Pat Mills: Readers Questions

Pat Mills - 2014
If you have a question for Pat Mills, email us and we’ll pass them on to him.

Phil Buckley asks: I’m a massive fan of Charley’s War and wondered if you would answer a question for me. How did the script look when it reached the artist? Would you, for example, draw how you wanted it to look or is that all down to the artist? Would the script say for instance “scene of Charley remembering such and such”.

I’m probably not explaining myself very well at all I’m afraid, basically how much influence did you have over how the story looked.

Pat: It would say something like.

1. A grim World War One landscape. Charley walks towards , a haunted expression on his face, as he holds a sack containing the remains of his dead friend Ginger. An Officer confronts him

OFFICER: WHAT HAVE YOU GOT IN THAT BAG, SOLDIER?

2. Charley draws closer towards us. The Officer again confronts him and points his pistol at him.

OFFICER: FOR THE LAST TIME, SOLDIER – WHAT HAVE YOU GOT IN THAT BAG?

3. Close up of just Charley in pic, staring with shell-shocked eyes at the readers

CHARLEY: ME MATE, SIR, ME MATE GINGER.

I think I had a lot of influence over the way the story looked – but the characterisation and detail were only possible because of Joe’s unique genius.

Lee O’Brien asks: As Neil has covered most of what I, and I think most Charley’s War fans wanted to know, I only have one he hasn’t asked and it is this: Neil says World War 1 has been almost ignored by filmmakers and writers before Charley’s War and since. I’d like to know what you think of the only exceptions to this that have come after Charley’s War?

Blackadder goes Forth, the recent films Regeneration and The Trench and, nearer Charley’s War‘s time, The Monocled Mutineer? My personal fave was Blackadder goes Forth as I feel that although it was comedy it was done in such a clever and honorable way it was tragic as well as funny. I also feel that it was similar to Charley’s War in that it also contained some great black humour over a tragic subject.

I would love to know what you think on these (if anything) thank you for your time, and, over the years your words. For every fan of yours who don’t get it. I hope the Charley’s War site makes you realise there are two who do, we just had no outlet before!!!

Pat: Thanks, Lee. I haven’t seen The Trench or Regeneration – but I will look out for them. I thought Monocled Mutineer was superb and I’m a huge fan of Black Adder Goes Forth. I especially liked the sombre ending. Oh, What a Lovely War – a 60’s movie – is a real classic that was a major influence on Charley’s War.

Blackadder was very well researched, especially in the context of the character. But I would love to see a dark comedy focusing soley on the intimate aspects of Charley’s War – e.g the officer’s dug-out with a servant’s bell, the street names, the trench humour, and the other attempts to recreate the class-ridden Edwardian Britain in the trenches.

By the by, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly has astonishing scenes of the trenches in the American Civil War – the first trench war. They’re recreated in amazing detail and there are several tragic scenes with exactly the same feeling as World War One. I imagine there must be some French films covering Verdun. I must ask my French friends next time I’ve over there.

Davey Machale asks: I just wanted to applaud Charley’s War firstly – it was a massive chunk of my good memories from high school and I thank you and Joe Colquhoun very much. I’d like to ask you, do you think that Charley’s War would work today? Was there something right about its place in time that helped it be a success? Or do you think kids attitudes have changed so much now that it was ‘of its time’ i.e. something was right about the late 1970s, early Eighties for it to happen?

Pat: It’s an interesting question which raises a number of points that I guess some Charley’s War readers have been wondering about. So I’d like to use your question as an opportunity to address these wider points, if I may, and cover them for the benefit of all Charley’s War readers. The short answer to your question is “yes”, Charley’s War could work today; if the magazine its in is right; and if the story itself was adapted to suit current trends.

Firstly, the magazine – Battle lost its edge. It became somewhat “young”. (Far younger than when we started it – I cringed with embarasment at some of the later stories). Battle didn’t follow up or appreciate the success of the lead stories Johnny Red and Charley’s War – that what readers were looking for was detail , realism and social conscience. And to be treated maturely. The reason why Battle didn’t do more stories like Charley’s War is because such stories take more thought than thick-ear action stories. And it’s far easier to screw up an anti-war story than a pro-war story. So they stuck to the same old safe stuff.

But comics and magazines that are of their time can evolve with changing trends. Private Eye, for instance, originated in the 1960’s at a time of satire, political upheaval and controversy and has sustained itself into these rather bland modern times. Whereas Punch didn’t keep its edge and died. 2000AD, too, evolved and changed – whereas TV Century 21 and the original Eagle didn’t and consequently died. So Battle could and should have evolved.

Then there’s the subject matter. Saving Private Ryan and The Trench shows there’s still an interest today in war from a realistic point of view. And 2000AD currently is running two future war stories – Rogue Trooper and The VC’s, which are very Battle in style (both well written, incidentally) . I also believe war is one of the most popular genres in 2000AD. But there should always be a market and an audience for an anti-war story – especially with the current possibility of Britain being drawn into a war against Iraq.

Finally, there’s the Charley’s War story itself. Content and style are both important in stories, but in Charley’s War, arguably, content was more important than style. But in modern stories, often style is more important than content.

To make it work today, Charley’s War would need a stronger emphasis on style. Although, if I had to choose, I would always go for content over style. (See below for my comment on some stylish French and American comic books ). By style, I mean less images on the page; slower, more moody storytelling, “cooler”, more emotionally restrained , and with stronger sequential art storytelling. Usually with a pivotal “cool” character/s. Whatever, Charley’s War was, it was far from “cool”. To hell with cool. Reading about the experiences our forefathers went through made me angry and sad and I wrote it often with blazing anger.

It was often told in three pages – so it had to be fast paced, passionate and intense – which worked very well. Sometimes, though, it had too many images on a page .This was really my fault – I should have slowed it down, perhaps even gone for full page, single image aerial views of the trenches at war. Can you imagine what Joe would have drawn?!! I’d like to see some of those small images he drew blown up big – just to see. Editorial would probably not have appreciated less pictures on a page, but I should have persisted. I think the difficulty was, you get into the characters and there’s so much you want to put across in one week, that slowing it down can feel like you’re cheating the reader. Not giving them enough “value”. My mistake, really, because Joe left the pacing entirely to me.

It’s one of the reasons why I’m especially keen to see later episodes of Charley’s War reprinted where the imagers are larger because the story is told over four pages. I think these episodes, especially, would attract a wider and new audience who might not get into the earlier episodes so easily.

Still on the subject of style: jagged , crooked and strange frame lines had evolved from the Frank Bellamy era (a great original Eagle artist). Artists were either influenced by him or they may have been told to put jagged lines or diagonal lines around pics to make them more exciting. (Just like today, many artists are influenced by Simon Bisley or Mike Mignola and include their stylistic devices) Now, of course, such lines look a little old fashioned. Because of the era he was working in, and the generation he was from, Joe would have used some of these lines around his art . But a good art editor should have seen that they were not necessary and asked Joe to change this. His art was so astonishing and brilliant it didn’t need them. A conventional layout would have made his work more appealing to an international audience.

Again, I’m at fault here , too – because I knew this, even at the time. But I was so knocked out by his art, I felt it would have been impertinent to poke my nose in; and I still feel uncomfortable making the point today. Plus I was constantly at war with the editor on 2000AD at the time, trying to get decent artists on my work there, so I greatly valued the peace and quiet I had working with Joe , so I decided not to rock the boat.

Another stylistic point: I personally don’t mind typeset dialogue in balloons (it suits stories with a lot of images on a page much better than hand lettering – unless you have a great letterer) but it’s seen as old fashioned by a wider comic audience, especially in fandom. Later Charley’s War did switch to hand lettering – but some of it is rather rough and poor. Again – I should have complained about the quality and I wish I had. But I was getting away with so much subversive stuff , I didn’t want to push my luck!

Despite these points, it angered me enormously even then – and still does – that fans would rave over and award fantasy artists who simply were not in the same class as Joe. They would ignore Charley’s War because style and fantasy are more widely regarded than war stories , whatever their content. It frustrated me that his work was not widely appreciated. But, as I’ve said before, it’s a comment on his genius that he didn’t need such accolades . It’s also a great tribute to Battle readers that you saw then – and see now – beyond these minor stylistic problems .

Titan will reprint, I’m pretty sure – they’re still working on the feasibility details , they tell me. When they do, I suspect Joe’s work will finally be rated by those very people who ignored it first time around. Better late than never, I guess. In my view, Joe was one of the most important comic artists of the twentieth century, certainly of the 1970s and 1980s. His depiction of the humanity and suffering of the people of Leningrad and Stalingrad in Johnny Red; and the humanity and suffering in World War One is important and unique. I’m not aware of any other artist who has ever depicted war with such emotion and passion in any English speaking countries.

A few French artists may have achieved similar results. The superior stylistic format of bande dessines (large, high-quality glossy pages; colour albums) is in their favour. For instance, there’s a brilliant French artist who showed the suffering of the Germans on the Russian Front and then in Stalin’s gulags. Other French artists have shown impressive details of war on their home front during the German occupation. But these French books I’ve seen, although excellent , are still missing Joe’s warmth, gritty intensity and individual characterisation. They seem stylish and cool , rather than powerful and emotive; and they don’t appear to be making the controversial points we made in Charley’s War.

I suspect the same may be true of similar American stories which have also been produced in superior formats. I can recall a great one off anti-war story by the late Archie Goodwin who I also respected enormously – it was very polished, stylish but restrained in its hard hitting comment on the war in Vietnam. Again we come back to the issue of style versus content. Ultimately , for me anyway, content is more important. I write with passion and prefer to read books and comics written with passion. The more emotional the better, irrespective of their literary merit. The “coolness” or “elegance” that often comes from books and comics written with a strong literary style interests me less.

Finally, coming back to Joe… When Titan reprint Charley’s War, I’m sure some pundit , critic, historian , or similar expert, who has studied the genre in detail will finally confirm Joe’s status as one of Britain’s greatest comic artists. Then it will be official. But you Battle readers knew that long ago when you were nine, ten or eleven, and , for your good taste and judgement, I applaud you

Here’s some questions from Mark Jarvis who runs a brilliant Battle site at www.frothersunite.com/marbles/fanboy/battle.html. If you haven’t already been there, well why not? Here’s his questions for Pat…

Mark: In both David Bishop’s 2000AD history in the Megazine and my own interview with David Hunt regarding Battle, both you and John Wagner appear pretty much from nowhere as ‘young hotshots’ empowered to shake up the UK boys comics market. I just wondered about your history before then – how did you get into the comics industry, what did you do pre- Battle, how did you first meet John Wagner ?

Pat: John and I worked on DC Thomson’s Romeo as sub-editors. Then I went freelance and established myself in the girls and humour market. John joined me. And we also cracked the boys comic market too.

Mark: I must admit the story that grabbed me first as a kid was Wagner’s Darkies Mob – a great story and fantastic art. Did you have any input into the strip?

Pat: No but it was the role model for Bad Company in 2000AD I think.

Mark: Does a complete listing of your work exist in any form?

Pat: No. It would be enormous. And these days I find it can be a bit counter-productive. People assume because you’ve written a lot that you must be in the past – whereas my current stuff for France is more successful and harder than much I’ve written before (Charley’s War being a notable exception).

Mark: Did your short Death Race series with Kev O’Neill ever get a graphic novel reprint ?

Pat: Alas no.

Mark: What are your future plans – any more ‘Redeemer’ for Black Library ?

Pat: Unlikely because it’s not copyright owned, although I do have a fondness for the character and could be persuaded. It’s owned by Games Workshop, which is absolutely fine, but… An important thing that all fans and site designers such as yourself might focus on is that comic writers and artists should, wherever possible, write and draw stories where they own or have control or an interest in the product they create. British comic people’s attitude to this subject is extremely poor and my generation of writers and artists was more militant than subsequent generations (or earlier ones). It’s why there are so many weaknesses and problems in our industry.

Mark: Will we in the UK get to see your French work at some point?

Pat: Absolutely. Probably via Heavy Metal. Good luck with your Battle site.

[Edior’s Note: Panini UK are now publishing some of Pat’s French work].

Jo Slee asks: I was wondering (Charley’s War being a great example) how do you do the ‘donkey work’ of the writing process; do you do the research and sketch out the bare bones like an artist would? (make rough notes etc); then build up the picture with more writing; sharpening the whole thing up in a finshed script. Or do you start the finished thing and do all the creative process at once. Do you ‘cut and paste’ adding and taking stuff away etc etc. Do you ever start something and think of the endings etc. laterwhile in the writing? Or is the whole lot worked out (including the depth of the characters) in the very beginning? Do you use a PC or a typewriter? Before PCs did you learn to type on a typwriter or was it in your own hand and you have a secretary? … Do you need a secretary? (only joking!! L.O.L)

Do you find it hard to discipline yourself? As far as I can see your job is 100% creative all the time, therefore you cant just go into ‘auto’ like the rest of us at work can you? What happens when the ‘muse’ is playing hard to get?; have you a way to work through writers block?

Pat: Thanks for your question. Yes, I start with research and build the story up like an artist would. And cut and paste, taking stuff out, moving it around etc. Sometimes I’ll leave some details s for later, but I try and have it all pretty clear in my head so I don’t write myself into a corner.

The golden rules are 1) Write what you know about (or can research) 2) Start with the characters and know your characters. 3) character swing …e.g. a character is moving in one direction, then an event (a death , an attack) makes him move in another. 4) Theme is important , too – what is the message? What are you actually saying? The theme on Charley’s War, for instance, is clearly that the British government and its ruling class were responsible for the murder of a generation; everything in the story should reflect the theme.

Writers block is actually a case of not listening to the muse properly ; or writing for money rather than for conviction. Or – if there’s an interfering editor screwing the story up which sometimes happens. And yeah – I started on an Olivetti portable and I’ve ended up on a lap top

Alan Burrows asks: I read with interest your interview on the Charley’s War site – and was particularly taken with your discussion with the interviewer on war in general, I was wondering what your views are on the current world situation since 9/11? Do your views regarding the US still stand the same as they did before? Also you mentioned the Kosovo crisis in the same interview, but yet I was unclear as to your stance on whether it was right to step in when ourselves and the Americans did?

Pat: Thanks, Alan. America is an imperial power – which is fine for people like you and me living in a country which is an ally of America. But its imperialism seriously harms many countries throughout the world. Inevitably some of those people are going to retaliate in ways which all of us would deplore, but are a result of its imperialism, a role it has taken over from the Britain of Charley’s War which seriously harmed large parts of the world (India, Africa). The media will promote a pro-American point of view and the same is true in the case of Kosovo. No one would deny that Albanians were treated badly in Kosovo or Milosevic’s role as a war criminal. But, as is so typical of the so called free press in our country , many facts are avoided, manipulated, or downplayed.

For instance – the terrorism against the Serbian people by Albanians. The need by the USA and Britain to bring every country into the IMF (International Monetary Fund) global system of capitalism (e.g. inside the American Empire). Serbia now is inside and its people are suffering (friends who live there tell me) from those policies. Also, there’s the use by Britain and the USA of uranium tipped bullets in the Kosovo conflict which are carcinogenic (also used in the Gulf War). If a third world dictator used cancer inducing weapons he would be called an evil monster. But Blair can’t be an evil monster, can he ? After all, he looks like such a nice man.

The USA, imitating Britain’s past imperialism, will always make it seem right to intervene in other nation’s affairs, especially if they are dictators like Hussein or Milosevic, but they always have a hidden agenda – usually relating to the IMF, trade or oil (Afghanistan and Iraq). And it’s that hidden agenda which really motivates empires – the other stuff is clever window dressing to hide their aggression and it probably makes our leaders feel good, too – because they can convince themselves – and us – they are doing good . Because we are removed from it, it may seem hard to believe , but if you travel in countries that have been on the receiving end of American and British policies, you will see evidence of their imperialism.

I know (and forgive me, I haven’t time to find exact dates and location ) that the British Royal Flying Corps used poison gas in the Middle East in the late 1920’s, early 1930’s. I’m pretty certain it was against Iraq, dropping it on rebellious tribesmen…e.g. people who didn’t want to be ruled by the British Empire. If I’m correct, I wonder if it will ever be mentioned when more poison gas is discovered in Iraq.

I believe it was the first use of poison gas from the air. The Italians then used it in Ethiopia in the 1930’s.

I recall reading about Britain using poison gas in peacetime, when I was researching Charley’s War twenty years ago and was really shocked. Today I did a web search and finally found one single reference to it confirming my recollection. I found it rather surprising there were no other references to it on the web in view of its topical significance.

Poison gas was banned by International Agreement in 1925. The British Royal Air Force used it in Iraq in the early 1930s, dropping it from the air on the Kurds. This was before Italy used it in Ethiopia. In both Britain and Italy’s case, they would have been dropping it on poorly armed tribesmen who would have been unable to hit back.

Britain was the first to use a weapon of mass destruction, poison gas, in this way, in pursuit of its oil interests. Curious to think that today Kurdish old men may well have come under poison gas attack from our country when they were children. Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds in recent years – I suspect he could have got the idea from relatives telling him how Britain used to deal with rebels (so it must be all right). An inconvenient and embarrassing fact that I’m sure Blair would not like to be reminded of.

I had originally intended Charley’s brother to serve in the RAF in the 1930s to highlight this disgusting atrocity committed by our rulers, but, as you know, I eventually ended the story in 1919 after Britain’s equally appalling invasion of Russia.

Web Links

• Western Policies on Poison Gas Use During & After World War One

• The Guardian 19th April 2003 | Jonathan Glancey: Gas, chemicals, bombs: Britain has used them all before in Iraq

“No one, least of all the British, should be surprised at the state of anarchy in Iraq. We have been here before. We know the territory, its long and miasmic history, the all-but-impossible diplomatic balance to be struck between the cultures and ambitions of Arabs, Kurds, Shia and Sunni, of Assyrians, Turks, Americans, French, Russians and of our own desire to keep an economic and strategic presence there.”

• Science Daily, 25th October 2009: Despite Claims, UK Did Not Gas Iraqis In The 1920s, New Research Finds

It has passed as fact among historians, journalists and politicians, and has been recounted everywhere from tourist guidebooks to the floor of the US Congress: British forces used chemical weapons on Iraqis just after World War One. But that claim has never been fully squared with the historical record, says R. M. Douglas, a historian at Colgate University. According to Douglas’s research, forthcoming in the December issue of The Journal of Modern History, no such incident ever occurred.

• The Guardian, 1st December 2007: Military scientists tested mustard gas on Indians

British military scientists sent hundreds of Indian soldiers into gas chambers and exposed them to mustard gas, documents uncovered by the Guardian have revealed.


Charley’s War created by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

CHARLEY’S WAR ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT ©  REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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