There are a couple of reasons I wanted to spotlight 1985. First is obviously I’m nothing if not topical, and there has been much discussion this week (was it this week? I don’t know I’ve totally lost track of time…) of Millar leaving Marvel on a permanent basis to concentrate on, um, more lucrative creator owned projects. Frankly I don’t really blame him, that’s where the dollars have been and clearly it’s where his passion lies right now. Second is, well, especially from me he gets a pretty hard time on the MOMBcast and plenty of that “lucrative” work has left us pretty cold. In particular of course his recent “Sausagefest” sorry I mean Egocon and CLiNT magazine rather got our backs up with his ill thought out public statements. You know the sort of thing, “GREATEST CONVENTION IN THE UK EVER” or “ONLY MAGAZINE DEDICATED TO COMICS IN THE UK”, that sort of low key thing. He’s verbose and divisive and frankly of late, I have found this tiring. This is a shame because when he is at his best, he is a talented and thoughtful writer of superhero comic books.
1985 by Millar and artist Tommy Lee Jones is by some way my favourite of his Marvel efforts. Published in 2008 it is the story of Toby Goodman, a young boy with a troubled life. His parents have split, his deadbeat Dad seems unable to get his life together and his mother spends much of her time trying hard to ensure that her bright but wayward son doesn’t follow in those slacker footsteps. There is of course a stepfather who tries to connect with Toby, but at 13 the only connection he feels is with the comic books that he’s been using as his escape since the break up of Mom and Dad.
The setting for the book is small town USA which unlike small town UK actually has a comic book shop for troubled teenagers to loose themselves in. Over here the only outlet for such teens are tree found pornography and shooting small mammals with air rifles. Well that and drugs. For Toby though the 24 page 4 colour escapism is what helps him get away from the mundane reality of his everyday life.
As the title suggests the story takes place towards the end of Marvel’s Secret Wars story line and it’s while purchasing copies of this book that leads to some amusing conversation in the comic book shop between Toby, the owner and the opinionated shelf stacking assistant, which highlights the tumultuous change that was happening in the medium at the time. In fact the whole book reflects Millar’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject and also reflects a deep love of the medium. Especially it seems the Marvel universe. In fact it’s easy to suspect that Toby the narrator of this tale is not a purely invented character. It feels to me that the author is using this as part confessional love note to the books of his youth as well as living out a possible long held fantasy. Its moments like this that helps me find a bit of perspective with this guy. At heart he’s kinda like the rest of us, he’s a fan and a fantasist, who spent much of his youth daydreaming about being part of one of the fantastic adventures he’d just read. Possibly. Or possibly my recent illness has given me a chronic overload of whimsy that I’m reading into this book.
So Toby and deadbeat Dad meet up and they go for an obligatory Father and Son walk in the woods. Dad you see is hard up and has had to sell his car, and is unable to do the fun things you might expect on an access visit, like visiting McDonalds or going to the movies or staring silently at a pond of ducks. This leads them to stumble across the house of Goodman senior’s childhood friend, which has recently been purchased by a group of very unusual characters, apparently intent on turning it into a old peoples home, or hotel, or something. After foolishly refusing their gift of a number of vintage comic books the new residents have discovered in the attic, they turn for home, only for Toby to catch from the corner of his eye a mysterious and sinister figure. Who is the Red Skull.
You see the villains of the Marvel universe have created a portal through to the “real world” and the portal just happens to be in the basement of Toby’s father’s childhood friend (who just happens to be Clyde Wyncham, Mark Millar very own version of Where’s Wally, appearing as he does in Fantastic Four, Old Man Logan, and Kick Ass ((thank you Wikipedia)). Happy to be free of the constraints of the Marvel universe (in short no spandex covered Superheroes to kick their asses) they start on a rampaging orgy of evil.
In the real world it seems their violence is somewhat more, well real, than in the comic books of this era, here its rendered in some detail, with, given the characters and subject matter, some bravery. I’m not a huge fan of Tommy Lee Edwards’s art as a rule. It’s a personal thing but I find it at times a little too fussy, and even (for want of a better phrase) messy, but here it just fits with the story, and gives an unreal, surreal even, feel to the tale and to the increasing amount of unexplainable and increasingly graphic violent acts being carried out around the town. As well as graphically violent though the art also offers spectacular views of these characters with a judicious smatterings of large slash pages which are used regularly but to fine effect.
In particular the battle between the Hulk and Jugganaught early on and the later appearance of Galactus have a striking impact on the page, but the villains are thrown at the reader at such a rate its impossible for any but the most hardcore to keep up with every character who makes an appearance. But their dispatches of their victims are almost shocking at times, and rather than feeling gratuitous, it adds weight and gravitas to the situation the townsfolk find themselves in.
Of course in a town over run by Supervillians its down to the biggest geek in the village to help save the day, so while Dad rushes back to the Ole family homestead to save Ma, Toby sneaks into the Wyncham house and busts through the portal to try to convince the Avengers to come back to save the day. Lee Edwards’s art changes at this point to give a very clear distinction between the two realities which works well. In fact it reminds me a little of a toned down version of Christian Ward’s style, which makes this monkey particularly happy. After some faltering efforts to attract the attention of firstly the Avengers at Avengers Mansion and the Fantastic Four at the Baxter building he makes his way to the Daily Bugle to convince Peter Parker that he’s not just a mad kid and there really is a world in need of saving.
Of course what follows is a massive Hero vs. Villain smack down. Day saved the Avengers make their way back to the Marvel universe, with a few casualties, of what proves to be an emotional climax in tow.
It’s a fantastic read, once picked up it’s almost impossible to put down again, I think its fair to say I love this book. The pace and the writing are absolutely pitch perfect and the story has a fantastic balance of the wide eyed innocence of childhood comic book fandom, and the dark sinister reality of what these villains would do given a real world setting. Given it walks down a path that is now a well trodden, that of putting the fantastical world of superheroes into a real world setting, it adds something new with the focus on the bad dudes of the universe rather than the heroes, and once the story starts to peak offers a truly horrifying vision of what living with these lunatics would actually be like.
It’s a story that makes me feel I wish that Millar would produce work of this quality rather than constantly trying to reinvent the wheel as he seems so keen of doing of late, and secondly when he does, let his work do the talking for him. Because frankly when it’s as good as this we don’t need him to tell us how great he is.