Continued from last week.
Millar’s preference for deconstructing genre can at times make for routine and predictable comic books. For those who’d prefer more of close observation, ambition and innovation, and less of the bare bones of popcorn storytelling, boredom and frustration can all too frequently result. But only the most unsympathetic of readers could respond to his undeniably enthusiastic reworkings of the superhero tradition with anything more intense than ennui. Yet the outrage that’s been repeatedly inspired by his work’s ethical content is far easier to understand and sympathize with.
Most politically-conscious creators will strive to avoid seeming to express opinions in their work that they disagree with. But Millar has often seemed hellbent on producing comics which appear to contradict the very values that he otherwise publicly endorses. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the apparent fascination he has for scenes depicting the threat or the fact of sexual violence, which he’s repetitively portrayed in ways which often seem clearly designed to shock, thrill and amuse all in the name of entertainment and little but. Any considered and empathetic engagement with the subject in his writing has been all too rare, and it’s impossible to understand why Millar has been so callously and consistently exploitative. After all, no-one in their right mind could possibly believe that he’s anything other than appalled by sexual violence. Yet, time after time, his work appears to clash with his undeniably sincere beliefs.
This determinedly crass use of sexual violence hasn’t declined as Millar has aged. Both 2010′s Nemesis – with its womb-bomb – and 2012′s Kick Ass II – with its gang rape – suggest that the writer is strangely unconcerned with the criticism he’s received, and the values that it’s represented. By contrast, The Saviour may well feature the least compromised – if still on occasion problematic – use of sexual abuse in his catalog. The prostitution that Linda has been driven into, for example, is never once presented in a way that’s flippant, let alone lecherous. Instead, the suffering and dignity of Millar’s modern-era Mary Magdalene establishes her as by far the most appealing and admirable of the book’s cast. In short, Millar and artist Nigel Kitching scrupulously avoided prurience while accentuating the appalling consequences of Linda’s entirely unenviable situation. In doing so, they ensured that any reaction beyond sympathy and respect was highly unlikely. Similarly, the horrific and ultimately fatal persecution of the pre-pubescent Louise McDonnell is played out with a maximum of restraint combined with a total lack of titillation, while Faeragel’s dismemberment of a young woman is described with a deliberate restraint. In each case, the meaning of the abuse is clear, while the way in which it’s shown sidesteps any suggestion of sensationalism and trivialization.
Far more problematic is The Saviour’s anal rape of a priest in the comic’s third issue. Though the act itself isn’t shown, a two panel sequence spells out exactly what has occurred. In the first, The Saviour is shown blithely pulling up his trousers while a pleading hand and a groan-filled word balloon are placed at the bottom of the frame. In the second, a naked-from-the-waist Father Joseph is shown crouching on all fours, convulsed with pain, while The Saviour declares that “Celibacy must’ve been such a drag. I really did you a big favour. Honestly!”
In the letters page of The Saviour #4, reader Liam Connell raised what was to become a worryingly familiar concern;
“Something I don’t feel comfortable with was … where The Saviour has clearly sodomised Father Cunningham. When using figures symbolically, as you do in The Saviour, you have to be careful what you show those characters doing. Readers may look back on this episode and say The Saviour represents evil therefore, in the creators’ eyes at least, this kind of behaviour is evil.”
To which Millar responded;
“The rape of the priest was something I considered carefully before including. I take your point about the inference that homosexuality itself is evil but would the rape of a nun have denounced heterosexual sex as evil? I doubt it. The evil was the act of violence and the humiliation which The Saviour inflicted on the priest, and not the inclination.” (*1)
It’s a defense which, for all its undeniable logic, fails to recognize the nuanced and complex way in which texts can be experienced. Despite both being examples of terrible and traumatic crimes, the rape of a nun by The Saviour would not carry with it the same collection of associations as would that of a priest. To Millar, it seems, both would be horrific scenarios which evoked nothing but equal measures of The Saviour’s power and cruelty. In an ideal world, that would undoubtedly be so, and yet ours is anything but ideal. To portray male-on-male rape, and to have it being perpetrated upon a priest, is to inevitably suggest a broad range of discourses from the homophobic to the anti-clerical. Yet that wider social context is a matter, as we’ll discuss, that Millar has tended to ignore. To him, each event on the page appears to exist in isolation from any broader debates. It’s an approach that can perhaps be best summed up in Millar’s response to the criticism of his killing off of the gay superhero Northstar in 2005’s Wolverine # 25. Though critics railed against the retirement of one of the superhero comic’s few openly gay characters, Millar insisted that any such reading was misplaced;
“He didn’t die because he was gay. He died because he’d been brainwashed by The Hand.” (*2)
The implication appears to be that events on the page should only be understood in the context of the entertainment offered by the page. Wider issues are, it seems, irrelevant. To Millar, Northstar was nothing but doomed costumed fodder to spice up a punch-up, and the fact that he’d been given the identity of a member of a marginalised and often-oppressed minority was entirely by-the-by. It’s a remarkable point-of-view for a former politics student to hold, given that it totally ignores the evidence that media content can powerfully reinforce existing prejudices. It certainly makes it hard to grasp why Millar has complained about representations of the Catholic Church in comics. By his own logic, such negative representations must also be understood only in the isolated context of the stories they appear in. Yet he too, it seems, is capable of feeling misrepresented;
“Write a story about a priest who interferes with young boys and nobody bats an eyelid. I’ve seen it in mainstream comics like Vertigo books. Write a story about about a Rabbi who interferes with kids and the ADL will have you in court and possibly jail.” (*3)
This strange belief about the moral neutrality of his stories may help explain the apparent contradiction between the values that Millar’s work on occasion expresses and those he openly advocates in his public pronouncements.
To be continued, with one last look at The Saviour before moving on.
*1:- The Saviour #4, Trident Comics, 1990
*2:- Millar’s original post at Millarworld has, as they all are, deleted. Its contents are referenced here in Graeme McMillan’s piece; http://blog.newsarama.com/2007/09/03/millar-dont-look-at-me-im-only-the-writer/
*3:- In Rich Johnson’s splendid interview with Millar, Waiting For Tommy, XXI, at Dynamic Forces, http://www.dynamicforces.com/htmlfiles/tommy21c.html