Friday Comics: on the moral universe of Mark Millar (which is incoherent, but frequently explodes)
By now, you know how I feel about Mark Millar; but until I read Nemesis, I couldn’t have accounted for why my dislike has always been so visceral. Turns out, all I needed was to witness his treatment of a character I have more than a fleeting investment in to figure it out. For those unfamiliar with it, the premise of the book is, according to Millar:
What if Batman was a total cunt?
Mystery solved! I react poorly to Millar’s work because despite its adult themes, adult language, and adult visuals, it is written by a child and intended to appeal to readers who live in a world devoid of moral complexity.* It’s no accident that The Ultimates opens with Captain America fighting Nazis: Millar’s attracted to the cleanliness of the period, i.e. to wars whose necessity is self-evident, because that allows him to focus on action-packed-violence as an end in itself. Moreover, when the body of Steve Rogers is discovered in the second issue, it provides Millar an opportunity to import what he considers a laudable moral simplicity into our decidedly complex historical moment.
What began bad quickly turns awful, as Millar decides to follow in the footsteps of Adrian Veidt and unite the world by means of an invasion of aliens who are also Nazis; but the worst part about his game of perpetual one-upmanship is that, unlike Veidt, there is precious little evidence that Millar even momentarily weighs the moral consequences of his fictional narrative. He enlists the aid of intergalactic Nazi financiers because both can be slaughtered with impunity, and for pages and pages, the reader is treated to exactly that: violence unburdened of the need to justify its existence because these Nazis aren’t even people, so why should there be a check as to the degree or kind of violence acts perpetrated against them?
The problem with Millar’s role-reversal should be obvious: The Ultimates is a What If…? title that explores what would happen if the Nazis were considered less than human instead of the Jews. Millar loves “the flip” more than any other narrative device, but in The Ultimates (as in Red Son), he is incapable of thinking through the consequences his counterfactuals have for his characters. In The Ultimates, for example, he failed to notice that he transformed Captain America into jingoistic ass presiding over an abattoir, meaning his reversion to the uncomplicated and sympathetic character he had been reads false. You would think—you would hope—that Millar would notice that there’s something disturbing about slotting Captain America into the spot reserved for Nazis in that analogy, but he doesn’t.
His characters are who they are and they can be no one else, which means the possibility for character development is limited to the teleological process of becoming who you were destined to be, e.g. Superman and Batman in Red Son, both of whom embody the essence of their characters in their purest form despite having been born and raised in the Soviet Union. The drawback with distilling a character like Batman down to his purest form is, of course, that the purest form of Batman wouldn’t be Batman because, as a character, Batman is the product of a daily moral calculus with no correct answers. Millar flattens the character into the sum total of his talents because, for him, Batman is little more than preternatural athlete with tactical genius.
Which brings us back where we started: Nemesis is purportedly riffing on Batman, and yet the book contains not one whit of moral ambiguity. All of which is only to say, despite the low expectations I went into it with, Nemesis somehow managed to still disappoint.
*For more on the sexist content of his comment, check out Erin Polgreen‘s guest-post at Ackerman’s place, in which she argues that Millar is the intellectual heir of Rob Liefeld.