Peter Milligan is the legendary writer of such great comics as X-Statix, Shade the Changing Man, Justice League Dark and the classic Johnny Nemo, soon to come back into print from Titan Comics. On the eve of the release of the Nemo book, I had the chance to chat over email with Milligan about all phases of his career.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How does it feel to have Johnny Nemo back in print again after all these years?
Milligan: Fantastic. I re-read some of the stories for the first time in ages and confess I approached them with a bit of trepidation, in case I hated them. But I thought they really stood up well. A nice intense and crazed feel.
CB: How do those old strips from Strange Days feel to you when you read them now?
Milligan: Same answer. I read through most of the story when Brendan McCarthy and I were putting together The Best of Milligan and McCarthy and I still think it reads fresh and cutting edge.
CB: Do you feel that Nemo anticipated some more cyberpunk heroes that became popular later?
Milligan: Nemo not only anticipated, he also influenced and probably scared the pants off cyber-punkers that came later.
CB: I remember the controversy about your comic Skin because of its treatment of a thalidomide skinhead – how do you see that controversy now?
Milligan: The same as I did then. Ridiculous. A sad reflection on society. Really, not joking, that’s what I feel.
CB: How did you end up creating the new version of Shade the Changing Man?
Milligan: Karen Berger wanted me to write something. I was intrigued by the character and thought it was nebulous enough for me to really put my stamp on. I wanted a character who could be used as a platform for me to talk about America.
CB: I’m a huge fan of Steve Ditko, so I was both shocked and delighted by how different your new version of the series was. How did you approach creating the new series?
Milligan: I really like a lot of Ditko’s work. But I didn’t want to be tied down or hamstrung but what had gone on before. I was intrigued by Shade’s powers of madness and his pretty whacky backstory. This seemed to offer me the scope and freedom to really put my stamp on it. So in short I took what I needed, I used just enough to make this just about still Shade, but I didn’t get too hung up about what Ditko had done. I think what emerges is a very different comic — an homage rather than a strictly observed continuation.
CB: You’re credited with helping to create Azrael, the replacement for Batman. How did that come about?
Milligan: Hah hah! Well, the truth is I am NOT credited, not in any formal way. It was all pretty loose. At that time I was writing the monthly Detective Comics title, and Alan Grant was writing Batman. For a number of reasons I wanted to come off Detective and [editor] Denny O’Neil and I had lunch together. I was just shooting my mouth off (as you do when someone’s buying you lunch) and came up with a loose idea of what they should do. The story or character I came up with while stuffing Chinese food into my mouth eventually came to be Azrael.
I remember Alan’s reaction when he heard about this wide-arcing new character I’d sort of created: “Thanks a lot, mate” I think his reaction was. of course, it’s one thing throwing some ideas around over lunch but another to fully realize a character and Azrael was ultimately the creation of those who came after me and are rightly credited with its creation. So I didn’t actually create it, but some of my dna probably ended up in it. DC were very nice and fair about the whole thing.
CB: How did you end up taking on X-Force?
Milligan: It was through my relationship with Axel Alonso. And it was one of those projects that I initially rejected as not my kind of comic. Sometimes when that happens you ask yourself: “what would have to happen to MAKE this my kind of comic?” X-Force–and the X-Statix that grew out of it–was the result of me trying to find an answer to that question.
CB: Your take on X-Force walked the odd line of being both cynical and cheerful; how did you navigate that line as you wrote the series?
Milligan: I’m fine with being labeled cynical. But cheerful? What I was trying to do was create a comic that was more self aware; with characters that were after something different from what your average ‘hero” was after.
CB: X-Force/X-Statix takes an odd turn when Edie is killed. Had you intended to finish the story of Guy Smith & Co. with the death of Edie Sawyer?
Milligan: No. From my very first issue of X-Force I established that this was a book where characters – even important characters – can and do die. I wanted to have that harsh reality running through all the fun and post-modern games. Going into Edie’s death scene I knew that either she, Guy Smith or Tike Alicar had to die. I wasn’t sure which. So I tossed a coin. I did this because I wanted to be surprised, the way that real death surprises you. Edie was the last person I wanted to die. Which was why when the coin gods pointed at her I had to me true and kill her.
CB: One of the things we readers noticed in X-Force/X-Statix is that there’s a deep contrast of hopefulness, fatalism and/or humanism, religion. Is that outta left field?
Milligan: Uh, I think that’s confusing things a bit. This was a comic which used comic book superheroes to examine fame and celebrity. There was always going to be contrasts between the seriousness of the characters (and of our idea of what comic book heroes should do) and the emptiness of a celebrity obsessed society.
CB: Once the series moved into X-Statix, the series got more sentimental and less fatalistic. Was that always the design of the series, or did your take on it change as it went along?
Milligan: I don’t think things got more sentimental. This wasn’t my overt design.
CB: How did you end up deeply involved in the New 52?
Milligan: Same old story. I got phone calls.
CB: Most of your work has a strong rebellious spirit to it. Were you a punk rocker when you were young?
Milligan: I never really liked joining or aligning myself completely with any fashion, mentality or group.
CB: What should we look for by you in the future?
Milligan: More writing. In comics and other formats.