“But The Bad People Haven’t Gone Away”:

Shameless? Part 22

Continued from last week.

The Spider wasn’t the only long-unseen British superhero to be radically reworked by Millar in Vicious Games. He also briefly laid claim to Tri-Man, who’d been a far more conventional example of the genre than The Spider. A brief-lived feature from the turn of the Seventies in the I.P.C. comic Smash, Tri-Man had originally been the alter-ego of teenage student Johnny Small, whose “Tri-powers” were triggered by the ray technology of one Professor Meek. Once a charming if admittedly insubstantial character, Millar’s Tri-Man was reduced in a two-panel cameo to a dribbling, insane vagrant who’d “sewn (his costume) onto his skin to protect his secret identity.”

Other comic strip characters from the Sixties and Seventies were shown sharing Tri-Man’s homeless, hapless circumstances. Discovered during the aimless wanderings of The Spider’s dismayed psychiatrist Doctor Pinter, the likes of Captain Hurricane, Janus Stark and Sid with his snake Slippy are shown sheltering under a railway arch from a night-time storm. (*1) To the self-obsessed Pinter, these deranged, excluded childhood icons are little but a melancholic distraction. “I used to have a Tri-Man annual when I was nine.” Pinter wistfully recalls, as he leaves them to their miserable fate on the periphery of society. (*2)

By 1992, such scenes had become more than familiar in superhero deconstructions. The tradition had been established ten years before in the comicbook ur-text that’s Alan Moore and Gary Leach’s Marvelman. (*3) There, the reader had been presented with the unhappily middle-aged Mike Moran, who had featured in comics throughout the Fifties as the thoroughly decent and entirely uncomplicated Marvelman’s boy alter-ego. What had once been a joyously one-dimensional children’s adventure was now purposefully twisted by Moore into a genre-challenging comment on delusion, disillusionment, and corruption. Sadly, the convention was then worked to death by a disturbing number of hardly competent creators who found the very idea of the washed-up heroic icon fascinating in itself. Millar at least had something of a serious point to make. In an obvious reference to the Conservative Government’s deeply controversial Care In The Community programme, Millar had Pinter declare;

“The government cut in funds have meant that all the mental health units are closing down. But the mad people haven’t gone away. They’ve just been poured onto the streets.” (*4)

In itself, it’s a disturbing scene, and yet not in the way that Millar seems to have intended it to be. For even as he was once again trying to damn the Conservatives, he was also suggesting that Hurricane, Stark, Tri-Man and their fellows had always been psychologically disordered. Rather than being the representatives of a better world brought low by predatory Toryism, Millar’s comicbook underclass had always been “mad people (though) dangerous only to themselves.” They’d undeniably been callously treated, and yet they’d been tragically deranged long before Thatcher had been voted into 10 Downing Street. At the heart of the appeal of the deconstructed and desecrated comic character is the sense of nostalgia and loss that it can generate. But instead of using that to land a heavy emotional blow against his political targets, Millar ended up suggesting that these characters represented not a cruelly lost world, but a fundamentally broken one. By such logic, the Tories could be loathed for the lack of care they’d supposedly failed to provide for the most vulnerable members of society. Yet despite Millar’s apparent intentions, it was clear that Thatcherism hadn’t ruined their world so much as administered it more cruelly. As such, a sense of nihilism rather than an exhortation to a mix of compassion and righteous fury pervades Vicious Games. The world, it seems, has only gone from very bad to slightly worse, and that’s depressing far more than it’s tragic.

Unlike Alan Moore with his Marvelman scripts, Millar hadn’t made sure that the previously published adventures of his cast still counted for something. Poor Mike Moran’s past heroic exploits were the product, according to Moore, of a form of virtual reality in which delightfully absurd pot-boilers had been endlessly played out. As such, many of Moran’s memories matched those of his longest-standing readers, and Moore could use them to represent the character’s values and aspirations, desires and despairs. If Marvelman’s past had been rebooted as a grand conspiratorial deception, then its fantastical events and stiff-upper lipped decency still resonated for Moran and reader alike. But Millar’s script for Vicious Games consigned everything that the reader had known of his cast’s characters and experiences to the realm of disordered delusion. Combined with The Spider’s new role as a petty, sadistic killer, it left Millar’s set-up radiating both cynicism and hopelessness. His tale of sociopathic and self-harming super-people undoubtedly possessed a significant degree of shock value. But Millar had cut his cast so far away from their origins that they seemed to function as little but an attention-seeking sneer at the past. Though Smash! had depicted the escapologist Janus Stark’s life and death in Victorian London,  Millar had placed him in the then-current day of 1992. Stark’s past adventures had obviously been nothing but hallucinations. The same could only be true of the Nazi-brawling wartime exploits of Captain Hurricane, who was portrayed as anything but an ageing veteran. Whatever pathos there might be found in the suffering of these men was almost entirely cancelled out by the sense that they’d only been brought back to life in order to seem pathetic. With no other possible reading seeded into the story, Millar seemed to have destroyed decades of backstory in return for a brief, passing moment of surprise and melancholy. It was that combined lack of respect and purpose which left Vicious Games seeming so tacky and disappointing.

Yet as Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell had proved two years before in Zenith Phase Three, a horrible fate for a number of well-loved and long-unseen characters need not feel ill-judged and exploitative. In fact, Morrison and Yeowell had cut their way through a crowd of clearly-recognizable versions of old-school UK comic book leads, and many of the deaths had been anything other than easy. But their approach was a deeply fond one, and the manner in which older versions of the likes of Billy The Cat and his cousin Katie met their ends accentuated rather than diminished their heroism. Of course, Morrison made sure that his sacrificial victims were analogues rather the original characters, and as such, Billy and Katie were renamed Tiger Tim and Tammy. Yet where the characters of Millar’s cast seemed unrecognizable even given their quasi-official status, Morrison and Yeowell’s cover versions had appeared to embody the precise qualities of their inspirations. That respectful approach neither inhibited the darkness of Zenith’s most impressive adventure nor stood in the way of some typical Morrison perversity. But in anchoring the adventure in a touching appreciation for the source material, the creators of Zenith Phase Three ensured they could draw on their older reader’s memories and emotions for far more than a brief charge of shock and outrage.

Where the Millar of just a few years before had written passionately to Fantasy Advertiser about his disdain for John Byrne’s reboot of Superman, now he was enthusiastically doing far worse to a host of dearly-loved British characters. (*5) In the absence of a substantial story, Millar’s methods seemed at best ill-judged, and at worst, arrogant and attention-seeking. In a story in which everyone on show was either evil, unpleasant, insane or simple cannon-fodder, who was there to represent the reader and what was there to hope for? As in The Saviour, Millar had produced a form of superhero story in which the costumed bad guy faced no convincing opposition at all. Only the nameless Tube passenger at the tale’s end who lends The Spider her lipstick seems to embody any appealing human virtues at all beyond vulnerability. But predictably enough, Vicious Games ends with the onslaught of her senseless, meaningless murder.  The implication appears to be that there’s pleasure to be taken in The Spider’s torturing and Tri-Man’s suffering, but an audience for such a grisly, despairing prospect seems, now as then, unlikely. Though Millar would eventually learn how to make his fascination with the triumph of Supervillains perversely compelling, his reboot of The Spider stands as an example of how not to kick-start hibernating franchises. (*6)

To be continued.


*1:- Of all the down-at-heel properties shown, only the monster-hunting psychic Cursitor Doom would appear elsewhere in the Action Special, in a tale by John Tomlinson and Jim Baikie. There seems to be no connection between the two stories, which means that there probably wasn’t any intention of creating a shared continuity featuring these characters.

*2:- There never was a Tri-Man Annual in “our” world, but the character was the star of the cover of 1971′s Smash Annual, a brief moment of the limelight somewhat compromised by the miscolouring of his costume. It’s tempting to think that the young Millar had once owned the same Annual, or at least been given access to it for this assignment. (That cover is the second scan above.)

*3:- Alan Moore and Gary Leach’s reboot of Marvelman arrived with the first issue of Warrior in the March of 1982. It’s impact on both sides of the Pond was, of course, far, far out of proportion to the relatively small number of issues that were sold.

*4:- The Wiki summary of Care In The Community is a useful starting point for anyone curious about Millar’s inspiration. The section entitled “The Impact Of The Community Care Reforms” would probably best summarise what Millar’s objections appeared to be to the policy as adopted by The Tories. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Care_in_the_community

*5:- Letter by Millar from “No-Man’s Land”, pg 69, FA #100, May 1988

*6:- That the lessons were learned is obvious from Millar’s later achievements. To take one example of how his early ideas would eventually be hammered into the shape, the connection between 1991’s unconvincing prison drama Insiders and Wanted is too obvious to ignore. Insiders is in many ways a dry run for Wanted, and its final panel effectively reappears in the last frame of its film-inspiring successor. Millar’s so often accused of repeating the same stories over and over, but his success has lain in the way that he’s polished and polished the form of his fascinations until they work.

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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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