This is a guest-post from Erin Polgreen, with whom I’ve recently been talking about Millar’s writing in advance of the upcoming Kick-Ass movie. For me, Kick-Ass — a great if, as we’ll see, problematic comic — represented a refreshing reversal for Millar: violent and wonderfully meta, but finally rid of Millar’s retrograde views of women. And then the final issue had to undermine that judgment. So Erin put together this great post about, basically, what’s so lame about Millar. Fair warning: Erin’s article contains spoilers for the following comics: Wanted, Kick-Ass and Superman: Red Son, but we’ll keep those After The Jump. Enjoy.

Mark Millar is a comics god with a big problem: While madly popular, his work borders on racist and is definitely sexist. His popularity is part of a disturbing industry standard that rewards bombastic boy wonder talent, and ignores the stuff that insults a considerable portion of their demographic.

Millar is the writers’ equivalent of Rob Liefield in the 90s: A hugely influential, over-styled, larger-than-life crusader for comics in the mainstream. Liefield’s ornate costuming and overly muscled macho men informed a generation of pencillers and even landed him in a Spike Lee-directed Levi’s commercial. Millar’s deft characterizations and tightly crafted noir, superhero and adventure capers are also highly influential and have garnered mainstream success. He has produced critically lauded work for DC, WildStorm, Image and Marvel. Millar has attracted top artistic talent to Millarworld, his creator-owned comics line. Wanted and now Kick-Ass have been adapted for film. But whether Millar deserves the success is questionable.

It’s no wonder he’s a superstar. Millar writes stories that are inspirational for ostracized fanboys everywhere. In Millar’s world, the average underdog comes out on top; it’s fanboy wish fulfillment written to a perfect T. Wimpy office workers wake up to become millionaire assassins. Skinny, pimpled, high school fanboys can actually kick ass and get famous via YouTube, once they don a mask. The problem is these heroic journeys make no room for women or people of color.

There’s much more, True Believer, after the jump!

What about the fangirls?

The key term here is fanboy. Millar is completely unable to write comics that give female characters agency. From his mainstream to independent work, Millar loves putting baby in the corner. Spoiler alert: no woman in a Millar-penned story is in control of her destiny. It’s disheartening to be a female fan when comics that demean female characters are considered the creme de la creme of the industry.

As comics writer Gail Simone noticed in her famous “women in refrigerators” argument from 1999:

“…How women are treated in comics stories is ultimately part of many larger issues. But just focusing on comics – if most major women characters are eventually cannon fodder of one type or another, how does that affect the female readers? Do they give up?

“Combine this trend with the bad girl comics and you have a very weird, slightly hostile environment for women down at the friendly comics shoppe. No, I’m not against cheesecake or sexual content in comics, but when that content is strictly for boys and the women are just bizarre centerfolds with fangs and big hair … well, it starts to smell like a guy’s locker room.”

Millar’s last work for DC, Superman: Red Son, is a perfect example. Baby Supes crash lands on a collective farm in rural Ukraine instead of Kansas. He becomes an instrument of Stalin and is corrupted by his desire to save humanity from itself. It’s a cool political concept and a decent read…until the women come into play. Millar takes two of the strongest, most independent female characters in comics history and completely humiliates them. Lois Lane is married to Lex Luthor, who delights in manipulating her. When Luthor closes down the Daily Planet but saves its competitor, Lane muses that it’s because Luthor “knows I loved this newspaper with all my heart and he can’t stand the idea of me loving anything except him.”

Things are worse for Wonder Woman, a feminist icon and established Grade-A warrior in the DC Universe. She moons after Superman like a sick puppy, then sacrifices her integrity in order to save his life. As a result, she is physically scarred and unable to speak for months. Her powers are detroyed and she becomes a vengeful hag. But her subjugation only serves to add drama for Superman’s story. We don’t hear one word of how the experience effected and shaped the Amazonian princess. She’s silenced, and Superman can only imagine what her pain must have been like.

Even worse in the indie leagues
Millar’s experience writing Red Son soured his relationship with DC. The company censored the more violent, grandiloquent aspects of Millar’s work and toned it down for mainstream audiences. DC’s conservatism may have been a good thing. Wanted and Kick-Ass, which were published through independent imprints of publishers Marvel and Image, are rife with sexist, homophobic and racist sentiment that is often played off for laughs.

In terms of race, Millar carelessly tosses nationalities and races around as a means of supporting a character’s masculinity (or lack thereof). Kick-Ass protagonist Dave Lizewski rises to fame after a video of him beating up a group of men that are only referred to as “Puerto Ricans” blows up on YouTube. Dave’s other early adversaries also include stereotypical black gangsters and their ‘hos. Insult to injury: those level-one baddie aren’t even as intimidating as the white mafiosi boss that Dave and Hit-Girl face during the book’s climax. 

Wanted‘s Wesley Gibson hates his supervisor, a black woman, who makes him feel like less of a man. As he narrates his day: “This is me taking shit from my African American boss. As you can see, I’m smiling as she insults me because I’m embarrassed by the situation and more than a little afraid of the scary fucking bitch.” Dave and Wesley are both wimpy white boys with blond bedhead. Dave becomes famous because he asserts his might over a bunch of stereotypical gang-bangers. Wesley is a pansy because he’s afraid of a black woman, and it’s supposed to be hilarious. Millar assumes that his readers can identify because they must be downtrodden fanboys too.

Millar does have defenders — though their logic is flawed. Douglas Wolk argues, unconvincingly, that Millar’s grotesque, flawed characters are part of the point. According to Wolk, Millar is holding up a mirror for fanboys, saying “This is awesome, … and by the way, what does thinking it’s awesome say about you, fanboy?” But Wolk gives Millar too much credit. There’s badassery for badassery’s sake, and then there’s just bullshit.

Case in point is Hit-Girl, the 10 and 1/4 year old superhero assassin that steals the show in Kick-Ass. Hit-Girl’s got the hottest moves, the best lines, and is the deadliest crusader in the book. She saves Dave’s life in her first appearance, and he describes her as “…John Rambo meets Polly Pocket. Dakota Fanning crossed with Death Wish 4. She handled those knives like a fucking surgeon. I still can’t believe she was only 10.” She is the definition of Bad. Ass. Hit-Girl saves Dave several times over. Throughout the entire book, she is smarter, faster and more capable than any other costumed bro, including her father.

But, when the battle is done, Hit-Girl hangs up her cowl in favor of a normal life. This isn’t bad, in and of itself. The character should be able to do what she wants. What’s damaging is how Millar interprets the 10 year old’s retirement: “She finally got to all the things little girls were supposed to do and never raised her hand in violence again.” Ouch. That’s a big fuck-you to heroines everywhere. The most capable hero is retired to a domestic life because she was abnormal, but Dave continues on his costumed adventures and is a role model for fanboys everywhere.

Of course it’s not all golden for Dave. After pretending to be gay to get closer to his crush Katie, Dave comes clean and bares his heart. Instead of getting romantic, Katie calls Dave a creep, then texts him a picture of her blowing her black boyfriend. For all his costumed prowess and good intention, Dave can’t get laid because women are just bitches who want a big dick. And all we learn about Katie’s boyfriend, Carl is that he’s black and can kick Dave’s ass.

The industry needs to step it up
Millar is hardly the only writer to torture female characters to make things more dramatic for the male heroes. We experience the guilt and anguish of the male hero over the damsels distress, but are never immersed in the woman’s perspective. The story is always told through a male lens. Millar’s continued success is problematic because it underscores the industry’s disinterest in inclusivity. Non-white and women audiences don’t make the cut. It’s a pity. Comics are a great social equalizer: You don’t have to have a college degree to love them and talk about them. It would be brilliant if the content matched the potential.

Erin Polgreen is a Senior Program Associate for The Media Consortium. She is also an incurable comics fan. She tweets and blogs.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman