Tag Archives: steve mcniven

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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