Yes, we’ve reached the title in my back issues (which I have been re-reading in alphabetical order since about 2005 – I’m slow and I have a lot of comics, don’t judge me!) that set me on the road to a total boycott of Mark Millar, who, at the time I began reading this comic, was pretty solidly, if not one of my favorite comics writers, at least someone I could count on to be quite good. By 2003, Millar had written one of the best Swamp Thing runs ever (not better than Moore’s, of course, but probably the second-best run on the character), a great-if-little-read run on Aztek (how much he wrote and how much Morrison wrote is under some debate, I guess, but still), a pretty good run on The Flash (again, with Morrison), some terrific Superman stories (although I hadn’t read those at that time), a very good brief run on The Authority, some good if somewhat strange Justice League stories, the early issues of Ultimate X-Men, and he had done one of the best Avengers run ever with The Ultimates. Sure, he seemed a bit bombastic and even obnoxious, but that was part of his charm. He didn’t have a perfect track record (Trouble, anyone?), but he was writing a story about super-villains in a “realistic” world, and it was being drawn by J.G. Jones. Of course I was in!
In case you don’t know, Wanted is the story of Wesley Gibson, a 24-year-old schmuck whose girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend (a fact he tells us on the first page of the comic) and who works in a dead-end job at a boring magazine. By the end of issue #1, he’s been made aware that his father is one of the greatest super-villains ever and also that his father has been killed, so he inherits his vast wealth … as long as he takes up his father’s mantle. From there, he gets involved in the great super-villain war that’s brewing and finds out more stuff about his past and what his abilities are and he eventually accepts that he’s a super-villain, even though Millar makes some overtures toward him rejecting it because the lifestyle makes him break down occasionally. Millar is making super-villains cool, you see, and Wesley ends up so very, very cool.
There’s quite a lot to like about Wanted. You can make the case for Marvel Boy being J.G. Jones’s artistic masterpiece, and I’d probably agree with you, but Wanted is very close to it – it’s absolutely beautiful. His attention to detail is superb, and because Millar wants to make the world “realistic,” he chose wisely by getting Jones, as Jones draws costumes very realistically, with all the seams and folds excellently rendered. In some place he apes Dave Gibbons’s style (I’ll explain why in a moment), and it’s terrific. He designs dozens of super-villains, and they all look great. Paul Mounts’s coloring is a bit dark in places, but not too bad, and overall, the art is amazing.
Millar has a relatively clever conceit to get to, as well. According to Wanted, in 1986 the super-villains – all of them – decided to team up and wipe out the superheroes. They were tired of getting beaten up all the time, and instead of simply teaming up in small groups, they managed to get every villain together and kill every superhero. You’ll notice the importance of the date. 1986, of course, was the year of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (hence the Dave Gibbons homage), the two comics generally regarded as making superheroes more “realistic.” So Millar makes that the year that the superheroes were killed, as metaphorically, many people think old-school heroic superheroes were “killed” by Miller and Moore. Furthermore, Crisis on Infinite Earths came out that year, as well, and in Wanted, the super-villains bend reality so that the reality of the superheroes never occurred, which is why no one remembers them. At one point, the villains kill the “actors” who played Batman and Robin in the television show (of course, Millar doesn’t mention them by name, but it’s clear who they are, as you can see below), saying that no one remembers the real heroes and they’re laughing stocks because the only thing people remember is the cheesy show. The villains banished the collective memory of the heroes to comics, which no one reads, and they took over the world. It’s not a bad idea, and Millar has some fun with it. Frank Miller’s version of the Joker is the main villain of the story, as “Mr. Rictus,” and we get fun analogs to dozens of bad guys. Rictus doesn’t want to live in the shadows anymore, so he starts a war against the Lex Luthor analog, Professor Solomon Seltzer, so that the villains can reclaim the publicity he craves by operating in the open. Wesley and the Fox, who was boning his father and is now boning him, are against that, but they’re more just angry that the professor was drowned in shit when he wouldn’t go along with Rictus’s plans (yes, he really is). So many bodies drop, and Jones has a lot of fun drawing the mayhem.
So there’s nothing in the plot that makes me want to boycott Mark Millar. I mean, it’s fairly clever, but it also just turns into a big gunfight, which can be fun and kind of is here. It’s that in Wanted, we see some of the things that made Millar not quite a great writer become more prominent, and he tipped over the edge he had walked for a few years before this. Obviously, the two closest analogs to Wanted at this point in his career were The Authority (superheroes take over the world, but they act like such dicks they might as well be villains) and The Ultimates (superheroes live a celebrity lifestyle and do whatever the fuck they want with no consequences). In both of those stories, however (possibly or probably because they were characters he didn’t own), he pulled back and made them face consequences for their actions. In Wanted, he doesn’t have to do that. So there’s really no one to root for – Wesley begins as a tool, and he ends as a different kind of tool. Despite the fact that he’s marginally better than Rictus and his gang, you certainly wouldn’t mind him getting a bullet in the brain at any point in this comic. It’s not really as much fun as it could be because Wesley is so contemptible.
But fine – he’s a dick. Some great literature has starred irredeemable assholes, and Wanted could certainly be that way if Millar had done things a bit differently. But he screws up and turns this into something fairly ugly, and that’s why I stopped reading his work. First of all and fairly minor, but he “casts” Eminem and Halle Berry as Wesley and the Fox. I know that other artists have done this over the years, and I hate it, but I think this might have been the first time I noticed it so blatantly (yes, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury came first, but for some reason Fury looked a bit more generic than Wesley and the Fox) and it just seemed to me to be pathetic pandering to the movie crowd, as if Millar wanted this to be a movie so badly that he saved the casting director some time. But that’s just a minor annoyance. Wesley himself is not only pathetic at the beginning, he’s downright contemptible. If Millar wanted us to think about his sad life and how sad it was and how being a super-villain might hold some allure because of that, he failed completely. In the fourth panel of the book, on Page 2, he narrates: “This me taking shit from my African-American boss. As you can see, I’m smiling as she insults me, but it’s only because I’m embarrassed by the situation and more than a little afraid of the scary fucking bitch.” These are the fourth and fifth sentences in the entire comic, and already it’s uncomfortable. We’ve already learned that Wesley’s best friend is fucking his girlfriend and he knows about it, and that he meets with his best friend for dinner and says nothing about it, so he’s already kind of pathetic. Then we get these two sentences, and there’s so much to unpack I’ll save it for later, after we skip ahead a bit. The next complete sentence is about his hipster lunch that he gets “just to prove” that he’s “different from the herd,” and then, the seventh sentence in the comic is this: “Most weekdays, these semi-literate cholo fucks meet me off the bus and walk behind me hurling insults about my baggies and my old-skool Pumas.” A few sentences later, he tells us: “I’m not a bad person or anything. I’m just an ordinary guy in a bad situation.” In no way does Millar appear to be employing irony here.
The casual racism and misogyny of those first few pages is extremely off-putting, because it really does feel like Millar thinks that as pathetic Wesley is, he’s “not a bad person or anything.” Author tone is tough to judge sometimes, but the reason I think this way is because of how the book plays out. But let’s get to this: Wesley is racist. One way you can tell if a person is racist (how racist they are is another thing) is that they insist on making sure that everyone knows the race of people, especially those who torment them, when that race is not their own. Wesley doesn’t say that his “white” or “Caucasian” best friend is banging his girlfriend. But he makes sure we know that his boss is black and the people who insult him are Hispanic. Plus, of course, she’s a woman. We have no idea if Wesley deserves the berating he gets at work or not, but from what we know about Wesley, he probably does. He might not deserve the insults on the bus, but he still uses the word “cholo” and calls them semi-literate, something he couldn’t possibly know. It’s just a standard racist insult, and while Wesley does save a lot of his insults for himself, he still turns his hatred outward quite a lot. Of course, after he “becomes” a villain, he casually rapes a lot of women (we don’t see it, but he talks about it a lot), but that doesn’t bother me as much because he’s a villain. So why does the racist and misogynistic stuff he says before that bug me? Because this is his “real” personality, and it’s already ugly. When he “becomes” a villain, it’s expected that he’ll kill and rape (in this comic, he kills the Chris Pratt character – the guy banging his girlfriend – instead of just beating him up like he does in the movie). He’s a horrible human being, sure, but he’s a bad dude. Plus, the way Millar sets it up, there are actually worse characters in the book – Rictus, for instance. So Wesley is horrible, but by taking on Rictus, he’s actually making sure that the world is better off. All Solomon Seltzer wants to do is make a shit-ton of money, and Wesley is fine with that. Rictus wants to go public and terrorize people. So Wesley is slightly – very slightly, to be sure – better than Rictus. It’s what makes the main plot bearable.
So it’s not the plot that irks me. The casual racism and misogyny is bad, especially because Millar obviously wants us to admire the fact that Wesley has broken out of his shell and is now living his life his way (which, of course, means he’s killing and raping whoever he wants). But as I noted, authorial tone is difficult to pin down, so perhaps we’re just supposed to believe that Wesley is a scumbag and Millar doesn’t condone his actions. In issue #6, however, the final issue, Wesley finds out his secret origin and gets to have a heart-to-heart with his father, and then he tells the Fox that he’s not interested in this life anymore. He starts talking about how he doesn’t want to turn into his father and that he’d rather be a “prick than an asshole” and that he shouldn’t treat people badly because he’s a “dick-wad on an adolescent power-trip.” It’s all a smokescreen, though – he’s just fucking with her and he really does love being rich and murderous and rapey. Okay, fine. Not the best ending, but okay. But the comic still has two pages to go. And what pages they are:
Man, those two pages pissed me off. Once again, I get that it’s Wesley narrating, but I felt (and still feel) that it’s Millar, basically telling the readers they’re losers. The whole part about buying comics to fill the void and how you’re not going to think about anything else that’s shitty in the world, just buy something else, is really annoying. And the final image of the comic just seals it. It feels like Millar talking about how much better he is than his readers because he’s not mindlessly reading comics, he’s mindlessly creating them. Again, I know that’s not necessarily what he’s saying. This is not the author talking, it’s a character. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is Millar’s true feeling about his readers. I just can’t shake it!
Millar, it seems, has always been interested in making movies more than he is in making comics. He churns out IPs in the hopes that they will be optioned, and he’s been fairly successful at it. Wanted, of course, was made into a movie, and so were Kick-Ass and Kingsman. Millar is apparently swimming in money, and as far as I know, he does some very nice things with his money – he doesn’t just hoard it. I’ve never heard anyone have anything but nice things to say about him personally. So this isn’t about Millar the person. Some people boycott art because the person making the art is reprehensible. I’ve never done that, because that way lies … well, madness, certainly, but also a lack of art, because so many artists have been and are absolute bastards. Nobody is perfect, and I don’t care about personal lives when it comes to art. If you do, more power to you, but I just don’t. I decided to boycott Millar’s work because it felt like he was directly insulting the only people at that time who knew who the hell he was. Maybe he wanted to be a big-time Hollywood mogul, but at that point he was just a guy who wrote comics, and to insult the people who had put him in a position to be that mogul seemed just cruel. Again, this is probably completely silly, but I just couldn’t get it out of my head. This guy, who wanted to be famous among “real people” so badly, was willing to tell the people who put him on the cusp of that fame to fuck off, and not only fuck off, but that they were stupid for making him famous in the first place. It made me really angry, and I decided that if Mark Millar didn’t like people who bought his comics, I would no longer be one of those people. I stopped buying his comics right then and there (and stopped in the middle of the second Ultimates arc, so I never found out how it ended), and my boycott has lasted ever since.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t read anything new by Millar. Some years ago, I wrote for the Atomic Comics website here in Phoenix (back when Atomic Comics seemed to be an unstoppable force before it crashed and burned), and they let me read new comics for free as long as I returned them. So naturally, I read a bunch of stuff I normally wouldn’t (like Tarot, which is a whole different kind of bad). When I could, I picked up Millar’s comics, because I wanted to see what he was doing. I have a feeling I bailed on him at about the right time. While Wanted was coming out, I bought the first issue of his Unfunnies, which is perhaps the worst single comic book I’ve ever read. Maybe that should have warned me! And whenever I pick up a comic from after my boycott began, I get the sense that Millar’s writing has become more … childish, I suppose. He simply uses characters that already exist, puts a bit of a spin on them, and ratchets up the blood and sex. I imagine they’re better than that, but the very few Millar comics I’ve read in the past 15 years don’t make me want to read any more of them.
So that’s the secret origin of my Mark Millar boycott. It might be childish of me, but there it is. Again, I hear good things about Millar the person – he’s generous to the artists he hires, he uses his money for good causes, he’s a good bloke – but I just don’t want to contribute to his coffers anymore. Even now, re-reading Wanted for the first time in 15 years, I got angry at the final two pages. I know, intellectually, that Wesley is not a stand-in for Millar and that Wesley is a horrible, horrible person. But emotionally, the series still bugs me. I just can’t get over it, and that’s just the way it is. And yes, I’ve considered that the entire thing is a satire and Millar is mocking Wesley the entire time. For whatever reason, that just doesn’t fly with me. I don’t really think that’s what Millar is going for. I don’t think he likes Wesley, to be fair, but I also don’t get the feeling that he’s mocking Wesley. Maybe some people read it that way. I don’t.
That’s my story. Am I being too immature? WELL I DON’T CARE NYAH-NYAH-NYAH!!!!!!!