“Coatbridge, Scotland, where super-heroes are just part of the landscape …” – AN extract from ‘Shameless?: The Comics Of Mark Millar’

Thank you for popping over to this blog. Below is another extract from my book about the comics career of Mark Millar. As work-in-progress, I place it here in an attempt to clear my head about a section I’m a touch concerned about. For ease of reading, I’ve removed the references & footnotes which will accompany these words when, and indeed if, they see print.

5.6

To continue our earlier journey up Coatbridge’s Bank Street in the direction of the town centre is to arrive at The West End Bar. The setting of Millar’s sole mainstream comic tale of any length namedly set in Coatbridge, the pub featured in 1998’s 10-page tale Your Life Is My Business from The Flash 80-Page Giant #1. Although the bar is unnamed on the page, many a Coatbridge local would have known exactly where the story’s events were playing out. As Millar explained 20 years afterwards, the tale even featured the likeness of the “real-life bar-man at the time”. In 2016, when The West End Bar suffered a calamitous fire, Millar recalled “drinking there three times a week” during the Nineties. It was his local then, or at the least one of them, and well within walking distance of his family home.

To set a superhero story for the American market in a Coatbridge drinker was a strangely autobiographical choice for a writer who has, as a rule, tended to avoid up-front depictions of his own life on the page. What Millar has referred to as his “Lanarkshire DNA”, his unique personal experiences while growing up, underpins everything he’s written. But this obscure tale, which appeared as the last of seven stories in an oversized collection, breaks with a lifetime’s practise. In it, a comic book version of Mark Millar is introduced into DC Comics’ continuity. Struggling with the plot for a new Flash tale, “Millar” phones up the costumed speedster himself and asks for his help. The twist in the tale is that here, on DC-Earth, the comic-book adventures of superheroes are records of fact and not fiction. “I’m a journalist with panel borders”, as Millar has his on-page counterpart rather worthily declare when the Flash suggests simply inventing a story before the deadline’s due.  

Perhaps to ground his story further in an air of realism, Millar’s comicbook doppelganger discusses several aspects of the writer’s real-world private life during the period. The Flash is made to congratulate “Mark” on his wife’s pregnancy, while the latter bemoans the difficulty of writing at home “while Gill’s off on maternity leave”. Perhaps these are unpolished confessional nuggets. Perhaps they’re purposefully adapted shades of real-life events. But one way or another, the effect is to blur Millar’s life in Coatbridge with the fictional universe that he’s most loved, juxtaposing the world as we know it with the world as it can never be.

In its own understated fashion, Your Life Is My Business plays with themes that have underpinned Millar’s super-people work from the start. What would it be like to achieve impossible feats, for good or ill, while still sharing the same workaday world as the rest of humanity? How can the prosaic experiences of superfolks be captured without sacrificing their absurd glamour? As such, Millar’s script asks what everyday existence might be like for superheroes who can run at impossibly fast speeds. Might fluorescent lights give them migraines? Would they lose track of how to perform everyday tasks like the buying train tickets? It’s as if Millar was writing two pieces all at the same time. One was a fun piece for the DC Comics reader about the day-to-day business of a superhero’s life and responsibilities. But the other is for Millar himself, spelling out the narrative space he appears to most enjoy working in, namely, the collision between fantastical generic tropes and broad, day-to-day concerns.

To cap it all, Your Life Is My Business also helps to establish Millar’s developing view of himself as a public figure. Even as a relatively minor comics creator, Millar knew that selling his stories relied in part on selling himself. By placing himself, as it were, in a comics story, Millar succeeded in branding himself favourably as an agreeable real-world figure of some character and consequence. His counterpart in the story is a mundane guy. Absent are all traces of the edgelord persona that had often characterised his previous comics press interviews. Here, as you might expect of an all-ages comicbook, Millar is an uncontroversial and personable working class bloke of the people, given to hours in the pub while surrounded by mostly-older daytime drinkers, albeit one set apart by a snazzy leather jacket and the then-rare ownership of a laptop computer. This Millar has obviously done well for himself, to a degree, although he hasn’t lost touch with his roots. There in The West End Bar, in the absence of the disturbances of home, a solitary man in a bar filled with other punters, there’s “all the inspiration you can want on draught-flow and special offer”.

Along with his salt-of-the-earth status, there’s also the self-depreciation that’s so much part of Millar’s public performances. When getting in touch with The Flash by phone, for example, “Millar” identifies himself as the man who “the America lassie beat at arm-wrestling”. Yet for all of that, this Millar is an expert when it comes to his trade. He knows the names of the comics writers who had written themselves into DC Comics’ pages in decades past, even as many younger readers of the time would struggle to recognise the names of the likes of Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin. Millar even namechecks his then-friend and collaborator Grant Morrison, who had had his own likeness inserted into the final issue of his run as a writer on Animal Man in 1990. (With a wonderfully mischievous touch, writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale had then brutally killed off that same fictional Morrison, given the nom de plume of “The Writer”, in 1991’s Suicide Squad #58.) These were all writers who Millar admired highly. To have elected himself into their company was both a wink to their achievements and a statement of intent on his own part. This was the pantheon that he aspired to belong to.   

From Your Life Is My Business, from 1998’s The Flash 80 Page Giant #1, by Mark Millar, Ariel Olivetti, Tom McCraw, & Bob Lappan.

5.7

It’s worth dwelling a touch upon the very first line of Your Life Is My Business. Particularly since beginning work for DC Comics in 1993, Millar had become adept at pithy introductory captions. If other aspects of his craft were still under development, Millar’s appears to have approached the reader’s opening encounter with his text on the page with purpose and skill. In short, the first words of Millar’s tales were rarely if ever dashed off. What then of the 11 introductory words to this tale? They read:

“Coatbridge, Scotland, where super-heroes are just part of the landscape …”.

It reads perfectly well in the context of the story. This is a tale, after all, in which The Flash himself zooms over to a medium-sized Scottish town in order to have a very public chat with a local writer. Millar was surely setting up his readers for a story in which the Flash could share a table in The West End Bar without any of the other customers seeming phased by his presence. But that caption also seem to summarise Mark Millar’s fantasy life in Coatbridge for the prior 20 and more years. Superheroes were, and were to be, part of the real-world Coatbridge’s “landscape” because Mark Millar made them so.

5.8

For the 21st of September 2019, Mark and Lucy Millar sponsored, through their Millarworld Foundation, a free “superhero fun run” in Coatbridge’s Drumpellier Country Park. Where Mark Millar had long ago played superheroes with his friends, now 500 mostly-locals, young and less-so, enjoyed as much of the 2.5-kilometre course as they cared to complete, all while dressed in a wide variety of comics-inspired costumes. The weather was, in Millar’s own words, a “scorcher”, dry and bright and perfect for the occasion, taking place, by coincidence, on what DC Comics had designated, during the character’s 80th year in print, Batman Day. Although the Millar’s event had no association with that particular example of global corporate branding, the coincidence of the two events, one global and one local, spoke of how central comics had become to the culture. Run in concert with the Drumpellier Park Parkrun team, the superhero run provided, in the words of the Ultra Boy Runs blog, “a lovely sense of community (which drew) families out to do something fun and active”. At the course’s end waited free snacks and drink as well as Millarworld Foundation medals for any and all participants.

“We love doing superhero things in Townhead”, declared Millar to local journalist Andrew Bargh. But then, he always had loved exactly that, and now he was able to celebrate his love for comics in the company of hundreds of others in the very town that he grew up. Once he’d had to keep the option open of running from those who might want to terrorise him for reading comicbooks. Now he was running in a celebration of the very same hobby. Photographs of Millar, dressed appropriately for the occasion in a red Flash t-shirt complete with the DC Comics’ character’s iconic lightning bolt insignia, soon appeared in the local and national Scottish press. In all of them, he looked more than merely content.

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