Mark Millar And Duncan Fegredo’s ‘MPH’ #1: Awesome Art, Just Interesting Enough Ideas [Review]
MPH, the new super-speedster book from Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo, debuts from Image Comics this week. And apparently it’s pretty awesome, because it’s already getting its own movie, optioned by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura just one week after Fox bought the rights to Mark Millar and Leinil Francis Yu’s Superior. If Millar didn’t already have a tight-enough grip on the nexus of Hollywood and comics, Superior and MPH movies would give him the metaphorical finger-strength to squeeze it into a diamond. So is MPH worthy of the same treatment as Kick-Ass and Wanted? Please read this next part with the inner voice of Dateline‘s Keith Morrison: Or is Hollywood, much like Roscoe Rodriguez in MPH, moving a little… too… fast? Thank you for playing.
Like many MIllarworld properties, the foundation of MPH is a comic book trope reimagined. With Superior, he re-connoitered Captain Marvel, in Nemesis, he inverted Batman, in Kick-Ass he re-introduced the teenage superhero for the twenty-first century, and in the fantastic Starlight, he’s pickup up John Carter of Mars and Adam Strange right where they left off. In MPH, Millar and Duncan Fegredo set their sights on super-speedsters. And because the name Millar is in the credits, yes, it does ground the concept while turning it on its head. You probably just won a bet with yourself.
MPH begins with an opening scene that feels almost Spielbergian. In 1986, the world’s first superhuman, known only as Mr. Springfield, loses control of his new-found superspeed and destroys property across the country, lucky to have not cost anyone their lives. On his person is found a bottle of pills labeled MPH. Thirty years later, Roscoe Rodriguez, a small-time drug dealer with big dreams tries to make his life better. Detroit, the city where the American Dream died. lands himself in prison, where he intends to fly right and achieve the dreams he pastes on his vision board. But when things really go south, Rodriguez sinks into the despair of institutionalization and turns to drugs. The first drug he tries is MPH. And it kicks off a global crime wave.
As far as concepts go, it’s not that dazzling. I would even argue that it’s not a very strong hook: “Man discovers super-speed drug and starts global crime wave” is actually pretty unremarkable. But “Detroit man discovers super-speed drug and starts global crime wave,” is much better. Like many of his British contemporaries — Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Peter Milligan — Millar is fond of writing about America or putting stories in an American context. Unlike the others, though, Millar dives shamelessly right on the superheros-as-metaphors-for-America tackling dummy. Even though it’s not a sure-fire, slam-bang concept out of the gate, the use of Detroit as the setting and Roscoe’s plans of escape to a better America make it a much more interesting one.
Like many Millar-penned books, MPH leaves the heavy-lifting to the artwork. That’s not a complaint — one of Millar’s best traits as a writer is his awareness that comics are a visual medium, and the art should dominate, and veteran weirdo Duncan Fegredo is more than up to the task. Although his style in MPH is blockier than the lithe, sinewy stuff that made up early books like Enigma, and not as dynamic as some of his more recent output like his work on Hellboy, his methodology is still as aggressively distinctive as ever.
For me, Duncan Fegredo’s style has always been about two things: character and texture. Almost never layouts. Even in all his work with Peter Milligan, a catalog so trippy you need a sober buddy sitting next to you while you read, Fegredo never got too crazy with his layouts. He tilts pages now and then, and has a quirky way with insets, but for the most part, his panel arrangements have always been based on vertical and horizontal borders so straight you could hang a painting with them. In MPH, he seems even more rigid than in the past, with no insets or wacky perspectives, but that’s actually a good thing: the uniformity of the pages help to ground the type of story Millar wants to tell. Within the strict confines of his borders, though, his exaggerated characters and textures give MPH the same quirk that makes everything Fegredo draws look so damn interesting, grounded or not.
There’s a subtle amplification of character design and movement in Fegredo’s work that lends a touch of the bizarre to an otherwise representational style. His characters are natural-looking and mostly realistic, but with a slight overemphasis on faces, positions, and body language that always avoids the static boredom that flatly representational art frequently inspires. Each character seems to have his or her own affectation that can make a dialogue-full two-shot fun to look at, thanks in part to his particular way with hands. Throughout Fegredo’s career, he’s been fascinated with them, but he may be approaching near Ditko-like levels of obsession now, each knuckle visibly working to contort the fingers into epileptic permutations.
His approach to inking and texture seems more refined now, too. He’s always been conscious about the feel of things, adding light cracks and commas to everyday objects to convey the consistency of the surroundings. In some of his earlier work, he applied it too liberally, though, sometimes cluttering his images. In MPH, he’s decidedly more subtle, saving the peeling paint, cracked walls, and wood grains for when those details really matter. In an early scene, Roscoe meets Samurai Hal at a strip club, and with Fegredo’s attention to surfaces, panels with little going for them in the way of action or dialogue still draw you in. Sure, the characters aren’t saying anything that interesting, and their “inner-city” dialogue comes off about as authentic as a S.A.D.D. skit, but there are cuts in the booth where somebody slashed it with a knife! Look!
It seems as though Millar might be going for, ironically, a slow burn with MPH. (I think that’s speed joke number two.) Most of the first issue is getting to know Roscoe, which is neither good or bad at this point. Like Millar does so many other times, he’s playing with moral ambiguities with Roscoe, Detroit, and whatever events lead to a world-wide crime wave, and that’s interesting. But Roscoe’s characterization isn’t exactly subtle. He’s basically just a collection of sure buts. Sure, he sells drugs, but he doesn’t sell to kids. Sure, he goes to prison, but he’s a model inmate. Sure, he’s a criminal in America’s toughest city, but he’s got a plan for a better life. Roscoe is very A-B and two-dimensional, and he’s just not a full character at this point.
But that may be part of the bigger structure of MPH. Millar loves playing with the archetypes that Stan Lee and his collaborators created, and “sure but” characters are how Lee made his toupee money. (Sure, he’s got spider powers, but his aunt’s gonna die!) The alliterative name Roscoe Rodriguez could be a tip that he’s not just trying to rework the speedster in a modern context, he’s doing the same with the classic Marvel approach. Or he’s just not writing great characters. It’s too early to assume that Millar is attempting some arch concept or statement — it’s too early for anything, actually. The first issue is good enough to warrant reading the second, but there’s nothing that screams “Make a movie out of me, you bastards!” The dialogue is unremarkable, the characters aren’t that interesting, and there are only two short splashes of action to get your heart rate up. Story-wise, it’s not necessarily an explosive debut.
Still, Millar always has an interesting take on old ideas, and knows that superhero comics are all about spectacle. In those two scenes where super-speed actually appears, you see what he is genuinely skilled at, and understand why he retains his position as king of the indie superheroes. In the opening, the mysterious Mr. Springfield, unable to control his powers, rips down a road, asphalt curling up in waves around him, whips of lightening licking around his figure. It’s a genuinely arresting beginning. To end the book, we see Roscoe’s first experience with MPH from his perspective, and it’s the opposite: time is frozen, everyone around him captured ridiculously mid-action, not ready for the camera. At the speed he’s moving, fluorescent lights flicker in whole black panels, giving the scene the nervous edge of a real trip into the unknown.
Of course, 90 percent of the credit for those scenes obviously belongs to Duncan Fegredo, but that’s precisely why Mark Millar has more movie deals than comics without rape in them. He knows what his collaborators truly excel at, feeds them with interesting ideas, and stays out of the way because nothing clogs up a superhero comic more than good dialogue. It’s too early to say if MPH would make an interesting movie, but for now it’s just interesting enough as a comic. Not much has happened yet, but with Duncan Fegredo interpreting Mark Millar’s ideas, MPH is worth picking up just to see what could happen.