Sunday, July 14, 2013

Millar, Superior and "The R-Word"

How can a reader tell when something written in a work of fiction represents the author's viewpoint and when it is merely dialogue the author is using to represent the viewpoint of his characters?

That's a tricky question to wrestle with, and, personally, I don't see any reason to ever assume the latter over the former with any degree of confidence.

That said, when an author has three very different characters use the same increasingly rarely used, no longer socially acceptable, completely un-PC term three times in the same relatively short story? Well, that at least can make a readers suspicious of the author.

I bring this up because I just read a trade paperback collection of Superior, the 2011, 7-issue Leinil Yu-penciled series that Marvel Entertainment published on their creator-owned/keep-Bendis-and Millar-happy-at-all-costs Icon imprint. It was written by Mark Millar, no stranger to having folks arch their eyebrows at the words of his narrators and characters and getting uncomfortable about the degree to which the characters speak for the author.

If you haven't read it—and you needn't—Superior is either a rejected pitch for a Superman comic that DC didn't like as much as Millar's Red Son, or it's an idea for a Superman story that Millar had but realized if he just changed some characters and costumes (here, extremely slightly) as he did with Wanted, he could get away with using DC characters for another publisher, and reap the financial reward of the book and/or the movie adaptation. (This isn't a review of the book; I'll get to that in the near future, but this one aspect struck me as so strange and made me so uncomfortable, I thought it worth noting in its own post before proceeding to the formal aspects of the comic and assessments of the overall quality).

This is the narrator of the book, the Lois Lane character Madeline Knox, who starts narrating about half-way through the first issue, but isn't actually introduced until this scene in the third issue:
While there's no indication of how old she is, it would be safe to assume by her profession—a popular, New York City-based television journalist and newscaster—and her success in that field that she's no younger than her mid-twenties, and more likely somewhere in her thirties. In other words, awfully old to still be casually using the word "retard" (Particularly in front of strangers in public, I imagine).

In her defense, she does tell the reader, just two pages prior that, this scene takes place "Back when all I cared about was how much I weighed and what my ratings were...I don't think I was a very nice person back in those days."

No, she doesn't seem like it, and I suppose ranting and raving about "a retard convention" is a decent shorthand to prove just how not a very nice person she was "back in those days" (a strange turn of phrase, since the point in time she's narrating from is just a few weeks later).

Here's another character in the book from a big "twist" scene a few issues later. He's Ormon, and he is a (spoiler, if you do wanna read this book and experience as its writer intended it to be read) demon from hell:
As a demon from hell, I suppose it's not surprising that an evil character would use any hurtful word, although as a 500-year-old demon from hell*, it's a strange example of word usage. "Simpleton" or "fool" sure sounds more like something a demon from the late 16th century might say. Then again, he's talking to a 12-year-old boy, so maybe he's using their language (Do 12-year-old boys still say "gay" and "retarded" to mean "anything negative in any general way," like I, to my shame and regret ,used to when I was in grade-school? Or have those words and their usage in that way been pretty much stamped out?)

Here's another character from the book, an actual 12-year-old boy, although through the infernal powers of Ormon he's been transformed into Superior's arch-villain Abraxas (While the word "Abraxas" has origins that pre-date comics by centuries, it's worth noting that both Marvel and DC have villains named Abraxas; the DC version spelled his name "Abraxis" and appeared in 1992's Armageddon: Inferno, while the Marvel one appeared in a Fantastic Four annual from 2001):
So that's three characters in seven issues saying some derivation of a word I haven't heard spoken since...Tropic Thunder, maybe...? And that I don't think I've ever read in a superhero comic published by Marvel or starring Superman, but I could be wrong. (Actually, I'd bet some money it was used in Millar's Kick-Ass more than once, although I only made it about half-way through that miniseries).

Anyway, three seems a lot for a comic book published in 2011.

*Now that I think about it, maybe he's not 500-years-old, but merely hasn't been able to convince anyone to sell a soul to him in 500-years, and he's actually the same age as all demons; the comic doesn't get too deep into demonic biology or the cosmic origin of angels and demons or anything.


Brian J said...

Thanks for using this public forum to point this out. I've definitely noticed this before in Millar's work. I can't but assume this is how Millar speaks himself.

jmh said...

This is a really good piece, thanks for bringing it to my attention (came over from your CBR article about the next Superman movie being Superior.

Thing is, "retard" is thrown around in a bunch of comics that you would think would know better. It turns up in All-Star Superman of all places -- or at least did in the individual issues but was changed for the trade:

(sorry, had to put the self-back-pat in there, even though that blog is basically defunct at this point)

And it's the reason I can't go back and read Y: The Last Man, because every character in that book uses it at some point, even those that should know better... and it's alive and well in "Saga" too.

To answer your other question about whether it's in use in real life by 12-year-old boys... I can't say that for sure, though I hear it on a pretty regular basis among 20-30-year-olds.

So it goes...

matthew pettengill said...

Can we all please grow up?
Its a slang word that some people use and "people" are in comic books. Just because you dont like a word or refuse to say it doesnt mean it doesnt exist. Besides Id much rather have people use words with freedom and then we all can decide if we want to support that work or not. If we ban words we ban ideas and free speech. I support everyone's right to use ANY word and its really immaterial if i "agree" with it or not.

Caleb said...

Besides Id much rather have people use words with freedom and then we all can decide if we want to support that work or not. If we ban words we ban ideas and free speech. I support everyone's right to use ANY word and its really immaterial if i "agree" with it or not.

Did I suggest we ban the word, or that it be illegal for Millar to write it or have his characters say it...?

Because I don't remember doing that at any point.

I don't think it's great writing when all of a writer's characters all use the same controversial slang word though, especially when the characters are as different as a 12-year-old boy, an adult media professional and a centuries-old demon from hell...

People complaining about what other people say is also freedom of speech, isn't it?