“It’s A Rare Thing to be Ordinary These Days”:

Shameless? Part 18

by Simon Bisley

Continued from last week.

In fact, it’s more than possible that Morrison actually had a considerable influence upon the format of Zenith: Tales of the Alternative Earths. Four years previously, he’d written his own series of short stories featuring the super-people of alternative Earths for Marvel UK’s Captain Britain title. (*1) Each focused on one of the Captain’s infinite parade of other-dimensional counterparts, although the magazine’s cancellation meant that only the tale of Captain Grandretan ever appeared. (*2) As Ben Hansom has pointed out, there’s a distinct similarity between the set-up of the two features. (*3) It seems fair to wonder whether it had been Morrison who, drawing from his own experience, had suggested the basic concept for Millar’s tale.

But where Captain Grandretan is an unsettlingly macabre yarn, Millar’s story is an uncomfortably broad and awkwardly conflicted sentimental comedy-cum-political satire. Appearing in 1990’s 2000AD “Laff-O-Rama” Winter Special, it trails much of the laddish and disdainful tone that would soon become prevalent in Millar’s work for the comic. Its point-of-view character is the elderly Arthur Montgomery, the last typical human being left alive in a world otherwise populated by super-people. Perplexed, alienated and isolated, Montgomery eventually attempts suicide, only to be rescued and comforted by a flock of his costumed fellow citizens. His loneliness assuaged by the gift of a clone of his dead wife and a pub filled with life-sized cut-outs of his vanished friends and acquaintances, Montgomery finally emerges – or so he thinks – as the Earth’s preeminent celebrity;

“I’m the one they all look up to. Every night when thet lie in bed I’m the one they always dream about. They imagine what it would be like to be me. To dress in polyester trousers and thick grey socks, Cushey Numbers shoes and an old grey mac.” (*4)

But Montgomery isn’t just the last normal human being left alive. He’s also the last right wing bigot to be found on the face of a fundamentally transformed Earth. For Millar’s mostly-nameless and entirely characterless superhumans are, it appears, all radical, leftist crusaders. As Montgomery disdainfully recalls, one “Ace Hart, the Atom Man” had ruined his TV watching with his;

“…talkin’ about the ozone layer and the global warming and all that rubbish. He was naggin’ about the rain-forests and the state of the beaches and pollution of the seas. Ooooh … he was a right drag, he was. A bleedin’ scaremonger. Least that’s what all the papers said. He said that him and all his pals were going to clean up the planet to live. Aye, better for who, mate?”

by Alan Davis

Montgomery than appears to describe a superhero coup, in which first nuclear weapons, and then the free press, and then outraged Conservative politicians, are all done away with. It’s impossible to tell much about these events for Montgomery’s not just a bigoted, ignorant and ill-informed narrator. He’s also profoundly stupid. To him, the destruction of fundamental political liberties appears to equate with the loss of “Coronation Street … (and) … Benny Hill with his lovely lasses and that”. In short, Montgomery is a contemptuous stereotype of a supposedly typical working class Conservative voter wedded to the broadest music hall stereotype of a Yorkshireman that might be imagined. Anything that might upset the day of such a barrier to progress, it seems, is worth laughing about, and that appears to be true even when describing the kind of fascist superhuman take-over that was already familiar from comics such as Mark Gruenwald and Bob Hall’s Squadron Supreme. (*5)

As is so often true with Millar, it’s hard to be sure about the polemical points that he was attempting to score here. But if Ace Hart and his colleagues are representatives of a better order, then why does Millar imply that they were in some way responsible for the disappearance of most of the Earth’s then-six billion inhabitants? On the one hand, Millar’s superheroes are a compassionate and highly principled bunch, saving not just the world from nuclear Armageddon, but the rather repellent Montgomery from despair. As such, the suggestion seems to be that an ideal world will find reactionary thinking only in the social equivalent of zoos for well-nigh extinct species. Yet at the same time, these catastrophically world-emptying superpeople had at first paid no attention to the miserable Montgomery and his quite obvious distress following the mysterious transformation of the world. With Millar’s protracted contempt reserved solely for his aged narrator’s world-view, it seems unlikely that he’s also critiquing Utopian thinking’s lack of concern for the individual. Yet that does seem the only way to force the story to produce a coherent ethical meaning. Short of such a strained interpretation, Zenith: Tales Of The Alternative Earths seems as politically confused as The Saviour is. There’s certainly no sense in either that the mass of people are anything other than intrinsically powerless, apathetic and ill-informed. As radical satires go, both are disturbingly confused and somewhat reactionary too. Arthur Montgomery and the culture he’s supposed to represent seems to deserve little more than sneering mockery. Once again, Millar’s reluctance to balance out the representations in his work leaves him seeming to disrespect the powerless every bit as much, if not more, than the powerful.

one of Simon Coleby’s illustrations for ZTOTAE

But even given how contemptible Millar has Montgomery appear, there are moments when the character’s allowed to emerge as something more touching than a derisible stereotype. The moment in which he resigns himself to suicide is a quietly touching one, while his gratitude at the return of even a hollow semblance of his old life carries a momentary charge of pathos. Yet even then, Millar is keen to mock him for his willingness to buy into an ersatz life, while Montgomery’s arrogant assumption of his celebrity status makes him almost impossible to sympathise with. As such, any traces of sympathy are ultimately cancelled out by the overall air of derision, and that leaves the story feeling hollow and cruel. That’s a sense that’s very much intensified by Millar’s decision to present his narrator as a stereotype rather than a person. Montgomery’s defined by an entirely unconvincing collection of age-old, worn-through comedy punchlines; beetroot sandwiches, a cringeworthy attempt at a Yorkshiresque patois, turn-of-the-20th century bigotry, Rotary Club badges, the Racing Post, and an arrogantly parochial assumption of superiority. All that’s really missing is a mention of allotments and Geoffrey Boycott. It’s certainly hard to imagine that Millar could have ever encountered too many Yorkshiremen, or that he’d attempted to research the matter in any way.

As such, Arthur Montgomery seems to have been drawn from nothing more substantial than the likes of Monty Python’s version of the Four Yorkshirman sketch and the BBC long-running sit-com Last Of The Summer’s Wine. As with later work such as Wanted and Secret Service, Millar’s use of types matched to his aversion for clarifying his beliefs leaves Zenith: Tales Of The Alternative Earths seeming haughty and callous. Though the story appears intended to implicitly espouse causes which Millar has often been seen as unsympathetic towards in his work, such as the fight against sexism and homophobia, there’s an alienating mean-spiritedness which obscures the already-confused good intentions. Even in an apparent utopia, Arthur Montgomery is still too stupid and selfish to reject a life based on lies. Indeed, even knowing that he’s being comforted with clones and cut-outs makes no difference to his willingness to embrace a shadow of his previous existence. Montgomery, it seems, is simply too thick, conservative and frightened to ever be able to change.

A reader wanting to argue that Millar’s work has often expressed contempt for working class culture could quite easily use Zenith: Tales Of The Alternative Earths to strengthen their case. And there is a line of sorts to be drawn which leads to the likes of the new and soulless working class of Wanted and on to the portrayal of the entirely underserving, they-did-it-to-themselves underclass of Secret Service. Yet as we’ve seen, Millar has always identified himself strongly with the working class and consistently argued for his understanding of its best interests. Once again, that which he passionately believes and that which he cares to express on the page appear to be, at best, in conflict.

one of John Stokes’ illustrations for Captain Granbretan

To be continued.


(*1) Captain Grandretan, by Grant Morrison, with illustrations by John Stokes, in Captain Britain #13, 1986.

(*2) According to Ben Hansom at his fine Deep Space Transmissions site, which focuses on Grant Morrison’s career and contains a host of fascinating resources: https://sites.google.com/site/deepspacetransmissions/universe-b/marvel

(*3) Ibid

(*4) pg 20, ZTOTAE, 2000AD Winter Special #3, Winter 1990

(*5) Mark Gruenwald, Bob Hall et al Squadron Supreme, Marvel, 12-issue limited series, 1985-6.

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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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