[With the film coming out, and with writer Mark Millar in the spotlight, following Civil War with Fantastic Four and Kick Ass, and with artist J.G. Jones on Final Crisis with Morrison, I thought I would take an issue by issue look at Wanted. Some of what follows was suggested by my friend Erin. Wanted also meets my criteria for an issue by issue look: it is not by Morrison, and it is a mixed bag (because you would get bored listening to me just praise or complain).]
The first issue of Wanted introduces us to Wesley Gibson, cubicle-drone whose long vanished father, unknown to him, was part of a secret fraternity of super-villains who control the world. When the book begins and Wesley is 24, and his father has just been killed. Now Wesley will be transformed from hypochondriac whiner into the super-villain he was born to be by his father's friends.
The first three pages are spent on details establishing what a loser Wesley is: his girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend and he does nothing even though he knows, he has cheap Ikea furniture, he works in a cubicle, he gets picked on by kids in his neighborhood, he is a hypochondriac, he hates his friendly neighbors, his father, who he knows nothing about, left his pregnant mother when he was 18 weeks old. "Remember me? Wesley Gibson" he says pathetically, worried we may have forgotten him in the few pages we were away. We see that Wesley allows himself to be manipulated by his girlfriend, made to feel bad for her having sex with eleven co-workers. Then his best friend has sex with his girlfriend again, just to be sure you get it. Millar just piles it on, afraid that we might not get his point with, say, a careful detail. Why the overkill? Because, as the book progresses, we will see that Millar is not simply writing a story. No, he is writing a polemic. And with polemic he must be SURE we get the POINT about our LIVES. Many of the elements of the story work quite well, some are amazing, but when the polemic gets in the way, as it often does, Millar gets into trouble as we will see.
Two details in this montage stand out. At work Wesley complains "This is me taking shit from my African American boss." Later in the issue his boss will taunt him, asking him if he is looking up "www.ku-klux-klan.com or www.small-white-dicks". Toward the end of the issue he will meet Professor Solomon Seltzer, the sort of mad-scientist of the super-villain set, who will taunt him with the choice of "taking control of your life" (i.e. becoming a murderer) or "go back to being bitched at by your African American Boss," as if he could read Wesley's mind. Those kids that were taunting him on the way home from work about his clothes (obviously not work clothes, which is a confusing detail) he calls "Cholo fucks." He ironically says that he eats a fancy sandwich to prove he's "different from the herd." The obvious objection is that Millar, or this book, is racist, and elitist, and the obvious rejoinder is that Millar is writing about a guy who is basically evil in an evil word, so of course the character (not to be confused with the writer) is racist, and elitist. But there is a subtler reason why all of this is trouble, and not only because in hitting us over the head with the sad story of Wesley's life the book assumes we are stupid.
First the difference between sympathy and identification, which I always get into when I get into fights with people. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else's misfortune. Identification is when we see ourselves in another person, and then feel bad for ourselves. These are two ways of creating a bond with viewers. A sympathetic detail, such as Alex's love of classical music in A Clockwork Orange might make me feel sympathetic toward him. But there is nothing sympathetic about Wesley Gibson. 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.
We next see how Wesley's father dies, and another bothersome detail comes into play. Wesley's father, attired in an open bathrobe and and underwear, has hired to gay men to have sex in front of him. The first thing we hear from him is "I'm not a homosexual you understand. In fact I've bedded over five thousand women in my fifty-eight years which makes me quite the opposite I believe. I just like to do this gay thing every other year to whet my appetite for the pleasure of the fairer sex. There's nothing like the perfumed touch of a woman after twelve months of heaving, sweating man flesh writhing between one's sheets." So a year of sex with women, followed by a year of sex with men -- this is supposed to indicate his decadence, but the claim to not being a homosexual is something Millar thinks so important to establish he makes it the first words we hear from him. There is nothing in the words to indicate any irony; we are not, I think, to see The Killer as being defensive, of not really knowing himself. Millar has a history in his work of returning again and again to anal rape by and on men (it occurs more than once in his twelve issue Authority run). Bisexuality and a huge number of partners is surely enough to make decadence clear. And yet Millar cannot simply do that. He needs you to know the Killer is decadent, but he also needs you to know, by fiat if nothing else, that he is not one of those people. He is "quite the opposite." This is part of his firm heterosexuality, you see.
All of this would make the book thoroughly repulsive, except for the fact that the artwork is great, and so are many of the ideas of the story -- not to be confused with the polemic. The Killer exits his building sticking to the walls by what appear to be Spiderman's boots. Seltzer's lab is guarded by "a Downs-Syndrome copy of Earth's first superhero." Super-villains re-wrote reality in 1986, the year of Crisis on Infinite Earths. This book came out at the height of Planetary and the Authority's "analogues" for major characters owned by other companies (Apollo and the Midnighter are Superman and Batman, for example). Millar smartly ups the ante -- without naming names he makes it clear that these are not the boots of a Spiderman like character -- in the rewrite the Killer killed Spider-Man and took his boots. "Fuck-Wit" as he is called is a clone of Superman, not some analogue. And the book achieves real surprise with moments like a rifle fired from two cities away, and blithely killing everyone in a sandwich shop for no reason because you can never be caught because you run the world. Millar's story is in place; it is his polemic that is deeply flawed.