"The crow was sucking cock for a reason": The Unfunnies

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 issue 5.

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. At the end of his run, 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?

Mark Millar says of this book, “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 Superman: For the Animals?

Some Mark Millar bibliography:

The Simpsons

Tales from the Millardome

A Facebook thing

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6 Responses to "The crow was sucking cock for a reason": The Unfunnies

  1. Ibrahim Ng says:

    I agree and disagree. I did not like THE UNFUNNIES one bit. However, I can see what Millar meant for: his most noteworthy comics (THE AUTHORITY, ULTIMATES, ULTIMATE X-MEN, MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN) have injected the cynicism, cruelty and bleakness of real life into a superhero universe, and it’s his X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN work that show our heroes living in a hateful world often dominated by nasty people with shocking power and horrifying capacity to misuse it terribly. But he uses this effectively in X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN: because the heroes inhabit such a difficult existence, their optimism, heroism, compassion and valour are significant and meaningful.

    THE UNFUNNIES has Millar taking his aesthetic to the farthest it can go: injecting every unpleasant, unhappy, horrific, cruel inhumanity he can imagine into a previously innocent existence. ANIMAL MAN explored what would happen if a writer with morality and integrity interacted with fictional creations. THE UNFUNNIES explores what happens if a writer with nothing but a hateful desire to see others suffer for his amusement interacted with his creations.

    I don’t like it, but just because I don’t want to listen to what Millar has to say doesn’t mean he shouldn’t say it, or that he hasn’t said other, more meaningful and worthwhile things. Like WANTED, I’d categorize THE UNFUNNIES as being unsuited to my tastes, but I wouldn’t indict Millar for it since he’s written many things that serve to counter and stand against THE UNFUNNIES.

  2. fourthage says:

    Let me say firstly that I would never suggest that an author “shouldn’t” write something. But I am fully willing to evaluate a piece of work so negatively that I might wish I had never bothered to experience it.

    As you say, The Unfunnies, like Wanted, and like some of Millar’s other work, is predicated on injecting cynicism, cruelty, and bleakness into the world of superheroes. He is not alone in doing this, of course, and most comics since the 80’s have been influenced by this strategy (too influenced, I would say); nor would I regard him as the most original or adept at it: Moore’s Pogo tribute in Swamp Thing 32 from 1985 in many ways prefigures both Animal Man 5 (the Wile E. Coyote issue) and The Unfunnies. Millar is the most notable modern practitioner of this, though, and has in large part made his career on writing comics that push it to greater and greater extremes. Sure, this is Millar playing with his aesthetic and pushing it to newer, more ridiculous heights, but I find it an unpleasant, repulsive aesthetic experience. What’s more, I see nothing thoughtful, clever, or redeeming about it. It seems to degenerate into brutality towards the characters and the readers, as so many of his other books do.

    Perhaps I am not giving Millar enough credit. Whereas most comic writers abuse characters in this manner that has become so typical because it is an easy way to tell a story that will titillate readers, Millar approaches the admission that abusing and debasing our fictions like this is in some way like abusing and debasing ourselves. Perhaps what he’s really playing with is how much of this stuff we the readers are willing to take; and, based on his popularity, the answer seems to be quite a lot.

  3. Ibrahim Ng says:

    No, I think you’ve given Millar credit for the work you enjoyed, which is as fair as anyone can be. He has a certain approach, applied to varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s just embarrassing. I didn’t buy WANTED or THE UNFUNNIES, I read them in the bookstore. But I did buy everything else he wrote.

    I don’t think Millar’s approach is necessarily debasing if it’s executed with a level of respect and understanding towards the characters involved. Millar understood that Spidey is a hard-luck hero and the worse Spidey’s luck is, the more it means when Spider-Man triumphs over all the horrible things Millar can throw at him. It’s the same with ULTIMATE X-MEN: the X-Men withstand torture, humiliation, being forced to murder, but they pull through with their morals and integrity intact, and Millar’s methods make both Spider-Man and the X-Men seem more heroic. But those were corporate icons. Millar couldn’t get away with going as far as THE UNFUNNIES did (nor should he have been permitted to with company-owned superheroes).

    Anyway. I was very moved by your words: ” … 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.” You just summed up why I love superheroes perfectly.

  4. Zero Urrea says:

    I heard about THE UNFUNNIES from its TVTropes Page and searched about a month before I finally came across it in a comic shop. I read it, saw just how messed it was (as your review, TVTropes and other sources promised) and reviewed it as well. Just like you said, it’s a world of brutality unleashed by its creator, that demented Troy Hicks. I still, in a way, appreciated the comic though for the interesting story idea as a horror fan. But yes, I was not amused and was plenty disgusted by the various problems the characters undergo all building up to Hicks’ (sadly) triumphant descent into his domain.

    I’ve recently taken an interest in Millar, looking at other works like WANTED and KICK-ASS. And I came back to this review and looked over your review again, particularly looking over the particularly heartfelt (and very much appreciated) comment about making our world more like theirs with meaning and morality. Although, the more I thought about it, the more I think that maybe THE UNFUNNIES does manage to conjure that message of “making a world less like ours” and such in a way. (I apologize for the wall of text that follows.)

    Particularly, reading THE UNFUNNIES made me think of cartoons in a similar manner, particularly HAPPY TREE FRIENDS. That’s also a saccharine world corrupted by violence befalling a collection of Care Bear pastiches in the most gruesome manner. It’s like the Internet people who brought it life also brought it death in both realistic and over-the-top movie manners of murder. Everyone can die in such a world, including the young baby Cub, and everyone can kill, including the PTSD-suffering Flippy. HTF is considered a pinnacle of Internet comedy despite the fact that the numerous deaths are often unpleasant but are clashed with the pastel colors, creative methods of execution and black comedic touches (like having one character’s organs arranged like Tetris blocks).

    THE UNFUNNIES brutally deconstructs such a concept that stuff like HTF puts forward. Some of these characters do suffer dark deaths in HTF-like manner (such as the method of how Birdseed Betty kills the landlord Jungle Jim when he offers to do godawful crap to her kids for money), but most of them just suffer in other cringe-worthy ways such as Pussywhisker’s plight. Troy Hicks’ penchant for sexual destruction is also thrown into the mix, demonizing the characters as degenerates that partake in his hellish vision of a “good life”. Suddenly, it stops being funny when little Chick-Chick-Chickie gets sniper-shot and Pussywhisker gets snipped. It’s all the meaningless violence accompanied by sickening, amoral smut that (for the most part) strips all possible humor (making the various sides of “eh, reader?” more annoying and creepy when Frosty Pete/Troy Hicks would utter it).

    You have the character of Troy Hicks out in the open, showing the sadistic bastard right then and there as the horror befalls Moe the Crow and others. Unlike Grant Morrison in ANIMAL MAN, who ultimately shines a hopeful light on the situation, Hicks doesn’t apologize or even try to reason with his creations beyond “I needed to get out of jail and I like killing”. He revels in watching others suffer and having various monsters already in-verse do their bad deeds. So in a way, there is contempt for the reader, albeit a reader who’d normally revel in HTF-like stuff. (You could possibly also say that it’s extended to cartoons that thrive on amusing injuries like Wile E. Coyote in his neverending quest to catch the Roadrunner.)

    However, my view of the work is probably a stretch at best and possibly missing the point at worst. I figure such as a concept was probably not involved in writing THE UNFUNNIES since Millar, more or less, said he wanted to do a work that would have the same effect as “a previously unseen Little Mermaid sequel where King Triton is held up for child abuse/pedophilia”. It’s also pretty much just a horror story about a creator suffering a breakdown and raising hell in his own created world. But reading it again, I started thinking about the implications, especially since I have seen HTF and other relatable programs/Internet shorts for a long time and have observed similar patterns in THE UNFUNNIES (not to mention how this is also the age of the “torture porn” film and so on).

    I am not trying to discredit your take on the comic as I agree with that aforementioned quote about meaning and morality, wherein the idea of corrupting a world more stable ours has disastrous consequences. From what I have seen of ANIMAL MAN #5, I can see the profound metafictional implications (brilliant review by the way) that make me, as both a reader and aspiring writer, ask some questions about the relationships with characters. It’s just that looking at this work once more made me question that same person/character relationship where the plight of the HTF character is seen as humorous right to the grisly end. By its end, THE UNFUNNIES leaves a bad aftertaste but also a profound thought, even if it is entirely due to timing and my experiences.

    I am sorry once again for the wall of text (and that it goes out of the domain of comics). Your review just really got me to thinking.

    • fourthage says:

      I think a basic problem in trying to think about The Unfunnies is that it is a work of art that provokes profound disgust; that sense of disgust and corruption is very much a part of its message. We may note, too, that Millar’s intentions, no matter how base (I hadn’t heard that business about the Little Mermaid, though it reminds me of this PBF strip), need not enter into our evaluation, and I’ll readily admit that my disgust for this book and with Millar on the whole lately have surely influenced my criticism.

      Your point that Millar’s comic is here, as in Wanted, exhibiting contempt for a very specific reader is well-taken: in Wanted especially, the reader who suffers the ultimate abuse is the one who read to the final page. If you threw the book down in disgust before that point, you’re not the one getting fucked in the ass. It’s easy to feel repulsion and hatred for the book, but hey, you’re the one who read it, and that means some part of you reveled in this fictional abuse.

      The real horror of The Unfunnies is that Troy Hicks can’t live on and torture his creations by himself. It takes two – him and you, the reader. You’re his partner and just as guilty as he.

      • Zero Urrea says:

        Good lord…I didn’t even consider that…

        Please excuse, if not disregard, my post. I was reading WAY too much into that work at the time. In retrospect, I feel kind of stupid for having written it at the time. I apologize.

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