“How Can You Possibly Live in a World Without Superheroes?”:

The American Superhero Comics Of Mark Millar, Part 6

by Morrison, Millar, Paul Ryan, John Nyberg et al, from 1997’s The Flash #130

Continued from last week.

Who was responsible for what in Morrison and Millar’s many collaborations? Credit boxes are often little help at all. Stories which carried the Morrison/Millar by-line were on occasion the product of an enthusiastic joint effort between the two on both plot and script. (That certainly seems to have been the case with Big Dave.) (*1) However, the same attribution could also mean a variety of other working arrangements. As we’ll discuss, equal billing could also indicate that each had written different sections of the same story or series, or that Morrison had been substantially involved in mapping out a project while Millar took responsibility for much of the page-to-page storytelling. The precise nature of the division of labour between the two of them appears to have been in constant flux, and there’s relatively little detailed information to be had about the many ways in which they colluded. Of the evidence we have, the only apparent certainty appears to be that Millar never played the role of enabling conceptualist while Morrison never honed his friend’s decisive inspiration into a finished script.

by Grant Morrison, Charles Truog et al, from 1990’s Animal Man #24

If it can be difficult at times to be sure whose hand was responsible for particular word balloons and specific action sequences, it’s often flat-out impossible to be sure about the precise origins of the ideas which inform a particular piece of their work. As we’ll see, tropes that might be thought to indicate the predominance of one man’s input can actually be deceiving, while the assumption that Millar had no influence at all over Morrison is, the evidence suggests, a dubious one. That Morrison was first among equals, and by a substantial measure, is something which no amount of collective enthusiasm in the interviews and proposals from the time can or should obscure. (*2) Indeed, even the complete absence of Morrison’s name from a comic’s credits doesn’t necessarily indicate that Millar was working alone. From Swamp Thing to JLA Paradise Lost to The Authority, several DC-owned titles bearing only Millar’s name were actually decisively influenced by Morrison. It was an involvement on the older man’s part which, according to 2011’s Supergods, extended even as far as the set-ups for Millar’s breakthrough post-Millennium books for Marvel such as Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates. (*3)

From their very first meeting – as we’ve discussed – Morrison and Millar were united by their love of superheroes, and by a mutual adoration of DC’s pre-Crisis continuity in particular. (Morrison’s tastes tended to be more for the products of the Silver Age, while Millar appears to have a more general regard for the company’s output.) The 1989 interview for Fantasy Advertiser which initially brought them together found them airing a shared distaste for what had become of the company’s superbooks in the wake of the 80’s vogue for deconstruction. (*4) Sincerely appalled by the age’s predilection for the likes of hyper-violence, rape, nihilism and fannish literal-mindedness, the pair looked to a counter-revolution in which more optimistic and inspiring values could be reasserted in the superhero comic. Though both were more than happy to put bleak and challenging conventions to use in other contexts, they appeared convinced that the core DC superhero books were a special and precious case. (It’s a conviction that we’ll return to in a later installment.)

by Grant Morrison, Charles Truog et al, from 1990’s Animal Man #24

In the same year that Millar’s conversation with Morrison was published, the latter brought his rightly acclaimed 26-issue run on DC’s Animal Man to a close. Featuring a previously obscure superhero from the mid-60s, Morrison had used the property to repeatedly challenge the grim conventions of what would become labelled The Dark Age of Comics. (*5) A manifesto of sorts that foreshadowed much of his future work for DC, Animal Man propounded radical political values, emotional literate content and ingenuously ambitious storytelling. In that sense, the series worked as a deconstruction of deconstructionism itself, stabbing as it did at the dreary pseudo-maturity of the age. If Morrison and Dave McKean’s 1989 graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum was often unfairly classified as yet another pretentiously faux-adult self-indulgence, his Animal Man tales with Chris Truog gave a far clearer picture of his vision for the DC superhero book. (No matter how dark and disturbing Arkham Asylum was, it didn’t, in Morrison’s word, “aspire towards some vision of realism.”; in that, it was a very different beast to the typical Dark Age pulp fiction.) Ultimately, they in part developed into a eulogy for the potential of richly absurd superhero universes populated by the likes of super-powered pets and crime-busting ghosts, while railing against the inhumanity and creative bankruptcy of tales reliant on dead-hearted vigilante killers and psychotic antagonists. (*6) The years which followed would rarely find Morrison working in the DCU, and even when he did, it was at the margins of its continuity that his contributions would appear. But when the chance came at last for him to move to the centre-stage of the company’s mainstream titles with 1996’s JLA, he brought with him the very same convictions that had made Animal Man such a bravely iconoclastic title.

by Morrison, Millar, Steve Yeowell et al, from 1995’s Skrull Kill Krew #1

Only in his 1994/5 work for Marvel did Morrison show any sign of buying into the Dark Age’s approach to superheroes. Both he and Millar conspired together on the short-lived and somewhat controversial Skrull Kill Krew series while also submitting several rejected proposals for company-wide crossovers. None of those undertakings were untouched by the era’s propensity for flashy, fan-enticing mass slaughter. Yet neither man felt or thought about Marvel’s properties with the same mix of fondness and respect that they regarded those of DC. Where the tales of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and their fellows were concerned, both Morrison and Millar possessed particular ambitions and ideals. That the Millar who wrote the Dark Age-saturated Favourite Things in the early 90s hadn’t kept to them may indicate a desperation on his part to fit in and land a more permanent job. It may also suggest that Morrison, whose post-Arkham Asylum approach to DC’s mainstream superheroes was absolutely unwavering, had little if anything to do with Millar’s first sale to DC.

To be continued.


*1: pg 317-8, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape 2011

*2: As discussed in the previous week’s post

*3:- I’ll discuss as best I can the details of the various books which the two worked on in future posts, but the general sense of the issue can again be found in the pages of Supergods.

*4:- Grant Morrison Talks to Mark Millar, FA#109, January 1989

*5:- A more-than-useful introduction to the label can be found here; http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheDarkAgeOfComicBooks?from=Main.DarkAge

*6:- These more apparently innocent aspects of the superhero tales’ history were exactly those which Millar had mocked in 1990’s Zenith – A Tale of the Alternate Earths, which was of course supposed to be set in an unvisited corner of Morrison’s Zenith. It was discussed in this series here.

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


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

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Colin Smith:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


Leave a Reply