Continued from last week.
Shameless? will inevitably reference the way in which Mark Millar has discussed his own work. As such, it’s worth noting that his distinctive public persona turns out not to have been the invention of a rapaciously press-hungry pro. As his contributions to FA show, much of what he’d later present under the brand name of “Mark Millar” was in place long before he’d sold his first strip. Contradictory and contentious, brag-happy and garrulous, conciliatory, self-depreciating, opinionated and endlessly enthusiastic; Millar’s poorly-blended and yet highly-functional set of attention-snaring strategies were attracting a small if regrettable measure of notoriety even in late 1985. In FA 94, for example, he responded scornfully to another fan’s desire to bring back the recently killed-off Supergirl:
I find Supergirl one of the embarrassing figures in the Superman legend. She’s a poor copy of Superman. This is silly, anyway; when one thinks of a powerful character with tremendous strength, very often involved in super-powered brawls. For a woman to try and mimic this is, well, ridiculous. I’m not anti-woman’s lib, nor am I anti-superheroine, but I am anti-female counterparts. (*1)
Few of the 25 correspondents in the following edition of FA choose to respond, although a couple labelled Millar’s words “offensive” and “pointless”. (One questioned whether the letter should have been published at all.) (*2) But the mix of a perhaps-pointed general silence with such fierce criticism brought a swift apology from the young Millar. To his credit, he expressed remorse for the offense caused by his “ill-mannered” and “spiteful” letter, before going on to explain himself in what would become exceptionally familiar terms. Firstly, he declared that his “cheap kick” of a strategy had been “an attempt to stir up a reaction”. Secondly, he emphasized that his words in no way reflected his own deeply-held convictions:
I want to make it clear …. That I am not a sexual bigot. I detest any kind of bigot, whether he (or she!) be a racial, a sexual or a religious bigot… (*3)
Quite how Millar managed to opt for a misogyny he despised in order to “stir up” a response went unexplained. Yet the incident does illustrate how Millar’s long-standing habit of attracting attention through pointedly pond-rippling statements began very early indeed. Similarly, it shows that the conflict between the content of some of Millar’s writing on the one hand, and his public declarations of principle on the other, is nothing new either. (*4)
In itself, the teenager’s faux pas is neither here or there. There’s all too few of us whose past words couldn’t in one way or another be used to damn us, and that’s especially true where youthful exuberance in a relatively private environment is concerned. But what’s fascinating is the presence of traits which continue to characterize both Millar’s work and his public utterances to this day. Some of his statements and scripts do undeniably present a compassionately liberal point-of-view. But others are marked by uncomfortably careless and even actively dubious social representations. Indeed, projects such as The Ultimates have featured work by Millar which is both radical and reactionary all at the same time. Even in 2012, he presented his readers with Secret Service’s viciously ill-informed portrayal of the seemingly unworthy poor, while Kick Ass II contained a protracted, prurient rape scenario which contributed nothing to the story but unpleasantness. In the light of the latter, there’s no little irony to be found in the following exchange between Millar and Grant Morrison from the interview of the latter in 1989’s FA#109;
Millar: “Well, sexual assault seems to be DC policy these days.”
Morrison: “That wicked tongue will land you in trouble some day.” (*5)
Sexual assault, of course, would soon be featuring in Millar’s own The Saviour, and its like would return over and over again in his work. Neither its frequent presence or indeed Millar’s “wicked tongue” would cause the writer anything more than the most temporary of difficulties. Yet the central problems remain: why is it that Millar’s work and words have regularly contained such contentious material, and why is it that he fails to grasp the disjunction between much of what he obviously believes and the least edifying aspects of his scripts? For an ex-student of politics, Millar seems, at best, remarkably causal at times when it comes to shaping the meaning of much of his work.
Yet his appearances in the pages of FA also show aspects of Millar which were and are far more appealing and considerably less perplexing. His capacity to reduce a comic book property to an inspiring kernel of ideas has already been discussed. It’s also hard not to be touched by the devotion he expressed towards particular characters and creators. His forcefully loyal defense of Alan Moore’s part in The Killing Joke , for instance, reflects a lifelong fondness for the Bard Of Northampton and his work on Millar’s part. (*6)
Alongside such displays of a fan’s knowledge and a would-be writer’s potential can also be seen Millar’s attempts to forge a public identity for himself. With his first stab having sunk under the combined weight of its blokeishness and disdain, his subsequent contributions adopted less immediately alienating approaches. By the July of 1988, he seems to have settled on a recognizable mix of forthrightness and self-mockery. On the one hand, he appears to have been strongly influenced by Stan Lee’s Soapbox persona, fusing as Lee did a measure of self-interested outspokenness with a playful, fan-friendly send-up of himself. And so, in FA#104, Millar refers to “sitting chomping biscuits and slurping tea the other day with my young friend Alan Moore (who’s) worshipped me since childhood …”. (*7) It’s a clearly absurd approach which seems designed to help Millar puncture the worst of any incoming criticism with a mischievous wink and chuckle. Though the more conciliatory aspects of this voice would dramatically diminish during the first half of the Nineties, the approach as a whole would be carried through to the present day. For all but Millar diehards, it was a front which lacked the shameless charm of Stan Lee’s High Sixties hucksterism. Yet it would enable Millar to engage with the marketplace in a remarkably frank way which also offered the escape hatch of a cry of only kidding, it’s just silly old me! That may well explain why Millar has changed so little of it over the decades. In the letters column of February 1990’s The Saviour, for example, he wrote:
Martin Skidmore asked me to edit the letters page which sounded like a mammoth task, since I already write this book and contribute work to just about every other comic in Britain these days. I felt that reading the vast numbers of adoring letters would be impossible for even a demi-God such as myself, but it turned out to be rather easy since we only received four letters. (*8)
Twenty years later and the very same tone and content can be seen in his guest editorial for 2010’s Wizard 228, in which Millar once again nakedly celebrates his own achievements while simultaneously presenting himself as a somewhat vulnerable man-of-the-fans;
Because I wasn’t busy enough, I thought it would be kind of great to make my books even later and take some time to edit Wizard magazine for a month. Why? Because I love Wizard. I’ve bought every issue since #1, and it’s everything I like about comics. (*9)
The intervening years had obviously shown Millar that there was no need to adapt the identity he’d assumed before becoming a professional writer. But then, as we’ve seen, much of what has helped him become such a conspicuous success can be traced back to the period before he passed from the ranks of the dedicated reader to those of the paid creator.
Next: The Saviour.
First off, sincere thanks go to Marco, who Tweets as @AikidoMarcoFord, for generously answering a plea I sent out on Twitter a while ago for Mark Millar’s contribution to the letters page of 1986′s Fantasy Advertiser #94.
*1:- page 50, No-Man’s Land, FA#94, December 1985
*2:- page 42 & page 57, No-Man’s Land, FA #95, February 1986
*3:- page 48, No Man’s Land, FA#96, May 1986
*4:- I’ll come to the clash between the principles Millar has constantly and sincerely expressed and the contents of some of his work in future chapters. However, it’s worth looking at the evidence of the understanding, or lack of it, that Millar has displayed of concepts such as ‘race’ and ‘sexism’. For any clash between his own sincere beliefs and the possible meanings of the representations in his work may come from a lack of theoretical understanding on his part. In short, Millar doesn’t seem to grasp the basics of the academic debate about representations, and appears to speak from an individual, anecdotal perspective instead. For example, for a disturbingly uninformed approach to sexism in comics, see Millar’s contribution to “Are American Comics Sexist”, by Vaneta Rogers, CBR, 28/9/2011. A loathing of sexism combined with a lack of knowledge about the basic formal debates about it will almost inevitably produce contradictions in one’s work.
Similarly, Millar’s undoubtedly sincere hatred of racism as presented in The Column of 31/03/03 at CBR is accompanied by the evidence that Millar appears to have known little at all about the social problem up until that point. To have been so shocked by the most fundamental facts about racism in 2002/3 raises serious questions about the gap that must have existed between Millar’s good intentions and his ability to express them in his writing prior to that point. But then, it also raises worrying questions about how race has been represented after that date too.
*5:- page 36, Grant Morrison Talks to Mark Millar, FA#109, January 1989
*6:- Page 43, No-Man’s Land, FA#104, July 1988
*8:- Page 2, “Britain’s Bounciest Letters”, The Saviour #2, February 1990, Trident Comics
*9:- Page 2, Letter From the Editor, Wizard #228, 2010