Mark Millar is a love him or hate him kind of writer. With his bombastic style and seemingly unabashed self promotion (part schtick? part plucky self-deprecation? It’s tough to tell), one gets the sense that Mark Millar may also be a love him or hate him kind of guy overall.
Whatever the case may be, Mark Millar is one of THE BIGGEST NAMES IN THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY. If you don’t believe me, just flip to the last page of The Secret Service, the new mega-miniseries from Millar and legendary Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, where a full-page ad featuring a tastefully Photoshopped composite of v-neck sporting Millar and his platinum-level artist buddies declares just that.
Normally, anyone proclaiming to be the biggest and best of anything sends me off in the opposite direction. Here’s the thing about the grandiosely posturing Millar, however, and why I can’t hate the guy—For all his self indulgence, he ultimately pulls it off and delivers comics that can’t be called anything less than entertaining. You may have to wade through some jarring tirades or made-for-TV asides, but at the core there is always something fresh waiting for the reader.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of The Secret Service, a public service announcement for all the kids out there in the wastes of the Great Recession, emptying piggy banks and counting nickels to get their comic fix. The announcement is simple: When you see the name “Dave Gibbons” on the cover, you buy the comic. Maybe it means you eat ramen for lunch and dinner this week, maybe it means you buy six Avengers books this week instead of the usual seven– Whatever it is you gotta do, when the names “Dave” and “Gibbons” are together on the cover, you do it. End of announcement.
Now like most things surrounding Mark Millar, there is a lot of Mark Millar to be found in The Secret Service.The first eight pages of the issue, to this humble reviewer, came off as a shining example of why some write Millar books off sight unseen. The intro is meant to be a slam-bang, intriguing action thing, and it is on the surface, but there is just something so damn cheeky about the proceedings that’s hard to shake. As the borderline-wacky opening pages hum along, they leave a slight aftertaste of pompousness in the reader’s mouth. When I reached the end of the intro beat, I heard the voice of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady chime in with “Well, isn’t that special.” Sure, the beginning of the issue is full of fanboy chum. It is likely to get chuckles out of the Thor t-shirt wearing set, and I’ll be damned if the sequence wouldn’t probably look good on film. That said, this is a comic book, not storyboards for the inevitable Hollywood adaptation, and the overly cinematic intro takes away from the very strong, very comic book-y story that follows.
Once we get past the intro beat, The Secret Service really comes alive. This is the good, nay great, talent of Mark Millar. The story here fuses strands from the current zeitgeist of the post-9/11, age of austerity Western world. It’s a story about class, society, families, a lost generation, and the seeming decline of once great powers. Millar’s characters feel real, feel now, and spout dialogue peppered with mentions of budget cuts, terror threats, state social benefits, which collectively gel into a really interesting comic book take on the new broken future we’ve all found ourselves living in. It is a shame, however, that these brilliantly written (not too sappy, not too preachy) observations and reflections are simultaneously tainted by more of Millar’s pop-culture dredging. A conversation between two high-ranking U.K. officials meanders from fighting terrorists while dealing with a 30% slash in operating budgets to how J.J. Abrams handled the Star Trek reboot. Some may read that as covering all the bases of the modern would, others may see it as diminishing the very important topics raised just a few panels before. In either case, credit has to be given to Millar for tackling topics, both large and small, that are too rarely touched upon in the comic medium.
Propelling Millar’s script along is the gorgeous art of Dave Gibbons. The living legend gives us what he does best—fully rendered worlds that look like our own, but skewed just enough to feel like anything could happen. Secret Service is a phenomenal looking book, from the Golden Age style cover straight through to the last page. Gibbons’ work especially shines when showing readers the bleak public housing blocks of South London, and the claustrophobic lives of those who live within.
This is likely some kind of comic book sacrilege, but I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t mention that as fantastic as the art is, there are surprisingly a few places where it simply doesn’t work. As with Millar’s writing, I had issue with the opening pages of the book. In these pages, a character who talks about the Star Wars prequels as being “the JFK assassination” of his generation appears, to my eyes, as a man seemingly in late middle age. The result shows a bit of a disconnect between Millar’s words and Gibbons drawing. Thankfully, that’s the only rough spot—The rest of Secret Service is a joy to look at, and leaves you wanting more.