‘The 70s Seemed To Produce All Kinds Of Monsters’: Interviewing 2000AD’s Pat Mills

by Oliver MacNamee

Recently, I had the good fortune of interviewing 2000AD legend, Pat Mills, on both his time at 2000AD–which he documents in his new ebook, Be Sure, Be Vigilant, Be Have!–as well as his fictional novel, Serial Killers: Read ‘Em and Weep. A novel which tells the dark story of the world’s laziest serial killer, who’s life bears something more than a semblance of similarity with Mills’ own early days working for Fleetway Publishing in the heady days of the 1970s.

Both are fun reads, but not as much fun as meeting the man, the myth, himself. As a great raconteur and a fountain of entertaining stories that enraptured the audience in front of us back at the International Comics Expo in Brighton this June, he managed to span a huge variety of topics, as you’ll see below.

Olly MacNamee: One of your new books, Serial Killer: Read ‘Em and Weep is set in the 1970s. It seems from the world of publishing you portray that there was a changing of the guard as young Turks like yourself were battling against the old school and a more conservative mindset to storytelling and the type of comic strip being published. You have a character, Joy, a big, no-no nonsense ferocious Glaswegian woman in a world of men, for example.

Pat Mills: Oh yes, one of the memories I have of the girls’ comics, like Jackie, being produced at that time by DC Thompson wouldn’t even allow adverts for female hygiene products. They thought it was ‘ridiculous’ and laying a guilt trip on young teenage girls. It was like a Victorian publishing house in that way of thinking. That’s why I had Joy…

OM: …Who’s a bit of a geek, for all her toughness…

PM: Yes. Well we had a ‘geek’ working at 2000AD, Nick Landau, who now owns Forbidden Planet and Titan Comics; a vast empire. He learnt his trade on 2000AD and is a pal of mine. I recommended him for the job, and I even remember mentioning to him–because he was in the minority–not to even mention The Lord of The Rings around the office. He’d get lynched! There weren’t too many geeks at that time.

And I thought, what about–rather than Nick Landau–what about a woman and how that could have changed the whole spectrum of British comics back in the 1970s. So, this is an alternative world, a much happier world, in my view, than the one we were in.

We did have a female colleague on 2000ADDeidre Vine–who’s CV was more impressive than Nick’s. My incoming editor felt we should give the job to Deidre, over Nick, but I argued for my friend, Nick. She got the job but didn’t stay. She went on to a very successful career in publishing, specialising in women’s magazines, but she was shunted off by the terrible, sexist attitudes of the time, from the publishers, I’m afraid. Even though she loved 2000AD and science fiction! This happened all the time. One day you could be working on 2000AD, the next, you could be editing ‘Budgie Weekly’, or whatever.

So, as I was developing Serial Killers, I thought, what if we had a female version of Nick. Obviously there’s more to her character than that. But, Joy is also based on other people I’ve met along the way too.

OM: The main ‘protagonists’ of this novel is David Maudling. Having read both this fictitious account of the 70s and your own memoirs of that time (Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Be Have) how much of Dave is a reflection of yourself. Certainly not the killing, Pat, I hope? Both you and the fictitious Dave (and his pal, Gregg) get shoved off to an awful ‘humour’ comic, for instance; a kind of publishing Purgatory.

PM: Ah, yes. You could often find yourself in a kind of comic book Siberia, if you had some kind of skeleton in your closet. I remember working on comics like Whizzer and Chips, Cor!, Shiver and Shake. writing with John Wagner (Judge Dredd) and I lost two years of my life working on these things. We initially thought, “Well, at least the money would be good,” but we soon realised it wasn’t. It was terrible.

John (Wagner) said to me, I remember, “We’re going to have to think of something funny every 20 minutes for this to work.” We worked out of a small, cramped garden shed, and there would be the two of us, and it was a nightmare writing this stuff. But we became very successful at this stuff. I think, when we began, we are very critical of each other, so we really upped our game to the point that when we broke up the band, IPC (who Pat and John were working for at the time – Olly) wondered whether we could make it on out own, alone. Fun comics, but a terrible time for me. When you’re in your early 20s and you lose 2 years of your life on something you don’t enjoy, it feels like an eternity. I still want these years back!

OM: Overall, David, Gregg, even Joy; they’re not initially likeable characters are they? They all seem to have their own dirty little secrets. And yet, you do like them by the end of the book. Was it intentional to fill your book with such people?

PM: Well, Serial Killers started of as an idea for a sit-com, helmed by Gareth Edwards (Spaced), it would have worked, But, it was regarded as too niche…

OM: What, more niche that Spaced; a comedy about a weed smoking comic book artist?

PM: Ha, yes, well. He was okay with it, but not his bosses…

Anyway, it was Neil Gaiman that said to us (Pat worked with his partner in crime on Marshall Law, Kevin O’Neil, on this project – Olly), ‘Give your characters some flaws.” Gregg, initially never had any flaws, even Dave didn’t have that many to start with. The thing we like about flawed characters is that we look forward to their redemption. Look at Breaking Bad, for example. The guy’s a monster but we still root for him. I genuinely prefer flawed characters, otherwise the characters are too bland and I don’t care. You have to care for these characters. Dave, he’s traumatised by a childhood memory related to a fictitious comic, The Fourpenny One. Itself a term for asking for a fight; ‘Are you looking for a fourpenny one?’ Anyway, David, every week, goes to the local newsagents and the newsagents asks David what he wants. And, when he does tell him, he gets a punch in the face…

OM: And on a weekly basis…

PM: Yes, on a weekly basis. And, while the newsagent is a figment of my imagination, he is based on a generation, and people I around then who could be monsters, who seemed to get away with anything, particularly in the 50s and 60s.

OM: Now, to call Serial Killers a ‘crime novel’, as some have, is doing the book an injustice, I think. There’s his relationship with his deceased mother, for example too, which may or may not be supernatural.  

PM: The book is also about childhood, and particularly lost childhood. David’s weekly violent visits to the newsagents is just the tip of the iceberg and there will certainly be more in the forthcoming novels in the planned series too. David’s mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, ending up dead, while David was a child and so this is how he deals with it in his own way. He’s trying to remember her and cope with this, developing a strange obsession with fur along the way. I must say, straight away, none of this is based on myself by the way!

I think, if you can come up with an unusual obsession for one of your characters, it’s gold dust. And Kevin (O’Neill) came up with this one. Which leads to a lot of strange situations in the novel. For example, Dave wears a gorilla suit, but inside out, so the fur is next to his skin. Not all the time, I might add. He also suffers from arrested development, so he has this sweet box in his office draw where he keeps all of the free sweets given out by the comics he helps produce. Some of them were even real. I remember Junior Woodbines; sweet fake cigarettes for ‘tomorrow’s smokers’! I mean, can you believe it? David dives into these and one in particular; a liquorice pipe which he chews on while trying to solve his mother’s murder. He becomes The Liquorice Detective.

The great thing about fictional characters is that they live their own life and you, as the writer, have to follow that and keep asking, ‘What would Dave do?” Or ‘What would Joy do?’ I really fell in love with these characters myself after a while. And, the readers will pick you up if you get it wrong. ‘David wouldn’t do that..’

Of course, there is a lot of my own life, and the people I’ve met along the way, in this novel.

OM: I must admit, by the end of the novel, I was left wanting to read on. Clearly I had fallen for these ne’er do wells too. It certainly gets a lot darker nearer the end, with the past haunting David in so many different ways beyond his mother’s ‘ghost’. 

PM: Yes, but remember one of the themes I explore is also that of children getting revenge on adults for lost childhood. I have one character that is clearly based on Jimmy Saville (Fabulous Keen). I mean, the 70s seemed to produce all kinds of monsters, as we are only learning about now. Not just the newsagent, but people like Keen. Things get bigger and bigger as the novel progresses. First, it’s the newsagent, but then it’s this Saville analogy. An era where there was little chance for children to turn for help.

OM: That neatly moves me onto focusing a little bit more on your new book, and your own story. Tell me more about of your own time in boarding school and at the hands of the dominant Catholic brothers there. It’s certainly something that crops up form time to time in your new book. Another example of adults exploiting youth? How did the experiences at this school influence your writing in later life?

PM: Well, in the case of Judge Dredd, a lot of that comes from John’s (Wagner) own character but I based my contribution subconsciously on my days at the hands of this very sadistic teacher. He was an absolute monster. It was only later when I realised I had named Joe–Judge Dredd–after my old school, St Josephs! I hadn’t realised that when I named him initially. Bizarrely, I kind of looked up to this teacher, because he taught me Maths. He was an extreme character, but we are attracted to extreme characters I think. In the case of Torquemada (Nemesis The Warlock), my experiences are more obvious, I think.

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OM: Okay. Then, one last area I found interesting in your memoirs, Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Be Have! Is your thoughts on development. Certainly, The Cursed Earth was Dredd’s first mega-epic and was also the first time Dredd took over as the most popular character in 2000AD, according to your account. So, what are the differences between a creator and a developer? And, I’m going to be contentious here, but would Superman have been as successful without the inclusion of other writers and artists (and other media) contributions. I wonder? How much should a developer be recognised?

PM: Well, I did think someone else would write about this, but no-one has, so I eventually did.

Let me illustrate my point with an obvious example. If there was a Sláine film made tomorrow, chances are it would be a Simon Bisley influenced Sláine we would see. Even though there are very different versions out there from Glen Fabry, Mick McMahon, Simon Davis. Now, if the original creators were properly rewarded, that would be me and the original artist, Angela (Kincaid)–my first wife–but she only ever drew the first episode.

Arguably, it was Bisley’s Sláine that made it an international success. But, Simon is a developer, not the creators, even though he added so much to Sláine. The whole world is encouraged to see things this way. But, it isn’t. And, there is a precedent for this; the first Dredd movie. There was a certain amount of money set aside for the creators. Firstly, and quite rightly, Carlos (Esquerra) and John were remunerated and I received something too. Probably because I had come up with the character, Rico Dredd. But, also, Brian Bolland and Mick McMahon all received a cut. And I doubt anyone would argue with their contribution to Dredd. I don’t think anyone would say that was wrong.

And it was the right thing to do, morally, even if it’s not covered by legislation. When John Wagner was doing the Judge Dredd Megazine he was receiving some royalties and voluntarily paid me for my contribution to Dredd out of his own pocket. He didn’t have to do it. It’s the publishers responsibility to do it. And who knows, maybe this will be better recognised in the future.

Serial Killers: Read ‘Em And Weep is available as an ebook or paperback and Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Behave! Is also available as an ebook too. If you’re thinking of reading one, I’d certainly recommending both. It really does shed a lot of light on the influences behind the former.