Mark Millar comes from Coatbridge. Some of the people that helped out with the viral campaign for his new comic, Kick-Ass, come from Coatbridge. I live in Coatbridge. The writer’s MillarWorld website had a special Kick-Ass Wednesday celebration yesterday when the first issue landed in comic stores across America. But here in Scotland, we don’t get our new comics until Thursday. So this is a Coatbridge Kick-Ass Thursday special. Nae danger by the way, big man.
AT the beginning of his career writing comics Coatbridge man Mark Millar used to turn to his local paper to drum up interest in his work – but these days he is orchestrating a huge multi-media campaign to generate publicity for his new project.
The 37-year-old’s bold stories have firmly established him as one of the top-selling creators of the last decade, but when Kick-Ass hit the shelves this week it was the culmination of a guerrilla-style promotional drive that is setting a new model for the industry.
Set in a world without superheroes, Kick-Ass seems perfectly poised to be a zeitgest-tapping hit about a young lad who decides to don a costume and fight crime.
Although published by Marvel, the limited series is printed under the company’s Icon imprint, which was established as a sort of thankyou to the publishing giant’s superstar creators, allowing them to retain control of their copyrights. Jointly owned by Millar and his collaborating artist John Romita Jr, Kick-Ass therefore receives no help from Marvel’s considerable marketing machine. The financial rewards are potentially huge, but Millar has had to generate interest in the comic himself.
Offering retailers a free advert in the comic if they publicise it in their stores is simple but effective, and giving reviewers an advance copy of the first issue is common sense. However, allowing fans the opportunity to appear in the comic if they pimp it across various message boards is central to Millar’s marketing technique.
Essentially, the writer is trying to stay ahead of the pack by reaching out to his audience through the Internet in new ways, applying some promotional know-how fine-tuned, most notably, by the movie business, but relatively new to the world of comic books.
Part of the way he’s been creating some parameter-pushing hype for Kick-Ass is by bringing a couple of hip young bands on board to create a soundtrack for it.
A viral marketing campaign, something that now seems to be compulsory for every major film release, has also been employed by Millar, the beauty of it being this is a way to generate publicity online that is cheap, immediate and spreads like wildfire throughout the Internet.
And although Millar has reached out to previously untapped nooks and crannies across the length and breadth of the World Wide Web, talent in his own home town has played a part in making Kick-Ass such a hot property.
Experimental hard-core nutjobs So She Said are in fact from Coatbridge, as is award-winning filmmaker Wilma Finnigan, the woman who edited the viral video for Kick-Ass into shape. The Usual are from just five miles down the road, in Motherwell.
With the flourishing social networks and online communities that comic book and movie fans in particular haunt, it always made sense for creators like Millar to have an online presence. Indeed, his MillarWorld site has now blossomed from being a way to promote his work into a hotbed for industry news and rumour.
Promoting comics using sophisticated viral tools sharpened in the movie business is something entirely new though. Yet it is the next logical step, as viral marketing benefits from using social networks as a platform, and these enthusiasts are a dedicated online community already linked by the likes of MySpace, Bebo and Facebook.
Starting threads, embedding videos and nurturing rumours means that someone like Millar can, at least initially, control the action, reach his target audience and then watch it all snowball exponentially as geeks across the world add links, forward webpages and even use the video themselves.
Millar’s undoubted mass-market appeal can be seen in the way that another of his creator-owned properties, Wanted, has been transformed into a $110 million blockbuster starring Angelina Jolie. Even more telling, Kick-Ass was already fast-tracked into movie pre-production before the first issue actually went on sale, the writer promising that the bad guy would be played by “probably one of the biggest actors in the world.”
It’s perhaps little surprise then, given the time that he’s spent being courted by Hollywood and trying not to look at Will Ferrell’s penis, that Millar has latched onto a promotional tool championed by the movie business – the viral marketing campaign – and applied it to Kick-Ass.
Of course, the technique is nothing new. As far back as 1998, lost-in-the-woods horror flick The Blair Witch Project parlayed a $60,000 outlay into a $248 million global phenomenon after the official website pretended the events in the film actually happened.
And now, viral campaigns have become essential for blockbusters, with the recent Cloverfield and the upcoming Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight prime examples. Millar, however, seems to be the first person to have brought the technique to the world of comic books.
It all started a while back with a piece of misdirection on the writer’s MillarWorld website, where he pondered if footage that had appeared online showing a have-a-go hero in action was a viral agent for the upcoming Watchmen movie.
The original video, posted on YouTube and called New York Superhero Caught on Camera, quickly amassed tens of thousands of hits and told the story of a college student who was attacked by four unknown assailants, while more than 15 people stood and watched. He got a severe beating that only stopped when a “self-proclaimed local superhero” leapt to his defence and kept the thugs at bay until the police arrived.
It was a big hit on various message boards but it only emerged that the video was promoting Kick-Ass when the comic’s MySpace webpage popped into existence a couple of weeks later.
Filmmaker Wilma Finnigan knows Millar from way back, and agreed to knock the video into shape after an ex-Special Forces friend of his shot the raw footage in New York.
Along with other half Duncan she is part of an award-winning husband-and-wife team that has produced six low-budget feature films in Scotland, so was the perfect choice to help her old friend get his viral campaign onto the Internet.
Finnigan said: “Mark approached me round about the end of October or November and he had this idea for a viral campaign. He got a friend of his in New York to shoot the raw footage and I did the editing. The dialogue had still to be done, Mark’s friend only shot the action, so Mark did the dialogue for the video.
“I manipulated the colour on the video and the dialogue is spoken by Duncan, a friend of ours called Martin Greechan and myself. We went to Dunbeth Park and recorded it there, so it’s all Coatbridge voices on the clip. Duncan is the one shouting ‘I won’t leave him’ and I’m the female voice on it.
“After that I edited it all together and put it up on YouTube. I had to go through a few edits. The raw footage went up first, then the following week there was another version that had text on it, telling a bit more of the story, and that was posted under a different username. I did all of them and set up the MySpace page for it as well.
“Mark had thought it all through. The original footage that got posted up and left for a week, that got about 2000 hits. The following week when the edited version went up, I think that ended up getting just under 50,000 hits. It was really successful.
“The good thing about things like YouTube and MySpace, it’s such a good medium to work with. I reckon most people look to the Internet now, it’s a modern-day entertainment arena, maybe even more so than television. We put a lot of our own trailers up on YouTube. Our film My Life As A Bus Stop is up online, although we had to put it up in parts. I think it’s a positive thing because it’s so hard to get your film distributed these days.
“Mark was looking for something raw and gritty, and the dialogue was written by him, but I think to some extent the kind of improvisational work that we do worked quite well with it.”
Having recently completed a Masters in Screenwriting, Finnigan is lecturing in Glasgow and working with Duncan on getting their next feature film off the ground. Much of their work has been improvisational and community-based, using untrained actors. In fact, Millar himself has appeared in one of their films and the respect they have for each other’s work is clear.
She added: “I love it, I really like what Mark does. When I was younger I used to read a lot of comics, I read a bit of manga now, but really the only comics I read are Mark’s stuff.
“We were neighbours, but we didn’t actually get really friendly until after he moved away, although we did know each other to say hello and talk to. He’s actually got a part in one of our films, My Life As A Bus Stop.
“We’re working on a coming-of-age film, it’s called Cola Dan, about a 16-year-old schoolboy, but we’re looking to get funding for it and we’re in talks with Scottish Screen at the moment. It’s in the early stages, but it’s all written.”
As an independent filmmaker, Finnigan understands how important it is to reach out to an audience and engage people in new ways. One of the other ways Millar has promoted his creator-owned property is to get bands to create a soundtrack for the comic.
Kevin Murray does guitar and backing vocals for So She Said and as the only actual comics fan in the band is the one responsible for their tie-in with Kick-Ass.
The 18-year-old said: “I’m a member of his MillarWorld board and I used to read all his old stuff for DC. I saw him talking about Kick-Ass on his website, so we just got in touch with him and spoke to him about what we do, then we sent him the song and he really liked it.
“It’s quite a violent comic and he’s using our song Tell Me About Carson Daly, which is a pretty good fit.
“It’s been really good for us, we’ve had a lot of hits on our MySpace page from it already, and a few of the comic convention websites in America have been in touch with us to ask if they could use our song, so it’s been really good for us. We’re getting a lot of publicity and anything else that spins out of it is a bonus.”
Paul Docherty (18) is the lead guitarist and understands why Millar is using internet sites like MySpace to try and raise the profile of Kick-Ass.
He said: “I get what he’s doing. MySpace is great for us, it gets you noticed and it’s an easy way for people to get in touch with you. It would be difficult to reach out as far as we have without MySpace. We’ve had some American websites contact us to see if they can use our songs, and that’s down to MySpace.”
Bassist Darren Lowe hasn’t read a comic in his life, but is going along for the ride. The 16-year-old appreciates the chance Millar gave the band to get involved with the comic, saying: “He’s been brand new with us, he always gets back to you really quickly and he’s a great laugh. We’re really happy, he’s had a lot of success, his comic Wanted is being turned into a big movie so it’s great to be associated with that kind of thing. We’ll just go with it, if anything more comes out of it then that’s a bonus.”
I did try to speak to the other group involved in the Kick-Ass soundtrack, The Usual, but band member Gary Dickie emailed me back with this classic line: “alright mate my fones away getting fixed and i dont have acess to the internet. i live in a cave and chase sabertooth tigers awe day.”
Having read the first issue of Kick-Ass, I can say it flows really well back and forward through the time-frame. We know there’s lots more cool shit still to happen because we see the hero getting his nuts fried, and there’s a hint that even more costumed heroes (and maybe even villains) will appear later.
Comic fans will of course get the central premise – pulling on a costume to fight crime – as we’ve all played out the fantasy in our lives at one point, but the more universal appeal is that everyone dreams about being someone else, whether it’s by creating an online persona or trying to pull a hot girl. The hero is motivated by loneliness as much as by the desire to do some good.
John Romita Jr nails every panel, as we all knew he would, and the success of the comic, frankly, is in the bag.
The first issue of Kick-Ass hit the shelves in America on Wednesday, and arrived in Britain today. You can watch the feedback come in on the official Kick-Ass thread at MillarWorld.