“I Only Wanted To Be Loved”:

Shameless? Part 35

cover to 2000ad 864 by Gary Erskine

Continued from two weeks ago.

Canon Fodder reads as if two distinct stories had been awkwardly spliced together. In its first half, it’s the tale of how the Canon, Doctor Watson and Mycroft Holmes desperately combine forces in order to thwart the assassination of God. In the second, they arrive in a Lucifer-conquered Heaven, and discover that they’re powerless even to protect themselves. God had been killed by the Devil long before Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty had embarked upon deicide, and Heaven is awash with angel-corpses and demon troops. Helpless before the new Satanic order, the various members of Millar’s terrestrial cast serve as nothing more purposeful than horribly-tortured victims. Sherlock and Moriarty are skinned alive, Watson swallowed by the once-Celestial city’s snow-covered pavements, and Mycroft gruesomely eaten from the inside out by demonic rats. While still somehow managing to stay breathing, Canon Fodder himself is brutally beaten and has his right forearm sliced away before being run through with a trio of lances. A grisly portrayal of the indomitable superhero as Catholic martyr, it’s the most explicitly realized of all the writer’s many fusions of religious heritage and comic book tradition. Nowhere else is the influence of Millar’s Catholic childhood, and his time spent staring at the often-bloody iconography of Coatbridge’s St Bartholomew’s Chapel, more obvious.

The thing that always sticks in my mind about [St. Bartholomew] is the statue you can sort-of see above the door, and if you look up there you can see St. Joseph holding the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew’s, and this was my introduction to religion as a child, and it somehow seemed comforting and terrifying at the same time. But if you look very closely you can see the skinned face of the Saint with the eye-holes and the beard hanging on, and it was what the Romans did to Saint Bartholomew because he wouldn’t give up Christianity. And it was shown to us as the ultimate sacrifice, he was a martyr… And I suppose even like the religious imagery of someone being crucified and flayed and tortured and everything on all the statues and paintings that are up in a church, I suppose that really is your first experience of horror, if you’re a young Catholic. So it’s probably been indelibly printed on my subconscious. (*1)

from 2000ad 685, by Weston & Millar

Yet for all that Millar and Weston’s work on Canon Fodder evokes that same macabre fusing of heroism with torment, vulnerability with excruciation, it failed to make sense as an action / adventure melodrama. Despite having set up a compellingly grand canvas of Earthy resurrection and Heavenly desecration, Millar clearly lacked the means to convincingly end his tale. Indeed, only the unexplained and entirely unforeshadowed reappearance of an almost all-powerful God saves the day. Though little else in Canon Fodder makes sense in terms of the Roman Church’s doctrines, the idea of God as mankind’s ultimate salvation certainly does. With everything apparently lost for his cast, Millar throws in the deus ex machina card, and it becomes immediately obvious that the strip was never about Canon Fodder at all. The real story was always that of a deity who, for reasons which are never made in any way plain, permitted himself to be killed by the Devil before, equally mysteriously, returning to reclaim his throne. Without any account of why this occurred, Canon Fodder’s last four chapters collapse into a mix of admittedly inventive blood-letting and plot-hollow nonsense. For nothing that any of the human cast had – or could have – done was in any way relevant to how events played out. All they did was distract the eye and fill up the page while, behind the scenes, the true narrative of the inexplicably self-sacrificing and self-resurrecting God was playing out.

The possibility of a convincing measure of jeopardy does briefly threaten to arrive with the reborn God. Conceived by Millar as a remarkably unempathetic and homicidal creature, he immediately threatens Canon Fodder’s life. Again, why he might do so is left to our imaginations, and only a second narrative rabbit-out-of-the-hat allows the tale to limp to a still-mystifying conclusion. For suddenly metamorphosing into a profoundly deep thinker rather than a doctrinaire thug, Canon Fodder is made to declare that God himself is nothing but a creation of a higher power. In fact, so suddenly insightful has the Canon become that he’s leapt to such a conclusion without any evidence of the same being offered by Millar. That God is ignorant of his own origins, and that those origins involve a superior force to his own, arrives – as does so much of Canon Fodder’s conclusion – from quite out of the blue. That God had never realised that he was anything but his own first cause is an impossible twist to swallow. That Canon Fodder should deduce that lack of self-awareness without a single clue to inspire him is equally bewildering.

from The Saviour #6, 1991, by Millar & Nigel Kitching

Even more perplexity follows. God’s subsequent conscription of humanity’s finest minds – living or dead – to research his own creation defeats all understanding. That which has always been hidden from the omnipotent Lord is now to be somehow uncovered by a congregation of merely human minds? How they are to research that which cannot be researched is – once again – left to the reader’s imagination. That the never-more-than-sharp Doctor Watson is involved in the project merely helps make the muddiest of waters opaque. With what’s perhaps the least convincing of all of Millar’s characteristically rickety plots, Canon Fodder stumbles to its entirely perplexing close.

It’s hard to suppress the suspicion that Canon Fodder was at the very least two an ill-mixed brew of two quite different stories. As we’ve discussed, the figure of Canon Fodder himself appears to be a fictional descendent of both Judge Dredd and Marshal Law. But that aspect of the strip largely disappears in the strip’s last four chapters. Much of what then comes to the fore appears to have a great deal in common with the unresolved plot threads from The Saviour. Nor are those similarities confined to Canon Fodder’s final half, although there they seem at their most obvious. Both tales play with both the idea of a world in which the dead return to life and that of one in which a distant and yet powerful Catholic Church looms over events. By Canon Fodder’s fourth chapter, The Saviour’s central plot of a Devilish revolt against God takes centre stage. Even the characters of both God and the Devil appear strangely consistent between the two strips. Having been decapitated in Canon Fodder by a flick from God’s giant forefinger, the Devil’s head bemoans how he’d only wanted to be loved. It was, of course, also The Saviour’s self-pitying motivation as he warred against Heaven and all its works. Similarly, the Lord of Heaven in both strips displays the Old Testament habit of lashing out indiscriminately in humanity’s direction. In The Saviour, he hurls an aim-practising storm of child-dissolving “concentrated hydrochloric acid” against Australia. In Canon Fodder, an entirely unprovoked God ignores the attempts made by Canon Fodder and his enablers to save him and demands instead to know, “Why should I not wipe out your kind with the wink of my eye?”

from 2000AD #866, by Millar & Weston

It’s hard not to wonder how much the second half of Canon Fodder owed to Millar’s never-to-be-fulfilled plans for The Saviour. After all, Canon Fodder and his Holmesian sidekicks are largely irrelevant to the playing out of the narrative they’ve been placed in. If we imagine their removal from it, do we have something of how The Saviour would have concluded?

To be continued, with a discussion of why Canon Fodder is still a great deal of fun despite the above, Canon Fodder II, and perhaps even the infamous The Grudge-Father


*1:- From Coats To Capes, Part 1, Directed and Produced by Emma Barnie and David McIndoe, 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbK7ZIRxxoc

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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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Also by Colin Smith:

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