Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why, Why, Why Mark Millar?

1985 variant covers, by Jim Cheung, John Dell, Justin Ponser et al
  
The first part of the introduction to "Shameless? The Superhero Comics Of Mark Millar" has just been posted over at Sequart. I can't help but hope you might pop over there and take a look. I'll of course be reworking it, and perhaps drastically too, before it's finally published. Indeed, I'm unsure of whether this particular opening chapter belongs in the book at all. Still, making mistakes in public is the great advantage of the platform that Sequart have so kindly offered me. Having chapter after chapter of the first complete run-through of "Shameless?" up at another site puts a touch of distance between writer and work, and it should make it easier for me to recognise everything that needs improving. In that context, please do feel free to point out all that I've got wrong, or at least, all that I've been mistaken about beyond the fact that I'm writing about Mr Millar and his work in the first place.

For in some people's eyes, the very act of paying close attention to Millar's comics is a deeply dubious business.  As such, I do tend to receive comments which declare that his writing ought to be utterly shunned if it's not to be definitively damned. In both writerly and ethical terms, it seems, Millar is completely beyond the pale where a fairly vociferous cadre of the Taste Police are concerned. It's a response which arrives whether I'm praising the man's work or not, and there's been plenty of positive, negative and mixed pieces posted at TooBusyThinking to inspire these, shall we say, forceful responses.

Yet even amongst many of those who'd never dream of suggesting that he ought to be defined as verboten, there's often a lack of interest in Millar's career that I find somewhat baffling. Regardless of whether the reader enjoys his work or not, the man has surely been one of the most successful and powerful creators and publishers in 21st century comics. That in itself would surely suggest that he's a figure of considerable importance, and well-worth a measure of chin-stroking and pontificating.

From Civil War, by Steve McNiven et al
     
But I am absolutely convinced that there's a great more to Millar's writing than sales-figures and influence. Some of his work demands to be ranked amongst the best that the superhero tradition has ever produced, and even his less successful projects can tell us a great deal about how the sub-genre functions in terms of art and commerce. After all, his debut was at the fag-end of the black'n'white Indy boom of the Eighties, while 2013 finds his pioneering work in producing comics designed to appeal to a mass audience both on the page and on the screen returning intimidatingly substantial rewards. As such, Millar's career has both reflected the industry's development since 1989 as well as impacting significantly upon it. From a neophyte scripter who struggled to compose a workable script to one who has successfully fused classic Silver and Bronze-Age storytelling with Warren Ellis's widescreen revolution, Millar's little-credited progress as a craftman and stylist also demands attention. In short, it's almost impossible to understand what's happened to the superhero book without trying to get to grips with Mark Millar's progress.

Added to that are the ethical controversies which have so often characterised his work, the slice-of-life short strips marked by restraint and feeling, and a slew of scenes so unexpectedly tender that the cynical might suspect that they'd been produced by a ringer. While all the time, the man's constant attempts to huckster up attention and success through the media have resulted in a fascinating, if at times profoundly grating, campaign of hype, disinformation and surprisingly personal details.

To my mind, the question "Why Mark Millar?" seems to quite miss the point. By contrast, I'd suggest that he's the perfect choice for such a discussion.

But then, to take Mandy Rice-Davies out of context, I would, wouldn't I?

The first-run at an introduction for "Shameless?" can be found here. Mind you, I think next week's piece is far better. But then, to quote Mandy Rice-Davies out of ....


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18 comments:

  1. It's weird, I have a suspicion that I'm going to enjoy Millar comics more once I'm deeper into my personal understanding of my comics taste. I can't handle him now, but I've only been reading comics for a couple of years, and in every other medium I'm totally disparaging of middlebrow taste and the dismissal of perceived trash. I kind of feel it's hypocritical of me to dismiss Millar's work for it's gaucheness when I'm willing to watch and enjoy a popcorn action film or listen to a Miley Cyrus song. I was listening to Matt Seneca defend Millar on Comic Books are Burning in Hell the other day, and that combined with this article really has me thinking. I think once I've read more and further assessed my reactions to comics and their reasons, I might find a lot to enjoy in his work.

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    1. Hello Jack:- One of the problems with coming to grips with Millar is that many people are either entirely for or against him. I certainly found this to be a problem, because the impression was given that all of Millar's work was roughly the same, and could be easily categorized as GREAT or RUBBISH. Yet that's not true, and it's easy to be a great fan of one aspect of Millar's work while really not enjoying another. For example, his pre-1998 style is usually quite different from what follows, while the four books which followed Civil War were quite sweet and touching superhero series. There can be real differences in how he approaches particular titles over time too. For example, Kick Ass volume is a far more gentle and to my mind appealing title than either of its sequels.

      By which I mean, there's quite a huge span of work to get to grips with. Some of it I can't stand, some of it I love, and most it is distributed somewhere between the two. Good luck in finding something you like, or at least is resting secure that none of it is for you :)

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  2. Hy Colin,

    A small personal touch to start:

    Though it was a post about spider man that made me break my shyness, struggle with my English and write a comment here, it was a post about Mark Millar that brought me to your 'Too busy thinking about my comics'. What I've read was not what i expected, changed the way I thought about certain comics. That was when I decided that I should follow your posts.

    Since then I've learned to overcome a certain resistance I had with Millar, and I truly think that some of his works are among the better I've read. Actually Superman Red Son is a personal favorite, in my top 10 stories of the character.

    So i think the answer to this 'why' could be: because Millar is an amazing writer who sometimes expends an incredible amount of energy to be unpleasant. Sometimes this 'unpleasantness' works in favor of his story. Sometimes it doesn't.

    Anyway he is an incredibly powerful writer, and though it is terribly difficult to not throw out the baby with the bath water in this case, it pays the work.

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    1. Hello Thomaz:- Thank you for your generous words. They are very much appreciated, I do assure you. The blog has been all the better for your contributions.

      I agree with you that it can be hard not to simply give up on Millar at times. But, as you say, what we might agree to call the "unpleasantness" of his work can work to good as well as ill ends. (And of course, that's all in the eye of the beholder anyway.) My personal favourites from his almost quarter-century's worth of work tend to be the more gentle stories, but I admire the Authority and the Ultimates as much as anything he's done.

      I've not had a chance to read Red Son for quite a while now. I shall be sitting down with it this weekend in order to prepare for something I'm going to be writing. I very much doubt it will be an unpleasant experience :)

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  3. I look forward to seeing what more you have to say about Millar. I enjoyed the bit you did about that story of his where he writes about the villains trying to organize. Are you planning on hopping on board for his and Quitely's upcoming Jupiter's Children?

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    1. Hello Joe:- Thank you :) I'm hopping onto EVERYTHING that Mark Millar is involved until the book is over, and I suspect most of what he produces afterwards. By which I mean, I'd read a comic about the evolution of molluscs if he wrote it while Shameless? is underway. Certainly Jupiter's Children sounds enticing ...

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  4. Interesting! Will you be addressing the legendary Morrison/Millar beef at all? I do try to avoid indulging in the more tawdry behind-the-scenes gossip, but that collaboration and subsequent acrimonious parting is so fraught with literary and critical significance it's hard to resist speculation and theorizing.

    -- Jacob

    P.S. Also, what impact is all this going to have on your review of Superman: Earth One: Volume 2? Please note I will never, ever stop pestering you about this.

    P.P.S. Have you seen Utopia on BBC4? I found it remarkable; you can feel the influence of comic books all over it, even beyond the graphic novel MacGuffin and its opening set in a comic shop, and it deals with a lot of the same themes and subjects that have been coming up in comics lately, including -- notably -- violence against children. A ways afield from your usual sequential arts beat here, of course, but just thought I'd ask.

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    1. Hello Jacob:- On the whole, I'm going to stay away from biography in the book. There are a few exceptions, where what we learn from Millar's own words throws a light on the work. But even if I wanted to write about the Millar/Morrison fallout, there really aren't the sources to do so. There's some relevant information about the whole business of their falling out over an issue of The Authority, but beyond that there's little. I've dug everything I can about Morrison and Millar's working relationship, but there's little to be had about why did what in the comics they shared credit for. It's all been something of a challenge, and it remains so. So, in short, I'll add whatever I can find that seems relevant. As you say, speculation and theorising are an ever-present danger.

      You know, I thought I HAD printed a piece on Superman: EO volume 2! Having checked the matter, I can see I've got notes and a first draft that was never polished, or as polished as I can achieve. Much of what I would have written has of course been covered elsewhere, and yet, it's hard not to want to aim a slap at such DREADFUL work. Thank you for the nudge thencewards.

      To my frustration, I missed the first Utopia, so I'm going to see it from start to end on DVD. I thought it sounded interesting. You've ensured that I do follow through that intention.

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  5. 'Having chapter after chapter of the first complete run-through of "Shameless?" up at another site puts a touch of distance between writer and work, and it should make it easier for me to recognise everything that needs improving.'

    I can certainly relate to this with my own Swamp Thing serialisation at Sequart! In my case, I can see areas that need developing at more length, so it's being helpful in that respect. Mark Millar is also a fascinating choice in terms of the work he's been responsible for, and for the polarised responses it tends to engender. Personally, I've always at least enjoyed everything he's written, and retain a fondness for his first work on the Ultimates, which reintroduced me to superhero comics again after a hiatus. I'd rather read a book about such a potent, divisive creator than an MOR equivalent any day :-)

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    1. Hello Andrew:- I'm glad to hear that the process can work well! You're obviously far further down the line with your careful, detailed analysis of Moore's Swamp Thing, and that lends a considerably greater degree of validity to your observations. Of course, I can't help but wish that you were on a second volume about Swampy, so I could read your observations on the Morrison/Millar Swampy.

      "I'd rather read a book about such a potent, divisive creator than an MOR equivalent any day :-)"

      Absolutely! It's not something that everybody seems to agree with, but part of Millar's importance is that he makes WAVES. If that were all he did, if he was just a superhero Sigue Sigue Sputnik, then he'd deserve very little attention at all. But given the body of work he's generated, I agree that he's fascinating even when he gets right under my skin, as my gran might have said!

      The best of luck with your Swampy project!

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  6. Thanks for your kind words Colin, and best of luck with your projects too!

    I do remember some of the early issues of the Morrison/Millar run. I didn't read them all at the time, mainly due to lack of access to a comic shop. I remember being impressed with their first issue, specifically the concept that the Swamp Thing experiences were drug induced and that Alec Holland was alive and well. I thought it offered as effective a re-framing as Moore's and a thoughtful, fresh approach.

    I'm looking forward to reading more of your Millar work (and all the other great stuff you write too) :-)

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    1. Hello Andrew:- Those Morrison/Millar, and then less-Moorison-and-more-Millar Swampies are intriguing even when they're often - whisper - not very good. But Millar's collaborations with Chris Weston - #153 - and Curt Swan - #165 - on the series produced two of his finest issues ever.

      Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. They are very much appreciated.

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    2. I agree about those first four issues. But I rather like the third and fourth big storylines. The last six issues always stick in my mind as fantastic.

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    3. Hello Julian:- I'd absolutely agree that there's value to be found in much of Millar's Swamp Thing. It's just that those two particular issues seem to me to be outstanding. The rest of the series is something of a curate's egg, although each issue has at the very least something of value, and often a great deal more.

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  7. It's my pleasure Colin :-) I'll be sure to look out for #153 and #165 too.

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    1. Hello Andrew:- If you do come across a copy of either, I'd be fascinated by whether you like them or not. To my mind, they're the first comics where Millar's craft really clicks into place.

      All the best :)

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  8. I agree with everything you've said here, Colin! I find Millar fascinating for all the reasons you mention. Sure, he may be a huckster. Sure, there's violence and female objectification and plenty of playing with (not always unproblematic) super-hero tropes. But the man can write, and it's the mark of a great artist that even their mistakes are interesting. I think that's true of Millar, personally. Beneath all the gloss and bluster is a surprising amount of cleverness and -- gasp! -- substance.

    I adore your first Shameless post, by the way. Can't wait to see the next!

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    1. Hello Julian:- Thank you for the generous words. You're right; even his mistakes are interesting. The problem is that those mistakes often happen in spaces which touch on some very sensitive nerves. Worse yet, from the perspective of making sense of his work, his work often contains POVs which stand in direct contradiction to each other. And so, as I know you're well aware, Ultimates contains gung ho comfort food AND left-wing criticism of the same. The former seems to be quite genuine, and often bears no trace of satire at all. In wanting to have his cake while eating it, he produces work which can be very hard to make sense of. That that confusion coexists with the cleverness and substance you mention - and it does - just makes the whole matter all the more compelling.

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