This month’s Topical Sitter at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is Murdo Macleod’s portrait of the multi–award winning Scottish comic book writer Mark Millar MBE, who spoke to one of our Press Officers, Harris…
‘Never meet your heroes’ goes the well-worn counsel, usually bequeathed by those who’ve learned that the perfection demanded by idolatry almost always leads to disappointment.
The photographer David Bailey heeded this guidance so strongly that when asked to photograph his own hero, he swiftly turned it down. Bailey’s decision must have perplexed Pablo Picasso, who wasn’t used to people saying no.
One individual who may refute this advice is Mark Millar. As a comic book writer, Millar has spent the last 30 years writing about heroes, albeit of the masked crusader kind, his pen on paper for all the comic world linchpins: 2000AD, DC, Vertigo and Marvel.
Unlike Bailey, a gumptious Millar embraced the opportunity of meeting his idol, and it was remarkably beneficial, helping him evolve from multi-award winning Marvel writer into multi-millionaire entrepreneurial marvel.
The portrait of Millar now on show in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, captured by Murdo Macleod, came several years after Millar’s fateful encounter with the comic world’s very own Picasso, the irreplaceable artistic titan Stan Lee.
MacLeod recalls Millar was 'very well turned out and charm personified', while the writer says Millar made no attempt at any input into proceedings. 'It’s wise to trust an expert', he says. 'Sometimes it’s worth pitching an idea, but Murdo would quite rightly just nod and do his own thing…. He’s one of the best there is and soliciting advice would be like suggesting an inflection on a joke to Chris Rock'.
MacLeod’s image has the writer in a cinema, suited yet with unbuttoned shirt and loosened tie. The image’s strong use of shadow, Millar’s attire, the mist lingering in the air and the mysterious background figure all evoke the hard-boiled noire of the 1930s, and of the Frank Miller comics such as the gritty monochromatic world of Sin City, which Millar readily absorbed. Frank Miller’s creations, have been crucial for his Scottish near-namesake. 'Even when I’m working with other people, I close my eyes and often visualise a moment drawn by someone I grew up loving. Frank Miller is the guy I think about most often', Millar says.
Eight years prior to Macleod’s shoot, Millar was excelling at Marvel, as his hero Stan Lee had done decades before. To the comic world, Lee is a God, the creator of Iron Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and Marvel’s most successful protagonist, arachnid-infused crime-fighting superhero Spider-Man.
Millar had long expanded upon several of Lee’s creations, like The Ultimates (2002), later named Time magazine’s comic book of the decade. Their fateful encounter soon followed, where over a phone call the comic giant told Millar to cease writing about characters he had created decades before, and to invent his own.
Within a year, Millarworld was born.
Since then, success has come thick and fast. Millar’s creations Wanted, Kick-Ass and The Secret Service were not only comic book hits, but spawned major motion adaptations whose silver screen success soon had Tinseltown producers vying for his earlier work.
The adaptation of Millar’s Civil War series – Captain America: Civil War – was the most popular movie in the world last year, grossing over a billion dollars. To give its staggering success context, ticket sales eclipsed any of the films from box office behemoths Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean. This year, the recent adaptation of his Old Man Logan series has already drawn in over half a billion dollars. In only three weeks.
Crucially, Stan Lee’s advice has also allowed for total artistic freedom, a privilege Millar’s predecessors were not so fortunate with: 'The guys who created Superman or Spider-Man... had no ownership of their work and that meant no control whereas a movie can’t be made of Kick-Ass or any of the Millarworld properties unless the artist and I sell the rights'.
The writer and his books’ illustrators 'own these franchises entirely' and license them to 'studios or toy manufacturers or Pez dispenser people or whoever we like the look of… [W]e only get into deals with people we respect. The brilliant creators we grew up loving didn’t have that option'.
For the luminary writer Alan Moore, creator of The Watchmen (1986-87), losing artistic control over his creations and seeing how they transposed to cinema left him furious. Moore, along with Frank Miller, turned comics from teenage escapism into a legitimate art form; their mature, intelligent narratives dramatically altered the industry and its readership. The seminal moment was his literary masterpiece The Watchmen, a cerebral and multi-layered world replete with philosophical references and subtle complexities such as a fully symmetrical chapter. Moore has since ceased writing comics altogether and refuses to lease anything to Hollywood.
'Everything was owned by big corporations and …some of the best books in the world were adapted very badly', Millar says. 'Alan Moore is the greatest there’s ever been, but none of his movie adaptations can get in the ring with his comic books'. Macleod’s image appears then, albeit unintentionally, representative of comic’s old and new guard; Moore the figure in the background, turning his back on the big screen, Millar boldly in the foreground, suited for business and embracing it with open arms.
Unaware or unperturbed by the old hero adage, MacLeod tells us that on the day of the portrait’s shoot, his son – a huge fan of Millar’s work – ‘assisted’ him simply for the chance to meet the writer. With around 15 more Millarworld franchises in the pipeline, if there’s one thing he and other avid admirers can be certain of, it’s that with Mark Millar, there will be plenty of heroes yet left to meet.
The Topical Sitter at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.