Ten Comic Characters That Shaped My Life

With the release of my new comic about pop music, I got thinking about the characters that have most influenced my take on comics, from Snoopy to Nao Brown...
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With the release of my new comic about pop music, I got thinking about the characters that have most influenced my take on comics, from Snoopy to Nao Brown...

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John Riordan is the co-creator of Hitsville UK, a new comic about pop music.

Our comic Hitsville UK is about a fictional record company. It’s an ensemble piece filled with weird characters, musical freaks and grotesques. It got me thinking about the characters that have most influenced my take on comics.

Zenith

Grant Morrison has gone on to great success writing Batman and Superman and a host of his own characters, but before all of them was Zenith. Zenith ran in the pages of seminal UK anthology comic 2000AD from 1987 to 1992. 2000AD's editor asked then fledgling writer Morrison to create a British superhero series, but despite his superpowers Zenith the character is very far from being a superhero. A product of the selfish 80s, he is an answer to the reasonable question: if you could fly, had super-strength and were all but impervious to damage would you a) devote yourself to fighting crime and protecting the weak or b) become a pop star and sleep with models? In his first appearance Zenith crash-lands in his kitchen after a particularly heavy night on the tiles and his manager lectures him about the dangers of drink-flying. Because he is in a sci-fi comic Zenith does become embroiled in an inter-dimensional battle with dark gods, but throughout he remains sarcastic and stubbornly selfish, more worried about his latest single's chart placement than the fate of the universe. Zenith was drawn in stark black & white by the masterful Steve Yeowell but the character was initially designed by Brendan McCarthy, of whom more in a moment.

Sadly, Zenith has not been reprinted for years due to a legal disagreement between 2000AD and Morrison. 2000AD recently announced plans to publish a collection but it seems this is still in dispute.

Rogan Gosh

Rogan Gosh emerged from the same hotbed of UK talent as Morrison and originally saw print in the short-lived magazine Revolver in 1990. A bizarre tale of reincarnation and speculative enlightenment, it is shaggy dog story of 'Indian Science Fiction', written and drawn by two Londoners of Irish extraction, Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. Rogan Gosh himself is a 'Karmanaut', a blue-skinned mystic warrior who can relieve a man of his sins. But one of the distinguishing features of the comic is the way in which Rogan and the other characters begin to bleed into each other. At some points Rogan merges with Raju, a cynical Anglo-Indian waiter in a Stoke Newington curry house, who has the best line of the comic “Why don't I pour six pints of lager and a few chicken curries into a bucket, mix it up, and throw the lot down the toilet? Cut out the middle man, so to speak...” Rogan Gosh is a genuinely psychedelic masterpiece, with mind-bending artwork from McCarthy and, as Milligan has pointed out, is probably the only comic to be narrated in the style of an Indian takeaway menu. It has been out of print for years but is finally, finally about to be republished in The Best of Milligan & McCarthy by Dark Horse Comics.

Maggie from Love and Rockets

Margarita Luisa 'Maggie' Chascarillo is the central character of Jaime Hernandez's 'Locas' strips from Love and Rockets. She is Mexican-American (like Hernandez), a bisexual sometime mechanic living in California. The early stories show her haphazard life as a young punk and focus on her relationship with best friend and on-off lover Hopey. Hernandez has been weaving the increasingly complex tales of Maggie and friends since 1981 and in this time he has fleshed out her character to an incredible degree, especially when you consider that this is a bloke writing and drawing a female character. Maggie is by turns hilarious, sexy, confident, shy, upbeat, morose, carefree and unlucky in love and all the time you believe that these are the complexities of a real woman. Significantly, and unlike most comics series, Hernandez has used his great skill to depict Maggie (and other characters) ageing in real time. We have seen Maggie change from a skinny teenage punk to a plump, late-forties manager of a block of flats. At a recent talk in London someone asked Hernandez how he responded when fans asked if Maggie would ever get thin again. He said that he tells them that they're insane and asked 'Why is Maggie the only fat character in comics?'

Love and Rockets is published by Fantagraphics.

Tank Girl

Tank Girl was the break-out character from Deadline, a British comics and music magazine that ran from 1988 to 1995. I was a bit young for Deadline (I remember picking up a copy in WH Smiths and being terrified by a drawing of a kangaroo with a massive penis) but in retrospect its style and attitude have been a huge influence on Hitsville UK. Tank Girl exemplifies this attitude. She’s a foul-mouthed, skin-head, fag smoking, punk rock lunatic who drives a tank and shags a kangaroo called Booga. Part of the appeal is the goofy, stylised artwork of Jamie Hewlett, who’s gone on to greater success with Gorillaz, but not enough credit goes to Tank Girl’s co-inventor and writer, Alan Martin. The classic Tank Girl stories are as anarchic as their heroine. You get the impression that Martin is genuinely making them up as he goes along, with scant regard for conventions like plot or continuity. They’re riotously inventive comics, hyperactively spinning off in new directions, full of obscene jokes and pop cultural references. After a lengthy absence, Alan Martin is back writing new Tank Girl adventures, currently with brilliantly deranged artist Warwick Johnson-Cadwell.

Hewlett and Martin’s Tank Girl strips are collected in various editions. Solid State Tank Girl by Martin and Johnson-Cadwell is published by Titan Comics.

Nao Brown

Glyn Dillon was another artist who briefly flourished in the pages of Deadline. As a teenage comics fan I loved his style, reminiscent of Hewlett but a bit cooler, less chaotic. He drew a few issues of some DC Comics titles, then disappeared for 17 years. It turns out he was working as a storyboard and concept artist for films and adverts, honing his drawing skills. He finally returned to comic last year with his graphic novel The Nao of Brown, and it was well worth the wait. It tells the story of Nao Brown, a spiritually curious ‘hafu’ (half Japanese, half English) girl living in London. She goes to meditation classes at her local Buddhist centre in an attempt to escape the maelstrom in her head. Nao suffers from Purely Obsessional Compulsive Disorder and is plagued by graphic fantasies of harming others. Dillon lets us into her mental turmoil by illustrating these grim imaginings, but it’s not all about the angst. Debilitating though her condition is, Nao is also a young woman to figure out her messy life in the big smoke. Like Maggie in Love and Rockets what really comes across is the complexity of her personality. Over 200 pages Dillon delivers a vivid and believable segment of someone’s life, with all the messiness and contradictions this entails.

The Nao of Brown is published by Self Made Hero

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Snoopy from Peanuts

I guess Snoopy doesn't need much introduction. Despite having become a corporate entity almost as recognisable as the dreaded mouse, Snoopy the character puts all other anthropomorphic animals in the shade and expresses the unique melancholy and thwarted ambition that makes Charles Schulz’s Peanuts so affecting. Peanuts ran for fifty years over 17,897 strips, so there's a hell of a lot of material to get through, but my recollection of Snoopy is of a strangely dignified fantasist. He is always playing very seriously at being someone else, whether it be a fighter pilot or the hep beatnik Joe Cool, and although he is not as hangdog as his friend Charlie Brown his schemes are often defeated, as in the continual rejection of his manuscript, which always begins “It was a dark and stormy night...” There's something philosophical and aspirational about Snoopy, and for me Joe Cool is still the height of genuine cool.

Fantagraphics publishes The Complete Peanuts

And talking of supposedly dumb creatures with a philosophical bent...

Leviathan

Leviathan is the eponymous star of a comic strip by the cartoonist, writer and musician Peter Blegvad, that ran in the Independent on Sunday from 1992 to 1999. I was a teenager at the time and it made quite an impression on me, with its increasingly metaphysical explorations disguised as a Sunday morning gag strip. At the centre of it all is Leviathan, a faceless pre-verbal baby (whichever way he looked you could never quite see beyond his blank chubby cheek) who explores the contradictions of life as a curious philosophical scientist, with the assistance of the faithful family cat. Like all babies he also thinks a lot about milk. Despite being pre-verbal, Levi  could, like Snoopy, 'speak' in erudite thought balloons and his adventures were full of teasing literary references and brilliant puns. One of my favourites pits an American hunter ,“I'm exercising my right to bear arms,” against a bear who Levi has supplied with a gun, “I'm exercising mine to arm bears”. “Arf!” the bear responds.

A selection of the strips were published in The Book of Leviathan by Sort of Books or you can read some of them here www.leviathan.co.uk

Little Nemo

Little Nemo is a better known ancestor to Leviathan, but whereas Levi is fearless and inquisitive, Nemo is an anxious and fearful child, albeit one with an incredible imagination. Little Nemo in Slumberland was created by Winsor McCay and ran in various American Sunday newspapers from 1905 to 1914. In each page-long episode Nemo dreams of visiting the magical kingdom of Slumberland, before waking up with a start in the last panel, often falling out of bed. Within this repetitive formula, McCay plays fast and loose, conjuring up fantastical landscapes in lavish colour (that it’s hard to believe the printing presses were up to reproducing!) The strip has a fairy tale aesthetic but like all good fairy tales, the situations often dissolve into peril. In one particularly nightmarish episode Nemo dreams that his parents and then himself are gradually reduced to crudely drawn stick men! By the end of each episode he is normally freaking out, crying “Oh help! Oh Mama oh Papa!” But what makes timid Nemo a fascinating character is that the whole strip (bar the final panel in which he always wakes up) is a part of Nemo’s character, as it’s all happening in his head! Nemo is a boy who is taken hostage by his unconscious on a nightly basis and who reminds you of the weirdness and terror of childhood.

Little Nemo in Slumberland best-ofs are available from various publishers.

 Mister Tourette from Modern Toss

As three-dimensional as Maggie and Nao are, Mister Tourette is resolutely two-dimensional, a one-note character in a repeated, two panel joke. But he’s a great character and it’s a great joke, to be found in the pages of Jon Link and Mick Bunnage’s bleakly hilarious Modern Toss. ‘Mister Tourette, Master Signwriter’, to give him his full name, is a crudely drawn rendition of an artist, with beret, palette and curly moustache. His cartoons have the same pattern each time, following their own brutalist logic like the Fast Show gone bad. Panel 1: Someone commissions Mister Tourette to paint a sign for their event or business. Panel 2: After the event, they are dismayed by Mister Tourette’s maverick response and he responds with some obscene bon mot. In my favourite strip a priest asks him to paint a banner advertising his church fete. He returns to find that Mister Tourette has festooned his church with a banner that reads ‘Spunk Drinking Festival’. “Oh my Christ, this isn’t what I wanted” the priest says. Mister Tourette responds: “Make your mind up you fickle c—t”. I suspect that Link and Bunnage have smuggled some of the frustration of the hired creative into this formula, that Mister Tourette is in part the revenge of the commercial artist on the endlessly flip-flopping client. As he often remarks: “I still want paying”.

Mister Tourette can be found in various Modern Toss comics and on their website www.moderntoss.com

The Mekon from Dan Dare

The Mekon was created by Frank Hampson way back in 1950 to be the nemesis of pilot of the future Dan Dare, in the pages of the Eagle. He has featured in most subsequent incarnations of Dan Dare, and I first encountered him in the revamped Eagle of the 1980s. The Mekon is the evil leader of the Treens, a green-skinned alien race hailing from Venus. Apart from appreciating his ruthless intelligence and maniacal lust for power I liked the look of the Mekon. As someone with an overly large head I sympathised with his massive green cranium, and as a child of the 1980s I liked that he appeared to fly around on a Subbuteo base. I actually wrote a letter to the Eagle claiming to be a member of an elite Treen sleeper force awaiting the Mekon's instructions for world domination. They printed it with a response from the editor saying “I suspect that you are one of my human readers pretending to be a Treen”. Given that the editor was a human pretending to be a super-computer called Max I thought that this was a little disappointing. Years later Grant Morrison wrote a dystopian revamp of Dan Dare in which the Mekon did a deal with a corrupt prime minister who bore a striking resemblance to Margaret Thatcher. At a comic convention soon after the series' artist Rian Hughes drew me a sketch of the Mekon, before turning him into a cartoon light bulb!

The Mekon appears in various Dan Dare reprints from Titan.

Hitsville UK is available from www.greatbeastcomics.com

You can follow Hitsville UK on twitter at @hitsvillecomic and John at @johnnyriordan