Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Kick-Ass discussion with Mark Millar

This article is long overdue.  I haven’t blogged much lately because I’ve been busy developing a new series called Naught For Hire, starring Bern Browder. I won’t take up anytime discussing the show just now but if you’d like to learn more about it check out www.naughtforhire.com. In the meantime…

If you’re a comic book reader, like me, you have to agree that the industry has reached a new golden age.  Especially now, when the Hollywood has reached the point where they can faithfully adapt the mainstream stories we’ve been reading for years, even decades and still find time to adapt some of the lesser known, independent comics.  There has never been a better time to be a fan of comic books.
Which brings me to an interview I did with the writer of the best comic to be adapted into a film this year, so far… Kick-Ass.
Created by Mark Millar ("Wanted") and John Romita, Jr. ("Spider-Man"), Kick-Ass is the story of an average high school teenager who decides to put on a costume and fight crime as a real life superhero, and runs into real world bad guys who beat the crap out of him. And by that I mean two broken legs, a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung and some serious head trauma.  And that’s just the end of issue One of this eight-issue limited series.
Not your traditional comic book superhero. 
But then, Mark Miller is not your traditional superhero comic book writer.  Multi award-winning writer Millar has revamped the X-Men, launched a number one Spider-Man title, brought Captain America into the 21st Century and made Superman a communist. He is also the writer of the US industry's biggest-selling comic book of the past decade, Marvel's Civil War, published in 2007. His Wanted comic series was the industry's biggest-selling creator-owned book of the last ten years until he smashed his own record with Kick-Ass, each issue selling more than Spider-Man and X-Men from issue one with an unprecedented five printings every issue. Both properties were sold as movies before the first issue hit the stands and everything Millar has ever created is in various stages of theatrical development.
During the premiere of Kick-Ass, I had the good fortune to speak with this non-traditional comic book writer.  And being a non-traditional interviewer I promised I wouldn’t ask any of those softball press junket questions such as “If you could be a Superhero what power would you like to have?”  Instead, we dug deep into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a superhero in the real world.

Jeffrey Berman: At some point over the last few decades’ comic books, yours in particular, abandoned fantasy for grittier, adult oriented stories that more often than not reflect real life. What is it about those themes that resonate so much with you?
Mark Miller: Well, I think it is quite interesting that before my career took off, and for quite a long time, nothing really happened. I was getting short gigs here and there on books that were just about to be canceled and I would maybe get a short run on things here and the stuff was quite well received but never really resonated with a mass audience the way that every writer supposedly wants to do. And I think what I was doing is that I was influenced by my comic book collection as opposed to being influenced by the world outside. Then I read this interview with Stan Lee, which I found very interesting, it was an old interview with him, and he was talking about what made Marvel and DC very different was that Marvel Comics were one DNA strand away from the real world and it was supposed to be the New York outside his window he was writing about with these fantastic characters in it. And at that point something switched on with me. It was around about the year 2000. I was making the jump from Superman Adventures, which I loved writing but it was a children’s book you know, like a fairy tale book. And jumping over from that to The Authority which was very grounded, earthy super heroes in the real world book and that was when I found my style. The way that artists have a particular style whether it is cartoony or surrealism or whatever I think that’s where I found the style that I was most comfortable with. And instead of looking back at old comics which I loved I tried to look ahead and think what would get the next generation into it.

JB: Starting with The Authority and moving forward from there, is it safe to say that your work is really characterized by a hard-edged cynical view of the superhero world and of the superhero himself?
MM: Um... it is funny because I never really think of it as cynical but I think your readers know your work a lot better than the writer does, as kinda like the way your family members know you better than you know yourself. And that is the thing people seem to take away from my stuff, that it is kind of dark or cynical or political and it is weird because I do not think of myself as that type of person. But maybe that is just a slightly skewed perspective, that someone, a foreigner essentially, dealing with American icons brings to it. We maybe look at people in uniforms with ultimate power with a lot more suspicion than Americans do. I think Americans have a really healthy optimistic attitude and I think sometimes that can be taken advantage of. Generally speaking, I think Americans tend to look up to people in uniform, whereas in this country, we are a little bit suspicious of anyone in power. So I mean that is only my own personal theory of why we maybe look at super heroes a little differently than you guys.

JB: You have to admit that Kick-Ass is a very violent book. In my opinion, extreme violence seems to characterize a lot of the work you have been doing lately.
MM: Well it’s quite interesting actually ‘cause again I am too close to really notice, but when I look back it is quite interesting. One of my relatives showed me that every image was like Wolverine slashing a Hulk in half for something or Apollo flying through a giant man’s head, you know that kinda stuff. Oh my God, that is something like a serial killer would come up with, you know. I think of myself as a very nice healthy person, you know, and I was quite disturbed when I saw it. I think of myself as quite charming and it’s funny. Growing up as a Catholic I suppose my earliest imagery I saw around the house and in the church was of someone being crucified or someone being flayed or whatever, you know. So I think we are very comfortable with very disturbing imagery. I have noticed this amongst a lot of Catholic writers, like Frank Miller.

JB: What I enjoy about the independent projects you have been writing lately is that there is a very strong sense of realism which started with The Ultimates, where you took superheroes that had been in that world and said what would they be like if they were real people today.  Looking at your work, what do you think is the next level of realistic super heroes? Where do you go with them from here?
MM: I think your cast is part of a wave actually, you know. You have the golden-age characters, which I adore, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, all your classic characters. And then you have your Atomic-age characters, you know, your silver-age characters, like the Marvel characters. You got either the re-inventions of the beefy characters and the stuff that (Joe) Simon, Jack (Kirby) and (Stan) Lee created. Then you sort of get your image characters which they never quite caught on, but they do belong. They were huge in their day and I think we always forget just how big those things were. At the time they were really as big as Spiderman was back in the sixties. Things were selling millions of copies. What I see now is a gap in the market essentially. I think everyone has been waiting for the next generation of superheroes to come along. They’re re-inventing Spiderman with Ultimate Spiderman, re-inventing The Avengers with The Ultimates. And I think that people are looking for something new. I was quite surprised how big Wanted was when I wrote the comic, because it was the first creator owned thing I tried and it out sold Spiderman. And then Kick Ass came along and out sold Wanted. I don’t even know if it’s because if they are technically good or they are sort of fulfilling a need. That people are looking for the post-millennial superhero now… they’re looking for the next thing. So what I am trying to do now is to create a whole wave of these in the same way that Stan and Jack did back in the sixties. To write them all within a few years of one another and hopefully get this generation a big library of super heroes.

JB: Do you think visually when working on a script or does story come first with you?
MM: Oh that’s a really interesting question because people who work as novelists and try to do comics find out it is different than writing a book. Whereas screenwriters adapt to it very well because it is a very similar discipline. Although I think it is even tighter than screenwriting because you can have people chatting for three minutes and it is fascinating. Visually it is interesting because the actors keep it together, but if you have a whole issue of two people talking it is eventually very dull. In comic books something interesting, visually interesting has to happen every few pages. So I think you almost write comics as an artist, I think it is a weird thing for a writer to say but I think it is eighty percent visually driven. A great writer can be destroyed by a bad artist, but a great artist can make even a rubbish story look good. I would say I probably have three or four big visuals in my head before I start writing anything and I always like to give at least two big moments every issue.

JB: I would agree with your assessment about the talking heads in comics for every writer except probably Brian Michael Bendis, who can do an entire book of people just talking to each other and get away with it.

: Yeah, luckily he is so good at dialogue he can get away with that. Guys like him are the David Mamet’s of comics.

JB: Do you find yourself constantly being forced to push the envelope with each new project that you write?
MM: Only forced by myself, because I get bored really quickly. If you noticed, most writers stay on something three, four, five years as a nice steady paycheck. But I got this weird thing that I fire myself every year. I never stay on anything more than a year and I hate the idea of resting on my laurels. Some friends I have had have said, “Oh you know you should stick around for a few years and even the bad patches you learn from and then suddenly you find a whole great new section of your arc.” I just feel comics are so expensive that I want every page to be as good as it can be. I try to make every issue visually exciting, filled with story content and everything and just as I am exhausted I move on to a whole new series.

JB: When writing books like The Authority or The Ultimates do you equate violence with realism?
MM: I think violence is realistically what’s going to happen if you put on a costume and go out looking for trouble. Whereas if I was writing a story like American Jesus perhaps for example, the realism of being a twelve year old boy in the American Mid-West is probably very non-violent. At best there is probably going to be a scuffle once a year or something like that at school. But generally speaking it is just you walking around talking to your friends and maybe playing video games or something. To me the realism comes with the situation. Something where the guy is putting on a wet suit and going out looking for gangsters, you know, in one night you are gonna end up with the most horrific violence and end up in an actual emergency.

JB: What is your writing process? How do you work? Do you start with an outline? What is a typical day for you?
MM: Actually it is kind a weird, you know. I really enjoy it but somebody described it as passing a really difficult stool and I think that it is an accurate description of it. Because you know you know that the story is there, you are just trying not to fuck it up. You don’t always succeed at that. It is kind a like the story exists and you are just dusting away at it like an archeologist and you are just trying to raise it out of the ground without breaking it. The story I am working on now is like an eight part story that I am just starting today. It’s all there. What I do is just start drawing little scenes and good visual moments. The sort of stuff you would be chatting about if it was a movie and you were walking out of the cinema with your friend. I try to get the scenes, the moments together and then I organically start linking them and how to make it all work. And I know on some kind of sub-conscious level that they do all link together and then I start writing. The bulk of it is done pen and paper and then I write the dialogue and then I start to break it down over issues and edit so that a 29 page story gets down to the necessary 22. I am very ruthless with the stuff, cutting out scenes, cutting out panels, combining panels. Just until the structure is the way I want it to be. I think I am about half as fast as everyone else that I know that I work with, because most guys that I know just sit down and start typing. But I believe in it and I really put that much thought into it and I am there from nine to six every day. And I am amazed when I hear that the guys do four days and everything. I am amazed at how they do it because I get two books a month out if I am lucky and that is an eight hour day.

JB: How has your writing process changed over the years from when you first started working in comics?
MM: Probably identically actually. This is pretty much how I have always worked. I think it is like a muscle though, in a sense that the more you work it the better it gets. I have my own little short hand and everything. Like I used to note the very good action scenes. Now I just have this thing in my head if I storyboard it out on paper and make flow as simply and dramatically as possible, just editing and editing. I think action scenes are kind of one of my strong points, you know. So hopefully I have gotten better.