Perhaps the most frequent question I was asked in the weeks following September the eleventh last year was how I felt the attacks upon the World Trade Centre would change the way that I wrote comic-book adventure stories. This perplexed me at the time and I put it down to the fact that most of the commentators who were speaking to me were based in the shell-shocked United States whereas I was writing X-Men and Captain America stories from thousands of miles away here in west central Scotland. How could an isolated incident like this change the way I put fictional stories together? It just seemed like such a bizarre thing to ask.
Various Hollywood directors and producers were posed this same question too and countless articles appeared all over the world pondering whether this marked the end of the blockbuster action movie. My gut reaction at the time was that, of course, it was only natural to remove material from our screens and our news-stands which might be insensitive in the short-term, but losing an entire genre was unthinkable. Of course, Arnold Schwarzenneger’s Collateral Damage could be held back for a few months and Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears could easily swap the Moslem villains for some easy-target neo-Nazis, but it would all soon be business as usual, I insisted. Our appetite for violence is as old and innate as our appetite for sex, food and shelter and so, I was convinced, that after a respectable period of mourning at our keyboards, our hard-bodied heroes would be back with all guns blazing.
But I was wrong.
So fundamentally wrong, in fact, that I didn’t even notice until almost twelve months later that I’d completely changed the way that I write comic-book violence and the work can actually be divided into projects I tackled before and after the events of September the 11th, 2001. Prior to the attacks, I wrote largely action-driven stories with a colossal body count and almost no human consequences. People were dispatched with glib one-liners and the citizens of Metropolis or Gotham City would just dust themselves down after the latest super-powered brawl between their gleaming skyscrapers and just carry on with life as though nothing had happened. However, after three or four days of sitting in front of the television and watching the effect of just two solitary buildings coming down, I couldn’t write this kind of cartoon violence anymore and expect to pass it off as drama. We saw the worldwide consequences of this level of destruction which characters like the X-Men or Spider-Man endured in their comic-books every month and I believe a genuine consciousness-shift took place in the mind of every action-writer on the planet, whether they were aware of it or not.
Post-September the 11th, the bulk of my writing has been character-based and the violence is presented in a completely different light than before. Traditionally, super-people would toss buildings at one another in these four colour books, but now we can now only write these things and consider the people INSIDE those buildings. We can’t have the Hulk slamming into a brownstone anymore without thinking about the two dozen families screaming for their lives inside. We can’t write about cities being leveled by a super-villain’s death ray without pausing to consider the friends and relatives of every single life we snuff out in these adolescent power fantasies. Suddenly, the type of violence we’ve portrayed in the action genre for decades starts to feel slightly out of date and I can’t help noticing that the books which are doing something DIFFERENT after September 11th are the ones which are receiving the most critical and commercial success.
Comic-books have evolved enormously in these last twelve months and the types of stories the most successful books are telling are almost unrecognizable from the kind of comics we might have seen eighteen months ago from both Marvel and their competitors at DC Comics. It’s no coincidence that the primary colored men in tights we all grew up with such affection for have been replaced by the black, more militaristic leathers we might associate with the emergency services. The heroes are more human and the storylines have become unquestionably closer to real life. Breaking the hegemony of the superhero-versus-supervillain comics which have dominated the charts for two entire generations, we’ve recently seen Marvel Comics launching books starring New York cops, fire-fighters and ambulance-drivers to huge mainstream applause.
Even household names haven’t escaped this new wave of thinking as I found when I wrote a script recently where the Hulk trashed a New York neighborhood over twenty six pages and then we devoted just as much space to a detailed examination of the psychological fallout of the fight, including several pages of the casualties being attended to. In the most recent issue of the book, which is out this month, I felt the scene needed FURTHER elaboration and even had Captain America and all the other superheroes attending a memorial mass for the dead in Saint Patrick’s cathedral in New York. It was only when I was halfway through Marvel’s big launch of 2002, The Ultimates versus Ultimate X-Men, that I realized I was using the mutant outcasts as analogues for Muslims and Captain America and his military super-soldiers as a means of representing the United States Armed Forces.
Like I said, my initial feeling when asked whether comic-books should change in the wake of September 11th was overwhelmingly no. My arguments ranged from the fact that we provided cathartic escapism and simple solutions in an increasingly unstable world to the fact that the very PURPOSE of terrorism is to make the enemy change and we should stay strong and resolute. That said, a year to reflect on this and looking at the kind of work I see seeping out of the comic-page (and no doubt later in cinema and television) I think what we may be witnessing is a maturation of the genre where every action has a consequence and what could be more positive than that?
Visit Mark Millar on the Web at www.millarworld.biz.