Why are People so Frightened of Change?:

Shameless? Part 4

Continued from last week.

“Why are they so obsessed with continuity? A story is a story – nothing more, and yet people want to know which Earth Watchmen takes place on.” (*1)

The adolescent Millar identified three deleterious consequences of the cult of continuity. Avoiding them would prove to be a constant concern throughout his career. As the years passed and his reputation grew, they would influence the projects he accepted and, finally, the form and content of his own Millarworld titles. The first of these concerns was that of the inertia caused by the fannish insistence on a dogmatic degree of internal consistency. To Millar, who cared little for over-arching universes and the concordance of arcana, this inevitably undermined the superbook’s capacity to innovate and satisfy. What he advocated was an open-minded attitude towards each individual story in its own terms. What mattered was not whether the past was to be contradicted, or even the status quo fundamentally altered. All that counted was the creation of what he considered to be a vital and fascinating tale.

Yet the possibility of invention, and even fundamental change, could be hamstrung by the tendency to judge each issue according to how it matched and reinforced what had gone before. An almost inevitably reactionary pressure, it could reduce the pleasures of the superbook to a series of stiflingly bureaucratic calculations. These did offer diehard readers the illusion of being able to measure how canonical a comic might or might not be. To compare each new month’s adventures with all that had gone before could even be a satisfyingly exacting and even marginally creative endeavour. But it was rarely a spur to lively storytelling. What it did do was interact with the desire of publishers to keep their trademarked characters in a perpetually fixed and thereby recognisable shape. An audience with a predilection for orthodoxy combined with an industry whose interests were aligned with conservatism. It was a mix which all too often resulted in product which was predictable to the point of futility. As Millar responded to a campaign to return the killed-off Supergirl to life;

“These kind of people infuriate me no end. Do they want … Moore to make Swamp Thing a man covered in moss again? Do they want Marvelman .. to become an all-British hero again … “ (*2)

Such a reactionary mindset could also conspire to undermine what Millar always regarded as the superhero comic’s inherent sense of wonder. This process of disenchantment was the second of Millar’s criticisms. By its very nature a playfully ludicrous proposition, the superbook inspired a sense of fascination in the reader who was eager and able to buy into its conventions. But a willing suspension of disbelief was not enough for many. Instead, they sought to construct detailed pseudo-scientific explanations for the everyday miracles of the superheroic world. And where pseudo-science leads, so spurious analysis and dubious quantification follows.

To the frustration and contempt of both Millar and Grant Morrison, the late Eighties saw DC commissioning a number of series which would supposedly define exactly how conventions such as time-travel and magic worked. (*3) None of these attempts to codify matters would result in paradigms which stuck, although the Neil Gaiman-written Books of Magic would at least emerge as a thoroughly beguiling read. But the very idea stood as an example of a world-view which wasn’t just content to stay true with what had been written. It could even seek to proscribe the bounds of what might be expressed in the future.  In doing so, matters which would be far better left to the reader’s imagination were dubiously systematised. Yet the very attempt to rationalise super-powers can draw attention to how profoundly silly they are in the first place. What’s more, the effort to smooth over impossibilities and explain away contradictions can remove the option for the so-minded reader to creatively do that for themselves. (Those that don’t need such conceits might be alienated by the process, while those that do might be best left exercising their own imaginations.) The compulsion to ensure that the superheroic universes were apparently ordered and utterly welcoming could actually leave them counter-intuitively predictable and alienating.

These boundless complications inspired Millar’s final stated objection to continuity. Quite logically, he bemoaned the fact that it could baffle and exclude the less-fanatical reader;

“Comics are to entertain and educate, not to confuse and tangle the reader in 50 years of continuity.” (*4)

Millar’s solution to these problems of disenchantment, inertia and exclusion was, then as now, expressed in his own particular understanding of “realism”. It’s a term that he’s tended to throw around in a way which has quite understandably inspired considerable criticism. (*5) To claim, as he has, that the likes of Kick Ass and Hit Girl are “realistic superheroes” is an obviously fallacious business. There’s nothing realistic in either an everyday or academic sense about the pre-pubescent Hit Girl’s capacity to lay waste to skyscrapers full of thugs. Yet the way that Millar has used the term has been as consistent as it’s idiosyncratic. To him, “realism” appears to be the opposite tendency to “continuity”, and its virtues serve as a guide to how to avoid the detrimental effects of the latter. In particular, Millar’s “realism” demands that change occurs in the superhero just as it does in everyday life. In 1996’s FA 94, for example, Millar associated “realism” with the massive changes which accompanied DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earths maxi-series. (*6) The comic’s tag-line had promised that “Worlds will live, worlds will die, and nothing will ever be the same”, and, for a while at least, that was true. In addition to wiping out all of the company’s many parallel universes, Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s work killed off a number of both line-leading and secondary super-people. To DC, it was an attempt at house-cleaning designed to set up a new and far more coherent line of books. (*7) There’s no little irony in the fact that Millar acclaimed the comic as a radical, and therefore “realistic”, endeavour.  For although the series was designed to simply the DCU and simplify it for new readers, it was also one which, as we’ve seen, was designed to also be intimately inter-connected and explicitly self-consistent. An end to continuity confusion rather than the introduction of perpetually radical storytelling was its motivating force, and a disillusioned Millar would write in 1988’s FA100 that the “post-Crisis universe (was) infinitely more confusing” than what came before. (*8) Not only was continuity a bad idea, it seems, but the very attempt to impose it only generated new confusions.

Millar’s sense of what his own brand of “realism” involves would develop across the coming decades, and the principles that it appears to refer to can be seen at work in his most recent “Millarworld” titles. His devotion to change, for example, is used there to combat the threat of inertia, with the re-set button being notably absent from his own titles. Disenchantment is countered by keeping the obvious differences between the worlds of his super-people and ours to an absolute minimum. With so little that needs to be explained, there’s only a relatively minor chance of over-embellishing the product. Finally, the likes of Nemesis, Hit Girl and Superior exist in their own continuities, with their back stories kept relatively simple, distinct and easily accessible. Though hardly what we know as “realism”, it is a process of ensuring that Millar’s work is kept as welcoming and entertaining as possible. If we take “realism” to mean “a fictional universe whose representation of reality is designed not to alienate”, then the term has consistently described a great deal of his work. In essence, Millar has often deconstructed the superhero comic and kept only what he considers to be its barest essentials. Those core attributes are then presented in the form of scenario that’s as familiar and welcoming to the general reader as it can be. Few have credited Millar with the title of “formalist”, and yet that’s exactly what his catalogue of work establishes for him. As we’ll discuss when looking at how he studied and incorporated Warren Ellis’s “widescreen” techniques into his style, for example, Millar’s approach has very much not arrived by accident.

To be continued.


  1. Pg 49 NML, FA#104, 1988
  2. Pg 50 NML, FA 94, 1986
  3. Pg 34 An Interview With Grant Morrison, FA 109, 1989
  4. Pg 49 NML, FA#104, 1988
  5. For example: “Memo To Mark Millar: Kick Ass Is Not Realism”, Susana Polo, Geekosystem.com http://www.geekosystem.com/mark-millar-kick-ass-realism-gay-kiss/
  6. Pg 50 NML, FA 94, 1986
  7. For example, see Marv Wolfman’s interview with  Claudio Figueiredo and Octavio Aragao at http://intemblog.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/crisis-on-infinite-comics-interview.html
  8. Pg 68, NML, FA #100, 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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Also by Colin Smith:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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