Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pat Mills is a funking genius

There really ought to be many many websites proclaiming the legend of Mills, but I don't think there are. But anyone who loves 2000 AD by definition must also love Pat Mills. The real question in me posting about him is not "is there enough to say?", but "do I have enough fun and varied scans to make my point?"* Let's be clear, I've never met him, I've read maybe one interview with him, so all I really know about him is his comics work and a few asides from 'Thrill Power Overload' which suggest that he can be a little precious about his creations.

But what creations! First and foremost, of course, is 2000 AD as a whole. He had a major hand in the entire starting line-up: Harlem Heroes, Invasion feat. Bill Savage, MACH one, Judge Dread (OK, so everything apart from the name went through a pretty radical overhaul), Flesh, the goddamn Visible Man. All had brilliant starting positions, and included a handful of well-defined characters. Never mind that Mills and many of the scripters who took over didn't always write great individual episodes. And his fertile imagination didn't stop there: Shako, Ro-Busters, the ABC Warriors, Nemesis the Warlock, Slaine, Finn, rival comics Crisis and Toxic, the revamped politically aware Savage. With all of these, Mills has been a mainstay of 2000 AD forever, a writing feat only shared by John Wagner and Alan Grant (and, I hate to say it, if these three ever stopped contributing, the comic would all too likely come to a sticky end...)

What's his secret? Of course it's not something one can easily dissect and lay bare. For my money it's mostly about a strong imagination. Now, I grew up with Pat Mills (reading my brother's 'best of 2000 AD Monthlies' as a 6 year-old), but even so I think there's something universal about his work that reminds of the free reign of imagination that children have. Take something fascinating, such as dinosaurs, and just think what would be fun to do with them. Don't worry about a target audience, or about adult concerns like what is or isn't appropriate, or what makes sense, just let your scenarios play out, and let your characters come to life, grab you by the throat, and shake you until your nightmares spill onto the page.

Nemesis the Warlock, especially the early stories set in Termight, are for me the epitome of this free imagination approach to comics. I mean, where does he come from? An 'good' alien fighting 'evil' humans is old hat, sure, but Nemesis just looks and acts so weird, so bizarre, so actually alien. To be sure, Kevin O'Neill played a huge part in making the strip endlessly fascinating and re-readable, but I can't help but think that a lot of the ideas were Mills'. The basic descriptions of the main characters, the idea of tunnels where people walk on all sides, the magma gloves, the barren surface wasteland, the monks with their grimoires, the torture pits. At the very least a joint effort - but all Mills' stories have bizarre trappings, so I'm giving him a lot of the credit.

Characters are a major part of Mills' success. So much so, that often the stories themselves are a bit pointless. There isn't room for development, and as a result the best stories are those that get into the roots of what defines each character - witness the best ABC Warriors tales are the first: that introduce each Warrior; the Black Hole: in which we get into their heads; and the recent three-part 'Shadow Warriors' epic - which introduces some great villains and we enjoy watching our heroes play off against various counterparts. Likewise Slaine is at its most fun when he's just bashing skulls in, not trying to take on aspects of British heores of legend.

Here's one of my favourite Mills panels. A hero and a villain fighting, spouting their repective catchphrases. Mills has no need for dialogue, he is king of letting his artist have a ball, and, ultimately, giving the readers what they want. Weird alien beasties hitting each other.

And from the same episode, another thing Mills does that few others dare to do - soap opera romance:
2000 AD is all about killing, maiming, comedy and above all, future shock. But just sometimes, a writer brings out a moment of poignancy. Sure, there's a a swift kick in the head waiting around the corner in the next strip along, but we need these moments. Mills gave us some of the best: Dredd's final crawl through the Cursed Earth; Charlie's triumphant march through Northpool; Mongrol's rages (hey, I end up teary-eyed every time he thinks of Lara). Nowadays we have Robbie Morrison's Nikolai Dante to make us cry from time to time, in between rougish grins and political machinations.

And, of course, there is Pat 'oh, not again' Mills. This is the Mills that seems to be more talked about of late; the Mills that is only worth 7.9 on the thrill-o-meter over on the official 2000 AD site. Frankly, it's the Mills who likes to use his stories to make some exceptionally heavy-handed point. I give you: Finn - christianity is evil, paganism is good; Ro-Busters - corporate greed is evil and exploits the workers; Nemesis/Deadlock - good and evil are both pointless, let's just agree to embrace khaos magick and cross-dress, shall we? Slaine - woman are good, men are bad. Savage - one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Worst of all, Third World War - the world is going to hell because of corrupt governments, multinational corporations, and lazy liberals.

As Abnett has it in his Flesh series (a rather mean place to lay criticism at Mills...)

Now, I'm being rather unfair on Mills. It's worthy and occasionally interesting to bring real-world politics into escapist comics. In Savage, it's working brilliantly. I for one can't decide whether to love or hate crazy Bill. A brave and noble man who happens to be a mass murderer with no sense of remorse. And I kinda like the exploration of good/evil/khaos in later Nemesis and mid-period ABC Warriors. The women stuff is especially intriguing in what is very much a boys comic, not least when it features so prominently in Slaine - a strip mostly about men hacking each other to bits, albeit with a plethora of strong female characters getting involved.

Still, sometimes the way Mills works his politics into his plots and dialogue is just plain weak. It can lend to some unpromising art, too. Mills has managed to get quite the best out of some legendary artists like O'Neill, Flint and Bisley;
And quite the worst out of others, like Ezquerra. It's a question of subtlety, I suppose. Artists who are used to drawing exactly what they are asked can fall foul of this. Artists who like to run wild with detail and weird background stuff can get away with deeply unsubtle pictures, because they're just so impressive. And since Mills rarely tells an actual story, artists like Ezquerra with amazing storytelling panel layout skills are rather wasted. Artists with a desire to pour as much fun into each panel as they can, like Flint, can come up with the business and get a laugh or a gasp nearly every time.

Pat Mills defines 2000 AD with practically every episode of every strip he writes. His characters are iconic to the point of transcending their strips. And just occasionally, Mills manages to plot and script something as inventive as his own imagination. My favourite ever stories, Nemesis the Warlock books I and IV and Slaine: Time Killer; my favourite characters are the ABC Warriors (Well, all except Morrigun and Steelhorn, although he was pretty cool as 'the Mess') . The 2000 AD strip I most want to see as a film is 'The Visible Man' - directed by Cronenberg, of course.

In many ways its a good and bad thing that Mills won't let anyone else write his creations. Written jointly with Wagner, Shako was a better read than Flesh, even if it had a far lesser premise. So the possibilities of Nemesis by Peter Milligan or Slaine by Garth Ennis leaves me salivating. But just maybe, they would pull out too much of an actual story, and thus the pure essence of the Millsian imagination would be forever diluted. I'd want to know what happens next, rather than being content to see the same people getting up to their old tricks in beautifully drawn poses. There's a reason Nemesis Book X took so long to appear - nothing actually happened in books I - IX, so thinking up a story for X must have been murder!

And then there's the unknowable question - did Pat Mills create Tharg - himself a surprisingly well-realized and long-lasting character?

*short answer, no. But I couldn't hold it in any longer. Mills needs his respect, and right now, I'm the one to give it to him


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