Tradition & Change: a section of a new introduction to “Shameless? The Comics Of Mark Millar”.

1974’s Action Comics #425, cover by Nick Cardy et al. A prime & loving example of working class kids taking inspiration from super-people.

Having recently found myself writing, to my surprise, what appeared to be another introduction to “Shameless?”, I thought it might be helpful to get some perspective by posting part of this new section here on this blog. If you’ve stumbled upon this post, I hope that what follows makes some kind of sense and appears to be, to one degree or another, interesting:

Finally, on Twitter in 2011, Millar published this very short statement:

“I was born in (Coatbridge’s) Thornton Street.”

Which, given that he was Tweeting to a person with family still living in Thornton Street, and indeed family who’d known Millar as a boy, would tend to suggest that this, the simplest and most straight-forward of explanations, is the more accurate one. It may well be then that Millar wasn’t actually born in a monastery, surrounded by nuns and holy artefacts, or even a local maternity ward. Ockham’s Razor would suggest so, although, it might be added, that doesn’t mean that any of these explanations are entirely true or false. In the conversational shorthand of Twitter, to be “born” at home can easily mean “I was born elsewhere but came home to Thornton Street and lived there”. Yet, a homebirth is a plausible hypothesis, if nothing more. Mark Millar was his parent’s sixth child. Even though it had been fourteen years since his mother had brought Millar’s brother Bobby into the world, her experience of childbirth might well have meant that the comfort and familiarity of a loving family home was very much the best place for her.

Or perhaps not. For our purposes, the point isn’t that Millar’s stories here seem incompatible with one another. We all have memories, and anecdotes shaped from them, that might struggle to stand up in each other’s company, let alone in court. Rather, these stories sketch out how Millar has depicted himself over the years. For one of the most vital components of Mark Millar’s success has been the character, ever-changing and yet always familiar, that he’s created of himself.                         

                                                                                ***

Of the actual date of Millar’s birth, there’s never been the slightest hint of confusion. To have arrived in the world on Christmas Eve 1969 was, for Millar, a considerable layer of icing to add to the incalculable good fortune of having been born in the place and time that he was. Enthusing in 2021, he declared that he simply loved having a Birthday on “Dec 24th”. Others sharing his birthdate might bemoan the closeness on each year’s calendar of Christmas, and with it, the possibility that its celebrations might subsume more personal landmarks. That wasn’t even so, it seems, for Millar in his earliest years, who believed, up until or around his turning seven, “that all the Christmas lights up in (the) streets were for my birthday”. By his own account, Millar was “massively indulged” as a boy who had arrived long after his siblings, which might account for something of his endearingly grandiose sense of the season’s public decorations.

As is the way with Millar, he’s enjoyed putting the moment of his appearance into the world on the final Christmas Eve of the Sixties into the context of the age’s popular culture. Beginning at nine o’clock on TV during the hour of Millar’s arrival was, on the commercial-carrying STV channel, the joyfully vulgar Carry On Christmas. With a considerably less pleasant measure of coincidence, convicted sex offender Rolf Harris’s twee Two Little Boys was the UK’s number 1 single at the same time, as Millar’s sister discovered to her dismay in 2019 when she sent off for the top 45” of Christmas 1969 as a birthday present for him. Had Millar been more interested in music beyond his beloved “Dad rock” 70s bands such as ELO and Queen, he might also have considered the presence of The Beatles’ Abbey Road at the head of the album charts at end of 1969 as a symbolically significant coincidence. As Iain MacDonald wrote in Revolution In The Head, “the extent to which The Beatles and the Sixties were symbiotic is difficult to imagine”. Now both were, appropriately, over, even if The Beatles’ demise stretched out into the Seventies for a few months yet. Mark Millar was to be very much a child of the new decade, and not just by the obvious happenstance of his birth, but by the lasting and immeasurable influence of the period’s events and culture upon his convictions and his taste.

We are all strongly and enduringly shaped by our earliest years, of course. But in Mark Millar’s case, this has proved to be especially true. His loyalty to the world of his childhood, its fundamental values and everyday habits, its deeply-grounded traditions and longstanding community institutions, is adamantine. Even into his sixth decade, Millar’s work remains rooted in his experiences in predominantly working class and strongly Catholic Coatbridge during the Seventies and the first half of the Eighties. To take but the single matter of his sense of humour, a 2013 Spectator interview with Peter Hoskins saw Millar responding to the accusation that he produced work that was “a little bit, y’know, puerile”:

“I feel my tastes haven’t changed tremendously since I was 15. What made me smile then makes me smile now.”

It’s a point he also made to Edmond Gross in the same year, albeit one made in a far broader context:

“I don’t think I’ve really changed that much from being about 15 to now.”

But on a fundamental level, as Millar explained to Alison Rowan in 2015, his “personality was formed” by the age of seven, when he was already “into Sherlock Holmes, superheroes, Star Trek, so I was never going to be a ned”.

The implication is that Millar’s broad range of fantastical interests helped to cancel out any disastrously sybaritic temptations. Detectives, costumed crimefighters and spacemen: they filled up the hours that might otherwise inspire a derailing sense of boredom, meaninglessness, alienation and misanthropy, while they also helped propel Millar forward to a tomorrow where he could make a life from the raw stuff of pop culture. To be a Buckfast-swilling, anti-social, convention-scorning loafer and lout was thereby an option closed off in part thanks to fantastical fiction. In that, genre fiction helped underscore the lessons imparted hour-upon-hour by his family and local community. Accordingly, the likes of Superman and Spider-Man served as moral anchors and inspirations, as Millar underscored to Abraham Riesman in 2013 when responding to the suggestion that the idea of the superhero was “fundamentally fucked up”: 

“Actually quite the opposite. I actually think the superhero is the ultimate in human aspiration. It’s brilliant. I think as a kid, it’s the best role model you can possibly have.”

At first glance, it’s something of a remarkable comment for a lifelong Catholic and Socialist to make. But in other moments, Millar has discussed how the figure of Jesus has informed his understanding of Superman, his favourite superhero. The suggestion is that a well-informed and productive take on the Man Of Steel expresses the experiences of Christ while on his Earthly mission to First Century Palestine. This is not to confuse the Son of God with the Last Son Of Krypton. But it is to suggest that the world of super-people was understood by the young Millar as an expression of the same fundamental values as those he encountered in the home, at school and in Church. As such, Millar’s taste in stories provided far more than life-enriching entertainment and absorption. In combination with the social, political and religious worlds that Millar moved in, the likes of Superman and Spider-Man were lent singular weight as ethical exemplars. As such, to consider his own tales of super-spies and super-crimebusters and super-spacemen in isolation as fictions and nothing but is to miss the vital contexts that originally lent them much of their authority and appeal.

In 2004, for example, Millar spelt out how his understanding of Superman remains intrinsically and vitally informed by his Catholicism. The relationship between religion and comics, which had, presumably, been taken for granted during his childhood had in the intervening years become a consciously worked-through association:

“… Superman shouldn’t be married to Lois. It’s just stupid. It makes no sense and destroys the whole dynamic. Superman is God, Jor-El is the Holy Spirit and Clark Kent is Jesus. The Kents are Mary and Joseph and Lois is Mary Magdalene.”

None of this is to suggest that Millar has deliberately and painstakingly created a Gnostic fusion of politics, religion and heroic fiction, although these are clearly matters that he’s dedicated considerable thought to. But it is to suggest that the various, key, and acknowledged components of Millar’s worldview aren’t, and never have been, strictly compartmentalised one from the other. His socialism and his Christianity, for example, aren’t in any way held to be in serious conflict with each other. Instead, they appear to be part and parcel of the same underlying and numinous truths. And so, despite the convictions of those who saw comics, and in particular American titles, as morally corrupting and intellectually enfeebling, Millar’s boyhood love for fictional super-people of all stripes appears to have reinforced rather than undermined his Catholic and working class values. Indeed, the more Millar’s own recollections and conclusions are encountered, the more it’s suggested that his character and creativity are grounded in a precisely, if accidentally, calibrated and delicately interwoven latticework of childhood influences and experiences. Rather than rotting his brain and perverting his morals, comics and their kin have actively helped Millar to be even more committed to traditional values. Or so his words strongly suggest.

If his success as a storyteller is indeed so rooted, then anything less than a continued fealty on Millar’s part to the path long laid down would be as disrespectful as it is, potentially, destabilising. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that Millar has, for example, held onto “a surreal and gruesome sense of humour”, as his once-friend, colleague and mentor Grant Morrison described it in 2011, a gleeful, prankstering, iconoclastic and sometimes cruel wit that rejects the twilight existence of the so-labelled Neds without opting instead for comfortable and inoffensive social conformity. What Hoskins saw as “puerile”, therefore, can also be seen as a vital everyday component of the world that Millar grew up in. It’s all part and parcel, in the words of Millar’s once-mentor and friend Grant Morrison, of a deep-rooted cultural tradition to be found in the “working-class West of Scotland”, a “black humour” that’s a single aspect of a common identity, to which Millar added as he grew, quite organically, the omnipresent and transformative thrills of fantastical fiction. It’s to that culture, and its various interdependent components, from the everyday business of how and why jokes are made to its most crucial building blocks of life-and-death principle, that Millar has always expressed loyalty to.

In Millar’s recollections, the content of heroic genre fiction meshed perfectly with five other fundamental influences upon his youthful development, namely, family, community, class, church, and nation. Each complimented, and still compliments, the other, and, as approached from Millar’s particular perspective, each is strengthened by the other’s presence. To these six factors, Millar’s public remembrances return over and over again. Together, he’s often reasoned, they provided him not just with a lasting moral framework, as vital as that undoubtedly is, but also with the perfect psychological hinterland for a storyteller’s career. Without them, his writing would lack an essential and invigorating degree of individuality that sets it apart from his competitors.

” I think your writing has an accent a little bit too, and the thing that makes my stuff a little bit different … is that I come from Coatbridge.”

And if Millar’s past has lent him a distinct perspective based on his upbringing, then it also fired him up with determination and confidence. As he explained to Tony Dann in 2022:

“if you come from a tiny place, it’s kind of a big deal, you’re the guy who can play the guitar or you’re the guy who’s good at drawing Batman. You see, you kind-of have this confidence: I’m the best at this … it’s only later you hit the adult world and you think, oh no, I’m not at all. But by that time, I was so imbued with confidence from growing up, so, surprisingly, you do well”.

Growing up in Coatbridge, according to Millar, lent his work a winning idiosyncratic texture while infusing him with a degree of optimism that little could lastingly dent. Next to those key advantages, growing up in “New York or London or somewhere like that” might well have resulted in a homogenous style and an unhelpfully bruised ego. Whatever the immediate circumstances of his birth, Mark Millar has always appeared absolutely convinced that he arrived in the right place at the right time to the very best people. The result was an individual blessed with every advantage necessary to make it as a comics writer bar experience and opportunity. No matter how hard the times or how challenging events, his upbringing has proved, in matters small and great, massively beneficial. Of the skills of his chosen trade and the chance to learn how to practise it, however, Millar would have to provide for himself.

2.

But if we are to accept Millar as a great traditionalist, then we also need to see him in the light of a lifelong iconoclast who, in word and deed, has often been anything but a disciple of orthodoxy. For just as Millar has remained fiercely loyal to the world of his upbringing, he’s also displayed a singular understanding of the things that he’s remained loyal to. From this seeming contradiction has come much of his work’s uniqueness and power, as well as, inevitably, much that has made it, at least for some, both baffling and contentious.

(Continued, in the pages of Shameless? The Comicbook Stories Of Mark Millar”.)

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