Sex, Art & Danger: Peter Milligan on His New Image Comic, The Discipline

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Sex, Art & Danger: Peter Milligan on His New Image Comic, The Discipline

To call Peter Milligan’s body of work “vast” would be an understatement of the highest order. Milligan got his start writing comics for the British anthology 2000 AD, including the 1986 series Bad Company, to which he returned last year. Like many an acclaimed British comics writer, he’s worked extensively with DC’s Vertigo imprint, including a head-spinning run on Shade the Changing Man in the 1990s and a stint writing the final fifty issues of Hellblazer. Current title New Romancer analyzes chivalry and passion under a digital lens aimed squarely at millennial passivity. At Marvel, his work with artist Mike Allred on X-Force (later X-Statix) blended a trenchant examination of the superhero as celebrity with moments of unsettling surrealism.


And it’s the rare work of Milligan’s that doesn’t unsettle in some way. His new series The Discipline with artist Leandro Fernández follows a young woman named Melissa suffering from a bad marriage. That changes dramatically when she meets Orlando, a mysterious man who may not be all that he seems—or even human. The series opens with a heady blend of obsession, desire, ominous art and the familiar colliding with the alien. We spoke with Milligan to learn more about the book’s origins, his writing approach and the shifting comic book industry.

Paste: Where did the concept for The Discipline come from? You’re dealing with shadowy organizations, bodily transformations and substances that seem to transport their taker’s mind into another realm—how much of the underlying mythology did you have to have planned out before you wrote the first few issues?
Peter Milligan: Shadowy organizations, bodily transformations, substances that transport the taker’s mind into another realm? Sounds like most of my youth! Seriously, a lot of the stuff in The Discipline is based on, or an exaggeration of, things I’ve been in contact with—or wish or imagined that I had. What seems like a pretty simple story of boredom and sexual awakening quickly grows into something much wider, much older and much weirder. And when you’re dealing with this kind of complex centuries-hopping mythology, you really have to have it worked out before your hero steps onto the stage. That’s not to say that things can’t change, that new ideas can’t crop up, but overall I could see the whole world of The Discipline, the Stalkers and where sex comes into it all.

Paste: Artwork plays a large role in the first issue of The Discipline: Melissa and Orlando meet in front of a Francisco Goya painting, and Renaissance art (and its variations) are a recurring motif. Were there other examples of fine art that worked their way into the script, or will down the line?
Milligan: Art continues to be important to this story for a few reasons. Art plays with the idea of what is real and what isn’t. And it’s a window onto the past, and into artists’ imaginations. And the past, and what might or might not be imaginary runs through this book.

The Discipline #1 Interior Art by Leandro Fernández

Paste: The Discipline isn’t your first foray into comics that blend horrific imagery with a real-world setting. How do you find the ideal balance between a grounded sense of place—in this case, New York City—and a book’s more fantastical, unsettling elements?
Milligan: I always find that stories that have a good grounding in the real world, something solid and believable, are more shocking or powerful or horrific. Getting the balance right is about instinct, I think. You just try to make your character’s world believable, so we see the contrast when it’s affected by the “other.” With The Discipline, the contrasts between the different worlds go even deeper. This story is about a woman who is already attempting to balance two very different—albeit very real—worlds. When the weirdness starts, this is yet another world that Melissa must attempt to deal with.

Paste: You’ve incorporated questions of sexuality and desire in your work as far back as Enigma. What draws you to these themes? And how do you best convey them without losing a sense of subtlety?
Milligan: It all depends on the story. There was sex in Enigma—for example—but it means very different things from what it means in The Discipline. The sex in The Discipline is often shocking, so I wanted it to be displayed that way, with a willful lack of subtlety, because I wanted to get a sense of the shock that Melissa is feeling, and get a sense of how the sex in The Discipline is usually not about sex at all.

Paste: The first issue of The Discipline finds Orlando observing Melissa from afar as he begins his seduction. Was it difficult to balance the more unnerving aspects of his character with making him compelling or sympathetic?
Milligan: I know what you mean. He could come across as a creep. The difficulty or work came in trying to keep him as being unnerving when we first meet him—Melissa is unnerved by him—but to establish that he is a lot more than simply some sex pest or stalker of women. That said, I wanted a sense of danger to remain. I’m usually more concerned with a character like Orlando being interesting (and compelling) rather than sympathetic or, God forbid, likable.

The Discipline #1 Interior Art by Leandro Fernández

Paste: Your body of work has encompassed science fiction, horror, fantasy and superhero work. Are there any genres that you’d like to tackle that you haven’t already?
Milligan: With Vertigo’s New Romancer I think you can add Supernatural Rom-Com to that list! I don’t have some burning desire to journey into a different genre—it’s about the story and how best to tell it. I quite like some detective/thriller stories, especially when they’re shot through [with] some off-beat, existential literary angst.

Paste: The Discipline is your second time working with Leandro Fernández on art. Did that existing working relationship have any effect on how you scripted this series?
Milligan: I don’t think I wrote the story differently or anything, but having a previous working relationship with an artist can affect how you put the script together. You’re talking to a human being whom you know; it can be a bit more personal and hopefully helps to get clarity of vision.

Paste: Your earliest comics work appeared in 2000 AD, you have had work appear in Vertigo from the early days of that publisher onward and you’re now doing work for Image. How would you say that the environment for creator-owned work has changed for you over the years?
Milligan: This is my first foray into the world of creator-owned set-ups like Image. But over the past few years, at signings, going around conventions and talking to people, it does seem to be the business model (for want of a better phrase) of the future, or near future. So in that sense, the environment might become better for people who want to maintain editorial control, maybe attempt something very personal or experimental. There’s a sense that we’re in the middle of big changes, especially when you throw in the whole potential of online digital comics, but there’s also a sense that we’re still in flux, and we know not quite where this will settle down.

The Discipline #1 Interior Art by Leandro Fernández

Paste: Late last year, the first new Bad Company story in years was published. Are there any other older works of yours that you’ve been thinking about revisiting?
Milligan: I’m not especially looking at older material to revisit. With Bad Company, I had a story I really wanted to tell that I thought added something worthwhile to the Bad Company series. I think that should be the criterion: unless you have something new to say with or about an old series, leave it alone.

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