Continued from last week.
Despite the precipitous collapse and subsequent flatlining of Swamp Thing’s sales in the second half of 1994, Millar’s career at the half-point of the decade still appeared to be in rude shape. His ever-more frosty relationship with 2000AD would remain a largely private matter, while 1995 would still see his by-line attached to a dozen published Judge Dredd tales. It was the year in which the much-anticipated, and ultimately much-derided, Stallone-starring film version of the strip premiered, and Millar’s Dredd stories seemed to mark him out as a favourite son of the comic. In addition, he and Morrison finally landed what appeared to be a regular berth at Marvel. In collaboration with designer Brendan McCarthy, artist Steve Yeowell and Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, their Skrull Kill Krew was launched in July 1995. With little in common with the Marvel fare of the time, and despite what Millar called “Colossal, sky-high, cosmic hopes” for the supposedly on-going title, it was cancelled after just 5 issues. (*1) Neither Morrison nor Millar’s work would appear again in Marvel’s pages until the turn of the Millennium, although in Millar’s case at least that wouldn’t be for the want of trying.
A significant part of Morrison, Millar and Yeowell’s reason for reaching out to Marvel was their desire to escape what they believed to be their stereotyping by the American comics industry and its readers. As Yeowell explained during a public interview with the team by Tim Pilcher during March 1995′s Glasgow Comic Art Convention;
“I think as much as anything we just wanted to prove that we could do it, didn’t we? Because you tend to get pidgeonholed very, very quickly working for American comics and we’re just seen as “Vertigo creators”, and we really just wanted the chance to prove we could do something other than Vertigo characters.” (*2)
According to Millar, speaking at the same event, the problem wasn’t entirely down to the industry’s preconceptions. Prone to focusing on “slice-of-life stories about guys who work in shops”, or so Millar declared, British comics writers had “disappeared up their own arse”. (*3) Without agreeing with such a sweeping condemnation, Morrison expressed the fear that Vertigo “had become a ghetto for British writers”. (*4) The suggestion that being British was an impediment to success in the costumed crimefighter comic was an overstated one. Alan Grant, who Morrison and Millar had so cruelly offended earlier in the decade, was for one doing very well as the writer of the monthly Shadow Of The Bat title, and would remain there for another three years. Grant, however, had moved straight from 2000AD to DC’s action/adventure books without working on any of the company’s “sophisticated suspense” titles; perhaps he thereby escaped the label that Yeowell, who’d illustrated Morrison scripts for the Vertigo-published Sebastian O and The Invisibles, was concerned about.
As if that stereotyping wasn’t bad enough, Vertigo along with several other more adult-orientated publishers were suffering so badly in the market’s implosion that Morrison feared for their ability to survive;
“… the adult comics just aren’t selling, and as much as it’s enjoyable to do something like the Invisibles, which is actually selling quite well, it just seems to me that there’s not a lot of future in it…” (*5)
Believing that the future of comics in general was an incredibly bleak one, he explained that he and Millar “…desperately want to survive this coming apocalypse, and we want to do some superhero comics again to widen our profile.” (*6) Not only did it appear to be a commercial imperative, but, as Millar explained, “it would be interesting for guys like us to do something where people actually get hit now and then or something explodes.” (*7) It was something of a disingenuous comment from Millar, given that his recent Swamp Thing issues had featured a considerable degree of such carnage in the title character’s multiple showdowns with Nelson Strong. But Morrison too shared the desire to work in a more immediate and kinetic tradition. Declaring that Vertigo’s Karen Berger and Stuart Moore had both been a “little surprised” by this, he explained that “we didn’t really read that many horror comics when were lads. We just read superheroes. In fact, just about all we read these days are superheroes too. (*8) It was hardly fair to suggest that horror was all that Vertigo dealt in; Morrison’s own Invisibles could hardly be so easily defined. But it was a distinction that allowed Morrison to pithily emphasise his credentials as an enthusiastic fan of the superhero genre.
Strange then, that Skrull Kill Krew would prove to be in so many ways a typical product of comic’s brutal and vapid Dark Age. Rather than a title that sat comfortably in the superhero genre, or which consistently displayed the Silver Age virtues that Morrison and Millar were espousing in the press, it was intended to be, in the former’s own words, “the most extreme Marvel Universe book anyone’s ever seen before”. (*9) Indeed, Morrison seems to have intended for Skrull Kill Krew to be the most brutal and brash of any of the age’s comics set in a superhero-filled world;
“I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 and in that books have been destroyed and all people read is comics with no words in them and are just completely violent, these ultra-violent comics with no words, no plots, no characters, no ideas – and that’s Skrull Kill Krew.” (*10)
In another interview of the period with Steven Darnall, Morrison declared that it was the Truffaut movie adaptation that had inspired him rather than the original book. That might explain why Morrison had mentioned details about the novel’s comics that author Ray Bradbury had only implied, while forgetting the “non-combustible” newspapers, rule books and 3D porn magazines that also existed in book’s future world. His memories were, it seems, something of a creative mash-up. But Morrison’s enthusiasm for wordless, ultra-violent comics does show something of the idiosyncratic and yet profoundly flawed thinking that went into his and Millar’s attempt to crack the superhero market of the time. For one thing, such a comic would have little if anything in common with Marvel’s other titles, and that distinctiveness was unlikely to be a commercial advantage in an ever-more conservative marketplace. For another, it would hardly serve as the pro-superhero calling card that all three men seemed to have intended it to be. One thing that the hyper-violent, narrative-light Skrull Kill Krew wouldn’t do was to show that its creators could flourish within the contemporary superhero book’s conventions. Its cast were human beings transformed into ever-more-lunatic shapechangers by a remorseless and invariably fatal alien contamination. Their inescapably horrible plight was the consequence of having inadvertently eaten burgers that were accidentally made from the bodies of extra-terrestrial Skrulls. The response of these young victims was, in Morrison’s words, “to shoot every last Skrull on Earth, even the ones disguised as puppies”. (*11) Given both Morrison and Millar’s reputations as, at best, pranksters and, at worst, deliberately and cruelly provocative self-publicists, Skrull Kill Krew seemed more likely to suggest a mockery of the superhero genre rather than a love letter to its traditions. In retrospect, its chances of success in even a moderately buoyant market would appear to have been seriously limited.
Other attenuating contradictions in Morrison and Millar’s ambitions for Skrull Kill Krew helped doom the project. No matter how outrageous and unselfconscious they wanted the book to be, they were also desperate – as we’ve discussed before in our look at their Justice League tales – to “restore” to the superhero;
“…their dignity. Make them fantastically powerful and godlike and aspirational again.” (*12)
The attempt to crowbar this agenda into the blood-saturated mayhem of Skrull Kill Krew would make for some awkward and unconvincing moments. (A two-issue guest appearance by Captain America would at moments seem to be as much sniggering at the character as saluting his virtues.) Similarly confused was Morrison’s belief that the book might, and even perhaps should, serve as a useful bridge between younger readers who enjoyed superheroes and the likes of Vertigo’s output. Was Skrull Kill Krew to be a playfully nihilistic statement or a camouflaged bridgehead for costumed decency? Was it to be a productive plea for further mainstream superhero work or a far more individual project? Was it to satisfy a largely pre-existing audience or to develop links between distinct and often quite separate segments of the market? The consequence of such confused ambitions was a book that tried to serve far too many masters while satisfying none.
To be continued.
My grateful thanks to Ben Hansom of Deepspacetransmissions – the Grant Morrison archive – for sending me scans of the Comics Forum #8 interview with GM, MM & SY. I’d tried for years to find that!
*1:- “so… which one’s the lesbian”, interview by Tim Pilcher & Steve Jewell, Comics Forum #8, 1995
*4:- “Comics Aren’t For Adults Anymore”, interview by Steve Holland, Comics World #40, 1995
*6:- As *1
*7:- As *1
*8:-’Morrison At Marvel’, Movers And Shakers, Comics International #52, February 1995
*10 As *1
*12:- As *4