In the small press comics scene, genre fiction and autobiographical comics are often seen as two distinct tribes.
I’ve spent 24 hours in the company of my comics buddies (mostly autobio writers) doing the 24 Hour Comics Challenge. I’m generally a genre writer, but I’ve just written a strip about a physics PhD called Mike. Its full of the usual orgone, higher dimensions and slavish devotion to some kind of futurist 1970’s fashion that characterises my work. Is it autobio? Not really, not any more than any of my other work.
Michael Mordecai is my homage to Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius. Moorcock was a prolific writer of fantasy trilogies/quartets, and came up with the rather cool idea of the Eternal Champion. All his heroes were facets of the same being – Elric the labino elf-wizard, Prince Corum the Celtic version, Hawkmoon the steampunk version, and so on. These books are genrally pretty good, but by far and away the most interesting was the Jerry Cornelius quartet. Jerry’s the ultimate assassin in the swinging 60’s, a Carnaby St dandy with a needlegun that kills slowly as the needle works it’s way to the victim’s heart. The Final Programme deals with Jerry and his brother Frank fighting over their Dad’s technology and their sister Catherine. A Cure for Cancer ups the psychedelic stakes. Jerry now has jet black skin and white hair, like a photographic negative of himself, and the story is punctatuted with tabloid style headlines. The English Assassin sees Jerry in hibernation in a cocoon, while the story focusses on his incestuous lover Catherine and their mysterious Swedish ally Una Persson.
Finally, The Condition of Muzak tells the same story but with the fantastical replaced with the mundane. Jerry blacks up using makeup for the middle third of the book, for example. Much is left unexplained, but the series throbs with the peculiar psychedelic energy of acid trips, ultraviolet lighting and speaker feedback. Moorcock further messes with readers by introducing Jhary A’Conell to the cast of his fantasy books, and writing a greasy British comedy verison of his character in spy farce The Chinese Agent, where Jerry Cornell is the worst spy in the British government’s employment.
A London physicist who becomes a photographic negative of himself in the middle chapter of three, and a Swedish woman called Una. I’m not exactly trying to hide my influences here.
There’s definitely a wish fulfillment side to the fictional Dr Mike. I grew up in Aberdeen in the 1980’s (awesome city, the most liveable in the UK, and awesome time for music and pop culture) but like many teenagers, totally failed to appreciate what I had. London seemed so much cooler, and as a precocious kid, I’d had a chance to immerse myself in 1970s culture by the time it ended, and spent the 1980s wistfully yearning for flares and long hair to come back into fashion. So Mordecai is the me who I wanted to be when I was a teenager.
The name Mordecai is a straight crib from Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah, a Daredevil villain created by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan. This was Daredevil at his weirdest – teaming up with Moondragon to fight artifical religious leaders and hallucination-inducing hippies. (So forgive me if I haven’t watched Daredevil on Netflix yet, he isn’t really the Daredevil that I enjoyed.)
I originally conceived Mordecai as an ultimate traveller, like DC’s Metron or Druillet’s Loan Sloane, a 1970s throwback using “the ink” to travel between dimensions in search of his wife Una. Originally, this was just a fruitless search due to the vastness of the multiverse, but at some point I came up with the idea of conjoining them so that they can never find each other. Once again, this idea owes a lot to Steve Gerber, and Starhawk/Aleta from Guardians of the Galaxy. This can be seen as a metaphor for many things. Couples find themselves frustratingly separated for many reasons – distance, work, social conventions or even death. As a single Dad, I briefly dated a single Mum, and our kid timetables seemed to tag-team in a way that we were never truly alone. Co-parents who are together will of course experience this too. I narrowly avoided having one of my life’s major relationships torn apart by immigration and visa rules, as my Australian girlfriend luckily had a Welsh grandparent, and this allowed her to stay in the UK with me. If this accident of birth had been different, it would have felt as unfair and arbitrary as being separated by the accidental conjoining of mike and Una in my strip.
A Traveller in both time and space
In putting this strip together, I really wanted Una to have a bigger role. She started out as just a “Swedish bird”, the epitome of 1970’s British cool, with this nudge-nudge implication that they do things British girls don’t because they come from a country of naked massages. Not good enough. I realised she’s the traveller out of the two of them – in the real world parts of the story he’s probably never left London, while she’s ventured off into the unknown where they don’t speak her language. Now, I’ve always been a foreigner. I’m a Brit living in Australia now, but I also grew up in Scotland with a distinctly English accent. Most people are cool and its always a conversation piece, but I have also experienced my fair share of hostility and exclusion for something as trivial as where I was born. Aberdeen in my youth was the centre of the oil industry, and while this lead to a a huge cash injection into the city, and lots of fantastic salaries for local workers on the rigs, there was always the perception that too much of that money was flowing south to England. I’ve had people act as though I’m personally responsible for this, so I mirrored this with Mike’s nephew grilling Una ta the dinner table for being “German”. I’ve also been mistaken for German in France, because I was very blond as a kid.
These scene at Mike’s parents is a pretty mellow one – the adults in the family are quite accepting, just the kid’s being obnoxious.
The falling idea comes partly from Mobius’ strip Absolueten Calfetreiul, collected in the Pharagonesia volume, which silently depicts some guy falling through a variety of scenes. It also owes a bit to the Daath chapter of Moore and William’s Promethea.
The Condition of Music
I hate people making judgements about other people’s musical tastes. I’ve felt this most strongly with Abba. I was intirduced to them by a Danish girl who lived own the road from me when I was a kid. They were massive in the 1970s, and in the 1980s somehow became the absolute epitome of uncool. They were sort of rescued from obscurity by Aussie movies like Muriel’s Wedding, whose wild abandon somehow reminded just how perfect heir pop actually was. I remember watching Elvis Costello on a music show kind of sheepishly admitting that he actually really liked them, and found their use of English strangely poetic.
Well, I’ve always loved them, through thick and thin. They write brilliant pop songs about universal timeless themes like love and loss.
The scene with Melvin at the party is me giving the midle finger to anyone who tries to use music as a weapon to make anyone else feel uncool. The Hooternanny Singers are Bjorn Ulvaess’ old band from before Abba. Smile (Mike’s favourite band) consisted of Tim Stafell, Roger Taylor and Brian May, and when roadie and hanger on Freddie Bulsara took over on vocals from Stafell, they became Queen. Their single “Keep Yourself Alive” made it on to Queen’s eponymous first album, and can be heard on page 8 of the strip.
It amused me to give Mike and Una favourite musicians who would go on to dominate the music world after they’d left it.
My favourite Abba fact incidentally, is that Frida is now a Princess, having married into German royalty! love doing research for strips when it turns up nuggets like this!
I’m giving myself a no-prize because Mike quotes Kashmir by Led Zepellin. That song was written in 1975. Smile and the Hooternanny Singers were both around in 1971, so that at least is accurate.
The Queen of Optical Art
Giving Mike and Una equal footing is a bit tricky in a story that revolves around a scientific accident. He makes the ink, he understands it. I came up with the idea of incorporating Bridget Riley into their story in a prose piece I wrote a whole back, with her visualising gravity waves as a Bridget Riley painting. I was familiar with Riley’s work via Patrick Woodroffe, who mentions her in Mythopoeikon. I’ve embraced optical art myself, with my black and white studio paintjob.
I’d come up with the first page in my head before the 24 hour period, and saw a way to use the classic figure-foreground illusion as a starting point. It got me thinking about using the strip to explore the relationship between art and science through the symbols of these two people. After all, I’m a conjoined artist-scientist myself. I didn’t get as much of this in as I’d hoped. The scene on page 8 in Una’s bedroom covers what I wanted to say. I also had an idea that science describes the whole universe, the external world, and art merely described what happens inside our little heads. Art exists inside science. At the same time, all we perceive about our universe, and all we ever experience, is filtered though our senses and brains. The universe that we experience is just a mental model inside our heads. So science exists inside art from that perspective. Like the animal toy that turns inside out, I envisaged Mike and Una being conjoined like an Einstein Rosen bridge, where each universe appears to be inside the little ball from the other’s point of view. It all got a bit Cronenberg’s Fly in my head, with the idea that they now shared some extra new organs or something, like a 4D sphincter that controls the swap. There wasn’t time to get into that in the strip though. Just the one succint statement on one of my favourite pages.
You can almost feel the infrasound radiating off that background, like deafening radio static!
It was a great technical exercise, to work with extremely limited time. I didn’t script the story or plan it much at all until Chapter 3, when I knew I had to wrap up. I’d thought of a lot of the isolated scenes before, but it was much more free-wheeling than the way I approach Universe Gun. It was great to have the freedom to take shortcuts with the art too. The collage pages were fun, searching for photos on my phone to stylise in Photoshop and then add hand-drawn figures over the top. Also for the hand drawn pages, it was great to sketch in background in a few lines, like the jungle and rocks in page 19. Similarly, there was the sense of storing up energy and raw time to let it loose on a few more impressive pages, such as the bedroom scene above, or the dinner scene on page 17, which required drawing 18 figures in perspective. Lets just say page 21 was where I was really flagging, and decided not to draw 2/3 of it.
That’s Falling. A superhero strip featuring plenty of drug and sex references, without a single shred of violence! (Ok, Una gets chased by a dinosaur and a robot in two panels…) I put a bit of myself into it as usual. I am the Dr Mike in the strip, but also Una, and also Princes Amtora and the rest of the Universe Gang.
Hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please don’t hesitate to let me know on Facebook, Tumblr, email, or even Millarworld. It makes my day when that happens.
See you in seven, Swedish Smile fans! Dr Mike 2000, 7 June 2015