Mike McCarthy – or JMM?
Actually, both are one and the same. When John Michael McCarthy started in comics, he branded himself with the JMM logo. And if you’ve seen JMM’s work either in comics or movies, your impression is probably:
GARAGE! (Rock and aesthetic)
GARISH! (look, plotting, dialog, attitude)
Basically, what was/is considered to be the rudiments of American pop culture of the 20th Century. If you really want to get into subtopics, specifically Southern American Pop Culture, including the films of David Friedman, early, and lots of others I can’t begin to list…
JMM started in the late 80’s/early 90s, just ahead of the Nu Garage/Greaser/Glam Explosion* of the late 90s, which he and his work helped spread.
[* – NOT an official genre term]
McCarthy’s pinnacle (?) was possibly Superstarlet A.D., which was picked up for distribution by acclaim overseas, back home he was just what was called a “cult figure”; an interesting but obscure branch of underground film. Meanwhile, others in the Memphis film scene broke through to studio interest, and money.in 2000, making it the easiest of his films to find. After that… that Garage/Greaseball/Glam Boom slowed down and got overshadowed by Whatever New Thing was current. And although McCarthy got notice and
As McCarthy has stated himself, as a mantra: “My work is UNPOPULAR“.
I’ve long wondered why. Full disclosure: I was a crew-member on Superstarlet A.D. for the last half of shooting. But I was a fan of McCarthy’s before that, having seen The Sore Losers in Kansas City during the “Vice Parties” tour. My San Francisco roommate was a fan of Russ Meyer, which is how I started discovering that particular corner of film. So when an opportunity came to check out that type of filmmaking, I jumped right in—but that’s another story for another time…
Afterwards, I delved more into McCarthy’s work, and tried to keep an eye on what he was up to. If there’s a genre label for McCarthy/JMM, it’s “Redneck Art-house.” He remarks in the Blu-ray commentary for Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis that a reviewer once referred to him (and the film) as a “Pawnshop .” Both terms sound derisive, initially; but they’re both on-the-nose and correct, and not in a bad way.
McCarthy’s work follows two distinct paths:
JMM comix adaptations. McCarthy’s lo-fi versions of his own personal Cinematic Universe: Damselvis (1994), The Sore Losers (1997), and Superstarlet A.D. (2000) fit in here, along with his comix “Cadavera”, “SuperSexxx”, and “Bang Gang.”
Mike McCarthy graphic novel adaptations. These include features Teenage Tupelo (1995) and Cigarette Girl (2009), alongside the short films El*is Meets the Beal*es (2000), Goddamn Godard (2012) and the literal graphic novel “Kid Anarchy.”
Consistent themes/factors in McCarthy’s work:
GIRLS – but not in an exploitative way—or at least, it doesn’t come across as exploitative. Some will disagree.
Although a well established trope in exploitation film, the nudity in JMM’s films isn’t as prurient as you might expect. Even from its beginnings in Damselvis, the nudity was artistic, the way you’d see it in European films. And JMMs aesthetic is more in line with the burlesque than the pornographic (see Superstarlets, and two shorts collections co-directed with Victoria Renard, Broad Daylight and Shine On, Sweet Starlet). As in Russ Meyer’s work, the female characters are the strongest, although there’s less chauvinism than sometimes shows up in Meyer. It’s all very female-positive, which comes off even better some thirty years later than it did at the time.
ELVIS /FAMILY – McCarthy thoroughly explains his Elvis fascination in his essay Gospelvis and Rise And Fall of American Pop Culture. The obsession also ties into his personal history, which Teenage Tupelo mines. Most protagonists in McCarthy films are outsiders looking for family, either blood relatives or like-minded groups. Usually a betrayal occurs, but the protagonist ends up on a hopeful path.
MUSIC – If you’re making art in Memphis, then music will be involved in some way or another. The JMM films are an amazing catalog of the Memphis scene of the time, as well as what was lurking in the underground. The Japanese punk group Guitar Wolf appear in The Sore Losers. Jack Oblivian, Mike Maker, and Rita D’Albert and Alicja Trout (of Memphis group The Clears) show up in Superstarlet A.D. Cori Dials appears in Cigarette Girl, Amy LaVere in Tupelove.
PERSONAL – McCarthy has a vision. From his comix to his movies, everything is packed with meaning: symbolism, autobiography, and art-damage mixed together. Whether the audience “gets it” is beside the point to McCarthy, which may be an obstacle to widespread acceptance.
Where to start?
Sore Losers might be the gateway drug. It’s a JMM comic brought to life in lurid live-action, with lots of sex and violence and respectable tech (16mm). If that flips your switch, go on to Superstarlet A.D., a post-apocalyptic epic of tribal girl-gangs (segregated by hair color) who rule the wasteland, since males have de-evolved into cavemen. Then proceed to Damselvis, his first feature film, just issued on Blu-ray by Saturn’s Core Video this year. It doesn’t have as much sex and violence and is rougher-looking (it’s shot-on-video, after all, which McCarthy bemoans at times on his commentary). But it holds up better than one would think: the camerawork is decent and McCarthy’s distinct vision definitely comes across. Plus, those three films together could be considered “JMM’S Apocalypse Trilogy.”*
[*boxset idea for the UHD/4K release, Mike!]
But if this is the first time you’ve heard of Mike McCarthy, then your BEST introduction is Teenage Tupelo, his second feature, and maybe what he’d consider his proper debut.
Shot on Super-8, in B/W with color sequences, Tupelo eschews the garish comic elements and goes more towards low-budget drama of the type that emerged in the late 50s and early 60s. Using his personal history as the springboard for the story, Tupelo sees D’lana Fargo (D’Lana Tunnell) knocked up by local pop-star Johnny Tu-Note, who’s aiming for a comeback after a stint in the Army. Fargo already has a young son and lives with her mom, who arranges for the new baby to be adopted by a couple, the McCarthys. There’s also a trio of lesbians, the Manhaters, who base their philosophy on the films of Topsy Turvy, a stripper/actress who was born in Tupelo—and who has an unknown connection to D’lana.
TT does have nudity, but (live childbirth aside) it’s not quite as lurid as in his later work. It mostly appears in clips from Topsy’s film “Trashus Trailerus” (the seed for Superstarlet A.D.) and in the fantasies of the Manhaters (which look a lot like Topsy’s films). There’s also a pretty good re-creation of a Scopitone, and aside from some directorial flourishes (the tattoo ritual, Tu-Note’s fading away), it’s almost a drama. Well, a low budget melodrama.
Why Haven’t I Heard of this guy?
Good question. It’s not like he disappeared. He raised a family—one daughter, one son—and kept working. Plenty of projects fell through and/or apart due to lack of funding. He worked at Sun Records. He did storyboards for The People vs. Larry Flynt. He played music in his band, Fingers Like Saturn. He kept doing music videos and shorts and his style kept evolving. He even found Bat Pussy! And he found Religion.
Wait—that last part’s not at all what you think!
I said earlier that there were two distinct paths in McCarthy’s work. Actually, that’s not completely true. There’s a THIRD path that involves finding that religion: the religion of cultural preservation/activism!
From the start, McCarthy had been documenting the changing landscape of his community in his own unique way. There’s the abandoned structures in Damselvis, Teenage Tupelo and Sore Losers. The apocalyptic landscape of Superstarlet A.D. came about when street blocks were demolished to make way for Memphis’ current downtown landscape. As of late, there was talk of demolishing the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum and of turning a portion of a park near the Memphis Zoo (the Greensward) into a parking lot (which thankfully failed). In the mid-00’s, the closing of the Libertyland Amusement park and the impending destruction of its roller-coaster, the Zippin Pippin, spurred McCarthy–who was in the midst shooting an up-and-coming group conveniently named “The Zippin Pippins” for a documentary on Memphis’ girl-rock groups —to merge his story of the rise and fall of the band with the progress of “Save Libertyland,” a campaign to save the the park and roller-coaster from destruction. The result was Destroy Memphis. The title ironically calls back to logos/manifestos on his previous work: “Destroy Comics,” then “Destroy Movies.” Only in this instance, there’s not a hint of anything hopeful and new emerging, just the literal destruction of the past.
In 2011, McCarthy was commissioned by the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau to do a short film to promote Elvis tourism. That short film, Tupelove, drew acclaim, and was impetus for the city of Tupelo to commission a statue of Elvis by artist/sculptor Bill Beckwith. McCarthy documents the creation of the statue in his documentary Native Son—also documenting his discovery of his birth mother and extended family in parallel.
As of this writing, my copy of the Teenage Tupelo Blu-ray has not arrived on my doorstep (ordered directly from McCarthy, along with the Blu/DVD/OST CD triple-disc Sore Losers set). Originally planned for release in 2008 in tandem with a book about the film from Fantagraphics Books—well, these things take time, as the saying goes. A restoration was done in 2008 which looked pretty good at the time, but this Blu was remastered by Stephen “Wheat” Buckley, one of McCarthy’s valued collaborators, who also tweaked the edit. Based on the preview file I saw, it looks great—the best presentation the film has had to date.
The documentaries Destroy Memphis and Native Son are among the extensive extras, which makes this release the perfect gateway, with the early JMM telling his story through artistic exploitation, and later McCarthy re-telling that story in a more mature style—the subtext moving into the foreground, that personal vision more focused and relatable.
McCarthy is still busy; he was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Johnny Cash, which was unveiled in Memphis in pre-pandemic 2019. He also organizes a monthly program at the Malco Summer Drive-In in Memphis, Time Warp Drive-In.
This article is admittedly lengthy for a primer, but that’s sort of the point. A simpler write-up could just go with “Comix Artist Turns Filmmaker” and eschew the “twinning” frame so cleverly set up here (well, maybe). Which would kill a speculation on a new Archetupe—the twins who ultimately merge into One with a whole new aspect—a real-life metaphorical Final Programme of sorts…
There’s a case to be made for Mike McCarthy, multi-media artist with a unique and extensive body of work, as a distinctive American Voice. Despite the low budgets and practical compromises that are unavoidable in any creation, you never get a sense of watering down or creative compromise—you’ll know a McCarthy work when you see it!
The only other artist from the comics world that I can think of who approaches McCarthy’s path is Mike Allred, who made the 1996 feature Astroesque that tied into his comics series “Red Rocket 7” But that was done as a lark; Allred hasn’t pursued more filmmaking ventures of his own. (And I don’t even want to bring up Frank Miller‘s The Spirit.)
Maybe some 30 years later, time has finally caught up to the McCarthy/Guerrilla Monster oeuvre. You can’t call it “woke” in the current meaning—whatever the Hell that is—but I’ll go as far as to call it “90s Woke,” which looks pretty good in the 2020s. There’s a lot to be discovered/rediscovered; if the Fantagraphics book does well, there’s a possibility of seeing another McCarthy book, covering his entire body of work.
Other Sites of Interest
Guerrillamonster Films – the best place for all things McCarthy/JMM. It could stand updating, but there are interesting cul de sacs to explore: stories and essays, glimpses of projects that didn’t make it, Memphis music history—quite a bit on , and concert pics—it’s a good wallow! Check it out along with the Guerrilla Monster YouTube channel (where you can find some of the shorts and music videos mentioned here and there).
Beatnik Manor – new McCarthy doc, an extra on the Teenage Tupelo release.
Our interview with McCarthy: