Interview with British Comic Icon Pat MillsMarch 27, 2015
If you love British comics, there’s no doubt you will know who Pat Mills is. Dubbed “The Godfather of British Comics”, Mills jumped in with both feet when he began 2000 AD, a comic company that, now in its 37th year, has found lots of success in Britain and has even begun its push into the American market. Mills has written many notable comics in his time, including Sláine, ABC Warriors and the incredibly beautiful Charley’s War. Recently, I had a chance to talk to the talented comic writer and editor about 2000 AD, the new Sláine: Primordial comic and the character that has been around since 1983, the complexities of working with artists and what he has found to be a good formula for writing.
You created 2000 AD and have been credited in more than 2,100 issues in your career; now in its 37th year, did you know at the time that what you were creating would have such an impact on the world of comics?
Yes because it was so different and I had strong story ideas and a theme that I knew would work and a great creative team – at the beginning Kevin O’Neill, Doug Church, John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Dave Gibbons and soon to be joined by many more.
Comics were in such poor shape – anything new had to be an improvement!
Do you have any characters you’ve written that you feel particularly attached to?
All of them! I guess if you insisted on a favorite it would be Ro-Jaws – probably because I swear as much as he does! And we have similar values – apart from his scatological interest, that is! And he’s back later in year in RETURN TO ROBUSTERS!
What advice can you give to those who are perhaps struggling comic writers hoping to get their stories seen and read?
That’s a tough one! There are two very distinctive and separate skills:
1) Networking and getting results, not just schmoozing with editors at conventions. You need to get results. I know networkers who know everyone in the business, but they’re still not in print. I’m not great at networking so if there are any great and commercially successful networkers out there, I could probably learn from you. Tell me your secrets!
2) Write well. Your bible should be Robert McKee’s story. It’s my bible. It’s aimed at film writers but the same lessons apply. Some script editors don’t like his attitude and his book, that’s because we all want to be (Script) God. McKee is God. If you ever attend his amazing seminars, you’ll know what I mean. Watch out he doesn’t strike you down with lightning if you’re coughing in the front row!
Sláine has been known to be morally ambiguous throughout the years; do you think this allows you to be more flexible with his story?
I think all comic book characters should have moral dilemmas and challenges and Sláine as a Celtic barbarian should be true to his authentic roots as far as that is possible. I have a low opinion of barbarian or fantasy heroes who act and talk like modern day Americans.
I think it’s actually quite difficult to be true to the character of Sláine, rather than flexible and presumably you mean easy. For example, the Celts treated the Romans with absolute brutality during the sacking of Colchester. Sláine was there, so to have him protest and say this is wrong or not get involved or be busy elsewhere would have been a cop out, or turn him into a modern, probably American hero. Sláine was part of the massacre and I showed this – up to a point. Arguably, I should have lingered on it more and perhaps got further inside his Celtic thinking if I could, or perhaps further emphasized just what a crime colonialism was. Colchester was the first colony. It was an act of utter evil – uprooting the locals and replacing them with foreigners. But as Brits we are so conditioned to thinking that colonialism is okay and that the crimes of the British Empire are okay, hence why schools deliberately and shamefully applaud the Romans to help legitimize Britain’s recent colonial or neo-colonial crimes, so I’d probably be wasting my breath.
Where did the idea for Sláine come from?
Creating Slaine? From my Irish roots, of course.
The Brutania Chronicles. I realized that everyone has missed the astonishing myth of the origins of Britain. Even AFAIK writers like Michael Moorcock who trawled Celtic legends ahead of me. No one seems to have done Brutus, New Troy (London) etc. What a great subject for fantasy, I mean why should 300 have all the fun? We had, according to legend, Trojans rampaging through Britain. It’s a natural!
Sláine feels like a twisted mash up of Conan and William Wallace but in a completely different vein. How hard was it to come up with not only his character, but characters in general? Do you have a certain creative process that you follow?
[Laughs] Conan? Please! Come on, that’s the whole point! Sláine is nothing like Conan. That’s why we like him because he’s a British/Irish character, not American. That’s why the Americans only like Sláine up to a point, because they are generally weaned on Conan or maybe Game of Thrones now. So Sláine has no pumped up muscles, at least not in the beginning. No American value system which is more Dungeons and Dragons and similar rather than genuine legends. Hence why Simon Bisley has Conan looking on glaring in one scene where Sláine is proclaimed King of Kings and being very pissed off, because Simon loves Conan! It’s very funny! Sláine is Celtic, that’s where he gets his inspiration, from Cuchulain and similar sagas. Not Wallace, although I did a William Wallace Sláine story a while back. He has something in common, but it’s hardly a primary source.
It’s not hard at all to come up with characters if you care about them and the story. And you have something to say, in this case our own Celtic hero.
Oh, and let me give a plug for another Celtic hero: Saltire! Scottish barbarian out in print from another excellent creative team. The art is amazing, Saltire’s body language is so Scottish. Glasgow Scottish, not Edinburgh Scottish, if you know what I mean! Scary!
Speaking of creative, can you tell me how you typically go about writing a comic like Slaine, which has a vast storyline and many different and diverse characters?
I follow similar rules to McKee – see above. Plus:
1) Find a legend with a relevance to me – e.g. political oppression
2) What’s the theme/sub-text – e.g. Sláine’s relationship with his dad
3) How does this affect the hero?
4) Where is the colour, visuals and drama. And comedy.
5) Who are the characters based on?
6) Who are the bad guys – are they scary enough?
7) Where are the readers at and what’s going to hook them; in particular how to play to artist’s strengths.
8) What’s the source for the dialogue and are there some new catch-phrases?
9) The villainy needs to be new – e.g. in this one: Neolithic genetic engineering/touch of Zachariah Sitchin/Island of Doctor Moreau etc.
When you wrote the upcoming Sláine: Primordial, did you have an idea visually how you wanted it to look, and how would you describe your relationship with Simon Davis in bringing your story to life?
Yes. I had certain artists I found inspiring, notably Virgil Finlay. Simon had too, notably Toppi. So we talked about both of them. I also use a lot of references because I prefer it to writing long descriptions. For example, I found and supplied Simon with images of the Rock Caves of Cappadocia for the Drune Lords city; I’m amazed they haven’t been used before in fantasy films. Doubtless they will be now, but we got there first. I wanted everything to be fairly unique, hence the giants don’t look like typical fantasy giants.
Key thing is to give Simon plenty of space so it’s like we’re going to the movies in Sláine. I often rewrite dialogue against the art so it helps story flow and means the script gets an extra draft.
All the Sláine artists have been great – Clint was fantastic and it wasn’t that long ago he finished his run, especially with his Book of Scars. Now Simon is moving Sláine in a new direction in response to the script and in keeping with his art and what he wants to say visually. It’s like a new Bond or a new Doctor Who and we got it right, because we knew if we didn’t the fans would tear us apart; as they have done a couple of times in the past!
Catch the new tale of Sláine in Sláine: Primordial that begins in the next issue of 2000 AD’s Prog 1924 out on newstands and comic book racks everywhere Wednesday April 1st. This is a fantastic jumping on point for any reader interested in getting into the Prog’s because this features five all new stories from incredible writers and artists!