Retro Review: Skreemer By Milligan, Ewins & Dillon For DC Comics

Skreemer #1-6 (May – October 1989)

Written by Peter Milligan

Artwork by Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon

Coloured by Tom Ziuko

Spoilers (from thirty-three years ago)

I don’t know if it’s because of pandemic stress, a sense of disillusionment with the current comics market, or a combination of the two, but I’ve been scouring the fifty cent bins a lot more lately, and recently came across a full run of Skreemer, the late 80s dayglo ‘suggested for mature readers’ pre-Vertigo title by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins, and Steve Dillon.  I remember seeing ads for this book, which came out around the time I was getting ready to go to high school.  

I was reading some of the mature reader books at this point, but didn’t know who any of these creators were, and knew that this wasn’t set in the mainstream DC universe, so I passed on it.  Since those days, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen this book discussed anywhere again.

As it turns out, this book was the first American comic for these creators, which would explain why I didn’t know them at the time.  Milligan went on to write some excellent comics, most notably Shade the Changing Man, and some pretty mid ones.  Ewins just turned up occasionally in American comics, but Steve Dillon went on to have a storied career.  It’s cool to be able to explore their early work in its original format (and for only $3).

So is this book any good?  I guess we’ll find out.

Let’s track who turned up in the title:

Main Characters

  • Dutch Amsterdam (#1-6)
  • Victoria Chandler (#1-6)
  • Veto Skreemer (#1-6)
  • Bud Macadam (#1-5)
  • President Richter (#1-5)
  • President Andrews (#1, 3)
  • Timothy Finnegan (#1-6)
  • Gloreen Shannon (#1-6)
  • Charlie Finnegan (#1-6)
  • Karla Finnegan (#1-6)
  • Katie Finnegan (#1-2)
  • Tim Finnegan (#2)
  • President Whyte (#2-4)
  • President Dukas (#2-3)
  • Claudia (#2-3)
  • President Borges (#3)
  • Georgie Finnegan (#3-4)
  • Helen Finnegan (#3-4)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • The series opens with a narrator named Finnegan, speaking from the era of “The Rebuilding” about how it’s thirty-eight years after “The Fall”, and that it’s the “Agoe of the Giant”.  He or she explains that Veto Skreemer was born the same year as the fall, and that Skreemer was one of the many Presidents who ran the thirty gangs that controlled what’s become of America.  While we read this narration, we see Dutch Amsterdam, a black man who is strapped to a table and has clearly been badly beaten.  Someone is walking into the room, but we only see his shoes.  There’s a brief flashback to two days earlier, and Dutch is confident and suave.  The next scene takes place before the opening of the book.  Dutch is led into a building by a group of people with guns.  He knows Victoria, one of the major Presidents.  We learn he arranged a meeting of them all, on Skreemer’s behalf, and that he and Victoria have history.  Backing up again, we see that Dutch wanted Veto to bring the gangs together so they can negotiate how to thrive in the changing conditions coming about because a plague is ending and the world is recovering (who knew this would be so relevant?).  Veto is shown standing at the edge of an atrium balcony in his mansion; he agrees to Dutch’s idea.  At the meeting, the various Presidents dig into the great meat that Veto has provided for them.  Dutch and Victoria talk, and it’s clear that Dutch wants to make amends with his old friend.  He explains that Veto will be coming soon.  Just then, the meat all explodes, killing many of the Presidents, but not Vicky.  Some of the butchers come in and open fire on the survivors.  Veto is talking to a subordinate, Macadam, about how they put liquid explosives in the meat, and that Dutch didn’t know. Dutch tries to escape but is taken prisoner by President Richter and Vicky.  We see that Veto has been planning this for ten years, but don’t know what his plans are.  Vicky and two other surviving Presidents, Richter and Andrews, put a cage around Dutch’s face.  They explain that they are going to put a very sick rat into the cage, and then place a candle on top, so the rat will dig through him to try to escape.  Since Dutch doesn’t know anything, he can’t tell them anything, so the rat goes into the cage.  At Veto’s, he stands on his ledge again.  A pregnant woman named Gloreen Shannon talks to a new guard, the eighteen year old Finnegan (is he our narrator’s father?).  Finnegan worries that Shannon is coming on to him, and that Veto will notice.  Shannon is pregnant with Veto’s “monster”, and seems to have a lot of contempt for him.  She talks about how he’s always on the ledge, but doesn’t have the balls to jump and end his pain.  Macadam lets him know that they killed fifteen Presidents, but not Victoria, and that Dutch is missing.  Veto thinks back to his childhood (all flashbacks are drawn by Steve Dillon, which is cool).  He remembers being nine years old, in a run down building, getting berated by his father for being useless.  Our narrator tells us about their family at that same time.  Their grandfather, Charlie Finnegan, worked at a bar, while his wife, Karla, stayed home with their children, including Katie, who is sick.  Charlie is sent to deliver some booze to a whorehouse, but on the way, discovers that he’s transporting some very young girls.  He lets them go free, and then takes one with him back to his boss, who he hits in the face.  The boss tells him that he better leave the neighbourhood, so he and his family pack up a cart to flee.  At the same time, Veto and his father are joined by a dangerous looking drifter.  Veto’s father offers him a drink, and the man cuts him up, killing him.  He goes after young Veto.  As he remembers this in the present, Veto narrates what happened.  He talks about how he crept down a hallway he’d prepared for this kind of eventuality.  He’d hidden rat traps under rotten floorboards (they are more like bear traps in the picture though), managing to catch both of the man’s legs in them.  He then picks up a pipe and beats the man to death; this is the first time he’s killed a man, but he makes it clear he’s killed a woman before this.  In the present, Victoria has the rat removed from Dutch’s face, mentioning that she’s known him since they were six and she believes he doesn’t know anything.  Dutch remembers living in a sewer with Vicky and a kid named Rags.  Vicky led them to a drunk rich man, whom she knocked out with a rock so they could rob him.  It was a setup though, and someone fired on them from an upstairs window, killing Rags.  Vicky and Dutch ran, but were chased by a couple of men.  They hoped to climb a fire escape in an alley, but it was too high up.  Someone lowered them a rope, so they climbed to the roof, where they met young Veto.  Victoria and Richter talk about what Veto was like in those days.  As the old bar song that inspired Finnegan’s Wake is sung by Charlie Finnegan in a flashback, we see that Veto has come, wearing a white fur coat and carrying a large machine gun, to rescue Dutch.
  • Veto carries Dutch out to his associates.  Dutch reminds him that they are old friends, and we see a flashback to their first meeting again.  Victoria is with Richter, and she feels bad for hurting Dutch so badly, given their history.  She remembers how Veto used to scare Dutch with rats when they were kids, and commented that this is why Dutch would hate him one day.  She also remembers when Veto first got a gun.  Around the same time, our narrator shows us, Charlie Finnegan went scrounging for something he could sell to help get Katie medical care, and to get his wife off his back for losing his job.  He found a drunk passed out in some wreckage, and learned that he had a full bottle of pre-Fall whiskey on him.  As Charlie was taking it, the man woke up, and he had to punch him out.  Around the same time, young Veto, Dutch, and Vicky broke into a home pharmacy.  A man held a shotgun to Veto’s head.  Charlie felt guilty, but knew that the whiskey was very valuable.  He found himself inside a ruined church, staring at a damaged crucifix.  The man fired on Veto but the gun jammed, and Veto shot him, then turned his gun on the female pharmacist.  Charlie prayed for Katie to get better.  Dutch and Vicky didn’t like the way Veto handled that situation.  In the present, Veto relives this scene at the edge of his balcony.  As Charlie made his way home, he could hear Karla screaming, and realized that Katie died.  He dropped the whisky bottle, and later they buried Katie in the same church.  Much later, Veto shot Jules Blanco, a ‘Skreemer’, or assassin, for President Whyte, and stole medical supplies from him before dumping his body in the river.  Veto went to Whyte and told him what he did, and old him he’d like to be his new Skreemer.  Whyte had his man beat on Veto for a while, but the kid didn’t make a noise or react when his eye was almost plucked out.  Whyte decided to hire him.  A couple years later, Charlie started making booze with a guy named Francis.  In the present, Macadam tries to talk to Veto about their plans, but Veto is lost in the past.  He remembers being sixteen, and officially Whyte’s Skreemer.  He got rid of the rest of his gang, keeping only Vicky and Dutch with him.  Dutch can tell Vicky is into Veto, and that makes him jealous.  Whyte is impressed with Veto, and brags about him to another President.  Dutch found Vicky and Veto in bed together.  When Vicky talked to him later, she didn’t handle it well, and we see that she still regrets that in the present.  A couple years later, the Finnegans are doing well for themselves, but that’s when Veto showed up, and shot up their speakeasy.  He told them that Whyte’s territory expanded and that they can’t sell there; we see that Tim, Charlie’s son, was killed.  A few years after that, we see that Veto continued to rise, while the Finnegans were expecting another child.  Whyte handed over his girl Claudia to Veto, which we are left to assume is what caused the rift between him and Victoria.  In the present, a group of Presidents plan to go after Veto.  Veto, meanwhile, plays out his regrets on the balcony, while Shannon and the young Finnegan watch.  Shannon makes it clear she wants Finnegan, after she’s given birth.  We learn his name is Timothy.  Victoria wants to wait to see what Veto has planned before they act, but then she wants to kill him.  We see that Karla and Charlie’s child was a boy that they named Timothy.
  • In the present, various gang Presidents meet to plot against Veto.  We learn that our narrator’s name is Peter Finnegan, and that it’s still nine years before he’ll be born.  They decide they should pick a leader among them to run things after Veto is taken down.  Vicky and Veto separately remember how Veto dumped Vicky for Claudia.  Vicky chose to leave, and tried to get Dutch to come with her.  Dutch, recovering from his injuries, imagines Vicky by his side.  Veto and Macadam talk about their plans beginning, which has something to do with balloons “going up”.  Veto heads to his basement.  The narrator tells us about Timothy Finnegan’s first birthday, while Timothy stays with Gloreen, who is worried about giving birth.  She wants to tell Timothy about Veto’s plans.  Back on Timothy’s birthday, the Finnegans saw President Whyte and Veto Skreemer drive past them.  Charlie blamed them for the deaths of Katie and Timmy, and took time to tell his twin children, George and Helen, that people must choose to be better than animals.  We missed Gloreen telling Timothy the plan, but see he doesn’t like it.  Veto is suspicious of Macadam, thinking of him like a Judas.  We see that Veto designed President Whyte’s office tower home, which took years to build.  After it was built, we see that Whyte used the open balconies to push a friendly rival to his death, and that Veto had built himself a room in the basement where he tortured his enemies.  As strife between the gangs heated up, Claudia got pregnant by Veto.  President Borges tried to kill Whyte.  War broke out between the gangs, with Vicky helping Borges’s side.  In a summit, Veto attacked President Dukas, Whyte’s ally, then proved that he was working for the other side.  Around this same time, Whyte was infected with tertiary syphilis.  In the present, Dutch sees that his face is forever disfigured.  Veto is with him, but then learns that Gloreen is in labour.  In the midst of the gang war, Claudia decided to go out with a friend.  Veto and Whyte kept gaining territory in the war, while their battles impacted the lives of people like the Finnegans.  Some of Borges men were able to attack Claudia.  Attending Gloreen, Veto gets the two women confused, and then heads back downstairs, where he remembers learning that Claudia and the child she was carrying were killed.  Veto went on a revenge spree.  Timothy looks after Gloreen, whose child doesn’t want to be born, it seems.  After the end of the gang war, Whyte threw a party where he behaved very much like a degenerate.  His people provided him with twins – Helen and Georgie Finnegan – and he wanted them to have sex for him.  Charlie learned where they were and decided to go get them.  Dutch wanted to kill Whyte for his depravities, but Veto counseled waiting for the right time.  Charlie tried to intervene, and told Whyte off.  Whyte wanted to kill Charlie, but Veto suggested waiting and letting him decide what to do.  He produced a knife and told Charlie to kill two younger boys they held captive to let his own children live.  We learn that Victoria won the election to be the new President of the United Gangs of America, and see Charlie trying to decide what he should do.
  • Issue four starts to really blend various flashbacks with present-day scenes, showing us that Veto is often living in both past and present at the same time.  We get a recap of sorts, reminding us that Veto is standing on his balcony, now holding a balloon with stars and a target on it, while Gloreen is in labour, and as Victoria and her men wait to make their move, and Dutch recuperates in bed.  We return to the moment fourteen years earlier where Charlie was forced to make his choice, to kill either two young children he doesn’t know, or to kill his own twin children.  He offered to kill himself instead if they could all go free, and we saw Veto turn the gun on the twins.  In the present, Veto pops his balloon and drops the knife over the balcony.  As it falls, we watch a very sad Charlie walk home.  Milligan and Dillon set this scene up terrifically, as it looks like Charlie was alone, but after Karla greeted him, we saw that the twins survived.  It’s only then that we notice the blood all over his jacket.  At the party, President Whyte praised Veto for the entertainment he provided, and we learn that Charlie tried to hide his eyes as he murdered the two children.  In the present, Veto talks to Macadam about killing a stray dog as a child.  At the party, Veto made his move and killed Whyte, while Dutch killed the guards who stayed loyal to him.  The killing of the dog and Whyte seem conflated in Veto’s memory.  Charlie was haunted by what he did and spent three days washing his hands.  Victoria’s men are tense, and when one drops his gun and it fires, they take it as a signal to launch their attack.  Veto and Macadam know things have popped off, just minutes before their balloons are set to launch.  We figure out that the balloons will have a virus or plague in them, which Veto’s men are vaccinated against.  Timothy talks to Gloreen about this, and she makes it clear that Veto will go to any length to secure his power.  Karla confronted Charlie about two weeks after the party about how things had affected him, and he struck her.  Shamed by this, he headed out for a walk, without taking his coat.  He just kept walking.  About three years later, Veto and Dutch were at a bar with Rebecca, Dutch’s new girlfriend, whom he kept objectifying and comparing to Vicky.  When they got up to leave, Rebecca shot Veto twice in the back.  There was a doctor there, part of their gang, who declared Veto dead.  Dutch had trouble accepting that.  Suddenly Veto grabbe the doctor by the throat. In the present, Veto’s hand strays to the location of his old wounds.  Veto worries that the fighting might make its way to his palace, so he orders Macadam to have Timothy evacuate Gloreen, while he goes to get Dutch.  In the past, as Veto recovered, he learned that the doctor died of fright when he grabbed him.  Veto carries Dutch, and promises to tell him a story.  Timothy and Gloreen talk while being driven through a part of town that reminds Timothy of his childhood.  Around the same time that Veto was shot, Charlie was living like a hobo, begging passersby for alcohol.  He ended up back at the church where he buried Katie, and he spoke to her, apologizing for all his mistakes.  He finished the bottle someone had given him, and contemplated killing himself.  Light shone through a window, and a woman (perhaps a nun?) appeared before him.  He begged her for forgiveness, and kissed her when it was given.  This brought him to his senses, and he returned home to Karla and young Timothy.  Veto installs Dutch in a bed in the palace, and tells him that the plague balloons are being released across the country.
  • Charlie explained to his family how his encounter with the old woman in the church set his mind right.  In the present, as Timothy escorts Gloreen somewhere safe, they are attacked by a gunman in a car.  He shoots their driver, but the gunman is crushed when the two cars collide.  Veto talks to Dutch about why he never revealed his current project to him, and sends for Macadam, whose first name is Bud.  Veto tells Dutch that he shot up one of his own slaughterhouses, to study the blood spatter on the walls (a recurring motif).  Dutch took him home, and they talked about the inevitability of death.  This is what gave Veto his idea, and he first sent for Macadam.  Dutch doesn’t want to know about all of this, but Veto continues to explain how he figured out that the world would improve within ten years, negating the need for him to control territory.  This is why he decided to create a situation of perpetual failure, and set Macadam to putting together a collection of mutated pathogens that could be used to keep him in power.  He also planted his own men in the other gangs.  As Timothy and Gloreen enter an old tenement, they see the balloons being released.  Timothy remembers a time when he was twelve as the Finnegans were walking, a man attacked Karla, holding a knife to her neck.  Charlie froze, but Timothy hit him with a brick and chased him off.  Timothy was angry with Charlie for doing nothing, and couldn’t understand how he still felt guilty for saving the twins (who moved away after that incident).  Victoria and Richter are in a car, and Richter makes his move, having his driver shoot Victoria’s guard.  He tells her that he is going to take control, and shoots his own man so there are no witnesses.  He prepares to rape Victoria, but is attacked by a rabid dog (he’d made a show of removing the clip from his gun before, so can’t defend himself).  As Victoria drives off, we see that the gang war is spreading throughout the city.  A few years before, Dutch told Veto that Vicky had become the President of her own gang.  Veto had taken Dutch to a brothel, saying he wanted to have a child.  In the present, Veto talks to Dutch about this, explaining that he had always recognized that Vicky was the future, and this shows how confused Veto’s perceptions can get.  It was at the brothel that he met Gloreen, whom we see is definitely in labour.  Timothy remembers being sixteen and telling his father that he was going to go work for Veto’s gang.  Charlie was angry, but Timothy hit him and told him off.  Finally, Charlie kicked him out, and then told Karla that it was time for him to start drinking again.  Veto can tell that Victoria’s forces are getting closer.  Macadam is brought to him, and Veto asks him why he betrayed him.  Victoria and her men can see the balloons exploding across the sky.  Macadam explains to Veto that he ordered him to betray him.  He explains how about eight years before, Veto talked to him about Judas Iscariot and his preordained role.  He also had told Macadam to make sure their project didn’t succeed, so at one point Macadam sabotaged his work, throwing out his biological weapons.  He says that he got nervous that Veto didn’t remember, so he decided it was best to leave.  Veto kills Macadam, and then carries Dutch to the roof, telling him it was time for him to learn about his first kill, his mother.
  • Veto points to two birds on the roof, but Dutch tells him they aren’t there.  Dutch is starting to figure out just how mad Veto must be, when he sees the two birds.  Gloreen continues with her labour, and talks to Timothy while going through it.  Veto tries to explain how he’s always been able to see what’s going to happen, although he can’t always understand it.  As the fighting in the streets gets closer to his palace, he recounts how before the Fall, his father, an unhappy pathologist, started an affair with a prostitute whom he installed in her own apartment and got pregnant with Veto.  He eventually killed his wife, and then the Fall started, and things got bad.  When Veto’s mother went into labour, she didn’t survive.  Veto’s father stood at a staircase with a damaged railing, and thought about jumping, killing himself and his newborn son.  Timothy tells Gloreen about his own upbringing.  We see that Charlie and Karla are sitting at home.  Veto continues to explain how his father stepped back from the ledge, but that he can remember that moment and feels like he’s still there.  He talks about how his father raised him without love, and would cut up corpses they found, searching the entrails for clues to the future.  He taught Veto how to divine, and Veto started hanging out at the edges of buildings and ledges.  After Veto’s father was killed, Veto saw this whole future, including the two birds, in the splatter left by his blood.  Timothy explains to Gloreen how his father’s stubbornness broke him, and they discuss the nature of fathers and sons.  Veto tells Dutch that his whole life has been preordained, and describes how he wants to escape his destiny.  He knows that Vicky will be the one to kill him, and had believed that Claudia could have been his freedom.  Dutch finally figures out how Veto has been operating their whole lives, and gets very angry.  He figures out that Veto chose to have Macadam betray him, and also tipped off Borges’s men to Claudia’s whereabouts, so they could kill her.  Veto hits Dutch.  Vicky and her men enter the palace and shoot everyone they find.  Vicky reminds her men to let Dutch live.  She sees Veto up on a balcony, and he starts shooting at them.  He flees, and comes to the broken balcony, where he’s always seen himself dying.  Vicky confronts him, and he jumps across the abyss, expecting not to make it.  He does make it though, surprising him, and manages to get away, thinking he’s finally free.  He heads for the safe house where he sent Timothy and Gloreen (which happens to be the building he was born in), and arrives to find his baby has been born.  There’s something wrong with the baby, but we don’t get to see what it is.  He goes to the ledge where his father once stood, and holding the baby, he jumps.  Victoria tries to offer Dutch a place in her new empire, but he walks out on her.  Timothy takes Gloreen to his parents’ place to help her recover, and they are both welcomed in by Charlie and Karla.  With time, Gloreen and Timothy have a child, the perfect one that Veto saw in his future, and that is Peter, our narrator for the whole series.  We see that this family is finally happy, and take one final look at Veto lying broken on the ground with his child.

Well, I’m glad I finally read this book.  I remember looking at the house ads for it back in the day, but couldn’t really glean much from them, and at the time, hadn’t heard of any of the creators.  This was definitely the good Peter Milligan, showing his best effort.

I didn’t expect that this series would be a throwback to classic gangster films, with a 20s/30s aesthetic, a post-Apocalyptic thriller, and a Joycean exploration of destiny and family.  The notion of Veto Skreemer as a violent man stuck following a preordained path he doesn’t want is a strong one, as is the recurring image of him standing on the literal edge.

I like how Milligan laid out the story with layered flashbacks, as narrated by a character who is not even born until the story is finished.  It worked to make clear how the Finnegan family is tied into the drama between Veto, Dutch, and Vicky.  I also like how the big events of the story – the war between gangs – is mostly handled off-panel, with the tighter focus being on the relationships between the various characters.

I’ll admit that I’ve never even attempted to read Finnegan’s Wake (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was enough for me in university, although I think it shaped most of what I know about Catholicism), so aside from Charlie always singing the song, the literary references and parallels escaped me.  Perhaps that’s all there is to it, or perhaps there’s a whole layer to this story I didn’t get to experience.

I also really enjoyed the art in this book.  Brett Ewins’s pages are pretty brutal from the start, and the flashbacks by Steve Dillon are pretty bleak, in his usual expressive way.  As the story continued, I found it harder and harder to tell who was drawing certain pages, and it started to look like perhaps Dillon was inking Ewins’s work.  I don’t know if that was intentional, representing the fact that the story’s past was catching up to its present, or if it was simply a matter of deadlines, but I do like how it blurred the lines between the two tracks of the story.

It was really nice to see more Dillon art that I’d never examined before.  His death a few years back was a big loss to comics, and I’m always happy to come across more of his work.  No one drew faces like him, making his art instantly recognizable. 

Tom Ziuko, as colourist on this book, did an impressive job.  The present-day pages are garish and splashy, like the late 80s when they were made, while the flashback pages are muddy.  I like that Ziuko avoided using sepia tone for the flashbacks, as that gets associated with happy memories.  By going a shade or two darker, Ziuko is letting us know that things are not going to be very pleasant.

I can see how Milligan was able to parlay this miniseries into writing Shade the Changing Man and Animal Man, if that’s how it all happened.  This was a pretty cool series, and I’m surprised that I’ve never really seen it get much mention.

Next time around, I’m going to revisit one of the best Marvel twelve-part miniseries of all time that didn’t feature any of the main Marvel Universe characters.

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