SPOILER WARNING: Some spoilers for the first issue of “The Secret Service” lie below.
Shortly before speaking with CBR News alongside his new collaborator Dave Gibbons, Mark Millar had to go in for his shots. The comic writer is heading to the Philippines in late May to appear at the comic shop who ordered the most copies of his “Supercrooks” series, and therefore had to get himself vaccinated against illnesses like typhoid fever and diphtheria.
“I once had a smallpox vaccination, and I was in a coma for two days. So let’s hope you can make it to the end of the interview,” Gibbons joked. “My mum when, she was a girl, had actually had smallpox. So I had a very strong reaction to it. It was in the genes or whatever. So when I got the actual vaccination, my body went into overdrive, and I had a 103 degree fever for a few days. But I’m sure you’ll be all right, Mark. I’m sure you’ll be fine!”
As it turned out, Millar was able to talk up he and Gibbon’s “The Secret Service” – who’s first issue hits today -Â just fine. The story of superspy Jack London who decides to take his working class nephew Gary under his wing and train him in the arts of espionage, the series from Icon Comics was drempt up by the “Kick-Ass” and “Watchmen” co-creators alongside film director Matthew Vaughn. But from Millar’s own plans to give out free advertisements to retailers for the rest of this year’s Millarworld comics releases (which interested stores can read about here) to the fact that Gibbons was signing copies of issue #1 for London shop Titan Towers, the pair are keeping a comics-first attitude for the launch of the book.
Below, Millar and Gibbons team up to tell CBR what lies at the heart of the “Secret Service” for both of the. Beyond a love of spy fiction, personal issues about the working class, social mobility, earned success and “Star Wars” geekiness all come into play in delivering this story.
CBR News: You two have been working on this book for quite a while now. With the first issue out and in people’s hands, are you feeling confident in how all the planning has led to the final story of “The Secret Service”?
Mark Millar: You know, it’s funny. You’re in a kind of vacuum when you’re working on a book. We always just produce these comics for each other. You’re so close to it that you forget how eventually someone’s going to read it. It’s going to be quite nice to share that with other people.
Dave Gibbons: I think that first you do the kind of comic that you’d like to read. So it has all the things you’re interested in done in a way that you like to see them done. But it’s always like a relief to see it in print. It crosses over from being a figment of the imagination to being an object in the real world. That’s quite a magical kind of thing. It’s materialized at that point.
Millar: It’s kind of like having a baby. The black and white scans of art going back and forth between us are like the ultrasound. And eventually, on the 11th of April the baby’s delivered.
Gibbons: That’s true. It’s absolutely right. We’re the proud parent now.
No offense to you fine gentlemen’s looks, but I think I’d rather see a comic you made than a baby.
Gibbons: I’ve got to stress that there was no sexual contact involved here!
Millar: [Laughs] It was just cyber-sex. Thank goodness for Skype!
Even though this is a spy story with a traditional gentleman British spy, it also breaks off from the arc of a traditional spy story. In what ways did you two actively try to play against type in a genre that’s been honestly very rigid in the kinds of stories it’s told over the years?
Millar: I guess like with superheroes, we’re so well versed in the mythology and the imagery that goes with this that we can play around with it just like a book like “Kick-Ass” and “Watchmen” as well. Spies and the conceits of the spy genre are so well known that you can mess around with that. And we haven’t seen that much in films. Most spy movies play it pretty straight – “Mission Impossible,” “James Bond,” “Jason Bourne” and so on. They are quite linear and straightforward. So to mess around with that and do a post-modern spy thing, it could almost write itself. I wish it had written itself, actually, because this was honestly quite hard to do. [Gibbons Laughs] But it’s worked out well. It feels unlike anything else, which is quite nice. In the same way that “Kick-Ass” felt very unlike “Spider-Man,” this has a similar relationship to James Bond.
Gibbons: The thing that I like about it and what really sold me on it was the idea of contrasting this espionage world of wonderful gadgets and adventure and life and death against a pretty ordinary kind of street existance. How would you actually go from one to the other? I remember early on Mark explaining to me that when Sean Connery was cast as James Bond, he was in many ways a kind of Glasgow bruiser. He was a kind of body builder. And once he got that role, he was kind of turned into James Bond. He was taught how to behave in a nice restaurant and how to wear clothes properly and actually how a suit was cut and everything like that. I found that fascinating, and one of the things I’ve been really enjoying is playing the street level stuff against this fantastic type.
Millar: Being something of a Glasgow bruiser, I always hoped somebody would teach me how to be a gentleman. It’s a bit of wish fulfillment.
Gibbons: Mark, I can teach you all this stuff. Don’t worry. [Laughter]
Millar: But it is a great story about Connery. I’m a Bond fanatic. I’ve read all the books and all the web stuff that never made it to books about the development of the films. And one of my absolute favorite stories is about Sean Connery being taught by the director -Â who wanted a kind of urbane, Ian Fleming type of guy for the part -Â how to be a gentlemen. He took him to his barber and his tailor and so on. That felt to me what “Casino Royale” could have been. We know “Batman Begins” is how you become Batman, but we don’t really know how you become James Bond. So as the two of us were talking very early on with Matthew Vaughn, we fell into that story because Matthew has always wanted to do kind of “How Bond became Bond.”
Gibbons: There’s also a human aspect to this which I really like as well between the kid and his uncle. It’s something I know Mark identified with on a personal level, and I can as well. It’s got some real emotional resonance for me, and that’s something I always really like in a story more than just the action or the setting – that there’s a good human core to it. It’s something we’ve really got here.
Millar: We’re 23 Bond movies in, and I think in only one have we ever seen the inside of James Bond’s apartment. It’s funny because we feel like we know James Bond well in the same way that we know Peter Parker or Clark Kent, but we kind of don’t know much about his private life. Like Dave said, the thing that makes “Secret Service” interesting is that this guy Jack in our story behaves like Bond, but he also has a sister, and his sister has a kid, and he has to lone them money occasionally. That real life aspect is something we’ve never seen since spies are the ultimate fantasy. They never have any day-to-day problems. So to give them real life stuff is quite interesting.
Jack’s nephew Gary also stands out in the issue as he comes from a very modern, working class London background. Mark, when we spoke about “Nemesis 2” earlier this year, I got the distinct impression that you’re writing a lot of these comics with the 99% in mind. How does that working class element factor in here?
Millar: It’s funny because I think the fact that Gary’s a poor guy made this immediately different than any spy story we’ve seen before – especially for a British thing. That’s something we wanted to do because it reflects the two Britains you often see on the screen. You’ve got the James Bond Britain where everybody looks beautiful, and it’s all casinos and lovely restaurants with beautiful girls. And then at the same time you’ve got the Ken Loach view of Britain or something like “Trainspotting.” And you never quite see the two of those meet. This is the one story where those two worlds clash, and it’s about one person’s social journey from one class to another. It’s quite interesting.
Gibbons: And from the point of view of illustrating it, that’s great because you get the chance to do grungy, everyday, gritty, sort of dirty stuff and, as we’ll see in future issues, the really cool, high tech, fantastic location stuff as well. I’m really enjoying that contrast. And having come from a kind of working class London background, that’s another thing that has an emotional resonance to it. And also, there’s the notion of kid gangs and what kids get up to. I did this graphic novel called “The Originals” that was really about my experiences being in that kind of environment, and it fits well with this kind of fantastic espionage background. They make each other seem kind of unique and interesting.
Millar: It’s quite sad as well. I don’t know how much you know about this, but in the UK, social mobility has actually declined in the last 30 years. Even though people feel a bit more prosperous generally, they tend to stay in the social strata that they were born in in a way that they didn’t in my dad’s generation. Back then, it was free to go to university, for example. That was still true at the tail end of me going to school, but now we’ve got the more American style where you pay all these fees. So what we’ve got is working class people like what Dave and I grew up in now looking at “The X Factor” as a way out of poverty rather than being given social mobility through the skills of a society. And in a way, that’s what this story is all about. It’s a kid from an environment that I would understand growing up and realizing there’s more to life than everything that’s around him. He wants to get something more from life than is currently offered to him. It’s kind of poignant in that sense when I step back and look at it. It’s a wish-fullfillment thing. All of our superhero stories are power fantasies and wish-fullfillment, and I think this too is about what you’re daydreaming about when you live in a grungy area.
I was wondering -Â in America, we very commonly see the “rags to riches” story as a major theme dating all the way back to Horatio Alger. Is there a similar thread in British pop culture?
Gibbons: I suppose there has always been an element of that -Â if you work hard enough, then you can achieve anything. But it’s interesting what Mark’s saying because there are many more barriers to that these days. I went to the equivalent of University free, all paid for, but there aren’t a lot of housing states these days where people can see a way to drag themselves out of that. I supposed just like people fantasize about winning the lottery, they’ve also seen Batman movies or James Bond movies and have fantasized about other ways to break out. This feels like quite a nice thing that says, “This is how you MIGHT be able to break out of the ghetto if you work hard enough.” And really in the first issue, it’s still unknown as to whether this kid is going to actually make the grade.
Millar: I just recently watched the new JJ Abrams “Star Trek” movie, and one thing I really liked was that Kirk and everyone had to put in their three years at the Academy. They didn’t just instantaneously become starship captains. They had to train. I think that’s also my message in this. What came to us at the beginning was the idea that there’s be a course of years to become a spy. Our guy won’t just go out on a mission and do everything absolutely brilliant. He’ll mess things up. We’re treating it very slowly and realistically. It’s almost like “Harry Potter” in that he’s got to go through all these levels to eventually become the superspy he wants to be.
But again, something that always rankled me about the “American Idol” thing was the idea of “One chance can change everything.” I really see that as a negative thing to show people, because really it’s working hard over time that changes your life, not Simon Cowell smiling upon you. So our story is one about how if you want to better yourself, don’t wait to get picked up by a reality TV show. The only person that’s going to change your life is you.
Gibbons: And of course, there isn’t much dramatic potential in “You’ve just won the lottery” or “Overnight you became James Bond.” I think the really interesting thing is to say, “What would be the root by which this might possibly happen?” It takes much more than luck.
Millar: It’s funny because a couple of my friends are special forces guys who without telling me any real secrets have talked to me about what they went thought. One of them is now a teacher training other guys to go through all this, and the stuff they actually do is so compelling that you don’t need to exaggerate any of it. I was prepared to do that, but the real stuff is so great that it works well within our story structure anyway.
Lastly, the book opens with the real Mark Hamill appearing in the pages as a tease of a bigger mystery plot involving sci-fi movie actors being kidnapped by a shadowy organization. To be blunt, how in the hell does this fit in with everything else we’ve been talking about?
Gibbons: Go ahead, Mark!
Millar: [Laughs] I love those ridiculous James Bond-style villain plots, so I thought that in the middle of our more realistic Bond stuff, how much fun would it be to go beyond “Moonraker” or “The Spy Who Loved Me” and come up with the most outrageous plot of them all? It ties together everything I’m interested in -Â spies, superheroes, sci-fi TV shows and everything. But it also ties right in with current science theory as well. The weapon that’s being used is a real life thing as well. I’ve done almost two years of research to get all of this right. It would actually work! The thing that scares me is that this is actually very doable – a real apocalyptic scenario. All I can say is that it’s using the real silly James Bond stuff right alongside the real life stuff, and it’s great to fuse those pieces together. I’m really happy with it.
Gibbons: I have to say, when it was first proposed to me that Mark Hamill was going to be in it and what the plot was, I immediately thought, “That’s ridiculous!” [Laughter] But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “It’s absolutely logical, and I can believe it can happen.” And also, it was great to get actual feedback from Mark Hamill -Â Luke Skywalker himself -Â and hear that he was thrilled to be in our comic book. I know Mark’s a huge “Star Wars” fan as I am -Â particularly of the original movies -Â and to think that we got Luke Skywalker on board is just fantastic. It’s stranger than fiction.
Millar: The Force is with us on this project. It’s absolutely mental. The funny thing was getting in touch with Mark. I have a mutual friend who set us up on a call, and to try and explain what I wanted to do was the most difficult pre-call I’ve ever done. I was genuinely nervous because I used to draw pictures of this guy fighting Darth Vader when I was seven, and now I’m calling him on the phone to ask if I can make him a damsel in distress and then kill him off. It was so brilliant because he was a huge Dave fan. He e-mailed me late last night saying how excited he was because he saw a PDF of the issue. He said, “I can’t believe I’ve been drawn by Dave Gibbons!” which is brilliant. It adds a whole level of excitement.
Gibbons: And I must say, it’s always difficult with likeness stuff because you always want to be a little flattering. I wanted to make it clearly Mark Hamill of today. And he’s a good looking man -Â no doubt about that -Â but I was worried he’d say, “You’ve got to change this, Dave. My nose isn’t that big, and I haven’t got that many chins.” But he’s been such a good sport about it! It was a real thrill to e-mail with him. It felt like the time I talked to Stan Lee on the phone. I really can’t believe it. I’m as much of a fanboy for “Star Wars” now as I’ve ever been.
Millar: Just to keep it in check, when I called him the first time, I tried to be very professional and say, “I’m very glad you’re on the project, Mark.” And then immediately after, I called up Matthew Vaughn, and we started giggling like school girls. We were just so excited at the idea of working with Mark Hamill, and although he dies in the first scene of the comic, Matthew was like, “We’ve got to keep him around” so he cooked up this whole piece of the third act that has Mark Hamill in it too because I think he just wants to have him on set a little longer. [Laughter]
That wraps it, gentlemen. Thanks for taking the time.
Gibbons: I think while we’ve been speaking here, I’ve maybe signed 200 or 300 copies, so it’s been a very productive afternoon!
“The Secret Service” #1 is in comic shops today.