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Guiding the Galaxy's Greatest Comic: Pat Mills Talks 2000AD

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No celebration of UK comics would be complete without an acknowledgment of the debt we owe to writer Pat Mills. From war comic Battle and the supposedly controversial Action weekly of the mid-'70s to the game-changing 2000AD in 1977, there's no hyperbole involved in saying Mills' influence and contribution to the British comics scene has been groundbreaking. BF's Tony Ingram chatted to Pat about those early days of 2000AD and his years in the industry...

BROKEN FRONTIER: How did 2000AD get its start in 1977? It’s my understanding was created as a direct result of the critical reception to Action. Is that right?

PAT MILLS: Critical? Not sure what you mean. Battle and Action were a success. 2000AD was my next project, taking account of the trend towards science-fiction with Star Wars.

BF: How much of the original line-up were you responsible for?

MILLS: I created all the stories in Prog One, wrote all the first episodes and wrote Episode One of Judge Dredd in Prog 2 – with input from my editor designate, Kelvin Gosnell, and also my publisher John Sanders; e.g. Invasion (Savage) was John’s original idea because he wanted to have the Russians invade Britain. I then built a resistance story around this.

BF: Did IPC take much persuading to launch the title? It seems to have been a bit of a departure from the norm for them…

MILLS: Not at all. It was very straight forward and quite normal. They were worried about the violence, of course, post-Action. The creative leap forward (e.g. longer stories) they were indifferent to – but not to my publisher.

BF: Why was Dan Dare chosen to be the original ‘headline act’ rather than Judge Dredd or one of the other strips? He seems, with hindsight, to be an odd choice given that the tastes of the public had changed a lot between The Eagle era and the debut of 2000AD. He was a totally different character from the original Dare, in fact!

MILLS: Not at all. Your perspective is hindsight, possibly fan-based and you probably don’t realise that  the very mainstream (non-Fan) M.A.C.H. 1 was the most popular character for the first critical two months. In that context, Dan Dare wasn’t an odd choice at all.  

You have to remember that we were aiming at ordinary readers, kids, and SF and comic fans hated 2000AD and wished us bad. (One guy would come in every day criticising it and comparing it unfavourably to Heavy Metal. This annoyed me so much I eventually put a sign over our entrance which said, “Piss Off All Heavy Metal Fans”)

Only when fans saw we weren’t going to crash like so many other comics did they reluctantly embrace us, but they still had no clue as to why 2000AD worked which was because I was then (and now) very orientated towards mainstream and not elites. In that context I needed all the publicity I could get and Dan Dare achieved that end and helped boost sales initially. It was reasonably popular but the reasons for the change of character and whole story of Dan Dare is probably worth an article all to itself.

BF: Tharg [2000AD’s fictional alien editor] : why, exactly? Who decided he was a good idea? And why on Quaxxan is the irritating sod still around? Haven’t we moved on from novelty editors?

MILLS: That’s a hindsight and fan perspective. 2000AD was aimed at kids, not fans or adults, so Tharg was valid originally in that context and worked. I agree with your current view. Some seven years after the launch I suggested we were now reaching an older audience and it was time he was ditched and readers agreed (at the convention I attended) but we were ignored.  

BF: The real surprise hit of 2000AD’s first year was Dredd. Why do you think he caught on in such a big way?

MILLS: It wasn’t a surprise at all. All the elements were there for Dredd to be number one – extreme character, brilliant design and great writer John Wagner. But it was only when John wrote Dredd regularly – the robot rebellion around issue 10 or 12 – that it became number one. In the interim, there needed to be more conventional characters like M.A.C.H. 1 to hook readers and introduce them to science fiction. I was aware of this from the outset.

M.A.C.H. 1 by the way is a far, far harder character to write – I’d regularly reject writer’s stories- and that’s why it eventually died because it took so much work. My original plan was actually to have a comic of all number one characters but this was largely ignored later because it’s easier to put your energy and best artists (e.g. Bolland and McMahon) into an obvious winner like Dredd rather than put energy in all the characters.  

A Dredd-centric comic was actually  a recipe for complacency  and a certain amount of personal nest-feathering. At one point a publisher even suggested the comic should be renamed Judge Dredd. The recent success of stories from Prog One like Savage and Flesh show how ill-advised that was. This perspective was effectively diluting the opposition,  and I’m told this even applied when it came to the counting of the [reader] votes if you get my drift… It should have been a level playing field and I’m quite sure Dredd would have remained number one because John was writing it, and his stories were terrific, but rather more fairly and squarely.  

Strong competition is actually good for all of us, not something to be afraid of. Inconvenient truths like these tend to get whitened out of the 2000AD history – thus the first episode of Slaine (drawn by my ex who had never drawn a comic strip before) went to number one, the first story to ever beat Dredd. The significance of this, the reason why  a non-fan orientated artist story beat Dredd raises too many uncomfortable questions, probably even now. Far easier to just dismiss it as a fluke.

BF: Certain characters have become pretty much synonymous with 2000AD; Dredd, Slaine, Johnny Alpha and the ABC Warriors among them. But a lot of others, many of them equally popular in their time, have fallen by the wayside, like Sam Slade and Wolfie Smith. What makes for an enduring character?

MILLS: Pro-active, centre-stage, strong title, good design, SF or fantasy fully worked-out world, aggressive, strong art. Wolfie Smith doesn’t tick all these boxes.

BF: You’ve been responsible for a number of 2000AD’s longest running and most popular strips. What is the one you personally consider the most significant of those you created?

MILLS: Slaine, for all the reasons above and also because there was an attempt by a small but very vocal section of the readership to drive it out of the comic  because it wasn’t SF. Thus Titan Books actually saw it as “not a 2000AD character”. The fact I proved them wrong, and they failed, overcame some appalling editorial decisions on artists, and the fact Slaine went on to be the biggest (currently almost the only) 2000AD seller in Europe as well as a leading 2000AD graphic novel (one of the few to sell in hardback) gives me great satisfaction.  

I doubt the implications of this will ever be considered, because it’s another inconvenient truth which it’s easier to ignore, but here’s a big hint… a significant number of readers ONLY bought 2000AD when Slaine was in there (that’s why editorial tried to keep it in every week with faster art). During the Horned God era 2000AD’s circulation actually went up because of it. By how much I don’t know, but it was enough to get them excited. They’d hardly tell Simon [Bisley] and me as we might ask for a bonus which would be unheard of.

Also because of Clint [Langley]’s fantastic new direction on it which has huge possibilities for the industry. You’ll see what I mean  with his American Reaper coming up in the Megazine.

BF: What are you proudest of?

MILLS: It varies, but currently Defoe because it portrays (albeit in a small way) the heroism of the Levellers who have been largely whitened out of the school curriculum. Their story needs to be told, especially in these dark days. True working class heroes.

And Greysuit because it features a fictional version of the great modern Iranian leader Fouladvand, now probably dead, who was neither for the current regime or the west but for the Iranian people. The press won’t mention him because they’ve been told not to. Except  maybe negatively. A couple of years back there was plenty on him on the web, including a full article on Wikipedia. Now there’s just a stub on Wikipedia. Someone made the decision to remove his story. He’s on his way to becoming a non person because when the West invades Iran, they only want their puppets to be an alternative to the current regime. If you think that’s paranoia and conspiracy theory, look at Iran’s tragic history when the West got rid of their democratic leader and installed the Shah. For oil. So it’s going to happen again. At least a comic can try and honour this great man, even if our newspapers can’t. That’s something I’m proud about. I pursue the subject of Iran further in my strip “The Ayatollah’s Son” - a cross between Persepolis and Charley’s War (on my Facebook site)

         

BF: And what, of all 2000AD’s myriad series, should have been more of a hit than it was, in your opinion?

MILLS: Anything by Brendan McCarthy. I think Sooner or Later was his (?) and was only one page so it wouldn’t register in those damn [reader] votes. But I thought it was fabulous!

And anything by John Hicklenton. Give me wild, passionate and insane any day to mediocre which I can’t abide. Unfortunately not everyone would agree; so his work didn’t always get the hit rating it deserved.  

BF: Why has 2000AD survived when every other British weekly adventure comic has disappeared into the mists of memory?

MILLS: Because so many of us who work on it and have worked on it are passionate about it. Over the last ten years it’s had one excellent editor - the first one I could ever say that about. He hasn’t tried to turn it into Loaded, Deadline, Warrior, or an American comic clone, or a vehicle for Vertigo-style writer and artists, like some of his predecessors. Just 2000AD. Why do we want to be any of those alternatives?! That’s got to have made a difference. And because it had very firm foundations. I had a year to get 2000AD right. I had six weeks to do Action! And I think all of us – creators and readers -  like 2000AD in our different ways. So many people in comics didn’t actually like comics and when readers realize this they walk away.

BF: What do you have coming up?   

MILLS: New Flesh.

Savage is still running. Planning to write the conclusion very soon… “Rise up like Lions”

BF: Are the [ABC] Warriors or Slaine coming back?

MILLS: I’d love to return to them soon but a ton of other work has got in the way.

BF: And whatever happened to Greysuit?

MILLS: Same applies here. Just ain’t enough hours in the day.

You can follow Pat Mills on Twitter. For more on the 2000AD stable of characters check out the official website here.

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Comments

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Aug 17, 2011 at 4:40am

    Great interview, Mills doesn't hold back for anyone or anything!

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 17, 2011 at 9:11am

    Very honest and open answers. Top stuff!

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