Living Under a Bridge and Doing Drugs (Book Three, Part 54: Mark Millar’s Sonic the Hedgehog)
Previously in Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison met a bad influence.
It’s clearly an entirely legitimate product from Sega, and in a Modern-Warfare-2 piece of relevancy, the eponymous spiked-creature is now homeless, living under a bridge and doing drugs. – Kieron Gillen, Rock Paper Shotgun
On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with this. Moore deftly wielded provocation plenty of times in his rise, and Morrison’s enfant terrible persona was a well-crafted and effective attempt to do the same. What’s notable is not the extremity of what Morrison said, but simply the degree to which Millar brought this side of Morrison out, eliciting jokes about how “ I really would like to expire in some dramatic motoring accident. There’s nothing like travelling at high speed without a seatbelt and no thrill like the possibility of hitting a wall at a hundred miles an hour. Anyway, what I’d like is to be cremated and leave instructions for my ashes to be thrown in the face of some perfectly innocent passerby. Someone I never knew or had any remote connection with. It would be such a lovely gesture” and anecdotes about how “my classmates and I were responsible for the nervous breakdowns of two teachers. One of them, a kindly and inoffensive old gentleman was subjected to a campaign of sustained psychological torture that would have brought Patrick McGoohan to his knees in no time. After a spell in psychiatric care, this dear old character bravely returned to teaching and lasted only a few months before being driven completely round the bend.. He lives quite near me actually and I often see him wandering about with a walking stick and an air of tragic bewilderment. You shouldn’t laugh really but sometimes it’s impossible not to.” This was a version of Morrison who was more instinctively disposed to stylized meanness and transgressive jokes. They were perfectly capable of this on their own, it’s true, and there’s no shortage of examples of them indulging in it, but the fact remained: when Millar was in the picture, Morrison could inevitably be found playing the most cartoonish version of their public persona.
Of course, this was very much the sort of thing Millar did. He was, after all, the writer of Insiders and Purgatory, for whom a nihilistic transgressiveness seemed the only aesthetic goal of any interest. In a comics scene increasingly defined by performative edginess, he offered the purest expression of it. And Morrison was open about this being the appeal, noting that “We both have a very ghoulish sense of humor.” This is clear in all of the joint interviews they did in the period, which positively brim with casual homophobia and puerile attempts to shock and offend. A 1992 interview saw Morrison complaining about how “We’re both sick of the way 2000 AD is full of poofs these days. Judge Dredd’s turned into a poof and so has everyone else. All the stories are about Buddhists, Feminism and Ecology – it’s a real drag” while Millar railed about how “I’m sick of listening to them bleating on about how bloody great they are. Take a look at some of the stuff they’ve created. Only Judge Dredd is any good. If they had their way, they’d turn 2000 AD into Woman’s Own!” A 1993 interview on the Summer Offensive, meanwhile, opened with Morrison berating the interviewer for an opening question about how the project came about, calling it “the dullest question I’ve been asked in any interview” before explaining that “ I was bored and looking for something to pep up the tedious round of substance abuse, transvestitism and animal torture which was my life at that point and it occurred to me that 2000 AD needed some fresh ideas,” with Millar interjecting in the middle of this to call them a poof.
For better or worse, however, the two became friends, and in 1993 Morrison began a period of collaboration with Millar, cowriting a chain of comics with their newfound protege, starting in the UK market with the Summer Offensive and eventually jumping to the US. This played out in parallel with Millar’s efforts to establish his own career. Perhaps the most conspicuous element of these efforts was the continent on which they took place. If Garth Ennis was the last writer of the initial wave of British Invasion creators then Millar, born a few weeks earlier, was the first to miss the boat. Both writers came up around the same time—Saviour #1 came out from Trident in December of 1989, some eight months after the first part of Troubled Souls landed in Crisis. But where Ennis was rocketed straight to the US market on the back of little more than that debut, Millar stayed longer in the UK, not making the jump until 1994, when he finally broke into the US market thanks to the explicit intervention of Grant Morrison, who served as a mentor figure and early patron, co-writing a four issue arc of Swamp Thing with him before Millar took over the title for its final two years. Perhaps the most notable detail is that Swamp Thing would mark his only work for Vertigo. It is not clear why this is—it just as easily could have been a lack of interest on Millar’s part as Karen Berger being unimpressed with him. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Millar, despite being present and part of the same UK scene (Neil Gaiman even penned an introduction for the collected edition of Saviour), was conspicuously absent from the US market, left to make it work in the UK market even as it withered in the wake of Crisis and Deadline.
What this meant in practice was that in 1993, starved of career options beyond 2000 A.D., Mark Millar became one of the primary contributors to Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic, which launched a month before the Summer Offensive. This was one of Fleetway’s periodic sojurns into licensed comics, with the license in this case being from the video game company Sega, and specifically their then current video game console the Sega Mega Drive, known in the United States as the Sega Genesis. This license, however, existed in a larger context with distinct parallels to the Summer Offensive.
Video games have largely been absent from the War save for the fact that Alan Moore did a handful of early pieces making vague reference to Space Invaders. That came in a period when video games were largely the province of arcades, right around the time when the first successful effort at a home video game console, the Atari 2600, went down in flames in the famed video game crash of 1983. The decade since then had been an even more eventful one for video games than it had been for comics. In 1986, the Japanese company Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System following its successful launch in the United States, selling an astonishing 61.9 million units worldwide. Nintendo achieved this by sidestepping the widespread post-1983 belief that video games were a dead industry, marketing the system instead as a toy.
Nintendo’s success inevitably spawned imitators, the most successful of which was Sega, who brought out the Sega Master System. This system was a failure, selling a mere two million units in the US, although it did markedly better in Europe, outselling Nintendo in the UK and establishing Sega as the nearest thing Nintendo had to a rival. In 1990, Sega launched the Mega Drive, a more technologically advanced competitor. And this time, Sega had a clear plan on how to position themselves as Nintendo’s rival. This hinged on Nintendo’s carefully cultivated reputation as a family friendly brand, to which Sega presented themselves as a brasher, more irreverent alternative. With taunting slogans like “Sega Does what Nintendon’t” and a marketing campaign centered on adolescent boys, Sega’s message was clear: Nintendo was for kids, while Sega was cool. In the UK, this marketing campaign included an advertisement that proclaimed “The more you play with it, the harder it gets,” featuring an image of a hand gripping a video game joystick in a clear and blatant masturbation reference. This ad appeared in Viz, the ultra-profane comics magazine that was left standing when Crisis and the rest had folded, and which the Summer Offensive was a blatant effort to keep up with.
The most iconic part of Sega’s branding, however, was its mascot. Where Nintendo had Mario, a cheery cartoon plumber who ran through a bright and absurd cartoon world, Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog, a mohawked punk defined primarily by the sheer and blazing speed with which he ran through the world. He was brash, recognizable, and, crucially, popular, and Fleetway’s acquisition of the license was a significant coup. The problem, at least in terms of the first issue, was simple: the comic was very, very bad.
Millar was not the first participant in the War to find himself in a shitty comics magazine, it’s true. His own mentor had gotten one of his first big breaks writing a backup feature for Spider-Man reprints about robot dinosaur toys. Alan Moore wrote a World Cup comedy comic. Crap gigs abounded; it was the UK comics industry after all, in all its continually debased glory. All the same, when Millar arrived to write the title feature in Sonic the Comic #2 it was clearly a crap job even as shitty comics gigs go. This was not because Sonic the Comic was firmly a kids magazine aimed at a much younger audience than 2000 A.D. Rather, it was because Sonic the Comic was an excruciatingly bad kids magazine. Its title feature, penned in the first issue by Alan McKenzie, was a borderline plotless bit of nonsense in which Sonic beats up some robots to no particular end. Its big dramatic moment is that Sonic uses his Super Spin Attack from the video game to blow up a tank. This was not, in other words, a comic that was aiming at any sort of adult pleasures, or indeed any pleasures at all beyond “hey, that guy from the video game!” And the backup features were just as bad: a Shinobi story that saw Alan McKenzie doing a ninja comic out of nothing but genre stereotypes, notable mostly for a baffling sequence in which a man with a sword and wrist claws emphasizes how he’s sworn not to kill, and a Legend of the Golden Ax story by Mark Eyles that features bog standard sword and sorcery thrills alongside dialogue like “Looks bad. Use low-level spells.” This was both licensed and children’s comics at their most venal, animated by the belief that writing for children absolves you from any obligation to make an effort.
For all that Mark Millar’s involvement in the War is entirely disastrous, he is not an untalented writer, and he was never going to write anything as bad as those comics. But he was a writer with a particular style, and that style was not a straightforward fit for a children’s comic. And yet there was an underlying compatibility of style between Millar and his material. Sure, Sonic was a world away from the shock tactics of Viz, Purgatory, and Maniac 5—he was, fundamentally, still a cartoon animal mascot, after all. But put opposite what Nintendo was doing—which was, after all, explicitly how Sega was positioning him—he was part and parcel of the same sharp correction towards the taste of adolescent boys that was visible in the early 90s UK comics scene, and indeed in the American one. Putting Millar, the writer of the period most unequivocally and straightforwardly rooted in that taste, on a Sonic the Hedgehog comic was thus an intriguing proposition.
The result is not a career highlight for Millar, though it would be deeply bizarre if it were. Millar’s Sonic work is competent—in marked contrast to McKenzie’s first story, Millar’s stories have clear concepts that form themselves into plots. Even an entirely anodyne piece like “Time Racer” in the Sonic the Comic #11, which saw Sonic having to race halfway across the world in five seconds to stop his friends from being incinerated with a death laser, was coherently structured, with Millar drawing out the five second race and concluding with an acceptably clever plot beat in which Sonic successfully superheats sand by running across the top of it, forming a mirror he can use to reflect the death laser back at the villainous Dr. Robotnik. This was not Watchmen, no. It was not even Maniac 5. But it was capable, professional work. [continued]