REVIEWS

The Collected John G. Miller: 1990-1999

The experience of reading a single story by John G Miller is almost a vertiginous one. The way he uses negative space to push background blacks into the reader’s face, his jagged line, his weird lettering, and his strange logic make many of the stories uncomfortable and even suffocating at first. That is, Miller does little to lead the reader by the hand through his comics, forcing the reader to take each page on its own terms.  There’s nothing about the formal aspects of his work that’s especially innovative; indeed, his Jack Kirby influence both in terms of panel design and character gesture is palpable. What’s so strange about reading Miller’s comics is that he has an eye for dissonance, of putting together story elements in such a way that makes everything just a bit off or strange to look at.

His work fits into the same continuum as Fletcher Hanks or Rory Hayes, artists whose work had the veneer of outsider art but in fact were strongly influenced by other cartoonists and displayed ambition to professionalism. What’s interesting about Miller is that he uses pretty much the same style to tell every story, be it science fiction, superheroes, or punk rock. Indeed, punk and social justice are threads that weave in and out of his comics, along with a strong local (Scottish) sensibility.

Take “Jimmy Battlesmash”, for example. It’s a Marvel Comics-style strip featuring a masked hero who was inspired by Captain America comics but whose father used to beat him mercilessly for possessing them. He was rescued by a superhero named Sergeant Justice who bludgeoned his dad and then strung him up in the middle of the street (!). Jimmy and the Sergeant become life-long friends, as Jimmy later takes on “Harry Hitler” and a group of Nazi (or to quote the Scottish dialect used in the story and throughout the book, “Natsy”) robots directed at a crowd of protesting workers. Meanwhile, Jimmy is somehow telepathically communicating with a soldier in 1917 as well as his contact in the government. In the end, Jimmy gets a hot meal from his girlfriend. Whether it’s an adventure strip like this one or a short humor strip, Miller throws the kitchen sink into every single panel on every single page. To break up the black backgrounds, Miller frequently throws in a weird white design (in this story, it’s a zig-zag) that is purely decorative, serving to break up the panel but also had to the overall dissonance of the reading experience.

About halfway through the collection, the stories start to get briefer and more directly personal. Miller weaves in reminiscences of days spent pining after girls, creating mischief, setting fires, and having a hyper-real experience along a riverbank with his magical cat characters, mind-controlling officials looking to curtail fun and other assorted weirdness. Mind control is a recurring theme in every story, slipping from a simple way of hanging a plot on generally anti-establishment sentiments and eventually becoming something else altogether.

As Miller reveals that certain events in his story are true, he talks about how a group of men at one job he held (“The Postmen of Doom”) used telepathy against him, as he would hear their thoughts in his head every time he drew comics, listened to Grateful Dead records, went on dates, smoked pot, or even read comics. It was the voice of authority, an internalization of things he was told in his small town of Lanark. In his stories, Miller treats this as a real phenomenon, even as he spoofs it with attacks by the Brain Police and guest-star turns by Frank Zappa. Miller also acknowledges that hearing these voices is a symptom of schizophrenia but sloughs that off with conspiracy-theory talk of something called “powering,” a kind of intrusive telepathy.

What’s interesting is that indulging that explanation seems to be what keeps Miller functional and creative. As a result, his comics take on a weirdly meditative feel, as his free-spirited characters come up against the forces of mind-control, conformism, and boredom again and again, easily smashing the villain’s plans while having a great time to boot. There are repeated scenes of Miller’s heroes (and his stand-ins) getting stoned, reading comics, or having a good meal after evil’s been vanquished, a surprisingly powerful affirmation of self and the right to one’s own pleasure. That becomes especially clear toward the end of the book, which concludes with 20+ stories starring “Ghosty.”

“Ghosty” is introduced as yet another (“true”) force of mind control, this time in the person of a girl with psychic powers used by Christians to try to influence him. She’s a much less pernicious presence than the Postmen, a benevolent figure who winds up becoming an angel of sorts for Miller. She loves the Grateful Dead and compels him to play their music, all the while becoming part of an invincible group of female protector characters who oppose an array of mind-control-using villains. That group includes a super-cat (cats as trickster avatars are another character touchstone for Miller) and a secret agent from the future that’s representative of his love of the ’60s spy shows he grew up with. Each of these stories is unusually repetitive, wrapping up in just a page, almost as though they were created as a therapeutic or meditative soothing activity. Miller offers up a powerful rebuke to outside control in the body of his own work, regardless of whether those attempts at control take the form of cultural & political influence or instead if they’re due to the voices he hears in his own head. There’s something enormously inspiring about his response to these feelings.

As the years march on, Miller’s art becomes more accessible and approachable. There’s no question that it retains its psychedelic qualities, especially in terms of the way he introduces decorative background patterns, but his line becomes slightly less jagged and he introduces a lot more white space into his comics. I’m not sure if that’s related to the greater prevalence of female characters (who dominate the latter half of the book), but as a reader, it was far easier to navigate the back half of the book from a visual perspective. As Miller loosens up, his strips get funnier, wackier and more scatological. There’s a relentless march of joy as one flips from page to page, a celebration of a life spent as an artist, a punk, a hippie and a member of a small but vital movement. The ingredients may well seem familiar, but I’ve never encountered a personality quite like Miller’s in all my years of reading comics.

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2 Responses to The Collected John G. Miller: 1990-1999

  1. Gavin Lees says:

    Nice review, Rob! Good to see John getting some exposure in the Journal again (he was in that video interview I did with the Hope Street crew last year). Something you might be not aware of is that a lot of the content of his comics spills over into his real life — the line between fiction and autobiography is severely blurred — and he’s a prolific tagger, posting messages for people to “Back S.H.I.E.L.D.” and beware of hallucinogens.

  2. Kenny Penman says:

    For many years John was a customer at our comics shop in Edinburgh where he would stop in roughly weekly. He had a huge love of early Marvel comics from memory and had a huge knowledge of Kirby’s strips. My partner and I were both at one point or another using mind control on John I’ve heard – although I’m sure his focus moved to someone else down the line. He was always an interesting guy to talk with and whilst clearly marching to the beat of his own drum, pleasant and funny. I’ve followed his comics as he has worked away in his own little tributary and I think they are full of energy and ideas that few comics embrace. For me, John is like a Syd Barret who didn’t retreat into hermit like behaviour. It’s fantastic to see his unique work collected – thanks for reviewing this, it had slipped by me. Off to buy it now.

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