I still read the occasional Warren Ellis book because even if I sometimes find him distasteful or a little lazy in his writing, he usually is still dealing with the kernel of a good idea. I don’t think I can say the same of Mark Millar, and I don’t know why I sometimes still read his work. Millar has called The Unfunnies the “most uncompromising thing” he’s ever written and says he’s “immensely proud” of it ; I think it’s repulsive and wholly representative of him as a writer. When I discuss it below, I’m going to spoil it, to the extent that it can be spoiled. You should never read it.
The Unfunnies is set in a world that is a pastiche of a Hannah-Barbera cartoon: it’s populated by such carefree anthropomorphic animals as Legal Begal, the canine lawyer; Pete the Penguin, the avian mail-man; and Moe the Crow. The world takes a turn for the worse near the beginning of the book when Moe is arrested for possessing child-pornography and molesting children. Moe the Crow’s wife, Birdseed Betty, is reduced to prostituting herself to pay the rent and feed their kids while Moe the Crow is in prison.
When the police question Moe the Crow about how he got started on his pedophiliac ways, he tells them it began when a guy on the internet, Troy Hicks, contacted him and started showing him child porn. In the mean time, the whole world is becoming more depraved and corrupt: Birdseed Betty kills her landlord when he tries to evict her; Sally Gator has her no-good, drug dealing daughter, Allie Gator, murdered; Moe is repeatedly gang-raped in prison; and someone is killing children.
The police track down the child killer, and it proves to be Pete the Penguin; but it’s also Troy Hicks. Troy Hicks is revealed to be a denizen of the “real world” – a comic writer and artist who created the strip The Funnies , of which everyone in the book is a product. Troy was a pedophile, a child killer, and a satanist, and he was caught and sentenced to death for his crimes. As part of some kind of occult ritual he was, while on death row, able to write himself into his comic and swap places with a character – Pete the Penguin. Now, he has his run of the cartoon world, and Pete is on death row. When the cartoon cops close in on Troy, he butchers them. Troy – in the body of Pete – is in charge now.
So The Unfunnies is a book about a creator who not only savages his creations, but makes them as depraved and disgusting as he is. We’ve seen similar considerations of the relationship between a writer and his fictions in Moore and Morrison, and the key text to compare to The Unfunnies is Morrison’s Animal Man , especially .
There, Morrison tells the story of a thinly-veiled analog of Wile E. Coyote transported from a carefree, but violent, world (more a Merrie Melodies world than a Hanna-Barbera one) to Animal Man’s “real” world, where he is subjected to an agonizing life and death. The character struggles to understand why the world is the way it is and on what ground he is subjected to such torment; the issue, like Morrison’s entire run on Animal Man , meditates on our relationship as writers, readers, and inhabitants of the “real” world with our fictions. , Morrison comes to the conclusion that it is not only cruel but stupid to try to make our characters and their world more like ours; that, on the contrary, we should make our world more like theirs. We should not make them more amoral, but ourselves more moral; not make their lives more meaningless, but our own more meaningful; not treat them mercilessly, but be more merciful to them and ourselves. And Morrison indeed ends issue 5 and his run by being merciful to his characters and giving them happy lives, or at least happy deaths.
But the fictional Grant Morrison that appears at the end of Animal Man is, as the man himself would presumably like to be, concerned about his characters and feels some responsibility towards them. Indeed, in some way the whole run is less about Buddy Baker than about an author trying to make sense of the things writers and readers inflict on their characters. Troy Hickman feels no such compunctions, and brutalizes and corrupts them for his own benefit. And boy, the things he does to them.
Issue 3 of The Unfunnies is mostly about Pussy Whiskers, a classically trained actor cat who loses his job and is reduced to standing on the street wearing a sandwich board that advertises for a carpet store. He’s told by his doctor he has testicular cancer and has his testicles removed; it turns out the doctor was lying and he was healthy. Pussy Whiskers’ wife, Polly, says she’ll leave him if he doesn’t give her a baby, and she forces him to find men for her to sleep with.
Only, later she reveals that she’s on birth control and is manipulating him because she likes casual sex. In the last issue, we learn that the first man Pussy Whiskers found for her had AIDS – just before that man rapes Moe the Crow in prison.
Troy Hickman’s creations become broken and corrupt because he is broken and corrupt. They are pedophiles, rapists, and child killers because he revels in such depravity and feels contempt for his own creations. This is not the kind of question I’m normally inclined to ask about a text, but on the other hand this is a text about the relationship between a fiction and its author: what does The Unfunnies and Troy Hickman say about Mark Millar?
, “My wife got about six pages into it when she was reading it in the bath the other night and she just threw it at me. She said it was the most horrible thing she’d ever read in her life and she didn’t want to think this sort of s**t even went on in my head. I tried to explain that the crow was sucking cock for a REASON, but it actually does sound kind of creepy saying it out loud.”
I guess it’s to his credit that he sees a “reason” here. But like The Unfunnies , so many of his books hinge around treating his characters and the reader with contempt. Telling a good story so often means brutalizing and demeaning them; good dialog means mockery and swearing; a good ending means spitting in the reader’s face. Wanted , one of his most well known books, after all, ends with Wesley looking the reader in the eye while fucking him in the ass.
It’s a grotesque, violent, disgusting re-imagining of Buddy’s fear, awe, and enlightenment at seeing the reader in Animal Man 16:
It should be no surprise that Wesley looks on the reader with hostility and contempt, given the nature of his own treatment and the book he’s in.
I guess I hate The Unfunnies so much is because it is so self-conscious about what it’s doing. The corruption and abuse of the characters is so thoughtful and intentional. It happens because the writer is not just a dick, but a monster, and it shows that Millar can think about his characters and fiction in the same way as Morrison does – only he chooses not to or sees things differently. Knowing that makes it much harder to read his work and simply dismiss him as a bad writer rather than, like Troy, a corrupt human being. And it makes me wonder – how was this guy ever Morrison’s protege? How did this guy ever write Red Sun or have the compassion to write a book like ?
Some Mark Millar bibliography: