Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pat Mills will never die

Some people say Pats Mills is bonkers, but I just think he’s free. And an absolute legend. Close to four decades of professional comic writing and he is still delivering the goods on a weekly basis. Sometimes he belabours his point beyond absurdity, but he still cares about what he does and that shines through in almost everything he works on.

He was there at the birth of 2000ad, contributed a massive amount of imagination and life into its earliest strips and has remained a constant presence over the last 32 years. Sometimes he might go away for a couple of years but then he comes back with some more Slaine or Bill Savage or Flesh and shows all the young punks how it is done.

In this way, Pitt Mills is the Neil Young of British comics. When Neil comes out on stage to do a rock and roll set these days, he puts on a fucking show that shows all the young punks how to do it. It’s not easy for him to wrench those goddamned sounds out of his goddamned guitar and it shows on his goddamned face. He is a bit old and crusty, but he still cares and when he is on fire, nobody can touch him. Especially when he has such a vast pool of fantastic work backing him up.

Pat Mills wrote the first ever decent Doctor Who stories in the first 34 issues of Doctor Who Weekly, he had a hand in the horrific Hookjaw (which got the legendary Action comic in more trouble than anything else), created a fair section of Judge Dredd’s world and history and he wrote Charley’s War.

With all the entertainment and thoughtful comment he has produced over the years, the story of Charley Bourne in the Great War is Mills’ one stone-cold masterpiece. It remains an extraordinary comic, with Mills’ impeccable research and deep feeling for humanity combining with Joe Colquhoun’s magnificently dirty and detailed art.

There is a good case for it being the single best comic Britain has ever produced and sometimes it’s hard to argue, especially when you follow Charley’s fate in places like the Battle of the Somme. Ennis’ war stories are fucking brilliant, but none of them have come close to the power and righteous energy of Charley’s War.

(It is now available in some beautiful hardback books that are probably really hard to come by, but they are worth tracking down. If you don’t like them, there is something wrong with you.)

And after all these years, I was genuinely surprised to pick up a recent issue of 2000ad, see a new Slaine story announced on the cover and feel quite chuffed about it. If a new Slaine serial is starting, especially with the horribly addictive art shenanigans of Mr Clint Langley, then all is right and proper with the world.

Slaine has reached far beyond that point of absurdity mentioned above. It’s a story where events keep repeating over and over, where death means nothing. And it’s still incredibly entertaining. Slaine chops up some demon spawn or El Warriors and doesn’t think it too many. There will be some half-arsed philosophy thrown out and then Slaine moves on, looking for the next adventure.

Mills dedication to his own characters is one thing that shines through the anecdotal avalanche of David Bishop’s 2000ad behind-the-scenes book Thrillpower Overload. Another is that Pat Mills does not back down from a fight. Mills sits in a unique position as somebody who can arguably claim the most responsibility for the success of the early 2000ad, while also being somebody who nearly saw the entire comic shut down on more than one occasion, just because the managers were sick of arguing with this Mills fellow.

It helps that Mills is almost always right, arguing passionately in favour of creator rights and storytelling freedom, but even his dodgiest theories are argued in a vastly entertaining manner.

And if an editor fucks with a script of his, Mills will let them know about it. It’s best just to let him run riot, and while that may led to inexplicably awful comics like the Blood of Satanus sequels, he can still come up with some remarkable stuff. I don’t know why I enjoy ABC Warriors so much when it doesn’t make any damn sense after 30 years of stories, but the love for new work Savage or Defoe is absolutely genuine. Even the government super-soldier saga Greysuit can drag on for weeks and weeks, before delivering a real punch of intensity. (Greysuit also deserves a mention for Mills’ bonkers idea to have a character called the Ginger Ninja, and he almost gets away with it, too.)

Savage is the direct continuation of a story that appeared in the very first issue of 2000ad 32 years ago, but is the current forum for Mills’ own political beliefs. It works a lot better these days than when he did it in Third World War in the Crisis comic, where he eventually got a bit lost in pagan retribution, with the whole story threatening to collapse under its own worthiness. No such problems with Savage, which switches between kitchen sink melodrama in modern occupied Britain and the big battles with ease. It’s now been running for a couple of years and has become a welcome weekly addition to the comic, even tying into Mills’ greater continuity recently with the appearance of the first generation ABC Warriors recently and a man previously known for being a brain in a jar.

Defoe is zombies getting slaughtered in the 17th century. Sometimes gets a bit too convoluted for its own good and relies on some of the oldest tough guy clichés in the book but it can still be a cracking read when the reeks start marching.

Mills has spreads his wings outside comics several times, but some lamentable prose efforts have shown that Mills is best suited for combining pictures with his words. He’s also proven ideally suited for comics that are not in the American mainstream. Outside of Marshal Law, his highest profile work in US comics is probably Punisher 2099, or a surprisingly entertaining run of 90s comics based on Death Race 2000, kicked off in enviable style by frequent collaborator Kevin O’Neill.

Still, at least he had Marshal Law. Maybe it’s that absolute and gleeful hatred that Mills and O’Neill seem to have for men in tights, but the joke that forms all of Marshall Law – that superheroes are fucking rubbish and should be shot – is still fucking funny. I’ll read a new Marshall Law over any other comic any day. I read The Boys, because that same fire is in there too, but it’s still not Marshall fucking Law.

There was also a DC original graphic novel called Metalzoic, which was terrific, but has fell into the memory hole that ate all those other original sci-fi books DC put out in the eighties.

But even if it’s disappeared, it’s always worth a look, because everything Mills does has something going for it. A good idea, a decent character, a cracking piece of dialogue. Something.

Mills’ comics can be vastly entertaining and incredibly thoughtful. They can also be a bit dull sometimes, but the longer curve of his career has produced far, far more hits than misses.

I’m always up for some Mills. Without even really seeking it out, I’ve managed to read damn near everything he has been involved with, and enjoyed it all. His European work has been hard to find, but I’m sure it will turn up in some form or another, and will be well worth the read. Some of it is already making its way back into English.

Mills has been around the block but remains the ultimate angry young brit, rallying against the injustices of the world, but not scared of a little blood with his ideas.

He always wears his politics on his sleeve and is impassioned about the work he does, even if nobody seems to get what he’s on about. God bless ‘im.


The Beast Must Die said...

Nice post Bob - agree with you 100%
about Mills.

One small, and incredibly geeky, thing:

It was the football hooliganism in 'look out for lefty' that got Action banned. In it the titular 'hero's' girlfriend bottles an opposing player from the stands.

'Action' fucking ruled.

John Soanes said...

I thought it was the 'Kids Rule OK' strip, with the cover where the kid with the chain was menacing a policeman (or appearing to)? Working from memory, though, so I'm probably way off.

Anyway, Mills? Consistently classy writer, with more ideas in his little finger than most people would have in a dozen lifetimes. We're lucky to have him.


Bob Temuka said...

Yeah, both of those examples were more responsible for the death of Action than Hookjaw, but the killer shark story scared the crap out of me when I was a kid and my Mum was most displeased to see me reading a story that didn't shy away from the gore.

I guess I should have said that Hookjaw got ME in more trouble than anything else.

Man, Action was so good, even if it actually seems a little tame compared to today's mainstream comics. I wonder what Mum would make of one of those Geoff Johns comics with an unhealthy obsession with dismemberment.