Shameless? The Super-Hero Comics of Mark Millar:

Part 1, An Introduction

It’s too good a story not to be treated with suspicion. Asked to recall his first comic by Lee Randall of The Scotsman in 2009, Mark Millar declared that he could remember the matter “exactly”. (*1) A shopping trip with his older brother Bobby had resulted in the four year old Millar returning home with an issue of both Spider-Man and Superman. (*2) That Millar should have been simultaneously exposed to the flagship characters of America’s two leading publishers of superhero comics is a suspiciously auspicious claim, and it suggests that he may have been, consciously or not, writing history backwards in his conversation with Randall.

But Millar is undoubtedly one of the comic industry’s greatest hyperbolists, and it’s hard not to be sceptical about even the most apparently innocent of his recollections. Eyebrows might certainly be raised at the claim that the issue of Spider-Man bought for him by his brother was apparently “The Goblin’s Last Stand”, as originally presented in 1972’s Amazing Spider-Man #122. Infamous in its day, and now mostly revered, it was the conclusion of a two-part tale by writer Gerry Conway and artist John Romita which featured the deaths of two of Spider-Man’s leading supporting characters. As a snapshot memory, it’s something which Millar’s future biographers will struggle not to make a great deal out of. The future master of the reader-snaring, shocking superhero moment was first snared himself, or so he was to repeatedly claim, by exactly the same trick. From the off, it seems, Mark Millar had learned to associate the pleasures of the superhero comic with its potential for eye-catchingly transgressive content. True or not, it’s exactly what we might expect a modern-day Clifford Irving to playfully insert into the first chapter of a faked biography of Millar.

The impact made by that particular Spider-Man tale was something which Millar enthusiastically discussed with John Siuntres on his Word Balloon podcast in 2006. (*3) Laughing at the boy-thrilling excess of it all, he recounted the baffling excitement offered by the sight of a superhero accidentally breaking his girlfriend’s neck as she tumbled from the top of the George Washington Bridge. Yet it was the breathless progression from shock to shock to shock which seems to have so impressed the young Millar. For in addition to Gwen Stacey’s manslaughter, Millar recalled how Spider-Man had also unintentionally crucified the super-villainous Green Goblin, who’d been responsible for her fall, before suffering a nervous breakdown and, returning home, discovering his best friend on drugs. No matter how Millar was “still just figuring out words”, the traumatic events he’d encountered, and at least partially understood, had clearly had a substantial, and perhaps even transformative, impact. (*4)

Even the Superman comic he’d had bought for him turned out to be one that suggested the trajectory that Millar’s future career would take. In 1998, he told Barb Lien-Cooper that the first comic he’d ever “held” was Superman #297, the Bob Oskner cover for which featured, in Millar’s words, “Clark Kent getting the shit kicked out of him while Superman looked on and laughed”. (*5) Though as yet quite oblivious to the fact that Clark Kent was Superman’s alter-ego, Millar was clearly taken by this juxtaposing of an innocent being beaten with a mocking, unhelpful superhero. (*6) Cod psychology would suggest that this single shopping expedition had helped set the tone for most, if not precisely all, of Millar’s future career as a comics writer. If that particular Superman cover suggested the path from Saviour to Nemesis to Supercrooks, then the Spider-Man issue pointed the way forward to Kick Ass and Civil War. On the one hand, superheroes having exceptionally bad days in their private and public lives, and, on the other, supervillains recast as protagonists rather than punching bags.

It’s a lovely story, and that goes both for what Millar has said and the implications which can be drawn from it, but there are problems with the scenario. For one thing, Millar made no mention of the Spider-Man issue at all in his conversation with Lien-Cooper, which seems somewhat odd if hardly damning. Yet it may have been that Millar’s then-berth as the writer of DC’s Superman Adventures was shaping his response, or even that he was just being literal-minded when focusing on the matter of his “first” comic. Though later years have seen the Spider-Man tale given more prominence, who’s to say that it wasn’t the cover to “Clark Kent Forever … Superman Never” that initially demanded his attention? More problematic is the fact that the event which Millar claimed to remember “exactly” has at different times been associated with his being both four years old and six. (*7) Of course, memory is a tricky thing, and a man who’s constantly being interviewed can easily confuse himself over minor matters of events which took place decades before. Yet Millar does have that huckster’s reputation, and the suspicion does tend to lurk that that he often frames his recollections to suit his ambitions. As such, any slight exaggeration of how young he was when he first became a devotee of the superhero comic would work to emphasise the visceral qualities of his conversion experience. Lacking the ability to grasp the full meaning of the text, the four year old was still bowled over by sensibility rather than sense. For a writer whose work has typically been peppered by deliberately bold if not outrageous images, and by fan-snaring moments which don’t always make the best of sense, it would make for an ideal, career-foreshadowing opening act.

Yet the fact is that Millar would have had to have been at least six years old when he came across Superman #297, for it was cover-stamped March 1976, and Millar was born on the Christmas Eve of 1969. And given that he’d have most probably almost completed his first, and perhaps even his second, year at Coatbridge’s St Bartholomews Primary School by that point, it’s unlikely that his English was as limited as all that. (*8/*9) Yet the very fact that Millar has always associated these two stories with the same moment in time argues persuasively for the case that he really did read them during the early Summer of 1976. For the two-part death of Gwen Stacey story, which had originally been published in the America of four years before, was reprinted in issues #171 and #172 of the UK black and white title Super Spider-Man, dated the 15th and 22nd May 1976. Given how common it was for imported American comics to stay on sale for months after their cover-dates in the British newsagents of the period, it’s all too probable that one of those Super Spider-Man issues could have been sharing a magazine rack or shelf with its colour cousin from across the pond. Only a desperate cynic could ever suggest that that Superman issue and that Spider-Man tale were unlikely to have been found together, or that they couldn’t have influenced the six year old Millar in the way he’s described. Indeed, only someone who really did have a memory of the way in which the American superhero tales of the period reached British consumers could have so immediately associated the two comics with the same moment in time.

Yet that too raises a few other problems. For if Millar had read the first part of that Conway and Romita tale, he’d have experienced Stacey’s death and not the Goblin’s, whereas the opposite would have been true for its closing chapter. (*10) As such, many of the plot-beats that Millar associates with his first issue of Spider-Man which he encountered must have been experienced at a later date, when a copy of the other half of the tale presumably fell into his hands. But even given that, several of the issue’s highpoints which Millar recounted with such relish to Siuntres never actually happened at all. Peter Parker suffers no nervous breakdown in either part of tale, though he’s clearly profoundly distressed, while the Green Goblin was impaled by his jet glider rather than “crucified”. (Millar’s often discussed how the religious imagery of Catholicism has shaped the way in which he sees the world, and it’s hard not to see that process at work here.) (*11) Millar’s tendency towards enthusiasm and embellishment rather than precision and accuracy often seems to be irrepressible, and the matters which he recalls in a supposedly clear and precise fashion are – as with all of us – often confused by the passing of time, and by the particular audience he’s addressing, and even, perhaps, by the process of constantly mythologizing his own past too.

But this admittedly minor matter does help establish a number of themes which will reappear again and again in the pages which follow. Millar certainly was a superhero fan from a very early age, and he never appears to have lost anything of his love for the sub-genre. (*12) It might even be argued that Millar has tended to concentrate his energies on characters which match the same white, Western, malecentric superheroic archetypes as those he first encountered. He’s also constantly evidenced a fascination with storytelling which deliberately shocks the audience while profoundly shaking up a property’s status quo. Similarly, his taste for reshaping his own character and past into a fan-beguiling narrative for public consumption can be traced right back beyond his replies in Saviour’s first letters column in 1990 to his contributions in the British fanzine FA in the second half of the Eighties. Finally, his religious beliefs have, of course, frequently shaped his writing.

We might argue about the inconsistencies in his accounts of the matter. We might chin-stroke about the impossibility of ever measuring any such an influence. But Millar’s chance meeting with those particular Superman and Spider-Man comics in 1976 really does appear to have helped set him out on the road to becoming the massively successful and consistently controversial writer that he’s made of himself.

Next in this introductory piece which may never get within a proof-reading of Shameless!: Millar’s teenage years as a letter hack and interviewer for the UK fanzine Fantasy Advertiser/FA, and his first professional job as the writer of the Trident Comics’ titles Saviour and Shadowmen.

Notes

*1:- Lee Randall, The Scotsman, 13, 12, 2009:- http://www.scotsman.com/news/mark-millar-s-graphic-novels-really-are-graphic-but-the-coatbridge-boy-behind-wanted-and-new-teen-film-kick-ass-is-suprisingly-mild-mannered-1-472735

*2:- ibid; All of Mark Millar’s five brothers are older than him, the youngest by 14 years and the older by 22.

*3:- Word Balloon ep 007: A Civil (War) Conversation, Sept 29. 2006 http://wordballoon.libsyn.com/webpage/2006/09/11

*4:- Randall, The Scotsman, 13, 12, 2009

*5:- Thirteen Questions, Barb-Lien Cooper, September 1998 http://www.wickermanstudios.com/index.php?id=57

*6:- It also seems to be the comic that he recalls when asked by Brian Michael Bendis, “What’s the cover that pops into your mind right away when you think about it?”. (Wizard #192, Wizard Entertainment, June 2008)

*7:- He – correctly – recalls being 6 to Siuntres in 2006, but 4 to both Randall in 2009 and Bendis in 2008.

*8:- Millar told James White of Empire Magazine that he had “so many great memories of the place”. “Shameless” isn’t to be a biography of Millar, but it’s worth pointing out that his charitable work does tend to get ignored by the worst of his critics. As such, the example of his setting up of a Saint Bartholomew’s Primary School Pantomime Fund through selling off the name of the villain of “Secret Service” is worth their attention. Of course, it was a kindness with attracted a degree of press attention, but Millar could have found far easier ways of doing that if he were all hype and nothing but.  http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=32263

*9:- I don’t know when Millar began Primary School, but Scottish students typically start school in the August of the year in which they turn 5. That would mean that Millar would probably have joined his Primary School in August 1974. Whether it was then or twelve months later, Millar would have perhaps had a greater degree of literacy by the long hot summer of 1976 than he has implied. Though he admitted in an interview posted at Sequential Tart in March 2002 with Lien-Cooper that he was “probably the class idiot … (who) hardly ever applied himself”, his definition of himself as a “kind of both class swot and class clown … (who) generally scored well in tests” in Comics Foundry #1, 2007, speaks of a bright student who didn’t, in his own words, “want to be recognised as being especially good at my schoolwork…”

The Ultimate Writer, Barbara Lien-Cooper, March 2002, Sequential Tart: http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/mar02/millar2.shtml

*10:- Surprisingly, there’s no recap shot of Gwen Stacey’s manslaughter in Amazing Spider-Man #122. It’s as if all concerned were nervous about the death of such a well-loved character. As such, the reader who picked up that issue would know Gwen Stacey was dead, but learn practically nothing of how it occurred. To see her death, and understand it, would require the previous issue.

*11:- Millar’s often discussed how the religious imagery of Catholicism has shaped the way in which he sees the world – as in Emma Barnie and David McIndoe’s film about Millar “From Coats To Capes” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbK7ZIRxxoc – and it is hard not to see that process at work here.

*12:- Even during the late 80s, when a great many post-pubescent comics fans were diversifying their taste in the wake of the achievements of that remarkable decade, Grant Morrison describes meeting an eighteen year old Millar who “truly loved superheroes”.: pg 317, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape, 2011

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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