Mark Millar: Tripping the Light Fantastic
By Sean Boyle
Over the past several years, you could say that writer Mark Millar has made a name for himself. He made Superman a Soviet communist in Superman: Red Son, he created a world full of zombie Marvel heroes who hunt and kill all the humans on their earth in Ultimate Fantastic Four, and while paired with superstar artist Bryan Hitch he crafted one of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling Marvel series' in decades in The Ultimates. Oh, and he also scripted that little event called Civil War that actually lived up to its billing and turned the entire Marvel Universe upside down. Needless to say, wherever Mark Millar goes, big stories follow. So coming off of all those high-profile books, the world was his for the taking. Reteamed with his good friend Bryan Hitch, Millar took on…the Fantastic Four? I recently sat down with Mark to discuss his new project, and how to reinvigorate Marvel’s first family.
Sean Boyle (SB): It's safe to say that the release schedule for your last collaboration with artist Bryan Hitch, The Ultimates, was… irregular, but Fantastic Four is a book that fans expect to come out on a relative monthly schedule. One of the biggest questions on the minds of fans is: how is the schedule coming along?
Mark Millar (MM): What's funny about this project is that we started on it about a year ago. For various reasons we couldn't announce it until Wizard World: Chicago last August, but we had started on it long before that. I had been itching to tell people about Fantastic Four, and if you had fed me a few pints I would have told you about it all months before we announced it, but Bryan and I have been pumping this book out steadily over the last year.
I can tell you that right now we have nine issues that are done. In the books. And the first issue hasn't even come out yet!
The thing about Ultimates was that they would print and ship the book immediately after Bryan finished the last page of an issue. Once we got behind it was all over. Luckily we’ve built up enough lead time that I think we can work around any unforeseen bumps in the road. Bryan’s been pumping out this AMAZING artwork, stuff that I think is even BETTER than Ultimates. It would almost take Bryan contracting AIDS or some awful disease for us to not finish this on time.
SB: And luckily we've got Bono tackling that global issue, so we’re probably safe?
MM: [laughs] Yeah I'd say we're in the clear.
SB: Well fans are definitely going to be happy to hear that nine issues are in the can, and that things are progressing nicely. Let's go back to the beginning of this project, which you said began about a year ago. You and Bryan had the full realm of the Marvel Universe to choose from as a follow-up to The Ultimates. Why did you both choose to do Fantastic Four?
MM: Well it's funny because, after coming off Civil War, The Ultimates, Ultimate Fantastic Four, and Wolverine, and a whole bunch of really big books, the next step up was the X-Men franchise. Revamping the entire X-Men franchise is something Bryan and I had been talking about since about 2004. I wanted to do this big storyline that massively revamps the entire franchise, putting X-Men back at issue #1. The franchise has kind of languished away from the top spot in comics since the 1990s. It used to sell almost 100,000 copies above everything else on the stands.
But coming off of the Ultimates and Civil War we both thought "God, we're absolutely exhausted." Both Bryan and I thought it would be pretty nice to do something that was just plain fun. X-Men would have been a long run, somewhere around 36 issues. I even went back and read all of the X-Men stories from several generations of stories. I've kind of become an expert on the X-Men, and yet it's utterly useless now [laughs].
At the time we were looking at doing all this, we didn't even know Fantastic Four was going to be available. JMS was just leaving the book, I guess a little sooner than everybody thought. We both knew that it wouldn’t make us as much money as an X-Men relaunch, but the inner fanboy in me just started calling out to do Fantastic Four. When I asked Bryan about it, he was surprisingly very excited to do it, and then we called Marvel and they were really cool about it all.
SB: Well you said you researched a bunch of X-Men tales for your proposed project. Did you have to do the same for FF?
MM: Fantastic Four was actually a lot easier for me because I was already very familiar with the FF. I grew up with the first hundred and forty issues or so as a kid. I grew up in the 1980s, but what happened in Scotland was that we got the black and white reprints of the books you guys got during the 60's. For me growing up, John Byrne didn't happen. When everybody was reading John Byrne, I was reading Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It was really weird. So I'm very familiar with the early stuff. It gave me a very good grounding with all the characters. I've since gone back and read all the really good runs like John Byrne's, Walt Simonson's, and the Waid and Ringo run. And to be honest, it was a lot more fun to go back and read all the early FF stuff, because, on a consistent basis, the Fantastic Four title has been far better than the X-Men books over the years. There have been so many bad X-Men issues over the years, yet FF has been very good for long periods of time.
SB: Well Fantastic Four have always been one of the cornerstones of the Marvel Universe, along with Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers. However, in recent years the FF have somewhat taken a backseat to the other three franchises in both sales and popularity. Why do you think that is?
MM: It's fascinating that you say that, because that was one of the main things I wanted to address right away. I really thought long and hard about it when writing this book. I went and got the sales figures and got all the charts to figure out when it happened. For a long time, the Fantastic Four was Marvel's premiere book through the Stan and Jack years. FF and Spider-Man were the two big ones. But since about 1972, FF has been in the middle of the charts. Other than the occasional spike, it's stayed in the middle of the charts. You think: why's that? It's kind of shocking because, when you look back, it genuinely had four or five of the very best writers who worked on it at some point in time. Pretty much all of the artists have been GREAT, from Kirby, to Buscema, to Byrne, to Perez, to 'Ringo. It has been a creative superstar book.
However, I have my own theory of what happened. Fantastic Four was very popular during its beginning years when there was a lot of change and growth in the family. The characters worked like a real family, where people grew up and they got married, and they were constantly changing for the better. Alongside that were all these great villains showing up. But around '72, I think creators looked back in awe of those early stories, and I think there was a consensus among editorial and creators alike that if it worked, why mess with it? I believe the Marvel stuff that tends to do well are the books that have the courage to change. Take Spider-Man for example. He moved from high school to the university, then from the university to working for the paper, and then he got married and such. There was an evolution with the character. Fantastic Four, in a lot of ways as a family, has been frozen. And if a family is frozen, it dies. Sure there have been some great stories, but they've kind of been in the same status and the same characters for the past thirty years. If you look at the first decade of the FF, they were changing enormously. Sue and Reed dated, then got married, then had children. Johnny and Ben changed a lot, and then all of that stopped. That's when I think the fans lost some interest.
SB: That makes a lot of sense to me. Along the lines of trying to recapture that classic excitement, I recently read an interview with Bryan where he said you both were approaching this title like a horror/monster comic with a superhero inflection. Is that an accurate description? How are you guys working this?
MM: Yeah, I think that’s a great description. Stan and Jack's run came out of the monster comics that dominated the industry before Marvel, you know, the ol' EC comics and such. A lot of the names of the villains the FF faced were all monster names and creations. Even The Thing himself looks like he would be the star of a monster or science-fiction story. I'm a huge fan of the 50s era, and that's what birthed Fantastic Four. So as well as being a superhero book, we wanted to make FF kind of creepy.
To me, the most inspirational thing about the first hundred issues is that, here was a comic that was unlike anything you had ever seen before. There was a real sense of danger there. A lot of unpredictability.
SB: You mentioned the idea of significant change, and how that keeps a comic fresh, how it captivates the reader. As the writer of Civil War, you had the perfect chance to break-up Sue and Reed, and given the recent trend in break-ups, it might not have been as shocking as, say, ten years ago. Instead, their marriage remained intact through that monumental event. Why did you decide to keep them together?
MM: When you do a crossover, it's slightly different because you're essentially borrowing other people's characters. Every single detail about Civil War had to be checked out by the various writers and editors. Sometimes the changes were right, sometimes what I proposed was wrong, and sometimes we had to compromise. With Sue and Reed, however, I really like the idea of them being together. I think they work very well as a team. It would have been sad to break them up. I can kind of get what's going on with Spider-Man and Mary Jane, but Reed and Sue are the couple. They're a family, and Fantastic Four is a family book. To have the family fractured, it wouldn't feel like the FF to me.
I don’t mean to say it would never happen. It might make a great story sometime down the line, but not now.
SB: A lot of team books make reference to being a metaphorical family, but the FF literally is a family. How does that dynamic change the way you approach writing them, compared to writing, say, the X-Men or the Avengers?
MM: It changes the dynamic a great deal. For starters, a couple of them are married and exclusively sleeping together. That alone is different than most books. On top of that, they're all kind of related. It's people who would absolutely die for each other. Some superhero books work off that theme, but these four unconditionally and absolutely love each other. They spend every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and birthday together.
They operate in a way that the Justice League or the Avengers wouldn't. The other teams, at the end of the day, go back to their respective homes and families. Clark Kent goes home to Lois, he doesn't live with Batman. The FF is always together, and that creates a warm environment. That's one thing a lot of people who have written the book comment on. As much as this book is frightening or dramatic, there is a warmth that these characters bring to the book. There's just something about them that makes the FF different from other superheroes. I remember reading the early issues as a kid and thinking this was the family I wanted to be a part of.
SB: On a personal note, have you ever found it odd that Sue is married yet still lives in the same house as her brother and her husband's best friend?
MM: Yeah a little, but I actually understand now why they do it. The Baxter Building is the ultimate defense against attacks. It's got hi-tech security and everyone's all together, so if the Fearsome Four come to attack, the Fantastic Four is there waiting for them; whereas if Johnny or Ben live in a brownstone somewhere, they're endangering everyone that lives around them. I wanted to exploit that a little bit. You wouldn't want Ben Grimm as your neighbor. They're kind of forced to live together through necessity. That's what makes them so interesting to me. Because their identities are public, they can't go home at night to retire as Clark Kent, or Bruce Wayne in a mansion. They just go home to their bedrooms in the Baxter Building. I think that creates a really interesting dynamic.
SB: Bryan [Hitch] had an interview after Wizard World: Chicago that is on the Marvel website, in which he constantly said how much fun he was personally having with this project. What has been the most exciting thing for you in writing the Fantastic Four?
MM: I think it's the advice that Stan Lee gave me before taking over FF. He said any idea can be used in the Fantastic Four. There is nothing too silly to be in the Fantastic Four, which is not the same in most comics. If you read Batman or Spider-Man, for example, if they go to another dimension or to space, it doesn't really fit the character. However, with the FF that's just what they do before breakfast. You can honestly write the craziest things you can think of. It's called "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine," so as the writer I just have to make sure every issue is spectacular.
SB: You have already had a previous run on the Ultimate Fantastic Four. What is more of a challenge to you, reinventing the FF for the Ultimate Universe, or building off of 40-plus years of comic history in the regular FF series?
MM: Definitely regular Fantastic Four. Ultimate was kind of just a blank page for us. With regular FF, I have to check everything. I don't start writing until I check with Tom Breevort. And I swear, Tom is like a maniac or something. He's read everything, from the great runs to the very worst annual or bad mini-series. He's read everything. I don't even think he's human.
SB: He might not be human. Tom's got an incredible beard for which even I, with my Irish heritage, can't attain.
MM: [laughs] He's got like six people hiding under there. And they’ve all got Google.
SB: [laughs] Tom's beard aside, we have your first issue of Fantastic Four set to arrive here in the states on February 13th. The solicitation makes mention of a "Mrs. Fantastic." Obviously, the literal Mrs. Fantastic is Sue, but this mysterious character is someone else. I know you can't get into specific details, but what can you tell us about this new "Mrs. Fantastic"?
MM: One of the things I started thinking about when I began researching the book was that Reed looks about forty, and Sue looks about thirty years old. Reed's the world's smartest man. Sue is very smart herself, but she's much more of a normal person. When you think about it, they're kind of a weird couple. They're an odd mix. And then I started thinking about how Reed is a bit older than Sue. For example, when Reed was studying in Vienna at twenty years old, Sue was only ten years old. He clearly wasn't going out with her back then.
So I asked: who was he going out with at that point? More and more, to me, Sue seemed like somebody Reed possibly picked up on the rebound. I looked at her as somebody who isn't as smart as Reed is, and somebody he might not have spent as much time with before they got together.
So I came up with someone who was as smart as Reed at the university. Somebody he's known since he was eighteen, who was a super-rich, suave girl that Reed was on the verge of marrying back in his early twenties. She eventually left his life, and this is her re-entering it almost two decades later. The nickname everyone came up for her was "Mrs. Fantastic." She's the female Reed. Just like how Reed has created this amazing life, she has been doing equally amazing things with her life. And now she's coming to Reed with a problem that she needs help with.
On a very simple level, she's the girl your dad dated before you were born. You always think of your dad as being with your mom. So the family has to come to terms with this girl showing up, and she's got something very deadly they have to deal with.
SB: Well, along with the arrival of Mrs. Fantastic, the solicitation for your second issue reads: "THE EARTH IS DOOMED! Buy this issue for a first-look at mankind's new home. Also, the Torch gets nekkid with a super-villain." The most honest question from that is: Johnny really likes the bad girls, doesn't he?
MM: [laughs] Well that's the thing, right? He's got a terrible taste in women! Whether he's shagging that Skrull lass or whatever else comes by. The scene really struck me as a "Johnny moment." There's a bank robbery, and a beautiful villainess is taking off with the stuff, Johnny confronts and fights her for a few pages, and all of a sudden they just start kissing each other. I love the idea of Johnny getting into these bad situations. He likes this girl, but on one hand she robs banks, and on the other hand she's just so good in bed. [laughs] He's left with this classic Johnny dilemma of: does he bust her or does he continue a relationship with her?
SB: Is that the classicism that you're trying to bring back to the team? To be honest, it's been a couple years since I seriously read a Fantastic Four comic, but it seems as though that aspect of Johnny has been lacking in recent times. People have sort of cleaned him up as he grew up, so to speak. I've always had the memory of the Human Torch being the anti-Spider-Man. Whereas Peter is the nice, fun-loving, responsible guy, Johnny is the bad kid that skips school and chases the bad women.
MM: Absolutely!! That's definitely something I've wanted to bring back. The idea that "with great power comes great responsibility" is the opposite of what Johnny believes in. He's a world famous superhero, and sure he's saving lives, but he's going to use his fame as much as he can. He's kind of the Marvel Universe Paris Hilton, where he's fantastic and everyone wants to hang out with him, because he's where the party is. He's a big rock star. He's an asshole, but a very likable asshole. [laughs]
SB: So you have this big threat to earth. Mankind is doomed and we all have to relocate, etc. However, the planet is threatened in every superhero comic, every single issue. It's kind of the norm for the Fantastic Four. What makes this threat different from all the rest?
MM: I don't think this will give too much away, but the big threat the FF is facing is the crisis we're currently facing in reality. Our planet is dying. We're fucked. It's not Galactus or Annihilus, it's actually just an environmental catastrophe that's coming. We've been told about it, but it's coming a lot sooner than we all think. We all have to get off-world. That's the beginning of this story. It's how things kick off. Other problems will arise and other threats come throughout the story, but our environmental crisis is what begins the story.
SB: And just to be clear, by saying our planet is fucked, you're referring to global warming, not Hilary Clinton becoming President of the United States, right?
MM: [laughs] I bet a lot of the super-villains are rubbing their hands together wishing they had a vote right now. [laughs]
SB: Doctor Doom always tends to pop up every now and then, and he played a significant role in your Ultimate FF run. Would it be safe to say that he'll be popping up somewhere in your current run?
MM: Oh absolutely! To me Doctor Doom is as much of a part of the FF as Mr. Fantastic in a way. That said, we're trying not to rely too much on the old villains. We're trying to create as many new villains and new concepts as possible. Otherwise you're just putting a remix on what's come before. But I think you would feel cheated if Doom didn't show up. I think the fans would especially feel cheated if they couldn't see Bryan draw Doom. He's not the major villain of the story, but he's definitely an important part of the story.
SB: So we'll get you out of here on this: would you be willing to come back about six issues into your run to discuss what's happened and where your run goes from there?
MM: I would love to! There will be a very significant change in issue six that will get a lot of people talking. I can't wait for you guys to read it!
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