“Yes, Alfred. Time for Bed.”:

The American Comics of Mark Millar, Part 2

cover to 1996’s LOTDK #79 by Steve Yeowell and Dick Giordano

Continued from last week.

Favourite Things was the first mainstream superhero tale that Millar had ever sold. Previously, he’d depicted the costumed crimefighter as a horror-hybridised symbol of corruption and cruelty, as with The Saviour and The Spider, or as an absurd bundle of laughable genre conventions, as in Robohunter: Return To Verdus and Zenith – A Tale of the Alternate Earths. By contrast, Favourite Things was an opportunity for Millar to express his undoubted love for the more typical aspects of the super-book. It must have seemed as if it were a wonderful opportunity to establish himself in America as a creator who could celebrate every bit as much as deconstruct and satirise the form.

But the result of Millar’s efforts was an only superficially conventional tale. Even given that Goodwin’s Legends of the Dark Knight title was known for featuring some distinctly idiosyncratic versions of Batman, Millar’s was jarringly askew, wildly inconsistent and, ultimately, somewhat pathetic. On the surface, Favourite Things is a straight-forward action / adventure yarn in which a sleep-deprived Batman tracks down a stolen Wayne family heirloom over the space of a single Christmas season night. But the longer the story continues, the more the Batman’s behaviour oscillates from the shockingly brutal to the utterly pitiful, from the alarmingly obsessive to the oily and apparently insincere. Tracking down the drug-dealing Eddie Mulligan in search of leads, Batman rages, hurls his victim into what might be kindly called a restroom, and then thrusts him under the undoubtedly toxic waters of a nightclub toilet. No matter how long it’s been since Wayne has had the chance to rest, and no matter how precious the mysterious object that’s been stolen, Mulligan’s treatment is nothing other than torture. Other scenes find Batman spinning from one personality to another. While communicating with Alfred from the cockpit of the racing Batmobile, the superhero is desperate and frenzied. To the blind informer and stripper Tabitha, he’s suddenly unconvincingly calm and slickly charming. To the vicious Joy Boys, he’s once again a psycho-superhero who mercilessly orders the Batmobile’s computer to “finish the job” and run over an escaping gang-member. Finally safe at Wayne Manor with his “favourite thing… (the) last thing they ever gave me…”, he becomes a compliant man-child, staring wearily at the recovered treasure before meekly responding to his butler’s suggestion that it’s “time for bed”.

1996’s LOTDK #79 by Steve Yeowell and Dick Giordano

Where most writers have portrayed the Batman as an adult struggling to cope with what happened to him as a child, Millar’s Dark Knight is a child struggling to cope with an adult superhero’s privileges and responsibilities. It’s an interesting conceit, and yet the suggestion is very much that Millar intended nothing so unorthodox and challenging. This was, after all, his chance to break into the only market that he’d ever wanted to trade in. As such, it’s unlikely that he’d have set out to mock the Dark Knight’s irresolvable trauma at the long-ago shooting of his parents. To so fundamentally deconstruct one of the ur-texts of the superhero genre would have been one thing. To do so via a tale which results in its protagonist seeming so impaired and irretrievably broken would have surely been too provocative even for the irrepressible Millar of the age. With so much appearing to ride on the commission, it seems more likely that Millar was simply unable to knit together a tale which adequately fused the bombast of comicbook violence with the poignancy of Wayne’s youthful loss. It was, after all, a period in which the writer was also failing to find the mix of adventuring and sharp humour that might win over the readers of 2000AD’s RoboHunter. As such, it’s likely that Millar simply didn’t yet have the chops to make this particular Christmas story work.

1996’s LOTDK #79 by Steve Yeowell and Dick Giordano

But if Millar had set out – with whatever mix of the derisive and the mournful – to recast Bruce Wayne as such a profoundly disordered personality, then it was an undoubtedly serious miscalculation. For the result of Favourite Things was to strongly suggest that Alfred should never let Bruce Wayne anywhere near a Bat-costume again. It was an impression caused not just by Batman’s catastrophically shifting moods and ferocious methods. Even the object that’s driving him to such extremes ends up seeming both uncomfortably trivial and ultimately demeaning. Brazenly pilfering the “Rosewood” McGuffin from Mankiewicz and Welles’ script to 1941’s Citizen Kane, the nature of the stolen and hysterically-loved object is kept a secret until the comic’s final scene. Regrettably, it’s then revealed to be a rather gaudily gold-painted, metal-and-wood model steam engine. As Millar has Wayne dejectedly explain, it’s the “last present from my mother and father… And I almost lost it.”

Yet as artist Steve Yeowell sensitively shows the shirtless Wayne hunched over the engine and the model track that it runs upon, the reader’s left not with a sense of loss and sympathy, but rather of disbelief bordering on bafflement and even contempt. Is it for this that Batman descended into mania and behaved with such excessive force? A vintage toy train? To violently defend the common good while dressed as a bat can be framed as an absurdly heroic business. To be haunted by the violent death of one’s parents, and to strive to avoid anyone else ever feeling such a loss, is a similarly laudable pursuit. But to wreck such damage, and to descend to such extremes, in search of a cumbersome and shiny toy is something else entirely. For it’s one thing for Mankiewicz and Welles to imply that a dying tycoon had longed with his last breath for the innocent, youthful and social pleasures that might be associated with a simple wooden sledge. But it’s quite another to show a bone-weary superhero sitting piteously by a miniature railway track while eulogising a rather ugly and awkwardly substantial toy. Can it really have been for this that Millar’s Batman tortured drug dealers, ran over fleeing would-be-Jokers and beat into unconsciousness a team of hostage-taking thieves? If Rosewood itself suggested unpretentious childhood revels, then Wayne’s steam engine evokes the ludicrous privilege of a super-rich heir in his huge, vaulting, and distinctly private play room. It’s an object of desire that seems a ludicrous motive for such excessive behaviour and thoughts, and the meaning of it is anything but unconditionally touching. A Bruce Wayne who can be so unhinged by its loss is patently not to be trusted playing Batman.

1996’s LOTDK #79 by Steve Yeowell and Dick Giordano

Even though the reader is thankfully spared the sight of the Darknight Detective breathlessly recovering the stolen engine and cradling it back to his Batmobile, it’s still a preposterously overblown business. Played with the straightest of tear-stained, lip-trembling fronts by both writer and artist, it makes for a conclusion of the purest bathos. The reader really must have a heart of stone to read the story of Wayne and his pilfered toy train without at the very least suppressing a snigger.

To be continued.

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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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