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Home ¦ Features ¦ Brendan McCarthy interview part 1

Brendan McCarthy - A 2000 AD Review Interview
17th October 05
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2000 AD - Brendan McCarthy
Self portrait as Kafka
Interview by Gavin Hanly

Brendan McCarthy is perhaps best known to 2000AD readers for his seminal work in the comic during the 1980s. He developed an individual style that made his work instantly recognisable to all readers while being like nothing they’d ever seen before. From creating the infamous “pointy” Dredd helmet through to the surrealism of Sooner or Later, he gained a dedicated following that remained hooked by his work beyond 2000AD on Rogan Gosh and Skin among others.

Later, he moved onto film and television work bringing his unique sensibilities to Reboot, Shadow Raiders and more. He has recently released a visual biography to ecstatic acclaim from the comic industry and we were very happy to put him to the first live 2000AD Review interview at this year’s Dreddcon..

GH: I’d like to start off with your early work, and your very earliest memories of art in general.

BMC: I’ve been drawing ever since I was a kid. Like most artists it was an instinctive thing to do. If you’re slightly prone to daydreaming and are socially inept, it gives you a bit of social interaction with people. So, at school, I used to draw comics and put people from the school playground in them. Every week, they would want to see the next episode of their adventures in the back of my maths exercise book. At the same time I was reading comics as well.

I’ll tell you what’s really weird. Because most of you guys are a generation younger than me, if I quote things like the Numbskulls, you probably won’t know what that is…

GH: Actually, we’ve recently had a Judge Dredd strip on the site, which was a pastiche of the Numbskulls…

BMC: Ah - so what goes on in Judge Dredd’s head… very good.

So I related drawing to storytelling, because comics were my primary reading material other than children’s books. I’m talking about being quite young, from the age of 7 through to about 12. [With regards to] children’s book illustrations, I’m glad that Bryan’s mentioning things like Rupert the Bear (Bryan Talbot brought up the point that Rupert appears in every panel of Rupert the Bear books, in his earlier talk). Although Rupert the Bear is really boring - I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to read it, It’s like “Rupert has been a bad bear…” all that kind of bollocks - the actual art is superb, especially the earlier Alfred Bestall stuff which is brilliant.

2000 AD - Brendan McCarthy 

So for me [my inspiration] was a mixture of English book illustrations and English comics, which eventually gave way to American comics and the more dynamic styles of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Also, when I was very young, you could walk into newsagents which had spinning racks where you had all the American comics. I actually remember buying Spiderman comics off the rack – there used to be loads of them. For me, it’s a shame that comics aren’t just in the culture more rather than now pushed to the margins as a specialist thing.

GH: It seems to me that European and Japanese work has more acceptance in general culture?

BMC: Yes but, then again, one of the nice things about comics, when I was a kid, was that they were frowned upon – there was something unsavoury about comics and people were a bit “good heavens” about them. Now we’re all into graphic novels and Daniel Clowes and cappuccinos.

GH: What do you think of the term Graphic novel?

BMC: I don’t like to use it myself – that’ll be Daniel Clowes…

GH: I personally find that it tries to apologise…

BMC: Yes, I agree with you, comics or anything like that is fine with me.

GH: So when did you first think about publishing something?

BMC: I think there’s something of the entertainer in anybody that does comics - I used to sign myself “The Lionel Blair Tendency” for a while, when I was drawing - because I think that you want to get it out there and seen by people. I don’t want to draw stuff just for myself although, if you do pick up a copy of Swimini Purpose, half of it is drawings I did for myself. But there comes a point where I do want to get it out and in a way an unlooked-at drawing is the same as an uneaten meal. What’s the point of it?

GH: You worked in underground comics and had things published in Sounds magazine. What can you tell us about that?

2000 AD - Brendan McCarthy
Sometime Stories
BMC: I think Sounds was my first ever published piece. In those days, if you were a little bit alternative, there was no outlet other than where Bryan’s work first appeared: Brainstorm comics and I think he might have done something in Nasty Tales too. Bryan self-published Brainstorm and Nasty Tales was the other UK underground comic. Because my work wasn’t specifically hippyish, I wanted to do something a bit different. Something more from the sensibility of David Bowie rather than Pink Floyd – at that time all this was very, very important. I got involved with a publisher. I was at a comic shop in Notting Hill and he said “I’ll publish your comic” and so myself and my friend Brett Ewins put together a comic called Sometime Stories. I can’t remember if that predated Sounds or not. But what I’m trying to say is that there were not that many venues for anything that wasn’t Captain Hurricane or something - It was pre-2000AD.

The only other real venue was to try and blag your way into a music magazine, and Sounds was like the more rockier version of the NME. So I sent my work into sounds and they said - all right, come up with a comic strip for us. I said “great” and I got paid something like £20 a week. Given that the dole was something like £17 a week, I thought that if I can’t earn £20 a week, I’ve got to be an idiot. So that was my first thing. Initially I wrote and drew it myself, but I found that the writing took longer than the drawing and it really wasn’t that good. I met a friend of Brett Ewins called Peter Milligan who was at college with Brett at Goldsmiths studying conceptual art. Pete turned his hand at writing the script for Sounds so we started working together.

GH: You’ve worked with Peter Milligan on many things over the years - Rogan Gosh and Skin as well as 2000AD work. How would you describe your working relationship with him?

BMC: Well I haven’t worked with Pete since about 1990 on Rogan Gosh, so that’s about 15 years. With Pete, it was a very simpatico relationship. We had a lot of fun and we’d invariably end out getting drunk and saying “wouldn’t it be great if …” etc. Generally, I would have an idea for something, go to Pete and say “what do you think of this?” He’d say that’s either “bollocks” or “fantastic.” If it turned us both on, and once we’d gone over the story, Pete would go off and write it.

What we liked to do, which is what I don’t think a lot of writer/artist teams do, but they should, is that we liked a bit of a tennis match creativity going on. We’d discuss the story, Pete would write a draft of the script, I’d get the script and as I was drawing it I’d change it or find I can add a gag here or a moment there. I would redo the script – not radically, but I might add an extra page of stuff. I’d give it back to Pete and say “it’s done” and he’d say “what the fuck’s all this stuff?” I’d say “I don’t know but you’ve go to write some dialogue for it”. He would invariably come up with some stuff that would usually be funny or whatever, so we did have a bit of a bounce on stuff, which I liked. It made it more interesting, really.

I’ve never been someone who can follow those writers - someone like Alan Moore is the most extreme example - who will give you almost a page of description for one panel, even down to the point of something like the dust in the light. I could never illustrate a strip like that - personally, I need it to be very loose. John Wagner’s scripts for instance: Dredd turns “Drokk it”, he shoots the perp, “Fuck it” - I like that because it gives you the room to do what you want. You already know roughly what you need to draw from that.

2000 AD - Brendan McCarthy
ABC Warriors
GH: Have you ever come up against any editorial interference in your earlier work – especially as you started to develop your individual style?

BMC: Well, as most of you know if you know my early work, it was… the technical word for it is “crap.” Hopefully it’s an inspiration for people getting into art who can think “look how shitty Brendan McCarthy was when he started”. What that was about was that I wasn’t drawing in my true style – I wasn’t drawing out my own mode. There was a tendency to copy McMahon or preferably copy Brian Bolland. I was so naive when I first started drawing Judge Dredd that I didn’t know people used paint brushes to ink – Brian Bolland used to have this feathery line where it’s thick at one end and tapers thin. I used to actually draw these as an outline and fill them in with rotary pens – no wonder a page took me a week! It was really terrible.

I am embarrassed that I got good in public. I wish that I was good straight away like McMahon and Bolland. They were on the case and found themselves very quickly. For me, I didn’t get my stuff going until I did my own work in my own publications. Everybody is the authority on themselves and I would recommend to any artist that you’ve got to ride out of your own authority rather than aping other people. Aping is good to start with because you learn stuff, but after a while you’ve got to put all that away and do your own thing. That’s what’s interesting to people.

GH: Is there a particular piece of published material that was your first example of finding your style?

BMC: I did a bit of 2000AD stuff. I was never happy drawing in the style of Bolland, although I gradually moved over to the style of McMahon and I was more happy with that – the big boot Judge Dredd as they call it. I then went to America to try and sell a movie idea which was called Freakwave: Mad Max goes surfing – well before Waterworld. I couldn’t sell the film but I managed to sell it as a comic book with Pacific Comics. Although Freakwave started off with a Judge Dreddy style to it, over three issues it started to go into something else. Freakwave led into a comic called Strange Days and by then I was on my way.

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Original content (c) 2002 Gavin Hanly (contact 2000AD Review).