The secret origin of my Mark Millar boycott!!!!!

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!

Marc Silvestri makes the Fox slightly more … endowed than she is in the comic, because of course he does!

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.

Making racist jokes and using gay slurs = 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.

A: Artists are awesome; and B: Why would anyone be afraid of that?

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 many heads exploding!

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.

Poor Chris Pratt!

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.

How dare she not shave her legs!!!! She deserves to die!

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.

Rictus kills women, while Wesley only rapes them, so obviously Rictus is worse!

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:

Charming!

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!

Empathy sucks, man!

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.

Oh, yeah, the Batman TV show sucked, too!

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.

Oh, Eminem, you’re so groovy!

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!!!!!!!

16 Comments

  1. I liked Millar’s work on the animated-style Superman Adventures comics, but when the Ultimate Universe started up, I hated his X-Men with the fire of a thousand suns. His bleak, cynical, paranoid, conspiracy-driven story about a team of mutants who hate each other turned me off after one issue. Then I heard about him turning Captain America into a racist & sexist jerk, Hulk into a rapist-cannibal, and Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch into the Incest Twins. The only Ultimate book I bought for 3 years was Spider-Man, and I dropped it like a hot rock the first time SHIELD was mentioned. I have not so much as looked at a Millar story since then. His name on a cover is a no-go sign for me.

    1. Greg Burgas

      His Swamp Thing is still the second-best run on the title, and although I haven’t read all Swamp Thing comics, I don’t think it’s close. And it’s not as if Morrison was co-writing, because he left after the first four issues. What vexes me about Millar (and some other writers I could name) is that they’re certainly capable of great work, but they don’t try very hard to do it very often!

  2. jccalhoun

    I think Wanted was one of the last things I read from Millar. I think I quit during Kick-Ass. I also found his work to be just so cynical and trying too hard to be edgy. I remember being really put off by the Eminem and Hally Berry look-a-like art in Wanted. It just seemed like it was designed to get attention. And when it comes down to it, I think that a lot of Millar’s work is just that: designed to get attention.

  3. Louis Bright-Raven

    I didn’t know there was any ‘secret origin’ of your Millar boycott. I thought it was pretty well obvious, Greg.

    Like MacQuarrie, I found Millar’s SUPERMAN ADVENTURES work okay, but nearly all of his other work has been mostly about writing assholish characters and ‘in your face’ scenes produced for shock value.

  4. tomfitz1

    So, you don’t read/like Millar books since WANTED.
    I say: to each their own.

    Granted, not all of his books are great reads. Some are entertaining and some are not.
    I don’t spend too much time trying to analyze or dissect books.
    Life is too short for that kind of thing.

    Take Alan Moore, for example: I’ve read most of his works for DC, ECLIPSE, and IMAGE and enjoyed them.
    I didn’t care for Tomorrow Stories or Tom Strong, or Neonomicon, or Jerusalem.

    Still, it’s interesting to read about why you stopped reading Millar.

    I’m sure that you’ve got lots of other writers to read from.

    At any rate, happy new year! 🙂

    1. Greg Burgas

      Tom: I LOVE analyzing and dissecting books! It’s like you don’t even know me!!!! 🙁

      There are plenty of writers whose work I skip sometimes. I don’t like the idea of Moore’s rapey stuff, so I’ve skipped Neonomicon and some of his other stuff. But that’s just taste – some writers write things I don’t have any interest in. This is different.

      Happy new year to you, too, sir. I hope it’s groovy! 🙂

      1. tomfitz1

        “I LOVE analyzing and dissecting books! It’s like you don’t even know me!!!! ”

        I know you do, Mr. Burgas, which is why I leave that stuff for you to do and not me. 🙂
        (I know, I know – I’m such A guy!!)

        Me: I like to read and enjoy (or not) the story and savor the art.

  5. Edo Bosnar

    Personally, I haven’t read much by Millar; in fact, digging through my memories, and poking through the books I have (and recalling the ones I had), the only things that come to mind are Superman: Red Son, which I liked, and the first tpb of Ultimates 2, which I really didn’t like. So my own feelings are decidedly mixed based on that small sampling.
    However, I am rather interested in reading one of his very recent books called Huck. I heard about it in a podcast (probably Radio vs. the Martians) a few months ago. Apparently it’s unlike much of Millar’s previous work – one of the guys in the podcast actually speculated that it was like an apology for some of his earlier stuff.

    Otherwise, you’re right about Millar being an IP generator. I knew about Kick-Ass (never read the comics, saw the movie – thought it was entertaining enough, albeit problematic), but I didn’t realize he was also behind Kingsmen (again, didn’t read the comics, liked the first movie well enough, second one not as much) and I’d never even heard of Wanted (either the comics or the movie) until reading your post.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: Huck seemed interesting, but I didn’t get it, obviously. Maybe if I can find it at the library I’ll give it a read!

      The movie of Wanted is both better and worse than the comic. The director ditches all the superhero stuff, which is a bummer, but James McAvoy isn’t quite as awful as Wesley is in the comic. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s not an enraging as the comic is!

  6. I’ve never particularly liked Millar’s work. I flipped through Wanted and got turned off—mostly because it seemed like the kind of adolescent power fantasy people imagine superhero comics to be. Not that I object to the fantasy per se, but Wesley’s smug satisfaction that he’s not one of the loser sheeple didn’t work for me.
    As a result I never paid enough attention to pick up on the elements you point out here (except the heavy sexist insults tossed around) but yep, I’d say you’re spot on.
    It doesn’t surprise me. The inability to distinguish “rebel breaking from meaningless social rules” and “asshole who treats everyone like dirt” crops up a lot in fiction. And in real life (“I call women sluts because I’m a rebel who will not be repressed by the PC police!”)
    One thing I noticed rereading LGX is that Moore really does like writing gratuitous rape.

    1. Greg Burgas

      frasersherman: Yeah, Moore’s weird obsession with rape is one of the two things that really bother me about him. The other is his obsession with turning comics in musicals. We can’t hear any music, Beardy! 🙂

  7. Jeff Nettleton

    I didn’t read Superman Adventures, at the time; but, Millar turned me off with The Authority. Too much of it was vulgar shock value and that has summed up most of his work, for me. Red Son was good, though I didn’t think it was a “classic.” Wanted I flipped through, read a few pages and put it back. Pure shock value, something that wants to sound edgy and cool, yet wouldn’t know what that is because it can’t be more than a distillation of influences. It’s the same as Tarantino, for me: I can tick off where he is swiping and it all boils down to interesting dialogue, in certain scenes. To me, that is Millar. it is also most of the modern superhero comics, especially post-Millennium.

    I pulled back from superheroes by the 90s, especially in the wake of the mess that was mainstream comics of that decade. Not all, as you had a few shining lights, like Starman, and the odd book here and there. By the 2000s, I was bored with them beyond belief, as all I could see were the influences and the recycled plot points, rather than an entertaining story. You can have your work filled with tropes and standard structure, if you add something interesting to it, like a good character; but, I saw little of that from DC and Marvel (and Image and the rest) , for my money. My interests were drawn to other things and I found myself valuing “fun” well above “edgy” or “mature” (the most misused label in comics).

    From what I’ve seen of Millar’s Superman Adventures, there was “fun” to be had. Has’t had much fun ever since. At least, not what I consider to be fun. Moore, for all the talk of rape plots or whatever, still turned out fun. The ABC line, for me, was fun (especially Top Ten and Tom Strong).

    Millar does seem to desperately want to be in Hollywood; but, that seems to be true of a big swath of modern comics people. James Robinson wanted to be a screenwriter, which didn’t pan out and he kind of returned to comics with his tail between his legs and a lot less ambition in his stories (I still think Archie Goodwin’s death really hit him hard, as it showed in his work, when Archie was gone). It seems like many would rather be creating Hollywood stuff and making Hollywood money. Not too surprising when the two biggest comic publishers have little ambition beyond maintaining IP trademarks for exploitation in other corporate divisions (while getting paid significantly less).

  8. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    I quite like his work in the Ultimate Universe (UFF, UXM, Ultimates 1&2), along with his Superman stuff.

    Haven’t really dug into the creator owned stuff, for all the reasons you outlined.

    I’ll probably check out the Flash run, after all of Waid’s is collected.

    Not sure about Swamp Thing – Moore’s ending is all I want or need for Swampy and Abby.

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