“Just Don’t Do It Again”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 4

From LOTDK #79 by Millar, Yeowell, Giordano

Continued from last week.

How was it possible for Millar to show so much respect for Bruce Wayne’s back story while portraying such a deeply unconvincing Dark Knight? Though the writer’s take on Wayne was ludicrously mawkish, it was at least recognizable as an extreme version of a familiar character. The same couldn’t be said for Millar’s portrayal of the Batman. By turns volatile, vicious, ignorant, careless, ingratiating and bull-headed, he’s little in common with anything that had gone before. Though Steve Yeowell and Dick Giordano’s elegant and vigorous storytelling ensured that the character on the page looked exactly as he should, they couldn’t paper over the contradictions and absurdities in the script. In places, Yeowell and Giordano can even seem to be channeling the specific styles of Batman artists from the Fifties and Sixties. The panel at 5.3, for example, seems distinctly reminiscent of Bob Brown’s work, while the punch thrown by Batman at 17.2 appears to forcefully update Sheldon Moldoff’s charming if often sneered-at take on the character. Yet the energetic and respectful way in which they drew on the visual traditions of the character’s history couldn’t compensate for Millar’s askew choices. Beyond the basics of Wayne’s relationships with Gordon and Alfred and the broad sweep of his origin, and despite the presence of what Jack Nicholson’s Joker – in Tim Burton’s 1989 film version of Batman – had called his “lovely toys”, there’s little of substance in Millar’s story from any previous version of the character. Instead, he presented a whole series of apparently distinct caped crusaders; dealer-drowning Batman; smarmy patronizing Batman: obsessively imprudent Batman, and so on. The effect is disorientating and tiresome, and suggests a “jam” exercise by a group of promising but untutored would-be authors working apart from one another while struggling to meet an impossible deadline.

From LOTDK #79 by Millar, Yeowell, Giordano

Yet when Millar presented his protagonist as a taciturn, dogmatic and ferocious force of nature, he did temporarily succeed in suggesting a well-defined and recognizable character. Sadly, that figure wasn’t Batman, but 2000AD’s flagship fascist policeman, Judge Dredd. Scenes which make no sense with the Batman in them become immediately intelligible when the driven, brutal, and domineering Dredd is imagined in them instead. Given that, there’s an understandable temptation to wonder if Favourite Things wasn’t to a greater or lesser degree cannibalized from a story intended for Dredd himself. Millar had already sold a one-off XMas stories which featured the Judge – Christmas Is Cancelled, for 1990’s 2000AD Winter Special – and he would soon see another in print – I Hate Christmas, for late 1993’s 2000AD #867. Although he hadn’t been given any kind of run at Dredd in the comics themselves until after he’d sold Favourite Things to DC, he had been writing a great many episodes of the character’s daily newspaper strip. Beginning in March 1991 with the 43-installment Return Of The Peeper, Millar’s three-panel-a-day contributions to the Daily Star would still be being published in late 1996. In addition, and as we’ve discussed, he’d also co-created the 1991 Red Razors strip, which explored a Russian city-state in Dredd’s future-world, and written the text story Judge Anderson: The Most Dangerous Game for 1992’s Judge Dredd Yearbook. Whether consciously or not, it’s possible that Millar’s story for Legends Of The Dark Knight was strongly influenced by the work he’d being doing for Judge Dredd.

Cover by Brian Bolland

The uncomfortable surplus of violence that marks Millar’s first take on The Batman would certainly have sat far more comfortably in a story featuring Judge Dredd. Indeed, everything in Favourite Things which involves an unsettling excess of laconic, ruthless machismo could have been aptly used to illustrate the reactionary brutality of Mega City One’s police state. But to deploy the same in a Batman tale, and to do so especially in a story celebrating Christmas, was to destroy both the superhero’s moral authority and his heroic appeal. Where Judge Dredd at his best exists as an illustration of both fascism’s seductive power and its appalling consequences, Batman is a benign if undeniably threatening vigilante who’s striving to maintain basic democratic freedoms. Put simply, Dredd’s reason d’être is to extinguish human rights, while the Dark Knight strives to protect the same. To place a white hat onto Dredd, or a Judge’s helmet onto Batman, is to threaten to destroy the very thing that makes each character so compelling, so meaningful.

by Carlos Ezquerra

In what’s perhaps the most character-undermining scene in Favourite Things, Millar shows his Batman terrifying the children of a repentant small-time criminal. It’s a choice that aims to wrong-foot the reader’s expectations, in that it suggests that forgiveness isn’t going to appear in this particular holiday season story. After all, if Batman doesn’t notice how he’s frightening the innocents around him, then why should we anticipate the partially happy ending that Millar’s trying to obscure? But the surprise that scene sets up, and the pleasures offered by Batman’s abrupt decision to opt for clemency rather than retribution, comes at the cost of destroying the character’s fundamental reason to exist. For if the Batman has any single mission at all, it’s to ensure that no child ever suffers as the young Bruce Wayne once did. For him to stride unexpectedly into private property and so dismay two small kids is to wipe out at a stroke the reader’s sympathy for his outlandish mission. No matter what Wayne in his costumed identity might choose to do to “cowardly and superstitious” criminals, the Dark Knight does not frighten children. A Batman who does so is quite simply no longer The Batman.

From LOTDK #79 by Millar, Yeowell, Giordano

It wasn’t just the bleakness and violence in Favourite Things that would have been better suited to a Judge Dredd tale. Taken in its own terms, Millar’s version of Gotham City and its citizens seems to be both too camp and too unremittingly beleaguered. Without even a self-conscious sheen of hard boiled thriller-clichés to lend the reader an extra layer of playful context, Millar’s  merciless, super-villain-adoring teen gangs and the likes of the blind informer Tabitha appear ludicrously facile and half-baked. Yet the very same elements could have been recast in the broad, exuberant and politically-charged context of Mega City One and flourished accordingly. In the tradition of 2000AD as established by its founders John Wagner and Pat Mills, sharp-edged elements of the entirely absurd co-exist with the highly charged pseudo-realism of kid-enticing exploitation yarns. At its best, the result is action-adventure strips that simultaneously enthrall and alienate the reader, enthusiastically cannibalizing pop fictions while lacing the results with challenging and confrontational ideas. As such, Judge Dredd was at his best both despicable and heroic, ridiculous and impressive, hilarious and thrilling. But to strip-mine out that tradition of extreme and purposeful contradictions, as Millar appears to have done for Favourite Things, is to leave a Batman and a Gotham that’s both entirely unconvincing and thoroughly unappealing. With that vital rush of satirical intent, hyper-violence and po-faced portentousness are most often nothing more than obvious, tedious, and rather desperate writerly strategies. Because of that, certain scenes in Favourite Things move beyond the ill-judged to the distasteful. In the most ugly and self-indulgent of these, Millar has Tabitha savagely assaulted by a street gang, whose leader is made to announce his intentions as follows;

“Good evening, madame. I can’t help but noticing you’re blind. Never mind, my dear … There are some things in life it’s best not to see.”

We’ve already discussed how inconceivably daft a character Tabitha is. Existing only to be pathetic, vulnerable, brutalized and saved, she functions solely as a means to glorify The Batman’s skills at thug-beating. In what’s at best a deeply unpleasant and entirely unnecessary sequence, Tabitha’s fate stands as yet another early example of Millar’s questionable attitude towards the depiction of violence against women in his stories.

To be continued, with a look at how Millar’s later tilts at writing the Batman were often far more successful …

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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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Also by Colin Smith:

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