Most comic book films are based on well-known properties, yet plenty are produced from lesser known or obscure works in the comic book medium. Straight to the Source is a review series aiming to look closely at such works and their merits outside of being the source material for a film. This time, we take a look at The Secret Service by Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen).
I am not exactly a Mark Millar fan.
While I hardly feel that Millar is the Antichrist of comic book writers as some would peg him, there are many aspects of his work worth criticizing. While Millar is a master of generating high concept premises which feel tailor made for big budget action films – which is likely why many of his comics have been adapted to the screen in a relatively short period of time – his comics frequently trade in meaningless sadism and ultra-violence, pandering to the lowest common denominator while tossing in the bare minimum of satire or commentary in an effort to deflect criticism. Worse, much of this sadistic violence is targeted towards women as a way of furthering plots focused on male protagonists, from the brutal spousal abuse story-line from his run on Marvel’s The Ultimates to the exploitative use of rape in the comic book version of Kick-Ass 2. Typically, his comics sit in an uncomfortable nether-realm of being too unpleasant to be entertaining while also being too trashy to offer much in the way of insight on his narrow list of subjects of interest.
To be reductive for a brief moment, many of the deeply problematic elements of Millar’s work stem from his seeming fixation on the need for his work to be seen as “cool.” There is an unmistakable juvenile populist bent to many of Millar’s comics, a desire to entertain — or, at the very least, be talked about — at all costs. There is little humanity to works such as Wanted or Kick-Ass, but plenty of detached irony. These comics are, to utilize an old cliché, without heart, because to have a heart would be to court accusations of sentimentalism and a loss of “edge,” whatever the hell that means.
Given my less than stellar opinion of Millar and his work, it might surprise you find out that I actually quite like Millar’s The Secret Service, a 2012 mini-series published by Marvel Comics’ Icon imprint. Illustrated by Dave Gibbons and co-plotted by filmmaker Mathew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), The Secret Service is a surprisingly fun read which demonstrates a new maturity on the part of Millar. While the comic still clearly showcases Millar’s obsession with pop culture, the comic also shows a a willingness on his part to deal with weightier themes of poverty, family, class structures, and self-worth with an emotional honesty and authenticity unseen in his prior writing. In short, the comic isn’t what I feared it would be, namely xXx UK, where the spy world learns a thing or two from a glamorized version of poverty and gang culture.
The Secret Service tells the story of Gary, a young Englishman living in an impoverished part of Peckham in South London along with his younger brother, mother, and her deadbeat abusive boyfriend. Having seemingly resigned himself to a hopeless future, Gary spends his nights getting drunk with his friends and stealing cars, choices which have frequently get him in trouble with the law. Arrested once again for stealing a vehicle and engaging in a high speed chase, Gary is only able to avoid the consequences of his criminal activities due to the begrudging intervention of his Uncle Jack, who everyone believes works for the computer division of the government’s “Fraud Squad.” In truth, Jack is a secret agent in the James Bond mould, saving lives, sleeping around, and playing with covert technology. Recognizing the potential of Gary, Jack gives him an opportunity to have a meaningful future by training to be a secret agent like himself.
Unlike Millar’s prior work, The Secret Service demonstrates a real sense of empathy on the part of Millar towards his characters and subject matter. Through Gary and Jack, Millar presents a real sense of outrage towards not just the existence of poverty, but the class and social structures which ensure its continuation. In one of the most important scenes of the comic, Gary sits in a jail cell while Jack lectures both him and his mother about their own inability to get out of poverty, utilizing language and rhetoric not-unlike that of the Margaret Thatcher government. The manner in which Gary confronts his own sense of class insecurity and Jack is forced to acknowledge how he has buried his own roots through his involvement in his nephew’s life is at the core of The Secret Service’s narrative, keeping the comic grounded as the plot evolves into a parody of the Roger Moore era of Bond films.
Did I say the Moore era? Sorry, I meant one film in particular: The Spy Who Loved Me. Without giving away too much in terms of spoilers, the villainous plot Gary and Jack end up having to stop is a twisted, celebrity-obsessed take on the plan of the villainous Karl Stromberg in the 1977 Bond film. Unsurprisingly, it is in these plot focused segments that the Millar we all know and, well, react to in various ways shows up, starting with a particularly memorable gag which tips its hat to the already mentioned Spy. While there are still typical bad taste Millar-isms to be found in the comic, there is a far greater degree of focus and restraint on Millar’s part. This may in part be attributed to the work of Gibbons, who’s work finds the right balance between realism and fantasy which keeps the comic a fun read, even when the odd bit of shock violence makes its way onto the page.
I don’t want to oversell the comic in terms of how much of an evolution we see on the part of Millar as a writer, however. The Secret Service is not a one hundred-eighty-degree turnaround on the part of Millar, but rather a refinement of his style which allows him to finally succeed at being both entertaining while having some substance. This refinement though is a significant step for one of comics biggest showboats, enough to leave me looking forward to his next work to see what further progress he may make.
The Secret Service. Originally Published in 2012; Kingsman: The Secret Service TPB Published 2014. Writer: Mark Millar. Artist: Dave Gibbons. Published by Marvel Comics. 176 Pages.