Mark Millar’s Childhood TV Favourites: “SHAMELESS?: THE COMICS OF MARK MILLAR”

1.

In order to break up the text of Shameless? and, periodically, to give readers a little breathing space, in addition to hopefully providing a measure of fun too, the book’s chapters are broken up by what I’ve called interludes, or short pieces on different aspects of Mark Millar’s tastes and experiences. It’s amazing how many stray facts you can collect when you’re working on a book, from the seemingly trivial to the entirely pertinent: favourite comics and films, novels and bands: the shops where Millar bought comics in various parts of Scotland as a lad, from Coatbridge to Ayr to Glasgow: the classes and lectures he doodled superheroes during, and the characters he drew: famous people in Millar stories and Millar as a character in other people’s tales: familiar pop culture cameos from Red Razors to Wanted to Secret Service: comic cons, unsold proposals, favourite tropes: the miscellanea can appear never-ending. It seems a shame to let this great mass of material go to waste.

For a time I was unsure whether I wanted to go with these interludes. But by chance reading a decades-old and worn-through copy of Rolling Stone from March 5th 1981, I came across this, which made me smile:

As far as ephinaies go, it wasn’t exactly a tumble-from-my-donkey moment. But it did confirm my feeling that lists can be a valid, and enjoyable, way of presenting information. Yes, some of that detail may come across as being inconsequential, as in the above, but it all has its own story to tell in one way or another. What’s more, Millar himself has always been fond of a good list, as he showed in a recent and fascinatingly lengthy newsletter while discussing his favourite comics from a five year stretch five years during the Eighties. Or as here, from a Tweet in 2017, where he lists his favourite big screen performances of Batman:

1. Adam West.

2. Michael Keaton.

3. Val Kilmer.

4. Ben Affleck.

5. Christian Bale.

6. George Clooney. (*)

We will soon to return to the matter of screen Batmans below.

(* Long a keen advocate for Robert Pattinson landing the role, I suspect, giving hostage to fortune, Millar would now amend the above to place RB in or around third or fourth place.)

2.

As an example of how much apparently tangental material a writer can end up collecting during month after month after month of research, here’s the raw material for one of these afore-mentioned interludes from early on in Shameless?, namely, the TV shows that Millar’s spoken fondly of watching during his childhood. He’s mentioned a great many of them, and a straight-forward list of them would in itself be a considerable one. What follows is a glance at my notes summarising what I know about just four of those often-mentioned series. Sometimes such notes provide material for the main body of the book. And sometimes they just sit on the page, as if waiting to put to use. Which seems abit of shame. (I’m posting photos below, but space and licensing costs will, by the very nature of things, prevent that happening in Shameless? itself.)

1. Glen Michael’s Cartoon Cavalcade.

Long a household name in Scotland, actor, entertainer, producer, writer and presenter Glen Michael hosted his STV children’s show Cartoon Cavalcade for 26 years from 1966 to 1992. (At its height, it’s reported, the show could draw more Scottish viewers than did live broadcasts of the European Cup Final.) It’s a programme that Millar has often and fondly associated with happy Sunday afternoons in front of the family TV. Even today, Cartoon Cavalcade remains so engrained in his memory that he can still immediately tell the difference between photographs of the three different dogs named Rusti who succeeded one another on screen.

Amongst many other regular and one-off features, Cartoon Cavalcade presented, over the years, a refreshingly broad variety of animated features, including, to name but a few, Asterix, Tintin, Dynomutt and the Blue Falcon, and BirdMan. Shows from Eastern Europe might mingle with more familiar fare from America and the UK. In particular, the crudely animated and yet strangely charming 1967-70 Spider-Man cartoons made their UK debut on Michael’s show, which, for all their faults, left something of an impression on Millar. Their endearingly simplified version of Peter Parker’s crime-fighting costume remains, he’s said, one that he’s particularly fond of.

For a young boy fascinated by superheroes and keen to experience them in any medium, Cartoon Cavalcade was, even beyond its many other virtues, a godsend.

Glen Michael and Mark Millar in the autumn of 2009.

For the 2010 movie of Kick-Ass, Millar asked Michael to play a cameo role, but the Elstree-shot scene unfortunately landed on the cutting room floor. Gracefully, the 84 year old Michael explained to Ricky Fulton of The Daily Record that he’d never actually expected to appear in the movie. “I think it was a gesture”, he was reported as saying, “I think they were trying to make me feel like a real star. I had a trailer which was as big as a coach”. It would be impossible to believe that Millar played no decisive part in that sincere expression of respect.

2. ABC’s Batman (1966-68)

Adam West’s portrayal of Batman debuted in January 1966 on America’s ABC network, but Scottish viewers had to wait until May of the same year to see the show. Millar, who suffered the inconvience of not being born until Christmas Eve 1969, first caught the show in repeats during the early Seventies. 16 years into the 21st century, Millar was still describing West as his “fav Batman ever”. With even more passion, he’d Tweeted in 2015 that “No other Batman can touch the hem of West’s cape”. Three years later and Millar explained that West’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne was the only one he ever “loved”.

Upon the death of West in 2017, Millar wrote:

“My first hero as a kid was Adam West’s Batman. Before Bond, Flash Gordon & even Superman he was the guy I wanted to be when I grew up.”

It’s hard to pin down with any precision the year in which Millar first saw the ABC live-action show. But it was presumably prior to 1977, when, as Millar’s explained, the presence of the familiar voices of Adam West and Burt Ward sold him on The New Adventures Of Batman cartoon series: “My seven year old ear pricked up like a radar”, as he described his first encounter with the show.

That Nicolas Cage opted to pay a sincere homage to West’s Batman in his performance of Big Daddy in 2010’s Kick-Ass clearly delighted Millar. It was, he told Simon Reynolds, “pure genius”. And when, during the promo campaign for Kick-Ass, Cage and West faced off against each other over their knowledge of Batman on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Millar’s sense of delight must have been right off the scale. How had he set into motion events that brought this about, he may well have wondered? And how could he ever, given the impossible opportunity that fantastical fiction about time travel often beguils us with, explain all of this to his 6 year old self?

3. Star Trek (1966-69)

To most fans of the original Star Trek, or so it often seems, the key characters in the 1966-69 show are the “classic troika” of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. For the young Millar, it was Lieutenant Commander Uhura who stood out from the ensemble cast. At the age of four, as he’s frequently said, Nicole Nichols, who played Uhura, was the focus of one of Millar’s first crushes. (Other early screen loves of the period included Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, Penelope Pitstop from Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races, & singer Marilyn McCoo from the group The Fifth Dimension.) Indeed, in terms of references to the show’s cast, Millar’s key senior Starfleet officers are Uhura, Kirk, and, from a long way back in the pecking order, Spock. References to Doctor McCoy are, by contrast, quite rare.

As time has passed, playful and joyous references to William Shatner and, often, his portrayal of James Tiberius Kirk, have cropped up more and more in Millar’s comments. Crossing the fan-streams in 2012, Millar wrote that he “wished Adam West was running for President this year with Shatner as his running mate”. By contrast, in 2014’s The Secret Service, Millar had the nefarious Dr Arnold refer to his kidnapped prisoner Shatner as “an interesting guy” who finds the imminent culling of five billion people intriguing rather than upsetting. Alone amongst a mountain-full of imprisoned celebrities, only Shatner, we’re given to accept, is able to consider Arnold’s apocalyptic intentions with an absence of squeamishness. That particular version of Shatner is probably not, therefore, to be considered Vice-Presidential material in anything bar the most extreme of circumstances.

From 2014’s The Secret Service, by Mark Millar with Matthew Vaughan, Dave Gibbons, Andy Lanning & Angus McKie.

Even when repeated in the context of the Seventies and early Eighties, Star Trek seemed a far more attractive prospect to Millar than homegrown TV science fiction series such as Doctor Who. (It was only with the debut of Russell T. Davis’ 2004 reboot of Who that Millar first watched a full episode of the show: “Rose” and its successor episodes would make a fan of the previously doubting Millar. Prior to that, it appears, the closest Millar came to Who fandom was a teenage mid-80s affection for Nicola Bryant, who, from 1984-86, starred as the Doctor’s companion Perri Brown. Presumably that came from seeing her photo in the likes of the daily papers and the UK’s SF magazine Starlog, which Millar has spoken of warmly, albeit it without reference to the mid-Eighties.)

Part of Millar’s preference for Star Trek TOS was the romance of American shows on British screens. The glamour of America for British culture during much of the 20th century is never to be under-estimated, and, as Millar’s often said, even working class and pronouncedly left wing households such as his own could still be touched, and in turn challenged, by the seductive power of popular American culture. Yet even more important still was Star Trek’s relatively substantial production values. For many, and I will admit to being in their number, the original show made many UK-produced fantastical shows look desperately cheap and, as a result, unconvincing. (Of those Gerry & Sylvia Anderson shows from the Seventies which did look at the very least as expensively convincing as the first Star Trek, such as UFO & Space 1999, Millar has made, to my knowledge, little if no reference at all.)

Perhaps suprisingly, Millar has to this day never watched any of the Star Trek’s many other TV sequels, although he does seem to have seen and enjoyed The Wrath Of Khan during the Eighties. (If he saw it on the big screen, he would’ve had to have watched it somewhere other than Coatbridge, for the ABC, the town’s last cinema, had closed at the start of 1983 and been converted into a snooker club.) But Millar has recently reported watching the 1973 animated Star Trek show with his two youngest daughters. Some of its episodes were, he wrote with every sign of both surprise and enthusiasm, “brilliant”. Millar would also speak highly of the 21st century’s “Kelvin Universe” Star Trek movies and speak particularly fondly of the first and, especially, the third of them. They were, of course, still about Uhura and her fellow senior officers. As of writing this, it still seems highly probable that Millar has yet to watch a single episode of Trek that doesn’t feature James T. Kirk.

4. Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and its sequels (1980-94)

While Millar has discussed his past taste in comics in some depth, the roots of his clear fascination for what we might, for sake of brevity, classify as Fortean thinking have been less clearly spelled out. From The Saviour to The Magic Order, an awareness of, if not a fealty towards, status quo-challenging world-views unpins much of Millar’s writing. Yet the picture of how he developed such interests over time is a relatively vague one.

Still, that’s part of what Shameless? is about, namely, the picture of himself and his work that Mark Millar has, intentionally or not, given. As such, an unclear progression in terms of influences is every bit a portrait of his engagement with the broader public as a crystal clear road map of influences would be.

In this light, or lack of it, I’ve long wondered whether the young Millar ever saw Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, a documentary series whose first season of thirteen 25-minute episodes arrived in September 1980. With a profound sense of seriousness, and with all of Clarke’s august authority as a serious scientific thinker, the show discussed topics from UFOs to lake monsters and the Tunguska Event. The perfect programme of introductory seminars for a young man who’d go on to be an action/adventure comic book writer, you might imagine.

Arthur C. Clarke introducing “Have We Lived Before” from 1985’s Mysterious World Of Powers.

In 2020, Millar Tweeted that “the show still stands up” and that the “reincarnation episode (is) amazing”. (Which, I would add, having recently seen it myself, is an undeniably fair description.) That sounded at first glance like confirmation that Millar had seen the programme as a boy. But to say it “still stands up” isn’t to definitively confirm that Millar watched the show from the off in 1980. Indeed it could have been seen anytime since. And given that the reincarnation episode comes from the 1985 series entitled Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, the picture of what was seen and when becomes all the mistier. Perhaps Millar just saw a single episode in 1985. Perhaps he saw on Youtube decades later.

Very often, what seems like an interesting lead merely muddies the picture further. But better that, of course, than suggesting that the journey from X to Y is a straight-forward and easily depicted one. Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World may be a small part of a great gumbo of influences upon one absolutely key aspect of Millar’s life and career. But then again, it very much may not.

There will be another post about Shameless? in a few weeks time.

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