Pat Mills is the one of the boldest and most prolific writers in the world of comics. He’s also one of the loudest. Often with good reason.

One of the prime movers in two of Britain’s most famous (or should that be infamous?) comics, Action and 2000AD, and the creator of Nemesis the Warlock and Celtic barbarian Slaine, Mills has also  always been an outspoken advocate for creators’ rights. His new ebook, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History, does not shirk from pointing out when writers and artists were the victims of publishing diktat.

Mills is coming to Glasgow for Glasgow Comic Con this coming weekend so it seemed the perfect time to catch up with him. Here, he talks the death of British comic books, superheroes (hatred of) and Aristotle.

Pat, if we say the word Scotland what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Frankie Boyle – because I’ve just been watching a YouTube video of him. I’m a big fan.  In the graphic novel 1DP: 2043, about a dystopian Scotland I featured the “Frankie Boyle Day Care Centre”, which I think amused him.  He asked me to send him a copy of my dark comedy novel Serial Killer.  Haven’t heard back what he thinks of it yet. Perhaps he’s lost for words…?! No, that’s not very likely, is it?

In your new book Be Pure … you paint a Darwinian picture of the British comics industry. Was it very much a case of the strongest survives?

Yes. And survival of the strangest. I think all of us who are still there have an eccentric and passionate slant on life which is reflected in our comic-book characters, whether it’s Judge Dredd, Nemesis, Slaine or ABC Warriors. Comics are not created by Suits and obedient Wage Slaves, much as publishers would dearly like them to be.

And you have to love comics in order to keep on top. As I say in the book, the Scottish have a love of British popular culture, particularly comics, which you won’t find in the same way south of the border.

So if you love the medium you can respond positively to what readers want and stay in business. If you secretly want comics to “grow up” and become graphic novels, appealing to the middle classes, the readers will sense it and move away from you.

Similarly, if you secretly want to write or draw American superhero comics, then that’s where you should go. The British comic tradition is very different and no amount of tub-thumping by publishers for comics about men in tights will persuade the public otherwise.  Superhero films – yes. Comics – no.

Did the comics publishers even like comics?

I think the English publishers – like IPC Magazines, Maxwell and Egmont, all of whom owned 2000AD – never really liked comics and hence why they sold them on to each other.  The current owners, Rebellion, are fans and do like comics. I think DC Thomson in Dundee like popular culture, including comics, or at least their employees do, and that makes a huge difference.

I do think there is a class divide and an English/Scottish factor which shows itself in comics. So, I can think of a top English comic writer and editor who admitted to me he would tell his friends: “I work in publishing,” but would never say he wrote anything as lowly as comics. Similarly, a leading English comic historian said to me recently: “When are you going to write a graphic novel?”   But a graphic novel is just a “fat comic book”, as one of my peers once said.

The attitude is very different in Scotland, as I remember from when I worked for DC Thomson in Dundee.  I know you’ve always had higher levels of literacy, so that’s not the reason, even though comics do help kids to read. Maybe it’s a Celtic thing because there’s an unusually high number of Scots, Irish (myself included) and Welsh in the industry.  That traditional Celtic opposition to the status-quo, maybe, because British comics, at least, have always been subversive and anti-establishment.

Thus the late Leo Baxendale, creator of the Beano’s Bash Street Kids, told me his first story featured the Kids stealing a tank and attacking a police station with it!  If he produced that today, he’d probably be arrested!

Did publishing conservatism breed a natural bolshiness in some creators? I’m thinking of you and Alan Moore for example. Neither of you take fools kindly?

I think there’s some truth in that. Because the British comic stories that are popular with the readers are very “bolshie.” So that attitude is bound to rub off on us personally. Thus Alan wrote V for Vendetta and his Guy Fawkes masks in V are now international anarchist icons. In my Nemesis story, my slogan “Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!” ended up being written on the Berlin Wall.

The hostility also comes from the fact that there were so many “fools” in comics, more, I would suggest, than other areas of publishing.  Almost certainly because they don’t like or understand their core audience which are – or were – kids. The 8-13 age group  is the toughest and most demanding to work for. Under 8, parents may choose their children’s reading material. Over 13, kids’ taste is more “sophisticated”.

So, when I “cracked it” with 2000AD for boys and Misty for girls, aimed at 8 -13 year olds, there was a real sense of having deciphered the Rosetta Stone. But the lessons weren’t learnt. So subsequent girls’ comics like Penny featured Enid Blyton Secret Seven stories and an adaption of Little Women!  It lasted one year.

Subsequent boys’ comics – like Tornado – also failed to understand why 2000AD worked and they similarly died.  It’s hard to be polite about such failures which led, ultimately, to the death of juvenile comics.

It’s not to do with changing demographics, the growth of video games and so on. That’s complacent, self-serving drivel.  France has a massive comic industry which is unaffected by new technology.  And there are other examples. It was fools who destroyed the British comic industry for kids.

Looking at your role in the history of 2000AD what are you proudest of?

I guess it has to be Slaine – because it’s bringing to life Celtic mythology which is so much wilder, funnier and exciting than Anglo-Saxon mythology. That’s had a strong impact on readers.

And what do you wish you could change?

When I was developing Judge Dredd, I wished I’d spent longer thinking about him and how to bring across a slow, vampiric sense of menace, of dread, of true fear when this sinister future cop knocks on your door. Like the Gestapo or Nosferatu. That’s missing in the frenetic, all-action approach on Dredd – which works, too, of course. But I do think I missed a trick there.

You were obviously inspired and interested in European comics. I wonder if that was typical among comic creators? Or were all eyes on America?

Yes – most of my peers tend to revere superhero comics, sadly. But to me they’re comics of “corporate cool”, featuring tycoons as crime fighters. No working-class heroes there.  Or, indeed, in most popular fiction, sadly.

But I was very impressed by American underground comics – such as Manning, a satirical, hard-boiled detective who also inspired Judge Dredd writer John Wagner.

I don’t know why others aren’t more influenced by European SF comics. They’re such a great source of inspiration. They’ve certainly influenced Hollywood. Blade Runner, for example. And Valerian, now a film, predates Star Wars and clearly influenced it.

Why has 2000AD survived?

Because everyone concerned with publishing, editing, writing and drawing it likes 2000AD and its characters.  That sounds obvious but it wasn’t always the case. There were past editors who tried to turn it into something else and tried to kill off key characters.  So the fact that it survived is ultimately down to the readers’ fierce loyalty to the comic. They stuck with it through thick and thin. Sometimes very thin!  It’s a tribute to them we’re still here.

Do we still have a comics industry in the UK?

Barely. We have 2000AD which will certainly be around in ten years’ time. But it has a loyal, mainly middle-aged, audience who grew up with the comic. There’s Commando Library, and that’s it in the male/female action comic genre.

We’ve lost new generations of kids who no longer read British comics. Whereas when 2000AD started we were selling 200, 000 copies to them every week.

Getting them back in the action-adventure genre would be a Herculean task. Primarily – although they will deny it – because the industry doesn’t actually like kids as an audience and/or finds them too difficult to understand. They’re certainly not easy.  Primarily, you have to do a lot of listening and subordinate your own writing style to what the readers want. But the industry would rather produce stories for older, “more mature” readers.  

The task can be done because Games Workshop attracts endless new generations of role-players. If they can do it, why can’t we?  But no one wants to believe it’s possible in comics and it would certainly be expensive. 

Digital might be a solution, publishing on line through platforms like Comixology. It’s a direction I’m taking with Requiem Vampire Knight which is published digitally.

This unacknowledged indifference or hostility towards the younger readership is fascinating, I made it the subject of  the dark comedy Serial Killer  (co-written with Kevin O’Neill) where the comic book editor hates his young readers in a kind of W.C. Fields way.

How have you changed as a writer since the 1970s?

I think I’ve broadened, rather than changed as a writer. So my stories hopefully have more style, are better paced, harder-hitting and certainly cover more controversial subjects.

Comics are about heroes and villains, good and evil. There’s no point in writing “pantomime villains”. It’s real evil and real villains that interest me and the challenge is to get the readers interested, too.

Howard Quartz, robot boss of Ro-Busters, for instance, is the ultimate banker villain, responsible for huge munitions deals, wars and disasters.  It’s not hard to find his real-life counterparts!

Or Johnny Sahib, a villain different to but with a similar style to Jimmy Savile. He appears in an upcoming episode of 2000AD’s Greysuit and gets a suitable come-uppance for his crimes.

I’ve had to adapt to the increasingly older age group and this has its benefits. It means I can write full-on critiques of the establishment, such as Third World War in 2000AD’s Crisis.  That wouldn’t be viable for a younger audience.

That said, I wrote Charley’s War, an anti-war saga aimed at kids aged six to 16, so writing for a young audience doesn’t have to be as restricting as some claim.

Why do we need stories? It is about making sense of the world? Or is it a lie we tell ourselves to conceal the random meaningless of life?

The psychological theory of the “Hero’s Journey” goes back to at least Aristotle who wrote the principles of storytelling which still apply today.  There’s a recognition that we are all on our own journeys which involve meeting recurring archetypes (e.g. the mentor/Merlin-like wise man) and certain stages (e.g. refusing the quest, triumphing over odds, reconciliation.)

The best writers dramatise this journey so we can make sense of our own journey.  It may seem random, but I doubt it.  There are too many recurring patterns and “coincidences” for example.

But even if it were random, it’s important to dramatise the lives of “ordinary” heroes: to show that ordinary people are heroic; more so than pretentious superhero idiots flying through the sky who have seriously devalued the true meaning of the word “hero”.

We are so often conditioned to think ordinary lives and ordinary heroes don’t matter and I think it’s valuable to challenge this in stories – to provide role models and heroes really worth looking up, whether they’re in history, the present day, or in a Galaxy far, far away.

Pat Mills will be appearing at Glasgow Comic Con on Saturday. For details visit

He will also be doing a signing session at Forbidden Planet Glasgow on Friday at 6pm.

  Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History and Serial Killer are on sale as ebook and paperback from Amazon.