Continued from last week.
Where religion’s concerned, there’s nothing but Catholicism to be seen in The Saviour. Not only is there no mention of any other form of Christianity, but there’s not a hint of competing faiths or the principled absence of religious conviction. Nor is it the only example of Millar’s early work in which the Church Of Rome appears to have mysteriously subsumed every other form of faith; 1993′s Canon Fodder and, to a degree, 1994′s The Grudge-Father present similarly Catholic-centric scenarios. It’s as if Millar had taken it for granted that the appearance of an apparently-Catholic super-man would inevitably lead to the mass rejection of every other belief system. It’s a naive and telling supposition, but his work has rarely reflected the world beyond his immediate experience in anything but the broadest of brush-strokes. Indeed, the alt-Earth of The Saviour is really little but Coatbridge, and the preoccupations of a precocious young Coatbridger, writ large. As such, Millar appears to have been quite uninterested in how the multi-cultural society of Eighties’ Britain might have improbably fallen into line behind The Vatican. He even avoided explaining how The Saviour became associated with Catholicism in the first place. It’s an example of how Millar’s earliest work suggests a touchingly parochial cast of mind largely unaffected by his brief time spent studying politics at University. As Grant Morrison writes in Supergods;
“Mark had grown up in Coatbridge, a staunchly Catholic town out on the North-East tideline of Glasgow, and although I’d lived my whole life in the “Dear Green Place”, I’d somehow managed to be blissfully unaware of my home city’s deep and violent religious divide. Mark lived that divide. He genuinely found it almost impossible to grasp the idea that I’d been educated at a nondenominational school … When I tried to explain the Hindus, Muslims, Jews , Agnostics and Pagans I’d shared class space with, Mark was baffled, as if I’d told him the flat Earth was round.” (*1)
Writers of superhero comics aren’t generally known for their willingness to represent the detail and subtleties of the real world, although there are, of course, a small cadre of laudable exceptions to the rule. Yet even in such company, Millar’s scripts can seem notably insular, and that’s often as true today as it was in 1989. If the take on Spain that serves as the backdrop to 2012′s Supercrooks lacks anything of The Saviour’s explicit preoccupation with Catholicism, for example, it also lacks anything at all of that nation or its inhabitants.
With Millar’s depictions of both his own culture and those of others tending towards the generic, his most rewarding tales are often distinguished by his use of his own personal experience. Much of what makes the best of his work seem distinctive rather than commonplace comes from the way in which he infuses his storytelling with biographical touches. In 2004′s Marvel Knights Spider-Man, he used his own history of serious illness, and knowledge of the terrible uncertainty it brings, to inform a relatively humdrum, blockbuster-friendly plot. Similarly, the references to the loss of his parents while still a teenager helps ensure that both Kick Ass I and III are thoroughly touching. Where Millar seems to be simply reworking familiar forms with little but his love for genre to guide him, such as with both 2010′s Nemesis and 2012′s Secret Service, his comics can seem oppressively over-familiar and alienating. Ironically, the very religious elements which might limit the appeal of The Saviour also mark out it out as a uniquely individual project. Even though the studied brutality of the book’s many blood-stained set-pieces ultimately fail to impress, its doom-ladened suburban backdrop of deserted graveyards, godless churches and obedient congregations is singular and memorable. If much of Millar’s success has come from his skill at identifying and fulfilling his reader’s tastes, much of its value comes from the kind of personal content that only he could deliver.
For all of that, Millar’s preference has repeatedly been for genre in its purest and least ambitious sense. In that, his primary inspirations have usually been narrative traditions rather than the complex and challenging representation of contemporary events and issues. Despite the occasional incorporation of his own experience into his tales, the representation of the wider contemporary world is something he tends to shy away from. What matters, quite understandably, is that his superhero work satisfies the superhero fan – or would-be fan – according to the form’s most basic conventions. Millar’s ambition, it seems, is never to so challenge his readership that he might end up alienating a significant part of it. Readers can be teased, titillated and infuriated, and yet they’ll always find that the long-familiar pay-offs of the super-book are also present on the page. This reflects hardheaded commercial calculation, of course, as he himself has stated. His Millarworld titles tend to feature the kind of blandly indistinct Americans so beloved of network TV and mega-budget summer movies, free from the supposed challenges set by the specifics of region, ethnicity, class and so on. That, it appears, is what’s guaranteed to sell. As such, the appropriation of gangster-movie cliches for the pseudo-Mafioso in Kick Ass is a prime example of Millar’s lack of interest in representing life as its lived beyond his own front door. Though, as we’ll discuss, the contemporary world is a powerful influence on his work, a far greater one seems to be the traditions of mass entertainment. When it comes to emulating successful movies, he’s clearly unmoved by the way in which the likes of Peter Weir’s Witness and the Coen Brother’s Fargo set thrilling narratives in intriguingly distinct and largely unfamiliar cultures. Instead, his choice has been to design work that’s as general and inclusive as possible, reasoning, perhaps, that the superhero genre is intimidating enough to the general reader without further thickening the brew. At its best, it’s a strategy that results in brilliantly direct and intriguing superhero tales, and yet, at its worst, it inspires homogeneous, predictable pabulum.
But Millar has persistently argued that “… if I bring anything to comics, I’d say I bring in the world we live in. It’s something I’m criticised for a lot, which is interesting …. “. (*2) Indeed, he’s more recently been fond of claiming that his work doesn’t just comment on today’s world, but actively and accurately represents it. In short, he’s claimed to be presenting a realistic portrayal of costumed crimefighters. Kick Ass, he assured Tim Walker, wasn’t simply a tale of wanna-be super-people in a world without the same. Instead, it was a realistic drama showing how the likes of the 11-year old costumed assassin Hit Girl might operate in the here and now;
“There’s never been a superhero comic set in the real world. Watchmen begins in the real world, but by page 20 there’s still a giant blue guy walking around. Even Batman has bullet-proof morphing cloaks.” (*3)
As such, the long journey from The Saviour to Kick Ass III might be characterised in terms of how Millar learned to limit - to varying degrees – the amount of fantasy in his super-books. Yet any such claim to realism would clearly be hogwash, and on several levels too. Millar, with his love of deconstructed Eighties comics, knows very well that the idea of the superhero operating in an apparently realistic environment is a decades-old conceit. What’s more, the physical and psychological impossibility of Mindy Macready and Dave Lizewski’s absurd exploits can hardly have escaped his notice either. Whatever it is he’s up to, he’s certainly not bringing in “the world we live in”, though he definitely is excluding a great deal of the absurdity and continuity which is normally associated with the superbook.
As with realism, so with politics. Millar clearly sees himself as a political writer, and identified himself as a left-leaning one in his defence of Frank Miller’s right to express a rabid opposition to the Occupy Movement. (*4) no-one could deny that his stories regularly feature idiosyncratic references to a narrow range of headline political issues; the limits of state control in Civil War, the American response to 9/11 in The Ultimates, the political figureheads of the New Right in The Saviour and Robohunter, Neoconservatism in Jupiter’s Legacy, and so on. But a few broad and often contradictory references to a small number of issues isn’t a coherent engagement in “the world in which we live” on a political level either. Indeed, as we’ve already discussed, the political content of Millar’s stories is notoriously confused and confusing, with its befuddling and often deliberately provocative mixture of working class radicalism and reactionism. Although he claims his work is characterised by a fascination with life as it’s lived, it far more accurate to note that reality very rarely enters his stories. Most of his characters are types and his plots are decidedly generic. That doesn’t in any way mean that his work hasn’t often been exhilarating and smart-minded. But it does mean that it’s been far less revolutionary in terms of politics and realism than he’s claimed. Indeed, The Saviour, with its explicitly anti-Thatcherite agenda and its distinctly Catholic world-view, might still stand as one of the most radical of all Millar’s achievements.
To be continued, with one final look at The Saviour and its contentious representations of gender, race, and sexual violence.
*1 – Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape 2011
*2 – “From Coats To Capes” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbK7ZIRxxoc
*3 – “A New Kind Of Costume Drama”, Tim Walker, The Independent, 19/2/10 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/mark-millar–a-new-kind-of-costume-drama-1903831.html
*4- The November 2011 defence has been deleted from the Millarworld archives, as are all posts after a few weeks. You can find my response to it – with several direct quotes – at http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/on-mark-millars-plea-for-tolerance.html. Frank Miller’s famously furious attack on Occupy can be found at http://frankmillerink.com/