July 17th, 2009
If you’re the type who likes reading, among other things, spurious and ill-reasoned comparisons between 2000AD’s stable of early-mid 1990s writing stars and some of the best American rock bands of the late 1960s, this could be the blog post for you!
As you will already have instinctively grasped, John Wagner (Elvis) and Pat Mills (Dylan) do not belong on this list, for reasons of the strictest vibeology.
Click the hyperlinks to hear some tunes
Garth Ennis : Canned Heat (rockin good, no-nonsense, Westward oriented)
Peter Milligan : Silver Apples (experimental, existential, unrepeatable)
John Smith : Velvet Underground (drugged, verbose, perv)
Grant Morrison : MC5 (incendiary, righteous, riotous)
Mark Millar : The Stooges (stomping, idiotic, about to change everything)
It’s the last one there that we’re concerned with today. Millar as Iggy? He’s done a lot of things, bad things, but trying to sell me insurance isn’t one of them, so maybe we can find an even better one…
‘Mark’s typically overdoing it [the steroids]… Every day he gets more like that mad bastard Nailz, from the WWF’ – Grant Morrison, Comics World 8, 1992
Excessive violence and you know who’s going to win? That’s more like it. A unique and intimate insight from our baldest guru, dating from immediately before the period we’re concerned with today: the heady days of the 1993 Summer Offensive, the ritual murder of 2000AD, a final blast of blood-soaked glory before Messrs Dante, Dexter and Sinister resurected it into an ongoing afterlife of zombified mediocrity.
After the Summer Offensive, Millar’s creativity and ambition seemed to have outgrown the parameters of the Galaxy’s Greatest Weekly. Having taken a clear look at the key elements of its appeal, and refreshed them with some fairly limited success (Silo, (Die Hard meets The Shining in a nuclear weapons facility) and our current topic are his only series remembered fondly by the Squaxx, though I still have a soft spot for Purgatory, the Dreddiverse outer space prison death-fest), he drained every drop of life from his own ‘new improved’ recipe, before buggering off to DC for a bit then finding a semi-permanent home at Marvel.
Something similar looks like it’s happening again, with Old Man Logan (here we go again, again) and Kick Ass (a final re-heat of the original Lee/Ditko Spider formula) being but the new equivalents of Babe Race 2000 and Canon Fodder. The Ultimates, first book only, is the key work from his American period, less fun perhaps than his Adventures of Superman and Swamp Thing runs at DC, and not as Quitelytastic as his Authority issues, but a genuinely new and credibly ‘mature’ way of doing superheroes that left the form never-the-same-again, fit, in fact, for a trip to the movies that they may never come back from.
Having refined and crystallised the House of Ideas’ appeal for the C21, Millar is outgrowing Marvel. I’ve not seen the movie of Wanted, because there are microbial extremophiles living beneath the icy crust at the top of the moon who have worked out that Angelina Jolie will never be in a good film, but one has to assume that his next stop will be Hollywood, and a role tooling-up the squillion Avengers movies they’re threatening us with, like a walloper Doc Doom waggling his latest doomsday device in your face. And when he’s finished there, then what? Popehood? Mark Millar as a new Hubbard, with the Millarworld moderators as high operating thetans?
We could be getting away from the subject.
Whenever asked the question ‘what is your favourite comic ever’, my answer is always Maniac 5. Not because it’s true, but because a stupid question deserves a stupid answer. And because it’s true. Maniac 5 is the only thing I have ever written fanfiction on. Do not ask.
President Al Gore, blinded and beaten, staggers across a cratered White House lawn, calling for his wife. (In 1993 Tipper was, and remains, famous in Britain only for trying to put swearing stickers on Onyx records. Not one to shy away from the big issues.) He is greeted not by his beloved, profanity-sensitive spouse, but by the claws of the alien horde who’ve arrived to destroy America. With Al gone, who is left to save us?
It is some time since the end of the great war between the EU and USA. With a generation of American fighting men dead on the fields of Brittany, a new type of warfare was devised to destroy the hated Brit-Frog-Hun. The Penatagon devised the top-secret Maniac Project..Five indestructible robot battlesuits, piloted by five genocidally unwell Marines, psybernetically uplinked through very clever computers indeed.
Maniac 1 – a twenty-storey building on tank tracks. Heavy artillery and long-range bombardment.
Maniac 2 – a humanoid mangaoid robot, air support and aerial combat.
Maniac 3 –a gleaming steel dragonfly, surveillance, sabotage and infiltration
Maniac 4 - 20 foot, humanoid, camera array for eyes. Antipersonnel. Trouble.
Maniac 5 – 10 foot, humanoid, gatling gun. Antipersonnel. Big trouble.
(There are virtually no pics of Maniac 5 on the web, by the way. People really don’t much care for it. I am right and they are wrong.)
As Paris fell and the Euro-army was wiped out by our unstoppable war machines, final victory was just moments away. But as we all know, Europeans are sore losers. They send in the nukes.
It takes more than an atomic conflagration to put a dent in the Maniac suits, but the resultant biofeedback, or whatever, y’know, kills three of the Maniac Marines. Only two are tough enough to survive the shock, and one of these is driven hopelessly insane.
As the bug horde continues its charge across the States, Mario Cuomo, the new President, relents to the pressure from his advisers and pushes the button. The Maniac Project goes back online. A shot rings out from the Oval Office. Unable to face the guilt of having unleashed the last operational Maniac Marine on American soil, Cuomo has taken his own life.
General Baddie, or something, head of Project Maniac, walks into a room where Frank Bullock is sitting in a strange looking chair. Covered in tattoos, with his cranium removed, his brain exposed to the sterile bunker air, Bullock whispers through the drugs ‘Please. Please. I just want to hurt people again.’
‘You’re going to get your chance soldier.’
Maniac 5 is back. The bugs don’t stand a chance.
That’s all in like the first two episodes. The next few are all massacred aliens and pithy Schwarzenneggerian one-liners. Maniac 5 has now got bodyhopping access to Maniacs 1-3′s bodies, so there’s lots to look at, lots of new ways to wipe out the aliens, and Millar’s unhinged imagination and Steve Yeowell’s effortlessly cool art put these Thrill-packed episodes among the best action spectacle the medium can offer.
Token art paragraph: the sheer spectacle of this series is second to none. Steve Yeowell’s art is a clean, laser-sharp phenomenon, effortlessly evoking the sexy-tech megabucks stylings of the best summer blockbusters. He also underscored the big, splashy scenes with a subtle stylistic switch – this was the second time his work had been digitally-coloured after the appropriately gaudy dayglo blocks of Zenith Phase 4, and here he refined his line to catch the sharp angles and accommodate the light flares of a Michael Mann movie. Both the sophisticated and droolingly stupid aspects of Hollywood gloss on the page , sometimes within the same panel.
The bugs are history. The Queen (no Cameron cliché going unplundered) was hiding under the streets of New York, so he leaps off a skyscraper and smashes through the pavement, lets air support finish the job, war the American way. He gets a little dismembered, a little impaled, but Maniac 5 always wins. But the disease is worse than the cure. How do you solve a problem like an unstoppable sadist with a gatling gun? Easy. Back in the bunker there’s a bullet in the chamber, and poor Frank, his consciousness sitting in a tin can miles away, gets it in his over-exposed brain.
Frank may be getting measured for a flag-draped coffin, but somehow his mind got stuck in the circuits of the battlesuits. His mind is just an electromagnetic pattern on the point of losing coherence at any minute. But he’s still on his feet, and very angry, swearing revenge on what’s left of the Army. What’s needed is a last ditch-response to a last-ditch response. They have one, a brain in a jar going by the name of Jerry Bullock. Frank’s brother, the black sheep. Maniac 4. The insane one. There will be more fighting.
The final movement is predictably spectacular. Frank, still a bit mashed from the battle with the alien queen and the bullet in the temple, throws the other three Maniac suits, but there’s something a bit special about Jerry when it comes to the old killing, he was the one, back in France, making necklaces out of ears, making sure nothing was left breathing in those pretty rustic villages. The other Maniacs are scrap in a few minutes, and there’s this wonderfully ludicrous, Miracleman 14 moment where Frank and Jerry are going toe-to-toe in the heart of the city, ‘standing in the nuclear fire, hitting each other with cars and buildings and people’. It’s so good. Frank is fucked, but manages to lead Jerry back to the bunker, where the brain is. He crushes it in his fist, and Jerry, screws loose, without his brother’s basic toughness to hold his consciousness together, dissipates in the abyss of nowhere, his bloodied and dented battlesuit just an empty shell again. He blows the bunker, and everyone left in it.
We end in the rain, by the Eurowar memorial. Maniac 5, cradling his own cold flesh in his remaining metal arm. ‘I miss you Frank’, he says to no-one, the massive metal twat.
You think you know by now – fuck it, you knew five hundred words ago – whether Maniac 5 is the comic book for you or not. Think you do. Because, although it is every bit as stupid a strip as I have made clear, ransacking the pompous Nam movies of the 80s, the entire oeuvre of James Cameron, Rambo (check the headband), the moron-carnival of US presidential politics (Ross Perot gets a cameo), Universal Soldier (the amazing Lundgren/Van Dammage undead vets flick, not the shonky 2000AD strip of the same name) – all the era’s low-culture high-points. If you love that shit, and I know some of you do, you already love Maniac 5.
But, like most of Millar’s work, there’s more going on there. Remember, this is just after the kids-not-for-comics age, when everyone was piling up the literary refs and clever-clever subtexts. The numbered characters are more than just a prismatic precursor. Given the chaos-inspired, everything-is-equivalent po-mo theories that were fashionable at the time, to look for, and find systemic allusions in the work of Millar (Moore, Morrison, Smith, Milligan, Gaiman) is as rewarding as it is pleasurable as it is easy. Millar is the master of this sly and insouciant storytelling, revealing layers and levels casual passing.
‘Frank and Jerry’ is the easiest one, referring to Michael Moorcock’s warring Cornelius brothers, tying this whole glorious massacre of a comic into his Eternal Champion mythos, only here the villain is the hero and vice-versa.
The political commentary that Millar would work into the Ultimates, his next true blockbuster which re-uses some of the Maniac 5 sets and scenery, is here in embryonic. The real-world cameos stuff is straightforward, and a time-honoured 2000AD staple, but he takes it to interesting places. After representative democracy has blown its own head off, leaving the path clear for the Othered invader to change the shape of America forever, it’s military power with its clear and tough ethics, in the shape of General baddie who rules the roost. But as the strip slowly makes clear, behind him it’s the Stark, the youthful, evil geek-genius, the techie with the ‘bright’ ideas, the stand-in for consumer-computer culture and untramelled pragmatic Progress, who’s been in control and fucking things up all along.
Ultimatesly though, this is Millar, so basically all the symbol structures lead you to Catholicism (though he was pretty far out in his spiritual investigations, I say with no basis whatsoever, back then), so let’s try this:
Maniac 1: Luke (the Bull in Ezekiel)
Maniac 2 : John (Eagle)
Maniac 3 : Matthew (Angel)
Maniac 4 : Mark (Lion)
(play this fun game with Tarot suits, or fundamental forces of the universe)
In this scheme, our hero Maniac 5 is something new, a random element that can move between all bodies at will, using their best gifts as and when necessary to gain concrete victory. Paul.
Maniac 6, who we see in the sequel, is obviously the Devil (cf. The Authority’s Ten-Willy Seth and the multi-dicked Devil in Chosen), and had there been a threequel, 7 would have been the redeeming Maniac Jesus.
That’s Maniac 6 above. I’ve not actually read the sequel, by the way. Millar can’t do sequels, his imagination is too restless, last year’s ideas just weights around his neck. See Ultimates 2, Red Razors 2… Are there any others? Wanted 2: Unwanted?
Of course, bearing all the above in mind it’s equally true to draw the following inferences:
Maniac 1 : something up his bum
Maniac 2 : sitting on the loo
Maniac 3 : needs to do a wee
Maniac 4 : done it on the floor
Maniac 5 : mum skinned him alive
Maniac 6 : it’s coming out in bricks
And so on. All the way up to
Maniac 1000000: listening to Marillion
Disclaimer: Exactly ZERO comics or comic-related magazines were dug-out, downloaded or otherwise re-read in the making of this blog post. Any errors are purely a result of my laziness and poor memory, and not my bad faith. To the best of my knowledge Mark Millar has NEVER been a wrestling-obsessed steroid-abuser. (Though do pipe up if you know different.)
Oh wait, you were promised a free bonus Grant Morrison back-up feature, weren’t you? Here, have two:
1. One sentence: In its allusive referencing of Cartesian mind:body duality and casual thematic use of socially-endorsed (brotherly and soldierly) man-on-man love action, as experienced by characters who are a brain-in-a-jar and a robot battlesuit with consciousness-embodiment issues, Maniac 5 is a direct and explicit early homage to the seminal Doom Patrol no 34, published at a time when Morrison’s Doom Patrol run was widely ignored or dismissed by buying fan and comic-book cognoscenti alike, on both sides of the Atlantic.
2. Much has been made lately of Morrison’s anxiety of influence vis-à-vis MillEr’s definitive series of Batbooks, particularly the later two. A reconsideration of Morrison’s Dredd work may be enlightening in this context.
Following on from MillAr’s six-part Oz-in-space prologue Purgatory, mentioned upstairs, Morrison & Millar’s Dredd 12-part mini-epic Inferno is one of the most reviled runs on any story in 2000AD history, and certainly the most poorly-received work Morrison has ever written. The fans HATE Inferno, considering M&M to have royally screwed their childhoods / dropped the pooch / rapped the ball with it. As usual, when fan reaction is that bad it usually means something worth looking at is happening, and so it is here. Inferno is not an entirely satisfying read, that much is true, but as a radical, intentionally ‘disrespectful’ and somehow necessary reworking of an established, top-flight character and his milieu, is actually very similar in spirit to Miller’s DKR and ASBats books. Just Morrison got there first.
The Joey D. of Inferno is a manic, animated, supernaturally hard caricature miles away from Wagner’s laconic, witty, bastard street-cop/super-cop. M&M play up the absurdist elements of the strip, always a constant presence, but previously a background feature that provided relief to frame the lead’s no-nonsense character against, and the necessary element of exaggeration that from the start qualified Judge Dredd and 2000AD itself as a genuine satirical publication owing as much to Punch as The Eagle.
You may not like M&M’s take, but it’s a legitimate one: a grotesque, hyperviolent comedy-pantomime, aiming broadsides of nihilist mockery against everything, itself included. Inferno turns the pointed, deliberate rapier of satire that the strip – let’s be honest – often clumsily wielded (enough comedy songs thanks!), into a primal raspberry of dismissal, sticking two fingers up at anything you care to put in its way.
This was the point of the Summer Offensive, a return, almost a nostalgic farewell, to 2000AD’s self-professed but frequently absent punk ethos, and paralleling the mini-punk resurgence happening in other pop media of the day (bolstered by the Rave Gen.’s temporary mass-incursion into the free-party/squat/traveller scene). Truth be told, Inferno gave us some great Dredd moments: perps drowned in their cubes as preferable to release by Grice’s army (‘It was only a parking ticket!’); a leprous Dredd puking his way through fistfights; Judge McGruder strapped to a lawmaster and launched off the wall. Walter the Wobot as a stone killer.
Has Frank The Tank ever read Inferno? Probably not, but Dredd has always been more Miller than Miller. Next time you’re thinking that Morrison is maybe struggling to build an all-inclusive Bat-mythos, comparing badly to Miller’s recent and excellent ‘don’t-care’ take, consider that Morrison got that out of his system, and took the flak for it, a long long time ago.