When I was eight years old I had the Stars and Stripes hanging up in my bedroom. This isn’t especially strange, of course, except that I wasn’t American and actually grew up 5,000 miles away in a small industrial town in Scotland. Having the flag of a foreign nation draped over your bed is slightly eccentric, like a kid in China having a life-size poster of Greek President Karolos Papoulias on the wall. But such was the power of the American brand that I had to be a part of it. America was where Superman and Batman lived, and as soon as I was old enough I planned to go and work there.
Flash-forward three decades and I do. All those little home-made comic-books I used to put together eventually became my career and I’ve had my fingerprints over all the big Marvel and DC characters for the past decade and a half before striking out with my own company and creating books like Kick-Ass, Wanted and various other Hollywood franchises.
Superheroes have been my bread and butter my entire adult life and with superheroes comes a natural love of both Americans and Americana. I’m as familiar with their books and movies as anyone on either coast, as proficient in transatlantic Americanisms as anyone I’ve ever met and regularly commute for work to cities that, thanks to decades eating pic ‘n’ mix in my local cinema, feel almost more familiar to me than my home here in Scotland. But a couple of years back, on a book-signing tour that took me all over the US, I visited somewhere that really had quite a profound effect on me. On a trip to Michigan I took a drive to Detroit and saw the America that those superhero movies never talk about.
Now anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the last few years will be familiar with Detroit’s problems so there’s no need to go over them in too much detail. The news that a large American city was filing for bankruptcy was shocking, especially one that had been described as the heart of industrial capitalism and boasted, just 50 years ago, one of the highest average standards of living on the entire continent. We’ve all browsed the pictures online of what’s been described as ‘ruin porn’, vast, beautiful towers, neglected, symbols of a prosperous past destroyed, 80,000 buildings abandoned and incongruous images of trees and wildlife where banks and offices had thrived a decade or two before.
But nothing compares to actually standing there and looking at it with your own eyes. Driving through the middle of Brightmoor was like being on the set of I Am Legend or The Walking Dead. How could the richest country in the world allow so many of its people to live in such abject poverty? Where were all those superheroes now?
Detroit, of course, is not unique in what looks from the outside like capitalism crumbling. That same book-tour took me through Arkansas and Kentucky and all those other parts of the country often described as fly-over states and where one friend told me he was giving up his car because he didn’t have anywhere to buy gas anymore. I know this sounds odd and such a small detail, but the idea that a town suddenly didn’t have enough people running cars for a gas station to exist struck me as apocalyptic. I couldn’t understand why a bigger deal wasn’t being made of this social and economic catastrophe right on our doorsteps.
Except, of course, I do. It’s because it’s scary. It’s because it touches our lives in a way that poverty in other continents doesn’t. These are people who speak our language, who look and sound just like us, who watch Marvel movies and The Simpsons and all the things we enjoy too, but the bottom has completely fallen out of their lives in a way that’s much too close for us to handle. People who had comfortable, middle-class jobs are now living in slum-housing and relying on food banks to feed their families once their welfare payments run out. It’s terrifying. No wonder we’ve all retreated into a fantasy land, watching men and women in brightly-colored spandex saving the human race over a satisfying 128 minutes. Basic escapism is why superheroes were invented.
Flash-back to 1938. Two Jewish kids in Cleveland created Superman to cheer people up as America still reeled from the 1929 banking crash. Similarly, the superhero cinema I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of for the past decade has enjoyed unparalleled success in these worst of modern times. It’s no coincidence we enjoyed repeat viewings of Spider-Man and the X-Men in the years following 11 September, and these massive movies, generally grossing around half a billion dollars with every outing, would double their profits post-2008 when the banking crisis made real-life seem that little bit worse.
For 5,000 years we’ve told stories about super-powered heroes to get us through the most unsettling periods in history, but it almost feels a little uncomfortable in these tough economic times watching billionaire Bruce Wayne fight poor people every night in his expensive, rodent-themed fetish-wear. Should we really be especially concerned that billionaire weapons-dealer Tony Stark might not make it home for dinner with Gwyneth Paltrow when the person sitting next to us in the cinema is very probably worrying about feeding their kids next week?
It’s our job as writers to provide escapism for an audience, but it’s also our responsibility to talk about the world we’re living in right now. There’s nobody alive who enjoys this kind of four-colour fantasy more than I do, but sometimes I wonder if it’s political sleight-of-hand to write about threats to Gotham City or Metropolis when we should be writing about those bad guys in the real world who look an awful lot like Bruce Wayne. Which brings me back to Detroit.
Superman came out of the last Great Depression and the Marvel heroes were created in the heat of the Cold War, so I wanted my latest superhero book to be reflective of the world unfolding around us now. We live in a period when the gap between rich and poor has never been wider and I wanted to tell a story about that power-balance being flipped around.
The best superhero concepts are always empowerment fantasies: a kid bitten by a radioactive spider or a klutz like Clark Kent ripping open his staid, everyday clothes to reveal the Superman beneath. But what if we took that age-old idea and applied it to the kind of characters we’ve never really seen before in this heroic roles? What if, for once, our superheroes weren’t those billionaire playboys fighting for the status quo and these incredible abilities were bestowed instead upon the kind of people who might shake things up a little bit?
My new book, MPH, deals with four 19-year old kids from Detroit who stumble across a street drug that lets them move at super-human speed. Focusing the story on America’s underclass opened up immediate and very exciting possibilities for me as a writer. The idea of empowering the powerless is a superhero trope, but what if we took the safety catch off and had these guys using their powers to take down the bankers and the corporations and all the crooked politicians who had sold Detroit down the river for three successive generations?
Superheroes are essentially power-fantasies, but what if these super-powers were used in a way that’s never really been done before? Imagine you’ve got nothing, not a penny to your name, and no matter how hard you try you’re never going to make it because your entire city has been written off by the federal government and all your dreams are doomed to failure. Then you luck out like nobody’s lucked out before and suddenly you can outrun bullets. Suddenly you’re more powerful than the president and you look around and see the people you care about needing help while that other America is watching the Kardashians and forgetting you’re even here. What do you do? Do you break the law? Is it a crime if a superhero puts food on the table for people who have nothing?
The second I started writing this story I almost couldn’t stop. After years of writing more conventional, big-budget heroes like Superman or Spider-Man it felt amazing to dip my pen in some real world ink and have my super-people take down all the people who outsourced a city and left it to rot. I also wanted to write a big superhero comic with a mixed-race cast because in a decade when the biggest golfer, the biggest movie-star, the biggest racing-driver, the richest pop-star, the richest television executive and even the president himself were all people of colour, superheroes still looked very suspiciously like a white-boys club.
I’m pleased to say that’s changed a little in the last couple of years, but I felt it was important here, given that African-Americans are the biggest racial group in Detroit. That said, I also felt it was important to mix up the ethnicities a little too because MPH is a book about poverty more than race and the collapse of a system we expected to exist forever is a fear that stretches right across America. The principal characters in this book needed to be as diverse as America itself and I’ve based each of them on the people who were kind enough to lend me their time when I spent a period hanging out in their city. I hope I’ve done them justice.
I’m proud of this new comic. My co-creator and artist Duncan Fegredo and I have put our heart and soul into it over the past couple of years. We think it’s an important book to have out there and we’re delighted by both the advance buzz and the fact that Transformers producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura picked up the rights to turn this into a big Hollywood movie last month. It’s an easier sell to just create the same old safe, cookie-cutter, military-approved Caucasian heroes for the mass market, but I feel oddly complicit and guilty to be working in fantasy right now and maybe distracting people just that little too much from what’s happening in the real world.
That’s why I put out a call to the other writers and film-makers reading this. As entertaining and fun as these fantasy realm and comic-book bonanzas are to put together we should worry more about the citizens of places like Detroit than we do about Asgard or Metropolis. That’s why we’re sending a copy of this book to President Obama and every senator in Washington DC this week and we’ll do the same again once the movie gets made. It’s important to keep the story of Detroit and all the other forgotten tragedies in America’s march forward very much in the public consciousness. It’s easy to go unnoticed if you aren’t rich or these problems have been going on so long that nobody’s talking about them anymore. It’s my privilege and responsibility as a writer to bring them to your attention in the only way I can. What better manner to catch your eye than via one of these big, crazy Hollywood franchises nobody can escape from at the moment?
Four superheroes taking down the bankers couldn’t be more different than Superman or Batman, who sometimes look the other way when the real villains are operating. These are the good guys America needs right now.
Mark Millar is the writer of Kick-Ass, Wanted and Marvel’s biggest-selling series of the last decade, a movie producer and creative consultant at 20th Century Fox. His next movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is released in October, starring Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson.