“A Worm Shouts a Magic Word”:

“Shameless? Part 19

The cover to AARGH!, by Bill Sienkiewicz

Continued from last week.

Millar hardly made it easy for the reader to sympathise with his protagonist. Arthur Montgomery is as unconvincing as a type as he’s unsympathetic as a character, and it’s only in the moments of his greatest despair that he seems in any way convincing. It is, after all, hard to bleed every last trace of pathos from a scene in which an entirely hopeless man is driven to suicide. But it is as if Millar just couldn’t stop himself from scoffing and scoffing again at the Toryism he so loathed. No matter how irrelevant the political point-scoring was to the playing out of his stories, and no matter how it actually worked to undermine the entertainment on the page, it appears that Thatcherism and its adherents just had to be slapped down. References to the Government’s policies of the day abound, and the period saw Millar taking a explicit stand on issues which he’s often been criticized for not paying attention to.

And so, Montgomery is presented as a raving homophobe who defines “Ace Hart, The Atom Man” as “that big fairy on the telly talkin’ about the rain-forests and the global warming and all that rubbish”, while superheroes as a breed are described as “Big nancy boys who perm their hair into a forelock and check their tights for runs”. Given what an obviously low opinion Millar has for Montgomery and his opinions, there can be no doubt that he’s deliberately scorning the Right’s loathing for the very idea of homosexuality. (*1) It’s hard to avoid suspecting that Millar’s association of Conservatism with homophobia was strongly influenced by the then-fierce debate over the entirely reprehensible Clause 28, which had passed into law just two years before. A brutal example of state bigotry, it had made it illegal for local authorities to “promote homosexuality” or “promote …. the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family arrangement.” (*2/3) Some in the comics community had been quick to express their opposition to Clause 28, with the most prominent example being 1988’s AARGH!, or Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia. An anthology which featured contributions from Alan Moore, Robert Crumb, Frank Miller and a host of other dissenting professionals, it was surely read by the as-yet unpublished Millar, who would have been unlikely to miss a collection featuring several of his favourite creators. As such, the contempt for homophobia expressed in Zenith: Tales Of The Alternative Earths was, after its own fashion, part of a broader, if less mainstream, comics response to the sexual politics of the period.

from 1991’s Robohunter: Escape From Bisleyland, by artist Anthony Williams from 2000AD #752.

Did Millar ever worry that his readers might not share his contemptuously expressed convictions? It seems unlikely, given that the political content of his work was so uncompromising and unrelenting. In 2000AD’s Robohunter, for example, he had the title character unconvincingly develop a disdain for Monetarism, while Silo was informed by the same antipathy towards nuclear weapons that his Zenith spin-off more bluntly expressed. Only in the eight-page Mother’s Day from 1990’s Revolver Horror Special did the Millar of 1990 show himself to be entirely in control of his craft. Untypically free of his disdain for both the New and traditional Right, Millar’s disciplined and purposeful script effectively set-up the tale’s gruesomely unsettling and yet perversely touching conclusion. Produced in collaboration with artist Phil Winslade, it’s the tale of a disordered young man who murders his mother in order to ensure the constancy of her corpse’s presence. Grounding his psychotic narrator’s murderous behaviour in a desperate desire to retain the security of childhood, Millar skilfully evokes the killer’s memories of maternal love and family routine, of holidays to Blackpool and toast-and-butter cut caringly into “soldiers”. (*3). It’s the proof that Millar was more than capable of resisting the urge to pack his work with irrelevant and counterproductive invective. Why he didn’t, and what this might say about his view of the work that belonged in the pages of 2000AD, is something to be returned to later.

But if Millar was nearly always keen to slam the Tories, he was far less interested in either the continuity of existing franchises or world-building in general. In comparison to Grant Morrison’s Captain Grandretan, for example, Millar’s contribution to the Zenith universe was wearingly crude and facile. Morrison’s text feature had drawn directly from Captain Britain’s backstory, with the long-established magical circuitry in the character’s helmet developing its own vampiric consciousness. In addition to that respect for continuity, Morrison had also smartly hybridised the genres of horror and superheroics. In short, he’d showed respect for the property while adding something recognisably new to it. On top of that, he’d stirred in just a few of his typical stylistic quirks, including a reference to his beloved The Smiths. The result was a recognisably Morrisonesque tale which was always welcoming to longtime Captain Britain fans as well as neophytes. By contrast, Zenith Tales Of The Alternative Universes was composed of little but Millarisms, with scant attention paid to either the form or content of the Zenith strip. Though happy to load up his thin plot with a heavy weight of his own taste in wisecracks, current debates and pop culture, Millar paid little attention to crafting a story that was relevant, innovative, or even particularly eventful.

from Mother’s Day in Revolver: The Horror Special, from 1990, with Phil Winslade’s art

Morrison and Yeowell’s Zenith had often discussed aspects of British culture through the prism of the nation’s comics characters. By contrast, Millar focused upon a gaggle of recognisably American superheroes. It was his first opportunity in print to play with the basic superhero forms that had always fascinated him, and his enthusiasm for the task seems obvious. Yet the juxtaposition of identifiably American characters with the Little England parochialism of his narrator seems incongruous and unconvincing. On the one hand, Millar seems to be suggesting that his super-people have been intimately and decisively concerned with British politics, and yet the characters they inevitably evoke are nearly all definitely associated with a very different nation and culture. The impression given is that Millar regarded the very presence of characters bearing a strong resemblance to Superman and his fellows fascinating in itself. Whether the depiction of these super-people was a conscious decision to set Millar’s work apart from Morrisons or not, it was a choice which leaves the story feeling not just irrelevant to Zenith, but massively ill-judged. For it’s as if Millar had never once grasped what it was that made Zenith such a distinct and important strip in the first place. For a “tale” of “Zenith”, it has nothing to do with Morrison and Yeowell’s work at all.

In his enthusiasm to tackle a planet packed full of superheroes, Millar failed to ensure that the verisimilitude of his ill-integrated world could survive contact with the reader. Not for the last time, his work would sacrifice sense for a hotch-potch of eye-catching and yet ill-conceived ideas. As such, Zenith: Tales of the Alternative Earths seems more like a brainstorm of potential plot-beats rather than a polished and convincing narrative. Even a cursory reading of it throws up a host of contradictions and unresolved issues. Were the super-people responsible for the disappearance of six and a half billion Homo Homo Sapiens, and was that a mistake or a deliberate act? Why, if they possessed the super-science to clone Montgomery’s long dead wife, did they also resort to cardboard cut-outs of his dead friends in order to make him less feel lonely? Are we supposed to regard the superheroes as expressions of left-wing ideals, cruel tyrants or incompetent if essentially typical human beings? Where Morrison’s Captain Grandretan feels well thought-through and convincing, Millar’s tale reads like a grab-bag of quips, rants, stereotypes and superhero lore. Indeed, the story often seems designed to appeal to exactly the kind of train-spotterish superhero reader that Millar has at times criticised. That’s never so obvious as when he attempted to create a sense of strangeness through a brief, reference to a fannish fusion of the Golden-Age Captain Marvel and his nemesis, the interstellar worm Mr Mind’

“Outside, a worm shouts a magic word and a bolt of lightning strikes it. It doubles in size and flies off into the sky.”

Jim Valentino’s cover to 1984’s Normalman #1

Elsewhere in the tale, the direct influence of a series of Eighties superhero books seems hard to deny. The idea of a single typical human oppressed by a world of superheroes was hardly new, with Jim Valentino’s Normalman being perhaps the most prominent exploration of the tradition in the period. As for the portrayal of superheroes as distant, all-powerful and unknowable gods, it had been a central aspect of much of Alan Moore’s work during the previous decade. As a loyal reader of Moore’s work, Millar would have undoubtedly experienced the redefinition of the Justice League as Olympian “Overpeople” in Swamp Thing #25, the playing out of Actum’s Dictum in Miracleman, and he may even encountered rumours of Moore’s rejected crossover series for DC, Twilight of the Superheroes. Even closer in time and content was Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham’s recently-begun version of Miracleman, which had just started to build upon Moore’s stories following his resignation from the property. There, Gaiman’s scripts explored the supposed golden age which followed the title-character’s domination of the Earth, with super-people functioning as deities and reshaping the world according to their will.

To be continued.


*1:- The representation of homosexuality in Millar’s comics has undoubtedly been problematic at times, and yet, there’s examples of his openly attacking homophobia in his work, and several of those tend to be quite forgotten in the debate. Millar’s  “Chester Williams: American Cop”, from Swamp Thing #165, for example, couldn’t have made his contempt for homophobia more obvious. Obviously, it’s a complicated issue that I’ll be returning to.

*2:-Clause 28 was indeed fiercely debated and fought, although the conflict itself seems almost forgotten today by the wider culture. Perhaps some don’t feel comfortable with the support – both passive and active – which the measure received. Though it’s hardly a representative sample, the teachers of my experience during the period were mostly unconcerned by this vicious homophobia, and some were openly keen to follow the Conservative line. While a few expressed a vague fear of prosecution, and that despite the law applying not to teachers or schools but local authorities, most seemed simply not to care. In short, a terrifying number of people seemed content to allow Clause 28 to stand, while a disturbing hardcore of bigots actively proselytised both for it and the prejudices it represented. It certainly helped to ensure that sexuality and prejudice weren’t engaged with in schools as they most certainly ought to have been. How cruel and ignorant was this measure, assuming as it did that (1) the state needed to police society in order to limit the presence of homosexuality, and that (2) homosexuality functioned as a mental contamination, passed on by ideas and examples? Shamefully, it wouldn’t be legislated out of existence until 2004. By then, the Labour Government had been in power since 1997.

*3:- Or, for those of you who aren’t Scottish, individual slices of toasted bread.

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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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