“I only had a plan in comics to do the stuff I loved growing up“.
Mark Millar, Cartoonist Kayfabe podcast, 17th May 2020
At first, the young Millar was a Marvel fan. On Twitter in 2020, he recalled Marvel UK’s “huge range” of weekly titles in 1976 and how it enthralled him. In that year, the company published eight weekly titles which featured not just a wide selection of Marvel superheroes, but also the likes of the sword and sorcery adventures of Conan, Tomb of Dracula’s vampire thrillers, and the post-apocalyptic science fiction of the Planet Of The Apes franchise. Most of these stories had originally appeared in colour, but Millar, understandably, had only the slightest experience of Marvel’s American traditions. As a youthful reader, he wrote in 2007, the classic tales he encountered from the Sixties and Seventies pulsated with “glorious black and white” and left him with a lasting love for monochrome storytelling. Even well into the 21st century, when Millar was ensconced in the front rank of Marvel’s writers, the sight of the original colour versions of those same child-read tales would always seem to him to be “like something from the future”.
“Seeing Marvel in colour even now is almost too much for me. Like BILKO in colour!”
In the April of the same year, he added:
“My eyes melted like the Nazis in Raiders when I saw all that colour!”
Although Millar’s comics-reading affiliation would shift from Marvel to DC Comics towards the end of the Seventies, he would never abandon his affection for, in particular, the foundational tales, “the amazing stuff”, of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko along with their immediate successors. And despite recalling with great fondness some of the reprinted Seventies material in the period, such as Blade’s battles with Dracula, by Wolfman, Colan and Palmer, it was the earliest stories of the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four that stayed with him. “Marvel minus Stan, Jack and Steve always felt weird to me”, as he would post on a Millarworld thread in 2017.
Even in the early Eighties, when Millar’s identification with DC Comics, and especially its Superman line, seems to have been less that of a reader and more than of an acolyte, he still bought the pocketbook-sized Fantastic Four reprints with their repackaged stories from the mid-Sixties. His respect and affection for many, if hardly all, of the epochal stories from the first years of Marvel’s existence would never leave him. These were the tales that were his lodestone when he was commissioned by Marvel to write the likes of 2003’s Ultimate Fantastic Four and 2004’s Marvel Knights Spider-Man. This was never more plain than when he discussed with Barbara Lien-Cooper in 2001 his choices for the line-up of members of The Ultimates, a new title designed to update The Avengers for a new century. He was opting for, he told her:
“Cap(tain America), Thor, Iron Man, The Wasp, Giant Man and Hulk because they were the original line-up. Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and The Vision will appear in later months … I’m in the enviable position of being able to use the guys I’ve always liked.”
In a more buoyantly outspoken, and playfully over-exaggerated, moment, to Alex Fitch on a 2012 Panel Border podcast, Millar went somewhat further in describing who was, and who wasn’t, included in his pantheon of favourite characters:
“… I don’t give a shit about most of those characters. I only really like the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko creations. I hate all the 70s and 80s ones.”
By the time Millar was asked to rework the Avengers, the title had been in existence for more than thirty-six years. Yet his initial ambitions for the comic’s huge cast involved no superhero introduced after the summer of 1968. But despite his having largely given up on reading any new Marvel Comics at all in the Nineties, bar ground-breaking achievements such as Miller and Varley’s Elektra Lives Again and Busiek and Ross’ Marvels, Millar’s deep roots in the stories of the company’s breakthrough strips in their first flush of success would serve him very well indeed. Co-created with British artist Bryan Hitch, The Ultimates was an immediate and colossal success, with a cultural influence beyond comics that even the ever-optimistic Millar could scarcely have dreamed of.
In 2018, Millar discussed the pleasures of reading 1966’s Galactus trilogy with his two youngest daughters from the very same issues of the Fantastic Four pocket books that he’d once so enjoyed. The choice of what to read, he wrote on Twitter, had been theirs and not his, although he appeared understandably very pleased with their preference. As with so many of his public recollections, it was happy moment shaped in part by the chance to openly and enthusiastically share his love for comics with others. Whether with his brothers or his friends as a boy, or, a few years later during adolescence, with the staff and customers of Glasgow’s various comic shops, Millar seems to have often adored those moments when comics were a shared, social pleasure as well as a personal one. It has, it appears, always been that way. His very first choices as a comics reader do seem to have been inspired by that very intersection between his personal and his public lives. On Twitter in June 2020, Millar recalled reading his “first Spider-Man comic” at a friend’s home in Townhead’s Deveron Street in 1976, and of being inspired to pick up the same title “a couple of weeks later”. This was presumably another influence over the choices Millar made during his own comic-reading “origin tale”, as we encountered in Chapter One, itself a memory of stories enjoyed in the company of others, namely, his brothers.
Being readily affordable and available in “every cornerstore”, these Marvel UK reprints were comics that Millar and his peers could readily access and share. (By contrast, the colour imports of American Marvel titles were as hen’s teeth in the Coatbridge newsagents of the age.) Yet it was an age in which comics were both a commonplace and a luxury. Pocket money, for the fortunate, might stretch to a new issue every week or three. But there was no hope of keeping up with even a fraction of a single week’s new crop of titles, let alone attempt to delve back into past editions, as Marvel UK’s continual references to old titles encouraged. (Since launching in 1972, the publisher had printed many hundreds of weekly titles, annuals, special editions and so on.) Every comic acquired, for a fledgling devotee, could serve as a reminder of all the many, many titles that were forever out of reach.
Friends and acquaintances could prove to be valuable components of any nascent comics fan’s pursuit of their hobby. Fascinations could be discussed and even acted out, unread issues could be accessed. For a few halcyon years in the later Seventies, Millar and his fellow classmates at St Bartholomew’s Primary School shared and expressed not just a love of comics, but of Marvel’s tales in particular. To the Lets Talk Comics podcast with Jim Viscardi in June 2014, Millar recalled playtime games at primary school in which an impressively knowledgeable group of peers adopted the identities of obscure as well as relatively well-known super-people. (Should a schoolmate not particularly want to take part, they could still be allocated identities such as The Watcher, Marvel’s mostly-silent alien observer, at a distance, of contemporary Earthly affairs.) As Millar enthused to Michael Diamond in 2012, “there was literally not a kid in my class who wasn’t into it. We were all very literate, looking back on it”.
Two TV promotional campaigns by Marvel UK were, Millar has recalled, particularly successful in snaring his fellows’ interest. The first was for the October 13th 1976 launch of Captain Britain, and the second for February 1978’s Star War Weekly. By the time the former aired, Millar had already lived with 1976’s Super Spider-Man With The Super-Heroes #171 and the death of Gwen Stacey for, most likely, several months. It would have been thoroughly exciting to see Marvel Comics anointed with the glamour of the TV screen, and sharing this enthusiasm with his peers must have been a joy. It’s hard not to suspect that the impact of Star Wars Weekly would have been even more substantial upon Millar’s young companions. Captain Britain was a brief-lived title, underwhelming and short-lived, featuring a previously-unknown patriotic-themed superhero who came with no cultural cache and left with very very little accrued. A comic book about the record-breaking science-fiction/fantasy movie had a far broader appeal than one featuring yet another Marvel superhero, and Star Wars was an unprecedently popular phenomenon. It had taken seven months for the movie to cross The Atlantic after its American premiere, but that only heightened, to say the very least, the anticipation for it in the United Kingdom. (Millar himself absolutely cherished Star Wars, if not the comic spin-off to any comparable degree, as we’ll soon have reason to discuss, and in 2013 told Metro that he still referred to the first three films in the franchise on a daily basis.)
Although Millar has never expressed any particular regard for the Captain Britain or Star Wars comics of the period, the campaigns that proclaimed their existence worked to his advantage, uniting and reuniting Millar’s ever-growing infatuation with comics with the everyday concerns of his friends. Other cultural flashpoints rooted in comicbooks, such as the cut-together arrival of the first few episodes of the American Spider-Man TV show in local cinemas during 1977 and 1978, also served to open conversations with his peers. As he wrote for Comic Book Resources in 2003, he was “obsessed by the Nicholas Hammond version of Spider-Man … The action seemed like John Woo, the budget seemed like “Pearl Harbor” and Nicholas Hammond brought Spidey to life like no-one else could manage”. All of this served as an example of how other media could amplify the appeal of comics beyond the latter’s dedicated readership, an art that Millar would later become a master of.
For a few years then, comicbooks were something that bound him to his immediate community rather than, to a lesser or greater degree, separating him from it.
To Millar’s often expressed regret, this era was relatively short-lived. As his primary school years ticked on, more and more of his peers, as we’ve discussed, lost their interest in comics, and Millar was left more and more alone in his hobby. By all accounts, it wasn’t that he became a lonesome child. To the contrary, every single source I can find has him down as popular and outgoing. He was happy at home. He appears to have loved school. He was, from the age of seven, a dedicated Alter Boy at St Bartholomew’s Catholic Church. He was, in short, successfully integrated into the various overlapping worlds that made up day-to-day life for a young boy in Townhead. But the link between his interior world as a comics fan and his everyday life with friends and family was to become more and more frayed.
As an adult professional, Millar would actively create situations in which a sense of a community with fellow comics lovers could be shared. This went far beyond interviews and appearances on editorial pages such as letter columns. On Usenet forums in the second half of the Nineties, at the very dawn of the net as a mass medium, Millar would offer up the likes of his ideal cast for a new Superman movie and encourage feedback. Yes, online was an ideal place to market himself and his work, but his willingness to discuss matters from genre preferences to contemporary politics went far beyond one dimensional salesmanship. From 2004 until 2019, he ran Millarworld, a considerable site in whose forums he could, while highlighting his various endeavours in and beyond comics, continue to chat about any number of topics. These, and many other examples we’ll examine, showed Millar at his most enthusiastic, heartily sharing his thoughts and feelings while ensuring, quite sensibly, that the essential business of promoting his career was attended to. Only with the surprisingly sudden closure of the Millarworld forums in 2019 and Millar’s retreat from Twitter in 2020 did he step back from such constant conversations.