Continued from last week.
Though pinpointing exactly when Millar stopped working for 2000AD is an difficult business, he’d most definitely moved onto the American market by the time Canon Fodder returned without him in 1996. With the character’s co-creator Chris Weston now partnered with writer Nigel Long, who was working under the pseudonym of “Kew-W”, a very different version of Canon Fodder would emerge. (*1) In Weston’s opinion, the second series was simply;
“…much better. It’s got a better storyline, one that makes some kind of sense. It’s better paced and I’d improved as an artist by then too.” (*2)
The artist’s opinion of his contribution is an undeniably accurate one. Without jettisoning a single one of the virtues which we’ve previously discussed, Weston’s art was now marked by both an even greater sense of dynamism and a delicacy of line which rivalled that of British comics luminary Arthur Ranson. By contrast, Long’s scripts were anything but a recognisable development of what had gone before. Though loyal to the Canon’s established personality and fidelitous to the world that Millar had so indistinctly sketched out, Long replaced his predecessor’s flitbrained chain of spectacle with a rigorous internal logic. Indeed, not only did the new stories make sense, but they also retroactively worked through many of the plot-holes and undeveloped potential in Millar’s beguiling and yet careless episodes. Writing some 13 years later, Long would unfairly define his own contributions to Canon Fodder as “slightly clunky n wordy in places”. (*3) In fact, his stories were invigoratingly smart and consistently compelling. Where Millar had recast Catholicism in the tradition of the most out-there Marvel Comics of the mid-70s, Long instead grounded his tales in humanism and a playfully intellectual approach to superheroic fantasy. Nowhere is that contrast between the two writers more obvious than in the fourth of Long’s chapters, wherein the reborn Sigmund Freud accompanies Canon Fodder to “the dark side of mankind’s collective unconscious”. There, Freud recoils from the “imagery … based on Hellenic archetypes, shared dream fragments … ” that he’s faced with. While the Canon assumes that the psychoanalyst is simply shaken by such unearthly sights, Freud reveals that his horror is caused by the realization that “that damn idiot Jung was right all along.” .
According to ex-2000AD editor Bishop, the second Canon Fodder serial has consistently come ahead of its predecessor in “online reader polls”. (*4) That may not be the most objective of measures, and yet the anecdotal evidence provided by individual comments made in the 2000AD Forums is similarly positive. (*5) For all of that, the Millarless take on the Canon lacks the glee and unashamed strangeness of the original. Through no fault of his own, Long was working within the parameters – the exceptionally inchoate parameters – that Millar had established, and it was the original’s potential that he was of course exploiting. In what’s an almost-inevitable process, the business of removing the contradictions and absurdities from an energetic pulp-fiction also drains off much of its promise, energy and ability to inspire. Even as Millar’s Canon Fodder was an astonishingly ill-thought through strip, it was also an invigorating brew of elements which no other comics creator would ever attempt to throw together. Less a comic strip than a brainstorm of what one could be, Canon Fodder’s strengths lay in the very incongruities, the very wasted potential, that Long quite rightly sought to integrate and exploit. For Millar had allowed neither good taste or the working constraints of serial-strip storytelling to stand in his way. Canon Fodder was at heart a comic about Mark Millar and The Things That Mark Millar likes. As such, what links its constituent parts together isn’t the writer’s craft, but the the force and conviction of Millar’s own thoughts and experiences. The superhero-as-Catholic-martyr roots of Canon Fodder made perfect sense to him, and that conviction lent a unifying authority to a strip that should have by rights collapsed under its own conceits. To Millar, it was clearly obvious that Marshal Law, Catholic iconography, Sherlock Holmes and apocalyptic sf/fantasy should be hitched together. (After all, these were long-lasting preoccupations, and, as Millar would later recall, he’d been dressing up as Holmes when he was just seven years old.) (*6) A melange of Roman Christianity and genre fiction, Canon Fodder tapped into a child’s unquestioning sense of what’s sacred and profane, heartening and threatening, fascinating and appalling. To read Canon Fodder is to experience what appears to be as direct a line to Millar’s comics-minded mid-90s thoughts and emotions as is possible.
It was a project whose still-surprising aura of energy and heedlessness was lent even more of a pell-mell air by Millar’s working methods. Time and time again, we hear of not just his remarkable productivity, but of the first-draft/best-draft speed at which he churned work out. To be productive isn’t necessarily to be manic and reckless, and yet that’s just what Millar often seems to have been. In a discussion of Millar’s writing of 1993′s Maniac 5, for example, artist Steve Yeowell explained;
“Maybe it shows but I believe that Mark wrote it in a very short period of time; the intensity of that creative experience came over …” (*7)
The same year’s Canon Fodder was the most striking and fascinating of Millar’s work for 2000AD. As deeply flawed as it was irresistibly compelling, it combined his bash-it-out working methods with his unique range of enthusiasms and inspirations. The result was a strip which, for all its strengths, reflected a fundamentally flawed method. Put simply, the American comics industry that he longed to work for was unlikely to welcome scripts which sprang from such an approach, and getting on across the pond was going to require substantial changes. Because of that, the most successful of Millar’s strips for Fleetway also marked a dead-end of sorts in his comics career. In Canon Fodder, Millar could hurl in an anti-Tory coda featuring John Major, play incautiously with Catholic theology and joyfully mutilate the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. Through zeal and force of will, he’d created an alternative to more traditional forms of storytelling which very much suited his own character and requirements. But this was personality and passion as a substitute for a well-crafted narrative, and that would never do for the editors at DC and Marvel, or indeed those company’s fans, over the long-haul..
To be continued.
*1. Long had unwittingly made a habit of following on from properties co-created by Millar. He also took on the woeful wreck of The Grudge Father, a SF/Pulp hybrid that had also, under Millar’s lead, contained an ill-digested weight of Catholic influences.
*2. From the full text of David Bishop’s interview with Weston that was part of the research for the former’s Thrill Powered Overload, as posted at the artist’s blog in 2006: http://chrisweston.blogspot.co.uk/2006/09/big-mouth-strikes-again.html
*3. From Long’s Kid Shirt blog in 2009, http://kidshirt.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/return-of-canon-fodder-dark-matter.html
*4. See *1
*5. As, for example, at http://forums.2000adonline.com/index.php?topic=26079.15
*6:- uncredited interview in Comic Foundry #1 September 2007
*7:-interview of Steve Yeowell by Stephen Jewell, pg 38, Comic World, 1994