Robot 6

Robot 6 Q&A | Brendan McCarthy on ending The Zaucer of Zilk

Last week, IDW Publishing released the second and final part of The Zaucer of Zilk, a heady psychedelic brew of a type all-too-seldom seen on the shelves of comic stores. Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall is both a confirmed Anglophile and a fan of Brendan McCarthy, so it was no real surprise the first non-Judge Dredd publication to come out of his company’s agreement with 2000AD was a quick-turnaround reprint of the comic, deemed an instant classic by many longtime readers of the venerable U.K. anthology.

2000AD doesn’t do superhero stories too often (I could count them all on one hand, and half of them had The Zaucer of Zilk‘s Al Ewing attached as writer), and this one is so genre-bending that it barely qualifies. The Zaucer may well gadabout in a form-fitting costume of primary colors, but as McCarthy wrote on the pitch sketches for the series, it’s also “Elric meets Time Bandits meets Yellow Submarine meets The Wizard of Oz.”

Robot 6 spoke to Brendan about the series’ inception, its conclusion, and its potential future. And as usual for McCarthy, the interview came with a side order of strong opinions, controversy, and some good news for fans of the legendary work he produced in the 1980s with Pete Milligan.

Robot 6: How did you sell The Zaucer of Zilk concept to 2000AD? It seems a bit different from The Mighty Tharg’s usual fare.

Brendan McCarthy: Last year I had another project fall through with a U.S. company, so I just phoned up Matt Smith, the editor of 2000AD, and pitched him the idea, as something akin to the old “Sooner or Later” strip, a bit of classic British surrealism, which we hadn’t seen in the comic for a while. With Al Ewing coming on board to script it, Tharg gave us the green light straight away.

Al and myself knocked ideas around, and eventually we felt we had something solid. Al then wrote a terrific synopsis and I did a bunch of design drawings which nailed the story and characters down. It was a pretty tightly worked-out comic. The drunken narrator was a lot of fun, we put a lot of work into getting that right — something different from all that terse “SHIELD Helicarrier: 13:00 hours.” type of stuff that you get a lot of now … I like to enjoy the writing in comics a bit more than you’re allowed, due to the current fashion of ‘stripped down’ film script type writing. Bring back thought balloons I say!

The Zaucer of Zilk is definitely not pretending to be a paper version of a movie pitch. Frankly, I can’t read most modern comics anymore. Because I have worked a lot in Hollywood, the last thing I want is my comics to look like film storyboards. I like comics to be off the leash and wildly imaginative, both in concept and in storytelling technique. “Hollywood-ization” is ruining the comics form, I think.

These IDW reprints have given me the chance to re-read Zaucer, and confirm its brilliance. Any chance of a sequel, which in my head I’ve already named “The Zultan of Zilk”? That last page leaves the reader practically demanding more.

There are no plans for a sequel that I’m aware of. I certainly have some fun ideas for what happens next, … I always thought Phillip Bond would be a good Zaucer artist if I couldn’t do it for whatever reason. He’d be my choice to follow on into new adventures.

There’s a fair bit of sociopolitical undertone in Zaucer, isn’t there? People tend to remember your work for the surrealism and mistake it for whimsy, but there’s always plenty of bite to it.

I’ll have to do something like Skin again, just to put out something more pointedly hardcore. With The Zaucer, Al Ewing wrote a wonderful script that purposely seems distracted from its main story thread, because the Tailor of Tales, the narrator, is getting drunker as we read along. Someone wrote that it’s like being told a story by a friend down the pub, a bit rambling and slurred!

Yeah, I like the put-upon look of his assistant in the last panel we see him, as the Tailor holds him in a full “your my bessht mate” drunken embrace. And for once in a superhero comic, we have a protagonist who learns lessons and changes accordingly. You don’t see that too often, in a field that usually drags The Second Act to infinity.

In this case, The Zaucer, who is an aloof puer aeternus, comes down to earth and stops being a prick and grows up. But generally, I particularly hate films with obvious “life lessons” and banal “character arcs,” as Hollywood tends to bash you over the head with its inane homilies.

You started out as going solo on the coloring, then Len O’Grady came aboard to help out. Is there a story there? 

I colored the first two episodes of The Zaucer, but always intended to bring on a colorist when the design “look” of the strip was established. Len brought his own sensibility and talents to the mix as he got the hang of it. He was a pleasure to work with.

I see you’ve received a couple of nominations in the ICN Awards, including the Hall of Fame. How Irish do you feel these days?

Well, I have been living in the west of Ireland for the last few years and have met a bunch of comic bookers around County Clare. Perhaps they’re the ones behind that merry jape.

I’ve never had much to do with the British “Comics Establishment” — I never found those people very interesting. Events like Comica bore the pants off me. Comics were much more fun before they became gentrified and turned into “graphic novels.” I much preferred it when comics were from the wrong side of the tracks culturally — when reading comics was looked down on as a worthless pastime of the working class. I don’t need a wanker from The Guardian letting me know it’s alright to read them. I mean, is Maus really better than The Numbskulls?

Well, you’re definitely at least as Irish as Tony Cascarino. Is there a collected edition of Zaucer of Zilk confirmed? And if so, will it be in the U.K.’s 2000AD format or the U.S.’s IDW format?

IDW’s Chris Ryall has talked about doing a deluxe, slightly oversized edition (something along the lines of DC’s recent Flex Mentallo collection) as a kind of director’s cut version, so The Zaucer of Zilk can be presented as I originally intended, with my design layouts, extra pages and some text by Al Ewing. I think this would realistically be at least a year or more down the line. Personally, I would prefer to see the U.S. edition size over the truncated U.K. format version.

It might be a good idea for IDW to plan the release for around the time of a forthcoming 220 pages Best of Milligan & McCarthy collection, which is due out September 2013. Expect a big announcement on that from a major comics company soon. It will include pretty much all the classic ’80s material from Peter Milligan and myself: Paradax!, Rogan Gosh, Skin, Freakwave, etc., plus some early, archival snippets from The Electrick Hoax and Summer of Love. As most of our stuff has been out of print for the last 20 years, it will be a good chance to read and collect some of the best historical strips from the ’80s U.K. comic explosion.

When Chris Ryall talks about oversized editions, I start worrying my bank balance is about to become severely depleted. All this reminds me that you’ve been involved in comics, on and off, for a long time. How have things changed since you first started out?

I’ve been in British comics, but generally on the periphery, since about 1977, with my first published work, Sometime Stories (created with the great Brett Ewins). At that time, the alternative British comics scene consisted of Bryan Talbot, Hunt Emerson and Alan Moore who were coming out of the hippie “underground” tradition, and us who were more ‘punk’ in our influences. Then Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon and Brian Bolland came into focus on 2000AD as more mainstream creators.

We’re the people who were actually creating the British comics scene, tiny as it was back then. It was nothing, and didn’t exist beyond maybe a thousand people, dotted around the U.K. It’s astonishing that comics have gotten so respectable and such big business now, but I suppose it’s something we advocated and argued and created the work for.

The problem with the newer creatives is that they seem to be much more like ‘company men’  – all they want to do is get into Marvel or DC or set up their “creator-owned” Hollywood comic pitch with Image ( and then pretend to be “just a geek who loves comics,” so as not to appear too shark-like!). They’re a different breed.

Anything catching your eye at the moment? In comics I mean! Let’s keep this interview clean.

I do look for where the new and original thought is going on out there … Nobrow and Le Dernier Cri and the more indy stuff is where I look these days, although now and then you get a mainstream comic that’s worth a gander. I’m rediscovering early, classic British strips and taking a good look at “The Bash Street Kids” and “Biffo” and “Rupert.” The stuff I read as a child, before I got into Marvel and DC. That included the pre-superhero Ditko and Kirby ‘monster’ stories that were reprinted in cheap black-and-white editions by Alan Class in the early ’60s. The Ditko stories especially, have stayed with me. Now, they seem like classic Grimm-type of fairy tales, dark and weird. I would love to see the best of them collected into a black-and-white British edition. That’s something I’d like to edit myself. They worked very well in B&W and have retained a certain period flavor that is quite bizarre, like early Doctor Who or Twilight Zone stories.

I often think that there must be some slightly odd teenager out there somewhere, who is reading my stuff and getting inspired, and will eventually form an art gang and produce the next new thing in comics. It’s been quite while since, say, the Jamie Hewlett/Philip Bond Atomtan, Deadline days … I love seeing new talent emerging, that time before they get sucked into the machine — It’s an important thing, to keep a bit for yourself and keep one foot out of the comics industry, and preserve your original voice — if you have one!

I have to ask, one last self-indulgent question from someone who’s a massive fan of both George Miller and yourself … anything more from Mad Max: Fury Road you’d care to share?

Nope, I have to be pretty tight-lipped about all that. I think it’s best to let what’s coming be a surprise if possible. Although I’m sure nearer the time of the movie’s release, there’ll be tons of stuff appearing on the net. Based on the brilliant footage I saw when I went to Africa to visit the set, they should be able to cut the best trailer for a feature film ever! I was very impressed by what I saw. I sincerely hope that it all comes together in the edit and in post, and that everything gels — the performances, action and story climaxes.

I’m optimistic. I want it to be a great addition to the Mad Max canon. Let’s hope so.

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Comments

3 Comments

Thanks, Mark! That was awesome!

Great news, great interview. Sep 2013? That will mean my bank account will have recovered from buying Swimini Purpose last week…

Well done for getting in a Tony Cascarino reference, Mark. I feel obliged to crack a joke about IDW giving 2000AD a set of tracksuits in return for letting them reprint the Zaucer of Zilk.

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