“The Best Thing Since Dark Knight, Possibly Better”:

Shameless? Part 23

The Steve Yeowell cover – featuring his and Grant Morrison’s Zenith, of course – to X-static #1, the fanzine in which the first of Martin Conaghan’s “interviews” with Morrison and Millar appeared.

Continued from last week.

Despite years of cold shoulders and rejection letters, Millar’s determination to write for the major players in the American comics industry never seems to have wavered. In particular, he continued to long to work for DC Comics. The hopes he’d expressed in 1991 to Gordon Rennie of writing The Phantom Stranger and Hellblazer were never fulfilled, but that doesn’t appear to have diminished either his ambition or his tenacity. (*1) By 1992, Millar was letting it be known – through Martin Conaghan’s notoriously semi-fictionalised interview in X-Static #1 – that he “was working on a whole hoard of projects for DC and Fleetway”. (*2) Whether those “projects” for DC were on spec or commission wasn’t made clear, but the implication was that Millar was now working on both sides of the Atlantic. The evidence for the truth of that remains tenuous, although it does seem that another proposal for his long-stewing Superman: Red Son tale was certainly submitted in that year. (It would be more than another decade before the series finally saw print.) But it’s impossible to say whether Millar really had his foot in the door at DC during 1992, or whether he was just trying to create the impression that he was destined to do so at some time in the very near future. Yet regardless of the facts, his desire to work for the company remained palpable. Even when he and Grant Morrison had landed the opportunity to revamp Swamp Thing for the DC imprint Vertigo in 1993, Millar still seemed keen on talking up his chances for more work with the company. (*3) In another of Conaghan’s pseudo-interviews with Millar and Morrison, as printed in 1993’s Comics World #18, the following appeared;

“Steve Yeowell and I are doing the Superman/Batman team-up for DC called Elseworld’s Finest -  which I’ve spoken about in another interview and I refuse to discuss at this point – but it’s going to be the big thing in ’94. Archie Goodwin said he thought it was the best thing since Dark Knight, possibly better.” (*4)

Steve Yeowell’s cover to 1996’s Legends Of The Dark Knight #79

No such project would ever appear, although it’s possible that Millar was discussing yet another reworking of the Red Son pitch. Though he and Yeowell would eventually share a byline in the credit box of an Archie Goodwin-edited DC title, it would be the one-off Christmas tale that appeared in January 1996′s Legends of the Dark Knight. Nevertheless, the sense that was once again given was that Millar was already following in the footsteps of the American market-conquering Moore, Gaiman, and, of course, Morrison.

But despite Millar’s unswervable determination to work for DC, his scripts for Fleetway showed little sign of having been produced with even one eye on impressing New York-based decision makers. In fact, Millar never seems to have side-stepped an opportunity to take a contemptuous swipe at both America and Americans in his scripts for 2000AD and its associated titles. Of course, many other British writers had secured work across the Pond after critiquing the USA in some of their work. But none of the many Brits who’d secured American assignments in the post-Moore period had shared Millar’s conspicuous yearning to prosper in the superhero mainstream. It was as if Millar had set out to land a contract as an AOR balladeer while producing a series of Punk Rock demo tapes. For with the exception of Pat Mills, who’d never once aspired to tell tales of traditional superheroics, no-one could match Millar for the unrelentingly dismissive scorn and mockery of America that he ladled out. Regrettably, he mixed that blunt invective with little of the manic invention and invigorating craftmanship which marked the likes of Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshall Law. Whether clones of Elvis, robot Reagans or future takes on contemporary politicians, America’s neo-Fascist rulers were nearly all cynical mass murderers in command of a nation of gung-ho warriors, religious maniacs and mindless consumers. The appearance of a recognisably normal and endearing American family in the second Maniac 5 serial – as published in 1995 – was a rare exception to this rule.

One of those fiendish American operatives so beloved of Millar’s stories in the period, here pointing a very big gun at Robohunter’s harmless mom. The art’s by Anthony Williams, from the 8th chapter of the interminable Escape From Bisleyland, which appeared in 2000AD # 757.

As satire, it was all as numbingly repetitive as it was blindingly unsubtle, although the same could be said of Millar’s habitual sneering at Thatcherism and his loathing for what he seems to have understood as political correctness. Yet where he on occasion showed a fondness for both Scotland and the United Kingdom, America stood only as a target for polemical point-scoring. On the basis of his stories, it would have been understandably easy to peg Millar as a passionately anti-American writer, although it should be noted that he tended to present all non-British nationals in terms of broad and often insulting stereotypes during the period. (*5/6) Something of why he’d tended to take such an approach in his career to the Republic was offered up in a 2013 interview with Kiel Phegley on the politics of that year’s Jupiter’s Legacy;

“Everything I’ve done up until now, like most British writers, has been very anti-authoritarian … That ideal – that 1776 one – is a very sweet thing…it might not be around forever. So I kind of wanted to write a book about how awesome America is …I like the idea of America.” (*7)

At the very worst, it seems, Millar has always had a great deal of respect and fondness for the “idea”, if not always the reality, of America. It’s not, of course, an unreasonable position. Yet the crass and monotonous way in which it’s frequently expressed in his earliest work left him seeming anything but reasonable.

From the first episode of Steve Yeowell and Millar’s Maniac 5, from 1993’s 2000AD #842.

But then Millar’s work for Fleetway was equally scathing when it came to the very genre that he most wanted to work within. Whenever a superhero appeared in his stories, it was there to be either mocked or twisted into a disturbingly unfamiliar product. With both The Saviour and The Spider, Millar had chosen to present the superhero in a form that was highly unlikely to appeal to the American market. To the reader who wasn’t aware of how Millar was attempting to woo DC, his scripts for 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine could read like the work of a man who wouldn’t ever dream of detailing Superman and Batman’s adventures. Whatever else might be said of Millar’s eye for commercial advantage, he was hardly guilty of using his British assignments to obviously further his career in the USA. In fact, he seemed to have produced a portfolio of work for Fleetway in the first half of the Nineties that was unlikely to appeal to anyone but the editors at that company. Yet within two years of The Spider, and after just one more perverse take on the superhero in the form of Canon Fodder, Millar would be ensconced as the writer of Vertigo’s first flagship title, Swamp Thing. With that would come the opportunity to play on the periphery of DC’s Universe itself.

That he managed to haul himself that far and that quickly up the greasy pole is even more remarkable given the reactionary way in which he’d repeatedly represented gender, race, sexuality and age. DC wouldn’t just be hiring an unpolished storyteller whose published work had been radically different from their typical fare. They were also taking a punt on a man whose scripts had frequently contained a considerable degree of – to put it kindly – controversial material.

To be continued.


*1:- Interview with Gordon Rennie, Fantazia #12, 1991

*2:- Interview of Millar & Morrison by Martin Conaghan in the 1992 fanzine Xstatic #2. (see *4)

*3:- Though the first of the two men’s credited collaboration on Swamp Thing wasn’t published until March 1994, Millar had implied it was a done deal in the previous year’s Comics World #18 (See *4)

*4:- As I’ve footnoted in a previous section of “Shameless?”, Conaghan later wrote that several of his interviews with Morrison and Millar from the period – including both of those credited in these notes – were “almost entirely fake” and “pure theatre”. They were, however, produced in collaboration with his subjects, or at the very least with their connivance, and they do contain information which appears to be quite trustworthy. Where Millar’s ambition and self-promotion is concerned, what’s telling is that he allowed Conaghan’s articles to go to print with the implication that he was already – as of mid-1992 – a big fish at DC. That tells us what the Millar of the period was happy to have us believe. And so, whether Elseworld’s Finest had ever been given a definite go-ahead, and whether Archie Goodwin really had thought so very highly of it, is almost by-the-by. The fact that Millar was happy for Conaghan to print such material shows us what Millar wanted the world to know, or at the very least, believe.

*5:- Such an accusation would end up being hurled in Millar’s direction during his tenure on The Ultimates, as we’ll later discuss.

*6:- The presence of those broad national stereotypes and the impression of xenophobia that they kicked up will be discussed in the next few coming weeks. So too will be the fact that he was also quite happy to present Scottish stereotypes too.

*7:- We’ll also be returning to a major problem with Millar’s “anti-authoritarianism”, namely that he’s so often been thought of as attacking less powerful groups in society.  The quote is from the interview with Kiel Phegley, july 2013 at http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=46924

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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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