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Born and based in Scotland, writer Mark Millar kicked around the comics world for much of the ’90s, writing everything from Sonic The Hedgehog to Swamp Thing. In spite of some good critical notices and the support of fellow Scot and occasional co-writer Grant Morrison, Millar seemed to be on a journeyman’s path until 2000, when he assumed writing duties on The Authority. A title originated by Warren Ellis that toyed with and tweaked superhero conventions, The Authority lent itself to what would become some of Millar’s obsessions, casting a jaundiced eye at larger-than-life heroics while still reveling in their violent thrills. Millar brought those signatures to Marvel’s turn-of-the-millennium Ultimate imprint, helping create titles like Ultimate X-Men and most notably The Ultimates, an alternate take on The Avengers where the heroes were often as morally suspect as the bad guys, and might didn’t always make right.
Currently, Millar works steadily both for Marvel, where he penned the memorable Civil War miniseries, and on creator-owned titles like Wanted (co-created with artist J.G. Jones, adapted into a movie in 2008) and the recent Nemesis (co-created with artist Steve McNiven). An eight-issue miniseries co-created with artist John Romita Jr. that first began appearing in 2008, Kick-Ass follows the adventures of Dave, a New York teenager who decides to become a superhero. A film adaptation directed by Matthew Vaughn hits theaters Friday. Prior to its release, Millar talked to The A.V. Club about Kick-Ass’ autobiographical origins, and why fatherhood hasn’t softened his writing.
The A.V. Club: In your comics work, Kick-Ass forms part of a teen-alienation trilogy with Chosen and 1985. You have a knack for writing troubled, sensitive teens. Where does that come from?
Mark Millar: The funny thing, actually, is that it seems to have become a little thing, like the way Stephen King always writes about writers from Maine. I think it’s totally a lack of imagination on my part. When I stop and look back, I think, “Shit, I’ve just done the same thing each time.” [Laughs.] People say “Write what you know.” And I suppose at that age, I was a kid obsessed with comic books. I just wrote from the heart, I suppose, what things were like for me at that point. I mean, Kick-Ass in particular is massively autobiographical, right down to things like Dave’s mom dying at the same age my mom died. Same name, same reason, all this kind of stuff. I didn’t even plan it out like that, I just found it pouring out once I was starting to write it. So yeah, I suppose I have to think up some new themes for new work.
AVC: Your work has kind of drifted toward new material recently.
MM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I suppose there’s lots of autobiographical stuff like with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Because I just turned 40, and I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter. That relationship—minus the weapons, I suppose—is quite like my daughter and I. We have great fun, and we go down to the park and play tomboy games and everything. What I did with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl was add a semi-automatic weapon in there.
AVC: You called Kick-Ass a “hymn to neo-conservatism” in The Guardian. What does that mean?
MM: Kick-Ass was originally—I started writing it six months prior to the issue that you saw, and originally issue #6 was issue #1, and it was going to be a sort-of neo-conservative Batman and Robin with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. So there is an alternate issue #1 that no one apart from John Romita has ever seen, starring Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. And I liked it. I really felt I was on to something with those characters. I mentioned on my message boards, “I’ve done this new series; it’s a hymn to neo-conservatism,” just because it seemed such an odd thing to do.
But then, somehow, when I looked at the end of issue #1, I thought, “This isn’t right. I like these characters, but they’re not lead characters. They’re too cartoonish to be lead characters.” What I likened it to was Star Wars starring Han Solo and Chewbacca, these two guys who show up, say funny lines, and then disappear again. But you need to have the viewer-identification figure, which is Kick-Ass himself. I realized, “Hang on, I should actually write this about me at that age, rather than a fantasy kid figure.” So Dave made the whole thing a bit more human. So I did a massive rewrite on it and said to John Romita, “Give me six more months.” I sat and wrote the first two issues inside one week, and then it just all came together. Then I wrote issue #3 and introduced Hit-Girl, and I had issue #6 already written, I suppose, because it was my original issue #1. That’s the secret origin of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. So yeah, to be honest, that was just me. What I do quite a lot is, I’ll write something, get massively enthusiastic about it, and say on my message board, “Hey, here’s what I’m up to right now,” but it’s maybe before it’s finished, and then things change.
AVC: The politics of your comics are far removed from neo-conservatism. Did you feel like you had trouble making yourself sympathetic to that point of view to write those characters?
MM: Well, pretty much all comic-book people, like all Hollywood people, for the most part, are pretty liberal. I think especially UK writers. Alan Moore is probably the most radical guy you’ll ever meet. I grew up loving those guys, so my heroes, as a kid, were radical cartoonists, essentially. I couldn’t help but—I grew up in a left-wing household. My dad was a trade-union guy and so on. But I do think it’s fun, writing right-wing characters. I’ve found it interesting, just as a writer, to get inside their heads and make them likeable. Like the Captain America in The Ultimates at Marvel, I had great fun writing him, even though technically it isn’t what I believe in. But I quite like some things, as long as I don’t meet them in real life, I suppose. Those kinds of guys, those John Wayne, everything’s-black-and-white kind of guys. Even the conscious liberal, like me, on some level kind of gets off on that, you know? Like Charlton Heston and Planet Of The Apes and so on, these all-American heroes. There’s something weirdly likeable about seeing the world in those John Wayne, black-and-white terms, so I quite fancied writing a series starring someone like that. And that’s originally what Big Daddy and Hit-Girl was going to be; it was going to be like The Punisher with his little daughter.
AVC: How did fatherhood shape your portrayal of Hit-Girl?
MM: Well, I think it probably goes back slightly further, before Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I remember when my daughter was born in 1998, and I hadn’t had any success in terms of sales at that point. I was really scraping a living, and desperately trying to make sure the small book I worked on didn’t get canceled. Everything I worked on was always at break-even. Every month, if it dipped in sales, I would have been canceled. It was actually a weirdly stressful three or four years. The interesting thing about Swamp Thing, and so on—which were in places quite scary and quite horrible—is I remember a friend of mine saying to me, “Oh, I wonder if you’ll, now that you’ve had a baby, you’ll go all Ian McEwan.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ian McEwan—his work used to be very, very harsh, and then he had a baby, and he went quite gentle. “So I wonder if that will happen to you, if you’ll lose your edge.” I was, “Oh my God, no.” So I think I purposefully went the other way, because the next thing I did was The Authority, which turned out to be my breakout project, but also the harshest thing I’ve ever written. I think since then, maybe subconsciously, I’ve always been aware of, “Don’t go soft.” I probably push it a little too much sometimes, so that I don’t seem as if I’ve gone soft.
AVC: The Authority’s attitude toward superheroes is simultaneously reverential and suspicious. What is useful about superheroes? What makes them an interesting way to talk about larger issues like politics?
MM: I just think adding superheroes to something instantly makes it more interesting. I have a friend who says every movie should either be a Spider-Man movie, or at least have Spider-Man in it. [Laughs.] I thought it was such a brilliant quote. It kind of is true, in a weird way. Have you watched a low-budget British movie, you know, about a guy who’s unemployed trying to make ends meet, and how does he feed his family now that the coal mine’s closed? If you suddenly had Spider-Man in it, you’d be a little more interested. [Laughs.] If that guy had super powers or a costume or something. On some craft level, I think there’s an element of truth to that. I just find that superheroes instantly make a story more interesting.
What I quite like doing is playing around with the convention of superheroes. I think it’s from being British, in the sense that Americans are slightly more respectful of people in uniform than we are in the UK, and nothing exemplifies this more than that one of our most famous comic characters in the UK is a kid called Dennis The Menace [Not to be confused with the Hank Ketcham Dennis The Menace strip famous in the U.S., the British Dennis The Menace has run in the children’s magazine The Beano since 1951. —ed.], who’s a young anarchist who’s always being spanked by his parents and arrested by the police. That’s our most famous character.
In the U.S., Superman or Batman or something, the law-enforcement people, are the most famous comic characters. Americans have a respect, I think, for badges and a respect for uniforms. I think that’s, in some ways, quite a nice thing, but it can be dangerous, too, because it can obviously be abused. I think we’ve gone a little bit too far in the other direction here. We tend to be instantly suspicious of someone who’s an authority figure. I don’t know if it’s because we’re a hundred years away from you guys in terms of our empire or whatever. Our empire’s been dead for a hundred years, almost. You guys had the 20th century entirely, so you guys still maybe trust your authority figures slightly more than we do. We’re very suspicious of them, because we saw an empire fall apart at their hands. They led us into situations where they failed us. For the most part, America’s still kind of a success story, even though it’s a tougher time now. I think the British in general are wary of people in uniforms.
AVC: Do you ever worry that some of the ironic undercurrents to your superhero comics will get lost on people who see them as cool power fantasies?
MM: I don’t think it ever gets lost, because I think as long as they enjoy themselves, that’s all I care about. If you’re the sort of person who’s trying to get your point of view or a message across, I think you’re less of an entertainer, which is the job of a writer. You’re trying to be something else. When I was a kid, I would read Steve Englehart and Don McGregor and those kinds of very difficult writers, when I was maybe 5, 6 years old, and to me, these were just stories where I saw Spider-Man or The Defenders or the Hulk or something. You’d see the Hulk smash a building. And then I read them as an adult, and I’d realize that there was a really interesting idea behind these that I completely missed as a child. Even something like the death of Gwen Stacy—I remember reading a reprint of that when I was 6 in 1976, and seeing Spider-Man coming back home after fighting the Green Goblin. Or seeing Harry Osborn out of his face on LSD. As a kid, I didn’t get it, but when I read it now as an adult, I get it. I just think that if people miss the point, it’s no big deal. Maybe they’ll come back to it in 20 years and get it then. The primary function of a writer is to entertain.
AVC: You recently said “I want to create the next generation of superheroes over the next few years.” What does this generation of superheroes need? What are we lacking that you can bring to it?
MM: I interviewed Stan Lee three or four years ago for a magazine, and Stan’s like my hero. I was interviewing him, and he just brought up in the middle of it, he said, “What is wrong with you guys?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “Why do you want to do my characters instead of creating your own?” I was like, “That’s quite an interesting point, and I hadn’t really thought about it. I didn’t get into comics to create characters; I got into comics to write Superman or Spider-Man and all that kind of stuff.” And he says, “I grew up reading Tarzan and Superman and Batman, but I went off and created Spider-Man and the Hulk. Why do you want to play with the old toys?” It was a real moment for me. I just thought, “Shit. In pop-culture terms, how weird would it be if I was to reject all the characters?” That’s a gap in the market, essentially.
I think rather than because the material’s so good, I think that’s the reason my stuff like Nemesis and Kick-Ass has sold so well. There probably aren’t a lot of new superheroes around, so whenever one appears, it makes a bit of noise. Really, most of the people who are my friends write characters they loved as children. I get that, as well, because that’s why I got into comics. But I’m also taking this massive liberation creatively, going off and doing this stuff. The first and foremost reason I do it is because I think they’re fun, and I can do anything I want. I’m not constrained by continuity. It’s really easy for new readers to pick up your stuff, because they don’t have to read 40 years of other books to understand what’s happening. The fact that they’ve been successful has sort of been encouraging me on. It’s a massive gamble, financially. On Kick-Ass, Johnny and worked for no salary for 12 months. From a writing point of view, that was maybe four months’ work, but from an art point of view, for Johnny, if you added it all up, it was more like 12 months. That’s a hell of a gamble. So I’m so pleased that I’m doing well, because it means we can afford to do more. The fact that I’m making movies and features and all that kind of stuff will give us the money to go out and create much more of them, which was always my plan, to hopefully spend the next three years creating a whole wave of these things.
AVC: If you had to choose one story moment that sums up what you do, what would it be?
MM: I don’t know, because I think I jump around a bit. I fire myself, effectively, every year and go and do something else. I remember when I was on The Ultimates, Brian Bendis said to me, “You’re crazy. This was a big-selling book. Why would you stop doing it?” I was like, “Well, I just feel it’s run its course.” I could do an Ultimates 3, but I don’t know if it would sell as much as Ultimates 2, and people would be into it. I could coast for a little while, but I hate the idea of doing that. Friends have said to me “You might find a new lease on life a year down the line or whatever,” but I don’t want to go through 10 issues to get to the new lease on life. I don’t know. I think I change what I do quite radically every year or so anyway. Like Old Man Logan, the Wolverine thing, was very different from American Jesus, which was very different from Fantastic Four, which was very different from Civil War, and so on. I don’t know. I think my thing doesn’t really have identity as such. I think it’s quite schizophrenic. It’s that theme of the young, troubled adolescent. I think that’s the only thing that follows any kind of path, probably. Bad taste, I suppose, is the one thing they all have in common.