Pulling Out of the Dark Age?:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 7

cover to 1997’s Wizard JLA Special by Howard Porter, John Dell et al

Continued from last week.

It’s only to be expected that Millar’s work on the JLA would mesh with Grant Morrison’s agenda. But it is remarkable how closely and effectively Millar’s contributions reflected his friend’s wider ambitions for the DCU too. It can only be assumed that the two – long bound by epic fannish conversations – were singing from near-identical hymn sheets. As we’ll discuss, this went far beyond a professional deference towards the vision of a senior colleague and friend. The result was that Millar played a supporting and yet telling role in Morrison’s attempts to change key aspects of DC’s predominant culture of storytelling.

In the interviews of the period, Morrison often walked an awkward line between respectful teamplayer and committed counter-revolutionary. In a 1997 conversation with Matthew Brody, for example, Morrison implied that the Dark Age was already past. (*1) The impression given was that he wasn’t challenging any of DC’s entrenched interests so much as responding to a cultural fait accompli;

“I wanted to do some more superhero stuff, having been interested by Mark Waid’s Flash and a couple of other books. But since I wanted to do positive, imaginative superhero stuff and it had gone grim-and-gritty. I had to wait until it looked like that phase had passed.”

From 1997’s Aztek #6, by Morrison, Millar, N S Harris, Keith Champagne et al

But freed from the need to be diplomatic by the passing of time, Morrison would later declare that he’d been seeking to “restore a mythic dimension to the DC Universe.” (*2) This was no little ambition, and it inevitably raised the probability of ruffling feathers in the company’s hierarchy. Though convinced that his plans involved nothing but a series of “quite reasonable demands”, conflict quickly arrived. (*3) Denny O’Neil, the editor of the company’s line of Batman titles, objected to key aspects of Morrison’s vision for the JLA from the start. But any proposal for the Justice League which featured the Batman in a leading role was always going to concern him. For O’Neil, the priority was – in Morrison’s words – to make the “Dark Knight’s adventures as real as possible. This meant no fighting aliens or visits to the Moon”. (*4) O’Neil’s proscriptions even seem to have extended to showing Batman in the company of his fellow big guns from the Silver Age’s Justice League. (*5) It was a commitment to a particular form of comicbook realism which both Morrison and Millar profoundly disagreed with. For the former, the very idea of the “naturalistic” superhero had long been a “laughable” one. (*6) Indeed, Morrison and Millar’s very first conversation – as recorded in 1989’s Fantasy Advertiser #109 – had included the following exchange;

Grant: … I think the character of Batman is so strong that he can survive any interpretation.  I mean, I could quite happily read a graphic novel wherein the Batman is an outrageous camping homosexual.  In fact, I may write one.  I also think the TV series was great.  The current ‘Creature of the Night’ version which Denny O’Neil revived in the early 70’s is only one way of handling an endlessly flexible character.

Mark: But I think O’Neil has done this because he wanted to stay close to the original concept of the Batman, as Bob Kane and Bill Finger did it.

Grant: That’s probably true but I’m really keen to see the return of Bat-Mite and Batman fighting aliens again.  I think the time is right for someone to do all that 50’s stuff.  As long as it’s done well, you can make anything work.  Everyone’s fed up with ‘realistic’ superheroes anyway.  I know I am. (*7)

Seven years had passed and the supposedly “realistic” superhero had only become all the more prevalent. To Morrison and Millar, the doctrinaire gutting of the superhero book’s more outré, absurd elements had only helped to enfeeble the form. In attempting to minimise the bizarre, the worst of all possible outcomes was regularly generated; neither compelling, mundane heroic fiction or uniquely appealing tales of superheroic endeavour. Instead, a drearily constrained and unconvincing obsession with verisimilitude had all too often eviscerated the superhero genre’s more preposterously imaginative qualities.

from 1961’s Batman #144, Bat-Mite Meets Bat-Girl, by Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff, Charles Paris et al

That the superhero comic could flourish when mixed with a well-calibrated degree of realism was something that neither Morrison or Millar had ever denied. (Of course, much of the success that Millar would achieve with his Millarworld titles would be grounded in that very principle) (*8) But their mutual objection at the time was to the conventions of comics-realism functioning as the rule rather than an option. If Millar was often far more enthusiastic about “the whole realistic superhero thing” as pioneered by Frank Miller and Alan Moore, he certainly also shared Morrison’s distaste for the “dead-end” knockoffs which followed. (*9/10) Both had spoken with respect of Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s highly influential Batman: Year One, which in 1987 had efficaciously hybridised the urban thriller and the superhero yarn. (*11) In addition, Morrison and Millar had always recognised the importance of O’Neil’s own stint as writer of the Batman in the late 60s and beyond, when he’d rejected the camp influence of the Adam West TV series for an austere, down-to-earth and pulp-thriller approach. (*12) But as a template for how huge swathes of the industry ought to function, the pseudo-realistic superhero comic was simply far more of a blight than a blessing. Its advocates assumed that the audience would be captured by a peculiarly restricted range of narrative precepts rather than by the highest quality of creative endeavour. Yet the first is hardly a guarantee of the second, while the latter can prosper even in the former’s absence.  In collaboration with Millar and, most often, without him, Morrison set about challenging the axioms which underpinned so many of the Dark Age’s key presumptions. One of those was the dubious conviction that a character’s believability was fundamentally determined by a relative lack of fantastical qualities. As Morrison would write in Supergods;

“Adults…struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it’s not real.” (*13)

From 1997’s JLA #3, by Morrison, Porter, Dell et al

Nowhere were his objections more effectively argued than in his JLA scripts which featured the Batman. With tales set in a variety of gloriously outlandish settings, Morrison succeeded in stressing the Batman’s threateningly Gothic strengths without ever once undermining his virtues as an urban vigilante. At times, it’s hard to believe that Morrison’s stories weren’t being written in order to deliberately challenge the likes of O’Neil’s “no-aliens, no outer-space, no super-people” rules. In Morrison and Miller’s 1997 origin for the new League, for example, events begin with the Batman in conference on an Earth-orbiting satellite before he’s thrown into conflict with a giant, mind-controlling, alien starfish called Starro. It was, it seemed, a tale designed to challenge all of O’Neil’s most dearly-felt concerns. Yet the result was a Batman who was all the more intimidating and impressive, with the more outlandish fantasy and SF tropes working to accentuate rather than diminish the character’s most distinctive assets.

from 1997’s JLA Secret Origins & Files, by Morrison, Millar, Porter, Dell et al

The tussle over how Batman could be used in the JLA was therefore far more than a turf war between two editorial offices. To Morrison, and of course to Millar too, it symbolised how the superhero book had become undermined by a spurious understanding of how the genre actually worked. It would have been a foolish argument to claim that O’Neil’s long tenure as Batman editor had produced nothing but spuriously grimy fiction, for that simply couldn’t be sustained. (*14) Those looking for the worst of the Dark Age’s superhero books, or even the least edifying of those published by DC at the time, would have had many, many more enervating examples to work through before arriving at O’Neil’s door. To take just the Bat-office’s tie-ins to DC’s 1994 Zero Hour crossover as a single example of many, O’Neil’s books could clearly be both involving and moving. Yet the conflict between the world-view of Morrison and O’Neil involved the right to interpret one of DC’s two most iconic characters. As a battleground of sorts for Morrison to prove the validity of his convictions, the opportunities offered by unfettered access to the Dark Knight were substantial.

To be continued, with a look at how Millar contributed to this recasting of the Batman.


*1: pg 7, “Mine! All Mine!”, interview with Matthew Brody, Wizard JLA Special 1997

*2: pg 56, “Supergods”, Grand Morrison, Jonathan Cape, 2011

*3: pg 291 ibid

*4: pg 292 ibid

*5: (*1), pg 10, “Mine! All Mine!”, interview with Matthew Brody, Wizard JLA Special 1997, where Morrison says “They (O’Neil) didn’t want to see Batman on the moon or hanging out with these people.” (My italics.)

*6: “Don’t Titter Missus It’s Grant Morrison”, interview by Paul Duncan, Ark #32, May 1990, https://sites.google.com/site/deepspacetransmissions/interviews-1/1990-s/199005-ark-32

*7: “Grant Morrison Talking to Mark Millar”, Fantasy Advertiser #109, 1989 https://sites.google.com/site/deepspacetransmissions/interviews-1/1980-s/198901-fa-109

*8: Millar was always far more enthusiastic about Moore and Miller’s superhero work as a whole than Morrison, even as he appears to have shared the former’s distaste for those who ineptly hi-jacked the methods of the great 80s deconstructionists. It’s something I’ve discussed before in these posts, and to which I’ll – obviously – return.

Moore and Millar even appear to have inspired Millar into an ill-judged period of actually wanting to be a super-hero in the mid-80s; For example, “I was so into Frank Miller comics and Alan Moore comics, I was reading The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One and Watchmen, and the whole realistic superhero thing was so exciting to me, that I found I wanted to do it in real life.”


*9: for “the whole realistic superhero thing” (*8) above

*10: “dead-end”, from “Grant Morrison And His Supergods”, by Bryan Hood, Vulture, 7/21/11 http://www.vulture.com/2011/07/grant_morrison.html

*11: For Millar on Year One, see Shameless? part 2: http://sequart.org/magazine/19550/on-the-professional-pre-history-of-mark-millar/

For Morrison on Miller and O’Neil’s Batman in general: “I grew up with the Denny O’Neil stuff, and when I was starting out writing comics, Miller was just doing the Dark Knight stuff. Those were the stories that really informed me when I was growing up and when I was starting to write books.”


*12: As we’ve discussed, one of O’Neil’s Batman tales even seems to have directly inspired the conclusion of Millar’s own Favourite Things from 1996’s Legends Of The Dark Knight #79. It’s impossible to believe that Millar would pay such homage and not respect the source material;


But tellingly, Morrison would also identify O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who’d collaborated on Batman during the period, as the “fathers of the Dark Age.

pg 146, “Supergods”, Grand Morrison, Jonathan Cape, 2011

*13: pg 56, “Supergods”, Grand Morrison, Jonathan Cape, 2011

*14: To take just the Bat-office’s tie-ins to DC’s Zero Hour crossover as a single example of many, O’Neil’s books could be both involving and moving.  Particularly recommended are the charming Batman Shadow Of The Bat #31, by Grant, Blevins et al, and Robin #10, by Dixon, Grummett et al. To criticise O’Neil’s editorship for its comics-realism is by no means the same as suggesting that his era characteristically lacked quality. His reign is peppered with notable and enjoyable tales.

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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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