overtly tailored to that aim. Maybe because I spent 20 years in the movie/TV industry, I came to see comics with a fresh eye. I don’t want comics to replicate films, I want them to exist on their own terms as comics. After all, they’re not films; they don’t move, they don’t have sound. The comic experience is totally different. What the mediums have in common is stories.
I use the designs and colours in the background margins as a kind of ‘mood music’ where I accentuate what is happening in the sequence I’m drawing. I’m very influenced by Aboriginal painting and have studied and collected it for decades. What intrigued me was the creation of a kind of ‘digital tribal’ look in the borders, to give the strip a more unique Australian flavour. I coloured the first episode myself to set it up and then the great colourist Len O’Grady took it from there. I would get the coloured pages back and then ‘remix’ bits where I thought it needed it. Len was a crucial member of the Chopper creative team. I never see colour as an afterthought, as something to fill in the black line artwork.
I have been studying the Fauvist painters, Matisse in particular. How he creates atmosphere and space in his paintings, with colour rather than line inspires me. So I leave plenty of space in the art for the colours to shine and become as much a feature of the strip as the black line. My drawing has become much simpler over the years, mainly to let the colour do its work.
I happen to think that, where it really works, it looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s a new direction for comics to go in, to rethink the impact of the page and the spreads.
4. “Wandering Spirit” has a lot of Steve Ditko in it, which reminds me of ‘Fever’, that Spider-Man/Doctor Strange crossover you did for Marvel back in 2010. What is it about Ditko’s work that fires your synapses?
BMcC: I’ve had to ban Ditko from my reading as I was too engulfed in his artistic vision. As an artist, it’s great to immerse yourself in another’s universe, but I wanted to break free from his influence. These last few years, I have been really looking at Alfred Bestall, the best of the Rupert Bear artists. I think he’s the quiet genius of the British comic strip. Mainly for his black line and character work, but his watercolour pictures are also deeply beautiful. I suppose I’ve come back to British comics with a desire to create new innovations in the artform. So, at the moment it’s bits of Bestall mixed with the Fauvist/psychedelic genres.
5. Psychedelic imagery allows a certain amount of freedom in comics, and in my estimation your work has only grown more out-there these past years, more experimental. Where does this strange imagery come from? Psychotropics, transcendental meditation, lots of sleep? Is psychedelia an act of creative rebellion, a chance to shake away the day-to-day drudgery that comes with drawing comics? How do dreams factor in your work?
BMcC: Sure, I experimented with LSD and mushrooms in my youth and immediately got the message that these substances impart: Consciousness (the basic awareness that is looking out of your eyes right now, reading and cognizing this), is refracted through the personality and is kind of ‘boxed in’, but is in fact, not a thing (what actually is a thought made from?) but contains and creates the conceptual world of time and space and form. All experience, the world, happens in your awareness. Once I understood this, I didn’t see the need to take any more psychedelics.
There followed about 30 years of intense reading into all forms of mysticism and theoretical physics, from the Sufis (the mystic side of Islam) and Buddhists, to finally the Indian teachings of the Vedanta. I explored these ideas in the comic Rogan Gosh (created with Peter Milligan); Eastern mysticism coupled with ordinary life in North London, using a curry house as the interface for all the comings and goings into past lives and transcendental union with God.
My recent comic series Dream Gang (Dark Horse) covered this territory, but from the perspective of dreams—experiences that appear to be totally real, but have a curious in-built feature, which is the ‘waking up’ part. I think it’s astonishing that we can be completely immersed in a dream reality when asleep and then wake up and say “it was just a dream” and dismiss it. The mystics say that this ‘reality’ we’re in right now can also be ‘woken up’ from (called Enlightenment).
Which I think is pretty important information!
6. The irreverence and acid-washed imagination in your work pairs especially well with satire, your ace Peter Milligan collaboration ‘Sooner or Later’ being a grand example. When you were coming up in comics, your work took precision aim at contemporary life, politics, music, etc. Do you feel there are comics out there today that have risen to the challenge of properly satirizing today’s rather ridiculous state of affairs?
BMcC: What I find disappointing is how much the ‘Party Line’ now dominates pretty much all the entertainment industry. Put a foot wrong on Twitter and the mob will descend and you’ll find yourself unemployed pretty fast.
In the 80s, in the ‘British Invasion’ iconoclastic period of comics, there was much to satirise. But as you get older, you come to understand how much of the ‘counterculture’ was a social engineering project by the establishment to channel youthful dissent into the safe, ready-made ‘rebellious’ world of drugs and black-clad tattooed hipster edgelords!
I was taught critical thinking at school by teachers—ordinary men and women who were involved in a real fight against the evils of totalitarianism in the 1940s, so I tend to be wary of mass movements that persecute dissident thought.
7. You’ve jumped around mediums, from comics to animation to film and back again. What is it about drawing and coloring comics that challenges you today? Do you believe there are limitations to the medium, and if so, how does one go about smashing them?
BMcC: I got out of comics at the end of the 80s. I felt I had said what I wanted to creatively say in the medium with the Strange Days series, Paradax!, SKIN and Rogan Gosh. One thing most readers aren’t aware of is that drawing comics largely involves sitting at a board all day, year after year, which can get quite boring. I’m very slow with my art, and so earning a living was really difficult for me. My glamourous 80s hey-day in comics was spent living below the poverty line…
As I neared 30, I decided that I wanted some adventure and to earn some money, and got a gig developing pop videos during the MTV boom. That led onto designing the world’s first (pre-Pixar) CGI TV series, the much-loved ReBoot. Then came work in Hollywood movies and I was hired by the Saturday Night Live crowd to develop a film of the Coneheads sketch (which if you haven’t seen it, is pretty good—with some decent sci-fi stuff in it). After a few more movies in Los Angeles, I bumped into George Miller and pitched him a Mad Max 4 movie; a few months later I was on a plane to Sydney to cook up a new installment—which eventually became Mad Max: Fury Road.
After the huge success of that film, I figured it’s unlikely I’ll top it. And it’s a genuine classic, up there with the early Terminators, Aliens, Blade Runner, etc.
I still had a hankering to draw comics, especially as the medium was changing, due to the new possibilities of digital creativity. Out of the blue, DC Comics got in touch and asked if I’d like to do the final episode of their Solo series. It was a great gig, well paid and very freeform… It was like doing the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” in comics, the weird last track at the end of the album. That got me hooked on comics again!
8. Are there any writers working today that excite you? Anyone you might want to collaborate with on some sort of creator-owned project somewhere in the future?
BMcC: There’s a few out there, but negotiating with writers over creative input to a story can be a pain in the neck. Although writers are the dominant voice in comics, I think projects created by collaboration can often be striking: Lee/Kirby come to mind, or in music, Lennon/McCartney, Morrissey/Marr as a few examples. My work with Pete Milligan in the 80s was very collaborative and had a certain magic to it.
I’m aware that most comic book artists like to get a script and just draw it. But I’m more of a Jack Kirby creator, in that I create original concepts, characters and stories (which by the way, is ‘writing’) and I enjoy the to-and-fro of the creative process. It’s how I did Fury Road for example: me and George Miller sat in a room for a year in Sydney and we came up with the whole blueprint of the story, characters and design of the movie. Yes, there was a screenplay.
I like thinking up crazy ideas and characters; from thalidomide skinheads to post-apocalyptic surfers to dream voyagers. And, of course, Zaucers of Zilk.
I have at least six new stories written and designed. It’s a matter of finding the right publisher and deal so that you can participate in the success of the IP that you created.
9. What’s the biggest change in the way comics folk treat you now that you’ve returned to the medium with Oscar bonafides and box-office clout stacked atop your résumé?
BMcC: As far as I know, I’m the only comics creator to write and design a big Oscar/Golden Globe-winning movie that is considered a true classic. But when I’m in the comics industry, they tend to see you in your previous historical role as an artist. So strangely, it doesn’t make much difference; it’s still a hustle to sell a new comic series, Oscars or not.
I’ve been working in the comics industry for 40 years or more, and after a while, you experience the ebb and flow of going in and out of fashion. Leaving comics for nearly 20 years was a wise move. I learned a whole new set of skills with animation and then feature films, mainly in story structure, narrative flow and design. It changed how I think about creating comics.
In a perverse way, I get a secret satisfaction when the movies or series aren’t as good as the comics. That’s when you really see that comics is a unique medium unto itself. I’m much more in favour of doing comics however you like, and then if some producer wants to adapt it for film, they can go for it. To me, tailoring comics to look like movies or TV creates a sameyness in the form.
10. What are you currently up to?
BMcC: I’m drawing the last third of a new Zaucer of Zilk comic series for 2000 AD. This time it’s Peter Hogan doing a groovadelic job on the script from our storyline, with Len O’Grady back on the colours and outdoing himself. He’s one of the best colourists in the industry. His painted work is excellent and we have a great artistic chemistry.
I happen to think the Zaucer would make a fine TV series, either CG animated or live action in a Tim Burton style. It’s David Bowie meets Willy Wonka, with a darker David Lynch vibe running through it… The Doctor Who/Mighty Boosh audience would lap it up.
But our job as comics creators is to be creatively outré and not worry about whatever else things become in the future. Making the comic a lot of fun for the readers of 2000 AD is our foremost duty!
The Zaucer of Zilk is British comics’ Doctor Strange. I’ve always wanted to create a character that becomes part of the pantheon of British comics characters. I think he’ll become established in time, and when new artists and writers continue the character it’ll be fascinating to see how he develops.
Other than that, I have written and designed some new CG animated projects, which I will pitch soon. But it’s best to be linked with a production company who can actually make the show, it gives more credibility to the project for the buyer.
I recently had a show of my paintings here in Ireland. It was my first exhibition for over 30 years and it was good to see another facet of my art collected together. That’s when you can get an idea of your themes and obsessions. Often the things I’ll paint about and new techniques I explore will work their way back into my comics. With the Chopper: Wandering Spirit series, I passed my knowledge of Aboriginal tribal art and sorcery (dreamtime cosmology, bone-pointing, fast walking, etc.) to the writer David Baillie, which gave the strip its unique flavour. I really enjoyed doing that series, and with David’s excellent script and the superb coloring by mainly Len (with additional tinkering by myself) I think it is already an instant classic—and essential Chopper reading.
‘Chopper: Wandering Spirit’ releases on 12 June. You can pre-order it now.
Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Chopper: Wandering Spirit’, courtesy of ‘2000 AD’ and Rebellion Publishing!
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