“Forgive me, Superman. I’m not very good at losing.”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 14

Cover to 1998’s JLA Paradise Lost #3, by Ariel Olivetti

Continued from last week.

Some in the UK fan community saw Millar as Morrison’s heir apparent on the JLA. But despite later claiming that he’d once turned down the chance to write the Justice League, Millar was always highly unlikely to directly replace Morrison on what had become an extremely prestigious assignment. Beyond a degree of acclaim for his work on Superman Adventures, he’d as yet failed to establish himself as anything more than a jobbing writer in the American market. Where Morrison’s status in the industry had risen considerably in the wake of the JLA’s success, Millar appeared condemned to occasional collaborations with his mentor and a string of short lasting fill-ins and one-offs. Even there, it seems, that Millar had generated something of an unhelpful reputation for tardiness. As the joint proposal for the rejected Superman 2000 reboot by Morrison, Waid, Millar and Peyer would openly state;

“ …we’re all aware that any editor’s heart would freeze solid at the sound of the names Morrison, Millar and Peyer in connection with anything that requires, oh, a weekly deadline..” (*1)

Even Millar’s sterling 1998/9 work on Superman Adventures was in part tainted by the condescending attitude held by superhero fans towards what were regarded as comics for children. Though the book was clearly superior to any other Superman title of the time, its origins as a licensed tie-in for a Saturday morning cartoon show unfairly limited its appeal. With his identity frequently associated with the role of Morrison’s sidekick, and without a break-out hit of his own, Millar was apparently mired in a career that relied on patronage and scraps. Time has lent his first five years at DC the lustre of a highly productive apprenticeship. But as the Millennium ticked ever closer, Millar’s career actually seemed to be an unfulfilled and uncertain one. It was, as he would later write, as if he were constantly “standing in sinking ships …I was honestly on the verge of leaving after years of never quite catching on..  (*2)

from System’s Finest, in 1998’s DC One Million 80-Page Giant, by Millar, Mike Wieringo & Richard Case

But for all that he was so closely associated with Morrison, Millar received relatively little work on the Justice League franchise. Nowhere was this as evident as in 1998’s Justice League One Million crossover. A line-wide event which involved a four issue mini series, a special giant issue and almost 40 of the company’s regular titles, it saw Millar contributing nothing beyond a 10 page tale to the DC One Million 80-Page Giant. (The same collection saw Morrison contribute – despite his huge commitments elsewhere – two stories of his own.) Even as Morrison was providing detailed notes for most everything involved in this hugely demanding project, Millar was conspicuously absent from all but its most peripheral aspect. The comparison between the two men’s careers, and their relative importance to DC, couldn’t have been more obvious. Of course, the JL One Million tie-ins were always designed to feature the company’s regular creative teams. But Millar’s almost total absence from the project certainly undermines any impression that he and Morrison were professionally joined at the hip during the period. In fact, during Morrison’s greatest period of influence over the DCU in the 90s, Millar’s name was often conspicuous by its relative absence. If his carer was being furthered by coat-tail riding, the process was far more precarious and demanding than many have credited.

Part of the reason for Millar’s fitful career was the slow development of his basic competencies as a storyteller. In the 1998 mini-series JLA Paradise Lost, for example, he struggled to make the adventures of the angelic Justice Leaguer Zauriel appear anything more than mildly interesting. An undeniably ambitious and sweeping tale of a Heaven-shaking alliance between disaffected angels and typically irredeemable demons, it seemed perfect for Millar’s tastes and experiences. In many ways an optimistic, comics-code friendly sibling to the dark and cynical likes of The Saviour and Canon Fodder, JLA Paradise Lost struggled to fuse superheroic conventions with mythological tradition. (*3)

from 1998’s JLA Paradise Lost #2, by Millar, Olivetti et al

Once again, Millar’s use of the Batman in the story is emblematic of his limitations at the time as a storyteller. As with Star Seed, he struggles to replicate Morrison’s portrayal of the Dark Knight as a “kind of hi-tech, James Bond Batman”. (*4) Despite, as we discussed last week, his clear understanding of Morrison’s vision for the character, Millar slipped into presenting a Batman who is anything but an exemplar of self-control. In an attempt to lend the obviously temporary death of the Martian Manhunter a degree of pathos, Millar’s Batman lashes out in despair at a surgery wall while shouting “Damn!”. In that, it’s exactly the kind of melodramatically tortured behaviour that both men had set out to eradicate from the character. Rather than portraying a supremely confident strategic genius, Millar has Batman crumple with despair while whimpering, “Forgive me, Superman. I’m not very good at losing”. The Claremontian syrupiness of the scene is overwhelming, and the mixture of self-doubt and despair left the Batman seeming anything but formidable and undauntable. With no sign of what Millar himself had defined as the character’s essential arrogance and “perfection”, the character’s rendered both irrelevant and uninteresting.  Not for the first or last time, Millar’s desire to hype up the meaning of a sequence left it seeming tacky and unconvincing.

from 1998’s JLA Paradise Lost #3, by Millar, Olivetti et al

Though Millar obviously had a clear idea of how he wanted his readers to feel as a result of JLA Paradise Lost, he lacked the skills to do so. Apparently determined to keep the Batman involved in the story at all costs, he recklessly pushed the character into inappropriate scenarios and interactions. Where Morrison had smartly kept Batman off-panel during the cosmic hi-jinks of Zauriel’s two-part introduction to the JLA, Millar crowbarred him into events that were clearly contrary to his mystique. The result is exactly what the Bat-Office feared when the JLA relaunch had been first mooted. Casting the Batman as a combination of doctor and theoretical physicist, Millar has him extemporising on “molecular structure”, “kinetic energy”, the “Speed Force” and “a chain reaction in his body to get his defences working again”. It’s an ill-judged performance which strips away not just the character’s taciturnity, but his vitally important air of mystique and realism. When pitted against a spaceship of White Martians in Morrison’s first JLA epic, the Batman had defeated his alien adversaries with nothing more than his sharp wits and a box of matches. The epic had been smartly juxtaposed with the prosaic, and the Batman’s vital importance to the League emphasised without his gothic qualities being compromised. But in JLA Paradise Lost, he’s become indistinguishable from any number of costumed pseudo-scientists, and his lines could have been given to Ray Palmer or Reed Richards. Though it’s certainly conceivable that the Batman is capable of such technobabble-saturated leaps of reason, Millar’s choices reduced him to just another costumed plot device. Unforgivably, the presence of Millar’s own co-creation Aztek in the tale only emphasises how redundant the Batman is. With Dr. Curtis Falconer on hand, the role of doctor and plot-furthering jargon-spouter was already quite obviously fulfilled.

from 1998’s JLA Paradise Lost #2, by Millar, Olivetti et al

That the Batman’s strategy results in unforeseen and exceedingly unwelcome results for Zauriel only compounds Millar’s mischaracterisation. Unless it’s actually the central point of the story being told, the Batman’s contributions should never be ill-informed and massively counter-productive. Denied even a chance to contribute to the tale’s resolution, Millar’s Dark Knight simply disappears from events. If JLA Paradise Lost was in any way considered an audition piece, it surely failed to inspire a call-back.

Yet by the end of the same year, Millar would have finally established himself as a fiercely competent and frequently inspired scripter.

To be continued, with one final reference to Millar’s use of the Batman to prove the point.


*1:- SUPERMAN 2000 By Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Tom Peyer & Mark Waid


*2:- Millar’s “20 minute chat” on Reddit, March 2014


*3:- It’s a mini-series which I’ll be returning to later

*4:- pg 8, Killer Instinct, interview of GM by Andrew Kardon, Wizard JLA Special, 1998

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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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