Mark Millar has a reputation as a comics writer. During his time as a superstar creator at both Marvel and DC Comics, he worked on series like The Authority, The Ultimates, and Wolverine. All of them contained heroes who didn't respect authority and didn't generally behave in a heroic fashion. That trend was continued in his creator-owned work with his most popular series like Kick-Ass, Wanted, and The Secret Service all receiving R-rated adaptations. These stories laid the foundation for Millarworld and his new deal with Netflix. They weren't your typical comics because they reveled in all of the things that Fredric Wertham was worried about when writing Seduction of the Innocent. You wouldn't expect a writer with this reputation to be a good fit for the character of Superman, but you would be wrong.
When Millar was learning the ropes of writing comics, regularly collaborating with Grant Morrison and building a fanbase at DC, he took on a number of Superman-related projects. Superman by Mark Millar, a new collection out this week, brings together many of the stories that have not been reprinted like those in Superman Adventures and Superman: Red Son. It rounds out a complete library of Millar's Superman and clarifies his place in the long history of writers to address the character. The portrait it helps to build is a flattering one. In spite of his well-earned reputation, Millar stands as a writer who both grasps and celebrates the iconic role Superman plays in the superhero genre and how he reflects a fundamentally positive perspective on humanity.
Before diving into the key elements that define Millar's take on Superman, it's worth acknowledging another important reputation he has developed in comics. Millar is a creator who has worked with many of the best artists in the medium today, and has pushed for equal credit and rewards on his creator-owned titles under the Millarworld brand. No matter what opinion fans may hold of the work itself, his treatment of collaborators sets a high bar for the industry. It's easy to understand where that respect comes from when evaluating his early work on Superman comics though.
In addition to the renowned work of Dave Johnson on Superman: Red Son, Millar also worked with artists like Sean Phillips, Steve Epting, and Yanick Paquette on Adventures of Superman and Superman 80-Page Giant. They all stand as titans today and that wouldn't be a surprise to anyone discovering their work on these series in the late 1990s. Working with such talented artists obviously left an impact on Millar as he has continued to seek out partnerships with those he holds in the highest esteem.
Millar also worked with other writers on these projects. Stuart Immonen notably crafted plots for both Adventures of Superman and Action Comics, which were then scripted by Millar. That same duo would later collaborate on the Millarworld project Empress. Again, working with another master comics storyteller like Immonen clearly had an impact on this collection and Millar's later career. Millar's Superman work is more than a testament to the character, but to the power of comics as a collaborative art form that thrives when artists respect and help one another.
A Focus on Values
Millar's appreciation for his collaborators ties directly into one of the two essential elements of his Superman comics: values. Throughout every story penned by Millar, Superman expresses a clear worldview driven by an exceptional set of morals. It is a version of the character that lives by an almost Kantian set of duties to help humanity. When Superman can save a living being, that is what he does. When he can expose an injustice that is what he does. Whenever these edicts might result in negative or unforeseen consequences, Superman is the character who finds a way to alleviate these elements. As a power fantasy, he helps readers imagine a world where doing the right thing always results in a better world. That push for truth and justice extends beyond humankind (and aliens). In the one-shot Superman for the Animals, he is featured reading letters about animal cruelty. It implies Superman's status as a vegetarian (first stated in Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu's Superman: Birthright) and extends his compassion for people to every living being on a textual level.
Nowhere are the essential values of Superman more clear in Millar's work than in Superman: Red Son. The comic shows Superman continually make the wrong choices given his classic moral framework. He eventually lobotomizes his enemies and installs himself as a planetary dictator using a maxim in which the ends justify the means. Yet at the end of the story Superman rejects everything he has built, destroys his own empire, and subtly aids the evolution of mankind towards a democratic society. No one defeats Superman; Superman ultimately knows what is right and relinquishes his power. Even in an "evil Superman" story, Millar posits that there is an inherent goodness embodied by the character.
The Rarity of Sincerity0comments
It's the tone of these comics that sell Millar's perspective that Superman is both an essentially moral character and an aspirational one. While many of his later superhero comics take a cynical, tongue-in-cheek approach to the entire genre, there's not an ounce of skepticism to be found between Superman: Red Son and Superman Adventures. His version of Superman never plays the fool. When he makes mistakes they are tragic and sympathetic, even when developing as a dictator. The hero is never naive for trying to be good. These comics are the most sincere and idealistic stories from Millar's career.
This Superman's stories are told as fables as much as anything. Millar places his comics like Kick-Ass and Wanted as examples of the superhero genre meeting the real world. His Superman comics accept they do not exist in the real world, but don't position that as a problem either. Instead, they embrace the fantasy of a person who always knows the right thing to do and does it. There is a joy in finding a place where people are helped and the future is brighter. It can provide solace and comfort in dark times, and encouragement for those that love Superman. That is exactly what can be found in the Superman stories of Mark Millar, stories that feel just as valuable today as when they were written almost 20 years ago.