Interviewing Peter Milligan, Part 2: Balancing Dark Humour And Horror Effortlessly In Kid Lobotomy

by Oliver MacNamee

With the first story arc of Kid Lobotomy wrapping up this week, it was as good an opportunity as any to catch up with Peter Milligan, after our recent discussion on his work on Marvel’s Legion, and pin him down on a few questions I had regarding his inspirations from Kafka to Shakespeare, working with Shelley Bond again, and everything in between.

Olly MacNamee: Was Kid Lobotomy an idea that sprung out of the formation of Black Crown (as it’s such a great fit), or otherwise?

Peter Milligan: Not exactly. Except that Black Crown is Shelly Bond’s baby and it was an email from Shelly (or rather the title of an email  “Hey, lobotomy”) that started my thought processes that led me to Kid Lobotomy.

OM: Now, there are clear references to the life and works of Kafka, from Ottla the chambermaid, to the shade of The Metamorphosis and more. This is clearly more than a passing reference, but feels like it’s at the heart of the story, influencing it, informing it, moulding it? 

PM: In a way, yeah. It goes without saying that I’m very interested in Kafka’s work. In particular Metamorphosis, which more than ever seems to say something deep and true about modern man. Metamorphosis, change, becoming something other than strictly human, is at the heart of Kid Lobotomy. And Ottla the chambermaid is named after Kafka’s favorite sister. I like to think that Greta Samsa – Gregor’s sister in Metamorphosis – is at least partly based on her:  it’s Greta who more than anyone tries to reach out to Gregor after he’s been turned into the hideous creature. The real Ottla had a tragic ending, killed in a Nazi concentration camp. Knowing what happened to the woman whom she was named after always gave me a vague sense of melancholy when writing scenes with our chambermaid Ottla. I think it helped to give her the depth that she has.

OM: There are other literary influences at work here too. Do I sense, for example, in The Suites a kindred spirit to the The Beat Hotel in Paris, frequented by an other of life’s marvelous odd-bods, William Burroughs? King Lear is a more obvious one, methinks.

PM: To start with, Lear. I liked the idea of a family where the father is a King Lear-obsessive and the son is obsessed about Kafka and Metamorphosis. On the face of it, very different stories but with some similarities, both Gregor Samsa and King Lear eventually find themselves alone with their conditions (beetle and mad respectively). I wasn’t specifically thinking about the Beat hotel, I liked the idea of the hotel representing Kid’s psychological state and his memories. One of the reasons I name-checked William Burroughs so early was so there’d be no confusion between Kid Lobotomy and Burroughs’ The Lobotomy Kid, who was an entirely different kind of creation.

OM: Tess Fowler, your partner in crime, seems to be doing some of the best work of her career on this book. How much input does she have in the visual realisation of your ideas?

PM: It’s really been a joint venture. We’ve discussed what characters and scenarios should look like, it’s been a very good and interesting creative process. Sometimes Tess’ ideas of what someone might look like have surprised me – Kid’s sister Rosebud for instance – and that’s been great.

OM: I loved the issue which focussed on Ottla and her ‘secret origin’ story. I especially loved your dark sense of humour when revealing the real reason Big Daddy shows a seedy interest in her. How do you manage to balance this humour with the horror of The Suites? Does it help that the humour is so dark, or is it just good drugs?

PM: It certainly isn’t good (or bad) drugs, unless you include the anticonvulsant medication I take to keep my epilepsy at bay. Getting the balance of dark humour and horror right is a tricky business and there’s no model or set of rules you can follow; I think it’s probably just feel and judgment, which of course can sometimes go awry. With the Ottla episode of Kid Lobotomy, I wanted Big Daddy to be using his power to prey on Ottla but I didn’t want it to be about sex:  it seemed to me that that’s such an obvious,  over real and painful area it wouldn’t sit comfortably alongside the surreal humour of the comic. So Big Daddy’s King Lear/Cordelia fantasies are a metaphor for other forms of control and abuse while at the same time playing in the same “key of craziness” as the rest of the comic. A long-winded answer, but there you are.

OM: And, finally, what’s the bigger picture for Kid in this magically realistic book? Kid certainly has his enemies, very close to home too. It feels all a big Geek Tragedy and I certainly hope it isn’t. You’re wrapping up your first story arc with this next issue. What next?

PM: That’s a hard one to answer. We’ll let the dust settle on the first series and then stick our finger in the air and see which way the mixed metaphor’s blowing.

OM: Pete, once again, thanks for your time and all the best for the year ahead. I believe The Prisoner will be one of your next projects?

PM: Yeah, The Prisoner comes out soon. I’m also writing another Britannia for Valiant which comes out later this year. Some other things too which I can’t quite talk about yet…

Kid Lobotomy #5 lands in comic shops this Wednesday, March 21st, 2018, from Black Crown at IDW.