Last week, I was at my desk at the Moviepilot office, frowning at a spreadsheet (yes, editors have to do non-editing type things, too), when Josh, our Head of PR, sauntered up as is his wont:
"Hey, Wednesday at 10 a.m., are you open?"
"I think so. Why?"
"We finally nailed down an interview time with Mark Millar."
"Oh, yeah. That time works for me."
As he walked away, I stared at my computer as I tried to gather my thoughts, but the only thing reverberating in my head was He wrote Civil War, he wrote CIVIL WAR, HE WROTE CIVIL WAR!!!
Non-comic book fans might not fully understand the exclamation points going off in my head. Outside of Stan Lee, comic book writers and artists tend to be largely unknown to the world at large. Outside of comic conventions, you might not know their faces. While the world knows their characters thanks to Hollywood's love affair with comic book movies, that same public could walk past the writers and artists and never know that that unassuming man or woman is responsible for carrying on the storyline of Captain America or The Joker or Spider-Man. They are celebrities, but celebrities in the self-contained world of comic book geekdom.
But Mark Millar might be the most powerful comic book writer in the industry right now. And while most movie audiences don't know it, it's because he might just be one of the most influential people in Hollywood at the moment.
Millar's oeuvre is one of the most impressive in comic book canon, and his education began early. At age 4, he cut his teeth on comics with The Amazing Spider-Man #121, with its watershed moment of Gwen Stacy's death. That was it for him. Diving into the works of his idols, most notably Alan Moore and Frank Miller, but also Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, and Peter Milligan, Millar was irrevocably set on his path of comic book writer when Morrison himself advised the then-18-year-old Millar to focus on either being a writer or an artist, because the path to be both was difficult.
It was, Millar has since said, the best advice he'd ever received.
He worked his way up through British comics in the 90s, getting his first break into American comics in 1994 when he co-wrote Swamp Thing with Morrison. After years of bouncing around working on various projects for DC, in 2000, he replaced another former idol when he took over on DC imprint Wildstorm's The Authority from Ellis.
But by 2001, Millar had moved from DC to Marvel, and his blossoming career would take another leap forward when he was given the reins to Marvel's new reboot Ultimate X-Men, despite Millar's only familiarity with the mutants being the first X-Men movie. But in Millar's unique hands, the X-Men were reshaped into something wildly popular both critically and commercially, with Millar's trademark edgy tone lending a moral ambiguity to some of the mutants that audiences hadn't yet seen. He also took the lead on The Ultimates, Marvel's Avengers story in the Ultimate universe and Ultimate Fantastic Four (all of which led to the spin-off Marvel Zombies).
A few years later, still working for Marvel, Millar launched his own company, Millarworld, that would be entirely creator-owned by Millar. Through Millarworld, he launched series like Wanted, Kick-Ass, and War Heroes, and later, under Marvel's Icon imprint, he'd write miniseries Nemesis and Superior, along with The Secret Service, currently in theaters as the most recent movie adaptation of his work. These latter were also creator-owned titles, a cause that Millar would become even more passionate about as his career progressed.
But it was 2006 that found Millar writing what would become one of the most iconic series in not just Marvel's history, but in the history of comics: Marvel's Civil War. With veteran Marvel artist Steve McNiven as his right hand on the miniseries, the pair created the story that affected everything in a way few stories had before, with the fallout still reverberating throughout the Marvel Universe today.
Suffice it to say, Wednesday morning rolled around and I was more nervous than I could remember being in quite some time.
Butterflies? Are those...butterflies in my stomach?
We got off to a bumpy start: I accidentally ended up calling him an hour early because I made a rookie mistake and forgot about the previous weekend's time change. So our conversation started with me apologizing profusely. Not the most shining first impression.
I need not have worried.
"You know, earlier actually works out better!" a warm, heavily Scottish-accented voice quickly assured me (later, he'd joke about being impressed I could understand him). "My sister is coming over for dinner, so this is beautiful timing!"
With the mention of his sister, the conversation opened with us sharing stories about our families. As it turns out, being a dad to three daughters can be challenging - but life gets exponentially cooler when they're all mini-yous. His three-year-old daughter wakes him up at 5 a.m., not to watch Dora the Explorer, but to watch the 1960s Superman cartoons. For Halloween, she wanted to be Nuclear Man - yes, the villain from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
"I had to explain to her that nobody would know who that was," he laughed, "but I'm lucky because my girls are into all the same things that I was...I have all this stuff lying around the house and I never force it on them because I want them to find their own thing, but just because they see it around, they get into it, which is awesome."
Just like that, it was fine. I had gone into the interview worried that he, busy as he is, might have been irritated at the scheduling mix-up or obviously pressed for time. And this was, after all, a man who had made some well-known, controversial statements regarding the "women in fridges" trope in his career, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But I found someone who was attentive, enthusiastic, gracious about his colleagues and thoughtful in his answers.
I was interested in getting his take on the symbiotic relationship between the comic book and movie industries right now, particularly as Millar himself has been so influential in this regard. But when I mentioned that more of his comic books have been translated to the screen than any other current writer and wondered if that was intentional, he quickly corrected me. He doesn't write his comics for the potential to one day turn them into a film, but to tell a good story. And, as he pointed out, you can't really anticipate what might be made into a movie, because a movie could be about anything.
"What some people have said to me," he explained, "is that my style feels like a movie, but I'm too close to it to see it."
Though one of those people, in particular, probably knew what he was talking about in regard to Millar's work: "Stan Lee even said it to me! I wrote a 12-issue Spider-Man story about ten or eleven years ago and what Stan said to me was that it felt like a Spider-Man movie."
At the time, he confessed with a laugh, he didn't quite get what Lee meant, because, much like trying to assess your own handwriting, it's "impossible to say."
Still, I found myself thinking that while it might be impossible for Millar to assess his own work at the time he's writing it, surely it wasn't impossible for him to see how much of an influence he's had on the comic book cinematic universes over the years. After a pause, he finally acknowledged as much:
"I had noticed that Marvel movies were using quite a lot of my stuff," he admitted, "like the Ultimates, Avengers and Captain America and those guys, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, the new Fantastic Four, obviously, you know, comes from a lot of the stuff I did in Ultimate Fantastic Four where they were younger. So, I guess my style eventually finds its way into the films."
That was an understatement.
By the way, for fans still worrying that [Captain America: Civil War](movie:994409) won't have enough characters to do the story justice, or the right characters, Millar shot down those doubts with a quickness. In fact, he thinks it might be one of the easiest translations from comic book to screen Marvel has yet done, as it follows a simple 3-act structure, and while the Civil War tie-in stories are amazing, they're not necessary to make a movie. For those comic book readers savvy enough to really pay attention as they read, they'll notice that while there are literally hundreds of characters within the pages of Civil War, very few have dialogue, a deliberate decision on Millar's part as he was writing.
"It's actually quite streamlined," he explained. "They were just drawn in the background to indicate it was a big, important event because you could see all of those characters on the pages."
But really, he contends, there are only about ten to fifteen truly pivotal characters in the story, and Marvel will already have introduced many of them by the time the film comes out. You have Captain America. You have Iron Man. And you have Spider-Man. As for the rest, give Cap and Iron Man "five or six pals each" and you have a perfect number. Not too many, but enough to give the audience the scope of how important this event is.
"And besides," he mused, "that's kind of the way I wrote it, anyway."
I'd be remiss if I didn't confess I had to struggle not to fangirl gush all over him at this moment, because this reasoning was exactly what I'd been saying in the multiple articles I'd written about the MCU and Civil War for months. I felt like I'd passed some sort of comic geek test with flying colors: You guys. GUYS! Mark Millar told me his thoughts about how his Civil War would work on screen and it's the same thing I'VE been saying about it! It was a moment of true nerd vindication if ever I'd had one, coming from one of the biggest idols and icons in all of geekdom. But I managed to restrain myself from ordering the "Best Friends" heart necklace or asking him where I could send his friendship bracelet long enough to continue. If he heard the slightly choked noise I made or noticed my brief paroxysm at that moment, he was kind enough not to say anything.
Something I'd always noticed when reading Millar's work is that his dialogue tends to feel more natural, to flow more smoothly than many other writers. And this lends itself to an easier transition to the medium of film, where an actor or actress has much more room to play around with scripted dialogue and arrange it to suit him- or herself. TV is a writer's medium, where the speech is often unnatural and the actor or actress has to make sure to hit every beat, every point. But in film, there's more room to improvise, so natural dialogue of the style that Millar writes can be embraced and modified.
Again, he downplayed it. "To me they just all sound Scottish. In my head, Captain America has a Scottish accent."
Things got silly for a bit after that, with us contemplating whether or not we needed a Captain Scotland character (we should) and who they should be modeled after (Millar himself). And, of course, what the obligatory kilt and blue woad might look like (very, very Braveheart).
But it was what he said after I had stopped laughing that really underscored his love of telling stories, of entertaining people with a tale that grabs you and doesn't let go. The talk had turned to [Nemesis](movie:579266), one of his projects in development, and immediately, his enthusiasm shined through.
"To me it’s a no-brainer," he exclaimed when I asked whether or not we'd see it hit theaters soon. "I mean, it’s evil Batman versus Commissioner Gordon. It could be just a huge summer movie, and it’s not like anything anyone’s ever seen before. You know, something really fun, a proper supervillain movie."
And there it was. The heart of what makes Mark Millar, Mark Millar. When everyone is busy telling this story, Millar wants to tell that one, the one that's slightly left of center, a little unexpected. And he wants anyone who reads or watches it to have a hell of a time while doing so. Because if that's the heart of Millar's style, it's also the heart of why comic book franchises, Marvel's in particular, have captured the zeitgeist in a way that no film genre has in decades.
Ten or fifteen years ago, he said, no one took superhero movies seriously. No one really understood them - not fully, anyway. So comic book movies had to be these "very serious movies and superhero films" to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the public. But as the public has grown to understand what superheroes are all about, that has changed. And it's Marvel that has recognized and embraced that faster than any other studio.
"What the audience responds to most now," he posited, "is just a good night out." Which is why films like James Gunn's [Guardians of the Galaxy](movie:424073) had so many repeat viewers - himself included - and why he had been told the same from his own fans who had seen [Kingsman: The Secret Service](movie:713143) a handful of times in theaters.
"Someone just tweeted me twenty minutes ago that they'd seen Kingsman eleven times!" he exclaimed in delight. "But you know, I kind of get it. Because it's almost like a dopamine rush, isn't it? You just come out of the theater feeling good."
But at the same time, he really respects and appreciates what DC and Warner Bros. are doing with their own films. And I found myself appreciating what he was saying. As a self-admitted Marvel fan, the tone of DC's movies, to this point, have been too dark for my tastes, too joyless. But this is a personal taste thing; there is no right or wrong. There are some fans who love Marvel, and some who love DC, but I've always found the in-fighting between Marvel and DC fans to be silly and detrimental to fandom as a whole. So as Millar talked, I wished I could broadcast what he was saying to every fan who had ever drawn a line in the sand regarding the Marvel-DC-even Fox battle that doesn't need to be.
Millar's philosphy is that there's room for everybody, that conflicting styles help to support one another. In fact, just that morning he'd spoken to the producer of his Superior movie, a lighthearted, wish-fulfillment sort of story in which a boy with multiple sclerosis is granted a magic wish to be Superman. During the course of their conversation, the subject of [Man of Steel](movie:15593) naturally came up. Both were appreciative of the fact DC had chosen to go dark and serious with their films, because it opened up a different take on the same stories, in this case, Superman.
"It’s fantastic that there’s room for both," he continued. "So I’m delighted that DC is taking that route, you know?"
I soon learned that Millar's "everyone is welcome" policy doesn't begin and end with movies, however. The golden age we're living in now absolutely thrills him on multiple levels.
"I love this new comic world that we're in right now," he gushed. Despite the resistance of some fans and some within the industry to the rapidly diversifying face of comics, Millar is all for it, fully embracing the sea change of the medium he loves.
Why? Because of the stories of course. It's always about the stories for Millar, and the potential to tell new ones, different ones, exciting ones.
The audience for comic books was literally double what it's been, he informed me, thanks to new fans coming to comics through the medium of movies. He was particularly excited about "this brilliant, massive new female audience," because as the female comic book reading demographic grows, so does the number of female creators in the industry. And that can only be a good thing, not just for girls and women, but for everyone. His respect for writers like Kelly Sue DeConnick, Gail Simone, Fiona Staples, Sara Pichelli, G. Willow Wilson, and others shone through at that particular moment, because with them leading the way, "you're getting all these brilliant, different kinds of books." How could anyone not love the way the industry is going right now?
I fully agreed, but I brought up the fact that some comic book writers and artists had spoken out in recent months and taken shots at the same new, young, movie-loving, cosplay-wearing demographic that Millar embraced. But when I pointed this out, Millar was taken aback.
"Have they really?!"
They have, I informed him. In particular, those in the industry who didn't seem to be adapting as well to the change in pop culture seemed to be upset about two things: One, that cosplayers who go to conventions don't necessarily bother to buy anything while there from those same writers and artists whose characters those cosplayers are wearing. And two, that the wild popularity of movies means that kids are familiar with people like Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige, Robert Downey Jr. and Hugh Jackman, Zack Snyder and Gal Godot, but weren't as aware of - and so didn't give credit to - the comic book writers and artists upon whose works Hollywood's empire was being built.
Millar listened to that and thought for a moment, and then doubled down on his "everyone is welcome" philosophy.
"You know," he mused, "it really almost doesn't matter that they don't read the books. Because eventually they probably will, right?" I agreed.
"Here's an example!" he said, growing excited again. And he proceeded to tell me a story about his eldest daughter's best friend. This friend, he explained, had been one of those scene kids, a cosplayer who went to all the conventions with her friends and dressed up every time, not because they had read the comics or manga, but because they simply liked the look of some of the costumes, particularly from anime and manga. They liked the design. They'd find images on Instagram or other places online, find a character whose design they really liked, and build their costume around that without really knowing much about the character or their story, but knowing they loved to be part of the convention scene. And that continued for two years.
But at some point - he didn't know exactly when - but at some point, someone dropped a comic book in amongst them, one that came recommended. And that was it, the lightbulb went on for her.
"Now, she's an addict. Now, she reads everything."
And yes, he conceded, it did take her a few years to pick up a comic book and get into reading them. But the point was that she did eventually pick it up. What did it matter, he asked, how a new fan came to reading comics, whether through movies, or conventions, or roleplaying? The way he figures, the more varied people come to conventions, the better, because eventually, "they’re gonna find the comic book that’s for them." And isn't that a good thing?
"If they, out of the corner of their eye, see a comic book that they pick up, then it’s win-win, isn’t it? It’s great for all of us. It’s a new reader."
His enthusiasm was infectious, and I found my respect for him growing. My people! I laughed in my head. He's our people, Moviepilot kind of people!
So, with our time running out (and, if I'm being honest, already having gone over), I had one last question for him:
"With everything you've accomplished, what is the legacy you'd like to leave?"
One last time, his generosity and genuineness shone through.
"I'll tell you exactly what it is...If I were to leave a legacy, I’d say it would be to try and leave stuff behind. The fact that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, between them, have left behind the most incredible body of work that we all feed off, every single one of us in the industry at some point has touched this stuff – and that it’s now the cornerstone of modern Hollywood! – there’s just something fantastic about that, you know? To add something lasting to the pop culture melting pot is the greatest honor of an artist. So that’s my #1 thing."
He paused for a moment, and then brought up the second great passion of his life, the cause he holds dear.
"But at the same time, what’s so important, is that the artists [of the original books] and myself have ownership of what we create. Whenever we adapt any of these books for a movie, we go 50/50 on everything, because I halve my producer rights and share it with them. We have something like eight or nine movies on the go right now, and every one of the artists, who are great friends of mine, they’re taken care of and I just feel like everybody’s gonna be alright. So my plan is to create 25 of these things over the course of my career, and I want my legacy to be, in that sense, that all of my friends did the best work that they could, and that they retained ownership and were properly remunerated for it and that they were taken care of in their old age.
"That's what I've got in my head."
And the comic book world, and now Hollywood, are better because of it.
Click here for the full interview with Mark Millar.
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