This Wednesday, writer Mark Millar and artist Rafael Albuquerque depart from the wise-cracking anti-heroes that Millar is known for throughout his work with Huck. On the heels of Chrononauts, which Millar created with Sean Murphy, Huck is another tone shift that shows creators ability to adapt to the desires of the marketplace, as well as tell great stories. Between comics and movies, Millar has proven to be not only a creator the public at large responds to, but someone willing to engage his fans online in a business savvy fashion. There are plenty of interviews that ask creators about their muse for stories, however not as many that ask about their business influences. So, Comicosity spoke with Millar about these types of business decisions he makes when it comes to creating comics.
Jessica Boyd: In the comic book industry there is a lot of discussion about creative intent and drive. However, there seems to be less public discussion about business savvy. How well do you think the average creator comes into comics prepared for business?
Mark Millar: Better than we have been historically, of course, but being on the front lines of this I still see people making a lot of uninformed and much too trusting decisions. It’s never, ever publicised and even some very well known creators openly ask you not to talk about it because they’re worried what it means for their future employment prospects, which is upsetting. But at the same time there’s no doubt we’re in a better place now than the generations before us where pretty much everyone didn’t own their creations and now a great many of us do. The problem, I think, is that as creators we’re always thinking about the work and therefore not reading the small print. We’re worried about deadlines and so perhaps not paying as much attention to how valuable these stories are in various mediums. But that’s changing of course and there’s no denying enormous progress.
JB: Did you have any formal business training when you began?
MM: I think the best training in anything is practical experience. Four years on film sets is better than four years in film school and it’s the same in comics. You quite quickly learn which companies are going to pay you and which will renege on a deal or lose your cheque or whatever. It’s the same if you’re a writer or a builder or an electrician. You learn the ropes by getting in the ring. But I’ve been very lucky. I’ve come close to having my creations stolen from me once or twice, but I have very good legal representation and learned pretty fast that I wouldn’t make a deal without sounding both them out and other people in the industry. Things that seem very small in the early days can be enormous. I did a video-game deal, for example, that one line in a sixty page contract meant the difference between getting paid and not getting paid. But you learn fast because you have to.
JB: As you’ve built your image or brand did interacting with comic shop owners ever factor in?
MM: The most important relationship for any company is with the people selling the product. A retailer actually told me this last year and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. She said to me that the readers don’t even get to SEE the books unless the retailer orders them and so the feedback and enthusiasm of the retail community is critical if you’re going to thrive. In terms of content, the reader is obviously your most important relationship, but in terms of business the retailer is God. I have a brain trust of about 20 retailers spread across America and the UK I run almost every decision past in these last ten years in particular. I talk about artists, I talk about characters, I talk about events that are working or why they’re not working. It’s really important to talk because these guys are your partners. You thrive or fail together. You can’t just exist in this little creative bubble. That’s suicide.
JB: What is more important: pursuing contacts, contracts, or building a fan base?
MM: That’s like asking if your brain, your heart or your liver is most important. The honest truth is you need all three to be efficient or you’re in trouble.
JB: You’ve had great success by diversifying your work to multiple mediums outside of comics. Do you feel that is a must for modern creators?
MM: It’s not only a must it’s almost irresponsible not to. From a business and a creative point of view. Your comics will benefit from multimedia exposure because more people will be aware of it. Our Millarworld trades always do good business, but the ones with movie tie-ins just go through the roof and really just a tiny fee from this goes to the companies publishing, almost everything to the creators, which is wonderful in an industry that has notoriously ripped creators off for close to a century now. If there’s toys and games and movies and clothes featuring your characters it’s very, very important you receive what you’re owed. If you don’t a big company will and if you don’t exploit multimedia another company will use your idea and exploit it for you. This has almost happened to me a couple of times. But I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t. Walking onto a movie set and seeing 300 people bringing your idea to life is amazing. Even outside of the business side of things it’s just a genuine thrill. It’s been a wonderful experience.
JB: What advantages and disadvantages do you feel working on projects outside of comics has afforded you in your comic work?
MM: I’ve never really worked on anything that wasn’t LINKED to a comic, whether it was consulting on a Marvel property or involved in the adaptation of one of my own books. I get offered stuff all the time, but I turn everything down because I don’t want to work on other people’s characters. I want to create my own things instead of reinventing the wheel for someone else. What working outside of comics has done, interestingly, is just give me a different perspective. It’s very healthy actually. To see what we do from a cinematic perspective or to be sitting with merch guys and seeing how they view what we do. I tend to hang out with comic guys and we mostly all have the same life experiences and tastes and expectations, but stepping outside of that can be interesting. Merchandise, for example, is something I’d really never even thought about, but it’s actually incredibly exciting and as a creator something everyone should really think about. I remember a pal who worked at DC telling me that Batman toothbrushes and Batman kites made DC more money every year than Batman comics. That just blew my mind. We’re an industry of people very easily ripped off because it’s our personality type, but we need to start thinking of these things. Millarworld was established to be a kind of ethical DC or Marvel where the creators keep everything and we do a 50/50 split. So I’m out there doing all these deals and the artist co-creators get half of everything, right down to my producer fees and my box office bonuses. I want to create 20 or 25 of these things and just make sure all my partners are looked after. You have to keep your head screwed on. You’re walking into a war-zone.
MM: Not as much as people think. I use social media for fun really and because I like talking to people, both inside the industry and outside. It’s a great way to contact people you want to work with and avoiding all the more formal channels, but I don’t think there’s any kind of direct link between your number of Twitter followers and your overall sales. News sites are far, far more valuable in terms of reaching people with content. Everybody follows a thousand people on Twitter so unless they’re on at the moment you tweet people are pretty much not seeing what you’re hawking. I just relax and use it for fun and, again, advice, seeing what people respond to and what they don’t. Internet forums are a much, more stronger way of building a community and a fan-base. There’s too much noise for the other areas to be especially effective, unless you have a clever viral.
JB: On your own personal site you engage your fans through forums and events; does this build loyalty in fans?
MM: I think, deservedly, loyalty only really comes from good work. My aunts and uncles are lovely people, but it’s not my prerequisite for buying a book. So I don’t really see the website so much as a resource for engendering loyalty, but since it started in 2002 I’ve seen it more as a place to feel what’s working and what isn’t. The internet, like I said, is a vast noise with billions of people trying to sell you stuff, either quietly or really in your face. So I see Millarworld as a kind of information hub where we have the most interesting stories collated every day on the front page and then deeper discussion on the forums. The forums are very smart. Much more highbrow than Twitter and Facebook in terms of what’s being discussed and, from a business point of view, I find the international analysis very helpful. Things that work and don’t work are obsessed over in every detail, my work and the work of other people. The most important thing anyone in the media can do is listen. You’re lost the moment you think you’re always right.
JB: You seem to have a knack for bucking trends. While more traditional heroes ruled at big two publishers you published the hyper violent and commentary filled Kick-Ass. Now that darker heroes rule the publishers you’ve begun putting out more feel good books, including Huck. Do you think this approached has helped you, or forced you to fight harder to get people to read your work?
MM: I never try to anticipate trends. Every bad writer I know does that and it’s disastrous. It’s hard enough anticipating what’s going to be in the news tomorrow. Things change too much and there’s too many variables. The big secret for me really is just to write what I’m personally interested in. That’s the best advice I’d give to anyone. Just close your eyes and imagine what you would actually buy if you saw it on a shelf. I’m interested in a lot of things so it can be difficult to pare down and I have scrap-books and folders filled with thousands of pages of unused ideas. But I just write what I want to read at that moment and I guess I’m a fairly typical audience because there tends to be other people interested in what I’m writing since I started doing this back when I kicked things off for myself really in 2000 with The Authority. I tend to be interested in what’s currently not being done and when everything seemed quite conservative writing The Authority or The Ultimates was very interesting to me. But as Superman solves a problem by snapping a guy’s neck I think I’m more interested in the antithesis to the antihero or Anti-Antihero I guess. That’s what Huck is. I like to play around with different tones and books like Superman Adventures or Marvel 1985 or Fantastic Four or Starlight and Chrononauts and all the recent Millarworld stuff have a very particular, very upbeat tone and that’s just where my head is at the moment. This doesn’t mean the project after next won’t be about a badass. It just means it’s what I want to write right now. You just have to follow your muse and have a good time and not get ripped off. Follow these three rules and you’ll love working in comics!