A lovespoke in the grim wheel
Rereading Rogan Gosh by Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan.
If all art aspires to the condition of music then comics get closer than most. The cognitive and aesthetic senses are engaged simultaneously, the mind swept along with story and empathy while the eye delights in beauty. In theory. I mean, presumably nobody’s thinking that when they read Justice League of America’s Vibe, but then when Walter Pater said that about the condition of music he probably didn’t mean One Direction.
As a medium, comics are less consciously influenced by music than they are by the twin poles of literature and film, always caught between the two, bouncing from being cinematic and spectacular to being wordy and personal, between trying to eschew all artifice and embracing the unique possibilities of combining words and pictures. But the more I read comics, the stronger my intuition that they’re at their best when they don’t make sense. When they’re not telling a story, when they’re not narrating a line, when they have the courage to throw that aside and aim for a viewpoint, an angle, for simple sensations. When they get musical. And that goes for comics throughout the medium, not just the arty stuff: Jack Kirby’s breathless rushes of speed and conjuring of cosmic awe are as abstract, as musical, as Dave McKean’s erotic thread-spinning in Celluloid or the continual horrorshocks of Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s The Filth. When comics aren’t trying to be movies or books or other comics they begin to become what they are. It’s why the Fantagraphics crowd also love the newspaper funnies and the Fletcher Hanks stuff; both are the medium pure, uncut, undeniable.
Which is perhaps to give Rogan Gosh a more grandiose introduction than it deserves. Published in Revolver, republished by Vertigo almost 20 years ago, not quite forgotten but hardly sought after, not quite an entry in the cult canon but remembered by enough, it’s an oddity. Not a neglected classic, but given the paucity of Brendan McCarthy’s comics work something this complete is worthy of attention. And I mention McCarthy first because he’s the one that Gosh would be sought out for and because he’s the author; the story’s credited to McCarthy first and Milligan second, suggesting that the former had a large part in the writing. In truth, it’s hard to imagine any of this, apart from the more conventional Kipling pages, coming from a script: “PANEL ONE: Rogan Gosh, dressed as the ringmaster of the Rolling Stones’ Satanic circus, rides a white bull towards the reader against a background of swirling ink.” I’d guess this was created much as Kirby and Ditko’s Marvel work reportedly was; a rough story agreed, the artist coming back with fully-drawn pages, and the writer blazing a trail of words through them.
An exacting, academic, footnoted reading of Rogan Gosh might draw a map of it, establish the various levels of reality and how they relate to each other. For myself, I’m content to say that it makes no sense. It makes no sense in a casual, uncomplicated, flyaway style, asking the reader not to analyse for meaning but to let it sink in while enjoying the fun. There are profundities here but they’re not to be dwelled on, and they’re delivered with the same insouciance as the stuff stuffed in because McCarthy and Milligan thought it was funny. And it is funny, with good lines and absurd situations and that slightly distant, absurd dialogue Milligan does so well that feels like everyone’s got one eye on the Teleprompter reminding themselves there’s a script to follow. Gosh goes Wild West for a bit, the most tortured character in the whole narrative is a boy wearing a woman’s bra, the evocation of Indian begins in the superstrate India of a curry house, the name itself is a joke. The serious stuff is laughable and the laughable stuff is serious.
In the Vertigo edition, Milligan obligingly sums the story up in an afterword for the confused, and enumerates the various realities and story strands within. He says:
“Now, what is really happening in Rogan Gosh? We have a number of options:
a) It’s the story of Rudyard Kipling entering the House of Smoke and, under the influence of narcotics, dreaming about the future, a character called Rogan Gosh, a boy who commits suicide, and so on.
b) It’s the story of Rogan Gosh, Karmanaut from the future, who travels back down the birth lines and is reborn as Raju Dhawan. In an earlier incarnation the Soma Swami, taking on the guise of an English writer called Rudyard Kipling, tricks him into lifting his, the Soma Swami’s, terrible karma.
c) It’s the story of a dreaming boy in a bedsit, mourning the loss of his girlfriend, Mazzy; dreaming all sorts of strange and wonderful worlds; and eventually committing suicide.
d) It’s the story of Dean Cripps and Raju Dhawan, who get sucked into a strange adventure where nothing is real.
e) It’s the complex death vision of a dying Scottish drug dealer who fell from a roof in Glasgow.
f) It’s none of the above.
g) It’s all of the above.
Guess which answer is correct. That’s right, G.”
That’s kind of the whole of it. We begin with the Kipling pages, the muddy painted browns and studied figures leading the reader in along with the first-person captions any proper comic had back then (and which Milligan always has, and his trademark who’s-the-narrator? is present and correct). Oh yeah, this is definitely reality, the comic’s telling us at this point. This is yer basic reality right here. When that begins to become a bit hallucinatory, a bit McCarthy, we pull back again to the nine-panel grid of Dean Cripps, our second white character acting as reader’s avatar through Indian culture, ordering a curry at the Star of the East in Stoke Newington. And when, within a few pages, that gets torn apart then it’s a psychedelic free-for-all, Shiva and Haruman and Bollywood-painted robots and anything else the creators want to throw in. Grant Morrison, writing Dare in Revolver, declared revisionism and gritty realism to be over by taking it to the limit then bringing the curtain down. Rogan Gosh sprayed it bright colours and entered it in the carnival.
There is a third act of realism, an urban bullet aimed at the reader, at the comic’s heart. Option c) above, the dreaming boy in the bedsit known simply as The Boy, is introduced early on as a reader of Rogan Gosh the comic, the one with the subtle scent of Indian food. He lives in a day-glo bedsit and makes love to his glowing fallen star of a girlfriend. The next time we see him, in the second half of the comic, he’s alone. Alone, and one of the legion of miserable young men who trudged through Crisis. He takes over for a six-page stretch, the conventions of comics abandoned for full pages of photocopied towerblock backgrounds, walking in a trenchcoat, and self-absorbed first-person narration about how love isn’t real. It’s presented in such isolation that it almost feels like it’s the heart of the work; the creators’ real message. You could think that if the rest of the comic didn’t mock it so sneeringly, if the eventual death of The Boy wasn’t treated like a joke on the closing page. There’s no respect in Rogan Gosh for the ones who take life on grim-faced, unsmiling, believing that reality exists and is gritty. Absurdity is the only constant, change the only thing that stays the same.
A narrative this multi-layered and unreliable, then, doesn’t really have any overarching conclusion. As Martin Amis said about the novels of William Burroughs, it’s all about the good bits. My good bits: the spot-on guilt-haunted colonialism of Kipling, the weary confusion of Gosh pre-karma and his cynical seen-it-all-before journey after being reborn in Raju, the page when Raju and Dan make out and Milligan goes wild with internal combustion similes for no good reason, the fake-bling opulence of the art, the perfect merging of McCarthy’s wild cartooning and the Hindu pantheon, the drug dealer who only gets to appear in captions, Raju being in shirt and tie and socks but no trousers for the climax of the story, Dean’s desperation to hold onto a crumb of enlightenment ending with just a flower. But those are just the highlights. It’s all good really.
When I last wrote about a Milligan-McCarthy joint, Paradax, I focused on how influential it was. Likewise, Gosh has proved very influential, but on a single writer and a single work: Grant Morrison and Flex Mentallo. (Jog noticed exactly the same thing six years before I did.) Not just the element of the suicidal guy on the phone providing a linking thread, though that’s the most obvious similarity, but in the structure of multiple levels, realities within realities, crossing over and in and out and all of them real. I’m in no way accusing Morrison of plagiarism here. He didn’t steal. He saw the full beauty of this wild experiment, absorbed it, and created a work which used that structure in a much more ordered and formal way. He refined and reified what Gosh did for kicks.
Comics as music: intervals, solos, self-indulgence, improvisation for its own sake, a song that doesn’t know how to end. Rogan Gosh is all that. It arrived in the spell of 60s revivalism after Madchester, when dance music hadn’t yet crystallised into its own scene and was still everywhere, leaving piano-riff fingerprints on everything. So if it’s a song, it’s something off Screamadelica with sitars, a callback to George Harrison’s discovery of the East given a Weatherall remix, clocking in at 14 minutes long. Left off the album but venerated by the fans, the cognoscenti who treasure the tracks that never broke big, that remained just theirs.
Rogan Gosh by Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan was published in Revolver #1-#6 and collected as Rogan Gosh. It is currently out of print.