Mark Millar has had a pretty spectacular run as a comic book writer. He first came to prominence writing DC’s Swamp Thing in the ’90s, but became a superstar after a run on the company’s fascist superhero exploration, The Authority. From there, he bounced to Marvel–creating titles like The Ultimates, which introduced several elements that would become the Avengers cinematic franchise, not to mention the Bush-era PATRIOT Act fable Civil War which is also getting some big screen treatment–before settling in comfortably for an extended stretch of creator-owned work. The titles created there–Wanted, Kick-Ass, Secret Service, and more–have led to Millar becoming one of Hollywood’s favorite idea people. (Secret Service evolved into last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which, like Kick-Ass, is on its way to franchise-dom.)
But while Millar likes the opportunities (and the money, sure) that come with Hollywood’s attention, he’s also quite happy to stay in Scotland and make comics with his friends. “I’m Scottish, so I’m like a vampire. Anything over about ten degrees outside and we start to burn,” he says–but also, he stresses, “I didn’t get into comics to get out of comics.” In other words–while he’s happy that Hollywood is calling, he’s not interested in making too many changes to how he operates. So how do you build the sort of writing career that makes you a huge star in two different media?
When Millar has an idea for a comic book, he’s not usually thinking about how it’ll sound to Hollywood. It’s not because he’s uninterested in what might have potential in other media, though, he says. Rather, “It’s actually impossible to do that. It’s genuinely impossible,” he laughs. “A story is just a story. You can never anticipate what a studio is going to want to put a hundred million dollars behind. Cultural trends change all the time–you just have to tell a story that you want to tell. Your enthusiasm for it can carry over into another medium.”
That said, Millar has had uncanny cinematic instincts. The movie rights to Kick-Ass were sold before the first issue was published, and weeks before the first issue of Empress hit shelves Millar was already teasing the identity of the actress who would be playing his newest creation on screen.
There are other advantages to having Hollywood’s attention, too–it helps him work with the best artists, for example, if they know that they might make some of that movie money by collaborating with Millar (according to Millar, they can make more off of six issues that get bought up by Hollywood than 10 years of work-for-hire). But many of Millar’s ideas, on paper, don’t sound especially Hollywood. “A kid with no powers in a world without superheroes puts on a costume and gets beat up a lot” doesn’t sound like it’s guaranteed to launch a franchise like Kick-Ass, and “a grim story about an office worker who learns to awaken the nihilistic assassin within” doesn’t scream “wait’l we get James McAvoy in the lead role.” But those stories sold–and became hits in more than one medium–because people responded to the way that Millar told them.
That holds true of Millar’s latest project, Empress, the first issue of which was released this week. In that title–which he created with artist Stuart Immonen–Millar bucks a trend that, he says, he didn’t even realize was a trend by telling an epic-scope, galaxy-spanning sci-fi space opera.
“It’s a genre that we’ve actually seen so little of. It sounds crazy, but talking about Star Wars‘ impact after 1977, we always think it’s enormous and that it changed everything in cinema. But what it really did was change the way the studios did blockbusters and merchandising–it didn’t really change content,” he says. “We think of it having this tremendous cultural legacy, but weirdly, Ridley Scott’s movies from around 1980 have had a much larger impact on cinema and comic books. If we think about sci-fi for the past 30 years, it tends to be dark, dystopian sci-fi. We never see the future without the future looking really bad. We tend to light things very darkly, with rain and cold steel. Everybody’s trying to be Ridley Scott, instead of trying to be George Lucas.”
In Empress, Millar is definitely on a Lucas tip. This is a bold, brightly-colored story (in the first few pages of the first issue, several characters have to fight a big, blue space dinosaur), and it’s full of dialogue like, “It’s not like you were going to get far in a domestic vessel–you don’t even have a hyper space function!” It stars a dashing, rogueish rebel who betrays an evil emperor to help smuggle his wife–the titular Empress–and her children to safety–like it’s not even a little bit interested in the trenchcoats-and-rainy dystopia visions of the future that we tend to see.
All of that is a surprise, if you’re familiar with the tone of the bulk of Millar’s work. Not only has science fiction been largely on the grim side of the past few decades, but Millar’s own work has typically been downright hostile to more sensitive points of view. Wanted was basically French nihilism on the comic book page, and even his work with name-brand superheroes has been overwhelmingly grim. The dream sequence in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice where Batman wears a long coat and flees a fascist Superman is basically lifted directly from Millar’s Superman tale Red Son; he went even further in his Icon Comics title Nemesis, which essentially pondered what would happen if someone with Batman’s skills and intellect were a raving, murderous psychopath; his spin on Wolverine as Old Man Logan imagined one of Marvel’s flagship heroes as a burnt-out nutjob who had killed everything he loved. So how do you get from that to big blue dinosaurs?
“Over the last two or three years, I’ve been more interested in lighter stuff,” Millar says. “I didn’t even do it consciously–I just noticed that I’ve been writing things that anyone could read. My philosophy, when I’m writing something, is to just write the thing I want to read, and what I wanted to read then was a little lighter. And cinema went the same way–it started to go a lot lighter with the more successful stuff–the first Avengers, or The Force Awakens, that sort of big family entertainment is what we’d been missing as a culture. I think we went as dark as we could go when Superman snapped General Zod’s neck. It was kind of the nadir of that.”
Millar’s had such success with his creator-owned material that it’s easy to imagine he might never write for Marvel or DC again. He gets paid a lot more for the stories involving characters that he owns than for the ones he’s written with Captain America and Iron Man–but just like he’s not chasing Hollywood with the ideas he’s pursuing, he says he’s not making every decision based on what he can build for himself in the movie world.
“You get into this because you’re such a fan,” Millar says. “You can’t help it–I’ll come up with an idea for a great Green Lantern story, or a great Aquaman story, or something. I’ve loved this stuff as long as I can remember being alive. I have little comic books I made when I was four or five. I’m focused on building up all of these franchises right, but it’s too much of a part of me to not want to do those things.”