Mark Millar, Deconstructionist, Man and Boy:

Shameless? Part 3

Continued from last week.

From the middle of the Eighties to the decade’s end, the teenage Millar’s preference appears to have been for the breed of super-hero comics associated with the label of deconstruction. The influence of these books can even now be seen in Millar’s work. At its best, deconstruction involved the stripping down of the tradition of the super-hero to what might be considered its essential components. Then, having scraped away a weight of taken-for-granted assumptions, the deconstruction-minded creator could set out to invigorate the form with a variety of new influences and intentions. Of course, writers and artists quite naturally came to different conclusions about what the fundamentals of the form might be. Similarly, there were a wide variety of fresh approaches to be experimented with. Part of that might involve a discussion of how the conventions of the superhero book might play out in real-world conditions. Part might see an examination of the values which had most typically been represented in the form. As a result, the period saw a remarkable if short-lived reinvigoration of the sub-genre. Quite contrary to what was often uttered at the time, and indeed ever since, the famous likes of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns were never intended to serve as even a symbolic full-stop to the superhero comic’s existence. Instead, the techniques associated with deconstruction offered the costumed crimefighter book the tools for an ongoing and purposeful reinvention.

Retaining the joyously absurd tropes of superpowers, public identities and costumes meant that the distinctive pleasures of the superhero book remained. But fused to the possibilities which such traditions offered for fantastical entertainment were a variety of different inspirations and concerns. Both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, for example, used the action/adventure roots of the superhero book to offer a sequence of characteristic pleasures; secret bases, communities of super-people, plot-closing show-downs, and so on. But the former was hybridized with the traditional mystery, while the latter drew on the language of hard-boiled thrillers. Both also expressed committed, and notably diverging, political principles too. To say that these comics weren’t for children was true, or at least, that they weren’t for the more typical of young readers. Yet that didn’t mean that anything of their purpose was to declare that the superhero comic couldn’t or shouldn’t be for children. Instead, the ambition, invention and excellence of Moore, Gibbons and Miller’s stories helped to establish, for a brief while at least, that the superbook could retain its basic character while also being put to ingenious and thought-provoking use.

As such, the comics influenced by deconstruction suggested that the super-hero needn’t be for any particular niche of consumers at all. Instead, it could be a vehicle for whatever storytelling aspirations a creator might have. As such, the constricting conventions of the past and the fundamentalist demands of a hardcore niche of fans could be circumvented when the art required. From what had become an often threadbare business suddenly seemed to emerge the promise of a range of superhero books and associated titles which could speak confidently and inspiringly to any number of markets. In partially and temporarily embracing this smart-minded approach, the sub-genre produced a small handful of unexpectedly rewarding achievements. Indeed, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns still dominate much of the superhero book’s sales both within and beyond the fannish market. Often pounced upon as an excuse to produce dubiously dark, indulgently violent and adolescently self-regarding fare, deconstruction was at its best a technique rather than a vague and yet all-too-familiar end.

The young Millar’s given favorites during this period included several by storytellers whose trailblazing work for independent publishers had caught DC Comic’s eye. The commercial and political constraints of monthly, corporate-owned comics ensured that their work was rarely anywhere near as radical and successful as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. But for all of that, they certainly offered a distinct alternative to product which, then as now, was often clichéd, mutton-headed and self-referential to the point of tedium. Mike Baron’s scripts on The Flash, for example, were grounded in an approach to reworking the superhero which Millar seems to have thoroughly internalized. (*1) Rejecting the tradition of the Mercury-like crime-fighter who could almost without effort race at unimaginable speeds, Baron weighed down his Flash with the tremendous effort involved in dashing across continents and tearing around cities. Former superhero sidekick Wally West, who now also faced strict limits on how swiftly he could run, was constantly having to stop and, exhausted, shovel fast-food meal after meal into himself. Working both for the public good and to pay for his bed, board and health insurance, this Flash even found himself drooping with boredom while galloping across America’s hinterland. Hand-in-hand with this new take on an old superhero type came an attempt by Baron to hybridize the comic with both certain aspects of Kung Fu movies and a racier-than-normal brand of teen soap opera.

It’s exactly this kind of deconstruction that Millar has applied to his self-published superhero comics. From a basic super-heroic type is created a reader-snaring spin of it. Part of this will usually see the affairs of his high-concept super-people grounded in a comic book take on, if not everyday affairs, then media-familiar takes of the same. For influences from beyond the superhero genre, Millar has drawn from his apparently encyclopedic knowledge of modern-era popular film, as well as Catholicism, conspiracy theories, horror novels and religious-themed SF. In addition, he has a tendency to salt the mix with traces of satire that often works in a startlingly self-contradicting fashion. Of course, none of this is to suggest that Millar’s later work is dependent in any way upon Baron’s approach. But both have clearly occupied the same tradition. Obviously, Millar’s comic book influences extend beyond the superhero books of the high tide of deconstruction to those of Silver Age greats, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and beyond. But Baron was part of an entirely informal and yet undeniably real trend towards a different and particular kind of comic. Impacting as it did upon the DC superhero line of the last half of the Eighties, it was a thoughtful and rejuvenating approach which appears to have had a tremendous and lasting influence on Millar.

Yet it wouldn’t in any way be fair to portray the teenage Millar as an unthinking DC fanboy. For one thing, his selections quite deliberately excluded the more hidebound of the company’s product. For another, he consistently expressed disappointment at how DC managed its line of superheroes in general. As might be expected by now, the principles which underlined these objections are still informing Millar’s work today. For example, several of his letters to FA and his interview with Morrison reference his frustration with continuity. Tired of the complex weave of inter-connectedness which was used to suggest that every adventure existed in the very same world, Millar wrote that the process was as stultifying as it was counter-productive. Describing DC’s attempt to create a more internally consistent universe for itself following 1985/6’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, he wrote;

“… the more DC tries to iron out the inconsistencies, the wrinkles, out of their 50 year tapestry, then the bigger the wrinkles appear to be and, frankly, it’s making the tapestry look crap”. (*2)

It’s an objection to continuity in its most obsessive, constricting form which has marked his work ever since.

To be continued.


*1:- Baron made his name on his and Steve Rude’s Nexus, first published in 1981 for Capital and then by First. He then co-created The Badger before moving on to more mainstream titles as well.

*2:- page 44, No-Man’s Land, FA 102, May 1988.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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