Welcome, Bloggers. This is going to be the longest one ever, ’cause I built it up way too much. But come on in, come in, anyway! Come in.
The evisceration is about to begin.
Not the way you think, perhaps. Because this is the Mark Millar post — but it is not just the Mark Millar post, but something else as well. My little meditation on that magical thing we are wont to call “suspension of disbelief”…
…Well, whatever that means, right?
Jeez, what the heck does it mean?
My contention: something very different from what it sounds like it means.
We might as well start with the absolute silliest things there are in the whole wide world: superhero comics. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love ‘em! Er, used to love ‘em! But part of the reason I do…uh, did!…is because they’re so dreadful. The logic of superheroes and the logic of soap operas are similar in this way: that almost nothing that happens in them is fit to be believed. They’re both a particularly ludicrous species of connect-the-dots fantasy: people can fly so they all wear funny costumes, people sit cross-legged on the corners of desks (seriously, have you ever tried that?) and that means they’re all rich. You take one sip of coffee, turn to the person next to you and say “shame about June”, then you slap down a five dollar bill to pay for it and walk out the door. It never needs sugar or cream, either. The coffee, I mean…
Or! You get a blast of ionizing radiation and turn into a guy with “solar powers” or “control over bees”, who’s actually wearing a costume with a funky mask and a big letter on it that stands for the name you’ll eventually choose for yourself. And you’ve got to figure that, in the Marvel universe at least, no one ever gets a sunburn, they just get low-level telepathy or something…
Ludicrous. Well, or maybe just plain ludic? Galactus came a-knocking in a kilt and a short-sleeved shirt, and a great big capital letter “G” on his chest…
“Hey Galactus, how come you got that big letter “G” on your chest?”
“Because the name of Galactus BEGINS with a “G”, insignificant one, and that is reason enough…!”
This is what being beyond all mortal conceptions of time and space and good and evil means in Superheroland, you see: you can sew your address into your shorts, and no one questions it.
It’s a beautiful, crazy-ass, four-colour riot.
And yet…inconceivably!…there are limits to it, too.
Everything has limits. But as always, the question is, what are the limits?
And more importantly, why are they.
It isn’t really fair just to plain pick on Millar (or Jenkins…but that’s another story). After all, we’re involved in this excursion into fantasy too — that “suspension of disbelief” crap we’re always on about, just that we throw that term around so freely is kind of an admission that there’s fiction, and then there’s spit-take fiction…magic-trick fiction, where the confines of plot and character have more to do with symbolic para-logic than a faithful replication of what conditions obtain in the real world. The problems are expressed in this para-logic much more fully than they are in the trappings of “believability” that coat it, and the solutions are fun solutions pretty much to the extent that they’re puzzles, the solving of which reveal the rules of that hidden game. All art is play, you see: and all art appreciation consists of joining in on the play. Even if it’s serious play.
Of course superheroes are tremendously unserious play, as far as play goes. Kid’s stuff, they used to call it, and probably still do, because the name fits pretty well. If you talk to Joe Rice, he’ll tell you that comics should be kid’s stuff, should never relinquish their grip on that tether to the simple, hyperexpressive imaginative tort that charges it all up with carefree excitement…
And yet on the other hand, there’s another meaning to “kid’s stuff” that doesn’t fit that definition. And this is what Millar does. Because he’s a controversial guy, and yet how does one become controversial in the insane, slippy, transgressive world of superhero comics? The FF fought Space-Jehovah. Bob Haney wrote Batman stories (says it all right there). Gerry Conway had a rocket fall to earth because there was nothing for it to “push” against. Some artists manage to court controversy by filling their pages with unavoidable (!!!) ass-shots of Wonder Woman and Supergirl, but that’s not the kind of controversy Millar excels at: as a writer, his controversy — his subversiveness — is necessarily more conceptual than that. And you can tell me if you think it’s brilliant, or not.
He is finding the limits.
I’ve spoken before about how I think Grant Morrison is the most unapologetic superhero-traditionalist working in comics today. Because his comics may bend the rules, but they never break them; he doesn’t seek to undermine the suspension of superhero disbelief nearly so much as he seeks to hold it up, in a kind of rededication ceremony. He wants to bring it all back to life, in good order, ready to go out tomorrow and start doing its job again. It’s just that he does such a brilliant job of this — he plans it so painstakingly, and executes it so diligently — that many people think of him as a radical rewriter of what’s gone before, a guy who complicates the basic material needlessly and showily, to exclude all previously-existing nostalgic sentiment and reject all previously-established logical consistency. Actually nothing could be further from the truth: he doesn’t complicate, he simplifies. He just does it with a zany flourish.
But Mark Millar tries a route simultaneously easier than that, and harder. His approach isn’t meticulous, and it isn’t reverent, it’s haphazard and explosive and high-concept-driven — his kind of play stares you in the face and dares you to find a reason to say it’s gone too far. Which is, you know, a really really hard thing to do! How far is too far? Have you ever read an old superhero comic? You practically have people firing off guns that shoot “pure super-science” at other people who survive it by deploying “unimaginable power” — Atomic City Tales, if you remember that book, riffed brilliantly, gloriously ludically, on this kind of ever-expanding circle of undefined capability…meanwhile, Tales Of The Beanworld stuck readers to itself like super-glue by inviting them to cooperate with its author in the invention of a new secret playground language of symbols and meanings, that they could all share in the pleasure of monkeying with. What are the rules? Are there any hard-and-fast rules? Do we get to make up the rules as we go along? YAY!
Trash culture at its finest.
There’s something else at work in these ludic frenzies, as well. Trash isn’t just “freedom”, it’s got a context. Well, you can’t transgress without a context, after all!
And Mark Millar, by finding a way to be controversial in this form and under these constraints, has done something simultaneously rather clever, and rather stupid.
Stupidity is the whole point, you see.
“KA-POW! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!”, how often we sit around and joke about that, Bloggers, but with an edge in our voices. You see, we are concerned: most of the world thinks we’re borderline-retarded for reading comic books, especially superhero comic books. An unfair assumption, when even some superhero titles do real dramatic things that television and movies shrink from, instead preferring a greater intellectual aridity when it comes to those topics. Not there aren’t crap comics too! But for years we were tarred with that brush, were we not?
And now, thankfully…despite the “KA-POW!”s, the validity of our stuff is finally being recognized in the wider world!
Only problem is…now we really do look borderline-retarded for liking it, a lot of the time.
Because its content is nowhere near as defensible now, when we’re called upon to defend it so much more infrequently, than it was when we had to defend it all the time. And that’s not just the old man in me talking, that’s the straight goods: standards (certain standards — I’ll get back to that) have lapsed, and we all know it. On the whole, internal consistency is much less important than it was. On the whole, characterization matters much less than it once did. Even the cheesecake isn’t as smart as it once was — hey, let’s face it, we’re not exactly talking Jack Cole, here. There’s a lot of poor craftsmanship out there. I don’t think anyone can easily deny this: some creators are hacking it out far more ostentatiously than has ever been possible before in the world of the Big Two. Sometimes, there does seem to be either not enough love in this recipe, or really far too much for seemliness. And superhero comics are more “for kids” now, than they probably ever have been — in the sense that they’re stuff no self-respecting adult could ever be interested in starting to read, or in giving to a kid to read.
There is brilliant stuff out there, don’t get me wrong.
But the crap is crappier.
What would (or more accurately: does) Joe Rice have to say about it all? Allow me to put some words in his mouth, and hopefully they’ll be not too unlike his own: “comics should be fun, comics should be exciting and whimsical and engaging and AWESOME instead of hidebound and dogmatic and impenetrable and BORING…internal consistency is secondary, even characterization is secondary (though nice to have), the important thing is to have it be fun, to have it be good, to have it be something more like reading and less like masturbation — this is how comics become nourishing, by caring about these things enough to get rid of anything and if necessary everything else, that may stand in their way.” I hope I haven’t misrepresented Joe, here, because I’d like to think we agree on this.
And yet though we (I hope) agree, we also differ, I think.
Hey, you know there’s this show called Heroes?
Apparently they had an eclipse on the thing, the other night.
And I would not be surprised if the duration of that eclipse consumed roughly an hour of show-time, and that its eclipse-y-ness extended to most, if not all, of the Earth’s surface.
I mean, do someone tell me if I’m wrong about that…but what I’m saying is, it really wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how they played it, because that’s about the standard I expect from them.
Now, the question is…if this happened in the way I theorize it may have…or if it had happened, should my theorizing be way off-base…
Is it (or would it be) right? Is it (or would it be) forgivable?
Suppose Heroes had depicted people all over the world getting caught in the eclipse.
Would it be wrong to find that a terribly, unconscionably stupid thing to depict?
And if I found it so, would that be because the importance of “suspension of disbelief” was too important to me, or not important enough?
If you didn’t give a damn about suspension of disbelief (and really, this seems the most sensible thing of all — I mean who talks about this thing as much as we do, anyway? What makes us think it’s so all-fired centrally important to appreciating our fictions?), and figured it’s just a fucking show goddamnit…
Would that mean you cared too much, or too little?
(Pardon me, I am just setting up the chairs. Honestly, my intention is that this will all start to cohere momentarily…)
You see, for me, if Heroes had an eclipse in it, that was a “normal” eclipse, not some other phenomenon being mistakenly called an eclipse…and then if it didn’t behave like an eclipse, and yet no one noticed that it didn’t, and if it meant nothing except “that’s how it happened, what’s your problem”…
Then for me this is an error of what I will term the Spelling variety, which means: it isn’t defensible as an artistic choice. Like misspelling words in a novel without the misspellings indicating something on purpose (like for example the use of vernacular by a character), it is just wrong. It isn’t excusable. It’s like hammering screws: dumb.
Wait, I have some more of these. Aside from a Spelling-class inconsistency, you could have a Grammar-class inconsistency, an error of Diction, or even simply a Typo.
These things all combine in some interesting ways. Of course Typos we would be churlish not to forgive, when we see them. Actually I kind of like Typos, they show that the innate wackiness of this kind of fiction remains delightfully irrepressible. Gerry Conway’s rocket that has nothing to “push” against…ha! But, why do I laugh? Isn’t that actually horrible?
Well, it is and it isn’t. To the degree it’s incredibly impossible and uninformed, it’s pretty awful, all right. But what makes it funny is that comics are of such a transgressive nature that the Typo, undeniably a mistake, nonetheless can easily become a sort of conceptual malapropism. Because some Typos, which we ought naturally to object to, can’t help but recall the way comics habitually employ Diction mistakes to breathe life into fully crazy-ass features of their narrative. Bob Haney’s idea of how time-travel works is an incredible Diction mistake — the words are right, but the writer makes their meanings sufficiently obtuse that you can’t do much more than hang on to your hat. Because that’s just comics, baby! Yeah, sometimes the ride gets a little rough, can you handle it? Hey, you know none of this stuff really makes sense in the first place anyway, right? Shame about June.
Raymond Chandler famously remarked that mystery stories are subject to improving standards: “The Red-Headed League” would not be a viable mystery story today; any modern detective would penetrate the secret of “The Purloined Letter” in about a minute flat.
And whether he was right or wrong about this, I’m not sure. But even if he was right, he would’ve been a lot less right, if he’d been talking about comics. As Grant Morrison would tell you, poor diction can be a sharp tool instead of a dull one, if you just use it right. Leave holes and gaps in the narrative for the reader to fall into, and suddenly you’ve got wonderful superhero poetry. Jack Kirby would tell you, too: sometimes Thor tosses his hammer and it goes the wrong way, and that’s what makes this stuff POP, damn it!
Which is something we all know probably on such a deep cellular level that we never really think about it. Comics is a funhouse Hall of Mirrors, because if it weren’t it’d be boring instead of joyous. You don’t misspell words or pictures, but you use ‘em innovatively (sometimes even in the Durkheimian sense) and go with that flow. BUT! Sometimes a Typo comes along and reminds you how outstandingly silly it all is, and then you’ve just got to laugh…because is the Typo you should despise really so different from the Diction error you rely on to entertain you so deleriously?
And then there’s Grammar — the Rules. Of course as everyone knows, you can have descriptive grammar as well as prescriptive grammar, and in comics the latter isn’t of too much use. Oh, people try to create prescriptive grammars for comics, but at a certain level this all becomes Principia Mathematica, and then one day Kurt Godel comes up to you and blows the surety of it all to smithereens. One day Alan Turing comes along and gives you some sort of Test. Shame about June! And away we go.
But, hark: diction is a part of grammar too…so if you don’t have any Rules, then you can’t have any Mistakes either, and then where are you?
And here’s the fun, here’s the game! Because descriptive grammar is all about the rules too. Conventions and vernaculars…even spelling is implicated in grammar, you see. You have to learn the rules before you can break them…because you can’t just break them, you have to figure out what kind of rules you’re going to use to break them…to create different rules.
And Grant Morrison doesn’t even actually do this!
But Mark Millar does.
Not that he’s the only one. Probably the most famous breaker of superhero Grammar is Alan Moore — well, to go back to Warren Ellis’ wonderful encapsulation of the thing in Planetary, “a virus is just an instruction the operator doesn’t want”, right?
But…just one thing before we leave this sub-topic just a little to the side…why is my hypothetical Heroes eclipse a Spelling error, and not a Typo, a Diction mistake, or a Grammar-breaker?
Alan Turing would tell you: because talking to Heroes about eclipses is like talking to a computer about a story, not a person. And yet it was made by people. So…
1. A Typo is incidental, accidental, in a very apparently trivial sense. The way Heroes handles its theory of time-travel is not accidental, for instance, though it certainly is a dog’s breakfast of a logical hierarchy (and doesn’t even come close to explaining anything that it apparently intends to). Hiro’s ability to travel through time and space is itself the demonstration of a set of fiction-specific rules, a grammar if you will…though I would contend it is a grammar that beaches itself on inelegant and infelicitous Diction. Well, doesn’t matter: anyway things aren’t Typos because they’re meant and designed to be just the way they are as an integral part of the story, but rather because they’re plain-and-simple screwups…and the eclipse being Heroes’ primary motif if nothing else must mean that it always signifies for something besides “oops”. So, not a Typo.
2. But, maybe a Diction mistake? But a proper Diction mistake is a place where the road forks into several different implied meanings — where a road turns Prismatic, if I may borrow from my excellent friends the Mindless Ones. Ah, Hypertime! You know there may be something to it after all. However if the intention is to escape the confining, prescriptive inadequacies of Tab A/Slot B storytelling, into a freer space of description where there’s nothing wrong with a little wakeful dreaming, then Heroes may not have accomplished the task convincingly — if this were supposed by me to be an attempt at superhero poetry, unfortunately I don’t think it’d really scan as such. Already in this show there are many dreamlike elements designed to contrast the fantasy of superheroes with the “reality” of televisual grammar — is an eclipse just the motion of celestial bodies? Reality will tell you “yes”, but fantasy’s happy to contradict it and cry “no”…however at a certain point this otherwise-profitable tension snaps the string, and is consequently lost. Where did the tension go? Well, it went where the string went. Not to be overly-literal about it, but if you want to blur the lines between the symbolic and the actual, you usually have to take some time in laying your groundwork — and as a matter of fact we do have hemisphere-wide eclipses of long duration: they’re called nighttime, and they too have their symbolism, which is both similar to and dissimilar from the symbolism associated with eclipses...as any reader of Conneticut Yankee could tell you. So once this occurs to a viewer, can they really be blamed if Heroes starts to look less like fantasy-based superhero poetry, and more like incompetently-executed science fiction? Less like Bob Haney’s Batman, and more like an episode of that Fringe show — I mean tell me anything, but don’t tell me it’s supposed to make any kind of “realistic” sense, you know? A snapped string, with a finger pointing at it — that’s not misdirection, that’s just admission of the basic inability to pull off a magic trick in the first place. Like someone who can’t spell, who offers to prove they can…but then of course, they can’t, so they prove the opposite instead. And that’s a boldness that’s hard to admire; because it’s really just stupid, and who admires stupidity?
Ah, stupidity. We’re back to Mark Millar at last.
A thing Heroes doesn’t know, but which Mark Millar does, is that you’ve got to understand your audience. Heroes is (in my opinion) mostly pitching to the dumb and the desperate — little kids, and genre-addicts who don’t care what it’s all cut with just so long as they can get their fix. Of course just like the mystery story, superheroes on the teevee are subject to rising standards: if this were the Seventies, Heroes‘ main competition would be Man From Atlantis — if it were the Eighties it’d be Misfits Of Science — but instead today it’s the Iron Man movie, and so no one’s quite as dumb or as desperate as they once were. Crap SF/superhero TV is very readily available indeed, these days; it’s on every corner. So you have to bring something more than that to the table, now. At the very least, you have to be able to make a virtue of your shortcomings.
Okay, Millar: let me praise him. I liked Wanted (hey, talk about breaking a string and then pointing at it!), and I loved the first year of The Ultimates. These are just the top two of Millar’s oeuvre, mind you: there are many more accomplishments of his that I’ve enjoyed over the years, too. Still, let’s check these ones over specifically — both are unquestionably Grammar-breaking exercises: the first takes several tired “gritty” superhero cliches of the Eighties and Nineties, and parodies them ruthlessly. Mind you, I don’t think there’s any doubt Millar really does like these old cliches, and perhaps doesn’t even think of them as cliches…what if the villains got smart, what would superheroes be like in the real world, what if our world was the world of the superheroes, what if there were alternate universes or futures where things turned all dystopian-like, what if all the superpeople were aware of their own inherent silliness…one questions if there is a genuine need for so many riffs on these sleepy old dinosaurs of cliche, but Millar seems to think the potential of such riffing is inexhaustible…well, whatever. He does bad stuff with it too, and we’ll get into that before long, but first: praise. Because there’s something to do with my thesis here even in the better material — because Wanted’s more high-minded aspirations are just as notable as its more low-minded ones, as the side of the coin with heads on it is as notable as the side that is “tails”, and both are served equally by the same flip — as Millar beats the hell out of all that is stupid (and not just silly) in the standard superhero origin story. Even its readers and devotees? Well, I used to think maybe people took that one a little too seriously, but I think I’ve changed my mind; if Millar doesn’t mean to rip on the readers even just a little bit in most of his comics, then he’d have to be not as smart as I think he is…not that this is his most important method of transgression, of controversy-courting, in his comics writing, but really if you wanted to be edgy how could you pass this sort of thing up along the way? I don’t think you could, and I don’t think I’m libelling Millar by saying “edgy” is probably what he wants to be…and also, most of Millar’s work benefits from the interpretation that he’s taking playful jabs at his readership, so let’s just say that’s what he’s doing. A mighty long walk for a cup of coffee, when we’re talking about Wanted, and its infamous last page! But you don’t have to go very far to find this same tendency operating under just a little cover in most of his other books — in the Ultimates, Captain America is brilliantly recontextualized as a bullying jarhead, Hank Pym is a guy who can’t afford to go off his meds because he’ll turn into a guy who can’t sublimate his self-loathing into being a hero, Bruce Banner is a pathetic, unloved, impotent serial killer in his heart of hearts — every inch the mother’s-basement-dweller! — Tony Stark is a next door to being a nihilist, and Thor is just a fucking loose cannon nut-job, really. Hawkeye’s a cold-blooded assassin, the Scarlet Witch and her brother are incestuous Eurotrash, the Wasp is a second-class citizen trying vainly to pass for a member of the God-fearing privileged class …I mean need I go on? Hey, Greetings From America, everybody! Weather’s here, wish you were beautiful.
Very likely, all of that stuff kind of needed to be said. And Millar said it first and best. Let’s give him that.
Before we move smartly along from the praises to the damns. Because the rules of his new Grammar get away from Millar, precisely because he’s not as meticulous or reverential as Morrison — the essential stupidity that he’s always toying with, always showing to the reader as in a mirror, is a type of peculiarly-adventurous Diction that flirts real, real heavily with the laughter-inducing “headdesk” phenomenon of the Typo — are these mistakes really even mistakes? he appears to ask. Does any of this shit matter? Doesn’t it all blur together after a while? We know what his influences are: he’s got a little Dredd in him, a little Flex, a little Watchmen — to him, the possibilities of anarchy for both satire and homage are always inviting, because to him anarchy’s the motor at the heart of the superhero narrative. In the future, the world is owned by Hulkish trailer-trash hillbillies, and that doesn’t need a lot of explanation, if you want a lot of explanation you won’t get it; in an alternate universe a Norse deity is President of the United States, and all the stupid people get super-powers but it’s just a nasty trick, and hey what’re you goggling at? Yeah, that’s right, in the end you’re supposed to root for George Bush, and well of course Iron Man is the hero of Civil War, whyever would you think he isn’t?
So, he’s frustrating expectations, he’s blowing shit up. But does that all necessarily add up to a problem with suspension of disbelief?
Well, not exactly, and not yet: but as Millar’s authorial fascinations become more entrenched over time, the methods he uses to address them get strained. There’s a lot of tension on that string, as Tony Stark watches an inverted sun rise on his Civil War victory, and yet still without that victory managing to be significantly undercut by it! An ever-more-scrambled Diction makes the flirtation with Typo less artfully-puncturing and more confusing — because the very point of it all isn’t to take you so far and no farther, the point is to put the hot stove in the room, and then it’s up to you whether you put your hand on it or not. This isn’t a guided tour: and in fact having come so far in blurring the lines between the symbolic and the actual, Millar just plain chooses to Spell things wrong sometimes…and he has a perfect plausible deniability in this, because really this is all kid’s stuff, is it not? Hey, have you ever actually read an old comic? So what’s the complaint, that it’s damaging your precious “suspension of disbelief”? Say, what is that thing, anyway?
Do you dare to say this play’s gone too far, when you really have no reason to say it has?
Aggressive, explosive, unsentimental, and painting arrows all over the floor that point at the glowing stove: that’s Millar. In Wanted, everybody normal down on the street is a racist: Wesley is, and so’s his boss. That it’s a world full of bad people we find out pretty sharpish, but what gets missed is that the badness of the people is only cover for the badness of their motivations. What they know is wrong, subtly wrong but profoundly wrong; how they interpret their normal social praxis is wrong. In the alternate universe where the bad guys won, everything’s horrible, everything’s a disaster, because the regular people are worse than the villains. The Killer doesn’t care if you’re gay, straight, or whatever. The Future’s supervillainous Nazism is considered either comically aberrant or dangerously so by his peers, the mass-murdering predilections of the Joker character are contrasted with the status-quo preserving inclinations of the Luthor character, to show that they’re evil even by the standards of the villains. But they aren’t evil by the standards of the pool of “normals” that Wesley’s plucked out of! The message is clear: these things are only what “any of us” would do, if we could. And frankly we’d be more likely to be Nazis, than not. So on the whole, the victorious villains are better than we are, right?
Well, strictly speaking it isn’t explored.
But then I imagine the plan never was to explore it.
But then again, in some ways that’s a plan, too. Diction mistakes create empty spaces for the reader to fill with his own connections…so caveat emptor, baby! This ride can get rough: what does it mean that Wesley’s bitch-of-a-boss is black, anyway? You see it could mean a couple of things: one, that Wesley’s a racist little puke. Well, okay. But! It could also mean that his boss being an abusive black woman mirrors the moral inversion of his universe. And, wow! Now that would be drastic, wouldn’t it? And, who’s that poking fun at, do you think?
So…did Millar put that in there, just for you? You little Ultimate Bruce Banner, you.
Not a Typo. Not “oh, I guess I wasn’t really paying attention there”, but a designed-in feature. However, it may recall the Typo! After all it is just a little thing. Incidental. Justifiable.
Christ, just imagine if it were a Typo…!
So…not quite “laughter-inducing”, right?
And remember, it’s for you to say whether or not this is brilliant…
I need to put a particular example here, and I think this bit is Millar, although it could be Ellis. I hope it’s Millar! But anyway, in Ultimate Fantastic Four, Sue Storm puts a bad guy down by using her force-field to “collapse his left synapse”. Which actually doesn’t mean a damn thing.
Um, well…maybe not! Because if it wasn’t his “left synapse” she collapsed, then what kind of “left” thing was it, that she collapsed? Left hemisphere? But no, that’s too big, you see…
Hmm…left something…left something…
Man, hold on a minute here, she collapsed part of his brain? And he’s just unconscious. No.
Wait, hold up…she collapsed part of his brain?
Can she even do that?
I mean…how? By squeezing it? By popping it?
What part of it?
At first blush, yep, this is a Typo all right: incidental, accidental…all that stuff. But note that although it looks pretty transient, it also gathers some implications to itself that a proper Typo really shouldn’t. Because it can’t be explained away, can’t be “No-Prized”…what did Sue do? How did she not just kill that guy dead? How did she even know what she was doing, when she did it?
So it looks like a Typo, you see, but it’s really a Diction error: “Sue can put people out of commission by doing some crazy shit to their brains, take it on board everyone, we’re talkin’ Ultimate shit now.” That’s what this episode means: Sue’s a pretty big badass. Take it on board!
So it was important after all, you see. Because it’s something that by any reasonable standard Sue cannot do, but we need to establish that she can, because that’s what we’re after. However she still can’t, if you see what I mean: because it still doesn’t make any sense. But we’re just going to ignore that, because who cares, okay? It’s just comics; none of these people can do anything they do. Superman can’t spy on Lois using X-ray vision. Spider-Man can’t stick to walls. All right?
Here’s something I know is Millar: Ultimate Sub-Mariner. Unfortunately I can’t even give a specific example of an error involved here because shit. Literally. Just. Happens. And it doesn’t make any sense at all except “take it on board”, you know?
“Take it on board” is the only point it makes.
And after a while you have to start wondering about this, or at least I do. It isn’t that the people in Wanted are bad, it’s that the things they believe, think, want, and say are bad. It looks like they’re just “bad”, but they’re not. They’re worse than that, because there are many things their badness might mean, that can implicate the reader in the act of reading and responding. Which is surely the point. But that it isn’t thoroughly examined is a hammer on the point: because it’s not clear just how implicated we’re to be — if we are — and the author’s not telling, either.
In Heroes, the eclipse isn’t a symbolic effect, it is a factual error. But it looks symbolic. Uh, so is that so bad? I mean, weren’t the people watching this show already pretty stupid…?
In The Ultimates Year Two, America is the bad guy…and yet we are supposed to root for it as the good guy because that’s what it’s supposed to be, even though really it isn’t supposed to be that at all…
At the conclusion of Civil War, every subliminal cue we’ve got tells us that Tony Stark has done a bad, bad thing…that we are supposed to support because it was the right thing, even though it wasn’t…
See where I’m going with this?
This is how you do controversy in superheroes. This is how you push the envelope.
You hammer screws; and you screw nails. You saw wrenches in half and then grin and say “who, me?”
“Can you really be 100% sure that wasn’t you?“
Remember, a virus is just an instruction that the operator doesn’t want. Destruction can be art, too. And if there’s a gun on the wall in Act One, it’s gotta be fired by Act Three.
But, uh…don’t shoot the messenger, or something?
Of course, he’s kind of shooting at you…
Hmm, again. Well, we might as well look at what touched all this off: the Superman story that ends with Superman the last living creature on an empty Earth, losing his powers as the Sun goes red and starts to supernova. Now this is a grandiose idea! And as Sean W. reminds me, it isn’t Millar’s own idea, it’s Morrison’s.
Morrison, who gets a free pass from everyone!
So would I have complained about it, if I’d heard it from him first?
Terrible admission: probably not.
And in just a couple of shakes I’m going to look at why not, but first let’s quickly review the classic traditional Diction error regarding the Sun’s ability to end its life with a bang, instead of a whimper. I mean after all, that’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? A bang, instead of a whimper.
This is absolutely a staple of superhero comics. Of course in all likelihood our Sun has about as much chance of going nova, as it does of going supernova: that is, none. It’s just not big enough. It will go red, and more than likely it will expand to swallow the Earth’s orbit — please forgive my inaccurate use of the word “likely” here — ah, irony! — but as for the big flame-out, not so much. However this hasn’t stopped comics writers and artists down through the years from having it go nova, or potentially go nova, where they think that makes for a story with more oomph. Although it should be noted, most stories involving the Sun’s potential nova-ing have traditionally included some sort of supervillain and some sort of super-science machine that can make it do something it ordinarily wouldn’t…still, the possibility is upheld. And it does indeed go without saying that in the real world there ain’t no machine like that — the Sun is, as I’m sure you know, BIG. So there’s never going to be a raygun you can aim at it to make it explode, it’s like saying one day there’ll be a penknife so sharp that if you drop it the whole earth will split in two like an apple. But this is comics! Sometimes this ride gets rough! So…the nova thing. Diction.
For a star to go supernova it really really has to be a red giant or supergiant. These are short-lived stars, managing just a few million years — very big, very fast, and probably not too good for sponsoring life (although you know…if you’re looking for a technical reason in these latter days for Kryptonians to be special, that could be your answer right there…). And maybe I sound like I’m splitting hairs: after all, how many technically bullshit chain reactions, critical masses, overloads and overdrives have I cheerfully tolerated in my time as a reader of superhero comics? Why I’ve even tolerated Roy Thomas’ expositional thought-balloons. So why should this be such a sticking-point?
I guess it’s because…what, nova’s not good enough, all of a sudden? Just because you want that word “super” in there, to better fit the rhyme scheme of your superhero poetry?
You know, I take it back: I wouldn’t give Morrison a pass for this either. I mean we all want things, but would the rhyme scheme be so fatally damaged if stars worked like stars? I mean, is it really so unfair, that the Sun doesn’t happen to be a red supergiant? Haven’t we all been constrained, at some point or other, by research proving our Neat Idea to be full of it? I think back to Ultimate Sub-Mariner, and ask myself if Millar deserves any more freakin’ passes. I wonder idly if All-Star Superman would’ve been significantly improved, made significantly more Morrisonesque, if the superhero poetry would’ve been any better, if Morrison hadn’t Wikipedia’d the word “apoptosis”. I mean, I think he got it a bit wrong, if I remember my Polite Scott correctly…but would it have been any better if he’d just flat-out assed it up?
“I’m afraid you’ve got apoptosis of the brain, Superman. Inoperable, thanks to your indestructible skin.“
Personally I think the poetry’s lousy: we don’t need to be the brightest spot in the sky, at some point in our history. We’re not going to be the brightest spot in the sky. Superman comes from a place that’s going to be the brightest spot in the sky; we’re just silly old human Earth, for heaven’s sake. We all want things: kids would be happy eating chocolate ice cream for breakfast every morning. That doesn’t mean it’d be good for them.
But Millar doesn’t care, you see. I don’t know if Morrison does, but I’d be willing to put down a decent-sized pile of money that Millar doesn’t. Because it’s not what he’s into! For him, it’s always a case of “the more outrageous the better”, always a case of pushing the envelope, finding the limits…
…Of that magical thing we call suspension of disbelief.
So once again, and for the last time: what is this stuff? Why does it even need a special name? Has anyone ever cracked open a book, watched a movie or TV show, attended a play, without suspending their disbelief? This is the most common stuff in the world, it seems to me. So what’s the big deal about it, and why should we be at all jealous of it?
Unsurprisingly, I have a theory. Which is:
It only needs a name, for the times it gets pushed at.
I was musing a bit earlier about what it is that forms the constraints on superhero-comic storytelling, that enable its trashy transgressiveness…but of course this is a bit of question-begging on my part, because the two things are really one, like spacetime: the constraints are embedded in, are in fact united with, the storytelling’s transgressive nature. Because there’s no superhero comic at all, that I’m aware of, that isn’t founded on craptasticness — no “unaugmented” state of the superhero exists that isn’t lurid, artificially flavoured and coloured, dependent on numerous elisions over sense just for the ability to stand upright on its own two Liefeldian feet.
Which is to say: for the ability to stand upright, without the benefit of feet.
Why, after all, does the mystery formula get so much more demanding over time, and the comic-book doesn’t? Because the mystery story must have reference, in some way or other, to facts…and superheroes start out as explicitly contrafactual. You can’t have a superhero’s origin: an infusion of mongoose blood would kill you (yes, they knew that in the Forties), radiation gives you cancer, and there’s a reason high-wire artists usually employ safety nets. By all the rules of every universe in which superpowered people have ever been placed, they’re impossible, simply impossible from the very moment they start out. That’s their specific charm, that even science fiction, fantasy, and children’s books (well, that aren’t Richard Scarry books) can’t touch: to read them is to read something that is just bullshit…
…That is illegitimately and degenerately leavened by an assumption of realism, that it doesn’t merit because it’s done nothing to earn it.
You could kind of believe The Shadow, if you were an idiot. Almost.
Doc Savage has the odd redeeming quality…much like a Hardy Boys book.
But Superman? Batman? Spider-Man?
Give me a break.
So “suspension of disbelief” is the transgressive thrill, you see, nor is there any other. And that’s what makes it such a wonderful game! A wonderful, fascinating puzzle. Because it isn’t reading, it’s play-acting: “I am reading something that makes sense.” No, we make it make sense: we dress up in it and evolve pretendable strategies for making it come to life. Because this isn’t really reading at all, this is psychodramatic therapy! This is where we find — where our culture has evolved — a unique space of tension between fantasy and reality, whose appeal turns not on the idea that it could be imagined true, but on the fact that it can’t be. No one could blame anyone if an imaginative and friendless child occasionally tried the closet door to see if it might this time give onto Narnia…but there’s something a lot less savory about Cary Bates menacing the JLA, eh?
Or, Superboy-Prime killing universes?
Let me tell you, there’s a reason you perceive a faint oiliness to this sort of thing. Oh, what’s the reason?
Para-logic. It warns you against treating it as logic. It maintains a distance, maintains a barrier; like a soap opera it is not to be believed…but we find ways to believe in it anyhow, by daring to apply our imaginative faculty to an illegitimate pursuit, until it’s us that winds up inside the costume already — no magic wardrobes required, it’s just our indestructible skin. Soap operas also function in just this way. The illegitimacy of the connection…the strange wrongness of the fantasy absorption in a world that is so paper-thin, so transparently manipulative, that outsiders worry it must be like a sort of intellectual anorexia. Well, if they didn’t understand at the time — if they were freaked out! — I won’t blame them. Though it was a tough fight, sometimes. Readers of a certain vintage may recall parents or teachers taking away their comics, perhaps some vague worry that “I’m sorry, but it seems your son may in fact be a moron…perhaps a brief course of ECT, or a special school where the students all wear boxing gloves and machine-washable slippers…”
But did you ever wonder what they were thinking, as you hid in the crawlspace with your box of Oreos?
And so here’s the thing!
There’s no doubt in my mind that Joe Rice (among others) is right: the ball to keep your eye on is fun. Excitement! Imagination! Not overblown notions of consistency. After all, have we not learned over the last few decades that a pointlessly rigid consistency is the Green Goblin of dull minds? After all, you cannot even pick up a superhero comic if you adhere to rigid consistencies. Ed complains about people who hate fiction because it’s “not real”…well, superhero comics are fictional fiction, for heaven’s sake!
…And yet at the same time, if Joe were here drinking beer with me (for that’s what I’m doing, best beloved), I would pose this question to him: “but Joe, where does that transgressive thrill go to, if we can’t illegitimately apply our phony consistency to the maddening shit that goes on in superhero comics? Isn’t that a species of fun, too? I mean what’s next, kids can’t have imaginary friends?”
He might well toss a Mark Millar comic in my lap as wordless refutation. “Things can go too far”, I would interpret his raised eyebrow to be soundlessly intoning.
And yeah, it’s true; they can.
(By the way, in case it should not be noted by anyone but me: it’s Joe, Alex, and Jim Roeg that made me blog — so throw the rotten eggs at those guys, not me)
Because the bringing to rich life of bullshit is something Mark Millar understands…because he understands his audience. In fact it’s that very pursuit of that extra-special CRAZY that (I take it) he employs to push the envelope, find the limits, make funny comics as well as abysmally shitty ones…”what if superheroes were real, what if our world were the superheroes’ world, what if everything turned to shit, what if the superheroes knew how ridiculous they were, what if I took all this stuff you’ve been using and turned it back on itself, what if I amped up either the bogus realism or the bogus fantasy, what if Spelling didn’t matter, what if I challenged you, buddy…“
Sometimes he ramps up the phony “realism” to a ridiculous intensity actually unachievable in real life…the better to show just how much counterweight it takes to unseat the phony fantasy. Limits.
Sometimes he makes the fantasy a frank and awful slurry of unwarranted assumptions…cheating here and there, mixing his methods, being as bad as he can be…in order to show how phony the realism is. Limits.
This isn’t what he’s trying to do?
But I think it is, you see. Even, maybe, when he doesn’t mean to. Because he’s got himself a Grammar, but what is there for him to say with it, now? What new and exciting sentences does he plan to form? He has his tricks with burying implications of one type, inside techniques (i.e. mistakes) of another type…but where are we going with it all? Eh? Will the flowers of the Reification Tree ever bear fruit, in this case, for him?
Or only flowers?
Is it him goofing on the whole suspended-disbelief thing we’ve got going, like the bully of the sandbox, the King of the Dipshits? Or does he not quite understand, himself, whose balloon it is that he means to puncture?
Does he choose not to be able to write feet…or can he really just not write feet?
Oh, Mark. I hope you reinvent yourself. Because it’s a terrible thing to start out as John Lydon, and end up Jeph Loeb. And I think Tucker and Abhay may be coming to get you, man. To turn it all around to the pun I’ve wanted to make all through this essay: Psst! Hammerman’s After You!
And you will have a tough time implicating me in that. Somebody will fall into the gaps in that narrative, but I think it won’t be me.
For God’s sake, how many times have I had to tell Ultimates enthusiasts that it’s not realistic, that you weren’t going for realism…!
But you undermine me every time, you fucker.
I’m through defending you.
And I would write more, except this interview is OVER.