For many readers, comic books are a means of escape; a way to travel to an exciting, dangerous world where good triumphs over evil. But what happens when the frightening and dangerous elements of the fantasy world begin to manifest themselves in the real world? Writer Mark Millar and artist Tommy Lee Edwards explore this premise in “Marvel 1985,” a six-issue mini-series from Marvel Comics beginning this May. CBR News spoke with Millar about the series.
When people think of Marvel Comics they don’t often select the year 1985. They may look to the company’s trail blazing early years, the innovative mid ’70s, or even now. But “Marvel 1985” felt right to Millar for a number of reasons. “Personally speaking I think the mid ’80s is probably a high water mark for Marvel. We had people like Frank Miller, Walt Simonson and John Byrne, all the great post Lee-Kirby creators,” Millar told CBR News. “Plus the story has got the feeling of 80’s movie, like ‘Goonies.'”
Perhaps the biggest reason Millar chose 1985 as the setting for his tale was his personal connection to the year. “I was 15 in 1985 and probably at my most fanatical when it came to comics,” he explained. “I was just obsessed with the stuff. I should have been thinking about Math or Chemistry, but I’d just sit there all day and think about superheroes. So, I really wanted to do a story set during the time when comics was all I would think about all day.”
Toby, the star of “Marvel 1985,” harbors a similar obsession. “He’s your typical young comic fan of the time,” Millar remarked. “He’s thirteen and just sort of hitting puberty. He lives in a neighborhood where maybe he and a couple of his friends are into comic books, but nobody else gives a damn about them. Toby suffers from some slight mental health problems. His Mom and Dad have split up and he’s been given medication by doctors. He’s getting more withdrawn and more into the world of comics. So he starts to see things like the Vulture on the roof of his local school or Doctor Doom walking through the woods. He just starts noticing these things. He starts to worry and wonder if he’s experiencing the early signs of paranoid schizophrenia or if something else going on.
“We find out that something else is indeed going on,” Millar continued. “This series is very much a sequel to the original ‘Secret Wars’ which ended in 1985. This series is what the Marvel villains did next. They discover a hole leading from the Marvel Universe into our world, the real world. So the villains have found a world with all the major metropolises: Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York. But there’s no Fantastic Four, no Captain America, no X-Men to protect them.”
Our defenseless world galvanizes the villains into action. “Word was passed around the villain community,” Millar stated. “It was like, ‘Come with us. We found a place where we can rule supreme.’ So the villains come here to do horrible things. They can take out the White House, London, pretty much anywhere.”
In many comic books, an army of costumed champions would arrive just in time to rout the villain invasion, but that’s not the case in “Marvel 1985” seeing as how the series takes place in our world, a world without heroes. “The heroes do play a part, but it really is our world against the villains of the Marvel Universe,” Millar explained. “It’s our cops and soldiers against the villains of the Marvel U. We often forget how devastating these guys are because there are always heroes to protect people. But even a guy like Stilt-Man is going to cause problems for regular cops. And guys like Magneto and Electro can take down armies.”
The villain invasion starts not in the heart of a major city, but a quiet, bucolic town. “It begins in a haunted house in the woods of the American Midwest,” Millar stated. “These guys come through the basement of the house and into the real world. It’s quite terrifying because you see them do whatever they want and behave as if they’re sort of ‘off the leash.’
“Every issue is a villain fest,” Millar continued. “We begin with a small town of people trying to defend themselves. It’s kind of like ’30 Days of Night’ in that you’ve got a small group of people trying to stay alive as these guys are coming through and doing whatever they want before moving on and finding people in other cities.”
A marauding army of super powered killers and thugs is a threat which will terrify and bewilder even the bravest police officer and soldier. Fortunately the real world of “1985” has other defenders more equipped to deal with costume clad threats. “Really the first line of defense against the villains is the kid who reads Marvel Comics and his friends,” Millar explained. “One thing that’s quite cool is the military and all these other groups don’t know how to deal with these guys, but the kids do. The kids are reading comics so they know the weaknesses of the villains. The idea of a bunch of guys in a comic store knowing more about this threat than the U.S. military is kind of fun.”
Even with an encyclopedic knowledge of the villains’ weaknesses provided by comic fans, the defenders of “Marvel 1985” know they can’t hold out forever against a super villain onslaught. Toby realizes his world needs help. “He figures the one hope they’ve got is the superheroes. They know how to fight these villains,” Millar said. “But how is he going to find them?”
Some of Millar’s most celebrated and popular works like “The Authority,” “The Ultimates” and “Civil War” explores political ideas and issues. Even though “Marvel 1985” is set during a politically charged time, Millar has no interest in picking up on any of those threads. “It’s got more of a timeless feel to it,” he said. “There’s no Reagan or Thatcher or other things you may expect. It’s more pop culture of that time, what it’s like to be that age at the time comic stores are sort of first appearing.”
“Marvel 1985” was originally meant to hits stores three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of its titular year. Millar pitched, wrote and finished the series almost two and a half years ago. What’s held up his tale of comic book characters invading the real world was the struggle to find the best way to present it. Millar originally envisioned “1985” as a photo novel. “The way I considered the story was that it was a comic book set in the real world and I was trying to find the best way to articulate the real world,’ Millar said. “Originally, photos seemed like the best idea. I thought nobody has ever tried that on a serious superhero story before. But we weren’t sure if the technology really was there yet. In the samples we had done the real people looked great, but the minute you saw someone dressed as Spider-Man, it could only be compared to the budget of the million dollar Toby Maguire films. So I understood why Marvel wanted to try another approach.”
The approach Marvel went with was to have Millar’s script be brought to life by artist Tommy Lee Edwards, which delighted the writer. “I’ve always been a huge fan of his,” Millar said. “His style is actually very photographic anyway. Things could have not turned out better because he’s given the series a real eerie quality. It feels like a Stephen King story horror story. The atmosphere is just brilliant.”
Millar has found “Marvel 1985” to be an immensely satisfying work and believes it’s probably the best thing he’s done since coming to work for Marvel. “I’m pleased with quite a few of my projects,” he said. “I’m pleased with ‘Ultimates,’ ‘Ultimates 2,’ ‘Fantastic Four’ and a lot of other things. But I think this project is the one I’d be happiest for my Marvel years to be remembered for.
“I think it’s coming along at exactly the right time because right now superheroes are all fairly cynical and controversial. They’re all fighting each other and have some unlikable traits,” Millar continued. “And there’s something very pure about this. It really reminds you of the comics of your childhood without being old fashioned. Because you’re seeing them done in a whole new way it makes you remember why you love Marvel Comics. It’s terrifying, but it’s also heartwarming; quite an unusual change of pace for me.”