I feel we know each other well enough to make a confession; my name is Alistair and I’m a comic book fan. I got hooked young and just haven’t been able to shake the habit. But before you turn your head at the shame of it all, consider not only that some of Scotland’s best known writers are those at work in comics, but also that novelists such as Denise Mina and Ian Rankin have turned their talents to this much maligned art form.
Alan Grant and John Wagner can be seen as the grandaddies of Scots comic book writers. Both started work at Dundee publishing giants DC Thompson then went on to work on British titles such as 2000AD, particularly successfully on the iconic Judge Dredd and the brilliant Strontium Dog, and also on the revamped The Eagle. They moved together to the US to work on Batman, although Wagner left Grant to it after a few issues, and Grant went on to write some of the most memorable story lines for this character, starting The Shadow of the Bat series which changed the perception not only of the ‘Caped Crusader’, but of mainstream comics, forever.
But Grant and Wagner’s greatest creation was set closer to home, or at least my home. In 1990, to coincide with Glasgow’s Year of Culture gubbins, they wrote The Bogie Man, a comic book series published by Fat Man comics which became the UK’s biggest selling independent release to date. The story is based around Frances Forbes Clunie, a patient in a psychiatric hospital who believes he is Humphrey Bogart, or at least Bogart playing Sam Spade, and there was great play made of Glasgow’s obsession with all things American, and the clash of language between ‘Bogie‘ and the locals he encounters. The series was made into a film for TV which starred Robbie Coltrane in the title role, and co-starred Fiona Fullerton, Midge Ure, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy McGregor!! Grant and Wagner, along with many critics, thought they did a terrible job, but memory tells me that I liked it. You can judge for yourself as the whole thing can be found on YouTube. Here’s the opening scenes:
Of all comic book writers at work today, including the god-like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison is my personal favourite, and I’ll be writing about him at length in a future post. Suffice to say I rank him as one of the best writers working in any genre today. He has done great stuff for the big boys of Marvel and DC on titles such as Batman, Superman, X-Men and Fantastic Four. DC published his ‘megaseries‘ Seven Soldiers, which takes some of the minor characters of the DC Universe and places them in a very complex and varied story which touches on classical mythology and literature and is as complex and epic as mainstream comics get. But Morrison’s best work happens when he is free to break conventions and tackle subjects that the multi-national brands would never touch (DC is owned by Warner and Marvel has just been taken over by Disney so that’s unlikely to change). Perhaps his best known is The Invisibles but I would highly recommend the book Filth, which is an incredible work, but be warned, it lives up to its title.
Which brings me to the person who is the main reason for writing this post; Mark Millar. Nobody is bigger in the world of comics at the moment than this son of Coatbridge. In the week that the big screen adaptation of his graphic novel Kick-Ass arrives in cinemas, it is worth looking at the history and themes of the man and his work.
Like Grant, Wagner and Morrison before him, Millar worked on 2000AD, before DC came calling. In fact Millar and Morrison worked together on Swamp Thing before Millar took over on his own, and the two have often collaborated over the years. It’s worth reflecting on the necessarily collaborative nature of comic books. There is often more than one writer involved, and always at least one artist, and the relationship between all will decide the success or otherwise of the series. I’m concentrating on writers in this piece, but the artist is equally as important, and Morrison’s best work is drawn by fellow Scot Frank Quietly (does anyone remember Electric Soup?), while Millar’s regular partner at Marvel, although he has also worked with Quitely, is Bryan Hitch. Millar is probably best known to non-comic fans as the man whose work inspired the Angelina Jolie/James McAvoy film WANTED. In case you missed it here’s the trailer:
The original WANTED series is interesting as Millar plays with comic book conventions by celebrating the bad guys, and always allowing readers to be in on the joke, should they wish to be. In fact much of Millar’s work is done with a sly glance at the reader. If there is a fourth wall in comics then he regularly breaks it. He often portrays characters who are very close to real film actors, as if he is casting his own comic book/film. In his run on Marvel’s The Ultimates there is a scene where the team discuss who would play them in a film of their lives. Nick Fury, who is portrayed for the first time as a bald-headed black man, says it can only be Samuel L Jackson. In the film version of Iron Man who should appear as Nick Fury but Samuel L Jackson. This fantasy casting doesn’t always seem to work. The main characters in WANTED, eventually played by McAvoy and Jolie, bare more than a close resemblance to Eminem and Halle Berry.
As with Grant Morrison, Mark Millar has spent a lot of time with the big two, with his Marvel work particularly successful. His runs on the Fantastic Four, his take on Wolverine on Old Man Logan, and his central involvement with the Civil War crossover series were all excellent. Perhaps the most successful Marvel series of the last ten years, the aforementioned The Ultimates, not only re-imagined many of Marvel’s most iconic characters, but gave birth to a new alternative Marvel universe. But, as with Morrison, it is to the more left field series of Millar’s books that I recommend you look to. Which brings us to Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass, like WANTED, plays with the idea of super heroes in the real world. Obviously this is not a new idea, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which also looks at this idea, remains the highpoint in comic book writing and conception, but with Kick-Ass Millar keeps the story simple which gives it all the more impact. Apparently written with the movie in mind, it is an ultra violent yet very human story of alienation and belonging and sees Millar working with legendary artist John Romita Jr, who excels in depicting the graphic nature of the action. It’s also very funny. Here’s Millar talking about Kick-Ass followed by the trailer from the Matthew Vaughan film:
I’ve only been able to briefly touch on the career to date of Mark Millar here, and I hope this post serves to pique interest and hopefully send you to check out the rest of his work. As well as the titles I have mentioned I would recommend the Marvel series 1985 and his re-imagining of the Superman mythology, Red Son, where Krypton born Kal-El is raised in communist Russia rather than capitalist America. These are great starting points, but he is a prolific man and there is plenty to enjoy.
For further information go to Millar’s own website millarworld.tv/ .
Millar’s latest series, Nemesis, has just launched, and although there are familiar themes, he again gives them enough of a twist to make them his own. It can be summed up as ‘Batman is a badman’. Millar asks the question; ‘what if the super strong/super smart billionaire decides to use his talents and money to cause crime rather than fight it?’ You should check it out, at a comic bookstore near you, for the answer.
I know comic books are not for everyone, but when they are at their best there is more humour, tragedy, philosophy, drama and surrealism than can be found in many of the other forms of fiction that we consume and consider mainstream. So I say it loud; I’m a comic book man and I’m proud.