“A Sharp Fox, the Ultimate Huckster”:

Shameless? Part 12

Continued from last week.

“Half the country, and by that I mean living north of the M25, were victims of Thatcher’s modernisation program. My Dad lost his job when I was 15 and never worked again. Same with half the guys in the area I grew up in.” (*1)

It’s a familiar mix of feeling, principle and impetuosity. That the deeply unfortunate combination of personal tragedy and political conflict should have both scarred and radicalized Millar is entirely understandable. It would certainly be hard to challenge his belief that sections of the UK benefited disproportionately from the policies of Thatcher and her successors. Yet, as he so often does, Millar managed to reduce a complex political situation to a heartfelt and yet tactlessly over-simplified soundbite. For there were also millions of voters living south “of the M25” who repeatedly opposed that Conservative government, and millions there who suffered because of her policies.

Millar’s tendency towards passionate, sweeping political generalization is something we’ll encounter again and again. The same brew of conviction and rashness is there in the pages of The Saviour. Just as Millar managed to reduce the at-worst innocuous Jonathan Ross to a symbol of unadulterated rapacity, he presented every institution and individual who might be associated with Thatcher as irredeemably evil. Though there’s a surprising lack of politicians in The Saviour, the Antichrist is repeatedly shown advocating a host of New Right policies. If the spectacle of a demon arguing for the likes of private health insurance and Lottery cards wasn’t obvious enough, then Millar even depicted an in-vogue London nightclub posing as the front for the God-loathing Church Of Set. From the police to the priesthood and down even to the nay-saying doormen of discos, this was an entirely corrupt society.

But this indiscriminate depiction of the Thatcher regime reduced even the various members of Millar’s working class cast to the role of helpless and hopeless victims. Unlike Pat Mills, who has always made sure that his proletarian heroes can challenge the ruling classes, Millar’s supposedly typical individuals were passive, ignorant and atomized. For a radical critique of power, The Saviour shows no faith at all in the people’s ability to even grasp that they’re being lied to. As is so often true in the super-book, it’s the superhumans, or at least the religious super-beings, who will have to sort things out. Outside Millar’s North Lanarkshire door, there were schools and churches, trade unions and political parties and pressure groups dedicated to pursuing their own particular political agendas. But in The Saviour, there was nothing but the vague hope that God, or at least some supernatural Godly power, would put the world to rights.

As a result, Millar’s everyday citizens simply don’t count, for they exist solely to be persecuted. Even the most sympathetic of his mortal characters lack the ability to control anything of their fate. Linda, Millar’s modern-era Mary Magdalene, suffers through a hellish existence marked by parental neglect and unwilling prostitution only to end up buried alive with her father’s corpse. The most endearing and loving figure in the book, her journey from despair to slaughter only underlines how powerless and woebegone these character’s are. In the absence of God, even her best qualities lead her only to her doom. Inert, one-dimensional representations of entirely alienated lives, she and her fellow human beings function solely to suggest that salvation can’t be found in either individual or group action. In seeking to emphasize the tyranny of Thatcherism, Millar created a world in which no-one but superpowered figures had any hope at all of affecting their own destiny. At its heart, The Saviour is a protest book which insists that protest is useless, because the best that humankind can hope for is a noble overlord rather than an ignoble one.

But Millar’s belief that Thatcherism was an absolute evil does throw a more positive light on the book’s glut of hyper-violence. To him, the unregulated market was being deliberately imposed on the people as if it were “a successful, tangible God who will grant them anything they want…” (*2) The Saviour’s uber-violent parade of assaults, rapes, tortures and murders unambiguously represented Millar’s horror at what he understood to be a war against human decency. That’s not to say that he wasn’t simultaneously striving to generate as much attention as possible through the excessively violent shattering of taboos. For all that he once told Richard Wilson that he’d never set out to be “deliberately provocative”, it’s hard to believe that the opposite hasn’t been consistently true. (*3) If Alan Moore had used the superbook to investigate the violent consequences of power’s corruption, then Millar was going to run with the precedent and show a burning bonfire of priests for the sheer glee of the spectacle. If Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill had portrayed depraved “super-heroes” as rapists, then Millar was going to present The Saviour as a priest-sodomizing monster. For good and ill, the drive to fuse the eye-catchingly outrageous with the politically purposeful has characterized a huge degree of Millar’s work. But as John Romita Jr, Millar’s collaborator on Kick-Ass. has said;

“It’s all clever like a fox; he’s sharper than anybody gives him credit for, and he’s smarter and more adept at everyday life than anybody gives him credit for when does product like this. It’s not because he has anything other than a higher intention in his heart; he’s an ultimate huckster; he’s a P.T.Barnum with a lot more intellect, but people don’t give him that credit.” (*4)

Sadly for Millar, his shock tactics in The Saviour didn’t pay off. As we’ve already discussed, the narrative was bogged down rather than distinguished by adolescent-minded excess. The result was a title which failed to either shift a significant number of copies or attract a career-boosting degree of attention. (1990′s Speakeasy Awards placed him only as second-best newcomer.) America was in particular unmoved, and it was the major American publishers that he longed to work for. Even the ever-hypeful Millar would state that the book never shifted more than 5 000 copies of each issue, a total which Skidmore would suggest was more probably a few thousands too high for all but its debut appearance. (*5) Just as the appropriation of Jonathan Ross’s image failed to attract the press, so too did the presence of a huge degree of blood, gore and blasphemy. Though Skidmore recalled a small and negative article appearing in one of the British tabloids, it was a minor and passing concern.(*6) Instead, it was Trident’s publication of Grant Morrison and Paul Grist’s St Swithin’s Day which attracted the high-profile condemnation of The Sun and its “rent-a-quote Tory MP Teddy Taylor”. (*7) Frothing tabloid outrage over the book’s discussion of a planned assassination of Margaret Thatcher led to Trident shifting all 11500 copies in a single day. (*8)

Even Ross himself would swiftly end up losing track of Millar and his career. “It wasn’t great” was his judgement of The Saviour’s worth, and it would be another 17 years before Ross would come across a copy of Old Man Logan and realise that Millar had unexpectedly made something substantial of himself. (*9/10) For a very long time, it must have seemed as if the brief connection Millar had made with Ross would count for nothing. In that context, all seven chapters of The Saviour would have stood only as the second most successful appearance of Ross in a British comic book. (With Grant Morrison’s habit of always being several steps ahead of Millar at the time, Ross had been given a brief cameo in his and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith in 1988′s 2000AD Sci-Fi Special.) Yet with the sense of a fairytale which marks so much of Millar’s career, Millar and Ross would become reacquainted through Jane Goldman’s work as the co-writer of the Kick Ass screenplay. That Ross should be married to the writer who’d help bring the first of the Millarworld properties to the screen would seem an unlikely business in fiction. But Millar’s life has often been far more improbable than fiction might comfortably accommodate.

Yet there are many aspects of The Saviour which would seem both pertinent and controversial if they were to appear in one of 2013′s comics. In the wake of the likes of the Cardinal O’Brien scandal and the Hillsborough cover-up, Millar’s picture of a Britain in which, for example, the Police and the Clergy are often anything but the servants of the people would seem disturbingly contemporary. (*11/12) With a far right Coalition pushing policies so extreme that Thatcher would have hesitated to peddle them, The Saviour now seems even more pertinent than it did when first published.

To be continued.


*1:- 8th April 2013 – Mark Millar -Millarworld

*2:- Attribution shamefully misplaced; to be amended ASAP

*3:- Interview: Richard Wilson Meets Mark Millar, Sunday Times, 1/6/08 – (Now behind the ST paywall)

*4:- Talking Kick-Ass With Mark Millar, Richard Burlingame, Comicbook.com, 23/3/013 http://comicbook.com/blog/2013/03/23/talking-kick-ass-2-with-john-romita-jr/

*5:- Martin Skidmore, interview with the author, Spring 2011


*7:- Ibid

*8:- Ibid

*9:-Jonathan Ross Talks Turf, with Laura Hudson, 9/4/10, Comics Alliance, http://www.comicsalliance.com/2010/04/09/jonathan-ross-turf-comics-ipad/

*10:- Millar, however, declared that Ross “liked the comic alot”, having been apparently told so by the latter during a comic-con sometime in 1989: Mark Millar: Apocalypse Now!, with Gordon Rennie, Speakeasy 108, 1990

*11:- For the Cardinal O’Brien scandal:”Cardinal O’Brien Resigns Amid Claims Of Inappropriate Behaviour”, Severin Carrell & Sam Jones, The Guardian, 25/2/2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/25/cardinal-keith-obrien-resigns

*12:- For the Hillsborough scandal: “Hillsborough Papers; Cameron Apology Over Double Injustice”, 12/9/2012 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-19543964

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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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