John Miller. An Appreciation

I first met John Miller, who has died aged 69, in 2005 at one of Glasgow’s monthly comic artist meets. Adam Smith, my cohort in the small press comic Khaki Shorts, 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 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.

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. 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 PO, 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 to mid-80s, 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 make 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.

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There’s a particular cleanness and clarity to this era that makes it the most accessible jumping on point for the oeuvre, 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, with Captain Zappa making a triumphant return in the aforementioned Scottish Northern Lightz anthology as well as its glossy high street successor, Alan Grant’s Wasted. In every printed context, Miller's work remained utterly singular and once witnessed never erasable from the mind’s (black and) whiteboard.

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.

Awaydays to 'The Newhouse' hotel near Motherwell for 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.

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His final years were spent contentedly in Slateford, a quiet leafy Edinburgh suburb, where he drew a little while enjoying 'Sounds of the 60s on the “wireless” and television reruns of childhood favourites such as Star Trek, The Invaders, Doctor Who, 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 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.