BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Writer Tony Lee
is working on a massive weekly serial for 2000ad that's like The Great Escape
in space, but with even more dire circumstances. At least the POW's of TGE had another city or country to shoot from, but when you're on a prison planet and you escape, where do you go? That's just one of the problems the prisoners of Stalag #666
are facing as their fifteen week plight unfolds. Lee told THE PULSE, "You're a prisoner on a planet with no resources. Where the hell do you run to if you escape?" THE PULSE: When I hear Stalag # 666, for some reason, I thing Hogan's Heroes, but this isn't a comedic story for 2000ad, right?
*laughs* Well, I was a massive fan of Hogan's Heroes back in the day, but I think you can safely say that this is a little more of serious thing than Hogan's wacky exploits. That said, I'm starting to wonder...
Basically it's a futuristic space story that happens to be set in a prison camp. and it's (and I'll be honest here) a mash of clichés and homages as let's be truthful here, you couldn't do a prison camp story and not be like that. I even had people saying I was intentionally ripping off POW escape movies that I hadn't even heard of, so I think it's quite a common occurrence out there. But it's five pages a week (with a ten page start) and it runs from issue (or Prog) 1600 of 2000ad for fifteen weeks. THE PULSE: How did you come up with the idea to even do something like this? You told me it was kind of like "The Great Escape in space, if the Nazis were space lizards ..." That's quite an intriguing idea, but is that what spawned this story? Were you just thinking, "hey it would be neat if The Great Escape were done in space."
I first spoke about this to Matt Smith, the editor of 2000ad after I finished a Citi-Def story for Judge Dredd - The Megazine last year. He wanted something that was very 'Future War', but most of the mainstays had already been done, or were being done. But I searched through the old stories and looked at popular war movies and decided that it'd be nice to do something like a POW movie as the last 'prison' series was a while earlier called 'Harry Twenty on the High Rock'. I even thought at the start to bring Harry in as one of the characters, but there's been a bit of that in the magazine of late, so we decided to set it with a new cast.
The problem with an escape movie in comic format is that until the moment of the escape, it's quite slow burning. And in a future war, we'd have things like CCTV that would make it far harder to get out. So in the end we decided to go the 'Japanese POW camp' route, to make it that even though the technology was there, they didn't bother using it. You're a prisoner on a planet with no resources.
Where the hell do you run to if you escape? THE PULSE: Why alien lizard types? Why do you think a lot of sci-fi futuristic space villains have lizard like qualities? Is it a holdover from the '80s miniseries and series V?
I wanted something cold blooded, something that was humanoid and at the same time obviously alien. The biggest reason for this however was because I had decided that working with them would be human 'turncoats', colonists who had sided with them, the 'Mussolinis' of my story - and I wanted to have a solid difference between the two, even though they wore the same uniform. And unlike 'V', you know these guys are lizards from the start. They don't even pretend to be Human. They're cold blooded sons of bitches from the moment they first turn up. That said, there are a few surprises in their ranks. We have a Christian lizard, or 'snake' for a start.
And I think I just like lizards as baddies. THE PULSE: So who are the prisoners of Stalag # 666? [describe the heroes]
Well the main one is Holland. He's a navigator for the Terran fleet who's been bounced around these camps for a few years now. He's our main narrator, so to speak. Then you have The Old Man, who's been around since the start of the war, pretty much. Nobody knows much about him, and all he really does is go on about 'Raider' - an almost mythical prisoner of war who has escaped from countless POW camps. It's stories about people like Raider that keep the prisoners going.
And then you have new arrival Chapman. He's arrogant, rude and wants to get out. And the rumours are that he's in fact the mythical Raider. But you don't discover whether he is or isn't until later in the story.
You have Corden, part of the escape crew who has a hatred of the 'Mussolini' Major Andrews, the camp commandant's Human assistant. You have 'Mother' Newton, the head of the escape committee who's so ripped out of the Great Escape that he even has a limp and a stick. You have Gibson, the medic. Matthews, the digger.
And then you have the other cast, like 'The Bastard', the commandant, and 'Keester', the Christian Snake guard that befriends Holland...
But one of the cast is a traitor. One is a liar. One will make the ultimate sacrifice. And many will die before the end. There won't be a part two. This story ends with issue fifteen. THE PULSE: What's going on in space that's found them all prisoners of these aliens? Is it some kind of interstellar war? If so what was the cause and how long has it been raging?
Yup, as ever it's the good old fashioned space war. About ten years earlier, the far colonists decided to cut ties with Earth and side with the closer lizard race the Shh'Keen, causing a rift in the Terran Federation. Earth, enjoying the money they received from these colonists decided that this wasn't on. And the colonists/Snakes side against the Terrans. And a year or so down the line? The colonists realise that they've pretty much become the Snakes bitches, which is what the lizards planned all along.
And so for years the war has raged - on planets, in space, it's every sci-fi war movie or series you ever saw. It's the European offensive of World War Two. And for reasons as yet unexplained, when you're captured? You're put in a POW camp, camps that pop up and come down in the blink of an eye, allowing prisoners to be moved around the cosmos, camps never staying up for more than a year at any location so that the Terrans can't find them. THE PULSE: When is your story set? Is this the far future or an alternate version of now where we've more technologically advanced or something ...?
It's a couple of hundred years down the line, and we're more technologically advanced - but when you're from a world where you can strap on a jet pack to go to work and you then get thrown into a camp where your most advanced tool is a rusty spoon? Well, you have to adapt pretty damned quick.
There's a definite difference however in the two sides - the Snakes 'Broodships' are more techno-organic than the Terran's incredibly bland, militaristic style of design. THE PULSE: Christians and others associate 666 with the mark of the Beast. What significance does having the number "666" be a part of your title?
I picked 666 because it's the nickname that the POW's give it - it's Hell on Earth. Literally. And, with a Christian Lizard there, I find the symbolism works nicely.
But apart from that, nothing more. We don't discover that they're really all dead and in Purgatory, or that the Devil pops by in issue #8 or anything... THE PULSE: You've told me this is a planned 15 part story, but with 2000ad running serialized stories, how many pages does that equal out to being in the long run?
The first issue was a ten pager and the rest are all five pages long, so in total it runs to about eighty pages. That said, I have to ensure that each week ends on a cliffhanger of a sort, so with fifteen cliffhangers, we don't run smooth from page to page, as the first page always has to at least echo what happened the previous issue. THE PULSE: This sounds like a mix of several elements. How do you take inspirations and different pieces and make them your own, without making the story feel as if we've seen this or read that before ...?
*laughs* If you read some of the reviews out there, you'll see that there are some who don't think I have made it my own. At the moment I'm about sixty/forty positive to negative reviews. And the positives totally love it, the negatives utterly f***ing hate it. Which is amusing as the ones that love the story love it because I'm building it up, taking the time to establish characters, while the ones that hate it think I'm not giving enough action, that I'm taking too much time to establish the settings. So you can't win, really.
When I started to plot this, I spent a lot of time reading and watching anything to do with POW camps. And of course, there are elements that made me go 'now that is something I want to build on'. In Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence for example, they bury David Bowie's character up to the neck in sand. This was a common punishment in these days and in a desert based landscape, and I decided that I'd like to use this. Not because I wanted to rip it off, but because they built up this punishment and then never really gave you Bowie's side of the story. I wondered what would happen to a character who had this happen? Would he go mad? What would he hallucinate? And the result of what I feel would happen turns up later in the story.
But it wasn't just POW films I researched on, because the latter part of the story has far more. I watched films like 'Reach For The Sky' and 'The Battle Of Britain' to get a better mindset into the thought process of a pilot, that sort of thing.
As for making it my own, well I've been told that I have a certain 'style' to my work now, and that this one ticks a lot of the boxes. That said, it still keeps the clichés and the obvious homages because if I actually tried to pass them off as my own, rather than as inspiration? I'd look like a fraud. THE PULSE: Who else is helping you bring this story to life?
Jon Davis-Hunt is doing the art on the story and he's one of the nicest guys I've met. He did Tempest for the Megazine with Al Ewing earlier this year and although he's still a 'rookie' according to most, he gets better each story he tells. He's been taking a lot of flack online because of his art style, people saying his sequentials aren't that vibrant, that he's a little cold and two dimensional, but to be honest he's doing an incredible job. The story has to look sparse. It's a prison story, for God's sake. and the fact of the matter is that the people complaining haven't seen the later issues where he's really allowed to open the throttle and let go.
A lot of the character designs are Jon's, the style of the uniforms, flags, Lizards, everything is his. He takes what I write in my description and he runs with it. Each week I look forwards to reading the next issue just to see what he's done with it. THE PULSE: You're working with a variety of publishers, what made 2000ad a good fit for Stalag # 666?
Mainly because it's what came out of a discussion with Matt Smith, the editor. And to be honest, I don't think a futuristic POW story would be commercially viable in this day and age's comic marketplace as a creator owned series. But five pages a week gives me enough space to progress the story and at the same time not become dull or boring. That is, I hope I do that!
It's grown up sci-fi. It's a little gruesome at points, mainly due to the art, but it's definitely a good fit for 2000ad, in my opinion. But then of course I'd say that. They green lit the story. THE PULSE: What do you personally like the best about 2000ad Magazine? Why do you think this particular UK staple has thrived when other comics seem to have come and gone ....
I think the fact that it is pretty much a collection, each week of well produced, five page serial stories is the very reason it has thrived. To tell a complete 'Future Shock', a story with a start, middle, end and a twist (if not two) in five pages without looking forced requires a lot of skill, and a lot of years learning the ropes. I took seventeen years, on and off of constant pitching before I got my first 'Tales From The Black Museum' one-shot in the Megazine. Weirdly enough though, as the Megazine is a monthly, it hasn't come out yet - nor has Citi-Def, both of which I wrote before Stalag #666.
2000ad have been involved in the shaping and creation of some of the best writers in the business. Alan Moore, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, Mark Millar, Dan Abnett, Bryan Talbot - nearly all of these guys either started at 2000ad or worked there early in their career. At one point the norm in the British freelancer market was to get seen on a big name 2000ad strip, get picked up by DC, write a Vertigo comic. These days it's not so easy. Dammit.
But when I first bought 2000ad, it was the first ever issue in 1977. I was seven years old. Just over thirty years later and the comic has grown with its audience. And I think that's why it's become such a comics institution.
That and the fact that you can still buy it in your local newsagent in the UK... THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on?
Well, later in the year I have a five part 'Citi-Def' story set in the Cursed Earth for Judge Dredd: The Megazine that was incredibly fun to write and Jack Lawrence is drawing. In addition to that, I've just written the five part Necrophim prologue for 2000ad and I'm blocking out book one.
For IDW I'm writing a six part Doctor Who story with Pia Guerra as the main artist called 'The Forgotten' which started to come out in August, and I'm discussing the next series and collecting enough blackmail photos to get it done.
With Dan Boultwood we're working on The Prince Of Baghdad for Random House/David Fickling Books' weekly comic The DFC and we're sorting out book two - as well as waiting to hear if we have (With Kelli Gilbert) a six part comic called Shotgun Samurai with an American publisher.
Graphic Novel wise I'm writing Pendragon: The Legend of King Arthur, book two of my 'heroes and heroines' line for Walker Books with Sam Hart drawing again, and I'm writing Journal, a romantic comedy for AiT/PlanetLar, with Bevis Musson. There are a few other things bouncing around, a piece for an anthology, a possible novel... It's an incredibly busy time.
2000ad Prog 1604 is in stores now. PULSE readers can learn more about that title here: http://www.2000adonline.com/