somebody's gonna have to sweep that up

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Two of today's comics annoyed the hell out of me in very similar ways--a lot of the reason people read The Ultimates 2 and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, of course, is to find out exactly what Millar and Miller are going to do to annoy us this time, other than making us wait months for the next installment. But I think I've realized that what's actually irritating about them isn't quite what I thought it was.

Earlier today, I was corresponding with a friend who asked me why I liked Mark Millar's comics. I wrote: "I guess what I like about Millar is his absolute control of his tone and volume. I know he can do finely wrought little character pieces--a lot of the stuff he did back when he was writing Superman Adventures was that. I have lots of fundamental objections to Civil War, and some to Ultimates and even The Authority, but they're mostly based on content rather than craft, if you see what I mean--all three of them are him seeing just how loud he can crank things up without distortion. [...] And it's kind of fun to see a mainstream comics writer totally kick over the sandbox. Where he can go next, I have no idea, though."

But then I went to the store and picked up the final issue of The Ultimates 2, with its up-yours-Miller-and-Lee eight-page fold-out fight scene, and got to the last scene with Tony, where he's shedding a tear for Natasha because "she was like me with magnificent breasts and, as you know, that's always been one of my ultimate fantasies." (Nice adjective there.) My first thought was: okay, Millar, that's it, you're not even pretending to take this seriously any more.

That was the same as my first reaction to ASBaRtBW, with Wonder Woman (as Rachelle points out) acting as Frank Miller's Mary Sue, and Miller reprising the "I'm the goddamn Batman" routine just to piss off the people who hated it the first time. Not to mention the front-cover ass-shot, just in case it wasn't clear yet that Miller's giving the people what they want, good and hard. And then it came to me: the problem is not that Millar and Miller aren't taking the superhero-narrative game seriously. It's that they're taking it much too seriously, working from the assumption that their readers can't grasp that their fantasies are, you know, unrealistic.

So Millar and Miller are taking superheroes to their logical real-world conclusions--which is to say straight-faced illogic and unreality, broad-scale destruction and psychosis--and it's been done, it's been done, it's one little point that can be made about the genre and it's been made over and over. Done. We get it. By now, the only effect of making that point again is to demonstrate your contempt for your readership. The things that make U2 and ASBaRtBW function as metacomics are the same things that ruin them as fiction: the smartass gestures that whack the reader straight out of the story and into the writer's sneering assessment of the reader's perspective.

Complaining that superhero stories don't give a full accounting of the nasty side of power and the illusions associated with the idea of heroism is like complaining that the soda you're drinking is too wet: that's kind of what we go to them for. The pleasure in reading them comes in part from understanding their characters as symbolic, sometimes even allegorical, rather than "the way somebody like that would really be"--but also consistent in their symbolic value, growing gradually in depth and history rather than entirely mutable for the sake of a plot or a shock. The least I can ask of superhero comics is entertainment; bitterly repudiating the idea that any pleasure that can be gotten from them is legitimate, the way these two comics do, really is kicking over the sandbox.


chucklehound said:

Wait a minute. You only now realized the depths of Millar's contempt for his readers? Did you not read Wanted?

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on May 16, 2007 11:49 PM.

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