Interlude 4: My life in comics, part 1: Mark Millar is an overrated idiot.

12 Nov

1.

I learned to read on comics, my first love was comics, and I still collect. I don’t write about comics much. Not sure why. But last night I read a comic that infuriated me, and I feel the spirit to comment.

Time to get my nerd on.

I’ve collected on an almost continual stream for thirty years. Like other fans, I think the comics are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than the movie versions; that graphic fiction, graphic literature and the like are insulting, demeaning terms; that comics are a rich, fertile and elastic medium that can be used in manifold ways; and that Jack Kirby[1] is one of the great unsung artists of the twentieth century.

The top tier writers are Alan Moore, Grant Morrison[2], Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker, Havey Pekar and Warren Ellis. (Peter Milligan is close.) The writing team of Mike Mignola and John Arcudi must be included. (B.P.R.D. and the other Hellboy offshoots are all absolutely astonishing.)

Then there are the great writer-artists, including Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Darwyn Cooke, Charles Burns, Craig Thomson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Paul Pope, to name a few.

The middle writers—solid, a touch predictable, but capable of great stuff—is an enormous group, including Andy Lanning and Dan Abnet, Kurt Busiek, Jonathan Hickman, Mark Waid (his run on Daredevil is fantastic), J.M. DeMatteis, Jeff Lemire, I don’t know, there are dozens of talented writers who fall into this category, the bulk of comic writers both in the past and today.

The old warhorses, some of them excellent: Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Peter David (who remains a wry, humorous rascal; his mid-90s run on X-Factor was killer), Chris Claremont (God, the man had to narrate every single frame), Roger Stern (his mid-80s run on The Avengers and Captain American are crowing achievements of superhero comics), Mark Gruenwald (the man who made me love Captain America and his Squadron Supreme was incredible, a real powerhouse), Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon. There are tons of them.

There are the former champs who have gone to seed: Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and Garth Ennis. Miller was amazing, and then he was just terrible, and Starlin was cracking for years with Dreadstar and The Infinity Gauntlet and his early Warlock stuff, but then he stopped trying new stuff and he became stale. Ennis’s run on Hellblazer was incredible, and the first 25 issues or so of Preacher were great. But then he became a parody, and turned all of his work into a vehicle for mediocre black humor.

And then there are the overrated, dudes that either diluted their talents or were never very good to begin with: Brian Michael Bendis (he has some fantastic books, including the early Powers, but he has been one of the worst forces in the Marvel Universe for years, a very bad writer of action with a pretty wretched run on Daredevil, the comic that a good writer can always do well); Joe Casey, who had a fabulous initial run on Cable, but has put out mostly crap since; and the worst of the worst, the biggest turkey in the game, Mark Millar. A real son of a bitch creep.

2.

I fucking despise Mark Millar. He’s a terrible writer. And, I’m almost certain a miserable human being. Yet, he has interesting, often exciting setups and ideas.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Old Man Logan[3] is a good case in point. The world has fallen to the villains, some fifty years in the past. The country is divided into zones, each ruled by a different super-criminal. The heroes are either dead or in hiding. Wolverine is raising his family on a rundown little dust farm, he’s late on the rent, and his landlord is the Hulk. The Hulk’s grandchildren are super-strong thugs who rough him up. He has to make a delivery with an aged, blind Hawkeye, across all those enemy-occupied zones, to make enough money to pay his debts. And, because of a tragedy he won’t speak of, Wolverine’s a dedicated pacifist, refusing to unleash his claws.

A pretty nifty idea, derivative of Mad Max, Future Imperfect, Days of Future Past, and The Ultimate Warrior, among other sources, but pretty clever. Only delivered with a simple-minded, vicious, and callous nastiness that dismisses everything decent and good about these characters, about storytelling, about the human race.

I’m not kidding.

The Hulk emerges at the end as a homicidal lunatic who kills people indiscriminately because he’s bored. This isn’t edgy, it’s dumb and childish, and it reveals the lack of moral character and decency in Millar the person.

The Hulk only works as a character if Banner feels guilt over the Hulk’s actions, and somehow has to try to be a hero in spite of the raging monster inside. The Hulk’s value, as a concept, stems from Banner trying to assert influence on the damage the Hulk creates. Otherwise he’s just a monster, and a kind of boring one at that.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Here’s another example. Halfway through the story, Hawkeye meets his estranged daughter, who turns out to be a depraved, power-hungry killer. This subplot amounts to exactly nothing; it’s just another way for Millar to show how terrible humanity is. There’s nothing more to it. She’s a tough badass, and any kind of ethical or moral conduct can suck it. Millar admires her character, you can tell.

And, well, it’s a corny thing to say, but heroes matter, even made-up heroes, and to spend your lifetime diminishing them is, well, weird[4]. And kind of hateful.

By the story’s end, Wolverine has to reject his pacifism, that’s his character’s story arc. It’s replaced with a silly vigilante code of justice that comics were grappling with as early as the 1960s. In fact, the comic asserts that it is Wolverine trying not to kill that caused much of the problem in the first place. Okay, fine, but the moral weight of violence must be measured, interpreted. Good writers—and decent people—grapple with the underlying ethics of their fictions, even if the stories seem silly. Even in comic books. Wolverine must fight to keep his murderous instincts at bay, this is the essential conflict within him, and us. To reject this is to misunderstand the importance of restraint in storytelling and in life.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don't avenge their fallen friends.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don’t avenge their fallen friends.

His spin on Marvel Universe’s future—there have been dozens and dozens of dystopian future Marvel stories, including “Days of Future Past” and “The Age of Apocalypse,” even the New Warriors had a story set in some grim future—reveals how little he understands the characters. Wolverine is more than a killer. The Hulk is more than a monster. And I know to outsiders I sound like a nerd splitting hairs, but goddammit, it matters. To me, to other fans, to the medium and to our culture itself.

3.

I’m not finished. Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, besides being a total misfire, “updated” the mutants by making them horny, stupid, vapid, superficial and nasty. He doesn’t understand Magneto—a very hard villain to write well, I admit—and he doesn’t develop any of the other villains at all. (Chris Claremont would drop little clues to the villain’s backstories—he wrote in a time when most of the characters would think in dramatic monologues, asides, and soliloquies—and after a while, all the minor characters had the flicker of internal lives.) Millar doesn’t do any of this, so the minor villains remain mere henchmen. Why even name them? The storylines are all stolen from the original series. He added no new characters of any note. And he boiled the entire X-saga down to Professor Xavier and Magneto[5]. Worst of all, it was relentlessly boring.

Kick-Ass is my vote for worst comic of the decade (and a terrible movie), simplistic, boring even, unsophisticated, childish, a bit creepy with the adolescent sexual perversity. The story is a retelling of two dozen or so teenage origin stories, only marbled through with curse words and extra teenage angst. I hated it. You should, too. John Romita, Jr., is a great comic artist, and even his considerable talents couldn’t salvage this stinker.

4.

Other writers create ultra-violent stories. Warren Ellis, for example, also traffics in a hardline misanthropy, but he tempers his contempt with moments of wonder and transcendence. The Authority might be the best celebration of human ingenuity in the face of existential despair I’ve read. And The Ocean is hands-down one of the greatest science fiction comics of all time. My point: Ellis sees the good in people as well as the bad, and insists on giving some attention to the consequences of violent actions. And all of his output stems from his left-wing politics, which provides an ethical context and for his work.

Alan Moore’s From Hell is one of the supreme achievements of the medium, and it’s chock a block full of corpses, bloodletting, murder. And the Neonomicon, his Lovecraft-inspired miniseries, was one of the most disturbing horror comics I’ve ever read. And I loved it.

I could go on, but my point is that good writers have violence erupt from the characters, their passions, their flaws, their mistakes. Millar uses violence for nothing more than sarcasm, a big middle finger to fans, and I resent him for it. He wastes my time.

5.

Millar is bad at dialogue. It must be said. His characters are either stolen outright or weak retreads. His jokes are terrible. His one defining characteristic seems to be crass violence and unfunny tastelessness.

Okay, credit where credit’s due. His run on The Authority wasn’t terrible, but it was in some sense just a continuation of Warren Ellis’s excellent groundwork, and augmented by one of the great storytellers of the medium, Frank Quitely. His Wolverine: Enemy of the State had a great premise and was pretty fun to read.

And Millar has one significant comic, and I would argue that it is Bryan Hitch’s superb artwork—and there’s evidence that Grant Morrison, his former friend, helped develop the concept—and it’s The Ultimates. The dialogue is still bad. The characters are still vapid. But his run on the series had two great aspects. First, he shows how quickly the world would change, and how dramatically, if superpowers were possible. Second, he has an epic sweep to the geopolitical ramifications of super-powered beings. It’s poorly written, but still rousing stuff.

6.

Okay, I’ve kicked him enough. He’s prolific as hell, and I don’t feel like going through his back-catalog. I’ll finish with this. The artwork in Old Man Logan is exceptional. Steve McNiven is a very talented guy, and the landscapes and characters all look fantastic. But I kept feeling like the very essence of superhero comics was being twisted, but for no particular reason[6]. The crass jokes, the harsh ultra-violence, it added up to nada, zilch, nothing. It wasn’t any fun. I felt like he woke up one morning and thought, why don’t I have little hulkings raping and pillaging everything that moves? And Wolverine’s family will be killed for no reason? And Hawkeye will die for nothing at all? Wouldn’t that be cool?


[1] And Steve Ditko.

[2] I could write a doctoral dissertation on him. I love him.

[3] The comic that inspired me to write this post.

[4] By the by, I accept a kind of underlying viciousness to Celine, Trocchi, David Goodis, Genet and so on, but these men had formulated philosophies on how the world worked. Their misanthropy served a purpose; it was indistinguishable from their art. And none of them mocked the very artform they chose to write in.

[5] The best X-villains are the Reavers, cyborgs armed with futuristic weapons, who represent the other possible branch of human evolution, man melding with machine. And, for other reasons, Nimrod. And the Sentinels. And Mr. Sinister. And Apocalypse. And the Hellfire Club. I wasn’t lying when I said I was a comic junky.

[6] Alan Moore’s Watchmen is partially about the ruin of human ingenuity in the face of Dr Manhattan, and how superheroes would very quickly become ossified, boorish, or tools of the state.

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9 Responses to “Interlude 4: My life in comics, part 1: Mark Millar is an overrated idiot.”

  1. Professor Fathead November 12, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Great article! I agree that Mark Millar does write violence for the sake of violence and there is also a strong sense of sexism, especially women in refrigerators, throughout his work. Like you said, he comes up with great ideas but doesn’t know how to execute them properly.

    • simoneandthesilversurfer November 13, 2013 at 2:32 am #

      Hello, professor Fathead.

      And thank you. (The refrigerator thing is bizarre.) I feel like Millar somehow missed the basics of storytelling, yet snuck into the comics pantheon like a thief in the night. But I know people who like and even love him. But Old Man Logan was a really poor comic, one of the most infuriating things I’ve ever read, because he systematically eradicated just about everything I like about comics and admire about the characters.

      Chillingly evil, in a way.

      au revoir.

  2. Sean Kilpatrick November 12, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    May i recommend an artistic review of Rob Liefeld’s comic illustrations i stumbled upon the other day? Warning, you will likely giggle out loud.

    http://www.progressiveboink.com/2012/4/21/2960508/worst-rob-liefeld-drawings

    • simoneandthesilversurfer November 13, 2013 at 2:33 am #

      Oh my god. This is the best comic-themed thing I’ve read in years. You were right; I was giggling, out loud, at work. A student walked by and asked, “What are you laughing at?” I just waved her on.

      Thanks for sharing, Seany baby. Just superior stuff.

      Ben

  3. HorazSC July 26, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Whoa; it’s thanks to the Internet that you can find and connect with people that feels EXACTLY what one feels about some relevant stuff gone mainstream. Regarding Millar’s almost obsession on showing how sadist and disgusting he can be using the comics’ media, it’s almost as if you’d written my thoughts exactly.

    I liked (pretty much A LOT) Wanted: the movie -bending bullets is just one hell of a concept-, and went after the comics just to compare, since I heard it was quite different. I honestly don’t know why a sentient human being can think it’s cool to be that twisted, and I immediately wonder about which human beings could be fans or followers of such idiotic point of view. Man… world sure is big.

    That experience and the whole Kickass glorification on nonsensical violence and purpoted “realistic portraits” of “realistic” pop heroes (vigilantes if you want) both in the comics and the movie were just too much stupidity to digest.
    It’s as if his works were written by somebody who hates comics…

    Well anyway, I ‘wanted’ you to say that I share your philosophy on comics -I think that is ‘kick-ass’-, given what you have written here.
    Keep it up, and greetings from Argentina!

    • simoneandthesilversurfer July 28, 2015 at 2:38 am #

      Hello, and greetings back! I appreciate your comments. I’ve been re-reading Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, from 1989? They are blowing my mind. (Borges—your compatriot—is a major influence.) I collect B.P.R.D., Hellboy, anything by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, and Mark Waid’s Daredevil. You? Does Argentina have a comics tradition of its own? If so, write about it and I’ll post it on the blog! If you are ever visiting Chicago, drop me a line and we can grab a drink/coffee.

      As for Millar, he decided, a long time ago, to try and push the envelope of comics in terms of violence and depravity. The problem is, he’s sucked all the heroism and decency out of a genre that desperately needs it. (Garth Ennis is doing a similar thing, but he’s over the top and has a kind of weird humanism at his core; David Lapham is writing a different genre altogether, horror and crime, and his misanthropy is just fine there.) Old Man Logan was Millar at his worst. He took all the things I like about the heroes and sort of mashed them into nothing. Ugh. Kickass, on the other hand, is just bad writing. Simplistic, nihilistic, and, to me, boring. He isn’t even near the top of the second-tier creators for me.

  4. Kevin September 10, 2015 at 2:42 am #

    I never had any problems with Millar. I enjoyed his work in Ultimate X-Men, Wolverine, and civil. I tried reading The Ultimates, but I didn’t think it was that good. I haven’t read any of Miller’s other work. I don’t like how he doesn’t seem to read up on the characters he writes. The changes he made to the big name characters that take place in alternate universes don’t bother me at all, but he had Wolverine say and think some things that seemed very out of character in public enemy. Millar must be doing something right considering the majority of comics that have his name on them have appeared on the top 10 best selling list for the last 15 years. Millar is not really one of my personal favorites, and honestly I could care less who likes or hates him. The main reason I am commenting is because you have hinted that you are a Daredevil fan, and you like Waid’s work on the series. Waid (like Millar) has changed everything about Daredevils character. (With the main difference being, unlike with Miller’s writing, this does not take place in a alternate universe.) It’s like taking Batman and turning him back into the character played by Adam West. He has taken the character made great by Frank Miller at his creative peak, and essentially turned it into a children’s cartoon. I also disagree with you about Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil. True Bendis is not that great when it comes to writing action, but he doesn’t try too. His work on Daredevil is arguably the best since Frank Miller himself. Bendis gave depth and a third demention to characters that previously had none. Maleev’s art, which I was originally didn’t really like but grew on me over time, was perfect in setting the tone for the dark gritty storytelling. Waid’s Daredevil stories age like rotten milk, while Bendis’ writing ages like a fine wine. I’m really not one to go “nerd rage” and argue about shit, but Waid really pisses me off with is campy over the top colorful take on Daredevil. I have heard many people that were not previous Daredevil fans praise Waids work. Since you praised classic Frank Miller and Daredevil is as classic as Frank Miller gets I’m assuming you were already a fan. Most Daredevil fans rank Waid’s take on the pulp hero to be anywhere from dreadful to average. Would to hear back from you and know if you were previously a fan, and what you like about Waid.

    • simoneandthesilversurfer September 10, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

      This is great!

      I loved Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. The first serious comic I ever read—and it’s still dynamite—was the first appearance of Nuke, where Kingpin destroys Murdock’s life in five issues, Vietnam coming to Hell’s Kitchen, etc. I loved Ben Urich, and Miller utilizing the chain-smoking reporter as the narrator was stunning. (Mazuchelli is also one of the great comic book artists.)

      I loved Brubaker’s run, too. Brubaker is an excellent writer, partially because he knows his strengths and plays to them. (I think all of the comics he’s done with Sean Philips are on the whole superb.) I loved putting Daredevil in jail, having the punisher go in to help him, with Bullseye and so on. The Daredevil mythology is one of my favorites. I loved the death cult, The Hand, the mystical martial arts, and so on. I think Brubaker, utilizing the Tarantula, for instance, really dug into the corners and went for it.

      Okay, so to Waid. I’m not a simpering fan of his. I think Kingdom Come is obviously more of an Alex Ross creation than his, and many of his side projects have been dreadfully mediocre. (What’s weird, though, is he was Grant Morrison’s editor on Doom Patrol; I adore Morrison, and I loved his run on Doom Patrol.)

      So, Waid’s Daredevil. I’ve been reading comics for over 30 years. And I think the key to good, long-running monthly series is occasional shakeups, occasional re-starts (or re-imaginings is perhaps a better word). Daredevil has reached an end, many times, really. Frank Miller nailed the druggy, destitute urban crime superhero. If comics have a memory, and I think they should, then no other writer needs to try that again. Miller perfected it.

      Part of my problem with Bendis’s run—I generally like Bendis, but I think he probably would have been a better television writer; he is very good with a certain type of dialogue but as he moved into editorial and then management, his writing skills deteriorated; he should have stayed with Powers and Alias and minor, idiosyncratic titles, instead of being handed the keys to the kingdom, and I hated his Secret Invasion, double ugh—is that he was in part attempting to return, or rehash if you’re feeling scabrous and critical—to Miller’s run. I collected all of these issues, by the by, and read them both as they came out and again, near the end of his run, in order. His run is monotonous, one-note, and I think he misuses many of the characters. But, in a word, his run on Daredevil bored me. I had seen it before. (his run on the book was similar to Ann Nocenti’s.) What’s interesting, and a total sidenote, is that Bendis is excellent at writing Spiderman’s witty asides. Just great. But the pacing of superhero comics eludes him. Again, television; he would be a dynamite show runner.

      Waid’s run feels fresh. Dynamic. Pure. I think the artwork, which took a while to grow on me, is excellent. I think Waid has a better feel for the ancillary characters of the Daredevil mythology than Bendis does. (His Shroud is great, and I like how he’s handled the Owl, who was always sort of a stupid/boring character to me.) I don’t think Murdock’s darkness is gone at all; rather he’s showing Murdock attempting to remake himself as a less tormented man. (And there’s a scene in his first issue, I believe, where Daredevil is momentarily transported to a dark dimension; I linked his attempts at changing to this moment.) I loved the secret societies he was fooling around with, and I thought his overall aim was to add colors, facets, and humor to a character who is too often monotone and angsty. (Morrison attempted to do a similar thing with Batman, in a way, only he mangled the job. I admire Morrison, but Batman is wrong for him. Or rather, he is wrong for Batman.)

      This approach can backfire. Aja, I think it was Aja, took over Fantastic four after Hickman’s killer run. And he tried to do silly stuff with Mike Allred, another creator I like, and it was dreadful. Just a terrible misfire. The key to Waid’s run is that his Daredevil is lighter, funnier, but not slapstick. He’s kept the integrity of the character.

      But it’s all different strokes, really. Ten years ago I might have hated this, I don’t know. Not every movie has to be Bad Lieutenant. (It’s taken me a long time to admit that.)

      I cut my teeth on the Marvel comics of the 1980s, and matured on the vertigo titles of the 90s. I read novels—and I’m an inveterate snob—but I still collect comics: B.P.R.D., Hellboy, anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, After-life with Archie, which is just killer, and a number of Warren Ellis’s titles. I also check trades out from the library and I thought Infinity, the Hickman Marvel precursor to Secret Wars, was convoluted, complicated, and great. He’s my kind of nerd.

      Thanks for the letter. I don’t have many people I can talk to about comics. Everyone knows the movies.

      As for Millar, he isn’t horrible. But he has built his entire career deconstructing the aspects of superheroes that appeal to me. And he has a skewered, and to me, flat-out wrong, view of the human animal. We aren’t all murderers and rapists and heels. Some people do things that aren’t self-interested. And you nail it: he doesn’t research his characters. He doesn’t maintain any integrity. His take on Old Man Logan on all the aging superheroes was grotesque and wrong. He misunderstands why the characters did what they did in previous stories, and I don’t know if he understands why he has them do the things they do in his work. I think he’s sort of just: Wouldn’t it be cool if the Hulk ate people?

      • Kevin September 11, 2015 at 11:47 am #

        Hello again.

        I have collected all of Waid’s Daredevil as well. There was a couple of volumes that I actually enjoyed. In the current reboot (which had no reason to be rebooted.) I did like Waid’s portrayal of shroud and the owl, but the Scooby Dooish disguise stuff he has going on with Foggy is ridiculous. His work on the original sin story arc was hard for me to get through. I would liked to see the reason why Matt had such a personality change instead of Waid essentially saying: I’m going to write Daredevil like this just because I want to. He even had Foggy commenting that Matt shouldn’t be acting like that in his early run. It feels like we haven’t had a great Daredevil story since Devil in Cell Block D.

        As for Brian Michael Bendis, I agree with you on his work going down hill. On all new X-men it feels like he kind of stoped trying. Secret War and Secret Invasion were some of his worst work. He don’t seem to be good at writing team books. Bendis has been called the master of dialogue, and his pages of dialogue between two characters don’t work when dealing with a group. I did enjoy his pre civil war work on New Avengers.

        Spider-Man is going to be what Bendis is best known for. Like you implied it is his best work. I enjoyed Ultimate Spider-Man but stoped reading after the death of Peter. Nothing against Miles, but when I was reading Ultimate Spider-Man there was many time I would have to put the comic down, face palm, and think to myself: I wish Spider would age faster. So I was disappointed after ten years of reading and finally seeing Peter get a new look and have a birthday only to die and get replaced with a kid three years younger.

        I kind of have a pet peeve with kid superheroes. (Robin is the main reason I’m not a huge batman fan.) I can get into them sometimes though, but there is nothing more ridiculous than hearing a hero say “let’s kick this guy’s ass, I’ve got school!”

        Change of subject. You said you were a fan of Garth Ennis in his early days. I was actually a fan of his work on Marvel Knight Punisher, and that was his series that featured the most black humor. I was wondering if you read his work on punisher max. With a few exceptions Ennis cuts out the black humor in favor of realism. But when he does have black humor in the max series it is at its blackest.

        I do agree with you that comics need to be constantly evolving to stay fresh. Which for the most part the good ones have. If you look at Marvel there hero’s today are completely different than the were in the 1960s. With the exception of Spider-Man not a single big name marvel hero still has a secret identity. I don’t really read DC that often, but they seem to be slower with there evolution. It seems like there New 52 relaunch put them around where marvel was ten years ago. Not trying to bash DC, they have published some of the greatest comics ever written. I’m also currently reading batman.

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