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THE BIG INTERVIEW: FTN chats to comic writer extraordinaire Mark Millar

October 7th, 2015 by Mark McCann Comments

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Over the past decade Mark Millar has become perhaps one of the best known creators in the modern comics industry. Having launched his creator owned line of titles spearheaded by the now household name Kick Ass in 2004, Mark has become synonymous with hit movie adaptations of his work. It seems the Scottish writer can’t create something new without Hollywood optioning projects he’s either working on or just finished.

Mark works with the crème de la crème of industry artists and his books are consistent best sellers. To top that off, his Ultimates books formed the genesis of the modern Marvel movie-verse and he serves as creative consultant to Fox on all of their Marvel properties. Yes, Mark Millar is a very successful, talented creator. Yet, in spite of his many accolades, he’s also incredibly down to earth and a really nice guy.

One of his latest projects: Jupiter’s Circle, spun as a Rockwellian Euro movie blended with Mad Men and the silver age heroes of yesteryear, gives us a unique take on that golden era of American pulp superheroes. It’s your parents or even grandparent’s generation, revealed from behind the curtain of time, but with a superhero slant.

I caught up with Mark to chat about Jupiter’s Circle amongst other things. Here’s what he had to say below:

FTN: Your love of classic icons like the Donner/Reeve Superman, the Carter Wonder Woman and the West Batman seem obvious in your modern work. Jupiter’s Circle feels like an homage to Super Friends. Starlight feels like Grand Torino meets Flash Gordon. Superior is your ode to Christopher Reeve. At this point in your career do you prefer your heroes in the mould of stoic icons from a former era, albeit with more modern human flaws?

MM: It’s funny but, not to do a big name drop here, Richard Donner, when I met him, said to me; what people tend to do in their careers – and they don’t notice it – is they tend to redo their childhoods. So you grow up loving something like Flash Gordon or Superman, or something like that and you redo it. And you don’t even notice you’re doing it.

I have a list of the things I loved in my life and it was Superman, Flash Gordon, Star Wars and (James Bond) The Spy Who Loved Me. And I realised ‘oh my god. That’s what I’ve done!’ So Kingsman is The Spy Who Loved Me, Superior is Superman, obviously, and Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and that sort of thing is Starlight. It’s really weird, you don’t actually notice you’re doing it.

You don’t sit and think, hmmmm, how can I reinvent Buck Rogers for a modern era? You just start drawing on what you’re into. You only kind of get out of your head what you put into it. So because I grew up loving them, that’s where these things came from. They all came from a place I love.

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FTN: It’s very telling. When you read the work you can feel it coming through. I loved how Jupiter’s Circle drew on Super-friends and early Justice League. It feels like you have a genuine love of that period in Superheroes. Has parenthood and introducing your kids to the joys of pulp heroes you grew up with got anything to do with that?

MM: I don’t think so. It wasn’t intentional. I wish I could say it was altruistic, but I think it’s just that I love these old retro 50s sci-fi heroes so much. You know, these indestructibly good heroes, like the Superman archetype. And I guess that’s what I’m in to.

My children, interestingly, have gotten into this kind of stuff too, and it’s weird because I’m a 45-year-old guy. And even my three-year-old is into stuff that a 45-year-old guy’s into (laughs.) All the other kids her age are saying things like ‘I want to watch In the Night Garden’ and my three year old’s saying; I want to watch season three of Batman from 1967 (laughs.) It’s nuts!

Her Batman is Adam West, so I hope I’m not creating a monster here. Some poor soul who exists outside her time. For her, her Wonder Woman is Linda Carter. And she’s horrified when she sees the posters (of Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman) for Superman Vs Batman.

“You don’t sit and think, hmmmm, how can I reinvent Buck Rogers for a modern era? You just start drawing on what you’re into. You only kind of get out of your head what you put into it. So because I grew up loving them, that’s where these things came from. They all came from a place I love.”

FTN: So Jupiter’s Circle is an amalgam of the Justice League adventures from the same period, interspersed with the character dynamics of Mad Men. Would I be right in guessing you have a fondness for that era of American comic culture and maybe further; the optimism and cultural rebirth of that post-war period in America’s own history?

MM: Yeah, I’m not interested in old silver age stories or anything. Because they exist, they’re already there. Back issues exist if you want that sort of thing. But all writers are cultural kleptomaniacs, and I love taking just little things from things that I love like Mad Men or whatever. Or Bewitched, which is a big influence.

I just thought it would be fun to take things from that America that I love. All those lush colours of Bewitched and the Batman TV Show and I dream of Genie. And then blend it with something that’s a European arthouse movie about relationships. I like to mix things up, so the idea that they can be fighting a Starro the starfish and then there’s a gay sex scene on the next page? Well, to me that’s interesting as you’re going to turn over the page and not know what you’re going to see next.

FTN: The comics industry seems to be going in a more progressive, inclusive direction in a bid for broader marketability. You’ve written one of the most prominent gay heroes in comics with Midnighter over a decade ago and now Blue Bolt. Do you think the industry is catching up?

MM: Do you know, I think that comics have always been very good? One of the things that attracted to me to comics in my teens is that they’d always do the kind of stuff people ordinarily wouldn’t do. Even the stuff you wouldn’t see in big Hollywood movies, I think with comics, because it’s such a niche industry, no one’s really looking. So writers could get away with murder. The stuff Alan Moore and Frank Miller were doing during the 80s, it was really quite radical. And they got away with it in the way that you wouldn’t in a movie, because some many people are looking at a movie.

So I’ve always loved that about comics. I always see that as my primary job. I think we live in an interesting time now, where people generally are kind of progressive. Overall, I don’t think people want to kill somebody depending on who they lie in bed with. We live in quite enlightened times. So the idea of a gay superhero, it’s not that it’s boring, it’s just been kind of done.

What seemed interesting to me was the displacement in time. The idea of writing a gay superhero when you never would have been able to write one, or there’d never have been one. And  to me that was interesting, just to play with the time period and judge that using superheroes. I just love doing comics that have never been done before. That was always my plan with these comics.

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FTN: Your comics have an undercurrent of social justice and old school morality in them. J Edgar Hoover’s comeuppance in Jupiter’s Circle #2 for instance, and the Flare’s family taking him back in #4. It’s genuine storytelling that seems to reference a philosophy of acceptance, forgiveness and solidarity in the face of greater adversity. Do you think, with the current global climate, that culturally it’s the perfect time to reinforce this kind of thinking?

MM: Oh, definitely. And I think it’s something to address as well as an industry. I think the idea of characters and storylines as well that give you a wee bit of hope are great just now. And I know that’s funny coming from me, with 90% of what I’ve done being a bit dark. Even at places like Marvel, where I couldn’t use the word ‘damn’ or anything. But there was a moment for me when I went to see Man Of Steel, where Superman breaks Zod’s neck. And I mean, we had twenty to thirty years of superheroes getting darker and darker and darker. I think that was it. That was the point where I suddenly thought ‘enough’ (laughs.) You move on and it’s time to look up again.

And I mean, it felt right in the noughites. It felt absolutely right for things to be dark, because we hadn’t seen that sort of thing before. But by the time you get to Wonder Woman snapping guys’ necks or Superman snapping guys’ necks; it’s like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck snapping guys’ necks, you know? So you think, I’m going to do something more hopeful.

Everything I’ve done in the last four or five years.; MPH, Starlight, the Jupiter stuff. I mean it goes to very dark places, but the heroes have always got to be looking up. You’ve got to feel really good. I think it’s important when the reader closes the book they feel really good.

Unless you’re doing a horror story. You’ve got to feel bad at the end of a horror story. There’s always that feeling that the bad guys have won in all the best horror stories. Like Michael Myers and stuff. But I think at the end of a superhero story you should close the book and feel pretty good about the world.

“I think we live in an interesting time now, where people generally are kind of progressive. Overall, I don’t think people want to kill somebody depending on who they lie in bed with. We live in quite enlightened times. So the idea of a gay superhero, it’s not that it’s boring, it’s just been kind of done.”

FTN: You’re a Jeremy Corbyn man politically and quite vocally in real life. Yet your politics seem subversive and secondary to your characters in stories that could be more heavily political. Do you ever feel a desire to create the next V For Vendetta or are you happy keeping things lighter for the audience?

MM: I think it should just come naturally, you know? I try to do all my stories about politics but never take sides, like in The Ultimates there’s this guy and he’s doing something bad. And life’s not that simple. I mean, you’re in Belfast right now and you can see there’s a line right down the middle.

I’ve got friends on both sides and some are uber conservatives who I really like and really get on with. And I know left wing progressive types who are detestable, you know? So I like the idea of being outside my comfort zone. You know Captain America was like that? When I was writing Captain America for The Ultimates I wrote him like Charlton Heston. And I know he was the Ultimate universe one, but he was much more interesting to me; the idea that; you love him and you drop him into a situation. And there’s a thousand people causing trouble and you drop Cap from a helicopter and he will sort everything out. And he’ll have that funny line at the end of it. He’s that John Wayne America that we’re in love with.

It’s not the Marvel Universe (616) Captain America but, to me, he’s a much more interesting Cap. Because even though I’m a liberal, I used to love Charlton Heston. There was something about him that was just quietly cool. Or, you know, John Wayne as well. So I’m as happy writing guys who are as right wing as left wing.

And it’s funny, because so many people can’t tell my politics. I think comic readers in particular identify you with your characters quite a lot. So when I was doing something like Ultimate Cap people were like ‘I can’t believe what a horrible republican this guy is’. Then weirdly, when I was doing something else, people were like ‘I can’t believe he’s this’. I think a lot of writers write through their characters where as I prefer the characters to inform me.

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FTN: In the age of internet echo chamber ethics you’ve managed to stay on the wrong side of the censorious, yet the right side of the fandom’s many cliques. This extends to your films. How have you managed this – barring the obvious – being a very nice guy?

MM: It’s weird, because all through my twenties I used to try and come up with something that a company might buy or an editor might publish. The minute I started thinking differently, and thinking ‘okay; what would I like to read?’ I think that’s been the secret of my career. I mean, my career took off in the year 2000, and it’s now … I had to think about that there (laughs,) it’s now 2015.

And, so I’ve been around for quite a bit. And I think the secret of appealing to an audience is just being into it. Into it yourself. There’s never a story that I’ve done, even if it’s a bad one and it doesn’t work out, that I’ve not gone into with total enthusiasm. Or else I wouldn’t bother doing it. I think you’ve got to approach all jobs like that.

“So when I was doing something like Ultimate Cap people were like ‘I can’t believe what a horrible republican this guy is’. Then, weirdly, when I was doing something else, people were like ‘I can’t believe he’s this’. I think a lot of writers write through their characters where as I prefer the characters to inform me.”

FTN: The Comic book industry’s treatment of creators has come under fire lately, largely due to the proliferation effect of word and rumour on the internet. You’re a voice for fair treatment in the comics community. Do you think the industry is a fairer place now for creators with companies like Image, than it was, say, twenty years ago?

MM: Oh God, yeah. We’re so lucky. I mean, see when you actually think about, you know, what the Jack Kirbys, the creators of the Flash or Green Lantern, you know any of the things that the big two have turned into millions of dollars, you know. And it’s sad, so many of them (the creators) died penniless. They just didn’t get any of the money and quite often couldn’t get work for the final years of their lives.

We’re so lucky. Anyone who got into the industry after Image and after the Turtles guys (Eastman and Laird) were blessed. If I’ve created Kick-Ass and Kingsman and Jupiter’s Legacy, if I’d created all these things thirty years ago, they’d be owned by Marvel and DC and I’d be lucky to get a ticket to the premier.

So you know, I think we’re in a much better world now. To be a comic book creator now is pretty sweet. It’s pretty good, you know? And the great thing about the internet too, is it does keep people honest. I mean there was a lot of bad stuff used to go on too. I’m a massive fan of a lot of the people, and then I hear quite disappointing things about editors and publishers. Just small cruelties that went on, petty stuff and sometimes big stuff. And you couldn’t get away with that now because social media kind of shames people.

It’s at this point in the conversation that Mark excuses himself. He’s meeting his daughter and Industry legend and regular collaborator Frank Quietly for dinner. Frank will be kept drawing while he’s eating, I’m assured with laughs. The conversation has been so candid and amiable that for some reason (unchecked fan-boyishness, maybe?) I feel the need to offer up my spare room the next time Mark’s over in Belfast. My fiancé would later rightly ask; why would someone who has movies in development of his work want to sleep in our grotty spare room? Fair point.

Mark laughs it off, rightly so, and he’s gone. Just before I can ask my final question.
It would have been this:

FTN: You’ve cited Stan Lee as a personal hero of yours and you’ve created a modern slant on the superhero myth just as Lee did in the 60s. With movies, comics and characters that have won over the mainstream one can’t help but feel that you’ve captured the zeitgeist much as Lee did. With that in mind, what’s next for Mark Millar?

The answer is Huck with Rafa Albuquerque coming this Fall and a global talent search for the next star writers and artists at Millarworld (it’s already started.)

Jupiter’s Circle Book #1 out now. It’s worth every dime.

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I came here in a time machine from the 1980s. The time machine was called childhood. I'm getting back there at all costs! (I also live, love, write, lift & pet cats wherever I may find them.)

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