In this extract from “Shameless?: The Comics Career Of Mark Millar”, I’m sketching out Millar’s remarkable success as an independent comics creator and publisher. To do so, I’ve taken one of the early chapters of the book and jumped ahead to 2012, an absoluely key year in Millar’s career. The intention is to introduce a fair degree of background information and foreshadowing before embarking on a more conventionally chronological approach. But the effort of trying to squeeze a great deal of fact and argument into a fairly small section for the start of “Shameless?” has left me feeling as if I can’t quite, as it were, see the wood for the trees. In such a situation, I’ve found it helpful to post the words in a public forum. The distance granted by seeing my sentences, in one sense, already published can, I’ve learned, be even more helpful than it is nervewracking. This isn’t a finished draft, but it is one that’s been paid more than a little attention to. I hope that what follows is of some interest. I’ve removed references and footnotes for ease of reading, but they will be there in abundance in the finished work. Your customarily reasoned and informed feedback would be, as always, most welcome and I can be found here or over at Twitter here.
The first seven months of 2012 served up success after success for Mark Millar. The not-inconsiderable gambles he’d taken over the previous few years were not just paying off, but paying off for all to see. In the June of 2011, Millar had announced on Twitter that he’d “just finished the dialogue on my last ever script for Marvel”. His immensely successful decade at the company was over. Despite earning, in his own words, “11 times what I was getting paid when I started” at the company, July 2011’s Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates #6 would be his last new story to date for Marvel to see print. It was a decision that saw Millar step away from a regular, lucrative income as, he explained, the highest paid writer at Marvel. Despite a looming and substantial – or as Millar put it, a “mental” – tax bill, the six figure incentive that Marvel had waved before him to continue with them hadn’t decisively dented his determination to go it alone as his own publisher.
To Sandy Kennedy in 2020, he explained that leaving the employ of Marvel Comic had meant he hadn’t been paid for 18 months, although it might be added that his royalties from his previous employer, and especially those from mega-successful projects such as The Ultimates and Civil War, had of course continued. The same was true where DC Comics were concerned, as the lastingly popular Superman: Red Son collection in particular continued to shift copy after copy. If these weren’t exactly riches, then they were nothing to sniff at either. They didn’t constitute, as Millar has explained, a deep enough reserve to begin fulfilling all of his self-publishing ambitions, but they still played their part. In addition, the returns on his various co-owned Millarworld properties, including the profit generated by sundry movie projects, had hardly dried up. For all of that, Millar had undoubtedly pushed himself out into considerably choppier waters. Yes, had his ship proved to be unseaworthy, there’s little doubt that Marvel and DC Comics would have welcomed his return to the fold. The way back would likely always exist: Millar had simply sold too many comics over too long a period of time for anything else to be true. But to have to return, and by necessity rather than choice, and perhaps so quickly, would inevitably involve a loss in autonomy, prestige and money. Worse yet, in many ways, it would have been the squandering of a dream.
But it’s very hard to believe indeed that Mark Millar, being Millar, was over-burdened by spectres of failure. The gains to be won from working for himself in terms of both creative freedom and financial reward more than justified, to say the very least, his stepping away from immediate security. His ends were entirely understandable, although his means could at times seem somewhat precarious. Still, Millar’s profit from 2008’s first Kick-Ass mini-series, co-created and owned with John Romita Jr, had generated “more money than every issue I’d written for Marvel put together even w/out (the monies generated by the) movie”. The same franchise would often serve as a touchstone when he discussed his success as an independent creator. In 2015, Millar explained to Kat Brown in The Daily Telegraph that he believed he earned “about 40 times as much money per edition of Kick-Ass than I do from a Marvel book in terms of royalties”. Not only had it been a comic whose often-controversial content had been absolutely unfettered by corporate conservatism: it was a huge success too, and continues to be to this day.
Over the decades, a considerable number of comics creators have attempted to break away from a reliance on work provided by Marvel and DC Comics in the American market. Especially where stories featuring super-people have been concerned, the Big Two have for decades published by far the greatest number of pages and, accordingly, have offered the greatest number of assignments. Relatively few who’ve made their name with those corporate-owned comics before opting out to work independently have prospered as they might have hoped. It can be done, and indeed repeatedly has been, but it remains a relatively rare trick for all of that. Being financially reliant, to any significant degree, upon freelance work-for-hire contracts inevitably places creators between the devil and the deep-blue sea. If they dedicate themselves to properties that they will never conceivably own, their labours will almost inevitably be under-rewarded in the longterm while their careers remain dependent on a great many variables beyond their control. (In 2021, to take but one of thousands of examples, a Sam Thielman article in The Guardian revealed Marvel’s tendency to reward creators whose work has been adapted into movies making billion dollar profits with, if they were favoured, a $5 000 cheque and a ticket for the film’s premiere.) For many, the rewards for staying put justify the costs of doing so. But those who attempt to go it alone, with or without anyone else’s backing, place themselves in direct competition with big business and all its long-established resources. The more the independently-minded creator seeks to work in genres that the old established publishers have concentrated upon, the greater the disadvantage can be.
For most of Millar’s lifetime, the story of American comics can in one way be read as that of the fight within the industry to develop alternatives to Marvel and DC and the essentially conservative and exploitative working practises and storytelling traditions that they’ve so often opted to preserve. As time has passed, more and more alternatives to the established centres of power have been developed, from underground titles to independent publishers, from deals with mainstream businesses to the likes today of Kickstarter and Substack. But the struggle remains, between the established privileges of power and the rights of creative workers. It has been the wielders of the former who’ve nearly always held the whip hand. They’ve controlled the purse strings and the fruits of copyright, resisted collective bargaining, and used their competitive advantages in often hugely-successful attempts to shape the workforce and the marketplace alike to their own advantage. (That the sales of both Marvel and DC Comics are now far outweighed by those of young people’s graphic novels and manga show just how poorly the Big Two have approached even their own longterm prospects.) For the majority of creators working for Marvel and DC today, financial returns, including royalties, have remained low where they’ve not actually stagnated. (The same is sadly true for much of the business beyond corporate halls too.) Where some star creators undeniably enjoy financial prosperity while remaining inhouse, many highly able and hard-working storytellers do not. Similarly, for all but a few marquee writers and artists, working conditions can often appear almost Victorian. The likes of secure and longterm employment, the provision of sickness benefits and health care, pensions and holiday pay, and of course an equitable division of spoils, remain, as they always have been, a very distant dream indeed.
For many of those reliant on the Big Two’s cheques and seeking to remain within the industry as a whole, the most prudent course has long been to work in both corporate and independent spheres, gathering experience, renown and income with the majors, as it were, while making occasional and hopefully increasingly successful sorties into self-owned projects. For more than a decade, Millar had done exactly that, balancing one path against another. Even as his Marvel career was blossoming in the early 2000s as a result of his work on bestselling titles such as Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, Millar was also setting up Millarworld and laying plans for self-publishing titles such as Wanted and Chosen. For he knew that the historical truth remained that no matter how lauded and well-rewarded he was for his endeavours at Marvel, the company would inevitably eventually dispose of him. Had he remained and prospered at DC Comics, the same would almost certainly be true there too. As Millar had explained to Laura Hudson in 2008, in the wake of the multi-million-selling Civil War crossover he’d written for Marvel and several years prior to his breaking with the company:
“At some point, you get replaced. No matter how hot you are, no matter how much you sell, you will be replaced at some point. That’s just what happens. Frank Miller said a couple of years back, Marvel and DC chew you up and spit you out. It doesn’t matter how nice the guys there are, or how much they love you, they just have to. That’s how the machine works … And the smart guys are the ones who used the platform that Marvel and DC gave them to spin off and do their own thing.”
If Millar’s earliest years in the comics industry had been naively dedicated to writing the comics characters he’d grown up loving, his experiences as a jobbing professional had swiftly underscored how precarious a career comics could be. It was a truth that hit him early in his time at DC Comics. For example, Millar had heard that the legendary artist Curt Swan was struggling to find work at the tail-end of his career in the mid-Nineties. Successfully lobbying for Swan to be assigned one of Millar’s Swamp Thing scripts, the result was a satirical triumph, although Swan did later confide to DC/Vertigo editor Stuart Moore that he’d struggled with the radical politics baked into Millar’s Chester Williams: American Cop in 1996’s Swamp Thing #164. As boy and man, Millar had adored Swan’s artwork, especially on the Superman family of characters. It was undoubtedly a thrill for Millar to work with one of his earliest and greatest inspirations. Yet it wasn’t an act of self-warming charity on Millar’s part, for all of the pleasure that he could take from it. He was, in essence, recognising Swan’s still-strong skills as an artist and acknowledging his quality, his dignity, as a creative worker. That Swan, ageing and ill, should be hung out to dry by DC after serving for decades as a line-leading paragon of artistry and professionalism was clearly an appalling injustice. It was also common practise, and Millar recognised that and learned over those early years to take that truth to heart.
Millar’s own personal experiences as a freelance at DC Comics had underscored for him how vulnerable a creator such as himself could be to editorial whim and even flat-out bullying on the part of some of his employers. (As we’ll see, many of those he worked with DC Comics have received his highest praise, but several have been portrayed as unprofessionally misguided, uncaringly mischievous, or even actively malicious.) No wonder that Millar should develop a growing desire to ensure that he too wasn’t reduced to begging for scraps before being cast out of the industry entirely. (In the late Nineties, as we’ve already touched upon, it had seemed as though that would be Millar’s immediate fate, despite his young age and his very best efforts.) And so, the intention developed that he would work his way up the greasy pole of corporate monthly comics, while building himself a private fiefdom of independent titles, inspired in part, as I’ll return to, by a conversation with Marvel’s co-founder Stan Lee in 2002. At times, Millar’s ambition for his own independent endeavours seemed to spill over from legitimate ambition into flat-out hubris. It wasn’t enough, it seemed, for Millar have one or two successful books of his own. To Empire magazine in 2009, for example, he declared that he wanted to establish 15 film franchises, each based on a comic he’d co-created and co-owned. Millar was aiming exceptionally high, and making sure that his intention to fulfil such improbable-seeming aspirations was out there in the public domain. If J. K. Rowling had created an empire from Harry Potter, and if the Ian Fleming estate flourished through the rights to both James Bond and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, and if Stan Lee had co-created any number of lucrative Marvel Comics properties, then why shouldn’t Millar, he himself would argue, aspire to a string of self-created franchises?
But who, it might have been thought, was Mark Millar to be suggesting that he could in any way at all stand comparison to Rowling, Fleming and Lee? Whether his future plans involved 15 new characters or 15 new franchises, for that number of “15” did pop up several times, wasn’t the whole business just an example of Millar indulging in grandiose pipe dreams and windbagging?
But the truth is, Millar was merely spelling out what he intended to do, and do it he did.
For all that he might not have been as careful with his tax affairs as he ought to have been, Millar was absolutely scrupulous in ensuring that Millarworld had a raft of alluring titles on sale in 2011 and 2012. In short, he ensured that he took a running start at this new stage in his career. It would have been madness to allow his profile to diminish and his worth become solely associated with the best-selling comics of several years before. Each Millarworld title involved his paying his co-creating artistic partners an exceedingly enticing sum at the very beginning of each individual project. For the kind of high-profile creators that Millar was determined to continue to work with had to be enticed away from the security and relatively high returns of working for established publishers. (Millar has long repeated his intention to “steal” away Marvel and DC’s very best artists and he’s appeared very understandably chuffed whenever he’s succeeded in doing so.) That conflict between the established industry powers and Millarworld, amicable as it might appear, was there from the very beginning of the company. The prospects and prosperity of prospective artists simply had to be assured before they ever picked up a pencil to work on a Millar-generated project. Few creators would have the time, desire and resources to work on spec with Millar, turning in the pages without immediate compensation in the hope of a considerable pay-out at some time in the future. In the short-term, this meant highly-competitive page rates paid to artists in advance, while, in the long term, ownership of each Millarworld property was split 50/50 between them and Millar. It was both a practical and an ethical policy. In all of this, Millar was self-financing longterm projects at a considerable cost and in essence betting that he’d eventually reap an appreciable profit from them. The properties for which rights were sold almost from the off helped fund themselves, of course. But to continue to produce comics month after month and year after year was, to say the least, a demanding concern.
Nor was it a simple matter of Millar using his existing savings and revenue streams to fund these Millarworld titles, as it might have seemed from the outside. As he’s discussed, each successive Millarworld series relied upon a bank loan whose repayment depended on every previous project having landed a movie deal. Should a single one fail to do that, the funding needed for its immediate successor would collapse. It all amounted to a string of what can appear to be absurd wagers. After all, who could be sure of a 100% batting average? One slip-up, one problematical project, such as 2004’s largely unloved, albeit fascinating, The Unfunnies, and the grand plan would be on ever-more shaky ground. As described by Millar himself, it wasn’t exactly an example of safety-first entrepreneurship. He could of course point his financiers to the impressive profits generated both by the 2008 movie adaptation of his and J.G. Jones’ Wanted and the 2010 film version of Kick-Ass, along with his decade and more of selling a great many comics. In that, he undoubtedly had form. But to rely upon selling on the rights to one comic after another without ever slipping up was another thing entirely. Failure simply couldn’t be an option if bankrolling himself was Millar’s all-or-nothing strategy during these early years of self-employment.
Failure didn’t arrive. One series after another proved successful, in itself and in its broader appeal. Even as the second season of Kick-Ass and the first of Superior were played out and wrapped up in 2012, new mini-series featuring The Secret Service, Supercrooks and Hit-Girl were launched. At the same time, Millar’s UK-targeted monthly CLiNT! was given a second volume make-over. (Jupiter’s Legacy, Starlight and MPH followed on in 2014. The year after came Jupiter’s Circle, Chrononauts and Huck.) Even with the non-appearance of the promised second series of Nemesis in 2012, there was a constant stream of comics written and co-owned by Mark Millar available. Each new series, if not the doomed compilation title CLiNT!, would do very well indeed, in monthly issues, collected editions, and media rights. Movie adaptions were announced and several succeeded in eluding development hell and reaching the screen. (Others are still being proceeded with, as is common in the industry.) The first Kick-Ass movie, released in 2010, had made more than a tidy first-run profit while also establishing itself as a lastingly popular cult film on both DVD and Blu-ray, with the endearingly foul-mouthed Hit-Girl proving to be an especially popular breakout character. Just announced as August 2012 arrived was the movie’s sequel, while The Secret Service was, from its first development, intended as a film as well as a comic, and would premiere, as the hugely successful Kingsman, in early 2015. (The same had been true for the writing of Kick-Ass, which had also been developed with director Matthew Vaughn, which rather put the lie to the idea that Millar’s own comics were all a desperate attempt to entice film deals and nothing but.) Other licensed projects were discussed in public by Millar at the time, with at least 8 development deals being apparently in the works. Comics, movies, TV shows, games, merchandising: Millar wanted a part of all of them and it looked more and more likely that he’d do so. In what seemed like a few short months, he had gone from a man talking wildly about building an empire to one who had built the very same. It was in truth all the result of a long-burning project. Rather than naught but a risk-talking chancer betting everything on a few self-financed throws of the dice, or a vulnerable but plucky creator bravely taking a risky stand against an exploitative system, Millar was beginning to look more and more like a sure-footed tycoon-in-the-making. Which, as time would tell, he rather was.
By the end of 2012, no matter what monies still needed to be recouped and reinvested, or indeed sent off to mollify the tax authorities, Millar’s post-Marvel achievements were so sizable that success almost appeared pre-ordained and matter-of-fact. The future plans he shared, no matter what their scale, came across as destined for success. That was just the way things worked. As had long been the case, Millar was criticised for supposedly pandering to the marketplace in the hope of cynically securing film development payouts. The fact that the comics were successful in themselves, one after another, was in some quarters essentially ignored, or taken as evidence of Millar scheming his way into the pockets of what would have to be a readership of passive, buy-anything readers and profit-hungry movie producers. That deals could have been struck without the comics having yet been developed, or that the projects which were so successful should have been expressions of Millar’s lifelong genre passions, often failed to register in the debate. In such a way have Mark Millar’s notable achievements often been diminished by the very relentlessness of his accomplishments.
The fact that very few others could match his success with project after project after project in several mediums did rather raise the question that if Millar’s success was so graspingly calculated, how was it that a great many other creators couldn’t at the very least match him? If he was a master, soulless manipulator of audiences and institutions, then surely he couldn’t be the only one? Or was Millar a psychological freak possessed of infallible instincts when it came to creating bestselling properties? Was he also so fixated on cash and applause that he sublimated everything to their cold-hearted pursuit? Why indeed, if film deals were Millar’s be-all-and-end-all, didn’t he just give up making comics and use his reputation and contacts to sell on concepts instead? An excellent presentation guaranteed to hook an industry insider would surely have been far easier to execute than a 4, 5, 6 or even 7 issue mini-series?
The question of what was driving Mark Millar could, with some, substantially obscure the facts of what Mark Millar was actually up to.
In 2017, six years after Mark Millar’s final comic for Marvel, Millarworld was sold to Netflix. A formidable deal negotiated by the team of Millar and his second wife Lucy generated a sum that the Wall Street Journal put at somewhere between $50 and $100 million. (Others have guestimated a range of other figures, some considerably lower though none to my knowledge higher.) The money was shared with Millar’s collaborators, as had always been the case. Millar himself, unwilling to lounge in a life of considerable ease and little else, then, having taken a brief holiday, negotiated a senior post as President of Netflix’s Millarworld division. Despite the wealth and power and advantage and indeed fame he’d accrued, he continued to create comics even as he pursued his new and considerable responsibilities. Because, we can only conclude, he continues to absolutely love doing so.
We can, and indeed will, debate key and often contentious matters about the likes of the nature and quality of Millar’s storytelling over the years, the politics of his tales, the manner and content of his salesmanship, and so on. This is not to be a book that lacks for controversy. But on Mark Millar’s love not just for comics, but for the hard graft of the making of them too, the evidence appears incontrovertible.