Duet On ‘Solo’, Part Twelve: Brendan McCarthy
Published between 2004 and 2006, Solo was a DC Comics anthology series with an innovative twist: each issue was created from the ground up by a single cartoonist and collaborators of his own choosing. Edited by DC's head art director Mark Chiarello (Wednesday Comics, DC: The New Frontier), the series offered artists a platform to control their visions completely in the form of original stories, unfettered access to DC's library of characters, and without regard to continuity or other publishing concerns that affect the creation of a typical DC superhero book. Although Solo spotlighted the work of such talented and popular creators as Darwyn Cooke, Tim Sale, Paul Pope and Michael Allred, the series was cancelled after just 12 issues.
Even in a time when the superhero comics were experimenting wildly with structure and style, Solo stood apart and remains one of the best and most interesting mainstream series to emerge from the early years of this century. In this installment of Duet on Solo, writers Sean Witzke and Matt Seneca take an extremely close look at the twelfth and final issue of Solo, created by Brendan McCarthy.Sean Witzke: So... how many out and out potshots in this issue of Solo are taken at Grant Morrison? Cause I think, like, ten.
Matt Seneca: Oh man, they're comin' fast and furious! It's worth noting that even in Morrison's auto-hagiography Supergods, where he talks about his comic Zenith, he basically cops to completely ripping off the media savvy superhero schtick Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan had going in their futuristic superhero character Paradax from their Strange Days comic.
From Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human:
McCarthy was a styled and prickly genius whose hand had and still has a direct line to his unconscious mind. Imagine that you could take photographs of your dreams, and you will have some idea what McCarthy is able to do with his art. I liked him immediately... tracking down the three Day-Glo issues of McCarthy's Strange Days comic-book series from 1982.
Strange Days' superhero character Paradax was a pompadoured poser who could walk through walls as long as he was wearing a banana-yellow skintight one-piece that married the Kid Flash design to glam rock and Ziggy Stardust. Paradax was a slacker superhero, interested only in fame and sex...
McCarthy mined his living dreams, and I was reenergized by my encouter with his work, and rededicated to pursuing my own obsessions and consolidating my own style.
Having seen what was possible, I decided to write about the kind of superhero I would be and the kind of world it would take to have made me. Zenith consciously attempted to occupy my own imagined middle ground between the extremes of Gibbons and Moore's serious formality and Milligan-McCarthy's visionary remixes of modern culture, high and low.
The superhumans of Zenith were designed by a mostly disinterested Brendan; the hero's lightning-bolt Z motif -- I never forgot to honor my divine inspiration -- was borrowed wholesale from the well-known TV company logo.
SW: That's the way McCarthy tells it: "Zenith was essentially based on my own superhero, Paradax, from a few years earlier – all that media-brat, superstar stuff. It felt a bit weird designing something so derivative of my own work."
MS: I think this is a good way to introduce McCarthy to readers who might not be familiar with him (as I wasn't when this issue first came out): if Grant Morrison could draw, used original ideas instead of taking other people's, and had a visual sense that matched those ideas, he'd be Brendan McCarthy.
SW: This issue kind of had a second life in a way that few of these Solo issues had because I remember the Grant Morrison fans all kind of came to it after the fact. remember Matt Fraction had said that it really opened his head up about a year later. And then we started to see more and more mentions of McCarthy until the past few years where Strange Days and Rogan Gosh have kind of been re-upped as gigantic texts for the Comics Internet. I definitely only had one McCarthy comic when this issue came out (Rogan Gosh) and after reading it I've been after everything by him I could get my hands on. This Solo is completely alien. It's like one of those Dylan Horrocks Hicksville comics conceits when you first arrive with McCarthy, because it's fully formed work you didn't have any conception of before it's right in front of you.
MS: Only it's even a little extra bit shocking because it's such a unique vision and it's also superheroes! And in this issue it's the big, big, corporate-owned superheroes and the men who most famously drew them getting redrawn and name-checked and generally rung through the wringer of a very gifted, subversive artistic vision. This might be the only comic that makes me really glad superhero characters are all corporate-owned and available for anyone who gets hired to use, because I just don't see these comics having half the power they do if it isn't the for-real Batman whose pages we see burned to a crisp, the for-real Curt Swan Superman drawings we see getting incorporated into cutting-edge collage art. McCarthy understands how iconic the classic DC material is, and also how to make interesting things happen when iconic meets iconoclastic.
SW: It's especially nasty treatment of essentially everything DC published except the Silver Age artists who drew those comics. I think beyond the shots, the "Johnny Sorrow" story where he has to remove his soul to get into good-versus-evil adventures is a pretty McCarthy-ist (or neo-Mccarthy-ist as he says in the intro page) conception of working for DC in any capacity.
MS: You can really feel the anguish there. McCarthy gives the same pound of flesh he gets from the greats of the past. You can really feel it on the spread toward the end where he runs through a whirlwind of the ideas he had for stories that didn't make it into the book, related in sketch or concept art form. He's just blasting these ideas for amazing comics out there in total contempt, knowing that DC will never make anything of them but just as secure in the knowledge that he can never make these comics now, either. Once they're printed, they're corporate property. DC parent Warner Bros. is now the sole owner in perpetuity of "that girl I saw," whose picture hovers over a drawing of Bizarro, one of the Silver Age's most lovable creations, freezing to death in a dilapidated nursing home. It's really upsetting stuff, but done in a style that's 180 degrees away from the "grim and gritty" way disturbing material usually makes it into superhero comics.
SW: That comes after the one-pagers that pop up throughout the piece that all aren't quite one-pagers or pinups. There is a really interesting approach he's working towards where it's an accumulative effect of the ideas he's throwing out in those things instead of embedding those ideas into the stories (which he's also doing). The recurring motif of Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson Superman faces recalls Kirby being redrawn on Jimmy Olsen but also what Superman represents now, which is deep sadness, at least for McCarthy.
MS: The crying Superman at the bottom of "Pop!," which is my favorite one-page comic -- not ever, but post-George Herriman at least -- means so much. As a modern art statement it's great, but it's also used as a Greek chorus, greeting the dawn of a brighter day free of American corporate totalitarianism with despair. It's brilliant manipulation of the original image.
SW: I'm seriously not sure if "Pop!" is meant to be taken seriously because there is the idea of a hippy idealist using Superman as a symbol to change the world then closed with "an imaginary story." I mean, if he's taking shots, he's not just taking easy shots.
MS: I think with most of these one-page strips it's good to keep in mind that McCarthy came up through British art schools as a painter, and to look at them as single compositions with their own context. What matters in "Pop!" is the political daring (both comics-specific and general) being put forth, the fact that this statement was made, whether in sarcasm or seriousness. Then there's the fact that it's directly criticizing the DC Comics it's printed by, and only then do we get to the thing's wider place in the comics community and historical narrative.
I think it's pretty open -- if you want to take it as a mean joke it's definitely funny, but it's the story of a revolution, too, and those are the stories that cause real revolutions. But maybe it just feels relevant to me because I'm a safe hipster lost in i-Poddery, designer books (this one included), and green tea...
SW: The mean joke means more to me than the statement, if I'm being honest. I think the revolutionary content is in "Lord of Nothing," which seems to really take a moment to go, "You know the comics that don't appeal to me anymore that are nothing but endless wallowing in brown superhero sadness, those are for people as well, that stuff actually means things to people." Which is the opposite of what most "enlightened" comics people are supposed to feel about things like Brian Bendis comics.
MS: I think you have to take that one along with the prelude to it, "Duke Hussy" (which is also the most accurate depiction of drug consciousness I've ever seen in comics or any other medium), as just this really depressing commentary on the comics-buying public. I mean, are those computer-warped photos of comic shop racks in the backgrounds of the panels? According to McCarthy, either you're a trendy idiot who only buys stuff because it's cool or you like bad comics. Whose side are you on, readers?
SW: I think it would be remiss of us to not notice that he really seems to give more credit to the bad comics than anyone else in his position.
MS: Yeah, and I think it's a smart, purposeful way to open the issue, because everything he homages throughout the rest of it is bad comics, really. Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Jim Steranko -- they're all in my top ten artists ever, but I don't think any of them ever really made something that could be called "good" without being pretty empathetic toward the circumstances of its creation. I think superhero comics that Alan Moore didn't write are by and large bad comics, and I feel like McCarthy's hyping himself up with "Lord of Nothing," sifting through the garbage heap to isolate the factors that make people care so much... the treasure in the trash, if you will.
SW: We should probably talk about how this issue has a relatively large creative roster, and a few of the players are likely McCarthy pseudonyms (Robbie Morrison I know is a real guy).
MS: I think "Glammapuss" (two years pre-Dave Sim!) is definitely not a real dude, but Steve Cook is real, Trevor Goring is from 2000AD, Howard Hallis is a Real Fine Art Guy. I dunno about Jono Howard, you might be right about "him"...
SW: I bring it up because -- aside from the Batman story which is about a fictional creator, and the constant signing of other artist's names (Some of them not real like "Ditranko" which would later become "DitKirbAnko" in McCarthy's Matt Fraction Who Will Not Wield The Shield collaboration at Marvel, for all three exploited Silver Age godfathers) -- there is a sense that this is all of a piece and uniformly from McCarthy's hand/mind. There isn't that much friction between voices anywhere in this comic.
MS: That sense is in and of itself interesting, because I'm sure dudes like us had the same impression of, like, Infantino/Fox Batman issues -- "You can tell it's all coming direct from Bob Kane!" Obscuring the details of true authorship is a time-honored tradition in superhero comics.
SW: But even then there may be an intent to obscure a lot of what McCarthy is saying with the issue as a whole, by having all those names behind his. I think of the issue as a relatively disjointed single story, and kind of a micro version of his Swimini Purpose where all of this may at first seem to be from different sources but is all one guy's statement.
MS: And that's what superhero universes are supposed to be, right? At least according to the bosses, what matters is the solid stuff made up of strands from a million different people's imaginations. That Batman story -- inked by Goring in a much tighter style than anything else in the book -- is probably the most concrete example of what we're talking about. It's the straightest superhero story in the book, and as such it not only looks the least like McCarthy on his own, it's actually attributed to a completely different (fictional) creator. And just to put the cherry on top, the pages in this section aren't printed like normal comics, but rather as scans of half-burned, Ben-Day-toned paper. Just like Swan and Sprang comics are subject to the ravages of age, yellowing with the years, so too is McCarthy's art the slave of a million random circumstances. There's a reason he didn't ink this one: giving up control is part of the deal when you draw Batman.
SW: Its opposite end, the Flash story, is completely wide open stylistically, in the tradition of the Infantino/Schwartz Flash comics that completely break with everything that came before them. There's some layout work in those four pages that really rings the Steranko high mark bell. And that's before you talk about the gorgeous coloring.
MS: It's wild, free jazz stuff, but there's also a sense of restraint there that I honestly think McCarthy doesn't use that often: the lines are crisp and clear instead of the thicker, crunchier blacks he usually lays down, and the palette is pretty straightforward despite all the wild digital flares he uses; pale blue, pink, and yellow throughout. The story, like most superhero comics, begins and ends in the middle, bringing us up to speed on what's going on with expository narration before cutting off with a cliffhanger -- but it feels disorienting rather than rote when it's rendered in McCarthy's style, which doesn't hit any of the typical touch points and really holds free expression as its only value. The Flash's costume isn't supposed to look like that!!
SW: It's totally a reversal of the Paradax genius design-flip of the Kid Flash costume, but he's also not even human-looking. It's definitely of a type that McCarthy created, which is the superhero costume that actually looks like clothes that have been modified into a superhero costume. The saddle-sweatpants are just plain inspired.
MS: Yeah, as are the magical sigils drawn of pieces of paper and safety pinned to the cape. The same design sensibility is at play in the final short, which seems to anticipate things like Kick-Ass pretty heavily, I think, though it's also an extension of what McCarthy and Milligan were doing in Paradax: superhuman stoners straggling through some adventure or something before the story collapses out of sheer exhaustion at the end. Also the best comic book rendering of the city of Los Angeles in history, hands down.
SW: The two guys in the final sequence seem to be a little like, "I'm done with Morrison, where's Jamie Hewlett, I've got some for him too." I really like Hewlett, though. I wouldn't put him with Morrison. But that's not to say McCarthy doesn't have the right to say something.
MS: I like Hewlett, too, that's probably why I tend to see him as just an influence rather than a target in that story. McCarthy's Frank Quitely name-checks, for example, also seem to be pretty sincere. You know, it's interesting. We're mentioning all these comics writers whose work is clearly derivative of McCarthy's. I'm writing about these guys and really not wanting to do so at the same time, because this issue is so purely expressive and so free of the smudging that those guys have added onto some of McCarthy's gestures when they've copied him. But talking about the imitators is unavoidable in this case, because McCarthy has jumped into the ring with them. There are specific Morrison references in this issue of Solo, and the guy actually did a Marvel story with Matt Fraction. It's depressing to me that he can't separate his genius from the unoriginal milieu it occasionally inhabits.
But then I remember that when I first read this comic it was such an important gateway because of that referencing, because its clear appreciation for familiar things like We3 or Curt Swan comics kept me on familiar ground even though art-comics as hardcore and wild as anything in Kramers Ergot were being shoved down my throat.
I think that's why this comic is so important to so many people, honestly: it's pretty democratic in its outlook, it doesn't demand that its readers have spent years tracking down out-of-print Moebius books and old Roy Crane collections and stuff like that. It turns lead into gold. There are a million other great things about this comic, I could go on at length about almost every drawing in it, but that's why it felt so special to me when it came out, and that's still its clearest charm: for 48 pages it makes mainstream superhero comics feel like an exciting, creatively rewarding place instead of a ruin built on old creators' skeletons -- but it still acknowledges that that ruin exists.
SW: Of course, in the parlance Frank Miller took describing Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, a revolution can't start with (respectively) a eulogy or an autopsy. And Solo #12 is certainly a bit of a eulogy. Or at least a Sleeping Beauty/St. Elsewhere finale-style story.
MS: An auto-eulogy, almost, for something cut down too soon. "Look what we could do if only they'd let us!" Still, revolutions start with fresh, new energy, and when I just look at the comic, the wild chances it takes with layout and the way it ups the ante on progressive computer coloring, that's what I see first. A good metaphor for Solo in general, maybe? It was always going to be in thrall to the traditions and prejudices held so dear by the company that published it, but good comics were often there despite those things.
SW: I think the best issues of Solo -- McCarthy, Allred, Aragones, maybe Kristiansen and Pope -- they either dove into the DC-ness or the personal and I think McCarthy closing out the series is the only one that manages to use one to be the other.
MS: You can tell that's because McCarthy just loves comics. Classic DC superhero comics, sure, but also ones beside that, and he's not going to make any sacrifices in putting the traditional and the revolutionary on the same playing field. Even in the most DC-centric issues you mention, I think that's the constant: the guy making the work loves the medium more than the company or the characters. 48 full color pages, good pay, and a few thousand guaranteed sales are pretty much impossible to find in comics if you want to do anything at all interesting, and the artists doing the best Solo work are the ones who seem to recognize the series as something unique and special, and treat their opportunity to participate in it as such.
SW: It's also kind of a bubble comic, one that couldn't exist today and couldn't exist five years before it came into being. It was "grand experiment" comics by Mark Chiarello, who would keep on doing things like this but in different formats. It's not a revolutionary concept for a comic in any means, and only McCarthy truly attempted at doing something new with the format once introduced, but it's an outlier. It's good comics, sometimes great comics, that put the talent being the books first. Which, yeah, that's not something that usually happens at DC Comics anymore. If it ever did, it was here, and it failed.
MS: Commercially, maybe. But, and this is so corny but it's still true, whenever I go to the board to draw a new comic, something from McCarthy's Solo is in my head. Or there's a little Kristiansen or Pope passing through, and I know I'm not the only one. I see echoes of this stuff all across the map, and not just in comics published by DC -- or Marvel for that matter. The best stuff Solo produced stands the test of time as great comics, and sales figures just don't matter when that happens.
SW: It's a damn shame. Solo, we hardly knew ye, and I wish Kyle Baker had done an issue of you.
MS: And Frank Quitely.
SW: And Walt Simonson.
MS: And Bill Sienkiewicz.
SW: And John Paul Leon.
MS: And Dave Gibbons.
SW: And Brian Stelfreeze.
MS: And Frazer Irving.
SW: And Dustin Nguyen.
MS: And JH Williams III.
SW: And God bless us, everyone.
MS: We done?
SW: Oh yeah, we're done.