It’s far too good a story not to be treated with suspicion. Asked to recall his first comic by Lee Randall of The Scotsman in 2009, Mark Millar declared that he could remember it “exactly”. (*1) Despite the passing decades, this life-transforming event would always remain eidetically vivid in his memory. Time and time again, Millar has returned to this same single shining moment, fleshing out, as comic book readers might have it, the continuity of his own back-story. No matter how often this foundational myth has been retold and respun, it’s remained Mark Millar’s personal origin tale. All roads return to here. In the tale, a mid-Seventies Coatbridge shipping trip with his generous older brother Bobby results in the infant Millar returning home with two precious comic books, one starring Superman and one Spider-Man. (*2) For a very young working-class boy in a cash-strapped time, it was a glorious haul. Even more than that, Mark Millar would repeatedly insist, it was a day that changed the course of his life. From that epochal experience onwards, only a future career in comics, or something akin to comics, would do for him. (*3)
As tends to happen with foundation myths, Mark Millar’s has been expanded and clarified over the years. To Gerard Seenan of The Guardian in 2001, Millar stated, without any suggestion of doubt, that his brother’s gifts had left him determined to be a “comic book writer”. (*4) To Abraham Reisman of The New Republic a dozen years later, Millar went considerably further, explaining that the very content of the two comics had significantly influenced the more wilfully outrageous aspects of his writing. (*5) No wonder then, that a discussion with the Let’s Talk Comics podcast in 2014 saw the lifelong Toman Catholic Millar compare the moment with a young nun’s revelation when first catching sight of “a statue of the Virgin Mary”. (*6) To the BBC in 2009, he likened the effect of that day’s encounter with Superman to that experienced by a priest who catches sight of a crucifix. (*7) So strong a thunderbolt had it been, it required the playful and yet sincere deployment of religious metaphors to evoke its transformative effects.
Brother Bobby’s kind and generous gifts weren’t entirely the product of a nobly untainted altruism. For a twenty-something University student, as he was, a fondness for comics was generally considered an inappropriate indulgence. The latest available adventures of costumed crimefighters were almost universally considered to be solely for far younger readers. For a man of Bobby Millar’s age to purchase copies of Super Spider-Man With The Super-Heroes and Superman with no convincing and easily explainable cover story was, even in the least boisterous of public spaces, to risk the likes of puzzled silences, tellingly raised eyebrows, smirks, and mocking comments. Minor frictions, most of the time, but frictions to be avoided all the same. It was simply easier that way. As such, a youthful sibling like the young Mark offered the perfect alibi, his very presence transforming his older brother from potential pariah to laudable benefactor. (*8) From what Mark Millar has otherwise said, it’s hard to imagine that Bobby Millar would have cared much, if at all, about the chiding opinions of strangers. But for all of that, young Mark’s presence would have certainly helped to simplify matters.
In the Britain of Mark Millar’s youth, the very idea of an adult comics reader seemed a logical contradiction. With so few openly breaking cover, they appeared at best to be a rare and unthreatening breed, a harmless enough remnant who surfaced but occasionally in patronising press pieces. Yet at the same time, it was often felt that there was something sad and even pathetic about men, and they were almost entirely men, who allowed themselves to be captured by such an unnecessary and enfeebling vice. If asked to picture a grown up fan, few would conjure up the image of a conventionally attractive and admirable everyday citizen, successful in the pursuit of money, status, love and pleasure. The pecking order of society was clear. Grown fans of comics stood even further down the status ladder than, for example, collectors of stamps, who had tradition and everyday utility on their side, or football programme enthusiasts, who were still undeniably interested in sport, or train spotters, who at least pursued their lonesome, obsessional hobby in the fresh air. To the most suspicious and judgemental of minds, there could even be a suggestion of something decidedly disconcerting, if not downright sinister, about the ageing comics collector. Refusing to leave behind what were surely the disposable inconsequentialities of their earliest years might, just might, reveal a dubious fixation upon childhood itself. “People would hide an issue of Superman inside a porn mag when I was growing up”, as Millar said during 2015’s Glasgow Aye Write Festival. (*9) And so they often did.
If the business of buying comics for all but infants could be trying enough, then opting to read them in public could involve, for any bar the careless and heedless, a never-ending process of checking for disapproving observers. Woe to the reader who got lost in their comic and relaxed their guard in the wrong place at the wrong time. The consequences of discovery depended, of course, upon a complex if largely unconscious reckoning of who was being watched and who was doing the watching. Tiny differences in situations and subtle grades of status could result in a free pass or an embarrassing condemnation. Even in the first few years of his time as a secondary school student, for example, the young Millar had to deduce which of his teachers might be in any way sympathetic towards comic books. (*10) What was acceptable in the last year at St Bartholomew’s Primary School might really not be so welcome in St Ambrose High School.
This need, to constantly calculate how others would respond to a love of comics, would always, to one degree or another, be present during the period. It was as inevitably true for Millar as it was for any of the time’s scattered and often isolated fans. Even if a favourite High School English teacher were to be encountered making a friendly case for the virtues of Batman, a careers advisor might show anything but supportiveness where a future in comics was concerned. (*11/12) There were few enough situations where a fan’s affection for comics could pass as so entirely normal as to be taken for granted. As with school, so elsewhere. As with adults, so with other teenagers. No matter how happy-go-lucky and self-confident the fan, their tastes demanded caution. In a comment to Barry McDonald in 2001, Millar explained, as if a survivor from a long-ago and now almost inexplicable culture war, that a teenager’s decision to read a comic book on a bus could be taken as a symptom of “mental illness”. (*13)
*1:- “Mark Millar’s Graphic Novels Really Are Graphic …”, Lee Randall, The Scotsman, 13/12/2009
*2:- Twitter, @mrmarkmillar 28th February 2017
*3:- You’re Done Banging Superheroes, Baby, Abraham Riesman, The New Republic, 6/8/2013
*4:- Man And Superman, Gerard Seenan, The Guardian, 20/3/2001.
*5:- Let’s Talk Comics podcast episode 30: Mark Millar, 9/6/2014
*6:- Marvel’s Mark Millar Talks Comics, BBC Edinburgh & East Scotland, 14/10/2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/edinburghandeastscotland/hi/people_and_places/arts_and_culture/newsid_8283000/8283664.stm
*7:- Mark Millar’s Journey From Glasgow To Gotham, uncredited, The Scotsman, 24/4/2017
*8:- Aye Write: Mark Millar – The Graphic Novels That Made Me, as summarised by Heather from a conversation with Start Kelly, heatherwrites.co.uk, 22/4/2015,
*9:- A New Kind Of Costume Drama, Tim Walker, The Independent, 19/2/2010.
*10:- Scottish Comic Book King Achieves Superhero Status With Netflix Deal, Mure Dickie, FT, 11/8/2017
*11:- Twitter, @mrmarkmillar, 16th September 2019
*12:- The 100M Dollar Man, Emma Cowing, The Sunday Mail, 12/8/2017
*13:- “Mark Millar’s Scottish Superhero“, Barry McDonald, The Herald, 8/3/2001.