Review by Peter Duncan
From Pat Mills, creator of 2000AD and developer of Judge Dredd, comes SPACEWARP, a British Science Fiction comic of great new hero comic strips for the Science Fiction world we live in today. Featuring Special Forces One at war with Giant Viruses! Jurassic Punks versus Dinosaurs! Xecutioners: authorised to terminate Aliens! Slayer – one Robot in a Galactic war against a million Space Knights. Hellbreaker escapes from Hell to punish the Living. Fu-tant – a terrifying school for Mutants!
Some voices cannot be ignored, and, in terms of the UK comics scene, Pat Mills has one of those voices. Along with John Wagner, he changed the face of British comics forever, with the creation of a new type of confident, defiant, and politically charged comic that defined the industry from the late seventies on.
Battle, Action, Misty, 2000AD. These were comics with attitude, filled with anti-establishment ideas and heroes that kids could identify with. Comics written for their generation, that related to the world they lived in and saw on television. War stories became more realistic, crime strips more violent and science fiction lost the genteel, upper-middle class tone of Dan Dare or his host of imitators.
Mills and Wagner’s creations were the punk-rock of comics, they shook-up the industry and held off, for a time, the competition of television and video games. 2000AD brought readers, lost to American comics, back to the UK scene and almost certainly held onto older fans who would otherwise have abandoned comics as childish and irrelevant to their lives, but most importantly they were read by a large, mainstream audience, one now almost totally lost to comics.
So, when Pat Mills announces he is bringing out a new comic, one aimed squarely at a similar type of revitalisation of British comics, he deserves our attention.
SPACEWARP is Mills’ new comic. A 70 page, black and white science fiction anthology, with seven strips, written by Mills and based in a shared multiverse where humanity is tortured by, The Warp Lords, Lovecraftian beings who see humanity as their playthings, insignificant creatures that exist only for their amusement.
The background gives Mills the opportunity to weave stories in different sci-fi sub-genres. This collection gives us a Liverpool-based, post-apocalyptic warrior, in search of his missing family, trapped on the wrong side of the Mersey with hordes of rampaging dinosaurs. We meet escapees from hell, cosmic assassins, and alien hunters, who, it must be said, spout some rather dodgy quantum physics to explain the technology they are using.
There is a future war strip, that says something about the shortcomings of democracy and perhaps asks some interesting questions about the limits of animal rights. Finally, there is the story of Slayer, a cosmic enforcer who opposes the god-like Warp Lords and looks to be the character whose adventures will bind the various worlds of the other strips together.
The stories are intense, detailed and filled with the anger at social injustices that has always been the hallmark of Pat Mills work. Some work better than others: I found “Jurassic Punx” less interesting than the other strips and “SF1“, the future war story suffered from having crammed just a little too much into its nine pages.
First episodes are always difficult, the set-up of a story is important but can play havoc with pacing and the balance between action and exposition. Seven first episodes could be a writers’ nightmare, but we are talking about Pat Mills here: this is his specialty. Developing innovative ideas and setting them up, often for others to take over, was what he did.
As a result, all of the stories move quickly, are filled with action, and establish the basic concepts and ideas behind the strips with great skill.
The art, throughout is in black and white, making the wide variations in style even more important. Mike Donaldson’s stylised work on “Fu-Tant“, which mixes various techniques into an intriguing, distant and slightly cold whole, is perfectly suited to the strip and was the stand-out contribution for me.
Gareth Sleightholme shows great versatility delivering convincing and stylish gods, aliens, and giant robots, alongside some expressive and slightly cartoony human engineers, in his two excellent contributions and James Newell delivered beautifully designed and detailed pages to the “Slayer” story.
Bruno Stahl’s “Hide and Survive” has the look of 1970’s Underground comics to it and Ian Ashcroft has done a fine job on “Hellbreaker“, illustrating demons, lawyers, and Prime Ministers alongside other forces of evil.
I wasn’t sure about the reproduction of Ade Hughes art. Compared to similar images I’d seen on the SPACEWARP web site, his work seemed slightly blurred on the version of the comic provided for review, but there is huge dynamism in everything he does.
Overall, the artwork is dynamic and varied with the artists selected for their ability to tell a story, rather than to produce pretty pictures.
Following the continental model, stories are creator-owned, jointly between writer and artist. Mills’ experience working in the France has led him to the conclusion that, not only is this the right thing to do, but that it drives creators to do better work. Something the quality of comics currently produced under the French model certainly supports.
SPACEWARP is described as an all-ages comic, aimed specifically at a mainstream audience of 14 – 40year-olds. It features both male and female heroes from various ethnicities and does so without ever giving a feeling of tokenism or pandering.
Mills has explicitly said that “SPACEWARP is not aimed at adult, elitist or nostalgia readers, but the ordinary reader that publishers stopped listening to a long time ago.” The difficulty may be that those readers have gone. They have abandoned comics for Netflix, phones, and games consoles. The habit, and indeed the skill, of reading comics is not something 14-year-olds have lost, it’s something many of them have never developed.
Without a way to place SPACEWARP, or indeed any comic, in front of this target, mainstream audience, Pat may find that the only people who get the opportunity to see SPACEWARP are the selfsame adults and nostalgic readers he has said he is not aiming this new venture at.
That being said, those readers are going to love SPACEWARP. It has the all the attitude and anger of early 2000AD. There are callbacks to favourite strips of the past. A giant robot with violent tendencies and a limited vocabulary reminded me instantly of Mek-Quake from “ABC Warriors” and the headmaster’s exhortation to his charges to “Be Worthy! Be Manly! Belligerent!” had a familiar ring.
Pat Mills ability to create comics for a large, mainstream audience is proven. He has identified that the current publishing model for UK comics is a recipe for a slow decline of the industry. He has seen that France has been able to retain a vibrant and exciting bandes dessinées scene and in, SPACEWARP, is trying to bring elements of that scene to the UK.
How well he succeeds, one suspects, depends more on the publicity machine he can mobilise behind SPACEWARP than on its inherent quality. A review like this on downthetubes will only be read by those who are already on board, the “adult, elitist and nostalgic” readers who are bought into comic culture already.
To bring in the new readers that are needed for a vibrant British comics industry to survive, more is needed. We need to read about projects like SPACEWARP, in national newspapers, see them discussed on TV and on the YouTube blogs of young “influencers”, which Pat has of course already recognised with his expansion of his “Millsverse” onto YouTube.
And, most importantly, like Pat Mills, we need to move past self-referential, niche comics and produce books that anyone can read and enjoy, that anyone would want to read and enjoy.
• A digital version of SPACEWARP will be released for Kindle and on Comixology on 29th July 2020, 70 black and white pages with colour covers for £6.99. A print edition will be available in the Autumn, distributed by GetMyComics
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk