Previously in The Last War in Albion: Morrison’s Judge Dredd story Inferno was set up by a Mark Millar story called Purgatory.
It’s going to be a good year for bastards, Spider. And their running mates. – Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan
Tellingly, it opens with a light rip-off of Rorschach’s jail cell murder in Watchmen #8, with guards coming up on a dead guard who’s been pulled through the bars of a cell and murdered, which serves as the introduction to Grice. Going on, the comic continues in a vein that gives a clear sense of Millar’s takeaways from Watchmen. We see a man being held down to a surgical table as his nose is burnt off without anesthesia, a vegetarian being brutally force fed his (still alive) pet rat, and people being agonizingly burnt alive. In the instances where the violence can’t quite live up to this standard—a simple panel of a man raking spiked knuckles across another man’s back—the dialogue serves to juice it up with lines lie “Feel thet, boy? Feel yore skin peelin’ back? Tearin’ inta l’il strips o’ confetti?” It is a comic of unrelenting, ugly cynicism—the same thing Millar had already done with The Insiders only blown up to the parodic extremes of the Judge Dredd universe. And this was clearly the pleasure Millar wanted out of it, describing it enthusiastically as “hard as nails.” This was of a type with what Morrison was doing, yes, but it was not the same thing.
Nevertheless, the pair were close enough to work together, and indeed went on to do two more Judge Dredd stories. One, Book of the Dead, ran a few weeks after the end of the Summer Offensive, and slotted into the traditional Judge Dredd format of having Dredd go and do a tour of duty in another Mega-City, which is to say in an over the top parody of another country. But where Millar’s predecessor had done a “Judge Dredd in Ireland” story that stuck to territory he knew, Morrison and Millar did an Egypt-themed one, which is to say a straight up Mummy riff. This carried all the casual imperialism one would expect from this premise, with Egypt treated as a place of brutality and superstition (although not so brutal that the Egyptian judge sent to Mega-City One can’t be shown up as an arrogant fraud who gets himself beaten within an inch of his life on his first night on patrol), but by and large its worse sin is simply a sort of bland tedium—a sense of unreality that this is really the product of two of the most successful comics writers of the late 20th/early 21st century.
This sense only deepens in Crusade, the pair’s third Judge Dredd story, which sees Dredd sent to retrieve a crashed space pod containing an astronaut who was lost in space before being recovered and claiming to have met God. Published in 1995, a year after Millar left Dredd and was replaced by a returning John Wagner, the story puts Dredd opposite Judges from every other nation on Earth, all of whom also want the pod. The basic setup of “Judge battle royale with a side of The Quatermass Experiment” sounds like it should be interesting, but depressingly, it’s just a sort of a drab mess, so bland you can see why the magazine appears to have sat on it for a year before running it as an inventory story.
These later works point to a clear limitation to the sort of quasi-purism that Morrison and Millar brought to the character. It worked well enough for a one-off event, where it could offer a giddy sugar rush, although truth be told Inferno scarcely has a reputation as any sort of all-time classic. But in the long term, it offered an empty pleasure that was less effective with each iteration. In the long term—or indeed even the medium term, given that Crusade wrapped not even two years after Inferno debuted—it proved to be the exact thing it was nominally designed not to be: boring.
If Millar and Morrison favored a sort of neo-fundamentalist approach to Judge Dredd, then Millar’s approach to his solo story for the Summer Offensive, Maniac 5, was an attempt to do a comic in which this approach could exist unfettered by any other concerns. Where Purgatory and Inferno sought to take an existing property back to its imagined roots, Maniac 5 was an attempt to create a comic where that aesthetic of simple but pure action were the whole of the concept. Indeed, Millar hyped the strip by saying that in comparison to it Purgatory was “like standing Julian Clary next to Giant Haystacks,” a joke that hinged on the fact that Julian Clary was openly gay.
Certainly Maniac 5 is an aggressively simple strip in its conception. An opening caption box explains the premise: “Five marines won the Euro-War. Five men with their minds linked up to deadly robot war-suits. Three are dead. The fourth driven totally insane. The fifth…” it trails off, and then introduces a sadistic bunch of alien invaders. The inevitable consequence of these two concepts takes exactly four pages to deliver as the newly installed President Cuomo (President Gore having been killed by aliens on the second page) authorizes the deployment of Maniac 5 to fight the aliens. He does just this for several installments until, once he wins, the government attempts to kill him. It fails, even when it inevitably releases the psychotic Maniac 4 to fight him, and he proceeds to kill his handlers and escape. The result is largely as advertised: wall-to-wall over the top action. And yet Millar’s comparison to Purgatory rings hollow. Sure, there’s loads of blood, guns, and violence in Maniac 5, but it feels a far tamer experience by and large, not least because most of the action is a giant robot fighting aliens. This is cartoon violence, and feels like a kid playing with action figures. The overwhelming reaction the comic generates is simply one of repetitiveness.
There are fleeting moments in Maniac 5 where the strip starts to feel transgressive, and these help clarify what’s wrong with the rest of it. Mostly they come at the beginning, when Millar is riffing on real political figures. The opening sequence, where a blinded Al Gore staggers through the smoldering wreckage calling out for Tipper before an alien grabs him and kills him in a gigantic splatter of blood is admittedly cheeky, as is Mario Cuomo killing himself after releasing Maniac 5. But it is only these moments, when the comic engages with pre-existing concepts, that it feels as though it has anything to say, and all it has to say is stuff Pat Mills said almost twenty years earlier.
This reveals a fundamental aspect of why Purgatory and Inferno worked, which was that they were aberrations within the existing template of Judge Dredd stories. The stories worked because Judge Dredd wasn’t normally just unadulterated violence and performative “hardness.” Indeed, had this vision of Judge Dredd actually been its starting point the strip would never have worked, in much the same way that Maniac 5 doesn’t. Stripped of sixteen years of mythology and lore to riff on, this approach reveals itself as fundamentally vapid. It’s telling, in fact, that Millar wrote a sequel in 1995, unsurprisingly called Maniac 6, that, while still not any sort of grand triumph, largely works better than the original precisely because it has the original to play off of, so is no longer just aliens and robots punching each other in a conceptual vacuum.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of what doesn’t work in Maniac 5 comes when Millar attempts a Miracleman riff for the fight between Maniacs 4 and 5, describing how “the monsters have been fighting for thirteen minutes and a thousand corpses lie at their feet, burning in a nuclear flame. Fighting for thirteen minutes and hitting each other with tanks and trucks and Jeeps and people. The atmosphere is live and bursting with their hatred and the earth shudders under their power,” the wide shots and conspicuous lack of actual carnage in Steve Yeowell and Gina Hart’s art only serves to show up the degree to which Moore and Totleben already took the tricks Millar is using to their limits. For all that the priority disputes within the War are mostly pointless distractions, there are occasions where there’s no point in being anything other than first, and ultimately “look at the sheer carnage caused by big sci-fi action” is one of them. You can only lose your virginity once, and “Miracleman only a stupid action movie is,” ultimately, an exercise in sublime pointlessness. Repeating the trick can only ever end in trying too hard or in not trying nearly hard enough. Or, in Millar’s case, both.
Situated within the context of the Summer Offensive, this mostly ends up being embarrassing. The strip tries to insist on its edgy transgressiveness, but it doesn’t have any. In a way this is charming, like a kid playing at being an adult, endearing in its harmlessness. But of course, the thing about kids is that they do eventually grow up—any cuteness in Maniac 5 was ultimately rooted in the fact that Millar failed at what he was trying to do. But Millar had already shown himself to be perfectly capable of outright nastiness in Insiders and Purgatory. He was clearly going to heep trying. And in doing so, he would quickly develop into one of the most singularly nasty presences in the entirety of the War.
Mark Millar was born in 1969, nearly a decade after Morrison. An example of the not entirely unusual phenomenon of a Catholic family having one additional kid a decade or more after their others, Millar found himself orphaned at eighteen when his father passed away, four years after his mother died of a heart attack in front of him. Forced out of school in the wake of this tragedy because he no longer had money for living expenses, Millar stepped into the precipitous life of a comics freelancer, paying off a love of comics that dated back to his brother buying him a couple when he was four.
It is easy, if one is inclined to that sort of thing, to get into causality arguments here. And sure, yes, losing both of your parents at a young age and having all your sense of the future suddenly evaporate might give you a sense of cynicism and nihilism that you subsequently express in your art. That makes sense. Heck, the fact that one of the two comics his brother got him when he was four was The Amazing Spider-Man #121, in many ways the ur-text for cynical and exploitative superhero comics could be worked into an explanation. But this is ridiculous; were this Morrison or Moore it would be self-evidently absurd to comb their biographies for singular explanations as to why they became the writers they were. That an obvious answer presents itself with Millar is not a reason to snap it up. For all the damage he does over the course of the War, he is still a person, with all the complexities and nuances that entails.
Millar first met Morrison in late 1988, when he did an interview with them that would see publication in Fantasy Advertiser in January of the next year. The interview is striking for the stark contrast in Morrison’s persona compared to other interviews of the period—talking to Millar, they end up adopting a voice much more in line with their satirical Morrissey-inspired Speakeasy persona. Consider the influence of Alan Moore on Morrison’s first Animal Man arc. Talking about it in 1992, Morrison said, “in early Animal Mans for instance, I was still doing what I thought was expected of British writers, which was to be as much like Alan Moore as possible. It was that post-Watchmen, realistic superheroes kind of thing. After that, I started to realize what I wanted to do, and that bled over into Doom Patrol and what happened later in Animal Man. For me, it was significant in that way.” Talking to Millar, they make a similar point, only with much more performative ostentatiousness, describing those issues as “utter crap and I’ve come to regard them as my idiot children; it’s impossible to have them painlessly put to sleep at this late stage so they’re out there making a public fool of both themselves and me. It’s all so AWFUL. It’s my own fault for not trying harder. The thing is, that at the time I wrote the first four issues – originally just a mini-series – I was so keen for DC to love me and pay me that I simply did work I thought THEY would like, rather than trying to do something to please myself. It was a serious mistake on my part and I pulled out all the dreary old ‘British Comic Writer’ clichés like poetic captions and tacked on subtext and glaringly obvious panel transitions” before making the earliest recorded version of their claim that in their “first ever published story ‘Time Is A Four Letter Word’ which appeared in 1978 in Near Myths. There you will find ‘Alan Moore’ panel transitions, repeated motifs, poetic captions, flashbacks, flash forwards and all the other stuff that was apparently only invented in 1982. In fact, I think we should start calling them ‘Grant Morrison panel transitions’, don’t you?”