Continued from last week.
Hindsight suggests that Canon Fodder marked the beginning of the end of Millar’s relationship with 2000AD. It was by no means the last of his scripts to appear in the comic, and yet it was to be his final substantial contribution of original material to it. The following three years would see, to take but one example, more than twenty of his Judge Dredd scripts published, with several being collaborations with Grant Morrison. Yet nothing in what was to still be a substantial degree of work would match Canon Fodder for its verve and promise.
With the first issue of his and Morrison’s Swamp Thing appearing at the beginning of 1994, Millar’s attentions seem to have become more and more focused upon the American market. In this, financial imperatives coincided with his frequently-expressed ambitions. It had always been his dream to work for DC Comics in particular, as we’ve discussed, and the company’s page rate and royalties plan exceeded anything that could be offered by Fleetway. As such, Millar’s style and content began to swiftly – if not always successfully – evolve where his Vertigo work was concerned. By contrast, his scripts for 2000AD retained all of the serious weaknesses that we’ve previously discussed. Sadly, there was also a diminution in the level of invention that had often helped compensate for his professional carelessness. Of everything that he would write for 20000AD after breaking in at DC, only Maniac 6 could be said to stand as anything of a step forward.
The sequel to Maniac 5, his solo contribution to 2000AD’s 1993 Summer Offensive, it describes the attempts of a murdered American solider to save the life of his family from the creators of the robotic battle-suit that his consciousness is trapped within. Though the work was as apparently hastily written and clumsy as ever, it did show – as we’ve discussed – a greater degree of sensitivity to matters of sex and race. It also focused on a sarcasm-free depiction of brutality which left it seeming to be indebted to the Marvel Comic tradition of city-flattening punch-ups. Mixed with a typical Millaresque portrayal of the American state as both inept and corrupt, Maniac 6 stands as a direct precursor to The Ultimates, and it’s in that context that we’ll come to discuss it later. If hardly a masterpiece, it’s undeniably powerful and direct, and it saw Millar push aside much of the crass digressions and smug buffoonery that usually marked his contributions to 2000AD. Sadly, the second and final series of Red Razors – now transferred from the pages of the Megazine to its parent comic – saw nothing but meaningless hyperactivity and ultraviolence. Without the canny and characterful storytelling of co-creator Steve Yeowell on art, whose pages had also helped keep Maniac 6’s momentum tearing forwards, The Hunt For Red Razors collapsed under its lack of plot and sense.
Elsewhere, Millar’s final wave of scripts for the comic are remarkable for that lack of writerly development. Children’s TV character Mr Benn appeared and was cruelly knocked off in Mr Bennett Joins The Judges, Cormen and Bartel’s exploitation movie Death Race 2000 was stripped for Babe Race 2000, while Amy Heckerling’s Beverley Hills-youthspeak from 1995’s Clueless was ineptly aped for Janus Psi-Division. The latter also saw Millar’s mining of Catholicism leading to a completely fatuous conclusion involving the saving of souls from Purgatory. The same influences, and the same lack of comprehensibility, permeated the pulp adventuring of The Grudgefather, in which a future Pope attempts to survive the challenges of a dystopic future while disembodied souls plot revenge upon the Godless creator of clones. Perhaps the very worst of Millar’s efforts, The Grudgefather’s appeal was further undermined by a lack of consequences where physical violence was concerned. No matter what the damage dished out to Millar’s supposedly vulnerable protagonists of the period, they tended to immediately snap back and stomp upon their enemies through the sheer bloody-mindedness of their will. It was as true of the entirely human, if hard-as-nails, Joe Dredd as it was for just about everyone else. Entirely missing the point that Judge Dredd’s appeal comes from the character’s ability to show both the appeal and horror of fascism’s spurious and pernicious call to unity and order, Millar’s Mega-City One tales sacrificed political satire for gleeful savagery and, repeatedly, casual xenophobia.
With so little progression evident in Millar’s stories for 2000AD over the period, their weaknesses became ever more obvious and wearing. No longer a neophyte, and clearly producing scripts of a superior quality for DC and, in 1995, Marvel, his reputation as a hack amongst many 2000AD fans became more and more entrenched. Despite the huge number of pages that he would see published within the comic’s covers between 1991 and 1997, Millar would become seen as far more of an aberration and embarrassment than a mainstay. There’s even evidence that his standing with the comic’s editorial staff had become more stormy in the second half of his time at the comic. In addition to the conflict over a second series of Canon Fodder in 1995, which is discussed below, there was also the humiliating cancellation of Millar’s 1994 relaunch of the future war staple Rogue Trooper. As artist Chris Weston recalls, the remodeled Rogue Trooper series;
“was to begin with a four parter … The story was edited down to three parts, and we lost a major sequence of extreme gore and mayhem, much to Mark’s annoyance.” (*1)
Despite his unhappiness at the decision to pull what he’d thought was to be a long-running series, Millar later said to Weston that he’d “never actually had any interest in the character to begin with”. (*2) This may help to explain his plan to dump the strip’s traditional accent on the futility and horror of combat with what Weston playfully referred to as “our ‘War-Is-Fun’ take’. (*3) (A scene in which Rogue threw away a CND badge was intended to mark the change of attitude; Millar ever was far more “Old” Labour and traditional working class than New.) Yet another example of his apparently compulsive need to irritate, surprise and annoy, Millar’s first and only Rogue Trooper series also featured another of his most criticized plot devices, namely, the ever-present threat of rape for the female medics in the strip. (Torture, which would become another of the more frequently-castigated aspects of Millar’s work, had previously featured in the one-off Rogue Trooper: House Of Pain short that Millar had written for 2000AD’s Sci-Fi Special ‘92. It too will be discussed in a later chapter.)
But at the same time as he was bludgeoning his way across the pages of 2000AD, Millar was combining with Grant Morrison in an attempt to sell several grand projects to Marvel Comics. These appear to have been anything but relatively lax and hurried propositions. (*4) Though Millar would later tell Barb Lien-Cooper that he’d never known “real rejections” of his proposals until 1999, the mid-90s saw a suggested reboot of Marvel’s 2099 line and a twelve-issue maxi-series depicting a tragic end for the company’s super-people being decisively knocked back. (*5) Both projects will be returned to later, but they certainly show that a significant degree of Millar’s ambition was being quite understandably invested into his American career.
Though inventory stories of his would appear in both 2000AD and The Daily Star’s Judge Dredd strip until 1997, Millar’s defining break with Fleetway appears to have occurred in 1995. Hearing that Canon Fodder was returning without his being at the helm, Millar challenged for the ownership of the strip. (Whether this was in any way inspired by Grant Morrison’s conviction that he and not Fleetway owned the rights to Zenith is not, it seems, a matter of record.) According to former 2000AD writer and editor, Millar had refused to write a second Canon Fodder serial because he felt “that the circle on that character was closed”. (*6) It was a decision which stands to contradict any suggestion that the writer was solely concerned with his earnings when it came to his later 2000AD work.
Then 2000AD editor David Bishop recalls recognising some irony in Millar’s claim to Canon Fodder, given the “ill-feeling” generated by Millar being given to chance to write Robo-Hunter just a few year’s before. (*7) Given that the young Millar’s shot at Robo-Hunter had at first been blessed by the character’s co-creator John Wagner, should Millar in turn have stepped aside for Kek-W/Nigel Long on Canon Fodder? Without more information from Millar on the subject, it’s impossible to differentiate principle from hypocrisy. But contending that he’d never specifically signed away his rights to Canon Fodder, Millar approached Chris Weston and suggested that they attempt to secure its copyright. Weston refused, feeling both that 2000AD was too important a market for him to alienate and that Canon Fodder had always been produced as work-for-hire;
“Call me old fashioned, but even if someone in Egmont’s legal department had cocked up by not sending out a contract, I thought it was pretty low to exploit their debate.” (*8)
It’s a conviction that can be seen reflected in the pin-up of the character that Weston contributed to the booklet for the 1993 UK Comic Art Convention. There the artist’s handwritten copyright notice clearly identifies “Fleetway Editions” as Canon Fodder’s owner.
That Millar was also challenging Fleetway over “payments for previously published material” suggests that he was willing to run the chance of never working for the company again. (*9) The degree to which that was a mix of ethical conviction and the belief that his professional future lay in American hands is impossible to ascertain. But it should be stated that Millar and Fleetway did reach a settlement over the matter of returns for work that was already in print. Public debate has tended to skate over that fact while focusing on the issue of the failed reach for Canon Fodder. Yet there does appear to have been a legitimate grievance as regards the need for remittance. Regardless of that, the separate matter of the control of Canon Fodder went against Millar. According to David Bishop in a 2011 comment at Robot6, Millar had;
“signed an agreement in the late 90s that confirmed Big Dave as a creator-owned entity, and all the other strips scripted by Mark as company-owned properties – including Canon Fodder.” (*10)
By the time of that formal cessation of hostilities, Millar was on the brink of establishing himself as a writer of some note at DC Comics. His had been anything but an easy rise, and the last of his work to appear in 2000AD’s pages would coincide with what appeared to be a serious dip in his fortunes as a jobbing writer. By the time the final episode of his Janus Psi Division run had appeared in 1997’s Prog 1031, Millar’s tenure on Swamp Thing was over and his collaboration on Aztec with Grant Morrison for DC was just months from its final issue. With his bridges burned on one side of the Atlantic, things were seemingly looking far from rosy on the other.
To be continued, with a look at Millar’s substantial run on Swamp Thing.
*1:- From the complete interview of Chris Weston by David Bishop, telling extracts of which would be printed in the latter’s excellent ‘Thrill-Powered Overload’, Rebellion Press, 2007. http://chrisweston.blogspot.co.uk/2006/09/big-mouth-strikes-again.html
*4:- the details of the submissions were printed at length in 1996’s Overstreet’s Fan #16 and 17 in pieces by Scott Braden.
*5:- “Speaking With The Authority”, a year 2000 Interview with Barb Lien-Cooper at Sequential Tart; http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug00/millar.shtml
*6:- Alan McKenzie on alt.comics.2000ad https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/alt.comics.2000ad/canon$20fodder/alt.comics.2000ad/rOfAWbjP9UQ/JXHrXv-paSAJ
*7:- pg 185, Thrill Powered Overload, David Bishop, 2007
*10:- It’s a vital comment that’s still too often ignored, and – as must be obvious – I’m really pleased that Bishop made it. Indeed, without his excellent Thrill Powered Overload, there’d be a great deal more mystery about Millar’s time at 2000AD; http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/02/comic-strips-to-comic-flicks-mark-millar-movies-they-havent-made-yet/#comment-52889