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Book review: <i>Wanted</i> by Mark Millar, JG Jones, Paul Mounts

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the cover of the book

If this was fractionally less unpleasant and more visually stylised, it would be Body Bags, my previous titleholder for the Combined Best Art Plus Writing Which Makes You Need Several Showers Afterwards award.


A torso shot of the main character, suited & masked up. Not a lot of detail, and doesn't really provide any character clues, but A- it demonstrates Jones' skills, and B- this is a trade paperback, so all the individual comic covers re included inside anyway.

The plot

A twenty-four year old manchild, unhappy with his white-collar job and manipulative, unfaithful girlfriend, is "rescued" from both by a female assassin. She introduces him to an underground cabal known as the Fraternity. The Fraternity are, in essence, every supervillain from every comic, twenty years after they banded together and rid the earth of superheroes once and for all. Having done this, they used magic (I think) to erase the public memory of a world with superhumans, thus turning the junk-mail-coloured world of comic books into the grey grimness of today. Only the Fraternity remain as a kind of omnipotent Cosa Nostra-come-Skull & Bones, to whom no act, regardless of how reprehensible or outrageously indiscreet, is beyond covering up and laughing about.

Our "hero" is brought into this circle because his father was a Fraternity member called The Killer - "the greatest assassin in history," apparently, and recently deceased. The son's arrived just in time to witness a coup d'etat within the cabal - it seems some villains tire of life in the shadows, growing fat from organised crime, and want to rule the world in a more...traditional comic-book fashion.

The good

Well, it's an interesting cluster of conceits. As the Wachowski brothers did in The Matrix, Millar (Wanted's writer) simultaneously taps into several enduring themes of empowerment. Here, as in The Matrix, we have the daydream of rescue from a worthless job and lonely life via a woman in tight leather pants. We also have the stirrings of long-dormant powers, these mad skillz forming the key to a secret world where a training-montage sharpens them into lethal weapons. In addition, Millar serves up the fancy of membership to an underground society whose handshake leaves us with limitless wealth and the nod to do as we wish without consequence. It's a calculatedly intoxicating brew.

JG Jones' fantastically crisp linework brings this brew to our lips (well, eyes, really), and Paul Mounts' digital colours are the heady vapours that rise from the surface. Mounts is one of a new breed of computer colourists with such a mastery of the technology that it's hard to decide what's more impressive - his range of effects or the deadline he's employed them within. But Jones is the star. He combines the solid, parallel-line shading technique of Jason Pearson with the machine-drawing skills of Dave Johnson, but is better at the human form than either, including that ever-tricky bastard, the face. The hero of Wanted is clearly modelled on Eminem, his father on Tommy Lee Jones, and from every angle these portrayals are rarely less than convincing. Slim Shady is particularly eminent in the central character, both in appearance and personality (I can only assume that Wildstorm Comics know likeness rights to the letter, because apparently Eminem was considered for the film role, so it seems unlikely the comic could have escaped his attention).

The basis of this review was that I recently saw the film version of Wanted, and thought it could be an interesting comparison with the original comic. Well, the comic has it over the film in a number of ways. In the book, the Trinity/guardian angel character seems to be a cross between Jada Pinkett-Smith from Reloaded and Halle Berry from Swordfish (and yes, these tepid film references paint a clearer picture of the book's demographic than even the plot synopsis), but Angelina Jolie is actually a lot more effective, not to mention attractive and likeable. The book's "casting" of Tommy Lee Jones, is still less effective - sure, he's a great character actor but is too idiosyncratic and somehow...moral, to fit the likeness of The Killer, though at least, through Millar's writing, he's the only person in the comic who achieves any level of dignity.

However, it's the "casting" of Eminem (and adoption of his persona) which is the best example of the way the book's tight focus beats the film's schizophrenic haze. The main character in Wanted, the comic, is rudderless white trash who lacks the will to implement his daydreams, but, once empowered, becomes a bratty, trash-talking sociopath with a bite to match his bark. It's Slim Shady in a ninja suit, basically. He doesn't give a fuck if you like him when he's a white collar schlub, and as soon as he gets a gun in his hand he's gangster in a way no film would have the balls to dare you to identify with. Yet, through all this, and despite its background chatter of comic-book traditionalism (supervillains, parallel worlds, mad scientists, spandex, in-jokes), the book version of Wanted is much ballsier than the film. Millar and Jones know exactly what experience they want to deliver - included in the collection are several examples of Jones re-drawing finished pages to achieve a more satisfying, for instance, head-shot, or to satisfy Millar's appetite for last-minute pacing changes. The point I'm making is that the comic is a two-man labour of love with authorial pleasure evident in every word balloon and immaculately delineated facial expression, packaged to perfection and delivered piping hot on the doorstep of the demographic. The film, by comparison (or on its own, really) was a scatterbrained mish-mash with a couple of good bits and plot holes you could drive a garbage truck full of exploding rats through.

The bad

Imagine if the only people who watched movies were teenagers. Seriously, wander beside me through the garden of fantasy and out my ivy-draped gate into a parallel world. Now look at Spiderman three. Back home, what was the audience for that? Seventy-five percent teenagers? If we put twenty-somethings who should know better under the teenage banner, I reckon the figure sounds solid. Imagine, then, a world where there are still buckets of money to be made in the movie industry, but that the entire medium of film is considered disreputable, juvenile, trifling and beneath contempt by most of adult society. Who, therefore, (and this is important) DON'T PAY ATTENTION TO IT. You reckon movies are exploitative trash now? Imagine a sealed-off universe where teams of unappreciated hacks back out lowest-common-denominator crap for an audience too young to discriminate and desperate for newer, cheaper thrills. Now imagine the kind of creative minds who would struggle their way out of the ocean of tepid pabulum to run around on the beach of authorial dominance waving their half-evolved dicks at each other. Welcome to the world of the mainstream comic industry.

Which, being largely American, still obeys the basic tenets of the country's self-censoring mindset. Which is to say you can show people's brains exploding in extreme close-up, and fetishise firearms out the hoo-haa, but an exposed nipple makes everyone queasy. So that takes care of the artwork. Writer Mark Millar, like his contemporaries Ellis and Ennis, is every bit as scrabblingly desperate to shock as the teenagers he writes for, and every bit as willing to go to uvula-tickling extremes to do so. The sad part about Wanted, alongside Ellis' Authority, is that has the embarrassing impression of itself as a clever undermining of superhero cliches. Instead, it ticks off every yawnsome plot point while wading through a sewer, idly ignoring any remnants of the mythic ideals which ring in our psyche and make Superman a seller eighty years after he was born. In short, this is a revolting piece of work - both the artwork and writing create an atmosphere where physical revulsion is the ultimate reaction and stunted emotional self-censorship evident in every exchange.

The main character is a whining, sarcastic, hateful, purposeless, lying little shitbag with a ridiculous haircut BEFORE the character-free character of Fox introduces him to the Fraternity. In a matter of pages he becomes all that plus a casual rapist, homicidal maniac, trash-talking brat and general all-round homicidal, sociopathic fucktard. And this is who we are honestly supposed to be identifying with. Now, I suppose you could argue that this character represents our inner potential for chaos (a la Fight Club, to which the intro of Wanted owes a few things), and the daydream of a world with all constraints of morality and the rule of law removed (a la the West's otherwise mystifying Mafia entertainment fetish). There are one or two moments when the book seems to be aiming for this, in particular a scene where OUR HERO walks into a police station and blows away every cop inside in cold blood, just because he can. There is room for an exploration of the link between the "INVULRNABLE" videogame cheat, schoolyard massacres and the innate human lust for annihilation, and I can't see why a comic wouldn't be the place for it. But Wanted is not that comic. Wanted, despite a handful of post-modern pretensions to the contrary, is a stock-standard teensploitation power-fantasy wank-o-thon set in a world apparently without redeemable characters of any kind.

Yet Millar lacks the stones to carry his "all villain" premise to its logical (relatively speaking) conclusion. Just as the art employs ridiculous excesses depicting violence but gets all Comics Code Authority the second we enter a bedroom, Millar's hero is a psychotic rapist whose superpower is murder, yet, rather than risk having an honest-to-God villain take centre stage, we're treated to laughable 'character development' scenes regarding his Daddy problems. We are honestly intended to cheer on this homicidal moral vacuum just because he has rejection issues; by the time "Tommy Lee Jones" appears as the long-lost father it already seems like a pathetically hopeful piece of casting, because there is simply no way in this world or the next Mr. Jones would consent to play a blood relative of this deeply foul character. Good heavens, no wonder the movie was so confused.

(In case you're bothered, here's the score:

Wanted: the movie has...
-Angelina Jolie,
-Angelina Jolie's bottom,
-An explanation for our hero's intial "power," although not for-
-MORE THAN ONE incident where people shoot bullets out of the air. Yes, that's correct, an event so laughable that they used it as a joke on the TV show Red Dwarf in 1993 is here presented for your edification at least three times.
-A narrative identity crisis, resulting in-
-A main character with one or two redeeming attributes-
-Which he negates somewhat by non-metaphorically accusing the viewing audience of being pussies for not murdering people. Yes, that also actually happens.

Wanted: the comic has...
-Eminem (plausibly and effectively) in the lead role,
-A parallel-reality setting where the world is run by groups of rich, evil bastards intent on our exploitation (but different ones),
-Better conceived, more satisfying action scenes which are also, if you can believe it, easier to swallow than the ones in the film. Yes, the sequence where Eminem blows away a couple of dozen super-goons in the time it takes his partner to finish saying the word "cocksuckers" is FAR less ridiculous than bullets which shoot in a circle, knock each other out of the air, and prank call your Grandma on the weekend (those wacky bullets!)
-A 'hero' who makes your average suicide bomber seem like a rational, politically savvy, emotionally sympathetic individual who, heck, may wreak screaming vengeance against the infidels, but doesn't expect you to listen to him bitch like a little girl who's papa wouldn't sit her on his knee at tea-time.

One could defend Wanted by saying that Millar was merely pandering to the dark desires of his audience, and that the highly talented JG Jones was merely illustrating this nonsense to a professional standard. But one would be pushing shit uphill. Millar and Jones are quite obviously showing off, having a huge amount of fun, and trying to shock a reaction from the deadened nerves of their audience by tearing down conventions like the crazy madd dawgz they are!!!!! (Except sex and drugs and real human emotion obviously we can't show that.)

Alan Moore and Frank Miller, mentioned in a previous review, took superhero comic audiences by the throat and demanded an exchange whereby the latter would rethink everything they took for granted about the medium, and in return the former would provide them with material which adults could read without laughing with derision or crying with shame. That was ten years ago. Wanted couldn't be any more revolting and adolescent if it was a spoof-stiffened sock reeking with tinea on a pile of second-hand porn mags beneath an unmade bed with BMX sheets. This is two adults getting their rocks off in a race to indulge teenagers' worst proclivities.

What I learnt

That, with an artist of sufficient talent, you can effectively "cast" celebrities in your comics. How did everyone miss that for so long?

In short

Title: Wanted
Author: Mark Millar,JG Jones,Paul Mounts
Publisher: Top Cow Productions,Image Comics
ISBN: 978-1582404974
Year published: 2007
Pages: 192
Genre(s): fiction, graphic novel
Review Type: