Following the death of Scotland’s prolific underground comic artist John Miller at 69, friend and fellow cartoonist Rob Miller pays tribute to this unique and singular creator and visionary.
I first met John Miller in early 2005 at one of Glasgow’s monthly Scottish Cartoonists & Comic Artists Members (SCCAM) meets held for a time in the hip Mono Café Bar in the Merchant City area.
(SCCAM, which also included Gary Erskine and Robbie Morrison among its numbers was a group once described by Stephen McGinty in The Herald as “a hellfire club of comic writers, artists, animators, retailers and convention organisers” – Ed).
Adam Smith, my cohort in the small press comic Khaki Shorts venture at the time, pointed out John, sitting alone at a table writing one of his countless letters, all dark sunglasses, (enviable) mushroom haircut, exuding his best “Velvet Underground” cool. I was still pretty green to the scene at this point but Adam knew John from his striking standout contributions to the (just wrapped) dope-themed Northern Lightz comic anthology from Alan Grant and co. Emboldened by a few pints, we finally decided to go over and say hello.
For some reason or other I ended up giving John my address and within a few months of communicating back and forth, he was contributing a strip, “Jimmy Hendrix (SIC)”, and a cover to Khaki Shorts….
Then, in 2007, after much planning, I took myself off by train to Wester Hailes and the pair of us trudged over the hill to Cramond Island (or “Crab Key”, in 007 speak) for a “view to a swill” (essentially downing beers and crisps in a cold and damp abandoned World War Two bunker while it chucked it down with rain outside. Add some music and you’d have what he called a ‘Jefferson Bash’). Walking back in the wet and dark I had missed my train and, rather than spend an hour to 45 minutes lingering at the nearby railway station I returned to John’s flat to wait it out.
Nothing could have prepared me for the chaotic treasure trove-cum-art installation-cum-pop culture capsule that awaited. the place jammed floor to ceiling with books, newspapers, records, comics and all sorts of associated paraphernalia, the walls covered in posters, postcards, flyers, artwork, photocopies. There was a single well-trodden path through the piles and piles of stuff on the floor, from drawing table to bathroom to kitchen to his seat in the living room facing an aged black and white dial television resting in front of his cherished record player….
From that moment on, our dynamic changed and we seemed to adopt an “unspoken agreement” between us that I would travel to his every few months to help him get his home life in order (as much as that was possible) while in exchange he would allow me to collate, compile and publish the mountain of original artwork he had amassed there (his so-called “Archives of Doom’) – my reward in a sense and, I’ve always guessed, his way of saying thank you….
Born in May 1954 John Miller grew up in and around Newarthill, moving to Lanark in 1965 where he attended Lanark Grammar School. His only surviving comic work from this era (his first?) is from 1970, the juvenile schoolboy anthology, Itch Comics, that is remarkable in that it features Captain Zappa tackling the ‘Brain Police’, already establishing two mainstays of his “career” (pop culture and mind control) over the following 40 years. There are early surviving “Ghostman” strips from around this period, too.
In 1974, he moved to Sheffield to undertake fine art painting studies, returning to Lanark some time around 1978, where he worked at the Post Office delivering letters.
Having resigned from the Post Office, his earliest mature comic work commenced in the 1980s, with his distinctive, clearly defined abstract style now in place, the sharp linework, the stabs of black and the precise, stylised lettering applied initially to lengthy strips characterised by a serious science fiction approach, shot through with his characteristic anti-authoritarian stance and an aesthetic that chimed with the post punk psychedelic music revival of the early-mid 80s. (Witness the Miller-illustrated posters and artwork for Edinburgh exponents of same scene The Green Telescope, among others). The overall effect being a fully self contained pocket universe that drew equally from golden and silver age US comics, classic sci fi, psychedelic pop, and perhaps most key and blindsiding of all in providing the secret sauce for this unique stew, parochial Scottish humour. Once established, Agent Miller would go on to explore and map this universe for the next four decades.
In the 1990s his work loosened up considerably, adopting a shorter, more humorous and personal approach with a cavalcade of more whimsical characters such as Zooty (the cat), The Girl With The Flowery Trousers, The Gaswork Girls, Captain Bumbee and Ghosty all making regular appearances – but still always questioning and fighting back, advising the reader to do the same, the search for personal freedom and the right to exist in peace ever-ongoing.
There’s a particular cleanness and clarity to this era that makes it the most accessible jumping on point for the ouvre, as well as a refreshing focus on Strong Female Characters practised without guile or artifice. These strips would appear in numerous diverse underground comics and zines, such as Atomic, Fast Fiction, Hairy Hi-Fi, White Buffalo Gazette and My Small Diary – in an era, remember, where networking would be through Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop, local groups or via mail and letters to overseas – with Captain Zappa making a triumphant return in the aforementioned Scottish Northern Lightz anthology (which happens to contain one of his very finest works, a perfect balance of pisstake and acute social commentary, “Murdok The Abolisher. 1975 A.D.”) as well as its glossy high street successor, Alan Grant’s Wasted, the closest this most underground of underground cartoonist’s work would ever float near the orbit of the retinas of Joe Public. In every printed context though, Miller’s work remained utterly singular and, once witnessed, never erasable from the mind’s (black and) whiteboard – pictures worth more than a thousand words…
With a move from Inverleith Row to Wester Hailes (to “Ice Station Zebra”, as he christened it) at the turn of the century, John’s work took a deeper and darker turn, the art noticeably intensifies, tightening up and battling for space with the words as the decade wears on, a new Secret Agent and latterly superhero theme begin to dominate, the laughs thinning out over time, the content harder and more visibly confrontational. With Northern Lightz wrapping in 2004, signing off with a typically sweary classic “Captain Zappa” on the back page, work turned to Khaki Shorts and Wasted and, latterly, his Secret Agent, Super Tales and The Atomic Society of Justice one-shots, these appearing in line with his decade by decade collected works, that began in 2011.
Not that Miller’s Secret Agent fancy stopped at his comics. He produced a hundred or so S.H.I.E.L.D. – Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate – leaflets, A4 photocopies of (often doctored) newspaper or advertising clippings, spliced with stunning illustrations and pocket manifestos that he’d wander around and distribute around shops and bus stops, operating out of his favoured Deadhead Comics “HQ”. He’d chalk “Back S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Batsigns around shop doorways and bus stops, fly-stickering the same here and there, alerting people to radioactivity or hallucinogens. Outings to ‘The Newhouse’ hotel near Motherwell for a fish and chips lunch would be filtered through espionage terminology and written up as bizarre “assignments”.
Similarly, friends and acquaintances would be indoctrinated into his S.H.I.E.L.D. network (often after a single pint!) and find themselves suitably tagged – John was ‘X29’ – and added to his “mailing list”, yet another creative outlet, being part diary, part recollections, part vivid imaginings and, no doubt about it, part therapy.
His final years were spent contentedly in Slateford, a quiet leafy Edinburgh suburb, where he drew a little – his long-gestating John Stark: Secret Agent comic remains unfinished as present – while enjoying Sounds of the 60’s on the “wireless”, and television reruns of childhood favourites such as Star Trek, The Invaders, Doctor Who, The Outer Limits, The Buccaneers and his beloved Fireball XL5, his vast collection of comics and books ordered and to hand, his often chaotic and troubled life, in a sense, having come full circle.
It is of course his life’s work in comics that it hardly needs mentioned will endure, beyond a legacy, more a glimpse into a strange yet compelling universe parallel to our own that can, thanks to John G Miller, now eternally be visited by those accordingly minded anytime they wish from here until infinity…
John G. Miller, 1954 – 2024
With thanks to Adam Smith
One of many guest posts for downthetubes.