Mark Millar is the comic book genius behind some of the world’s best-selling superhero titles and the hit Kingsman film series, starring Colin Firth and Taron Egerton.
Unusually for Hollywood, he has always been a practising Catholic and so his new television project, reimagining the clash between Heaven and Hell in the modern world, is particularly close to his heart.
New Netflix series The Chosen One tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who discovers he has miraculous powers. Realising he may be the resurrected Jesus Christ, he goes on the run in Mexico as sinister forces gather to destroy him.
Millar based it on his graphic novel American Jesus. While colleagues assumed he was planning a typically irreverent satire, it turns out the 53-year-old had a different plan.
“I liked the way Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ treated Christian mythology with respect,” he says. “It also made Marvel-level movie money on a fraction of the cost at just $35million and I think audiences responded to the way he handled the story seriously.”
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Millar says he’s seen too many films where serious subjects are ridiculed, and he finds this approach “boring”. “There’s nothing brave about doing that to a religion based on turning the other cheek,” he adds. “I wanted to do the Book of Revelation and play it totally straight.”
Millar was brought up in the west of Scotland in the working-class community of Coatbridge, ten miles east of Glasgow.
“My part of the world was very Catholic growing up,” he recalls. “In my class, there were 32 kids and all but two of them went to church on Sunday. Twelve of us were altar boys. Three hundred people would attend mass on Sunday and there’d be four services. I didn’t realise the rest of the world didn’t go to mass until I got older.”
When his graphic novels became best-sellers and attracted movie interest, he was catapulted into Hollywood.
“I remember going to a dinner party with 14 people in the Hollywood Hills. The chat moved onto religion and almost everyone was an atheist. There were a couple of buddhists at the table and even a guy from the music industry who said he was a Satanist, which didn’t seem to shock anyone.
“But when I said I was a Catholic and took the kids to mass, everybody’s jaws hit the floor. They all thought I was kidding because my work is generally so outrageous and I kind of like that. Even the Satanist guy was shocked. It was the most outrageous thing he’d ever heard.”
Originally set in the American Midwest, Netflix decided to base The Chosen One series in Mexico. “I thought that was genius, because religion is still an everyday part of life there,” says Millar.
But how does religious belief find a market in a world populated by superheroes?
“They actually always felt very connected when I was wee,” he explains. “As a boy, I did a painting for my mum of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a red robe over his shoulders – and I thought, ‘This looks like Superman’s cape’.
“It must have been the most muscle-bound Jesus ever, but my mum still put it up. He looked like the Hulk. A superhero is a guy who tries to help people and there’s a constant element of self-sacrifice so the two ideals didn’t feel so far apart. I found the same ethos in Marvel Comics I found in a Catholic school.”
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As an altar boy, Millar saw the appeal of Catholicism first hand.
“A lot of old ladies would stay long after the mass in prayer and the priest told me they were all widows, hoping to see their husbands again. Even as a kid I thought that was an important function in the community. A place where you felt a link to someone you’d lost and who told you that you’re only temporarily apart.
“I saw it get people through hard times. It’s optimism, I guess. The notion that there’s more than all this we see around us; that’s critical for the human spirit. All cultures have a faith for this reason.”
Millar’s love of comic book superheroes came early. At the age of seven, he wanted to dress as Spider-Man but shop-bought costumes were not available in those days.
“We had to make our own, so I took a magic marker and drew Spider-Man’s webs on to my face,” he remembers. “It was great but when I came home and tried to clean it, it didn’t come off. This was a week before my first Holy Communion and photographs of it still show the outline of Spider-Man’s face.”
The youngest of six brothers and sisters, it was his older brother Bobby who bought him his first comic books. “I love newsagents and I always made sure I got in at 5.20pm, just before closing time on a Thursday afternoon when the new comics first arrived.”
At first he wanted both to illustrate and write superhero stories. “At 18 I went on the overnight bus from Glasgow to London to visit DC Comics who were looking for new talent but I soon realised how good professional artists really are so I ditched my maths jotters with copied pictures of Spider-Man and Batman and pitched a story instead.”
Story writing commissions followed and he took over the long-running Swamp Thing horror series for DC Comics, publishers of his beloved Batman and Superman.
A few years later, he hit the big time with his Superman: Red Son trilogy which reimagined Superman brought up in the Communist world.
Around the same time, Millar was poached by Marvel, main rivals of DC Comics. He revamped the X-Men characters and re-envisioned characters who had fallen slightly out of favour like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk.
This revamp proved so successful – one of Marvel’s best-sellers for five years – they used it as the template for the Marvel movies and the storyline for the first Avengers movie. His Marvel Civil War series remains the company’s biggest selling graphic novel of all time just as his Superman: Red Son book is the highest selling Superman graphic novel in history.
On the advice of legendary Marvel publisher Stan Lee, Millar set up Millarworld, his own independent company, in order to create his own franchises. Out of that came the successful Kingsman and Kick-Ass movies.
Traditionally, comic book authors have earned very little from their world-famous characters. “Watching the terrible treatment of writers and artists in the past encouraged my generation of guys to think that is not going to happen again,” Millar explains.
“I built up a big audience at Marvel then took them on to my own company’s characters. You can make a great living writing other people’s characters, but it’s a fraction of what you earn on your own and you keep all the movie and toy rights too.
“The artists and I have 100 per cent ownership of Kingsman and Kick-Ass. I’ve always done a 50/50 split with the guys
who drew the books so when I sold the company I gave half to the artists, some of them netting more than they’d earned in 10 years for just a handful of issues. Some just retired!”
The Millarworld sale to Netflix in 2017 for undisclosed multi-millions was the biggest media deal in Scottish history. He got on so well with Netflix during the sale, co-founder Reed Hastings invited him to join as senior executive, and both he and his wife Lucy now run the department which handles his adaptations into TV and film.
Now based west of London, in 2013 he was awarded an MBE for his services to British film and literature. Not bad for a boy from the Glasgow suburbs. Just like the star of his new series, he’s now discovering his superpowers.
- Mark Millar’s The Chosen One is screened on Netflix from August 16
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