Mark Millar interview : Kick-Ass, Marvel, Avengers and more…

Mark Millar is one of the biggest writers in the world of comics today. Here, he talks to us about his work, and the upcoming movie of his comic-book Kick-Ass...

Mark Millar is one of the industry’s biggest writers. As the man responsible for series like Civil War and Ultimates, he’s written some of the last decade’s best-selling comics, while his creator-owned story, Wanted, was turned into a film starring Angelina Jolie. We sat down with Mark to talk about his latest comic, Kick-Ass, the film adaptation of which will hit cinemas next month…

Kick-Ass is one of several series you’ve done that seem to be an attempt to give classic superheroes a modern, more realist feel. What’s the fascination with the idea?

It’s funny that you bring this up, actually. As a writer, you don’t really reflect on your own work too much, because you’re busy writing it and thinking about the next thing, but one thing I’ve learned from doing press for Kick-Ass, from the questions people are asking, is that I’ve apparently found a niche – that I’m doing these “realist” superhero comics.

My plan, actually, was to create a generation of superhero comics, the same way that Stan [Lee] did back in the 60s. He created a whole universe of characters entirely different from the DC stuff of the Thirties and Forties, and I wanted to do some now that were just as different again from that.

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Guys like Peter Parker and Matt Murdock were the flawed heroes, and were odd compared to the very one-dimensional Batman, and Superman, and all those kind of guys who were like gods, and then you suddenly had superheroes worrying about how to pay the bills, or being disabled…

What Alan Moore called the “two-dimensional” superhero.

Right, exactly. And what I’m finding out, almost by accident, is that people want three-dimensional superheroes. Each generational shift is slightly more realistic and radical than the previous. So Dave Lizewski, the hero of Kick-Ass, follows that lineage, back through Peter Parker to Clark Kent.

Clark was envisioned as an amazing guy with superpowers, who pretended to be a bit of a nerd. Peter Parker was a bit of a nerd, who then got superpowers. Dave Lizewski… is just a nerd! So we’re just getting closer and closer to, well, the people who write the comics, basically!

In reality, I’m more like Dave Lizewski than I am like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. And perhaps the reason Kick-Ass has been as big as it has is because it’s maybe tapping into that in the audience too. In business terms, it fills a gap in the market.

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I think it would have been quite odd if Stan had just written Superman and Batman instead of creating the Marvel universe. And similarly, I think it’s interesting that my generation of writers, and before, even up to Alan Moore and those kind of guys, they pretty much just wrote the characters as they read them as kids. And I just started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awful if Stan had never created the Marvel universe? Maybe it’s time to create the next iteration of those characters.”

So, I’m trying to work my way around them all, I’ve got ideas over the next three, four, five years of what I want to do.

One thing about Kick-Ass is that it’s far more violent than those old comics were and, in that way, it reflects modern movies and computer games, which have a baseline of violence as high now as its ever been. Is that the sort of thing you mean?

Well… Kick-Ass isn’t intentionally violent. As such, I was just trying to portray things realistically. And that happens to involve violence. Let me give you an example. In the movies, whenever Superman is floating above the Earth, and you see him flying down, you don’t actually see the little flash as he re-enters the atmosphere – until Bryan Singer did it. And those little details …are cool! It makes it more realistic. If you actually think about the consequences of the powers, what they would involve, that kind of detail is what brings it to life.

Similarly, if a guy dresses up in a superhero costume and gets punched in the face… there will be consequences. I’ve only been punched in the face twice in my life, and for two days after I was unrecognisable. One punch! And my mouth was a different shape! So I wanted the violence to feel and look a certain way, otherwise you’re not doing justice to the concept of the story, because it’s about what would happen if you really tried to be a superhero. If you don’t follow through and show that, it’s failed.

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Along with that, though, it feels like there’s quite a deliberately cynical edge to how Kick-Ass portrays the life of a real “superhero”. I’ve seen the movie and it actually feels much less cynical. How do you feel about the tonal shift there?

It’s weird, actually, people have said that, but the movie’s almost line-for-line the same as the comic. I think maybe when you see it acted out, it just seems different. I didn’t write Kick-Ass as a cynical thing. The story is, at its core, about a wee guy who wants to help people. In fact, characters like Superman and Spider-Man have the backup that, if they get shot at, they’ll probably survive it. But if that happens to Dave, he’s dead.

There’s a “Good Samaritan” charm to the high concept, because even after he’s been hospitalised, he’s still out trying to do good. That scene where he sees a burning building and the other guy, Red Mist, is saying “We shouldn’t go in”, but Dave just wants to run in and save all those people, so I don’t get why people are calling the comics “cynical”.

I think I must have a reputation that gets read into it, because when people see exactly the same thing in the movie, they don’t find it cynical! Fresh eyes reading the comic might actually see it as almost naively optimistic, because this guy just likes superheroes and wants to make that happen in real life – and that’s the end of the comic, he’s saying “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve created the Marvel Universe in the real world, and that’s what I’ve always dreamed of.” Which is kind of what I wanted as a kid too! I think there’s something quite charming about it, rather than cynical.

Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a fairly major change from the comics with the way the romance subplot plays out that probably makes the film feel far less cynical.

Yeah, that’s true. That’s because originally, when it started filming, I’d only written up to issue #5, and they only had my plot to work from, and that’s the storyline as it was put in the film script – but when I actually came to write the last comic, I thought, in reality, if you went to a girl and said, “I’ve been lying to you since I’ve known you, and I’m not gay, and I’ve been watching you naked” and all that, she’s not going to immediately turn round and say, “Well, I love you too!” It’s just not going to happen!

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However, in movie terms, you do need that. There’s got to be a moment where he kisses the girl. In comics, you don’t need the girl. Batman never has the girl. But in the movies the audience wants it to happen.

Right. And since you mentioned Red Mist earlier, that segues into my next question, which is that if you’re interested in doing what Stan Lee did and creating a “universe”, does that mean the next comic will be about another character?

No, I’m not so interested in doing, say, a Red Mist miniseries, you know? I always saw Kick-Ass as the 21st Century Spider-Man. That was what I had in my head. I used lots of stuff from my real life, I was almost exactly like Dave was at that age, so, on one hand it’s autobiographical, and on the other it’s Spider-Man.

The Peter Parker template was a superhero identity, a single parent, and then that became the set up for lots of adventures, with the universe growing around him. And the same is true of Kick-Ass.

So you are planning more Kick-Ass comics?

Yeah, definitely. Although, I’ve got a real problem with writers doing a hundred issues of a series, and forty of them not being very good. As a reader, I know what it’s like to go through periods of The Flash where I didn’t like the writer, and I didn’t want to ever do that with any of my books, ever. I wanted to leave as quickly as possible.

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I could write 100 issues of something, but realistically, for Kick-Ass, I think it’ll just be three miniseries. I’ve got three planned out, anyway, and if any more comes, then great.

And speaking of your other books, this isn’t about Kick-Ass, but I need to ask: were you intentionally writing Ultimates as an Avengers movie pitch? And now that they’re making that movie, how would you feel if that’s how it was used?

Well, they’ve already admitted they’re doing it that way. Joe Johnston has said publically, the Captain America movie is going to be the first issue of Ultimates, plus the origin story, and then the Avengers movie will be material from Ultimates #2-#13, and maybe Ultimates Volume 2. I’m not speaking out of school, they’ve publically said this. And I’m flattered by it.

I literally don’t see a cent, though, so it’s not in my interests to try and make it a pitch, and convince them to base the movie on my thing. People have asked if I’m pissed off, but I just see it as a compliment. When you do work for hire, you have to realise you won’t see money for that. If you’ve done a good job, and it reaches other mediums, then great.

I think what would make me unhappy is if I’d been like Jack Kirby or something, and only worked for Marvel, then saw them making billions and me only getting my pay 20 years before. That would be bleak. But that’s why, hopefully, current creators realise that in the end, your stuff will be used, and you will not be paid, so be smart and do some creator-owned stuff. Ennis, Ellis, we all do it as well as our Marvel stuff.

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This is the first time since 2004’s “The Gray Area” that John Romita has worked ‘outside’ Marvel [Note: Kick-Ass is published by Icon, Marvel’s ‘hands-off’ imprint for creator-owned books.] Given that you’ve basically got your pick of the industry’s artistic talent, what made you choose Romita?

John, I think, is genuinely the best artist in the industry. The other big guys I like are, obviously, McNiven, Quitely, Hitch, Leinil Yu, Charest… Risso’s work on 100 Bullets is fantastic – they’ve all got their strengths and weaknesses, but Johnny’s the only one firing on all cylinders. And he’s got the most amazing work ethic, too.

There’s nothing more dispiriting than when an artist takes three months to draw a script. It’s heartbreaking, and you know that sales are going to be affected by it. But Johnny can turn an issue around in a weekend and it still looks incredible. The only reason he was late on Kick-Ass was because he was directing the animated sequence within the movie, so that’s a big chunk of time on top of his regular Marvel gigs.

We have worked together before, on a Wolverine story [Enemy Of The State], and gelled well, so we always intended to do something together again. Plus, I didn’t want photo-realism, I wanted something with a dirty, Martin Scorsese look to it, and I said to him, “Please do this book, I can offer no money for at least 10 months, and then it might come out and no-one likes it and you don’t see any money ever. But I think it’ll work, and if you don’t do it, I just won’t bother doing it.” And he said, “Really?” And I meant it.

If you try and imagine Kick-Ass drawn by someone else, it doesn’t quite work. It was annoying, actually, because I couldn’t visualise anyone else doing it. Luckily, he said yes.

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It took almost a year before we got paid because, if you think about it, I start writing it six months before it’s published, he’s drawing it maybe four months before, and then the sales and accounts have to come in, and it’s maybe a year until you get paid. And you’re thinking, “Geez, I hope this is going to go alright…” because you’ve got no wages for a while.

But then the first issue outsold Spider-Man immediately, which was great, then we did five printings. It took a while, but the money eventually came in, and we made more out of it than Civil War, and that was the biggest payday anyone at Marvel’s had in years, you know?

Marvel probably shat themselves, because people will start to realise, what’s to stop their creators from doing creator-owned stuff, own the movie and completely owning the comics?

Right, so you do split things with the artists?

Yeah, that, actually, is why the big artists are keen to work with me, because they know my stuff tends to get picked up as films and sell a lot. So all these guys – McNiven, Yu, the next one is Dave Gibbons – we split it all 50-50. That’s why I’ve lucked out and got all these good artists.

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I’d like to make a point of that, actually. A lot of artists on creator-owned stuff are getting ripped off by the writers, and nobody’s talking about it. It’s absolutely shocking. It’s a bit uncomfortable to talk about, almost, because people I like are doing it.

Back in the Sixties, artists and writers would go to the company and get ripped off. Now artists are going to the writers …and getting ripped off. There are so many people drawing books, but owning only a small percentage, and yet, there are no articles about this. The artist is getting some revenue from publishing, but nothing on merchandise, or movie deals. The writer sometimes stays on as a screenwriter, then front-loads the deal so they get tonnes of cash for the screenplay, and the rights are much smaller.

I want to set the standard by making it 50-50 in terms of cash and producer credits. It’s not that I think I’m a good guy for doing it, just that you’re a bad guy if you don’t!

The artists I work with get exactly what I get, and I think that’s why they keep coming back to me. I think anyone who doesn’t split the rights equally is stupid, because they’re putting off the big artists, and they’ll never work with them again. I think in the next year there are some projects that I know of that are going to become big, get picked up as movies or TV shows, and the artists aren’t going to see much money while the writer makes a fortune.

Nobody’s talking about it yet, but I think it’s going to be a big scandal.

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So, since you mentioned movie deals – you’re often accused of writing movie pitches rather than comics. Is there any truth to that?

No, none, I’m just a comic guy. It’s funny, people always say about me, “Millar’s just looking for a Hollywood career”, and it’s like, well, if that was true, I’d just go and do films full-time.

I did a film, it made $340 million, and I got loads of offers, but I turned everything down, literally, because I don’t want to be a screenwriter. It’s not that I don’t like making movies, but I don’t want to be a screenwriter, because I like what I write to appear as I wrote it. That never happens with films. Even with Kick-Ass, I saw how many drafts it went through, and how many producers and money men want you to change things so it works as a movie. It’s hard enough to write something once, let alone twenty times.

Compared to that, comics is the best gig in the world! You never have to look at actors, or budget, you’re limited only by your imagination. It’s as easy, financially speaking, to draw a double page spread of a thousand soldiers fighting as it is to draw two people talking.

I love the idea of what I write making it into people’s hands as I wanted it to be. Other than novels, comics is the only thing that can offer that. What’s funny is that a lot of people are heading off to do screenwriting, but I can’t understand it. I think we’ve got an amazing thing in comics, where we create the story, and own it, and the movie guys can then do all the hard work.

So, yeah, no interest in becoming a screenwriter. Directing’s different. I’m doing a wee bit of that, but not screenwriting.

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While we’re tackling the myths… how about the suggestion that with things like Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and American Jesus, that you deliberately court controversy?

Well, I only like reading stuff that I’ve never seen before. Here’s an example – the comic that I really loved when I was a teenager was Marshal Law, and issue #4 of it – I can remember this so perfectly – I opened it up and there’s a guy who looks like Superman, sitting on the toilet, injecting himself with drugs [laughs] and he’s biting on a cord on his arm. And I remember the exact caption. It just said “I’m worried about Buck.” And it sticks in my head because it was a shocking image, and an interesting one.

Similarly, an 11-year-old girl running down a corridor and killing 20 Italians with knives and guns, is an arresting image. Someone age 19, strolling down that corridor and knocking a guy out – we’ve seen it before. It’s not that interesting. So, to me, you visually juxtapose two things to get something you’ve never seen before.

With American Jesus, it’s just that the idea of doing the story of Jesus isn’t such a big deal, but put it in modern day America and suddenly it’s on people’s radars. And to me, that’s my job as a writer. I don’t like to watch things that are dull, and I don’t like to write things that are dull. I like the idea of something that wakes you up a little bit while you’re reading it.

That said, it’s so easy to shock people, you could just write something about, I dunno, someone having sex with a baby or something, then you’re just going out of your way to try and be offensive. But I don’t think Hit-Girl is offensive. It’s visually shocking, but, to me, that’s different from offensive.

I think you can be shocking and clever and, to me – I won’t comment on the comic, because that’s my own work – but to me, Hit-Girl is going to be one of the best characters in cinema. All of my friends are sending each other the Hit-Girl trailer, because they’ve never seen anything like it. Nobody’s offended, they’re all saying, “Look, here’s something we’ve never seen before.”

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In fact, Hit Girl and Big Daddy are so successful in the movie that they almost overshadow Dave.

Yeah, I think that was actually essential for them to do, because Matthew [Vaughan] and I, probably because we were both 7 in 1977, we see this movie as Star Wars. Dave is Luke Skywalker, the slightly bland farmboy entering an interesting world and meeting lots of cartoon characters along the way, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi and everything, until he eventually faces Darth Vader in the Deathstar at the end. If we’d made Dave a cartoon character, then viewers wouldn’t have had an entry point.

Originally, and I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but I wrote the first draft of issue one of Kick-Ass a year before I wrote the final draft of it, and in the first draft I had Big Daddy and Hit-Girl as the stars. It was called ‘Kick-Ass’, but it was about those characters, and I looked at it and thought, “That’s not right,” because the characters are too cartoony to be leads.

If Han Solo had been the lead in Star Wars, his one-lines wouldn’t have been as funny if you heard them every 10 seconds. So, he comes in, you love him while he’s there, you miss him while he’s gone, and that’s Hit Girl and Big Daddy in our movie.

I remember we showed a cut of it to a producer and he was like, “Cut all of the Kick-Ass stuff and just make it all Hit Girl!” and it was like, “But she won’t be cool if she’s in it all the time!” [laughs] So, you need the ordinary guy. And that’s what makes the rest seem so spectacular.

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And with that, our time was up. Mark Millar, thank you very much!

Kick-Ass the movie arrives in the UK on 26th March, and the graphic novel is available from Titan. Find more information here.