The sudden passing of the inspiring comics creator Alan Mitchell, perhaps best known for co-writing “Third World War” with Pat Mills for Crisis, aged just 55, came as a tremendous shock to both family and friends.
Although we met only a couple of times in the flesh – last during the Kapow 2012 convention in London, where we had a long and entertaining chat about digital comics – he always struck me as an ideas powerhouse, constantly thinking through the opportunities new ways to deliver comics to readers and new ideas to involve young people in our medium, science fiction and more.
When we last communicated – just days before he died as the result of a long-term heart condition that was only diagnosed after his death – he was busy researching black comic creators in British comics history. I was looking forward to seeing the results of his researches, and I hope someone is able to recover them to publish posthumously.
“I can’t remember the first time I met Alan but it’s felt like he’s always been in my life popping at various events, conventions and the like,” editor and writer Tim Pilcher recalls. “Alan was a big man. Big in stature, big in heart and big in ideas. The term ‘gentle giant’ often gets banded around too frequently, but Alan truly was the epitome of this.”
He began his comics writing in partnership with Pat Mills, who he met while working as a shop manager for Acme Comics in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton in South London. Mills was looking for a black writer to help him create a nightmare urban world in Britain for “Third World War” for Crisis the revolutionary political comic from Fleetway, that would complement the one that Mills had developed with his main character, Eve and her friends in Central America, with a focus on corporate exploitation by the multinationals in the third world. It was the beginning of a writing partnership that would last until 2004.
“He was looking for a co-writer to bring social and political authenticity to the direction he was planning to take the story,” notes Steve Holland. “Mitchell did more than add perspective: the character of Chief Inspector Ryan, who embodied racism in the police force, was based on a PE teacher Mitchell remembered from primary school: ‘A military man. Dark, tall, lean and muscular with an angular, hawk face. About thirty-five years old. A disciplinarian who loved to use the slipper and the cane. A brute whose name was Ryan.'”
“I wanted to write about black issues and I figured the only way to do this properly was to work with a black writer, so I went out looking for one and eventually found Alan Mitchell,” Pat recalls of his work with Alan on the Pat Mills Lost Stories group in 2010. “Inspector Ryan was his idea and we worked together on bringing in the Mau Mau.
“Alan… reminded me recently how the printers whose relatives had apparently suffered at the hands of the Mau Mau (who were viewed like Al Quaida) refused to print that issue where the British gun them down. [Robert] Maxwell had to intervene. Alan also told me how he met a Brit sergeant major who took sadistic delight in telling him how they crushed the Mau Mau. Tony Skinner was a kind of role model for Finn when I was using a Mike Leigh technique of basing stories on real people.”
Alan worked on Books Two and Three of the story between April 1989 and December 1990, working with Carlos Ezquerra, Duncan Fegredo, Sean Phillips, Richard Piers Rayner, Glyn Dillon, Steve Pugh and Robert Blackwell. It was a complex, hard-hitting tale that pulled no punches in covering issues such as police racism, no-go areas, private police forces, class war, and black resistance, anticipating Britain’s “surveillance society”, and these were themes Alan would return to in the Crisis Amnesty International special story “Prisoner of Justice” drawn by Glenn Fabry, who called him his “best friend” in a short tribute after his death.
“Alan was a fantastic writer and a great guy,” notes Pat on learning of his passing. “He wrote some powerful and important political, hard hitting, and funny observations about modern life. I will miss him greatly.”
“He was a genuine original,” concurred author Robert Dee.
Alan also partnered with Pat on the first ABC Warriors novel The Medusa War for Black Library based on elements changed or removed from the scripts.
This was not his first text-based project. “Alan and were friends from the late 1980s,” Steve Hooker recalls. “He took over New Blood, a collection of short stories from first time writers and we worked on that. I had many, many a happy time with Alan, including watching the first episode of Spitting Image together and his introduction to me of the world of Philips Laser Discs…”
Post-Crisis, Alan co-wrote “Coffin” for Toxic in 1991, drawn by Morak Oguntade and worked with artist Jonathan Akwue, who he’d also met while working at Acme on “Scrolls of Imhotep”, published in an Africentric magazine The Alarm in the mid-1990s.
Although he moved away from writing comics to concentrate on work involving working with young people, including work for as an intensive support personal adviser with West Sussex County Council, it was a medium that he would return to in 2009, co-founding Buzz Comics in 2009 with Steve Huckle, an attempt to create an online comics community for creators of all ages where they could post artwork and receive feedback and encouragement. It included tutorials and online comics and was supported by artists Warren Pleece and Glenn Fabry and writer Indra Shann.
Steve Holland notes the project, which made its public debut at the Strange New Worlds one-day convention in Worthing on 24th July 2010, an event he co-founded,
“A good friend,” recalls Jim Precious, who ran the Strange New Worlds conventions with two other friends alongside Alan. “Pat Mills was one of the guests on honour on the second year weekender. A great loss to us all, especially his family.”
After Steve Huckle’s two-year-old daughter survived a brain tumour through surgery thanks to the medical care of Royal Alexandra Hospital in Brighton and Kings College Hospital in London, Huckle founded Buzz Press to publish stories to raise money and Alan and Indra were heavily involved in setting up a website to create a graphic novel entitled The Magic Toybox, seeking sponsorship to raise funds for the Royal Alexandra. Their books included Jac and the Pumpkin Soup by Indra Shann and The Wolf Meets the Rabbit and the Rabbit Meets the Wolf by Agathe Senior, but the company was dissolved in 2014.
Before his untimely death in the works – as yet unpublished – was Rumplestiltskin, a children’s novel co-written with Indra, due to be published in 2016 under the pen-name Joe Leonard with a cover by Glenn Fabry. The story centres on a witch who wants to raise a demon out of hell, and a young girl — Miranda — and her husband and son who are caught up in the witch’s plans to systematically destroy their world.
Away from comics, he was an enormous fan of Doctor Who and science fiction in general, as director and event organiser Gareth Kavanagh recalls.
“A great writer and a real loss,” he says. “We had some intense debates about Gerry Haylock and Doctor Who at the Sci Fi Weekender the last time I saw him and I’ll treasure those memories.”
“Alan was constantly developing new concepts, stories, plots, characters and comics every time I saw him,,” says Tim Pilcher. “In fact, we were talking about a pitch of his just before he died. He seemed to have an endless well of creativity he could constantly drawn upon.
“And he was very generous with his creativity, sharing, developing and collaborating with all and sundry, working with established gurus like Pat Mills and then passing that knowledge onto the younger generation, actively encouraging aspiring artists and writers.
“Ironically, for a man who cared so much for others, he was never that great at looking after himself,” Tim continues, “and I feel terrible that I wasn’t there to kick him up the backside to go to the doctor’s. But then again, he was a great charmer who’d always convince you that no matter what woes he had, he was always doing fine.
“Ironically the last time I saw Alan was at our mutual friend (Tony Luke)’s funeral, just a few months ago. Alan and I hadn’t seen each other for a good six months, and despite the sad circumstances it was great to catch up with him. As always, he had a million different plans running around in his head. Plans that now only exist in some alternate, more forgiving, universe. I’ll miss his smiling face, his sharp wit and that deep booming, laughing voice!”
• Alan Mitchell, born 1960, died Wednesday 22nd June 2016. He is survived by his children Liatt Kwame, age 30, Lateef Che, age 28, Nyasha Ruth, age 25, Shani Efia, age 25, Annu Roshin, age 11 and Olanna Niamh, age 8
• If you remember Alan and would like to support them in financing his funeral costs then please donate here on YouCaring
An appraisal of “Third World War”, the ‘tentpole’ strip featured in Crisis – which Alan himself responds to, as does Igor Goldkind
Grant Coggans began urging for a reprint of the strip back in 2009 and offers his appraisal of the story. (Carlos Ezquerra still has all his art and Titan have looked at collecting the tale)
The home of the digital comics project founded by Steve Huckle and Alan Mitchell
The Facebook page for the SF convention Alan co-founded, which takes place in Worthing
Pat Mills looks back on the title in an interview with Ian McQuaid
A guide to Crisis stories and an overview of “Third World War”
A listing of all 52 issues of Crisis, with covers and some credits