Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ultimately Unsettling

Thanks to the Official Marvel Novel Collection series that kicked off again a few months ago after stuttering out last year, I'm finally getting the chance to read some important books from Marvel history that I'd missed the first time around.  Both "Coming Home" (Amazing Spiderman) and "Extremis" (Iron Man) were interesting (though the latter wasn't really up to Ellis' usual standards, I thought), but it's Mark Millar's "Superhuman" (The Ultimates) that left the largest mark. 

A large mark, and a sour taste in the mouth.

"Superhuman" is strangely-paced, taking too long to get going.  I understand that the book is setting up a new version of one of the most important superhero teams in comic book history, but five issues before anyone really starts throwing punches is taking things too far.  It's also heavy with Millar's usual obvious contempt for everyone and everything, particularly anyone who doesn't just want to fuck girls in between blowing shit up.

That said, neither structure or style is the real problem here, not in comparison to the enraged elephant in the room: Mark Millar simply cannot write women characters.

This is hardly an original insight, of course, but it's only now that I have first-hand experience of the phenomenon (Kick-Ass' treatment of women was mainly to leave them out altogether).   Given so much has been said on the matter (indeed, Chris B and I -mainly I - slapped Millar around on similar grounds during one of our Panel Talk podcasts (still available on iTunes!)), and the fact the comic itself is now a decade old, maybe this post is redundant.  On the other hand, it's just been re-released, and who knows how many other people are, like me, coming to this for the first time.

There are three female characters in "Superhuma"n.  One is an old woman, the love of Captain America's life back during the war, who can't bear to have Steve see what she's become.  That's actually a really nice idea, and well-handled.  On the other hand, of course, Millar's writing a grandmother, here.  That's not the sort of woman that seem to cause problems for him Betsy Ross, on the other hand, is portrayed as a callous, vindictive tart, but who nevertheless holds a man in thrall, because he's a loser. Which brings me back to Kick-Ass, in which is is ultimately revealed that the object of the hero's affections is a callous, vindictive tart, who nevertheless holds him in thrall, because he's a loser.  In both cases, the women have a legitimate grievance - Bruce was so desperate to make headway with his super-serum knock-off that he turned himself into the Hulk and caused spectacular damage, and Dave Lizewski pretended to be gay in order to get close to Katie, before humiliating her by revealing the truth in the middle of a school corridor.

But how do these women react?  Betsy suggests a "trial separation", where she both makes as much as possible out of her subsequent trysts, and uses a complete break as a sword of Damocles to keep Bruce compliant and subservient.  A guy screws up, and his girlfriend chooses to wield that as a weapon in the most humiliating way she can think of.  Katie, on the other hand, can't suggest any kind of separation, since she was never dating Dave to begin with, so settles for sending him picture of her sucking off her new boyfriend.  Because that's what sex is for, isn't it?  Revenge and humiliation.

I can't help but take away a message, here: men are to varying degrees pathetic failures, but women are always heartless bitches about it.  This is made worse by the fact that the third female character, Janet van Dyne, also turns out to be horrible to her other half (though in fairness he's even worse than lie Bruce and Dave are), and when Hank finally does what Bruce (and Dave) never did and stands up for himself, he does it by slapping her.  And then tries to feed her to his ants. 

Women, huh?  Can't please 'em, can't punch them in the face.

There's one moment where it looks like something can be salvaged here, when the horror on Hank's face as he realises the line he's crossed seems very real.  Domestic violence is never an easy subject to portray in fiction, but that shouldn't mean it can't be portrayed at all, so long as a story displays sufficient care and sensitivity.

This isn't that story, though.  Not by a long shot.  Moments later, the two are in a brawl, with Janet continuing to mouth off about her husband, and Hank demanding to know why she starts these fights when  she "always come[s] off worse".  It's just nasty, and tasteless, and you'd have thought someone along the line would have pointed out to Millar that if the best resolution he can come up with to a man beating is wife is for him to then set giant bugs on her, he's probably out of his depth.

All of this is compounded by the reason for the fight itself, which (to simplify only slightly) is basically that - surprise! - Janet thinks Hank is a loser who owes everything to her, and Hank thinks Janet is a whore who's only interested in the Ultimates because it'll let her slut up to Captain America. Women are bitches, men are the pathetic fools who love them.  Of course, maybe Hank wouldn't be quite so unpleasantly paranoid if Janet hadn't distracted the Hulk earlier on by taking her top off to flash him her chest.  This is treated as a hilarious joke - an incredibly intelligent woman ends up reducing herself to a sexual object as soon as the pressure's on.  Girl's got two PhD's, you see, but she also has two tits.  And which pair is she gonna rely on in a crisis, huh?

Speaking of the Hulk, Millar's re-imagination of the Emerald Destroyer involves turning him grey (which, whatever), and also making him completely sex-crazed.  As some kind of Jekyll & Hyde style commentary on the unbound id, it might actually have worked, except that Banner becomes the Hulk again in large part of the constant humiliations and taunting he receives at the hands of his sort-of-ex-girlfriend.  She drove him to it, you see!  At which point, he Hulks out (which as a metaphor was already less subtle than a breeze-block to the testicles), and goes on a rampage, determined to have his way with Betsy, whether she likes the idea or not.

Basically, the Ultimates end up fighting a violent would-be rapist, before he can get to his intended victim.  And when they stop him, and (comparative) normality returns, Betsy decides she bears some of the responsibility because of how she treated him.  If she'd only been nicer to the man, maybe he wouldn't have tried to murder her date and then sexually assault her.  Needless to say, this idea of a woman feeling guilty for the insane actions of a former lover would be difficult enough to swallow even without it being quickly followed on by the sight of an angry husband smacking his wife around.

So, in most respects it's not a particularly bad book, and it's definitely entertaining in places, but all other aspects of the story are overshadowed by the stench of this one, glaring problem, like a fridge filled with delicious food someone has carelessly tossed chopped onions into.  Even the slices of delicious cake end up tasting awful, and you have to wonder whether it wouldn't be better to just throw it all out and be done with it.

(X-posted at Year X.)

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