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Becoming Mark Millar

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My feelings about Mark Millar (with one notable exception) have been rehearsed often enough that you’ll probably be surprised that I allowed my students to talk me into teaching Kick Ass (the book and film) in my American Manga courses.* I hadn’t seen the film yet but knew from having read the book what to expect: a premise that’s not nearly as clever as Millar thinks it is (ahem Nemesis ahem) would be presented as if it were a brilliant counterfactual (ahem Red Son ahem) only to be violated when the opportunity arose to “cleverly” twist the narrative with no regard for the logical or moral implications such a twist entailed (ahem The Ultimates ahem).  A quick diagram of Kick Ass would work something like this:

  1. an unclever premise (what if superheroes were real?)
  2. presented as a brilliant counterfactual (they would regularly get their asses kicked! in extremely graphic ways! by amoral people!)
  3. whose logic would be violated at the first opportunity (superheroes do exist!)
  4. to “cleverly” twist the narrative (but they’re sympathetic 10-year-old girls who like to say the word “cunt”!)
  5. with no regard for the logical (supereheroes can’t exist! but they do!) or moral (Hit Girl is a sympathetic sociopath!) consequences such a twist entails

As I’ve already discussed his fascination with the word “cunt” and he’s since named his magazine after the old printing pun

Clint cunt comic pun
so I think it goes without saying that Hit Girl is Millar indulging in a spot of gender-bending narcissism with pedophiliac overtones and, as such, is telling me things about himself I frankly don’t want to know.  Think about it: Big Daddy and Hit Girl are clearly variations of Batman and Robin, itself a relationship of questionable provenance, only Millar turns the 10-year-old proxy for Robin in a female version of an idealized vision of himself.  How is that not disturbing?  But I digress:

His premise is that superheroes can’t exist in a world constructed with something resembling a realist ethos, and in order to prove this he has John Romita, Jr. draw the reason why with unflinching brutality.  (This is because at our current historical moment, “realism” functions as a synonym for “gritty,” but you already knew that.)  For example:

Kick ass 02
In the real world, panels like this argue, a superhero would be stabbed and then hit by a car and then all the blood in his body would fly from his wounds like so many kicked-in teeth.  Such panels claim to be realist but are, in fact, hyper-stylized indulgences in violent juvenile fantasies … which also happens to be a fairly accurate assessment of the entire book.

All that said, you might be surprised to learn that I actually liked the film.  Why?  Compare the above to its on-screen equivalent:

Kick_ass00049
Notice a difference?  The first and most obvious one is that the amount of blood on the pavement approximates the amount someone stabbed in the stomach would bleed.  The second and more important difference is that Matthew Vaughn shoots the aftermath of the accident from the side in a medium long shot, whereas Millar and Romita, Jr. frame the shot from above in a manner that fetishizes the effect of violence on the human body.  To put it differently:

Vaughn’s shot selection is essentially critical of Millar and Romita, Jr.’s excessive lust for representing broken human bodies.  It quietly claims that the “realist” premise Millar claimed to be operating under is the very ruse Millar himself reveals it to be when Hit Girl first appears.  The book is pure torture porn of the sort that the film initially attempts to undermine.  Vaughn demonstrates that Millar is a monster by showing you what the book should have looked like and then turning you into Millar.  After all, the audience’s understanding of the dynamics of the narrative is very different when Hit Girl first appears after Vaughn’s implicit criticism of Millar’s bloodlust.

*It turns out that the significant overlap between the demographics of UCI and the readership of manga is no overlap at all, forcing me to expend too much time explaining what the conventions with which I assumed they would be familiar were and how they worked.  As the reasons behind teaching popular culture in a composition class are 1) the students have an intuitive understanding of the conventions, which allows me 2) to focus on creating a formal vocabulary for discussing them, so that I might 3) show the students how to organize those technical discussions into persuasive arguments.  In other words: I need them to pick up the vocabulary quickly so I can focus on the teaching the process of formal writing.  As the manga and anime weren’t facilitating those goals, I had no choice but to shift gears.

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  • “Millar is the intellectual heir of Rob Liefeld”

    Ouuuuuuch!

  • I hadn’t thought about it in this level of detail, but agree with the overall take– I found the book repulsive but the movie surprisingly fun.

    • Murc

      The movie is a lot more fun than the book because it isn’t so relentlessly nihilistic, and cuts out a fair bit of the misogyny as well. Big Daddy not being essentially a complete fraud is sort of the standout example of that.

    • Captain Splendid

      Same here. After leaving the movie, I turned to my wife and said something along the lines of the movie surprisingly being an improvement over the book.

  • Jonathan

    I found the movie better than the books also, for nearly identical reasons. That’s never really a good sign for a book. I also think that Nicholas Cage’s rather campy portrayal of Big Daddy and Chloë Grace Moretz performance of Hit Girl as saving the film. That, and most of the overt misogyny was removed. Though I have to admit, I didn’t like the ending.

  • ajay

    Notice a difference? The first and most obvious one is that the amount of blood on the pavement approximates the amount someone stabbed in the stomach would bleed.

    SEK knows this because he has seen many people who have been stabbed in the stomach. Many, many people.

    Someone who’s stabbed in the stomach could easily lose over a litre of blood. That is a huge amount. Not a little saucer-sized stain as seen in the film. Imagine what it looks like if you pour an entire quart of liquid onto the floor. (Don’t try this at home.)

    (Relatedly, it always annoyed me when Paul Verhoeven is criticised for depicting ludicrously unrealistic, over-the-top injuries. Verhoeven, ludicrous though he is in many respects, is about the only director who gets the completely horrific and disturbing appearance of traumatic injuries right; probably because he’s about the only director except Oliver Stone who’s actually seen a large number of traumatic injuries.)

    • SEK

      I’d agree were it not for the fact that that panel’s representative, i.e. that’s also how much blood a Millar character loses from a paper-cut.

      • ajay

        I await the picture of a Millar character suffering a paper cut with interest.

      • ajay

        More seriously, don’t you think you should address the point that you’re criticising Millar for a mistake he hasn’t made? Maybe his other representations of violence are completely over the top and unrealistically gory. But this one isn’t.

        • SEK

          Put differently: I don’t even need the Millar to be more gory than the Vaughn because it’s more realistic to make my argument work, because the difference (and implicit criticism) is visibly there in this scene but not in the later ones. What reason did Vaughn have to not use that as a reference image but, for example, basically do a shot-for-shot remake of the incredibly gory introduction to Hit Girl?*

          *There’s one head that’s not sliced in half.

          • SEK

            That said, I asked my father (a former EMT) and he said that the amount of blood depends on the depth of the wound, location, and post-stab agitation.* Given that the car thief stabbed his once and walked away in both the book and the film, it’s at least arguable that the book’s unrealistic and just another bit of evidence of Millar’s love of ultra-violence. (He did, after all, make his anti-Batman’s suit white because it shows blood better.)

            *Sorry, that sounds playground. He’s just the only person I know with first-hand experience of dealing with stabbing victims.

            • I’d also suggest this is a fine point not worth arguing about. The central premise, that the original is a glorification of the crushed human organism, is entirely accurate. That’s not blood, any more than Alphons Mucha’s hair is hair. Rather, it’s a graphic device to indicate, in shorthand, a series of catastrophic injuries not shown in previous frames. The desire to cram as much torture into the frame as possible is reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s ass-kicking of Christ… at some point you have to say, “you’re not in this for the Jesus, are you?”

    • John

      Do you have a source for this? My understanding of stomach wounds is that, generally, blood loss isn’t too much, and that most people die from infections, not from blood loss.

    • Oscar Leroy

      If you have a liter of blood in your stomach, you have problems besides assault and battery ;)

      I like Paul Verhoeven, too.

  • dave

    There’s more than enough blood in a human body to paint an entire apartment.

    What do you mean, ‘How do I know that?’ Come on over and we’ll talk…

    • SEK

      There’s more than enough blood in a human body to paint an entire apartment.

      I know that, but in Millar-world, you lose all of it every time you nick yourself shaving.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Everything I know about Anatomy, I learned from watching “Fist of the North Star”.

        I.e. Human bodies are actually balloons containing nothing but a skeleton and 30 gallons of blood under intense pressure.

  • mike in dc

    He’s just a godawful writer who’s ruined every title he’s ever worked on. The Authority turned into bad self-parody. Nemesis is just horribly, horribly bad. Unfortunately, he does seem to have a fan base, though I have no idea what the “profile” of that demographic is.

    • Murc

      Millar’s fan-base comes from the fact that he’s JUST good enough of a writer that his flaws can often hide a cursory inspection. The Ultimates (1st Series) for example, on a quick read, can come off as an awesome story about Cap punching the fuck out of a bunch of space Nazis, that you bought because Ultimate Spider-Man was good and you’d like to read more things ith the ‘Ultimate’ tag on them. Sure, the ‘Stands for france!’ line is a real howler but every writer punts one every once in awhile. And look! Nick Fury is Sam Jackson!

      Kick-Ass is relentlessly flawed, but if you aren’t that familiar with the themes that come with deconstructing/reconstructing superheroism, it might not come off that way. And hell, even if you are, its not like Hitman and Punisher weren’t stupidly bloody, and people don’t tend to beat on Garth Ennis.

      It’s only once you start looking at a whole bunch of his work (especially shit like Wanted and, got help you, his Wolverine story) that you start getting the crawling feeling in the back of your head that says ‘this is making my mind dirty.’

  • norbizness

    But will his hand be repaired to become the Great White Three-Point Specialist envisioned by the Miami Heat?

  • Halloween Jack

    Millar isn’t Liefeld’s “intellectual heir” because Liefeld has never shown the ability that Millar did early on in his career; he’s always been an untalented hack artist whose one mildly-interesting trick–a caricature of a mash-up between Rambo and a standard-issue superhero, with even more exaggerated muscles and useless accessories–got taken for the new status quo (if you want to see Liefeld’s style taken to an even more ridiculous extreme–no, seriously–check out the work of Stephen Platt, hired by Liefeld at one point. The links are to scans_daily, a comics community that used to be on LiveJournal and is now on Dreamwidth.)

    Millar’s work on Red Son and his first Authority arc are at least respectable, if still riddled with flaws and imitative of better work by others, but in that first Authority arc Millar also learned that he would get more attention from the bottom-feeding stuff than he would from careful plotting and characterization. A couple of panels in that arc (one of which showed Apollo, the Superman manque, flying through the head of a giant, the other of which showed the same character being raped) got censored by DC Comics, which had recently bought the Authority publisher Wildstorm, and suddenly the story wasn’t about an up-and-coming writer trying to follow Warren Ellis, it was about this edgy young turk’s work being suppressed by a stodgy old publisher. And so through the rest of his work on the Authority and on to Marvel and his creator-owned titles, which continue his formula of grafting familiar tropes from comics and pop culture (such as Wanted‘s shameless stealing from Fight Club in the service of a plot that’s basically a DC Elseworlds story with scatological humor).

    And so now we have Kick-Ass 2, not only a sequel to the first but also a retread of an issue of the second Ultimates arc in which the Ultimate Defenders are shown to be a bunch of wannabes without any real powers or abilities; that was the last thing that Millar wrote that I found even remotely entertaining, and even then it was a retread of the Minutemen from Watchmen. Looking at Millar’s latest attempt to shock and outrage reminds me of something that Robert Crumb said in an interview with The Comics Journal about either one of his crazy brothers (Max, I think) or that brother’s girlfriend, that they were on a diet that was so “pure” that they could re-consume their own shit. I’m pretty sure that that’s physiologically impossible, but as a metaphor it works quite well for Millar’s career.

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