I hated you first

Rereading Insiders by Mark Millar and Paul Grist. 

So what about if it happens the other way? What’s the result when a writer who wants nothing more than to write Superman and Wolverine and Judge Dredd has to write socially relevant stuff about the real world, instead of the reverse?

You get Mark Millar and Paul Grist’s Insiders, that’s what happens. A six-part indifferent story of life in a high-security prison that sputters into life, only has any passion or conviction when depicting violence, and ends in the middle of something while claiming it’s finished. Perhaps not the least distinguished series in Crisis – that accolade is a close contest between by Myra Hancock and David Hine’s Sticky Fingers and Michael Cook and Gary Erskine’s The Real Robin Hood, undistinguished tales of breadline Britain – it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. I’ve been in two minds whether to write about it at all, but I’ve covered Millar’s work before in this blog so I thought it worth the effort. And it makes for a short blog and a week taking it easy.

Crisis 54 p5 panel

When you Wikipedia Millar’s career, it’s surprising how long he spent scraping by. He first came on my radar in 1990 with Silo in 2000AD, a horror story that I remember as much more sophisticated and minimal that anything that followed. By 1991, when he wrote Insiders, he had a host of Future Shocks behind him and was the new writer on Robo-Hunter in a run that’s not fondly remembered by fans. (I liked bits of the Verdus story, oddly imaginative standouts in the action like Captain Carnival, but the tone was aggressively at odds with the character’s history.) He began writing Red Razors in the Megazine that year, as well. His tendency to fast-forward straight to the cool carnage bit of any story, a very 90s comic trait, was becoming apparent and wasn’t yet disguised by his way with cool lines and big moments. I think I described his writing on early Swamp Thing as straight-to-video horror, and that comes to mind again here; a low-budget auteur who understands that his audience wants what it wants and doesn’t much mind if they’re getting it cheap.

Without his props, then, without the iconography of superheroes or the blank cheque of sci-fi, the young Millar is embarrassingly naked. If I’m remembering right he had family members in Barlinnie, the prison outside Glasgow where Insiders is set, so I’d guess he’s based the story on their stories. We begin following Frank MacMurray on his first day inside for a 12-year stretch, covering the same ground Stanley Kubrick did with such spare elegance he could skip the next couple of years in A Clockwork Orange. Millar does it, like he does almost everything in here, with a moment-to-moment caption monologue. Haircut, showers, beating from warders, indifference from cellmates, all the usual. Frank is a POV character. Apart from one page’s monologue, which I’ll return to later, he doesn’t have a personality. He’s our window on prison, which might have worked if there was anything you didn’t know being said about prison.

Crisis 55 p8 panel

The second chapter tells us why Frank’s in prison for 12 years; murder, it looks like, though that’s a light sentence for the crime. The tone is meant to be remorseful, a man horrified at his own capability for transgression, but there’s a palpable sense of keep reading, this is the good bit coming up, he beats her to death with an adjustable spanner and he’s giggling! Giggling! Chapter three gives us captions from Frank’s visiting wife, who used to be beaten by him and now gets beaten by the neighbours for what her husband did. There’s pathos there, trying to hide her injuries to spare her husband’s feelings of guilt and his absolute impotence, but it’s handled in an overblown, confrontational manner. And chapter four is the diary of Frank’s cellmates Tam, a matricidal gay intellectual whose voice fails to convince of all three counts. He killed himself a chapter earlier rather than be released, and here we learn that his lover was killed by corrupt warders. In all these chapters there’s been a snatch of subplot, of stuff going on behind the scenes, and in chapter four a pair of warders grass up the killers and are grassed up by the provision governor in a scene where the pacing, dialogue, camera angles, lighting are all direct from any TV prison movie.

In the penultimate chapter we’re introduced to the villain, a warder bandaged with burned from having boiling soup thrown over him in an incident mentioned in the previous chapter. We’ve never heard of him before that, and here he is in first-person captions telling us he runs the prison. His deputy Hughes outlines plans to kill the warders during a riot, which the prisoners also seem to know about. Frank’s wife’s left him. The warders are killed. And in the final chapter, in the rioting prison, Frank discovers the villain hiding in the art supply storeroom and kills him.

Crisis 56 p16 panel

In New Statesmen, I loved the polyphonic narration and the unanswered questions and the main plot unfolding that was only seen in glimpses. But that was a much longer and denser work, and while some of what was obscured was down to poor storytelling, most of it was by design. Here, the narration swaps from character to character because Millar can’t conceive another way to tell the story, to show what’s inside his people’s heads. The unanswered questions: why did the warders kill Tam’s cellmates/lover? Why did Tam kill himself? How do the prisoners know there’s a riot coming? How does the big villain end up hiding in an art room? Why does Frank kill him? There are no hidden answers to these questions. It feels like the writer hadn’t thought of them, or hoped you wouldn’t notice.

Crisis 58 p11 panel

And those are only the surface dissatisfactions that come through on a single reading. On retreading, there’s never any sense of life entombed and incarcerated. Once Frank’s past his first day he’s just there to observe uncomplaining until his eruption at the end. Apart from his wife leaving him, which arouses a brief twang of disgust about homos, there’s no inner life. There’s no idea how long he’s spent in there, how long the story takes; it could conceivably be about a fortnight but is probably months, maybe a year. We actually miss the whole riot, picking up immediately after it with a news report recap, and that could have been interesting. And a story that sets out to be about shades of grey, about men who deserve their punishment and the warders who aren’t much different from them, defeats itself by introducing a last-minute evil bastard who’s horribly killed at the end.

Crisis 56 p18 panel

Unlike Millar’s writing, Paul Grist’s art hasn’t been on much of a journey of improvement over the last 20 years. It hasn’t needed to. Here, in the service of an amateur’s script, it’s just as individual, as distinctive, as effective as it is today. He tells the story so well, in tight angles and slumped bodies and oppressive interiors, close-ups of faces lined with emotion, that it’s an effort to notice his work. The border between realistic, meaning detailed, and cartoony was a hot zone back then, any crossings an excuse for a firefight. Grist bestrides it so surely there’s no room for argument; this is realistic cartooning. The legend was that the colourist, David Hill, was a mate of Millar’s with no previous experience who learned the job as he went along. I don’t know if that’s true but you wouldn’t conclude it from the evidence. Perhaps not entirely in sympathy with the art, the colouring does a good job spraying grime onto everything, adding extra angles of institutional yellow and military green. The additional modelling on Grist’s faces isn’t necessary but doesn’t really hurt.

I’ve defended little-known works by Ennis and Morrison from Crisis as being more than juvenalia, as being worthwhile in their own right. Insiders is the opposite. It’s Mark Millar learning to write, learning that his nasty imagination, the tortures he likes to inflict, his boundless faith in corruption, all need a well-written structure around them to actually work. You can’t just write what you think are the good bits. If you do, they’re not good bits. And there aren’t many good bits here. Only one, in fact; the one that I quoted for the title of this blog post, the one I said I’d return to. Millar excels in writing bad people. His good people, like the Ultimates, are only good because they’ve learned to direct their sociopathic tendencies. Frank’s monologue at the end of the first chapter, reprised at the end of the last, is from the heart. The bad know they’re bad. They know they suffer for it, that anything done to them is justified, that they’re on the wrong side of concepts like justice and fairness, and they hate us for it. It’s an odd viewpoint to carry into superhero and not one you’d expect to become so successful it shapes the Marvel universe in comics and on film. But it has.

Crisis 54 p8 panel

Insiders by Mark Millar and Paul Grist appeared in Crisis #54-#59, and has not been reprinted.

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