June 14th, 2011
We’ll stop at nothing, you see. All the suffering and the death and the pain in your world is entertainment for us. Why does blood and torture and anguish still excite us?
We thought that by making your world more violent we would make it more “realistic,” more “adult.” God help us if that’s what it means.
Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.
(Grant Morrison, Animal Man #26)
TALES FROM THE MILLARDROME, PART 1: Having spent a fair bit of time ripping the pish out of Marky “Mark” Millar while writing up my Kapow! experience, and having then heckled my way through a twitter argument about Mark Millar’s collaborations with Frank Quitely on The Authority, I felt an odd sense of duty to reread Millar’s breakthrough comic, to see if it still worked.
And you know what? Turns out Millar’s first story, ‘The Nativity’, is still really fucking good:
A lot of this has to do with Frank Quitely’s art, though it’s worth pointing out early on in this post that Trever Scott’s inks seem a little bit insensitive here, like the guy didn’t quite understand what all those little crinkles were actually for. Just check out Jack Hawksmore in this panel if you don’t believe me:
I know Hawksmore’s supposed to be a little bit DUNK! here, but it looks like the guy’s replaced his right eye with a lemon and now the rest of his head is shriveling in response, you know? Some of the blame for this can probably be placed on Quitely – his characters’ lips do tend to pucker, don’t they? – but that shit with the eye seems to me to be a triumph of heavy handedness over loving grace.
Still, even if some of the fine details are obscured, there’s always a good fight scene just waiting to happen. It’s become an eye-watering cliche to say that, whatever his failings, Mark Millar “writes good action scenes”, but the fight scenes here almost dare you not to enjoy them – they’ve got the childish “and then THIS happens, and then THIS happens” exctitement of a playground run-around, but with that added bit of clarity that only Quitely can bring to the table:
Like I said, it’s just like a playground rammy. Well, it is if you were a hyper-athletic sick fuck as a kid – ooft!!
MEANWHILE, IN THE INFANT UNIVERSE QWEWQ: Withered with age, Mark Mouller sits alone in his Top Secret Attack Bunker – not-so-secretly located deep under the wreckage of The Time Capsule in Coatbridge – and chatters at the shadows:
“Has anyone seen the nominations for the Stan Lee awards,” he says.
As usual, the darkness provides no answer.
“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. I invented Stan Lee before and I can do it again,” he giggles.
Mark Mouller leans forward and switches his PC on for the first time in a decade; his fingers ache from the effort, but this pain is soon forgotten as the monitor wakes up, exposing every lines on Mouller’s face to his imaginary audience.
“Maybe I can get Eminem to play him in the movie this time, I don’t know, whaddaya think?”
TALES FROM THE MILLARDROME, PART 2: Say what you will about Marky Mark, and we normally do around here, but they guy likes to keep those creator owned comics coming. He’s got four more on the way, including a spin-off from the Kick Arse (Hit Girl: The Paedoing) and a collaboration with Frank Quitely. It’s this later project that’s got me excited, because even if I suspect Millar will just hack it out like her normally does, the idea of seeing Quitely working on ‘a huge superhero epic with a mythology as rich as ‘Lord or The Rings’ or ‘Star Wars’ but along the lines of ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’ is enough to hold my interest.
There’s something about Quitely’s artwork – more specifically, about the way that his circus strongmen are always built up out of hundreds of funny little wobbly lines – that makes me want to see draw him an epic like that. There’s a fundamental humour and humanity to his figurework that could easily undermine a project like this one, either in a good, funny way or a less good, but still probably pretty entertaining way.
If, you know, that description actually bears any relation to the comic that Millar ends up writing…
MEANWHILE, IN THE INFANT UNIVERSE QWEWQ: Mouller giggles again before remembering that he didn’t actually invent Stan Lee back in the sixties, and that Stan’s name is not to be taken lightly. Stan’s malevolent spirit has taken care of bigger and better men than him, sent them either spinning head first into the ground or else so deep into the blankness of yet another empty page that they might as well be dead.
A shudder passes through Mouller like last night’s dinner – best get some work done, he thinks, if I don’t want to end up like Jacob and the others…
TALES FROM THE MILLARDROME, PART 3: It’s possible, from this distance, to view ‘The Nativity’ as early example of Prismaticism in action. The prism in question is the ugly prism, of course — just check the glee with which Millar and Quitely present us with bloated parodies of all that was wonderful about those old Marvel comics, setting them up against the punk rock JLA riff that is The Authority and watching as sparks (read: blood’n'guts) fly.
More than that, the plot of ‘The Nativity’ – in which a demented Jack Kirby stand-in/cold war relic called Jacob Krigstein tries to bring about a new world order using a seemingly infinite array of Marvel comics stand-ins that he’s created – brings to mind these comments from the Botswana Beast’s most famous essay:
And that’s the new science: it’s proliferation, within the native comics medium, and without, particularly – but not exclusively – onto cinema screens.
‘The Nativity’ doesn’t just pre-empt the metafictional multiplicity of the past decade’s worth of superhero comics - in story, it also presents this as a possible route to a new world. It’s one person’s imagination vs. reality, and while the comic doesn’t worry too much about the implications of this outside the page, it’s still plenty compelling when it’s laid out there in front of you.
Come to think of it, Botswana Beast also had a few words for The Authority and their world-changing ways in that Prismatic post, didn’t he?
Ah, yes, here we go:
The Authority, too, always fall back to the centre, despite their best attempts to go after “the real bastards”, because of the inertia of an essentially conservative (however psychedelic and occasionally leftist or libertarian idealist) form – superhero comics chasing “a better world” as raison d’etre are like trying to flip the planets axis with a spatula: impossible.
It’s no wonder that article has made Botswana Beast the Mindless One most likely to be cited by comic book academics – the Beast’s theory has a decidedly prismatic effect on whatever thoughts about modern superhero comics you come to it with, and what modern academic can resist that sort of playful broadening of the field? Anyway, the pertinent point here is that politics of ‘The Nativity’ are fixated on comic book questions rather than real world ones from the opening narration onwards. “Why do superheroes never go after the real bastards?” – well, maybe because they need bastards in order to keep their stories going. Which, of course, they want to do, given that they’re just tiny paper people hoping to grow into multi-media franchises…
But even when you know that its main target is genre rejuvenation, it’s still easy to get caught up in a comic like ‘The Nativity’. Only a maniac would think that 80-odd pages of cool quips and even cooler fight scenes could change the world, but as you watch the characters attempt to overcome comic book history in the name of coming up with something newer and more powerful, well… fuck, you could be forgiven for wanting that to be more meaningful than it really is.
There’s Tranny-Sparant, Vaguely Racist Nerd and Storm Donor – concepts so exciting that Mouller feels the need to start talking about them immediately. “The Storm Donor wanks great gobbets of LIGHTNING into the unwilling skys,” he babbles to the repentant ghost of Rich Johnston.
In death as in life, Rich Johnston provides no clear response; strain your ears and you might just hear the sound of pointless gossip and speculation echoing in a faraway corridor, but nothing more than that. No, never more than that.
“He’s brilliant, because he’s such a tragic character,” Mouller continues. “When he cracks one off, you can hear it halfway round the world so his whole life, the poor guy was always knackered for a wank. Eventually the sad bastard just snapped and went for it, and he tugged so hard that his whole universe burned down!”
With ideas like this, Mouller starts to think beyond the movie deals. He’s never lacked for ambition, but… perhaps he was too easily swayed by cash-in-hand last time, too focused on the short con to properly plan the long one. Understandably so – a man has to eat, after all, and what he did last time round was to write his way as far out of poverty as possible – but he wants to go further this time, to make big changes and hard decisions…
TALES FROM THE MILLARDROME, PART 4: Jack Kirby as villain, the metafictional conflict straining to be seen as a metaphor for real change… ‘The Nativity’ is Millar before he managed to wash Morrison out of his hair, isn’t it?
You can see Mozzer’s influence in Wanted and The Unfunnies too, but by the time Millar wrote those stories he’d already developed his own shtick – the address to the reader at the end of Wanted brings to mind a typical Grant Morrison finale with kindness replaced by contempt, while The Unfunnies reads like The Filth stripped of all ambition and hope.
For all its brutality, there are plenty of scenes of pure Morrisonian optimism in ‘The Nativity’ – this is, after all, a story in which characters are defeated by posthuman rhetoric as often as by superpowered bumrape (twice). Still, it’s the glib brutality of ‘The Nativity’ that Millar has made his stock in trade. After running the classic Marvel characters through this Authoritarian prism, Millar went on to do much the same thing with actual Marvel comic book characters, firstly in their “Ultimate” imprint and then in the Marvel universe proper. Millar has remade the comic book world in his own image, and his cynical, “Michael Bay-cum-Frankie Boyle” style has gradually made the transition from page to screen – none of which makes his early, clumsy gestures in this direction seem any else cringe-worthy, but maybe that’s one side-story too far, eh?.
The lad’s done well for himself, basically. So why is it that I’d still rather read ‘The Nativity’ than Civil War or Kick Arse or Nemesis? It’s not that I want Mark Millar to have spent the last decade chasing Morrison’s style rather than his own, because I don’t think he could ever have beaten the master at his own game, but… it’s possible that this reading has just reminded me that Mark Millar wasn’t always MARK! MILLAR!, and I’m pretty tired of MARK! MILLAR! these days. The first four issues of Millar’s Authority almost read like a monument to a forgotten future. They provide glimpses of alternative present – for both Mark Millar and for modern superhero comics, if not for the real world (“the real fucking world!”).
Sometimes it’s bracing to be reminded that things didn’t necessarily have to be this way, and sometimes nothing quite brings that home like a cheerfully violent pre-9/11 superhero comic written by someone on the verge of figuring out their sales pitch, you know?
MEANWHILE, IN THE INFANT UNIVERSE QWEWQ: Having spent the whole week carrying out the required rituals, Mark Mouller finally feels ready to give up his surname. He offers his life to the spirit of Stan Lee, knowing that Smiling Stan will be more than satisfied to have been involved in the creation of a new character (Mark! Millar!) and with him, a whole new universe of adventure.
Stripped of his former identity and ready for rebirth, Millar finally pushes the big red button that start the end of everything. From the deepest chamber in his Top Secret Attack Bunker - which he has started to see as a literal time capsule hidden below the wreckage of The Time Capsule in Coatbridge – Millar reboots whole universe.
No longer will he be confined to the “Infant Universe Qwewg” – however successful he was there, it was never his universe, never his world. The new universe will be different. Mark Millar has worked hard on the calculations, and he is sure that he’s worked out how to recreate the whole thing in his own image.
“Yeah, this is it,” he says as the walls around him start to bend in on themselves, aligning themselves to his reddened cheeks. “This is the one… this is going to change everything.”
Hold on tight, ladies and gentleman, and brace yourselves for the horrible truth: that we are all living in MillarWorld now…