Picture this, 65 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. What if they weren't alone? That's where the latest epic, Empress, by writer Mark Millar begins and he doesn't look back. The writer behind Wanted, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Huck, Superior, Kick-Ass & more is back at it again with a space opera like no other.
With the new series around the corner, Mark took some time to chat with ComicBook.com about the project. We also cover what it's like working with Stuart Immonen (who draws the best dinosaurs), Wade Von Grawbadger, where the idea came from, and so much more. On top of that, Mark provided us with a huge load of new art which you can check out in the gallery below.
Can you tell me a bit about how the project team together because I know you approach each one of your artists differently. Was this an idea that you had that you went to Stuart or was it, you know, did you and Stuart want to work together and then figure something out? How did it come to you?
Mark Millar: It's been in the cards for a while. He and I sort of worked together very briefly at the embryonic stage of my career when I was back at DC Comics, when I was dialogue-ing for a few issues, some Superman comics he drew, just for a few of them. I was bitten by the bug then, I thought 'Oh my god, when I'm a proper grownup I would like to work with this guy again one day.' It never quite happened, he's always been doing X-Men or Star Wars or something. I decided to go for Marvel's best and DC's best, I just thought, I'm going to try and get Stuart Immonen and Greg Capullo. I made this decision a few months back. I thought, I love these guys, they're the best in the business, I'm working with the best guys and these guys are literally the top out of each company. I was just so relieved and they both said yes, and they both came over, which was exhilarating.
With Empress, I had this project, and it is kind of like casting a movie, there's got to be the right project for the right person. Maybe it's because Stuart has done Star Wars, maybe it's because he's amazing at making even the most outrageous alien environments look real, as if you're looking at them right in front of you, but it was just perfect, when the first character sketches came back I thought “Oh my god, this is perfection.
What did the initial collaboration process look like with the two of you? You said, this is the story that I want, and then let Stuart go build the world, and you were sort of off from there?
Mark Millar: My process is a bit unconventional. I come up with an idea, and then I get a white board out, and I spend literally four weeks doing nothing but writing up the plot on the white board. I must look like a serial killer or something, I just stand in front of it and I rearrange scenes and I take away scenes and add in stuff, and I spend literally four weeks plotting out certain issues, a standard story arc. Then, I spend another two months writing it, so that's two or three months. Generally it takes me, I don't know, three, four months to do a story out, which is why I traditionally do three comics a year or something.
What I do is, I write such a detailed plot based on what happens and then I change nothing. I have a really, really intricate plot, and I send the plot to the artist, and I say “Look, here's the series I think you'd be great for.” Then, they start doodling some character sketches based on that very detailed plot, and send some artwork over. For example, one of the main characters in this, the queen's bodyguard, he's with a beard, and I'd seen him as much more of a swaggering kind of cocky-looking character, and he drew him as a little bit more of a stern, slightly uptight guy with a beard, and I actually changed the way I wrote the character once I saw those designs coming through.
It's interesting, I'm sort of open to new character tweaks and everything, but by the time it goes to the artists, the story is pretty set in stone.
You're no stranger to space epics, but what sets Empress out from a book like Starlight? Were there influences that you felt, that left their mark on you, as far as a type of story that you wanted to tell with this?
Mark Millar: Yeah, there's probably three things. The obvious one is something like Star Wars, where you get a big sci-fi space opera, which, weirdly, we don't see that much of. It's interesting, because if you think about it, Star Wars is the most successful franchise of all time, if you count all the things that have spun off from it, like toys and all of that, and yet it's never ever had anything else like it. We had things like Hawk the Slayer and Krull and things like that, or Labyrinth, other sort of people going for that market back in the 80's, following Star Wars, but in terms of Star Wars we haven't had a nice space opera kind of thing. They felt more like a fantasy thing. I've seen more like Lord of the Rings than Star Wars, really.
It's interesting, Star Trek's nothing like Star Wars at all. For starters it's a generation older and it tends to skew a little less international, all that love and everything. It's very interesting, there's never really been anything like it, it's been wide open and I think we've all been waiting on it. Since 1983 I've been waiting on something like Star Wars, and it never really quite come along. So I wanted to do something, in the same way that X-Men came out in the year 2000, and that's immediately followed up with Hulk, Spider-Man, Batman, The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor and all these characters in movies. A million superhero projects came right after, but there's strangely nothing like Star Wars followed it. Like there are some things that didn't quite work out. Like the Flash Gordon movie, which I loved but wasn't a massive commercial success.
I thought, I'm going to try and do my space opera, but I tried to splice it with a British domestic drama. I was just thinking, the kind of story we get over here on TV is something very real-life, with somebody with a unhealthy relationship and they want to escape with the kids. Blending something that anyone can relate to, like that, with a big sci-fi space opera, grounds it, and it's something that we can immediately understand. Like a 40-year-old woman with a teenage daughter running off and trying to get away from a guy who's no good, you know? Suddenly this is something we can relate to, because I think the best sci-fi is stuff that we, on some level, feel some empathy with. That was my plan, to do something like that.
I also love the fact that you've got a fair number of aliens and things like that, but you also have things that are recognizable, like the dinosaurs that showed up in the first issue. Who doesn't love Stuart Immonen drawing dinosaurs?
Mark Millar: Right?
Are you planning to go all in on the otherworld-y stuff, or will we see more things that are potentially recognizable to ... I guess, Earth-bound stuff?
Mark Millar: The thing that's quite interesting about this is, the opening issue opens up on Earth. It actually opens up here 65 million years ago, which is why you have the dinosaurs kicking around. The idea that there is a society that left here before we came around, but there's not even a trace of. There are these guys who had an entire kingdom, and there's generations of them. What we thought was lone dinosaurs were actually just part of this entire ecosystem, where there was other societies and all that kind of stuff.
Again, I think it's something that gives you a touchstone, because when you go too far out, then it's hard to relate to, you know? I wanted to start it here, so it's at least the world we know, like our own one.
Tell us a bit more about the Empress. Can you give us a bit more about her story? Where we can expect to see her go as the series progresses?
Mark Millar: She's quite an interesting character, because you come in when she's reserved and we don't really know much about her. I know lots of people like this actually. Like in Glasgow there's a little bit of a gangster scene and everything, and people who were working at the factory when we were younger maybe got in with somebody they shouldn't have got in with. Especially where I live there isn't a huge amount of cash around, and it can seem very attractive, somebody driving a Bentley or somebody driving an Aston-Martin, and it's a lifestyle that you may be unaccustomed to, so when you're 18 or 19 years old you think this is awesome. Then, as you get older and you've had a couple of kids with someone, you think, this is an absolute nightmare.
It's that kind of thing, I wanted her to be that person. She has a quite interesting past, we don't really know a huge amount about her, as the story unfolds you learn more and more about her.
It kind of came from, when I was 10 I used to have this Flash Gordon poster that I fell in love with, a 1980's Flash Gordon poster. There was always the big picture of Ming, there's a picture of Flash Gordon, you have Ming's daughter in the background. Then at the same time you'd also see mysterious women in headdresses that were kind of Ming's concubines, I thought, that's quite interesting. In a hundred years of storytelling, I don't think I've ever seen I've ever seen the story of Ming's concubines. What's she all about, where does she come from? What would it be like to having sex with Emperor Ming? That's all kind of interesting stuff to play with, and really that's who she is. Just making her a real person's really been quite fun. She's 40, she's got a 15-year-old daughter, and a super hero side to her with that. All that real-life stuff juxtaposed with sci-fi is the stuff that gets exciting.
On Twitter you have been teasing a major promotion, & a major way to get people excited about this book. We've been hearing that there are things working behind the scenes, like some casting news? What can fans expect when the book comes out?
Mark Millar: It's funny, I think probably around about the time the book launches we'll go public with everything, but I've been really lucky that whenever I have a new book coming out I've got a little bunch of producers who all kind of say "Okay, right, we'll do this" before anybody knows anything about it. I always say the same thing, which is, let me finish the final issue so the whole series is there, and I'm not going to be affected by any budgets or these sort of things. I write my story, and then I sent it out to them and they're like "Oh, perfect," you know, we'll pick the perfect actress for this. We've started picking the actress, actually a few were cast together quite recently, and probably the week I launch I think we'll go public with it.
It's hugely exciting, and what I want to do is get the talent involved in the promotion of the comic as well. The interesting thing is I've never done that before, you know, to get a huge-name actress to go on Twitter and actually talk about a comic the week I launch. It's the kind of thing you would expect Marvel to do. Ryan Reynolds did it really, really well with Deadpool. I want to do the same thing, so they're talking to the actresses now, they're getting involved, she's really excited. It's a big part.
I've really noticed all my stories seem to be skewing towards female leads for the last while. The big series I’ve been talking to Johnny Romita about is a female lead and then we have Empress, which is a huge character and a great role for a teenage girl too playing the daughter. There aren't really that many action roles for 40-year-old actresses when you think about it so I think that’s what’s caused a lot of the excitement among the various actresses hearing about this. It’s going to be a really fun part for a movie-star.
Then, the next project I'm doing with Greg Capullo, which is coming out in September or October, that's a female lead as well. I’m not quite sure why all the heroes in my stories lately have skewed female, maybe it’s because I live in a house with four girls, but it’s just what I want to write about right now. You look at the comic-shelves and there’s plenty of male leads. You look at the world outside and it’s 52% female. There’s clearly a disparity here.
So what do you think ComicBook.com readers? Are you excited for Empress? Any ideas on who might get cast? Let us know in the comments below.