As many readers learned last week here at Newsarama, writer Mark Millar’s low-public profile over the last six months wasn’t just about catching up on work. Millar revealed a scary episode in his life that’s greatly affected his outlook on all manner of things, including his work. And with his mega-Marvel summer event with artist Steve McNiven - Civil War - just around the corner, Millar is ready to return to the public eye and one of his first stops is here with us.
In this Part One of our two-part, two-day in-depth interview (his first in many months), Millar talks in-depth about the disease that has slowed him down the last few years; his outlook on the future of not only his own life and work, but the future of the comic book industry; and making amends with DC Comics. And along with today’s Part One, Marvel has provided the Internet premier of the first seven pages of Civil War #1, which we’ll speak with Millar in-depth about in Tuesday's Part Two…
Newsarama: Mark, since it’s been sometime since you’ve talked at length with the press, let's start out talking about some of your more personal issues and work our way into the comic books. When last week we announced your resigning with Marvel exclusively through 2008, you mentioned combating Crohn's Disease the last six months. If you don't mind talking about it, can you explain to readers what it is for those not familiar?
Mark Millar: Sure. Crohn’s is basically an intestinal disorder that’s entirely down to genetics. There were a couple of people in my family with it so I knew how serious it was immediately. My brother had the last rites and has had several ops and my uncle died as a result of complications. So I knew it wasn’t good news.
In simple terms, it’s your intestines eating themselves and there’s, broadly speaking, two types. The first is that you spend your life in the bathroom. The second is that your blood-results are all over the place, your organs get poisoned and you hurt from head to toe. I fall into the latter category and this is why it was so hard to diagnose for a long time because these inflammatory markers can indicate anything from cancer to multiple sclerosis. I spent what felt like months in MRI machines and so on, but it wasn’t until I ‘fessed up to Marvel and told them how sick I was that I had a definite diagnosis.
I really have to hand it to Ike (Marvel’s CEO). He was absolutely brilliant and had me on the next First Class flight to New York where he had some of the best doctors in the world shoving cameras up my bum. We work in a very competitive industry and I didn’t want to let them know I’d been sick at all, but their reaction was amazing - totally unexpected and incredibly generous. I had a couple of small ops and am now on a strict regime of steroids and a transplant drug called Imuran. The steroids really puff you up, though. That’s my only real complaint. My wife’s friends said I was starting to look like David Brent, hence the reason my old goatee was removed almost overnight. The cheeky buggers...
NRAMA: How has it affected your life and your work?
MM: Well, the past year has seen a slow and steady recovery. I know I can flare up again at any point (and often do), but I’m getting a little stronger every day and I feel I’m starting to manage the condition at last. They think it probably started in my twenties and has just gradually been getting worse, the first big flare-up being in February 2001 where I spent almost every week in hospital without anyone really knowing what the Hell was going on.
In terms of work, I’ve obviously taken some time off, but have still been dabbling and constantly tweaking and rewriting Civil War. It’s a colossal project, by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and probably couldn’t have happened at a more difficult time. But I’m taking a quiet satisfaction from the fact that I’m still alive at the end of it.
NRAMA: In addition to physical, how about your mental outlook?
MM: Surprisingly positive, given that the very nature of the disease means a lot of pain and a shortened lifespan. But I remember all the guys I met in the various clinics throughout this period and two of them are dead so I feel incredibly lucky. I remember when I got my diagnosis I was taken to this little room and a very grave doctor actually sat a box of tissues in front of me before he told me. But I wasn’t that bothered. Oddly, after all the tests I had, it didn’t seem too bad and I knew that there was a very good chance I’d live for quite a long time.
I’ve got a brilliant wife, a beautiful kid, a great family I’m very close to, a big circle of cracking pals and a job I’ve wanted to do since I was five. I genuinely look forward to sitting down at that computer and love the people I work with. Not a lot of people can say that so it’s churlish to complain about one thing going wrong. Sure, I’m in a lot of pain, but - not to get all Disney on you - I really do count my blessings.
The only thing that does chill me is when I see a little box I have in my study. I was told to put this together and it contains details of all my insurance policies, all my copyrights, the numbers for my agent, my attorney, and the guys at Marvel, and so on. It sounds morbid, I know, but I was told to do this because I have a wife and daughter to think of and anything can happen. It’s a little eerie to see it sitting there beside my Superman Archives and my Essential Avengers. It really does hammer home how serious it all is, but I refuse to let it get in the way of me living my life, to answer your original question.
NRAMA: What is the outlook for the future, more specifically? This isn’t something doctors can cure, right? Can only treat? What happens from here on in?
MM: Well, Crohn’s, unfortunately, is a condition. It’s like diabetes in the sense that you can only manage it and hope for the best as opposed to being cured by a vaccination or an operation. That said, there’s amazing work being done and I probably couldn’t have found a better time to develop a life-threatening disease. A Professor at St George’s Hospital in London has made amazing progress on a vaccine that may be an outright cure in as little as eighteen months. Like all hospitals, they’re under-funded and need cash to bring the human trials forward. In the tradition of the great Steve Rogers, I’ve volunteered to let them do anything they want and I’m also trying to raise a little money for them to bring this stuff forward. Details are posted at my website for anyone interested in donating or with a relative who might just get a little hope from reading about the new developments. Just follow the link and be prepared for a lot of big words.
[C’mon Newsarama readers, let’s how the kind of support only our community can]
NRAMA: When you first announced you were taking time off, you didn’t say what the problem was. Any reason for outing yourself as a Crohn’s sufferer now?
MM: In all honesty, the reason I said nothing at first is that Crohn’s is a little embarrassing. I was quite content to just say I was sick and take six months off. Most people respected that and I didn’t think anyone outside my little inner-circle needed to know the details. What floored me, though, is that a couple of industry pros (one of whom I’d never met) had started a whispering campaign that I had AIDS and telling people that, as a result, my wife had left me and other absolutely mental stuff that would make your toes curl. I honestly couldn’t believe this, but it was coming back from other pros and even readers they’d written to over a period of time. I’ve only seen one of them so far and his honest-to-God excuse for this - and other weird things he’d been spreading - was that, in his words, he was “envious of my sales”. It was absolutely disgusting and so I guess I just wanted to set the record straight because God knows how many other people have been told this.
But this really was just one bad experience in an otherwise life-affirming time when I had so many amazing messages and cards from people in the industry. Guys I’d never met or people I’d spoken to for just five minutes at cons were emailing or sending flowers. It was actually amazing and made me feel very warm and cozy about the biz. People I hadn’t seen in years sent their best and, as crass as it sounds, all the messages of support I had here and on other boards genuinely made a difference. I always used to think these things were a waste of time and kind of scoffed at strangers doing this kind of thing. But it really does help. When you’re feeling like shit, there’s honestly nothing nicer than pages and pages of people wishing you the best. So thanks very much for that, Newsarama people. This board in particular had some brilliant messages and every one was read and appreciated.
NRAMA: So what is it like to have a camera inserted your nether regions? I mean jeez, talk about home movies you can embarrass your kids with. You have the ultimate trump card to keep 'em in line when they get older, eh?
MM: I have the whole thing on DVD. It’s brilliant. Sadly, the DVD isn't the early tests where they shove a camera down your throat (truly horrible) and another up your bum. That would look too much like robot porn, I think …the kind of thing the Terminator and the wee guy from Short Circuit 2 would get off on.
No, what I have is a DVD of what’s called a capsule endoscopy. This is a pill-camera that literally takes 50,000 pictures as it winds its way around your intestines and beams the whole thing onto a computer. I watch it regularly and it looks a lot like the opening credits of Dr Who. Maybe I’ll bring it to the next con and we can have it playing behind me as I sign comics at the Marvel booth.
NRAMA: That will certainly draw a crowd…by next year’s cons those guys who sell the 1970’s Star War Christmas Special and the Justice League Live Action pilot on DVD will probably be selling bootlegs…
So you've been keeping a very low profile since last year, even on your own website and the first stages of Civil War marketing. But for the foreseeable future, you plan of keeping your profile up, perhaps take back some of the press from those Quesada, Bendis, and DiDio guys?
MM: Definitely. I love the net. I think it’s an invaluable tool and Internet promotion should not just be left to my follicly-challenged friends. It's also been a great way of keeping tabs on the industry while I've been out of the loop for a little while. I'm genuinely exciting by a lot of things happening right now both in comics and cinema. Like everyone else, I'm losing my mind over Superman and even X-Men 3. My friend Joe Ahearne (director of all the best Doctor Who episodes last year) and I were actually just discussing how [Brett] Ratner might really surprise everyone. Red Dragon is such a perfectly made movie and we were marveling at how much information he gets across in the opening eight minutes. He's a very slick director and his heart's in the right place so fingers crossed.
In terms of comics, I don't think we've seen both companies trying so hard since the mid-80s heyday of Moore and Miller. Brian (Bendis), Jeph (Loeb), JMS, and all the guys at Marvel are doing the best work of their careers. I'm enjoying the Johns and Rucka stuff I actually wrote them fan mail on my time-out. It was great just having the time so sit and read all the Rucka issues of Wonder Woman in a single sitting and Infinite Crisis just proves Geoff Johns is the jewel in DC's crown. It's a great time to be a geek and a little time away has only reminded me how much I love this stuff.
NRAMA: Now you've re-upped with Marvel exclusively through mid 2008. You touched on why last week, but anything to add? Is it the characters? The creative environment? The support they showed you regarding your health? The numbers of zeroes on your checks?
MM: It’s a combination of all of the above. Sure, the pay is great and I’m being paid to do something I’d essentially do for free. But I genuinely like the people. I remember sending everyone an email after our last creative summit and saying how great it was looking around a huge table with maybe 40 people and getting along with everyone. Nobody was a jerk and there’s not many jobs where you feel like that. Even in comics, it’s unusual for everyone to get along as well as we do and the Bullpen atmosphere Joe [Quesada] encourages up there is kind of the way you hoped or wished it was when Stan was running the show back in the 60s.
Also, I can’t stress how tied to Marvel I feel after they basically saved my life. It’s hard to say to someone that you’re off to do Superman now after they’ve literally snatched you from the jaws of death.
However, the honest truth is that I’m just jazzed about the job. I’ve had a good run of books there withUltimates, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Ultimates 2, Ultimate X-Men, Civil War and 1985. I’m quite pleased with most of what I’ve written for the company lately, but feel Civil War is the beginning of a whole new phase for me. I had a slight sense of getting better as a writer in the months before I started Ultimates 2,Wolverine and Ultimate FF. I could feel it in my bones in the same way I did prior to starting Ultimates. I don’t know if it’s the time off or just getting technically better at my job, but I really can’t wait to see what people make of the new stuff. Civil War is going to surprise a lot of people.
NRAMA: Last week you were very complimentary to DC and hinted you've become "friends again"...First of all, not to rehash the past, but for newer readers out there, can you give the Reader's Digest version of your recent history with DC?
MM: Sure. I’d worked one and off at DC in the 90s, but didn’t know what I was doing. What I consider to be the start of my career was a modest success calledSuperman Adventures back in 1999, but my first real hit was The Authority in 2000 and this caused a lot of friction between management and me. It was a hot book, but they didn’t like it at all and I just blew up at all the changes they both wanted me to make and which they made themselves. That’s the situation in a reader-friendly nutshell.
NRAMA: So what has changed, and why?
MM: Well, the nice thing about some time off sick (besides catching up on all the comics and the DVD box-sets you’ve been meaning to watch) is that you get a little moment to catch your breath. And one thing that really struck me, as I started to recover, was how unprofessionally I behaved towards them. I was genuinely embarrassed when I thought about it and so just called Paul [Levitz] up and apologized.
Likewise, Scott Dunbier over at Wildstorm who had been nothing but a great supporter of what we were doing and who really fought our corner. If a publisher doesn’t want to do a certain kind of material, a freelancer can only politely resign and go elsewhere. One freelancer shouldn’t try and take on a company and berate them for not doing what he wants. It’s ridiculous. And this really struck me with the benefit if hindsight so I did what I hope was the decent thing and just apologized to them a couple of weeks back. They were incredibly nice about it and I feel much more comfortable being on good terms with them because I always got along with them personally.
Being sick also teaches you life is too short for bullshit and petty hates. It’s just nonsense and I was glad they accepted my apology. I wanted to wait until I’d signed my new Marvel deal just so they’d be clear I wasn’t doing this to get a big contract or use them as leverage as Marvel. I signed with Marvel shortly before Christmas, but waited a few months before I gave them a call and explained it was entirely for personal reasons. The Authority debacle happened right in the middle of all the February 2001 cancer tests. That’s my only excuse because it really is quite unlike me to fly off the handle like that. But it's really no excuse. I would never have treated Marvel like that if they had a problem with content and I shouldn't have done it with DC.
NRAMA: Aside from this friendly vibe in what's shaping up to be a very good time for the industry in general, will there be any tangible ramifications of this new relationship with DC?
MM: Not especially. I like a lot of what they’re doing at the moment and can only be inspired when the competition is pulling out all the stops. Like I said, they’ve had a good little run, but I’m back and have a dirty great monster to unleash upon them this summer with Civil War. I might be friends with them again, but I’m still a competitive bugger (laughs).
NRAMA: What would you place the odds of perhaps seeing you on a DC book come later 2008 or 2009? 10? 25? 50%?
MM: Honestly, one thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that God laughs when he hears people making plans.
NRAMA: Too true…okay, just for sake of fun discussion, if you had to choose one DC title or character to write today, who would it be? The aforementioned guy with the big, red "S" on his chest, which would likely be the expected response from all circles?
MM: Well, Hitch and I have made no secret of our desire to do Superman, but the timing obviously isn’t right for the kind of thing we want to do. We talk about it a lot, but it’s interesting how we talk more about Marvel stuff now. Something weird seems to have shifted and we’ve really fallen in love with these characters. The book we’re doing after Ultimates 2 probably takes up about 90% of our conversations right now. We’ve known about this for 18-24 months and we’re only just starting to work on it, but we’re as excited now as we were during the first phone call. Details should be forthcoming towards the end of the year, but the end of Millarworld One and the Millarworld Phase Two stuff has to come first. I'll also talk a little about this tomorrow.
NRAMA: You also mentioned this being an exceptional year for comics. In what sense?
MM: C’mon, are you kidding? DC is getting their act together big-time and Marvel is going to be completely revamped by Civil War. This will happen right across the board and affect the Marvel Universe for the next five or ten years. I know everybody says this, but this is the one time it’s actually true. If I knew this was going to happen when I started page one I’m not sure I’d have gotten involved. It’s a huge undertaking and a huge responsibility. But if Civil War #2, for example, isn’t the most talked-about Marvel comic since the 1960s, then may Allah strike me down. You’ll see what I mean in a couple of months.
NRAMA: We’re just thankful you didn’t make a “Internet in half” joke… those are so 2005…
All right, before we talk about your titles specifically, let's talk some more about the current climate in general. Now clearly things like House of M, and Infinite Crisis, and One Year Later are registering at the cash register - if you allow us our attempt at being clever - and by our observation readers seem genuinely excited and interested in these stories, but how long can the publishers keep this pace up do you think?
MM: I think we’re just in one of those defining periods, much like the mid 80s. Both companies are doing books (Crisis at DC and Civil War at Marvel) that are setting their characters up for the next generation. That’s not something you can repeat every year. I have ideas of where we can go from here, but you can only reinvent the wheel so many times.
I don’t think the next wave of crossovers will be as ambitious as what we’re doing right now. It’s impossible and would look silly if something this big happened again next year. But there’s plenty of stories that could come out of here and I’m certain sales will continue to climb. After all, Watchmen, Dark Knight, McFarlane’s Spidey and Jim Lee’s X-Men all sold more than Crisis and Secret Wars. I think the same thing will happen with post Civil War Marvel.
I think we’ll see a third and fourth quarter like we haven’t seen in a decade and then 2007 will be even bigger (I know what Jeph, Brokebank Bendis and JMS have planned). The numbers are already in on Civil War’s first issue and I’ve never been involved with a book this big. It’s very exciting. What’s funny too is that my wife has started speculating.
Seriously. I don’t know if this counts as insider trading, but she knows what’s happening in issues two and three and has ordered fifty copies of each to sell on eBay. I can't decide whether to be proud or disgusted since she doesn’t even read the bloody comics and usually gives up on my stories somewhere around page two. What’s even weirder is that my 68-year-old mother-in-law is apparently doing the same, hearing you can make a lot of dough on these things if you catch the market unaware. It’s sick and I can only apologize for the behavior of my family...
In Tuesday’s Part 2, Millar gets specific talking about Civil War, wrapping up Ultimates and Ultimate Fantastic Four, finishing Millarworld Phase One, and launching Millarworld Phase Two.