Monday, June 23, 2008

Wanted and race

As comics fans will find this Friday, the film Wanted falls closer to From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentleman than to 300 or 30 Days of Night, in terms of how closely it adapts its comic book source material. Like those two bowdlerized versions of Alan Moore books, Wanted bears so little resemblance to its source that its somewhat puzzling that the studio bothered adapting it at all, instead of just giving it an original name.

Gone are the supervillains and superheroes, the costumes, most of the characters, the worldwide conspiracy controlling the nature of reality, the amorality, the metafictional aspects and, um, the plot. All director Timur Bekmambetov and his three-man screen-writing team keep are the title, the names of two characters, and two brief scenes (Wesley shooting flies with a gun; Wesley shooting corpses on meat hooks).

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Neither, really; it’s just an observation (For an assessment of the virtues of the film, I should have a review up at Donewaiting.com on Thursday afternoon).

I think losing so much of it—particularly the superhero/supervillain content and the big idea that the DCU multiverse is really real and the real world is really a fiction, but Lex Luthor and company made us think the opposite—loses what makes Wanted Wanted, but it doesn’t necessarily make the movie itself bad (or good).

The moral point of view of the movie is also almost opposite of that expressed in the comic; the film’s Wesley is a bit arrogant and a total badass assassin, but he’s still the hero; he’s not a murderer, rapist and villain, as he is in the comic.

Movie-Wesley also isn’t a racist.

Is Comic Book-Wesley? I’m not sure, but the case can certainly be made that he is. Or, at the very least, that the white character has some issues with characters with darker skin than his. Or should the case be made that it is the character’s creator, the guy filling his head with thoughts and his mouth with words, who has some issues?

I hadn’t reread Wanted since it’s release about four years ago, and, when I reread it last week after seeing the film, I was pretty shocked at some of the ways race plays out in the book.

During 2006’s Civil War, Millar wrote a scene in which a clone of an Aryan, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Norse god murdered a black hero, and some folks jokingly pointed out the symbolism online. While I was a little bummed about Goliath getting killed, and thought the scene was a turning point for the quality of the series, I certainly didn’t see anything racist, intentionally or unintentionally, about it.

In Kick-Ass, the third issue of which was just released a few weeks ago, Millar has a white kid playing vigilante attack some black kids in the first issue, fight some Puerto Ricans in the second issue and then attack some black dudes in the third issue. I gave up on the series due to its exceptionally poor writing, but simply attributed the white guy-fighting-minorities story thread as tone deafness on Millar’s part, akin to his clumsy, out-of-touch pop culture references and complete divorce from how the human body responds to punishment.

But the questionable aspects of Wanted are harder to dismiss.

Here’s a scene from #3, in which the leaders of the five crime families meet, and neo-Nazi supervillain The Future tells off Vandal Sava—er, Adam One:

Now, The Future is not just a supervillain, but he’s a Nazi supervillain, so the fact that this evil jerk is also racist hardly seems like a shock or surprise. He also complains that he was promised the Jews by his fellow evil rulers of the world, and, in the very next panel there, talks about how women fantasize about being raped by fascists.

So yeah, not a good guy. Him hurling racist epithets is pretty much to be expected.

But what about this? Here’s Wesley narrating a scene from #1:

I’m not sure what to make of this scene. He points out that she’s African-American in the narration, and in the next sentence says “I’m embarrassed by the situation.” Embarrassed that he’s being yelled? Or that he’s being yelled at by his “African-American boss” as he says, or that he has an “African-American boss” at all?

I don’t know. But including the words “African-American” to the narration at all encourages one of the latter readings. The art clearly indicates that the woman he’s talking about is African-American, so why redundantly mention her race if he was only embarrassed by the fact that he was taking shit from his boss?

Then, two panels later:

The meaning of the word “cholo” has changed over the years, but is apparently most often used to refer to poor Mexicans or immigrants from anywhere south of the U.S. border these days.

And in #2, there’s this:

I’m not sure what he means by “Spike Lee extra;” is he simply referring to New Yorkers? Because that’s kind of a weird thing to say: “On the way home from work tonight, every New Yorker in the entire fucking world will have spat on my back again.” What does that even me?

Or does he mean “black guy,” like the guys in the panel seem to be?

After Wesley is recruited by the supervillains of The Fraternity and butches up, we get this charming sequence, which is an awful lot like the scene at the climax of Kick-Ass #1:

So Wesley’s a racist, even if he uses softer terms like “Spike Lee extra” and “African-American” instead of dropping N-bombs or terms as crass as The Future used.

That by itself wouldn’t be all that troubling either, as Wesley is, like The Future, a villain too. One of the subversive aspects of Wanted the comic book is that it’s a superhero book without any real superheroes; just villains. Wesley’s a better supervillain only in that he’s smarter and tougher than the other villains, and that he rapes women instead of children and animals, like The Joker Mr. Rictus.

Complicating that reading, however, is this panel:

Wesley’s boss isn’t a supervillain. She’s just a civilian, one who appears in about two panels of the whole six-issue series. And she’s giving Wesley shit, not about his job performance, but about being white. She unfairly stereotypes Wesley as being a member of the KKK and having a small dick just because he’s white.

I don’t understand this panel at all. What’s Millar trying to say? That she’s racist too, and that there aren’t really any innocent civilians in the world? Because it’s a weird example. One would imagine she wouldn’t be able to be in any kind of position of authority if she was always publicly ridiculing her white underlings for their whiteness, you know?

The only other black character in the book is Catwom—er, Halle Berr—er, The Fox, and while she has substantially more panel-time than, say, The Professor or Mr. Rictus, her character is hardly more developed: She likes having sex (to the point that she regards both Gibsons as life support systems for their cocks, which is all she’s interested in about them), she likes money, she likes killing people and she never, ever lets her nouns and verbs or tenses agree.

Considering these scenes, it’s understandable why the filmmakers wouldn’t want to stay too faithful to the source material—some of it is pretty ugly, and would give the film a lot more baggage than anyone would reasonably want to invest millions of dollars into lugging around in public.

21 comments:

A Person who exists. said...

Absolutely fascinating post.

I almost must wonder what all of this says about Millar and his themes. While it would be slanderous and unfair to actually allege the man a racist, the choice of terms, tenses and themes is interesting. I haven't read enough Millar myself, but it comes across, based on your article, that he has used this article continuously.

It seems like he thinks its at least edgy and cutting to make characters racist, and then chalk it up to dubious morality. The (somewhat) objective look of those works makes one frown upon Civil War and ask what Millar really meant there.

Still, great job! Fascinating piece.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that of all characters to kill at the end of his first Wolverine run, he kills Northstar, the token homosexual.

In his MK Spider-man run, I think the Vulture made fun of Electro for having gay sex or being raped in prison.

Dan Coyle said...

Not exactly; there's a scene where Electro goes to a shapeshifting prostitute, and mentions he wants to try something "different" that he experienced in prison. We don't discover what that "different" was, though.

Is Millar racist? I doubt he thinks that much. I think he hates everyone. He thinks we're all idiots.

John Foley said...

I bought the trade of this a couple of weeks ago, mostly because I love J.G. Jones.
Other than the gorgeous artwork and the fairly interesting premise, I would call this comic borderline awful. Hateful characters who do reprehensible things to each other. Violence and cursing just for shock value, no other reason.
And let me ask this: why is Wesley considered to be the third-most powerful person in the world? All he does is shoot people. That's all he can do. Nobody considers Deadshot to be a major player in the DCU. I mean, aren't there any bulletproof supercharacters in this world? Why are the villains able to take over so much if they could all just be shot by regular guns?
As far as racist subtext, I think it's clear that Wesley is a racist prick. I don't know enough about Millar's other work, but it doesn't sound like he deserves much benefit of the doubt at this point.

Leigh Walton said...

I haven't read the book (and I'm glad I never did, now) but it does seem clear from these excerpts that Wesley is meant to be a complete racist -- the last scene with his boss just implies that she's aware of the fact. There's nothing prejudiced about calling a white guy a Klansman if he actually does hate brown people.

At this point, though, I'm oh so tired of Millar. He's like the Andrew Dice Clay of comics.

Er, not that kind of comics.

samuel rules said...

I sorta think it's also important to note that Wesley is kind of this eminem character, a white guy in a black man's world. When I first started reading this book a few months back, I thought it was to make him a very douche baggy character. Half way through the book, I started to wonder if it was really because we were supposed to feel bad for a white man in a "black world."

My friend Brandon actually stopped reading kick ass due to the racist BS you've mentioned. It's VERY apparent Millar has a problem.

AND (this is my last piece) i think it's interesting that in Wolverine #66, the new Old Man Logan arc, he's essentially this nice old farmer. Where as the Hulk Family are these white trash assholes, complete with breat feeding baby, target/hot topic punk guy, and old trucker dude. Just more racism, more of a white male's "reality" in the world of comics.

plok said...

Huh.

That's interesting.

I'm thinking about this kind of hard right now. After all, it's a world where the villains have taken over, right? So there's Wesley's boss, as you point out.

And I'm trying to think of a way Millar could account for that as an authorial choice that wouldn't make me want to give him a sharp smack in the face...and I'm not having a lot of luck with that.

Trying to imagine it as an unconscious accident's not working for me either.

I think you've changed my mind about this comic. Also, I'm going to be watching for this kind of shit from Millar in the future, because I'm very tempted to suspect this is just as nasty as it looks.

So, thanks for pointing it out, because I probably would've missed it otherwise. And by the way, this blog's been rocking pretty heavily lately.

Luis K. said...

Many many thanks for writing the blog post that I've been waiting to read for a while (and that I was too chickenshit to write myself). You pointed out exactly the same scenes/dialogue that made me twitch the first time I read Wanted, years ago, and that still made me twitch when I had to reread it recently.

Great art by J.G. Jones though.

Thanks again. Love this blog.

Chris said...

Apparently the only Millar work I read is his more mainstream material where he's obviously restricted in what he can have established institutional characters do or say.

I'm curious if anyone has ever gone on record and put some of these observations to Millar himself. I'd like to know if this is a case of him deliberately creating unlikeable characters or if his subconscious personal beliefs are leaking onto the page.

Anonymous said...

I read Wanted last week for the first time and I enjoyed it. But, I had to recognize it is a very ugly book at heart, but wouldn't... or shouldn't a book about supervillians have an ugly heart?

BKV did an intro for the Assassin's Edition that I have, and makes mention that it always seems like the nice people write the meanest material possibly has way to purge these aggressive thoughts...

There was one scene, It is near the beginning of the 4th issue where Whesley and Fox are laying in bed and he narrativing the events of that evening... Whesley was bored with his normal killings and rapings, so he went and shot up a police station. And the only person he didn't kill was a black woman... he pauses and she askes if he raped her and he replies that he just broke down crying.

I think this is pretty important omission from your post, considering all of your citations are prior to this point in the series. Also, it is the turning point of this character.

I cannot comment on Kick Ass considering it is aweful and this still in early stages so commenting on the big picture isn't clear as of yet.

Plus, didn't we get a years worth of comics talking at nauseum about the ramifications of 3 white guys making decisions that not only led to death of identity of the nation, but also Goliath by their war machine.

To me this reads like a short sighted argument that had it's mission statement written at the end of the first issue of Wanted, and you gladly ommitted what didn't fit your argument.

-LWC/Chris

Anonymous said...

"Plus, didn't we get a years worth of comics talking at nauseum about the ramifications of 3 white guys making decisions that not only led to death of identity of the nation, but also Goliath by their war machine."

No, we never got those ramifications - we got the absurd and unlikely positive results of their goals having been realized. I don't think any writer has depicted Tony Stark feeling sorry about locking his friends in prison because he was blinded by the assumed virtues of being lawful for the law's sake.

Anonymous said...

"No, we never got those ramifications - we got the absurd and unlikely positive results of their goals having been realized. I don't think any writer has depicted Tony Stark feeling sorry about locking his friends in prison because he was blinded by the assumed virtues of being lawful for the law's sake."

Nice side step around my comment. which was talking about Clor and the Death of Captain America.

But yeah, the whole negative zone prison idea... eesh... I think they are hoping everyone forgets. The most recent mention worth a damn has been in SI: Fan Four #2...

Caleb said...

Thanks for all the replies guys.


Anonymous #1,

There's an awful lot of uncomfrotable bits regarding homosexuality in Wanted too--much of it equating the word "faggot" with "weakling" or "bad person," some of which is in that scene of him attacking the "semi-literate cholo fucks" I posted--but man, I'd have been scanning all day if I were looking for examples where Millar writes a scene dealing with homosexuality which seems...off.


LWS/Chris,

Thanks for the response. I'd actually be pretty interested in BKV's take on Wanted, which I haven't read.

You wrote:
I think this is pretty important omission from your post, considering all of your citations are prior to this point in the series. Also, it is the turning point of this character.

I just went back and reread that scene, which I didn't scan/discuss because I didn't think there was anything in it that had to do with race. Wesley doesn't point out that she's black, although Jones draws her as such (The narration does refer to her as a middleaged woman "with cornrows," which is perhaps meant to imply she's black).

I think that scene is a turning point for Wesley, but not that it means he's abandoning his prior beliefs or becoming enlightened (certainly not regarding race, which is just something that happens around the edges of the story).

The way I read the scene was that was the point where Wesley was realizing he didn't want to be a total id-driven psycho villain like The Joker/Rictus and his gang, but more of a pragmatic villain, like Luthor/The Professor and his gang. I read it as his assumption of what kind of villain he wanted to be.

The end of the story, including a pretty powerful last page, makes it clear that Wesley is the villain of the piece, that he's not a hero and he's not on our side, after teasing us with a moment where it seems like he's going to go back to a life that doesn't involve being a villain.

Johnny Sorrow said...

There are two racial dynamics at work in Wanted. The first is Wesley's view of race, but the second is the way race actually works in the world the author has created.

Wesley is an out-and-out racist and misogynist. I don't see how anyone could come away from the book thinking otherwise. But it is a conflicted racism. The Eminem comparison is apropos here, in the sense that Wesley hates black people and Latinos, but in some sense because he wants to be more like them, and envies them for having what he sees as license to behave however he wants without fear of reprisal. By killing the "cholo fucks," he gets to become them. The tough guy who everyone is afraid to fuck with. But why does he feel that way? Because Millar has created a world in which he can plausibly feel that way.

The world of Wanted is, as Samuel noted, a world in which white men are the oppressed. Pre-Fraternity Wesley's antagonists are largely women or non-white, or both. The white guy just can't be cool enough, and it is that lack of "cool" that makes him a victim to the more assertive, who by accumulation of examples, we read as linked to race. But hold on a moment. This is supposed to be our own world -- Earth Prime, so to speak. In this regard, Millar is recapitulating the conservative commentator Norman Podhoretz, who wrote of his childhood that he was the most oppressed boy in Brooklyn, because he was not as cool and assertive as his black and Latino neighbors. This is Millar's read of the world meek white boys (and men-boys like Wesley) live in. It is the same "real world" as his Kick-Ass. These works depict a kind of revenge fantasy of the white boy rising up against his darker-hued oppressors. In this regard, they join such works from other genres as "Falling Down." The racism is not in what Wesley says, but in the rules by which the fictional universe operates. A picture in which racial minorities and women are all successfully conspiring to keep white men down is not a world which has much to do with ours, but has everything to do with the author of that world.

Jack Potts said...

"A picture in which racial minorities and women are all successfully conspiring to keep white men down is not a world which has much to do with ours, but has everything to do with the author of that world."

Your entire post was beautifully stated, Johnny Sorrow, but that statement succinctly encapsulates the reason behind the casual bigotry and mean-spirited, faux tough-guy posturing found throughout much of Millar's work. It's the same sort of ideology that keeps Fox "News" in business.

Siskoid said...

Johnny makes an interesting case, which equates Millar's racism to Dave Sim's misogyny.

But if there's a racist, sexist, homophobic and/or antisemitic undercurrent in Millar's stories, I tend to equate them with a desire to make his stories outrageous.

Everything in Wanted is designed to be so SHOCKING. There's a character made from animated feces. It cynically creates (not so) veiled references to established superheroes. It talks about rapes, bestiality, any taboo and perversion it can get its hands on. The protagonist is a racist. It's all part of the same cynical scheme.

It's like he's trying to channel Garth Ennis' success (after channelling Morrison's for so long). All he comes off as is immature.

I think the same "artistic" desire drives Civil War, Kickass, etc. To my eyes, Millar hasn't done anything really interesting since his run on Swamp Thing.

Yedna said...

I only read the books recently, and picked up on the racist thing immediately. I wouldn't say it's excusable, but the Wesley character is undoubtedly detestable anyway. Still, I'm glad someone took the time to post about these odd story elements.

Peter Urkowitz said...

Wonderful discussion. Many thanks to Caleb for his original post and to all the commenters especially Johnny Sorrow for further analysis of just what makes Millar's work so disturbing.

I think it's still an open question whether these racial elements reflect Millar's own views, or whether he is trying to dramatize themes that he sees in society for satirical purposes. But as someone else said above, Millar hasn't done much to make us give him the benefit of the doubt.

Leigh Walton said...

On a slightly related note, I found this review gratifying.

Big Man said...

I don't even read comics, but Johnny Sorrow's comment was off the chain.

Sarah J said...

I've been planning to geek out on exactly what makes Ennis's work so damn good and a book like Wanted so...bland.

For the most part, yeah, I think Millar may actually agree with his characters.

But I also agree that everything in Wanted felt so calculated to be shocking that it wasn't. Ooooh, he raped someone....oooh, a shit monster...ooh, racism!

It struck me as a teenager's letting loose his id on the page, and so what we get is just rather crude and yet not terribly shocking or disturbing to those of us who've actually lived in the world a little while.

So--was this Millar's intent with the story, that it should leave us feeling this way, or is this just how he is?