The Adolescent High Conceptualist:

Shameless? Part 5

Continued from last week.

It would take Millar almost a decade to develop a style that was as controlled and effective as his ideas were consistently intriguing. The first substantial evidence of this would appear in his run on DC’s Superman Adventures, which began in 1998, and for which he’d be nominated for an Eisner Award as Best Writer in 2000. (*1) Set in the continuity of Superman The Animated Series, it saw Millar producing a fine and often touching sequence of predominantly done-in-one issues. (*2) There could be no more appropriate title for Millar’s graduation from gifted and yet scattershot apprentice to highly competent and commercially successful journeyman. For the teenage Millar’s love for the figure of Superman had been evident in several of his letters to FA. In expressing his regard for the character, the Millar of both 1986 and 1988 had also displayed the first signs of his admirable way with high concepts. Even if his writerly skills would take a considerable number of years yet to mature, his talent for succinctly and perceptively deconstructing the superhero was already evident.

Objecting to John Byrne’s 1986 reboot of Superman, Millar insisted that the new take reflected the dominant politics of the age too closely. The Eighties had been, he wrote, a period in which he’d noted “greed escalate in direct proportion to the drop in compassion and love”. (*3) In creating a version of Superman who was far more concerned with his personal affairs than before, Byrne had, argued Millar, diminished the “altruism” which the character had traditionally represented. (*4) Such might seem to be nothing but an expression of the very kind of fannish conservatism which Millar has always been quick to condemn.  (*5) Yet his critique was based not just in sentiment, but in an insightful view of how to ensure that the character stayed distinct and vital. As he went on to contend;

“… maybe altruism is a concept that would make superhero comics tedious in the broad term, but when confined to Superman, it seems so congruent with the rest of his character; it doesn’t look silly. Byrne has tried to humanise Superman by giving him sexual feeling, jealousies and other unlikeable traits. Sure, this makes Supes seem more human but we mustn’t forget that human isn’t something he’s supposed to be. We’ve got countless already human characters … so there’s no need to change Superman. Byrne forgets this is what made Superman so special – because he was different.” (*6)

In essence, Millar was arguing that Byrne’s sin was less the perceived yuppification of Kal-El and more the destruction of the unselfishness which could make Superman stand out by comparison with his fellows. As such, “the once highly interesting character of a lost alien trying to be loved on a world he couldn’t quite fit into” had been reduced to “just another superhero”. (*7) DC and its hired gun of an artist/writer had considered Superman’s traditional values to be a drawback in a more rapacious era. But Millar grasped that commenting on the age didn’t necessarily require embodying its values. To him, what made Superman both ethically vital and commercially promising could be summed up in his ability to “stand there with an eagle on his forearm, cape fluttering in the wind before a golden sky” while still getting “away with it”. (*8) It was an understanding that Millar would put to work not just in Superman Adventures, but in Superior, his heartfelt Christian polemic, which reflected the Golden Age decencies of both the Man Of Steel and his newsstand rival Captain Marvel too.

A more radical example of Millar’s gift for commercial-savvy deconstruction can be found in his suggestion for reworking the perpetually under-achieving property of Supergirl. (*9) To Millar, the weakness of the character was that she duplicated far too much of the Superman mythos without adding anything that was entertainingly unique of her own. (*10) Rejecting the all-American hero-worship of her older cousin, which had seen Supergirl cast as a perennial stand-in and cheering section, Millar suggested that she be presented as a more “normal” individual;

“…. think about it. You are one of the two most powerful people in the galaxy … but you still don’t get recognition, you’re #2, at least, because you’re a woman and the world is only interested in Superman … How would you feel? Bitter? Sad? Frustrated? … Now, I would be too filled up with bitterness to idolise Superman the way she does … I think it would be far more interesting if she …. really lashed out at Superman, trued to outdo him constantly, beat him to the scene of the crime, may move to Metropolis and operate by stealing his turf, maybe even turn against the people who rejected her …”. (*11)

It might be thought that Millar’s take on what it is to be a typical human being was somewhat jaundiced. But speculation about why he might imagine so fiercely resenting another’s pre-eminence belongs in a different type of book. What’s important here is that his take on Supergirl is far more energetic and compelling than anything that DC has launched into the market since the original version of the character was killed off in 1986. (*12) What’s more, it’s further evidence that Millar’s objection to Byrne’s Superman wasn’t grounded in a reactionary approach to the superbook. Indeed, his new raison d’etre for Supergirl would mark her out as anything but a bland marketing knock-off of a fixed-in-stone icon. As such, Millar showed that his talent for a hypeable, headline-grabbing reinvention was in place before he’d sold his first script. For what could be more guaranteed to attract the publicity-raising ire of old-school readers than such a transgressive version of a well-loved, if commercially-underappreciated, figure?

All deconstructions are inevitably subjective affairs, of course; there’s no way to evaluate their capacity for success in the marketplace short of releasing them into it. But these early examples of Millar’s gift for high concept were at the very least concise, energetic, ingenious and snarefull. They neither over-complicated how a character’s appeal might be reframed or retreated back into pipe-before-the-fire nostalgia. They also presented a set-up which was open to a considerable number of different approaches, and which, accordingly, wouldn’t necessarily run out of steam once it become familiar to a readership . As easy as it is to sniff at such adolescent thought experiments, the superbook industry has consistently found it immensely difficult to generate their like. By contrast, Millar’s own superhero titles have proven themselves to be remarkably successful. There are those who’d prefer to define his Millarworld properties as little but a cynic’s pandering to an uncritical audience. But if that’s so, then why have so few others managed to even begin to match his success with them?

Next: one last look at Millar’s pre-history in fandom, with a look at his even-then marked capacity for inciting controversy, presenting mixed messages, and adopting a laddish take on Stan Lee’s Soapbox persona.


*1:- It will show how highly regarded the series was in its time that Millar’s fellow nominees were Ed Brubaker, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore and Greg Rucka. Sadly never collected together in any substantial and collected form, Millar’s stories for the series surely deserve an appropriate edition?

*2 Superman: The Animated Series premiered in 1996 and ran for 3 series and 51 episodes. Its last new episode appeared in 2000, and the comic series followed it into extinction in 2002. A shame, given that it was nearly always superior to any of the mainstream Superman titles of the time.

*3 pg 42, No-Man’s Land, FA#102, May 1988

*4 ibid

*5 pg 50, NML, FA#94, January 1986

*6 pg 42, No-Man’s Land, FA#102, May 1988

*7 ibid

*8 idid

*9 pg 48, NML, FA 96, May 1986

*10 pg 50, NML, FA#94, January 1986

*11 pg 48, NML, FA 96, May 1986

*12 In Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, 1986, by Marv Wolfman, George Perez et al

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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:

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