Posts Tagged ‘‘Cerebus the Aardvark’’

Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

December 30, 2017

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

Art Robot O’Neill’s Twisted Take on Christmas

December 29, 2017

Kevin O’Neill is one of the great British comic artists, who came out of 2000 AD in the 1970s. His grotesque and nightmarish depictions of aliens, mutants and robots have been delighting and traumatising readers for decades. With writer Pat Mills, he created the Nemesis the Warlock strip, and has drawn the art for a number of classic comics, including Marshal Law and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The last has been turned into a film with Sean Connery as Alan Quatermaine. This weird vision of the Christmas season is the wrap-around cover for 2000 AD 398, for the 29th December 1984. As you can see, it shows a monstrous Santa Claus, a chimney with jaw pursuing a flying Christmas turkey, snowmen fighting, and two houses trying to burn each other down with their chimneys. Oh yes, and the mechanical reindeer that’s part of Santa’s sleigh looks anything but jolly. Though he is red-nosed.

O’Neill’s artwork was considered so grotesque and revolting that it was banned by the Comics Code. The Comics Code were an unelected body of censors set up following the scare about Horror comics that devastated the industry in the 1950s. They were charged with making sure that American comics were good, wholesome fun, and were suitable for children. I can remember Mike telling me that American comics at the time worked to be suitable for a child of seven to read. It was supposed to be a voluntary code, meaning that its decision were not legally binding, and there were comics published far outside, and often deliberately against their control: the underground comics, like Robert Crumb, and the independents, like Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, the Code had a near total grip dictating what comics could or could not publish. If a comic did not have their seal of approval, then the vast majority of newsagents and mainstream retailers simply wouldn’t sell it.

This whole system collapsed in the 1980s, as a new generation of fans objected to censorship and being told what they could or could not read in their favourite literature. The result was the emergence of adult comics ‘for mature readers’, like Marshal Law. But this was not before there were a few casualties. O’Neill was one of them.

He was the artist for a story in DC’s Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore, who had also been one of the script robots working on 2000 AD. In the story, the Corps visit a planet which has been overrun by demons. The Code rejected it.

Moore rang them up, and asked if they would pass it if he made a few suggested changes. No, they told him. He tried again, suggesting taking out another incident in the strip. No, they still wouldn’t pass it. So Moore asked him what was wrong with the strip, that they didn’t want to pass it.

‘O’Neill’s artwork’, the faceless censors replied. ‘It is totally unsuitable for children’.

In the end, I think DC did go ahead and publish the story, but it appeared without the Comics Code approval badge on its cover.

I really like O’Neill’s art, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is grotesque and disturbing. I can remember reading an interview with another British comics great, Dave Gibbons, who drew the Rogue Trooper strip in 2000 AD, where he said that a fan had told him at a comics convention that O’Neill’s artwork gave him nightmares. He could only dispel these by looking at Gibbons’ smooth art.

2000 AD later paid homage to the incident in one of their anniversary issues, where Tharg walked around various characters and art and script droids in his head. O’Neill is depicted as a crazed, stunted brat drinking at of a can marked ‘Bile’. During their brief conversation, Tharg describes O’Neill’s ban by the Comics Code as his great accolade.

It says something about American culture at the time that O’Neill’s art was considered too grim and upsetting for children across the Pond, but he had been published in 2000 AD for years and was one of the comic’s cult artists.

As for the nightmarish vision of Christmas, this strangely harks back to the type of humour the Victorians themselves like to put on their Christmas cards. There was a brief piece about Christmas cards on the One Show about a week ago, where they mentioned that the first Christmas cards showed scenes of anthropomorphised Christmas food or other items hunting each other over a wintry background. Art robot O’Neill’s weird, crazed interpretation of the festive season harks back to that, although its direct inspiration was probably the iconoclastic punk ethos that ran through 2000 AD.

Here’s the two pictures. Enjoy, and don’t have nightmares!