Mark Millar's new book SUPERIOR is about a young boy with multiple sclerosis who is offered the deal of a lifetime: receive limitless super powers in exchange for his own soul. The book is big departure for Millar, who often churns out darker, more violent fare. One of the big surprises of the book is how poignant and hopeful it is. Yes, you're reading a comic book filled with flying superheroes who blast villains with lazer eyes, but at the close you've experienced a redemptive story that challenges you to live life a little bit better. Pop culture goodies like graphic novels aim to entertain but rarely inspire. SUPERIOR is an exception to that rule, and I can't recommend this gem of a comic enough.
Ok, mini-review over. Let's get on to the interview.
BELIEFNET: So why is it important for you to incorporate faith into your work?
MARK: Whenever you write something, whenever you write anything, you draw on your life experiences. So without even meaning to, I feel like every story I do has lots of little things from my life. Kick-Ass [about a 14-year old boy who decides to become a Batman-like superhero, except without all the money] was a kind of easy one, because it was a plan I had when I was 14 years old. I was going to the gym and my friends and I were starting karate and we were planning to dress up and be superheroes and genuinely go out and help people.
BN: Oh, that sounds like a GREAT idea…
MARK: (laughing) The thing is that you can almost see that working in New York, but in rural Scotland it wasn’t exactly like we were going to be fighting with the Kingpin. I was so into Frank Miller comics and Alan Moore comics, I was reading The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One and Watchmen, and the whole realistic superhero thing was so exciting to me, that I found I wanted to do it in real life. So Kick Ass kind of drew on that. But even in very subtle ways bits from your life will come into your work. Kick Ass’ mom died at the age my mom died, you know when I was 14 years old. These little subtle things come into your stories and maybe the readers don’t even realize. And because faith, and Christianity, has always been a part of my life since I was born, since my baptism, I guess, I don’t even think about it being an unusual thing to include...Church might be a part of your character’s week, in the same way going to a job Monday to Friday is...And you know, I feel a little bit offended when I see how Catholicism or Christianity is portrayed in the media. And so I try and address that a little in my work. I don’t try and ram it down people’s throats or anything, I think that’s kind of weird in and of itself, but in a very relaxed way. [For example], Captian America in The Ultimates. I had a scene where he was in church praying, and Captain American is probably a protestant so I had him in an Episcopalean church in the States. I will just very subtly throw a lot of this stuff into my stories. I quite like going against what everyone else is doing, and because everyone else is very secular, to me it feels quite cool to be doing something that goes so far in the other direction. For the last 30 or 40 years everything has been very secular and so I quite like being anti-establishment and it's quite weird that Christianity is the most radical thing you could be right now.
BN: It’s interesting to talk to someone from Europe who’s actually a practicing Catholic.
MARK: And very relaxed about it! It's just a very fundamental part of my life. And I think it drew me to comics a little bit as well, because if you think about it, the Bible, and especially the New Testament, is about a man coming from the sky and performing miracles and standing up against the status quo. The story of Jesus really is, without sounding too crass, kind of like a superhero story. A lot of comics mythology is drawn from the old and new testament, Superman very overtly. Even the idea of Superman’s rocket being fired off from Krypton is very similar to the Moses story. So I think there is a definite relationship between comic books and Christianity, superheroes and Christianity, and there always will be. The altruistic idea of a guy going out and trying to help other people and not caring about self, that appeals to both Christians and superhero fans.
BN: Not to ask you to name names, but were there any moments when working on the bigger titles where you had written something about faith or God and you were forced to take it out?
MARK: Oh yeah, definitely, and I can give you a definite example that I don’t mind sharing. I remember I had this little scene, (I wrote a Superman story years back, it was Superman Adventures #36. I still remember because it was a good little story) and it started with this little kid kneeling down by his bedside and saying a little prayer. His dog had gone missing and he was crying and he was just saying, “Please God, let Dad find my dog.” And Superman is flying past at that moment and he’s actually tuning in to a thousand different problems in the world. He goes and stops terrorists on one side of the country, and he flies to Paris and he delivers a heart transplant and stuff like that, all the things he’s hearing with his superhearing. He’s solving all these massive problems, all the way up to a space station in trouble, a really major event. And the story ends with the kid waking up and the dog sitting by his bed, and Superman has heard him as well as everything else, and the kid obviously thinks it’s God who’s delivered the dog. And I was told by DC [Comics] that you can’t have a kid praying. And I was like, “Why not?” And they said because it would be offensive to people who aren’t Christian. And I said who in their right mind is going to write a letter to DC because they’re so offended that this kid is praying? And they said, "Trust me, someone will be annoyed by it." So I had to remove it. And in the end I had to have the kid talking to Superman, “Superman, I know you have super hearing, and I hope you can hear me.” And it was just the most ridiculous politically correct thing I’ve ever had to do.
BN: A lot of your work is based on experiences from when you were a kid. Like the boy with multiple sclerosis in Superior, did you ever wish some entity would come out of the sky and say, “Now you are Superman!” and bestow you with powers?
MARK: Absolutely. There were two ways to become a superhero as far as I was concerned. You had to train hard, like Batman, or superpowers were going to be bestowed upon you somehow, like Green Lantern. And I was kind of hoping for the latter because I didn’t really want to do all that training (laughing).
That was 18 years ago That would have been 18 years of training! But the idea of someone just showing up with a magic ring, that’s every kids dream. My older brother, who’s 14 years older than me, he told me when I was four, and I have such a clear memory of it, “Don’t tell mum and dad that I’ve told you, but you actually have superpowers.” And I said really? And he said, “Yup. You’re going to get all the powers of Sueprman when you turn seven, on your seventh birthday.
BN: Your brother is awful!
MARK: So I kept it secret for three years, and I remember smiling to myself thinking, “This is going to be amazing!” And I remember on my seventh birthday sort of thinking that it might not be true, but I remember being really excited to get up and going to the end of my bed and trying to lift my bed, and I couldn’t do it. And I realized he was lying. And he’d even forgotten that he’d told me this.
BN: Here’s a silly, but also serious question. If you were offered the same choice as Simon in Superior, be a superman in exchange for your soul, would it be an easy decision to make or would you actually have to think about it?
MARK: It’s interesting because that’s the dilemma that I was writing. For me it would be an easy decision: I absolutely wouldn’t take the powers, because my life actually is pretty nice. I’m lucky to be healthy and I have a great family and a job that I love and everything. So I was actually thinking, what type of person maybe would be tempted? To be in such an amazing physical state like a superhero, you’d kind of have to be the polar opposite, you’d have to be so ravaged by illness that it would actually be tempting. It would have to be someone quite young, too. Because if you’re ravaged by illness when you’re older, you’ve at least lived your life. But to start out life as a disabled child, and then to be given this opportunity, it would be very, very tempting then. And that’s where the character of Simon came from, this kid with multiple sclerosis, and I thought that I could understand his dilemma. In the book part of his heroism is that he’s choosing the powers, not for his own gain, but to try and help other people.
BN: Without giving too much away, did you always know he which choice he would make at the end? To either keep the powers and lose his soul, or to go back to a life of sickness?
MARK: Actually, no. It’s funny because I’ve been through quite a lot of drafts...It’s kind of an unhappy ending, not a Steven Spielberg ending...So I had to go through some other twists and turns, without giving too much away, he does give it up for the right reasons. But in the end everything turns on its head and he [has to make some hard decisions]. Have you read the whole thing?
BN: Oh yes.
MARK: So even though he’s [suffering], it still seems quite upbeat at the end. Did you get that feeling when you read it?
BN: As I got to the end, it felt hopeful, I think is the word, although it's definitely bittersweet. It’s easy when reading about sick children, especially when you have your own kids, to be overwhelmed by the horror of that. But I definitely felt, at the end, that there was a hopeful element to it.
MARK: Even if his body does continue to get sick, it’s kind of about coming to terms with it almost, in a way that he wasn’t at the beginning. And he inspires other people by being Superior, but in turn that inspires him to be able to handle the hand he’s been given. You know it wasn’t an easy story, but I think that people have really responded to it, maybe more than anything else I’ve ever written. And I’ve been very lucky and had a lot of big hits, like with Kick-Ass and The Ultimates, but out of everything I’ve written the one that’s gone down the best with fans has been Superior.