Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All: Ted McKeever, Pencil Head and Leaving Comics

Pencil Head was the final comics work by Ted McKeever[1], one of the seminal writer/artists that emerged during the black and white boom of the 1980s - a rare period in history in which an alternative cartoonist working in an intentionally crude and absurdist idiom could not only make a living, but prosper (just ask Dave Sim, or the Ninja Turtles guys). Of course, all good things come to end; and success, that fickle mistress, went and found herself a different husband. But McKeever kept on keeping on, offering his unique visual style to both personal projects (Plastic Forks; 1990), creator-owned team-ups (The Extremist, with writer Peter Milligan; 1993) and even the occasional superhero art project (Superman's Metropolis, with writers R.J.M. Lofficier and Roy Thomas; 1996).

Cover to Pencil Head #1 (January 2016), written and drawn by Ted McKeever.

His star seemed to be on the rise again, or at least stable enough, in the '10s: Image Comics’ Shadowline imprint re-published several of his earlier stories under the banner of the “Ted McKeever Library” (even if the nearly digest-sized reproductions did no favors for McKeever's wild exuberance as a penciler). At the same time, he was publishing new series, also via Shadowline, all of which seemed unencumbered by censorship or corporate demands: Meta4 (2010-11) describes itself as such: “An astronaut awakens on Coney Island, lost and without memory, and is befriended by a wall of a woman dressed as Santa Claus.” Mondo (2012) was about a man becoming a ‘roided monster after an accident with chicken steroids. Miniature Jesus (2013) featured, indeed, a tiny statue of Jesus coming to life. Not the type of work you do if you are chasing the almighty dollar, especially in a period where Image’s biggest hit was Saga. Ted McKeever didn’t want to do Saga; Ted McKeever only wants to be Ted McKeever - unbound and unleashed.

From Meta4 #1 (June 2010), written, drawn and lettered by Ted McKeever.

The result were not unexpected: Miniature Jesus #1 debuted in April 2013, placing 211 on ICv2's monthly sales chart[2]. Issue #2 fell to spot 283. Issue #4 was entirely out of the top 300. Sales be damned! But these series weren’t getting very much critical respect either. They weren’t hated, but they weren’t loved either. As far as I can recall, nobody talked about them very much. They were background noise in a marketplace already full of it. McKeever went from a beloved voice in the alternative revolution, a multiple Eisner nominee, to just another dude throwing his shit at an already shit-stained wall.

All of which probably led to Pencil Head, McKeever’s swan song in the world of comics, if swans were in the habit of singing the Butthole Surfers (they might, I’m not a ornithologist). Pencil Head is even less talked-about than these other series, probably for the simple reason that it has never been collected. Maybe it’s because sales were that disastrous. Or maybe because the proprietors of Shadowline noticed they were publishing a barely-disguised harangue. Pencil Head features an old ‘iconic’ comics artist called “Crank Filler” who turns out to be a terrible person, just so we get the level of subtlety involved.

From Pencil Head #3 (March 2016), written and drawn by Ted McKeever.

The plot, such as it is, follows writer-artist Poodwaddle (McKeever) as he leaves the corporate Happy-Time Corporation in favor of their competitors, Cleverland Comics. Along the way he meets with different thinly-disguised versions of familiar comic book people, who are mostly scum - as measured by how badly they treat Poodwaddle and refuse to acknowledge his art. There is also a dead stripper, killed by a flying piece of beef, as promised on the cover of the first issue, and a bunch of inky slimy monsters who evoke the Isz from Sam Kieth’s The Maxx.

If you read throughout the series trying to find how all these various plotlines are connected, you did not reckon with McKeever, a man whose plotting always appears to be three steps behind his writing. This is not a negative criticism; the wild throw-everything-possible-at-the-wall-until-it-breaks-and-go-through-it style is McKeever’s trademark, for good or ill. You don’t read a Ted McKeever series seeking a closed loop. You are looking for the sublime; the apocalyptic visions signed on the flesh of angels with a paint stripper. When Metropōl (1991-92) started with a Kafkaesque scenario of a man being accosted by law enforcement for a crime he was not aware of, who could’ve predicted the whole thing would end with a battle between demon hordes and a group of robot angels? No one, probably not even McKeever himself.

From Pencil Head #4 (May 2016), written and drawn by Ted McKeever.

Indeed, by issue #4 of Pencil Head, any pretense of plot has been long cast aside in favor of settling scores. McKeever's exaggerated art is particularly fitting for making people look bad (not that people in comics need much help); and, as petty and childish as it is, I must admit I got a chuckle of seeing all those heads swell, veins popping, mouths open wider than humanly possible. The finale of issue #5 pulls back from the drawing board to show a photographic image of the artist himself as he tears his own pages apart in rage. Everything you’ve read was pointless. McKeever admits that he’s not out to change anything, he’s venting; and when he’s done venting, he will close the door and disappear.

There is, of course, a proud history of artists using their works to be incredibly petty. Dante Alighieri got his kicks by placing his professional and personal rivals in Hell. Naturally, when it comes to having beefs with the comics industry, my mind turns to Alan Moore. Specifically: his and Kevin O’Neill’s own “fuck you and goodbye” to comics – The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: The Tempest. That series was less in-your-face in terms of its themes -- there was an actual plot, followed though -- but you couldn’t mistake its intentions. Every issue began with a real-life tale of a comics creator dying after a lifetime of exploitation and ended with stereotypical fake letters from bad fans.

The final issue ends with Mina, the protagonist, escaping the doomed Earth to start a new, freer and better society in the depths of space. There’s a knock on the door... who is it? Al(an) and Kev(in) of course, coming to attend the story's climactic wedding. They get kicked right out, because there’s no room for comics makers in utopia. Amongst all the rest of the Sturm und Drang there’s a lot of justified anger at the creative culture that led to all this destruction, and a reckoning with its twisted history.

From Pencil Head #5 (June 2016), written and drawn by Ted McKeever.

The Tempest is a better critique of the industry[3], because unlike Pencil Head, it actually cares about the wider scope of issues within the industry. The Tempest recognizes the problems of creators' rights, use and abuse by corporations and the shaky moral and financial foundations on which modern comics stand[4]. Pencil Head recognizes that some people have been mean to Ted McKeever, at various levels of aggression, and thus deserve to suffer. That dead stripper from the first issue, forgotten about halfway through the narrative, seems frightfully appropriate for an industry that constantly shits on women and pretends that nothing has happened - a woman is dead, and McKeever is angry someone edited his work to insert sound effects.[5]

Granted, that is a fictional woman, and McKeever’s problems are very real. Still, it was his decision to put her in the text, and his decision to make her into a footnote in his own story. It’s not that Pencil Head is unaware of the old boys’ club attitude; McKeever depicts a scene in which a bunch of established creators sit around a table and discuss which fictional character they’d like to fuck with just the appropriate mix of sadness and hate. These are pathetic people - and, as a result, what they produce is pathetic. Yet McKeever can never quite leap from his personal mistreatment into any larger issues.

This brings to mind another piece of inside-industry storytelling published by Image, the largely-derided revival of Airboy from 2015. That series sought to explore the failures of the system by self-critique rather than score-settling. Writer James Robinson portrays himself as a sad-sack worthy of 1990s alternative comics, but ends up treating the women in the story with the same level of carelessness. The transgender women in issue #2 are not people, they are props. Just as the dead stripper is a prop – something to illuminate how shitty Poodwaddle’s life is. I note that most of the comic books that go for that kind of stuff are created by men, which rather illuminates who is allowed to get angry about their shitty treatment by industry. A woman writing that kind of material, which would include stuff that people like McKeever probably don't go through, is likely to get a lot more negative pushback.

From Airboy #1 (June 2015), written by James Robinson; drawn, colored and lettered by Greg Hinkle.

Airboy has that self-effacing thing, that trick helps the writer to avoid criticism by appropriating it. ‘You can’t tell me I suck because I already know it.’ It’s certainly something lots of writers enjoy -- yours truly is as guilty of it as anyone else -- but when we’re dealing with people who already have a measure of success and power within the industry (even one as tiny and insular as comics), it's angering. It’s a way to avoid responsibility. I will say, in favor of McKeever, he doesn’t play that silly game. According to Pencil Head, he’s a brilliant auteur constantly undermined by people too stupid to recognize his greatness. And really, if you are not that good, why should I read your whining? Robinson writes an entire series about how he’s a bad writer who long ceased trying in hopes you’ll tell him how good he is. McKeever doesn’t care what you think of him. Does he read as an asshole through the prism of Pencil Head? Yes, but he’s honest about it. McKeever doesn’t hide. There’s palpability to the loathing he feels towards the entire rotting industry – everything is bad and awful from the top (the people who make the comics) down (the people who buy them). Only Shaky Kane can compare to (and surpass) McKeever in how much horror can be inserted into the goings-on of a comic con.

I can’t deny McKeever’s skills. At that point of his career he shed whatever hints of counterintuitive oddness that might have plagued his earlier art. Both Transit (1987) and Eddy Current (1987-88) had this innate confusion built into them, chaos reigning on every level. These two series seemed to hope that the strength of the artistic style would be enough to carry the story forward. Yes, much of that early stuff is a pretentious[6] mess, but it is exactly that sense of ‘messiness’ that gives it an appeal. By the time we reach the later works, McKeever has managed to hone his technical chops without losing the edge that made his style so personal.

From Metropōl #9 (December 1991), written, drawn and colored by Ted McKeever; lettering by Phil Felix.

At the same time, McKeever is one of these creators that’s easier to admire for the sheer determination and earnestness of their career trajectory than to actually enjoy. The messiness is fun to consider in a theoretical sense, but can often be tiring to read through. Both Metropōl and Transit simply keep going and going until the story is no longer recognizable as anything in which you've invested yourself. If anything, Pencil Head fares better in retrospect because the anger gives it focus: something McKeever had always lacked (or intentionally ignored).

Whatever issues I take with the writing, Pencil Head looks great. The long scene at the end of issue #2, with a monster slowly emerging from the dead stripper’s body, is such a powerful performance of mass and choreography - you can see the creature struggling with the weight of the skin, you can see the oddness of its movement as it first appears, like a newborn looking for direction. You can sense and smell the rotting ink it appears to personify – the dead and forgotten history coming to hunt our protagonist. Yet we end up dropping all this to make fun of Roy Thomas again, because Kirby’s Houseroy wasn’t enough.

From Mister Miracle #6 (February 1972), written and penciled by Jack Kirby; inking by Mike Royer.

I understand why artists with a strong independent mindset would feud with the quintessential company man, but the problem is that McKeever’s outlook is limited: he doesn’t object to Thomas as a symbol for the problems of the industry, he just fucking hates Roy Thomas (and Frank Miller, and Mike Carlin, and pretty much everybody who’s not Archie Goodwin or Lou Stathis). The tiny monsters in Pencil Head are interesting because appear to be exactly what the story is missing: old mistakes that our protagonist refused to acknowledge, which threaten to return and hunt him. One arises directly from the body of the dead stripper: someone he literally left behind as he ran for his life. Yet there is no confrontation, no closure. Which leaves me kinda stuck with Pencil Head. The story doesn’t have a climax. Which, I guess, is the right closure for something like this: five issues flailing wildly, if creatively, that end not with a bang or a whimper. It just ends. Closing the door. Forever.

The final page of Pencil Head #5 (June 2016), starring Ted McKeever. Production on all Pencil Head issues by Dana Moreshead.

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[1] Ok, that’s not technically true - McKeever's Wikipedia page, which reads a lot like the man has edited it himself, mentions another ‘final’ work: a series of three self-published “absurdist manuals” titled Funky Porcini (2017-18), released in such a limited amount, and with so little fanfare, it might as well not exist as far the comics culture is concerned.

[2] Other independent debuts in the same month included Mark Millar's & Frank Quitely's Jupiter’s Legacy (3rd place) the Aspin superheroine title Jirni (60th), and House of Gold and Bones (209th), a comic based on the works of rock band Stone Sour.

[3] Not necessarily a better comic overall, though. It’s superbly well-made but also extremely tiring to read.

[4] This is not to say The Tempest is perfect - far from it. Its constant use of the Golliwog, a figure steeped in racial caricature that got both creators rightfully criticized in previous volumes, feels like an intentional poke in the eye. “You didn’t like this before, eh? How do you all like it now when there’s much more of it?!” Which goes a bit differently when the ‘you all’ in question is (often) minority critics and scholars instead of big corporations.

[5] I must shamefully admit that I really liked the SFX in Metropōl A.D. (1992), some of my favorite touches in that book; it felt really odd learning the artist hates them with a burning passion.

[6] “Pretentious” is another word that often used only in the negative, and while I don’t think something like Metropōl comes close to achieving its lofty, revelatory goals, I can’t help but admire the attempt.