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Skreemer
Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon
Titan paperback £14.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Skreemer is the story of the fight to retain dignity and compassion in a grim near-future world struggling to rebuild after being decimated by plague. Brutal gangs control the supply of life-saving serums and three kids from the wrong side of the tracks - Dutch, Victoria and Veto - set out to make their careers by being as cold-bloodedly violent as they possibly can. Concurrently, Charles Finnegan, a decent family man, tries to keep body, soul and family together as times become increasingly more desperate. The narrative switches between Finnegan, the young Veto, and the older Veto as he contemplates an end to the plagues that have allowed gang rule.
   Milligan has always been an interesting writer. His work for 2000 AD (Bad Company, Bix Barton, Hewlligan's Hair Cut) and his early independent work (Johnny Nemo, Paradax) was hip and knowing, with an eye for cultural references outside the normal range of genre films and science fiction. In Skreemer, he uses no less a monolith than James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake - the finest unreadable book in the English literary canon - as inspiration, alongside the Irish folk song that inspired Joyce, and Leone's Once Upon A Time in America. Like Joyce, Milligan plays with time and memories to create a structure based around thematic resonance rather than plot and time, with the folk song providing the story's imagery. Like Leone's film, Skreemer is a commentary on the origins of violence - in poverty and misery, and in red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. Veto Skreemer is not a postmodern ultra-violent antihero but an old-fashioned bastard and coward whose weakness and fear drive him to acts of shocking brutality. Skreemer is as violent as anything to come out in the last decade, but the violence is shocking and ugly rather than amusing or (worse still) titillating.
   Milligan's frequent collaborator Brett Ewins creates a distinctive neo-gangster chic for the near future world. Steve Dillon, however, is not one of my favourite artists - his ink work is too sparse and his faces all seem to share a thin-lipped, slit-eyed grimace that robs them of character. For my money, Ewins always worked best with Brendan McCarthy who could take the his superb figure work and costuming and embellish it with dramatic lighting effects and amusing detail in a way that Dillon has never been able to do. Perhaps, though, Dillon's more stripped-down approach is a better look for Skreemer than McCarthy, but every time I see Ewins' art I imagine how it would have appeared with the delicious embellishment of McCarthy.
   So good is Skreemer at evoking the inter-war gangster period of America (with plague serums standing in for prohibition booze) that the near future aspect jars, when brought to the foreground. I wonder if this wouldn't have been better as a straight gangster story, as the plague MacGuffin is never fully developed (or really explained) and seems secondary to the theme and character of the work. The final chapter does contain an enjoyable and ironical pay off, with Veto's subconscious subverting his own callous plans, but until then I kept forgetting that it was even set in the future.
   This belated collection (it was originally serialised in 1989) is a reminder of the potential that graphic novels promised when we were all young and innocent. Back then, we assumed that superheroes were dead, given a double body blow by Watchmen and Dark Knight, while bold new titles - Love & Rockets, Eight Ball, Yummy Fur, RAW and Maus - crawled over the superhero's twitching corpse showing the way for comics to go. History has proved us pointy-heads wrong yet again, with the early 1990s' creative freedom ultimately producing increasingly bleak and amoral superheroes for the post-grunge, nu metal generation, while the resurgent underground of the 1980s withered on the vine. The original series won an Eagle award when it first came out, and there is some irony in the fact that this collection has been released on the back of Milligan's success on the rejuvenated X-Force rather than on its own merits.
   Although it is sometimes viciously unpleasant, Skreemer is a fine and ennobling work, showing how decency and strength of character can win out over brutality and hatred, a sentiment rarely seen in mainstream comics today. The writing is complex and intelligent, giving the reader plenty of allusion and complexity to chew on, while the art depicts the hardened characters with an unflinching eye. Although not the best comic of its era, it does show how high the high-tide mark once was.
Skreemer
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