Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Mark Millar's CLiNT

Sometimes I hate being a man. It seems churlish to complain too much, of course: being a straight white man in the west is pretty much like winning the birth lottery and I have done pretty well by it, despite being lazy, stupid, ugly and unfriendly. I'm not conflicted by it, I'm cool with having a penis and a beard and a beer belly and all that, and I manage the psychic balancing act of having deep respect and admiration for my female friends and colleagues while maintaining an appreciation of a fine set of tits without too much inner strife.

No, the one big downside of being a man is other men. Other men are, by and large, a pack of colossal wankers. It's been pretty clear to me since I was old enough to notice that 99% of men are stupid, close-minded bullies, with narrow interests and little of interest to say. In the interests of fairness, it's worth pointing out that I don't necessarily have a lot of respect for most women either - I'm an equal opportunity misanthrope in most regards - but if you want to find the source of most everything that's toxic and horrible in western culture, you just have to take a look at men's magazines.

It was not always thus. There was hope for the genre for a little while when I was a young man. In the 80s, by the time Playboy had resolved its schizophrenic profile by plumping squarely for the dark side, and when men were properly cowed and shameful about the centuries of puke they'd vomitted onto the world, there were a handful of magazines that abandoned the pin up principle and began looking at the world in an interesting way. Arena and GQ are the ones I really remember, but there were a host of others that presented a vision of masculinity as something intelligent, self-confident and urbane without having to pander to the lowest common denominator.

Well, no one ever got rich doing that, did they, and so in the 90s, the shit-head arsehole man resurfaced in the shape of Loaded and Maxim. Once more, boring stuff about thick-headed sports stars, vacuous air-brushed supermodels, yobbish leisure wear, reader's girlfriends and career criminals filled the pages of the male press, and anything brave or exciting or true or interesting was driven out by the usual craven macho man shit.

A similar thing happened to comedy at the same, eloquently described by Stewart Lee in his book How I Escaped My Certain Fate:

Suddenly, sport-loving scumbags began to comprise a significant percentage of any comedy [read "magazine"] audience. I think it was Fantasy Football and the introduction of football as a subject into Alternative Comedy that ultimately destroyed the values and the unrealised artistic potential of the Alternative Comedy community which I so desperately wanted to contribute to as a teenager. Indeed, all responsibility for the collapse of the entire sixties, seventies and eighties counter-culture in Britain can probably be extrapolated from Fantasy Football and laid at the door of Baddiel and Skinner, who shared a flat, and presumably a door, at the time.
Baddiel and Skinner can't take the the  blame for entire change in male culture at this time, but they were certainly a symptom of the process that led directly to Nuts and Zoo. Any hope for masculinity we might have had was destroyed. Men retreated into infancy, into the comforting mediated corporate catharsis of sports, into the Oedipal obsession with big breasts, and crude, fatuous non-humour.

All of which brings us to the launch of CLiNT, the new comics magazine from Titan Publishing edited by Mark Millar.

I've discussed Millar once or twice here already. I greatly admired the first couple of volumes of The Ultimates, enjoyed Old Man Logan well enough, and Civil War ... well, I didn't think it was the complete crap that some people said, although it wasn't great, was it? On the other hand, Millar will always suffer my ire for being one of the architects of the destruction of 2000AD with his rancid Robo Hunter update and the horrendously mis-judged “Summer Offensive” (with Grant Morrison of all people!) I didn't think much of his work on The Authority, and his later volumes of The Ultimates have entirely lacked the spark that made the first ones so fresh and interesting (this is partly because the whole Ultimates concept has degraded into just another dumb supers universe, perhaps a topic for another day).

He was mentored by Grant Morrison in his early career, a writer I greatly admire (he's earned forgiveness for his part in the Summer Offensive by going on to be the best writer of super hero comics working today, including Affable Al Moore), but it's safe to say that none of Morrison's cleverness ever rubbed off on him. I think he has a good instinctual sense of story telling, and he understands what shape a story should be and what notes it ought to hit along the way, but he's basically stupid. He doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between a good idea and a shit one, he's happy to load his usually well-structured work with clichés and tired situations that he values as much as the clever ones. When he does accidentally hit a good idea his work can be brilliant, but when he doesn't it's predictable, affectless and dull. He's kind of the Noel Gallagher of comics writing.

Cos all ten-year old girls LOVE Karate Kid.
A symptom of his complete lack of a critical facility and self-awareness is a wearying obsession with shock and obscenity. The very name of the magazine is – hilariously! – supposed to look like another Millar favourite word if you squint. I remember years ago seeing an artsy short film called “The Worst Word” which examined the interesting question of why the most obscene word in the English language is one for the female sexual organ. It's a profound question, and when you start thinking it over, the answers aren't very pretty, but it doesn't surprise me at all that a thicko like Millar would think this would make a hilarious name for his magazine.

Millar's desire to be a shocking smart arse is on display in both his strips here. Kick Ass 2 delivers eight pages of sweary school girl Mindy (aka Hit Girl) beating up Kick Ass (aka Dave Lizewski) and lying to her adopted Dad about how she's given it all up. I never read the first Kick Ass, but in the movie Mindy's sweariness was much less amusing than her cool focus. I suppose there's some of that here, but these eight pages don't add up to much and I'm not a fan of JRJr's mature style. So this one isn't really a sell for me. If you did read and enjoy Kick Ass, then this might hold appeal to you, but at eight pages a month it's going to be slow going, and you might be better off waiting for the collection, or even the pamphlet that's scheduled to appear from Marvel's Icon Comics imprint later this month.

In a way, this is just a teaser for the book, and in fact the whole magazine feels like a big promo for the Kick Ass DVD release and the comics and movie etc etc. There's an “interview” with Christopher Mintz-Plasse who played Red Mist in the movie, a competition give-away, an ad for merchandise, a full-page ad for the Blu Ray release plus, of course, the cover of the mag itself. Fair enough, I guess, but it's a bit stifling and doesn't say much for CLiNT's artistic ambitions.

This is the Titan style, though, and if you scan their magazine output it tends to be focused around TV and movie franchises and their associated flotsam and jetsam, often in cahoots with Forbidden Planet. As an aside (a pointless philosophical one, even) it's this obsession with merchandisng crap that virtually destroyed my interest in SF, fantasy and comics in the 90s. Far from a free-thinking genre of imagination or "the literature of ideas" it turned into a relentless consumerist marketing machine, selling injection-molded ideas and flimsy recycled wonderment.

But I digress.

Millar's other contribution is a reprint of the complete first issue of Nemesis (published in March by Image Comics, with issue 2 already out). This story has been bally-hooed online as a “What if Batman was a bad guy?” story, which doesn't sound especially interesting because that describes half of Batman's rogues gallery – Joker, Ras Al Ghul, the Riddler, any of these would fit the bill.

Yeah, we all know exactly what you're doing, that's the problem.
Millar doesn't do anything very interesting with the idea here. The focus of the strip seems to be a kind of good guy/bad guy rivalry, as Nemesis puts himself up against the best police chiefs in the world (kind of how like the Joker challenges himself against Batman in The Killing Joke, but let's move on...) This theme is somewhat underdeveloped in this opening episode, and the heroic chief of the Washington police is shown here as something of a violent arsehole, "heroically" blowing away a bunch of hapless junkies robbing a dime store. This chap's got a few things to learn about community policing, I'd say. Are we going to be told that the good guy and bad guy are basically the same? Maybe, but as grotesque as chief Shooty is, he's still probably better than the mass-murdering Nemesis, and that would take a little more subtlety to play than I think Millar can muster.

There's a bunch more obvious and unsubtle stuff, with grotesquely explicit violence and swearing, and big dumb ideas like kidnapping the president of the USA, and the art doesn't really do anything for me, being comics realist standard from Steve McNiven – no humour, no character, often lacking weight or momentum. This could still be salvaged if Millar can pull the drama out of the bad guy/worse guy conflict he's setting up, but I don't hold out a lot of hope.

The other ongoing strips are interesting in that they don't come from comics professionals, or even people known for writing, but from chat show arsehole Jonathan Ross and cruel comedian Frankie Boyle (to be fair,  a writer of a sort, I guess). Both these strips demonstrate the dangers of putting amateurs in charge of these types of thing.

Ross clearly knows about comics – a couple of years back he made a rather good documentary about Steve Ditko – but knowing and doing are different things. His debut strip, Turf, features prohibition-era gangsters vs vampires, which is a decent premise (except for a twist, which I'll get to) but he makes some really basic tyro errors.

Phwoar, look at the size of those ballons!
You don't get many of them to the pound, missus!
For a start, and most obviously, it is way WAY too wordy. Just flipping through the pages, the art is dominated by huge, dense speech bubbles and captions. A lot of the captions describe action that's in the panel (very Lee-era Marvel characteristic, that one) and a lot of the speech bubbles contain “as you know John” dialogue.This makes it a wearying read.

The second big problem is the kitchen sink syndrome. As I say, the basic premise isn't a bad one, but Ross  overloads it with three view-point characters – a human gangster, an ambitious vamp and a lady reporter apparently stuck in the middle. There's just too much going on, and that's partly why Ross has to resort to these dense pages of script. It's like he wants to get it all in one strip, rather than choose a single character and give them space to tell their own story (any one of them would have done the job).

And then there's the twist: in the middle of the story, we get a page of spaceships and aliens. What's that going to be about? Does he think that vampires versus gangsters isn't whacky enough? It's hardly ground breaking, it's true, especially in the world of Underworld, Twilight and True Blood, but sufficient I would have thought to tell a good story. I don't know where the space aliens thing is going, but it's going to be hard work Ross to fit it in amongst everything else he has going on.

The art suffers due to this heavy reliance on text. Tommy Lee Edward's provides a confident and characterful look, with appealingly detailed and lively backgrounds and a murky, sepia-drenched palette that fits the subject matter, but the rythm of the layouts is broken up by the need to accommodate all those speech balloons.

This another reprint, with issue 1 of Turf having been published by Image in April. Millar's desire to revitalise the British comics industry seems to be rather dependent on reprints from American publishers (utilising American artists, for that matter).
Rex Royd begins with two security guards fighting a
kind of lobster man...

... then a guy... er... fucks the Earth
from behind in a toilet while... uh...
peeling off his face...
More puzzling is Frankie Boyle's effort, Rex Royd. Perhaps because he is (as far as I can tell) pretty much entirely ignorant of comics, he's gone off on his own bizarro tangent. I couldn't even tell you what this one's about – it seems to about some kind of industrialist involved in... well. I'm not sure what. It's something about clones, or memory implants and at the beginning the security guards wrassle with a guy with giant lobster claws. Your guess is as good as mine, but it reminded me less of Millar's formulaic super-heroics and more of something like The Flaming Carrot  or Steve Aylett's The Caterer . If Boyle can get his craft under control, this could be the one to watch. Or maybe it's just addled ramblings from someone who doesn't give a shit: future episodes will tell!

An addition, there's Huw Edwards Presents Space Oddities, which looks like a Future Shocks-type thing. Here we get a story from a certain Manuel Bracchi (no, never heard of him) that looks like it's been plucked from the Titan round file.

... and finally... um ... yeah, okay, I don't have a clue what's
happening here.
Well, so far, okay. Nothing amazing, but Turf has potential and Millar's stuff is, well, Millar, so there you are. Where CLiNT really goes astray is in its selection of text features, a bunch of embarrassing tasteless unfunny crap so stupid that it will actually leech intelligence from the reader by force of osmosis. Alongside the pointless quick fire interview with the Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Would you fuck your Dad to save your Mum?” surely the question on the tip of everyone's tongue!), there's an entirely random and forgettable article on Charles Manson and celebrity murder (was this one on file at Titan?), a soul-destroyingly awful photo feature on “hot” TV mums that would shame Nuts (who'd at least include some actual tits) and, at the back, yawn-inducing drug ramblings of “The Secret Diary of a Celebrity Dope Head”.

Maybe these are just pages where they couldn't sell ads? Maybe it's an elaborate gag? Maybe it's an exercise in eugenics as anyone reading these is in danger of losing the will to live completely and drinking bleach? Who knows! Read these things at your peril – you will have lost approximately 4.6 IQ before you are done.

All in all, it's not an auspicious debut. In his introduction Millar claims that this is going to pick up where 2000AD left off. “It's a long time since anyone launched a boys comic in this country,” says Millar. The drought goes on, for this is not that comic.

Millar is aiming at a teenage market already well served by comics – the real hole in the market is at the lower end, the ten year olds who first picked up 2000AD when it launched in a flash of inspiration and genius in the 70s, not the smirking shits he thought he was writing for when he shat all over it in the 90s. This isn't a comic for boys, this is a comics magazine for cretins, low-brow mouth-breathing dorks, mobile phone salesmen and students studying for NVQs in business administration, fans of the Insane Clown Posse, Roy Chubby Brown and rapey “gonzo” porn. In short, it's a magazine for CLiNTs.


  1. Looks like something not to spend my hard earned on then.

    I remember the glory days of Arena and GQ back in the late 80s when they didn't need to have the whole tits and footballers formula to be successful. I remember actual decent articles and writing in them, with even the celebrity interviews actually having a bit more content.

    Really the problem is not so much the love of sport as the love of some of the baser aspects of sports fandom like the herd mentality and need to aim at the lowest common denominator.

  2. My wife used to by them, and they did have sport articles from time to time, as it goes. As you say, it's the baser elements (although I have zero interest in sport myself).

    If you're interested in the comics, as I say, they're all available elsewhere without the stupid wrapped around them. Ross's effort is better than I thought, although simultaneously I did think he'd have the craft nailed down a bit more, or at least have someone editing him.

  3. Did you mean 'typo error'?

  4. Hi Den, thanks for dropping by.

    If you're referring to "...but he makes some really basic tyro errors," I mean "tyro" as in "beginner". (It's a word my Dad used to use a lot, affecting a kind of working man's patois despite being a news reader and radio journalist.)

    I you're referring to my own many typos well, you know, even Homer nodded, as they say!

  5. In the past you've used "My Little Ponies are dumb!" to describe some of the animosity directed against the "Twilight" books/films. I have to wonder if the "football is the nadir of western civilization" line being put forward by yourself and Mr. Lee doesn't represent a similar phenomenon.

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  7. I think Mr Lee's point is that football displaced more complicated topics in alternative comics. Rather than irreverant takes on matter of sociological import, comedians could make a shallow joke about last night's match a bunch of braying arseholes would hoot and holler. It's lazy comedy - I think our old friend Jonathan Macaltmont has called this "phatic comedy" - stuff that's not actually funny but acts as a kind badge or tribal marker - "here is something we can all laugh at, regardless of whether it's funny or not because we are all the same!"

    This is what happened in men's mags - why have a 2000 word feature on basket weaving in Cuba when you could have three pages of footy bloopers with "You plonker!" style captions?

    The nadir of western civilization was the Pixar movie Cars, by the way. On the bright side, it's all going to get better from now on.

  8. Followed your post from RPG.Net. Thanks for doing the hard work of reading this crap so we don't have to. What makes me cry is that Toxic, a proper alternative to 2000AD came in 1991 but died and seems to have made no impact other than forcing 2000AD to go colour.

  9. Hi anonymous, you should have left your handle so I can stalk you or something.

    I quite liked Toxic (I think mine are still in a box at Mum & Dad's). As well as Martial Law (which I didn't always think that much of, but it DID have fantastic Kev O'Neil art) there was a brilliant b&W strip by the cartoonist Banx, IIRC - was that ever completed and/or collected, I wonder? I think the publisher had wider cashflow problems rather than it not doing well, though. (see also recent post about 2000AD!)

    I've been thinking about checking out the second ep the vampire thing by J Ross, though. I can live without the rest, but that at least showed potential.

  10. I'm Foyle. Anyway also saw your note on Toxic later on. Mine are buried also somewhere in the house. Reflecting on my post its hard to pin down exactly what made Toxic good - its comics included Marshal Law, hardly a bastion of good taste and the the joke did wear thin (although picking up the point on about Nemesis I totally recommend the Batman satire) and other strips such as Sex Warrior and Accident Man on many ways was consistent with the T&A approach to 2000AD. Although a lot of them had some thought provoking angle it was often quite limited. I suppose it was the sense of style - although again thats probably defined as stuff I like which is defensible, just not helpful. In the end it was probably that a bunch of great comic writers and artists got together for a short period of time to try stuff characterised by a very British sense of dark humour so thats why it stood out. If Toxic had prospered there would undoubtedly have been regression to the mean - My liking of Sex Warrior (not even sure its that defensible) is because they ran 3 short, single edition, stories featuring the characters - a story arc might have been dreadful.

  11. Ah, Foyle, I know you! That's OK - you are Approved By BoJo (cloisonne pin in the mail).

    Oh yeah, Sex Warrior! I was fifty-fifty on that one, but it did seem to have something interesting going on. I seem to recall being a bit frustrated by it (heh) and wondering where it was all going.

    Like a lot of Mills stuff it seemed very reactionary, rather than exploratory: he seemed to be shouting "You're all so godamn repressed!" or, I guess, inviting us to chuckle at repressed people, like Marshall Law invites us to laugh at silly supers fans. Hmm... I'm marshalling my thoughts for an upcoming post on the current 2000AD (I'll be tackling John Wagner first, this Sunday, I think, if I can find the time).

    "In the end it was probably that a bunch of great comic writers and artists got together for a short period of time to try stuff characterised by a very British sense of dark humour so thats why it stood out."

    That's a great point, and I think Mills had a couple of goes at creating that space - see also Crisis. Toxic was more deliberately OTT (clues in the name), but I think that same idea of "do what you wanna do" characterised the enterprise.

    Myabe CLiNT (to get back to the original topic) is an attempt to do that, although the amount of reprinted and US-based product surely mitigates against it? I suppose the whole SF/F landscape has changed since the good old days... sigh!


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