Actually, it has been time to talk about him for about 20 years. Milligan began his career on the British comics scene at the end of the 1980s, where he worked with Brendan McCarthy on Rogan Gosh, Paradax! and Skin; he was then recruited by DC and contributed to the emergence of the Vertigo imprint, penning notably Shade, The Changing Man (1990-1996) and the miniseries Enigma with Duncan Fegredo (1993).
In 1994, in the letter column of Shade, The Changing Man #54, a reader named Stephen J. Townsend wrote : “Peter Milligan’s one of the best writers in comics today even though I don’t hear a lot of hype on him.” Well, not that much has changed since then: Peter Milligan’s still one of the best writers in comics, and we still don’t hear a lot about him – at least compared to other superstar writers of the British Invasion like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison. Maybe it’s time to change that.
Milligan is a major figure of modern comics writing. Along with other scriptwriters of the same period, he reinvigorated the American mainstream by bringing new influences to comics. In Paradax!, he pioneered the concept of a superhero that uses media exposure for his own personal enjoyment. During his run on Shade, he made ample use of literary references, even including Hemingway and Joyce in his narrative (Shade #31-32). He explored nonlinearity and psychedelic storytelling through Rogan Rosh. He dealt with important and subversive issues, from the representation of male homosexuality (in Enigma) to the life of skinheads and thalidomide victims in Skin. In a number of cases, his work actually came before other writers’ takes on similar topics: for example, the notion of a writer’s creation coming to life in a super-heroic context, which is at the core of Enigma, was later used by Morrison for his work on Flex Mentallo.
Milligan is currently in the spotlight for his new Kid Lobotomy series, with art by Tess Fowler. Kid Lobotomy #1 went on sale last week and was actively promoted as one of the flagship titles of Shelly Bond’s brand-new imprint, Black Crown, published by IDW. This is especially good news for long-time Vertigo fans like myself, since Shelly Bond (back when she was called Shelly Roeberg) was the key editor behind Shade the Changing Man. For her new imprint, Bond chose to combine Milligan’s honed storytelling skills with Tess Fowler’s art, which makes for an excitingly new approach to Milligan’s trademark brooding heroes. But enough of Kid Lobotomy. It’s time to talk about Peter Milligan.
In spite of all these achievements, Peter Milligan is consistently overlooked in comics academic writing. The Bonn online bibliography (the go-to database on comics scholarly articles) lists only one article devoted solely to his work. Over various years of research, I have found a couple more that tackle Milligan’s work in comparison with other contemporary texts. So far, the list isn’t that impressive:
- Paul, Gavin J. “Ashes in the Gutter. 9/11 and the Serialization of Memory in DC Comics’ Human Target.” In: American Periodicals 17.2 (2007), S. 208–227.
- Mattozzi, Alvise. “Innovating Superheroes.” Reconstruction : Studies in Contemporary Culture 3.2 (2003): 13 nov. 2013.
- Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: an Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
This begs the question of why Milligan’s work, despite its recognition among comics fans, has been so seldom analysed by academics working in the field of graphic narratives. Unsurprisingly, I have no simple answer to that. There are a number of factors at work, whose effects are difficult to assess. The fact that Shade never got a full reprint in trade paperbacks may have made it less accessible to scholars. Neil Gaiman’s and Alan Moore’s fame may have cast a shadow over other creators from the same era. His work may have been promoted differently and thus be less visible to scholars. All of these are probably true to some extent. However, I wonder if Milligan’s authorial persona – the image the public has of him as a writer – isn’t also part of the equation.
What I’m trying to say is: I have spent the last three years researching the British Invasion, laboring through dozens of interviews and introductions and testimonies related to British scriptwriters working for DC, and I am confident in saying that I know more about, let’s say, Grant Morrison’s trip to India, than I know about Milligan’s entire life so far. In fact I probably know more about Neil Gaiman’s cat’s health issues than I know about Milligan’s life so far. And that I think tells us something about his lack of interest for public exposure.
Obviously, I was not there in the 80s and 90s when Milligan’s career began, but judging from the magazines and other sources from that period, it feels like Milligan hardly ever talked about himself. In the 00s, while some writers used blogs and websites to open up to their readers and build their larger-than-life, theatrical author personas, Milligan did not really follow that trend. His official website is a maze of puzzling photos and cryptic incentives (“click the eyes”).
Interviewers’ attempts to extort personal information from him are often rewarded with a joke or a snarky comment, which means that very little is known about Milligan’s private life. In an interview with fellow creator Brett Parson featured on Vertigo’s website, Milligan was asked “what is your favourite non-comics pastime?”. While Brett Parson made a normal reply (“Playing guitar, filmmaking, and carpentry”), Milligan simply said “chewing the grass on my lawn”.
Therefore, although Milligan does not lack fans and followers of all sorts, he does not seem to attract the same sort of cult following as many other writers. People praise his work, but few obsess over the details of his personal life. Admittedly, anecdotal facts do not count as proof, but I find it quite telling that even his nationality is sometimes misquoted (I’ve seen some sources state that he is Irish). Wikipedia, which is normally kept up to date by an army of dutiful comics enthusiasts, lacked such basic biographical data as Milligan’s birth date until I finally found it in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting 2 and proceeded to edit Wikipedia with a triumphant smirk.
If there is a conclusion to be drawn from all of this, it’s that Milligan’s lack of interest in his own authorial figure (in “being a star”, to put it simply) may have something to do with how little scholarship has been done on his work. The good news is, things may be changing. Milligan has been more visible recently, notably through his increased presence on Twitter, where he opened up about, among other things, his love of sports and the health issues he is facing. I can only hope that such increased visibility will result in more academic interest in his work. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Peter Milligan here on The Armadillo.