Absolutely Puerile?:

Shameless? Part 13

Continued. But more than anything else, Millar’s depiction of a demon-dominated Catholic Church was a playful, and often deliberately silly, reflection of his personal experiences and tastes. Few comic book writers have ever focused upon their own religious beliefs with the persistence that Millar has, and fewer still have presented the like in such a wildly contradictory fashion. In The Saviour, his depiction of enkindled, sodomized priests and their fundamentally emasculated faith doesn’t simply work as political satire and reader-attracting shock. It’s also a gleeful expression of what Grant Morrison once described as a “surreal and gruesome sense of humour”. (*1) Yes, Millar appears to have been suggesting that the Catholic Church could be complacent and conservative in the face of Thatcher’s policies. But ultimately, there’s less a sense of principled outrage and more one of adolescent mockery. To put it simply, Millar just seems to find excess amusing, and there are some sacred cows that – particularly at the beginning of his career – he found impossible not to rib. When asked by Peter Hoskins in 2013 whether his writing wasn’t “sometimes, y’know, puerile”, Millar replied;

“Absolutely! I feel my tastes haven’t changed tremendously since I was 15. What makes me smile then makes me smile now.” (*2)

One of the things that makes it so difficult to pin down the meaning of Millar’s comics is his persistent refusal to separate the jejune from the serious-minded. It’s a choice that leaves much of even his very best work – such as The Ultimates Books 1 and 2 – feeling as confused as it’s undeniably compelling. (Rare is a book such as 2010’s Superior, where he’s clearly working overtime to express himself in an absolutely clear and direct fashion.) His portrayal of both despicably sinful and terribly persecuted Catholics in The Saviour, for example, suggests that the book’s attempting to say something serious about religion and its corruption. It’s an impression that’s intensified even as its undermined by the visual excesses of the comic’s often unrestrained set-pieces. Yet Millar was always careful to boisterously tease the Church without ever once attempting to wound it. If individual members of the clergy are either ignorant, cowardly or depraved, then the Vatican itself is never shown collaborating in any way with the Anti-Christ. In fact, the Pope and his Cardinals are conspicuous by their absence. If Catholicism has been devilishly perverted in The Saviour, it’s because of weak, fearful individuals and the Anti-Christ’s political influence. Romanism itself remains essentially – if not entirely – uncriticized. Instead, the reader’s presented with what appears to be the gleeful lampooning of a loyal if somewhat lippy alter-boy. For the devoted and lapsed Catholic alike, Millar’s joshing of priests and intimations of institutional corruption might carry a frisson of daring. But to anyone who can’t share those beliefs, The Saviour is far less likely to seem either amusing or audacious. If the reader couldn’t feel a close-to-instinctual consternation and revulsion at the very thought of Antichrist-corrupted priests, then the book ran the risk of seeming both excessively daft and childishly obsessed. But The Saviour isn’t so much a discussion of Catholic theology or practice as an exuberant homage to religious horror stories and conspiracy theories. For not only was Millar’s youth rich in both shocking and deconstructed superhero books. It also coincided with a vibrant and chart-topping range of books and films that were guaranteed to fascinate and thrill his youthful self. Just as in horror movies such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), everyday life in The Saviour is revealed to mask a reality that reflects the medieval understanding of Christianity. The devil is always waiting, humanity is always lacking, the Apocalypse is always threatening, and a lack of religious fervor will inevitably result in the most terrible of fates. Such movies tend to suggest that religion has become dangerously secularized, and yet they often also imply that only a dedicated and fiercely organised Church can protect humanity from Satan and his forces. In such a way did Millar play with criticizing certain aspects of Catholicism while still accentuating how profoundly important it is. (*3) For in the end, The Saviour isn’t a portrayal of a corrupted church at all. Instead, it’s a portrayal of what Millar saw as the social consequence of substituting New Right ethics for Christianity. As such, The Saviour’s world isn’t one that arrives because of the failings of religion, but rather because the world simply hasn’t been religious enough. It’s also hard to believe that Millar hadn’t immersed himself in the Catholic-challenging Fortean texts of the period such as Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail (1982) and David Yallop’s In God’s Name (1984). (*4) The first presented the history of the post-Crucifixion West in terms of a secret war between Jesus’ descendants and the Vatican, while the second – a far, far more serious and disturbing work – suggested that the short-reigning Pope John Paul had been in “danger” from a massively corrupt church. Both books, and the traditions they represented, argued that Catholicism was in significant part corrupt. But after their own fashion, they also suggested that the Manichean battle between sin and faith, good and evil, was very much alive. Even as they undermined the Church in a variety of ways, they also served to intensify the glamour of its power and the central importance to a great many of its stated beliefs. As such, The Saviour shows that Millar’s habit of hybridizing the superhero with slightly out-of-date pop culture trends began early. Of course, his lifelong Catholicism was undeniably a massive influence on the comic. Yet The Saviour was also strongly shaped by the way in which the Church of Rome was represented in the media of the age. Beyond a general air of the Book Of Revelations, The Saviour’s main Catholic influence seems to have been the often-fearsome iconography which Millar had been exposed to while attending Church. As he described in the From Coats to Capes documentary, his “introduction to religion” was “the statue … (of) … St Joseph holding the flayed skin of St Bartholomew “; (5)

“But if you look very closely at it you can see the skinned face of the Saint with the eye-holes and the beard still hanging on and it’s what the Romans did to St Bartholomew because he wouldn’t give up Christianity …. it was the most terrifying thing I could imagine.” (*6)

From this, Millar told Alex Fitch, came his conviction that;

“Violence is part of Christianity and it just feels quite natural to see someone covered in blood …. We don’t have The Three Bears, we have Terrifying Scenes From The Old Testament“. (*7)

A taste for what he himself labels “hyper-violence”, Millar went on to suggest, is an understandable response to a Catholic upbringing. (*8) Speaking with Pietro Filipponi, Millar even argued that Catholic prayer and meditation, with their focus on horrifying if inspiring objects of devotion, could lead to the sense that “extreme violence” is “normal”. (*8) The Catholic Church hasn’t just inspired Millar’s faith in Christian ethics, it seems. It’s also excited a predisposition for fictional blood and gore in general. To Millar, even the most apparently profane of his storytelling choices has its roots in his religious experiences.

To be continued.

Notes

*1 pg 317, Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape 2011

*2 – Interview with The Spectator, Peter Hoskins, 11/5/13

*3:- As previously discussed, The Saviour suffers from an unconvincing take on everyday reality. As such, the Antichrist, when he appears, seems to belong in the world rather than intruding into it. By also setting the book in a situation where The Saviour has largely already won, Millar further sacrificed the sense of uncertainly and creeping horror which even the mediocre The Omen succeeded in transmitting.

*4:- Millar was, as he told Gordon Rennie, a “conspiracy nut”, from; interview with Gordon Rennie, Speakeasy #108, April 1990. It’s highly unlikely that a Catholic lad with such tastes wouldn’t have read the The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, or at the least, one of those many books which covered similar ground.

*5:- Emma Barnie and David McIndoe’s “From Coats To Capes” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbK7ZIRxxoc

*6:- Ibid

*7:- Alex Fitch, Panel Borders Radio Show, 4/11/12

*8:- ibid

*9:- ‘Mark Millar Surprised’, Pietro Filipponi, www.dailyblam.com, 27/10/2010

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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