Peter Milligan on Superheroes, Life and Writing

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Crouched in a dark corner all the way over at the fringes of The New 52, acclaimed comics scribe Peter Milligan is carving out his own take on DC’s superhero community. From shock exploitation violence in Red Lanterns to an emotionally grim rollercoaser in Justice League Dark, Milligan is exploring the DC characters from a whole new angle. Known for his tendency to the surreal and complicated character arcs examining the protagonists in depth, Milligan is one of the greats of the industry spending time on creator-owned personal projects as well as corporate mastheads. Broken Frontier talked to Milligan about his new ongoing title JLDark and his outlook on superheroes, life and writing.

Cover detail from JL Dark #1

BROKEN FRONTIER: You are writing a few of The New 52 titles over at DC Comics. What’s it like to start with these characters starting afresh, freed from continuity like for example introducing Hellblazer’s John Constantine into JL Dark and the regular DC Universe?

MILLIGAN: Yeah, one question I get asked a lot is John Constantine’s place in JL Dark, how does this work? My answer always is that it’s the same person with the same political outlook. In JL Dark though he’s younger, he’s less messed up but you do get the impression that, if he hangs around long enough he will wind up like the Constantine in Vertigo’s Hellblazer comic book. So it is not that, because he shows up in America, he’s turned into this unpredictable superhero, no, he’s still Constantine. 

I have been asked if this won’t be confusing to the average comic reader but I think it does the average comic reader a disservice. The average reader is sophisticated enough to understand what is going on. The more the story progresses, the more it will be apparent that this is indeed John Constantine. I would even say that the one in JL Dark is more British than the one in Hellblazer which must be really self-conscious [editorial note - at the moment, Peter Milligan is also writing Vertigo’s Hellblazer comic series] because Constantine is the only Brit in this environment.  

John Constantine on the cover of Justice League Dark #5

Hellblazer is a fantastic book but it has years of continuity and if you want to do one idea or storyline you have to watch out it hasn’t already been done! It has had a lot of absolutely great writers and you don’t want to repeat anything or mess with continuity. Even though it’s not like X-Factor where you have to keep track of every little thing, you don’t want to piss on what has gone on before, you have to show respect. So it is not a clean slate exactly, writhing JL Dark, there is a degree of baggage but not nearly the same degree as what you normally have. Because DC has so many great characters it was almost like you couldn’t move, it was like a spider’s web and I think what DC has done with The New 52 is an amazing thing. 

BF: So how do you make those characters interesting for yourself?

MILLIGAN: Whatever suits the story I’d say. I take the characters and see what makes them work, I fit it into the story. And over time, it always becomes just a bit easier, you get to know what makes them tick, sortof.

BF: Is the writing process different for these superhero stories than for more personal projects like for example The Bronx Kill?

MILLIGAN: Well, with story, I also do mean character. It’s not just plot. I mean, story and character is often completely entwined. JL Dark is the story of these characters who don’t really belong together who, we will discover, need to stay together for reasons beyond their control. The kind of characters they are is what the story is. It’s not just 5 characters coming together to save the universe from an alien being. They have to stay together for very personal, character-driven reasons. JL Dark being in The New 52 allows me to tinker with some of these characters so that it better suits the character-driven story I want to tell. 

Cover detail from Red Lanterns #1


So in terms of subject matter, since JL Dark and Red Lanterns [editorial note - Red Lanterns is the other title Milligan is writing for The New 52 and takes place in the Green Lantern corner of the DC Universe] are off at the fringe of the DC spectrum of what you can get away with. Red Lanterns is rather bloody and violent while JL Dark is emotionally very dark. In any case,  I think you don’t start off with the limitations. You have the story and indeed it is DCU instead of Vertigo so it does have an impact on the story. For the DCU you tend to think more in terms of visual conflict, a more wide screen approach. Whereas with Vertigo like for instance Hellblazer, I look at things in a more microscopic way and have darker turns for the characters. 

BF: Is that the reason why you still do stuff like The Bronx Kill or Greek Street where you get the chance to examine characters as deep as you can go? Is there a certain comfort level to writing established superhero characters with a set history and personality? 

MILLIGAN: It is very comfortable I must say, it is. With Bronx Kill, it was something that was fantastic. It was something that was on my mind for a little bit. I was always quite interested in the history of New York and often just looked at the map of New York. For some reason the city always has a huge attraction on me, its Irish American history among others. So one evening, I was just looking at the map and noticed an area called The Bronx Kill.

Cover detail from The Bronx Kill OGN


First of all I thought that is was a great title for a story and I looked at where it was on the map of Manhattan and it was this place just pushed to the far periphery of Manhattan as though it was pushed the farthest corner of a person’s mind. That is the connection between the mind and this physical place, the periphery of the mind and the concept of family or what it is supposed to be. So it seemed to me that there is a correlation between this stinking unlovely place and certain places in a person’s head. The geography was a really interesting metaphor for what was going on in these people’s heads and in the family’s collective head. That’s where it all started. 

BF: Would you say that you write superheroes with a classical mythological underpinning, defining them as the new modern myth?

MILLIGAN: I try to approach them as people, as characters, who have special powers and who have been changed by this fact. But they are still people and that is what I base my story on, instead of have it just be about their powers. One thing that DC has gotten stronger at with The New 52 is that they realised that a superhero or villain with just a power is essentially a dead thing. Stories are always better when there is conflict instead of having it just be about the power - or the curse, depending on how you look at it. That’s when they start to have a more fleshed out character. 

Inside panel of the groundbreaking Rogan Gosh, drawn by Brendan McCarthy


BF: You tend to navigate towards surreal and noir influences for Vertigo like Rogan Gosh or The Extremist and even among your superheroes there’s stuff like X-Statix, JL Dark and Red Lanterns, all very violent in their own way. Does that reflect a particular outlook on life you cling to?  

MILLIGAN: Well, before you think that my view on life is this dark boulevard of smashed pictures, broken glass everywhere, I do feel that tragedy is a part of life, potentially. There’s always the sense that, however good life is, that kind of madness and destruction could potentially be one step away. It’s interesting. Hemingway said that there are no happy endings, the worst will always happen eventually. Just hang around long enough. That sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? [laughs] So I would say enjoy the moment. Carpe Diem. 

Follow Peter Milligan at his  website for the latest news on his projects and connect with him on Facebook.

This interview was conducted at the Lille Comics Festival in Lille, France.

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