Following the release of the final volume of “The Ultimates 2,” CBR News conducted an extensive and in-depth interview with writer Mark Millar about the landmark superhero series, and discussed with the author his specific inspirations, ideas and feelings about one of Marvel Comics’ most memorable and perhaps controversial titles ever.
On the eve of Comic-Con International in San Diego, where Mark Millar and Marvel Comics are expected to announce his and Bryan Hitch’s next project, CBR News presents our lengthy interview with the eminent writer.
What do you remember about the development of “The Ultimates?” How did it come about, and what were you thinking when you were creating it? I remember lots of people were saying, a “Marvel version of the Authority?” Is that accurate?
It’s completely inaccurate, totally. That’s what everyone was saying at the time. I had just come off “The Authority” and Bryan had just come off it the year before. The book that we were both best known for was “The Authority” and everyone assumed we were going to do the same thing because it was another superteam. But in a lot of ways, this was an anti-Authority. In fact, in almost every way it was. You had a team of super anarchists on “The Authority” who were against the world’s governments and very much against the status quo. Whereas “Ultimates” is a pro-status quo book. If anything, it was kind of a right wing book, like Rush Limbaugh doing super comics. It was like, “Hey superheroes should all be on the government payroll and go out there and fight the war on terror,” you know? So it’s the complete opposite of “The Authority” in that sense, in that the Ultimates were all government funded.
The other thing that makes a difference is that “The Authority” is a very, very visual book and based almost entirely on unusual fight scenes. Whereas I think we only had, in the first eight issues of “The Ultimate,” only three fights, and one of them was domestic violence. So it was very unusual in that regard, a superhero book that was really mostly about character interaction where the drama really came from personalities. It always felt very distinct to me, coming on. It was an entirely different animal and that’s what attracted me doing it, too, because you get bored if you’re doing the same thing all the time.
What about the Ultimate versions of the Avengers? With Captain America, you obviously approached him from the point of view of a fiercely capable soldier, but not really a blind follower either. He seemed very pragmatic. That characterization appears to have informed Cap in the prime Marvel Universe, wouldn’t you say?
I think definitely, and visually as well. The minute Bryan redesigned Captain America for the Ultimate universe we just noticed lots of little, subtle things coming in. People would draw the stitching on the uniform and things like that; made it more realistic, more like something a guy would actually put together and wear.
Even in terms of personalities– people always saw Captain America as Marvel’s Superman. When I was a kid, he was that red white and blue kind of face to Marvel comics. Superman was the DC equivalent. But to me, Cap, practically, is more like Batman. He’s the guy who you drop into a situation. He’s a soldier who can go behind the scenes and take care of all the enemies. Whereas Superman’s probably more like Thor, the big kind of sun god character who’s always smiling and larger than life. So Cap always seemed more natural to me. He’s a soldier, he’s been trained in all kinds of Black Ops and whatnot, so he’s going to be the dangerous one on the team, and maybe not the one who’s most comfortable standing in front of a lot of cameras.
I think that definitely has trickled into the Marvel Universe itself. Bryan and I notice this all the time, little things will appear from the book in general. Maybe Iron Man’s armor or something like that, or just the look of Janet Pym. Little things eventually creep in., and we love that, it’s great. Hopefully we’ve had some kind of impact because we’ve put a lot of work into it.
I remember some people getting upset with the so-called “color-blind casting” of Nick Fury. Now, I always assumed that you replaced the traditional Nick Fury with Samuel Jackson simply because it was awesome.
[Laughs] Whenever we were thinking about what Nick Fury should be like in the Ultimate Universe, quite a lot of friends said, “You’ve got to keep it Frank Sinatra, rat pack, 60s cool, thin black ties the beautiful suits and everything.” I was thinking, yeah that was cool when Jim Steranko was doing that, but 21 st century cool is something different. I would say if you talk to somebody who’s 17, Samuel Jackson probably pops into their head more than Frank Sinatra when you talk about the hippest guy in the world. It just seemed very, very natural. Bryan and I, it was almost like telepathy. I think he actually came up with the visual, though. Big thumbs up to him for that.
Obviously, the American political landscape hugely informed the content of “The Ultimates.” The American political landscape of 2001, specifically, I assume, informed the early stages of creation. Where were you with the book on 9/11, and how did it change your story?
That’s really interesting because we started to talk about the book in summer of 2000. Marvel had wanted me to do something in the Ultimate Universe and I hadn’t really grown up reading X-Men comics. They weren’t actually distributed to the town in Scotland where I lived. So I’d only read reprints and I entirely missed the Claremont/Byrne stuff, which was so brilliant. But I had a real affinity for the Avengers, and I really liked those characters. I really liked Spider-Man and a couple of other things. I pitched an Avengers book and they said to me back in summer of 2000, “Forget about it, nobody’s interested in the Avengers. It sells 40 thousand copies.” I said these guys can be really cool and they said, “We don’t believe you, go and do ‘X-Men.’ If you want to do anything with Bryan Hitch you can go off and do a Wolverine book.”
And I was like, well I still really want to do this thing. I knew roughly what I wanted to do but it still wasn’t quite there. It sounds horrible to say it but the thing that sort of brought it all together was the world that everyone was plunged into in 2001. I’d just started doing the World War II sequence in the first issue around that point. I think around about July and August I was working on the first issue, which was almost entirely set in 1945, so we hadn’t really got into the modern world stuff yet, but the minute September the 11th happened it was like a seismic change in terms of what the book was going to be about and where it was going to go. From that moment on it was a post-September the 11 th book.
The first issue was really the last of the Age of Innocence, if you could call it that, with WWII. It felt like an old Marvel book in a way. Traditional superheroics. And then the second issue opened really in a post-September the 11 th world where we had the splash page being devastation in the middle of New York. A devastation had happened and Nick Fury was being told to put together a super team in response to what’s been happening. From that moment on the book was changed forever.
Also, one of the reasons why there wasn’t much violence, certainly in the first seven or eight issues or so, is because we were getting that kind of violence in real life. I think maybe we’d had a bit much of violence and we wanted to see a bit more about personalities. So the book changed dramatically after September the 11 th , as I think a lot of pop culture did.
As the book progressed, so too did America’s campaigns around the world. The preemptive strike by Captain America obviously echoed that of Bush’s on Iraq. Was that something planned from the onset, or did Bush’s war necessitate that story development?
No. The book changed almost every day, it really did. We were writing to keep up with the headlines, really. Bryan and I would be talking on the phone every day and completely changing everything. We had entirely different plans, but the way the world was moving really changed the direction the book took. The first volume was really probably built around the kind of feeling that we had after September the 11 th ; America’s place in the world, which was that something awful has happened and we all have to get together and make the world a better place. There’s a real idealism, I think, in the first book. Even the menace they stood up against was a very black and white menace. It ends with fireworks and so on. It’s actually quite traditional, the first volume.
But there was a huge amount of understanding on the world’s part. America had something terrible happen and had to go off and take on the bad guys. But by the time “Ultimates 2” came along, we started to see a different tone. We were all saying, “Well, these guys are in Afghanistan, you should be trying to get them.” But the Bush administration and the cronies started to go for Saddam instead, who had nothing to do with it. No ties with Al-Queda at all. The rest of the world was starting to see it as not such a black and white situation, and I think “Ultimates 2” reflected that.
“Ultimates 2” was all about shades of grey. It was like, the most powerful nation in the world using these superpowered characters in a way that might not be as innocent as it seems. It was the abuse of the superheroes. That, again, couldn’t have been written without what was going on around in the world.
How do you go about writing these sorts of topical stories without being didactic? Or is it the case that with these massively important topics, it’s appropriate to be didactic?
I think you can avoid being didactic by making sure the story comes first; that the drama comes first. If you plot your book by saying, “Bush should never have gone into Iraq and should stay the hell away from Iran,” then you’re going to have a boring story. It’s going to read like a political pamphlet. The most exciting thing for us in that story was Captain America being framed as the bad guy, or Hawkeye’s family being taken down by Black Ops people, and a traitor on the team. Those were the set pieces, those classic action movie, action comic ideas. And we had this little thing running subconsciously through it, which was alluding to the political situation at the time.
I think I just can’t help it. What happens is most people, I suppose, draw their influences from old books, which I definitely used to do. But something happened to my stuff about six years ago, when I started drawing my stories from what was happening around me, as opposed to my old collection. And I love my old collection dearly, but instead of referencing stories I prefer to reference what I’m reading on BBC News.
I think it just comes in without me even realizing it. It’s subconscious. People will see parallels in things like “Civil War” that I never intended. Like, people were comparing the unmasking of Spider-Man to the unmasking of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent! You just realize these things are out there in the ether and trickle in from wherever story ideas come from.
Because the book was constantly changing, were there any big moments or ideas that you had to put aside, things you wanted to do but couldn’t?
Not really, no. I think if I really wanted to do them – if they’d been better than what we had-I think we would have just gone in that direction instead. What we were doing was we were refining the book all the time. Because Bryan was taking a long time with the pages –he was drawing about three pages a week– and what that did, on a positive note, was make us go back constantly and look at things. We were tweaking and changing all the time, and Bryan would add a page here or break one panel into two panels and so on.
And that happens with the plot as well. It’s a real luxury I suppose you shouldn’t have on monthly books, you shouldn’t be able to go back to it and constantly hone it into something you’re all delighted with. When I look back at “Ultimates 1” and “Ultimates 2,” I don’t think there’s anything I’d change, and I’ve never felt like that with a book I’ve worked on before. We put so much into it; I can’t imagine what we’d do to polish it.
Along those lines, I read an interview with Bryan Hitch in which he said that originally you intended to tell stories following Steve Rogers in the forties in parallel with the book’s main events. Were any of those stories developed enough to discuss now that the book’s over?
No, I think he was drunk when he said that. That sounds insane. I think we had talked about the idea of doing a miniseries or something. I had an idea for one called “1941” which was going to be the origin of Captain America, but then when we actually thought about it, we thought we can do it in a few pages in “The Ultimates,” why stretch this out to six issues? Skinny guy goes to the army, gets super soldier serum, fights in a war, gets frozen in ice at the end. The story was already told in the Ultimates so the idea of rehashing it just seemed like taking cash from people, so we decided not to go for it.
I was reading a Bryan Hitch conversation on the John Byrne Forum, which as you may know is a kind of crippled think tank for superhero traditionalism, and there was some criticism of you and it was addressed to Bryan. It was to the effect of, “I love your work, Mr. Hitch, I just wish that you’d draw something not written by Mark Millar.”
And Bryan said that there was slim chance of that because his collaboration with you is the most rewarding of his career.
It’s because I cuddle him while he’s drawing. Nobody else touches him.
Do you feel similarly about your collaboration with him?
It’s just an amazing stroke of luck that we found each other. As romantic as that sounds, it’s just that sometimes things work. Sometimes you put a writer and an artist together and it just clicks. Both have a great time working and hopefully some of that comes onto the page and people seem to like it. It’s the same with directors and actors. Back in their prime, De Niro and Scorcese, you know when those guys got together it was something good, and it was something you didn’t get when they worked with other people. I think Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are another example of that as well. Just two guys who when you put them together something great happens, you know?
Bryan and I, we just knew from the first call that we had… it’s funny, we’d never actually met or spoken to each other before Bryan got “Ultimates.” I’d just been a fan of his work and really pushed Marvel to get him as the artist. We talked about some other guys but I knew it had to be Bryan. I think subconsciously, you know, he’s the one. When I did call him up – normally when you’re chatting with an artist it’s a 20-minute call – and Bryan and I were on for six hours . We just didn’t stop talking. We really, really got on. We had exactly the same ideas on almost everything. We’re two very different guys but we have the same opinions on how comics should be done, and our storytelling is so specific; we do a very cinematic style of storytelling and that doesn’t suit everyone, but it’s a discipline of ours that just jibed, it works really well.
And we both come from almost the same path in the world. We grew up 97 miles apart and we’re only a few months different age-wise – I look much better, I look much younger – but he’s almost the same age as me. We’re both married with children. We read almost exactly the same comics as kids because DC Comics were very well distributed in the north of Britain at the time. We grew up reading the same comics no one else seemed to be reading at the time. We have an almost telepathic understanding. So yeah, I think he’s right. I think it works well.
My favorite bit from the whole “Ultimates” run is where they throw Banner out of the helicopter and sort of taunt him into raping the Nazi alien. I wondered what yours was?
[Laughs] This sounds terrible but my favorite part of the series was probably when Hawkeye’s kids get killed. [Laughs] I just really like that scene, and the thing I loved about it was that in this internet age where every bloody plot thing you’ve got coming up gets leaked or shows up in some online preview, no-one saw it coming. We had a couple of moments like that that people just didn’t expect. We were focusing so much on the traitor in “Ultimates 2” that you didn’t expect America to be taken over by the Chinese and the Russians and so on.
But the most effective thing for me had to be when Hawkeye’s family is killed. It’s funny because for some reason, and this was one detail that I actually hadn’t talked about with Bryan on the phone and we talk about everything , but Byran had actually drawn the children as his own kids a few issues before. So after he got that script he phoned me up and said, “You fucking bastard, what have you done!”
I said, “It’s catharsis. Sometimes you feel good if you have to give your kids a smack, you’re getting to have them shot by enemy agents!” And that was very traumatic for him because the photo likenesses are just so perfect. [Laughs]
What is up with Scarlet Witch and the robots?
[Laughs…and laughs] I always thought it was quite interesting, the idea that Scarlet Witch and Vision had a relationship in “The Avengers.” I thought it was just me. Like, hang on, this guy’s like an appliance more than a person. He’s built by Ultron. He wasn’t even built by a person– he was built by another machine! And Scarlet Witch has fallen in love with him! It’s like falling in love with a fridge or falling in love with a coffee maker. I used to look in the letters pages hoping someone would comment on this and no one ever did.
But then you think, well, she’s from Eastern Europe so it’s not that unusual. And he’s a mutant as well. So I thought, that’s kind of cool. She’s got this odd thing going on with her brother. It’s probably the most fucked up of all the Marvel love triangles. You have your Jean Grey and Scott and Wolverine. You’ve got Mary Jane, Gwen and Peter Parker. Then you’ve got Pietro, Scarlet Witch and an electrical appliance. And he was always really angry about Wanda having this relationship with Vision. And you can sort of see why, but you also know that if he ever had the opportunity, he would be in there.
One of the other CBR writers asked me to ask you this: In “Ultimates 2” #13, when Thor held his hammer high and exclaimed, “Victory!” Is that a reference to “Entourage?”
It’s bizarre you say that because I’ve never seen “Entourage,” but it’s sitting right in front of me. I’ve actually got three things on my desk right now. One of them is “The Only John Denver Album You’ll Ever Need,” which my wife got me. I think as a joke. And she also bought me “Hot Fuzz,” which I love, and I’ve also got the first season of “Entourage” and I haven’t watched it yet. I’m a huge fan of “The Larry Sanders Show” and Garry Shandling and all that kind of stuff. I love all these American shows that no one in this country watches, and “Entourage” is the latest one that I’ll be the only one into. But no, it had nothing to do with it.
I think it’s fair to say that “The Ultimates” represents a whole phase of your career. I remember your “Superman Adventures,” I was reading it at school. “The Authority” was your first very high profile gig, but “The Ultimates” was big. Now that it’s over, you’re in the position of being able to write your own ticket. How do you follow up a book like “The Ultimates?”
The Marvel career phase started off the back of “The Authority.” I see “Superman Adventures” as the embryonic me. I loved doing that book but nobody in the world ever saw it. Then “The Authority” is the thing that sort of made my name. Then I came in and did things like “Ultimate X-Men,” “The Ultimates,” “Ultimate War” and a few other things at Marvel. Then I took a break and did some creator owned material. “Wanted,” “Chosen” and “The Unfunnies.” Then I went back and signed on again with Marvel. Most people didn’t see the little break but there was a short break where I wasn’t doing much. Then I came back and did “Ultimates 2,” “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” “Wolverine,” “Marvel Knights Spider-Man” and “Civil War.”
I’m really pleased with those books. I feel that they’re a huge improvement over the first ones. I liked “Ultimate X-Men” and “Ultimate War” and “Ultimates” vol. 1, they’re good, but I feel as if the next one was a notch up. I worked really, really hard on them and I felt as if I got a handle on them.
Now I’m moving into the kind of final phase, really. I’m taking a little bit of time out to do some creator-owned stuff, but there’s almost nothing out from me this year at all. I’m stockpiling Marvel stuff for next year, for my big final chunk of books at Marvel. There’s nothing at all out this year. I normally have 28, 29 books out a year but this year I’ve only got two Marvel books: the final issue of “The Ultimates” and the final issue of “Civil War” and the final two issues of “The Unfunnies” which should have been out three years ago.
But I have a big, big wave of stuff starting in January. You’ve got the new book I’m doing with Bryan Hitch– it’s a Marvel ongoing; the Marvel ongoing I’m doing with Steve McNiven; and I’m doing a book called “1985” with Tommy Lee Edwards. These all launch in January. And I’m doing “Kick-Ass” with John Romita, Jr., a creator-owned book. And I have another creator-owned book that will be coming out in the summer. So next year is a really, really big year for me after a very quiet year this year. People will be sick of me by next year.
After doing “Civil War” and these other things, I think it was good to just disappear for a year. I suppose my follow up to “Ultimates” was to just do nothing. Just let it go quiet. Hopefully everybody will be quite psyched about the idea of my coming back in January.
Do you ever see yourself returning to “The Ultimates?”
I actually think the minute you return to something, it’s usually a sign of panic. It happens in the movies too, “Die Hard 4.0” is a perfect example. You go away and you do some other stuff that doesn’t really work. You do some other stuff and it really doesn’t work and then you panic. You go back to safe ground, to something you’ve done. So that’s why I do fire myself at the end of every 12 issues. I kind of think, “okay don’t coast, just fire yourself and go give yourself a new challenge.” And that’s what I’ve tried to do with “Ultimates.” We only agreed to do “Ultimates 2” if it was much, much better than “Ultimates 1,” and we think it was.
“Ultimates 3,” we considered things for a while, but we figured right now we couldn’t top “Ultimates 2,” so we just disappeared. But I’ve had this idea for a while about doing another Ultimates story but it needs to have a big chunk of time between what we just did and this thing appearing. Maybe around 2011 or 2012? And that’s probably right about the time I’ll be panicking as well with my career, after a bunch of failures, desperately trying to find some firm ground again. So it could work out quite nicely.
CBR Staff Writer Emmett Furey comtributed to this story.
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