Mark Millar’s formula for successful comic books

On his message board, Mark Millar gave a formula for hit comics. It’s a variation of something I had heard in a seminar, although there’s a key difference. Millar suggests that a comic book that does well in the direct market is going to need two of three things: a big-name writer, a big-name artist and a big-name character.

This doesn’t give much leeway to anyone who is just starting out as an artist or a writer. Fortunately, the version I heard does just that. The editor explained that the success of a comic is based on three things: the characters, the creators and the concept. Astonishing X-Men was cited as an example of a book which succeeded on all three fronts: characters (at the time, the biggest superhero team in comics), creators (Joss Whedon, John Cassady) and concept (the X-Men are superheroes again.)

An unknown creative team won’t usually be able to work on A-list characters, and they’re not going to have any significant fan base. But they can still come up with an attention-grabbing concept. In the seminar, Marvel Zombies, the Walking Dead, Chew and 30 Days of Night were cited as books with great high concepts.

Examples of books with poor concepts were Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man and the other satellite titles which had no hook beyond “If you like Spider-Man, and Amazing Spider-Man isn’t enough for you, this book is for you.”

Despite not including it in his formula, Millar definitely chooses to write stories that have compelling hooks. He discussed the significance on the same millarworld.tv thread in which he gave his “formula.” Though he thinks it’s essential to have artists who are major brands in their own right.

I’ve timed this carefully. Not just building a rep on company-owned, but I think the cycle at the moment is people wanting fresh concepts like they wanted them in 1992. There’s only so many times a villain can come back in the old books. The Millarworld books so far show the audience and multimedia potential is unlimited. A lot of people really hadn’t gotten what I’ve been doing here, but they’re starting to see it now. All going well we’ll have 2 or more movies a year coming out by 2013 and beyond.

But Kick-Ass ends with book 3. as does Nemesis. as does Supercrooks. But I already know the projects that will replace them and have the artists lined up. Absolutely no new Kick-Ass for Hit-Girl material will be done after Kick-Ass 3 concludes. You keep the brand alive by never diluting. It would be cheap, easy money, but self-defeating. There will never be anything less than A-list artists on these books and me trying my best. That’s my guarantee. The six of us getting together for Millarworld in 2012 is a statement in that regard.

Graeme McMillan summed up Millar’s skill at coming up with good hooks for his creator-owned titles.

It’s that last line that’s the most important, and the idea of selling people something by going “It’s this thing you’re really familar with… but withsuperheroes!” Where Millar succeeds in his high concepts, I think, is by presenting things that readers are comfortable with, with one major change – normally one that is also very comfortable for readers (Civil War is “It’s post 9/11 America – with superheroes!”, Nemesis is “It’s Batman – as a bad guy!”, Kick-Ass is “It’s superheroes – but they’re fanboys!” and so on), something I hadn’t really realized until he explained Supercrooks as this movie we’ve seen countless times before, and then added “with superheroes!” at the end.

Incidentally, there were two other rules of three mentioned in the seminar. To get a job in the business (without being a major name in another industry), you generally need to be two of three things: lucky, talented and persistent. If you’re really talented, even if you don’t immediately get a job, you will get noticed eventually, and get a decent job. But if you’re lucky and persistent but not above-average, you can get a job if someone needs something done immediately, with quality being a secondary concern.

The final rule was that to keep a job in the comics business you generally need to be two of three things: Good, Easy to Get Along With and On-Time. Mike Carey was cited as an example of someone who was all three.  Dan Slott was used as an example of someone who was really easy to get along with for editors, and really talented as a writer, but not reliable when it came to deadlines. No examples were given of artists/ writers who weren’t considered good or easy to get along with. The John Byrnes of the world will complain that this means that a failure to do your job (and finish comic books on time) is more socially acceptable than something that technically has no impact on the finished product.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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