Each month(ish) I'm revisiting one of the big comic book crossovers of the last few decades. For my broad rules on what counts for consideration, see here.
The DC Universe in the late 1980s was… odd. The crisis had been and gone, resulting in Superman and Wonder Woman being rebooted and The Flash relaunched. The old Justice League of America had been shut down and the brilliant new “BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!” version was born in Justice League/Justice League International. And in the wake of the Guardians of Oa’s departure the Green Lantern Corps had reorganised, headquartering a half dozen or so of the Corps in their ‘Citadel’ on Earth. Following the short and mostly forgettable crossover series Legends, which was yet another take on the “bad guys turns the public against the heroes” scenario, things had settled down again and the new status quos in all these franchises were being established.
So generally, DC was in a good place, with a reinvigorated universe and creative energy, and Millennium, pitched at the time as another huge game changer, was designed to be its Next Big Thing.
Published by DC Comics in eight weekly issues in January and February 1988. Written by Steve Englehart, with art by Joe Staton and Ian Gibson and colours by Carl Gafford.
In Manhattan Beach, California, a group of conspirators, including supporting characters from many of the heroes’ lives, meet in secret to be informed that an event for which they have been waiting is imminent. This group, the android Manhunters, are observed by Tom “Pieface” Kalmaku, an ally of Green Lantern (yes, his nickname is “Pieface”), but he is discovered, attacked, and dumped on a runway at LAX in the path of a landing 747.
Meanwhile at the Green Lanterns’ Citadel, out of nowhere, representatives of the departed Guardian and Zamaron groups appear to announce an upcoming event of vital importance to the universe which the Manhunters will try to sabotage. The Lanterns must summon all their allies to the defence of The Chosen - a group selected to usher in the next era of human, and universal, development.
But will the heroes be able to prevail when the Manhunters have agents among their allies, their friends, even their families?
There’s no nice way to say this, so I’m just going to go with the least not nice way: Millennium is a mess. Seriously.
What are its problems? How long do you have?
Let’s start with the structure. One of the most common complaints levelled at this kind of crossover is that you have to read all the tie-ins in order to get the whole story. To give the Big Two their due, they’ve made attempts in recent years to address that complaint in recent crossovers, but Millennium pretty much wrote the book on that failing. Huge numbers of vitally important developments happen outside the main series from the outset: issue one ends with a number of the Manhunter spies revealing themselves to heroes who have agreed to help the Guardians. By the start of issue two (only a week later don’t forget), every single one of those scenes has been resolved and significant progress in the overall story has happened off-screen.
The same kind of thing happens between every issue, and even between scenes within individual issues. Major conflicts and significant plot beats are utterly invisible if you only read the main title, which occupies itself largely with the locating, training and activating of The Chosen. I’d be the first to say that comics that aren’t only about huge fight scenes are a good thing, but at least if some of these fights were shown, the reader would stand a chance of knowing what the hell is going on here - one of the most significant successes in the fight against the Manhunters is a combined assault on their Louisiana headquarters. That loss sets up their entire strategy in the third act, but not one frame of it happens in this series.
It’s impossible to make sense of this story as it’s presented. This isn’t only a hindsight view either. At the time Millennium was released I was reading quite a lot of the main DCU titles though not all of them, and I was almost as confused then as I am reading it all again now.
Next; the plot. So the Guardian and the Zamaron have come to Earth because this is where the universe’s next immortal race is going to arise. There’s a strong suggestion in the early stages that the ten Chosen are going to be those immortals, and that it’s vitally important therefore that they be protected. So the pair of them go on a trip around the world telling the Chosen that they’ve been... chosen, and almost immediately things start to go to hell. One of the Chosen, an Iranian woman, is killed by a mob (we’re told - it doesn’t happen in the main title), while the Soviet authorities kill their Chosen citizen to avoid any suggestion of an individual standing above society. Meanwhile one of the Chosen is a white supremacist member of the South African government (apartheid still being in place at this point) and another is the entirely insane Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man. Woodrue, by the way, is selected because their original pick for his spot, Terra, turns out to have died before they arrive, but it turns out that Woodrue, who was there all the time, is actually a better fit for their goals. So, why did they want Terra then?
These are the selections of a pair of cosmic enttities who have been working towards universal perfection for BILLIONS OF YEARS. Yet it’s okay that some of their gang get killed and some of the others are mad or possibly working for the Manhunters, because it turns out they didn’t really need all ten and they’d allowed for some attrition. They actually say that. So they turned up, invited them to the party and signed their death warrants... then just buggered off and left them to be murdered before the heroes arrive to protect them. They then spend a chunk of time teaching the survivors some seriously hokey universal harmony stuff before the Afrikaner gets grumpy and storms off in a huff (which they seem to have expected all along) as the other Chosen get transformed.
And it’s at this point the wheels really and truly come off. After all the build-up there’s an expectation that this lot are about to become truly transcendent. What actually happens is that they’re transformed into what looks an awful lot like yet another superhero team, complete with horrible costumes and codenames: Jet! Gloss! RAM! Extrano! (Extrano???? WTF???) This is what eight weeks of weighty promises and bargain basement philosophy has all been leading up to. At the end, three of the remaining Chosen apparently decide they don’t want to bother and it turns out that’s not a problem either. Though some of that is rewritten in their spin-off series.
Oh yes, spin-off. I told you this was meant to be the Next Big Thing.
Then there’s whatever the hell DC thought they were doing with these characters. Okay, broad brush characterisation is probably the only way you can go if you’re setting up a white supremacist South African as a new ongoing villain in a comicbook universe, but we also have the Aboriginal Australian who inevitably has a mysterious connection to the earth and the Dreamtime, the black teenage girl living in ‘Fascist Britain’ (????) who talks like every bad stereotype Afro-Caribbean ‘street’ character, and my personal favourite, the flamboyant gay Peruvian who tries to commit suicide. It’s honestly hard to work out who this series set out to offend the most.
And in among the big problems there are any number of smaller ones. Just a few to illustrate:
- The set-up of the series and a lot of the publicity around it suggested that some important characters who had been part of the DCU for decades were going to be revealed to have been Manhunters all along. Except what actually happened is that it was mostly very minor and/or recent characters. Anyone with a real history probably was only brainwashed into betraying the heroes (as with many things in Millennium, it’s never made clear what the actual deal is there).
- The background and timing of the whole thing make no sense - after the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Harbinger records the new History of the DC Universe and shoots it off into space (nope - no idea why). She sets it on a course that will keep it away from inhabited planets (so again - why send it into space at all?), but it turns out that the Manhunter world of Orinda is cloaked and coincidentally directly in its path. Somehow rather than being destroyed when it crashed into an invisible planet, it was retrieved by the androids who used the information in it to learn the heroes’ greatest secrets and infiltrate their lives. Except that in terms of the DC timeline the crisis just happened, so how have the Manhunters managed to infiltrate so thoroughly and for so long? Also, just how detailed was what Harbinger put in that history anyway? Did she really record all the heroes’ secret identities and personal histories? Actually, in general, what this series did to Harbinger is one of the most annoying aspects of the whole thing.
- The series is painfully of its time - the US President is identifiably Ronald Reagan (and his mother is a Manhunter…), the political situations in the USSR and South Africa are extremely time-specific, and “Fascist Britain” (????) aside, the goal is clearly to show the DC Universe in sync with our own, which feels odd in the world of Gotham, Central and Keystone Cities anyway, but also quickly made the story itself feel as irrelevant as much of the socio-political landscape it was been placed in. Obviously Englehart couldn’t know what was going to happen to those regimes, or how quickly, but that’s the danger of anchoring fiction so firmly in real world history. And what about that Fascist Britain thing anyway? Is that meant to be his comment on life under Thatcher? Because, yes, it was hellishly bad, but that’s just painful.
Speaking of the creators: Steve Englehart has written some really great comics in his career - his Avengers and Doctor Strange runs are personal favourites and generally very well regarded, he created Coyote, among very many others, and there are many other great examples of his creativity. Millennium, and the spin-off New Guardians which it sets up, are not his finest work.
Joe Staton has also had a long and varied career, and Millennium falls in a period when he was particularly prolific at DC. There’s nothing spectacularly horrible about his work here, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary either. Gibson’s inks actually reinforce his generally quite angular style, so unusual as the pairing is it’s actually quite effective.
As for Gibson himself; he’s one of my three favourite artists to come out of 2000AD, and while his style isn’t to everyone’s taste, I think it’s great. Millennium hit around the time DC used him on a few projects, and slightly ahead of his pairing with Grant Morrison on Steed and Mrs Peel. I’ve often wished he’d done more work in the US, as I’d love to see his take on some of my favourite Marvel and DC characters. A title like this, featuring such a huge cast, should deliver that in spades, but it’s really only in backgrounds and long shots that his own style shows through. Staton’s strong lines dominate elsewhere, though, as I noted, the two deliver a well-matched package.
As always with these reviews, I’ll end by looking at its place in the development of its universe. Millennium came along at an odd time in DC history, when things were really only just settling down after the crisis. DC certainly didn’t need another universal shake-up, so choosing to go a different route with Millennium was wise. But the focus on this ‘next stage’ was pretty much doomed from the outset - they couldn’t actually progress humanity to any significant degree without rendering their core heroes basically pointless - what’s the point of ‘super people’ if the whole race is moving on? So instead we got The New Guardians, basically just another super team with an ill-defined mission to help humanity progress, who lasted twelve issues of their own spin-off before being dispersed, killed off, returned to villain status or basically forgotten. Even the ‘betrayer’ characters weren’t that significant or were explained away. Millennium’s impact was pretty much negligible.
Somewhere - a very long way under the surface - there’s a hint of an interesting idea in Millennium, but it’s sabotaged by the very universe it’s placed in, and then fatally damaged by the fact that it barely tells half its own story. The DCU didn’t need a story like this at this particular time, let alone one with this many problems, so ultimately it all feels just a bit pointless.
THE SNAPPY ROUND-UP:
Best moment: Er...
Key debut: I want to say Extrano, just because I like using the word, but really, none - The New Guardians were never on any level 'key'.
Significant deaths: A few minor supporting characters, a couple of the Chosen. Again, 'significance' is not a concept to be associated with Millennium.
Best spin-off: The New Guardians was its only real spin-off, so I guess it wins this one by default.
Best tie-in: Ridiculously, Legion of Super-Heroes #42/43. Ridiculously because it was set 1000 years after the main story and so should have zero bearing. In fact, given that why does it even exist? Still better than the others.
Best cover: Issue 4 - Madame Xanadu looking suitably moody
Worst cover: Take your pick
On the comic book grading scale: 0.5: Poor (Explanation of the grading scale.)
People you think you know may not be who you think they are. Or even what you think they are. There's been an invasion. But shhhhhh! It's a secret.
(Do you see what I did there?)