“Celibacy Being Such a Drag”:

Shameless? Part 16

Continued from last week.

It often appears that Millar is determined to deny any interpretation of his work that he doesn’t approve of. Yet as we’ve discussed, he repeatedly fails to produce comics whose political content clearly reflects his own publicly stated beliefs. Often quite the opposite is true. In that, it’s not just that his own values might challenge and upset, as anyone’s principles might. It’s also that he’s forever presenting controversially confused, and even wildly contradictory, values.

No creator can ever fix the meaning of their work, of course, and even the most straight-forward of texts will inevitably be interpreted in a variety of ways. But given that Millar’s scripts are so often designed to express, or at the very least reference, political beliefs, he can hardly complain when they’re approached accordingly. His means and ends may appear to shift from project to project, but the political intent is nearly always visible. Whether he’s playing gleeful agent provocateur, as in Big Dave and The Unfunnies, or sincere and restrained polemicist, as in Tit For Tat and Superior, or even when he’s being both at the same time, as in The Saviour and The Ultimates I & 2, Millar’s scripts insist that contentious debates are indeed being referenced and points are very much being scored. As such, Millar’s scripts can provoke controversy even on topics – such as gender and sexual identity – where he seems sincerely baffled by the negative press he attracts. For it isn’t just the stances he adopts, but the careless and scattershot approach which he often takes that puzzles and exasperates. Accordingly, Millar is no more the victim of obtusely-antagonistic trolls or politically-correct critics than any other comics writers are. For if he really has been inexplicably targeted by the unsympathetic and the openly hostile, he’d be no more the target of disapproval and disdain than anyone else in the field. Yet the truth is that there’s no other comics writer capable, consciously or not, of dividing opinion and provoking animosity on ethical matters. Given his style’s unique mix of the pulpit, back-of-the-class sniggers, canny hyping and injudicious storytelling, disagreement and hostility is always likely to be generated.

In the light of this, it’s worth taking one last look at The Saviour’s rape of Father Cunningham. For the more the brief scene is studied, the more puzzling, and therefore the more potentially contentious, it becomes. Cunningham is the only representative of the Church who dares to publicly stand against The Saviour in any way, which lends him a degree of moral authority unmatched elsewhere in the tale. To have him anally raped before an audience of nightclubbing Satanists for his defiance suggests that that particular torture is somehow an especially vile and demeaning one, and to do that is to provoke the question of why that might be so. To imply, no matter how unintentionally, that any form of rape is in some way more appalling than any other is in itself a ill-judged and insensitive business. But to have this be the only time that The Saviour is shown engaged in any form of sexual activity – consensual or not – does suggest that sodomy, or at the very least anal rape, is in some way a greater shame as well as a greater physical punishment. In its turn, all of this inevitably raises the spectre of the Catholic Church’s attitude to celibacy, its homophobia and the apparently endless scandals of recent decades which are informed by both debates. Is it possible that Millar was having The Saviour use the Church’s own prejudices to increase Cunningham’s misery and torment, and if so, what does Millar want us to think about them? Equally perplexing is the Antichrist’s post-rape quip to the anguished Priest about “celibacy being such a drag”? Is Millar suggesting that Cunningham was gay, and, again, to what purpose? Why did The Saviour think that such a torture was appropriate, and what does Millar have to say about that? To presume that the scene means nothing more than one creature’s random cruelty to an innocent other is to presume that Millar would appropriate such massively contentious matters without subtlety, sensitivity or moral purpose. In short, Millar appears to have been entirely ignoring a highly politicised and intensely sensitive range of debates. Instead, the rape of Father Cunningham appears to have been designed to function in the context of nothing but entertainment. Even at its very best, that’s a deeply naïve and unavoidably contentious assumption.

In particular, the brief scene inevitably runs the risk of seeming homophobic. Though sodomy is of course no more a marker of gay than straight behaviour, the homophobic mind in all its ignorance and loathing will tend to assume that it is. With that in mind, it seems ill-judged, to put it mildly, to associate the sexuality of The Saviour in any way with the bigot’s stereotype of supposedly predatory Gay behaviour. As a teacher of social science during the period, I can sadly confirm that the senseless stereotype of the fey child-molesting and yet brutally rape-happy macho homosexual was widely held amongst both the students and parents I encountered. 1989 and 1990 was, for those who can’t recall, the period prior to the introduction of effective drug therapies for HIV infection. Fear combined with prejudice to create what was often a highly toxic environment for the LGBT community. Nothing good could have come of one more unfortunately charged portrayal of acts ignorantly associated with supposedly God-offending behaviour.

And because there’s no positive representation of anything but heterosexuality in The Saviour, there’s nothing to directly challenge a homophobic reading of the text. In short, what seemed to Millar to be a straight-forward example of “evil” behaviour from an obviously devilish antagonist was actually a far more complex, ambiguous and disturbing business. As such, the problem wasn’t that Millar had in any way designed the short sequence to express any form of prejudice; of course he hadn’t. Rather, he’d made no apparent effort to think through how his choices might be read and understood in the highly charged context of the age. The result was as baffling as it was unsettling, politics ignored in the name of spectacle and all the worse for it.

Next: 2000AD, Judge Dredd, and the Spider.

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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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