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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Miller vs. Millar: A Rant About Cynical Superhero Storytelling

Recently Ragnell's been on an highly entertaining twitter tear about Mark Millar's writing in the Ultimate Universe, and it got me thinking that I pretty much agree with her. Especially about the part in an interview where he talks about what-if an Ultimates member was cowardly enough to call in sick when up against a strong villain and uses that as a selling point (without the key heroic factor of showing up at the last minute to help anyway.)

And it got me thinking that, as much as I make fun, I would much rather read anything by Frank Miller than I would anything by Mark Millar.

I think part of it is simply because Miller's so open about his particular narrative quirks. You know what you'll get: macho, gritty monologues, weird yet effective visual effects, and prostitutes-prostitutes-prostitutes.

But the biggest difference between them, I think is that Frank Miller's works tend to be about horrible people being heroes. Where Mark Millar's work tends to be about heroes being horrible people. There's a difference.

In Sin City, or even All Stars: Batman and Robin, the former of which I can stand and the latter of which I dislike with a passion, the characters are pretty much horrible people. Marv. The prostitutes. That version of Batman who basically tosses a kid in a hole and makes him eat rats. They're all horrible people who do awful things.

But ultimately, they end up being the heroes. And I find a strange sort of optimism in that. It's the idea that in the right circumstances, at the right time, even the most horrible, immoral, and monstrous person you know, even THAT guy could be a hero.

Mark Millar's the opposite for me in that he seems to like to take heroic characters and deconstruct them to the point where they lose what makes them heroic. In some cases, what makes them human. Civil War could have been a very effective story in others' hands. Civil War as written by Ed Brubaker perhaps. Or JMS. Certainly a lot of other writers did a lot of work to return Tony Stark, for example into an even remotely viable hero. Cap comes across somewhat better in Civil War (no interdimensional prisons at least and less torturing of former teammates with sonic disabling devices), but even so he spends most of the series as though sailing on a tsunami of steroid rage.

At least Ultimates has the excuse of being a parallel universe. Even so, the Ultimate Universe is a parallel universe where the whole point seems to be, but for a few exceptions, that none of the heroes are remotely the moral and upright people you think they are:

Wolverine screws jailbait and ambushes his teenaged rivals to die in Antarctica. Hank Pym's an abusive monster. Captain America's a jingoist caricature. Cyclops executes captured prisoners. Xavier doesn't fuck up his child army's lives because of privilege, cluelessness, and preoccupation with grand goals, but as deliberate parts of his plans.

And in particular, his treatment of the female characters is to strip them down to one core point in their characterization:

Jean's got the love triangle (and weirdly inappropriate thing with Professor Xavier). And without that, she might as well not even be the same character. If anything, she's more like Rachel (with the self-centered teenaged rebellion and all) than Jean and even that's only if you discount Rachel's better parts.

Storm goes from being exalted for her powers in her youth (an important counterpoint to most of the other X-Men in 616) to being a car-stealing hoodlum. Yes, Storm did have her time on the streets, but it doesn't define her. And for that matter, so did Scott Summers, but it gets underplayed and completely eliminated from HIS backstory while it suddenly makes itself the core of hers?

Jan gets the worst of it, as she goes from the woman brave enough (or foolhardy enough) to go to her father's young colleague and demand super-powers to save or avenge him, to being an abused wife who's mutant power is the core of her husband's research and discoveries. Not only is that an insult to Hank, as it takes his genius achievements and grafts them on to her, it doesn't even do it in a way that benefits her. This isn't Sue Storm the Scientist (which worked very well, to give credit where it's due), Jan doesn't gain anything from this.

When Jan first appeared in the pages of Ant-Man's Tales of whatever comic (I can't keep 'em straight, but you can read it in Essential Ant-Man), she immediately stirs things up. She's pro-active, and determined, and while self-absorbed and a bit shallow, she's an immediate dynamic effect in Hank's quiet, contemplative and somewhat passive world. You knew it from the moment she stared down Hank and demanded he give her powers. Now the powers are inherent to her, but what does that really mean except that now, instead of getting them through determination and will, she gets them through an accident of birth to then be exploited by her husband.

I think there's a notable difference between the idea of Ultimate Universe, which was meant to be an ongoing universe full of the potential but none of the baggage of the 616 universe, and All Star Batman and Robin. ASBAR isn't, in my opinion, meant to be a deconstruction of Batman as a heroic figure so much as it's a stylized alternate universe which features a version of Batman in a traditional Frank Miller world. That Batman, like Marv, is a monstrous hero in a dark, crapsack environment. Moreover, it has two other features to recommend it: 1) It's not an open universe meant for long term superhero storytelling, and 2) Miller HAS proven himself capable of writing true superhero fare with things like Batman: Year One. He has stylistic quirks, but they don't always end up overpowering the theme.

It's sad because there was a lot of potential awesomeness in the idea of starting fresh as in the Ultimate Universe Iron Man, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four started really strong. Even X-Men had potential at first (though I'd say X-Men Evolution or the first two movies did it better) and if Ultimates had been a starting point to take them to a more heroic standing (like in Ultimate Avengers, for all its faults) then maybe that would have worked too.

But instead it ended up a story about how all these characters that should have been heroes really aren't. It's a cynical corpse of a superhero universe (not even going into what LOEB does to it later, let's just say there's an elaborate necrophilia joke set-up that even I think is in too poor taste to blog). It's fine for some readers who dig that sort of thing, but honestly?

I'd rather go read Sin City.

14 Comments:

  • At March 28, 2010 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ugh. And the whole Jan being eaten by the Blob after her death thing..It's just wrong. Much like the rest of the Ultimatum story.
    Anna

     
  • At March 28, 2010 2:39 PM, Blogger Mario McKellop said…

    Great read.

     
  • At March 28, 2010 3:32 PM, Blogger Ununnilium said…

    Complete agreement with all these points!

    That said, his run on Ultimate X-Men is probably my favorite of his works.

     
  • At March 28, 2010 3:51 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Anna: Yeah. So gross.

    Mario: thanks.

    Ununnilium: U-XM started good! Then it just went...awry.

     
  • At March 28, 2010 4:07 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    What's sad about Millar is that at one point, he was actually capable of writing some pretty good comics. I love that Swamp Thing run he did, and his Superman Adventures run was probably the best comic book Superman in years until All Star Superman. His success with the Authority is what seems to have ruined him. He took the lesson that going over-the-top sells and ran all the way with it.

     
  • At March 28, 2010 4:51 PM, Blogger Jer said…

    But the biggest difference between them, I think is that Frank Miller's works tend to be about horrible people being heroes. Where Mark Millar's work tends to be about heroes being horrible people.

    So simple and yet perfect. You hit the nail on the head. Exactly why I've reached the point where I just don't like to read Millar's work anymore. Horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people is not what I want to read in my superhero books. (I read that book once - it was called Watchmen. And even there the horrible people doing horrible things to each other still felt like human beings. That was, in fact, one of the things about Watchmen that none of its imitators seem to have been able to imitate).

    Eric -
    What's sad about Millar is that at one point, he was actually capable of writing some pretty good comics.

    I was just having this conversation with a friend yesterday. Millar's work with Morrison on Aztek and his Superman Adventures run were good enough for me to be somewhat excited about him when he took over for Warren Ellis on the Authority.

    The Authority was my first glimpse of Mark Millar writing "horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people". He's been writing a variation on his Authority run ever since. Everything he writes has the same formula - the only thing that changes is which incredibly talented artist he gets to make his formulaic scripts look impressive.

     
  • At March 28, 2010 5:42 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Absolutely true. I've been a bit puzzled lately by the way that some formerly excellent writers seem to be struggling of late. Frank Miller has become more or less a caricature of himself, and Mark Millar just keeps trying to find ways to outgross himself. Winick CAN write well when he's not embarrased by the subject, unfortunately, superheroes do seem to embarrass him. Even James Robinson has slipped.

    I don't know if they just need a good kick in the pants, or need to step back and read some classics for a month or so. Anything BUT comic books.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 11:29 AM, Blogger Seangreyson said…

    I felt the ultimate universe across the board started strong. USM, was generally excellent right up through its current run (in stories not featuring symbiotes). Caught the fun of young spiderman, and really worked to build a strong supporting cast (going so far as to steal them from the other ultimate books at times).

    UFF was also a really good book, though it generally started weaker and got better later. Much like USM it got a lot of the fun of a family of adventurers.

    UXM was inconsistent. The first couple story arcs were good, but it started losing steam later as it kind of became just another book. Sadly the characters who crossed over to other books were generally more interesting there then in their own book (Wolverine and Spiderman made a great pairing, and Kitty joining Spidey's cast was also done well).

    Then there's the Ultimates. It had so much promise. Ultimates 1 was actually really done well, for a Millar based Avengers book, except for the Wasp/Giant Man fiasco. Ultimates 2 was also really good, dealing with Thor/Loki in a world where the magical side of the Ultimate-verse hadn't really been seen.

    Both of those runs were good in a collected form, but they took forever to be released, issue to issue. The story was generally lost from one to the next, because it had been months since the last issue.

    Then we get Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum. Ultimates 3 was disjointed and incomplete, to the point it made no sense. The story as a 12 issue arc might have been better, but it made no sense in the 4 or 5 issues we got.

    Ultimatum is simply a snuff film featuring beloved characters. There are maybe half a dozen moments in the book that are even remotely redeemable.

    Even there they just end up being confusing and out of nowhere. Then it comes to an end, and about all it accomplishes is killing a bunch of characters. I own it because the Ultimate Universe is a favorite of mine, but the odds of my ever pulling it out to read again are low.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 5:05 PM, Blogger Empath said…

    "I think part of it is simply because Miller's so open about his particular narrative quirks. You know what you'll get: macho, gritty monologues, weird yet effective visual effects, and prostitutes-prostitutes-prostitutes."

    Well except maybe Martha Washington and Ronin, both I really like. I will admit I have never actually read Sin City, but I have read the two that I mentioned, 300 and The Dark Night Returns. Started the All Star Batman but stopped after he had Bruce Wayne say "I am the God-damn Batman." 'Twas a little inconsistent with the core character of Bruce Wayne, imho.

    Millar's Ultimates was different, which is to be expected in the Ultimate Universe, but I felt that his portrayal of the characters was unsympathetic, ( except maybe Clint Barton who is an even more serious badass in this UU). It was like reading a super hero dirty laundry soap opera every time I picked up the issues. I especially didn't like his portrayal of Bruce Banner and T'Challa.

    I gagged while reading Ultimatum and then some more while reading Loeb's run. I have stopped reading the Ultimates all together. But if I had to choose I would choose Millar over Loeb any day.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 6:03 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Empath: I think don't think the "Bruce Wayne" in ASBAR is really supposed to BE the "Bruce Wayne" we're familiar with (not in the same way that Batman: Year One, or even DKR are). Which is why I tend to give ASBAR more of a pass than Ultimates.

    I like SOME of Loeb's stuff, (Fallen Son for example) and I think he can be more consistently decent than Millar.

    That said, I acknowledge that when he's bad, he's REALLY bad.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 6:45 PM, Blogger Empath said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 6:50 PM, Blogger Empath said…

    *Corrections:
    Bendis first wrote T'Challa in the Ultimates Origins and not Millar. Loeb fleshed him out in Ultimates#3. Still not a fan of the UU on whole.

    Empath: I think don't think the "Bruce Wayne" in ASBAR is really supposed to BE the "Bruce Wayne" we're familiar with (not in the same way that Batman: Year One, or even DKR are). Which is why I tend to give ASBAR more of a pass than Ultimates."

    I know this, but I still don't like this treatment of Bruce Wayne, so it doesn't get a pass for me.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 6:59 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I should clarify that I don't LIKE ASBAR at all. And that version of Batman is a big part of it.

    I do however think Miller was trying to do something different (whether he succeeded or not is a personal judgment, I'd guess.) than what Millar was with the Ultimate Universe. Hence my judging it differently. It's not the same kind of bad, IMO.

     
  • At March 29, 2010 7:28 PM, Blogger Empath said…

    "I do however think Miller was trying to do something different (whether he succeeded or not is a personal judgment, I'd guess.) than what Millar was with the Ultimate Universe. Hence my judging it differently. It's not the same kind of bad, IMO."

    I understand that and concede that he was trying something different with ASBAR, and maybe it isn't the same kind of bad, but I believe he dropped the ball with that one, imho. He's written better.

     

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