The 10 Best Peter Milligan Comics of All Time

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The 10 Best Peter Milligan Comics of All Time

As a key forerunner of the “British invasion” that helped reinvigorate comics in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it’s no surprise that much of writer Peter Milligan’s best work sprang from or was grandfathered into the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics, for many years the destination for literary, challenging mature-readers comic storytelling. Milligan, who in recent years has flourished everywhere from Dynamite (Terminal Hero) to Image Comics (The Discipline) is back this week with Britannia, a prestige-format Valiant mini-series with artist Juan Jose Ryp. Set on the outskirts of the Roman Empire in 65 A.D., Britannia follows “the world’s first detective” as he pursues an unholy mystery. To coincide with his latest debut issue, Paste counted down ten of the scribe’s best comics to hit American shelves (as much of his shorter British work never made it stateside, we narrowed the list to titles easily available on this side of the pond). Let us know on Facebook or Twitter if your favorite Milligan outing didn’t make the cut (sorry, Skin fans).

10. Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City

Artist: Kieron Dwyer
Publisher: DC Comics

More than a decade before Saw and the Arkham video games' derivations thereof, Peter Milligan and artist Kieron Dwyer produced this propulsive three-issue story pitting the Caped Crusader against a supernaturally unhinged Riddler's complex traps. Edward Nigma regularly stumps Bat-scribes—what does he do that that the Joker doesn't do better?—but Milligan's possessed take on the conundrum-obsessed criminal serves as a perfect foil for a Dark Knight unused to seeing his question-mark-clad foe break taboos so readily. Dwyer's art is classically polished if lacking the oomph of Klaus Janson or Dave McKean, both of whom collaborated with writer Grant Morrison on similarly satanic stories from the same era. Milligan occasionally strays a bit afield (Batman stabs a dog to death!), but Dark Knight, Dark City is an early standout in the "Gotham itself as intrinsically evil character" story cycle. Steve Foxe

9. Skreemer

Artist: Brett Ewins & Steve Dillon
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics

In telling this story of a crime boss's rise to power in a devastated future landscape, Milligan utilizes parallel narratives, maneuvering his readers through time and juxtaposing the life of antihero Vito Skreemer with other, more compassionate characters. Skreemer is a terrifying figure: keenly intelligent and capable of acts of brutal violence. That he spends most of his life haunted by a vision of his own death, however, lends him an air of pathos that makes his story seem larger than life. The art is split between Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon, each of whom brings a fine grasp of character dynamics and body language to their sections. The horrific imagery that crops up in the series—specifically a monstrous rat that is prime nightmare fuel—can get under your skin (pun possibly intended). Had Milligan confined himself to telling a futuristic crime story, this would still be gripping, but it's the small and strange details that make it stick. Tobias Carroll

8. The Extremist

Artist: Ted McKeever
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics

Nothing compliments violence quite like sex, but when we call The Extremist a sexy comic, we don't mean "sexy" as in a Rob Liefeld sketch of Tabitha Smith climbing out of a swimming pool—we mean the grownup, wee bit unsettling version of "sexy," which set The Extremist apart from the hacky-'n-slashy field of early '90s comicdom. Co-creators Milligan and Brendan McCarthy tapped Ted McKeever to draw their latex-bound, unlikely assassins killing according to the freaky machinations of a Lord Henry Wotton-type cult leader. This book has aged questionably, but only because Fifty Shades of Grey came along and ruined BDSM for everyone. For further reading on similar themes, pursue Milligan and Leandro Fernández' The Discipline at Image Comics. Barry Thompson

7. Rogan Gosh

Artist/Co-Writer: Brendan McCarthy
Publisher: Revolver; Vertigo/ DC Comics

Originally appearing in the 2000 AD spin-off Revolver, Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy's Rogan Gosh stands as one of the most imaginative comics of the '90s. Milligan's writing echoes Grant Morrison's—specifically, the Grant Morrison of The Invisibles and The Filth who wrote in a Burroughs-ian cacophony of poetry, metaphysics and borderline autobiography (not to mention the fetishistic privileging of pan-Asian iconography). His characters fluidly move in and out of a dream-state, questioning their identity and the very reality of reality, and their adventures are surreal, anarchic, violent. With the aid of co-author Brendan McCarthy, here still drawing in the more noticeably wrought and more heavily weighted style that he's shed for recent projects, Rogan Gosh vibrates on the same frequency as The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" or the cover to Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love. That is to say, while it features a rich and rewarding aesthetic, it is not without its perfunctory politics, and our high recommendation is not without reservation. Shea Hennum

6. Hellblazer

Artists: Giuseppe Camuncoli, Simon Bisley
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics

Milligan served as John Constantine's final steward before the character pivoted away from his mature-readers homestead at Vertigo to DC's mainstream shared universe (to mixed results). But at least fiction's most cynical, bloodstained mage left on a diabolical high note. The writer plowed through 50 strange issues—aided predominantly by Italian artist Giuseppe Camuncoli—and wasn't afraid to inflict huge changes. Marriage to the punky alchemist Epiphany Greaves and showdowns with a demonic doppelganger introduced new status quo(s) to a character cyclically mired in failure and pyrrhic victory. Even with the frequent shifts, Constantine maintained his sandpaper wit, casting a bittersweet spell on the founding magician's final misadventures. Sean Edgar

5. Human Target

Artist: Edvin Biukovic, Javier Pulido, Cliff Chiang
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics

Just like Human Target's neurotic leading man, Christopher Chance, Peter Milligan wasn't afraid to cut through layers of skin and muscle to find the tortured core of this comic. Alongside artists Edvin Biukovic, Javier Pulido and Cliff Chiang, Milligan reveled in the story of a spy who could master any identity save his own. In his second outing, Chance impersonates the father of a missing son within a powerful show business family, eventually adopting the man's life to find a solace that evaded his espionage antics. Milligan brewed a challenging mix of psychodrama and noir that posed big questions while maintaining a breakneck pace, and it remains an audacious entry in the genre and a far superior alternative to the 2010 FOX show that followed in its wake. Sean Edgar

4. Sub-Mariner: The Depths

Artist: Esad Ribic
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Sub-Mariner: The Depths was the final entry in a five-year triptych of career-making mini-series from artist Esad Ribic, following Loki and Silver Surfer: Requiem, and Ribic is, admittedly, why this haunting nautical tale ranks so high. Still, it's Milligan's restrained script and focus on the isolation and stupefying darkness of the deep that lends this story its pervading sense of terror. The Sub-Mariner of The Depths is not the hot-headed first mutant who regularly pops off in the 616, but an unknowable, alien presence in the underwater frontier, a maritime legend passed from seafarer to seafarer. It's not easy to make a man most famous for a scaly green speedo and ankle wings into a genuinely horrifying monster, but Milligan and Ribic rise—or sink—to the task. Steve Foxe

3. Shade, the Changing Man

Artists: Chris Bachalo, Brendan McCarthy, Sean Phillips, Others
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics

In 1990, Milligan and Chris Bachalo embraced their inner Beckett for a gloriously surreal transformation of Steve Ditko's fugitive alien. This literary incarnation struggled to prevent a tidal wave of madness from infecting earth, aided by the original M-Vest that could alter the fabric of reality. For six years and 70 issues, the series stood as one of the publisher's most inventive, fearless and playful entries—and a building block of the Vertigo imprint, which it joined mid-run. Milligan prodded issues of identity and society with a character who warped into new personas, also building an endearing supporting cast (you'll get your great American novel). Shade reflected the shifting tides of art and its makers and shapers, standing as a potent commentary on America from the perspective of someone firmly outside, yet clearly smitten, with it. Sean Edgar

2. X-Force/ X-Statix

Artists: Mike Allred, Others
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Milligan has fallen into several enviable ongoing artistic partnerships—most notably Brendan McCarthy and Chris Bachalo—but none quite so perfectly synced as his tenure on Marvel's brashest mutants with Mike Allred. Allred's pop-art sensibility is intrinsic to Milligan's take on mutant celebrity, superhero-sanctioned murder and disposable icons, cutting the hard edges of the book's proceedings with his sugar-sweet cartooning. Never have entrails seemed so ready for a reality-TV close-up. A sharp departure from the wetworks version of X-Force that came before it, Milligan and Allred's mutant masterpiece introduced a fleet of new characters and never hesitated to eviscerate them in turn. Compared to Marvel's current slate of titles, it's hard to believe Milligan was given a venue to say so much about sexuality, race and wanton violence, but the bulky omnibus serves as a permanent testament to one of the most challenging books to ever come out of the House of Ideas—and one of Milligan's most potent prolonged statements. Steve Foxe

1. Enigma

Artist: Duncan Fegredo
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics

Deconstructions of superheroes often embrace nihilism, bleak comedy or irreverence. Enigma opts for a wholly different path, telling the story of an average guy whose humdrum life quietly begins to abound with a group of obscure super-beings. His quest to figure out what, exactly, is going on eventually encompasses a reclusive writer, the mysterious Envelope Girl and the title character. With pulp superhero comics as a backdrop, Milligan's story, beautifully realized by Fegredo's anarchic early linework, explores some classically science-fictional tropes. Essentially, Milligan uses the language of one genre to explore questions of human evolution frequently posed by another. Throw in memorable—and frankly groundbreaking—explorations of sexuality, a distinctive narrative voice and some effective body horror, and you have a genuinely singular work as a result. Enigma isn't just a deconstruction of superheroes: it's an exploration of what they mean to us as readers, and a harrowing extrapolation of those themes to their logical ends. Tobias Carroll