“Comic Books Most Dripping-Wet Liberal”:

Shameless? Part 24

Continued from last week.

The image of Millar as a tykish, daring and promising newcomer was wearing through by the end of 1992. What had at first seemed like boyish ambition, conspicuous potential and a novice’s quirky shortcomings now all-too-often chaffed as hubris, indolence and cruelty. A mass of technical deficiencies forgivable in a newcomer were anything but in a professional of four years standing, while the youthful audacity evidenced in Millar’s earliest interviews had now calloused over into a teeth-grindingly arrogant persona. Yet even as his scripts remained mired in lifted scenes and senseless, gratuitous twists, his public declarations of his own worth became ever more strident.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of his work for Fleetway was the contempt for the least powerful groups in society which now typically infused his stories. Whatever it was that had caused him to take so against Thatcher, her work and her heirs, it no longer seemed to be rooted in a recognisably liberal system of values. If aspects of the Conservative project desperately needed reversing, or so the cumulative logic of Millar’s strips seemed to run, then the toxic levels of sexism, racism, homophobia and ageism in British society could be left exactly as they were. Indeed, Millar frequently revelled in the cruellest of stereotypes, and the punchlines and pay-offs of his stories often relied upon his readers being similarly disdainful. Rather than expressing any consistent and forcible opposition to social injustice, Millar’s scripts typically revelled in it. For anyone who struggled to find the crudest of clichés hilarious, Millar’s work seemed to be becoming ever more reactionary.

from Purgatory in 1993’s 2000AD 835, art by Carlos Ezquerra

As such, his tales for Fleetway consistently transmitted two apparently contradictory world-views. In the first, the New Right project was persistently decried for the corrosive and atomising selfishness it encouraged. In the second, a profoundly backwards-looking creed was suggested by the relentless and enthusiastic use of demeaning social stereotypes. For when Millar’s tales weren’t empty of anyone except for white males, they regularly featured one-dimensional caricatures of camp and dangerous gay men, women whose lives lacked agency of any kind, unfortunate racial stereotypes, daft old pensioners, and so on. Sadly, positive representations of the same very rarely if ever appeared. The very demeaning clichés which Britain’s alternative comedians had set out so successfully to challenge in the late 70s and early 80s were in Millar’s 2000AD stories given centre-stage. That tension between an avowed radical agenda and unmistakably reactionary content has continued to mark much of Millar’s work since, although rarely has the problem been as relentlessly pronounced as it was during this period.

from Maniac 5 II in 1994’s 2000AD 861, art by Steve Yeowell

The only way to reconcile such contradictions is to view Millar as a predominantly “wet” conservative writer who fiercely disapproves of free market ideologies. Given that, his loathing for Monetarism and his fondness for derogatory, regressive stereotypes can be made to sit comfortably one with the other. Indeed, it’s the only reading that can resolve the political contradictions in his work, although Millar would undoubtedly swat away any such a suggestion. From The Saviour to Robohunter, from The Spider to Maniac5, the young Millar’s work suggests a man enraged by the rapacious destruction of traditional communities and their values. Yet he shows little apparent sympathy for those groups which have always tended to be treated inequitably. For all that Millar might announce that he’s “comic books most dripping-wet liberal”, his work has persistently – although not exclusively – suggested otherwise. (*1). If there is a suggestion of a better world in his Fleetway scripts, it’s that of the sexist, homophobic, racist, and ageist Britain of the pre-Thatcher Seventies. As we’ve already discussed, there’s an apparently deep nostalgia for the fictions of his childhood running throughout Millar’s work in the first half of the Nineties. From Mr Benn in Judge Dredd to Starsky & Hutch and Welcome Back Kotter in Red Razors, Millar’s future-worlds were repeatedly built on his childhood memories. But beneath that media veneer seems to lurk the taken-for-granted values of the great majority of the UK’s citizens in the era of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan. Regardless of whether Millar was depicting a SF take on the 20th, 23rd, or 30th century, his social landscapes regularly felt unsettling reminiscent of the Britain of 1975 (*2)

from The Grudge-Father in 1994’s 2000AD 882, art by Jim McCarthy

The charge that his work for 2000AD was persistently misogynistic, for example, is surely impossible to refute. His was a sexism that went far beyond the typical degree of ethical myopia that still sadly characterizes so many blokish action/adventure comics. At its least questionable, Millar’s pages reflected a profound lack of interest in anything but white male characters. Where the likes of Canon Fodder, Red Razors II, The Grudge-Father, Judge Dredd: Crusade, and Silo, to name but a few, feature women at all, it’s in nothing but the most fleeting of walk-on parts. (*3) Elsewhere, slightly more substantial roles Only result in women serving as plot-driving victims, contemptuous punchlines, or objects of desire. In Robohunter, the adolescent Dot and the supposedly hilariously corpulent Trace exist only to be murdered, while the female Peace-Keepers in Rogue Trooper double up their traditional roles as principled caretakers and handsome rape-bait. Even as feminism’s third wave gathered pace, Millar was consistently presenting women as – at best -  peripheral to the laddish priorities of his scripts. If this, or any part of this, was intended as an ironic comment on political correctness, it failed in its objective.

Next: warrior women who just want to get married and have kids, female characters who simply disappear from stories once they’ve been beaten up, fat and ugly and faithless feminists, and the women – all of them – as the natural allies of spider-gods and the deadly enemies of men. And worse.


*1:- As quoted at http://fanboyrampage.blogspot.co.uk/2005_02_01_fanboyrampage_archive.html#110865797772617017

*2:- I’m aware that Big Dave might be used to counter this argument. For whatever it’s worth, I’ll be returning to that strip in the near future.

*3:- Several of the titles I’ve mentioned were significant collaborations; The Grudge Father with Jim McCarthy, Crusade with Grant Morrison. Millar’s Fleetway work was remarkably consistent regardless of whether he was collaborating to any significant degree or not. By contrast, the same couldn’t be said of Grant Morrison’s 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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Also by Colin Smith:

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