Best of the Year: Rod McKie

Published On December 10, 2010 | By Joe Gordon | Best of the Year 2010, Comics

Rod McKie is a professional artist who has contributed work to a wide variety of periodicals, including Playboy, the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, National Lampoon and more, as well as working on his own comics and indeed often writing on the medium (including some fascinating posts right here on the FP blog). His blog and twitter are must-follows for anyone interested in comics. Let’s see what Rod’s been enjoying in 2010:

FPI: Can you pick three comics/webcomics/graphic novels which you especially enjoyed over the last twelve months and tell us why you singled them out?

Rod: A lot of mainstream comics are very bad indeed.  The scripts are risible, and there is a lot of nothing very much happening visually.  If you look at the progress of the narrative in a lot of manga, for instance Gantz, it can go for a long walk around the houses, and still keep your attention and remain on course to some sort of resolution – albeit maybe 10 years down the road.  Most mainstream comics, on the other hand, just labour on and on, and they distract and disjoint visually because they need to utilise a variety of “styles” to keep the reader interested in basically the same character, doing the same thing, over and over again, for about 100 years.  Let’s face it, twenty years of angst about what it means to be a man-god is boring, and I’ve thrown a couple of them out recently because I not only don’t want to know “what happens next”, I don’t care.

I have loved Turf, by Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards. I like a lot of Image titles, but that’s maybe because they haven’t been around for an eternity; time will tell.  The artwork in Turf is genius, Tommy Lee often seems to place the reader in the centre of things, so that the events unfold around us in an actual 3D space.  It’s difficult to explain, but he doesn’t just draw four walls, he draws a room you can walk, or swoop, around in.  There is a page in Turf #2 where Dale is running away, heading upstairs, and these killers are running into the area from behind Susie, and Lee Edwards allows the reader to track around the space from about four different points of view, including that of the approaching bad guys.  It’s expertly done, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that as a comic reader before.

(scenes from the recent fourth part of Turf by Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards, published in Clint mag)

The plot of Turf is crazy, really crazy, and there is a lot of excitement involved.  You can tell Ross is excited about the act of writing, and also about exciting and surprising the reader. It’s like he is saying “…I know there are 100 vampires dropping from the sky here, with tommy-guns going of everywhere and heads flying this way and that, but that’s nothing because over here there is a friggin’ alien and over here…” to himself as he writes it.  It’s a wild crazy ride.  It is, in fact, the sort of crazy you find in great manga tales, because those guys also let their imagination run riot.  There is a lesson to be learned here, I think, it’s that it’s a comic for crying out loud, you can do anything, go anywhere, imagine anything, let it celebrate its own medium.  I would imagine Turf has been a revelation for comic book fans, and I would also imagine that it will be difficult for those fans to find anything to fill the gap Turf leaves behind when the series ends.

When it comes to non-mainstream publications, it alarms and distresses me that big guns like Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Renee French and Jaime Hernandez seem to still be improving as creators.  I say this with love you understand, but when you are trying to still reach the standard they were at 10 years ago, and they actually go on and surpass that, and raise the bar yet further, you do kind of feel it’s a little like trying to catch a shooting star – it’s always going to be out of reach. You see, there is a downside to living through a golden age of cartooning.  All joking apart, this year, those four have all turned out stellar works that eclipse even the great work they have created in the past: X’ed Out by Burns, H Day by Renee French, Browntown, from Love and Rockets, New Stories No3, by Hernandez, and The Acme Novelty Library #20, Lint, by Chris Ware.  But from that exemplary collection, I would single out Ware’s Lint as something really very special indeed.

(Acme Novelty Library 20: Lint by Chris Ware, published Drawn & Quarterly)

There was always a lot of hyperbole about Chris Ware over here in Britain, when his work finally made it to these shores, and reviewers who really had no idea how to read graphic novels were calling him the James Joyce of cartoonists; not because they were aware of Ware’s typographic skills and of Joyce’s typographic experiments, but because they thought it made them sound clever to make that comparison.  And, I think, because that canonical reference permitted them to review a lowly “comic book” in their posh papers, in a literary way.  Of course the comparison was ludicrous, at that time, but this most recent work really is, to my mind, a masterpiece, and it does elevate him, for me, head and shoulders above any other cartoonist, living or dead.  It’s not a thick book in the sense that Joyce’s Ulysses is thick, but it needs to be visited as often as that book to get anywhere near to the meat of it.  It is an important work of art.

(frames from Tozo the Public Servant by and (c) David O’Connell, a solid fave with many of us)

I’m following a few web comics.  I follow Allan Haverholm‘s work, particularly his Maxi and Tomb of The Rabbit King strips, and I follow Phillipa Rice’s My Cardboard Life.  I’m finding and being introduced to new and interesting stuff all the time, thanks to the comic creating community on Twitter, like the work of Kristyna Baczynski.  But I’d single out Rich Barrett’s online “graphic novel in progress” Nathan Sorry, a story about an investment analyst who was supposed to be in the World Trade Centre on 9/11, and David O’Connell’s TOZO, the Public Servant, about a police inspector on the island city of Nova Venezia. These two web comics are great reads, and Tozo is a hugely imaginative and impressive work.  I couldn’t split those two.

My three choices then are Turf, Acme Comics Library #20, Lint, and Nathan Sorry/Tozo.

(Nathan Sorry by and (c) Rich Barrett, a new one to me but I can see I’m going to have to have a look)

FPI: Can you pick three books which you especially enjoyed over the last twelve months and tell us why you singled them out?

Rod: I keep taking a run at Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and it currently occupies a place on my bedside table, but I keep putting it off.  At the moment it works as a sort of threat because I pick up other slimmer books to avoid reading it.

One book I have been reading again recently, and enjoying, is one that I studied at university under the book’s Editor, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  I’m reading it because I’m interested in Charlotte Bronte and Zombies.  As a movie-buff yourself you’ll know that the movie I Walked with a Zombie is a retelling of Jane Eyre that introduces the beat of the Voodoo drum to that tale.  Jean Rhys’s book also has that sound as its heartbeat, and in it she attempts to tell the story of the madwoman in Rochester’s attic, the first Mrs Rochester, so that you get a different perspective on events; the colonial view, and the view of the colonised.  That approach interests the heck out of me.  Rhys’s narrative is woven around the spaces in Bronte’s tale, the unspoken secrets and unacknowledged truths of the text.  It’s a book of all the words that were edited away, or swept under the carpet, in the composition of Bronte’s story.

I’ve been reading it again partly because I’m hatching a zombie tale of my own, but also because I wanted to read a text that explored literary themes and the structure of stories, again.  I miss doing that, and to be honest I think it is a discipline that any serious writer should study, and which anyone who has any pretentions about creating a “novel”, even one with pictures where some words would normally be, should be at least a little familiar with. It is a discipline, I think, that graphic stories have to incorporate in order to achieve their full potential, and in order, I suppose, to be taken seriously as literature.  A good many graphic novels, to date, are simply one-dimensional picture stories.  They don’t have a depth of structure that invites the sort of analysis a more “serious” text elicits, which is why, I suspect, programmes that want to discuss “graphic novels” along with other texts, invite a group of graphic novel creators to talk amongst themselves about the work.

(Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist)

I enjoyed the transgressive act of enjoying reading Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, which I got after seeing the movie.  The book is way more gritty and seedy than the film.  Hakar’s real nature, for instance, is made clear right from the start.  And like the Inspector Wallander books, by fellow Swede, Henning Mankell, it addresses political and social issues more directly than any film version does – although in the case of Wallander that applies more to the British TV movie versions.  I also loved the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.  I want to protect Lisbeth Salander, which is weird because I’m sure she can kick my arse.

If I can have Steig Larson’s Millennium Trilogy as one book, then I’d have that, Let the Right One In and Wide Sargasso Sea as my three books.

FPI: Can you pick three TV shows and/or movies which you especially enjoyed over the last twelve months and tell us why you singled them out?

Rod: I’m very bad at TV.  If I like a show I race ahead with it.  I love American shows and I’ll get box sets from the US and watch ahead of the British airing, and be left with nothing to do when it eventually gets on air over here.  I’m ahead with 30 Rock. Tina Fey is a brilliant writer.  I thought it was hilarious that A.A. Gill thought that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, also essentially about Saturday Night Live, would outlast 30 Rock, created by the funniest writer on the real Saturday Night Live. How ridiculous. I think 30 Rock is even funnier than Seinfeld; and that’s saying something. I’m also ahead with Weeds.  I can’t bear it when a season comes to an end; I think I actually experience withdrawal symptoms.  Jenji Kohan is, like Tina Fey, some kind of genius. And I was knocked out by the dark, moody, disturbing, Canadian cop thriller Durham County, which begins season 3 in Canada soon, if it hasn’t already started.

My one choice though, is Bored to Death.  All cartoonists, writers, comedians, and private eyes should watch Jonathan Ames’s show.  Bored to Death is hilarious and an absolute joy. Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson are just fantastic in this comedy.  It has everything, cute actors, an indie comic book creator, a writer who can’t get into the New Yorker, a fight at a comics convention; I love it.

As for movies, I thoroughly enjoyed Let the Right One In.  It split my family right down the middle, and the conversation about what lies in Oskar’s future was animated, to say the least.  In fact we still talk about it.  I also really enjoyed The Millennium Trilogy (I even race ahead with movies) and while I can see that some people might find the third movie, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, dull, (POTENTAL SPOILER) I viewed it as part of a whole and I needed Lisbeth Salander to live through that resolution.

If I’m allowed a similar liberty with the Millennium Trilogy movies, my three choices here are Bored to Death, on TV, and Let the Right One In and Lisbeth Salander’s three adventures in the cinema.

FPI: How did 2010 go for you as a creator? Are you happy with the way you got your work out this year?

Rod: I mainly worked for me in 2010, which means I made practically no money.  Who knew my royalty payments from the US would be so poor this year?  I did, thanks to fellow cartoonists, sell the odd idea, but I’m not sure I’ll even draw magazine-cartoons again.  Creating them means stepping back on a carousel that once you are on you can’t step off again.  You have little or no time to create anything else, anything more involved or lasting.  I’m simply not in love with doing it at the moment, and it is a job that you need to love doing.  Of course that can change overnight as I often dream cartoon ideas – and wake up screaming.  Not really.

FPI: What can we look forward to from you in 2011?

Rod: I’ll have finished #1 of my Johnny Morte comic book.  Most comics take about one month, working at a rate of one page a day.  But when you have to write, pencil, ink, colour and letter the thing, it takes a little longer.  I actually finished the entire comic a month or so ago, but after seeing what came back from the printer I decided it wasn’t good enough.  My feeling was it was okay as a self-published comic, which tends to be a little rougher and rushed, it’s part of the hand-made charm.  But Johnny Morte is supposed to be a mainstream comic, so it needed more work. I decided to scan the printed pages into the computer and redraw the thing, very slowly, using those pages as templates.  I’m drawing it digitally, with the Wacom, and I’m using Photoshop because Illustrator makes it look too slick (it corrects some lines). It is still pretty time-consuming work though, and I don’t think I’ll be racing to finish it so I’m thinking it’ll be the first thing I produce in 2011.

(artwork for Johnny Morte by and (c) Rod McKie)

I do have some really good ideas, that I’m dying to work on; including a crime-caper comic, and the Zombie work I mentioned.  Oh and a couple of other things I don’t think I can talk about yet.  But they are in a queue.  It’s important, I think, to try to finish every project you start, just in case any new distracting ideas are your own unconscious attempts at self sabotage.  You know, like, “a pint would be nice right now”.

FPI: Anyone you think is a name we should be watching out for next year?

Rod: That’s difficult to answer, not because there’s a dearth of talent out there but because there is so much. Here in the UK, I’m pretty certain Jamie Smart, Robb Davis, Ian Culbard, Gary Northfield, Faz Choudhury, Sarah McIntyre, Tom Humberstone, Joe Decie, Marc Ellerby, Shug, Garen Ewing, in fact all those people in the various Thought Bubble 10 photos dotted around the internet, will continue to create even more brilliant work over the course of next year.  And, impossible though it is for me to imagine where they will find the energy, despite having a new little bundle of joy to also look after; I’m pretty confident that John Reppion and Leah Moore will make some even more fantastic comics next year.

Away from these shores, more people will come to realise that Cul-de-Sac creator Richard Thomson is the natural successor to Bill Watterson – if I petitioned newspapers, I’d petition them to run Cul-de-Sac; all of them.  And Canadian cartoonist Eric Orchard will make beautiful books, that’s a given I think.  I’m also pretty sure Daniel Werneck PhD, will produce something exceptional next year.

I think these are, despite the current economic gloom, exciting times.  What is fascinating me is the convergence of artistic disciplines, and I’ll think we’ll see a lot more of that in 2011.  I don’t necessarily mean the presence of movie studios at Comics Conventions, which is part of it, but the convergence of all the disciplines that used to be a cottage industry in the guerrilla-art days of self-publishing mini-comics.  I’m actually, for the first time in a long time, very hopeful for the future of cartooning in general and British cartooning in particular. There’s a whole lot of talent out there.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

One Response to Best of the Year: Rod McKie

  1. Box Brown says:

    1000% Agreement on this statement RE: ACME 20:

    “this most recent work really is, to my mind, a masterpiece, and it does elevate him, for me, head and shoulders above any other cartoonist, living or dead.”