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Friday, December 11, 2009

In Light of Nemesis; The Blueprint for Pretty Much Every Mark Millar Comic

In light of the Nemesis news, which I hope is not more of the same

After nearly a decade of consistent popularity, Mark Millar has developed a finely tuned formula for what to expect from his comic writings. By " developed ", I also mean " has fastidiously stuck to with little if any deviation ". And I say this from someone who has absolutely loved his work in the past, particularly on the Authority and the Ultimate Marvel characters, and even his year-long runs on Spider-Man and Wolverine. But in the past couple years especially, Millar's comics have become based on a very tight blueprint that's good at the illusion of deep, challenging work. Unfortunately, after many years, it's become apparent how the magician is doing the trick. Again, and again.

For example;

-- The Mark Millar story is a superhero premise with a high concept twist. Emphasis on high concept; the twists are readily apparent and easily digestible. Examples include Wanted ( supervillains secretly rule the world, Joe Schmoe discovers he's heir to the deadliest of them all ), Kick-Ass ( comic book fan tries to be a costumed superhero in a world without powers ), War Heroes ( military develops super-power pills, soldiers use them for massive heist ), and now Nemesis ( Batman figure turns out to have Joker modus operandi ), If it's a run on a corporate-owned franchise, it's less likely to be so obvious, since Millar is putting in a longer story there. But even then Millar tends to write his stories as finite runs with clear premises, most notably with Civil War ( superheroes brawl over thinly veiled post 9-11 issues of freedom vs. security ), but also with Old Man Logan ( shell-shocked veteran Wolverine pulled out of retirement for one last big kill ), 1985 ( 80's supervillains attack real world of 1985 ), and even the Ultimates ( Marvel history rewritten for Bush-era America ). These at first seem like ideas so devilishly simple that you're surprised nobody's thought of it prior. The truth is that people have thought up these story ideas, they just were represented in more subtle and nuanced ways ( JLA villain Prometheus being created as an evil Batman, late 80's fantastic four dealing with superhero registration in a sane and reasonable fashion ). But if you want the blockbuster treatment...

-- The Mark Millar story never has a hero. Protagonists do things that may be labelled heroic, but it's clear that the motivations are never pure, and the results are never wholly successful. The closest character Millar can write to a hero is a character like his version of Peter Parker, who's simply so naive that he doesn't know there's more than a good vs. evil binary to the world. Otherwise, his heroes are zealots for a very fundamentalist notion of justice ( Civil War Cap, Ultimate Thor, Ultimate Xavier, possibly Kick-Ass ), or self-serving nigh-sociopathic individuals who happen to target the right enemies ( Wolverine, the Authority, the rest of the Ultimates, Civil War Iron Man, most of the Fantastic Four but especially Johnny Storm ). Nemesis will probably have the Millar version of the Gotham Police work under a similar paradigm.

-- The Mark Millar story always has a villain. Nobody is 100% good, but there are people who are 110% evil, so vile that they go beyond the normal possibility of 100. Wanted has its protagonist become utterly hedonistic and depraved once he receives power, scoffing about how he can " rape an A-List celebrity and not even have it make the news ". The Wolverine story " Enemy of the State " has the Gorgon, who mathematically disproved the existence of God and works towards the destruction of life PERIOD. The Authority faced a number of genocidal maniacs obsessed with rape. And while Norman Osborn has always been a complete monster, Millar gave him his worst act to date-- upon learning of the chronic illness of his prison guard's wife, made a cure for her, which made her temporarily healthier but then killed her even more painfully. Nemesis should, by the very definition, provide a villain with similar actions ( especially since Millar compares him to the Joker, the worst super-villain since super became attached to villain ).

-- The Mark Millar story almost always has a Morality Pet,a genuinely pure and good character who is there for no reason other than to offset the nihilism everywhere else in the story. Characters like Hawkeye's family in the Ultimates, the Vulture's terminally ill grand-son in Marvel Knights Spider-Man, Dave's hard-working widower dad in Kick-Ass, the kidnapped little Japanese boy in Wolverine: Enemy of the State, Cindy Sheehan analogue Miriam Sharpe in Civil War, and Wolverine's Little House on the Prairie brood come to mind. Toby from 1985 might qualify, because he's got divorced parents ( though it isn't used for much other than stock drama ), but he's a protagonist. These characters tend not to have any agency other than to show that the world isn't all bad. However, they also tend to either suffer or outright die, reinforcing the nihilistic premises. They aren't characters who draw sympathy so much as attempts to show that the worlds Millar writes aren't entirely unsympathetic-- but they're still outweighed by the Wesley Gibsons of the worlds. I'm not sure how this will appear in Nemesis, but I hope that the titular character doesn't justify murder and pillage by being a single father to a child with cystic fibrosis.

-- The Mark Millar story has an extensive amount of conversational dialogue filling in backstory, giving hints to a colorful history and universe-- without actually showing us said colorful history and universe. Professor X will write a book on Mutant Boom and Bust Economics, Tony Stark will have a history of suicide attempts, countless characters will have backstories that make them " cry themselves to sleep every night " ( Bruce Banner, Ben Grimm, Bobby Drake, and more ), and as I said before Wesley Gibson will be able to commit rape without consequence-- but we don't find out anything more about these story threads. It seems like a compromise between having big unique ideas without having to risk them not succeeding-- these asides don't go into Mutant Economics or Reed Richards' 100 ideas for a better society, so there's no chance of failure for expanding on those ideas-- but no change of the success that a really thought-provoking story could offer. They're just expanding on what's already there.

-- The Mark Millar story has a style of dialogue that is universally nasty and insulting. Every character will call someone else an idiot, a moron, a dumbass, a ( R-Word deleted ), or some other insult to their intelligence. Villains are especially insulting, and they relish in exposing their nemeses to depraved monologues. Heroes aren't disgusting, but they do tend to go past witty banter and into outright dissing their opponents. Even nice characters talk with this dialogue rhythm, and tend to sound very condescending as a result ( Aunt May, for example, jokingly chastising Peter at the end of Marvel Knights Spider-Man for his tired " I'm giving up being Spidey forever " monologues ). It's a series of memorable lines, but it doesn't really work as dialogue, and it doesn't show a lot of range; at least in Nemesis, the protagonist is a villain, so this should be appropriate for him.

-- The Mark Millar story is told in wide, letter-boxed panels designed to imitate big budget movies. Many contemporary writers use this format for their scripts, most notably Warren Ellis with his " Authority ", but Millar has made it the key to his style. His scripts are written with big " moments " in mind, massive panels displaying awesome images. Every artist he collaborates with delivers this, and they very from dramatic gestures ( Wesley breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience in the end of Wanted ) to big action scenes ( Iron Man ripping open Captain America's face and years of borderline homoerotic bonding as a result ). Artists like Bryan Hitch, who are well known for drawing this sort of story, are called to be especially showy; Ultimates 2 ended with an orgy of splash pages as the Ultimates take down their third world enemies. Seriously, they had a six-page gatefold spread. These are most obvious in the endings to individual issues; typically there's a splash page ending with one ominous line of dialogue, like the first issue of Ultimate X-Men ( where we find that Wolverine is introduced as a Brotherhood assassin ).

-- The Mark Millar story has lots of references to pop culture and current events. Millar's stories tend to be very specific to the present ( exceptions occur like the Jenny Sparks history, Red Son, or 1985, but it's clear that Millar's preferred ouvere is dealing with the now ), and deal with headlines as they come up. His superhero comics tend to deal with the War on Terror in a very explicit fashion-- Ultimate X-Men has mutants cast in the role of Muslims ( though I have to give Millar a lot of credit for the fact that he was writing this series almost a year before 9/11, which makes " The Tomorrow People " arc almost prophetic ), Ultimates deals with America's concerns about homeland security, and Ultimates 2 is direct commentary on the " nation-building " tactic of Iraq. War Heroes also qualifies, since it was originally planned for Ultimates 3; Civil War was meant to, though it ends up being more of a really awkward version of the gun control debate. Pop culture also commonly appears; Kick-Ass is heavily influenced by the runaway popularity of internet video sites like YouTube, the fledgling mutants in Ultimate X-Men make constant pop culture references ( like how Iceman " should have been playing Metal Gear Solid like every other kid his age " ), the Ultimates has all its members become celebrity tabloid fodder, and many characters are actually based on popular celebrity likenesses ( most notably Wesley Gibson, based on rapper Eminem ). It's no wonder that the Ultimates had a scene with the characters chatting about who'd play them in a movie version.

I'm wondering if the fact that Iron Man movie actually DID get Samuel L. Jackson to be Nick Fury will further encourage this trend, and not just amongst Millar.

-- The Mark Millar story has blood. Lots of blood. People who watch Saturday Morning cartoons as an adult might wonder why they shoot lasers instead of bullets, why no civilians get hurt, and how someone can survive being hit by Superman. The sheer amount of collateral damage in the Mark Millar story is evidence why kids' versions of superheroes try to avoid that. It's logical, but it means that families in SUVs are incinerated when Electro goes rampaging towards Spider-Man, schoolyards of children are murdered when neophyte heroes screw up in Civil War, and people trying to be heroes without powers in Kick-Ass end up getting their faces worked into the shape and texture of a dog's breakfast. This shows up in Millar's Marvel work, even that which is intended to be towards a more general audience ( like Ultimate X-Men, initially ). His creator-owned work is even more egregious with this, being the " Too Hot for DC " version of his stories with franchise characters.

-- The Mark Millar story never has a happy ending. There's often a big party serving as an epilogue, as we saw in the Authority ( Apollo and the Midnighter's big gay wedding ), Ultimates 1 ( the White House party with Tony Stark about to cuckold George W. ), and the penultimate issue of Ultimate X-Men ( the opening of the Xavier School to the public ); even without the party, there's still always a sequence that indicates that it's not really the end. In Wanted, we get the immortal line " This is the look on my face as I'm fucking you in the ass " addressed to the audience; in Ultimates 2, we get a tragic flashback to the 1940's with Captain America promising his then-girlfriend that this will all be over soon. Civil War has Tony Stark kind-of bringing the world to order, though he does so in a very smug way that seems to invoke Wesley Gibson's parting lines. And while Marvel Knights Spider-Man is one of the few optimistic stories Millar has given us, it still ends on the note that the endless dance between Peter Parker and Norman Osborn is distracting him from doing anything meaningful in the world beyond being a costumed vigilante.

With this all said, I can envision a lot of Nemesis before it happens, and I'm hoping dearly that Millar will expand his repertoire. His formula has more often than not produced entertaining results. However, it's a formula, and it has limits. Many of Millar's contemporaries have their own stylistic quirks, but their stories have more range than this. Grant Morrison can do more than non-linear stories that read like hallucinations; Garth Ennis does genres other than just stories mercilessly satirizing religion, government, and spandex. Millar should be able to go beyond the super-cynical, super-violent, super-"hero" story. I have faith in him having the capacity to do so; I just hope he develops the inclination.


  1. As I mentioned before, I think Millar is good at what he does, but what he does isn't particularly deep. When he tries to insert subtext and political parallels into his work, it usually comes across as high-handed and intellectually insulting. I've read most of his Marvel work, but couldn't force myself to make it past the first issue of Wanted. That was awful.

    On a slightly related note, the point where I knew for a fact that I wouldn't be giving anything else by Jeph Loeb another chance was the scene in Ultimates 3 where it becomes clear that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are lovers. Millar brought it up, sure, but in such a fashion that it could have just been a joke told in poor taste; Loeb put it right out there. And if you're less subtle that Mark Millar, you have problems.

  2. Don't forget that Millar stories always have a n evil genius, largely modeled on the post-reveal Ozymandias in Watchmen minus the checkered morality, and that this evil genius will inevitably rattle off an exact figure or causality chain for an event that literally beggars prediction. This gets worse when characters who aren't geniuses, evil or otherwise, do the same thing -- witness Sue Richards's bizarrely calculated goodbye letter in Civil War.

    Actually, that's possibly the unifying meta-concern that ties together a lot of Millar's tics: his characters behave as if they know they're in a disposable pop entertainment, which is why they're so fliply abusive, why they're so nihilistic, and why they tend to toss off impossible ideas without fleshing them out.

    He gives us a window into what the world would be like if everyone in it had just learned that God is actually Michael Bay.

  3. "In the Beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was KABOOOM! And it was good."

  4. Jesus' camera shook for your sins!

    " On a slightly related note, the point where I knew for a fact that I wouldn't be giving anything else by Jeph Loeb another chance was the scene in Ultimates 3 where it becomes clear that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are lovers. Millar brought it up, sure, but in such a fashion that it could have just been a joke told in poor taste; Loeb put it right out there. And if you're less subtle that Mark Millar, you have problems. "

    And with Millar, the humor was in the implication, not the action, kind of like the Simpsons' references to Smithers' closeted homosexuality. Outright stating it, instead of going as far towards making it explicit without actually doing so, misses the point.

  5. Hey, this sounds just like that comic, Nemesis...

    Nemesis was just sad, unfortunately. It was loaded with all the excess you describe above, including the requisite extremely immoral, sadistic character. It started out bombastic, then upped the ante. It created the feeling that there were no logical limits to what could happen and is thus the anti-suspense comic of the year.