Rather break things
Rereading Skin by Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan.
Censorship in a free society isn’t monolithic. It isn’t the state, a grey bureaucrat in Central Office, who stamps transgressive art as unworthy of mass consumption. The process is instead gradual, the work of many hands each with an individual standard of what society can endure. Free expression isn’t swatted down but nibbled away, the identity of the censor hidden in an amorphous cloud of media interests, self-proclaimed protectors of the public good chasing publicity for their own causes, political manipulation, and more.
Crisis printed The New Adventures of Hitler which was itself a refugee from attempted censorship in its original home, a Scottish magazine called Cut, though the circumstances of that censorship were less than clear. But about ten issues earlier it had itself been censored by one of those diverse hands I mentioned, a reproduction house whose role wasn’t to monitor or judge the content they handled but who did just that by refusing to process the artwork for planned Crisis serial Skin. The battle against the perception that comics were for kids was fought on these fronts as well as in the media; I recall that Grendel’s printers, when it was at Comico, refused to print any comic with the word “fuck” in it leading to several imaginative workarounds. And though Skin was published by Tundra, Kevin Eastman’s Turtle-financed outfit, a workaround which I presume remains from that planned first publication was preserved: in Skin, fuck is replaced by FUKK. Repeated so often it stops looking strange by the third page or so, it’s nevertheless a reminder of the struggle that comics were going through, breaking out of their ghetto.
Skin is simultaneously both of the things that characterise works on the leading edge of fighting censorship: arty and clever, and crude and dumb. It’s an artwork made by two intelligent aesthetes for a self-selecting elite audience. But it dumps the conventions of their previous work, no quotes or references or nods to intellectual tradition, for a willed stupidity. It’s perhaps slightly smarter than its protagonist allows himself to be. And the protagonist is a thug, a boot boy, a member of a tribe defined by the reduction of the world to fuck and fight, intoxication and sex and violence.
There are nuances to the skinhead movement. At about the same time this should have appeared in Crisis, Pat Mills was heavy-handedly pointing them out in Third World War. McCarthy had been a skinhead and he’s certainly more nuanced than the stereotype. But for the purposes of Skin the skinhead is as simple as he was demonised to be. That’s what Martin wants to be; not a victim, not an object of pity but an object of fear. The skin: braces, shaved head, 18-hole Docs, a vocabulary of unpunctuated obscenity. Who goes in with boot and head, to whom girls are slags only good for one fukking thing. A Thalidomide skinhead, two vectors of the 1970s crossing, caused by careless contempt for others and radiating it.
The image of the seal-limbed skin is what carries the story. Plotted by McCarthy to a greater degree than even their other collaborations, it works very hard to be simple. The artist’s usual surreal influences, his melting textures and carnival-headed characters and background jokes, are all absent. Panel borders are absent. Ink is seemingly absent. Instead every page is a single moment, a juxtaposition of sequential images separated by colour, sound effects, action, outlines. It all appears to be done in luminous pastel or crayon, drawn by McCarthy and coloured by Carol Swain though how the two collaborated on something that looks so whole is beyond me. And the colours and the crudity of the art lends everything a Fauvist air, an emotional landscape concurrent with the physical landscape, the absence of borders meaning an absence of linear time almost, the story becoming something from the oral tradition, a tale told by skinhead to skinhead, passed down through the tribe. Enormous sophistication being brought to bear to do something very simple, ending up almost like cave-painting. And Milligan’s narrator, as lazily boneheaded and instinctively aggressive as his subjects, remains detached. He doesn’t turn out to be a presence in the story. He’s just telling us.
In writing about Crisis I’ve noted the parade of disaffected young men, like the writers and like the readers, in True Faith, Straitgate, Hitler. Here’s one more. But Martin isn’t like the readers. He doesn’t want to be no reader. The edge of the story is the tension between what Martin wants to be and what he is. You can’t be a terrifying skinhead without arms, even if you can get a good nut in when your mates hold the bastard for you. You can’t treat girls like slags when only the sensitive ones care about you and even then you can’t physically dominate them. The essence of the skinhead is primal, being nothing more than your lizardbrain reflexes, but they require a full working body so it can rule the mind. Martin might be a skin, but he isn’t one of us no matter how loudly the narrator says so. He’s other and he hates it, so he chooses to die.
There are problems with the story. The first third of it, the first 15 pages, are fine because they show Martin doing his skinhead stuff, the energetic round of drinking and fighting and fucking that he wants to do but can’t, quite. The trouble is that, being honest, that’s the whole story. Martin doesn’t want to do anything else and doesn’t want to face that reality. So to move the plot along, there’s an interlude with three convenient hippies who expand his consciousness. The drug trip as plot kickstart, giving a protagonist enough insight to take action, is a poor shortcut in fiction that bears no resemblance to drug trips in reality. And so it proves here. Martin turns on, tunes in and lashes out at the hippies but escapes with a desire for self-knowledge where there wasn’t one before. He learns about Thalidomide, learns about himself, and sets off on the third act of revenge. In an act later repeated in Fortune’s Always Hiding, the second novella in Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy, Martin kills the head of the drug company that made him this way and kills himself. It’s a grotesque but simple ending, fitting to its subject even if it does owe something to Hollywood melodrama.
Skin had some notoriety at the time. The Essex boy on my corridor at university wanted to read it, offering me in exchange the first issue of Cyberforce which was my first contact with Image and its superstar artists. But a one-off graphic novel published in the Chromium Age of collectible comics, where nobody could tell good from bad or if it mattered, was always going to be lost in the flood. And it’s hard to say it aspires to timelessness. Like its hero, Skin is angry but laughable, passionate but dated, relevant but irrelevant. The art, the voice, the sheer individual style of it holds it together and make it memorable. Martin, and his singleminded dream of becoming a thug, will stay with you. Both writer and artist had seen real thalidomide skinheads. That image created the comic, and ultimately it’s all they had to say. But worth saying.
Skin by Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan was published by Tundra in 1992, and has not been reprinted.