“We’ve been told that SKIN is tasteless” is the first line in the introduction by Peter Milligan, to his, Brendan McCarthy, and Carol Swain’s graphic novel SKIN. He goes on to say that the book “certainly has all the usual ingredients: sex, drugs, violence, bad language, deformity, mutilation. But does that make it tasteless? Maybe the very mention of the word Thalidomide is enough to do that.” Realistically, it’s that collision of multiple central points of 1970s British culture that acts as the perfect vector for a story like SKIN.
Originally set to be published as part of Fleetway Publications “adult” 2000 AD spinoff Crisis — publishers Fleetway were initially keen on the idea of a startling new story from such a talented creative team — both the publisher and their printers ultimately pulled out of running the comic, citing an uneasiness at the subject matter as their reasoning for the change of heart. Having no publisher to call home, the project languished for three years until being picked up by the British arm of Kevin Eastman’s publishing house, Tundra Publishing, which was more than please to give SKIN the paperback edition it so clearly deserved.
Aside from being re-published as part of Dark Horse Comics’ beautiful 2013 anthology The Best Of Milligan and McCarthy, that 1992 Tundra edition was the story’s sole appearance, with the title retaining an element of controversy as a result. But what was the hubbub about really? With Crisis arguably running some of British comics’ most transgressive, and objectively morally questionable titles at this time (see also: Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s The New Adventures of Hitler, John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgait, Garth Ennis and Warren Pleece’s True Faith, et al) during its short-lived history, what exactly made SKIN such a sore subject? It mostly boils down to — as tends to be the case with this particular creative collaboration — Milligan and McCarthy not just wanting to say the quiet part out loud, but to scream it at the top of their lungs.
SKIN tells the story of Martin Atchitson (or “Martin ‘Atchet,” as the characters in the book refer to him), a young skinhead in the UK during the 1970s, born with the limb-shortening deformity phocomelia as a a result of his mother taking the drug Thalidomyde during pregnancy. Martin is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect mold of late 1970s British skinheads: a chip on his shoulder, shaved head, and an incredibly short fuse when it comes to the world around him and the people in it. Compounded further by his own limitations such as “being unable to wank,” as pointed out by his skinhead cohorts, or even secure his own braces, Martin’s anger becomes a beacon within the story, even outside of the normal violence associated with skinhead youth.
That anger and violence reaches a peak as Ruby, a gentle skinhead girl and Martin’s love interest, helps him learn more about Thalidomide and the atrocities sent forth onto unsuspecting working class British families, causing him to fly into a rage and take his revenge. His revenge is, to put it bluntly, a massacre of righteous anger and hatred that leads to Martin finally gaining a new, “ordinary” arms, and all at the low cost of the life of one drug company executive.
In terms of fiction recounting skinhead violence and the collective counter-culture of the angry British working class, SKIN was hardly the first to tread the path. By the time it appeared, SKIN stood in the shadow of nearly two decades of skinhead fiction — short novels and self-published titles that refused to apologize for the aesthetics and unmitigated violence that came from skinhead gangs, particularly in the major urban area of the UK. Titles like Richard Allen’s Skinhead and Boot Boys were immensely popular among the subculture and remain even now a recognized genre within fiction. The irony to this, of course, is that like many other authors of skinhead fiction, Richard Allen was no skinhead himself; instead a lonely alcoholic who had no problems banging away at a typewriter offering stories of aggro, racism, and rape for the to the masses of angry, disillusioned British youth courtesy of New English Library, who saw a big dollar sign on the face of this violent new breed of hooligan born out of the utter ambivalence of their government.
In it’s own way, SKIN continues that tradition and pushes the concept to its limits more than a decade past the height of the skinhead “golden age”. Growing from an idea initially from McCarthy — someone who had grown up a skinhead, but had also seen his share of thalidomide kids as well — the book abandons Milligan’s usual lyricalism and instead opts for a narrative voice heavy in cockney vernacular that couldn’t give a damn about whether the reader is present or not.
More than anything else, though, SKIN roots itself in a real, tangible form of historical oppression. Not the racism that’s often associated with some sub-sects of skinheads; not even the violence or sexual assault that the book tangles itself in. Instead, SKIN makes itself something true by utilizing a very true-to-life villain for a very angry subculture of people: Thalidomide.
I’ve mentioned Thalidomide several times in this piece thus far and, to several generations — and especially to American readers altogether — the drug isn’t something that necessarily causes shock (or, indeed, recognition) in the way that it does for generations of British readers. For those unaware, Thalidomide was marketed as a so-called “wonder drug” in the UK: a sedative that was safe for use in pregnant women; a concept that was nearly unheard of at the time of its origin in the mid-20th century. The part that went unsaid by drug manufacturers and authorities across the world, however, was that next-to-no testing had been done to see if the effects of the drug would pass from mother to placenta — resulting in extreme deformities in newborn babies, with children born with no (or grossly shortened) limbs, cleft faces, the absence of facial features, or extreme internal malformation. One estimate suggests that as many as 20,000 children might have been impacted by the drug internationally.
Thalidomide was marketed in more than 40 countries throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, although its use in the US was minimal thanks to an FDA employee called Frances Oldham Kelsey. Only 17 children were born with deformities as a result of the drug in the United States; in 1962, she would be awarded a Presidential Award for her work.
After over a decade of public, and legal, battles for recognition and recompense, the so-called “Thalidomide Children” and their families were eventually given financial compensation in the UK. What small money they were given could never provide a reason or a cure for the anguish the average family, the average child, was subjected to because of their negligence.
Around the time where these families were receiving compensation, skinhead culture was at an all time high throughout the UK. A proto-punk subculture, skinheads were recognizable not only for the shorn hair that gave the movement its name, but also the uniform of tight jeans often held up by braces (suspenders), steel-toed boots, and pressed button down shirts — a utilitarian look that spoke to the working class roots of the skinhead society — an outgrowth of “mod” culture, which in itself was an outgrowth of Rude Boy culture brought to the UK from the reggae cultures of the West Indies, the Caribbean, and Jamaica.
For many in polite British society, those roots were enough reason to be suspicious of skinheads, even ignoring the self-consciously brutish, violent way in which they communicated with each other and the outside world. In SKIN, an introductory text notes, “Abuse of all forms was held in very high esteem in skinhead culture”; this is almost an understatement. In response to both the utopian dream of 1960s hippies and the reality of 1970s Britain, skinheads found themselves at odds with everything around them, and ready to do whatever it would take to demonstrate how tough they had to be in order to survive.
Few can contest the strength of working class Britain throughout the decades, but even fewer would deny the idea that no one had it harder than the working class families with Thalidomide kids. Melding the rage and demonstrative pushback against authority that comes with skinhead culture with the frustration and anger behind the origin of Thalidomide kids makes SKIN something of a fantasy. While it is, at times, exceptionally difficult to see Martin as a sympathetic character among the excessive violence, rudeness towards those kind to him, and attempts at sexual abuse, he is — for all his faults — a beautiful prop for the anger of a nation. Where better else to put the hurt and anger of being left behind than into a well-placed head-butt, the thud of a boot, or the venom of profanity?
In the cases where Martin does find himself in the hands of kindness — Ruby’s cross-eyed gaze, or the arms of a hippie girl offering her body freely — his instinct to give in is something tangible to the reader: a yearning to be able to be loved, and to touch and be touched in the same way everyone else does. As if hit by lightning, these few moments of clarity in Martin’s character are quickly given over to more violence once he realizes the situation he’s in, assuming automatically that their kindness is a handout, or that he’s being treated like a charity case. It’s this refusal of vulnerability that brings home both the history behind SKIN as well as the otherwise struggling reliability of the character: smarter than average but refusing to use it, desiring love but being unable to accept it, and needing help but being too angry to ask.
The long and the short of it is that, while Martin Atchitson is neither the hero nor the villain of this story, he is someone who aches for readers to understand in a way they never truly can: a message for both SKIN as a story and for the experiences of Thalidomide children and impoverished families as well. Ultimately, while Martin’s story is one that ends with a gruesome and shocking conclusion, it’s one that still plays the fantasy brought about by skinhead culture: kick and hack and slice until we get what we finally deserve.
For all that SKIN is nothing short of visceral in terms of script and aggressive in terms of subject, the art is what genuinely drives the story home. McCarthy, known at this point for his work on Strange Days, Sooner or Later and 2000 AD’s flagship Judge Dredd, turns the other cheek on traditional paneling in favor of a more free-form collage technique — something that lends itself beautifully to Carol Swain’s inspired use of colored chalk pastels.
As rough around the edges as Martin ‘Atchitt and his crass anonymous narrator feel through Milligan’s script, Swain’s blending and use of vibrant colors not only softens the feel of the book, but adds a childlike element that can’t help but create the feel of a fairytale or fantasy. This is particularly noticeable with Martin himself, whose life and experiences are so harsh and hardened that it’s easy to forget that he’s only meant to be 15 years old — something Swain makes up for by rounding Martin’s face and making him as curious, plump, and pouty as any 15 year old should be.
This same softness comes out through Swain’s colors during Martin’s tryst with the group of hippie women who help him and offer him a weed cake: bright colors softly smudged to create a new atmosphere for the contrasting anguish of Martin’s prescience in the scene. Along similar lines, as Martin’s anger mounts as the book comes to its natural, violent conclusion, the colors become more bold and sure with less attention paid to softness and all the more to creating layers of chaos. By the story’s end, Martin’s likeness is muddied, bloodied, and layered with shading and contrasting colors; matching his mindset and matching the feeling for where Milligan ends the story.
For all that SKIN plants its roots in some horrific and sometimes ridiculous (and ridiculously offensive) moments, Swain’s art in particular is something that remains uncompromised, having stood the test of time with vibrancy and aplomb.
SKIN is far from the last remarkable work created by Milligan and McCarthy. Milligan, especially, is still wildly popular within the comics community and still regularly helps create thought-provoking and wildly vivacious works for publishers such as Ahoy, Vault, and AWA. For all of their continued success, SKIN remains one of their most impressive pieces of work. Much like their other collaborative strips such as Rogan Gosh or Sooner or Later, it’s another class conscious narrative where the working class exceeds expectations, and are willing to push beyond the boundaries set for them. Like the story itself, SKIN proves, still after all these years, to be nothing short of exceptional in truly surprising and shocking ways.