Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vulgar distractions

There has recently been a large amount of critical writing about the comics of Mark Millar and Garth Ennis, accusing both writers of creating offensively gratuitous comic that have no artistic merit whatsoever.

While this is nothing new – both writers have taken critical hammerings since they shared the pages of the UK’s Crisis comic – it has been more notable in recent weeks with the gleefully vicious backlash that followed the release of Kick Ass, while a number of intelligent readers have been vocal about dropping The Boys in the past few months.

Many of these critics make some valid points about the superficiality of the comics written by these two gentlemen, but it’s too easy to write off pieces of entertainment as inherently immoral, which many have. Morality is the easiest argument to make because it doesn’t rely on much more than a gut feeling that something is wrong, and it’s a cinch to produce evidence that can back it up – especially when taken out of context.

The biggest problem with this is that there is the inherent implication that if you read amoral works, and enjoy them, then there is something immoral about your own perspective and personality.

Take this wonderful line from a recent post by the usually reliable Marc-Oliver Frisch –

Or, to make a long story short: If you've got a latent grudge against bitches, niggers and faggots—or if you harbor any other urges deemed morally reprehensible in your tribe, for that matter—then Mark Millar is the guy who will gladly scratch that itch for you, who will jerk you off in a way that doesn't make you feel bad about it.

Which left me feeling like just another sexist, racist, homophobic arsehole, simply because I thought Kick Ass was pretty funny.

* * *

It may be a humour thing. For all the warmth shown towards the likes of Monty Python and Blackadder across the Atlantic, there is still a fundamentally British sense of humour that many Americans just don’t get.

It’s real end-of-the-pier stuff: grubby jokes for adults to have a laugh about when the kids have gone to bed. Rarely intelligent, frequently vulgar and often seen as a guilty pleasure, this bawdy tradition lives on in the work of mainstream British comic creators.

Ask a British writer about the cultural differences between British and American writers, and they will start banging on about the storytelling genius of Dennis Potter – and rightly so. But press them a bit more and you might get them to admit there is also a fine appreciation for something like the Carry On.. movies, those lusty and busty phwoar-fests.

This grubby pleasure – often delivered up with a helping of irony to take out the sour taste - is not something you traditionally find in American humour, even with the odd brilliant exception.

This is why there are so many jokes about putting things in people’s arses in the comics of both Ennis and Millar. They both think it’s genuinely funny and don’t care about anybody who is offended by it. In fact, the more people that are offended, the funnier the joke gets.

But the point of the joke is often missed completely. There were quite a few raised eyebrows when it was revealed that Millar made the suggestion that the Death Of Superman should be followed by the ‘Rape of Wonder Woman’, and the distaste at the anecdote was somewhat justified.

But Millar wasn’t making fun of the act of rape, which is obviously a hideous and horrible thing to happen to anybody, or even Wonder Woman herself. Instead – and this seemed to be an obvious point – he was making fun of a corporate attitude that is only too willing to use a hideous and horrible event to sell more funny books.

Since Superman temporarily kicked the bucket, there have been plenty of comics that have used rape as the clumsiest of plot devices – until it got to the point where a key mini-series which influenced the next five years of DC super hero comics revolved around the rape, mindwiping and eventual murder of the Elongated Man’s pregnant wife.

Millar was joking, but the absolute seriousness of the dour Identity Crisis was far dodgier.

* * *

It’s also funny to see how much shock Millar can dredge up with his same old shite. He was doing the same things he’s been doing in Nemesis since the late eighties, when he had The Saviour eating babies and destroying faith.

He remains fond of the wonderfully adolescent narrative trick – “Look at me! Look how shocking I am!” Once he has got your attention, he often has something deeper to say. Even with all the sneering characters, he is still a big ol’ softie and has made some serious points by combining the superficial taunting with this streak of unashamed sentimentality.

Unfortunately, many readers think that there is nothing more to Millar than this shock tendency. It can be hard to find much humanism in the snarky Spider-Man comic he did, but it is still there. Whether anybody can be bothered looking for it, or will even recognise it when it’s right in front of them, is another matter.

I always read Millar’s work, because it is fast paced and farcical and devoted to the types of bombastic nonsense that superhero comics do best, but there are times when his work has been genuinely moving. From the two-fingered salute at the end of Insiders to the perfect distillation of the classic “pissed off people going to kick somebody’s well deserved arse” pose on the last page of Kick Ass #5.

The dodgy stuff on the surface gets lot of attention and puts a lot of people off. It’s not hard to offend people, but it is difficult to actually move them.

* * *

When it comes to comics that get a genuine emotional reaction out of me, Garth Ennis has written a fair few of them. Sometimes he gets a bit stuck in the pub, sometimes he relies on certain characteristic tics, but the Irishman can move continents with his ideas and themes, he can crank up the intensity to almost unbearable levels and he remains the single best dialogue man in the whole fucking business.

The relentless sneering at superheroes, combined with the routine jokes about buggering, have seen some readers fall off from The Boys (although the sales are, as usual for a longform comic from Ennis, remarkably stable. Readers who start reading long stories by Garth Ennis tend to stick with them until the end.)

But just as some readers get bored with the supershenanigans and drift away from The Boys, I’ve been enjoying the comic even more. The story is a slow build, but after a coupel of years of build up, developments are also coming to a head at great speed. While the comic has always been interesting, it has recently taken a turn into some fascinating territory.

Never mind the sodomy, there are other really interesting things going on – there is The Homelander’s bored destruction, daring the world to tell him off and disappointed when his actions have no consequences. Or Billy Butcher’s sheer inability to grasp the truth of Hughie’s situation, because he’s been trapped in a dark place for so long he just can’t comprehend an innocent explanation. Or the way Frenchie shows how to save the world with the way he first bonds with the Female, offering her food and cleanliness when she has only known filth and hatred.

These little moments and over-reaching themes makes The Boys so good. There are still gerbils up the arse, but they’re just the surface.

* * *

Of course, comic readers being what they are, they’ve been only too glad to make it personal, writing off Ennis and Millar themselves as vulgar and ignorant, usually because they write about vulgar and ignorant people.

One of the things that really bugs me about this sort of criticism is the assumption that characters behave in a reprehensible manner because that’s what the creator is really like.

Stunningly, writers in any medium are perfectly capable of writing about bad people without actually being bad people themselves, and that does extend to readers. I like morally flawed stories and characters, but that doesn’t make me morally flawed.

There have been claims that Ennis’ various war stories glorify combat, when even the most basic reading of any of his works reveals a deeply pacifistic voice. War is hell in Ennis’ stories, with almost no exceptions – these stories work because they are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, not because of the tank porn.

In interviews, Millar does sometimes come across as a bombastic oaf, but can also be surprisingly thoughtful. A generally liberal thinker who still enjoys writing about all sorts of characters, including loathsome people and likeable conservatives.

There is the odd character which does reflect Millar’s view – he has admitted Kick Ass is shamefully autobiographical, and deserves some credit for admitting that he could be a completely unlikable jerk when he was younger, rather than sugar coating it all in nostalgia. But there are a surprising amount of different character types in his comics, and they don’t all just parrot Millar’s own feelings.

* * *

Usually, I can let criticism of stuff I really like slide on by – I still bristle when people write off the magnificent Battlestar Galactica climax, but it doesn’t get to me. And I have happily admitted that I love the writing of these two gentlemen in the past, a love that has not been affected by any outside influence until now.

But there is something about these recent criticisms of these comics that has seen me produce a knee-jerk reaction like this poorly-thought out and rambling blog post. It’s partly because many of these criticisms have heavily implied things about me as a reader that I can not stand for. I may have felt like it for the briefest of moments, but I really don’t believe I’m a racist, homophobic and sexist jerk just because I happened to like a comic, and I will not accept people saying that I am.

But it’s mainly because it’s just so disappointing to see so many good comics written off for the most superficial of reasons. Almost every comic that comes from the ideas factories of Millar and Ennis have something more to say that might be immediately obvious. There is depth to their work and while it not hidden, it is a shame that it can be overlooked by the distraction of the vulgar.


non serviam said...

Have these people ever read Frank Miller's work? But I guess writing about vulgarities is all right when you're American.

Bob Temuka said...

Well, to be fair, Miller also gets a lot of criticism for the same thing. The humourous aspects of his work are usually ignored and I've lost count of the number of times I've read somebody call him a fascist because he wrote the Dark Knight Returns.