Somebody Explain It To Me

Here is a rather interesting look at some minor storytelling flourishes in Mark Millar’s Wanted.

If you look down at the comments, you’ll see me there, wondering just exactly what kind of flourishes they’re intended to be.

I don’t think it’s an odd thing to wonder about. After all, there is the comic, and here are my eyes. I don’t know Mark Millar, except through his work; I’ve never spoken with him, and to be honest I don’t think having spoken with him would do much to answer my question about how this flourish was intended. I’m just looking at the comic. I’m perfectly willing to take the character of Wesley’s boss in context with the surrounding story, too.

It’s just that suddenly I’m curious — really quite curious — about what that context is supposed to be. Am I supposed to understand from this that Wesley is a garden-variety racist (kust like everybody else), before his ascension to world-class supervillaindom, and if that’s true is that all it’s supposed to portend? Or is there some other commentary purposely inserted there? Alternatively, is it a subtextual reinforcement of the “villain’s world” concept that intends to tweak my nose devilishly? Or maybe it’s something slyer than either of those things. Or maybe it’s all of them at once. Or maybe it was a completely unconscious detail, or even an unpredictable accident of the editing process. Maybe, possibly, it was an attempted complexity, or even metatextuality, that got away from its maker; or again, it could’ve been a deliberate dumbing-down, and that could’ve been the point of it.

Having done nothing more than read the comic, now after also reading that post I’m left to wonder…

How shall I judge this flourish?

Full disclosure: I’m actually rather tempted to judge it harshly. But that’s only because whether it was intended to tweak my nose or not, I now find that — surprise! — it’s tweaked my nose in any case. So really the only question I can have about it at this point, is…

Mark Millar, just what were your intentions, with Wesley’s boss? You see, I’m perfectly willing to understand the thing as a joke. But if it was meant as a joke…

Then somebody, please explain it to me.

Your thoughts, Internet?

The last page of Wanted never has made me curious, and I daresay it never will make me curious. But this makes me curious. Doesn’t it make you curious, too?


11 responses to “Somebody Explain It To Me

  1. “Wanted” was a huge disappointment. I was hoping for something insightful, and what we got was id running rampant. Worse, for all of Wesley’s turn to badassery and murderizin’ and sexifyin’, we find out at the end that he’s just a wost widdle boy who missed his daddums. Three-quarters of the story is an unfocused revenge fantasy against the world, spoken in comic book idioms, and the last quarter is a “return of the lost daddy” fantasy.

    Comics are power fantasies, and revenge fantasies are common. But they are almost always shaped by art to make them less naked and more sophisticated. “Wanted” didn’t even try. It was embarrassing. I actually cringed.

    My own take on the “flourishes” described in the linked post is that the story takes it for granted that everyone’s a racist of sorts. Better to say that in the world of “Wanted,” everyone’s a selfish, cruel ass-clown, and race provides the easiest handle to get a grip on and hurt someone else, and thus everyone indulges in low-grade bigotry when given the opportunity because everyone’s lazy and hateful.

    The entire series was a lashing out at feelings of powerlessness generated by everyday life. What makes Wesley feel powerless? Crap job, nagging and shrill girlfriend, poverty, the usuals. Millar also dug out a common anxiety, the nature of modern race relations. Viewed from the perspective of a resentful white man, another type of powerlessness comes from the “fact” that people of other races can mock you for your whiteness, but to respond in kind is an unforgivable sin. It’s another power disparity, a way to be insulted without being able to protect yourself, and a source of resentment. Wesley’s entire story is about lashing out at people he resents, so when he becomes Billy Badass, he kills and maims everyone who made him feel powerless due to the social mores around racial insults and the discomfort he feels around non-white folks.

    What makes it notable is that Millar understood that resentment well enough to include it in the story. What that means about him personally, I don’t care. Given the scattershot nature of Wesley’s revenge, and the quasi-everyman status Wes is supposed to have, it’s implied that we all feel that way and share in the frustrations. Hm.

    And man, to end the story with the none-too-subtle idea that Wes’s greatest frustration and sense of powerlessness came from being abandoned by his father…only to find out that his father is a hugely powerful and dangerous man who secretly loved him anyway and granted him a massive patrimony at the end, making Wesley the Secret Master of the World?

    Gimme a fucking break.

  2. “Given the scattershot nature of Wesley’s revenge, and the quasi-everyman status Wes is supposed to have, it’s implied that we all feel that way and share in the frustrations. Hm.”

    Yeah, this is the bit I keep sticking on.

    Is Wanted supposed to hit you with a bit of narrative jujutsu, using your association with its “everyman” character to implicate you in some of his nastier behaviour? If so then it overdoes it with the casual racism and gratuitous nastiness, signaling its intentions way too early before flubbing it with that ending.

    If that’s not the point, is it supposed to be a straight-up satire? Of what? Of casual racism and violent fantasy? Wanted doesn’t seem to be built to work that way. Its world is too obviously an inverted superhero universe, as opposed to an exploded take on our own society, which… I’m trying to make the story work as a critique of our consumption of garish power fantasies, but that doesn’t make much sense because Wanted revels in its own nastiness to such a huge degree.

    Which leaves it looking like a mean spirited, anti-heroic comic book romp. And I’d be good for that, in theory — Millar’s brutalist take on existing DC characters is a bit obvious, but Geoff Klock made a good case for the setup working as a sort of bizarre tribute to the actors who played Batman, Superman and Wonderwoman here:

    (You’ve all probably read Klock’s take on Wanted already, but I think he makes some interesting points on the comic’s failure as a polemic and as a narrative.)

    Ok, so Wanted is a superhero comic for people who hate superheroes and like playing Grand Theft Auto with all the cheats on. Cool. The only difficulty with this theory is that, as Caleb has highlighted, there’s way too much racial baggage for that element not to jab you in the eye.

    Harey Jerkwater’s take on the villainous world of Wanted makes sense, but… the racial slurs are still an irritating story-component, in a way that provokes uneasy frustration rather than profound revelation.

    Which is to say: I’ve just written about three hundred words on the subject without coming anywhere near explaining the racial ickiness of a Mark Millar comic.

    And man do I ever feel big and clever!

    So, in closing: does J.G. Jones draw action well or what?!! Ooh, shiny!

  3. That should say “…Wanted is a comic for people who love/hate superheroes” above, but the book’s relationship to its genre of choice is probably a topic for another day.

  4. Oooh, Klock’s pieces are bang-on…

    From his writeup on the first issue:

    “Millar is banking on our identification with the character. His version of the “leave your dead end job and become super-powerful” fantasy (which will be retained in the movie) is rooted in his belief that the reader is an awful person who will see himself in Wesley Gibson, and so become invested in the story. The only person who will identify with Wesley will be someone just like him. The book is not primarily mean spirited because it is racist; the book is mean spirited because it assumes we are. That is why the book includes the scene where his “African American Boss” taunts him about the Klan and his small white penis — In making her cruel, Miller attempts to give us license to join Wesley in his (obviously racially motivated) hatred with the child’s logic of “she started it.” Because Millar thinks we are idiots.

  5. Good discussion; let me just get back to it in a bit, but first here’s a comment I just made on Sean’s blog:

    “I don’t think Millar’s a racist, and I love the evisceration of the Hero’s Journey, but damn it, is it too much to ask that he write something that doesn’t drag in a more generalized social commentary, and then just leave the bloody thing lying there with a “who, me” expression on his face? This is what I say seems nasty to me, and makes me want to give him a smack in the mouth: I mean, he could’ve disembowelled the Hero’s Journey in any setting, but he chose this one, and he played it his way. So I just want to know why he made the moves he did, and don’t want to accept “seemed like a good idea at the time” as a reason. I feel the same way about the second chunk of the Ultimates, there are so many things I want to point at and ask “so what were you trying to do here, specifically?” And if he shrugs, then I push him off the balcony. The man gets by with a lot, because it’s usually not okay (at least, in my mind it isn’t) to insist a writer justify his work — either you like it or you don’t, and that’s the end of the story, and it’s not cool to berate him. But I think Millar presumes on that spirit of reader hospitality a little more than most, so when I saw those Wanted panels again I was thinking “yeah, okay…well, you don’t get to not be asked questions forever, so let’s start — hey, why not? — with the casual displays of pretty harsh racism in Wanted. Was Wesley’s relationship with his boss a deliberate mirroring of the relationship between the Fraternity and the normal people they rule? And if so, why did you think using race was the most effective way to create this effect? I see…that’s very interesting…and was that also what you were trying to highlight with the cholos? Oh, it wasn’t? Do go on…” Like, I want to interview Mark Millar. Or, no: I want Gary Groth to interview him. You know? But I’m guessing that’s never gonna happen, because I’m guessing that’s not really the PR Millar’s looking for…but then if that’s true he loses my sympathy for people calling him a racist, a little bit. Of course then again, if no one’s ever asked him about any of this stuff, then he gets more sympathy from me than he started out with! ‘Cause you gotta at least ask the guy. As you say, I could be missing the whole point, or not giving credit where credit’s due.

    Sorry, bit of a rant, there. But I woke up today thinking “oh, I made it sound like I just think Millar’s a racist, well shit.”

  6. I think Millar honestly thinks most of his readers are xenophobic, racist right-wingers. I think he took one look at the sales rankings for Ultimates, not to mention the political climate of the biggest comics market in the wake of September 11th, and he figured the best way to make a fuck-ton of money was to play to that. And if the Ultimates didn’t prove it, then Civil War certainly did. If the people want authoritarianism, then that’s what they’re going to get.

    A comment he made on (I think) Newsarama not long ago stuck with me, not least because he’s always been very canny, public relations-wise, with what goes out to the press, whether the big leagues or the comics news sites. He said that, contrary to what people might think, he’s a pretty liberal guy: but, he’s wary of “fellow liberals” who are too ready to side with anyone just because they’re positioned against the current American administration.

    That’s a clever thing to say to a certain kind of person. You get to have your cake and eat it with a sentence like that. Sure, anyone who want to devote five seconds of brain power to the claim is going to look at him like he just shit himself, but he’s banking on the fact that anyone who has a problem with his view probably isn’t going to enjoy his work anyway, and they’re hardly in the majority when it comes to buying comics.

  7. I don’t know Millar that well, so I can only judge from his work, which doesn’t show much signs of left-wingery at all. There’s a certain type of left-winger – Christopher Hitchens springs to mind, Melanie Phillips another – who turn right-wing over time. Doubtless for reasons they can justify for themselves, but they’re not at all conscious of the change. They’re like Bruce Willis in that film, not knowing he’s dead. They can’t quite understand why the rest of left-wing thought hasn’t joined them on the march rightwards. They’re still left-wing in every sense other than actually holding left-wing beliefs.

    Then they start flinging mud at their former allies, hoping something will stick. So left-wingers become Communist-appeasers, fundamentalist-appeasers, whatever-they-can-think-of-appeasers. When left-wingers opposed Bin Laden and his ilk in the 1980’s, that just showed they were in love with Soviet Communism. Now Bin Laden’s the enemy, the left naturally just has to be in love him. Because otherwise they’d be both in favour of combating extremism and supporting fundamental human rights. And that would make them, well, correct.

  8. Which is taking longer than it should, because all my notes are back at home, where I can’t get to them. But…did I already say this?…Clone, you remind me of Mort Sahl’s comment, that the problem with America is all the right-wingers who were raised to believe that they are liberals

    Interesting thing, that.

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