Last week, I had the chance to interview the legendary Mark Millar. The conversation ranged far and wide, for he was, to my delight, not one to hold back when giving an answer. I had originally intended to write a long feature piece on him using snippets from the interview - which I did and you can read here - but decided the full interview was too good not to post. So here it is in its entirety; I've lightly edited for clarity.
Warning: It's long, but worth reading every word.
MP: You’re in Glasgow now, correct?
I am! I love traveling to the States, but it’s so far away so I try to minimize it. Especially when you have kids. Two of them are actually really young, so jetlag multiplied by two toddlers is just an absolute nightmare. So I do try to stay here as much as I can. What’s amazing is that my 3-year-old daughter – it’s all girls I have – but my 3-year-old daughter will get me up at 5 a.m., but it’s to watch 1960s Superman cartoons. She’s obsessed with the same things that I was obsessed with. It’s amazing. You always kind of hope that your kids will be into the same things that you were, and I’m lucky because my girls are. They hate any Superman movie that’s not Christopher Reeve, they hate any Batman that’s not Adam West. They have good taste.
It’s made my daughter the only person around who knows who the Superman 4 bad guy is. She’s only three, and for Halloween she wanted to dress up as Nuclear Man from Superman 4, and I was like, “Nobody is going to know who that is.” The good thing is 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.
You brought up movies. I saw Kingsman – we did a special screening for it – Mark Hamill did a Q&A beforehand—
Oh, I saw that one! It was amazing!
Yes! And I had wanted to see Kingsman for quite some time, because I loved Kick-Ass and it was in that same Vaughn/Millar style of eye-popping visuals and taking that fight choreography to the next level. So far it’s made about $250 million worldwide, which is great. Did you expect that kind of response?
You can never tell, you know? It is one of those things. Just because something is good, I think it will probably find an audience; it’s really rare for something to be really good and not find at least some kind of audience. I remember filming Kick-Ass, thinking it would make upwards of $200 million, even though it was a $28 million dollar movie to make, and thinking, “This is so good! This is my kind of movie.” And I thought there would be enough people. But it only made a hundred million. It’s done well on Blu-ray and everything, but you just can’t tell. It’s quite nerve-wracking.
I’ve got friends who work in cinemas all around the world and whenever Kingsman was opening, I was emailing and texting them all day, saying, “Right, okay, how many people are at your screens right now watching this, and how does it compare to these 4 movies?” [laughing] I was doing, like, all these sums trying to work out how it was doing on its first day. So it was an amazing relief to see it doing so well. And it could probably make another $50 or even $100 million, because it still has yet to open in China and a few places. So it could still go pretty crazy!
It seems as if, out of any comic book writer out there, that your books in particular have been picked up to be adapted into movies. Is that by design? Or is it that your style just naturally lends itself to the medium of movies?
You know, it’s funny, because a lot of my friends have said that. Have asked, “Do you plan it as a film?” But what I was saying is so true: you can’t anticipate what a movie will be because a movie can be anything, couldn’t it? Like, Spider-Man is a movie, but so is Boyhood and so is Transformers and so is Grand Budapest Hotel. They’re all just stories, you know? So you can never anticipate what’s going to make a great movie, so you just write the kind of story that you would write.
It’s the same way in comic books. Some guys have got a more cartoony style, and some guys have got a photographic style. What some people have said to me is that my style feels like a movie, but I’m too close to it to see it. 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. And I didn’t quite get what he meant. But I don’t know, maybe the structure is the same in the sense of escalation; maybe it has a cinematic style. But because it is my style, it’s like assessing your own handwriting; it’s impossible to say.
I had noticed that Marvel movies were using quite a lot of my stuff, like the Ultimates, Avengers and Captain America and those things, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The Fantastic Four, obviously, you know, comes from a lot of the stuff I did in Ultimate Fantastic Four where they were younger. So, even when I’m doing my Marvel stuff, I never intend for them to be movies, but it eventually finds its way into the films. So I guess I create characters with a similar style and they all seem to be becoming movies as well.
I just reread Civil War last night—
Oh, yeah! There’s that one coming up, as well.
It is! But something I noticed is that the dialogue you write seems a lot more natural and it’s a lot closer to something you’d see in the medium of movies, where actors and actresses can improvise some of their dialogue.
To me they just all sound Scottish. In my head, Captain America has a Scottish accent.
Maybe that’s what you need. A Captain Scotland.
I would love to be Captain Scotland! If anyone’s going to keep Scotland safe, it’s me. Obviously. [laughing]
Your "Nemesis" has been picked up as well for adaptation as well and I know there's been recent movement on it. Is this something we might see in theaters soon?
It’s funny you mention that. I’ve been quite lucky. Generally, my stuff doesn’t tend to sit in development hell for a long time. You know, Wanted moved very fast. And Kick-Ass was even faster, same for Kingsman. There are generally only 2 or 3 years between getting picked up and hitting theaters. Nemesis got bought a few years back and they’ve re-upped their option and unfortunately Tony Scott was the guy who was originally into it and he had a GREAT take on it. He and I talked on the phone about some of his visual ideas for it and he had an amazing way of shooting the precredit sequence and I was so excited about it. And sadly, obviously everything happened with Tony, as you know.** But then it went to one of Tony’s protégées, an amazing guy called Joe Carnahan. He did The Grey, and for me that was my favorite movie of the year. I loved it. Joe came into my life around that time and it was nice because I had just seen The Grey and so when Fox came to me and said, “Hey, what do you think of this guy doing it?” I said, “Are you kidding me? That would be amazing.” So Joe wrote an incredible script with his brother, Matthew. And it’s just sitting there now. Nothing’s happened with it but we’ll see where it goes from there.
I mean, I just heard this morning that Superior, another book of mine is up and running over at Fox, a children’s movie. The screenplay is about 2 weeks away from being handed in. Starlight’s happening there as well with Gary Whitta. He’s writing that at the moment. And there are two other things we haven’t made public yet. But weirdly, I think Nemesis is the one out of all of them that could hit biggest. When a movie does well, like Kingsman is doing, it gives all your projects a certain amount of heat. So hopefully they’ll move soon on Nemesis. To me it’s a no-brainer. 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.
It seems like while Marvel and DC are doing well building these huge universes, Fox is being very smart and picking up these smaller, unconnected comic book series to adapt into quirky, unique franchises.
Yeah, I love it! I’m having a great time with Fox; it’s worked out very well. I think they have 4 of my properties now. And they have two other Marvel properties, too, with X-Men and Fantastic Four. But when you bring out 14 movies a year, you have to look at other properties, and comic book properties are like gold. They do tend to do very well. When you look at the proportion of failures in comic book properties, it’s incredible. The successes are wildly successful – billion dollar franchises and everything – but the failures are relatively small and generally not that expensive. I mean, there have been a couple of flops, but over the course of 15 years, you can count the ones that have lost money on one hand. So Fox is very much in the adaptation game, and what I love about it is that they bring the A-level talent to the table. They’re spending the money on these great directors because you can’t just rely on the brand. You have to be smart and hire great people, too. My God, growing up in the 70s, I saw some really sucky superhero movies. You can’t rely on that brand. It’s only as good as the people who are behind it. As a massive fanboy, I love the quality of these films that are coming out now from all studios.
And it’s the right time now. There were so many movies that came out in the 90s and early 2000s that were ahead of their time, but the technology and audience just hadn’t caught up yet. Like Spawn. Or even the Hellboy movies.
You know, I think you’re right. I think people are ready to build on the whole Marvel-DC thing. They understand these movies now, so they can go with something a little different. I think Kick-Ass suffered from that a little; I think Kick-Ass was 5 years too soon.
And it’s cool that studios are now handing the keys now to very smart indie directors that have unique styles, like James Gunn. Is that the next evolution we’ll see?
Definitely. People who can subvert it, I mean, Guardians of the Galaxy, I loved. It’s almost a cliché now to say how great it was, but it really was my favorite movie of last year. The Lego Movie was a close second, but Guardians of the Galaxy was absolutely my favorite. And I love James Gunn; I’ve known James Gunn as an email friend for about 5 years now, we talk back and forth. And I love the fact that someone as radical and interesting as James was in charge of America’s highest-grossing movie of last year. I love that! I love the world we’re living in now, you know?
Like I said, growing up in the 80s, I never could have imagined what we have right now. That what I loved, which was so niche, has gone mainstream and that guys like James or Joss Whedon and all the others, they’re the kings of this world. It’s fantastic! We’re so lucky as fans, as compared to what we grew up with you know? I went to see Superman 4 four times – that’s how keen into this stuff I was – so you can imagine how happy I am when I see something as great as Guardians of the Galaxy.
Right?? I got the same feeling when watching Kingsman that I got watching Guardians, which is that you don’t have to take yourself so seriously to make a great comic book movie film.
Do you know, I think it’s an evolutionary process, because I think that the mainstream audience had very little respect for superhero movies 10, 15 years ago, so you had to come in with those very serious movies and superhero films. There was a lot of very grand stuff going on, with Nolan’s Batman or Bryan Singer’s X-Men. There were a lot of serious issues at stake, and I think it was great in a way, because it legitimized them as an art form. And they got top talent. They were proper movies, you know?
But then I think right around the time of The Avengers, maybe somewhere between Iron Man and Avengers – maybe Iron Man, because it looked like Robert Downey, Jr. was enjoying himself the whole time and you came out of the movie with a big smile on your face – but there was a very different vibe from The Dark Knight, which you appreciated as a movie more than you wanted to be Batman. But the Marvel movies definitely led the way there, and I think the DC movies, as much as I enjoy them, feel a little bit like what DC was doing a few years back. You know, the Nolan stuff. It feels like they’re still trying to legitimize themselves.
But as Marvel have just realized is that the best way to approach this stuff now, what the audience responds to most, is just a good night out. I mean, I couldn’t tell you how many times I went to see Guardians, and a lot of people said the same thing to me about Kingsman, too. I mean, somebody just tweeted me 20 minutes ago and said they’ve seen it eleven times! But I kind of get it, because it’s almost like a dopamine rush or something, isn’t it? You just come out of it feeling good. It’s a lovely feeling to come out of the cinema just thinking, “I’ve had a great night out!” And I think the next few years will be a little more of that.
I mean, I was just talking to the producer of the Superior movie this morning, and we were talking about how it’s nice that DC have chosen to go the way they have with Superman where everything’s very dark and serious, because it opens up the other take on comic book movies. Whereas the idea behind Superior is that it’s about a kid who has multiple sclerosis and he gets one magic wish and he gets to be Superman. It’s like “Big” meets “Superman” and we just got to do a big, fun wish fulfillment movie, which is the opposite direction of what they’re doing with the Superman movies. And it’s fantastic that there’s room for both. So I’m delighted that DC is taking that route, you know?
Your movies have a violent and gritty tone, but you never seem to lose the sense of fun, that it’s an honor to be a superhero, a secret agent, a mutant, that being a superhero is something to aspire to be rather than a burden.
I hope so! Because, you know, for me, I went to see these movies as a kid wanting to be that guy when I came out. You know, I even went to see something as lame as the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man tv show that came out here in Scotland. I mean, we took dates to go see that in the cinema. I came out of it thinking it was the best movie I’d ever seen; I came out wanting to be Spider-Man. I went to see The Spy Who Loved Me and I came out wanting to be James Bond. And that’s such an important thing, isn’t it? These films should make you want to be the lead character. It’s such an old-fashioned idea in a way, but it really works. You come home from movies and you’re pumped up. So that’s what we try to do in everything that we’re working on. And Matthew Vaughn has the same head, as well; we’ve talked about this idea with everything we’ve worked on. But I think it’s great to mix it up, too. Because I quite enjoy doing stuff that’s family-oriented at the same time. I worked for Marvel for about 10 years writing books that didn’t have a single curse word in them. So I do enjoy, as an exercise as a writer, mixing it up a little bit. You can have the excitement without going for ultraviolence. So the next couple of things we’re doing will feel very different. Starlight is massively exciting and there’s lots of action, but a different style than the bone-crunching action that you see in something like Kickass or Kingsman. I like playing around with different forms, really.
You’ve been a consultant on so many films now. Have you ever thought about just writing directly for the screen?
It never really interested me, to be honest. I get offered lots of stuff. Ever since Wanted came out, because it made a lot of money, I think 5 times its budget. So I started getting a lot of offers for things then and my agent would always be really excited and say, “Hey, listen! I’ve got this offer for you!”
After about 3 years of me turning everything down, he finally got it, that I’m a comic book guy. I see myself as a comic book guy, not a screenwriter. I do a lot of consulting, but I see it as a side job. It’s kind of nice in a way, because I write the comic exactly as I want it, and then, if something does get translated into a movie, I’ve got the same relationship to it that JK Rowling has with Harry Potter, which is that I own it and can stop it from ever happening. It’s not like working at Marvel or DC where they own it. With my work, the artists and I own it between us. We can choose the director, we have a certain amount of control over it. We give notes on screenplays or castings – I mean, Matthew and I spoke on the phone every day for months about castings and things. So you kind of have all the advantages of screenwriting without the disadvantages as well. It’s the fun side, where you can chat about stuff as opposed to having to sit in front of the computer.
And besides, someone like Jane Goldman, I mean, she’s the best screenwriter in Hollywood right now, and I look at what she and others can do and I just think, “I don’t even want to compete with that.” I’m sure the screenplay for Starlight is going to be better than the book. I’m just in love what these guys do, so I just like to sit back and let them do all the hard work, really. [laughing]
Speaking of changing your work, the script for Captain America: Civil War will obviously have to be streamlined from the comic books. How do you feel about the upcoming movie? Do you worry it will be changed it too much, or are you confident they’ll remain true to the spirit of the story?
Oh, Marvel is fantastic. There are just certain situations that you can relax in. For example, if I know Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman are adapting one of my books, I know it’s going to be great. I can just relax. With Marvel adapting something, I know it’s going to be amazing. I mean, you look at Winter Soldier, Avengers, all the Marvel stuff – I mean, they’ve had a couple of movies that haven’t worked out so great, but generally it’s fantastic. So I feel good about it.
And to be honest, I think it’s quite an easy translation. I actually didn’t read a lot of the tie-ins with Civil War. If you try to encompass all of that stuff, it becomes very unwieldy, but that was a publishing decision. With a book as big as Civil War, and something that sold as well as it did – they knew it was going to be big – you try to tie in as much stuff as possible. There were literally hundreds of books and comic publications within it, but you can ignore all that when you’re doing the movie. You really only need the main book itself, and even that follows a 3-act structure. It’s quite a simple adaptation. Just Captain America versus Iron Man, and it splits the superheroes down the middle; one goes rogue, one goes after him.
So I think it would be a very easy adaptation, you know? Even just that visual of Captain America punching Iron Man in the face, and vice versa, is so shocking that as soon as you see that poster, you’re going to see that movie if you’re a kid.
Agreed! But many old school comic book fans have been fretting that it won't have the same feel because Marvel doesn't have the rights to all of the characters.
But, like I often say, if people are worried about not doing a proper translation, if you look at the main title, the main story I wrote, there are a lot of characters in the story, but it’s actually quite streamlined. There are actually hardly any of those background characters talking. 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, there are only about 10, maybe 15 characters who are kind of pivotal in it and important. It’s Captain America, Iron Man, and their immediate allies. So I almost the Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost the perfect place for it, because I think if you suddenly hit, you know, all these random, sceneless characters, it would be really confusing. You want ot keep it as simple as possible. You want to keep it to Iron Man, Captain America, and then each of them have 5 or 6 pals. And then maybe they’re backed by S.H.I.E.L.D. or whatever. To me, that’s perfect. That’s kind of the way I wrote it anyway.
It's interesting that in 2015, a comic book movie fan isn’t necessarily the same as a comic book fan.
Oh, yeah! All my 70-year-old aunties are comic book movie fans now.
Would you say it’s valid to say that now, you can be a comic book fan and not have read many comic books? Because many people will say no, but you have the movies now and that’s how many are getting into comics in a younger generation.
Oh, I’ve got nephews and nieces who have never read a comic book but they know everything about Marvel between the TV shows, the cartoons, and the movies. You can absolutely still be a comic book fan.
But this is a golden age for the published comic book medium as well, because so many of the fans who cut their teeth on the movies are now picking up comics to read about the stories that they’ve already seen on screen.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? One massive thing that’s come from the movies are female readers. When I was growing up, I think the stat was something like 3% were female readers, which is insane, isn’t it? And it’s quite odd, because in every other medium, whether magazines or novels, women massively outread men. But comics were such a boys’ thing. I remember that girls I’d be dating, I’d always say, “Hey, read this comic, it’s really great!” [laughing] And I’d give them my favorite books and they’d grudgingly read it and be polite about it and everything, but you could tell it wasn’t really their thing.
But now, all the women I know, I can pass out comic books to and they don’t sneer at them, they ask for the next one. It’s no longer the very boyish, male power fantasy things that I grew up with, you know, just brawny superheroes fighting supervillains or whatever, now there’s a different vibe. Something like Saga, for example, I know it’s a cliché but it really is a brilliant entry point for a woman or girl who’s never read a comic book before. It just appeals in a fantastic way and I give Saga as a gift to female friends or relatives and every one of them has asked for volume two.
I love this new comic world that we’re in right now. For a creator/writer, it’s great. If I had written Kick-Ass 20, 30 years ago, then I’d have been part of an earlier generation owned by Marvel or DC and I’d have been lucky to have gotten to the premiere of my own movie, whereas now I own it. So creatively, it’s lovely.
We can write the stuff we all want to write, we can own it, and the audience is literally double what it used to be. Because of all the people getting into comics now from the movies, and particularly this brilliant, massive new female audience, which in turn is creating more female creators, which is great. You’ve got Kelly Sue [DeConnick], you’ve got Fiona [Staples], others. The first I would say was Gail Simone, you know, she was the first mainstream female comic book writer to really, really make a splash for me. But even in the last 2 or 3 years, I mean you have Sara Pichelli and all these women coming through. And it’s brilliant, because we’re getting different kinds of books! I love the way the industry is going right now.
That’s a very different mentality than some of the old school writers and artists that have spoken out in the last few years and bashed cosplayers and convention-goers a bit.
Have they really??
Yeah, you know, there are a few who have come out and said, “These fans go to the conventions, but they don’t buy the books, etc.” It seems like maybe there’s a core in the industry that isn’t adapting as well to the way things are changing.
I’ll give you an example of why I think it almost doesn’t matter that they don’t read the books. Because they eventually probably will, right? Here’s an example. My oldest daughter, her best friend is a cosplayer and she had never read a comic book. And she wasn’t even particularly really into the movies, but she really got in to that whole cosplay scene. She used to go along to conventions because she liked dressing up and she hung out with all these comic-con kids who generally dressed up as manga characters. They’d find a visual they liked on Instagram or online and they’d copy the look from that because they liked the design, but they weren’t reading the books.
But then, after hanging out with all these kids, I don’t know what it was, but somebody dropped a comic book in amongst them – and I’m talking after about 2 years of dressing up as these characters. Now, she’s an addict. Now, she reads everything. And it took a couple of years to get to it. But what draws you into the world doesn’t matter to me. As long as you’re coming into the comic book world, love it, I don’t care how you get here, you know? The more people, the more varied people at conventions, the better, because eventually, they’re gonna find the comic book that’s for them. I think it’s a very healthy thing. If people are coming in because of gaming, if people are coming in because of roleplaying, if people are coming in because of cosplaying, even the wrestling guys who are coming to the conventions, 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.
When you look back on your life, what is the legacy that you’d like to leave?
I’ll tell you exactly what it is. Because when I got into working in comics as a teenager, all I wanted to do was write the characters that I grew up with. I would draw them. I just wanted to do Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, all the stuff that I loved. And I really had a brilliant time doing it, and I do still love doing that stuff because I’m such a fan of it and always have been, even though I have my own company now. So 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.
But at the same time, I’d have to say joined with that, what’s so important, is that the artists and myself have ownership of what we create. You only have to look at Superman or Spider-Man or any of these characters, you look back at almost anything, and some of these older comic book creators, they’re just treated so badly. They created things that were worth billions and got pennies for them in comparison, and a lot of they weren’t well looked after in old age to the point that we have The Hero Initiative now. We have a comic book charity to look after these guys. And it’s shameful, it’s absolutely shameful!
But what I’m very lucky with is that I’m pretty savvy when it comes to business, so my friends and I who I’ve partnerd up with whenever we adapt any of these books, we go 50/50 on everything. And now they all have producer deals as well as the rights deals, because what I do is halve my producer rights. We have something like 8, 9 movies on the go right now, and every one of the artists [of the original books], 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, because I’ve just seen so many guys that have gotten screwed and I don’t want that happening to my friends.
I’ve loved talking to you; thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.
I’m so glad you could understand me, honestly, because this accent does not travel well. The worst thing for me was that a few years back, I did a meeting in America, and the guy was just so blank-faced. He had no idea what I was saying. So I had to start writing it down on pieces of paper and passing it over to him. And he’d read it and then reply to me verbally and then I’d respond by writing it down as if I were mute and couldn’t speak. This is why I stay in Scotland. [laughing]
**Editor's Note: Tony Scott sadly committed suicide in 2012.
You can donate to The Hero Initiative by visiting the website.
For our full feature on Mark Millar, click here.
Mark Millar is the New York Times bestselling writer of Wanted, the Kick-Ass series, The Secret Service, Jupiter’s Legacy, Nemesis, Superior, Super Crooks, American Jesus, MPH, Starlight, and Chrononauts. Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2, and The Secret Service (as Kingsman: The Secret Service) have been adapted into feature films, and Nemesis, Superior, Starlight, War Heroes, and Chrononauts are in development at major studios.
His DC Comics work includes the seminal Superman: Red Son, and at Marvel Comics he created The Ultimates – selected by Time magazine as the comic book of the decade, Wolverine: Old Man Logan, and Civil War – the industry’s biggest-selling superhero series in almost two decades.
Mark has been an Executive Producer on all his movie adaptations and is currently creative consultant to Fox Studios on their Marvel slate of movies.
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