A Safe Pair of Hands?:

Shameless? Part 27

Art by Casanovas + Jr, from Robo-Hunter: Serial Stunners Part 4 in February 1993’s 2000AD #882.

Continued from last week.

Millar’s longest running assignment at 2000AD had been Robo-Hunter, for which he wrote several hundred pages between 1991 and 1993. (*1) Created by writer John Wagner and artists Jose Ferrer and Ian Gibson in 1978, the SF comedy-adventure strip featured the hard-boiled, hard-done-by P.I. Sam Slade and his struggles to defeat a succession of absurd mechanical menaces. Although absent from 2000AD since he’d been respectfully retired in the middle of the Eighties, Robo-Hunter had remained one of the comic’s more recognizable and fondly-regarded properties. Ever the wave-making iconoclast, Millar retained little of what he’d inherited from Robo-Hunter’s considerable history beyond the broadest outlines of the character’s mission. The result has rarely been remembered fondly, with everything from Slade’s long-established personality to the wry tone of his misadventures being abruptly and irreverently transformed. Rather than reinvigorating the strip, Millar had replaced its charms with a morass of inane self-indulgence, obviously derivative plots and carelessly wayward storytelling. So poorly regarded is his run that 2000AD took the unprecedented decision to omit it in its entirety from their doorstep-thick reprint collections of Sam Slade’s misadventures. With Millar’s entire contribution conspicuously deleted from the record, 2010′s doorstop-thick Robo-Hunter; The Droid Files Volume 2 jumps straight from Wagner, Grant and Gibson’s 1985 tales to those of 1993’s fall, by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes. (*2)

Cover art to Robo-Hunter; The Droid Files Volume 2 by Ian Gibson

But it wasn’t just a section of 2000AD’s readership that was disappointed with Millar’s work on Robo-Hunter. Slade’s co-creator John Wagner had originally raised no objections to the feature being revived, but had been appalled by what he described in David Bishop’s Thrill-Power Overload; Thirty Years Of 2000AD as an “abomination” and “a pile of crap”;

“I can’t remember what it was about Mark’s first Robo-Hunter that irked me – I’ve expunged it from my mind. I phoned Richard (Burton, 2000AD’s then-editor) to request no further series, but he already had another two in the can. After that all further representations were ignored.” (*3)

There’s a certain irony in the fact that Wagner took against Millar’s earliest work on Robo-Hunter, for later series would prove to be both far less entertaining and far less edifying.

Wagner wasn’t the only previous writer of Robo-Hunter to feel aggrieved by Millar. Alan Grant, whose generous support of Millar in 1989 we’ve already discussed, was infuriated by the younger man’s dismissive reference to him as part of a burnt-out generation of past-it writers. (*4) In his turn, Millar appeared to have taken umbrage at a report of Grant’s poor opinion of many of the 2000AD’s newest wave of writers. (Eventually, as we’ve seen, Millar would come to share such a poor opinion of the great majority of his own work for Fleetway.) In an interview in 2008’s Judge Dredd Megazine # 268, a clearly still-aggravated Grant explained;

“For my sins I helped Mark Millar … We let him stay at our house. A week later he’s in the papers saying him and Grant Morrison are the true masters of comics, not like yesterday’s men who live in big houses full of antiques. F*** you! I gave you your f**king tea! Why didn’t you say that when you were here? The answer, of course, is simple – he’d have gotten a broken nose for his troubles.” (*5)

Art by Anthony Williams from Robohunter Ace Of Slades Part 2, in December 1992’s 2000AD #814.

Millar’s tenure on Robo-Hunter had, whether willingly or not, come to an end in early 1993, although his career at 2000AD would actually go on to greater success. Logic suggests that his long string of Sam Slade tales would have stood as the best evidence of both his skill with franchise properties and his disposition as a team player when Vertigo was considering hiring him. If so, that material might have tended to suggest that Millar wasn’t yet ready for the prime-time he’d long aspired to. Nor would it have indicated that he was an entirely reliable and safe pair of hands when it came to public relations and his dealings with all of his fellow professionals. How then did Millar land the privilege of taking charge of one of Vertigo’s most successful and prestigious titles?

Though his bold and crudely exuberant writing was still capable of suggesting that he might yet develop into a significant talent, it had notably failed to develop in the years since the premature demise of The Saviour. In certain key aspects, it could even be said to have degenerated. If his pitches to American publishers had been at all enticing, as the wonderful high concept of Superman: Red Son would suggest, none had proven so compelling that they’d resulted in a signed contract. Perhaps his regular appearances in 2000AD had helped lend his Stateside reputation a certain luster. Though the comic’s once-inspirational qualities had actually been in serious decline for several years, many of DC/Vertigo’s writers – from Moore, Morrison and Alan Grant, to John Smith, Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan – had originally been regular contributors to “the Galaxy’s greatest comic”. Because of that, an association with 2000AD could still bestow a considerable degree of kudos. In addition, there were undoubtedly elements of Millar’s professional practice that could have appealed, such as his impressive capacity to speedily produce scripts in quantity, if not necessarily quality. (A cash-strapped Millar once reportedly produced 30 short chapters of a Streets Of Rage series for the UK’s Sonic The Comic in a single sitting.) (*6) But however his apparent strengths and weaknesses were weighted, it seems that Grant Morrison’s loyal and persistent advocacy of Millar’s cause was ultimately the single most important factor in Vertigo hiring him;

“When I was offered the Swamp Thing series, I took the assignment on the condition that I would cowrite the first four with Mark to establish a new direction that he would continue under my supervision. I worked out a large-scale thematic structure based on a journey through the four elements and talked him through individual story arcs, even supplying dialogue and caption suggestions, which he applied diligently.” (7)

Art by Anthony Williams from Robohunter: Escape From Bisleyland Part 6, in November 1991’s 2000AD #755.

For all of the deliberately provocative statements that he’d been heard to make in the company of Millar, Morrison certainly was a creator that DC/Vertigo could afford to rely on. (*8) He and artist Dave McKean had produced the 1989 Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which had been a remarkably successful project in both commercial and critical terms. His lauded runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol which followed had seen Morrison reshape second and third-string characters into challenging, inventive and emotionally touching propositions. With an idiosyncratic and ambitious approach that was capable of being reader-friendly, artistically innovative and esoterically inspiring, Morrison’s work was already in step with Vertigo’s dark, adult-orientated house-style.

Even the ethics expressed in his writing were recognizably in keeping with what appeared at the time to be Vertigo’s distinctly progressive ethos. With its roots in Alan Moore’s anarchy-informed mid-Eighties work at DC, the imprint’s greatest success had come with Neil Gaiman’s decisively liberal Sandman. Very much his own man, Morrison’s beguilingly individualistic world-view expressed the fascinations of a similarly enthusiastic and inspired autodidact. As such, his writing reflected his own personal spins on topics including vegetarianism, animal rights, environmentalism, mind-expanding substances and experiences, mysticism and, typically, a fundamental distrust of established authority. (His comics would also radiate a deep and touching affection for the long history of the superhero genre too.) Of course, nobody could mistake the various writers who’d influenced and participated in Vertigo’s publications for a closely-aligned popular front. (Indeed, Moore and Morrison have often been publicly at loggerheads.) (*9) But what they all often had in common was work that was explicitly opposed, amongst many other things, to the heartless illogic of the reactionary right. Whatever considerable moral differences marked Vertigo’s output as a whole, the line could never be mistaken for one which represented crudely backwards-looking and socially excluding ideologies. (*10) No matter how contradictory and contentious the work of Moore, Morrison, Gaiman and their colleagues each might be, it was clear that they also shared an abhorrence of the absence of tolerance for social difference.

Art by Phil Hester and Kim Demulder, from January 1996’s Swamp Thing #162.

By contrast, and despite his consistent identification with the left, Millar’s scripts often had the unfortunate habit of expressing a series of worryingly divisive values. This was often particularly true where his work’s attitude to gender, sex and sexuality were concerned. We’ve already taken a look at the homophobia expressed in the story-closing punch-line to 1993’s Robo-Hunter: Ace Of Slades, which in itself might have been expected to raise concerns with Vertigo. After all, Swamp Thing had hosted stories which portrayed the bi-sexual supporting character Liz Tremayne in an obviously sympathetic manner, while the writer/artist Rich Veitch had in 1988 expressed a clear disdain for homophobia in the title’s 74the issue.

To be continued.

Notes

*1 – Millar’s final Robo-Hunter story was The Revenge Of Dr Robotski, which appeared in 1994′s 2000AD 881-4. I fear I can’t say whether this was an old script that had finally been found space for or a new, one-off tale. But the last regular Robo-Hunter chapter from Millar as part of his uninterrupted run would appear in early 1993′s 2000AD 827.

*2 – That doesn’t mean that the Millar episodes will never be reprinted. It may be that, since Millar’s version effectively functioned in its own continuity, Rebellion will issue it in its own collection. Still, it may be either carelessness or an open declaration of a negative opinion of Millar’s run that 2000AD’s own shop describes the second collection as “packed full of the very best of Sam Slade”. Actually, it contains everything that appeared in the strips history but Millar’s work, which implies that “best” means “anything but that man’s scripts”.

*3 – From pg 145 of Thrill-Powered Overload: Thirty Years Of 2000AD, David Bishop, Rebellion Press, 2007. If you’ve not had a chance to read the book, it’s well worth hunting down. For a history that’s actually published by the comic’s owners, it’s a remarkably open and honest read. It’s hard not to suspect that there’s a great deal that went unexpressed, and for a wide variety of reasons too. How could it be otherwise? But for all of that, it’s a fascinating, rewarding read.

*4– Alan Grant’s negative judgement is referred to the article in 1992’s XStatic #1, where Millar’s response appears to be expressed too. I’ve discussed Martin Conaghan’s pseudo-interviews of Morrison and Millar before, and I’ve touched on why certain aspects of them are still worth taking seriously. They certainly contributed to Millar’s image as an arrogant and ungrateful young writer whose achievements in no way excused his haughty manner and extreme self-regard. (It should, however, be noted that Millar’s disparaging words were often matched by those attributed to Morrison too.)

The degree to which the interviews were fabricated, and indeed not, was only made public long after they were published in XStatic #1 and Comics World #18. (See Conaghan’s fascinating comments about this at www.2000adonline.com/forum/index.php/topic.27253.120html )

*5:- Having shamefully discovered that I’m missing two huge boxes of old Megazines this very morning, I’ll have to add the interviewer for this piece later. My apologies. It’s certainly a fine interview, and Mr Grant is always worth listening to.

*6:- Memory tells me I’ve seen an interview with Millar where he discusses this, but the source is currently escaping me. But one source of this anecdote can be found here;

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sonicthecomic/message/13894

Millar certainly was prolific during the period, as Wagner’s quote in the piece above indicates. Completing three serials of Robo-Hunter before the first had been entirely published indicates that the Millar of this period was having no problems in meeting his deadlines. This would not – for a variety of reasons, including some which would have legitimately affected anybody’s output – be true for the second half of his career.

*7:- Grant Morrison, Supergods, Vintage, 2011

*8:- Even when interviewed by the teenage, amateur Millar for FA back in 1989, which we covered in the first few posts in this series, Morrison was capable of expressing some scathing opinions of DC.

*9:- Indeed, Moore and Morrison have often been at loggerheads over a number of issues. Pádraig Ó Méalóid expresses their clashes from Moore’s perspective here;

http://comicsbeat.com/alan-moore-and-superfolks-part-3-the-strange-case-of-grant-morrison-and-alan-moore/

By contrast, Laura Sneddon reflects Morrison’s stance at;

http://comicsbeat.com/the-strange-case-of-grant-morrison-and-alan-moore-as-told-by-grant-morrison/

*10:- To be a right-winger obviously isn’t to be by definition an advocate of social exclusion. Clearly a right-wing text from a right-wing writer, Bill Willingham’s “Fables” would become a critical and commercial success for Vertigo in the post-Millennium period, and yet – contrary to the crass reductionism of political mudslinging – it has never been anything other than a humane title. The pre-Nu52 Vertigo imprint could and did prosper with a wide variety of political sub-texts, but what its editor Karen Berger never commissioned was work that was explicitly and cruelly dismissive of individual and group rights.

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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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