Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Duncan Fegredo
Colorist: Peter Doherty
Letterer: Peter Doherty
Mark Millar can be hit-or-miss for me. I don’t deny that he’s a good writer, but sometimes his crasser work is a bit much for my taste. That said, you can usually count on Millar to deliver some fun, and MPH has it in spades.
MPH begins in 1986, with the debut of Mr. Springfield, “the world’s first and only superhuman.” He was unable to control his super speed, and he dug in his heels across a number of states, destroying everything in his path. The police find a pill bottle labeled “MPH” and arrest him. Fast forward to 2014, Detroit. After an undercover drug bust lands him in jail, Roscoe Rodriguez encounters a bottle of MPH, and the pills inside make him fast enough to perceive a hundredth of a second as a few minutes. Roscoe uses his new powers to escape from jail and shares his MPH with his best friend Chevy, his girlfriend Rosa, and Rosa’s younger brother, Baseball. Together, they steal from the mega-rich and give to the poor, but the government enlists Mr. Springfield from his decades-long solitary confinement to help catch them.
At one point during the second chapter of MPH, I said, out loud, “This is just cool!” And it is. Like a number of works in Millar’s oeuvre, MPH has a fun, popcorn movie feel, and it wholeheartedly encourages you to have as much fun as the characters. When Chevy asks Roscoe how they can speak to each other if they’re moving faster than the speed of sound, Roscoe insists that he “Just sit back and enjoy the ride! They must have factored all that s— in!” The message is clear: if the finer details don’t matter to Roscoe, they don’t have to matter to the audience. They take glorious advantage of their perception that the world is standing still, and one of my favorite examples of how is when Roscoe has Chevy take a picture of him standing on a F1 racecar on the track.
Because the MPH allows a user to stretch moments into minutes, a static medium can’t keep up with Roscoe and company. Millar and Duncan Fegredo masterfully let the gutters speak for them. This is evident even before Roscoe’s first dose of MPH. In the prison kitchens, Roscoe is watching dishes, and another inmate starts to insult him. The page ends with a close-up of a pot Roscoe lifts just above the water. On the next page, we get the caption “Two weeks later” and an inmate with whom Roscoe is friendly asks him, “How was solitary?” We don’t need to see Roscoe hit a man with the pot. We don’t need to see Roscoe in solitary. We can very easily fill in the blanks. When Roscoe starts using the MPH, however, and is demonstrating to Rosa and Chevy how fast he is, he carries on a normal conversation with them while zooming out in the spaces between seconds. In my favorite of these panel transitions, Roscoe goes from holding designer shopping bags to showing off a row of gold watches on his arm that weren’t there before. “You want a Rolex?” he asks. “I got ten while you were blinking.”
Millar’s signature crassness appears in MPH, but it isn’t as gratuitous as you find in, say, Wanted or Kick-Ass. You’ll find explicit language, references to sex, drug use, and some extreme violence, but they’re used with enough restraint that they don’t overpower the fun. Roscoe sets only two rules for their super-powered crime spree, but they’re important ones: nobody gets hurt, and they only steal from the extremely wealthy, the kind of people they blame for the current sad state of Detroit, like bankers, CEOs, and politicians. I feel this second rule highlights a dimension of Millar’s work that can be easy to overlook.
Millar tends to include social commentary in his comics, and MPH follows the trend. It’s immensely interesting to me that two men from the British Isles seem to accurately portray the hardship and ambition that comes from living in a place like Detroit. Hal, Roscoe’s crime lord boss, pitches his employees the idea of positive visualization. If they can visualize what they want and create a plan on how to get it, they can have it, which is how he claims he reached his own position. Young people work for Hal because their options are limited and he pays well. While Roscoe is in jail, Chevy tells him that Hal set him up, and when Roscoe frees himself, his first order of business is to take everything away from Hal in revenge. From there, he moves on to what we might call the “one-percenters.” In this way, MPH is a reflection on what powerless and downtrodden people might do when suddenly given a great deal of power, the institutions they would tear down, the wrongs they would right. And it works. It feels genuine.
Fegredo’s figure work, while solid, is not what I consider his greatest strength here. His spaces, for example, are truly impressive. They’re detailed and occupied. There are people in the backgrounds of public places. This might seem insignificant, but it goes a long way to making the world of the comic feel closer to reality when you aren’t looking at a completely empty fast food restaurant. Fegredo’s lines really sell the temporo-spatial distortion experienced while under the influence of MPH. Mr. Springfield, for example, is surrounded by crackling, untamed lightning even as he tries to slow down. Wind backdrafts form panel borders between environments of states Roscoe, Rosa, and Chevy run past on their way from California to New York. Peter Doherty’s colors deserve special mention, as well, because I’m certain he did his part for the distortion, but beyond that, he gives main characters bright, supersaturated wardrobes. Roscoe wears muscle car red, Rosa wears brown and yellow, Chevy has a very green coat, and Baseball wears purple. The color motifs keep characters easily identifiable, and the palette makes important objects like cars and jewelry pop.
I do have some criticisms for this book. Characterization and motivations aren’t especially well-defined or nuanced other for anyone other than Roscoe, and even he isn’t the strongest character one could hope for. Chevy and Baseball in particular seem to have drawn short straws on those scores, and I think the structure of the plot takes a slight hit from that, given Chevy’s eventual resentment toward Roscoe. It has a very warm-fuzzy Hollywood ending. But as my rating can attest, I don’t think these shortcomings make MPH bad. Again, it has a popcorn movie feel, and it never pretends to be anything it isn’t. I offer the same advice as Roscoe: sit back and enjoy the ride. If you can do that, MPH won’t disappoint.