Speaking with… Mark Millar


I usually begin these interviews with how I’ve forgotten the details of the first time I met so and so. That won’t happen this time because I’ve only met Mark Millar once, and only for a few minutes. It was at a Mid-Ohio Con and we were sitting in something approximating the same corridor. We spoke for a few seconds here and there between signings and said we’d get together again later. Time and circumstances prevented that. That said, I obviously have no personal stories about Mark. However, I have stated in pixels how much I’ve liked his writing and that’s what we’re talking about here.

A few friends of mine had read Mark’s book, The Ultimates, published by Marvel and recommended it to me. I have to admit I usually don’t buy Marvels – not because they aren’t good; they’ve completely turned themselves around ever since Joe Quesada became Editor-In-Chief – but because, well, I think I should be getting money from them rather than my giving them my hard-earned cash. But I have picked up a number of Marvels (Spider-Man, Daredevil, etc.) and decided to buy the Ultimates collected edition as well, just to see what my friends were talking about.

I was blown away by the book and Mark’s writing in particular. The characters were wonderfully re-conceived for the 21st century without any of the negatives I usually associate with these rethinkings. Mark’s version of Captain America may be the best I’ve ever seen; I never much liked Cap, he was always too bland, without any depth, and never fit as a character. I liked a few brief runs on the book, but more for the specific story than the character. Mark actually made Cap interesting to me for the first time ever. His Hulk was positively frightening, but his Bruce Banner was even more so. I loved his Tony Stark, but his Thor, which came out of left field, was a stroke of absolute genius. I may not have liked the Hank Pym and Janet storyline, but I’m reserving judgment until I see where it goes. To me the Ultimates is one of the best super-hero comics I’ve seen in 20 years, and Mark’s writing on his other books shows it’s no fluke.
I’m really pleased that Mark took the time to answer my questions, and I hope some day, at some con, we’ll actually get a chance to talk at length.

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

MARK MILLAR: The big attraction of being a comic-book writer was always that no formal qualifications were required. As far as I could tell, the only thing that really mattered was that you had to have spent a huge amount of time lying around in your bedroom reading comic-books so this was obviously very attractive career for me. Training, I suppose, comes with practice and this, in my opinion, is the main difference between a hobbyist and a potential pro. A real writer will keep writing regardless of rejection, money, critics or anything else that looks like an obstacle. Like everyone else, I had a huge amount rejection slips, but that only makes the first sale all the sweeter. My parents died when I was in my teens and I really was so broke that I was only eating every other day and typing for my life, I suppose. I wrote sample scripts every day from nine am until six pm and then I'd decide whether me or the cat was going to eat that night. Selling The Saviour #1 to Trident Comics (a small black and white indie outfit) really was one of the most eventful moments in my life. I was only paid £240, but that was a huge amount of money to me back then and I clearly remember celebrating by buying a second hand fridge (everything I was eating at that point was 'cooling' in bowls of water in my kitchen that Summer.

MW: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS, AND WHY?

MM: Fortunately, artistically and financially successful have been combined in several projects like The Ultimates and one or two others. Success, to me, is something which I like and which alarge number people outside my head like too. That's not to say I wouldn't do something aimed at a niche audience if it was something I was creatively buzzed about doing. I've got one project in particular coming up for a small indie publisher, but it's the right project for me and for them and I'm confident it'll reach beyond their usual market and be a big success. Risk is a major part of success. Everyone said the Ultimate line would die a death and now it's the most successful division in the industry.

MW: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD. WHY AND HOW?

MM: There's almost nothing I wouldn't go back and tweak. I can't really pick one because there really are so many. It's the curse of actually caring about your craft because, months later, you ALWAYS come up with a better way of telling a story that's already in print. It's neurotic, I know, but human.

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

MM: Definitely. Shifting from Swamp Thing to Superman Adventures and then onto Authority made this really quite obvious, but it's actually great to put on a different head for individual projects. I'd be horrified if I looked back over my career and saw the same tone, story and idea rehashed continually. The guys who impress me are the guys who can turn their hand to anything.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

MM: I have a couch in my office that I lie on and I always start by scribbling. Sometimes I can fill twenty pages with stupid drawings, explosions, lines of dialogue or whatever before I really get started and then it all starts forming from there. I'm always thinking three books ahead so I'm rarely drawing a blank. The main thing is working out the plots themselves and I usually do this by writing one really good scene that the issue should have. Stanley Kubrick worked this way, saying each movie should have four really great moments. I think every individual ish should have at least one genuine moment and the rest of the book tends to grow fairly organically around this. It might be something very small. The first issue of Superman: Red Son, for example, grew from the idea of Luthor playing chess with twenty guys while he read Il Principe and taught himself Urdu. The rest of the issue kind of flowed from there.

MW: HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN A STORY ISN’T WORKING AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO FIX THE PROBLEMS?

MM: If an issue is taking you a while, it's ALWAYS a sign that it isn't working. A good day is a big chunk of pages and the whole thing ticks like a Swiss watch. A bad day is when you're rewriting the same scene in your head twenty times, doodling all over the house and finding yourself with almost nothing on your hard-drive by 7pm after an 8am start.

MW: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

MM: I tend just to write one draft, but I spend around ten days on an average issue so I'm editing myself as I write. I know some people can write an issue in a single sitting, but I break it up into scenes and spend a day or two on each scene so it's really very heavily edited by the time I'm done. I'd love to do what Stephen King does and leave the script in a drawer for a few months and then go back and clean it up. However, with a monthly schedule that generally isn't possible. Superman: Red Son worked out that way, though, and I was very happy with the results.

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

MM: This is going to sound insane-- I almost hesitate to write this-- but the characters really form themselves. Again, Stephen King describes writing as more like archeology than plotting in the sense that a story or a character already exists out there in the ether and our job as writers is just to dust away until the big picture can be seen quite clearly. It's almost like they exist outside three dimensional space and, if you're already shaking your head and fearing that I'm taking the piss I should mention that almost all good writers, even guys who grew up on opposite sides of the planet, look at characters in the same way. Hal Jordan, for example, never mentioned what he liked watching on television, but thinking about it for a second I know that he'd hardly ever watch TV at all. He'd have no interest in current affairs, news programmes or even dramas, but would probably love things like the Discovery Channel and wildlife programmes. This is something Grant Morrison and I used to talk about all the time; how we just 'knew' these guys and only had to channel their personalities. It doesn't always work, of course. Sometimes you just can't hear them, but they definitely exist out there somewhere and you're picking up an aspect of them in your work.
MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

MM: The story just writes itself. More and more, I let the characters lead the way. It's their story, after all.

MW: HOW DO YOU GET AROUND IT WHEN YOU HAVE A WRITER’S BLOCK?

MM: I just sit there until my eyes bleed. I'm not kidding. Sometimes I get up and go and do something else for a while and let my subconscious deal with it, but the best way is usually sitting there and fighting it off. It's hard work, but if you're on a couple of monthly books you tend not to have time to allow yourself the luxury of writer's block.
MW: HOW DO YOU PITCH AN IDEA TO AN EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER?

MM: I hate doing the verbal pitch because a) it sounds phony and b) nobody understands my accent so they just nod and look scared. Email is fantastic. I'm lucky in that I have a name within the business so usually I just email Bill and Joe or whomever and give a few lines with my basic idea. Believe me, I appreciate this because I spent YEARS writing 12 page proposals and rewrote Phantom Stranger eight times before hearing that one of the Group Editors said they were just 'fucking' with me. Keep proposals concise, but my advice-- which I never used to follow-- is to get all the content down on paper. You need to tell that what it's about as opposed to what you'd LIKE it to be about.

MW: HOW DO NEW WRITERS GET THE ATTENTION OF STORY EDITORS, PRODUCERS, ETC?

MM: Your name is everything. Your name and your phone number. Names are made by producing good work. Being personable is also an advantage, but good work and appropriate buzz is everything you need to take you to the next level. This applies as much to established pros as people starting out. Good buzz, of course, comes from doing something nobody else is doing and the best way of doing this is by being yourself.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

MM: Entertain.

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER/THE WRITERS WHO WORK UNDER YOU?

MM: Writers like to think they're unsociable, but we're actually people persons. We have to be because we need an appreciation of humanity to write material people can relate to. That said, I don't know if we're team players. I love working with certain artists because you can really create something amazing when two people share the same vision, but almost any other input is usually a pain in the arse. I'd always regarded editors as obstacles, but I'm really getting better at listening. Guys like Ralph Macchio, Bill, Joe and Axel Alonso are great to work with because they know when to step back. They can excite you by saying how much they like something, pitch in a good idea you're welcome to use or ignore and tend to be good at keeping you on the straight and narrow, but some guys I've worked with in the past just want to be writers and your afternoons are spent stopping them rewriting whatever you've done in the mornings. I define my relationship by showing them what I can do and, if they like it, they continue to employ me. If they cause problems, I try to settle them and if that doesn't work I finish up the work and move onto the next project. That said, I'm lucky that I can choose my projects at the moment and this allows you to choose whicheditors you're going to be working with. That's a HUGE luxury because a good editor is the difference between enjoying and hating your job.

MW: WHAT KIND OF MUSIC – IF ANY - DO YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU WORK?

MM: None. I can't type dialogue and hear lyrics at the same time. It's like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time: Impossible for all except the mutated.

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

MM: Be yourselves. Chase the cheque when it's big enough, but be yourselves. Enjoying what you're writing tends to produce work that attracts readers and these readers are what bring you success. Also, start a website to promote your work and, if possible, a forum where people can discuss it-- If only so you can say things like check out http://forums.millarworld.biz/ in interviews like this one.


***

That’s it for this week. I want to thank Mark again for taking the time to answer my questions. Don’t forget to check out my newly fixed up website at www.marvwolfman.com, and until then…

See you in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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