Posted by: Graeme McMillan on December 30, 2006
Two posts from me last week, and then I’m as quiet as a clam this week. Blame being the only manager at my job, and then add in visits to the INS (sorry, CIS – I keep forgetting that they’ve been renamed now) and the dentist, and you might see why I’ve not had time to get to the store this week, which is a shame… If nothing else, I really want to pick up that new Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane digest, because I’m a sap. But that’s not to say I don’t have a review for you this week. And it’s another trade one, and just like SMLMJ, one that requires you to think back to high school…
This may be something that no-one else in the world has ever experienced, but when I was a kid, there was a period when the, if you will, “high five” was a very cool thing to do. I was, what, maybe ten or something, and it was one of those “Hey, I’ve seen Americans do this on the TV/in movies so it has to be cool” misguided things that we got ourselves into back then (See also: Trying to skateboard after seeing Back To The Future). But with the young child mind and the high five came the inevitable pulling-back-of-the-hand-just-before-you-slap-it trick. And with that trick came the people who thought that it was so funny that they would literally beg you to high five them so that they could try it. The conversation would, inevitably go something like this:
“Because! Come on! High-five me!”
“Why not? Come on! High-five me! Pleeease? Come on!”
(Tries to high-five, only to have the five you were trying to “high” pulled away at the last second, followed by the owner of the five snorting in laughter.)
Such scenes were common in my childhood, and always left me feeling foolish and frustrated. Foolish because, well, I’d known better all along but went along with it for a quiet life, and frustrated because the joke hadn’t worked; It doesn’t really mean anything to deny someone something that they didn’t really care about that much in the first place, because they still don’t really care that much, you know? It’s this really bizarre, empty cheap thrill for the person playing the trick and no-one else.
Which brings me to Mark Millar’s CHOSEN.
As you’re already aware, it’s the end of 2006, and as all of us are prone to do at this most wonderful time of the year, I found myself thinking is auld acquaintances should be forgot and never brought to mind. In particular, I had decided that maybe I’d been a wee bit too hard on Millar this year, and in fact every year since about 2001. Okay, Civil War may be a mess of events with no throughline or internal consistency, but it was a crossover book, and almost all of those are doomed to failure by their very nature. And, sure, Millar may appear to be a bit of a self-obsessed pathological liar when he gives interviews or posts on his messageboard, but that’s just a carefully-contrived public persona to lull his audience into the idea that he’s (a) one of them and (b) their mate so that they’ll continue to support his comics. Surely, I told myself, his writing has to go beyond the workmanlike-with-fascination-for-Hollywood-movieesque-plot-twists. After all, back when he started with things like Saviour and Shadowmen and Insiders, he really seemed to have a lot of promise (Yes, I really was there for the really early stuff; I was Scottish and the right age).
So, I decided to take a look at Chosen. It was the one that seemed furthest from the Millar I’d become overly familiar with through Ultimates and Authority and Civil War (Having ducked his Spider-Man and Wolverine almost altogether), and with Peter Gross on art and the story centering around faith – Something that Millar seems to be very genuine about – I figured that it was my best chance at seeing the Mark Millar that everyone else seemed to enjoy. Unfortunately, Chosen turns out to be an example of almost everything I dislike in Millar’s writing: Lack of subtlety, poor dialogue, and a belief in its own cleverness that isn’t backed up by anything in reality.
As you can tell, I really enjoyed it.
Let’s go with the lack of subtlety first, shall we? The book stars a child who believes that he’s the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. His name? Jodie Christianson. Yes, really. Never mind “Christianson” as a last name – although, really, that goes beyond cheesy even with the “shock” reveal at the end of the book – but his initials are JC? Holy crap. It gets worse, though – The Catholic priest character appears for the first time, following an accident that suggests for the first time that Jodie might be special, and we’re witness to the following exchange between the priest and Jodie’s mother:
“What do you think, Father? How do you think Jodie survived that accident?”
“To be honest, I haven’t a clue, Mrs. Christianson. In less enlightened times, we might have called it a miracle, I suppose.”
(To be fair to Millar, his first draft then went onto to say “Perhaps your son is really the son of God. Or maybe – – the son of Satan,” but he realized that he should err on the side of mystery.)
The dialogue in general is a weakness – As is traditional with Millar’s work, everyone speaks in the same voice, but when half of the cast are meant to be twelve years old, then it becomes a little more obvious and problematic that variety isn’t your strong point. For example, which of the following lines do you think isn’t supposed to be spoken by a pre-teen?
“You rather be in school or something, Jodie? You rather be in history class hearing about Fidel friggin’ Castro and the goddamn Cuban missile crisis again, man?”
“Well, y’know, when Jess Caldwell sustained those kinda injuries – – It just kinda defies the laws of physics, right? I mean, how’s that even possible?”
“Still, all the bowing and stuff’s pretty damn cool. I feel like the Ayatollah Khomeini.”
With this kind of execution, it almost makes sense for the book to be some kind of B-movie on paper, and to be fair, it succeeds on that level. In fact, that’s probably the only way that the climax works – as cheap schlock. Considering the book’s, what, two years old by this point, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that the story ends with a jump forward to reveal that Jodie wasn’t the son of God, but actually the son of the Devil. It’s not the most unexpected twist, because, well, it’d be the first twist you’d expect from the “Is he the son of God?” pitch even without the really, really obvious foreshadowing (The first time any character suggests that Jodie has an important destiny, that character has a horned shadow in the background, for example. See also: Jodie’s miracles often having unforeseen downsides, the mysterious organization involved in Jodie’s past, and perhaps most tellingly, an earlier flashforward to adult Jodie being dressed by others, which was hardly Jesus-esque). It’s a crappy Outer Limits-style conclusion, utterly pointless because not only did you see it coming, but it doesn’t really change anything about the story you’ve just read or give it any further meaning. It’s also somewhat embarrassing considering the final twist of the story – He isn’t just the son of Satan, he’s also the President of the United States of America! Deep political commentary, or complete rip-off of movie classic “The Omen III: The Final Chapter”, wherein Sam Neill plays the son of Satan who becomes the President of the United States of America? You be the judge, but it’s really not deep political commentary, I’ll tell you that much. It’s a very strange way to end the book, and reads almost as if Millar had just gotten bored of the story he was writing and just stopped; there isn’t any real narrative arc to any character here, and no real plot to speak of, either: A kid has magical powers, thinks he’s the son of God and everyone believes him, apart from a priest who ends up believing him. The end, apart from an epilogue where we find out that he’s actually the son of the Devil after all. There aren’t any complications or moments of character or… anything, really. It’s just a straight line, even including the ah-ha, fake! ending; it would’ve been a much stronger statement of Millar’s faith and bravery in stepping outside of his reputation as slickly-cynical-writer if Jodie really had been the reincarnation of Jesus after all, even if that would’ve robbed it of the “twist” that serves as the closest the plot ever gets to a resolution (or even a point).
Weirdly enough, the experiment worked; I really do feel better about Mark Millar’s writing now, just not in the way that I’d expected. This book was so bad that I ended up thinking a lot better of Civil War and Ultimates, if only because they’re more competently constructed and manage to use the limited dialogue and obvious plot twists more successfully. It’s not uncommon for writers to benefit from restriction, but I have to admit that I’m surprised by just how much that happens to be the case for Millar. In other words, this was a kind of Ass collection. The coloring’s nice, though.
I’m not sure what this whole thing says about the worthiness of that whole “resolving to give things another chance” thing, or resolutions in general, but let’s call it a happy endings of sorts for the year, nonetheless. Happy New Year, for those who plan to celebrate.