Speaking with the Authority:
A Mark Millar Interview
Mark Millar is currently the authority on how to create superhero comics for the 21st century. Taking over from Warren Ellis on The Authority (WildStorm), he's pushing the boundaries of where superheroes are going and what they'll do when they get there. With an avid interest in politics and the Silver Age of comics, his comics are smart and edgy and are geared to be the wake-up call the industry has needed. He wants to save the industry, even if it's just one comic at a time. Barb Lien takes this opportunity to speak with Mark about his past works on such titles as Swamp Thing and Superman Adventures and to see where he gets his divine inspiration.
Barb Lien-Cooper: It's become almost a cliché that you've been a Superman fan almost all your life. What other comics were you reading as a kid?
Mark Millar: We had a booming industry over here when I was a kid in the 70's and 80's. There were literally dozens of comics produced in the UK and many of them sold upwards of half a million copies a fucking week. Almost none of this stuff was superhero material. Most of it was humour or Boy's Adventure stuff like Billy's Boots (a ten year old possessed by the ghost of a brilliant footballer whenever he wore the dead guy's dusty shoes) and Gorgeous Gus (a handsome, footballing detective who, suspiciously, never had a girlfriend — only a gang of young lads he used to hang around with). I first discovered Marvel Comics through black and white reprints produced here by my old pal Dez Skinn for an outfit called Marvel UK. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was one of his editors for a while.
BL: Was it always your ambition to be a writer?
MM: Yes and no. I actually wanted to be a forensic scientist like The Flash when I was five or six. Not because I was interested in poking around corpses or anything, but because I was precocious little prick and liked saying words like "forensic" when I was still small enough for it to be scary and impressive.
BL: If I recall, you had to quit University because of financial problems. Did you just sit down one day and think, "I'm going to write comics instead" or was it a more gradual process?
MM: Well, I always wanted to write comics, but I just didn't see how it was possible. I ended up as an expert in post-war politics and economics, but only because I couldn't figure out a way into the comics biz without moving to London or New York. Alan Moore worked from Northampton, which kind of inspired me, but the fact that Grant [Morrison] lived ten miles away and still worked for DC was a huge inspiration. Both my parents died when I was in my teens, and I just couldn't afford to finish the final year of my degree. I was so broke it's terrifying to think back on it. Comics seemed like the only thing I might at least have a shot at, no qualifications really being necessary in the traditional sense.
BL: You did some time at 2000 AD, didn't you? What was that like?
MM: 2000 AD was great and, in those days, the required route for anyone who wanted to play with American super-heroes. I did a short stint on some black and white indies and then learned my way around a script writing things like Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper at the same time Garth and Warren were emerging. Americans have it so fucking lucky with their eight part stories. I started off writing two or three page stories which needed a beginning, a middle and an end plus a good twist. An eight page back-up was like a bloody graphic novel to me.
BL: Didn't I read something about how you and Grant Morrison became friends, something about how you played fanboy and interviewed him, but you brought a friend along because it was an intimidating prospect? What's the story on that one?
MM: I was intimidated, but I thought Grant was a bit mad. He was going through his 'Bizarro persona' at the time. Did you ever hear about that? As a shamanic exercise, he purposely said the precise opposite of everything he meant for six entire months and broke his vocabulary down into "Me am not want drink of Vodka", etc. It was very, very fucking scary, and his girlfriend of some years had a breakdown during the course of the exercise. He was a good sort, though, and we hit it off almost immediately thanks to my sterling knowledge of Silver Age DCs.
BL: Did you think that Saviour would become the big critical hit that it did or did that take you by surprise?
MM: Growing up reading comics starring successful billionaires just kind of makes you think you'll be successful about whatever you do, doesn't it? Frederick Wertham said that this was a negative aspect of comic-books because it gives kids unrealistic expectations, but I say it just gives us unlimited hope and potential. I just grew up assuming I'd have a mansion, a butler and a helicopter, even though I was shit-eating poor in the west of Scotland — one of the most deprived areas of Europe. The success of The Saviour just seemed to make sense at the time. It's only in hindsight I realized what a nice start it was and how beneficial the awards were.
BL: Why does the comic seem to cut off mid-stream? Financial problems with the comic book publisher? Does it ever bother you that the work seems unfinished?
MM: It doesn't bother me at all. Some creators are wedded to concepts their entire career, but I'm always day-dreaming about the next thing I'm working on.
BL: Was it meant from the start that you'd take over Swamp Thing after your collaboration with Grant Morrison on it or was it more complicated than that?
MM: No, that's precisely what the plan was. Grant, very graciously, just came on board for the first four issues to make sure that DC selected me above anyone else pitching for the gig (a few other writers had been mooted and I doubt I was the most likely). I'd tried to get a couple of books in the past, but was over-looked. Grant's name attracted a lot of initial interest in the book too. It was very, very decent of him, actually.
BL: Your work on Swamp Thing is now considered to be, after Alan Moore, THE issues to read. Was it hard to think up new storylines considering the character had over 100 issues behind him and almost God-like powers? Were you hampered by the book's historical baggage and critical reputation or did the history help you write the character better?
MM: Taking over something shit means you can write something half-readable and still be acclaimed. The difficult thing about Swampy was that, even at it's lowest ebb, it was still better than 90% of the books out there. If you didn't put your heart and soul into it, you were going to sink like a rock. The standard of excellence going back twenty years, I suppose, was a great inspiration. I'd rather try and measure up to the BEST creative teams than the slackers. Yeah, Swamp Thing was difficult to write (he was a vegetable who lived in a bog, after all), but Moore said something interesting to me when I was thirteen years old which I've never forgotten; "There's no such thing as a bad character, my lad. Just bad writers."
BL: One of the best things about Swamp Thing was your take on the character of Abby Holland as a disappointed and world-weary woman. Everyone else portrayed her as a sort of hippie chick. What inspired you to break with how Abby's traditionally been portrayed?
MM: I just really fucking hate hippies. It sounds awful, I know, but I really, really hate them. On reflection, I must admit that I do like their attitude in some ways. Making an effort to change the world for the better is always a noble thing, but I just wish they'd dress better and bathe occasionally. Avoiding water and wearing shitty clothes changes nothing. This is what I've tried to hammer home in The Authority. Covering yourself in ethnic piercing and wearing a sack-cloth just lets the bastards know who to hit with their riot-sticks.
BL: You're actually quite good with female characters in general, as evidenced by your recent Wonder Girl story in Wonder Woman. Do you like writing female characters? How come you do it so well?
MM: I don't actually try and write male or female characters in ANY particular way. The characters I've mostly written up until now have all been established, to a greater or lesser extent, and I genuinely feel like I know them the minute I see them. I know, for example, what kind of food The Authority's Engineer likes. I know what programmes Lois Lane would tape when she's having supper with Superman in Milan. My interpretation might be wrong, but I think any writer worth his salt can look past the four colours and see the essence of ANY character. That's what separates writers from 'typers', I reckon; typers being that strange middle-class between script-writers and office typists. There are plenty of them in the business.
BL: The character known as The Word in Swamp Thing reminds me a lot of the Spectre. Is that a co-incidence or was it meant to be the Spectre but you couldn't use him because of the DC/Vertigo wall?
MM: I didn't understand Vertigo when I was working there because I'd never worked in DCU, but Vertigo was created so the readers could do something autonomous which wasn't constrained by superhero continuity. It's a brilliant idea, but try telling that to a twenty-three year old who just wanted to play with the toys. I kept introducing DC characters into the scripts which had to be changed to slight variations. Alan Scott/Green Lantern became Black Box, The Spectre became The Word and so on. Again, it was just a combination of enthusiasm and stupidity on my part.
BL: How did you and Grant Morrison manage to write an intelligent storyline for Vampirella, anyway? What attracted you guys to the project? Was it simply because it was offered to you or was it more along the lines of the challenge of trying to take a character who's devolved into a Page 5 girl and trying to do something original with her?
MM: Like I said, all characters are worth a shot. My main criteria for working somewhere is the personal conditions. Regardless of how much money they're paying me, I CANNOT work with arseholes. David Bogart, the Vampi editor, is one of my best friends in the business. Grant travels to NY just to hang out with him. David, through sheer personality, got Alan Moore, James Robinson, me, Warren, Grant, Mark Waid and a shit-load of other decent writers onto a character everyone else had given up on in the space of 12 months. He'll be running Marvel in five to ten years. He's brilliant!
BL: Tell me about Aztek. I admit that I didn't buy it during most of its run, mostly because of the cover art, but when I finally did, I was hooked. Why wasn't the book given more of a chance to find its audience? It must have been frustrating to have all these spare ideas for the character, only to find out you wouldn't be able to continue with him.
MM: We launched Aztek in '96 when the market had just halved in size. Pretty much everything was being canned at the time, and we received the kill order around the time issue four came out. The reason, quite simply, was low sales. It was doing around twenty thousand by that point and, back in '96, that was the break-even point where books got canned. There's no point keeping something around that's losing money. It didn't reach an audience because it obviously wasn't good enough. I'm pretty ruthless about my own stuff. It just makes you try harder next time.
BL: Similarly, like every comic book writer, you've had a few ideas/proposals shot down in your time. Do the ideas eventually show up in other places, do they just sit in the back of your mind, or do you just abandon them?
MM: The only real rejections I've had all occurred in the space of a single summer and that was last year when Phantom Stranger, Secret Society of Super-Villains, and The Saviour were all turned down after reaching various stages of development. It's the right of an editor and a publisher to choose which books they're going to back and which direction they're going to take the company, I suppose. It inspired me to reach out to other companies and other media and I've had a good deal of success on the process. It would be crazy to complain.
BL: I've always liked the idea of happy accidents in writing. For instance, one hears something in a bar, and it's the perfect line of dialog for a character. It seems from what you've told me about Aztek that watching The Prisoner on TV was a happy accident that happened to affect Aztek. What about that show got to you, and did you know it was creeping into the plot of Aztek when you and Grant Morrison wrote it?
MM: The honest truth is that I was trying desperately by that point to find some way to save the book, and an overhaul seemed like the best way of turning it around. You'll notice that every trick imaginable was tried between issues eight and ten, and I think the desperation forced me to be very inventive. The Prisoner has always been the favourite TV show of anyone exhibiting good taste for thirty years now for precisely the same reason. You just never knew what was coming next, and I've tried to apply that to my writing in general.
BL: You did a couple of excellent issues of The Flash. I know that character is a favorite of Mark Waid's and Grant Morrison's. Is he a favorite of yours, also? What is it about that character that seems to appeal to authors?
MM: Super-speed is a lot like flight in that it's one of the most basic, least explanatory super-powers you can think of. Everyone understands The Flash, and, I suppose, he was lucky enough to have been given one of the best costumes in the industry. He's also generally been written and drawn by some of the key creators in the business. The Flash just always seems to be ahead of the pack in terms of whatever new direction superheroes are about to go. Perhaps it's because he's the comic book realization of Mercury himself, Mercury being the God of creative thought and communication. It makes sense he's going to appeal to people who think for a living.
BL: You wrote a great fill-in issue of the JLA, featuring an auxiliary branch of the Justice League consisting of members of the 1980s JLA/JLA. I always thought the idea had mini-series potential. Did you write the story with that thought in mind? Also, you brought the character of The Atom back from being a teenaged boy to being the professor/scholar he originally was. Did anyone give you a hard time or even notice that change in characterization?
MM: Nobody complained at all, actually. I think everyone was just sick of all the character changes which had been happening at the time, and they appreciated us taking him back to his Physics Prof roots. It isn't hard to figure out what works and what to chuck out when you're tackling a character, and it's obvious that the teenaged Atom thing didn't make any sense for the character. As for the Justice League Reserves, I REALLY didn't see any potential in bringing these guys back in a book of their own. Milk a franchise too far, and it's going to fall to its knees and die.
BL: You wrote the all-ages Superman Adventures for awhile, which I always thought was the best Superman book out there since it seemed fresher than the other Super books. I know you've always liked Superman, so that helped your writing. But, did the rebooting of the history via the Superman cartoon help or hurt the writing process? For instance, there's a lot of opportunity for an author to retell older stories/origins in such a way that strikes him/her as more original. But, then there's things such as: Can I or can't I use this character because he/she wasn't in the television show, can I write about the signal watch or not, etc?
MM: Fortunately, Dini and Timm knew what to keep and what to leave out for the trash collectors. They created an almost perfect environment for anyone with even half a brain to come along and concoct a good Superman story.
BL: Why'd you finally quit Superman Adventures? Was it simply a case of wanting to write comics for a more mature audience or was there another reason?
MM: I had a great time on that book, but a year and a half was long enough for me to pretend I was Mr. Nice Guy. I'm enjoying causing trouble again and doing the kind of books the kids in my family aren't allowed to see. You know you're doing something wrong when a six year old compliments you on your work. I say FUCK THE KIDS. It's time to do comic-books for adults again. The kids will bite their own arms off to get at them if we're producing books they aren't supposed to be reading.
BL: Comics post-Kingdom Come have been awash in a wave of Silver Age nostalgia; a phenomenon that, in my opinion, is very slowly but surely changing back in favor of more modern and realistic comics. To some (but not all) comic book readers, it's become a bit of a stylistic straightjacket and a dead-end. What was so appealing to writers about the Silver Age that they've been so attracted to imitating/aping/parodying it? Do you think the neo-Silver Age has about run its course?
MM: I think the retro thing was an essential phase comics had to go through at the end of the century. Music, movies, TV and books also consolidated the last hundred years by having one more look at it. Fashion was retro for five years, and comic-books must be fashionable if they're to remain a pop medium. I loved it at the time, but, in the light of the twenty first century, I want to see something new. Yes, retro has run it's course, and we're all tasting the ingredients for the next big thing at the moment.
BL: I ask this because The Authority seems so unshackled by the ghosts of comics past. Did you know from the outset when you took over The Authority that you wanted it to be more 21st century and less an homage to the past? Or, was it something you came up with as you started writing it? Or, didn't you see it until you were through with, say, the first story arc?
MM: I didn't realize just HOW modern the book was going to be until I sat down and decided that it had to start where other superhero books drew the line. The Authority, I think, are the first superheroes of the 21st Century. They completely embody the new way of thinking for me, and the fact that they don't really have much history is very attractive. You're first to think ahead when you can't dwell on the past.
BL: Did it help or hinder you that one of the main characters, Jenny Sparks (my favorite part of Warren Ellis' time on the book), breathed her last in the issue before you took over? Sparks was so much a part of the flavor of Warren's version of The Authority that one could either feel, "Good riddance, now I can write the group my way" or "Blast, that was a cool character!".
MM: I knew Warren was planning to off her when he left, and, I must admit, I was nervous about this because she seemed like the heart of the book. Once I picked up a pen and started scribbling notes, I realized Warren had actually done me a huge favour because she was SO identified with him. She really was Warren with tits, and me writing her would have seemed kind of phony. Burying Jenny was a good way of stamping my own identity on the book from the start.
BL: Well, you ARE going to be doing something with Jenny Sparks in a mini-series, are you not? Was it hard working with a character that's so much a part of the group's history, but not really its present?
MM: The mini is really the background on all the characters. Their secret origins, I suppose. It makes sense that she would have touched their lives if she really was the living embodiment of the 20th century.
BL: I wanted to ask about censorship for a moment. I know that you've told me that WildStorm has been very good to you. Did no one blink an eye when your script killed off a ward of babies (off panel, thank God)? Did they totally understand your vision for the book and support you on it?
MM: Wildstorm have been fantastic. Scott Dunbier, John Layman and Rachelle Brissenden (my editor on #13) have been the most supportive editorial crew I've ever worked with. Wildstorm and Marvel Knights are incredibly creator friendly. I hope the readers recognize this and vote with their feet in the upcoming awards.
BL: You called your version of the Authority "Preacher for the superhero crowd" or something similar. Do you mean that in terms of violence, or are you talking more along the lines of a comic book for mature readers who just happen to like the superhero genre?
MM: The Authority should be the riskiest superhero book on the market. This is the one people should be loaning to their friends. Superheroes don't need to salute the flag and fight for the status quo. This is a superhero book which doesn't insult your intelligence. Like Preacher, it takes risks. I think the two books probably appeal a lot to the same kind of people; the COOL fans.
BL: I've noticed a few readers have not liked the violence in your first issue of The Authority, but I found it to be remarkably restrained. But, what really seems to have caught everyone's attention (even some mainstream media) is the fact that there's an openly gay superhero couple in it. Why do you think there's been all this uproar about what essentially are only a few panels in an issue? The gayness of the characters is subtly done, I think.
MM: We still live in a world where some people are very unsophisticated. It's really just as simple as that.
BL: Speaking of which, was it/will it be difficult for a straight man such as yourself to write gay characters in a realistic manner? The few gay characters there have been in comics over the years have been total stereotypes.
MM: Yeah, I know what you mean. Rest assured, nobody's catching AIDS, going on Gay Pride marches or any of that bollocks. They're just the two coolest heroes in the industry and they just HAPPEN to be gay. That, to me, is a step forward. No big deal being made means people just accept it. I'm not turning this book into Ellen. The point is that there IS no point, True Believer.
BL: Ellis' version of The Authority is the comic book version of a summer blockbuster. Your version seems more serious (not solemn, though). I know you've always had an interest in politics. Is this why your Authority seems so much more politically aware and aware of the world around you?
BL: Also, you do a column for a Scottish paper. What attracted you to this job? Is it simply a case of 'a change is as good as a rest'? There seems to be this trend nowadays for comic book writers to want to also be journalists/columnists (Tony Isabella, Warren Ellis). What is it about the non-fiction essay that seems to attract comic book writers lately?
MM: I think the collapse of the industry a few years ago just terrified everyone and creators realized that comics isn't necessarily a stable job which you'll have until you're sixty-five. An awful lot of people went bust during the last five years, but the collapse has been healthy in the sense that everyone has been forced to try harder. So much bullshit was being produced in the early nineties. ANYTHING sold half a million copies. It's almost nice to be in an industry where everyone is giving it 100%. It's also good to see guys trying mediums they might never have attempted. We're all creeping into movies, games, TV, newspapers, etc. It's good for us because it means we're less likely to put up with shit from the big companies, and it's good for comics because many of us are achieving genuine mainstream recognition.
BL: How much autobiography is there in your work? I see small things such as Superman being about your age and the fact that you made him a vegetarian in a short comic book story, but you mostly seem to cover your tracks well.
MM: It's funny, but I would have said there was absolutely nothing of myself in any of the characters I've written so far. That said, I see what you mean. Maybe I'm just too close to it to see. The Authority all seem to talk with my voice. Jack, in particular. He's basically me with black hair instead of blond, powers and no shoes. I INSIST on shoes.
BL: Was it strange being back in DC writing a story for the "Silver Age" event after being over at WildStorm? From the few hints you've given me about the story, even though it has the "Silver Age" in the title, it sounds more modern and maybe even a tad vicious than the campiness one tends to associate with that phrase.
MM: It was actually nice to get to play with them one last time and write a story with all the ones I dug as a kid under that beautiful star-spangled logo. As wanky as it sounds, it really was a nice way to bow out for me and applying my new-found nastiness to such a pretty concept made it work well in terms of what Mark [Waid] intended for the book. It's the second coming of Mark Waid right now, isn't it? Silver Age, I think, is where he's drawn the line under that whole late 90s thing and the work he's doing now is fucking edgy. JLA is brilliant. Empire is even better. I don't know whether to love him or hate him.
BL: I have to know a bit about this horror mini-series you're doing on Channel Four in the UK. Did the powers that be approach you about it, or did you pursue it actively? Without giving away all the suspenseful bits, what's the darned thing about? "Sikeside" is a weird title for these American ears. Is it a place?
MM: It's a horror show which I called, everything you like about Buffy — reversed. It's six episodes and the sickest things British TV will ever have shown. The opening sequence features an Alsatian dog having oral sex with a female lead and it really just degenerates from there. C4 approached me to offer them something after a Charles Manson interview I was planning fell through. It all worked out remarkably smoothly, in hindsight.
BL: You're married and have a daughter. Has being a family man changed anything about your writing at all?
MM: It's changed everything about me. I used to worry I'd become one of those soft tits like Speilberg who went all ET, but I think I've consciously tried to push the envelope more since Emily has been around — perhaps as a reaction. I love being married, and I love being a Dad to a two year old daughter who really is the best thing in my life. Getting married straightened me out a lot personally. The late '80s and early '90s were a mad, exciting time to suddenly find yourself working in comics and making money. The British scene was all shagging, booze and drugs as comics sales peaked and people like me, who didn't have a clue what I was doing, suddenly found myself spending wages from Judge Dredd scripts flying five hundred miles with Grant Morrison for a party in London and flying back first thing in the morning. I'd probably be dead by now if Gill hadn't brought some balance to that side of my life. We've got a great relationship, although she doesn't read comics at all. Not even the ones I write. My dream, as a teenager, was always finding a girl who was into comics and I used to bug every girlfriend I ever had to read Dark Knight and all that shite, but I married someone who really doesn't know DC from Marvel and, in some ways, it's quite refreshing. Coming home at night and talking about something else just recharges my enthusiasm for the business every 24 hours.
BL: I know that you go off to an office and write all day. Is it hard to leave the ideas back at the office at the end of the day, or are you sick of thinking about superheroes by the time you leave?
MM: It depends how much bullshit you're getting at work. Sometimes I could live and breathe comics. I always love conventions. But sometimes it's nice to lock the door and go home and play with the baby. She said "Jay Garrick" last night, oddly enough, as she held a Flash Archives I had lying around the dining room. Freaked me out. She wears a towel over her back and pretends to be flying quite a lot too and seems keen on drawing. Hopefully, she's the first of a little Kubert-style dynasty we're training up here.
BL: I wanted to ask you a question about kids and comics. The medium has become less all-ages and more aimed towards teenagers and adults. Also, because of the fall of the romance comic, the humor comic, and frankly, almost all non-superhero comics, the industry has become basically stories written for men to be read by men, in a way that is often insulting towards the remaining female readers. Considering the way comics are right now, would you encourage a child like your daughter to read comics when she got older or not? It's a question I struggle with myself. I'm already eying my Preacher graphic novels and thinking, "If I have a kid, I'm hiding those first thing."
MM: You know, DC send me a comp box of all their comics every month and I keep the ones I like and give the rest to a children's home a couple of streets away. A couple of years ago, Preacher #10 (or thereabouts) somehow ended up in the wrong box and I got a knock on the door from a care officer who said he didn't want anymore of my sicking, fucking comics. It was the Jodie and TC stuff. The chicken-fucking scene. Christ, I could have died on the spot. Actually, I think kids should be allowed to read pretty much whatever they want. I trust their judgment, and I've never written anything I'd hide from Emily. The industry itself shouldn't be aiming at kids, but they should be targeting a mainstream audience. That's why I'm writing X-Men for Ultimate Marvel. I want to be part of what I think is really going to save this fucking industry.