Every comic book artist should want to be Mick McMahon.
This is a sentiment that might come as a surprise to McMahon himself, considering numerous public statements he’s given throughout the years doubting his abilities as an artist; in fact, one of the most interesting and important things about his work across the years, his constant reinvention of his style, is in part a direct result of his dissatisfaction about how his work looks and something approaching imposter syndrome. Given his body of work — work that includes the first Judge Dredd strips to see print, some of the earliest episodes of other 2000 AD stalwarts like ABC Warriors and Slaine, the underrated Last American miniseries, and even a beloved run on video game tie-in Sonic the Comic, of all things — that feels almost impossible to consider; if McMahon feels like an imposter, what does that make the countless others that have followed in his wake?
The career of Mick McMahon — or Mike McMahon; he’s gone with both at various times in his career — is a fascinating one. For many, he’s best known for some of his earliest comic book work: the first appearances of Judge Joe Dredd, starting in 1977’s 2000 AD Prog 2, where he introduced the iconic character and defined the look of Dredd and his world for a generation of readers… kind of. In reality, the design of the series, and the illustrative look of McMahon’s artwork in those early episodes, come from Carlos Ezquerra, who’d illustrated an unpublished episode ahead of the series’ launch; McMahon was instructed to make his work as close to Ezquerra’s as possible, and followed those instructions to the best of his ability.
Audiences wouldn’t have the chance to see something closer to McMahon’s personal style until a year or so into 2000 AD’s run, by which point he’d moved on to other strips inside the anthology title. With both Ro-Busters and ABC Warriors, he moved onto something more bold in its use of stark black and white, and also more physically blocky, for want of a better word; the heavy physicality of his art in those strips being something that he’d carry back to Dredd when he returned to that strip, setting himself in friendly opposition to the slicker, more detailed art of other artists on the strip at the time like Brian Bolland or Ian Gibson.
By the time he’d moved on to Slaine, Pat Mills’ barbarian serial launching in the early 1980s, McMahon’s art had changed again. Turning away from the technology and ultra-carnage of the more sci-fi strips, McMahon’s Slaine was scratchy and organic, with cross hatching and incomplete black fills giving the strip the feel of old woodcuts or something appropriately ancient and handmade. In reality, the new style was born of a combination of the artist’s restlessness, the use of a different type of paper that showed up incomplete inks more readily, and a sneaky attempt to make the artwork harder to color in reprinted editions that McMahon knew he wouldn’t see additional royalties for — that it also looked so appropriate for the story it brought to life was simply proof of his talent as a visual stylist.
Following Slaine, McMahon fell sick and disappeared from comics for close to a decade. He returned in 1991 with two projects that he completed full color art for: Muto Maniac, a serial for new anthology title Toxic! that he abandoned upon discovering that artwork was being published without full payment, and The Last American, a mini-series for Marvel’s Epic imprint about a post-apocalyptic United States, co-created with Judge Dredd writers John Wagner and Alan Grant. Both series featured another radical shift for McMahon’s art, which had abandoned anything approaching realism for an intensely stylized, abstracted approach to figurative drawing that looked as if everything was sculpted in a style best described as a brutalist/cubist hybrid, all drawn with uniform line weight and given form by the use of color as much as anything else.
Again, this was McMahon’s need to reinvent and re-explore his art at play, and the resultant shift in aesthetic opened the door to the kinds of work that couldn’t have happened otherwise. Nothing looks like McMahon’s work of this period, whether it’s The Last American or his glorious 1994 Dredd serial Howler, which basically exists to give the artist the opportunity to play around with visuals. (There are pages in Howler that are as formally explorative and experimental as anything in the majority of art comics — and yet, it’s still a story about a loud, annoying alien causing trouble in Mega-City One. It’s glorious.)
Fearless in his desire to challenge himself and innovate, his style continued to change slowly even as the venues it appeared in grew more broad and diverse. Few other artists have illustrated Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Batman (in issues of the fondly-remembered Legends of the Dark Knight anthology series; McMahon has said that he drew it for the money, and he thinks it shows in the finished pages), and Sonic the Hedgehog, but McMahon’s run on the latter character is as important for a generation of readers as his Dredd was for their parents. He also got into design work for video games and toys, and started introducing digital tools into his process. McMahon never stopped moving forward, no matter what.
Even today, McMahon’s artwork is changing: a recent 2000 AD cover revealed a Judge Dredd that was clearly his, but altered and different from what came before in some indefinable manner. This, then, is why every comic book artist should want to be Mick McMahon. Rather than rest of his laurels, he’s continued to redefine and renew his look throughout his entire career, scaling new heights constantly, and finding ways to use dissatisfaction to his benefit. Would that more artists had the ability to do the same.