Continued from last week.
But Millar’s work for Fleetway often went far beyond casual, unthinking sexism. As the months passed and the examples of this piled up, he gave every impression of being a died-in-the-wool misogynist. At the very least, Millar appeared hellbent on baiting anyone who might object to his right to be thoroughly, disturbingly chauvinistic. What might have passed as just another example of blokeish comic book writing, had it appeared in a single story, quickly accumulated into a worryingly comprehensive portfolio of illiberal tales. No story was too short, it seems, and no strip too well-established for Millar not to lob in a hand-grenade of insensitivity or four into his work.
In late 1992’s comic-conspiracy one-off Venture Into the Uncanny, Millar told of mankind’s — though not humanity’s — ancient and unending war with a race of “Dark Spider Gods”. (*1) Once a year, during what had been the now-forgotten thirteenth month of “Arachne”, the slightest “dirty thought” from a male would open a “gateway to the abyss”, and through it would come the “deadly, black and hairy” monsters who’d gruesomely slaughter the planet’s young men. The only one alive who appears to know of this secret history is the elderly Amadeus Dunne, who, instructing his grandson Timmy in the terrible truth of things, explains that women are “in league with the spiders”. Despite their not knowing anything of the Spider Gods’ existence or purpose, women are, it seems, naturally in league with the alien arachnid’s man-chomping mission. “Never trust a woman” is Amadeus Dunne’s message, and Timmy is warned that even his loving Nan will “eat (him) alive!”.
It seems possible that Millar was trying in some fashion to comment on Catholicism’s traditional association of women’s sexuality with the temptations of sin and the threat of damnation. But any possible good, or even smart-minded, intentions were short-circuited by the cack-handed fashion in which the tale was played out. Dunne’s absolute conviction that women were inherently sinful would have nothing at all to do with the working out of the story. Sprinkled into its first scene and never mentioned again, the idea of women as untrustworthy enemies of men could easily have been excised without anything of the plot being lost. As such, the Grandfather’s sexism seems to exist for no other reason than winding up the more easily offended liberals in 2000AD’s readership. With the old man being consistently portrayed as an admirable if eccentric character, the script offers little reason for his worldview to be doubted, let alone undermined, and what might have been an effective satire of sexism ends up radiating the belief that the baldfaced expression of sexism is somehow amusing in itself. Though it’s entirely impossible to believe that Millar himself saw womankind as an eternal treat to his own sex, he does appear to have found the expression of raw misogyny endlessly entertaining.
It is, at a charitable stretch and with a considerable degree of work, possible to make Venture Into the Uncanny yield a less callous meaning. At its conclusion, the Spider Gods catastrophically break back into the world through the well-meaning though ignorant actions of Dunne’s grandson. With women having played no part in this disaster, the story can be made to suggest that innocent young lads can inadvertently bring evil into the world too. Yet even such an effort to lend the story a meaning that’s consistent with Millar’s stated politics falls well short of doing so. It would still leave the story arguing that all women are terrifyingly sinful, and it would do nothing to suggest that they actually have far more to fear from the male of the species than vice-versa. Of all the possible explanations for the world’s woes that can be teased out of Venture Into the Uncanny, the deliberate actions of men as individuals and in groups is tellingly absent. At best, Millar’s script was careless, confusing and unfortunate in its implications. At worst, it seemed designed at least in part to irritate and goad with its conspicuous use of reactionary principles.
Millar, it seems, just couldn’t resist playing with prejudices in a way that might at the very least irritate a number of his readers. To embed such controversial ideas into the structure of a carefully worked polemic doesn’t seem to have appealed. It’s as if he expected his audience to know that he regarded himself as a liberal, and to therefore grasp that he was always critical of the less enlightened beliefs that peppered his work. Whether that’s true or not, he certainly seems to have lacked the enthusiasm for investing his energies in tales which obviously supported liberal causes. Yet the same motivation never appears to have been lacking when it came to the expression of reactionary ideas. If his intention was even in part satirical, then the absence of any obviously principled stand in favor of women’s rights leaves his body of work for 2000AD seeming profoundly unbalanced and repeatedly chauvinistic. It’s surely hardly surprising that he’s so often been taken for a deeply conservative writer, although Millar himself has always professed shock at any such a response.
For 1994’s ominously-titled Babe Race 2000, Millar lifted the basic premise of director Paul Bartel’s 1975 exploitation-SciFi movie Death Race 2000. Once again, the call of media associated with his childhood years had proven irresistible; Millar even awkwardly appropriated the climax of the same year’s Rollerball too. But in Millar’s tale, and for some entirely unexplained reason, the gladiatorial competitors in his deadly, globe-spanning pseudo-sport were all pornstar-esque female warriors. For week after week after week, this astonishingly under-written strip focused on little but the sight of a cadre of psychotic, hypersexualised women slaughtering one another while constantly calling each other bitches. The suspicion lurks that Millar was trying in some way to satirise how women were frequently represented in the worst of the post-Image superhero comics of the mid-’90s. Williams’ artwork certainly seems to be deliberately and constantly referencing one broke-backed, Liefeldian excess or another. But the humour is so lacking in originality and variety, and the story so gratuitously and carelessly told, that any possible anti-sexist message fails to escape the fug of trying-too-hard laddishness.
Was Millar, as seems highly likely, out to provoke for the sake of it? Was he convinced that the relentless inane representation of misogyny was hilarious in itself? Did he think that a story manically packed full of stereotypes would stand as a Rabelaisian challenge to po-faced Political Correctness, or did he believe that a satire only needs to replicate its target in order for it to be cutting, oppositional and principled? Yet any satire that’s indistinguishable from its target runs the risk of seeming to be the very thing it’s criticising. In Babe Race 2000, Millar produced a strip that was not only inspirationless hackwork, but as crass as any other mainstream action / adventure comic in the English-speaking world of the period.
As such, the tale-closing decision by Joy Hogg — the pornstar-esque lead of the strip — to abandon her life of uber-violence and autonomy in order to become a suburban wife and mother seems an entirely dubious one for an avowedly liberal writer to make. With women’s choices in Babe Race 2000 limited to destructively selfish independence and the fulfilment of a solidly traditional existence, only the latter seems to have Millar’s support. The role traditionally occupied by a macho hero, argues Babe Race 2000, can only have deleterious consequences for the naturally homemaking female of the species. If anything appeared to have been satirised by the feature, it was the idea that women could ever be heroic protagonists in their own right.
But long before that final hairpin plot twist, Joy Hogg had helped run down a crowd of killjoy feminists bent on obstructing what they saw as “a slap in the face to female dignity and liberation… (a) sexist meat rack”. It’s a scene that’s played crudely and cruelly for laughs, with the members of “The Fat Women’s Movement” portrayed in the least appealing moral and physical fashions possible. As the “Babe Race” bears down on them, all but the protest’s self-righteous leader gives way to what’s portrayed as cowardly self-interest. Running away, they leave their spokeswoman to be ground under the wheels of the Babe’s fantastic and deadly vehicles. It’s a blithely vicious scene that’s indistinguishable from schoolboy misogyny, and that’s exactly how it reads.
However, that nameless, despised victim of the first stage of the Babe Race 2000 wasn’t the only chauvinistic cliché of a supposedly unattractive woman to be viciously run over in Millar’s seemingly-desperate search for schoolboy-thrilling belly laughs.
To be continued.
*1:- Millar’s contributions to artist Rian Hughes’ “Tales From Beyond Science” were by far his most successful scripts in the period prior to his work on 1999’s “Superman Adventures”. Even “Venture Into The Uncanny” has much to recommend it beyond its unfortunate approach to gender. Witty, imaginative and quite deliberately silly, his collaborations with Hughes played to Millar’s love of conspiracy theories, which I’ve discussed here before. The scans from this particular TFBS story are from the recent hardback collection of series, which despite Millar’s sexism in the one tale, is to my mind an essential purchase. Other stories in the edition are by John Smith and Alan McKenzie, and Hughes – whose work is charmingly retro and sharp throughout – has added some engaging bonus material too. The Amazon.co.uk page for the book can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tales-From-Beyond-Science-Millar/dp/1607064715/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1376650718&sr=8-1&keywords=tales+from+beyond+science