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“Mark Millar” is a name recognizable to anybody who reads modern comics. One cannot deny his enormous impact due to works like Marvel’s Ultimate Universe or the acclaim he has received for works like Kick-Ass. Enter a little-read title from my favorite indie publisher Avatar Press called The Unfunnies. I’m not sure whether to laud The Unfunnies as a self conscious satire of modern comics, or denounce it as supremely immoral and grotesque. While certainly not sinking to the depraved depths of a title like Crossed (shudder), Millar makes one hell of a stab at flagrant exploitation by depicting acts no decent human being would find acceptable to commit or even read about. At this point I’m sure I have whetted the appetites for any of the sick-o fan-boy types who seem to get off on the Gross without an appreciation for what it might mean, but to the rest of us I’d like to talk about the relevant commentary The Unfunnies offers.

I will be breaking one of my personal rules by revealing specific plot points under the assumption that most of you have either read this book already (it debuted in 2004) or will never read it anyway. The Unfunnies can be ordered from Avatar Press, and if you’re in to this sort of thing I recommend buying your own copy and coming back to my review later. For the rest of you, here we go.

The Unfunnies is set in a Hannah-Barbera-esque cartoon world of anthropomorphic animals with cutesy names like “Sally Gator” and  “Birdseed Betty”.  From the first panel Mark Millar is forcing us to acknowledge that comics are simplified, surreal, and most importantly: a world already familiar to readers. This idealism is extremely short-lived, but is perhaps the most integral part of the analysis. When we read comics, we already know basically what we’re getting in to. Whether found in newspapers, monthly subscriptions, or even the “indie” trades that make us feel cool, we expect to see thick, black lines and bold colors depicting a world of good and evil, and we know the good (or better) side is going to win in the end. This is, of course, only natural. Humans love novelty, but we love predictability even more. Nobody wants to take a sip of coffee to find out it was replaced with urine. That would be terrible. Human beings build rigid patterns for perceiving the world and dislike when those sensibilities are challenged. This may not be profound, but it is important to this piece.

Yes. They are doing what it looks like they're doing.

As I said, the world of The Unfunnies is familiar, but this only lasts a few panels. A cute family of crows is unsettled when the police enter to arrest husband/father Moe the Crow on charges of child pornography. Expectations: shattered. This act of immorality (chosen as one universally despised for maximum effect) sets the tone that will embody the rest of The Unfunnies . Acts of increasing depravity continue. Birdseed Betty (former loving wife of Moe the Crow) is forced to prostitute herself to the landlord to avoid eviction for herself and her young flock. A chicken youth named Chick-Chick Chickie is wandering about the town offending adults with the most unsavory language the horrified listeners have ever heard, and Dr. Despicable is convincing patients to undergo life-changing procedures they do not need to satisfy his growing sadism. All the while local policeman Sheriff Dribble is attempting to understand how his once pleasant world of capers and comedic misunderstandings has become so hellish. Millar is contrasting the world comics once were with the world they are quickly becoming.

Somewhere in the first issue of The Unfunnies the reader is shown a rather confusing image. Local mailman Frosty Pete (a penguin) is trading pornographic images via email when we are shown a real-life picture of a human. This is not a drawn image. Rather it is a real picture of a real person. The contrast between the comic and the reality is so abrasive it offends the reader’s eyes. Though confusing, this image is key. I will not ruin any more of the misery by recalling every character’s horrid tale except to say: there are more characters, and their lives are completely ruined in horrid ways.

As the tragedy unfolds the heroic Sheriff Dribble gets closer and closer to uncovering what powers are at work, and the name “Troy Hicks” becomes more frequent. Readers are lulled into expecting a happy ending when our pitiful protagonists begin to see their lives turn around. A silver lining emerges! This is, of course, smashed as it is finally discovered that the world of the Unfunnies is the creative project of one Troy Hicks. After being handed a death sentence in the real world (our world) for raping and murdering 8 children, Hicks hatched a plan to swap places with one his own comic characters, thereby living forever in a comic. Frosty Pete was the unfortunate soul who took the bait of pornographic images sent in an email, and now finds himself on Death Row in our world for Hicks’ crimes. Troy Hicks, now transplanted into his own comic world, is free to wreak any havoc or obscenity he sees fit. The comic ends as Hicks, possessing the body of Frosty Pete, walks down the road with Sally Gator’s newborn baby – presumably to have his way with it.

Here is revealed the ultimate point of Millar’s story. By inserting their own depraved concepts into their work, modern authors have contaminated the once innocent world of comics. Take that Garth Ennis.

I do not know if Millar was trying to make this commentary, or if it was just an interesting by-product of the most disturbing comic I’ve personally read. Given the intentional nature of every aspect depicted I’m inclined to think it was on purpose. If not, I wonder how Millar can sleep with such grotesqueries floating in his head. Now I would like to take a moment to point out that I do not actually recommend this book. Though well written, expertly drawn, and highly provocative The Unfunnies was just too disturbing and gross for my tastes. In High Five! Comics tradition I will end this post with the drink I pair with The Unfunnies. Bourbon. Or whiskey. Just get smashed with something strong.


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