It all started in 1986. Having finally outgrown the Beano, tired of game books and read all the scant titles available for teenagers, my eye was caught by something remarkable at the newsagents. ‘Zip it creep,’ said a woman who looked like Debbie Harry surrounded by hell’s own army, with her gun aimed right at me. I was in – 2000AD would be required reading for the next decade.
The comic fitted perfectly with the cynical world view I was fast cultivating as a British teenager growing up in Thatcher’s Britain. With an emphasis on violent action and occasional detours into the drug counterculture this was just what I was looking for. And at just 26p I had change to raid the penny sweet tray as well. I still have those early issues, ancient relics that I’ve read so many times they’ve nearly turned to dust.
Carefully handling them again today I’m not surprised to find that the most smudged, sweetie stained issues contain Bad Company, a hallucinogenic future war story from 1987 written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Brett Ewins. He was the artist responsible for that Judge Anderson cover, and instantly became my favourite. There were many great artists on the magazine at the time from Kevin O’Neill to Bryan Talbot, but Ewins was the one I most related to. He came from the classic action comic tradition but brought a fresh spiky pop aesthetic.
When I heard about Ewins death a few weeks ago I was gutted. It was a little like someone telling you an old friend you’d not seen since school had bought it. We’d both moved on, lost touch. But those old strips were still as fresh in my mind as the day I read them.What had happened to Brett Ewins since the early nineties when we parted ways?
He began on the comic in late seventies, writing for mainstays like Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper, but didn’t find his own distinctive style until much later. As he remembers this wasn’t because he was a slow developer. ‘I was always asked to draw like other people. On the first Judge Anderson series, The Four Dark Judges they said, “Brian Bolland’s successful, here’s all the Bolland artwork. We want something like this.” If I’d traced off Bolland they’d have loved it.’
Brian Bolland’s heavily inked straight lines were deeply impressive but often felt a little lifeless. You can almost sense Ewins’ frustration in those few issues. Beneath the beautiful compositions you can see his own style struggling to break free. Ewins refused to finish the strip and he was allowed to go away and work on the second series in his own way. This new art felt vibrant, it had a momentum that I recognised from the movies of the time; he cut up scenes in different ways and the characters looked as though they belonged in that decade.
Along with his Judge Dredd story from the same era, The Haunting of Sector House Nine, Ewins showed he was a specialist in appropriating the look of classic movies – we get the pulp horror of a great Vincent Price combined with a splash of the creeping nastiness of John Carpenter.
Then came Bad Company and the cementing of the partnership with Peter Milligan who he’d met at Goldsmith’s Art College and old school friend Jim McCarthy, who inked Ewins pencils, adding a slightly heavier look to his artwork which was drawn at double the printed size, allowing for an incredible amount of detail.
The strip was a true collaboration and it shows. Milligan might be credited as scripter, but Ewins’ stamp is all over it – ‘The existential stuff came form me and Pete just talking. I was also reading all sorts of books. Like James Joyce (and) the Tao of Physics and this was when we were discussing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.’ What they came up with was 2000AD’s own Apocalypse Now, a journey into the heart of darkness.
Iconic main character Kano is part Colonel Kurtz part Frankenstein’s monster. He and his crew of crazies are engaged in a never ending battle with the sadistic, mind bending Krool. It was a story that had rather disturbing parallels with the way Ewins’ own life was going. Buckling under horrendous deadlines at 2000AD and subsequently launching the (ironically titled?) Deadline magazine, Ewins suffered a mental breakdown at the beginning of the nineties.
He was diagnosed bipolar and sent into a productive stasis by the prescription drugs his work more or less dried up. What he did manage to achieve was painfully slow, and lacked the energy of his previous work, something that’s clear in the lifeless third Bad Company series of 1993. Having said that it’s actually quite fitting for a strip that is turning further in on itself than ever before.
We meet the conflicted man monster Kano as he attempts to live a normal life on a planet that won’t let his past die. He is haunted by a cast of his old friends, who rise from the dead to fight an unseen alien foe. But as time goes by he is increasingly unsure than ever of what is real. It’s a perfect parallel for the heavily medicated paranoid condition Ewins was working under.
Ewins had to give up altogether in 1994 and despite returning the following decade for another stint on Bad Company he never recovered completely. In 2012 he was arrested and imprisoned for stabbing a policeman – serving nine months despite the fact he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. But I don’t want to dwell on his personal and health problems, this piece is intended to pay homage to the defining comics artist of my youth.
There’s also some good news! Peter Milligan has announced he is to return to 2000AD in September along with Jim McCarthy and Ewins’ friend Rufus Dayglo with what Milligan is calling ‘a new story that lives up to the Bad Company name… FIRST CASUALTIES is a surprising tale, revealing new truths about Bad Company and their world, and also saying something about our own world. I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a man without whom Bad Company would never have been what it was.’
The Art of Brett Ewins is published by Air Pirate Press