Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine characters, concepts or themes making waves in comics today through issues from the past. As we reported earlier in the week, Netflix made big waves in the comics industry by reaching a deal with famed comic creator Mark Millar to purchase his library of creator-owned properties known collectively as “Millarworld.” With the subsequent news that Disney will launch its own streaming service in 2019, taking its properties (which include Disney titles, Marvel Studios Films, and Lucasfilm properties such as Star Wars) off Netflix, the move to build and control its own interconnected series of fantastic titles makes even more sense. So in the edition of “Back Issues,” we’re going to look at the 5 most logical and effective titles for Netflix to bring to your living rooms as the first wave
Mark Millar is a proven commodity in Hollywood, having seen his original comic book titles “Wanted,” “Kick-Ass,” and “The Secret Service” (the basis for the “Kingsman” franchise) all adapted into successful major motion pictures. Additionally, his work for the major publishers has formed the basis for several of their blockbusters, including “Captain America: Civil War,” “Logan,” and “Fantastic Four.” His comic series “The Ultimates” for Marvel is responsible for imagining an African-American version of Nick Fury, going so far as to see artist Bryan Hitch use Samuel L. Jackson as the reference for the character, years before the actor was cast in the role for “Marvel’s Iron Man.” Millar was a consultant on Fox’s X-Men franchise as well, so he’s not simply a writer who has provided properties, he’s also worked within film production itself.
Beyond his track record, however, there’s also the nature of Millar’s writing that plays into why Netflix sought to work with the writer. Put simply, much of Millar’s strengths as a creator stem from his talent as subverting familiar superhero concepts and characters, reimagining them in more complex, adult or morally dubious versions. That also a criticism of his work, that he’s really just repurposing established comics in slightly different, and salacious, ways. Indeed, Millar’s work is sometimes criticized by detractors who feel his propensity to generate interest or drama through casually injecting a vicious brutality to super-hero tropes can comes across as exploitative or simplistic rather than actually grappling with dark issues.
However, it’s hard to deny that it’s easier to market an unknown property if you can easily communicate what it’s all about with a simple phrase such as, “What if Batman was a psychotic super-villain?” Or “Imagine Flash Gordon retired back on Earth and was pulled into one last mission.” In that way, Millar’s work is a lot easier to see unfamiliar audiences on than other largely unknown properties such as the Valiant Universe.
Of course, one of the big question marks out there is what titles this deal actually includes, as many of the Millarworld books have long been reported to have bene in active development. I’m doing some speculating here, but I have to assume a lot of these properties have reverted back to Millar and therefore are included, despite some reporting in the past to indicate otherwise. So, for the sake of the article, I’m going to proceed as if any titles that haven’t actually been produced and released are included in the Netflix deal.
So, let’s take a look at five of the Millarworld properties that I think are the most logical for Netflix to adapt first, and along the way I hope you’ll find some new books to dip a toe into. We’ll also look at a few of the Millarworld titles that I think Netflix shouldn’t adapt right out of the gate, and why.
5 – Huck – Small-Town Hero, Big Time Heart
In November, 2015, Millar wrote an article for gamesradar.com that went into the creation of his earnest and inspiring super-hero, Huck. According to Millar, it all stemmed from the writer’s reaction to the film “Man of Steel.”
Millar opened the piece with a reflection on the trend of depicting super-heroes in increasingly grimmer and grittier terms, admitting that much of how own work contributed to this approach. While he didn’t go so far as to back off from the merits of this way of looking at super-heroes in the modern age, he did bemoan this approach when it came to a character like Superman, saying, “I loved Superman as a kid not because of his edginess or his potential for a fatal solution, but because he could do anything he wanted and still chose to be nice. This was always the moral of a superhero comic to me.”
Millar decided to take this feeling and create a new character that reflected his yearning for a super-hero in the old-fashioned vein. Millar wrote, “When things are tough we maybe need a nice, uncomplicated hero a little more and so, like I said, I’m trying this once just to see what happens. As a reader I’m desperate for it. As a writer, it’s been a sheer joy. But both myself and artist Rafael Albuquerque have created something we haven’t seen in a very long time with our new book and that’s a lovely, sweet, Jimmy Stewart/ Tom Hanks/ Steven Spielberg kinda good guy.”
Huck tells the story of a young man living in a small mid-western American town, making a living pumping gas. But Huck has a secret; he has super powers. But rather than donning a bright costume and moving to giant metropolis to splashily fight evil geniuses, Huck has chosen to use his abilities to quietly do one good deed a day, big or small. Though Huck thinks he’s doing these deeds in secret, his grateful community in fact has chosen to protect Huck’s anonymity by helping him keep his secret. However, all that changes when someone decides to leak Huck’s identity to the media.
Huck is, of course, a Superman-analogue, and a completely obvious one. I wouldn’t necessarily call it Millar’s most successful or well-executed work, but it is perhaps his most earnest and heartwarming one. Millar has often talked about his love for Superman, and reading his other work, it can be hard to see just what it is he loves about the Big Blue Boy Scout. Huck proves that Millar does really love the character and what he stands for, and though it’s a simple story, there’s no denying its charm or warmth or pure sense of joy. It never feels old-fashioned or nostalgic, but rather does succeed in coming across as making a powerful case for the importance of the certain, if occasionally naive, morality and purity of the classic super-hero concept. And a lot of this is communicated through the Rockwell-esque Americana power of Albuquerque’s terrific art.
As for why Netflix should adapt Huck, I should think it’s obvious. It’s clearly reminiscent of a concept we’re all familiar with, but the smaller scale of the story keeps things from getting too big scale for television to handle. And there’s some meat on the bones, thematically speaking, as the series could examine how Huck’s old-fashioned heroism works in our modern and cynical world. Additionally, the small-town setting provides ample room for a solid supporting cast, and you avoid some of the capes-and-tights issues that could pigeonhole Huck into the super-hero category, providing just enough distance from that to perhaps draw in viewers less likely to embrace flights of fancy. There might be a bit of a hurdle in terms of how long Huck‘s concept could be stretched past a single ten-episode series, but the series does allow for at least one solid season of classical heroic stories.
4 – Starlight – A Modern Take on Pulp Sci-Fi
As Starlight opens, 62-year-old Duke McQueen is reeling from the passing of his wife Joanne after over thirty years of marriage. But Duke has much more in his past than just a great love, the former air force pilot was sucked through a freak wormhole forty years ago to an alien world, where he became embroiled in the planet’s quest to overcome a tyrant’s rule.
Starlight is yet another example of Millar’s predilection for taking established concepts and re-telling them with a more complex or modern sensibilities. In this case, Starlight takes on the classic pulp heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and wonders about what one of those men would be like after they return home and enter into their twilight years.
Having lost probably the only person on Earth that believed his claims of having saved the alien world of Tantalus, McQueen is confronting not just how own mortality, but the perhaps worse idea of impending decrepitude; years of slowly losing whatever potency or meaning he has left. After literally saving a world and outliving the love of his life, things look pretty grim. That is, until a young boy from Tantalus arrives in a spaceship outside Duke’s house and begs him to return to Tantalus and save the planet once again.
Co-created by artist Goran Parlov, Starlight might be my favorite piece of writing from Mark Millar. Part of the reason is because he almost entirely abandons the aspect of his talent that most often derails his other works; namely his gift for sensationalism. Don’t get me wrong, Millar’s ability to come up with shocking or boundary-pushing permutations of classic concepts is a massive part of what catapulted him to the top ranks of comics creators. Millar is one of the best guys in the business at crafting surprising and resonant hooks that are simple enough to easily come across, but shocking enough to intrigue. He might be one of the best elevator pitchers in the business.
Starlight, for instance, has that simple hook I mentioned in the introduction; “Imagine Flash Gordon retired back on Earth and was pulled into one last mission.” It’s a good hook, one that feels both familiar and fresh, and it’s no wonder the title was optioned before it even hit stores. But in other Millar titles, the ones that feature lots of violence or characters indulging in dark moral transgressions, that shocking quality often derails for me the thrust of the story or concept. It’s clear that Millar knows that aspect gives his books buzz, but often I feel like it’s not in service of anything larger than marketing. I’m often not sure what Millar’s doing with this “shocking” material, aside from ginning up interest in how subversive his material is.
And that’s what makes Starlight work so well. It doesn’t have any of that cynically exploitative stuff, but keeps all the over-the-top cinematic set pieces and bombastic action that Millar excels at delivering. But the action is all in service of both great characters and compelling central ideas. With Duke McQueen, Millar is given the opportunity to explore memory and youth and aging, and the importance in finding adventure in life. And woven throughout the series is an interesting look at the effect and consequences of radically changing a society. In a 21st century currently dealing with the consequences of regime change and the exportation of democracy, Starlight explores troubling questions.
Parlov’s art is stellar all the way through, and the bold and brash spirit of adventure that permeates the book frees the artist up to embrace an art deco design sense, scenes of derring do, and numerous kooky alien designs. However, the real joys of the book come in the expressiveness of McQueen’s face, a craggy block of granite that nevertheless is capable of deep emotion.
Even though the pulpy space opera roots of Starlight are familiar to anyone who’s ever seen “Flash Gordon,” “Buck Rogers,” “Star Wars” or even “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there’s a throwback quality to the story and design that would make a filmed adaptation feel both fresh and classic at the same time. And though its subject matter and setting might stretch Netflix’s resources a bit, it’s nowhere near as wide a vista as Millar’s other science-fiction opus “Empress,” for instance, so it could still be possible on a budget.
And even though Duke McQueen is an attractive and meaty part for an actor heading into their 60s (think Liam Neeson, Bryan Cranston, Bruce Greenwood or Tim Daly, all in their 60s now believe it or not), there are plenty of substantial supporting roles for a diverse cast of younger actors as well. The initial series had a defined plot line with a beginning, middle and end, so Netflix could produce a limited series, or utilize flashbacks to Duke’s younger days to provide us with subsequent seasons.
Starlight offers viewers exciting adventure, with a strong personal story at its heart that will resonate with many. As perhaps the most well-rounded and heartfelt of Millar’s work, the lack of cynicism, big ideas, and wide scope could make Starlight a unique experience.
3 – Chrononauts – Bromance Through Time
This series might be the most conventional one on our list, mostly because time travel shows are pretty prevalent. From “Doctor Who” to “Time Tunnel” to “Quantum Leap” to Netflix’s own “Travelers,” time travel shows have been done. But they’ve never been done quite like this. Mark Millar and artist Sean Gordon Murphy put their own distinct stamp on the genre with this series, and its very tone is what sets its apart.
In most time travel stories, the thrust of the action is either about getting swept up in historical events, usually either to prevent a dark future or preserve the sanctity of the past. Chrononauts is the story of Corbin Quinn and Danny Reilly, two old buddies and geniuses who become humanity’s first time travellers, and who utterly and totally f@*$k things up.
Unlike our prior two Millar series, which distinguished themselves with their sincerity and earnestness, Chrononauts definitely embraces Millar’s tendency towards cynicism and sensationalism. But whereas Millar’s worst excesses in this direction can often feel sensational and shocking for the sake of marketing, Chrononauts feels bombastic and exuberant and mischievous in a satirical sense. This series is, quite frankly, a satire of straight white frat boys given the power to travel through time. And given that kind of opportunity, Corbin and Danny proceed to use their privilege to indulge their whims in every way imaginable, screwing up established history and set timelines, getting into insane predicaments. Eventually they realize their mistake and try to set things right, but a lot of the fun of Chrononauts is the sheer impish fun of watching two selfish pricks making all of human history their playground. They rub shoulders with Lucky Luciano, go to bed with Marilyn Monroe, create Harry Potter, and join The Smiths.
Millar’s impish sense of humor, which has lightened up much of his work over the years, is on its fullest display here, and the journey Corbin and Danny go on is both hilarious and also strangely affecting. We’d all like to think that we’d witness great historical events with objectivity and grace, but truthfully, a lot of us would, given the opportunity, go drinking with Sinatra, rule the stock market, and fix every crappy mistake we’d ever made in our own lives. And so, even though Danny and Corbin are self-involved jerks, a little bit of us know we’d be tempted to be so as well, and so we can enjoy their shenanigans until things get too out of control.
Murphy’s art on the series sis seriously good. Part of what makes Millar such a savvy comics’ professional is that he really understands how important strong collaborators are, and he never opts for anything less than stellar co-creators on these books. To his credit, Millar gives the artists plenty of leeway to define the low, pace and direction of the series, and he also always splits profits from each of these titles 50/50 with his collaborators. I imagine each of them are enjoying the payday from the recent Netflix deal, and Millar’s continued ability to draw top talent to work with him is a testament to his propensity for sharing creative and financial control with his artists, despite him being the more famous name.
From Netflix’s point of view, if they were to lock down the right actors in Chrononauts (say Justin Timberlake and Dave Franco) then this could be a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for a new generation. Even if they don’t follow the relatively tight storyline of the series, there’s easily enough here to sustain an ongoing series. Also, Millar wisely layers in enough of a supporting cast to take some of the focus off Danny and Corbin from time to time.I personally loved the free-wheeling, rascally nature of the story, and yet, Danny and Corbin have some heart to them. They’re two guys on their way to becoming more than they appear. Maybe not all that much more, but still, more. And in that way, they could resonate very well as the leads of a series. With a show runner who has a firm grasp of the balance between action and humor, Chrononauts could be a real winner.
2 – Jupiter’s Legacy – The Magnum Opus
There’s no doubt that Jupiter’s Legacy, and its spin off Jupiter’s Circle, is Millar’s magnum opus. One of Millar’s signature works, indeed one of the works that made him a comics superstar, was his run on “The Authority.” “The Authority,” with its contemporary commentary, wide-screen action and adult content, was tailor-made for Millar’s strengths, and Jupiter’s Legacy is the project that comes as close as anything has to capturing the cutting-edge immediacy of his time on “The Authority.”
Like many great American stories, Jupiter’s Legacy is a generational one, about the uneasy and fractious relationship between formidable parents and their children. The story revolves around the children of a powerful super-hero known as the Utopian, an ubermencsch with a binary world view. The series is a commentary on the American ideal, the conflict residing in the story of children of a titan struggling to find new ways to live up to the ideals and examples of their father, even as they strive to find a new way of interacting and influencing the world.
Jupiter’s Legacy is the product of Millar and artist Frank Quietly, one of the most brilliant and inventive artists working today. They famously collaborated on “The Authority,” so it makes sense that a series as comprehensive as Jupiter’s Legacy longs to be would reunite the two titans of comics once more.
There’s a multi-layered quality to the series, taking place over decades with a large cast of characters, which would undoubtedly appeal to Netflix. Indeed, Millar and Quietly’s aims here are to evoke a deep and complex storyline much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen.” The history of comics since 1985 is littered with creators who have tried a similar feat, and though there’s a derivative quality to what Millar and Quietly are attempting, it’s by no means unenjoyable or unsuccessful. Indeed, Jupiter’s Legacy does have the feeling of an epic, which is no mean feat.
Part of what makes Jupiter’s Legacy work so well is the way Millar and Quietly imagine the children of the Utopian, Brandon and Chloe, as thoroughly modern 21st century rich kids. The “Legacy” part of the series is apt, as the kids here are selfish, materialistic wastrels, looking to define themselves outside of their famous father in some desperate way. Their hedonistic lifestyle is mean to evoke the Paris Hilton and Ivanka Trump, wastrels looking for meaning.
Jupiter’s Legacy, and its flashback companion piece Jupiter’s Circle, is meant to be a super-hero epic, chock full of weighty themes, social commentary and adult situations. And, for the most part, it’s a successful if somewhat obvious result. It doesn’t have the sophistication of “Watchmen” but then nothing else in comics really does. It does seriously and honestly tackle its themes, and there’s more than enough here to supply a television series with material to drive an ongoing narrative over the course of several seasons. The issue Netflix may run into is the sheer costs of a series that features so many character with fantastic abilities, but the right show runner would be able to work around these challenges. The meticulous craft of Quietly has led to some issues with the series being released regularly, and I could see the Netflix series rapidly outpacing the comic book one, but as any fan of “Game of Thrones” knows, his isn’t necessarily a problem.
And, if Netflix could get its own “Game of Thrones” out of Jupiter’s Legacy, which is a real possibility, then the whole purchase of Millarworld would be instantly worthwhile. This is perhaps the best shot at creating a Marvel Cinematic Universe-style franchise out of Millarworld, so they’d be crazy not to at least attempt it.
1 – Nemesis – Batman as Super-Villain
Batman as the Joker. How do you not get a success out of that? And that’s an aspect of Milar’s undeniable talent, for sure. He can take a can’t miss-scenario such as, “What if a guy as single-minded and capable as Batman was in fact a bad guy as evil and depraved as the Joker” and take it beyond a concept to an actual storyline. In fact, in true Mark Millar style, Millar himself though the best summation of the series was, “What if Batman was a total c#^t?” and that is one of the most Scottish things you will ever see on our site.
Once again collaborating with one of the absolute best artists in the business, Millar and Steve McNiven created Nemesis. A hyper-capable villain with no morals, a flair for a dramatic, and dark back story. I don’t want to suggest that Nemesis is the strongest work on this list by placing it in the number one spot. It’s certainly not. In fact, it might be Millar’s most nihilistic and cynical work, which is saying something.
However, it is among Millar’s most easily replicated and explainable works. The idea of a character as iconic as Batman being reframed as a bad guy is simply too resonant to let lie there, and the series has a good guy in the form of top cop Blake Morrow, who has his own darkness looming in the future. We’re currently in the age of television series exploring the characters of anti-heroes, and Nemesis fits right in with the collection of anti-social protagonists we’re seeing on television these days.
The actual series in which Nemesis stars doesn’t perhaps take as much advantage of the concept as a series produced by Netflix might eventually do, but I can’t quite escape the feeling that filmmaker as gifted as David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky might accomplish with the fertile ground Nemesis would provide. Though McNiven is incapable of delivering a panel that isn’t unbelievably detailed and gorgeous and realistic, the series never quite reaches the level its concept promises. However, it’s quite often been the case that limited or partially unsuccessful works provide a talented adapter the opportunity to enrich the original material. With a sufficiently inspired and independent show runner and creative force, we could see a version of Nemesis less concerned with shocking and upsetting set conventions and more concerned with exploring the lead character’s nuances.
So, those are the five best, most logical Millarworld options, as far as I’m concerned. There are some other properties under Millar’s control that I think would be far more problematic. “Empress,” for instance, is one of Millar’s most cohesive and broadly appealing series. However, its gigantic space-opera scope makes it prohibitively expensive to produce, frankly. “American Jesus” is pretty controversial, and it doesn’t have the blinding satirical brilliance of something like “Preacher” to negate the charges of blasphemy that would accompany any series based on it. “Reborn”, a story about the afterlife created with Greg Capullo probably has the best shot at being produced under the Netflix deal of all the problematic properties.
That’s it for this edition of “Back Issues!” Till next time, see you ’round the quarter bins!