Cheap Superhero Adventures In Other People’s Misery: Mark Millar’s MPH

July 1, 2014

I’m sure you’re familiar with Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo’s MPH, a series that, according to the writer, melds the traditional Millar formula of “Take Popular Pop Culture Artifact And Scrape Off Serial Numbers, Maybe Add Super Powers If There Aren’t Any Already” to the kind of intense realism that comes from him visiting Detroit to see urban collapse for himself and get him so passionate about the topic that he mailed copies for the first issue to everyone in the U.S. Senate as well as President Obama.

You might even be thinking about picking the book up, thinking “Well, I’m sure this has to be something special if he’s proud enough to make that kind of grandiose gesture.” Well, in order to ensure that you know what you’re getting yourself into should you pick the book up, here’s a conversation between two characters in the second issue:

“I know he’s smart, but it’s not just jobs we’re missing now. Half the street lights don’t even work. What kind of city can’t afford to light its own streets? It’s all going to hell, girl. I’m telling you. America is fucked.”

“Oh, America’s doing fine, Chevy. I’ve seen it on TV. It’s just us who’ve been left behind.”

MPH1Yes, that’s right: one of the characters from Detroit is called Chevy. Another is called “Baseball,” because—well, I don’t know. It’s American? Or he’d watched The Wire and noticed that one of the characters was called Bubbles and thought maybe it was something similar? It’s not important, because Mark Millar is telling you how bad things are in the city, y’all. Like, he’s literally telling you, with characters offering laughably heavy exposition that not only doesn’t read like anything any real person would ever say, but of course makes the characters sound like every other character Mark Millar has written regardless of culture, location or any other factor that could possibly differentiate them.

The problem with MPH, then, is that it’s like every other Mark Millar comic despite all the hype. I shouldn’t be surprised—I’m not, not really—but I think I wanted this one to be different, at least, if not better. All of Millar’s early press for the series suggested that he was conscious that he was going to be reaching into an area that doesn’t conform to his traditional narrative of morally dubious leads finding power and subsequently moral redemption by going up against even bigger bastards (traditionally rich white men, although it’s not as if Millar’s known for demographic diversity) in some kind of overly-simplified climactic showdown tailor-made for the inevitable movie adaptation, but going by the first couple issues, MPH is on track to turn out to be just that.

On the one hand, I find myself wanting to absolve Millar from any blame in this. I mean, he’s a canny populist, knowing enough to pick up enough language and symbolism from contemporary trends to dress up his generi-story without letting them overwhelm or complicate What The Reader Wants; that’s what he’s always been, so surely the fault is mine in expecting anything more?

MPH2And yet, I find myself feeling as if it’s irresponsible, somehow, to not offer anything more given that what Millar’s doing with MPH isn’t just stealing a serious, real situation that a lot of people are living in, but—considering the publicity-generation of interviews or, you know, sending a copy to politicians—attempting to speak for, and represent the people in this kind of situation. There’s some kind of responsibility to do more than just “your usual” in a circumstance like that, surely? Especially for someone who describes themselves as a “leftie” whenever asked about their political views?

The lack of effort in rising to the challenge of actually trying to represent those you claim to represent in this comic is its most damning feature. We’re all used to Millar wasting the talents of his artists—you need to look no further than his current Stardust (I meant Starlight, of course; thanks, Ryan) for more proof of that, although Fegredo’s work here isn’t quite as eye-catching—but this is careless, cravenness on a whole new scale, it feels like. It’s a crappy comic book, sure, but it also manages to be a crappy comic book that makes you feel a little more disappointed in those involved with it after you’ve finished. It’s like the comic equivalent of Facebook manipulating your emotions in the name of science, except science is so very far away.



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7 comments on “Cheap Superhero Adventures In Other People’s Misery: Mark Millar’s MPH

  1. It’s actually kind of hilarious that he feels the need to put the important contemporary buzzwords in bold. When he’s already got the letter using an all-caps font. The same thing happened in Jupiter’s Legacy, even with the word BANKERS used as a visually embellished insult.

    You can always tell it’s Mark Millar dialogue when it meets a formulaic ratio of 80% exposition to 20% insults, topped off with important words being bolded.

  2. Ryan Lee Jul 3, 2014

    Your point about the characters in MPH is completely valid – Millar, as per usual, likes to trim his roses with a chainsaw. There is nothing that feels authentic about this story, and things get progressively more insulting the closer the story gets to Baseball.

    Having said that, I don’t know that Millar has a way to win. If he puts standard Millar-speak into the character’s mouths, he gets critiqued for failing to understand the culture he’s representing. If he goes for something that does feel authentic, he’ll likely be critiqued for advancing racist stereotypes.

    So what’s the answer to that? The obvious answer is to simply avoid depicting characters outside his experience. At which point he’ll be lambasted for a lack of diversity. He can’t win.

    The idea that Millar thinks MPH is worth sending to the White House is equal parts baffling, absurd, laughable, and adorable. As a “slice of life” piece, I don’t think it ever hits an actual note. I will give credit for Millar giving it the Ol’ College Try, though. There’s nothing out there but teeth for him, and I feel like his heart’s in the right place.

    Also, when you stay “Stardust”, I think you mean “Starlight”. I don’t want Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess showing up at your house with pipes and black leather jackets over a simple typo.

    • Ryan, you’re absolutely right about Starlight and not Stardust. Although it’d almost be worth it to see Gaiman and Vess show up at my door, especially if the former was still in the ridiculous make-up he’s wearing for that Wind in the Willows thing.

    • I’d much rather see Millar risk offending people (something to which I doubt he’s terribly averse) than continue to use Millar-speak, which at this point is as stereotyped and monotonous as Bendis-speak or Claremontese. At least those writers’ dialogue is fundamentally appealing, albeit easy to parody due to their respective tics. With Millar-speak, you get the following traits;

      1.) Words being bolded to show you their importance, as mentioned above.
      2.) Characterization and world-building delivered by references to what characters who may or not be in the scene in the scene are doing outside of the scene (for example, “Ben Grimm cries himself to sleep every night” in Ultimate Fantastic Four, “Bruce Banner cries himself to sleep every night” in Ultimates, “Bobby Drake cries himself to sleep every night ” in Ultimate X-Men; perhaps that’s another recurring Millarism)
      3.) Characters speaking dismissively to each other, expressing exasperation or contempt (such as an “Oh, for God’s sakes” even if they’re not religious, or calling someone else an idiot or some variant thereof); also includes liberal use of racist/sexist/homophobic/abelist slurs
      4.) Dramatic, one-liner statements on a splash page, often at the end of an issue (though sometimes in the middle, like the infamous “Do you think the A on my head stands for France” line
      5.) Timely pop culture references that don’t really describe the source material beyond being timely (the hero of Secret Service apparently learning how to shoot from Medal of Honor, well after the world moved onto Call of Duty, for example)

      Anything else I’m missing?

    • “Having said that, I don’t know that Millar has a way to win.”

      Well, he could try writing in more than one voice for a change, and actually learning the voices of the people he writes.

      I gave up on Millar sometime around Red Son, when he wrote Joseph Fucking Stalin with dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from any affluent English-speaking millennial.

  3. Doug A. Jul 4, 2014

    Talk about striking a chord with the text bit. I actually am strangely fond of Jupiter’s Legacy’s BANKERS references, but whenever I read a MIllarverse-verse I think I must be missing something, like I’ll wake up in 20 years and read a critique that explains who/what Millar is parodying with his ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue.

    In Starlight Issue #1, the hero has a ginger son who works for a corporation and makes a speech where he says ‘Paper costs being what they are… I’m happy to go entirely digital…of course there are going to be JOB LOSSES’ (emphasis Millar). Starlight #1 being the ginger son’s first day-and-date digital book, of course, having previously railed against the damage done to local comic shops by that very practice followed by backtracking. Luckily, Millar found a delicate way to make reference to it in the comic by, err, having himself actually state his position, and the emphasising the key words job losses. Just in case you missed the point, I presume.

    The hero’s other son looks like Goran Parlov. Mark and Goran share the following conversation – “…. there’s just no way he can come and live with ME after this. We’ve got two kids in the same room and I’m not giving up my new HOME OFFICE”/”Well, he can’t stay with ME, man. Trish has finally moved back in and nothing’s going to split us up again like DAD sitting there every night’ (emphasis Millar). Do you get it folks? They are being selfish! They are thinking of themselves. We know that because ME is emphasised.

    This is from a comic I liked, and as I said, I am actually really enjoying JL. Clearly, a lot of that is Quitely/Parlov, but I think Millar does deserve praise for giving these geniuses space to breathe. But why/how/what does an editor see in this dialogue that allows it to get to the page?

    • This made me think of something. It is a little petty, and a little snobbish. At first I thought that at least Millar’s high profile will help raise these artists’ profile for the mainstream. But I think the sad thing is that people, especially the people that Image targets, those that aren’t really experienced comics readers and not quite versed in compartmentalizing the writer’s contribution from the artist’s will enjoy Millar’s comics and attribute to him most of the quality of the book and treat the art as something on the side and not as that part of the storytelling that is actually enjoyable.