Interview: Pat Mills

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2017 is a busy year for comic book writer and editor Pat Mills. It’s the 40th anniversary of a title he helped found, which you might have heard of, called 2000AD. Having developed hugely popular heroes like Judge Dredd, Slaine, Nemesis and many more, he’ll be receiving all kinds of well-deserved accolades. But that’s not all. Pat Mills is also celebrating the launch of his debut crime novel. Entitled Serial Killer: Read Em and Weep, it’s set in an environment Mills knows very well – a comic office. Co-written with 2000AD art legend Kevin O’Neill, the book also features a villain described as Britain’s laziest serial killer.

Alex Thomas, founder of the site Pipedream Comics, caught up with Pat Mills recently, and has shared this interview with us. If you love comics, you can rely on Alex’s site for the for all the latest.

What made you decide write a prose novel and not a comic?
It started life as a TV sit-com. Gareth Edwards, the producer of Spaced, liked it and recommended it for production. But his boss at the Beeb didn’t agree. He felt it was too niche and possibly high budget. We got similar reactions from other TV companies so I adapted it into a novel where the characters and world could be developed further.

That’s a shame, why do you think no-ones ever done a sit com in a comics office?
They claimed it was too niche, but I think a lot of comedies are now written by the actors, so that makes it difficult. There are exceptions, of course. The other problem was the 70s, the only time when the world of comics was really humorous. Today’s comic world isn’t funny enough. TV people were uneasy about the 70s as a setting. There are plenty of precedents – Madmen, Life on Mars, etc – but, basically, we had to find the right actor, director, etc, who actually likes British comics. They are out there, but hard to track down! Often they may not have the clout to make it happen.

We hit lucky with Gareth (Spaced) and there were other producers interested, too, who were very encouraging and supportive, but we couldn’t get it past the finishing line. We also tried the Radio 4 comedy department – they said it was great, but too visual for radio. So a novel seemed like the best solution. That way we also had more creative freedom.

You’re co-writing with your long-term collaborated, Kevin O’Neill. What was the process like?
We had written the sit-com together and this provided the spine of the novel. So I did most of the novelising with further input and suggestions from Kev.

Dave Maudling is Britain’s laziest/most cowardly serial killer who inspires death by including dangerous acts in his comics. Was this inspired by the scare stories in the tabloids in the 70s about Action and 2000AD? Were there any specific incidents that you drew inspiration from?
Kids were often copying things they read in comics. There were some awful incidents. In Valiant, there was a cartoon strip where kids hid in an old fridge. In Whizzer and Chips (I think) Ginger’s Tum, a cat character, puts fireworks through a letterbox. Action readers imitated Death Game 1999 on their bikes. Today, it’s a very different and politically correct world; so the humour comes from showing Life on Mars, set back in the 1970s.

Why did you choose the 1970s as a setting?
The world today is much more serious. The 70s was quite decadent by comparison in so many ways. Drinking in the office. Kids unprotected – no Childline back then. But also more freedom back then and more eccentric characters, as in the novel. They couldn’t survive in 2017.

Are any of the characters based on people in the comics industry, and how did you develop them?
Only lesser characters like Ken Reid who is Ken Royce in the novel. Most characters are constructs/types into which odd incidents and biographical details might fit. In the most generalised way, I’d say there are bits of me in all three main characters.

We started with one character, Dave, who needed to be extreme, like WC Fields, and who supposedly hated kids. So the others had to contrast with him. Greg is a Billy Liar fantasist. There were women like Joy at IPC [where 2000AD was launched], but no-one as strong as her. Usually they got crushed or moved on, sadly.

You seem to relish the comics that are created in Serial Killer. Which are you most proud of?
I think Kevin and I, like the readers so far, enjoy the Caning Commando and Feral Meryl. The TV companies liked them the most. They have the biggest roles and I wanted to make sure the Caning Commando could continue by featuring it as ‘the murder weapon’. It’s developed a lot and there’s an obvious comic spin-off there, or a complete issue of the Spanker.

Do you think crime books have an advantage over comics in terms of people picking them up digitally?
I think comics digitally are catching up, but they have a way to go and there will always be some resistance because of the love of art which is not quite the same on an iPad for many fans. It’s also, as you probably know, more economical to put out a prose story digitally for lots of reasons. Mind you, there’s a lot for us to learn about the ebook market and marketing is the key. Hopefully we got it right!

Finally, it would be remiss to neglect congratulations you on the 40th anniversary of 2000AD. What do you think has been the secret to its longevity?
Strong foundations on which to build, based on what readers really wanted, usually mainstream readers, and not allowing fandom (back then) to be the tail that wagged the dog. If you give readers what they want and really care about a comic it will work. Look at Commando, for instance.

But above all… The other secret of its longevity… The loyalty of the readers – it’s phenomenal. You guys stuck with us during the bad times – the mainly awful 90s, for instance – as well as the good. We owe you a huge debt. Thank you!

Check out six of the best Judge Dredd graphic novels here.

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