“Nice to Meet You, Big Guy!”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 5

cover to 1998’s Superman Adventures #25, by Rick Burchett, Terry Austin & Marie Severin

Continued from last week.

Though he’d never again see one of his scripts feature in any of the Batman’s many headlining titles, Millar would return to the character over and over again throughout the Nineties. It’s only to be presumed that a great many of the opportunities to do so came from the influence wielded by Grant Morrison after the immediate and sizable success of his late1996 reworking of the Justice League Of America. The two men’s fondness for the Batman had already led them to feature him in several issues of their short-lived Aztek series, the first instalment of which had appeared in the same month as the JLA’s relaunch. In its highly lucrative wake came a procession of spin-off specials and mini-series which frequently featured Millar’s work in one form or another. The next three years would see him collaborating on the new team’s origin tale with Morrison, writing a series of short features for various one-off issues, producing pithy text introductions of major characters, helming a three-issue epic featuring the League’s angelic then-associate Zauriel, and taking point on a single fill-in issue of the JLA itself. All of these assignments would involve the Batman to a lesser or greater degree, from a two-panel, two-word walk-on in 1998’s superb The Secret Society Of Super-Villains to his central role in 1999’s JLA #27. Despite never having the chance to feature the Batman in a solo adventure, the way in which Millar used him during the second half of the Nineties says a great deal about his development as a writer. By the time he’d featured the Dark Knight in 1998’s accomplished Superman Adventures #25, Millar had even begun to establish himself as a creator of note who could flourish in a title that featured no apparent contributions from Morrison at all.

by Mark Millar, Chris Jones & Mark Stegbauer, "The Secret Society Of Super Villains", 1998’s JLA 80-page Giant # 1

It’s highly unlikely that Millar, with his love of playing with the biggest toys in the toy-chest, wouldn’t have chosen to frequently return to the Batman anyway. Indeed, we know that he’d been disappointed in his efforts to involve the character – as part of  the JLA – in the final issues of his run on the Swamp Thing in mid-1996, while an alt-Earth take on the Batman was given a prominent role in the long-gestating Red Son. (*1) But Morrison’s newly reinforced commercial clout, and the powers of patronage that generated, ensured that Millar’s chances of writing many of DC’s most famous properties were massively increased. Although never trusted by the powers-that-be with a long-term solo assignment on a major DCU title, the period would see Millar honing his skills on a variety of less prestigious opportunities and co-writes with Morrison. If his obvious reliance on Morrison would reinforce Millar’s image as the former’s less talented and coat-riding sidekick, it was an undoubtedly advantageous arrangement too. Whatever costs there were to being so closely associated with the older writer were far outweighed by both the personal and professional benefits of their relationship. Not only was the vastly experienced and inspirationally able Morrison a constant source of advice, inspiration and direction. His ability to function as a gatekeeper of sorts at DC in particular also helped keep Millar in work while opportunities elsewhere were either less promising or non-existent. It was, when added to the obvious pleasure that each took in the other’s company, an apparent blessing of a friendship.

from 1998’s JLA War In Heaven #1, by Millar & Ariel Olivetti et al

As Morrison described in Supergods, they shared lengthy, laughter-choked daily conversations which appear to have regularly strayed far away from immediately profitable topics,

“Unlike Warren (Ellis), Mark truly loved superheroes, and we got on immediately, sharing a surreal and gruesome sense of humour. Soon we were speaking on the phone every day, usually for four-hour stretches, in hysterics ….” (*2)

A September 1998 post on Usenet by Millar suggests that the habit had continued throughout the decade;

“…. I’m half-way through a Superman script for Superman Adventures 31 and need to chill out for a moment. Grant Morrison and I wasted a full two hours on the phone this morning coming up with the perfect cast for this movie if it ever gets off the ground.

Jor-El: Robert DeNiro (think about it)
Lara: Kirsten Scott Thomas
Pa Kent: Paul Newman
Ma Kent: Joanne Woodward
Lois Lane: Julia Roberts (no TV people in the new movie, puh-lease!)
Jimmy: Matt Damon
Brainiac: Big Arnie
Luthor: Nicolas Cage (think about it)
Rex Reed: Himself
Superman: A brilliant young newcomer with theatrical experience, looks, gravitas and intelligence. The big stunt could be “Who is the NEW Superman?” and he’s propped up by all the other big names anyway. Kill me before I post again.” (*3)

from Superman Adventures #36 by Mark Millar, Aluir Amancio & Terry Austin

For Morrison, the advantages appear to have been far, far more about friendship than his art or his career. Though he would often mention reading the younger man’s books, he’d never refer to Millar’s solo work when pushed for his favourite comics. Instead, Morrison would repeatedly accentuate how vital Millar was to him in emotional terms;

“I couldn’t survive without Mark because he’s the only one who knows what it’s like to do this kind of stuff. I can’t talk to friends, girlfriends. As much as people can see you working, nobody believes that writing’s work, so the fact that Mark’s there and the fact that we think alike means that we can actually collaborate. You need another writer to talk you down or stop you going crazy.”(*4)

None of this is to suggest that Millar contributed little or even nothing of substance to their working relationship. As we’ve seen, Morrison believes that their collaboration was at its most equal during their stint on Big Dave, and that “as soon as we were working together on American superhero dramas, the division of labour became lopsided”. (*5) Just how lopsided the relationship was is simply impossible to say. Millar has rarely commented on the details of their work together during this period, while Supergods mentions nothing but Morrison’s own – and always vital – contributions to the last six or seven years of the partnership. That theirs was an “unequal relationship” seems utterly impossible to deny, and Millar’s own words – spoken tellingly after the irretrievable break between the two men – supports this: (*6)

“Grant certainly learned almost nothing from any collaboration with me, while I learned an enormous amount from him … It never actually felt like two established writers putting their heads together and coming up with something great. I was always very much the sidekick as I was growing and learning. He really knew what he was doing and I didn’t.” (*7)

But to conclude from that that Millar carried nothing at all of worth to the table is equally unlikely. As we’ll see, isolating one man’s influence from that of the other is a frequently impossible task. Yet the evidence is that elements of Millar’s contributions to the team’s work still can be identified, and that aspects of them are, for good and ill, anything but negligible.

To be continued.


*1:- Interview w. Phil Hester by Rick Offenberger, http://www.mightycrusaders.net/interviews/hester.htm 10/7/03

*2 – pg 317, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape 2011

*3:- “Official Superman Lives Cast” thread, started by Millar on 7/9/98 -https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.comics.superman/unxIzPu5lI4

*4: – Interview w.Mark Salisbury, Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, Titan Books, 1999

*5:- pg 318, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape 2011

*6:- ibid

*7:- pg 144, Interview with Tom Root & Andrew Kardon, Writers On Comics Scriptwriting 2, Titan Books, 2004.

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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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