The History of the World?:

Shameless? Part 9

Continued from last week.

But despite its barnstorming high concept, The Saviour was, as Skidmore conceded, “hard to explain” (*1). Some of this was caused by the need to keep key plot-reversals under wraps. But most of the problem stemmed from Millar’s over-ambitious and abstruse storytelling. If the broadest sweep of events was largely easy to grasp, then anything more specific could be frustratingly hard to decipher with any precision. As such, the succinct plot summary given by the Trident editor to prozine Amazing Heroes in 1990 presented a far clearer picture of events than Millar ever managed on the page;

“The first book saw the Saviour gathering pieces of the Devil’s Bible, which is the book giving the hidden names of God. Once the name is known, God can be summoned simply by speaking the name but Saviour first wants to know the whereabouts of God’s three personas before completing his plans.” (*2)

Much of that could, with an undue effort, be deduced in a general sense from the comics themselves. But the neophyte scripter’s skills were so rudimentary that it was repeatedly hard to follow what was occurring on a panel-to-panel basis. To take but one vital example, the Devil’s Bible was undoubtedly a promising conceit around which to organize a plot, and yet Millar kept referring to it by different names. By unexplained turns the Grimiore, or the Corpus Mundi, or the Black Bible, or The Book Of Azrael, its function remained partially obscure and always perplexing. A prime example of the kind of big dumb, eye-catching idea that Millar’s always retained a weakness for, the Devil’s Bible revealed the predetermined future of The Saviour’s universe, containing as it did the “history of the world all in one book. Everybody’s life story before they were even born. (*3) A potentially fascinating idea, and yet one which fatally reduced every player in the book to a mindless automaton doomed by God’s will to whatever fate they’d been ascribed. Little drains the drama more from a tale than the sense that no character’s actions are – or ever will be  – their own.

But perhaps predestination might explain why none of the cast except for The Saviour ever chose to read the sections of the Black Bible that they had access to. For it’s hard to otherwise imagine why its various keepers would have ignored the opportunity to learn something of the world’s fate, if not their own. It’s a major flaw which Millar’s script skirts over rather than explaining. To do so would have undermined his ability to keep the terrible fates of most of his characters secret from the reader. Faced with the choice between having his cast behave in a convincing way and the chance to present a series of spectacularly gruesome ends, the young Millar opted for the former. In doing so, he certainly succeeded in hiding the fact that the deluded character posing as Jesus was anything but. Yet that came at the price of thoroughly undermining the book’s believability. Having the Saviour mock the would-be Messiah for not examining the prophetic pages in his possession only helped draw attention to the illogic at the heart of the story;

The Saviour: “Pity you didn’t read the pages you had. There was a whole chapter about you. It would have made very interesting reading …” (*4)

In such an entirely unconvincing way did Millar delay revealing that his supposed Messiah was in fact the insane angel Freragel, who’d been expelled from Heaven after raping, murdering and dismembering a beautiful young mortal woman. (*5) Even today, Millar’s not one for letting logic stand in the way of a race towards a supposedly shocking reveal, and holding back the true identity of the fallen and wingless Freragel allowed him to arrive at a climax marked both by Devilish urination and angelic crucifixion. Yet the book-closing spectacle relies entirely upon a reader-cheating plot which sacrifices sense for effect. At Millar’s coming best, the rules of the craft would be far more effectively held to, although at times the exceptions would seem far more the rule than the breaking of it.

But if that aspect of The Saviour reads as contrived and baffling, at least some sense can be made of it. Other key aspects of the book could only be understood through the contents of articles and interviews elsewhere in the comics press. The Saviour’s plan to “unite the Christian religions of the world into a super-church ruled by the Masonic cult from the Vatican”, for example, only emerged in a brief 1990 article by Frank Plowright (*6). To his credit, Millar has often admitted that his youthful self lacked the basic skills to turn intriguing ideas into satisfying drama;

“… I really had no idea what I was doing. I was making it up as I was going along and there was no real structure or anything” (*7)

Of course, it’s entirely understandable that the inexperienced Millar would have had to learn as he worked, and making mistakes in public is never an easy business. Success was very much not something which came quickly or effortlessly. Despite The Saviour gathering its own share of praise, as we’ve seen, Millar was very rarely mentioned as one of the UK’s leading writers during the period. His was a star that was only just beginning to rise, and of the names of 14 creators which appeared in Trident’s early advertising, his was second-to-last. Grouped alphabetically amongst the less familiar writers and artists at the bottom of the page, it stood beneath the highlighted likes of Neil Gaiman, Eddy Campbell and Grant Morrison. (*8) It’s certainly telling that the latter failed to reference his friend when offering a litany of leading British comics writers in 1990’s Speakeasy #107 (*9). Instead, Morrison playfully listed “Pat Mills, Pete Milligan, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano” when discussing an American belief that UK writers were more or less interchangeable, and perhaps even the same person) (*10). Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the end of the Nineties that Millar would start to be generally lauded as much for his craft as for his audacity. For all his ever-obvious ambition, the Millar of The Saviour was barely an apprentice, and, though he’d soon be catapulted to the heights of scripting the likes of 2000AD’s Judge Dredd, an apprentice is how he’d stay for many years.

But to discuss his initial weaknesses isn’t to mock those earliest efforts. Rather, it’s the only way to illustrate how remarkably far he would come as a craftsman. In that, Skidmore’s recollections of the Scotsman’s initial strengths and shortcomings are the best evidence we have for establishing a base line from which to describe Millar’s future progress. Many of the positive qualities which initially drew Skidmore’s attention have already been discussed here. Additionally, he praised Millar’s “grasp of the page”, and in particular his skill with page-turners. (*10) Beyond that, Millar was a “talented beginner” who had “a lot to learn”, and Skidmore, who was always keen to accentuate that he’d only “played a tiny part in Mark’s career”, drew from Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics in his advice to the younger man (*11/12);

“The Saviour #1 was the script I spent most time on … I persuaded him to shift the scenes around, as I thought he was mistiming revelations and wasting some of the impact. He was also not thinking in terms of comics – he’d scripted it panel by panel, and one panel had The Saviour saying something and taking a drink and speaking again … I also advised him to make the simplest sketches of the pages he was specifying, even if they were no more than stick figures, simply so he would visualise the panels to some degree to make sure they could work. (*13)”

Skidmore also suggested that Grant Morrison may well have been a key influence in Millar’s early progress, given that the former was already “some steps further along in his own stunning development”. (*14) Elements of The Saviour do seem likely to have been influenced by Morrison’s Doom Patrol in particular. In its final issue, for example, Millar adds a sequence of doom-portending Forteana which seem to mimic Morrison’s method of creating unease and anticipation through a knowing procession of weird and unsettling occurrences. (Of course, it’s a technique which was used by a host of writers before, including Alan Moore and Stephen King, but Morrison’s absurdist-horror approach seems to have had a particular impact on his younger friend.) Additionally, we know that Millar sought out the advice, and briefly inspired the patronage, of senior 2000AD and Batman scripter Alan Grant during the last half of 1989. (*15) With that and the experience that his work for both Trident and Fleetway was bringing, it’s no surprise that Millar’s scripts became somewhat more focused and assured as 1990 continued. Indeed, Nigel Kitching, who’d assumed the artist’s duties on the comic with its second issue, has said that Millar’s “…. scripts were always very professional … everything you needed was there and it all worked as far as the artwork was concerned.” (*16)

Yet to list the fundamental problems with Millar’s writing for The Saviour does help establish just how limited his skills initially were. The plot was overloaded and events were often apparently added simply because they seemed interesting. As the narrative sprawled out to include a rebellion in Apartheid South Africa and a first appearance of American superpeople, existing characters and threads would suffer for development. With no effective opposition to The Saviour, the book lacked drama and variety. Characters would go unidentified, or even possess confusingly similar names and identities. Flashbacks wouldn’t be identified as such, with Millar seemingly desperate to avoid using captions. Establishing shots and the clear identification of locations were often missing too. Adolescent humor could undermine satire and all-too-frequent gross-outs subvert a sense of accumulating horror. The attempt to portray the life of an underclass of gangsters, con-men, prostitutes and poverty-stricken victims floundered on what seems to have been a complete unfamiliarity with any such characters or situations.

In the midst of this consistent underdevelopment, only Millar’s invention and energy matched with the story-driving skills of artists Vallely and Kitching maintained a sense of purpose and forward momentum. Though the final two chapters of the run saw Millar producing scripts which were far more streamlined and effective, the impression left by the series as a whole is one of promise largely untempered by know-how and experience.

Even in the book’s very last issue, Millar found himself unable to stop digressing into showy and distracting sideshows, with the appearance of the likes of a zombie John Lennon appearing to offer little to the story at hand. Indeed, Millar even managed to present a corpse whose bullet wounds bore no relation to those which had been inflicted by Mark Chapman on December 8th, 1980. Even small and inessential details repeatedly accumulated in The Saviour, serving as they did to obscure its brighter qualities.

To be continued.

All scans are by Nigel Kitching and Mark Millar, except for the Trident Comics ad.

Notes

*1:- Martin Skidmore, as interviewed by J. Collier, pg 194, Amazing Heroes #157, January 15 1989

*2:- Martin Skidmore, as interviewed by Frank Plowright, pg 100, Amazing Heroes Preview Special #11, Fall 1990

*3:- pg 12, The Saviour #5, Trident Comics, October 1990

*4:-ibid

*5:- In Millar’s script for 1998’s JLA: Paradise Lost, the angelic Zauriel falls in love with a notably similar mortal woman, although his choices don’t involve rape or murder. In that, it’s very much the flip-side of Freragel’s story.

*6:- Frank Plowright, pg 104, Amazing Heroes Preview Special #10, February 1990

*7:- Interviewed by Alex Fitch on the Panel Borders radio show, “Millarworld”, 4/11/12 http://archive.org/details/PanelBordersMillarWorld

*8:- As on page 2 of FA #109, March 1989

*9:- Grant Morrison, Drivel, pg 107, Speakeasy #107, March, 1990:- of course, all of the writers mentioned had been published across the pond, while Millar, who longed to write for American publishers, was just starting to become established in the UK.

*10:- Mind you, Morrison missed out on both John Wagner and John Smith too, amongst others.

*11:- Interview with the author, 2011

*12:- ibid

*13:- Alan Moore’s “Writing For Comics” had first been serialised across three issues of the Skidmore-edited FA – 92-94 – in the second half of 1985. It’s currently available in collected form from Avatar Press.

*14:- Interview with the author, 2011

*15:- Ibid -It’s a method that Millar has apparently constantly used and vigorously adapted ever since. According to Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass: Creating The Comic Making The Movie, pg 6, Titan Books, 2010, his method since 2001 involves beginning a script with a single detailed sketch of a key moment. Working at that brings the writer a strong grasp of both the event and the story as a whole. Once that’s all clear in Millar’s mind, he’ll begin on the script itself.

*16:-Alan Grant interview, Judge Dredd Megazine, March 2008 (Interviewer pending because I stupidly mislaid my copy, for shame.)

*17:- Interview of Nigel Kitching by Edward Berridge from 24/5/04 at: http://www.2000adreview.co.uk/features/interviews/2004/kitching/kitching2.shtml

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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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