Pat Mills Unwrapped part 1 – the godfather of Brit comics talks with Matt Badham
Pat Mills is one of the leading lights of the British comics industry. A former editor turned freelance writer, he’s been responsible for some of the most memorable characters ever seen in English language comics. His creations include Nemesis the Warlock, Marshal Law, the ABC Warriors, Sláine and Defoe. But he’s also a presence in French comics with, amongst other projects, Requiem: Vampire Knight. In this interview, conducted by Matt Badham via email, Pat talks about writing, the state of British comics and his plans for the future…
NB: Matt Badham, Richard Bruton, various readers of this blog and members of the 2000AD online forum wrote the questions for this interview. (Thanks, blog readers and forum dwellers, you came up with questions that we would never have thought of in a thousand years.) The finished piece was copy-edited by Matt Badham and Joe Gordon. In this first part Pat talks about his writing and how he approaches it, how some of his series, such as Savage and the ABC Warriors are increasingly sharing a history, how he works with artists and also some of the darker side of the comics business, such as the less than kind way some fine writers and artists and their creations have been treated. The second part will follow tomorrow.
Matt: Is writing ever a hard slog for you or is it always a pleasure?
Pat: It’s always a pleasure these days because the stories reflect something I’m interested in. Occasionally the tight, six-page format on 2000AD can be restricting, so good scenes get left out. That means the scenes don’t always flow as well as I would like and that can be a bit negative.
Matt: Why has 2000AD endured?
Pat: It had very firm foundations, but some years ago this wasn’t always recognized so the formulae got messed with to its detriment (e.g. that phase where it seemed to be influenced by Loaded). Not any more, thank goodness. The first Dredd story, the first Flesh story, the first few episodes of Invasion (Savage) and others still stand the test of time. Great writers and artists have come and gone but the comic has survived their departure, so it has to be the product itself. So I think it has to be about sticking to the roots of the comic and the best of the newer stories reflect this.
(Prog 1 of 2000 AD from 1977)
Matt: Do you prefer the weekly serial format of 2000AD for your stories or would it be better for you to be able to realise them as part-work graphic novels? What are the advantages/disadvantages of writing for both formats?
Pat: I think ultimately graphic novels are the way forward. 2000AD is like Private Eye, a magazine held in great affection and therefore likely to continue for many years, and it’s possible to adapt to new times and new ways of story telling.
Also, the readers like cliff-hangers which you don’t get in a graphic novel AND it is a great way to train new artists and even test out new stories without releasing a whole album.
Matt: Do you still consider your characters to take place in the same shared universe as Dredd or was the whole shared world something you wrote into scripts when you were initially editing 2000AD? If you prefer for your characters to exist in their own ‘universe’ is this why you tweaked the dates of the wars in your recent ABC Warriors?
Pat: I think basically my stories are in one universe and the Dredd stories are in another. There has been the odd link. But there’s never been any great impetus to take this further. I am enjoying linking Savage into the ABC Warriors early years… and there is more of this to come!
(Bill Savage, the British resistance hero, there in the early days of 2000 AD and still, under Pat’s pen, popular with readers 30 years later)
Matt: In the flashbacks to the Volgan Wars in recent ABC Warriors why did you decide not to include Happy Shrapnel, the only original warrior we’ve never seen outside of their original run? Was there something about the character you didn’t like? He was originally killed ‘off-screen’, I seem to remember…
Pat: I have plans for Happy Shrapnel, which are already set up in the script. Only problem is that it takes forever to get each book out, so it may be a while before you will see the connection.
Matt: Also, was it your intention that Happy Shrapnel appeared to be self-censoring? In the early strips he makes a buzz sound every time it looks like he is about to swear.
Pat: Yes, absolutely. But when he reappears, he may well be very different.
Matt: I seem to recall, perhaps wrongly, that you originally planned to make a series with Joe Pineapples as a private detective in the Gothic Empire. Is this true and if it is, is it a concept you would ever consider revisiting?
Pat: Yes. I think all the ABC Warriors could make their own series. But we’re always up against difficulties of time and artist availability.
Matt: How did the Martians (in ABC Warriors) survive the Torquemada era, being so close to Termight?
Pat: That’s a damn good point. I think there’s (another) missing story that could cover this. Probably to do with the fear of Medusa. Governments can often ignore regimes that are alien to them when it suits them. e.g. the USA is hostile to Iran, but not Saudi Arabia.
Matt: Why do you think science fiction and fantasy stories are such good vehicles for satires and political allegory? If, indeed, you agree that they are…
Pat: I think they’re good vehicles and make good stories. There was a recent Nemesis lecture at a college, for instance, doubtless analysing its sub-text. But I think that oblique allegory often doesn’t hit the mark and is seen as just a great story. People fall in love with the wrapping paper not what’s inside. Example: High Noon, inspired by the McCarthyism in the 1950s. But who is interested – if, indeed, they knew this? I personally like “on the nose” material, but I realise I’m in a minority here, probably a minority of one!
A good further example of all this is Charley’s War which does not use satire or allegory, it shoots from the hip. No wrapping paper. Many would say it’s my strongest story and I’d agree.
Matt: You seem to have had great success in matching artists to your scripts to get the very best out of both, with them frequently producing the best work of their careers. How do you go about finding and choosing artists, and persuading editors to use them? In particular I’m thinking of Mick McMahon here… while Belardinelli was the perfect if obvious choice for a rural fantasy world, McMahon had produced gritty SF all the way up to his incredible work on Sláine.
Pat: Mike had always wanted to do Sláine, but it was important to create a beautiful natural world first, which Bellardinelli achieved. Then it was set up for Mike. But readers divided fiercely at the time between which artist they preferred, which was painful for all of us. It’s a tricky, time-consuming process… example: I have a new artist in James McKay for Flesh. It took me ten months for his first episode to be ready for 2000AD. It takes so long because I know what I want from an artist… and what the readers expect… so I have to be very critical to get the right look. I’m very excited about bringing Flesh back. It’s time it was done properly.
Matt: Was it as hard as people say to control Simon Bisley’s alleged artistic excesses or was that the editor’s job?
Pat: I think I was lucky as I was working with Simon at the beginning of his career. And on ABC Warriors, I deliberately wrote all the biker stories for Simon and the others for SMS. So both were drawing stories they wanted to draw. I still miss SMS, by the way. He is a brilliant artist who got ‘pushed out’ because his face or style somehow didn’t fit. I would love to see him work for 2000AD again.
Matt: You sometimes tailor your scripts to artists, as in the case of SMS and Bisley. How often, if at all, does it work the other way? Do artists ever offer story or ‘scene’ suggestions to you?
Pat: Yes, they certainly suggest scenes from time to time. For instance, James McKay suggested a scene in Flesh where a Quetzal bird attacks. Similarly I had a scene in Hell Creek Montana and he added the detail that the biodiversity there is all wrong. This prompted the idea that it was time-travelling Flesh hunters having wiped out the local wild life that caused this. Kevin O’Neill often suggested scenes on Marshal Law and the most anti-super hero scenes are generally his! For instance, in Cloak of Evil, the Street Surgeon’s car was Kevin’s idea.
(you are never too old to enjoy some major dinosaur action – one of early 2000 AD’s most popular strips, Flesh, returns in Prog 1724, out on March 9th)
Matt: I was saddened to read that Clint Langley is leaving Sláine. What do you think he has brought to the character over his eight year run?
Pat: I think he brought back the epic nature and totally empathised with the way I saw the character. His version is definitive. There had been some problematic art before Clint. This was actually the fault of the editors at the time not the artists, who were not correctly briefed by them. This caused the character to lose ground. Clint brought it back to its old popularity and beyond and also established a unique graphic novel format that has found huge favour in the UK and abroad. He did all those extra pages for nothing or virtually for nothing. That’s one hell of an achievement.
Matt: Were those extra pages for the graphic novel collections?
Pat: Yes. I think he did many for free.
Matt: Is Clint leaving ABC Warriors as well?
Pat: No, he’s not leaving ABC Warriors. And I’ll be writing a new ABC when I find time.
Matt: Thinking about Sláine made me think about the first artist on the strip, Angela Kincaid. What was her contribution to the strip and its development?
Pat: Everything. It was massive. It was the first story where the hero smiled and looked sexy to women and looked tough without being a macho git. You will find female fans will particularly note how they liked her interpretation.
All of this was down to her and all of it is hellishly difficult to make work. ‘Episode Ones’ are the hardest in the world to get right.
All the key visual ingredients in Sláine she created, which I made damn sure of. Because I sensed if anything was created subsequently her achievement would be diminished by her critics. As indeed it was anyway.
Matt: What makes first episodes so hard to get right?
Pat: Because you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper. The story could go anywhere. The art could go anywhere. What holds it all together is the strength of your combined – writer and artist – vision. Creators are sometimes eclipsed by developers [editors etc…] who look at a story and see how to take it further. But it’s that first episode that really counts. I don’t think this is always understood by readers, which is why I make a point of stressing it. Ask yourself how many of those developers have actually created anything comparable and as memorable. The answer is – not often. That doesn’t detract from their talent as developers, but stresses how difficult the creative process is and why it needs the most acknowledgement
Matt: Do you think she’s been slightly, unfairly perhaps, ‘whitewashed’ out of comics history?
Pat: Oh, yeah. Her face never fitted. Not one artist, writer or editor who I knew or was working with at the time rang her up to encourage or support her. As would be the case normally. It was like she didn’t exist. To our surprise, there was silent hostility from within the industry, which I’ve never forgiven. Yet she was the first artist (and possibly the last) whose story beat Dredd in the polls to be number one that week. It never happened again on Sláine, not even with Fabry and Bisley. This unpalatable fact sticks in too many people’s throats so its quietly forgotten.
Ironically she had agreed to create Sláine because she found her own world of illustration, where she was very successful, rather distant and thought she would be part of my usually friendly and supportive comic world. She found the industry so bloody unfriendly that she said never again (plus I’m very tough to work with — there was no nepotism there) [NB: Pat was married to Angela at the time]. Although she helped me out on a few later stories on Crisis when I was up against it time-wise. And her colouring on John Hicklenton’s Inspector Ryan series is genius.
(Some of Angela Kincaid’s artwork for Pat Mills’ popular Sláine for 2000 AD)
Of course no one will ever own up to sexism, jealousy and putting mainstream readers second and fans first, but that’ s what lay behind the passive aggression. Editorial really wanted someone like Mike McMahon, Alan Davis or Cam Kennedy to draw it. All their names were put to me. This would have been aimed more at — what shall I say? — hard-core comic fans. But I wanted it to appeal to mainstream fans. The reader in the street, if you like, who is always my target audience. I wanted a European, illustrated look which — despite imperfections — she was the most suited to achieve. The reason it is a success as a graphic novel and throughout Europe bears this out and owes much to her origination. Her Ukko is still unbeatable. If the foundations are weak, you can’t build even with great artists.
Other artists needed more time to develop their styles further, but were still encouraged at the start of their careers when they were a bit rough round the edges. She got zilch, which is disgraceful.
Matt: When you’re working on a strip like Sláine, do you have a conclusion/potential length in mind or do you prefer to try and let the strip develop organically?
Pat: I try and let them develop organically. Sláine was always designed to be a story that could be wide-ranging and draw on material from different sources.
Matt: How about your other strips, such as Savage?
Pat: I think there are certain aspects of resistance fighting that need to be worked through…. e.g. classic resistance fighting…. escape lines… “Mission to destroy secret weapon”…. gangster stories… analogies with the way Britain and the USA are invading and occupying other countries and are seen as the Volgans.
I never quite seem to reach the end of those possibilities, although Allied Forces are now established in Wales, but the Volgans are still fighting back.
Matt: The Mills-verse is converging a bit in Savage and the ABC Warriors as you plot some of the development of the ABCs/Ro-Busters in the former? What led you to decide to ‘merge’ the two stories by tying their histories?
Pat: Both featured the Volgans when they first appeared so I think I had to explore how all that made sense – when/where/how etc. It also provided a science fiction element for Savage, which I think it needed to give it a certain visual spice.
Matt: Also, with all these flashbacks in the ABCs, tying in of separate histories, is there any chance we might see some new, untold Nemesis/Torquemada stories?
Pat: I would love to do more Nemesis stories but I always said to Kevin [O'Neill] that once I had pursued and resolved the outstanding story themes I would bring it to a conclusion, rather than have it continue as a “house” character.
(the mighty Kev O’Neill’s artwork complimenting Pat’s writing in the early Nemesis the Warlock, published Rebellion)
Matt: Why do you think the fans love to hate the likes of Torquemada?
Pat: We love villains and Torque is the most appalling of villains.
Matt: Do you think there could be more non-Nemesis stories set in the world of Termight in the vein of the Deadlock stories that you wrote and Henry Flint drew? Would you be interested in that?
Pat: Yes. That’s why I wrote that Deadlock story. I was very disappointed when [former 2000AD Editor Andy] Diggle specifically said he didn’t want to continue that approach, with further post-Torequemada stories, probably because he had plans for Henry elsewhere. I think the opportunity may be lost now.
Matt: You have an aversion to other people writing characters you’ve created. However, you’ve let the guys behind the Zarjaz fanzine play with your characters and offer them to other creators. Why are they the exception?
Pat: Well, Zarjaz is a fanzine so it’s not a threat to my living. My aversion is well-founded, though. Ten years ago there were definitely plans afoot for people to take over my stories. And there were hungry hacks around at the time in need of a free lunch who would do it. I think my aggressive response at the time helped put a stop to this. Consider how Gerry Finley-Day’s stories got taken over by others and — in my view and of many readers — this was to their detriment. For instance, the sequel to Fiends. Or the sequels to my Flesh Book One. There are numerous other examples.
Perhaps the best is Charley’s War where the new writer killed the number one serial stone dead in a couple of months, despite Joe’s brilliant artwork. That was a tragedy. Publishers and editors I think have finally got the message: it doesn’t work. No one would ever consider anyone other than Alan Moore writing Halo Jones or D.R. and Quinch. I think that’s now the same with my stories. This should apply to everyone — including Gerry — not just writers with clout. But if Zarjaz is fun and an homage to the characters, why not? And I really enjoyed their 2000AD Defoe advent fan story. Excellent work.
Matt: You mentioned Gerry Finley-Day as a creator who has been somewhat ‘airbrushed’ out of British comics history. Are there others?
Pat: Gerry is the main one. Girls’ comics writers have also gone off the radar, but I’m doing my best to reverse that. Hence I have an article out in the next Comic Heroes about girls’ comics writers and the way everything began with Gerry.
Matt: Despite your maxim that only creators should write their characters, you have written Dredd in recent years? Why is Dredd the exception?
Pat: Well, firstly I’m the developer of Dredd and my version of Dredd started the character off in the comic before John [Wagner] returned to writing it. But also Dredd is a “house character” whereas my characters are not. I’m told there are great Dredd stories written by other writers, but I think John’s are still the ones that appeal to me.
Matt: In Defoe we don’t know a huge amount about the state of the rest of the world. We know they are importing zombies to the Caribbean instead of slaves (as the Native people, like the Arawak, were destroyed on contact with Europeans) but beyond that… not so much. Are the zombies just a British problem or worldwide? Will we see any of the wider knock-on effects for the rest of the world in Defoe?
(Defoe 1666 by Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher, published Rebellion)
Pat: I think Britain was the main focus…. Because the Angelic intervention required this in order to create the British Empire. Eventually I’d like to see a wider focus on Defoe’s world, but I reckon he will be in Britain for the next two serials at least after the current one has concluded. I’m so happy writing Defoe… Leigh [Gallagher] is doing a fantastic job!
Matt: If you were editor what would you do differently, if anything, for 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine?
Pat: I think Matt [Smith] is doing a brilliant job editing the comic. As proof… we have had ten years of peace and progress and I can’t speak highly enough of him, and that’s an objective view, Matt can be as tough on my stories as any editor. So I wouldn’t presume to say how he could change it, given the limited resources, writers, artists etc he has available. You can only have one driver. That said, if it had been either of his two predecessors I would have much to say about what should be different. Thank Grud their dark era is over.
Matt: I understand that you wrote “Moonchild” for the comic Misty, but did you do any other serials for it?
Pat: Yes, I wrote a number of stories for Misty. I formatted the self-contained scary stories… although I wasn’t happy with the way they toned my stories down.
These included Paint it Black (which I recycled in Nemesis – about an old house covered in flies)… Roots (about a horrible secret of why everyone in a village is happy)… and one about poisonous spiders in supermarket bananas.
They toned them all down… annoyingly. But the art was brilliant on Roots! The standard was as high as anything 2000AD has ever printed. I should try and track down a copy!
I also wrote a serial called Hush Hush, Sweet Rachel about reincarnation (inspired by Audrey Rose) and probably another one whose name I forget.
Matt: If people are trawling though the back issue bins, which girls’ comics/strips would you recommend keeping an eye out for?
Pat: Early issues of Misty… my story Moonchild. Malcolm Shaw’s story The Sentinels (set in a Nazi Britain).
Matt: Would you like to write for the female market again?
Pat: Yes. I have a graphic novel at early stage — Rose Noir, female vigilante
Matt: Or is that question in itself one you find reductive/sexist? The notion that there is a ‘female market’ distinct from a male one…?
Pat: People sometimes say unisex as a way of justifying and excusing male dominance. Until unisex is truly unisex, I think the term female market is appropriate. And who buys all those acres of vampire novels like Twilight? They are clearly aimed at a female market.
Part two of Matt’s talk with Pat will appear tomorrow and will see Pat discuss working in comcis in both Britain and France and the pros and cons of each country’s take on comics, his dislike of superheroes, the ‘dark age’ of 2000 AD when he felt the leadership was much less than it should be and branching into writing for other media, with his script for American Reaper.