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Arts feature

Comic-book writer Mark Millar interviewed

Peter Hoskin meets a comic-book writer who’s conquering the multiverse

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

In purely demographic terms, Mark Millar isn’t too different from the rest of us. He’s a middle-aged, wiry-haired, churchgoing Scot with two kids. He subscribes to The Spectator, and enjoys his ‘weekly treat’ of reading the latest issue in the bath. So, unless you have excavated this copy from the yellowing stack in your dentist’s surgery, he could even be scanning these words at the same time as you — right now.

But demographics, often inadequate, are practically useless when it comes to Millar. He may tick the box marked ‘Spectator reader’, but he actually spends most of his time on bizarro worlds in distant corners of the multiverse. He’s surrounded by assassins dipped in blood and sadists wrapped in capes. Everything is sweary and kinetic and extraordinary. And the reason why? Millar is a comic-book writer.

This is a good time to know about Mark Millar. The first instalment of his ten-part superhero saga Jupiter’s Legacy has just been published to a chorus of ringing cash registers and roaring adulation. And it’s all much deserved. The book’s basic idea is enticing enough: how will the children of the superheroes handle their legacy? But it’s the execution that really stands out. One page-turn begins with the caption ‘our children grew up to remind mankind of everything we could ever hope to be’, and takes us from the sepia, square-jawed 1930s to a coked-up, modern-day Los Angeles. It’s ambitious, adult and beautifully illustrated by the artist Frank Quitely.

Jupiter’s Legacy is my attempt at something like Star Wars,’ says Millar as he settles into our conversation and a glass of whisky in a central London pub. ‘It’s a gigantic story with a cast of about a hundred characters, and will hopefully still be a franchise in a century’s time.’ His words reflect those in his book, as he excitedly leaps between subjects in a single bound. One second it’s Götterdämmerung and the death of the superheroes. Then it’s sales figures and profit margins. Jupiter’s Legacy, he points out, has enjoyed the ‘highest-selling launch for any creator-owned title’ in two decades.

‘Creator-owned’. Highlight those two hyphenated words, for they mean a lot to our hero. There was a time when Millar mostly bashed out comic-book panels for Marvel, the US mega-company behind Spider-Man, the Avengers and thousands of other spandex warriors. And while this was a rewarding period for him, it also aggravated an itch at the back of his brain. ‘Around 2003,’ he explains, ‘I suddenly starting thinking, I’m never going to own these characters. I can’t really take them further.’ So he took a look at Marvel’s business set-up and realised ‘not only that it could be replicated, but that it should be. Instead of regurgitating Marvel characters, it might be interesting to make something new.’

The result was an independent label called Millarworld and a comic-book called Wanted. And thanks to the internet, as well as to Millar’s ability and existing popularity, both were able to compete with the American bruisers. ‘I would still be working for someone else if it wasn’t for the internet,’ he reckons. ‘It levels the playing field. Suddenly what I’m saying online is just as loud as what Warner Bros and Marvel are saying online.’

And ‘loud’ really is the word. The Millar brand hasn’t just spread itself across the web, via his Twitter feed and online forum, but also into our newsagents and cinemas. He publishes a comics magazine, where he sometimes debuts new work. And, from Wanted on, his books have been snaffled by Hollywood. As he puts it, ‘Jupiter’s Legacy is, I think, my ninth book, and every single one of the others has either been made as a movie, is currently being shot, or is going to come out as a film.’ The next one of his in cinemas is Kick-Ass 2, out on 19 July. Its forerunner made $100 million at the box office, helping Millarworld to sell a million comics.

If you have seen any of the films, or read any of those comics, then you probably know the score. But if you haven’t, then suffice it to say that the bad guy in Kick-Ass 2 is called The Mother Fucker. One of the heroes is a young girl who wields samurai swords and four-letter insults with smiling proficiency. Limbs are lopped off, and we — or at least some of us — laugh along with it. And Millar laughs along, too. When I ask whether his work is sometimes a little bit, y’know, puerile, he flashes a grin. ‘Absolutely! I feel my tastes haven’t changed tremendously since I was 15. What made me smile then makes me smile now.’

It’s striking how hyper-formative Millar’s younger years seem to have been for him. He credits his upbringing in the struggling industrial town of Coatbridge, and the influence of his parents — who had both died by the time he was 18 — and of his siblings, with sharpening his aspirational instincts. He recalls his defeat in an inter-school debating competition at the hands of a young Michael Gove, ‘one of the first times I really felt ashamed’. And he tells of how an elder brother had him convinced, until he was about eight years old, that Superman was a historical figure. ‘On one level it sounds like child abuse, on another it’s actually kind of cool. It’s quite nice to have a few years of your life thinking that superheroes are real.’

Perhaps this helps explain why, for all his punk spirit, Millar is very respectful of the superhuman past he is building upon. He readily admits that practically all his characters are variations on existing archetypes. ‘Kick-Ass is my version of Spider-Man, the geeky teenage figure who’s trying to help people and develop some sense of responsibility. Nemesis is my take on a billionaire like Batman, dressing up to fight poor people at night-time, just for a laugh.’ And so on. He simply makes sure to add what he calls ‘a post-modern twist’. ‘So in Kick-Ass, for instance, the bat symbol is changed to a Facebook alert.’

Mark Millar’s eyes widen as he talks about his hero Stan Lee, the comics writer who helped grow Marvel in the 1960s with titles such as Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. ‘We’re living in a world that Stan could only dream of back then,’ he says. ‘Comic-book guys are the next dotcom billionaires.’ And this appears to be his goal now: the creative vitality of Stan Lee but with added film rights, freedoms and financial heft. Yes, this Spectator reader has found his own archetype and he’s adding a postmodern twist. Find out what happens next in your local comic-book store.

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