What if Ming the Merciless’ wife took off with the kids?
That’s the premise behind Empress, the new miniseries by Mark Millar and Stuart Immonen being published by Marvel's Icon imprint. With three kids in tow – ranging from a teenager who would rather be with her dad to an infant – the wife of ruthless galactic conqueror goes on the run, determined to give her children a better life. Which won’t be easy with her husband on her tail…and did we mention this all takes place during the age of the dinosaurs?
Newsarama called up Millar to talk about Empress, which hits shelvesdebutes Wednesday, and wound up discussing not only the book, but some of its biggest influences and the current state of science fiction and fantasy.
Newsarama: Mark, based on the preview, Empress looks like it’s going in a similar direction to Starlight – though it’s distinctly a story on its own. Are they set in the same universe?
Mark Millar: Weirdly, it’s actually set 65 million years later in Starlight. But what they’ve got in common is the idea of doing fun sci-fi.
I was talking with a friend last year, and he was telling me Starlight was the first fun sci-fi thing he’d seen in a while. And I asked what he meant, and he said that since about 1980, sci-fi had gotten very dark – we talk about Star Wars defining cinema and sci-fi, but weirdly, it was more the Ridley Scott stuff from around 1980 that sort of redefined sci-fi cinema, and since then there hasn’t been much sci-fi fun.
So what these have in common is that you can maybe read and enjoy them whether you’re 10 or you’re 35, you know?
Nrama: Well, the premise is based in very human emotions – a mother wanting to protect her children – but it’s this bombastic universe sort of like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie where you can have someone just come in riding a T-Rex.
How much of classic pulp fiction was an influence on you growing up – Alex Raymond, Dan Dare…?
Millar: Weirdly, I never watched much British sci-fi growing up – I never saw much of Doctor Who or Dan Dare , I loved the American stuff! And I kind of specifically loved the pre-1980 stuff, going back to Flash Gordon and John Carter – I really, really, really love the pulps.
A huge thing for me, is, like you say, that Flash Gordon movie, the Mike Hodges one. I screened it at a film festival a few years back – we sold out of 400 tickets in like a day, and people were coming dressed as Voltan and all that. It’s a movie that people love, that doesn’t get a huge amount of recognition.
I think the human emotions thing is especially important, because I think that’s what puts a lot of people off of sci-fi, its absence. You know, you have a chase around the universe for some elixir that’s going to save a race that we’re never going to meet. They mean nothing, because we have no personal connection. But if you can humanize it, I think you have a story anyone can identify with.
Rod Serling was best at that – the first two seasons of The Twilight Zone are just so impeccable, because he’d always take the wildest idea, but boil it down to something a child or a grandparent could get. I think if a sci-fi story can make you laugh or make you cry, it’s so much better.
Nrama: What’s it like working with Stuart Immomen on this?
Millar: Well, Stuart is someone I’ve wanted to work with for 13 years, and getting to work with him finally, it’s like getting a date with Marilyn Monroe or something – I cannot believe I’m working with him on a book.
The thing about Stuart is he’s brilliant and he’s on time, and every page he sends me, he’s knocking it out. I’m delighted with how the project worked out, but he’s made it 10 times better.
Nrama: What does Empress as a work mean to you personally?
Millar: I wanted to do something anyone could read – a science fiction project that wasn’t just of interest to guys like me, that I could just hand to anyone, my children, my brother, that could just grab you on page 1 and hold your attention to page 130 or whatever.
I just wanted to do something that would have been the kind of thing I loved when I was a kid, because after seeing so many sci-fi things that are about heavy rain and darkness and interiors of spaceships, I wanted something that made you feel good.
Right now, as a reader and a person, I love things that make me feel good. I’m bored with dystopia. I’m bored with darkness, and I want something that makes me laugh. So that’s the kind of book I wanted to do.
Nrama: A lot of what made your reputation as a creator were works that had that darkness, that shock value. Do you feel that’s something that you, as a creator, are moving away from, or in what’s becoming more popular in different media?
Millar: Yeah, I think things shift – a Batman movie that comes out in 2008 is going to be very different from one that works in 1966, or a Batman movie that works in 2016. Culturally, I think we’re in a very, very different place from 2008 right now, and the darkness and realism that worked brilliantly in 2008 just doesn’t work today.
At the moment, I think that as a culture, we’re more optimistic and forward-thinking than we were eight years ago. The financial crash of 2008 was, I think, a paradigm shift, really, in the culture. I think after that, we started to look more for things that were entertaining. The Avengers hit that zeitgeist very well; Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit it brilliantly.
I think people are looking for a good time right now, in a way they weren’t looking for 10 or 12 years ago. So when I was doing books like The Ultimates or The Authority or something like that, they were very much of their moment. And the reason they were so popular was because that’s what I, as a member of the audience, I was personally looking for at the time. But what I’m looking for now is stuff that’s like Huck or Empress or whatever.
Nrama: And doing a book where the main character is a parent, from a parent’s perspective – what were the unique challenges of that?
Millar: Well, it came very naturally to me because I’m a father of three, all daughters. So I have children as young as 2, and it’s very natural for me to get up three times a night to take someone to the bathroom or something.
So that affects my point of view, being a dad, and I’ve noticed it creeping into my stories over the last few years – that more of the heroes in my stories are mothers, like I’m looking at my own life and seeing something.
But I kind of feel that’s what we need right now. There’s been enough of the glib action hero, this two-dimensional guy who makes a funny one-liner whenever he kills someone. We’re looking for something that’s just a little more well-rounded right now.
I always try to write what I want to read, and right now, Empress is what I want to read.