The premise of Nemesis was simple.
“Nemesis is a reversal of the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark archetype,” its author Mark Millar told an interviewer just before the comic came out in 2010. “What if this genius billionaire was just this total shit, and the only thing that stood between him and a city was the cops?”
The execution was as horrifying as the set-up was straightforward. The titular protagonist—a twist on a paradigm beloved by hundreds of millions of moviegoers and comics readers—spent four issues committing crimes that the Marquis de Sade would have been hard-pressed to stomach. Take, for example, what he did to the son and daughter of his rival, a big-city police chief. After Nemesis kidnaps them and releases them as part of a bargain, doctors find out not only did he impregnate the daughter with the son’s sperm but he also, as one doctor explains, “rigged your daughter’s womb to completely collapse if we attempt a termination.”
Welcome to the twisted imagination of Mark Millar, where all facets of the superhero genre are fair game for subversion. Right now, the 43-year-old Scotsman’s name means little outside the comics-geek world, but that’s likely to change as he devotes himself to superhero movies. The latest film adaptation of one of his comics, Kick-Ass 2, hits screens on August 16. The Avengers and the Iron Man trilogy were profoundly shaped by his work. And last year, he became Fox’s chief creative consultant for all of its Marvel superhero flicks, including the entire X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises. By decade’s end, he’ll have had more of his creations translated into movie form than any comics writer other than Stan Lee.
In other words, Millar has done something insanely rare for any medium: He has become its most shocking deconstructionist and its most successful advocate. Critics say he brings out the worst in his readers and viewers; champions say he’s a canny genius who has reinvented his genre.
“It would be really easy for me to write four or five books every month where it's the same thing every month: villain drops in and Spider-Man beats him up,” Millar told me. “But I always like to push it and see something I've never seen before.”
Millar’s most successful books are built around provocative elevator pitches. What if Superman’s spaceship had landed in Soviet Ukraine and he’d become a Communist? Read 2003’s Superman: Red Son to find out. What if the U.S. government started giving away superpowers as a recruitment tool? Check out 2008’s War Heroes and see the carnage that ensues. What if all the Marvel heroes had a zombie virus? What if all the DC supervillains teamed up and actually succeeded in taking over the world?
And what if a real-world teenager, one with no superpowers whatsoever, decided to don a costume and fight crime? That’s the setup of the Kick-Ass franchise, Millar’s golden goose. Even by Millar standards, it’s a gory shockfest. It follows the adventures of protagonist Dave (aka Kick-Ass) and his partner in crime-fighting, a prepubescent girl named Mindy (aka Hit-Girl).
Mindy is prone to calling people “cunts” and decapitating them, the bad guys are prone to gunning down children in the middle of the street, and an eager public watches it all in viral YouTube videos. The first volume of the story hit shelves in 2008 and became a runaway hit, spawning a very profitable film adaptation in 2010. The silver-screen adaptation of the second volume—starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Jim Carrey—is nearing the end of a month-long publicity blitz from Universal. The movie’s violence even brought premature publicity in June, when Carrey announced he wouldn’t promote the film out of respect for victims of the Sandy Hook massacre.
In a phone interview from his home in Glasgow, Millar said his provocative approach stems from a pair of comics he read when he was six: one starring Spider-Man and one starring Superman.
“The Superman comic, the front cover was Clark Kent leaving Superman and walking away like, 'I'm not gonna do this anymore,’ and that was a quite shocking image,” he recalled. “And in the other, Norman Osborn was killed by Spider-Man, and Spider-Man has accidentally killed his girlfriend, and then he goes home and finds his best friend out of his mind on LSD.”
“These are the best first comics you could possibly have!” he said with a laugh. “There's part of me that wants that outrageousness.”
Millar’s 25-year career has been defined by outrageousness, right from the start: His first comic, published at age 20, was about a superhero who turns out to be the antichrist. After toiling for various UK comics publishers, Millar got a shot at the big leagues in 1994, writing American titles for DC Comics.
But it wasn’t until 2000 that his rise turned meteoric. He started writing The Authority, a franchise already known for ultraviolence. The series followed a superteam who took on the world’s biggest threats and weren’t afraid to kill anyone who got in the way of justice. Millar took the series to new heights of audaciousness and satire: In his 13 issues on the title, the superteam confronted the Clinton administration, battled thinly veiled parodies of famous Marvel heroes (who were depicted as racists, rapists, and literal baby-killers), and celebrated as two gay team-members adopted a child together. When Millar wanted to push the envelope even further (for example, showing a villain based on David Beckham get ready to screw a corpse), DC censored his work and he left.
Luckily for Millar, he’d become a sensation among fans and creators alike, almost entirely due to his work on The Authority and the notoriety it gained in the still-nascent world of online comics forums. Once he parted with DC, Marvel Comics eagerly snatched him up. Marvel’s vice president at the time, Bill Jemas, was looking for writers who could do comics “more the way movies are written,” and he had loved Millar’s work on The Authority. “Mark was jaw-droppingly creative on so many levels,” Jemas told me.
Throughout the ’00s, he wrote some of Marvel’s best-selling stories and radically reinvented characters such as the X-Men, Captain America, and Nick Fury. For example, Nick Fury–Marvel’s premier superspy—had been depicted as a white grizzled World War II vet for decades; but Millar transformed him into a young, black, smooth-talking Gulf War hero. (Years later, that decision to make Fury black had multimillion-dollar consequences when Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine-picture deal to play the big-screen version of the character.) Millar soon became a fan favorite in the Marvel stable, praised for meshing the dark satire of his earlier work with the technicolor wonder of the Marvel universe.
Though those Marvel tales were ambitious, Millar reserved his most shocking ideas for Millarworld, a brand he created in 2004. At Millarworld, he could have the rights to his own characters, pick his own artists, and work without censorship. Kick-Ass was one of his early Millarworld successes, as was Wanted, a story about a comics geek who joins a secret group of supervillains who can rape and murder without ever being caught.
In pushing Millarworld, he developed a remarkable knack for self-promotion. He interacted with fans on his website, Millarworld.tv. He gave great soundbites to comics journalists. He came up with attention-grabbing taglines on his comics’ covers (“SICKENING VIOLENCE: JUST THE WAY YOU LIKE IT!” screamed the blurb on one Kick-Ass issue). All of this personal branding has allowed him to take control of his career: He hasn’t written a non-Millarworld comic since 2011.
Today, he’s at the height of his influence and he owns all of the work he writes. Not even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could ever claim that.
As you might expect, Millar’s take-no-prisoners approach has drawn near-constant criticism. It’s come not just from moral crusaders but also diehard comics fans who say that, instead of deconstructing superhero comics, he’s actually reinforced some of the genre’s worst impulses. Indeed, the criticisms often come from the liberal end of the political spectrum: His work has been called classist, racist, and sexist.
“Millar does indeed have a history of producing work which represents less powerful groups in an insensitive, and often deeply insensitive, manner,” said Colin Smith, a comics scholar who is writing a book about Millar’s work. “There are massive contradictions between his words and actions as a private citizen and the apparent politics of some of his books.”
Take some of his portrayals of women, for example. Millar has spoken out against the underrepresentation of female characters in comics, but his depictions of rape have alienated some readers. In Wanted, the sadistic protagonist gleefully commits rape over and over again, at one time bragging that he “raped an A-list celebrity and it didn’t even make the news.” In The Authority, a Captain America analog rapes two unconscious women. In issue four of Kick-Ass 2, a group of bad guys finds the young hero’s love interest, a teenaged girl named Katie, and brutally gang-rapes her.
“You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” the ringleader says, punching her and unzipping his fly, “it’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.”
Laura Hudson, the former editor-in-chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, thought that scene was deplorable, but typical of Millar. “There's one and only one reason that happens, and it's to piss off the male character,” she said. “It's using a trauma you don't understand in a way whose implications you can't understand, and then talking about it as though you're doing the same thing as having someone's head explode. You're not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don't understand, you shouldn't be writing rape scenes.”
Millar is of the exact opposite opinion, saying they are equivalent, and that his depictions of sexual violence are all part of his ongoing quest to push boundaries.
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”
Millar’s use of non-sexual violence is also vexing for critics. His over-the-top bloodshed is often intended as a lampoon of superhero violence, but a lot of readers and viewers eat it up without digesting the satire.
Millar is very critical of war and institutional violence. “Europeans tend to be pretty left-wing, and Scotland's always been a left-wing country, so I'm always suspicious of uniforms,” he told me. “I think it's quite interesting to write superheroes from the perspective of someone who's lost an empire, whereas American writers are still very gung-ho about that whole thing.”
That perspective on violence and power was most fully fleshed out in The Ultimates, which Millar wrote for Marvel in the mid-’00s. It was a radical re-imagining of Marvel’s flagship super-team, a private clubhouse of heroes called the Avengers. Millar’s series jettisoned the Avengers’ three-plus decades of continuity, renamed them “the Ultimates,” and made them a wing of the U.S. military. They saluted George W. Bush, forcibly disarmed Iran, and fought to defend neocon imperialism. In one oft-quoted scene, a bad guy demands that Captain America surrender. “Surrender? Surrender??!!” Cap replies, then points to the “A” on his helmet. “You think this letter on my head stands for France?”
As you might expect, the subversion and satire in the series was lost on many. But Millar, despite his political leanings, was only mildly perturbed by right-wing fan appropriation.
“People would say, 'I joined the army after reading The Ultimates because I wanted to make a difference in the Middle East,' and I was like, 'Well, I kinda meant the opposite of that,’” Millar recalled with a laugh. “And I kinda like that, though, because I do quite like it being open to interpretation.”
One interpretation, in particular, was very lucrative: the 2012 movie version of The Avengers. Millar had been a consultant on Iron Man, which began the filmic Avengers franchise, and the team in The Avengers film had a number of hallmarks borrowed from The Ultimates—the most important being that they were a government operation with a license to kill. But where Millar had been slyly subversive, the film was earnest—and therein lies a key problem of Millar’s influence, especially his growing cinematic influence, his critics say.
“The end result is something that, in a lot of cases, comes off as terribly fascistic in a way that it would not come off in an actual Mark Millar script,” said Julian Darius, a comics critic and longtime Millar reader. “And what advantage does he have to screw with that? It's not gonna help him sell the next movie.”
And selling movies is important for Millar these days. Indeed, he’s building Millarworld into a film empire. Wanted was adapted into film in 2008; two years later came the movie version of Kick-Ass. Together, they grossed just under half a billion dollars. Kick-Ass 2 hasn’t even hit screens yet, but Millar has already sold the rights to six more of his Millarworld titles. In these cinematic ventures, Millar sees his own future, and the future of the superhero genre.
“You can write as many comic books as you like, but it's really only a couple hundred thousand people reading that,” he said. “But if I can get a $50 million or $100 million movie out there, that's a great ad for my book. We've sold a million copies worldwide of Kick-Ass Vol. 1. That wasn't because of the comic. It was because the movie was selling. So it makes perfect sense. If Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] were starting Marvel now, they'd be doing what we're doing. They'd be capitalizing on Hollywood's comic book movies right now.”
So far, the film adaptations of Millarworld stories have been divisive among comics fans. Wanted barely retained any of the original comic’s ultraviolent deconstruction of superhero power fantasies and instead became a typical hero’s journey with a morally just ending. Kick-Ass stuck closer to the source material, but the characters became far less pathetic: The hero got the girl instead of being humiliated by her; and Mindy’s father/mentor was a brave cop, rather than the depraved and sadistic comics nerd he was in the original series. Nevertheless, Millar has hardly spoken a harsh word about either film, and it remains to be seen how much his future movies will diverge from their sources’ subversive edge. (Kick-Ass 2, Millar said in an email, does not feature Katie’s rape.)
Millar’s rise shows no signs of slowing. But he’s as successful as he is elusive and contradictory. For example, near the end of our conversation, I asked him if he thinks the superhero—an archetype he’s so relentlessly satirized and deconstructed—is a fundamentally screwed-up concept. “No, actually, quite the opposite!” he chirped back. “I think it's the best role model we could possibly have.”
“You have these perfect characters people can aspire towards and everything,” he went on. “But if you write that, it gets a little dull. I love the concept of superheroes. But if I write more than one superhero story, I've got to give them kinks.”
Abraham Riesman is a multimedia journalist based in New York City. You can see more of his work at abrahamriesman.com.