A Superhero for the Reader’s Sake:

Shameless? Part 10

Continued from last week.

But even the most experienced and gifted of writers would struggle to make a success of The Saviour. It was far too ambitious and complex a project. In mixing so many genres, tones, themes, plot-threads and characters, Millar had inadvertently created an unsalvageable series. Only a savage hacking away of his scripts prior to their being illustrated could have saved the book, and that’s exactly what Millar did when he rebooted the property as 2004′s American Jesus. (*1) Between The Saviour’s inchoate and overstuffed scripts and the determined economy of his later Millarworld titles would lie decades of trial-and-error.

Beyond the fundamental problem of not making sense, the greatest casualty of Millar’s earliest style was the superheroic content of his work. His most successful comics have nearly always been grounded in the traditions of the genre, and yet The Saviour was only superficially a superhero book. Speaking to Skidmore in 1989′s FA#110, Millar even went so far as to suggest that The Saviour’s status as a reprehensible version of Superman had been a purely commercial decision;

“(The Saviour’s) really about the decline of the Eighties. I just felt as if I had to make it more palatable for an audience, and a superhero seemed to be the perfect way of doing so.” (*2)

It was a somewhat disingenuous comment, since, as we’ve seen, the comic’s roots lay in a proposed reworking of Bill Parker and C. C. Beck’s Captain Marvel. Yet it was also a rare example of Millar stating that he’d used the trappings of the superhero as little more than fan-bait. It’s a argument which he tends to present in a more enthusiastic and less cynical light;

“I just think that if you put a superhero in something and it instantly becomes more interesting … if I can do a story about a guy going to the shops and buying a loaf of bread, it’s not that exciting. But a guy in a cape going and doing it? Then I’m immediately, like, why does he want bread? Because it’s interesting. I just think there’s no movie that could not be improved by having Spider-Man in there somewhere.” (*3)

On occasion, Millar has expressed a yet more substantial faith in the super-book’s worth. Even more than being inherently fascinating, it seems, “superhero books are what comics do best”. (*4) Matched to such a disputable conviction is a more personal reason for his preferred subject matter, as he explained to Richard Johnson;

“Superhero comics also gave me my comics stiffy as a kid in the early eighties and are the reason I’m working in the business, so it’s probably a means of feeding my inner ten year too.” (*5)

The call of that inner child has proven to be remarkably influential. As Millar told Liat Clark;

“The first thing I did with a big royalty cheque was buy Christopher Reeve’s cape and it’s still hanging up in my house. Most people would buy a car and I bought Superman’s cape” (*6)

That mix of a clear, if hardly uncontentious, view of the genre’s strengths with a powerful affection for its subject matter has inspired Millar’s most substantial achievements. Yet the simple presence of a superhero in his work has never offered any guarantee of quality. In The Saviour, the satanic lead’s super-powers are largely peripheral to the plot’s unfolding. Had The Saviour been presented as a ordinary if indomitable lead or a powerful magician, little would have been lost. As such, Millar’s preoccupation with costumes and super-powers distracts from what seem to be the narrative’s more central concerns. Instead of being fully integrated into the story, the intermittent presence of a flying and all-mighty protagonist often seems to have been dropped into events for the eye-catching sake of doing so. In short, The Saviour isn’t a story about a super-person so much as one in which a super-person is occasionally dunked. By contrast, the excising of the superheroic content from the likes of Kick Ass or Superior would leave little of a story to be told. There the generic conventions and the narrative itself are impossible to unravel one from the other, and a willing suspension of disbelief becomes all the more possible.

Yet we know that Millar had considered loading up The Saviour with more of the super-book’s conventions. He’d thought of giving Faeragel a secret identity, for example, but rejected the idea as being “a bit much”. (*7) It’s a decision that leaves The Saviour’s public identity as humanity’s supposed champion feeling like even more of an unmixed conceit. With so little of the genre’s traditions on display, what ought to be an essential component of the narrative stands out instead as a grand folly. As a deliberate and obvious pastiche of Millar’s beloved Superman, The Saviour does undeniably express a certain fannish playfulness. Sadly, that can’t be mistaken for a satisfying story. But to the superhero enthusiast, the reversal of expectations that The Saviour embodies can be both intriguing and enjoyable. In the place of the Man Of Steel’s exaggerated physique and skin-hugging costume, the Saviour is shown as a physically unprepossessing dandy, dressed, as Daniel Vallely once explained, in “… a suit and (an) old Jack-The-Ripper-type cape, with a bit of chain …” (*8) In that, The Saviour tapped into the super-book’s tradition of associating evil with individuals who lack the traditional markers of broadshouldered masculinity. After all, a suit has always been an encumbrance to be torn off by the likes of Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne as they race off to combat crime. A symbol of conformity, irrelevancy, snobbery and repression, a well-tailored suit is anything but a marker of potency and principle in a superhero adventure.

Added to the functional elegance of Vallely’s costume design was Millar’s audacious decision to give The Saviour the face of Jonathan Ross. A then-surprisingly young and quick-quipping English chat-show host, Ross had risen to prominence in the second half of the Eighties. To appropriate his appearance for a baby-slaughtering Antichrist was an outrageously unfair business. Not for the last time, Millar’s desire to make waves and attract attention would outflank both good taste and common sense. Firstly, Millar’s stunt-casting relied on an unkind juxtaposition between Ross’s lack of obvious athleticism and the superhero’s typically square-jawed machismo. It was, at its heart, an unnecessarily cruel joke. Secondly, as Millar was remarkably open in stating, Ross had been chosen to represent the corruption of traditional community values during the Thatcherite era. As the writer told Gordon Rennie in 1990, Ross had “seemed to embody that whole Yuppie thing…” (*9);

“I think it’s become trendy to be greedy, and I think that’s become embodied by the whole yuppie thing. I think one of the main components of Satanism is greed. It’s what draws people into it, and I thought that tied in nicely with what’s happening in society right now, these false gods that everyone’s worshipping …. ” (*10)

It was a disastrously heavy symbolic weight to load up onto the likeness of a middle-ranking television personality. While Ross might have made for a convincing if playful demon, he was all-too-little a fish to suggest the perniciousness of Neoconservative ideology. To be a brash and successful suit-wearing celebrity was hardly an indicator of demonic evil, and even those who were profoundly irritated by Ross’s wideboyisms were unlikely to associate him with the assault upon the Welfare State. Yet Millar repeatedly associated The Saviour with the likes of private education, the selling off of council houses and the destruction of the NHS. Such scenes only accentuated the mismatch between Ross’s features and the sins they were meant to represent. The fact that The Saviour was also a super-man only furthered the sense of confusion and underachievement.

To be continued.


*1: “American Jesus is quite sophisticated. There’s a three issue story arc which really followed a tight choice of plot with a real sense of exploration that just really works.” – Millar to Alex Fitch, Panel Borders Radio Show, posted 4/11/12 – http://archive.org/details/PanelBordersMillarWorld*2:- pg 26, ‘The Hype Article’, Interview By Martin Skidmore, FA #110, March 1989

*3:- Millar to Alex Fitch, Panel Borders Radio Show, posted 4/11/12 – http://archive.org/details/PanelBordersMillarWorld

*4:- From Richard Johnson’s interview with Millar, Waiting For Tommy XXI, at http://www.dynamicforces.com/htmlfiles/tommy21.html Without meaning any disrespect to Millar’s many other interviewers, it’s by far the best interview of the man that I’ve ever read.

*5:- Ibid

*6:- Mark Millar Q & A, 7/10/2012, Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-10/17/mark-millar-interview

*7:- pg 26, ‘The Hype Article’, Interview By Martin Skidmore, FA #110, March 1989

*8:- pg 27, Ibid

*9:- Interview with Gordon Rennie, Speakeasy #108, April 1990

*10:- pg 26, ‘The Hype Article’, Interview By Martin Skidmore, FA #110, March 1989

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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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