Reviewed by Will Cooling
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Brendan McCarthy
Colours by Carol Swan
Lettered by Tom Frame
Editor: N/A (Creator-Owned)
Published by Tundra Press
Thalidomide (called Kevadon in America) was a sedative developed in Germany during the 1950s with assurances that pregnant women could take the drug without any danger of the unborn child being damaged.
In fact, they couldn’t!
Adequate tests to check whether the drug would pass the placenta were not carried out despite the fact that such tests were available. In short the company producing thalidomide lied through its teeth so as not to interfere with the much more important business of making money. The result was that many children in Europe (the drug was hardly used in America thanks to the work of Dr Frances Kelly of the FDA) were either miscarried or born with defects. The most common of which was phocomelia-extremely foreshortened arms and legs and in the 1970s such people were a common sight.
The 1970s was also in many areas of London the heyday of the skinhead with two young future comic creators Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy a part of it (this is of course before skinhead “culture” became radicalised by the neo-nazi National Front). Both saw skinheads that had been deformed by there mothers taking thalidomide and Brendan McCarthy had long been interested in how it felt living in such a body. In the early nineties amid the backdrop of the victims’ of thalidomide continuing struggle to receive compensation they came together to write Skin, a deeply controversial and shocking story of one Martin Atchitson’s-both thalidomide and skinhead (or a “skin”). A story so controversial that Fleetway’s (then publishers of 2000AD and its sister adult publication Crisis) printers refused to touch and whose lawyers told them not to publish it in any case. A story that many publishers have backed away from publishing.
And to be honest you can see why; this is a profoundly disturbing and nasty book. But as Milligan and McCarthy say in their foreword how on earth could it be any different? You’re dealing with a senseless and selfish business decision that destroyed the lives of many innocent children and then to make matters worse decades of obstruction to the families getting any compensation. The subject is nasty and if you’re going to deal with it then there’s no point pussy footing around, which believe me Milligan doesn’t do. He’s brutality honest about the illness and society he’s depicting; from the opening page he lays out with typical dark humour the effect of phocomelia. He shows the insults that Martin has to put up with, the sense of shame that has overcame his family, the very really disabling effects of this disability, a disability that stops him doing everyday things such as dressing himself.
Milligan also immerses you in skinhead culture, warts and all. You see the obsession with drink, violence and sex. You see the degradation of women and the incessant demonisation of homosexuality. You see the raw ugliness of their shaved heads, thuggish clothes and leering faces. You see the nihilism. Yet despite showing you the bad side Milligan also draws attention to the attractions. He masterfully shows the visceral excitement of the violence, the prestige and power that otherwise disenfranchised young men gained and the sense of identity and community that young men could gain. Milligan does this using a variety of techniques with one of the most effective being the most natural and effect dialect narration I have ever seen with the slang of the skin recaptured perfectly without leaving the reading struggling to make sense of what’s going on.
Milligan is also uncompromising in his depiction of the lead character Martin. Milligan goes out his way to show him as a thoroughly unlikeable and downright nasty piece of work. Whilst he’s said to be reasonably smart and has a supportive father he’s rather be destructive and aggressive. He’s a misogynist, a bully, a foul-mouthed yob and damn near a psychopath…and yet still Milligan manages to make you identify with him. Milligan/McCarthy make a fantastic point when they compare Skin with a hypothetical “nice” story of some middle class thalidomide suffer being “bullied at school, who writes beautiful poetry about is plight and eventually rises above his condition”. That would be the more heart-warming and touching story but in many ways it would be a tasteless piece of sappy schmaltz with the sole intention of making us all feel better by reassuring us that the human spirit can get through anything. It would also fail to communicate the complete and utter rage and helplessness that must come from having your life ruined by such thoughtless selfishness. Finally, the fact that the lead character is such a w*nker merely confirms the evil that your dealing with because you still emphasise with him and in the truly distressing final scene when somehow you feel everything he’s going through. It is easy to make the reader care for a nice character; it’s far harder to make them care for a nasty one yet somehow Milligan does that.
Also contributing to the power is the fantastic art team of Brendan McCarthy and Carol Swann. McCarthy is an “arty” comicbook artist and he shows it here with not a panel or grid in sight. Instead the action is told free form with the different “panels” overlapping yet he never confuses the reader as to where to look. His art is magnificent as it shows real people as they really look with the brutality, excitement and grimness of Martin’s world shown without fear or reticence. His Martin is amazing with him capturing the sober reality of his disease without ever cracking jokes at his expense. He also manages to capture the contrasting elements of his personality: on the one hand the vulnerable victim and on the other hand the rampaging madman. As with Milligan’s writing his art is at its peak for the awe-inspiring finale with the rage and the violence capturing not only in the actually action but in the demonic look on Martin’s face. His art is beautifully complimented by the lush pastel colouring of Carol Swan that makes this look like no comic you’ve ever seen.
I approached this book on its reputation as a controversial book with no knowledge of what it was about. Reading it was at once shocking, disturbing and thrilling. This is a seminal comicbook that brings to light not only outrages committed against innocent children but does so by providing an engrossing and moving story. This is the best comic I’ve ever read with writing and art that will blow you away powered by anger so strong you can feel it.
It is a must read for all serious comic fans.
The Last Word: You have to read this. There isn’t really much more to say.