It's a shame that the 10 page The Secret Society Of Super-Villains feature from 1998's JLA 80-page Giant won't ever, for obvious reasons, be collected together with Wanted. Because in so many ways the former reads as a prequel to Mark Millar and J. G. Jones' deliberately provocative tale of how the whipped Wesley Gibson is converted to the do-as-you-will side of the hero/villain divide. For all that it's an in-continuity, comics-code authorised, and apparently throw-away extra feature placed nearer the back than the front of the book it appears in, Millar's The Secret Society Of Super-Villains is a genuinely thought-stirring story of an Earth that's apparently falling under the control of an authoritarian superhero elite. It more than explains why the DCU's super-villains would bind together as an army to entirely eliminate their opposite numbers, and because of that, it appears to begin the story of the criminal seizure of the globe which serves as the backdrop to the events of Wanted, where such a rebellion has succeeded in wiping reality free of the very idea of the super-hero. (*1) Because of this, it's hard not to believe that the universe of Wanted and that of Secret Society are really one and the same, with the names and the faces changed just enough to save Millar from a we'll-take-your-own-eyes-too law-suit. After all, the characters in Wanted are nearly all precise analogues of DC's own trademarked-to-the-hilt properties, and much of the force of its narrative relies upon the reader recognising, for example, that it's really Superman who's been left brain-damaged and tragically abandoned in a home, and that it's truly Batman and Robin who've been shown being fed to a giant octopus. (*2)
*1:- Of course, Millar also tried to pitch a Secret Society of Super Villains series to DC at the turn of the millennium, and that proposal eventually became "Wanted". It's something which we'll turn to in the second part of this piece.
*2:- The date that Millar gives in "Wanted" for the extermination of the superheroes - 1986 - suggests that what we're seeing there is the fate of the pre-Crisis DCU. It's tempting to wonder whether the transformation in "Wanted" of the universe by the triumphant super-villains isn't a writerly comment on the DCU of the post-Crisis period. ("By morning, all the magic in the world had gone ...") Certainly the young Millar expressed in the UK fanzines of the late Eighties a disillusionment with the grim'n'gritty super-comics of the period. A long-shot of an idea, of course, which is why it's here, in italics, in a foot-note.)
The plot of The Secret Society Of Super-Villains is a transparently straight-forward one. The JLA have reformed, and the story begins with Superman announcing to the world that;
"A permanent watchtower has been erected on the moon with surveillance equipment unlike anything the world has seen for maximum global security. Your leaders have given us authorization to ... "
His sentences are loaded with words which we might more normally associate with state oppression; "surveillance", "permanent watchtower", "maximum global security", "authorization". To the less conservative mind that's experienced the consequences of the War On Terror in the wake of 9/11, the Justice League's global mandate to endlessly intrude into everyone's privacy in order to serve the greater good carries a sense of the profoundest unease. When Superman states that "The basic philosophy behind the new league is zero tolerance of all super-crime. A radical membership drive has been launched to increase (the JLA's) numbers so that Earth can be protected more effectively ..", the reader becomes immediately aware that such a policy involves the League perpetually overseeing everyone else's business at every level while endlessly expanding its own numbers. The JLA will be forever watching from their secret base high above the world in what's effectively a new nation-state existing quite independently of any Earthly power, and whose self-selecting citizens will be endlessly primed to descend on even the slightest crime which they define as unacceptable. As Per Degaton quite convincingly argues, "Democracy has just been given a death sentence. The world has a new cabal of masters now."
It was of course Grant Morrison's 1997 reboot of the Justice League which Millar was playing with here, and it's notable how very different the two men's take on the same situation is. As with his scripts for Wanted from five years later, Millar was constantly encouraging the reader to view events at least in part from the perspective of the catastrophically anti-social. Where Morrison consistently, and deliberately, presented the JLA as gods, as noble creatures who by their very nature occupied the ethically laudable uplands of virtue (*2), Millar encourages us to see them as the super-villains would, as fascists imposing terror rather than order upon a defenceless world. It's not just that Millar is suggesting the perspective of the likes of Deadshot and Crazy Quilt might be closer than we might expect to our own: he's also challenging Morrison's view that the Justice League could ever be regarded as an implicitly and entirely benign organisation. Until the tale's conclusion, the superheroes of the DCU are a constantly-seen presence intimidating their fearful opponents at a distance, They declare their intentions through the media while the various members of the Secret Society sit with their children, or bed down as lovers, or congregate and gossip on roof-tops beneath colourful advertising billboards declaring that "The League Is Here For You!". There is, it's being made apparent, no escape from the new pro-active Justice League Of America, and no-one to ensure that the JLA fulfill their mandate in an ethical fashion.
*2:- With the exception of The Huntress, and the occasional hissy-fit from Orion, of course.
There's a great deal of the totalitarian in the JLA's determination to stamp out the threat of super-human crime. When Amos Fortune is shown discussing "supervillain clearances" that have been "organised on this scale", it's impossible not to wonder about the League's means and ends. For what's being transmitted is the sense that there's a new world order which cares little for traditional notions of politics and law, and which might not care for any long-established notions of due process. Even when the League finally bursts into the narrative as actors rather than distant presences, they're shown to us as arrogant, terrifying bullies, sneering at their prey, smiling at their suffering, hammering their enemies into unconsciousness. That the Martian Manhunter had infiltrated the Society disguised as Brain Wave and entrapped the super-villains accordingly, inciting them to a murderous assault on the Watchtower before smilingly enjoying their capture, only makes the whole business feel all the more disturbing. What the Manhunter is doing there is redolent of an agent provocateur in spirit if not fact, and regardless of the fact that the super-villains are guilty of conspiracy to murder at the very least, there's a sense that the difference between right and wrong isn't anything like as clear as Grant Morrison's work in the period would have us believe.
Of course, Millar's skill here lies in how he has us sympathise with human beings who'd never care to sympathise with us, and it's that deliberate misdirection which we'll return to next time.
|The world in "Wanted" after the super-villains have taken over, with all the silver age colour and magic gone.|
To be concluded on Sunday 26th February;
|The Martian Manhunter unsettlingly enjoys watching the members of the Secret Society get theirs.|