Continued from last week.
The debate about the attitudes expressed in Millar’s work towards LGBT issues is hardly a new one. Even as early as 1993, Monaghan’s pseudo-interview with Millar and Morrison in Comic World #18 had discussed the response to their controversial use of homophobic language in the same year’s Big Dave strip. (*1) Concerns would continue even when Millar had moved on from 2000AD for the American market in the middle of the decade. In 1998, comics gossip columnist Rich Johnston would use the evidence of Millar’s Chester Williams: Super Cop in Swamp Thing #165 to forcibly argue that “Millar … is NOT a homophobe.” (*2/3) Though the 1996 comic had, as Johnston described, put “forward a remarkable defense of state homophobia along the lines of “it is healthy for a heterosexual society to be suspicious of homosexuality”, it was all obviously part of a broad-ranging satire at the expense of America’s Republican Party. In short, and as surely seems quite obvious, representations of homophobia on the page can be part and parcel of a critique of the very same. Understandably, Millar has always given short shrift to anyone who seems to be suggesting otherwise.
But Chester Williams: Super Cop was an untypically coherent and focused statement of principle on Millar’s part. Aggressively anti-homophobic, anti-sexist, and anti-racist, it clearly expressed the left-of-center principles that Millar has habitually claimed as his own. In presenting an alternative timeline in which Swamp Thing’s resident hippie was absurdly converted to the right-wing extremes of the period’s politics, Millar was able to both depict homophobia on the page while simultaneously condemning it. (*3) The ludicrous corruption of Chester Williams’ unimpeachably radical beliefs quite obviously indicated a world gone terribly wrong, for the character’s own eleven year history served as the moral conscience of his doppelganger’s despicable rise to the Oval Office. Because of that, scenes such as the machismo-powered curing of Liz Tremayne’s bi-sexuality suggested nothing but contempt for the terrifying bigotry that underpins conversion therapies.
It was a transparency of purpose that Millar’s introductory text page sarcastically underscored;
“I must say I’m delighted to see so many Americans embracing Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America reforms and I want to do my bit in this fight against the beliefs which almost destroyed your great country in the nineteen sixties.” (*4)
It was a caustically direct approach to politics that differed from much of what had been seen in Swamp Thing before. But the inclusive values that Millar was expressing were very much in keeping with those traditionally associated with the book. As such, Swamp Thing #165 is proof that Millar knows very well how to frame a story in order to project a series of specific ideological points. So what are we to make of all the times in which his scripts have suggested far less tolerant principles? Why, if Millar knows how to express himself with such precision, has his work so often seemed to radiate a contempt for the concerns it will inevitably provoke? (*5) For there’s far more that’s illiberal about Millar’s body of work than any liberal might be expected to feel comfortable with.
Nowhere is this more true than in the way his work for Fleetway represented aspects of the LGBT community. There, homosexuality only ever appeared as the mark of either an evil or a profoundly inadequate individual, while the very absence of heterosexuality was repeatedly presented an inherently comical matter. Time after time, behavior that a reactionary frame of mind might regard as trangressively unmanly was used to differentiate bad from good, the unacceptable from the norm, and those labels worked to encourage the reader to sneer, mock and hiss. If the stories didn’t express a naked hatred of such difference, they certainly transmitted a baffled mixture of uneasiness and laughing contempt. Both those who are clearly gay and those who aren’t stereotypically straight are repeatedly cast as brutal protagonists, depraved serial killers, hubristic scions of the arrogant upper orders, betrayers of desperately heroic enterprises, laughably unimpressive dandies, and so on.
It may be that Millar lacked the skills to control the politics suggested by his work during his time working at Fleetway. If so, it still leaves the question of why he used LGBT, and in particular gay, characters in such an insensitive way during the period. That was certainly true of the first of Millar’s characters to be openly identified as homosexual, who appeared in 1992’s Robo-Hunter: Return To Verdus. It’s hard to imagine that anyone labelled “Ducky Leatherpants” could be anything other than a lampoon of homophobia. Yet it’s also hard to see how the structure of Millar’s story and the content of his script could have been intended as even an inept stab at a vaguely well-meaning gesture. “Ducky” is an openly gay and spider-like alien Robo-Hunter who, with compound eyes and a great many arms, mixes a mincing manner with machismo-compliant fighting skills. In that, he’s nothing more than the very stereotype of a gay man who’s kitschly amusing and yet physically and sexually threatening too. Based on nothing more substantial, it seems, than a very passing familiarity with the Village People’s leather-clad Glenn Hughes and William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising, Ducky Leatherpants is anything but a purposefully progressive figure. With his mouth permanently contorted into a camp pout of a kiss, Ducky feyly refers to his fellow Robo-Hunters as “sweethearts” while expressing a preference for male lovers who are regular man’s men. Although apparently as reliable and brave as his fellow adventurers, Millar still has Ducky introduced by another Robo-Hunter with an apology for his sexuality;
“He’s camp as Christmas, but he’s good as gold. Not much to look at, but he’s one of the best (Robo-Hunters) in the business.”
In short, Ducky is an apparently valuable and trustworthy comrade even despite his disturbing campiness, which is clearly expected to inspire misgivings if not revulsion. Robo-Hunter’s future universe is, it seems, one in which homophobia has not only survived in humankind, but prospered in aliens too. Still, Millar shows Ducky’s handiness in a firefight helping to partially compensate for his sexuality and the manner in which he expresses it. So it is that Slade and Leatherpants appear to become acquaintances and comrades, although the former still can’t resist warning Ducky about keeping all of his many hands to himself. For though Millar just might be trying ineptly to poke fun at homophobic stereotypes, the punchline to his gags still rely on the reader finding – regardless of the context – the very idea of a camp and macho gay alien amusing.
At a considerable pinch, it might be argued that Millar was merely mocking the cliché of the cheesily leather-clad and sexually voracious biker-clone. Yet Ducky’s homosexuality is explicitly identified as a mockable part of his overall identity, which means there’s no separation in the script between role-playing and sexuality to be seen. Both the business of being gay and the matter of inhabiting a role associated with the same are presented as abnormal, noteworthy, somewhat threatening and yet laughable things. Had Millar provided a LGBT character or two who weren’t presented solely in terms of such stereotypes, the satire might have a slightly better chance of paying off without seeming bigoted and cruel. Sadly, he didn’t think to do anything of the sort in a consciously sympathetic way.
Instead, Millar briefly added the cross-dressing robot “Klinger” to his cast in Return To Verdus as part of a tale-derailing parody of the TV sit-com M*A*S*H. (Set in the Korean War, it had famously run for seven times the length of its historical inspiration before being cancelled in 1983, some nine years before Millar’s tale appeared.) (*6) “I see Klinger’s started wearing women’s clothes again. There’s no room for his sort in my army, blast it.”, declares a homicidal robot general, but if that’s intended to be a dig at homophobia, it falls flat on its face. The scene is so short and so carelessly executed that even the reader who knows his Captain Hawkeye Pierce from his Major Frank Burns can end up baffled by it. What does emerge once again is how funny Millar appears to have believed such transgressive behavior is. With no care taken to explain how the original figure of Corporal Klinger was a decent-hearted heterosexual who was cross-dressing to escape the war, and with Millar’s Klinger being by contrast a vicious killer, the meaning of the sequence becomes completely short-circuited. What remains, however, is the fact of a gag about a humanoid robot wearing women’s clothes. With Klinger as with Ducky Leatherpants, Millar seems to have regarded the regurgitation of the clichés which reflect and reinforce bigotry as passing for satire in itself. If not, then he was inexplicably failing to carefully think about the issues he was playing with, and that seems hard to credit. Whatever the problem, the result was characters who appear indistinguishable from the endless, dispiriting and insulting parade of LGBT stereotypes that saturate the culture of the West.
As if to compound the insensitivity of all that’s gone before, Robo-Hunter: Return To Verdus ends with Ducky revealing himself to be an entirely devious and ferocious assassin who’s thoroughly abused the trust of his fellow Robo-Hunters. Yes, “Ducky Leatherpants” isn’t even an ill-conceived cliché of a gay man who can be fondly thought of as long as he’s a hard-fighting figure of fun who knows his place. Instead, he’s shown to be a vicious, deceitful bounty hunter who only emerges from deep cover in order to ram a golf club right through the saintly Doc Magnet. (*7) “Hope that hurt, meathead!” spits Ducky, shown at last to be every bit as evil as the gay villain in any deliberately homophobic piece. In the deeply crass and misjudged conclusion to Ducky’s arc may well lie one of the many possible reasons why Rebellion has resisted reprinting the story.
Homosexuality is even more explicitly represented in the art of late 1993’s Canon Fodder, a collaboration with artist Chris Weston that’s in many ways the very best of Millar’s work for 2000AD. (*8) In it, Millar recasts Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty as gay lovers. Both first appear as blood-drained corpses nakedly sharing the same bed surrounded by a group of policemen, several of whom are clearly finding the whole business thoroughly amusing. The shock of seeing two great men’s bodies alone in bed together has obviously overwhelmed any sympathy for what’s evidently been mutual suicide. But just in case the blindingly obvious might have escaped the reader’s notice, Millar soon has Dr Watson quote Inspector Le Strade as saying “Holmes and Moriarty … Strange bedfellows indeed.”
Set in an early 21st-century London in which the Resurrection has occurred and the Earth inundated with billions of the reborn dead, Canon Fodder follows the Baker Street Detective and his brilliant nemesis as their souls enter the afterlife and attempt to murder God. It’s an audacious plan from two quite clearly brilliant characters, although the motivation that Millar lends them is grounded in arrogance, callousness and megalomania. Theirs is no attempt to avenge themselves on a God who’d flood the world with “twenty billion” returning individuals without himself appearing to organize the subsequent chaos. Instead, Holmes and Moriarty are would-be deicidists who are seeking to “rule the universe from the thrones of Heaven;
“All their lives they had planned to murder the Almighty, to burn Heaven to the ground and spray-paint their names across the infinite. All their lives they had planned to kill God.”
This is hardly Holmesian canon, but then the series title of Canon Fodder seems to have been cleverly intended to have a double meaning. Most obviously, it’s the name of the strip’s headlining superhero. But it also seems to signal up Millar’s intentions to raid the work of other esteemed creators without restraint or, quite intentionally, good taste. If so, it’s an amusingly self-aware nod towards his own tendency for literary larceny. But Millar’s revisionist use of Holmes and Moriarty regrettably stamps them as gay and then shows them to be nothing more than elitist and murderous would-be celestial tyrants. For all their genius, both quite evidently deserve the fate of being murdered and skinned in the afterlife by demons. The shocking spectacle of the two iconic antagonists as lovers, and as open-wristed and bed-sharing corpses too, must have seemed like a wonderfully heretical idea to Millar. But he never seems to have realized that he was once again representing gay men in a profoundly negative light without offering up any more positive representations to balance out his text. Instead, he even added to the toxic brew of hubris, cruelty and pomposity that characterized his Holmes and Moriarty by emphasizing their background as privileged public schoolboys. With his familiar loathing for the power elites of Britain’s Right in play once more, Millar had Moriarty declare that he and Sherlock are “Eton’s two brightest boys …” before discussing their plans to slaughter God and rule from Heaven.
In doing so, Millar once again showed his ability to clearly sign up his hatred for anyone and anything he might associate with Thatcherism and the New Right. Yet Canon Fodder also paradoxically transmits a distrust and disdain for gay men which Millar has quite constantly and believably disassociated himself from. Why then, knowing how the meaning of fiction is read, would he so purposefully label such characters as Ducky Leatherpants, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty as both gay and reprehensible? Given that homophobia was identified as one of the major sins of Britain’s tabloid press in Morrison and Millar’s 1993 strip Big Dave, how was it that Robo-Hunter and Canon Fodder still presented gay and cross-dressing men only as laughable conceits and/or dangerous threats?
To be continued.
*1:- The interview can be found on the net here at the splendid Deep Space Transmissions site, which, with its archive of Grant Morrison interviews, remains as fascinating as it was when it was last praised here;
For the context of what I’m labelling for brevity’s sake “pseudo-interviews”, please see the notes of the previous “Shameless?”.
Big Dave and 2000AD’s 1993 Summer Offensive will be discussed in the next Shameless?
*2:- From a post dated 20/7/98 at rec.arts.comics.misc. which I’m now unable to access. I’d be grateful if anyone can let me know how to access the debate that Johnston was involved.
*3:- I would have described Johnston as a comics journalist. But I believe he distrusts that label of journalist, and so, for want of better phrase, I used the phrase “comics gossip columnist” instead;
*4:- I’ve written about the issue before, should anyone be curious;
*5:- If the reader’s new to this debate, Abraham Reisman’s recent article in the New Republic might serve as a good introduction to it;
*6:- It’s yet another example of Millar’s work referencing the media of his childhood, of course.
*7:- Who, for no reason at all, appears to be a parody of DC’s Doc Magnus, inventor of the Metal Men.
*8:- Though Weston’s collaborated relatively rarely with Millar, the two men’s styles have always worked well together. It’s a matter I’ll of course be returning to when discussing Canon Fodder, Rogue Trooper and Swamp Thing. It’s a shame that they haven’t collaborated with each other far more.