“There are Some Things in Life It’s Best not to See”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 3

Continued from last week.

The suspicion that Millar idled his way through his years at 2000AD is at least in part countered by the contents of Favourite Things. For it seems unlikely that he would have produced such a clumsy and ultimately preposterous script for his audition piece at DC if he were as yet capable of anything considerably better. As such, it’s tempting to see Favourite Things as an exemplar of Millar’s capabilities at that particular moment in time, and to use it as a yardstick against which his notable – if fitful – development across the remainder of the decade can be measured.

In comparison with the vast majority of his work for Fleetway, Favourite Things is distinctly more disciplined and focused. With its notable absence of political satire, Fortean traditions, Catholic mythology and the TV and film pop-culture of Millar’s youth, the tale charges along without pace-leeching digressions or the writer’s typically caustic tone. The oddest mix of an excess of respect and a clumsy inability to express the same, it’s the product of an ambitious young writer who can’t as yet construct plausible narratives. Indeed, it may well have been that very obvious respect for the source material which, matched to his technical limitations, led to the portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a reader-estranging figure. After all, the tale contains all the typical and long-established components of a yarn in which Batman’s traumatic loss is discussed; the lonely mansion, the childhood anguish, the absent parents, the compassionate butler, the adult’s Wayne’s social isolation, and so on. Rather than suspecting an insensitive or even sarcastic creator at work, it’s far more probable that an earnest if somewhat artless Millar simply couldn’t mix his components effectively together. After all,  Millar had both self-interest and his love of DC lore to temper his more iconoclastic instincts, and it is an exceptionally short hop from sincerity to schmaltz.

But although Millar had tightened his focus and dropped the snarkiness, his script was still marked by his then-typical technical failings. No matter how fast-moving and eventful Favourite Things is, there’s an essential degree of plausibility that’s lacking. And so, Millar depicted Wayne Manor as being so poorly defended that a gaggle of thieves from distant Gotham could simply cross its grounds, smash a window and steal the Batman’s most precious possession. As uncharacteristically ignorant as he’s strangely careless with his own home’s security, this Batman also knows nothing of the existence of the plunderous Chessmen, who’ve been associated with a string of other high-profile burglaries too. A Batman who doesn’t either neurotically protect his property or keep up with Gotham’s latest crime wave is simply too out-of-character to believe in. A similarly unlikely fate is doled out to Commissioner Gordon, who has to be informed by an officer on the beat that his city is home to the Joy Boys, a “weird kid gang… crazy about the Joker”. Millar’s apparent determination to avoid pace-hindering blocks of exposition saw much of his tale’s essential backstory loaded into such unconvincing conversations. Though it meant that Favourite Things was free of cumbersome captions, that came at the cost of undermining the competence of his central protagonists, who really shouldn’t have needed to be so informed.

But at least Commissioner Gordon wasn’t shown employing informers such as the sightless stripper Tabitha, a laughably improbable character so one-dimensional, ludicrous and sentimental that she could’ve sprung straight from an early Chaplin short. A woman so guileless and neurotic that she blabbers openly about her importance to Batman as a stool pigeon, her fate is to be brutally beaten and belatedly rescued by a supposed heroic caped crusader. Yet surely only a totally irresponsible character would employ such a vulnerable, hapless woman. Not only is Tabitha an entirely unbelievable character – a blind, aging burlesque dancer with an anxiously needy fear of time stealing her beauty who spies for a superhero? – but she exists solely to be saved by the very man who placed her so callously in danger. Once again, this is a female character of the young Millar’s who is defined solely by weakness and sexuality. Beyond her and the saintly memory of Martha Wayne, there’s no sign at all of any other women in Favourite Things. By the same token, the only people of colour in the tale are the drug dealer beaten up by Batman and a non-speaking police officer who belongs to a disreputably gung-ho SWAT team.

Cover to December 1971’s Batman #239, in which lay O’Neil, Novick & Giordano’s Silent Night, Deadly Night

Millar’s was hardly the first Batman Christmas story to opt for sentiment rather than sense. (*1) Yet the lack of logic in Favourite Things has nothing to do with the mysterious and beneficent workings of the X-Mas spirit, as was customary with such stories. Instead of his usual reliance upon Catholicism, Millar lent on the traditions of the Batman mythos itself in order to weave perhaps the most miserable superhero Christmas story ever. With his customary brazenness, he even lifted much of the conclusion of the classic 1971 holiday season tale Silent Night, Deadly Night, from Batman #239. Presumably he did so as a deliberate homage, since it was unlikely that the relationship of Favourite Things to the much-loved and then-20-year-old story by Denny O’Neil, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano could possibly go unnoticed. (That was especially true since Giordano himself ended up inking Steve Yeowell’s pencils for Favourite Things.) In the original, Batman encounters a soon-to-be repentant thief who’s struggling to raise two young children in the deprivations of a Gotham slum. Eventually convinced that the man truly has turned over a new leaf, the Batman promises to organise whatever help he can. In Favourite Things, there’s a similarly poverty-stricken criminal, Dickensian housing, a pair of woe begotten children, a sinner’s decision to turn towards the good, and a Batman who leaves him free while gifting him a thick wad of 100-dollar bills. (In that, Millar out-liberalled the famously liberal O’Neil, whose Batman was determined that the reformed criminal would still have to face trial.) Despite other notable differences between the two stories – Millar had no need of O’Neil’s Scrooge-referencing sub-plot, for example – their essential closeness is beyond doubt.

Cynics might see the obviously close relationship between the two tales as a sign that Millar had desperately bodged together Favourite Things from some embarrassingly familiar material. It would be an understandable conclusion, given that Silent Night, Deadly Night was hardly the only explicit lift from an immediately recognisable story that he’d indulged in. Another scene in which Batman sets a colony of bats upon the Chessman’s King was, for example, clearly appropriated from 1987’s Batman: Year One, by Frank Millar and David Mazzucchelli. In addition, the lamentably enfeebled portrayal of Batman himself – part brute, part bairn – might even suggest that Millar was up to his typically icon-mocking ways. But it is far more likely that Millar’s love for the character, and most especially for the DC Comics universe as a whole, inspired a display of well-intentioned over-sincerity. To exaggerate the Batman’s suffering even further than had become typical, and to diminish his maturity so drastically, could have been nothing more than Millar’s awkward attempt to show how seriously he took the traditions he was playing with. Like an over-respectful Elvis impersonator tumbling into kitsch for want of self-restraint, Millar’s tribute to Batman mistook a fan’s enthusiasm and devotion for the contradictions and complexities of the character he adored. In so explicitly sampling from Silent Night, Deadly Night and Year One, Millar could well have been signalling that he was a knowledgeable and dedicated writer who was anything but a minor pro looking for one more paycheck. It was, it appears, an entirely sincere, if regrettably unsuccessful, courtship on Millar’s part.

To be continued.


*1:- My favourite silly Christmas story is 1971’s much-reprinted Silent Night of the Batman, by Mike Friedrich, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano, in which a lusty all-night performance of carols by Batman, Gordon and a room full of police officers accompanies at least seven hours of darkness in which Gotham is entirely protected by crime.

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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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