Practitioners 18: Mike McMahon

Mick McMahon is a British artist who has ebbed and flowed in and out of the comics industry for 30 years. His work has braced the pages of 2000AD, Toxic!, Tank Girl, Rugrats and Sonic the Comic. But his work has moved well beyond his pages, inspiring some of the most prominent graphic artists in the industry today. Some of the most prominent and successful characters around today owe a debt to McMahon’s constantly evolving style – proving without a doubt his incredible talent. But, more than that, he’s just plain funky.

Judge Dredd was created in 1977 to appear in 2000AD by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, but problems with pre-publication ked to both of the previous creators walking off the project. Both Wagner and Ezquerra would return to the pages of 2000AD and the Dredd himself but in the intervening time the toughest lawman on the streets of Megacity 1 had to be given a face and a pair of boots to stride in. Pat Mills and Peter Harris took over and were responsible for the first published Dredd comic book, and was drawn by an inexperienced yung artist called Mike McMahon.

He was chosen primarily by Mills (who was editor at the time) because he could do a passable impression of Ezquerra’s work. However, it didn’t take long for McMahon’s style to take hold. It could’ve been said that he had inherited the greatest British Comic Book character to date by chance but to flip it, perhaps more logically it seems more likely that McMahon developed the lawman to become this. His style, more angular and abstract than Ezquerra’s more organic style; notable for its sharp lines and clear, crisp contours and clearly, nigh caricatured features on the characters he drew became the default with other artists such as Ian Gibson and Brian Bolland taking his lead and introducing their own spin on the way McMahon was developing the character.

In the early period of his career, McMahon’s style was characterised by a ‘quick, spontaneous approach that verged on the messy’. His figures were gaunt compare to Ezquerra and Bolland’s interpretations, with pen lines thrown down spontaneously and hatching completed with a fully-charged brush his work set the bleeding edge of visceral and unrestrained artwork for the environment and content expected in Judge Dredd and 2000AD itself. While John Wagner returned to his creation, McMahon continued on as the lead artist on Judge Dredd.

In 1979, taking a break from art droid duties on the Dredd, McMahon began on Pat Mill’s Ro-busters (following a freelance agent pursuing rogue or out of control robots in the future) and the more brutal and savage spin-off, ABC Warriors, alternating with Kevin O’ Neill. While working with O’ Neill, McMahon’s work became tighter and his characters began to become meatier and fuller in stature.

McMahon returned to Judge Dredd for ‘The Judge Child’ and introduced high contrast artwork for the following series ‘Block Mania’, separating more clearly black and white in his compositions. Due to complete 9 episodes, McMahon bowed out after only 2 due to the punishing nature of his newfound detailing and Mill’s introduction of extensive crowd scenes for the battle between the blocks depicted in the episodes. The work was completed by Ron Smith, Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland. Having handled 2000ADs primary character, McMahon needed a new character to draw.

As McMahon returned from a 2 year gap from 2000AD (in which he brought his distinctive style to Doctor Who Magazine), a character that had suffered initial difficulties reared its unwashed celtic head. McMahon met Slaine and applied a new style, unleashed from the sterile science fiction he introduced a more naturalistic, compositional and flared style to his work. The tones were deep and luxurious, the action visceral, uncontained and brutal where necessary and light and human when necessary. His character’s remained grotesques with elongated or extended features but upheld natural structure and anatomy at the same time. McMahon was applying abstraction and realism in equal measure to pages crowded with detail.

In 1984, McMahon disappeared from the scene only to return again after a long illness that prevented him from drawing in 1991, with the Last American, written by Wagner and Alan Grant, for Marvel’s Epic imprint. His style had evolved once again and met perfectly with the stark and deranged story of a US Soldier placed into suspended animation before a Nuclear War in order to restore order after it. Ulysses Pilgrim, the last American the title refers to spends three issues trying to find survivors, accompanied by three slightly malfunctioning robots, and struggling not to lose his grip on his own mind to despair. McMahon’s art is ‘blocky, all straight, edgy lines and enclosed areas of flat deep, vivid colour, stylised yet straight faced, perfectly straddling the low-key realism of the story and Pilgrim’s increasingly desperate mental state.’

From this McMahon has worked predominantly in games design and his distinctive comic works have become few and far between. He featured in Hellraiser, an Alien Legion One-shot, an unfinished comic strip, ‘Mutomaniac’ in the doomed 2000AD spin-off Toxic!, occasional returns to Judge Dredd and a futuristic take on Batman in Legends of the Dark Knight, all of which saw him with a more simple and flattened style. New depth returned to his work in Sonic the Comic, Tattered Banners for DC Comic’s Vertigo, a return to ABC Warriors and a short Batman Black and White back-up story.

He applied his distinctive style to the Marvel Uk/ Panini Rugrats series which was cancelled early on in its run. He returned to the Judge in Prog 1539 of 2000AD. McMahon also worked on Tank Girl (made famous by Jamie Hewlett) -Carioca, a six-part mini series with Tank Girl creator Alan Martin.

Mick McMahon’s style drags complacent onlookers out of the read-and-wander-off-the end-of-the-page mind set that is prevalent in modern comic books. His stylism and distinctly vehemently organic style, backed with a consistently evolving and altering pack of methods and techniques which he seems to apply to each and every new project that he comes across has kept his work engaging, relevant and challenging for 30 years and ticking.

He is referenced by many influential artists as an inspiration, including Mike Mignola, Jamie Hewlett and Dave Gibbons. His unremitting stylism expanding well beyond the small number of comic works he may have comparatively created. The mark of a true practitioner.

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One thought on “Practitioners 18: Mike McMahon

  1. McMahon rocks, without him Dredd classics wouldn’t have been classic. His style for me leaves the newer artists behind and it is a shame that we don’t see more of Mick McMahon’s work on Dredd scripts these days.

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