This morning the BBC Breakfast News carried an article on victims of the drug Thalidomide (a ‘wonder’ drug’ which turned out to cause dreadful birth defects in babies after being prescribed to pregnant women); many of them are still looking for adequate (or I should say better, I doubt any amount can be adequate for what happened) compensation and apologies some four decades later. I had an instant flashback to Skin by the brilliant combination of Brendan McCarthy, Peter Milligan and Carol Swain, telling the tale of young Martin Atchitson, better known to his fellow skinhead mates as Martin ‘Atchet, born with the ‘seal limb’ deformities in his arms after his mother had taken the drug while carrying him in the womb.
(the charming Martin from Skin, by and (c) Milligan, McCarthy and Swain)
In the last few years we’ve become quite used to comics creators using the medium to explore some very personal areas, including dealing with illness or disability. Its not new, of course; Al Davison created his remarkable Spiral Cage years ago. More recent years have seen comics creators tackle personal health subjects from Crohn’s Disease (Tom Humberstone‘s honest and moving 24 Hour Comic Day offering) to shopping and fashion loving girl Marisa Acocella Marchetto bringing a touch of Sex and the City to dealing with cancer (Cancer Vixen) and Darryl Cunningham’s incredibly moving Psychiatric Tales (book due early next year, see Darryl’s blog for previews). And much as I have deeply admired these creators and others for their honesty and work I have to say Skin, despite not being directly autobiographical as most later works are, still stands out for me though, for a number of reasons.
It was one of the first graphic novels I read which took comics into that sort of territory, way back in the early 90s (when it finally got printed after being passed from pillar to post by publishers who looked at it and stepped back fearful of a backlash) and as such it left a deep impression on me that’s lasted nearly two decades now; I still find myself going back to re-read it from time to time. The normal standard in, say, a movie dealing with a young lad born with disabilities is usually one of uplifting morality as he struggles against adversity and raises himself up despite his handicaps. Noble suffering. Skin doesn’t do that. Quite deliberately, as the introduction states, they didn’t want some nice young middle class chap who struggle heroically, they wanted a working class kid who was bloody angry, whose parent were pretty much unable to cope with him, who just wanted to get drunk and feel up girls and hang out and belong with his mates in his skinhead gang. Martin can be a right little git, frankly. Yes, he is a victim, but he’s a victim where our natural sympathies are deflected by his often nasty character (again playing against the expected type of this kind of tale where our tear ducts are normally milked for effect by lazy storytellers), leaving the reader feeling conflicted and uncomfortable. The contrast between his anger and later violence works well when considered against the corporate violence inflicted on his and thousand of other children’s bodies before they were ever even born.
(cover to Skin by Peter Milligan, Brendan McCarthy and Carol Swain, published Tundra)
Milligan pulls no punches (he remains a writer I love to this day), McCarthy’s art is astonishing, from the brutal leer on Martin’s face in one scene to the psychedelic, drug-fuelled sex scene with the young skinhead and some hippies (aided in no small part by Carol Swain’s brilliant colouring) which is a great example of how bloody amazing McCarthy’s art often is. Both art and story combine perfectly to tell a powerful tale of a disturbing subject and do so while denying the reader the normal emotional crutch of having a loveable but put-down hero to root for; given the themes that’s highly appropriate. Its not a work to come away from feeling either uplifted by how someone overcame the dreadful hand fate dealt then, nor is it a work to come away from with a sense of noble tragedy. Its a work to come away from feeling bloody angry. It still makes me angry even thinking about it now and this morning’s news article on victims still dealing with the effects of the drug decades on is a reminder of why people should be angry.
Skin remains one of those comics which I not only hold up as a fine example of the power of the medium to tell important, adult tales (there are many other fine examples), it is one of the few where it actually makes me proud of the medium, that it could deliver such a story. As this mornings news article reminds us the awful problems caused by the drug haven’t gone away, the human cost is still there, besides which its a work that doesn’t just rail against that particular abuse but any and all corporate abuses and the personal disasters they can cause, making it still very relevant. And I still wonder why such an important and powerful work has been allowed to be left in out of print limbo for so long?