“This is Not a Dream, but a Plan”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 12

by Millar & Kelly Jones, from 1997’s JLA Secret Files & Origins

Continued from last week.

There are other indications that Millar might have been a major contributor to the new JLA’s origin tale. In the Justice League’s own title, Morrison had scrupulously ensured that his innovations were compatible with the DCU’s status quo. Though the effort appears to have been exhausting, he and his editors painstakingly coordinated their tales with the company’s ever-changing and often unsettlingly desperate policies. If Superman was to be transformed into an energy being with an entirely different costume and power-set, or Wonder Woman replaced by her mother, then the JLA would both incorporate the change and put it to good use. But Star Seed showed signs of its creators being out of touch with the wider continuity. As was noted at the time, Morrison and Millar’s depiction of The Spectre was out-of-step with writer John Ostrander’s acclaimed portrayal of the character during the period. Similarly, the JLA’s failure to predict Starro’s tactics ignored several recent conflicts between their members and the extra-terrestrial echinoderm. (*1) To pay such an obvious lack of attention to DC’s Dark Age continuity was uncharacteristic of Morrison’s JLA project. Perhaps the story had suffered from a pressing deadline, or been produced prior to the JLA’s first scripts being written. That the presence of Millar – who’d always admitted a lack of interest in DC’s Nineties output – might have contributed to the problems is another possibility.

Morrison’s transformative ambitions for the JLA were in many ways ludicrously ambitious. It wasn’t enough that he might reinvigorate a franchise that had been driven into the ground. In addition, he was seeking to change the approach and, beyond that, the nature of the super-book itself. When he’d first written a Justice League tale, in 1989’s achingly nostalgic Ghosts Of Stone, he was only thinking of recapturing the spirit of his beloved Silver Age books. (*2) When asked by Mike Maddox what the experience had been like, he responded;

“ … it was great. I got to do the origin of the mountain H.Q. and to do the Flash. The real Flash, not this abomination that’s running around today. One of the most exciting moments of my entire life, believe it or not, was writing the sequence where Barry Allen presses his ring and the costume leaps out. When I wrote that I was sitting there all charged up with adrenalin. I suppose that just shows how sheltered a life I’ve led. It was something I’ve always wanted to do. I used to love the JLA when I was a kid, so that’s me done with them. I don’t have to worry anymore. I can grow up now … “ (*3)

by Morrison, Millar, Poter et al, from 1997’s Secret Files & Origins

Six years later and that process of growing up had led him back to the Justice League with a far less openly disdainful attitude. Regardless of how he might have felt about 1996’s version of his beloved superheroes, he wasn’t going to dismiss them as abominations; every character could and should be used to further Morrison’s radical vision for the DCU. (It was a process helped by Mark Waid’s acclaimed run on the Flash, which, beginning in 1992, helped win Morrison over to Barry Allen’s successor.) As a would-be corporate strategy, its prime weakness was a reliance upon there being a host of writers who were as capable and dedicated as Morrison. Ultimately, his ambitions would depend upon a cadre of creators who could construct the subtle contexts in which differing interpretations of the DCU could be creatively reconciled. Without a sufficient number of loyal, gifted lieutenants and authoritative, like-minded equals, even the most brilliant and determined of revolutionaries will almost inevitably exhaust themselves.  When working with those who both shared his ambition and possessed the requisite creative chops – Waid, Tom Peyer, Miller himself – the result was often spectacular. (*4) But his impact, as Morrison would later write in Supergods, was to ultimately be a largely misunderstood and abused one. As with all the great deconstructionalists of the previous twenty years, Morrison’s Justice League had been raided for inspiration by editors and creators who’d misunderstood it as conservative and sentimental. Just as had been true for Alan Moore and Frank Miller in the 80s, the influence of Morrison’s JLA run had all-too-often been an unintended and dispiriting one;

“By the end of the nineties, I felt weary. My approach to JLA, which I’d intended to be progressive, had instigated a wave of nostalgic “Dad’s comics” …”. (*5)

by Morrison, Millar, Porter et al from 1996’s JLA #1

All of which is to empathise how important Millar must have been to Morrison. Despite what the former’s detractors would always argue, the collaboration was immensely helpful to Morrison in providing a friend who was sounding board, co-writer and loyal supporter. Regardless of whoever was responsible for the hiccups in Star Seed, Millar’s text features in JLA Secret Files And Origins #1 stand as an example of how solidly he lined up behind his friend’s vision. In his page on the Batman, for example, Millar would declare that the Dark Knight was perhaps;

“…the most misunderstood and complex character of his day, Batman is driven not by vengeance, as he would like us to believe, but by a desire to use his position to ensure that others never lose what he lost so many years ago. His agenda is to heal the city and hang up his cowl forever in the Batcave when the job is done. This is not a dream, but a plan.” (*6)

By Morrison, Poter et al, from 1997’s JLA#7

Though Morrison’s given no credit for the page, it’s impossible to believe that he wasn’t strongly involved in its creation. Once again, we see the JLA’s version of the Batman being radically reinterpreted in a way that remains entirely compatible with the use of the character elsewhere. As such, Millar wasn’t simply dishing up a summary of the Batman’s backstory. He was also engaging in a broader debate about the Dark Knight’s fundamental mission. In the wake of the revisionism of the mid-80s, the Batman’s sanity had been frequently portrayed as a tenuous business. (Of course Millar’s own Favourite Things fitted in perfectly with these more extreme portrayals.) But in the pages of JLA Secret Files & Origins, Millar was quite deliberately pushing for a far more traditional version of Batman. (His 17 year old self, who’d railed against DC’s gloomy, hyper-violent revamps in fanzine letter pages, would surely have approved.) In this new schema, the brutal, threatening aspects of the Dark Knight which had appeared elsewhere were recast as a criminal-frightening performance by the cunning and ever-calm Bruce Wayne. Similarly, Millar undercut the belief that Bruce Wayne is psychologically trapped into a war against crime that he cannot possibly win. Instead, his and Morrison’s Batman has “a plan” which will result in Gotham being returned to an acceptable state of order. No matter how disordered and damned the Batman might have appeared elsewhere, Millar would have his behaviour defined as entirely rational and controlled.

To be continued.

By Morrison, Millar, Porter et al, from 1997’s Secret Files & Origins


*1:- As noted in an otherwise undated edition of 1997’s Snap Critiques In Infinite Judgements, by Don MacPherson and Randy Lander;


*2:- from 1989’s Secret Origins #46, with artist Curt Swan; it’s a beautiful, moving eulogy to lost moments and, if you’ve not read it, it’s well worth hunting out.

*3:- from Arkham’s Architect, interview with Mike Maddox, Amazing Heroes #176, February 1990

*4:- pg 16, In A Major League, Interview By Matthew Senreich, Wizard JLA Special, 1997

*5:-The shamefully underestimated Peyer would run with Morrison’s notes and make something special of 1999’s Hourman. Waid, of course, collaborated with Morrison and Millar on the tragically thwarted proposal for a reboot of Superman at the end of the decade.

*6:- pg 300, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Vintage, 2012

*7:- pg 60, Batman, by Mark Millar, 1997’s JLA Secret Files And Origins

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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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