Continued from last week.
“I had no idea what I was doing for the most part and just learning how to do very basic stuff then. Only good stuff I’d recommend would be Big Dave (which was co-written with Grant Morrison), a few Dredds, a thing called Inferno, maybe Canon Fodder and, uh, that’s about it.” Mark Millar, 2010 (*1)
Millar obviously retains little fondness for his Fleetway scripts, and it’s a position that’s shared by a still-vociferous number of alienated 2000AD fans. (*2) Of all of his work from the period, only Canon Fodder seems to have inspired at least the conditional affection of both writer and a significant proportion of the audience too. Whatever differences there might be between the often-truncated lists of Millar’s best 2000AD work, Canon Fodder is, along with Maniac5 & 6, generally acknowledged as the best of a disappointing bunch. The story of a costumed and super-powered Catholic priest, it’s set in a world in which the Day of Resurrection has been and gone without any sign of God or a final reckoning to be had. Comics writer Al Ewing has, for example, described the strip as “excellent” (*3), while writer and former 2000AD editor Alan McKenzie seized on it while championing Millar against his critics:
“Aside from the fact that Mark Millar is (a) close personal friend, I want to leap to his defence by mentioning Canon Fodder in 2000AD which was so popular that we were constantly asked by readers to do a sequel.” (*4)
Artist Chris Weston, who collaborated to tremendous effect with Millar on Canon Fodder, has tended to express a less enthusiastic opinion. Though accentuating how much he enjoyed working with Millar — “it was great fun” — Weston admitted to David Bishop that
“It didn’t really strike me as anything special, and in many ways I thought it was a pale imitation of Killing Time, but with a Catholic-themed Marshal Law rip-off thrown in for good measure.” (*5)
On one level, Weston’s opinion of Canon Law as a patchwork of obvious and often incongruous influences is hard to disagree with. As was of course true for all of his efforts during this period, Millar took little effort to either obscure the origin of his inspirations or ensure that they were fused into a satisfyingly coherent form. One of Weston’s greatest achievements on Canon Fodder was to provide an imaginatively compelling and self-consistent form that helped obscure Millar’s maddeningly anything-goes approach. Few artists in the period succeeded in transforming the writer’s patchwork-quilt efforts into more than the sum of their parts. Among those who did were Daniel Vallely on The Saviour, Rian Hughes on Tales from Beyond Science, and, to a notable if not always entirely successful degree, Steve Yeowell on Red Razors. But of all of them, Weston was the most successful in obscuring Millar’s youthful weaknesses while accentuating his exuberance and ambition. No matter how many disparate plot-elements were thrown at him by Millar, Weston fused them together with his mix of lush comics-realism and Boschian horror. (*6) As the artist told David Bishop, his greatest challenge on the series was “Finding one style and sticking to it.” In doing so, he ensured that Millar’s various backdrops — from a Victorianesque 21st Century London to Purgatory to a demon-conquered Heaven — appeared to occupy the same disturbingly Godless universe. Even when Jehovah finally appeared at the tale’s end in an aesthetic-bursting fusion of Hindu religious art, the symbols of Freemasons, Babylonian sculpture, ’60s Rock’n’roll iconography, Jack Kirby, Moebius, and a great deal more, the result was perfectly in keeping with the story’s best interests. After all, the arrival of the Judaic-Christian God as quite literally Canon Fodder‘s deus ex machina demanded that the order of things be fundamentally disturbed. How else was the all-powerful otherness — and funny-book absurdity — of such a character to be appropriately emphasised?
Weston was quite right to note Canon Fodder’s similarities to both Mills and O’Neill’s Marshall Law and John Smith and Weston’s own Indigo Prime; Killing Time. Certainly Millar’s adoration of Marshal Law is a topic we’ve frequently had reason to discuss before. Yet Canon Fodder was in many ways a significantly different character to the Marshal. He was also, despite surface similarities, quite distinct from another costumed lawman — and Mills co-creation — to whom he’s also been compared, namely Judge Dredd. Both Dredd and Law are indomitable supercops whose uniforms express — to a varying degree — an amusingly perverse and yet threatening concept of public order. Both are intimidatingly masked representatives of a corrupt system whose behaviour both reinforces and, in some ways, undermines the political system they’re seen to serve; fascism in the case of Judge Dredd, and the neo-fascism suggested by Reagan’s America in Marshal Law. As such, they’re the most wonderfully contrary and nuanced satirical vehicles. By contrast, Canon Fodder looks even more silly than he does purposefully absurd, and his uniform evokes far more the commonplaces of the superhero genre than it does the Catholic Church. Even the lack of a mask for Canon Fodder suggests an individual rather than a symbol of a repressive alt-world regime. In that, the character’s costume may be the only weakness of Weston’s contribution to the series. For all that Canon Fodder’s fighting kit suggests aspects of the Blackshirts and the Roman Church’s hierarchy, it never appears threatening, perverse, or disturbing. (*7) It is, in the end, an efficiently eye-focusing costume and nothing more, and in that, it reflects the fatal flaw at the heart of Millar’s concept for the strip. For where Marshal Law and Judge Dredd were designed to engage on a variety of levels with matters of serious public concern, Canon Fodder was always apparently intended as something of a lark and little more. Elements of his appearance and manner suggests that he comes from a confrontational line of society-savaging characters. He has the uber-macho manner, the ludicrously blunt catch-phrase – “Let Us Prey!” – and the absolute cause to serve. And yet, Canon Fodder is ultimately just a handsome, if bull-necked and frowning, costumed priest with a cape and chest insignia who fights crime.
As with his many other stories which referenced Catholicism, Millar quite obviously preferred to play with the Roman Church’s mythology while keeping well clear of the all-too-prominent controversies which besiege it in the modern era. The many and often deeply serious concerns associated with a religion which claims to represent 1.2 billion individuals were never once touched upon. Though the reader is informed that the Canon represents both the Church and — in a way that’s never explained — the law of the post-Resurrection Earth itself, we’re never shown the hierarchy he inhabits or the specific mission he’s supposed to fulfill beyond the keeping of the peace in a general and generic fashion. And for all that God is portrayed as rather dim, and, for some reason, the then-Prime Minister John Major as a silly little sinner, there’s none of the satirist’s raw red meat and blood to be found in Canon Fodder. Instead, it’s ultimately a romp that has little to do with the Church at all. With the potential for sharp-edged satire reduced to knockabout comedy, the character of Canon Fodder works only as a little-league bully. The equivalent of the Brit-comic staples of the pompous, head-swiping school-teacher or the truncheon-happy local bobby, he was the least interesting aspect of the strip. In that, the expectations raised by the echoes of Judge Dredd and Marshal Law caused a form of narrative short-circuit. In short, what promised to be daring and critical was actually anything but.
Appropriately, Canon Fodder would end up having little at all to do with the progression of the plot beyond the occasional dishing out and receiving of body-puncturing violence. What could have been a franchise-establishing character ended up drifting to the periphery of his own adventure, a thick-headed functionary and strong-man rather than a plot-driving fascination. Yet to have made him anything more cutting and essential would have involved the critical use of his association with religion, and Catholicism in particular. For all that Millar has so frequently referenced the Catholic Church in his work, he’s never shown a desire to actually criticise it in anything more than the most playful and mild of fashions. Indeed, his public pronouncements have focused on sidestepping any discussion of any major problems that Catholicism might be in any way responsible for. Though he has admitted to having a “great many problems… with the Catholic Church”, he’s tended to focus on his many positive experiences of it in interviews. (*8/9) Yet even if he had been motivated to cuttingly satirise his own religion, it’s hard to believe that 2000AD would have felt comfortable in enabling the process. If it had, then Canon Fodder would have needed to land some notably hard blows in order to capture the interest of an audience which was predominantly anything but Catholic. While matters of law and government are relevant to everyone, Christianity in the UK tends only to concern those who’ve been directly affected by it. (*10) But Millar wasn’t interested in exploiting that potential, 2000AD most probably wouldn’t have wanted him to, and the audience for such a product was most likely limited. As such, Canon Fodder seems to have always been doomed to lack the substance that it can still appear to promise.
As for the influence of Smith and Weston’s own Indigo Prime; Killing Time, it seems so obvious as to border on the embarrassing. (*11) John Smith’s work on the various Indigo Prime serials had seem him establish a wonderfully baroque and disturbingly British approach to comicbook horror. The tale of an organisation staffed by dead operatives and dedicated to the policing of the multiverse, Indigo Prime helped establish Smith as a witty and knowing master of both creeping and gruesome horror, of tension created from the careful layering of a host of unsettling sources. To the almost unavoidable tropes of the Lovecraftian school were added aspects of spy fiction, traditional British occult thrillers, low-budget and high-imagination horror films, Doctor Who and Quatermass, seriously researched magical lore, cutting-edge science-fiction, the long tradition of fantasy, and, undoubtedly, a great deal else. Millar, who has always spoken well of Smith, appears to have been especially intrigued by Killing Time, for he seems to have appropriated its neo-Victorian setting, playful use of literary types, unsettling scenes of dimension-hopping, appalling extra-worldly monsters, and brooding atmosphere of existential unease. Yet where Smith was idiosyncratically brilliant at unifying his myriad fascinations into something that was distinctly all his own, Millar lacked the facility, or perhaps the patience, to match him. For Weston, the challenge of visually differentiating the one tale from the other must have been a demanding one.
But for all that Canon Fodder was apparently influenced by Marshal Law and Killing Time, the strip was also significantly marked by the presence of plot-beats from Millar’s own career-opening creation, The Saviour. In fact, it’s hard not to suspect that Canon Fodder contains a great deal of what would have been the conclusion to Millar’s first published shot at the superhero genre.
To be continued.
*1 – Quote originally from Millarworld, but deleted as older posts there always are. Sections of it are saved at http://forums.2000adonline.com/index.php?topic=27253.0 I do think Millar’s being unfair to his ‘Tales from Beyond Science’ series in particular here, for all the sexism in one of them that we’ve previously discussed.
*2:- Pick any forum at forums.2000adonline.com that mentions Millar, for example, and the majority view is unlikely to be favourable. Canon Fodder and Maniac5/6 seem to be the most highly of his contributions to the comic, the latter of which I’ll discuss soon and during a future post on The Ultimates.
*3:- Al Ewing at http://forums.2000adonline.com/index.php/topic,3543.15.html None of Millar’s work, however, appeared in Ewing’s 2011 list of his favourite comics, which can be found at http://2000adonline.tumblr.com/post/9245076510/the-hooded-utilitarian-held-a-poll-of-comics-pros#.UmEMdlMsE40
*4:- Alan McKenzie on alt.comics.2000ad, which I’m now struggling to find on the net. Any advice would be v. welcome.
*5:- The full interview with Mr Weston can be found at his site, although snippets were used in Bishop’s Thrill Powered Overload, 2007, Rebellion Press: http://chrisweston.blogspot.co.uk/2006/09/big-mouth-strikes-again.html
*6:- Weston had begun his career with twelve months as Don Lawrence’s apprentice. Largely unknown on the Republic’s side of the Atlantic, Lawrence’s hugely influential and inspirational work included The Trigan Empire and Storm. A meticulous and yet propulsive story-teller, Lawrence’s richly realistic style deserves to be far, far better known and appreciated in America. Though Weston’s style is very much his own, it’s telling that it’s the British illustrative tradition which Lawrence so exemplified which underpins his achievements.
*7:- The second, Millar-less series of Canon Fodder did at times present its protagonist in a way that seemed more evocative of the Church. The pin-up by Mr Weston at the top of this page is perhaps the best example of that. Even there, there’s simply not the sense of threat that would allow the character to work as Dredd and Law so often did.
*9: – As in his discussion with Evan Derrick at http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Celebrities/Interviews/Mark-Millar-God-and-Comics.aspx?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=sendible&utm_campaign=James+Twitter+%26+FB
*10:-In Britain, which hasn’t experienced the mass fundamentalism of the Republic’s Evangelical Christians, that’s still true. In America, of course, the situation is by far the more complex where the influence of Christianity is concerned.
*11:- It’s hard not to wonder whether the member of the editorial staff who passed on the assignment to Weston didn’t at the very least make an self-conscious joke about asking the artist to repeat himself in this way.