Wanted, Mark Millar and J.G. Jones

Top Cow, 2008, 192 pages, C$19.99 tpb, ISBN 978-1-58240-497-4

This is not your usual comic-book super-hero miniseries.

Mark Millar has something else in mind. He wants to show you a world where the super-villains have won. He wants to riff off Fight Club and The Matrix in a super-heroic context. He wants to make you cheer for an utterly amoral loser physically modeled after Eminem. He wants to take your money and make fun of you. (Not you, casual reader, but you, comic fanboy with a serious $40-dollar-a-week habit at the comic-book shop.)

It starts where its readers live, with a lead character who has already been destroyed by modern life: Wesley Gibson is a young man with a steady job and a girlfriend, but both of those things are a farce: his job is an abusive dead-end cubicle nightmare, while his girlfriend is having an affair with his best friend –along others. Wesley’s a hypochondriac, suffers from panic attacks, and doesn’t seem to have any worthwhile hobbies beyond complaining about himself. But a few hyper-violent pages later, things change: A mysterious woman named Fox (whose appearance is clearly modeled after Halle Berry) tells him that he’s the son of a freshly-slain master assassin, and that an all-powerful organization wants him to continue the family legacy. After casually slaying most of a diner in order to prove her claims of legal impunity, she takes Wesley to the organization’s headquarters where he learns that his panic attacks are merely the undisciplined manifestation of an incredible talent for concentration. One issue later, he’s a master assassin (“The Killer”) learning how super-villains have destroyed all super-heroes and rewritten the history of the world to the one you learned in school. Another issue later, and The Killer is embroiled in a war between the last remaining super-villains, a war that claimed his father and may destroy him.

Wanted doesn’t deal in niceties. It just takes five pages before the first hyper-graphic death. One super-villain has scatological powers. Foul language is pervasive. Fox (and eventually Wesley) have no moral compunction about killing innocents who annoy them. (In describing his training hit-list, Wesley enumerates: “My old geography teacher. The girl next door, that guy across the street who kicked my ass for scratching his old Mustang… The chick who said no when I asked her to a movie, that guy who set his dog on me… My bank manager, my landlord, that Hispanic guy in the record store with the attitude…” The only surprise is that he doesn’t kill his old girlfriend, but there’s a plot reason for that.) Small wonder if the Hollywood movie adaptation made it to screens shortly after the trade paperback, even without the super-villains.

For a while, it looks like a slickly-produced but irredeemable exercise in pointless nihilism. (Not every Fight Club wannabe understands Palahniuk’s point.) A guilty joy to read, sure. Anything more, though?

But every review of Wanted mentions the last two pages of the series with good reason: It’s as clear a deconstruction of comic-book fanboyishness as can be printed. It’s a slap in the face of everyone who’s been swept away in the story. In many ways, it’s the series’ chaotic moral center, its final attempt at redemption after an utterly amoral story meant to stroke readers in the most indulging ways possible. It’s what raises Wanted from a mildly interesting power fantasy to a pernicious commentary on such fantasies. [July 2008: And, typically, it’s the only part of the book that the movie adaptation gets completely wrong, transforming bone-cutting sarcasm into crowd-pleasing bravado.]

It’s that ending that warrants a look at Wanted for anyone who falls outside the familiar stereotype of the comics fanboy. Millar may or may not have pasted a quick cheap tag to a pandering ultra-violent story, but there’s no denying that it radically changes the impression left by the book for the better. And if you’ve seen the film… you haven’t seen anything yet.

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