Scotland Week: Comic Book Writer Mark Millar

The Creator of Kick-Ass and Wanted on Marvel vs. DC, Scottish Mythology, and Scottish Independence

Sep 05, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


We have a special theme on Under the Radar's website this week, which we're simply calling Scotland Week. All throughout the week we will be posting interviews, reviews, lists, and blog posts relating to Scotland and in particular Scottish music.

For this interview, we talk to Mark Millar. Mark Millar is a prolific Scottish comic book author and filmmaker. His first published comic, Saviour, ran for six issues between 1989 and 1990 and was published by Leicester, U.K. based Trident Comics. In the early 1990s, Mark Millar collaborated with fellow Scot Grant Morrison on Big Dave, which ultimately drew the attention of DC Comics, and in 1994, Millar began working on Swamp Thing, which marked his American debut. Since then, Millar expanded his horizons to include JLA and The Flash for DC, as well as Ultimate X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Marvel 1985 for Marvel Comicsamong numerous other titles.

His comics Wanted and Kick-Ass have been adapted into film, and the movie adaptation of his book The Secret Service is set to open in early 2015. Mark Millar is the Creative Consultant for 20th Century Fox, helping to guide the development of future Marvel movies, as well as a film advisor to the Scottish government. Jupiter's Legacy, created and written by Millar with art by fellow countryman Frank Quitely, is current published by Image Comics. In addition to his work in comics and film, Mark Millar is the CEO of Millarworld Productions, a U.K.-based television company.

Read below as Mark Millar discusses the differences between DC and Marvel Comics, Scottish writers and artists, and his thoughts on Scottish independence.

Zach Hollwedel (Under the Radar): You've described yourself as "someone who has spent his entire life obsessed with both comic books and movies." There's a lot of crossover between the mediums, but they seem pretty different in terms of how the end products are developed and experienced. Can you talk to any differences between the two and what, if any, considerations go into developing projects for one medium versus the other?

Mark Millar: You know, there's genuinely no difference. It just seems like that, but the only difference is budget. What I'm aware of is, in film, people have to sit with calculators and go through it page by page and work out what something costs.... For example, in one movie I worked on, we were told we could afford to build a big set somewhere, only if we could put that same set in another scene. Or else, it wasn't worth building, because this was only being used once; then, financially, it made no sense. We couldn't have two locations. And in a comic book you don't have to think about that, because a close up of someone's facea drawingcosts the same amount of money to draw as an alien spaceship crashing into the Eiffel Tower, or something like that. So budget is really the only consideration. Otherwise, storytelling is just storytelling. It's actually very similar. 

You've received tremendous acclaim for your contributions to Marvel, in particular your work on The Ultimates and Civil War. However, you've also spent a lot of time in the DC Universe and wrote the incredible Superman: Red Son, among many others. Many fans are loyal to one universe over the other. Do you feel there are any inherent differences between Marvel and DC, or have you been fascinated equally by both?

Oh yeah, it couldn't be more different, couldn't be more different. I mean, from a work point of view, it's very different, because DC was always very corporate. Like, people who used to come to the DC offices years ago used to come wearing suits and ties, and people who came to the Marvel office would be wearing a Star Wars T-shirt or something like that. So the actual look of the places is so different; DC, because it was owned by Warner Bros., was beautiful. Everything looked perfect, and Marvel looked like a student's bedroom. Marvel just had a crazier Wild West vibe. And I liked both, actually, I do like both, but work-wise, totally different.

In terms of the stories, I think they could not be more different, and when people don't do them differently, then they get it wrong. I've seen people write Superman like it's a Marvel character, and it feels wrong. And I've seen people do Marvel characters like DC characters. The difference is, Marvel has got to feel very close to real life for it to be Marvel. It has to have an element of realism in it. It's got to have a little bit of humor and a little bit of realism that grounds the story. So even in Fantastic Four, when Galactus is attacking the planet Earth, it's all seen really from the perspective of New York.... Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] and Steve Ditko always gave you something you related to. You would always see something that felt like the world you lived in, and the only unusual thing was maybe a supervillain or superhero, and everything else was the world we knew. But at DC, it isn't set in New York City; it's set in Gotham or Metropolis. DC's a fantasyland. DC, I think, is more like fairy tales, so the stories are a bit more wild. You get stories about a fifth dimensional imp, like in Superman with Mr. Mxyzptlk. You have a square planet with imperfect people from planet Earthimperfect copies of them in the Bizarro world. DC's crazy, where Marvel has to be a little bit more realistic, I think.

I think now that you put it like that, when I was a kid, the fact that Marvel was so realistic was always why I preferred the DC heightened reality cartoons.

Yeah, as a kid, definitely. I think Marvel appeals more to teenagers, and young kids much prefer DC. I absolutely was a DC guy growing up.

This week, in honor of the release of Belle and Sebastian lead singer, Stuart Murdoch's film, God Help the Girl, we're turning our focus to Scottish art and artists. Are you a fan of Belle and Sebastian?

Funnily enough, actually, my partner went to see that movie this morning.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, it was appearing at a local cinema this morning, and it was one of those terrible mother and baby screenings, you know where you can take your baby, and you can feed the baby while you're watching it, so you just have babies crying the whole time you're trying to watch the movie. She said that what she could see, it looked pretty good though.

Are there any Scottish artists you do enjoy listening to?

Do you know what, I've actually always preferred more international stuff. I mean I do like Scottish bands; I like Deacon Blue and everything and Hue and Cry. I was friends with both of those guys. Scotland's quite a small place, and the west of Scotland tends to be where most of the music comes from, so everybody kind of knows each other. I really liked Stiltskin a few years back, who are a really good Scottish band. But it tends to be guys I will also then drink with in the pub, because the scene here is so small. But growing up, I think I preferred really big international bands. My tastes are incredibly mainstream, and I used to be really embarrassed at how mainstream my tastes are. My favorite band of all time is Queen, and I love "Yellow" and things like that. As a teenager, I used to be so embarrassed, and I used to buy Smiths albums and things like that and have it sitting at the front of my record collection, but the only stuff I really played was things like Queen. [Laughs] At school, you would be mocked for being into Queen, because it was the least cool band in the world. Even when I was 15, I was into the kind of the thing that a 45-year-old man would be into.

There is some tremendous Scottish talent in both mainstream and independent comicsyourself, of course, included. Do you feel that there's a recognizable aesthetic or recurring themes explored by these writers and artists intrinsic to Scotland?

I don't think so, actually. I do think that the Scottish thing in comics is maybe a little bit overplayed. You know, there are a handful of guys that do it, but I would say there's a great scene in England and everything, too.... There's obviously myself, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, John Wagner, and Alan Grant...I think John Wagner was actually born in America, but there's guys like Gordon Rennie who are very good and everything, too, but I don't know, I think it's one of those things the media latched onto. There's definitely a disproportionate interest in comics in Scotland. We have a thing here that I don't know if you guys have seen. You possibly have, because I think it can be quite big in Canada and New Zealand and so on. It's this thing called Oor Wullie and The Broons, and it's a Scottish comic strip that's been running for about 70 years. They sell a million copies of this thing every Christmas, and the thing that's amazing about that is we only have five and a half million people in our country. And they still sell a million. So...I think comic culture has never been seen as embarrassing thing in Scotland, which it might have been seen in other parts of the world at one time. I think we have quite a comics literate nation, and one of my friends, John McShane, who is a bit of a comics historian, he found out that the very first comic the world has ever seen was actually created in Scotland; like, Scotland actually invented the comic strip. The very, very first one ever.

Wow. Do you know what is that one called?

Do you know, I can't remember what it's called. He told me in the pub, and I was probably drunk at the time. But he'd done a ton of research and he was so pleased at this. You know, you can probably contact John on Twitter. His name's John McShane. He'd be happy to tell you, and he's a great guy. He actually owned the first comic shop that I ever discovered when I was 15, and he and I have been friends ever since. He's a really good guy.

Besides that one, which you just mentioned, are there any other titles you enjoy reading, which you think American readers might not be familiar with or any artists or writers you think we should keep a lookout for here?

Like Scottish people?

Yeah, anything that maybe hasn't hopped the pond yet.

Let me have a little look actually. What I'll do is I'll look on the screen, 'cause what I do is I read so much stuff and then I kind of forget. You know when someone says to you, "What's your favorite song?" And then you think of 10 songs after you've come off the phone. Let me just have a quick look and then I'll see, because I download a lot of stuff at the moment. Hang on. [Types]

There's actually a very good underground scene here, and I'll tell you something that's actually quite interesting. Frank Quitely works in a studio. He's got a little studio in the center of Glasgow that he goes to every morning. He gets the bus to work like a regular job, and he comes home late at night usually after a long day just sitting, drawing, and chatting with his friends and everything. The book he does for me, Jupiter's Legacy, he does from there, but he works in a studio with maybe about 10 other artists. Some of these guys do comics; some do video game design and everything, and it's just a really interesting little community, you know? They just, every morning they go and buy 10 bottles of wine or something, and they...drink wine all day and just have a great time. And it's a great little scene, you know, a really good scene.  

But we've got some quite interesting ones that I think people might not realize have done comics. Ian Rankin, who is a very famous crime writer in the U.K., I don't know if he's well-known in Canada, but Ian's a pal of mine and he's a terrific crime writer. He does the Rebus novels. He's done some comic books, as well, and it's always interesting to see someone from outside of comics coming in and doing them. Denise Mina is another crime writer, too, and Denise has done some stuff over at DC. She also did the adaptationthe DC adaptationof The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Gordon Rennie's very good, too. In a lot of ways, he was the kind of successor to John Wagner over at 2000 AD. He's written a lot of really good Judge Dredd stories and so on. Eddie Campbell, of course, which a lot of people maybe don't realize Eddiewho did From Hell with Alan Moorea lot of people might not realize he's Scottish, but he's a guy who was born and grew up here, as well. So there's quite a few. And...there's a thing called Team Girl Comic, which is actually published here. I know some of the girls who work on it, but actually is entirely Glasgow based. These girls do like an anthology book where they have females, writers and artists, and they've got a totally different point of view from the kind of stuff that maybe I write or Grant Morrison writes or Gordon Rennie or whatever, which tends to be a bit more sort of action-oriented or traditional boys' comic type of thing. These girls do something that I think is really interesting in the sense they think it's very mainstream. It's more like real life kind of stories, you know, so they produce stuff that maybe a non-comics reader might enjoy, which I think is quite interesting with the independent scene in comics, because we assume sometimes the indie stuff is the small stuff, but in a way, the independent stuff is more reader friendly for people who don't normally pick up comics.

Is there anything from Scottish history or mythology that played an early influence on your desire to become a writer? Any stories that fascinated you when you were younger?

I've never been asked that question. That's interesting. There's a lot of Scotch-Irish mythology in terms of monsters. All that stuff's quite creepythe stuff we were told as bedtime stories is quite creepy. Lots of stuff from very early childhood I think finds its way into your stories without you even meaning to. And also, there's a great tradition in your family for stories, like ghost stories was quite a big thing when I was a kid. Your gran or your aunts or your mom or whatever would tell you creepy stories that you realize, as an adult, aren't true, but they would tell you these creepy little stories; and I've found some of this stuff has crept its way into my work, as well, over the years. Things that they just made up that terrified me as a kid, I just find popping up in a story somewhere. I think the Irish and the Scots have got a good tradition of that.

Your upcoming film, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, based on your comic The Secret Service, comes out early next year. Unlike Wanted and Kick-Ass, it's set in the U.K. Is this a sort of a return to home for you? I know you're heavily involved in the film industry, especially in Scotland.

Well, to be honest, actually, the reason we set it here is just because we wanted to play around with the British super-spy archetype. There's something about spies that just feels very British. You get very good ones with Mission Impossible and so on, but there's something just uncool about Jason Bourne in a way that James Bond is intrinsically cool. I feel nobody's going to be making Jason Bourne Number 24, but they will make James Bond Number 24. I just think, in the way that Americans do superheroes very well, I think the Brits are very good at doing super-spies. So we wanted to play around with that idea of the suave English gentleman and everything. There's still an international locale, but most of the story's based around the U.K., and one of the things we talked about very early on, which was exciting to us, is that there's kind of two Britains that people internationally know. They know it's a James Bond, Spy Who Loved Me, cool Britain where everybody's got beautiful clothes and they look amazing and everything. And then there's the Trainspotting Britain where they see junkies and people wear horrible clothes, stealing from people, and all that. Taking heroin. I thought it'd be cool if a story had both of those Britains in it. So you've got something that feels like Trainspotting meets Spy Who Loved Me. You've got a horrible environment for this kid growing up in, but he ends up like Roger Moore by the end of it; he's like Roger Moore James Bond by the end of it. Britain's the only place you can play those two different classes off against each other, because the rest of the world isn't quite as class-conscious as the U.K.

I never thought about it that way. That's fascinating. Lastly, just curious to know, what are your thoughts on the Scottish Independence referendum?

Well, it's very tricky actually, because I'm genuinely undecided. I know Alex Salmond, who is our First Minister. I know him well personally, and I like what he does professionally. I actually think the country has been really terrifically run over the course that he's been in charge. But it is quite a different thing from separation, because to suddenly have a new currency, we have a new defense system. To completely divorce itself from England. What we've gotwhat we call devolutionwhere we have our own parliament at the moment, is we can have a holiday home almost from England. We have our own little thing where we take care of some responsibilities for ourselves, but we still have the safety net of England's money. England is obviously fantastically wealthy, especially down in London, and something like the banking crisis in 2008, England was able to weather that storm in a way that a small country like Scotland maybe would have had a harder time. So I'm in this quite tricky situation where I love the idea of Scottish people taking charge themselves, and we do our own thing, and we're a very enterprising country. You know, historically, it's insane what Scotland's contributed to the world. So I kind of love the idea of a country being run almost like a small business, as well, where the smaller something is, the more you can keep an eye on it and make sure there's no waste. But at the same time, it is a big scary world out there. There are financial storms going on constantly, and when we have the economics superpowers like the Euro, America, China, and emerging ones, as well, like Brazil, Russia, and India, do we really want to be that small? It's slightly frightening. So I don't know, it's tricky. I'm normally very, very sure of what I believe in, and I've never been so unsure, and we're only two weeks away from polling day. At the moment, I still don't know. My heart says one thing; my head says another thing. I don't know. I guess we'll see what wins.

I guess we'll all see in a couple weeks then kind of collectively.

In a month's time, I could be calling you up, asking for money.

Well, don't call me.

[Laughs]

www.millarworld.tv

 



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