The Den Of Geek interview: Mark Millar
A comics and movies giant - and the man behind Wanted and The Ultimates - chats to DoG about Superman, Hollywood and much more...
Award-winning graphic novel writer Mark Millar is about as hot in Hollywood today as you can get. The film adapatation – starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy - of his Wanted comic-book miniseries is a huge hit, opening up the very real possibility of Millar’s participation in a new Superman franchise, which the writer is developing in Hollywood with an undisclosed big-name director. Working his way up from 2000AD through the Marvel universe, Millar has worked on Ultimate Fantastic Four, The Authority, Swamp Thing, and…far too many other huge comic franchises to list here. His new release, War Heroes, tells a story of right-wing America enticing new recruits into endless war in the middle-east by offering them super-powers…
War Heroes is probably one of the most politically-aware projects that you’ve worked on – was there any particular event or happenstance that brought it into being?
I think I felt that I couldn’t believe how long this is all going on. In Gulf War 1 we were kind of spoiled, those of us who were teenagers at that point – we just thought ‘five days, it’s all over and that’s that’. Terrible, but let’s get on with our lives. So in the back of your mind, you thought that was probably what Gulf War 2 was going to be like as well. So here we are, millions dead…
I’m very influenced by what I see in the newspapers and on TV, in terms of what I write in comics. I heard this idea too from a speech by McCain about three months ago, saying ‘If we have to, we’ll do this for a hundred years’, and I just thought ‘Oh man, is this never going to end?’. Things like that made me want to do something maybe a little bit more political but also something more risky and edgy than I could do in The Ultimates. The Ultimates was really all about the militarization of superheroes…but even so, you’re essentially working for Disney. Marvel really is…well, in comic-book terms they can be risky, but in the end they have to sell Spiderman pyjamas and all that, so there’s only so much you can say and do. So I thought it’d be quite nice to take the gloves off and just do Ultimates 3, essentially. But just call it something else.
The idea of enlisting recruits by tempting them with super-powers – is that intended to be satirical, with the middle-east as a kind of frag-fest…?
Maybe on some level, but I tell it very much as a straight story. I’ve tried to keep all the characters very real and very human, but obviously that’s a subtext of the idea, just to be able to go somewhere and do anything you want – that’s the allure of getting people to go and do something that’s not particularly pleasant. It would take a lot to get someone like me to go and fight and die on the other side of the world for something that I don’t particularly believe in. But then I asked what would get someone like me to do it, and that’s be super-powers, I suppose [laughs]. Pathetically, that’s the thing that would do it. When they said ‘Go and kill all these women and children’, and I’d say ‘Forget it’, and they’d say ‘Yeah but we’ll give you super-speed’. I’d go ‘I’ll think about it – yes!’ [laughs]
Here we're talking about a couple of years in the future, if you’re 19 and the American economy has been decimated - as it will be in a couple of years – and with the idea that there’s nothing there but a massive police state, and there’s nothing to do and a depression going on after the boom…what could be more fun than getting all these powers and going off to fight for American interests overseas?
Do you find that your writing is generally getting more political in the current climate?
Well it’s interesting, because my career didn’t really take off until around the time that Bush came in. It’s weird - comics seem not to do well in apolitical times. They seemed to have a slump in the latter half of the seventies when Carter was president, or, believe it or not, Clinton – the comics industry was nearly destroyed. And even in the fifties, when Britain and America were pretty at ease with themselves…you had Harold MacMillan saying ‘You’ve never had it so good’ and all that. It seems to take polarising leaders to give cartoonists something to react against.
If you think about it, in the 1980s Reagan and Thatcher gave us Dark Knight and Watchmen, and even with the Vietnam war and the Marvel boom of the late 1960s and so on…in very political times we tend to turn to these crazy cartoonists and these different characters.
And now of course it’s a far more powerful political medium for you, because within a year or two of creating something new, it’s virtually a movie….
Yeah, that’s an odd thing…I’m really interested in the cycles of these things. Back in the forties, fifties, sixties, eighties and the noughties – or whatever they’re called – there seem to be these comic booms. And every one of them, every twenty years, things seem to get a little bit better for the creators. In the forties, that meant that they could pay their rent; in the sixties that meant we could live pretty comfortable lives – Stan [Lee] and those guys made a good living. In the eighties it meant that all of those guys became millionaires. I remember in the mid-eighties there was one guy at Marvel with a Lear jet. These were pretty well-off guys.
But now, I think what we’re heading for in the midst of this big boom is an explosion for creators. Those guys are still tied to DC and Marvel, and DC made more money out of Dark Knight than Frank Miller did – they made a lot more out of Watchmen than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did. What we’ve got now is that where the thing’s being published is almost inconsequential. You could do a book like Kick-Ass, for example, and it’s outselling Spiderman just now, and yet it’s a character that no-one’s ever heard of.
Creators in the modern world right now, with the democratisation of the internet, where we don’t have to buy our pad-space anymore as we did in the eighties…you just have to have an idea, let it out there, and if it’s any good suddenly people start flocking to it. There’s never been a better time than right now to be a comics writer.
Is the comic-to-movie process turning you into more of a magical storyboard artist?
I feel primarily like a comics guy. I fear being exploited in lots of different ways – I’ve just done a big deal with a clothing company for Kick-Ass, and when the movie comes out next year Johnny [Romita Jr.] and I are going to do pretty well out of a line of bags and tops; it’s all Johnny’s designs and everything, and hopefully people’ll get some. But the thing is, I don’t feel it compromises the book; I don’t change one letter of that book – we still have the word ‘cunt’ on page twenty-three. We didn’t feel we had to lose the word ‘cunt’ to get that clothing deal or anything like that.
But the minute that you start compromising the story then yeah, you just become R&D for movie guys.
Do you like to keep control when your work goes out to become a film?
To be honest, I don’t care what they do with it, as long as they don’t touch the comic. That’s the important thing for me. If someone asked me to change a scene in a comic that would be…unless it was for a good reason like because it’s really rubbish [laughs]…but if it was for commercial reasons or whatever, I would say ‘No, this is the way I want it to be’ and I would walk away from the project.
But movies…I see movies like the videogames, and the videogames like the bags, and the bags like the bedspreads and so on. To me, they’re just free money that someone throws at you. I’m starting to feel a little bit less so with the movies because I’m starting to understand that world a little more, and the power that you can have. I thought that you just handed these things over and hoped for the best, but then on Wanted I found out that 'Executive Producer' actually meant that you could have some control. I thought it was a thing that they put on just because you created it. But we managed to actually exercise quite a lot of control, especially in the final few months; when a rough-cut of the movie had been done I was able to come in and tweak some of the dialogue, and we’d be sitting in on the edits and things like that. That was actually a really good experience, and it made me think that for Kick-Ass, yeah, it would be nice if it was like that…
I wouldn’t be bothered if I’d done War Heroes and someone did something that was called War Heroes in title only, I’d be happy because my book is untouched on the shelf. But from an ego point of view, yeah, you want to see it as alike as possible.
Why do you think it took Hollywood so long to figure out that the people who make the comics are probably the best people to write the films?
In all honesty, I think it’s just because they didn’t know them socially. It’s that simple. Until recently, if you didn’t live in L.A., go to the parties and you weren’t somebody’s friend – and all that kind of thing – you just weren’t hired for gigs. And even living over here [in the UK] would be a problem if that was the kind of job I wanted. If I wanted really to work in the film industry as a screenwriter – you have to be available for meetings. Your agent has to call you and tell you ‘Listen, you’ve got a ten o’clock meeting on the Fox lot tomorrow morning’. And that’s just the way it is. With comics guys, traditionally we’ve either been in New York or spread all over the world – the publishing side of things tends to be on the East Coast.
It just took one guy to change all that, and interestingly it’s the same guy that changed the face of comics in the eighties. The kind of deals we got before Frank Miller got his Ronin deal is very different to the kind of deal we got after his got his Ronin deal, in terms of creative rights and so on.
Miller’s amazing, actually, and I don’t think he gets enough credit. Miller and Moore are both my heroes actually, but Miller really has been at the vanguard of this; he changed the formats that the books appeared in, the colour palettes that could be used, and so on…he’s just always been out there pushing and pushing and pushing.
And I’ll tell you, even on a very very simple level, just how much of a difference he made, even on Wanted: people were looking to do Wanted for about $45-50 million, whereas the money to do it properly, the way you did see it in the end, was about $100-110 million. And they’d say ‘There’s no way we’re going to do an R-rated movie for that kind of price’. So one of two things could have happened – it could either have been compromised and turned into a PG-13, or be R-rated and cost $45 million.
But then 300 made $70 million on its opening weekend. On the Monday morning, I got a call saying that because of that, Wanted got green-lit. That morning. And Miller doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, and that’s a shame. But Miller’s out there, constantly changing the face of the film industry like he did with comics. And now all of us have got movie deals – everyone who’s working in the commercial side of comics has got something in the pipeline.
Can I ask how the Superman pitch is going?
It’s quite weird actually, because I’d sort of given up on it. It’s really odd; I’ve been a huge fan of Superman my entire life, and I felt like something just happened, a couple of years ago after I’d seen Superman Returns. Not to shit on the movie or anything, but I think it was just kind of …probably the way people felt after Star Wars: Episode 1, where…you know that feeling when you’re sitting in the cinema on opening night with your friends, and I’d actually bought tickets [to Superman Returns] for all my brothers and friends and so on, and I did the same with [Phantom Menace] as well.
You know when you hear that Star Wars music, and I…I’m so embarrassed to say this, but I actually leaned over and I said to my wife and my brother. “I think this is going to be the greatest movie of all time” [laughs]! And I actually felt my eyes watering up when I heard that Star Wars music.
And then, one hour in, with Jar Jar Binks and all that, I actually just felt like killing myself. That’s the first time I think I’ve ever felt that crushing disappointment, coming out of the cinema.
It wasn’t quite on that scale with Superman Returns, because obviously the movie wasn’t as bad, but still , Superman meant even more to me than Star Wars, so the idea of walking out of a Superman movie and not being elated…
I genuinely had waited since 1987, Superman 4; buying magazines, checking it out online when the internet came along, just praying for a Superman movie. And managing to snare a draft of the Tim Burton scripts, and probably versions people haven’t even bothered looking at. I’ve probably read them all. So I was really anticipating this Superman movie. In the end it just sort of came out and didn’t do all that well, and it sort of deflated me on Superman; it took me a couple of years to get back into it again. Obviously Superman has a huge place in my heart.
The ‘director’ phoned me about a month ago, and said ‘Look, I’ve got absolutely no authorisation from Warner Brothers, because Warners aren’t looking in particular, but I want to have all my soldiers lined up, just in case.” He said “I want to do a complete reboot of the Superman franchise”. He said “I know you’ve got a huge passion for it and the buzz on Wanted is great”. I think it was the week before Wanted opened. He said “I’d just like you to be a part of it. I think there’d be a really good fan reaction, because people have said they’d like to see what you’d do with it. And I’d just like you to be part of the team. Are you interested?”.
[laughs] It took me a nanosecond to say ‘yes’. I’ve had the plot for an amazing Superman trilogy figured out since I was about ten, so I told him that and he loved it. When we were in the states, we met up – he’s an American director, and he’s a big, big deal in terms of action movies and so on. But in terms of courtesy, you have to wait and see if Bryan [Singer] is going to do any more. You can’t just go in there and nick a project off a guy. If Bryan ends up standing back and goes to move on and do something else, we’ll be in there like a shot.
One of the things I do love about Superman Returns is the reverence for the Donner version, with the music and so forth – but would you have to jettison that for your own project, just to give it a fresh start?
It’s funny you say that – [Donner’s] Superman is obviously the one I grew up with. We were talking about casting various people; obviously we’d be starting from scratch with a whole new cast; but one of the things this American guy [the ‘director’] said to me was that you’ve got to love Donner’s version and keep it in your heart, but we’ve got to do the new one. I said ‘What do you mean?’. He said “Imagine Donner had said ‘I grew up in the fifties and I love the George Reeves TV show – I’m gonna do it just like that’”. He said make it appropriate to the world around you now, and I thought ‘That’s a very good point’.
Chuck Allen was nothing like George Reeves and George Reeves was nothing like Christopher Reeve; the Clark Kent could not have been more different. The idea of moving it on one generation again so that it’s very identifiable to that period is a very interesting idea.
You’ve got to keep Superman as the cornerstone of it, but the world around him should be quite different.
Superman was very conflicted in Returns – almost apologist. What is the problem people have liking Superman as he is?
I actually think it’s a sign of a malformed personality, people who don’t like Superman [laughs]. In fact, nearly all of my friends say ‘Oh, I hate Superman’, and I ask why, and they say ‘Oh, cause he’s such a goody-goody’. So it’s like ‘Don’t you like nice people?’ [laughs], y’know, ‘What is wrong with you?’. And they say ‘Oh, I prefer Batman, he’s more sort of evil and bad-ass’. But who would you rather hang about with? Who’s a better role model with a more kind of positive outlook on the world? I think it’s the same kids that carve a swastika into the vestibule at school – that’s the kind of person who doesn’t like Superman [laughs].
I think the mainstream public, left and right, would go nuts for a Superman film right now, especially in this period where America ’s slightly at ease with itself…to do something that has America feeling good about itself again, and something that just has the hairs on the back of your neck standing up for the whole movie. Could be amazing…
Is there anything controversial in the vision of Superman that you’ve been nursing for about 30 years? Something that might surprise the fans…?
It’s funny, but sometimes you do that when you go onto a new project. I did The Authority a few years ago, and that was like my first big break over at Wildstorm, and I do remember thinking [laughing] wouldn’t it be funny if you had the guy who looks like Superman getting buggered by the guy who looks like Captain America?
Sometimes you do go into a project with that in mind. But I think Superman is a project that you shouldn’t court controversy in. But in saying that, without meaning it, and not in a crude way, I have got some ideas that are quite radical for it, and when I was talking to the director in L.A. he was very excited, saying ‘God, that’s a take on it we haven’t thought of before’. So I think it’ll probably naturally be controversial following the decision, if it happens…but in a good way. It’d be nothing like Chris Nolan’s Batman, because Batman and Superman are so distinct. To me, this is a film that you can take your five year-old to, and his eyes should be lighting up saying ‘This is the best film I’ve ever seen’…
I’ve had this insane thing, my whole life, like I’ve always felt—everybody’s here for a reason, and I’ve always felt that’s my reason. Everything else to me is training to do a Superman film. Everything else I’ve ever done, the good stuff, the bad, it’s all just training to revamp Superman. And then after that I should just fuck off and do something else [laughs]. That’s my only real ambition.
I hope it happens. That’s a film I really want to see.
Thanks very much. It’d be terrible if it turned out to be shit now, wouldn’t it [laughs]? But in our minds, it’s great, and honestly the director is so so good at this kind of thing, and I think it could just work out pretty brilliant, actually. I’ve got a good feeling about it.
Speaking as a fan of Cyclops, which I know you are too, were you equally disappointed that he pretty much got shoved into a cupboard at the start of every X-Men film?
In the third movie?
Pretty much in all of them. He seems to have a screen-time of about fifteen minutes tops in each X-Men film…
I actually think that James Marsden is a really brilliant actor as well, and it’s weird that it’s taken the films after X-Men to realise how good he is. I know what you mean, but probably more in X-Men 3, where he just gets killed off-camera or something [laughs]. What the hell’s going on there? They’re really great characters, and I didn’t appreciate them much growing up, didn’t get into them until the Bryan Singer movies came out. X-Men, when I was growing up, it was kind of reprints of the sixties stuff, and X-Men wasn’t really big then, it was one of the low Marvel books. But with Cyclops, I always thought it was just a great visual, and a really brilliant idea, the idea of this fantastically powerful thing killing everything in sight when you open your eyes. It’s got the simplicity that Blackbolt has as well, that if he ever opens his mouth and speaks, mountains – and that’s pure Kirby, with something tiny having gigantic ramifications like that…
When you write, do you really think in cinematic terms?
To be frank, it’s actually something where I don’t even consider what the artist has to draw. Artists go nuts at me because I’ll really take a lot out of them. Bryan Hitch is the perfect example, the guy who drew Ultimates. He could take two or three months with an issue, and I think with most scripts he could probably have got it out there monthly. And even John Romita, Jr., who’s so famous for being fast, who’ll turn round an issue in a week if he can, he was late for the first time in his twenty-five year career working with me because I put so much into it.
But with me I just naturally think big. The bigger it is, the wider in scope, the more interesting it is for me. And since comics are a medium with an unlimited budget, it just seems crazy to confine yourself; just make everything as big as you possibly can! And then it makes the quiet moments all the more special too.
So no, I never actually think in terms of movie scenes, but one thing I’ve noticed, about 2000 when I got my big break, was that people were saying ‘Oh, Millar’s very cinematic in his stuff’, talking about storyboards and so on. And it’s odd, because it’s something I just did naturally; I didn’t really think about it or anything. It must just be my particular style, in the same way that some artists are photorealistic.
Are there any other superhero franchises you’d like to re-cook if you had the time…? Wonder Woman could use a hand…
Actually, no. I think if you’d asked me a few years ago I’d say yeah, but to me I really like working in comics; so many of my friends who work in movies just tell me horror stories. You’ve got to look at Joss Whedon as the perfect example. Joss is one of the best writers on the planet. Brilliant guy, great writer, excellent director, white hot - and they brought him on to Wonder Woman. And they just wasted two years of his life. He didn’t have time to do anything else. He handed in a really good Wonder Woman script that just really got picked apart and ended up just not happening. And you never get those two years back.
And then on top of that, I hate collaboration. I really can’t stand it. For me, it’s enough just to have me and the artist, and the artist is always a friend of mine who I hand-pick, someone I trust entirely like Brian Hitch or John Romita Jr….people I know. But the idea of giving the project up to three hundred other guys…and any one of them, the actors, the producers, anyone, can make a decision that can ruin it forever.
So I don’t feel tempted that way, and I get lots of offers. I never really had that ambition, but I’ve been asked to re-vamp quite a lot of things; a few comic-book things but quite a few classic movies, childhood-favourite movies that they were doing remakes of, and so on. And I just said no – if I want to see that, I’ll just go to my DVD shelf and watch them again. I just think it’s a huge waste of time, and I would rather just create a new thing, rather than go and re-do an old franchise.
It’s been fun to do comics, but I think I’ve done that; done the Ultimates and re-vamped a lot of those characters and so on. I’d rather just do some new stuff like Wanted or Kick-Ass, and just put some new things into the pop-culture pot.
How much longer do you think this incredible surge of popularity for superhero movies can continue?
I think probably six years. I think I said to you that I’m very interested in patterns, and a few years back I worked it out on a sine-graph. It was back in the mid-nineties, when everyone was losing their jobs – remember than in 1993-94 the industry halved it’s size, and then halved it’s size again the following year. Everybody was going ‘Oh my God, it’s the end of comics!’. But I just remembered the interview I’d read with Denny O’Neill the year before, and Denny O’Neill was saying in the 1980s that we could never have anticipated the graphic novel boom, because back in the seventies we were all losing our jobs. That got me really interested so what I did was to look at sales figures going across about six decades, and saw that patterns, which describes a peak in the forties, a trough in the fifties, a peak in the sixties…
It’s like any other economic cycle; there’s booms and there’s busts. And I remember just comforting myself in the nineties by thinking ‘You know what? We’re all skint right now, nobody can get any work, but in ten years’ time it’s going to be great!’. And I remember saying this to my friends. I hadn’t really had my break yet, so they must have thought I was a lunatic. I was saying I thought it was going to be really brilliant.
But I couldn’t really have anticipated guys like myself or Frank Miller holding onto the copyrights on things and getting lots of money from the movies and that kind of thing, but I just knew something great was going to happen. And this is it. But I think the next bust will probably happen around 2014, just as it happened in 1994. And that kind of ties in with the slate of movies that are coming up. I think we’re nowhere near the doom yet, I think it’s still building.
But you’ve got to think that by 2011 the Avengers movie will be out, and that’s going to be huge. And then 2013 I think is going to be the absolute apex of it. There’s going to be the Justice League movie, you’ll have Avengers 2, a new Superman franchise up and running…saturation! You’re going to be on Spiderman 5…and then I think it will all crash after that.
War Heroes is available from 9th August