Continued from last week.
There’s a sense in which The Saviour helps establish the limits of deconstruction. For Millar stripped away so many of the genre’s traditions that it ceased to be much of a super-book at all. The presence of a parody of Superman in what was fundamentally a hybrid of horror and political satire created expectations that would never be fulfilled. If The Saviour was the book’s super-villain, then where was the superhero to oppose him? If his supposed super-powers had helped enable his terrible rise to fame and power, then where was the noble counter-force to emasculate him and restore order? Such inevitable assumptions only accentuated the complete lack of effective opposition to Millar’s Antichrist. At the heart of a book that promised to be about a super-man, there was a complete absence of compelling conflict. Prospective messiahs were slaughtered in the crib, fallen angels nailed to jerrybuilt crosses, Apartheid overthrown without the breaking of sweat; even had Millar eventually introduced the counter-weight of a heavenly avenger, it would have been far too late for the comic’s well being. Six issues of a fiendish evil utterly outclassing every single opponent inevitably created a sense of torpor at the narrative’s heart.
Elsewhere, odd inversions of the super-book’s conventions seemed more baffling than intriguing. The Saviour himself might be only playing the role of a superhero, but that disguise was in fact a demon’s secret identity. It’s a clever idea, and yet there was no-one for him to hide his role from. So entirely successful was the deception that there was never a hint that he’d be discovered. Indeed, there seemed to be a great many acolytes and opponents who knew exactly who he was, and yet the truth of his existence never once seemed to leak out. As such, his grand deceit brought with it neither tension or the illumination of character. The traditional relationship between the superhero’s costumed persona and the privacy of their everyday existence can be used to illuminate character and its goals, methods, limitations and values. But The Saviour was nothing but a disguise which couldn’t be challenged. Even if it had been, it’s hard to tell how the Antichrist’s exposure could have hurt him. The defeat of God was dependent only upon his possession of the Devil’s Bible, and that was to be achieved through power rather than secrecy.
There are those who find the very idea of the secret identity absurd, and yet, if it’s raised on the page, it needs to be put to use. For all of the challenges which its over-familiarity brings, it’s a useful way to investigate the tension between passivity and action, conformity and daring, group membership and individual conscience. None of this would have seemed so debilitating had The Saviour not been so obviously associated with a genre where the super-person’s disguise is of such importance.
In having isolated the super-book’s capacity for ultra-violence and spectacle from the rest of the genre’s traditions, The Saviour did at least help suggest what the irreducible minimum of the super-book is. And if there were serious problems with Millar’s deconstruction, then his obvious enthusiasm for dark and disturbing superhero tales did still transmit a powerful sense of exuberance. We’ve already discussed how many of his earliest experiences of the super-book were characterized by the pleasures of shock and transgression. As such, the idea of a horror-tinged superhero book seems to have been less of a conscious innovation on Millar’s part and more of a taken-for-granted preference. Even before he could read, Millar acquired a taste for tales of costumed crime fighters flavored with a dash of the eerie. As he would write in his touching 2013 eulogy for Carmine Infantino, who’d been DC’s publisher during the period;
“The covers were kind of creepy in the Seventies, that era when superheroes were slipping and Kirby were doing The Demon … Even Superman and Batman seemed to come up against vampires or voodoo masters ….” (*1)
Millar’s pre-school days had coincided with the ongoing and yet dramatic collapse in sales for comics in general. The return to prominence of the super-book in the late Fifties and early Sixties had briefly seemed capable of resisting this decline. It was a hope that soon proved futile. Attempts to reach a broader audience in the first half of the Seventies involved a desperate and occasionally invigorating policy of hybridizing superhero titles with trends in popular culture. With the partial liberalization of comic’s self-censorship code came the opportunity to tap into the commercial vibrancy of horror as a genre during the period. So beguiled was Millar by DC’s line of occult-tinged super-books that he’d later spend almost a decade trying to sell a Phantom Stranger series to the company. (As we’ll see, it was a futile and disillusioning process.) (*2) Nor was it just National’s more magic-based characters of the period that he gained a taste for. Though rarely one to praise Marvel’s post-Sixties product, Millar has repeatedly expressed fondness for both the vampire-slayer Blade and the flame-headed, demon-like Ghost Rider. Both would be characters he’d feature in his 2009 run on Ultimate Comics: Avengers, while he’d been scheduled to write a never-to-appear Blade book in the middle of the same decade.
Millar would even argue that the graphic violence in The Saviour was merely a more explicit way of representing the super-book’s inherent brutality. As such, the book wasn’t so much an extreme departure as a natural development of the genre’s central traditions. As he told Martin Skidmore in 1989:
“I think that’s a side of superheroics we’ve seen in comics but never really understood. Jack Kirby had people getting punched through walls and things. It’s just really what would happen if those things happened. If there’s just one superhero and everyone else is normal, it’s going to be quite horrific. Just one punch and their heads fall off ….” (*3)
Yet Millar was being disingenuous in suggesting that the implications of the superhero as a weapon of mass destruction hadn’t been “understood”. A great many of the deconstructed titles which he’d adored during the Eighties had discussed that very scenario. It was a theme which regularly appeared in the work of Millar’s beloved Alan Moore. In Watchmen, for example, there’s a clear distinction drawn between the god-like Doctor Manhattan’s capacity for devastation and that possessed by the more typically human members of the cast. (Little brings the point home more clearly than Dave Gibbon’s shot of a colossal Manhattan “pacifying” North Vietnam all on his own.) Similarly, Moore and John Totleben’s Miracleman #15 had presented an unprecedentedly ferocious and appalling superhero battle, in which central London was raised and thousands upon thousands of its citizens slaughtered. If the idea of the superhero as the fifth horseman hadn’t yet become wearisomely ubiquitous, it was most certainly a well-established genre trope by the late Eighties.
But if any one comic book seems to have been central to the superheroic form and content of The Saviour, then it’s Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law. Millar himself has declared it to be “pretty much my favourite comic of all time … No series has influenced me more”. (*4) In it, Mills and O’Neill depicted a terrifying bleak and bloody future in which utterly corrupted superhumans inflict the most terrible damage upon a near-future San Francisco. Not even rape was absent from the crimes associated with the comic’s clearly-recognizable takes on the genre’s most prominent superheroes. A blithely iconoclastic assault on both the superhero and American capitalism, Marshal Law’s fusion of hyper-violence, absurdity and condemnatory politics clearly informed The Saviour. What’s more, it’s an approach which still lingers, influencing as it obviously comics such as Jupiter’s Legacy and Nemesis.
However, Millar would soon make a point of swearing off the brand of forcibly censorious politics that he’d infused The Saviour with. Though the more radical aspects of his beliefs would continue to play a major part in his writing, the unfettered loathing for the right which The Saviour expressed would never be consistently returned to. As Millar explained to Gordon Rennie in 1990:
“At the beginning it seemed really radical, at least to me. I started it in 1987 when all that Yuppie stuff was in full swing then, and it was written as a reaction against that. Now everyone hates yuppies. Anyway, I now think it’s a bit too Pat Mills.” (*5)
Ironically, “Pat Mills” would briefly become shorthand for work which expressed an obvious excess of deeply-held commitment. Talking about his 1990 prison drama “Killer”, Millar said;
“It’s very hard for writers to come up with things they feel sincere about every two weeks. It was OK for me because I only wrote a 6-part thing, but I would have found it difficult to be like Pat Mills.” (*6)
Yet Mills’s influence would often seem to be there in Millar’s work. In the likes of “Chester Williams: American Cop”, from 1996′s Swamp Thing #165, and the debut issue of 2013 Jupiter’s Legacy, it would even appear to be as strong as anything in The Saviour. Much of that was undoubtedly the inevitable consequence of the partial and yet significant overlap between the two men’s politics. Whatever their differences, both Mills and Millar have associated themselves with radical rather than reactionary stances. And so, when 2013 brought news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, Millar wrote that the event had “opened up a lot of old wounds. Wounds we thought had scabbed over and healed but clearly hadn’t”. (*7) His was a hatred of the Conservative-led transformation of the UK in the Eighties which was rooted in personal experience as well as ideological conviction.
To be continued.
*1:- “A Few Thoughts On Carmine Infantino”, Mark Millar, 5/4/2013, http://forums.millarworld.tv/index.php?/topic/102825-a-few-thoughts-on-carmine-infantino/
*2:- eg: The Column #3, 9/9/02 -http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=14182
*3:- pg 27, The Hype Article, interview with Martin Skidmore, FA #110, 1989
*4:- Mark Millar on Twitter to Pat Mills, April 28, 2013 https://twitter.com/mrmarkmillar/status/328481193144229888
*5:- pg 108, Mark Millar: Apocalypse Now!, interview w. Gordon Rennie, Speakeasy 108, 1990
*6:- pg 49, The Millar’s Tale, interview w. Gordon Rennie, Fantazia 12, 1991
*7:- 8th April, Millarworld, Mark Millar speaking about Thatcher’s funeral