27 February 2006

I Have Made a Terrible Mistake: Mark Millar, the New Warriors, and Marvel Civil War

I made a horrible, horrible mistake two nights ago.

I was up in New York for the weekend, visiting the New York Comic Convention, meeting people and talking comics. A lot of them were great -- Evan Dorkin, Aaron Renier, Brandon Montclare, Nachie Castro, a girl at the Marvel booth in a Captain America shirt whose name I didn't catch -- and some of them weren't. All in all, I had fun when I wasn't sitting around outside the center because the fire marshal was having an anyuerism trying to deal with the massive, massive oversale of tickets and badges. It was great, they had set up signs pointing to entrances which didn't let you into the building, and they had padlocked all the emergency exits shut. The only way in or out of the side of the building I came in on was a single revolving door. A harrassed man with a megaphone and a quiet speaking voice was making the rounds, telling people in line for tickets or badges to go home and come back tomorrow, followed by a small swarm of people who hadn't quite caught on to the fact that the people planning this thing had no idea what they were doing.

But going to the con wasn't the mistake. The mistake happened about two hours after I left with a group of people, roaming the streets of Manhattan at night, freezing our asses off.

We stopped at the Forbidden Planet on Broadway and 13th after dinner, looking to do something with ourselves before heading our separate ways. I browsed around for awhile in the trades section, deciding to pick up Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Azzarello/Bermejo) after a little bit -- I'd read it in singles but it was a very good book and I like having very good books in easy to read formats, so I can lend them to people who don't know they're very good books. However, I ended up putting LL:MoS aside, because something else caught my eye: the trade of the most recent New Warriors miniseries. I'd end up buying it.

Objectively, it's a pretty confusing decision. LL:MoS was cheaper, more interesting, with a writer I enjoy and an artist I love. The New Warriors: Reality Check (Wells/Young) was written by a guy who seems a lot like Dan Slott, except with even a bit less seriousness about his writing, and highly stylized art that looked like stills from a Nickelodeon cartoon instead of a superhero comic book. I'd glanced over the New Warriors mini before, but this was the first time I'd given it serious thought, and the first time I'd considered spending money on it. When I sat down to read it later that night, my initial impressions were confirmed: it's a light-hearted superhero romp in six issues, each issue standing alone but building a central plot line. The conceit is that the New Warriors have been brought out of early retirement by their former leader, Night Thrasher, working together with a television studio, trying to package the group as a reality TV show. Over the six issues, Wells takes jabs at network executives, animal rights activists, and the New Warriors themselves, but it's all lighthearted and done in fun. It's been awhile since I actually enjoyed reading a superhero comic book just because it was a fun romp, but this mini succeeded in making me care about the characters in it while delivering all-ages entertainment.

Here is my mistake: the very next thing I read was the Wizard Marvel Civil War preview (Millar/McNiven).

Reading the Wells New Warriors and the Millar New Warriors back to back and then trying to imagine them as being the same people is pretty much an exercise in futility. The set-up wasn't really a problem (though it was kind of weird how at the end of the Wells/Young mini, the show was cancelled and now in MCW it's in its second season); the New Warriors being hard up for publicity in sweeps season and taking a shot at some supervillains who have hid out near a school is believable. It's how Millar characterized the team. In the Wells mini, each character had a different "voice." Speedball was enthusiastic and spastic. Nova was stalwart but always a little bit peeved he wasn't doing something more important. Microbe never really completed a sentence. They were distinct not only through what they looked like but through how they were written. In the MCW preview, that dynamic was pretty much abandoned in favor of "everyone on this superhero team is a self-absorbed, smarmy piece of shit." Microbe's speech impediment is gone. Speedball's youthful enthusiasm is gone. Nova's just gone period, but that's a plot detail. Instead, every character snipes at every other character in the exact same way -- cynical, biting sarcasm. By the time page four or five hits, I was glad that they were getting blown up. I couldn't stand reading them anymore.

Maybe that's what Millar's angle is on this whole thing, that the New Warriors, over the course of the year and a half of television programming that we've never seen and was never discussed, became complete dicks that all sound and act alike and became so involved in being snide fucks to each other that they lost sight of what they were supposed to be doing as superheroes. But really, I don't have that much faith in Mark Millar. This is the same man who ended his Wanted miniseries (Millar/Jones) -- which was originally a Secret Society of Supervillains revamp -- with the main character telling the reader that "This is me fucking you in the ass." This is the same writer who decided that the best way to do superhero political commentary on the post 9/11 world in The Ultimates v2 (Millar/Hitch) was to put the Amerikkkan jingoist assholes on one superteam, the terrist commie murderers on another, and have the two dueling caricatures duke it out. Millar's Ultimate X-Men run (Millar/Various) featured a Weapon X program that was so hardcore badass it didn't bother to teach its operatives pussy shit like "languages necessary to complete a mission." Millar's even written a comic depicting a private meeting between George W. Bush and Tony Blair based presumably off of media depictions of the two and his imagination. This comic includes hilarious insanity like Tony Blair looking into the window of a private room and in the reflection seeing his younger, more idealistic self, as the British Prime Minister yearns for simpler, easier times.

Millar's not a bad writer, per se -- he writes enjoyable cinematic action comics for the most part, and he usually doesn't misstep horrendously. But he appears to have one mode of writing, over the top, and the thing is that over the top gets old after a little while. And when a writer's work so blatantly clashes with the material it is directly building off of, it just becomes even worse. The point Millar is trying to make through scattering and killing the New Warriors -- that superheroes often aren't careful, don't think things through, and fuck up horribly -- could have been made even more easily by preserving the Wells characters: a bunch of naive do-gooders going off to their tragic deaths, not a bunch of complete douchebags getting what's coming to them and injuring people in the process.

Millar and Marvel are of course entitled to do whatever they want with their characters, and maybe there will be some sort of redemption for the New Warriors in parts of Marvel Civil War that we haven't seen. But considering Millar's track record, that's not likely -- and Marvel really doesn't gain anything by actively punishing their readers for following the characters they like.

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