I don’t think we’ve ever reviewed a graphic novel on these pages. The launch of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s Jupiter’s Legacy: Book One is the perfect time to change this as it not only shows the best of what these two do, but it is particularly informative as to the work of Mark Millar, a man who is not only one of the most successful and widely read writers of the day, but who has shaped global pop culture of recent times in a manner few others can match.
Hyperbole? One day he may well write a comic with a hero of that name, but when you consider his Ultimates series was the basis for the first Avengers movie (including his inspirational ‘casting’ of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury), that he created the phenomena of Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl, that his Civil War series for Marvel is one of the most successful of the new millennium, and will be the basis for the next Captain America movie, and his collaboration on the Fantastic Four with Brian Michael Bendis will be similarly adapted for their next cinematic outing, you’ll begin to realise that Millar is a man who doesn’t just have his finger on the pulse, he is quickening it at an astonishing rate.
Other films based on his work include Wanted (although Millar’s original comic series is far superior), and the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service. Add to all that, he wrote Red Son, the most interesting version of Superman in decades, and Old Man Logan, widely considered among the best Wolverine stories.
All of the above only scratches the surface. This unarguable success inevitably means he has been accused of being populist, which he unashamedly is, and simplistic, which he assuredly is not. He doesn’t write for a mainstream audience, (check out Superior and American Jesus as evidence of this), rather he writes what he likes and the mainstream embraces his work. There is no doubt that he knows what many people want from a comic, but he challenges readers as well, often in a shocking manner. Millar deals with all sorts of key issues, from the obvious comic book staples of good v evil and how those lines can be blurred, to questions of what would happen to the rest of us if we lived in a world with super-humans. One of his recurring themes takes the famous proclamation to Peter Parker by his Uncle Ben (a man who obviously knew his Voltaire), “With great power comes great responsibility” and looks at how that can be twisted and abused.
This is central to Jupiter’s Legacy, a book which has the progeny of the world’s greatest superheroes (or, at least America’s, which is almost always the same thing) portrayed as bored and spoiled rich kids living off the reputations of their forebears. As they can’t possibly surpass their parents’ achievements, they live a life of celebrity appearances, casual sex, drugs and easy leisure. They have inherited the superpowers but none of the sense of responsibility from their elders. They are a Brat Pack of super-children, and you could imagine Bret Easton Ellis writing a novel with them at the centre. Millar’s question is, “If you are born with everything, what reason do you have to do anything?”.
In the meantime some of the older ‘supers’ have ideological differences as to how much they should interfere with the running of the country. Originally forming due to the problems faced by the Wall Street Crash and the austerity which followed, they now live in a country facing similar problems. Some of them believe that only they can bring the good times back and want to insert themselves into government, democracy be damned. The fallout from this conflict is brutal and spectacular, two words which are often applicable to Millar’s work. Once again he looks at the effect that superheroes and their deeds have on everyone else. So, with Kick Ass you had ordinary people trying to be super with no powers. In Marvel 1985, Marvel villains escape the page into the real world, and in Jupiter’s Legacy, people are going to suffer due to the victorious heroes’ hubris. You can read as much or as little allegory into his work as you like, but it is hard to deny the philosophical and political points Millar makes.
But any comic is only as good as its artist, and Frank Quitely is as good as it gets. He is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Grant Morrison, with some beautiful work on WE3, New X-Men, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn and All Star Superman in particular. In Jupiter’s Legacy he creates a vibrant and colourful world where the ultimate beautiful people do little except exist, and Quitely manages to etch this boredom and disaffection into their gorgeous faces. His is a style which is deceptively subtle, although no-one can express the impact of a violent act as beautifully as he can. As with the best comic book writers, his is work which fits, and even defines, the age.
Some dismiss comics as a lesser form of fiction. I know there will be those reading this who roll their eyes and suggest I put away childish things, but comics are what got me reading in the first place and over the years books such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Grant Morrison’s Filth, Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, Brian Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and many more stand proudly side-by-side on my shelves with Kelman, Gray, Kennedy, Galloway, Dickens and Onegin. Words and pictures, it seems natural to me.
And it is something that Scottish writers and artists have excelled in over the years, and continue to do so. As well as Millar, Quitely and the god-like genius of Grant Morrison there is Alan Grant (Judge Dredd), John Wagner (The Bogie Man), Eddie Campbell (From Hell) Metaphrog’s John Chalmers (Louis) and many more. Add to those writers Denise Mina and Ian Rankin’s runs on Hellblazer, and it is clear that this is an area where Scots are making a huge contribution. Some claim this proliferation of talent is a direct result of the legacy of DC Thomson, although it appears that the finishing school that was 2000AD was a bigger influence as many of the above worked for a while on that title. Whatever the reasons, these are writers and artists of the highest order.
Another reason for Millar’s and Quitely’s success in particular could be an obsession with America and Americana that most people I knew from the West Coast of Scotland shared if they were teenagers in the mid-late 1980’s. Both men are roughly the same age as me, and at the time I was not only devouring comics, pulp fiction and the music press, but listening to rock ‘n’ roll and soul, or local bands who were influenced by both. Many of us were wearing Levis, reading, or pretending to read, Kerouac, watching Brat Pack movies, and wanting to look like James Dean or Montgomery Clift. Glasgow had US style diners, and bars with American memorabilia on their walls and American beer on their shelves. We were obsessed with the USA, and developed a clear understanding not only of the American Dream, but where it could all go wrong. This transatlantic love affair is in the work of John Byrne, for instance, and I find it in the work of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. Both share an obsession with that culture but demonstrate a healthy dash of cynicism which is refreshing and is evident in Jupiter’s Legacy. If you haven’t picked up a comic or graphic novel in a while I can highly recommend it. You might just find something you didn’t expect.