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Terminal Comics _
excellent writing
skilled art
historical bonus 3
total score 8
Back Cover
Back Cover
(click for larger image)

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Terminal Comics
Only Printing / 1971 / 36 pages / Apex Novelties
When I first acquired Terminal Comics, I paged through it fairly quickly and didn't have a good first impression. The artwork looked amateurish, the writing felt illogical and disjointed, and the overall vibe seemed clunky, distant and perhaps even stupid. I filed it away and didn't actively seek it out again for quite a while. I was introduced to undergrounds with the aesthetic rush of Crumb, Sheridan, Griffin and Thompson...I didn't make room for the ugly genius of Kominsky, Hayes, Geiser and Coleman.

Years later I saw some casual mention of Terminal Comics on the internet and thought I'd pull it out and take another look. This time I took my time with the book, reading it carefully and studying the sequential art, which suddenly seemed droll and delightfully quirky. I'm not sure if it was my perspective or just the fact that I was paying attention, but I suddenly realized that Terminal Comics was actually one of those lost classics of the underground. And I couldn't wait to do a little research and write a review of the book for Comixjoint.

The sole author of Terminal Comics, Michael McMillan, was born in Pasadena California in 1933, so he had about a decade of living on most of our underground pioneers. After earning a degree in architecture and industrial design from USC in 1955, he worked in elevator engineering and electronics packaging while doing abstract expressionist painting in his spare time. Drawn ever increasingly into the world of fine art, McMillan moved to San Francisco and earned his Masters degree in sculpture from San Francisco State University in 1968.

In 1969, McMillan attended an exhibit by the art group the Hairy Who at the Art Institute of San Francisco. The Hairy Who were a group of six artists (including two women) who disdained the trendy New York art scene and used surrealism, Art Brut and comic books as artistic inspiration. McMillan was intrigued by the exhibit's witty cartoon images, then became utterly fascinated by comics after picking up a copy of Zap Comix #1 at the City Lights bookstore. He drew some of the pages of Terminal Comics and visited Zap publisher Don Donahue, who agreed to publish the work.

Terminal Comics only had one printing and didn't sell very well. Not surprising really, as the artwork is not commercial looking and the stories can be obtuse. But in retrospect, Michael McMillan was way ahead of his time, and perusing Terminal Comics today provides a remarkable reading experience.

The inside cover presents a single-panel animal cartoon that conveys the identical surreal-yet-urbane animal humor popularized by Gary Larson a decade later. There's no evidence that Larson ever saw this cartoon before conceiving The Far Side comic strip, but McMillan executes it here to perfection. However, the cartoon is anomalous to the rest of the book. Terminal Comics begins in earnest with "Freddie J," a two-page story that follows a cartoonist as he hits a creative block and tokes a joint before going for a walk in "the real world" to clear his mind. The real world holds many bizarre and menacing beings stalking his streets, which confuse and frighten Freddie, but he returns to his drawing board with renewed purpose.

McMillan's drawing style is a little hard to describe, but it looks like Richard Sala channeling Rory Hayes on heroin. Perhaps a more accurate, if more obscure, comparison would be Friedrich Schröder Sonnernstern, a psychotic German painter associated with the Art Brut genre who was known for his highly distorted and erotic work. McMillan often discards conventional rendering of the human form to depict surreal figures with visible internal organs or bloated and/or atrophied body parts. His compositions are often flat, though he's perfectly capable of portraying conventional foregrounds, backgrounds and perspective. It should be noted that McMillan's style evolved over the years and matured into something more traditionally modern.

Terminal Comics includes nearly a dozen one-page comics that demonstrate McMillan's enthusiasm for grossness and vulgarity, as he depicts crushed bodies, booger picking, pants filled with (up to 400 pounds of) shit, and lots of genitalia. Yet the strips also deliver incisive social commentary, as he mocks pretentious fine art galleries, boring conventions, the physical fitness craze, the military, and chauvinism.

But McMillan is no one-page wonder either, as shown in several multi-page stories. The three-page "Straight Dickie" spoofs Little Nemo in Slumberland with an adult who has a nightmarish dream about a corpse. The five-page "Jungle Drama" is an adventure that depicts a team of explorers who encounter the opportunity to discover a lost temple filled with diamonds. The longest story is "The Undead Fiends," a nine-page thriller in which a mysterious man named Mr. Harker is hunted by another man named Umphrey Offly, but his quest is interrupted by the nefarious Dr. Heartfelt, who experiments in the science of the undead. The story bouncing from setting to setting can lead to some confusion, but overall it's all reasonably coherent.

As we read through this book, it becomes easier and easier to slip into Michael McMillan's strange universe and identify with his peculiar characters. Both his art and scripts are distinctive and develop their own form of expression, which by the end of Terminal Comics, when we see "Freddie J" reprised in another two-pager, we grasp Freddie's eccentric experience with greater ease. Terminal Comics isn't for everyone, as it's sometimes bewildering and utterly absurd, but for some it might be nearly magical in its madness.

Though he was 37 years old when he produced Terminal Comics, McMillan's unique talent was recognized in the youthful underground community, especially by those with more sophisticated taste. He went on to contribute to Bill Griffith's Young Lust, Art Spiegelman's Short Order Comix and Robert Crumb's Weirdo, as well as Arcade and Lemme Outa Here. He also collaborated on a series of animations with Victor Moscoso. McMillan's idiosyncratic sense of storytelling and illustration style was influential on a number of comic artists, including Gary Panter, who found McMillan's ability to combine contemporary art with underground comics inspiring.

But McMillan wasn't destined for a full-time career in comic books. A man with diverse interests and passions (including mountain climbing and hard-core cycling), he immersed himself in fine art paintings, made his own films, sculpted, and designed posters. His primary career was in printmaking, though he continued to draw unpublished comics sporadically for the next three decades. Dan Nadel, coeditor of the Comics Journal, included McMillan's comics art in his acclaimed book Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980. Nadel also curated McMillan's first and only comics retrospective in 2012 at the PictureBox Studio (an award-winning visual culture studio and publishing house) in Brooklyn, New York, in conjunction with the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest.

McMillan certainly enjoyed some degree of financial success through his life, but it seems his greatest success was his unwavering dedication to pursue creative activities for personal enrichment. Terminal Comics was not the first—nor the only—endeavor he accomplished in that pursuit, but it's one of the easiest ones we can access, absorb, and become inspired by...perhaps leading us to follow in his footsteps.
It is currently unknown how many copies of this comic book were printed. It has not been reprinted.

Michael McMillan - 1-36