Michael McMillian took the underground to strange corners of outer space
FORGOTTEN COMIC BOOK ARTISTS, PART 2: MICHAEL McMILLAN
The American comic book has produced a massive mountain of brightly hued pop culture since the 1930s, and the peak moments of the medium have been appropriately celebrated — but what about the pulpy landscape’s strange caves and broken trails that are now forgotten? It’s those curious and esoteric places that author and art director Dan Nadel surveys with his new book “Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980,” which is a strong companion to his acclaimed 2006 book “Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969.” Here at Hero Complex we’re going to be running excerpts from the Abrams ComicArts book leading up to Nadel’s appearance on May 30 at the Cinefamily.
Michael McMillan had one of those brief but influential careers in comic books possible only in the boom times of the 1940s superhero craze and the late-1960s-to-early-1970s underground comics flood, when unusual talents were drawn into the mix for a short, fruitful period.
Born in Pasadena, McMillan studied architecture and industrial design at the University of Southern California and spent the 1950s and 1960s working in architecture and product design while painting on the side.
Fascinated by their graphic panache and punning wordplay, McMillan found himself inspired by the artists’ cartoon imagery and clever witticisms. Around the same heady time, he found “Zap” No. 1 at City Lights Books and thought, “Why not try this.”
He drew some pages and took them over to the publisher of “Zap,” Don Donahue — and to McMillan’s surprise, Donahue offered to publish the work. And so “Terminal Comics” No. 1 (1971) was McMillan’s comics debut.
He describes creating his comics as a “more or less intuitive act. I was getting tired of fine art approaches and I was raised on comics, especially Classics Illustrated and pre-Code material.” His primary drawing influences were, of course, the Hairy Who, but within comics, the solid, rounded forms of Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) and harsh geometries of Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), as well as the naive early Batman and Superman comics before the art became slick and modeled.
In correspondence McMillan modestly describes his limited comics output in the context of his approach to all his creative activities: “The real story is: I’m not really a cartoonist. My industrial design background has set me up as a problem solver. To avoid being a dilettante I would immerse myself for a number of years, like a method actor, in each phase of activity: elevator design; electronic component packaging; abstract expressionism; neo-Dada; sculpture; comix; animation; poster design; printmaking. In a sense, I have always been an outsider . . . a cartoon carpetbagger.”
McMillan published his works in anthologies, including Arcade, Young Lust and Short Order Comix. By inventing his own 1940s-type characters, such as Comet Ray Man and Captain Flashlight, McMillan was able to explore the medium as a space in which to design costumes, machinery, and landscapes that both satisfied his own artistic interests and created entertaining narratives. Wordplay, plot turns, and a love of nonsense infect the work: His “Time Warp Rendezvous” combines sly sexual humor with pulp plotting and immaculately designed scenarios, while his “Kelvin the Human Fly” is simultaneously a tribute to old-time superheroics and a parody of contemporaneous hippie culture.
All of his stories are marked by his unique combination of traditional comic book storytelling with highly detailed imagery, giving readers a wonky perspectival space to inhabit for a while, before moving to the next one. McMillan’s design background and professional draftsmanship give his comics a lively polish rare in the underground. McMillan also made his own films, designed posters for the de Young museum in San Francisco, and, in the late 1970s, worked on a series of animations with underground comic artist Victor Moscoso. McMillan continued drawing (largely unpublished) comics sporadically in the 1980s and early 1990s. An avid rock climber and former cyclist, he now lives in the Bay Area, pursuing printmaking full time.
– Dan Nadel
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