Continued from last week.
Laughter can be used to reveal prejudice before the mind has the chance to stifle it. But the Millar of the period gave no sign that he disapproved of his own heartless punch lines. The impression that’s so often given is that he actually found them hilarious, and that he expected his readers to be complicit in finding them hilarious too. (1) “Ugly” women seem to have been something that Millar found particularly amusing. In 1992′s comedy-noir Red Razors: The Secret Origin Of Comrade Ed, the pathetically lovelorn and grotesque Katy is the butt of his bantering. Besotted with Ed, who’s “the sort of guy every girl fancied”, she has her brutal father impose a shotgun wedding. So harsh a business is it that the desperate Ed flees to another continent and pays to assume the form of a talking police horse. Yet even more than the understandable terror of a hoodlum’s vengeance, it’s the horror of being trapped with a clinging and unattractive women that radiates from the page. The story’s climax relies on the reader wanting to see this pathetic, deluded women suffer, and suffer she certainly does. Disarmed by Ed’s disingenuous protestations that he now truly loves her, and therefore of no danger to anyone at all, Katy is suddenly run over and then riddled with bullets by Ed’s crime-fighting partner, Red Razors.
It’s a scene that largely relies on the reader taking a malicious delight in the suffering of a grotesque and despised woman. “Fifty creds says she doesn’t make it to the hospital.”, declares Red Razors in the final panel as he and Ed leave the scene without Katy, and the joshing bonding of the two departing male leads makes it plain that evil has been defeated and justice done. An awkward mix of Millar’s absurd story and artist Steve Yeowell’s darkly realistic artwork, the basic plot of The Secret Origin Of Comrade Ed could have worked perfectly well without the mocking loathing of Katy’s appearance being added to the mix. But Millar obviously found the laughs that might be wrung from the never-to-be-fulfilled longings of an overweight, bespectacled, hawknosed, wart-faced, desperately obsessive Southern-hick caricature of a woman all too amusing to resist.
He seems to have found the very idea of stereotypical elderly women similarly amusing. For the same year’s Robo-Hunter in Killer Grannies, he unblushingly purloined the set-up of Monty Python’s 1969 Hell’s Grannies sketch and hitched it to yet another swipe at the Conservative Government’s social policies. (*2) It’s a political stand that’s thoroughly undermined by the nine-page strip’s final panel. Irreversibly corrupted through private medical procedures involving the knock-off spare parts of a killer android , the deadly “grey lib” biker gang are finally defeated when they succumb to the call of their habitual afternoon naps. Told by a policeman that the women would be facing life if they’d been culpable for their crimes, Robohunter disdainfully declares;
“What’s the point chief? Life for these old bats is probably two or three weeks at most.”
Matching outrage at the Tory government’s attitude towards the elderly with an adolescent contempt for the aged, Robo-Hunter in Killer Grannies is painfully sophomoric storytelling. It doesn’t even strike a convincing note where Robohunter’s character is concerned, for Millar has already established that Sam Slade is genuinely fond of his beloved grandmother, who’s one of the “old bats” that are soon for the grave. But at least that tale’s unwitting antagonists had an arc, of sorts, for all that it’s childishly condescending. In the prison-breakout serial that’s 1993’s Purgatory, Millar appears to have simply forgotten that he had a female supporting character in play after two of the story’s eight chapters. Existing only to represent weakness and despair, ex-Judge DeGualle is initially both the only woman in sight and the only psychical and psychologically weak character to be seen at all. In the first chapter, DeGualle is shown “crying all the time”. In the second, she’s only saved from a brutal assault by the heroics of a chainsaw-wielding male prisoner. At that point, she simply disappears from the tale, although it’s probable that artist Carlos Ezquerra later depicts her in the background of a crowd scene. Whether she recovered from her pummeling, whether she overcame her despair, whether she attained some measure of revenge; none of that obviously mattered to Millar. She’d functioned to establish the male characters’ machismo, and that was all she existed to do.
As with gender, so with race. It wasn’t just that Millar seemed as regrettably apathetic about the subject as a great many other comics writers, then as sadly now, and on both side of the Atlantic too. Even when a black competitor suddenly appeared in Babe Race 2000, her’s was a wordless, characterless walk-on part, and her gruesome murder followed in just a few panels. The vast majority of his work for Fleetway prior to the debut of his Swamp Thing stories featured little but homogenized Caucasians, themselves largely free of any convincing sign of class or culture. Only the repeated and voluminous references to Catholicism would lent Millar’s scripts any trace of real-world diversity at all.
Considerably more distasteful yet was the figure of “Charlie Chan”, a wretched oriental stereotype depicted by artist Jose Casanovas Sr who made several brief cameos in Millar’s run on Robohunter. With a pantomime take on Chinese traditional garb, protruding teeth, difficulty with English, an obsequiously cheerful manner and the habit of referring to Robohunter as “Mister Sam”, the bar-owner was clearly intended to function as comic relief. Was the very explicitness of the racism intended to suggest that Millar couldn’t possibly believe in the offensive values that the stereotype radiated? The toxically self-serving defense that what passed for “irony” could gut such representations of their offensiveness, of their inherent cruelty, was all-too-prevalent in the laddish quarter of Britain’s media in the Nineties. Perhaps Millar simply believed that racism was no longer a very real and deeply disturbing problem, or that everyone reading his work must surely know what a deeply caring liberal he actually was. For he seems to have thought that his own definition of harmless fun would inevitably be shared by everyone but the humorless and politically correct.
As if to cap what was already an incredibly ill-judged choice, the final chapter of 1993′s Serial Stunners found “Charlie” being used to deliver a homophobic punch-line. Noting that Robohunter is still wearing the make-up he’d earlier been using as a disguise, the barman declares;
“Well, tonight sure is night for celebrations, Mister Sam …. like maybe some handsome G.I. come smear your lip-stick, huh?”
That Millar intended the very idea of being kissed by a man to be repugnant to Robohunter is clearly shown in the closing shot of Slade spitting out his beer in horror. It’s a sequence that can’t have been intended as a satire of homophobia, for it’s only amusing if the reader shares Slade’s extreme distaste for the very thought of kissing another man, or at even being thought to have done so. By contrast, Robohunter’s laddish heterosexuality could apparently excuse a multitude of sins. More than that, Millar obviously intended the character’s predatory, conscienceless pursuit of throwaway sex to be highly amusing. At the conclusion of Ace Of Slades, Robohunter appears to be comforting a women who’s just lost her dearest friend. But events suddenly take a distastefully blokeish turn. As the traumatised Shaz’s face is contorted with grief, Slade leers at the reader with an unmistakably carnal ambition;
Robohunter’s narration: I suggest dinner at my place and Shaz smiles and thanks me for being such a nice, caring guy.
Robohunter, to distressed, bereaved woman: “Now c’mon honey… I expect there must be a lot you want to get off your chest!”
Heartlessly taking advantage of a woman’s despair in order to seduce her was, it seems, a thoroughly comical business to Millar.
As might be expected, Millar’s tenure on Robohunter would prove to be an extremely controversial one, and not least with some of 2000AD’s most respected and senior writers.
To be continued, with a last look at the politics of Millar’s work on the eve of his first being published by DC, and the beginning of a discussion of his last superhero for 2000AD, Canon Fodder.
*1:- Only in Big Dave, his 1993 collaboration with Grant Morrison, is something of a contradictory impression given during this period. As a collaboration with Morrison, I’ll be returning to it later.
*2:- There’s a sequence “homaging” 1980’s “The Shining” too. Millar really does seem to have often regarded storytelling as a matter of simply weaving scenes together from different TV shows, comics and movies.