Michael McMillan

March 27th, 2012 by Dan Nadel

I’ve been to San Francisco twice in the last two years, and both times I’ve been lucky enough to spend afternoons with Michael McMillan. I came to know his work through Gary Panter. As a young man in the early 1970s, Gary was looking for and would eventually find, a way to combine underground comics with contemporary art, had a bead on McMillan, and for good reason. McMillan’s one and only solo comic book, Terminal Comics, was, in a lot of ways, a road not taken — he deftly combined mark making with a 1940s sense of storytelling.

Born in Pasadena, California, McMillan studied architecture and industrial design at the University of Southern California and spent the 1950s and 60s working in architecture and product design while painting on the side. In 1968 McMillan completed a Masters in Sculpture at San Francisco State, and a year later saw an exhibition by the Chicago art group the Hairy Who at the Art Institute of San Francisco. Fascinated by their graphic panache and punning wordplay, McMillan found himself inspired by the artists’ cartoon imagery and clever wordplay. Around the same heady time, he found Zap # 1 at the store City Lights and thought, “why not try this.” He drew some pages, took them over to the publisher of Zap, Don Donahue, and, to his surprise, Donahue offered to publish the work. And so 1971’s Terminal Comics #1 would be McMillan’s comics debut. He describes his comics as a “more or less intuitive act. I was getting tired of fine art approaches and I was raised on comics, especially Classics Illustrated and pre-code material.” His primary drawing influences were, of course, the Hairy Who, but within comics, the solid rounded forms of Harold Gray and harsh geometries of Chester Gould, as well as the naïve early Batman and Superman comics before the art became slick and modeled. He later contributed to the legendary Arcade and a handful of other anthologies.

So, the artfulness that Panter picked up on was the result of two decades of work, moving from abstract expressionism to pop art to hard edged minimalism. McMillan passed through the post-WWII movements with a keen sense of humor and a culture apart from art, too. I love that McMillan could treat those movements as genres, making his own expressive versions from outside of them. I think that’s partly because McMillan has a life apart from art: He was a dedicated mountain climber and cyclist who approached both with the same meticulous drive as his art, but they grounded him in a sense of living life outside, with comrades not fretting over art, but over tangible life-size surfaces. This is not to put a romantic gloss on it, but it McMillan’s self-sufficiency, his seeming disinterest in having a dedicated audience, these attitudes characterize a man at peace with himself.

Walking through his sunny home with views to the Bay is a bit like walking through 50 years. But Michael is a great tour guide. He is reluctant at first, but then persistence trumps modesty and out it all comes. There is a thickly painted ab-ex canvas, set in its design; there are is a lunar-like canvas of shape and line; and there are more sculptural pieces, again of moonscapes. And there are the comics. Hundreds of pages of unpublished comics. It’s all evidence of an artist voicing himself through the idioms of the times. There is a complicated thrill to it — you get to see this work, little of which has been shown outside the house, but you don’t take it with you, and there are no books to accompany it. I published some in Art in Time, but there is so much more. Literally hundreds of woodblock prints, comics, and drawings. The comics from 1999-2000 are some of the strongest works, being, in a sense, momentary thoughts, tone poems about life in a visual memory loops. They take the form of memories real or imagined and rendered entirely on board. These, like so much else, were produced for the artist himself, without any thought of publication.

In correspondence McMillan modestly describes his limited comics output in the context of his approach to all his creative activities: “The real story is: I’m not really a cartoonist. My industrial design background has set me up as a problem solver. To avoid being a dilettante I would immerse myself for a number of years, like a method actor, in each phase of activity: elevator design; electronic component packaging; abstract expressionism; neo-Dada; sculpture; comix; animation; poster design; printmaking. In a sense, I have always been an outsider… A cartoon carpetbagger”.

McMillan also made his own films, designed posters for the DeYoung Museum and, in the late 1970s, he worked on a series of animations with Victor Moscoso. McMillan continued drawing (largely unpublished) comics sporadically in the 1980s and early ‘90s. McMillan remains in the Bay Area, pursuing printmaking full time.

What follows are images I shot around his studion over the course of two visits.

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This blog is going to take you to school. You will learn about all things PictureBox: old dudes; obscure design; good painting; bad painting; dogs; annoying product endorsements. And so forth. All from me, Dan Nadel, your PictureBox host.

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