52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week.

Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work. My girlfriend will probably leave me because I’ll spend all my time reading comics. But by the time that happens at least I’ll have another 51 weeks of the weekly challenge left to help ease my broken little heart. Let’s get started with our writer for week 1, Mark Millar.

Mark Millar

Mark Millar has become the Hollywood darling of comic writers. It seems like just about every comic he’s worked on, whether it be for Marvel, DC, or Image, is being or has been adapted into a major motion picture.  There’s no denying that the man knows how to write a damn good comic as he definitely makes plenty of them.  One major criticism he often draws is the fact that there are long waits between the release of issues of his comics but you can’t always blame the writer for delays in this industry.  Even still, Mark Millar can take as long as he wants to write any comic so long as he keeps up the quality of work he’s put forth thus far in his career.

Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass Vol 1At its core, Kick-Ass is a darkly humorous superhero satire piece that looks at the world through the eyes of a naive teenager who tries to answer the question of “why can’t normal people be superheroes too?”.  Mark Millar takes it a step further as he blends in over-the-top action with genuine character beats, bizarre humour and brings it all back around to ultimately be a superhero comic even though the book pokes fun at superheroes the entire time.

This comic is just as ridiculous as it is fun and entertaining.  It’s uniquely Mark Millar as someone only as crazy as him could have crafted something that’s equally hyper violent as it is comedic and honest.  Dave Lizewski is the focal point the entire story hovers around as he is a dumb, ambitious teenager who is in way over his head.  Millar connects with the characterization of a sixteen year old boy who dreams of being just the like heroes he reads about in his comic books, as he briefly explores his tragic and tormented life but not in a way that makes Dave a brooding bad ass like Batman.  Instead he takes the approach of molding Dave after a geeky character like Peter Parker but without the powers or the responsibility.  The result of that is a kid who isn’t nerdy nor cool, and just blends in with the rest of the world.  Dave is a nobody, a ghost, much like how any teenager feels during those pivotal high school years.

A pearl-handled switchblade is pretty cool when you think about it…

A pearl-handled switchblade is pretty cool when you think about it…

The other main characters, who are allies to Dave, are what serve to spin this story around in a wacky manner.  The addition of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy to Dave’s story gives him something to fear but also feel inspired by at the same time.  Big Daddy is underdeveloped for most of the story until a major moment late in the game that reveals he might not be everything he seems to be.  Hit-Girl’s personality is so distinct and immediately recognizable that she’s a page stealer every time she pops up.  You can tell that Millar had a blast writing this character as he gives her some of the craziest moments and the best dialogue, especially the further you get into the book.

With Dave’s journey being the main part of the story it leaves little room for the development of villains.  The antagonists are essentially pushovers, proving to not even be a threat until being forced to react.  Strong characters don’t just react.  Strong characters react AND act under their own volition.  The villains of this story only react to the fact that these heroes are ruining their plans.  When the villains finally decide to do something about it all, it’s just reactionary.  The end result of this cycle is dramatically underdeveloped “threats” that get bowled over in one issue to create a climax.  Although the climax is thrilling and action packed, it doesn’t fix the fact that the villains are basically non-factors.

Myspace: The New Bat-Signal

Myspace: The New Bat-Signal

Another hindrance to the overall product of an otherwise great comic is major occurrences off-panel.  Maybe Millar uses it as a tool to further satire the superhero genre but it is a problem that’s easily noticed in some of his other work (more on that when we get to “Part 2″).  In Kick-Ass, a game changing twist is set up entirely off panel which, in theory, is what makes it a “twist”.  But, with further examination, you see how paper thin the set up and payoff of the plot shifting moment really is.  The reveal of the identity of a somewhat sidekick to Kick-Ass, Red Mist, is a major moment late in the game but upon discovering who the character is, you stop a second and go “Wait, who?”.  That’s because the character under the Red Mist mask is only mentioned maybe twice until the point where he is revealed.  There’s no building suspense surrounding the character’s identity and that’s what makes the reveal fall flat.  It all weaves back into the one major problem for Kick-Ass and that’s the underdevelopment of secondary characters.  The laser focus on Dave’s life leaves little room for you to become invested in these ancillary characters.

Best Character: Mindy McCready/Hit-Girl

Best Line of Dialogue: “Two broken legs, my spine crushed and dressed like a *expletive* pervert.  My dad was going to kill me.” – Dave Lizewski

Best Moment/Scene: Big Daddy teaching Hit-Girl to not fear being shot (Issue 6)

Best Issue: Issue 1. This issue is a dark comedy that pokes fun at the idea of vigilante type heroes like Batman or The Punisher and proves that maybe normal people shouldn’t fantasize about being superheroes.  There’s just something special about the first issue of Kick-Ass and the way that Dave is defeated.  It has this raw nature to it that feels believable even though this is done in a fictional setting.

Why you should read it: Simply put, Kick-Ass is a great superhero satire that still tells a strong story.  It’s a rare blend of a great story, unique comedy and crazy amounts of violence.  Dave Lizewski is a voice for the lost teenagers of today’s generation who just feel like they don’t fit in.  When it’s all said and done, Kick-Ass does exactly what it’s name suggests, it kicks ass.

The Ultimates

Like it was stated above, Mark Millar makes great comics that turn into great films.  The Ultimates is no exception to that rule.  The Ultimates is widely considered an important stepping stone for the Marvel mega-franchise, The Avengers, with the film being directly inspired by the some of the grounded and realistic elements displayed in The Ultimates.  Released in the early-to-mid 2000’s, Mark Millar teamed up with Bryan Hitch to bring a new era forth for Marvel comics.  Millar spent several years with these characters and aimed to make them refreshing to new and old readers.  The end result was a highly acclaimed series that, to this day, is considered one of the brighter spots of a slowly dying Ultimates line.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t start off by mentioning what is easily the strongest part of the first volume of The Ultimates, the dialogue.  Millar uses believable, modern dialogue and applies it to superheroes.  It’s this dialogue that makes these characters feel real as well as easy to relate to.  Every character has a distinct personality and speech pattern.  Even without pictures you’d be able to set the tone, mood, and scene in this book just based off of the speech bubbles.  Captain America talks like a man who is ripped right out of the Forties adjusting to a modern era.  Tony Stark speaks like a loveable yet arrogant philanthropist.  Nick Fury shifts between sounding like a cocky man with all the power and a serious man who can get down to business when the situation calls for it.  Every character here is articulate and speaks appropriately which gives way to a strong and smart story.

Three words I used in the last sentence are the only three words I’ll need to truly describe The Ultimates’ story.  Strong, smart, and articulate.  Mark Millar takes his time to make sure he tells a story that is intelligent across these first six issues.  He approaches the book like he has a fresh slate and ignores as much of the Marvel history that influenced these revamped characters as he draws upon.  He takes those elements we know and love from characters but twists them in a manner that rejuvenates them.  Steve Rogers is a soldier from the Forties playing catch up but he brings that tactical nature to the battlefield.  Bruce Banner is a shortchanged scientist who wants to use science for the greater good but is beat out at every turn due to his Hulk “affliction”.  Millar uses these elements of characters we know and love, to amplify the story but still manages to create new layers into these characters who are supposed to be fresh new takes.

Cap employs the age old Avengers strategy: hit it until it drops.

Cap employs the age old Avengers strategy: hit it until it drops.

On top of all this the story is well scripted.  It’s hard to pinpoint whether or not that is something you can really give full credit to Millar for though as since this is a comic published under the Marvel banner, it’s hard to say whether or not Bryan Hitch, the artist, was forced to follow a neat and tight script or a “Marvel style” script.  A Marvel style script is an old method used by writers from Marvel wherein they’d only plot out the basic outline of the issue, allow the artist to develop the storyboards, map out the panel layouts and then add in dialogue where the writer sees fit.  Nonetheless, credit needs to be given out to whomever scripted these issues as they have a bombtastic, movie like nature to them that only heightens the experience of reading the comic.  I want to say “Great job Millar!” but my heart tells me that the scripting was all Bryan Hitch due to his stellar abilities as an artist.  Another aspect of the great story that can tie back to the overall scripting is how these first six issues may actually read just as well in the trade as they do in single issue format, something increasingly difficult to do in modern comics.  Each issue tells a complete story that still ties throughout the overall arc of the six issues.  It’s an impressive feat and one Millar should be tremendously proud of.

Now for some criticism of Millar’s overall style and work that still appears to be prevalent in The Ultimates.  Millar has a habit for having major things occur off panel and that doesn’t stop here.  The largest example of this is the decision Banner makes to inject himself with the Super Hulk Serum in issue four that causes him to revert into the Hulk.  The seeds of distrust are soughed throughout the earlier issues and you definitely get the feeling that Banner will take an extreme measure to ensure he accomplishes some form of results but you don’t even get to see him develop or inject said serum.  It’s a major plot moment that sets up the climax of the first arc yet you don’t even get to see Banner do it.  Millar doing this sort of thing off panel is nothing new but feels like major taboo as you’re cheated out of seeing huge story development that just gets skipped over to hit the good stuff. It’s likely due to the fact that Millar put so much into the story that he ran out of room to fit in that scene but it’s still an important scene that feels neglected.

Talk about foreshadowing…

Talk about foreshadowing…

A few characters get a bit of a snub due to the size of the team here but none more so than Thor.  Thor is afforded very little time, has a soft introductory and merely shows up out of convenience to try to help save the day.  It’s like Millar noticed when writing the climax that he needed a character that could physically challenge the Hulk so he went back and wrote Thor into the equation.  The end result is a character who just feels underwhelming and underused.

Best Character: Nick Fury

Best Line of Dialogue: “Man, being the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. is like being the Pope, the Queen, and the President of the United States all rolled up into one, Doctor Banner.” – Nick Fury

Best Moment/Scene: The Ultimates talking about who would play them in a movie – Issue Four: Thunder.

Best Issue: Issue #1 – Super Human.  In my opinion this issue stands out in front off the other six issues collected in Volume 1 of The Ultimates simply due to the masterful storytelling showcased with very little words.  Issue one showcases as strong as a war scene you’ll find in modern comics.  As much as I want to say “Great job Mark Millar!” on this one, a lot of the credit falls to artist Bryan Hitch.  With “Marvel style” writing becoming more and more prominent from today’s writers, it has become increasingly difficult to decipher just how directive a script for an issue is.  In this instance, it’d be unfair to just say that Millar perfectly laid out the entire first issue and that Hitch just followed directions.  Nonetheless, it’s the strong storytelling from the artwork that sets issue one out in front of all the other issues.

Why you should read it: Millar has a style of writing that just attracts success and the Ultimates shows that.  This is the type of comic book that deserved to be made into a movie and that’s probably why it helped to inspire one in the first place.  The dialogue is witty but intelligent while the story is so strong that you can read it as single issues or in a collected format and still feel rewarded by either.  If you want a well paced superhero team-up story that’s geared for modern times, this is one for you.