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The Canny 'X' Men: An interview with Grant Morrison and Mark Millar
Grant Morrison and Mark Millar are at the cutting edge of comics today. They're also on the cutting edge of sanity.
It's been a hell of a year for the two longstanding friends, as they have both been working on the X-Men, regarded as one of the best gigs in the comic world. Millar got there first with the new ULTIMATE X-MEN series, while Morrison and Joe Casey were assigned to take over the existing titles.
Ninth Art caught up with them at Glasgow's Princes Square. Theoretically it was to be a conversation about comics but, as one friend of Grant's warned us in advance; "You'll know when he's lying or winding you up - his lips are moving and his brain goes all over the place."
An interview with the pair of them is like a battle for the open mike, with the rakish pin-eyed Morrison throwing in constant one-liners while Millar makes the smart comments. Chatting with them is an impossible task, as they veer off on tangents whenever it suits them. So, we present for you the phenomenon that is Morrison and Millar in conversation.
At the time of the interview, Millar had been planning to move to the US, but a prolonged illness gave him time to reconsider, and the presidency of George W Bush has given him further pause, though a move is still a possibility. Wherever he goes, he'll need to get his passport back, as it was taken away from him in January.
"I've not been able to travel abroad since the start of the year, and I had a lot of freebies lined up as well, but, get this: I had to hand in my passport. I dunno why, I just had to. I bet they've gave it someone like Muhammed al Fayed to go and play about with. But I've been checked out, and as far as I know there's no problems with me entering the country."
"What about your war crimes?" asks Morrison.
"All exonerated," says Millar. "Bosnia was me!"
Who has Millar's passport is a question for another day, but one question that everyone's wanting to know is how did the writers of some of DC's greatest comics (between them they have worked on JLA, BATMAN, SUPERMAN, FLASH, ANIMAL MAN, DOOM PATROL, THE INVISIBLES and SWAMP THING) end up writing for the competition at Marvel?
Even they're not sure.
"You cannot believe what's going on in there," says Millar. "It's lunatics taking over the asylum and it's great for writers like us. I don't know about the House of Ideas having become the house of madness - it should be called house of ill-repute."
"Everybody's acting pally," adds Morrison. "At DC, where I had a lot of pals, but there was a sense of the upper echelon being ... a bit fucking weird," he laughs, "but you didn't go drinking with them, but at Marvel you're looking for the boss and you can't work out who that is.
"Marvel has a tiger in its building and Hulk condoms on the wall. It's a mad place. I'll be honest, I'm the last person on the planet who thought he'd be doing this. I never thought I'd be doing the X-Men. I had no interest in this and I thought I'd only ever do it if there was a way I could do exactly what I want with it and that's what has happened. Before it would have been impossible, but now I'm seizing that opportunity.
"Put it this way, last X-meeting I was at we had Joe Casey shouting, 'I want some of those mutant whores on my team,' and that's just a typical comment now."
"X-whores is a good title," claims Millar.
"No it's not," argues Morrison. "That's disgusting. This is for children. You're aff yer heid. You shouldn't be allowed out. Are you a billy or a tim?"
What they are is bonkers, but they're having a great time with it. One of the appeals of working at Marvel is getting to work with Marvel's characters.
"We're now getting to come up with great ideas and developments for characters like Ant-Man and Iron Man," notes Millar, whose second Ultimate title, a twist on the Avengers simply called THE ULTIMATES, launches in the new year. "I mean, Iron Man's just another character, but now Marvel are letting us go in some great directions with him.
"Was he not an alcoholic?" Morrison interjects. "I always thought he was called Iron Man because he had an iron liver.
"But that's what I'm doing with the X Men. Taking them back to the basics. For example, Cyclops, Wolverine, you can tell what these people are just by their names."
Millar agrees. "That's all I've tried to do is make things what they were. I've tried to strip them back..."
"Naked X-Men!" says Morrison.
"Eww. Would Cyclops' eye beam out of anywhere else?" ponders Millar.
"His arse? Arseclops?"
With Millar's ULTIMATE X-MEN, the stories are written as if they were happening today. For long-time comic readers there have been comparisons made to DC's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTH event of the eighties.
"Well, it's not really like CRISIS," says Millar, "it's more like..."
"A shoe," suggests Morrison. "It's a sturdy brogue, suitable to be worn in all weather."
"But a ladies or a gents?"
"I saw it as a gents."
If Millar does decide to leave Glasgow, Morrison will be left behind. Does that bother him? "I'm tempted often to go [to the US], but never yielded. I might, I might, who knows. It's like I keep saying to him, the way Britain's going I'm going to be like the last Jew in Germany if I don't get out soon. I mean, everybody else is leaving."
For many in the comics world, Millar only came into the high-profile when he took over Warren Ellis' AUTHORITY, combining politics with graphic super-hero action. His run has been well acclaimed, but ran into scheduling and artist problems during the past year, prompting DC/Wildstorm to schedule a four part story in-between parts one and two of his last story on the title.
And the well-mannered thirtysomething writer isn't happy about it.
"I think it's the most stupidest idea in the world, but there's nothing I can do about it. As a writer, all you can do is type up the pages, make it look as good as you can, and hope they don't fuck it up on a number of levels, and one of those is that the artists, and another is the publishing schedules.
"I've been quite happy with the artists and the publishing schedules have always been good, but this is the first time something as ludicrous like this has happened. Something like 10 months between parts one and two, but it's out of my hands. All I can do is withhold the work or go and work elsewhere. They told me they were bringing in a new story and all I could do was recommend a writer, and I suggested Tom, but that's all I do."
One of Morrison's biggest works ahead of coming to X-MEN was DC Vertigo's THE INVISIBLES, a multi-layered comic that has been accused of being everything from groundbreaking brilliance to pretentious twaddle. It's about a group of terrorists who fight against a fake reality because none of it is real. Sound familiar to THE MATRIX fans? It should, and Morrison's still sore about it.
"I know they saw it. Ultimately, I was angry because they got millions and I didn't. But what can you do? I wanted those ideas and images to be out there and that's what's happened."
"Don't you think the minute you put something in a public forum it's fair game?" asks Millar.
"I don't think it's fair game. Not as closely as that. EXISTENZ came out at the same time, and it's similar, but it's not as close as MATRIX is to INVISIBLES.
"I was pissed off because this is a culture where ideas are currency and money and it's bad not be credited. It wouldn't have hurt for them to say, 'If you liked this, go and read THE INVISIBLES, because we really liked it'. Comics need the exposure, and it wouldn't have hurt them and would have helped us a lot. If they're going to source comics then they should name the source.
"INVISIBLES was the best thing I did in the nineties," says Morrison. "No one has even got a grasp of what I was trying to do with it yet. People have got some angles, but I think it's astonishing and I don't mean that as a boast. That book was being channelled through me. It will be understood by 18-year-olds ten years from now, but it's not for any current audience. "
It's when you get the two writers talking about the fate of comics that, for the most part, the bantering drops. While they project fun, they view entertainment as a serious business, and they've put some thought into it. One thing they've thought a lot about is the suggestion that superheroes are an outdated concept, that is ruining the medium.
"There's room for everything, if it sells good," says Morrison, "but if it doesn't, then get rid of it. ... Superheroes are not a genre - they fit into all genres. You can do superhero crime, superhero romance...anything at all as long as it done good.
"People are buying comics because that's where they see superheroes being done right. Comics are in for a good time. It moves in cycles, and this saying the industry is failing is a sad self-serving thing, as if they want it to."
"Also, this gives people an excuse for their stuff not selling," Millar adds. "Things have bottomed out. The decline has stopped. If there was a decline, then it would be universal."
"Also, the dross is getting dropped out for the good stuff to come in," says Morrison. "I'm more interested in the next ten years. We're doing the top end stuff like X-MEN, and we're doing our own stuff because we should be selling the medium as a whole, not as fragments. ... Doing what folk call mass market doesn't stop you doing anything else - do it all but do it good."
"It's your moral responsibility to be reaching the mass audience, doing as much as you can to get it out there and reach new people," says Millar. "Avante garde is something you won't make a lot of money from, by its very nature, and retailers can only afford the avant garde if they are making money from the mass market titles like THE X-MEN.
"We should support the mainstream, because they are hitting the public in the big shops, and from there we might get people into the specialist shops where we can tell people they can get the comics they want from months in advance."
"Arthouse will never be mainstream," insists Morrison. "There is a co-existence. If Arthouse took over it would be mainstream.
"Let's just fix the entire industry.
"Support what you like. If you don't like the X-Men, don't come to me and tell me it's not like JIMMY CORRIGAN. Of course it's not like JIMMY CORRIGAN. JC is JC, and I'm writing the X-Men. It's a different book."
So what else do they have planned for the next ten years, apart from fighting for comics?
"Imagine Armani, Martin Scorsese, me and Grant taking over a small American country," says Millar. "Do you think it could go like Nazi Germany?"
Which country would they invade? "Sorry," says Millar, "we're not giving advance notice."
"Who wants a country?" asks Morrison, "I won't be happy with anything less than an orbiting satellite."
"It wouldn't be bad. We're like liberal versions of Hitler. If Hitler hadn't had right wing policies or extermination, then he'd be us basically - artists taking over the world."
Morrison notes; "We think that's the most interesting and humorous things about the Third Reich - amongst so many humorous things about them - is that you had a bunch of artists given carte blanche to run a country. It was failed artists. Everything looked fantastic. It was branded, it was designer.
"But I don't know about Scorsese. It would have to be more upbeat."
This bantering and pontificating is all part of the act, of course. Isn't it?
"I've been accused of being a lot of things and having all these mad personas," says Morrison, "but at the end of the day it's just ways of getting promoted and publicity for the comics. I'm not any of the people that have been my so-called public personas. I couldn't be and wouldn't want to be. The Grant Morrison sitting here isn't the Grant Morrison that does all the same things as others - visiting parents and so on."
"Speak for yourself," says Millar. "I'm like this all the time."
Craig McGill is a journalist who has written for Time, The Guardian, the Daily Express and the Sunday Mirror.
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