These days Batman is a troubled aging schizoid and borderline sociopath, but your average big-screen (big bucks) DC or Marvel comic book hero would still be camping it up and “thwacking” villains that look like pantomime versions of The Hamburglar if it wasn’t for the countercultural vanguard of writers and illustrators that revolved around the London offices of a certain “zarjaz” underground title in the late 70s.
Sure, Batman, Green Lantern, Iron Man et al might have gone all deep, troubled and complicated in the last ten years-or-so, but on these shores superheroes been seriously screwed-up for quite some time. There is a whole generation among us who grew up on a voraciously ingested diet of trigger-happy psychopathic cops, bloodthirsty mutants, anti-imperialist aliens and psychologically scarred tarot-reading robots wielding weapons of mass destruction.
I’m talking, of course, about all those kids for whom a copy of 2000 AD was the highlight of a week that otherwise revolved around the banality of a daily paper round, burning Star Wars figures in a garden-based ‘war’ and skipping school as much as humanly possible. Sure, we might have been too young to understand the longer words and references – everything from The Inquisition, The Marquis de Sade and Hieronymus Bosch – but one way or another, we were as swiftly radicalised by a small cabal of punk-loving comic producing lefties as your average religious nut is by the Taliban.
One man directly responsible for shaping our young minds with his visceral dystopian future visions is Pat Mills, a writer often cited as the “godfather” of British comics who, along with his peers Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Grant Morrison (Legends of The Dark Knight), introduced genuinely high-concept into a form that had hitherto been reserved for “super people’ in spandex overpants. With all existing DC comic book content going online at the end of August – in what is being hailed as a comic book revolution – Sabotage Times talked subversion, celebrity and brain rot with one of the form’s original revolutionaries.
What are you working on right now?
The latest story I’m doing is called American Reaper and it’s about identity transplants, so you’ve got old people stealing young people’s bodies, and running around inside them – death is no longer the end. It’s a very negative view of the future – as always – and I suppose, if you look at modern politics and the state of the world, it’s not totally unrealistic. In the story, the cops have identity scanners and scan kids to see if the youthful exterior is matched by the inner subconscious. The scanner reveals if it’s some octogenarian who’s taken over some teenager’s body. It’s been optioned as a film, so we’re hoping it will end up on the screen. I’m also busy doing a series called Requiem Vampire Night, which is about what happens to really evil people when they die – they enter this mildly entertaining and sinister hell world.
All of your earliest 2000 AD stories – ABC Warriors, Nemesis The Warlock, some of the most famous Judge Dredd sagas – have been
unrelentingly dystopian in nature. What would you say were your precursors?
When I started 2000 AD I did a crash course on all popular science fiction – I read Philip K Dick, Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov and so forth, and that gives you the vocabulary… I think the dark ideas come from somewhere else, though. I mean, you either have them or you don’t. If you look at some writers’ material, it’s quite upbeat or positive about the future, but if you look at mine it’s darkly cynical, and I think that just comes the nature of your character. If you are that way inclined, you look for something – whether science fiction, horror, or even soap opera – to express that cynicism. If I try to write something that’s more lighthearted or jovial, it usually stiffs at the box office – it’s not meant to be.
If you look at some writers’ material, it’s quite upbeat or positive about the future, but if you look at mine it’s darkly cynical, and I think that just comes the nature of your character.
I remember reading Third World War in the short-lived political 2000 AD spin-off Crisis as a kid. That seems very prophetic now in a post-9/11 world – a veritable 80s prediction of PNAC (The Project For A New American Century)
Funnily enough, I was re-reading one of my source books the other day, for a bit of light bedtime reading, as you do – a book by Susan George called A Fate Worse Than Debt (1988). It’s all to do with the IMF and the way that a new world order was being imposed on different countries after WWI I, and certainly from the 70s onwards. She talks about it as a form of re-colonisation, and what she was describing in terms of the role of the IMF is still absolutely relevant today, in fact, far more so. Sadly, the thing that doesn’t often happen in comic fiction, or indeed any other forms of ‘entertainment’ is for these kinds of issues to be overtly addressed. It’s seen as polemic…
Because it doesn’t fit the celebrity culture brain rot model...
Absolutely. It brings us back to the whole celebrity thing, which is inarguably the dumbing down of culture. I don’t really understand it at all, because if you’re going to write comic stories, adventure stories, thrillers – or whatever – then it is going to be about good and evil, and the ultimate challenges for heroes and villains now is going to take you back to issues like Third World countries being absolutely stitched up. The sad fact is that real images of evil are subtle, and far harder to dramatise than, say, a Batman story about an underworld crime syndicate – where the characters might have Italian accents and look a bit Godfather-ish.
There is something in the comic format that is different to a movie or to a novel – it has a validity all of it’s own.
When you were writing 2000 AD, was it always part of the plan to channel revolutionary ideas into young minds via the back door?
It was totally, absolutely deliberate, but I didn’t think of that as being particularly special or unique. I mean, I was listening to all kinds of music – a lot of which was quite subversive and critical of the status quo – so when I got into comics, I thought, why aren’t we doing the same thing in this form. Of course, it’s the British creators who have largely added some depth to the American superheroes, but I would like to see the British comic industry have more of its old identity back. I’d love it to go back to the roots of 2000 AD, and I think it will probably be digital comics that will do it. I’ve been doing a fair bit of work on this for various people and I did a straw poll on digital girls’ comics, as in how they would appeal to an audience not that different in its age group to the original 2000 AD audience – more or less 8-12 years old. The response was very positive, so we’re hoping that will go forward – what I’m thinking is mystery, suspense, the occult… Stephen King-style girls’ comics.
Why do you think the ‘comic strip’ has survived? Do you think its roots are so ancient that it taps into some collective archetypal memory?
I think that’s absolutely true. There is something in the comic format that is different to a movie or to a novel – it has a validity all of it’s own. As you say, it goes back a very long way. There’s something about the way in which if you get a really beautiful piece of art and you’ve got a story going on, it’s like that moment becomes frozen in time – if you’ve got a film going on, you don’t really freeze-frame it and stare at the image, it’s not the same. In a sense, the form goes right back to cave paintings. All those incredible depictions on the walls have got some kind of incredible deep mystical significance and, of course, there is a similar thing in Ancient Egypt – all of that could be straight out of a comic strip.
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