Filed under: Interviews | Tags: DCNew52, Hellblazer, JLDark, John Constantine, Mikel Janin, Peter Milligan, Red Lanterns, Thought Bubble
Responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed and original comics of the 90s, as well as the radical revamping of Ditko’s SHADE, The Changing Man, Peter Milligan is now spearheading the DC Comics DCthenew52 Relaunch at the helm of both Justice League Dark and Red Lanterns. We caught up with Milligan at this year’s Thought Bubble festival in Leeds, affording him a well earned break from signing favourite issues and trades for a steady stream of fans.
Milligan is a writer British comic fans can be proud of. He has continually pushed the boundaries of the medium by dealing with those darker elements of human existence most comic creators wouldn’t even see in their nightmares. More personally, Milligan is the only writer to make my jaw drop, skin crawl and blood pressure rise, whilst I’m compulsively reading until the last page. Milligan was charming, interesting and full of insight into his current work at DC.
According to the vague and possibly incorrect comic sales numbers released into the public domain, Justice League Dark is Milligan’s best selling of his current DCnew52 output. It is also consistently one of the highest rated books here at Comics Anonymous and arguably among the books that are giving DC the best chance of bringing in new readers. Milligan sees it as DC using his strengths by bringing in ‘stranger, darker, edgier more Vertigo’ elements. He doesn’t worry about the profile of his books, despite JLDark being among the most hyped, but is rather more concerned with having fun with what he’s writing.
A writer like Milligan, who takes his readers down roads which force them to reexamine their ideas and beliefs about violence, relationships, sexual desire and repression, should probably start to feel the pressure when working on a mainstream DC title. While he admits that it is a ‘double edged sword’, he is straddling the two worlds well:
‘Its almost sod’s law. If the sales were poor you would be able to get away with a lot more. Because the sales are good there is an idea of “we have to keep these sales”.’
Whilst Milligan knows there are readers who will pick up his books, knowing what to expect upon the basis of his name being on the cover, he appreciates that there are people buying JLDark because ‘Justice League’ is in the title.
‘When I was originally talking to [DC] about JLDark, I was picturing it somewhere between DCU and Vertigo, and they were really excited about that and we were going to make it really emotionally dark and twisted.’
Justice League Dark is not a traditional superhero team book. It doesn’t suffer from bloated egos or a lack of story borne through a desire to showcase several fight scene splash pages in the one issue. Milligan is eager to show off his characters and more so their relationships and the impact the situations they find themselves in have on them, and the people in their life. ‘The emotional fall-out’ onto their significant others.
On the pressure to maintain sales and expectations, not only of readers but of DC itself, Milligan describes more of an awareness and a decision on how to balance the ‘JL’ with the ‘Dark’, and ‘maintain the twistedness but also give them the superhero stuff’. He maintains that this is ‘superhero without the capital letters’ and his treatment of his characters and illustration of their personal flaws ensures that JLDark stands apart from supposedly similar offerings. In particular, his much criticised detailing of Boston Brand in issue 2 makes this dead man more real and more human that many of his counterparts elsewhere in the DCU.
‘Deadman, sure he continues to be a messed-up kid. A lot of people talked about that scene where Deadman suggested to Dove that he– some people said that it was sexist, that it was ‘frat party’ (see our review of issue 2). It seems to me that is what would happen to a large portion of the male population and I don’t care if it’s ‘frat party’ and I don’t care if it’s sexist, that is what is going to happen.’
It seems like not a day goes by without the comic community getting up in arms about some supposedly racist or sexist indiscretion, so it is incredibly striking to find characters who embody traits that aren’t entirely favourable but do exist in the real world. It is even rarer to find creators who are prepared to stand up to the ‘up its own arse’ attitude that is so popular throughout the industry. Milligan is more than aware of the racist and sexist past in comics but says its ‘okay for a character to be racist or sexist [as] how else will we examine this?’ Boston isn’t sexist, he is human.
Milligan’s depiction of human character is not unique to Boston, but blesses the rest of the Justice League Dark cast too. Key aspects of the team are displayed early on in issue 2 as a contrast to Superman and the rest of his colleagues in the A-List Justice League. Milligan included these super stars early on in the series ‘to show that these people operate in the same world, and also to get across that there are some things that the ‘superheroes just don’t want to touch’. In the weird and twisted world of Justice League Dark their traditional superpowers are ‘as nothing’.
Discussions of the line-up in Justice League Dark see Milligan getting excited as he says things are going to be shifted around quite a bit to allow for the introduction of Mindwarp, who was first introduced to us through Milligan’s Secret Seven Flashpoint tie in. Mindwarp is quite a personal character for Milligan in that they both have epilepsy. He’s also as mentally unstable as Shade, although Milligan did joke about how many mentally unstable characters one comic book can have and whether or not either Shade or Mindwarp would have to ‘sane up or fuck off’. He did also confess that he would like to introduce a ‘completely rejigged’ Empress and Doctor Occult into the mix.
Whilst Mindwarp is not going to become a card carrying member of the Justice League Dark team, he is going to feature heavily and cause plenty of upset for the team. A revolving group of cast members will be present in the book but the key characters will remain as Xanadu, the ‘upbeat’ Zatanna, Deadman and of course, Constantine. Despite Boston Brand being dead, Milligan sees him as a very positive character, an ideal counterweight to the more cynical personality of Constantine.
John Constantine is a character that Milligan knows well. He sees him partly as a vehicle through which he can put some of his own voice into the book. The Constantine in Justice League Dark is obviously much younger that his Vertigo/Hellblazer counterpart and as such, has less obvious scars and baggage. Milligan states that both Constantines are of a ‘similar moral disposition’ and essentially the same person, but ‘filtered through a different prism’. Constantine is important to Milligan and when he’d heard that there were plans to use him in the relaunched DCU he had to ensure he would be in charge of how Constantine would be represented ‘I wanted to put my stamp on… I wanted to make him my kind of John Constantine’
Milligan’s other book in the DCU, Red Lanterns, might appear on the surface to be a departure from his well-trodden path to examination of the darker side of human nature, when in fact it might have more to say in its analysis than most. There is a real opportunity here for Milligan to delve into the Red Lanterns with much more depth and detail than they are usually afforded:
‘Because they are only there for a page or half a page they can just be the bad guy. But when you’ve got a book that is solely about them that has got to change.’
Atrocitus is an incredibly human character who has suffered more than his fair share of bad luck. His incredible anger is legendary and it’s the analysis of this, and how ‘he keeps rebooting’ it, that provided Milligan with his route into the book:
‘[Atrocitus] is a character who is desperately scared of running out of anger, because as that anger disappears, what has he got left? Grief that he has never dealt with.’
Milligan wants to change peoples expectations about what a Lantern title can be as he examines the empathetic character of Atrocitus. He describes the book’s subtext as centering around Atrocitus’s fear of what lies beyond his anger. Not only is Milligan discussing one of the most primal of human emotions, he is also using American Military and Afghan civilian analogues to put this discussion into a modern, topical and involving context. Whilst the depiction of civilian casualties at the hands of the American military would likely be viewed as a potential nightmare, Milligan admits that if he had opted for a more literal portrayal and there had been something tragic in the news, the book would likely have been pulled. He doesn’t feel that the use of alien analogues has in any way deducted from the point he was trying to make, but rather enhanced it.
‘The good thing about making them not human is you can really see the little brothers get blown up and you can make it more real, by making it not as real.’
As the Red Lantern story progresses, Atrocitus decides to give Bleez a voice and Milligan sees this development as all about ‘female emancipation and empowerment’. Atrocitus’s intention here is to provide himself with a sidekick but of course Bleez does not play along with his demands and rather decides to set her own agenda. Milligan himself finds the storyline to be interesting and has received good feedback on it. That, and of course Atrocitus’s cat Dex-Starr.
In addition to Milligan being able to mastermind the development of two of the most original and ground breaking of the DCnew52 titles, it’s his partnership with the artists and how they work together that not only generates a lot of interest but also contributes heavily to the titles success. I’ve made no secret of the impression Justice League Dark’s Mikel Janin’s art has made on me. You can read an earlier interview with Mikel here.
Both Milligan and Janin get on very well together, despite having only recently met face to face for the first time at Lille Comic Convention where Janin was joined by his wife and ‘insane’ five year old son, Mario.
‘[Janin] manages to get all that weird and widescreen stuff in and I always ask a lot of the artist. Lots of emotional stuff, lots of character stuff. He seems to be pulling it off and getting better and better’
Of the art in Red Lanterns Milligan jovially describes receiving art work from Ed Benes via e-mail and wanting to view his computer screen upside down because it’s so ‘bonkers’. He admits to not having a huge amount of interaction with Benes but has encountered the oft documented problems of an artist drawing a scene without any proper local reference. He doesn’t submit ‘voluminous’ scripts and instead treats them as ‘working documents’.
Continuity is a major issue for many of the DCnew52 titles and is also preyed upon by many fans but it’s not something that is troubling Milligan. With regards to Red Lanterns he says ‘I try to keep it separate – I want to have my own stories’’ and whether or not this is a popular view with Lanterns readers it is a moot point, as it is Milligan who is in charge and he will not be dictated to by c. 70 years of history and continuity.
Justice League Dark is a slightly different story when it comes to continuity:
‘I’m going to make it odd continuity. There is going to be a crossover-ish kind of thing, but it is all going to be within the world that JLDark would operate in. They won’t suddenly be running around with the Green Lanterns – that would be ill-matched.’
He says that there will be ‘nods to continuity’ but with a ‘Milligan, darker, cynical edge to it’. This apparent lack of concern for the history of the DCU might be anathema to some DC readers but his attitude is exactly that which can help to make a long standing success of the DC relaunch.
‘I think it’s been a fantastic relaunch. I think that the notion that you have to clear out the cupboard – and all these stories, all these characters were bogged down with all this fucking glue of continuity. Just to get a broom and sweep out all that stuff is a really good notion.’
Largely he sees the DC relaunch as a good thing but admits to ‘not giving a fuck’ about the purple lady or other such distracting marketing gimmicks. The quality of the titles themselves should shine through. Milligan has been enjoying I, Vampire, Swamp Thing and Frankenstein, which confirms comments made about the strength of the ‘Dark’ DCU titles and them being the publisher’s strongest change to revitalise the readership, and the sales figures.
Milligan is writing two of the most exciting and interesting books of the relaunch, both of which are worth the attention of both devoted superhero lovers and members of the Vertigo intelligentsia. He is also involved in screen writing for film and continues his highly successful run on Hellblazer.
All photos courtesy of Fiona Watson Photography.
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