“But no one is well served by history in the style of super-hero comics.” – Alex Ross, (*1)
This isn’t a biography of Mark Millar, although it will inevitably seem to be one in places. To discuss thirty years and more of a writer’s career is to unavoidably appear to be sketching out their character and life history too. But this is a critical biography, and its focus is narrow and specific. Concerned only with the comics that Millar has written, the way that he’s discussed and presented his work, and the responses that his words and actions have inspired, Shameless? embodies no attempt to reveal the “truth” – whatever that might be – about Mark Millar and his decades here on planet Earth. That will be a job for both Millar himself, should he ever decide to write in any depth about his own life, and for what will undoubtedly be a coming gaggle of biographers. For having made such a singular, unlikely and remarkable success of himself as a creator, businessman and a public figure, Millar’s life will most certainly attract the attention of scholars and cut’n’paste merchants alike. Unequivocally closer to the latter than the former, my interest lies predominantly in Millar’s comicbooks. Where his statements and behaviour in the public sphere appear to throw a useful light on his career as a writer, I have strived to pay as close attention to them as I can. But for those quite understandably looking for something that reveals more about the man and less about, say, the ratio of words to panels over time in his scripts for Marvel Comics, well, they should look elsewhere. Mea culpa.
There have been more than just a few drafts of Shameless?, to say the very least, and for all that they were often very different to each other, they each felt unjustifiably knowing and uncomfortably judgemental. No matter how I tried to avoid the impression of a biography written by a self-regarding and self-anointed expert, the impression of exactly that remained. Grasping even part of why that was so came lamentably late in the process. But doing so began in 2015, when comics writer David Baillie – known for the likes of his laudable work at 2000AD and on his own Vertigo-published Red Thorn – kindly drew my attention to a blog he’d written about meeting Mark Millar almost 20 years before. In late 1996, Baillie was a comics-loving University student who’d decided to visit the “2nd Birthday Bash” of the Scottish Cartoonists Comics Artists Membership, or SCCAM. (*2) As described earlier in same year by The Herald newspaper, SCCAM functioned as “a hellfire club of comic writers, artists, animators, retailers and convention organisers”, and, in the words of artist Alex Ronald, the gatherings in the basement of Glasgow’s Blackfriars Bar were the city’s “top comics get together” and “a well organised occasion”. (*3/*4) But for all its obvious enticements, a visit to SCCAM was hardly an unintimidating prospect. The thought of knowing no-one while being surrounded “by names I knew from my own comic collection” left Baillie feeling understandably trepidatious. The presence of what he recalls as a “sternly painted notice” insisting “No fanboys” as he descended down the stairs to the meet-up can hardly have eased his apprehension.
I’m grateful to Baillie for his permission to reproduce his account of what followed;
” Knowing no one, I stumbled up to the bar and counted out the change in my pocket to see if I could afford a pint. Mark, who happened to be standing next to me at the time, saw this and offered to buy me a drink. I declined, but spotting that I was both skint and a newbie, he got me one anyway. Then he took me under his wing, introduced me to other creators and sat with me for a few hours sharing anecdotes and advice about breaking into comics.”
It was an endearingly generous act on Millar’s part, who, attending the evening in the company of his mentor, frequent co-writer and then-closest friend Grant Morrison, was hardly lacking for company. Morrison, having met his long-running artistic collaborator Frank Quitely at SCCAM prior to the two working together on 1996’s Flex Mentallo, was most certainly on familiar ground. (*5) In Glasgow’s close-knit comics community, the paths of creators and fans, if a lasting distinction can ever be safely made between the two, were constantly criss-crossing, and a great many projects have had their roots in the city’s various comic shops, marts, fanzines, magazines, comics, pubs and clubs. (Frank Quitely himself had first came across Mark Millar at the now-legendary AKA Books And Comics, where Millar, as a “serious regular” since the mid-Eighties, had encountered many of Glasgow’s comics readers and makers.) (*6) In short, and regardless of whether he’d ever attended a SCCAM evening before, Millar was certainly not a stranger. Nor was he lacking in status. The account of the evening in SCCAM’s subsequent newsletter described him as “one of DC’s big boys”, mentioning his recently-completed run on Swamp Thing while trailing coming work on Hawkman, Devi8 and Superman: Red Son. If Millar’s billing in the newsletter was clearly second to that of Morrison’s, who was described as “arguably the biggest writer of comics in the world today”, it was in no way lacking in enthusiasm or respect. Happily noting the intention of Morrison and Millar to join SCCAM’s membership of “a whopping 124”, the newsletter expressed nothing but regard for both men.
Turning just 27 on the Christmas Eve of 1996, Millar had by all appearances already carved out a substantial career in comics for himself, and it had taken him just several years short of a decade to do so. As such, in the company of friends and carrying the reputation of a successful professional, he surely had no need to take the young Baillie under his wing that night. Yet, he did, and it would be exceptionally hard to disagree with Baillie when he writes that, in the light of the kindness shown to his younger self, “Even if you don’t like people who take every opportunity to talk themselves up … Mark Millar is a nice guy”.
The man that Baillie recalls appears very different to the one that most of Millar’s interviews of the period conjure up. Frequently off-puttingly laddish, and by all appearances self-obsessed and arrogant, the image Millar had created for himself in editorial pages, fanzines, prozines and newspapers seems quite at odds with the empathetic visitor to SCCAM’s anniversary get-together. Yet Millar did more than benevolently acting as Baillie’s unofficial sponser that night, an act which the former’s many detractors might still choose to decry as egoistic and self-important. For if it were conceit and not consideration driving Millar’s behaviour, and if he had been but a self-admiring pro glad to enlist a potential acolyte, then how to explain his decision to effortlessly skate over a considerable, if undeniably charming, faux pas on Baillie’s part? For the latter, as a longstanding reader of the UK’s weekly Sci-Fi comic 2000AD, had once read a playful 1993 interview in the title with Millar in which the writer had, tongue thrust forcibly into his cheek, claimed to have penned Vertigo Comic’s brilliant and groundbreaking 1993 mini-series Enigma. (*7) Amongst its many other virtues, Enigma’s actual writer Peter Milligan had, along with artist Duncan Fegredo, who’d later co-create 2015’s MPH with Millar, challenged the superhero genre’s ingrained heteronormativity. It was a title as brave as it was fascinating. Perhaps Millar’s obviously joking claim to the comic’s authorship was a way of showing respect to a friend and colleague’s work while avoiding the appearance of sycophancy or sentimentality. Or it may just have been a daft prank. But Baillie, being “star struck and both young and stupid at the time”, as we’ve all surely been, took Millar’s claim at face value and recalled it respectfully as gospel. (*8) As Baille explains:
“I didn’t know at the time that he was joking. And Peter Milligan (who is a real person and not in any way a penname for Mark Millar) just happened to have written my favourite comic of all time – Hewligan’s Haircut. As I sat down to drink the beer (Millar had) bought me, I started gushing about Hewligan’s Haircut and how I couldn’t believe that I’d met the writer. (No fanboys, remember.) Not once did he flinch or correct me, knowing how embarrassed I’d be. Whenever he talked about things he was working on (he was writing the Superman story Red Son at the time) I would say ‘But is it going to be as good as Hewligan’s Haircut?’ When he asked what sort of comics I wanted to one day create I said, ‘Something that makes people feel the way I do when I read Hewligan’s Haircut‘. And when the evening was over, he wished me luck. And I thanked him again for writing Hewligan’s Haircut.“
Baillie’s portrait of Millar reflects little to be found in a great many of my sources from the mid-90s. The above account of his efforts to avoid wounding Baillie’s feelings certainly sits poorly with the chorus that regards everything that Millar does as the product of his presumed narcissism. Instead, it shows a kindness, decency and restraint that a critical biography of the man’s career in 1996 might – understandably I hope – almost entirely fail to register.
Reading and rereading Baillie’s account of this SCCAM meeting, the penny eventually dropped. Although I hadn’t meant to create the impression in the pages of Shameless? that I was writing a biography of Millar, that is exactly what I appeared to be doing. Hence my fierce dislike of all that I’d written. Without the likes of David Baillie’s remembrances, the account of Millar in 1996 in these pages would be limited to that of a career beginning to enter a threateningly-terminal tail spin matched with a few typical-for-Millar controversies. There would be mention of bridges singed and even burned with editors, the never-to-be series, such as the above-mentioned Devi8, the hubristic declarations of absolute confidence, and the work that, in Millar’s own somewhat-too- harsh words from twenty years later, was little but “lots of bad 90s DC or Vampirella comics”. (*9) But as for the Millar who showed such good grace to David Baillie, there would be little sign at all. Time would reveal, for example, Craig Gorman’s 2020 post at Judge Dredd Tat & Chat on Facebook where he recalled a 1995 signing at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library at which Millar, Morrison and fellow writer Robbie Morrison were “incredibly generous and kind to a then 15 year old comic nerd”. (*10) But where would that Millar appear in a discussion of the in-yer-face self-indulgence of his Vampirella or the contentiously Christian sub-text which threads through his final issues of Swamp Thing, both from 1996. Self-indulgence and provocation there undoubtedly was in his comics, but to mention that and nothing else would suggest strongly that Millar’s entire character and life in the same year was composed of naught but a cluster of unadmirable traits.
Which simply wouldn’t be fair.
To write about Millar’s long career is to inevitably encounter a mass of controversy and conflict, where even measured criticism will inevitably stray into fiercely contested ground. It’s all too easy to give the impression that a book about the writer’s career is a book about the writer, and to imply that a writer like Millar has for periods been a creature made up in large part of little but ambition, self-love and the sharp elbows they encourage. But career biographies can only, at the very best, give an exceedingly partial version of a writer’s life in the broadest, and truest, sense. They have their uses, but they have their limits too. I hope you might keep it in mind, should you venture further, that Mark Millar himself will be in many, many key ways quite absent from these pages, even, to a substantial degree, when discussion arises of times when his work has triggered great storms of criticism. In a world in which it’s often presumed that everything about everyone should be easily available in the public domain, I can’t help but feel that that’s as it should be. Mark Millar, a man skilled in presenting what can seem like a huge amount of personal information about his family without ever giving away the names of many of his closest relatives, would, in that at least, most probably agree.
*1:-from “Deus Ex Musica”, Alex Ross, The New Yorker 20/10/2014, pg 46
*3:- Architects of the new republic, writer uncredited, The Herald, 24/8/1996 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12035274.display/
*5:- The List 743, 1 Apr 2017 – “Draw The Line – David Pollock with Frank Quitely”, https://education.issuu.com/thelistltd/docs/issue-743/49
*6:- Millarworld, Mark Millar, October 27, 2016, now deleted
*7:- Droid Profile: Mark Millar, 2000AD Prog 849, 21st August 1993
*8:- discussion with David Baillie, October 25, 2016
*9:- Millarworld, Mark Millar, November 28, 2016, now deleted
*10:- Craig Gorman, 2000AD & Judge Dredd Tat and Chat, Oct 14 2020 2020https://www.facebook.com/groups/388712724794261