Tag Archives: Mark Millar

Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar & Dave Johnson

DC Comics, 2009 re-edition of 2003 series, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-2425-7

I don’t have much use for the standard superhero comic-book, which is too often an exercise in comfort reading, featuring melodrama that never amounts to much real growth and useless fight scenes thrown in to satisfy fan-boys.  Someone who stops reading a series and picks it up again years later misses out on little: The same archetype will continue to battle it out for as long as there is demand for it… and now that superheroes are big in Hollywood, you can bet that no one wants to upset the moneymaking genre, as narratively stale as it can be.

I’m not completely immune to the genre’s charm (I’ve got too many Batman trade paperbacks on my shelves to claim otherwise), but I won’t pick up superhero stories unless they’re sold at a bargain, they’re particularly striking examples of the form (Identity Crisis) and/or they’re different.  And Superman: Red Son is certainly different enough.  The premise is suggested early on: What if Superman, rather than landing in a Kansas cornfield, had landed on a Soviet farm?  Audaciously blending Cold War history with the DCverse, writer Mark Millar delivers an alternate history that ends up veering far from ours, and reflecting upon Superman’s innate potential for fascism.

It’s quite a change from the usual quasi-moronic goody-two-shoe persona that writers often impose on Superman.  This Man of Steel eventually takes up political power, shamelessly uses friends until their breaking point, has a few significant control issues and ends up remaking the planet to his liking.  Brainiac, Lex Luthor and Lois Lane plays important (and unusual) roles in the story, Batman goes against Superman, we get to feel sorry for Wonder Woman and even the Green Lantern corps makes an intriguing appearance.  On top of everything else, Red Son also ends up being an occasional critique of US imperialism and inner power struggles –Millar, of course, is not American.  Best of all, the ending actually wraps everything together, delivering a resolution, an utopian epilogue and a poignant coda.  For a three-book miniseries, it certainly contains a lot of material, even though some of the fights (most particularly the final one) seem a bit gratuitous.  The artwork is fair, although a bit more consistency would have been helpful –along with a better respect for Batman’s aesthetic preferences (you‘ll understand once you see the hat.)

This vision of Superman is intriguing in part because it plays upon the Superman archetype itself.  A symbol of American power becomes its opponent, and Lex Luthor becomes the noble (and arrogant) genius taking up the task to preserve American Hegemony even as the United States starts seceding.  Millar’s Sickle-and-Hammer Superman also gets free reign to indulge his gift for invention, the genius of which is an aspect of Superman that has often been forgotten in recent incarnations of the character.  After taking up the reins of the Soviet Empire, Superman is free to impose his own version of peace, order and good leadership –as long as it goes through him.

Red Son is also refreshingly told in shades of gray.  Free from years of accumulated history, Soviet Superman makes mistakes, over-coddles the planet and goes up against enemies that are led by pure and honourable motives.  Lex Luthor is a study in genius-level intelligence tainted by easy cruelty, but he ends up doing good despite his methods.  Wonder Woman is destroyed and discarded.  Batman, well, you’ll have to read it to see for yourself.  Despite the somewhat optimistic tone of the story, terrible things happen along the way.  Superman’s always been about power fantasies, but Red Son tackles the flip side of raw unchecked power.

The result is something I wasn’t expecting: A Superman story that manages to make a believer out of a confirmed superhero sceptic.  Superman: Red Son is about as good as superhero comics get, even acknowledging that it gets most of its power from upending what everyone knows about Superman.  The 2009 deluxe edition is serviceable enough and while the end sketches don’t add much, the entire package is a good showcase for a series that is actually worth reprinting in hardcover.  Don’t miss it, even if you think you don’t have any interest in Superman.

Kick-Ass (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) Every year, there are now a few movies that make me feel old.  Old, as in having finally escaped the sociopathic, bloodthirsty, surface-obsessed 16-32 age bracket.  Old, as in rolling my eyes at conscious attempts at shock spectacle.  Old, as in not being overly amused by films catering to the comic-book crowd that thinks that R-rated films in which they have to sneak into are necessarily better than anything else.  Old enough, in short, to be left cold by Kick-Ass’s deliberate crassness, buckets of spilt blood, titular profanity and general hypocrisy.  Nominally a “realistic” attempt to fit super-heroes in the real-world, Kick-Ass ends up in the same super-heroic fantasy world it claims to avoid in the first few minutes.  Compared to Mark Millar’s original comic book (which is quite a bit harsher, although not that much more respectable), the film is generally lighter, often better-structured and ends on the kind of conclusion fit to leave anyone exit the theatres whistling happily.  Never mind the sociopathic 12-year-old girl that murders without remorse, the convenient Mafioso villains or the jaundiced view of an alternate world where super-heroism is needed.  There’s a reason why I never fit into comic-book culture, and Kick-Ass only reminded me of about a dozen of them.  And yet, despite everything (and the blood-thirsty jackals braying for gore and laughing inappropriately during my screening at the Brighton Odeon), I still found a lot to like in this film.  The rhythm is energetic, Matthew Vaughn’s direction shows moments of inspiration, Chloe Moretz is more adorable as a tween killer than you’d expect and the movie features not one, but two tracks from The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die album.  When it works, Kick-Ass is a darkly comic film that almost has something to say about superhero power fantasies.  When it doesn’t, though, it’s just another reminder that I’m now over the hill in terms of pop entertainment.  Now let me shake my fist at those lawn-trampling younglings and mutter unintelligibly in my creaky rocking chair.

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.