Monday, February 25, 2008

Mark Millar's Wanted 1

[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 " 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.


Voice Of The Eagle said...

"because you would get bored listening to me just praise or complain)"

I'm never bored by you expounding on something you care about.

Ping33 said...

For me the meta-textual element in Wanted is one of the most interesting aspects. More than almost anything I can think of (this side of focus-grouped Mass Entertainment ala Transformers) it seems like Millar was writing with the audience in mind. He tries to speak to the audience's basest desires (or at least what he thinks they are,) while also crafting what is essentially a movie treatment. From the earliest goings he made it clear that THIS was HIS IP. The second Eminem movie in waiting. A pure piece of crass mass marketing which would make him wealthy beyond reason (presumably enabling him to live like his characters do.)

Streebo said...

Geoff, what is your barometer for determining when a storyteller "hits us over the head" with something and when do they take the audience for idiots? I hear this criticism all the time and I generally think it is due to a misreading on part of the critic - but in your case I generally trust your analysis.

Marc said...

All of this would make the book thoroughly repulsive, except for the fact that the artwork is great,

Which just makes it a thoroughly repulsive book with great artwork.

And actually, given the many swipes--both Hollywood casting and uninspired, obvious comic book analogues--I can't even say the artwork is that great. Jones has done far better.

This book came out at the height of Planetary and the Authority's "analogues" for major characters owned by other companies [...] Millar smartly ups the ante [...] "Fuck-Wit" as he is called is a clone of Superman, not some analogue.

Which makes him a Bizarro analogue, just as nearly every character is a copy of some DC character.

This is almost as damning as the cozy racism and casual rape, and Millar's assumption that we'll identify with the same (which I think you nail). It's not just a repulsive book, it's a thoroughly unoriginal one.

Mikey said...

This book is incredibly stupid. Even the meta-(blah) bits are boring.

Which is why I'm looking forward to what you find in it Geoff. I hope the wading is worth it.

(I guarantee you that all the good bits Millar tripped over, just as in the Ultimates, were old ideas given to him as shabby presents by Morrison).

The art is good enough. But when I picked it up I first thought it was Hitch. As if Millar was suddenly getting every artist he worked with to draw like Hitch (copy off DVDs). (I know, I know - they're meant to look like they've been copied off DVDs. Which is stupid.)

Millar is a sadist, but not an interesting sadist. I'm curious to see what is interesting in the book that Millar didn't intend.

Will be following this with interest.

Ping33 said...

if it's most relevant cultural comparison is Bay's Transformers... it's not that interesting. :)

The BEST thing about being forced to think about Wanted is that it reminds me how excited I am for Final Crisis. I read it and liked it enough when I read it... but even at the time I hoped that it would never help Millar achieve his champagne wishes and hedonistic dreams.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Geoff, I don't know if I agree with you about Millar's intentions here. Sure, I think he intends the readers to identify with Wesley, but I don't necessarily think he believes the reader is an awful person. And if he does, I think he's still pointing out those bad qualities. He provides a "defense" for racism ("she started it"), but I don't think that means he excuses it.

The same thing is true of the gay thing; I don't think The Killer is meant to be a badass hero for the reader to look up to. He claims he's not gay, but his actions prove otherwise. He's a supervillain, not a role model.

Of course, I might be looking at the story different from how Millar intends; I don't see it as a glorification of evil, but an exploration of unchecked supervillainy. It's a world taken over by the bad guys, and they act reprehensibly. Even if there is some reader identification, their actions (while seemingly cool) are still worthy of condemnation. But maybe I'm giving him too much credit.

Oh, and about the various DC analogues, I've heard that the story was originally pitched to DC (maybe Vertigo/Wildstorm?) as a Secret Society of Supervillains series, but Millar ended up doing it elsewhere, so he changed the names. That's why there are obvious parallels to Catwoman, Clayface, Bizarro, Joker, and others, I'm sure.

Geoff Klock said...

VoE -- well I guess the real problem is that I would bore myself.

Ping -- for me it is hard to separate "speaking to the audience's basest desires" from "insulting the audience" in this book. My "basest desires" for him are not wads of cash and sex and illicit pleasures, but the chance to act on racist impulses? No.

I think comic books like film really require narrative economy, which is to say do not give me two scenes when one will do. So I guess my barometer would be when I see a scene that could be deleted without effecting what the story is up to. We see his girlfriend cheating on him, then confessing to affairs, then cheating on him again. One of those would have done. Look at the difference between, say, Red Eye where no moment is wasted, and Snake Eyes, where, even though I am smart enough to understand the money is blood money he has to show me the money with actual blood on it to make the point.

Marc -- I would not say thoroughly unoriginal. The treatment of Batman and Superman was I thought shocking in its originality, but I may talk about this later.

Mikey -- I am worried that I will not find much. I am not committed to doing all six of these posts, actually. I will think on it. I will try the next one and see what happens.

Matt -- I did not say he excuses the racism, just that he encourages the reader to do what Wesley does, hate her for racially motivated reasons. The thing is, why would we read a story about a character we have no sympathy for? But where is Wesley's sympathetic detail? there is none. We are expected to sympathize with him because Millar thinks we are like him, and will say so explicitly in issue 6.

Troy Wilson said...

I like how the "death" of the Killer echoes the death of the Comedian in Watchmen. For one thing, the two characters really resemble each other. Plus, they're both wearing housecoats, and their deaths kick off future events with a bang.

Of course, Millar echoes but he also ups the ante on the shock and awe. Where the Comedian was watching TV, the Killer is watching gay men get it on. Where the Comedian was thrown out the window, the Killer leaps out his window (Spidey boots and all) and gets shot through the head by a rifle fired from two cities away.

And riffing on a death that stuck is a smart move because it indicates that this one will stick too.

Geoff Klock said...

Also the book is able to introduce all its main characters through that one character's funeral, which was also taken from / stolen from Watchmen.

Troy Wilson said...

Which, in turn, helps persuade readers that the Killer's killer is one of the funeral attendees.

Streebo said...

Thanks, Geoff.

I liked WANTED when it came out - but it's not a story that I find myself recommending to anyone.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Geoff: I don't know, there have been plenty of unsympathetic characters in fiction, but yeah, you raise the good point that we have little reason to sympathize with Wesley, and Millar seems to be trying to get the reader on his side through the identification you mentioned. Maybe he was trying to point out people's flaws, getting you on the side of the character and then showing that he is reprehensible, making them think about themselves or something. But he's definitely not especially successful, probably because that tactic would take some measure of subtlety, and Millar is one of the least subtle writers around.

pla said...

I had very high hopes for Wanted when it started, mostly on the grounds that it seemed like his selection of 1986 (which I associated more with Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) might indicate the point at which the "dark" anti-hero archetype took over superhero comics. I sort of thought there might be some attempt to explain some of the appeal that would have prompted this, and, to a degree, I guess there is.

No matter how unpleasant the end of the series may have been, the whole series can be read as "while the do/take-what-you-want lifestyle may be appealing, it produces appalling people," which is a fairly sane statement to make, though, as you say, the whole thing hinges on the reader relating to Wesley.

Owesome said...

No matter how unpleasant the end of the series may have been, the whole series can be read as "while the do/take-what-you-want lifestyle may be appealing, it produces appalling people," which is a fairly sane statement to make...

...but its not the statement that Millar is making. Wesley wins: his actions throughout the series are lauded as being right and justified, and anyone who would behave altruistically (sp) is mocked as naive and/or erased out of existence. Wesley is better than us, the reader, because he is a horrible person.

Erin said...

just watched the trailer again. i'm at work and i do things like screw around on imdb while bored at work. anyway- someone said in the last post that angelina looked bored using that round the corner gun thing and i realized: they're totally making a better film than you would have expected based on the source material, just like in the devil loveds prada. ha. i just compared mark millar to lauren whosywhatsis of chick lit fame. TDLP turned a whiny/repetitive memoir about bitchiness 'at the top!' into a knowing foxtrot on the importantance of surfaces. the movie wanted is going to turn angelina into a female james bond. fancy car bits: check. looks bored while calmly using hi-tech deadly gadgetry: check. calm, cool and collected sinuous stunts: check. inscrutible ethics: check. macking on hot neophytes, potentially with manipulative not entirely sexual motives: check. there's even a train! people getting shot on a train! i learned that europe _had_ a rail system from watching bond movies. and i would far rather think of morgan freeman as a revamp of judy dench than as a wise black dude, certainly.

encyclops said...

I'm a little mystified by the need to sympathize OR identify with characters in a narrative in order to enjoy or appreciate that narrative. A lot of the fiction I enjoy features unsympathetic or semisympathetic protagonists (Bret Easton Ellis's entire body of work, for example). I loved A Clockwork Orange, book and film, and yet I never felt the need to glom onto something like Alex's "love of classical music" to keep my attention. I could despise Alex thoroughly and feel sympathy for his victims, and then pay attention to the larger point being made about free will and conditioning, crime and society. What I found lacking about Millar's treatment of Wesley's racism was the use of "African-American," which no racist would ever say. Should Wesley have been portrayed as racist, and the Killer as homophobic? Well, fuck yes, they're EVIL. Duh.