Peter Howard Interviews Brendan McCarthy
I consider Brendan McCarthy a maverick, and that’s a huge part of his creative appeal. Brendan is also an artist who eagerly wants to share his vision of the world with you: he lifts the veil of reality and asks, “Hey, do you see what I see?”
I don’t always travel along the same psychic landscape as Brendan, but I’m more than happy to play in his sandbox when the invitation arrives.
Peter Howard: I’m acquainted with your early work for 2000 A.D., but my first real introduction to your distinctive brand of creativity was Freakwave. I loved how “out there” it was in comparison to most comic books at the time. You chose work that allowed you to explore the fringes of creativity; Paradaxi, Shade the Changing Man and Rogan Gosh come to mind. Does the creative part of your brain operate left of mainstream? Does seeing life as a bit surreal come to you naturally?
Brendan McCarthy: Yes, I have always had a highly developed sense of the absurd. Even as a small boy I was aware that the world I was told I lived in and the world I actually saw were two different things. I was aware that the mass media was a sham, a lying farce, from a very young age. I grew up in the ’60s and spent many hours poring over Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who were pretty surreal artists themselves. I mean, Dr Strange was totally “out there” visually.
We had an enormous problem with getting Skin published at the time. All the publishers we approached backed off due to the amount of controversy that the book had generated.
PH: You were very much a part of the ’80s comic book movement. You saw first-hand the opportunity for the comic book industry to develop a new readership. But that didn’t happen to the extent that one would have expected. There certainly seemed to be a lot of money floating around the industry in the ’80s and ’90’s and the future looked very bright. Was there resistance from some retailers and distributors? Was there a lack of quality material? Did publishers fumble the ball?
BM: The ’80s comics revolution absolutely got the ball rolling. The false dawn of the “variant covers” and comic speculators, etc., meant that the newly emerging audience for quality graphic novels was dissipated by lots of poor quality crap. The industry righted itself after the big collapse and has grown in a more steady way.
PH: Skin—the story of a deformed skinhead, the result of thalidomide taken by his mother while she was pregnant—is not the typical subject matter for a market saturated with superheroes. What drew you into the story of skin and why was it important for you to be a part of this particular project?
BM: I grew up observing the “Thalidomide children” as they were called. I once saw a guy who was Thalidomide wearing skinhead clothes, and that gave me the idea for the comic story. The violence inflicted on those children by the corporation that put out the drug and their subsequent attempts to cheat the families out of compensation was a disgrace. The violence of skinhead culture was contrasted with this corporate skullduggery.
All my creative life is a mixture of struggle and pleasure.
PH: I understand that Skin was met with a great deal of resistance from printers, publishers and parts of the general public. In fact, it took several years for Skin to appear in print. I can’t help but imagine that if Skin were a movie, especially a European movie, it would have been received in a very different light. Do you agree?
BM: We had an enormous problem with getting Skin published at the time. All the publishers we approached backed off due to the amount of controversy that the book had generated. In the end, Kevin Eastman bankrolled it and published it through Tundra. We also were approached by a British TV company about doing it as a one-off TV movie, but that eventually fizzled out—especially as they wanted to change the character from being a Thalidomide victim to just being “disabled”, which we rejected.
But it’s great to see this story and all the others back after twenty years of being out of print. It’s a very wonderful edition, and essential to any serious comics collector.
PH: You’ve had (if I may put it this way) an on again, off again relationship with the comic industry. Were you at some periods more interested in other creative media and relatively less interested in the medium of comics? Is it a result of finicky editors with narrow ideas for house style or is it, perhaps, just a matter of economics?
BM: I worked for about 15 years in comics and left the industry at the beginning of the ’90s when I felt as if I had said everything I had to say about the medium. I had told the stories that were in my head and it was time to move on. I’ve never been too troubled by editors, as I don’t use them when I do my own work. We edited ourselves. I’ve been lucky with editors. Now and then you get a control freak with a personality disorder, who you have to try and avoid, but usually their reputation precedes them.
I left comics and went into animation, the early days of CGI and it was pretty exciting to be on the ground floor of a new future for an art form—just as I had with comics.
PH: Would you agree that every artist has a part of the creative process that they enjoy and a part that they dread? Are there aspects of your art that you particularly relish and some with which you struggle?
BM: All my creative life is a mixture of struggle and pleasure. I find the drawing very difficult to this day. It’s a struggle to get the quality up and keep it there.
PH: Do you still work with pencil and paint or have you made the leap into to digital production? What materials do you use? And what does a typical day in Brendan McCarthy’s creative life look like?
BM: I still like to draw with a pencil and inks on paper. Then I scan it into the computer and the fun begins with Photoshop, etc.
PH: You’ve worked with many different people in the film industry. I’m particularly interested, for the moment, in your time with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Was it a fun experience?
BM: I worked with Henson’s for about 5 years on and off, mainly with Jim Henson, then Anthony Minghella. I loved that TV series we did called The Storyteller, which Anthony wrote and Jim directed some of the episodes. At that time I was storyboarding and doing concept designs.
PH: Mad Max: Fury Road has been in production for some time. Are any of your original designs from around 2001 being incorporated into the present version of the film?
BM: I wrote and designed the film with George Miller many years ago. I was out in Africa to see the shoot going on a little while ago. It’s still pretty much the script we wrote, with lots of my designs—but modified over time to reflect the casting of Tom Hardy as Max. What I initially created has been built on and developed by new creative additions.
PH: What’s your impression of Hollywood, completely insane or a nice place to work?
BM: A mixture of the two, really. It’s a very brutal place; the people there are very ambitious and duplicitous. But I liked Los Angeles as a teen. There’s some good stuff going on there.
Be original. Be brave. You’re only here for a short time, everything you do will be forgotten in time, so why give a fuck about what anybody thinks?
PH: If money and time was not a factor and sequential art was the only medium you were allowed to work in, is there a project that you would, so to speak, jump at the chance to create?
BM: Yes, of course, I have a few new projects I’d like to get going. I don’t like to talk about stuff until it actually gets going. I think you may curse it or something!
PH: If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give your younger self about life and your artistic career?
BM: Don’t worry so much about everything. Work hard, but realize that you are not totally in charge, that destiny is also moving through you too. Above all, enjoy yourself and do what you feel motivated to do, as no one else can create what you create…although they can steal it! Be original. Be brave. You’re only here for a short time, everything you do will be forgotten in time, so why give a fuck about what anybody thinks?