Let us share our insane juices
Rereading Paradax by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy.
In every medium there are pieces of art ignored at the time that become enormously influential. The Velvet Underground are the obvious example in music; according, disputedly, to Brian Eno, everyone who bought their first album formed a band.
Paradax is 32 pages long – four eight-page episodes – in total, with two covers. It’s been published twice: the first three episodes in Eclipse mini-series Strange Days were reprinted in Paradax #2 by Canadian publisher Vortex Comics, the last episode in Paradax #1 alongside two unrelated strips. I could only find the first of those two comics scanned online with some effort; the second was kindly scanned and sent to me by fellow comics blogger Full-Page Bleed. If you weren’t buying comics in the 80s, and you weren’t on the cutting edge of the changes to the mainstream, you’re unlikely to even have heard of it. There’s DC Implosion stuff that’s better known than Paradax. It’s the definition of obscure.
To say that it’s been influential, then, seems counterfactual; how can something that nobody read have an influence? But, as with the Velvets, it’s not about reaching a mass audience. It’s about reaching the influencers, the ones who then incorporate those influences into their own work and whose work then has an impact on the cultural mainstream.
Being specific: Animal Man puts a jacket on over his skintight costume in his Grant Morrison-written miniseries in the late 80s. Five years later, the Superboy who makes up a quarter of the quartet replacing Superman after his death, who therefore stars in one of the biggest-selling comics of one of comics’ biggest-selling decades, wears a leather jacket over his costume. Across the mainstream superheroes, like Adam and Eve realising their nakedness, dig into the wardrobe and get their jacket on. It becomes a defining look for the mainstream. It’s still current; when Jim Lee briefly redesigned Wonder Woman, he put a jacket on her.
Where do all those jackets come from? From right here. From halfway through Paradax’s second episode, where he ventures out onto the street in skintight latex looking like Kid Flash and is violently and viciously mocked by the streets of New York, called a commie, a honkey and a paedophile. He retreats to his apartment, his girlfriend sorts him out with a new jacket in the Michael Jackson Thriller style, he puts on a black T-shirt, ripped jeans and red trainers and his dignity is restored. One scene, one character, still bouncing around the echo chamber of superhero comics.
Brendan McCarthy is one of those guys with a following. Those who’ve heard of him love him, while the majority of comic fans hardly know who he is. And, to be fair, there’s little enough actual work to point them to. He did stacks for 2000AD, especially Dredd, back in the day but was still finding his feet. He did Sooner or Later for the same title, a one-page-a-week satire that the younger me hated. He did costume designs for Grant Morrison’s Zenith and Doom Patrol. He did covers for the first 20 or so issues of Shade, the Changing Man, and a great dream interlude in one of the first post-Scream issues. He did a couple of projects with Milligan, Rogan Gosh and Skin, that I hope to cover in the near future. And, a couple of decades later, he’s come back to comics with an issue of Solo, a Spider-Man/Dr Strange miniseries, and Zaucer of Zilk for 2000AD. It’s an idiosyncratic body of work to say the least, and there’s very little to point to and say “there, that’s Brendan McCarthy.” Only the very recent stuff is still in print.
Peter Milligan… well, in the late 80s when Brits had the drop on the comics industry there was a system. Watch them evolve from raw to amazing in 2000AD, then pick up whatever title they start on for DC and smile smugly when the American readers discover how great they are. Peter Milligan came after Grant Morrison in that cycle but before John Smith, who it didn’t work out for. And it kind of didn’t work out for Milligan either. He got his own title fine, following the template of reinventing a company-owned character, and it ran for 75 issues from Mature Readers to Vertigo. He was one of the first to write flagship characters with a run on Detective Comics. But he’s always been wildly inconsistent. For every Bad Company there’s a Bix Barton, for every Enigma an Elektra. The quality of, and seemingly the effort put into, his work isn’t reliable. And because comics have fans, not casual readers, you need to reward the obsessive. If someone seeks out that Cyclops and Phoenix miniseries and it’s empty hackwork, you’ve lost a fan. Milligan doesn’t have fans in the same way as Moore or Morrison or Miller, because you never know which Milligan you’re going to get.
Paradax feels like the underground striving to reach the mainstream, rather than a mainstream comic with underground roots. It has that irreverence, the casual breaking of the fourth wall, the scene-nodding asides like the rap and the breakdancers. It’s got sex and it’s got boobs, a big deal when superhero comics were uniformly chaste. It doesn’t have drugs, that staple of the comix scene, but the villains play that role: acid-trip fantasies from the mass unconscious. Erotomania, haunting nihilism, an obsessive-compulsive repulsion, and of course the shadow of the bomb that blotted out any imagined future in the 80s. The fears, not of any underground scene, but of the straights, the squares and the man. It’s a remarkably conservative comic in that way, fighting for the same status quo as the Silver Age.
It’s conservative in a couple of other ways too, most jarringly in the unarguably racist caricature that is Mr Chow. There isn’t any excuse for him. I’m not a believer in beating up the past for not having the values of today, and I know of no other work in a sizeable canon where Milligan or McCarthy have been insensitive about race. Maasai Dreams, a short Milligan piece in 2000AD, I remember dealing with it quite impressively. But Mr Chow is an offensive, nasty toilet wall drawing, accent and all, ripping off the hero and interested only in money. The second adventure in the final chapter is all the better for barely featuring him.
It’s also conservative in storytelling. There are at least two captions that begin Meanwhile, and the omniscient, buttoned-up, timekeeping narrator is there throughout telling us where we are and what just happened. For most of the first two episodes there’s the framing technique of Paradax explaining his origin on a chat show but for the most part time is strictly linear. He may get laughed at and beaten up but the hero is in no doubt about being a hero, following the Marvel path, and by the end of episode two the police are expecting him to solve their problems, in that lackadaisical way of police in any superhero universe. The structure is completely conventional.
No, what made Paradax unique and enormously influential was the content. McCarthy’s extraordinary art, holding itself back but unable to stop the madness melting in around the edges, complemented Milligan’s hip dialogue and the interactions of that tubular young couple, Al and Kopper. If they’d married, she’d be Kopper Cooper. The sexual relationship that’s shown was another sound of the underground bouncing into the mainstream; soon every young superhero would have a live-in lover clad in ripped neon workout wear and Like A Prayer crucifix. More than anything, Paradox was cool. He was a superhero that actual young people in the 80s might have aspired to be.
The bad guys were fantastic, literally. V.2 Pinhead’s chequered body and missile arms, his angry little red face in green shades a speck against his body, like a ska frontman playing a pro-war gig. He’s a visual treat on every page, a villain who needs no secret origin or explanation because the look carries it all. Jack Empty, with his missing abdomen in which a bird nests, is another to pick up the smouldering Kirby-Ditko baton from where it had lain abandoned all those years and run with it. The Shudder and the Twitch steer close to the creepiness that left superhero comics when EC left the industry. And does it need saying that these guys, this abbreviated rogues’ gallery whose first appearances are their last appearances, inspired much of Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol run? Surreal villains, visually striking, whose only real purpose is to give the hero a good fight? Dr Sex is the clear antecedent of the Sex Men, who Morrison puts to work stamping out sex rather than promulgating it. And Stammer Two’s cubism-via-Lichtenstein look points the way to Mr Nobody and the Brotherhood of Dada. I’m not accusing Grant of stealing this stuff. He took an idea, an approach, and developed it into a whole coherent world.
(Aside: to stop the madness, a cartoon Reagan threatens to nuke New York. The same threat they made in the Avengers, the same threat I fought in Crysis 2, and I’m sure in other games and films and comics that aren’t coming to mind. Any outbreak of anything, trigger-fingers get itchy to vaporise Manhattan. Where did this meme come from? Anyone know?)
I’ve dropped mentions of the influence Paradax had throughout this piece. To summarise: jackets on superheroes, live-in girlfriends, superheroes acting or being cool, demented villains with no motivation but arresting visuals, powers handed to ordinary guys, the use of influences from fine art, and of course postmodern irony. Titles that seem to me to bear Paradax’s influence: Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol first-hand, second-hand the Mike Baron-Jackson Guice Flash where he earned a living and dated girls, Kyle Rayner as an ordinary joe Green Lantern, Tank Girl’s mix of action comic and domestic gags, the cool-but-senseless heroes and villains of the Image Comics launch titles… I’m sure there are more.
You can’t argue Paradax changed comics completely. Its measurable impact, like its sales, was negligible. Maybe most of that stuff would have happened anyway, as new writers took over who had girlfriends and drank in bars. But at the very least it was an outlier, something ahead of its time for a few years that still deserves to be remembered today.
Paradax by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy was published in Strange Days #1-#3 and Paradax #1-#2. It’s currently available in The Best Of Milligan & McCarthy collection.