A re­fusal to take no for an an­swer landed graphic artist Bren­dan McCarthy his dream job, writes Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

For Lon­don-born graphic nov­el­ist Bren­dan McCarthy, Mad Max 2: The Road War­rior was the sem­i­nal cul­tural event of his young adult life. It was 1981, and the then 23-year-old was in Aus­tralia on a gap year. He could have been ex­plor­ing Aus­tralia’s re­mote and des­o­late places but in­stead he was in­doors, trans­fixed by di­rec­tor Ge­orge Miller’s post-apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion.

“I be­came ob­sessed by the film — see­ing it more than 20 times — and couldn’t work out how it had had such a big ef­fect on me,” says the 58-year-old, speak­ing to Re­view from his home in County Clare, western Ire­land.

“It got to the point where I started to hang around out­side Ge­orge Miller’s of­fices in Syd­ney, hop­ing to meet him, which didn’t hap­pen.”

For the next 16 years, McCarthy de­vel­oped a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a graphic nov­el­ist and a con­cept artist for film and tele­vi­sion. But he never stopped try­ing to con­tact Miller, send­ing him letters and sam­ples of work from time to time. In 1997, he re­ceived the phone call he had long hoped for.

“Ge­orge asked if I’d be in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing a new Mad Max film with him. I ob­vi­ously jumped at it, and over the course of a few years in Syd­ney we nut­ted out the story to Mad Max: Fury Road.”

When McCarthy ap­pears at the Graphic fes­ti­val at the Syd­ney Opera House next week­end, his story of ob­ses­sion and per­sis­tence, cul­mi­nat­ing in a writ­ing credit on one of this year’s most suc­cess­ful films, is likely to strike a chord with au­di­ences. (He will ap­pear both solo and in con­ver­sa­tion with Fury Road co-writ­ers Miller and Nico Lathouris on Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 11.)

It’s all a long way from the sta­tus of comic books dur­ing McCarthy’s child­hood in Eng­land, when he says the medium was con­sid­ered lit­tle more than a “ju­ve­nile pas­time”. Af­ter school, McCarthy at­tended the Chelsea Col­lege of Arts and, along with the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Mor­ri­son and Brian Bol­land, was part of what be­came known in the comic world as the Bri­tish In­va­sion of the 1980s.

“Bri­tish artists were picked up by Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers like DC Comics, and we brought much more ma­ture sto­ry­lines and a more so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach to comics, and it ba­si­cally turned the in­dus­try on its head,” he says.

McCarthy’s opus in­cludes a Bol­ly­wood-meets- Blade Run­ner comic ti­tled Ro­gan Gosh (a play on the name of the pop­u­lar In­dian curry); the comic Freak-wave, which has been de­scribed as Mad Max goes surf­ing, re­plete with gi­ant float­ing head­ships and psy­che­delic pi­rates; and sto­ry­board art and con­cept de­sign on films such as Cone­heads, Tim Bur­ton’s Sweeney Todd, and High­lander 2: The Quick­en­ing.

It all equipped him to il­lus­trate the vis­ually rich world that Miller wanted for the fourth in­stal­ment of the Mad Max fran­chise, with each scene fastidiously il­lus­trated as the story was writ­ten over two years. But the re­liance on ac­tion and lack of di­a­logue was crit­i­cised by some.

“Ge­orge’s phi­los­o­phy for the films was that they should be com­pletely un­der­stand­able with­out di­a­logue. Any­how, you are deal­ing with a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world that is stripped down, ba­sic and el­e­men­tal; it is un­likely peo­ple are go­ing to be giv­ing huge speeches,” he says.

The pro­ject was fa­mously de­layed for another 15 years, due to a suc­ces­sion of is­sues in­clud­ing the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, the exit from the film of the orig­i­nal Max Rock­atan­sky, Mel Gib­son, and the un­ex­pect­edly lush state of the in­tended set in Bro­ken Hill, NSW (it was ul­ti­mately shot in Namibia). But McCarthy, who is noth­ing if not pa­tient, is sat­is­fied that the film lived up to the orig­i­nal vi­sion. “My aim was to give to a new gen­er­a­tion the ex­pe­ri­ence I had with Road War­rior,” he says. “We had an agree­ment that if in the end we didn’t feel the ma­te­rial was up to it, we would scrap it.”

Rather than de­light­ing in the re­cent slew of comic-book adap­ta­tions for TV and film, from the so-called Marvel Uni­verse and the re­cent Fan­tas­tic Four movie to the up­com­ing sec­ond sea­son of The Flash (Fox­tel) and pre­miere of Marvel’s Jes­sica Jones (Net­flix), McCarthy be­lieves that the com­mer­cial suc­cess of the genre has led to lazy sto­ry­telling. “I have cer­tainly got su­per­hero film fa­tigue; I al­most fell asleep through The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” he says.

“There is a bland­ness to many of these adap- tations now. Many peo­ple have said to me when a film is gen­uinely thrilling, like Fury Road, you re­alise you’ve been putting up with lack­lus­tre sto­ry­telling.”

While Mad Max 2 might loom as McCarthy’s big­gest Aus­tralian in­flu­ence, it is cer­tainly not the only one. From his ear­li­est trav­els he was inspired by Abo­rig­i­nal art and cul­ture, from the works of the Pa­punya Tula Western Desert artists, to books by mav­er­ick an­thro­pol­o­gist Charles Mount­ford. This is re­flected in his cre­ation of an Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ter in the Spi­der-Man: Fever se­ries for Marvel Comics: Ms Nin­gir­ril, a sor­cer­ess. “You rarely get to see a re­ally cool Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ter in a comic,” he says.

McCarthy was also in­flu­enced by his friend­ship with pop artist Martin Sharp, whom he first dis­cov­ered while read­ing Oz mag­a­zine in Lon­don in the late 60s. (He de­scribes it as “the clas­sic psy­che­delic un­der­ground coun­ter­cul­tural mag­a­zine”.) McCarthy col­lected all of Sharp’s cov­ers; meet­ing the artist years later, hie dis­cov­ered Sharp had been col­lect­ing his work, too.

“He lived in a great big ram­bling house stuffed full of Mickey Mouse toys and Tiny Tim para­pher­na­lia in Syd­ney’s eastern sub­urbs, but when I ac­tu­ally met him he pulled out loads of my comics — he knew my stuff, which was a re­ally flat­ter­ing dis­cov­ery.”

McCarthy talks about Aus­tralia with great af­fec­tion, but is not un­crit­i­cal. “I used to get cross with Aus­tralia: Martin Sharp, for ex­am­ple, was not taken se­ri­ously by the Aus­tralian cul­tural es­tab­lish­ment,” he says. “You have Sharp to thank for the fact that Luna Park and this gi­ant clown face he painted — the cra­zi­est thing I’ve ever seen — was not de­mol­ished for yet another block of lux­ury flats.” But aside from the ex­plicit ad­vice McCarthy will no doubt wish to im­part to the as­pir­ing young artists and cre­atives at­tend­ing the fes­ti­val, his very pres­ence on stage along­side Miller might carry the strong­est mes­sages of all: be pa­tient, never give up, and don’t take no for an­swer.

Bren­dan McCarthy will ap­pear at the Graphic fes­ti­val on Oc­to­ber 11 at the Syd­ney Opera House.

Bren­dan McCarthy with ac­tors in Mad Max: Fury Road, be­low; one of his il­lus­tra­tions for the film, top; Ms Nin­gir­ril, his sor­cer­ess cre­ation for the Spi­der-Man: Fever comic, top right

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