Friday, July 31, 2015

No. 37 Mark Millar

First Prog: 643
Final Prog: 1030

First Meg: 1.07
Final Meg: 1.15

Total appearances: 218
-including a huge amount of work in various 2000 AD specials and annuals. But not including his long stint writing Daily Star Dredd epsiodes. Which I have neither read nor even seen any of. I wonder if they'll ever be reprinted?

Creator / co-creator credits:
Silo; Red Razors; Insiders* Big Dave; Purgatory**; Canon Fodder; Babe Race 2000; The Grudge Father

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Rogue Trooper (Friday edition)
Janus, Psi Division
a fair number of future shocks / one offs

Actually, the Maniacs were misunderstood
Art by Steve Yeowell
Notable character creations:
Red Razors
Maniac 5
Big Dave
Canon Fodder

Notable character destructions:
Sam Slade, Hoagy and Cutie
Mega City Justice Department
The meaning of the word ‘satire’

Notable characteristics:
Ultraviolence; pitting main characters against powerful villains that are ultimately solved by hitting them hard enough; poking fun in every possible direction; embracing bad taste; being incredibly prolific

A cool death needs a pithy one-liner. Making sense is optional.
Art by Mick Austin

On Mark:
Millar is one of a small coterie of people widely considered to be 2000 AD’s worst regular writers. Which is kind of surprising, given how much work he saw printed in the comic over a fairly swift 5-year period – and even more surprising in light of the fact that he went on to become one of the best-selling writers in comics generally. 

Millar's plan for conquering American comics.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
One can’t help but feel that some of the antipathy towards Millar – by comics fans at large, not just 2000 AD fans – is partly the result of his success, but also his very public persona, which may or may not have anything to do with his actual personality. Simply put, Mark Millar is very good at self-promotion, and at talking up the strengths (and huge popularity) of certain parts of his output. Why this makes him come across as objectionable, I’m not sure. But it really kind of does.

Anyway, let’s get back to the point – what did Mark Millar do for 2000 AD, and how is this best celebrated? Well, to begin at the beginning, no one could accuse Millar of conning his way in. He wrote his share of Future Shocks (and, later, other one-offs), the traditional training ground for new creators. And honestly, his efforts in this arena were generally perfectly good. There’s a level of craft involved in the mechanics of a Future Shock: introducing characters, describing a situation, letting a story unfold to an inevitable twist, followed, ideally, by some sort of ironic counter-twist or at least a cruel joke. And Millar nailed that craft right from the start. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Millar is a pretty linear storyteller, with narratives that are easy to follow.

Occasionally, a Future Shock hits upon an excitingly original idea, or is in some way bizarre. Series creator Steve Moore is a rare writer who nails this tone as often as not. I don’t recall any Mark Millar Future Shocks breaking the mould, but, as I say, they were often simple and effective – harder than it might look.

Millar embraces meta-fiction
Art by Keith Page

Presumably on the back of his Future Shocks, Millar was able to pitch a short, one-off series: Silo. Elevated by some wickedly atmospheric Dave D’Antiquis art, this creepy thriller, set in a nuclear missile silo, was well-liked at the time, and is still held as one of Millar’s best 2000 AD efforts – with one major reservation.

As pointed out by a reader letter at the time, and indeed as noticed by almost anyone who reads Silo, there’s a sequence in it lifted from the film Die Hard. The villain makes a point of noticing that the hero is bare-footed, so he deliberately shoots out some windows, and the hero is forced to run, barefoot across the broken glass, and then to tend to his wounds.

Plagarism or pop art?
Art by Dave D'Antiquis

I’m bringing this up in excruciating detail to make a point: Mark Millar has some brass balls. This is probably going to come across as a really horrible thing to say, but for me, Millar epitomises that old saying ‘no one ever lost money by underestimating an audience’. My perception is that Millar knew full well he was lifting a scene from a film to use in his story. A such, it is technically plagiarism, but it’s such a small part of both works that I’m not overly offended by this on moral grounds. (After all, anyone is allowed to photocopy and distribute 5% of a book, although you should of course acknowledge your sources!). The objection is more along the lines of ‘how could he think people wouldn’t notice’? And I think the answer is that he didn’t care – because he’s canny enough to judge that, chances are, as many as 50% of the readers really wouldn’t notice, and would just think it was a cool action sequence. Die Hard is (and was at the time) an incredibly popular film. But there are always more people who haven’t seen it, even among a limited audience of people who also read 2000 AD. So, Millar gambled that the inherent cool of the idea would outweigh the inherent uncool of copying.

Not a Terminator
Art by Jose Casanovas and son
And, if I’m honest, a lot of the things about Mark Millar comics that put me off do seem to come down to his somewhat mercenary attitude of ‘more people will find this cool than will find it irritating’. Time and money have shown Millar to be a good judge of this! I might find some of his work derivative (if not outright plagiaristic), and I might find some of his themes to be a bit trite or obvious, but a heck of a lot of readers don’t. Not because they’re stupid or anything, but because they just haven’t read many comics / seen many films before. And Millar, laudably, is after a readership of people who are new to comics, and not bothered one jot if the small handful of comics superfans like his work (especially since that exact audience is probably going to buy his comic anyway, even if only to moan about them on the internet later!).***

Part of the price paid for this is that when Millar comes across something that is incredibly popular, he is willing to channel that more or less directly into his own work. And it gets results! Just as 1988’s Die Hard appears in Silo, so did 1991’s Terminator 2 appear in his first RoboHunter story.

And this attitude, I think, is true of his 2000 AD work. He was writing it with almost no eye at all to what had gone before, and what he thought might please the fans. He surely noticed that at the time, writers enjoyed a certain amount of cachet through being cynical, and having supposedly ‘nice’ characters being horrible. Picking up this baton, Millar thought he’d see how far he could push it. And that’s why he wrote a story about Santa Claus being taken off benefits. There’s something funny in there, but it’s fighting to get out around the extreme unpleasantness, one feels. 

Santa at the employment bureau
Art by Ron Smith

Of course, the most egregious example of this tendency was his RoboHunter. Just as newcomer Garth Ennis was put to work on Judge Dredd and Strontium Dogs, Mark Millar was tapped to have a go at bringing Sam Slade back to the Prog. Where Ennis was, if anything, too respectful to what had gone before, Millar went the other way. I’m sure he did go back and read some old RoboHunter stories, but there’s little evidence that he absorbed much of it. 

OK, I admit, this made me laugh
Art by Anthony Williams

Instead, he wrote a large number of stories about violently murderous robots. Much as I hate his first story in particular (not sure if it has its own name), I can’t deny he wrote some decent panels that allowed for cool Casanovas art. It’s even true that the story has an honest-to-goodness theme! Much of the world of RoboHunter is about robots doing human jobs. So unemployment is a problem. Millar poses the question of what happens when even the human robot-hunters become replaceable. I’m not enamoured of his answer, but I can’t fault the question as a good fit for the series. Later Slade stories involved more murderous robots with humour provided not by robots-acting-like-human quirkiness, but Slade fumbling around on bad sitcom style dates and unintentional gay-bashing. Oh, Mark Millar, your heart is clearly in a liberal place but your pen keeps slipping.

Slade's old robot becomes a vicious torturer.
Art by Casanovas and son

Slade fights a mass-mudering robot version of himself
Art by Anthony Williams

 When Millar turned his hand to Judge Dredd, the same sort of thing happened. He’d obviously read enough older stories to get a basic idea of the set-up. He’d even more obviously worked out that what readers really liked was when Dredd was a) an utter bastard or b) a beat-all-the-odds hero. So he pushed both of those measures as hard as he could.

Dredd is harder than a 3,000 year-old Mummy.
Co-scripted with Grant Morrison
Art by Dermot Power
And, enough times, this worked for me. Dredd is a sufficiently strong character to function as a repetitive gag strip comic, with the gag being that he is a bully, utterly righteous and also utterly ruthless. The best Judge Dredd stories go way beyond that very simple dissection, of course, but it’s not Mark Millar’s fault that a lot of his stories were published over a short space of time.

Of course, this ignores the issue of plot. And while Millar, I think, is great at coming up with situations and even characters (derivative thought they may be, at times), his 2000 AD work didn’t show a great deal of flair when it comes to the actual plots.

Here’s a breakdown of a typical Mark Millar story, Judge Dredd: Frankenstein Division

Stage 1: meet the unstoppable foe.

Look, he even SAYS he's unstoppable.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
 Stage 2: meet the hardman hero.

Not entirely out of character, but usually when he goes it alone he's making a point about the system.
Art still by Carlos Ezquerra
 Stage 3: set them against each other.

Because this wouldn't kill either of them.
Honestly, if you can't recognise Ezquerra's work at 10 paces, why are you even reading my blog?

Stage 4: hero wins, by punching the unstoppable foe in the face with sufficient force.
Seriously, that's all it takes. A big punch. I don't think Ezquerra understood it, either, which is why he has
Dredd's fist sort of disappearing in some unexplained face mush.

This story is all the more frustrating because I actually like the premise (dead bodies made up of Sovs killed during the Apocalypse War, reanimated by pure hatred of Dredd), and think Ezquerra did a good job designing the hilarious villain. Is it really that hard to come up with a way for Dredd to win the fight without just punching him? That’s all the story would have needed, if you ask me. (See also: Ace of Slades; Book of the Dead; Crusade and probably many others).

Is this Millar being self-aware? Or just playing his own plot super straight?
Art by Steve Yeowell.

Some other Millar efforts with solid premises that didn’t quite go anywhere:
Maniac 5 – human soldier with tragic past stuck inside a robot killing machine in some kind of war with aliens in future Europe. Awesome Steve Yeowell art.
What's worse than Maniac 5..?
Art by Richard Elson

Red Razors – ex-gang leader turned Sov Judge in a city obsessed by late 20th Century pop culture icons. Awesome Yeowell art again. (And let’s forget book 2 which involved nothing but cartoon violence mismatched with Nigel Dobbyn artwork)

Red Razors was angry a lot. And had a talking horse.
Art by Steve Yeowell
Purgatory – incredibly angry ex-Judge organises a prison break. Ultra-ultra-violence coupled with ultra-OTT personalities suggest fun times, but never quite convince. Ezquerra obliges with steroidal characters and continuous grimaces.
A villain-as-protagonist needs an even viler villain to fight against.
Just don't ask how Kurtz got appointed in the first place.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
Babe Race 2000 – all-girl biker race across Europe with points scored by killing each other and any bystander. As touched on in the Anthony Williams post, this was notionally a satire on the idea of male-gaze-y obsessions with fetish wearing buxom ladies with big guns. Only Millar kind of forgot to provide characters, plot or any satire beyond actually making the series happen at all. There was some potential there, though.
Big Dave - more satire that was light on the satire. One gets the impression that Millar, co-writer Gratn Morrison, and then-editors Alan McKenzie and Richard Burton all thought it was terrifically funny as the scripts were coming in, but it's such divise stuff. Honestly, I applaud its inclusion in the Prog, but I never really got the joke.

I think you're meant to laugh both at the filthy foreigner
AND at the idea of finding that sort of thing funny
AND there's supposed to be another level, too, maybe?
Art by Anthony Williams
This leaves a couple of odd ones out. I’ll leave the Grudge Father aside for now, as it was, after all, “based on an original grudge by Jim McCarthy”, so it’s not entirely clear how much of it was Millar’s work, although the flimsy plotting ending with the ‘hero’ winning by, basically, punching the ‘villain’ is classic Millar. I actually like the Grudge Father as a work of extremely gory body horror. It is very weird, in a good way.

The GrudgeFather has religious overtones. Sign of a good Millar story.
Art by Jim McCarthy
 And then we have Canon Fodder, probably the most beloved of Millar’s creations. This is a story heaving with fantastic ideas, intriguing characters, the start of a plot, something of an interesting resolution, and something of a mess hiding beneath a surface of genuine 2000 AD cool. In case you don’t know, Canon Fodder is a priest, only he’s a ‘priest’ in the same way that Joe Dredd is a ‘judge’. His job is to bring the law of God to the teeming masses of people who have all been resurrected at the Day of Judgement, only to find that the ‘Day’ has spun out into decades because God has buggered off without doing the ‘Judgement’ bit.

So what you get is a semi-futuristic world populated by literally everyone who has ever lived, including a bunch of fictional people who really should have lived, e.g. Sherlock Holmes. When you have an artist with the boundless imagination of Chris Weston let loose on this kind of setting, you get heavenly results.

What a way to start a story!
Art by Chris Weston
Meet the Devil
Art by Chris Weston
 Now, I don’t know if anyone could really make this premise work, but Millar wisely doesn’t even try to show what life is like in this world. Instead, he sends the Canon off on an adventure to find God. And it’s a fun romp, marred only by some slightly odd jokes and a certain failure to make sense. To be honest, it shouldn’t have to make sense, but Millar’s general mode of storytelling is clarity rather than Smithian obfuscation, so the reader expects it to be more coherent than it actually is. No matter, it’s a delight of silliness. 

In general, Millar is likely to be better when he’s got a religion theme going on, as this seems to be something he has actual opinions about, rather than when he’s trying to guess which pop-cultural references his audience might be tickled by.

By the time he got onto the Friday incarnation of Rogue Trooper, and the Janus, Psi Division stories he co-wrote with Grant Morrison, Millar had found something of a solid groove, if a not terribly memorable one. And, yes, a few more unstoppable villains who need a good punch.

Mark Millar – not as terrible as his rep, but with few big, memorable hits to his name either.

More self-awareness..? (ho ho ho)
Art by Paul Johnson

Personal favourites:
Silo (that sequence aside, this is a neat little chiller)
Future Shocks: Nightmare on Ses*me Street (incredibly cynical, but I’m no Sesame St fan so that didn’t rouble me)
Judge Dredd: the Great Brain Robbery (not a popular opinion, but I liked seeing the villain here get his ludicrous comeuppance)
Purgatory (for whatever reason, the outrageousness seemed to work in this one instance)
Maniac 5 (I wish it had more of a story, but the art and basic premise carry it through)
Cannon Fodder

(It says a lot that I’m having to justify the list of stories I like!)

Murder of letters: genuinely witty.
Art by Brian Williamson

More on Mark Millar
By the far the most detailed analysis that will ever be researched and written comes from the keyboard of comics blogger extraordinaire Colin Smith. He’s undertaken a career-spanning review of the man’s work, which is still ongoing. The 2000 AD bit starts here.
The Hipster Dad touches on him here
And a recent interview at Big Glasgow Comic that is mostly about his successes today

*I’ve read a bunch of Crisis, but haven’t come across Insiders. I love a bit of Paul Grist so it’s probably worth checking out

**Purgatory is a Dreddworld story, its main character an old Judge Dredd antagonist, not created by Millar. But it feels like its own thing, really, so I’d cite it as a new creation.

***Arguably, no less a creator than Pat Mills is guilty of the same thing - only when he appropriates ideas, he takes them in his own mad direction rather than regurgitating them wholesale. Certainly Mills doesn’t care what his readers think of him!

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