Continued from last week.
The obviousness of Millar’s influences would become more and more of a problem as his work for Fleetway continued. Of course, 2000AD had been founded upon a deliberate policy of appropriating and adapting successful pop culture properties. Other comics might have sought to obscure the influence, for example, of movies such as Dirty Harry and Death Race 2000 upon the genesis of Judge Dredd. But 2000AD shamelessly and rightfully appeared to glory in its ability to plunder, recast and regularly improve upon the trends of the moment. For in creating Dredd, writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra and editor Pat Mills had done far, far more than simply replicate characters, scenes and concepts from existing properties. Dredd’s fascist, after-the-apocalypse future would prove to be a swiftly-evolving, complex and provocative playground in which any number of cultural reference points could be playfully adapted and put to use. A casual glance might have defined the first version of Dredd as a one-note hybrid of an Eastwood-informed vigilante and dystopian sci-fi clichés. But time would show it to be a strip that was as capable of hosting slapstick comedy as scimitar-sharp social satire, space opera as kitchen sink tragedy. If some early 2000AD strips such as M.A.C.H.1, a grimy Brit-centric reworking of the Six Million Dollar Man, would never convincingly escape the constraints of their source material, others would do exactly that, and to considerable effect too.
By contrast, Millar’s scripts would more and more seem to be bolted together from a limited range of obvious, undigested, and often out-of-date influences. These could be so numerous and ill-considered that his stories came to regularly seem more like a relentless statement of his taste than the well-worked product of his craft. And so, the debt that Zenith: Tales Of The Alternative Earths owed to Alan Moore’s work was nothing compared to 1992’s Robohunter: Return To Verdus. There, an inexplicably story-sinking parody of Moore’s mid-’80s Green Lantern stories was partnered with an awkward poke at the purple-prose of the writer’s Marvelman tales. Neither example sat at all well with either Millar’s plot, such as it was, or the future world of the strip’s title character. But Millar seems to have been carelessly knitting together narratives almost at random from his own obsessions. It seemed to be a distinctly post-modern approach, and yet it reflected little if anything at all of post-modern theory. Soon, Robohunter would even feature a breathtakingly guileless version of The Fat Slags from Viz, although Millar would regrettably ignore their scatological feminism in favour of an excess of ugly-hearted misogyny. Surface rather than substance, it seems, was what captured Millar’s jackdaw attention.
Millar was to call upon the contents of blockbuster films and popular TV shows even more regularly than he drew from his comicbook collection. His longest-running assignment of the period would be his controversial take on the sci-fi/detective strip Robohunter, and that would see him burning through unmasticated aspects of Terminator, Crocodile Dundee, Blade Runner, The Naked Gun, Die Hard, and even, amongst many other sources, the Hell’s Grannies sketch from Monty Python. Or so it seemed, for Millar’s approach implied that even his more apparently original scenes must have been sampled from elsewhere. Every problem that a writer might face, it seemed, could be solved through the sprinkling of Millar’s preferences into a script. He even attempted to suggest the strangeness of future cultures by repeatedly presenting them as obsessed with long-cancelled prime-time American television programmes. In 1991’s Red Razors, he sidestepped the challenges of creating the culture of a post-Soviet city-state in the future of Judge Dredd by having it obsessed with the corpse of Elvis, who’d also turned up as a clone in Robohunter, as well as being fascinated by Starsky And Hutch and entranced by a revival of MTV. The latter reference did at least have the virtue of helping Millar briefly mock the Scots white-soul band Hue & Cry, whose lead singer Pat Kane had campaigned in 1990 to have Grant Morrison’s The New Adventures Of Adolf Hitler removed from the Scottish arts magazine Cut.(*1) Yet digs at the critics of his friend aside, Millar’s attempts to create convincing tomorrows from the mention of the likes of Welcome Back Kotter seemed as lazily done as they were unconvincing.
This had all been far less of an obvious problem in the first few years of Millar’s career. As the inexperienced writer found his feet in a variety of formats and genres, his scripts seemed hard to pigeon-hole. For all that his earliest work had repeatedly been marked by problems such as a lack of restraint and structure, it was also varied and quite evidently promising. To a degree, this masked the likes of Silo’s reliance upon scenes taken whole from Die Hard and The Shining. Instead, the contrast between, for instance, the focused domestic horror of Mother’s Day and the compellingly inchoate contents of The Saviour suggested that Millar was destined to become a writer of considerable versatility and quality. He was, it seemed, a rare young talent who might well eventually prosper in mainstream superhero books, Vertigo-flavoured dark fantasies and realistic vignettes. As such, his position as the runner-up in the fanzine Speakeasy’s 1990 poll of the most promising new British writers was well-deserved. But the appearance of Zenith: Tales Of The Alternative Earths at the end of the same year marked the point at which Millar began to concentrate predominantly on 2000AD’s Sci-Fi protagonists, and with that focus came a narrowing and a coarsening of his style. Yet for all of the problems it brought, what quickly emerged from the process was the first example of Millar purposefully nailing down a controlled, distinctive and consistent approach.
But the consequences of that style would eventually please Millar as little as they did his critics from the period. Before he stopped writing for 2000AD in 1995, Millar’s interviews would express what appeared to be an absolute faith in his work’s quality. (*2) By contrast, interviews from the post-Millennium period would see him expressing disappointment at the standard of much of what he’d written for Fleetway. Though he has mentioned a qualified fondness for strips such as Canon Law and Insiders, Millar has reserved his most positive judgements of the period for the professional experience that Fleetway lent him. In a discussion with Barb Lien-Cooper in 2000, he accentuated how useful it had been to learn how to write “two or three page stories which needed a beginning, a middle and an end plus a good twist”. (*3) But his appreciation for that pseudo-apprenticeship aside, his judgement of his achievements in those years has been frequently scathing. Indeed, he’d later write on Millarworld that he’d had;
“no idea what I was doing for the most part and just learning how to do very basic stuff then … Honestly, the bulk of what I wrote was pure shite and I’m not being modest. I didn’t get really get any good until I started on Swamp Thing in my early twenties.” (*4)
If anything, he was even more dismissive of his own efforts in a 2005 interview with Stephen Dalton;
“…There was just a million vacancies (at 2000AD) and any sh**e guy got picked up, and I was one of those guys. Thank God, by the time I left at 24 I was quite good. But I look back at that little body of work in 2000AD and it was just horrible. I’ve kind of expunged that period from my CV.” (*5)
A significant part of the problem, it seems, is that Millar hadn’t been a fan of 2000AD when he was younger. It was, he told Rich Johnston in 2002, “too dirty and dangerous” for him (*6). It seems that the piles of comics which two of his brothers had passed onto his younger self had been free of 2000AD, and so he’d found it hard to gain a taste for the very characters that his early career would depend on;
“I grew up on DC and Marvel … I know Warren (Ellis) and Garth (Ennis) and most of the other guys read 2000AD, but I hated it. I’m not sure why most stuff seems to be inspired by that slightly dodgy, anarchic material because I really preferred the American stuff.” (*7)
But a lack of youthful enthusiasm for 2000AD hardly explains the problems that Millar would have when writing the comic’s characters. He may have been largely unfamiliar with much of the comic’s history in 1990, but he was to remain working for 2000AD for almost another 5 years. There was more than enough time for him to have immersed himself in the title’s history and internalised its methods and traditions. For whatever reason, he choose to take a different approach.
There is evidence that the young Millar had been more familiar with 2000AD and its storytelling values than he would later let on. For all that his tenure on the Robohunter strip would prove to be a disastrous one, it can’t be blamed on his utter unfamiliarity with the character. For Millar had discussed dressing up as Robohunter in his pre-teen years in a 1991 interview with Gordon Rennie in 1991. (*8) Whatever his problems may have been with the property, it couldn’t have been a lack of childhood familiarity which undermined his efforts; children rarely if ever choose to play as characters they’re both unfamiliar with and unsympathetic towards. Similarly, and as we’ve already discussed, Millar had certainly read Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s Halo Jones in the ’80s, and it’s highly unlikely that he’d have avoided his idol Moore’s other contributions to the 2000AD canon. (*9) The same is surely true of Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith, the last published series of which was prepared and printed during the first flush of Millar’s friendship its writer. Finally, and as we’ve also we’ve discussed before, Millar’s admiration for Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law has always been unconditional. Even though it was first printed under the flag of Marvel Comic’s Epic imprint in 1989, it was a comic saturated in the culture that had made 2000AD so distinctive, entertaining and challenging. Given that range of experience, it could be argued that Millar was far less alienated by and ignorant of 2000AD than he’s often expressed.
To be continued.
*1:- Kane, and others, had considered Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s surreal comedy of a young Hitler visiting Liverpool in the Edwardian era to be a moral travesty. The bare bones of the dispute can be accessed here on Wiki, but little can now evoke how fiercely felt the debate was at the time; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Adventures_of_Hitler
*2:- Several purported interviews with Morrison and Millar appear to have been works of fiction cooked up by the two men in collaboration with Martin Conaghan. Yet the contents of these pseudo-interviews, which were to do little good for Morrison or Millar, were still allowed to stand in the public eye, and it has to be assumed that there’s a fair measure of truth in amongst all the deliberate scandalising of the comics public. Mr Conaghan’s comments in the following thread are fascinating and well worth the time of anyone interested in either Millar and Morrison and/or UK fandom at the time. http://www.2000adonline.com/forum/index.php/topic,27253.120.html
*3:- ‘Speaking With The Authority”, Barb Lien-Cooper -http://www.wickermanstudios.com/index.php?id=54
*4:- In a thread now deleted from Millarworld
*5:- “Adventures Of The Man Behind The Mask”, Stephen Dalton, Scotland On Sunday, 08 May 2005
*6:- Waiting For Tommy XXI, Rich Johnson, http://www.dynamicforces.com/htmlfiles/tommy21.html
*7:- The quote about his brother’s comics comes from 2007’s Civil War Companion, as published, of course, by Marvel. The following quote is by Millar, as found in an article I can’t now access at www.comiccon.com’s forum, which was a collection of interviews with Brit comics writers on their UK and US influences.
*8:- Interview with Gordon Rennie, Fantazia #12, 1991
*9:- Moore’s contributions to, and importance to, 2000AD are often over-exaggerated. Though he produced some fine work for the title, his tenure was relatively short and the number and significance of his scripts limited. None of that is to say is that his scripts weren’t often delightful, but his influence pales before that of the likes of writers such as Wagner, Mills, Grant. For all of that, Millar is surely unlikely to have missed out on D.R. and Quinch, Skizz, and Moore’s various one-off stories, all of which had been collected by Titan Books in the second half of the 1980s.