(Almost) the World’s Finest Team:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 16

all scans are from 1998's Superman Adventures by Mark Millar, Mike Manley, Terry Austin et al

Continued from last week.

Millar was hardly the first comics scripter to bridle at the constraints of continuity. But few can equal his predilection for heedlessly flouting the more obvious aspects of a property’s backstory. The only canon he feels truly comfortable with is, it seems, that of his own devising. At worst, his solipsistic tendencies can produce versions of longstanding characters and well-established events that seem pointlessly irreconcilable and provocatively contemptuous. In that light, the aberrant Batgirl who starred in Superman Adventures #25 was far more typical of Millar’s work than his careful attempts to cleave to Morrison’s ambitions in the Justice League franchise. We’ve already discussed how unpopular Millar’s early-90s takes on Robo-Hunter and Sonic The Hedgehog had been, and such problems would continue throughout his career. Though he’d often speak of his struggles to synchronise his work in 2006/7 on Civil War with dozens of tie-in titles, his characterisation of the likes of Captain America during the project was atypical and unconvincing. Two years later and Millar would  transform Johnny Storm into an inexplicably amoral hedonist in his run on the Fantastic Four. The result was far more of a perplexing and even infuriating distraction than an invigorating innovation. Though he’s often argued that long-standing properties need to be regularly shaken up, Millar has tended to ignore the need for innovation to be plausible and persuasive.

But in (Almost) The World’s Finest Team, the palpable charm of the developing friendship between the fiery, single-minded Batgirl and the decent-hearted if sometimes leaden-footed Superman obscures Millar’s blatant disregard for continuity. What begins in confusion and conflict develops – as of course it must – into a relationship characterised by mutual respect. To create a partnership of equals between the over-mighty Superman and the relatively underpowered Batgirl was challenge enough. But to establish how that develops without sinking into sentimentality and obviousness was even more demanding. Yet Millar spells out the growing warmth between the two with restraint, precision and good humour. While Superman and Batgirl never openly declare their regard for one another, their conversation moves from awkwardness punctuated by recriminations to sweetly respectful if sharp-edged banter. Each possesses strengths which compensate for the other’s weaknesses, and each learns to appreciate the other’s considerable virtues. As such, Millar showed rather than told how this working relationship and nascent friendship develops, and he did so with a degree of wit and economy that he’d never previously shown in any other strip. Paradoxically liberated by the constraints and peripheral appeal of the Superman Adventures title, Millar manifested an ability to consistently deliver hi-octane, high-concept stories. (Almost) The World’s Finest Team may exist in a Millarworld version of the WBU, but it’s an eminently enjoyable cross-gender buddy romp all the same.

It may not have been a simple matter of whim that led Millar to his portrayal of Batgirl. In his very first published letter to a fanzine, the teenage Millar had ruffled more than a few feathers with what gave every appearance of being a sexist swipe against “poor” female versions of male superheroes. (*1) Despite claiming that he was neither “anti-woman’s lib (or) anti-superheroine”, his 1985 description of “super-powered brawls” which featured female characters as both “silly” and “ridiculous” came across as thoroughly misogynistic. A decade later and the boy who’d been decidedly “anti-female counterparts” would treat both Batgirl and Supergirl with conspicuous respect. (*2) In the pages of his Superman Adventures tales, each was presented as distinctive, formidable and admirable. Perhaps Millar’s idiosyncratic take on Batgirl reflected something of his old belief that female analogues had often been presented as second-rate propositions. One way or another, (Almost) The World’s Finest Team showed how far he’d changed. What Millar had once disdainfully dismissed, he now enthusiastically celebrated.

In short, the virtues of what Millar offered in Superman Adventures #25 far outweighed its flaws. Where other writers might choose to iron out the holes in their plots, Millar would tend towards masking them with fast-paced, highly-charged and often ingenious storytelling. Punchlines would tend to matter more than set-up, logic less than effect. As Millar himself has long recognised, it was only during his run on Superman Adventures that he’d learned how to make such an approach work. (Responding to the news in 2012 that DC would finally be reprinting some of his SA tales in anything but digest-sized books, Millar declared he was “…really glad they collected this because I’d say this is the series where I found my feet.”) (*3) As such, (Almost) The World’s Finest Team is peppered with winning scenes which direct the reader’s attention away from its structural problems; a repentant Superman takes a minor criminal for coffee after frightening information out of him; the murderous Mad Hatter is finally apprehended through astute, empathetic thinking; Batgirl delivers a disdainful “Nice to meet you, big guy” after the Man Of Steel had ruined her investigations; Superman prevents a mind-controlled Robin from wrecking central Gotham in the Bat-Plane, and so on. Millar had finally mastered the art of driving his plots forward through a series of compact, intriguing and compelling scenes. Adroitly illustrated by Mike Manley and Terry Austin in the house-style of the TV universe, the character arcs were clear and engaging while the story’s theme was consistently referenced and smartly resolved. Only in the underlying implausibility could the traces of the Millar of Babe Race 2000 and The Grudgefather be seen.

Why hadn’t Batman ever explained to Batgirl the essential difference between his public image and his true character? How can we believe in the wisdom and moral authority of a Dark Knight who’s either too incompetent or too vain to open up to his closest allies? How is it that this distractingly different version of Batgirl has so little respect for Superman, and why is the latter so inexperienced and ham-fisted? The answer is, of course, that the story couldn’t have existed unless Millar had chosen to ignore such problems. From beginning to end, (Almost) The World’s Finest rests on a jerry-rigged structure shored up by good ideas and nimble panel-to-panel craftsmanship. Yet Millar succeeded in camouflaging the tale’s fundamental flaws, and, at its very best, his work would continue to stay well ahead of its own improbabilities.

To be continued, with a look at Morrison and Millar’s Swamp Thing.


*1/2:- page 50, No-Man’s Land, Fantasy Advertiser/FA #94, December 1985, as discussed in more detail in an earlier part of Shameless? here. ((http://sequart.org/magazine/20944/that-wicked-tongue-will-land-you-in-trouble-some-day/)

*3:- http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/comics/news/a387610/mark-millars-superman-adventures-collected-by-dc-comics.html#~oBStzK1rEtcp2K#ixzz2zKcGTZ4P

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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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