Continued from last week.
Only Mark Millar knows which twelve months of his life would most deserve the title of Annus horribilis. But from what he’s said in the press, the years of the late Eighties would appear to have a dishearteningly compelling case. As he explained to Robert Mitchell in 2012;
“My parents had died, I was living on my own in a tiny flat and had no money to pay basic rent. I had a cat, and the cat and I ate alternate days. There wasn’t enough money for me to eat every day. Hunger is a brilliant motivator, it genuinely is. I sold a series called The Saviour and I got £240 for my first script. I remember it exactly because it was so important.” (*1)
Given that mounting debts had forced Millar to drop out of a Politics And Economics course at Glasgow’s Paisley University, the arrival of a contract with the fledgling UK publisher Trident Comics could hardly have been more timely. In an interview with Peter Aitken, Millar recalled being 18 and faced with the daily phone calls of a friend who wanted a loan of £300 paid back. (*2) Yet when his first cheque arrived, the newly-professional writer’s problems were temporarily eased. He could even invest in the relative luxury of a second-hand fridge, which meant that food and drink no longer had to be left “cooling in bowls of water” during the summer. (*3/*4) As circumstances fell, The Saviour wouldn’t end up being the first story of Millar’s to actually see print. That would be “Her Parents”, a short slice-of-life tale which appeared in November 1989’s Crisis #31 and beat The Saviour #1 onto the stands by a single month. (*5) But it was the series which first marked Millar out as a writer of considerable promise where both comics and column inches were concerned.
It was Martin Skidmore’s editorial in the one hundredth edition of the British fanzine “FA” which so transformed Millar’s circumstances. Tucked away on the penultimate side of the 80 page magazine was the second half of Skidmore’s column, and effectively buried in the last-but-one of its seven paragraphs was the following somewhat undemonstrative announcement;
“I can’t say too much about the projected comic line from Neptune yet, because we’re just making plans, in the hope of launching a couple of titles before the year is out: an anthology, probably in a black and white magazine format, plus one or two main feature titles. I’m obviously contacting a few people, but I’m genuinely very interested in submissions … All will be read and considered, but only a few will be published. We’re looking for very high standards in every area, but don’t be put off just because you think you might not be good enough; after all, I can only say no …” (*6)
It was unlikely that anyone who wasn’t a fervent reader of FA would have missed Skidmore’s request. Not only was it marooned at the back of the fanzine, but it was placed at the bottom of the last of three columns and presented in tiny print. Yet Millar does appear to have been such a devotee. In the very same issue, he’d had a letter printed in FA’s No-Man’s Land feature, in which he expressed an unguarded “delight” at the magazine’s return to print after a protracted sojourn. (*7) Indeed, FA and its editor Martin Skidmore would influence Millar’s future in a surprising number of ways. It was an interview undertaken for the fanzine in 1988, for example, which kicked off his ultimately ill-fated friendship and working collaboration with Grant Morrison. (*8)
The combination of Millar’s letters to FA between 1986 and 1989, his interview with Morrison, and the publicity undertaken for Trident provides a remarkably clear picture of his thoughts and tastes during the period in which The Saviour was being created. For example, Millar listed what he considered to have been the highlights of 1987 – “such a great year for comics” – in FA #100 ;
“… Watchmen, Dark Knight, Man Of Steel, Batman: Year One, the last year of Swamp Thing, the return of The Shadow … Miracleman, Halo Jones, Constantine (Hellblazer), Flash, Justice League and Batman.”(*9)
It seems safe to assume that these weren’t titles chosen by the 17 year old Millar with an eye to appealing to the readership of FA’s letter column. The fanzine functioned as a broad church, and although it tended to focus on American super-books, a considerable number of its pages were always given over to comics of all stripes. No-one seemed perturbed by Millar’s consistently enthusiastic focus on a distinctly narrow range of comics, but it was hardly a selection designed to winningly show how eclectic and knowledgeable a fan he was. Instead, the picture which emerges of the teenage Millar’s reading habits is one that’s entirely consistent with his later descriptions of the same. Here was a DC superhero fan whose taste tended towards the more literate and well-crafted examples of the company’s then core output. As such, the only obvious monopoly-breakers were the Alan Moore-written titles Miracleman and Halo Jones. (*10) In the terms of what DC was publishing at the time, it was a undeniably forward-looking set of choices. Millar was opting for super-books which tended to reflect a knowing degree of deconstruction, and he was open-minded enough to enjoy horror-tinged and pulpish comics whose stories complimented rather than challenged DC’s typical output. (*11)
Yet as a summary of one of the most remarkable periods in American comics, it’s a woefully undernourished one. Even in terms of the superhero book itself, it’s a profoundly occluded business. Nothing’s said at all of Marvel’s output, and yet you’d imagine that the innovative and sharp-edged likes of Miller and Sienkiewicz’s Elektra Assassin or Mills and O’Neill’s Marshal Law might at the very least deserve a nod. (*12) What hope then for the solidly entertaining monthly likes of Simonson’s Thor or the Buscema and Stern Mighty Avengers? Similarly, in a marketplace still awash with independent Third Way super-hero titles, Miller opted for not a single one. If it’s not surprising that he didn’t suggest the likes of Raw or Love And Rockets, then it is odd that he mentions nothing at all of The Badger or Nexus, Sgt Strike or the Prowler, Crossfire or Zot!, The American or even Concrete. (*12)
It’s a preference for a constrained range of comicbook experiences which Millar’s other contributions to FA fail to contradict. In every one of those that I’ve been able to find, it’s the same core interests which predominate. His conversations on the page consistently focused on DC books such as Crisis On Infinite Earths and The Killing Joke, which he determinably defended, and DC characters such as Superman, Supergirl and Batman. (*13) Indeed, he shows more of a knowledge of Silver-Age Animal Man stories than he does of anything beyond his central contemporary interests. (*14) Even Millar’s mention of Moore and Ian Gibson’s Halo Jones in his list of highlights might not indicate that he was at least reading the UK-published 2000AD at the time, since the character’s adventures were available as a Quality Comics reprint title repackaged for the American market. As such, Millar may not have just preferred to read a particular type of story, but to experience it in the form of a glossy-covered “pamphlet”. The absence of a mention and a thumbs up for Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s acclaimed Zenith, which in 1987 became 2000AD’s first super-hero strip, would seem too imply that Millar’s attention was elsewhere. Even given the financial constraints which would have definitely limited his options, Millar’s enthusiasms were untypically focused, and much of the form and content of his later work clearly reflects that of his adolescent preferences.
To be continued.
*1:- Robert Mitchell, ‘Mark Millar Talks About His Millarworld Work”, 25/1/12, Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, http://www.acadvertiser.co.uk/lanarkshire-news/local-news/monklands-news/2012/01/25/mark-millar-talks-about-his-millarworld-work-at-coatbridge-library-65864-29701148/
*2:- To Peter Aitken, Wizard #230, 8/25/2010
*4:- Interview with Marv Wolfman, http://www.marvwolfman.com/marv/Speaking_With_Mark_Millar.html
*5:- With artist John McCrea
*6:- “Editorial”, Martin Skidmore, pg 79, FA #100, May 1988 – “Neptune” was the company who had bought up FA and would finance the appropriately-named “Trident” line of comics.
*7:- “No-Man’s Land”, pg 69, FA #100, May 1988
*8:- “Grant Morrison Talking To Mark Millar”, FA #109,
*9:- “No-Man’s Land”, pg 69, FA #100, May 1988 – Only the John Byrne-created Man Of Steel would seem to be a book that Millar thought badly of, as we’ll discuss next time.
*10:- Marvelman was, of course, a massively influential superhero title published by Eclipse Comics, while Halo Jones was a futuristic SF tale which untypically featured a female protagonist. It had been produced for 2000ad, and then reprinted for the American market during the period by Quality Comics.
*11:- The Shadow was initially revamped for DC by Howard Chaykin in 1986. The updating of the pulp-era property, it existed in a quite separate continuity to the DCU, and therefore makes it a little different from the other examples of the company’s output which he mentions. For all that Millar tended during the period not to mention books and creators from beyond the orbit of DC, he obviously rated Chaykin’s American Flagg, and its hybrid of SF, sex, and social comment.. It’s hard not to see the influence of much that was considered controversial in Flagg, and Chaykin’s work as a whole, in Millar’s career.
*12:- Both Elektra: Assassin and Marshal Law appeared under the banner of Marvel’s Epic imprint, which tended to be used for the more daring and even contentious examples of the company’s material.
*13:-Millar’s defence of Moore and Gibbons The Killing Joke occurs on pg 43, “No-Man’s Land”, FA #104, July 1988.
*14:- pg 34, “Grant Morrison Talking To Mark Millar”, FA #109, January 1989