Friday, March 20, 2015

No. 4 Pat Mills

First Prog: (as editor and as scripter) Prog 1
Last Prog: may the day never come! Just started on a new Slaine; Flesh, ABC Warriors / Savage / Ro-Busters (are these now basically all one and the same series??) and, I hope, Defoe coming along too, presumably. And maybe something all-new!

First Meg: 202
Last Meg: 259 sees the final epsiode of American Reaper - but more Mills work is as likely to appear in future as not, I imagine.

Total appearances: 1275 (and counting!)
-covering Progs, Judge Dredd Megs, StarLord, Tornado and various Annuals and Specials from that stable…

…but not counting the many, many, stories he has written for publications such as Eagle, Toxic!, Scream, Battle/Action, Misty etc that might be considered part of the 2000 AD stable.
...except it is counting the episodes of Charley's War that were rreprinted in the Meg, because according to my own rules, that's legit. And, in my defense, it's the only place I've actually encountered and read this much-celebrated Mills epic.

Creator / co-creator credits:
The actual bloody comic itself! And, within its fine pages, Flesh; Invasion / Savage; MACH 1 / Project: Greysuit; Harlem Heroes; The Visible Man; Judge Dredd; Shako!; Ro-Busters; ABC Warriors; Nemesis the Warlock; Slaine; Metalzoic; Diceman; Third World War / Finn; Dinosty; Black Siddha; Defoe; American Reaper

Other story credits:
Dan Dare – the only character Mills has worked on for 2000AD that he didn’t help create? He’s certainly pretty keen on the idea that it is best for a creator to work on their own ideas, and for creators not to work on someone else’s ideas. On a tangential note, perhaps this explains why the first 2000AD incarnation of Dan Dare is the worst least best story of the original line-up, saved only by phenomenal art and joyously OTT dialogue.*

Words by Kelvin Gosnell; Art by Massimo Belardinelli
(with a touch of Frank Hampson)
Planet of the Damned, a fun if generic ‘people trapped in an alien wilderness’ story for StarLord that didn’t yield any lasting characters, but did, arguably, help fertilize some Zombo-shaped seeds. I understand that Mills worked out the basic idea, and wriote the first episode, but then handed over scripting duties. Had he liked it better, it may have ended up in 2000 AD Prog 1! (thanks to David from Hibernia for the tip off)

A handful of one-off tales, all in the twist / come-uppance vein.

Notable character creations:
Even more than John Wagner, Mills has a penchant for designing, naming and introducing fantastic new characters for 5 page episodes, and then ignoring them entirely in future. From the venal humans in the classic Ro-Busters ‘Death on the Orient Express’ 2-parter, to the murderball team from recent 3-part Slaine serial The Mercenary, these delights come and go. Frankly, he’s so good at character creation that it’s frustrating he doesn’t keep more of them alive. Perhaps he’s waiting to gauge response to see if it’s worth his time developing any particular creation?

In terms of those characters Mills does keep on writing about, his hit rate is outrageously high. Let’s go ahead and examine just a few…

Torquemada – voted comics’ best villain multiple times. And the real genius, is, perhaps, that his antagonist Nemesis the Warlock also functions wonderfully as both a classic hero and utter dastard villain, to boot.
The original 7 ABC Warriors. All f’in seven of them! Seven robots all with unique looks, personalities and, I have no doubt, each one a beloved favourite of some reader somewhere. It’s to Mills’ credit that in each new series he has forced himself to invent a new 7th ; a bit of a shame that none have ever quite lived up to the others.**
Old One Eye and Satanus. Everyone loves dinosaurs. And of all dinosaurs, most love T rex the best. (I mean, come on.) But who else has managed to create two separate and distinct T Rex characters that linger in the mind for so many years? No one.***
Slough Feg (and other drune lords), and the Guledig. Yes, it’s true that these characters, in name at least, are derived from mythological sources - but Mills has inarguably put his own stamp on them. For all the counting I’ve done for this exercise, I couldn’t actually tell you how many Progs either of these two have appeared in – but I bet it’s less than 30 out of 1920. But boy have they stuck in the mind (acknowledging, of course, the sterling design work by Berlardinelli, McMahon, Pugh and Bisley (pretty sure it was Pugh not Fabry who dreamed up the look of the Guledig, no?).

Art by David Pugh

Judge Dredd. Very hard to determine whose brain led to which situations that had what long-lasting impacts on a character, but it is said that Mills pushed through the idea of Dredd as a proper hero who helps people in need, and turned him away from being too villainous a character. Most obvious evidence cited for this comes from a) the creation of Judge Rico, Dredd’s evil twin, who makes Joe Dredd’s position as ‘goodie’ more obvious. b) the Cursed Earth saga – Mills wrote the framework episodes, and indeed most of the better short stories told within. He certainly penned the immortal speech “When someone calls on the law for help - be he mutie, alien, cyborg or human - The Law cannot turn a blind eye... and I am The Law!”, which is a pretty decent template for Dredd as hero, alongside Dredd as staunch upholder of the law. I’ve no qualms about giving Mills a chunk of credit for Judge Dredd’s creation and lasting success as a character.****
Cover art by Mick McMahon
Defoe and his supporting cast - a cast that grows larger all the time (and, by virtue of being a zombie series, means that characters who are killed off don’t necessarily stop appearing in later episodes! Brilliant.)

Notable characteristics:
Intense research; soundbite dialogue; preposterous-sounding stories and technologies actually derived from real world sources, often turned into comicbook gold; promoting life philosophies through story and character (perhaps most obviously the bashing of organized religion, specifically of a Christian flavour); championing the underdog and railing against the middle and upper classes. Cocking snooks in every direction, as much at his own heroes/protagonists as at any other target.

On Pat:
He may not have written as many episodes for 2000AD as John Wagner or Alan Grant, but it can literally be said that there would be no 2000AD without Pat Mills. In case you didn’t know, he put the whole comic together in the first place, developing no fewer than 6 strips that launched the comic (plus two more that followed when the first scheduling gaps appeared), as well as conducting intensive editorial work (i.e. re-writing scripts and suggesting improvements to artwork) on every story in the first 12-16 Progs.

With a keen eye for commercial and aesthetic success, Mills went on to develop yet more new strips after 2000AD was already a proper hit. Two of these were, I think, as important as Judge Dredd at keeping the comic going beyond the death of UK newsprint comics in the mid 1980s: Nemesis the Warlock/ABC Warriors and Slaine. Both series lent themselves perfectly to a repeatable formula of episodes, yet also to a longer, ongoing storyline that kept readers wanting more – the sort of long-form storytelling that has become the norm in US superhero comics. [I struggled with Mills’ Slaine stories in the 1990s, but on re-reading them in the recent collections, it turns out they’re actually very good. Mills was writing for the trade, ten years before most comics pros started doing it!]

Beyond the stories and scripts themselves, Mills’s involvement in choosing and nurturing new art talent on his own stories played a huge part in keeping 2000AD alive and vital in the 1990s, particularly with John Hicklenton on Nemesis, and Simon Bisley on ABC Warriors and Slaine. I mean, the artists get the credit for blowing the backs of our heads off, but Mills deserves praise for putting them to work – and, although it’s proper to go into more detail on those two fine gents’ own entries, it’s worth noting just how shockingly new their style felt at the time, a major part of the whole ‘comics are growing up’ narrative that the news media latched onto during the late 80s/early 90s.

On a more personal note, one reason why I never even considered stopping my subscription to 2000AD during the so-called dark days***** was that I didn’t dare miss an episode of the ongoing Nemesis saga during the epic wait between books IX (ended Prog 608) and X (stared Prog 1165). [There were about 12 Nemesis episodes in between that served me nicely. Hell, I even loved the Nemesis/Deadlock team-up – comics need more murder mystery stories.]

I’ve gone on a bit already, but to do the man even a little justice, let’s have a little look at his 2000AD career, through one particular lens: message comics.

You see, Pat Mills is not afraid to make a point with the stories he tells. I don’t know if it’s because he really wants to promote a point of view (although I’m sure this is the case a lot of the time), or just because he’s found that having a not-so subtle message makes for better and more popular comics, but he does it a lot. [Please note, I wish to make no judgement about the messages, as I read them, in Mills’s serials, I’m just pointing out that they’re there. I’ll read almost anything Mills writes, he’s the bee’s knees in my book. And I say this as a godfearing Church of England supporter of organised religion.]

Exhibit A: Flesh. The message: corporations, and the individuals in charge of them, want money so badly that they don’t care about things like causing the extinction not just of a species, but a whole clade of animals – the dinosaurs; or, sometimes more to the point, the health and safety of the people they employ to do their dirty work.

(see also MACH One and Project Greysuit, which has an added undercurrent of ‘absolutely anyone with any sort of political power is entirely corrupt and uses their power basically only to cover up their own misdeeds’. I will say that this latter depiction is, to me, so much of an exaggeration of the truth that I’m not the biggest fan of the series. I do love the concept of John Blake and how he gets his powers, mind, and the lovingly drawn ultra-violence.)

Art by Felix Carrion (I think)
There is a lot about the set-up of Flesh that makes no sense at all (a meat-hungry future society has time machines, but instead of, say, bringing a few cows into the future and re-starting beef farming, they herd frikkin’ dinosaurs???), but this is 100% not the point. The point is that corporations are evil, and readers love seeing bad guys doing their thing and then getting spectacularly killed as a result of their own corner-cutting ways. There’s also a secondary message about all humans, good and bad, misunderstanding the terribleness of nature. And getting eaten as a result. Werner Herzog would make a brilliant film out of this, I’m telling you.

Mills explains why dinosaurs are better than people (and you suspect he believes it, too...)
Art by Carl Critchlow
Exhibit B: Ro-Busters. The message: rich bastards like to exploit people. The whole idea of a class structure is bad, because it allows for this.

I’ll concede I’m painting a pretty bald picture of what Ro-Busters was actually about in most episodes, but the interplay between Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein, Mek-Quake and Mr Ten Percent are basically a satire on the old (or not so old…) British class structure that is centred around the concept that everyone ‘knows their place’.
Art by Carlos Pino
Evil businessmen / politicians: two of Mills' favourite targets

Exhibit C: ABC Warriors. Let’s just start by pointing out that their very catchphrase is “Spread the Word!”
Unsurprisingly, a long-lasting strip like this gets through a bunch of different messages. The very first is a Mills favourite from his Charley’s War days – during war, upper class officers have no conception of the reality of death and fighting (or at least, they don;t care); lower class troops are used as nothing more than objects.
Then there’s the inevitable message behind almost any humanoid robot story – is there a difference between programming and free will? I especially love Blackblood, a robot who is actively programmed to betray his companions and ‘be evil’, and may or may not have any understanding of what this means.
Later on (Black Hole through to Hellbringer), there’s a clear message about not giving in to society’s norms, and daring to let go and generally have fun more often, if not always. Turning everything on its head is a good thing and to be encouraged.

Art by Mick McMahon
Robots with perversions - the unkonwn future of A.I. research?
The most recent run of ABC stories have sort of been about modern ‘civilized’ humans trying to impose their value systems on ‘uncivilized/indigenous’ peoples (first touched upon in the old ‘Cyboons’ story); frankly I need to re-read the whole Volgan War epic to make more sense of it.

Exhibit D: Nemesis the Warlock. The message: hating anything just because it’s different from you is wrong (duh); this is still true even if the thing you hate actually is evil (a bit less duh in later stories). There’s also, even more deliciously, a bit of a message aimed at would-be dictators: even if you find a way to police the very thoughts of your subjects, the people will always find a way to rise up and overthrow your regime. And a little bit of poking fun at goths, too...

Art by John Hicklenton
The hero relaxing - not your typical superhero fare.

Exhibit E: Slaine. The message: celtic / prehistoric Earth mother religion = good; Christianity / historical era religion = bad. Actually I’m never really sure if Slaine is a very unsubtle attack on the Catholic church as an institution, or if it’s just a fantasy that posits the question ‘what if Christianity is, in fact, a religion set up by evil extra-dimensional beings who just want to suck energy out of human beings’.

Whether or not this is an important part of Slaine’s DNA (yes and no), it’s pretty much the only part of the DNA of Exhibit F: Finn, which very, very explicitly has the message that Earth mother religion = good (if dangerous), while Patriarchal organized religion, represented here by the Freemasons = bad as well as dangerous. 

Art by Paul Staples
In Mills comics, women usually come out on top.

Exhibit G: Savage. The message: put yourselves in the shoes of the people of Iraq/Afghanistan in the early 2000s; how would you react if a foreign country invaded and basically took over your country, setting up their own puppet government? Of course, there are some major differences between what actually happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Volg invasion of Britain as depicted in both Invasion and Savage. I don’t think Mills is making a point about the ethics of interventionist foreign policy (maybe this was covered in Third World War? I pretty much zoned out of that series around episode 20) – it’s simply about the idea of being invaded and wanting to reclaim your homeland.

Savages explores his feelings.
Art by Charlie Adlard
It would be remiss not to note that from the years 1990-1995, Mills enlisted a writing partner, Tony Skinner, to help with his scripting for 2000AD (and other comics, too). I’m not clear on how much Skinner actually wrote, or whether it was Mills being incredibly generous with his credit on the grounds that he felt he owed Skinner a huge debt for giving him lots of ideas (maybe a bit like Robert Rodriguez giving Frank Miller a co-director credit on the Sin City movies?). Not much point in speculating! From the relevant sections of Thrill Power Overload, it seems that Skinner’s main message was best exemplified in Finn and the Kevin Walker drawn ABC Warriors stories about celebrating the relaxed/chaotic nature of the earth goddess.

Let me re-iterate that this is not my attempt to closely analyze all these long-running stories! Just an observation that they all, to my eyes, contain a pretty strong message from author to reader. There’s also a lot else going on in each story, especially Slaine, which has endured for so long and covered so many themes.

One common thread that I think is worth bringing up is Mills’s tendency (by his own admission, not just my observation here) to focus his stories around a type of character that, back in the 1970s, may not have been the most typical choice. For want of a better phrase, the man or woman from the ‘wrong side’. In most cases, the ‘right side’ often means the UK upper class establishment realm of, for example, the original Frank Hampson Dan Dare.

Art by Mick McMahon
Is Ukko an antihero? Is there
even a word for what Ukko is?
To explain what I mean by heroes from 'the wrong side', here’s a list of some of Mills’s heroes: Bill Savage, Earl Regan, Slaine, Ukko, Finn, Ro-Jaws; even ultra-establishment Dan Dare became an anti-establishment rebel in his first 2000AD incarnation; Hammerstein may be mocked by Ro-Jaws as posh, but he’s effectively a non-commissioned officer type rather than a blue-blood (whatever that would be like in a robot!). In these post Han Solo days, casting a rogue as the hero is no longer so unusual, but at least Mills is not interested in making them ‘loveable’. And he hasn’t stopped flying the common-man flag with new hero Titus Defoe, a Roundhead and commoner.

At other times, the ‘wrong side’ means ‘the enemy’, as in telling WW2 stories from a German soldier’s point of view (e.g. Hellman of Hammer Force, which I think was origiially a Mills idea, scripted by Gerry Finley-Day for Battle comic?), and of course Nemesis the Warlock, where the weird-looking evil alien is the goodie, and the humans are the baddies. I’d even be tempted to stick Rohan from Black Siddha in this list – Mills making an effort to build a story around a British Hindu, a very rarely represented ethnicity in UK comics.

Of course, Mills is making (I think) an explicit point – most heroes/protagonists in stories of old were privileged people, and this fact is outrageous. Why should class/upbringing have anything to do with a person being ‘special’ or noble or worth reading stories about? Mills is far from the only author to pursue this line of thought, but where I think Mills goes one better than most is his decision to make his protagonists even more flawed than your typical 1970s antihero. No hearts of gold here; some, such as Savage, aren’t even remotely motivated by a sense of doing good, just of getting what they want (revenge / freedom). Of course, in doing this he often ends up making his villains a) from the so-called ‘right side’, and b) even more flawed than his flawed heroes, which sometimes results in cartoonish fun (Trans Time Corp; Torquemada), and at other times just reads like exaggeration gone beyond the point of satire (the aforementioned Greysuit, and also, if I may dare to be sacrilegious, Marshall Law – a work so biliously angry that I don’t recognise the superheroes it is purporting to rail against.)

Art by David Pugh
Slaine gets his priorities right.
Mills uses Slaine particularly well to poke fun at the very concept of ‘hero’. Slaine is brave, but often because he is foolish, or motivated by wanting to avoid shame. Slaine becomes a King, but is frequently subjected to humiliating tests/rituals, to make the point that kings are no better than anyone else. Slaine completes quests, but is often motivated mostly by lust, hunger and thirst for battle, as well as by the desire to do the right thing. Even honour, a virtue espoused by many a work of heroic fiction, is questioned by Mills as not an especially worthwhile idea. Quite right, too.

I could go on, but I'd better not, save to note that Mills also writes comics for the French market, too. They wouldn't be at all out of place in 2000AD and are, as of relatively recently, available to buy in English!

The one 2000AD creator who deserves the title of top dog, Pat Mills must never die!

Personal favourites:
MACH 1: intro; the final encounter
Judge Dredd: the Cursed Earth
Ro-Busters: Murder on the Orient Express; Fall and rise of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein
ABC Warriors: Red Death; the Black Hole; Khronikles of Khaos
Nemesis the Warlock: Books I, IV and VII
Deadlock (aka Nemesis Book XI)
Slaine: Bride of Crom; Dragonslayer; Time Killer; Spoils of Annwyn; The Grail War; (Books of Slaughter is pretty great so far, too!)
Defoe (I know it’s split into separate chapters but frankly this, more than most of Mills’s output, really does feel like one long epic – and a fantastic one, too)

More on Pat Mills
There's no shortage of resources of you want to find out more about Mr Mills.
For a start there's his own Millsverse website; and an earlier blog-based incarnation of it here.
He's been a frequent guest on 'Everything comes back to 2000 AD' podcast
and was an excellent guest on 'Everything starts with 2000AD', too, which goes into lots of detail about the creation of 2000AD, and the first few Progs in particular.
Here's a link to an interview from US comics friendly-site Comic Book Resources, if that's your thing.

Hopefully at some point in the near future, 2000AD documentary Future Shock! will be available for general viewing. I was lucky enough to see it at the London premiere, and Mills is the lynchpin of the whole thing. Glorious.

*Episode by episode, early Dan Dare is great fun. As a whole story, its incoherence is, for my taste, a bit too much. The Dave Gibbons-drawn Star Trekkish run was generally excellent, though. I’ve no idea if Mills had any input into that.

**I’m not counting Mek-Quake and Ro-Jaws, occasional ABC members who are lasting treasures, but were pre-existing creations. Teri from the Black Hole was a lot of fun, sure. Morrigun and Zippo have nice visuals but, arguably, ill-defined personalities. The less said about Hitaki, the better.

***Seriously. Can you give a name to another T rex? Even the one from Jurassic Park is just a generic fierce animal, with less personality than the Velociraptors.

**** More recently, Mills barnstormed his way through ‘Blood of Satanus III’, a completely insane serial that ran in the Megazine with reliably demented art from John Hicklenton. Not necessarily a great plot, but it was a fascinating exploration of Dredd’s character, and showed Mills’s willingness to try something very different with a Judge Dredd story, the sort of thing he can get away with because he helped create the character.

*****Very roughly, the period between Progs 650-1100, and frankly there was a lot of good stuff during this time, if mixed in with some uber-pretentious guff as well as some horribly juvenile strips. And lots of brown painted artwork that didn’t survive the repro process especially well.


  1. "but he’s effectively a non-commissioned officer type rather than a blue-blood (whatever that would be like in a robot!)"
    Multi-grade motor oil?

  2. Thanks for a really interesting post Alex. I'm doing some work on IPC's girls comics (specifically Misty) and as part of that I'm trying to map out the editorial history of titles such as 2000AD - do you (or anyone else?) know how long Pat Mills was editor for and what the chain of succession was? Thanks for any help you can give! Julia

  3. Sounds like a fascinating project! The little I've read of Misty (basically, the Rebellion collection from last year) was excellent. Can't wait for the next one!

    To answer your Pat Mills questions, you could always try the big man himself: one of the links at the end of the post above will take you to his website, where you can then find a copy of his 'secret history' of being an editor with IPC, and a writer on 2000AD. You can also look on the 2000AD 'Barney' wesbite.

    But the basics as I understand it are:
    Young Pat Mills gets a job as a trainee for DC THomson in Dundee (around the same time as young John Wagner). Both have a crash course in how to write comics of all kinds - funny, adventure, sports, girls (and my apologies for having to describe 'girls' as a genre!).
    After a few years, both move to IPC to work as both editors and writers on their comics - again, of all styles - and make them a lot better. IPC management take notice and start using Mills in particular as an idea-generating machine.

    1973/4ish Pat Mills helps set up Battle and Action comics for IPC, but isn't the actual editor. Instead, he contributes a bunch of scripts.

    1976 he does the same thing for 2000AD, spending nearly a year developing story ideas and trialling artists. This time he stays on long enough to be the actual editor for the first 12-16 Progs, which were published in Feb-June 1977. Then he quits editing and appears in 2000AD only as a freelance writer.

    I think around 1979/80 he worked on developing another comic that never actually happened, I guess at the same time as he was developing Misty. I think on Misty it was the same deal - he dreamed up a bunch of ideas for stories, called in writers and artists to develop them, and then stepped away once the comic was actually going with another editor on board. He then supplied scripts for a few stories as a freelancer, e.g. Moonchild.

    I get the impression Mills is always happy to talk to people, especially about Misty and other girls' comics, so if you can find a way to contact him, he might well do you an interview!

  4. Thanks Alex - I'm in touch with Pat so will ask him what he can remember about the timing. But it's helpful to know he only edited the first dozen or so Progs - I'm basically trying to figure out what other stuff he would have had on at the time Misty was being dreamt up (which is really throughout 1977).
    Pat was definitely involved in Misty's creation, but his vision for the comic wasn't the direction IPC wanted to go in (he wanted horror, they wanted mystery) and he was one of a team of people working on the ideas for it at the start. He wrote a handful of early stories and then stepped away, as you say.
    Many thanks for the reply!