Jan 25 2012 by Robert Mitchell, Airdrie & Coatbridge
Mark Millar at Coatbridge Library
“I had a cat, and the cat and I ate on alternate days. There wasn’t enough cash for me to eat every day”
IT’S the late 1980s and, in a pokey flat in Coatbridge, a young writer who dreams of breaking into comic books hasn’t eaten that day because money is so tight.
Fast forward to 2000 and Mark Millar is meeting the Advertiser in a pub in the town ahead of his big break with industry giants Marvel.
Over a pint of Guinness, he’s revealing an ambitious plan to parlay success there into creator-owned titles that he will retain control of.
Now, little more than a decade later, his conveyor belt of hit comics have become a Hollywood ideas factory – the first two movies based on his work grossing $450million at the box office alone, and another eight are in the pipeline. Not only that, he has formed a production company to create his own films and TV shows.
Millar was in his home town recently – at the new Coatbridge Library – for North Lanarkshire Council’s Words 2011 book festival and explained to local people who turned up to hear him talk that the setting was a reminder of his early struggles to make it in the world of comic books.
“The old Coatbridge Library was a big part of my life,” he said. “My parents had died, I was living on my own in a tiny flat and had no money to pay basic rent.
“I had a cat, and the cat and I ate alternate days. There wasn’t enough money for me to eat every day. Hunger is a brilliant motivator, it genuinely is.
“I used to sit in lectures as a student and write down ideas and then come to the library, which had an old typewriter up in the records department, and sit and write proposals.
“I sold a series called The Saviour and I got £240 for my first script. I remember it exactly because it was so important.
“You’re writing for your life, because you realise there’s no other option and you have to make some money fast.
“I wanted to be an artist as well but I chose writing because I couldn’t afford art materials, but the typewriter in the library was free.
“I would sit there and do almost a script a day. I got tons of rejections but there wasn’t any alternative, it was the 1980s, there were no other jobs around, I was dropping out of university and there was no choice. It was either that or nothing.”
Millar had been one of Marvel’s top writers for more than a decade, reinventing old favourites like the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to huge acclaim.
He also formed his own company, MillarWorld, featuring characters he created. Wanted and Kick-Ass led the way and have already been adapted into successful Hollywood films.
Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn is currently working on the movie’s sequel as well as other Millar books, Superior and The Secret Service.
Top Gun director Tony Scott is set to direct the big-screen version of Nemesis, while Universal Pictures are backing War Heroes and Wanted 2. Oscar-nominated director Nacho Vigalondo is behind Supercrooks and Millar’s own production company is prepping American Jesus.
“I did 10 years at Marvel and I was doing MillarWorld part-time,’ continued Millar. “I’m full-time MillarWorld now.
“We’re using the movies as a $100m advert for the books. The books are where it all begins.It’s not a stepping stone at all, we want to do the books. The books sell better if there are movies out there. It’s absolutely crazy the numbers a book will do if there’s a film attached to it.
“I got bit by the comic -creator bug, which is to create your own characters. Once you’ve done that, it’s hard to go back. I worked on the Iron Man movie and I’ve done some work with the Avengers line-up of characters that are being made into a movie just now.
“It’s nice and it gives you a satisfaction to see that happen but I know I’m just a cog, and even the guys who created these characters were replaced.
“ Then I did Wanted and I realised no one could come in and do a poor sequel, or if they did it would be me that was going to ruin it.
“It’s like giving birth, you’re creating something that didn’t exist before.”
Renowned sculptor Andy Scott recently unveiled an archway beside the Monkland Canal, public art that was partly inspired by Millar’s work, and the writer is delighted his home town is becoming associated with superheroes, saying: “Coatbridge gave me comics,” insisted the 41-year-old.
“There were seven shops – and I know this because I used to go around them every Saturday – that sold Marvel and DC comics.
“I lived in Townhead and would have to walk as far as Carlin’s at the canal to get DC comics and then there was a procession of shops up to Airdrie.
“To me, the town is synonymous with comics because my childhood memories are of playing Spider-Man with my pals.
“These shops dotted around, to me, it kind of felt like Gotham City or Metropolis, it’s where Spider-Man lived in a weird way.
“I love the fact now that, because I come from Coatbridge, the town is sort of semi-associated with comics. For me, it always was – and I like the fact it is now for other people too.”
Millar revealed to the audience he almost put Coatbridge on the map with a vampire show, saying: “It was in 1999 and I remember thinking I had to get some work because the comics industry was going through a little trough at the time.
“I sold a thing to Channel 4, it was a vampire series set in Coatbridge. It was called Sikeside because I always thought Sikeside was a great word.
“I couldn’t believe that I literally sold this thing without even trying. I couldn’t believe my luck.
“I got this big cheque and banked it, then the department that commissioned it went bust and they never asked for the money back.
“So hopefully it will never get made because then I’ll have to finish the scripts... I probably shouldn’t have said that!”