As in last week’s “worst-of”, the following selections are presented in no order of preference;
1. Tales From Beyond Science: Long Distance Calls, with artist Rian Hughes, from 1992’s 2000AD #776.
Just as I could have filled up a great deal of last week’s list with individual Robo-Hunter tales, what follows could have contained several distinct episodes from the Tales From Beyond Science series. For the sake of variety, I’ve avoided that. However, these mock-serious, done-in-one, faux-eposes of Fortean concerns are by far the best of Millar’s earliest work. (Yes, The Secret Month Under the Stairs did appear in last week’s worst-of post, but that’s the exception to the rule.) If, as Millar has often said, the worlds of 2000AD were rarely to his taste, the paranormal very much was, and the form of TFBS allowed Millar to concentrate on his strengths while sidestepping his weaknesses. Nowhere is this more obvious than in this particular tale of the tormented dead and their attempts to contact their still-warm loved ones. With Rian Hughes’ wonderfully controlled retro-stylings adding both warmth and a disconcerting distance to Millar’s scripts, Long Distance Calls in particular still stands amongst the best of the writer’s work. It’s all too easy to dismiss the claims of a single short story, and yet this is rich, good-humoured and subtly disturbing material. If pressed to save but one example from Millar’s long career, this is undoubtedly the one I’d opt for. The equivalent of a classic and yet cruelly little-known single, it’s Millar at his smartest and most effective.
(The Tales From Beyond Science collection is still available from Image Comics, and is highly recommended.)
2. The Saviour #1, with Daniel Vallely, 1989
Shameless has discussed The Saviour at some length, and the first of those posts can be found here. But the four-or-so pages of the graveyard scene in the comic’s first issue is wonderfully absurd material. Richard the Third as channelled through Monty Python and sieved through Seventies horror movies, it’s both laugh-out-funny and genuinely threatening. Daniel Vallely’s inspired panel-to-panel storytelling matched with his evocative use of chiaroscuro distils every atom of both comic and horror potential out of Millar’s script. (The artist would then go on to work on the distinctly experimental and unsettling Bible John with Grant Morrison.) It’s hard not to wonder how much faster Millar’s career might have developed if his shortlived partnership with Vallely had endured, for the collaboration between the two had briefly threatened to be a remarkable one.
3. Sonic The Hedgehog: Happy Christmas Doctor Robotnik, with Brian Williamson, in Sonic The Comic #16, 1993
Though his contributions to Sonic The Comic were never a match for those of writer/artist Nigel Kitching, the bi-weekly did feature a couple of Millar stories which still transmit a smile-inducing degree of charm. Having just re-read everything that Millar wrote for the UK market prior to 1997, I was personally both relieved and charmed with this entirely innocent and good-natured Christmas story. In the midst of a great many blokeish action/adventure tales that are often hard to enjoy, let alone love, Happy Christmas Doctor Robotnik is nothing more or less than a sincere celebration of Christmas for a youthful audience. As with issue 15’s The Green Eater and 2’s Robofox, it even sees Millar dialling back on the degree of egocentric cruelty which marked his version of Sonic’s relationship with Tails.
Shameless will be returning to Millar’s Sonic The Hedgehog tales when discussing the writer’s brief tenure on DC’s Flash.
4. Canon Fodder, with Chris Weston, in 1993’s 2000AD # 861-867.
The very best of the early Millar bafflingly combined with the very worst, Canon Fodder is beguilingly alive with ideas and convictions despite its utter lack of sense. The contradictions of the story aside, it’s also a tour de force from artist Chris Weston, who really does make something spectacular out of some distinctly askew material.(Here.)
Another short and smartly-told horror tale, Mother’s Day succeeds in creating a twenty-something matricidalist who’s as pathetically sympathetic as he’s utterly repellent. (here.)
6. Maniac 6, with Steve Yeowell, in 1995’s 2000AD #956-963
Influenced by Image Comic’s manic appropriation of the Marvel tradition of non-stop brawling and angst, Maniac 6 is a distinctly different type of strip from Millar’s other work in the period. The second series of the feature which had began with 1993’s Maniac 5, it featured a far more sensitive approach to race and gender than was typical of Millar at the time. Shameless will be dealing with the comic in greater depth when it’s time to discuss The Ultimates, which stands in a direct line of descent from Maniac 6. However, the series was discussed here.
7. Big Dave: Costa Del Chaos, with Anthony Williams & Gina Hart, in 1994’s 2000AD 869 to 874
Despite being the only Big Dave story not to feature the wonderfully gleeful art of co-creator Steve Parkhouse, Costa Del Chaos is actually the most successful satire that Morrison and Millar co-wrote in the series. Many of the problems with Big Dave that have previously been discussed in Shameless regrettably remain. (Here.) Yet the excesses and indiscipline are far less intrusive and offensive, while the writers’ polemical point-scoring is often undeniably effective. Less exuberant than the other Big Dave strips, and most certainly less visually compelling, it’s still the closest that Morrison and Millar ever came with the strip to creating a satire that reflected their undoubtedly principled intentions.
8. Janus Psi Division: Faustus, with Grant Morrison and artist Paul Johnson in 1997’s 2000AD #1024-1031
A curate’s egg of a tale, Faustus is most definitely an improvement on Millar’s previous solo shot at the feature. With less of the toe-curling Valley Girl-speak in the sequel’s script, the character of the young telepathic future-cop Janus becomes all the more endearing and compelling. Yet weighed down by what seems like an excess of Morrison’s metaphysical infactuations, the story eventually collapses from a mildly intriguingly thriller into a bad-trip psychedelic indulgence. (A New Star – the previous Janus Psi Division serial – had similarly petered out in another of Millar’s Catholic-flavoured, logic-free conceits, so the brief-lived strip stands as an interesting example of each man’s then-driving obsessions.) Yet the end of Faustus is marked by a sweet, timey-whimey confection of noble self-sacrifice and wistful nostalgia, and the story as a whole is endlessly improved by Paul Johnson’s rich painted artwork. In particular, the scene in which Johnson depicts Janus as she grasps that her fellow Judges aren’t long for the world is both cleverly underplayed and genuinely unsettling.
9. Purgatory, with Carlos Ezquerra, in 1993’s 2000AD #834-841)
Millar’s longer stories in Mega City One’s universe were constantly undermined by his determination to recast Dredd as a Stallone/ Schwarzenegger action hero, all indomitable bulk, Big Dumb Plots and hardman wisecracks. But as with Janus Psi Division, Purgatory has the advantage of being liberatingly Dredd-free. Set on the prison camp for corrupt Judges on Titan, it’s a by-the-numbers prison-break fantasy in which Millar gets to reuse aspects of the plot of Insiders while junking its entirely unconvincing social realism. It’s an unfortunately sexist yarn, and it can’t be said to hang together as anything more than a second-division popcorn-actioneer. But Carlos Ezquerra’s exuberant, driving art alchemises the energy of Millar’s ramshackle and brutal conceits and creates a compelling if unedifying exploitation jailbreak strip out of them.
10. Red Razors, with Steve Yeowell, in 1991’s Judge Dredd Megazine vol. 1 #8-15
The first Red Razors serial threatened briefly to become something notable. Anchored by Steve Yeowell’s moody, affecting art, Millar’s first few episodes appeared to be using the Russia of Judge Dredd’s future to smartly satirise the post-Glasnost early Nineties. Regrettably, the strip collapsed under a weight of affectations and implausibilities, and yet, there’s still a fascinating pulp premise to be excavated from Red Razor’s history. Cops created out of criminals through state-imposed brain surgery, talking police-horses, a frontier state recovering from a nuclear holocaust, an underground composed of vicious gangsters and aged Communist devotees? In many ways, it’s a shame that we’re highly unlikely to ever see the strip again. The feature’s later sequels, however, are best avoided.