Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 354 (1/23) -- Wanted by Millar and Jones

The Wife, unlike me, is not given to spending a lot of time thinking about her past entertainment choices -- like a normal person, she enjoys things while they're happening, and then goes on with her life. But there are a few works that have made stronger impressions on her, a very few stories that have stuck permanently in her head. And one of those few is the dementedly awesome movie Wanted, which makes very little sense but does so with such style and verve that she and I could only stare at it, look briefly at each other to laugh out loud, and then go back to the spectacle in front of us. We could accept the bullet-bending, the secret societies, the casual brutal violence, but what finally convinced us that Wanted was not to be taken at all seriously was the Loom. That secret society in Wanted, the viewer (along with wee, at-that-point-still-misty-eyed James McAvoy) is told, follows the infallible instructions for assassination that it is given by a centuries-old loom, via the imperfections in the resulting fabric. The Holy Loom! The Oracular Loom! Nothing either of us has seen in a movie since then has matched that random insanity, and it remains a fixed star of our movie constellation, a signpost of nuttiness beyond which nothing has yet passed.

And so when I realized that my local library system had a copy of the graphic novel of Wanted -- written by Mark Millar with art by J.G. Jones, the first issue of which, apparently, was the sole source of that movie -- I hoped it was equally nutty, and that perhaps I'd see The Loom brought to life on a comics page. But my life is a gauntlet of disappointment and dashed hopes, because the comic Wanted is far more generic an example of its type than the movie Wanted is. The movie Wanted is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers action thriller, populated by the requisite Everyman hero with daddy issues and the Hot Babe who drags him into the deep end -- but it has that streak of what-the-hell random insanity to spice up the proceedings.

The comic Wanted starts from the same premise -- though heaped with Millar's trademark condescension towards his assumed audience -- with a shlubby young nebbish burdened by those same daddy issues and about to meet his very own Hot Babe. But Jones draws Wesley Gibson like he's just been kicked out of the special emo chapter of Aryan Youth, and all of the details of Wesley's life are Millarishly tuned for maximum teeth-on-edge friction, so that the reader can't simply enjoy the story. And then that story is just yet another very familiar tale of superpowers and the adolescent fantasies thereof, without any of the bizarre changes on standard themes that the movie rang.

You see, in the very unsubtle backstory to the comics Wantedworld, the supervillans slaughtered all of the superheroes in 1986 [1] and took over the world, changing both history and everyone's memories to make it seem as if they and their foes had never been. They then faded into the background for no clearly explained reason -- but the reader will have to break himself of the habit of looking for explanations if he wants to continue reading Wanted. As in so many "revisionist" comics, Wanted will provide no explanations, only assertions -- once something has been said, the reader must nod and say "Ah, of course" and never attempt to make analogies or to build a mental model of this world, since the assertions will never line up to make a coherent whole. A catalog of the things that don't make sense in Wanted would be longer than Wanted itself; it's a list of tired tropes, palmed cards, bald assertions, and standard scenes rather than a coherent work in its own right. (One could even make the argument that Millar either lost track of, or couldn't be bothered to remember, what he'd written about this world from one issue to the next -- the question of costumes is just one such entirely muddled example.)

So, yes, the supervillains rule the world, but do so quietly (for no reason). And Wesley's "superpower" is that he's really, really good at killing -- this is hereditary, you see, and principally means that bullets go exactly where he wants them to. And the fact that superpowered types are generally quite difficult to kill is not a factor in Wanted, because this is Wesley's superpower. Get it? That's only the first of at least a dozen things the reader must shrug and accept if he's to make it through all of these pages and the oh-so-trendy violence they contain.

Anyway, Wesley is plucked out of the life that Millar clearly attributes to his audience and put through a scattershot training sequence to bring him into his full powers, meanwhile getting quite a lot of (entirely off-page [2]) nookie from that Hot Babe. Along the way, his unpleasant doormat personality is swapped for an even more unpleasant complete-ass personality, and one must assume that Millar intends this to be an improvement. And so on: there's the usual intrigues and battles among the supervillains, with a high body count by the end. (This trade paperback includes a "Dossier" issue, with profiles of all of the major characters, at the end, and I noticed as I read through it that practically every one of them was dead by that point.) Wesley does bad things...but Millar keeps the really horrible, unforgivable stuff in his narration, so he can have both the frisson of a utter anti-hero and keep the comics readers from deserting the story in droves. In the end, Wesley gets everything he ever could have wanted and vastly more, because that's the kind of story that this kind of comics likes to tell.

(Once again, I have to note that I'm apparently very unlike the typical long-underwear comics reader: when there's vast carnage and megadeath in a story, I think about what it would be like to have myself or my family in the middle of those horrors, while the Wednesday Crowd simply is sure they're special enough to always be the guy in the tights flying around and punching people. So I always have vastly less interest in those destructive set-pieces than the trufen do.)

Wanted isn't bad, by the standards of modern big dumb comics punchfests: it's not nearly as obnoxiously obvious as The Boys or as button-punchingly stupid as Kick-Ass. Come to think of it, the morality in it probably compares reasonably well with Cry for Justice. Jones's art is less flashy than many of the current favorites, but it's good at differentiating the vast army of nasty monsters Wanted calls a cast, and strong at the traditional panel-to-panel storytelling virtues. In fact, Wanted was more professional, and less interesting, than I'd hoped it would be -- there have been many revisionist superhero stories over the past three decades, and this is just another one, without all that much to distinguish it. I was hoping for something quintessentially corrupt, and all I found was yet another story saying that comics readers desperately love the Special People and will always believe themselves one lucky moment away from joining their ranks. I already knew that.

This is a book that needed more oracular looms in it, and less of the same dialogue and situations that every shorts-on-the-outside character has been pretend-facing for the last twenty years. If Wesley really is the kind of bastard who rapes and kills everyone who's ever been less than deferential to him, we need to see him doing that -- preferably with some style and verve, which he doesn't show much of in this book. (McAvoy was a great upgrade; the comics Wesley goes from being a mopey loser to being a mopey killer without ever becoming interesting.) Wanted, sadly, becomes just another object lesson of how superheroes continue to strangle everything that could be good about adventure comics and channel an entire universe of potential stories into revisions of and reactions against the same few tired tenets of a dull Comics Code ethos.

[1] The fact that most of the characters are obviously thinly veiled versions of DC properties only makes this less subtle, as if it could have been.

[2] Wanted is remarkably prim for a book about a super-assassin who talks about rape and dismemberment all the time; there's no nudity and even the violence is barely more notable than what you'd see in a Code-approved book from the same year. One might even begin to wonder if Millar wants to have it both ways: to seem thrillingly transgressive without actually having to depict real transgressions.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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