Interview: Mark Millar

We chat to the Kick-Ass mastermind.

Having pretty much done it all in the US comic book industry, writer Mark Millar turned his attention to the UK comic book scene with his monthly series CLiNT, a supermarket-friendly entry onto newsstands. We chatted to the writer a little while back:

What inspired you to launch CLiNT in the first place?

It’s something that’s been brewing for a while. When I was a kid I had 2000AD and my dad’s generation had The Eagle, and I just expected another British boy’s comic to launch here and it never did, so I think a realisation dawned on me: if I didn’t do it, nobody else would. I saw a huge gap in the market, and I thought, ‘if nobody else is clogging it, I’m going to do this.’ The reason it never happened before is because over the last 20 years, all the big creators went off to America looking for Marvel and DC. There were very few people left behind. I thought it would be nice to come back and jumpstart the British comic book industry.

Are you hopeful it’ll create a snowball effect within the British comic book industry, then?

I hope so. You have to remember that there was a first comic in America, Britain and so on and it was a complete success; those by Marvel and DC were just one of a handful of titles. We’re doing the same thing here – if this works out, maybe do a younger comic, a girl’s comic or an older comic, you know, or something that tackles different genres entirely. We’ll take it one step at a time and see how this goes. I don’t believe there’s a shortage of talent here.

Did you ever think of approaching Marvel in an effort to relaunch the Marvel UK line?

No, I don’t think so because what I wanted to do was start a company kind of from the ground up, because I wanted the creators to keep as much of the rights as possible here. If you create something for Marvel or DC, you either don’t own it or you own a fraction of a per cent, or at best, 2%. What I wanted to do was have a company where the creators got the best deal in the business.

How did you get Jonathan Ross and Frankie Boyle involved with the project?

Again, it was just timing. Frankie and Jonathan are just friends of mine and have been for years, and they’re obviously big comic book fans, which I knew about. So when I was launching this I thought, ‘hang on a minute, Jonathan’s taking a year out to write about comic books’. Frankie’s been saying for a while he wants to take a crack at it – he’s thinking of doing something for Marvel and has played around with some ideas for a while. The stars aligned and tied in beautifully with the Kick-Ass DVD coming out, so we could launch Kick-Ass 2 right off the back of it – there’s one million flyers for Kick-Ass 2 and CLiNT, so if you liked Kick-Ass and enjoyed the DVD, here’s where you can see the sequel.

The Kick-Ass sequel debuts in CLiNT – will it still be released in individual issue form? How will that work?

Oh God yeah. It’ll be released first in CLiNT first, but the American edition will be out shortly after, so CLiNT gets an exclusive on it.

Can you talk about the storyline of Kick-Ass 2?

It follows immediately after Kick-Ass 1, when he’s inspired people to go off and become superheroes, but then equally inspires all sorts of people to go off and become supervillains, so he becomes a Charles Manson figure, going on Twitter to get all these little bastards to dress up as horrible things in New York. So you have the superheroes versus the supervillains.

Is it your plan to keep Kick-Ass running as miniseries, or do you see it becoming ongoing at some point or another?

I always saw it as a trilogy of miniseries, so three times, yeah, that’s where I think I want to be with it. If I think of anymore of them I’ll do them, but at the moment, that’s the way I see it.

Can you talk about the other stories in CLiNT? How long will the average story run for, and will they run between different issues?

Yeah. I wanted to make it satisfying, even though it’s monthly – I didn’t want to hype things up too much. So we’ve got 22-page American-sized comics within it, so there’s roughly three or four American comics and the magazine itself is about 100 pages long. So you’ve got about 20 pages of features and interviews and so on, and about 70 pages of comics and the rest is ads, so you’ve got Turf by Jonathan, a vampire strip, Nemesis by me – something I sold to Tony Scott only a couple of weeks ago – and you’ve got a big supervillain thing by Frankie Boyle, and Kick-Ass 2. So it’s quite an eclectic mix. We have another thing called Huw Edwards: Space Odysseys, and it’s a Twilight Zone thing with Huw Edwards as Rod Serling, and Huw gave us the thumbs up on this! We just asked him randomly if he’d do it, and it turns out he reads Marvel Comics and it was like a million-to-one.

What does the feature content in the magazine cover?

I wanted it to be the kind of stuff you’d have in a school magazine, so on the one hand we have an interview with Jimmy Carr which is actually really interesting in the first issue, but then at the same time there’s silly stuff, quirky stuff, funny stuff – I’m still in touch with my inner 15 year-old, so I kind of know what I’d be interested in. There’s a feature, for example, on the guy who does the dubbing for Tom Cruise on Chinese movies.

How much will the book spotlight new talent?

I want to find an entirely new generation of writers, but at the same time I don’t want it to turn into the X-Factor. If someone’s paying £3.99 for a comic, I want them to feel they’re paying for the cream of stuff. So basically, what I’m doing is setting aside five pages every issue where we’ll showcase people I like, who have shown real promise and they’ll get a series, if they’re good enough – but it’s going to be entirely based on merit.

Can you discuss who else will be contributing down the line, in terms of famous faces?

What we’re going to do is roll out the names nearer Christmas, because every four months or so we’ll have another wave of creators coming in who are interesting in terms of mainstream press. That’s the thing I really wanted to do with this, was take comics to the mainstream. I want to make sure it’s in newspapers as much OK Magazine.

Do you think you’ll reel in seasoned comic book talent, down the line, or are you looking mainly at famous faces?

I don’t think I’d get someone to write something just because they’re in Eastenders, you know. My idea for it is to get quality stuff – I want to find new voices, so I’m very interested in seeing what Frankie Boyle or Jonathan Ross can bring to the table and find some new talent.

Kick-Ass the movie obviously wasn’t a flop, but do you think it deserved to do better than it did?

It’s weird, because Matthew kept saying to me, “Calm down.” I was like, it’s going to do $500 million and Matthew’s like, it cost $28 million! To put it in context, Iron Man cost $200 million, and Matthew said, if we’re in profit, we’re happy. Even then in the back of my mind, $100 million and in profit wasn’t good enough – I wanted it to do bigger. We did a post-mortem on why it didn’t do Iron Man numbers, and we [realised] that all the good bits in the movie, you couldn’t show in trailers, and all the cast were really young – and people couldn’t go and see the movie, because it was [R-rated]. We realised it was a very tricky market. But what we realised is it’s gone nuts on DVD – it’s made $38 million in its first week on DVD, which is almost its entire domestic gross, and 42% of that is Blu-Ray. We’re probably going to make $150 million on DVD over the next 15 weeks. I don’t know the formula they use, but you can usually work it out to about a quid – they multiply something, take something away using that first week’s sales and pre-orders. We’re looking at $100 million theatrically then $100-150 million on DVD, then there’s TV rights on top of it. Matthew was phoning me last week – that’s a quarter of a billion dollars from a $28 million investment! He’s been very sensible about this from the start, while I was going, “it’s going to be bigger than Avatar!”

Off the back of that, then, do you think a sequel movie will happen? What’s the last you heard about it?

Well, that’s happening anyway, even based on the theatrical performance. The theatrical revenue put us in profit – it made money, it made good money, so combine that with the DVD money and everything and it’s an absolute shoo-in. Matthew’s only dilemma is, he and I have two projects we’re readying after X-Men – we’ll have a script ready for both early next year, so we want to be shooting one of these two projects next summer. Vaughn will direct one and produce the other – I don’t know what that’ll be yet, whether it’ll be Kick-Ass 2 or this other thing.

Can you talk about this other thing?

I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but I think he’s going to roll it out in about four weeks or so.

Nemesis was optioned by Tony Scott a short while ago – how do you see the Hollywood part of your career factoring into everything else you do?

It’s funny, because everyone always assumes I go out to LA to try and sell this stuff. I’ve been to LA four times in my entire life – once was to go to Disneyland! Once was for the Wanted premiere, and I didn’t even go to the Kick-Ass premiere, I went to the New York one instead. I’ve never sat there and pitched something in my entire life. It looks like I’ve got some genius plan or something and that I go hawking this stuff around. I’ve never met anybody! I had lunch with my agent once. So what happens is they tend to come to me, which is really nice. My work tends to be more commercial and easy to get made – I don’t know if it’s cinematic, or something. It sounds horribly easy, but I’m just sat doing work in the spare room of my house, and my agent will say, ‘oh, so-and-so’s been in touch and he wants to do a movie’. One of the reasons people have been coming forward is, Wanted made a lot of money, then Kick-Ass came out and made a lot of money and got a good response. Nemesis was the next thing, and six directors came forward asking to do it – and Vaughn gave me brilliant advice, which was turn everybody down, no matter how much money they’re offering, until you find the right guy to do it, and saying no somehow got people more excited – Tony Scott, who was perfect for this, spoke to me on the phone and we did the deal over the phone – I was out doing the shopping whenever Tony Scott called. It was mental. I was in Tesco, and I must’ve sounded like an absolute mental patient. I was walking past the bread with the trolley going, ‘yeah, yeah, I can see Brad Pitt versus Johnny Depp, I could see it as Johnny Depp from the beginning.’ And I’m standing there in my Asda jeans and things, and people must’ve thought I was a mental homeless guy

It must seem almost dreamlike, being that detached from the overall process of film-making…

Well, I think I have an unusual perspective on it all because I’m not even in a big place within Britain – I’m in a small place on the outskirts of Britain, thousands and thousands of miles away from LA. I think if I lived in LA and was having breakfast with screenwriter friends every morning, meeting my agent at lunchtime, I think there’d be kind of a crazy pressure. You’d have a status within that world. People say to me, ‘move to LA so you’re available for meetings’. But I think there’s something so uncool about that. I hate the idea of going to an office and somebody giving me five minutes to explain my idea – it seems so undignified. If they like it, they’ll come and get it, if they don’t like it, that’s fine.

How much creative input do you exert over movie adaptations of your work?

Well the first one, Wanted, I was just really surprised – I wasn’t expecting it. You have to put it in a historical perspective; this was 2003 and nobody was making indie comic book movies. They were making Spider-Man, X-Men and things. The idea of Universal phoning out of the blue and asking if they can make a film, I was like, ‘yes!’ I didn’t even know you could have creative input. But what I realised was how lucky I am. David Goyer told me this on The Dark Knight set, because they were filming just outside us in Chicago, and he said, ‘you have no idea how lucky you are, first out of the gate, with Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman.’ He said, ‘you should have five shit films before you get lucky with a film like this!’ And it made me realise how awful things could have gone, if I hadn’t lucked out like that. If my first film had been shit, then the mainstream, like my family, my friends and so on, their idea of my work would be that bad movie that came out. Generally my friends don’t read comics, and they all know Kick-Ass because they saw the movie. It made me quite precious, so I’ll always make sure I choose the right people and that I’m involved.

It’s like a bizarre fairtytale…

It really is like an accidental fairytale. I think people always expect you to be the guy with the plan, or whatever, but I really have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. It’s like Forrest Gump. It’s quite surreal and I’m as surprised as anyone.

Do you know how closely The Avengers will follow The Ultimates storyline?

I really have no idea. I don’t have a huge amount of involvement at Marvel, these days, because I’m so busy with my own stuff, so I really see that as a priority. The last time I was involved was with the first Iron Man. The last I heard was Zak Penn was using The Ultimates as a template for The Avengers movie; they obviously have all the characters coming under Nick Fury, and the Triskelion, SHIELD, all that kind of stuff. I honestly read it on the internet. I have no idea what they’re doing. What I’ve heard, though, is the Joss has come in and done quite a substantial rewrite, so I have no idea it will be to the original alien invasion idea.

Are you hopeful that your Ultimates interpretation of Captain America will make it into that movie?

I’m honestly not bothered. If it’s a great movie, then great. I just see myself as somebody whose borrowed those characters and got to play with them for a while. I don’t see any kind of ownership. I’m just going into these movies as a fan. They’ve invited me to the Captain America set, which is exciting, but generally speaking, I feel like I’m doing my own job with the Millarworld stuff.

Your work over the past decade has been primarily Marvel-based. What is it about these characters that you find so engaging?

I think it’s actually more the people at Marvel, like Joe Quesada – because Marvel wasn’t known to be very writer-friendly. Most of the books from the Nineties were drawn by popular artists and written by assistant editors, who would completely rewrite your stuff. But Joe came in…within a year, it had all the best writers, all the best artists and I wasn’t really interested in writing a bog-standard comic at Marvel or DC. They’d just come out of bankruptcy and anything was possible. Joe’s first words when he rang me up were literally, “the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” It was like the Wild West – you can do what you like, and if it keeps us afloat, great! Now they’re a massive success.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about you and Matthew Vaughn’s Superman pitch – now that Goyer and Nolan are moving forward with the Man Of Steel project, do you feel you were more the victim of timing than anything else?

I think there were a number of things – I was a Marvel-exclusive guy and they were like, ‘no, we can’t work with a Marvel-exclusive guy’. They were quite interested in working with Matthew, but they weren’t interested in working with me. It would’ve been a slap in the face to their own writers, you know – it was literally like two phone calls, and it was a possibility for like 36 hours.

What do you feel you’ve gotten better at, as a writer, since your career began?

I think storytelling. I used to find that really, really hard, and then something just clicked in the language of comics – the first comics I did, like Swamp Thing, I would give to people and they would be confused. I think the language of comic books is quite difficult for non-readers to understand. The one thing that clicked with me, in about the year 2000, was how to tell a story – and only, as I say this out loud, I realise, it was probably because in 1998 and 1999 I think I learned how to do it in those very simple children’s comics for the Superman animated series. I did about 19 issues of that, and what it did was – because you weren’t allowed to do captions, or anything too fancy – it stripped the storytelling right down to the most basic level, and that’s probably where my cinematic style started. I’ve actually never thought about this before, but that’s what it’ll be, because I used to have to write in the style of a cartoon, so you don’t do much in the way of flashbacks, or anything. Everything had a simple three-act structure – I’m a massive man of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, and those are like the best-plotted shows in the world, and were a massive help in how to realise a three-act structure. I wrote Superman Adventures, believe it or not, with Seinfeld in mind in terms of how it was structured.