Posts Tagged ‘2000 AD’

Cyborgisation and Mass Technological Mind Control

March 25, 2018

One of the big stories this week has been the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s datamining of the personal details of people on Facebook, in order to target them for electoral propaganda. Not only have they been doing it in America, but they’ve also been contracted by other governments around the world, including the Tories in Britain, as well as Kenya, and Israel, who wanted to interfere in elections in Nigeria and St. Kitts and Nevis. But reading Alex Constantine’s Psychic Dictatorship in the USA (Portland, Oregon: Feral House 1995) the other night I found a couple of chapters discussing CIA and Russian experiments in technological mind control. These were based on implanting electrodes in the human brain, which could then be operated remotely through a computer, which would effectively turn the person operated upon into a meat puppet. Constantine writes

The CIA’s experiments in radio control of the brain are based on the development of the EEG in the 1920s. In 1934 Drs. Chafee and Light published a pivotal monograph, “A Method for Remote Control of Electrical Stimulation of the Nervous System”. Work along the same lines allowed Dr. Jose Delgado of Cordoba, Spain, to climb into a bull-ring and, with the push of a button, trigger an electrode in the head of a charging bull and stop the beast in its tracks.

Further groundbreaking advances were made by L.L. Vasiliev, the famed Russian physiologist and doyan of parapsychology, in “Critical Evaluation of the Hypnogenic Method” . The article detailed the experiments of Dr. I.F. Tomashevsky in remote radio control of the brain, “at a distance of one or more rooms and under conditions where the participant would not know or suspect that she would be experimented with … One such experiment was carried out in a park at a distance,” Vasiliev reported, and “a post-hypnotic mental suggestion to go to sleep was complied with within a minute.”

By 1956 Curtiss Shafer, an electrical engineer for the Norden-Ketay Corporation could explore the possibilities at the National Electronics Conference in Chicago. “The ultimate achievement of biocontrol may be man himself,” Shafer said. “The controlled subjects would never be permitted to think of themselves as individuals. A few months after birth, a surgeon would equip each child with a socket mounted under the scalp and electrodes reaching selected areas of brain tissue.” In this psycho-Arcadia, “sensory perceptions and muscular activity could be either modified or completely controlled by bioelectric signals radiating from state-controlled transmitters”. (pp. 2-3). Constantine goes on to describe the various experiments in mind control and the sadistic scientists involved in them. Several involved using microwaves to beam auditory signals to people, and their possible use as a tool to manipulate assassins. One of these was supposedly Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy. He then goes on to describe the development of the technology of brain implants to control humans, and the connection to research into creating human-machine hybrids – cyborgs – a few pages later. He writes

The development of remote mind-reading machines in secret academic enclaves picked up again with ARPA backing in the early 1970s. Scientists mapped the brain, gigahertzed the nervous system and gauged biohazards at MIT, NYU, and UCLA. NASA launched its programme. A story on the ARPA brain effort appeared, not in the corporate press, but in the National Enquirer for June 22, 1976. ‘The Pentagon did not exactly deny the story. Robert L. Gilliat, an assistant general counsel for the Department of Defence, replied meekly: “The so-called ‘brain-wave’ machine is not capable of reading brain waves of anyone other than a willing participant in the laboratory’s efforts to develop that particular device.” Presumably, the brain of an unwilling subject was impenetrable to microwaves.

In 1972 an ARPA report in Congress announced, after Helms, that “the long-sought goal (is) direct and intimate coupling between man and the computer.” Four years later ARPA reported that thought-wave research had gone beyond to communication to enhance memory by downloading information into the brain. Based on these capabilities, the post-PANDORA team set out to upgrade the interpretation of neural signals, and broaden the program to invent realistic tasks of “military significance”.

‘This side of the electronic battlefield, the experiments contributed to medicine the “transmitter-reinforce”, a device that transmits data on a patient’s health. Ford:

The transmitter-reinforce utilizes space age technology to send accurate readings on the patient’s condition to a computer, which digests the data. The computer can monitor many patients simultaneously. If a patient needs a dose of aversion treatment, the computer acts as controller, delivering a tone signal or shock.

The original, clandestine purpose of the “reinforcer” was not lost on authoritarian types in the psychiatric wings. Rowan:

One study suggested that radio transmitter receivers should be implanted into the brains of patients to broadcast information to a computer which would monitor and control the patients’ behaviour.

Other “constructive” uses of CIA/PANDORA telemetric brain implants were championed by criminologists. In 1972, Drs. Barton Ingraham and Gerald Smith advocated the implantation of brain transmitters to monitor and manipulate the minds of probationers. “The technique of telemetric control of human beings offers the possibility of regulating behaviour with precision on a subconscious level,” the authors enthused in a 1972 Issues in Criminology article.

Surveillance expert Joseph Meyer of the DoD carried the idea a step further, proposing that electromagnetic mind control devices “surround the criminal with a kind of externalised conscience, an electronic substitute for social conditioning, group pressure and inner motivation.” The ideal subject for testing the implants was “the poor and uneducated urban dweller (who) is fundamentally unnecessary to the economy,” Meyer said.

Military doctors with hard-right political views were naturally drawn to electronic mind control as the final solution to the “useless eaters” quandary. One Air Force doctor went so far as to recommend, in the New England Journal of Medicine, that if a criminal’s brain waves did not test “normal” after five years, he should be put to death.

Dr. Louis Jolyon West, formerly a CIA brainwashing specialist and LSD experimenter, proposed establishing a computerised system of employing space technology to monitor and control the violence-prone. … This sort of Orwellian thinking led opponents of West to fear the prospect that computer data on young children could be used as justification for implanting them for state control.

The nagging ethical considerations prompted a report on future applications and possible abuses. Scientists as Lockheed and Stanford Research Institute prepared the report, which postulated the rise of “a technocratic elite” with dominion over intelligence and identification systems to monitor whole countries. Wars would be waged by robots.

Technological advances anticipated by the authors include computer operated artificial organs, biocybernetic device to provide “social conversation, entertainment, companionship and even physical gratification,” and a “machine-animal symbiont,” an animal or human monitor that transmits its perceptions to a central authority. Partially funded by the National Science Foundation, the report recommended the formation of an oversight panel of artificial intelligence specialists to uphold ethical standards. (pp. 16-17).

This is clearly the classic stuff of the paranoid, conspiracy fringe, the kind of material that informs Alex Jones’ Infowars net programme and the X-Files. However, the information in Constantine’s book is meticulously documented, and the CIA’s experiments in mind control have been discussed elsewhere, such as in the conspiracy magazine, Lobster. The suggestion that the technology could used to strip whole populations of their humanity and individuality clearly bring us close to Star Trek’s Borg and Dr. Who’s Cybermen, while the use of computer technology to control the brains of criminals recalls the limiter in Blake’s 7. This was a computer device implanted into the brain of one of the heroes, Gan, to rob him of his ability to kill after he slew a Federation trooper. And Pat Mills portrayed the use of this technology in an episode of Nemesis the Warlock in 2000AD, when the Terminators electronically monitoring the thoughts of the citizens of Termight pick up a dream of the heroine’s father, in which he fights against the future Earth’s evil Grand Master, Torquemada. The man is arrested shortly after. This episode is obviously inspired by a similar passage in Orwell’s 1984, but it does show the sinister uses this technology could be put to.

And there have been numerous stories in the papers over the past few months that scientists are coming closer, or have discovered ways of reading the human mind electronically. Mostly this is connected to the development of artificial limbs, and the creation of methods by which amputees or people, who have lost the use of their limbs, can move artificial arms or operate other machines, to give them more independence and movement. No-one would object to the development of this technology to benefit the physically handicapped. But this chapter also shows it can also be used for far more sinister purposes. And the comments quoted from various far-right military officers and doctors shows how they viewed the poor: as suitable victims for experimentation, who otherwise have no social or economic value.

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Awesome! Robot Band Compressorhead Has a Singer At Last

February 25, 2018

As readers of this blog will have gathered, I’ve an interest in robots and robots as musicians. Compressorhead are an all-robot band from Germany, who play Hard Rock and Heavy Metal music. They started as purely musicians without a singer, but have at last built one. He’s called ‘Mega-Wattson’. The robot rolls around on caterpillar tracks, has a structure where a human’s eyes would be that resembles sunglasses, and, as a singer, has a massive mouth full of teeth. Oh yes, and he has a Mohican that raises and goes down in emphasis to what he’s singing. The band also sports a new guitarist and backing vocalist, ‘Hellga Tarr’. Her name seems to me to be a pun on ‘Hell Guitar’. She is very definitely female, as they’ve given her a waist and plastic boobs.

The song’s Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’, and it’s dedicated to Lemmy!

Here’s the clip from YouTube:

This does, however, remind me of piece from the 2000 AD strip, ‘ABC Warriors’, in which the ‘Meknificent Seven’ of robot warriors for truth and justice discuss their favourite bands. It ends with Hammerstein saying that everything was rubbish after Led Zeppelin.

It’s from A.B.C. Warriors: The Volgan War – Volume 3, by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. I don’t agree that everything after Led Zeppelin was rubbish. And this is pure rock and roll. Rock on!

And one of the comments is also funny. One of them suggested that after this, there’ll be Cyborgs banging around down in the mosh pit.

Roger Dean and Nemesis the Warlock’s Gooney Birds

January 11, 2018

Long time readers of 2000 AD may remember the Gooney Birds. These were vast, predatory metal birds evolved from Concorde, that appeared in the second Nemesis the Warlock story, ‘Killerwatt’, back in Prog 178, when one of them attacked a train carrying the strip’s villain, Torquemada, as it passed overland.

Looking through the Sciencefictiongallery tumblr site, which shows pieces of classic and not so classic SF art, I came across this similar piccie by Roger Dean on the page for the 5th February 2014.

It isn’t quite the same thing. Dean’s picture is of a Blackbird spy plane, rather than Concorde, but the idea’s the same. The crowd at 2000 AD took some of their inspiration from the popular culture around them, including pop music. It was why the revived Dan Dare was made to look rather like Ziggy Stardust. The two earliest Nemesis the Warlock stories, ‘Terror Tube’ and ‘Killerwatt’, were published as part of a ‘Comic Rock’ series of strips, which were explicitly inspired by the pop music of the time. In the case of ‘Terror Tube’, this was the Jam’s ‘Going Underground’. In fact, the story had its origin in Mills and O’Neill wishing to stick two fingers up to the comic’s editor, Kevin Gosnell. Gosnell had censored a chase scene in the ‘Robusters’ strip on the grounds that it was too long. So when he was away on holiday, Mills and O’Neill created a story, ‘Terror Tube’, that was just one long chase. As the strip itself acknowledged in its titles, the second Nemesis story, ‘Killerwatt’, was suggested by the album ‘Killerwatts’.

Roger Dean is known for the superb artwork he did for various record sleeves. So you’re left wondering whether Dean’s depiction of the Blackbird spy plane as swooping bird of prey served as the inspiration for the Gooney Birds in the Nemesis the Warlock story, or if it was just an idea that was going around at the time, and which different artists had independently. Either way, ‘Killerwatt’ and its predecessor, ‘Terror Tube’, blew my teenage mind with their depiction of a ravaged, far-future Earth, populated by weird creatures and under the malign heel of Torquemada and Terminators. They provided a solid basis for the Nemesis the Warlock strip proper when this later appeared, and helped to make it one of 2000 AD’s most popular strips.

India Unveils Their Robocop

January 7, 2018

And it’s less than impressive. In Paul Verhoeven’s violent and satirical film, the Robocop of the title was a cop, Murphy, who had been set up by the company now owning the Detroit police force, Omni-Consumer Products, to be gunned down by hoodlums so that he could be re-engineered into a ruthless crime-fighting cyborgs. Of course, Murphy then rediscovered his true, human identity through a dream his human handlers were too slow to suppress. Furious, he then went off to wage his war to bring the men, who attacked him to justice and overthrow the corrupt and ambitious corporate intriguer, who had authorised the whole illegal programme and was now trying to overthrow the wise and kindly paternalistic company head.

It was violent and like Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, sharply satirical, with fake adverts for slickly insincere medical companies and sadistic home and car security devices running alongside a depiction of a city rapidly running out of control, overrun by gangs and terrorists. An exaggerated image of Reagan’s America.

This robot, by contrast, is much more staid and limited. The first part of this video starts more or less like a rock promo, with the machine trundling forward to a pop soundtrack. It has now legs, and consists of a human-like torso with arms and a head, supported on a pillar-like extension, widening at the base. There are clearly wheels inside, allowing it to move. It’s Indian inventors are clearly proud of it, as well they should, but its applications are strictly limited. It’s to help in only certain types of crime, and, er, traffic direction. But it does have a touchscreen and keypad to get you in touch with real cops for more serious offences. The company spokesman states that it’s not intended to put real people out of work. Which is a relief, given the grinding poverty in India itself, and over here.

However, this whole invention does remind of yet another story from the hallowed pages of 2000 AD. Remember Abelard Snazz, the Man With the High-Rise Head? The Double-Decker Dome genius problem solver, with two sets of eyes, one above the other on his enormous forehead? Snazz was an interstellar problem-solver, called upon by planets to find solutions for pressing issues. And whatever he did, always made the situation worse. Much worse. In his first outing, he was called upon by the authorities of a world suffering a massive crimewave. He solved that by building an arm of police robots. Who were too successful. Not only did they eradicate crime by arresting all the criminals, they start arresting ordinary people for completely imaginary offences. Like wearing brown shoes as a crime against fashion.

How do you deal with out of control robot cops? Easy. Snazz then builds an army of robotic crooks, to keep the robot cops occupied solving real crimes. These have the stereotyped striped jumpers, masks and hats, worn by all thieves in comics of a certain vintage.

However, there’s a problem with this. Human bystanders are being injured in the conflict between the robo-crims and the robocops. So how does Snazz solve this conundrum? He has another drink of his favourite tipple, the Syrian sentient milkshake, before designing an army of robotic innocent bystanders, who cry out electronically for the cops’ help as the robo-crims commit their skullduggery.

At which point, the whole situation is well out of anyone’s control, the maniac machines have well and truly taken over. Thanks to them the planet is absolutely uninhabitable for sane, humanoid life, and the planet and its inhabitants are forced to leave in an exodus of spacecraft. All the while blaming Snazz, who they manage to get rid of.

Every one of Snazz’s adventures ended this way, with his irate former clients shoving him out of an airlock, or forcing him down a giant Jacuzzi, or stranding him on top of a giant rubic’s cube, which it then takes him six million years to solve. Or falling into a Black Hole. The tales were hilarious, and written by Alan Moore when he could still write ha-ha, rather than turn to the serious issues, which have made him one of the foremost figures in British and American popular literature.

It’ll be a very long time before we have police robots anywhere near as efficient, or even as autonomous, as those of Robocop and Snazz. But there are serious issues. There’s a video by The Young Turks about how the authorities in one American city are using robots to harass rough sleepers. And a few years ago scientists around the world were alarmed by plans to develop automatic robot soldiers, which would kill a programmed, without conscience or mercy. Kevin Warwick, the head of robotics at Reading University, warns about such machines in his book, March of the Machines. On the top floor of his building, they’ve got a robot firefighter. It’s armed with a fire-extinguisher, and a neural net to help it recognise fires. But he points out, that all you need to do is replace the extinguisher with a gun, and programme it to recognise and kill people with blue eyes, and it will go off and execute its murderous work remorselessly. The threat is there, and genuine.

As was shown in the original Robocop movie. In that film, OCP turns to using cyborgs because the wholly robotic law enforcement machine suffers from a series of severe computer flaws. Most obviously when it fails to recognise that the board member, who has been waving a gun at it as part of a demonstration has actually complied with its wishes and put the gun down. It then shoots him multiple times before leaving him for dead.

We haven’t got there just yet, and the Indian robotic policeman ain’t heading in that direction. But the threat is there, nonetheless.

Torquemada: 2000 AD’s ‘Ultimate Fascist’ and a Prediction of the Rise of the Brextremists, Kippers and Trump

December 31, 2017

As you’ve probably gather from reading my previous posts about art robot Kevin O’Neill, I was and am a big fan of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip that ran in 2000 AD from 1980 through the 1990s. The villain of the piece was Torquemada, the former chief of the Tube police on an Earth thousands of years in the future. Outraged by the interbreeding between humans and their alien subjects, Torquemada overthrew the last, debauched emperor, founding an order of viciously genocidal knights, the Terminators. The construction of the linked White and Black Hole bypasses, giving Earth instant access to the Galaxy, also created terrible temporal catastrophes, resulting in creatures from even further into the future appearing in the present. These included the terrible gooney birds, giant predatory Concorde aircraft, which fed on the trains and anything else that travelled over Earth’s devastated surface. Torquemada and his Terminators blamed these disasters on aliens, killed human scientists and engineers, leading humanity into a new Dark Age. The Human race retreated underground, where the Terminators told them they would be safe from the terrible aliens threatening them. Terra was renamed ‘Termight’ – ‘Mighty Terra’, though Mills also gave it the name because the underground society resembled a massive termites’ nest. And Torquemada set up a corrupt, Fascistic, quasi-feudal society, which also included Orwellian elements from the classic 1984.

Pitched against Torquemada was the hero, Nemesis, an alien warlock. Horned and hooved, with magical powers, he resembled the Devil, and at one point, in conversation with his mad, cruel uncle Baal, he explicitly states that his powers are satanic. Nemesis is also the head of Credo, a human resistance movement dedicated to overthrowing Torquemada and restoring freedom and interspecies tolerance to Earth. Also resisting humanity’s aggressive expansion and extermination of other intelligent races were the Cabal, an alliance of various alien worlds.

The strip was possibly one of the weirdest 2000 AD had run, and was too weird for editor Kevin Gosnell, who hated it. But it was massively popular, at one point even rivalling the mighty Judge Dredd. Torquemada became British comics’ most popular villain, winning that category in the Eagle Award four years in a row. He was so popular that in the end I heard that they stopped submitting or accepting the character, in order to let others have a chance.

Torquemada speaks on the radio, in the strip that launched the character and Nemesis, ‘Going Underground’.

Looking back, I have mixed feelings about the strip. I still like it, but I’m not entirely comfortable with a hero, who has explicitly satanic characteristics, nor the villains, who are very much in the style of medieval Christian crusaders. Mills and O’Neill had had the misfortune to suffer brutal Roman Catholic education, and Mills states that where he grew up, everyone involved in the Roman Catholic establishment was corrupt. Everyone. They poured everything they hated about the bigotry and cruelty they had seen and experienced into the strip.

From a historians’ perspective, it’s not actually fair on the Roman Catholic church. Yes, medieval Christianity persecuted Jews, heretics and witches, and warred against Islam. But the great age of witch-hunting was in the 17th century, and cut across faith boundaries. Prof. Ronald Hutton, a History lecturer at Bristol Uni, who has studied the history of witchcraft and its modern revival – see his book Triumph of the Moon – has pointed out that the German Protestant states killed more witches than the Roman Catholics. And those accused of witchcraft in Italy had far better legal protection in the 16th century than those in Henry VIII’s England. You had a right to a lawyer and proper legal representation. If you couldn’t afford one, the court would appoint one for you. Torture was either outlawed, or very strictly regulated. There was a period of 50 years when the Holy Office was actually shut, because there were so few heretics and witches to hunt down.

As for the equation between medieval Roman Catholicism and Fascism, a graduate student, who taught medieval studies got annoyed at this glib stereotype. it kept being repeated by their students, and was historically wrong. This student came from a Protestant background, but was more or less a secular atheist, although one who appreciated the best of medieval Christian literature.

Underneath the personal experiences of Mills and O’Neill, the strip’s depiction of a future feudal society was also influenced by Protestant anti-Catholic polemic, and the theories of the 19th century French liberal, anti-Christian writer, Charles Michelet. It was Michelet, who first proposed that the witch-hunts were an attempt by patriarchal Christianity to wipe out an indigenous, matriarchal folk paganism. It’s a view that has strongly influenced feminist ecopaganism, although academic scholars like Hutton, and very many pagans have now rejected it as historically untrue.

The robes and masks worn by the Terminators recalled not only those worn by Spanish Catholic penitents during the Easter Day processions, but also the Klan, who are an Protestant organisation, which hates Roman Catholics as well Jews and Blacks.

There’s also the influence of John Wyndham’s classic SF novel, The Chrysalids. This is set in Labrador centuries in the future, after a nuclear war has devastated much of the world, except for a few isolated spots of civilisation. Society has regressed to that of 17th century Puritanism. The survivors are waging a war to restore and maintain the original form of their crops, animals and themselves. Mutants, including humans, are examined and destroyed at birth. As with the Terminators, their clothing is embroidered with religious symbols. In this case a cross. Just as Torquemada denounces aliens as ‘deviants’, so do the leaders of this puritanical regime describe human mutants. And like the pro-alien humans in Nemesis, a woman bearing a mutant child is suspected and punished for her perceived sexual deviancy.

In fact, the underlying anti-religious, anti-Christian elements in the strip didn’t bother me at the time. Mike and myself went to an Anglican church school here in Bristol, though the teaching staff also included people from other Christian denominations such as Methodism and Roman Catholicism. They had a real horror of sectarian bigotry and violence, sharpened by the war in Northern Ireland, and were keenly aware that Christians had done terrible things in the name of religion. I can remember hearing a poem on this subject, The Devil Carried a Crucifix, regularly being recited at school assembly, and the headmaster and school chaplain preaching explicitly against bigotry. At the same time, racial prejudice was also condemned. I can remember one poem, which denounced the colour bar in one of its lines, repeatedly turning up in the end of year services held at the church to which the school was attached.

I also have Roman Catholic relatives and neighbours, who were great people. They were committed to their face, but also bitterly opposed to sectarian bigotry and violence. And the Roman Catholic clergy serving my bit of Bristol were decent men and women, though some of those in other areas were much more sectarian. I’ve Protestant friends, who went on to study RE at a Roman Catholic college. Their experience was not Mills’ and O’Neill’s, though I also had relatives, who were estranged from the Church because they had suffered the same kind of strict, and violently repressive Roman Catholic education that they had.

But Torquemada and the Terminators were far from being a veiled comment on atrocities committed by medieval Roman Catholicism. Torquemada modelled himself on Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Spanish Inquisition, whose bloody work he so much admired. But he also explicitly styled himself as the supreme Fascist. By fostering humanity’s hatred of aliens, he hoped to unite the human race so that they didn’t fight each other over differences in colour. But the character was also supposed to be the reincarnation of every persecuting bigot in European and American history. In one story, Torquemada becomes seriously ill, breaking out in vast, festering boils, because Nemesis’ lost son, Thoth, has used the tunnels dug by the Tube engineers to channel away the destructive energies of the White and Black Hole bypasses, to travel backwards in time to kill Torquemada’s previous incarnations. These include Adolf Hitler, natch, one of the notoriously murderous American cavalry officers, responsible for the butchery of innocent indigenous Americans in the Indian Wars, and finally Torquemada himself. Torquemada therefore travelled back in time to confront his former incarnation, and save himself from Thoth.

This was followed by another story, in which Torquemada himself travelled forward to the 20th century. Infected with time energy, Torquemada caused temporal disruptions and catastrophes in the London of the present. He found himself a job as a rack-renting landlord, before founding a Fascist political party. Using Brits’ fears that these disasters were caused by aliens, he became a successful politician and was elected to Number 10.

And one of Torque’s previous incarnations, recovered by Brother Mikron, his pet superscientist, using advanced technological hypnotic regression, was very familiar to British readers with an awareness of the history of Fascism in their country.

Torquemada as Hitler, and very Mosley-esque British Far Right politician. From Prog 524, 30th May 1987.

In the above page, Brother Mikron recovers Torquemada’s past incarnation as Hitler, but only after encountering a later incarnation, in which Torquemada was Sir Edwin Munday, the British prime minister, and leader of the New Empire Party. Munday/Torquemada goes off an a rant on public television, shouting

‘I’ll solve the youth problem! We’ll make our children respectable again! – with compulsory short back and sides! The return of National Service! Order and discipline’.

His name clearly recalls that of the far right, anti-immigration Monday Club in the Tory party, which was at the centre of continuing scandals during the 70s and 80s over the racism of some of its members, the most notorious of whom was Thatcher’s cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit. As a member of the aristocracy, Munday also draws on Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists and later Fascist movements.

Mosley unfurling his Fascist banner in the ’30s.

The rhetoric about youth is also very much that of the Tories around Maggie Thatcher, who really didn’t like long-haired liberals, hippies, punks and the other youth movements, who had sprung up at the time. They were calling for the return of National Service to stop the rise in youth crime and delinquency.

And this is now very much the attitude of the Kippers and Brextremists over here, who really do hanker after the old days of the British Empire, with all its pomp and authoritarianism. The last thing that incarnation of Torquemada says is

‘We’ll make our country great again!’

This is also based on the rhetoric of the Tories at the time, in which Thatcher was credited with turning around Britain’s decline and restoring her to her glory. In the general election that year, the Tory party election broadcasts showed old footage of Spitfires and Hurricanes racing around the sky shooting down Nazi planes, while an overexcited actor exclaimed ‘It’s great – to be great again!’

No, she didn’t make us great. She wrecked our economy and welfare state, and sold everything off to foreign firms, all the while ranting hypocritically about how she represented true British patriotism.

But it also recalls Trump’s rhetoric last year, during his election campaign. When he announced ‘We’ll make America great again!’ And he’s gone on to use the same neoliberalism as Reagan, Thatcher, and successive Democrat and New Labour leaders, backed with racist rhetoric and legislation supported by White supremacists.

Torquemada was one of 2000 AD’s greatest comments on sectarian bigotry and racism, with Torquemada as its very explicit symbol. Even after three decades, it’s central message about the nature of Fascism, imperialism and colonialism, and the western hankering for its return, remains acutely relevant.

Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

December 30, 2017

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

Robohunter: 2000 AD’s Warning about Crazed Robots?

December 29, 2017

Now for something a bit lighter. What struck me watching Six Robots and Us on BBC 2 last night, was how similar the real robots given to the six families to help them with their problems resembled the demented machines drawn by art robot Ian Gibson for 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. Written by script droid John Wagner, who was Pat Mills’ partner in crime behind Judge Dredd, ‘Robohunter’ was about a future private detective, Sam Slade, who specialised in hunting down rogue robots. In his first adventure, Slade is sent to Verdus, a planet colonised by robots ready for eventual human occupation. But the robots have developed so rapidly, that they now exceed humans in strength and intelligence. Programmed to regard humans as their superiors, they simply don’t recognise the inferior organic beings that turn up as humans, and so incarcerate as experimental animals in concentration camps.

‘Robohunter’ was one of my favourite strips in 2000 AD. It was Science Fiction, but had the wit and style of an old-fashioned hardboiled detective thriller from the thirties or forties. Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ was something like a futuristic Sam Spade. Which meant that he was frequently being beaten up by the villains, before fighting his way out with a few laconic witticisms. And the robots drawn by Gibson were imaginative and convincing, with the same type of cartoony features as the robots used in Six Robots and Us.

And like very many of the other strips in 2000 AD, ‘Robohunter’ was also sharply satirical. Here’s Wagner’s and Gibson’s take on the British parliament, from the collected strips Robo-Hunter: Verdus, by John Wagner, Ian Gibson, Jose Luis Ferrer and Jose Casanovas, published by Rebellion/ 2000 AD.

Okay, so the robots sent to the families weren’t demented killing machines intent on enslaving us. In fact the Shopbot sent to a supermarket in Glasgow offered people hugs. One of the store workers observed shrewdly that he had nothing against the machine, as long as it didn’t put human employees out of a job. Quite.

And some of them actually didn’t work very well. The Carebot sent in to look after a lady with MS, thus allowing her husband some time away from looking after her, actually couldn’t physically help her. It could only remind her and her husband when she needed to take her medicine and to call him on the mobile if there was something wrong. Unfortunately, it used the internet, and so the moment the husband was out of wifi range, the connection went down and it was more or less useless.

So they’re not quite like the robots in ‘Robohunter’ just yet. But we have been warned!

Art Robot O’Neill’s Twisted Take on Christmas

December 29, 2017

Kevin O’Neill is one of the great British comic artists, who came out of 2000 AD in the 1970s. His grotesque and nightmarish depictions of aliens, mutants and robots have been delighting and traumatising readers for decades. With writer Pat Mills, he created the Nemesis the Warlock strip, and has drawn the art for a number of classic comics, including Marshal Law and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The last has been turned into a film with Sean Connery as Alan Quatermaine. This weird vision of the Christmas season is the wrap-around cover for 2000 AD 398, for the 29th December 1984. As you can see, it shows a monstrous Santa Claus, a chimney with jaw pursuing a flying Christmas turkey, snowmen fighting, and two houses trying to burn each other down with their chimneys. Oh yes, and the mechanical reindeer that’s part of Santa’s sleigh looks anything but jolly. Though he is red-nosed.

O’Neill’s artwork was considered so grotesque and revolting that it was banned by the Comics Code. The Comics Code were an unelected body of censors set up following the scare about Horror comics that devastated the industry in the 1950s. They were charged with making sure that American comics were good, wholesome fun, and were suitable for children. I can remember Mike telling me that American comics at the time worked to be suitable for a child of seven to read. It was supposed to be a voluntary code, meaning that its decision were not legally binding, and there were comics published far outside, and often deliberately against their control: the underground comics, like Robert Crumb, and the independents, like Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, the Code had a near total grip dictating what comics could or could not publish. If a comic did not have their seal of approval, then the vast majority of newsagents and mainstream retailers simply wouldn’t sell it.

This whole system collapsed in the 1980s, as a new generation of fans objected to censorship and being told what they could or could not read in their favourite literature. The result was the emergence of adult comics ‘for mature readers’, like Marshal Law. But this was not before there were a few casualties. O’Neill was one of them.

He was the artist for a story in DC’s Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore, who had also been one of the script robots working on 2000 AD. In the story, the Corps visit a planet which has been overrun by demons. The Code rejected it.

Moore rang them up, and asked if they would pass it if he made a few suggested changes. No, they told him. He tried again, suggesting taking out another incident in the strip. No, they still wouldn’t pass it. So Moore asked him what was wrong with the strip, that they didn’t want to pass it.

‘O’Neill’s artwork’, the faceless censors replied. ‘It is totally unsuitable for children’.

In the end, I think DC did go ahead and publish the story, but it appeared without the Comics Code approval badge on its cover.

I really like O’Neill’s art, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is grotesque and disturbing. I can remember reading an interview with another British comics great, Dave Gibbons, who drew the Rogue Trooper strip in 2000 AD, where he said that a fan had told him at a comics convention that O’Neill’s artwork gave him nightmares. He could only dispel these by looking at Gibbons’ smooth art.

2000 AD later paid homage to the incident in one of their anniversary issues, where Tharg walked around various characters and art and script droids in his head. O’Neill is depicted as a crazed, stunted brat drinking at of a can marked ‘Bile’. During their brief conversation, Tharg describes O’Neill’s ban by the Comics Code as his great accolade.

It says something about American culture at the time that O’Neill’s art was considered too grim and upsetting for children across the Pond, but he had been published in 2000 AD for years and was one of the comic’s cult artists.

As for the nightmarish vision of Christmas, this strangely harks back to the type of humour the Victorians themselves like to put on their Christmas cards. There was a brief piece about Christmas cards on the One Show about a week ago, where they mentioned that the first Christmas cards showed scenes of anthropomorphised Christmas food or other items hunting each other over a wintry background. Art robot O’Neill’s weird, crazed interpretation of the festive season harks back to that, although its direct inspiration was probably the iconoclastic punk ethos that ran through 2000 AD.

Here’s the two pictures. Enjoy, and don’t have nightmares!

Radio 4 Programme Next Week Asking ‘Where Are All the Working Class Writers?’

November 15, 2017

Next Thursday, 23rd November 2017, at 11.30 in the morning, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme, Where Are All the Working-Class Writers? by the writer Kit de Waal. The blurb for the programme on page 137 of the Radio Times runs

Birmingham-raised writer Kit de Waal published her first novel in 2016, aged 55. She used part of the advance to set up a scholarship in an attempt to improve working-class representation in the arts. She talks to writers, agents and publishers about barriers for writers from working-class backgrounds.

More information about her and the programme is in another piece on the opposite page, 135. This states

“I never expected to be a writer,” says Kit de Waal in this thoughtful exploration of class and writing. “I was working class, I was the daughter of immigrants. People like me weren’t even expected to go to university. ” De Waal did go to university, but at 51; she’d left school at 16. She knows that her background and – and how it influences the stories she tellls – makers her an oddity in literary circles. As she speaks to writers, agents and publishers to find out why this is, it becomes clear that class is an intrinsic part of the under-representation question, overlapping with race and gender. She gleans erudite contributions – take Tim Lott’s description of working-class writing as “the literary equivalent of soul music”, as he asks, “who’s making the soul music?’ Who’s making the rock ‘n’ roll?’

This is an issues that the great British comics writer, Pat Mills, raised in some of the interviews I posted up on here. Mills, who created the classic anti-war strip, Charley’s War, and wrote and created many of the classic characters in the SF comic, 2000 AD, has said that he felt angry that there were no working class characters in comics and very few in mainstream literature. Worse, there was an attitude amongst the media that was determined to exclude them. He has described how he was working on a story for Dr. Who in the 1980s, which was to have a working-class spaceship captain. This was rejected by the script editor, who really didn’t like the idea.

As for popular music, I was told by a friend of mine a little while ago that this was another traditional working class area that was being taken over by the middle classes. Most of the stars now in the charts, or at least at the time, were graduates of university courses in music or the performing arts. The pub rock scene, which emerged in the ’70s and which the launched the careers of many of the great working class bands of the ’70s and ’80s is now very much disappearing.

Once upon a time, back in the 1980s and 1990s, Private Eye’s literary column took a somewhat similar view of the contemporary literary scene. The reviewer back then was acutely critical of the snobbishness and cliquishness of literature and the publishing industry. The Eye believed and very strongly argued that British literature was dominated by a small clique of writers, who were largely vastly overhyped, to the exclusion of better writers and aspiring authors, who were rejected out of hand. They gave as an example of this a conversation they’d heard about with one of the editors of Granta. When the editor was asked about a piece submitted by one aspiring author, they responded by asking what colour the enveloped it was send in was. This, the Eye’s reviewer went on, showed precisely what the attitude towards outside submissions at the magazine was. It was geared entirely towards people within the literary clique. Those outside were automatically rejected, manuscript unread.

The Eye wasn’t particularly interested in the class aspects of this question. Which isn’t surprising, as Richard Ingrams, the former editor pointed out during a talk one year at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the magazine’s founders – himself, Willie Rushton, Peter Cook and so on, were all middle-class and privately educated. The Eye’s reviewer said several times that there was no reason why working class writers should be particularly promoted over others. They also made the occasional sneering comments directed at left-wing authors stressing their very working class roots that they were ‘prolier than thou’. I think they may even have made a comment about ‘Prole-lit’ for a type of very stereotypical ‘working class’ literature.

But they also attacked authors, who seemed to be published solely on snob value, because they were members of the aristocracy or the upper-middle classes, rather than because their writing had any intrinsic merit. Regarding one such author, the Eye’s reviewer said that any miner, who ever picked up a pen to write a sonnet, was of far more interest and value than them. They also savaged authors from the upper classes, who struck them as having a particularly patronising attitude to the lower orders, who read her books. There’s one review, which takes Jilly Cooper to task for this, whether the reviewer writing as her, sends her up by describing her readers as ‘pawps’ as an example of the class snobbishness in her novels. I’ve never read Cooper, so can’t really say whether this attitude is entirely fair or not, or, if it is, whether Cooper is any worse than many other authors.

I think that in more recent years the Eye’s literary column lost a little of that fierce opposition to the cliquishness of the literary scene, and particularly the London literary milieu. It still attacks and parodies overhyped, bad writing, but this seems part of a simple attack on overrated, mediocre literature. This now includes the works of the stars of reality TV shows and vapid, but inexplicably popular, bloggers and vloggers on the Net. But working class representation in writing, and other areas of the arts is a genuine part of the wider issues of access and exclusivity. Whether the Net will have an impact here, in popularising the work of working class writers, who would otherwise remain unpublished if left to the world of traditional literary agents and publishers, remains to be seen.

Pat Mills Talks to Sasha Simic of the SWP about the Politics of 2000AD

September 15, 2017

This comes from the Socialist Workers’ Party, an organization of which I am not a member and which I don’t support. But this is another really great video, in which one of the great creators of the British comics for over forty years talks about politics, social class, the role of capitalism and women and feminism, not just in 2000AD, but also in comics and publishing generally, and the media.

Mills was speaking as part of annual four day convention the Socialist Workers hold on Marxism. Simic introduces himself as the person, who gets the annual geek slot. As well as a member of the party, he’s also a convener of USDAW. And he’s very happy in this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, to have on Pat Mills.

Mills starts by saying that as he was growing up in the 50s and 60s, he read the same books everyone else did – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel. But there was something about it that made him angry, and it was only looking back on it that he came to realise that what infuriated him was the fact that these were all authors from the upper and middle classes, who created heroes from those class backgrounds. He makes the point that these were good writers, but that some of their work was very sinister the more you go into it. Like John Buchan. Buchan was the major propagandist of the First World War. Mills says that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous spin doctor, had nothing on him. He promoted the First world War, for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada.
He states that he doesn’t want to go too far into it as he’ll start ranting. Nevertheless, he’s glad to be able to talk to the people at the SWP’s convention, as it means they have a similar opinion to him, and he doesn’t have to censor himself.

He makes the point that there are very, very few working class heroes, and believes this is quite deliberate. It’s to deprive working people of a strong role. When the working people do appear, it’s as loyal batmen, or sidekicks, and there is an element of parody there. And it’s not just in comics and literature. In the 1980s he was contacted by the producers of Dr. Who to do a story. He wanted to have a working class spaceship captain. He was told by the script editor that they couldn’t. They also didn’t like his idea to have a working class family. It was only by looking back on where this hatred of the heroes of traditional literature came from, that he came to realise that it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to have any generals in his work.

He also talks about how it’s easier to get away with subversion in comics, as comics are treated as a trivial form of literature, which nobody really cares about. The profit motive also helps. So long as it’s making money, comics companies don’t care what’s going on. And this explains how he was able to get away with some of the things he did in Battle. He states that the way he works is by pretending to write something mainstream and inoffensive, and then subvert it from within. An example of that is Charley’s War in Battle. This looks like an ordinary war strip, but in fact was very anti-war. Even so, there were times when he had to be careful and know when to give up. One of these was about a story he wanted to run about the entry of the Americans into the War. In this story, a group of White American squaddies are members of the Klan, and try to lynch a Black soldier. Charley wades in to help the Black guy. The management rejected the story on the grounds that they didn’t want anything too controversial. Mills decided to draw in his horns and bite his tongue at that point, because he had a bigger story lined up about the British invasion of Russian in 1919, when we sent in 20-30,000 men. It was, he says, our Vietnam, and has been whitewashed out of the history books.

He also makes the point that subversion was also present in the girls’ comics. Even more so, as there was a psychological angle that wasn’t present in the boys’. For example, there was one story called ‘Ella in Easy Street’, where a young girl reacts against her aspirational family. They want to get on, and so the father has two jobs, and the mother is similarly working very hard to support their aspirations. But Ella herself is unhappy, as it’s destroying what they are as a family. And so she sets out to sabotage their yuppie dream. Mills says that it’s not all one-dimensional – he looks at the situation from both sides, pro and con, but the story makes the point that there are things that are more important that materialism and social advancement, like family, comradeship. He says that such a story could not be published now. It’s rather like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, where the hero, in the end, throws the race as a way of giving the system the finger.

Mills reminds his audience just how massive girls’ comics were in the ’70s. They were bigger, much bigger, than the boys’. 2000AD sold 200,000 copies a week in its prime. But Tammy, one of the girls’ comics, sold 260,000. This is really surprising, as women read much more than we men. These comics have all disappeared. This, he says, is because the boys’ took over the sandpit. He has been trying to revive them, and so a couple of stories from Misty have been republished in an album.

This gets him onto the issue of reaching the audience, who really need it. In the case of the stories from Misty, this has meant that there are two serials on sale, both of which are very good, but in a book costing £17 – odd. The only people going to read that are the mothers of the present generation of girls, perhaps. To reach the girls, it needs to be set at a lower price they can afford. This is also a problem with the political material. If you write something subversive, it will receive glowing reviews but be bought by people, who already agree with you. He wants his message to get further out, and not to become a coffee table book for north London.

He talks about the way British comics have grown up with their readership, and the advantages and disadvantages this has brought. British comics has, with the exception of 2000AD, more or less disappeared, and the readership of that comic is in its 30s and 40s. People have put this down to demographics and the rise of computer games, saying that this was inevitable. It wasn’t. It was our fault, says Mills. We fumbled it. Games workshop still have young people amongst their audience, while the French also have computer games across the Channel, but their children are reading comics.

Mills goes on to say that it’s easier writing for adults. Writing for 9 and 10 year olds is much harder, because if they don’t like a story, they’ll say. He says to his audience that they may think the same way, but they’re much too polite to say it at conventions. And they had to respond to their young readers as well, as the kids voted on it every week. They’d tell you if they thought it was a bad story, even if you thought it was the best one so far, and asked yourself what was wrong with the little sh*ts.

He also talks about how difficult it is to break into comics. He has friends, who have been trying for decades to get into 2000AD, and have been unsuccessful. His advice to people trying to do so is: don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s 2000AD. And this also effects text publishing. All the publishers have now been bought up, so that HarperCollins have the fingers in everything, such as Hodder and Stoughton. And their politics aren’t ours.

The way round this is to get into web publishing. Here he digresses and talks about pulp fiction, which is a close relative of comics. He was talking to a guy at a convention, who writes pulp fiction and puts it on the net. It only costs a few pence. The man writes about a zombie apocalypse, but – and this is true, as he’s seen the payment slips – he’s pulling in £3,000 a month. Mills says that this is important as well. He wants to get his material out there, but he also wants to eat. This shows you how you can make money publishing it yourself. Later on in the video, after the questions and the comments from the audience, he goes further into this. He mentions some of the web publishers, one of which is subsidiary of Amazon, which will allow people to publish their own work. He also talks about self-publishing and chapbooks. He found out about these while writing Defoe, his story about Leveller zombie killer in an alternative 17th century England. Chapbooks were so called because they were cheap books, the cheap literature of the masses. And this is what comics should go back to. He says that everyone should produce comics, in the same way that everyone can also make music by picking up an instrument and playing a few chords.

He also praises some of the other subversive literature people have self-produced. Like one piece satirizing the British army’s recruitment posters. ‘Join the army’, it says, ‘- like prison, but with more fighting’. Mills is fairly sure he knows who wrote that as well. It was another guy he met at a convention, who was probably responsible for the anti-war film on YouTube Action Man: Battlefield Casualties. He enormously admires this film, and is envious of the people, who made it.

He also talks about some of the fan letters he’s had. One was from the CEO of a school, he talks about the way reading 2000AD opened up his mind and changed his moral compass. The man says that everything he learned about Fascism, he learned from Judge Dredd, everything about racism from Strontium Dog, and feminism from Halo Jones. He and his headmaster, whom he names, were both punks and he’s now opened a school in Doncaster. The most subversive thing you can do now is to try to create an open-minded and questioning generation of young people. The letter is signed, yours, from a company director, but not an evil one, and then the gentleman’s name.

He concludes this part of the talk by describing the career of James Clarke, a member of the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party, a lion tamer and conscientious objector. During the War he ran escape lines for British squaddies in France. And people say that pacifists are cowards, Mills jokes. How much braver can you be than sticking your head in a lion’s mouth. He wrote a pamphlet defending a group of comrades, who tried to start the revolution by following the example of the Irish Nationalists and blow things up with a bomb. The pamphlet argued that this was wrong, and that if the working class wanted to gain power, they should concentrate on confronting capitalism through direct action. He also wrote poetry. Mills describes Clark as being a kind of Scots Tom Baker. One of these is a biting satire of Kipling’s If. The poem begins by asking if the reader can wake up every morning at 5 O’clock, or 4.30, and then labour at their machines, and see their wives and children suffer deprivation while those, who haven’t earned it take it all the profits, and describes the backbreaking grind of hard working life for the capitalist class in several stanzas. It ends with the statement that if you can do all that, and still be complacent, then go out, buy a gun and blow your brains out.

Clearly, I don’t recommend any actually do this, but it is a witty and funny response to Kipling’s poem. I found it hugely funny, and I do think it’s a great response to what was voted Britain’s favourite poem by the Beeb’s viewers and readers a few years ago. Can you imagine the sheer Tory rage that would erupt if someone dared to recite it on television!

Many of the comments are from people thanking Mills for opening their eyes and for writing such great stories. They include a man, who describes how Mills’ works are on his shelf next to his copy of Das Kapital. Another man describes how he used to buy 2000AD just after going to church on Sunday. So after listening to some very boring sermons, he came back from Baptist chapel to read all this subversion. One young woman says that the zines – the small press magazines, that appeared in the 1990s – seem to be still around, as she has seen them at punk concerts. Another young woman says that although comics are seen as a boys’ thing, when she goes into Forbidden Planet near her, there are always three girls in there and two boys. She also talks about how many young women read Japanese manga. Mills states in reply that manga stories generally are light and frothy, and so not the kind of stories he wants to write. But as for women in comics, he says that he spoken several times to students on graphic novel courses, and each time about 75 per cent of them have been women, which is good.

He also talks about Crisis and Action. The Third World War strip in Crisis was about the politics of food, and was set in a world where food production was dominated by a vast multinational formed by the merger of two of today’s megacorporations. Mills states that when the strip covered what was going on in South America, that was acceptable. However, at one point he moved the story to Brixton, finding a Black co-writer to help with the story. At that point, the White Guardian-reading liberals started to be uncomfortable with it. There was also a story in which Britain leaves the EU. This results in the rise of a Fascist dictatorship, and the EU responds by invading Britain. Mills says that he’s been trying to get Crisis relaunched, but the company are stringing him along with excuses, probably because it’s easier than arguing with him.

Mills obviously did the right thing by finding a Black co-writer. Marvel suffered a barrage of criticism with some of their attempts to launch a series of Black superheroes, like the Black Panther as part of the Blaxploitation wave of the 1970s. The Black Panther was particularly criticized. The creators were old, White dudes, who didn’t understand urban Black culture, even if the comics themselves were sincere in presenting a sympathetic view of Black Americans and combating racism.

He also talks briefly about Action, and the controversy that caused. What really upset Mary Whitehouse and the rest was ‘Kid’s Rule UK’, a strip in which a disease killed everyone over 16, and Britain was inhabited solely by warring street gangs. Mills used to take the same train from where he was living at the time with Mary Whitehouse. He said he was editing a Hookjaw script at the time, and notice Whitehouse over the other side of the carriage looking daggers at him. So he put in more carnage and more arms and legs being bitten off.

One of the most interesting questions is about the politics and morality of Judge Dredd. Dredd is a fascist, and in one of the strips it seemed to take the side of authority over subversion with no irony. This was in a story about the punks taking over Megacity 1. At the end of the strip, Dredd gets hold of the leader, and makes him say, ‘I’m a dirty punk.’ Mills actually agrees with the speaker, and says that there are people, who take Dredd as a role-model. He’s had letters from them, which he doesn’t like. He doesn’t know what these people do. Perhaps they have their own chapterhouse somewhere. He went cold inside when he heard about the story. It wasn’t one of his. It was by John Wagner, who isn’t at all political, but is very cynical, so this has some of the same effects of politics. But 75 per cent of Dredd comes from Mills. Mills states that it’s a flawed character, and that can be seen in why the two Dredd films never did well at the box office. Dredd was based on a particular teacher at his old school, as was Torquemada, the Grand Master of Termight, a genocidally racist Fascist military feudal order ruling Earth thousands of years in the future. They were both two sides of the same coin. That was why he enjoyed humiliating Torquemada. But it isn’t done with Dredd. Yet it could have been different, and there could be instances where people have their revenge on Dredd without losing the power of the character. He states that it was because Chopper did this in the story ‘Unamerican Graffiti’, that this became the favourite Dredd story of all time.

It’s a fascinating insight into the politics of the comics industry. The zines and other self-published small magazines he describes were a product of the Punk scene, where people did start putting together their own fanzines in their bedrooms. It was part of the mass creativity that punk at its height unleashed. As for the web comics, he talks about a couple that he finds particularly impressive, including those by the author of the dystopian science fiction story Y – the Last Man, set in a future in which all the men in the world have been killed by another disease. A number of my friends used to publish their own small press magazines in the 1990s, as did Mike. Mike started his own, small press comic, Violent, as an homage to Action when it was that comics anniversary. Mike was helped by some of the artists and writers from 2000AD, and so some of the tales are very professional. But probably not for delicate, gentle souls.

Amongst SF fandom, chapbooks are small books which another publishes himself. And they have been the route some professionally published authors have taken into print. Stephen Baxter is one of them. I think his Xelee stories first appeared in a chapbook he sold at one of the SF conventions.

Looking back at Kids Rule UK, this was my least favourite strip in Action. I was bullied at school, and so the idea of a Britain, where everything had broken down and there was nothing but bullying and juvenile violence really scared me. Action took many of its strips from the popular culture of the time. Hookjaw was basically Jaws. One-Eyed Jack seemed based very much on the type of hard-boiled American cop shows, if not actually Dirty Harry. One of the SF movies of the late sixties was about an America in which teenagers had seized power, and put all the adults in concentration camps were they were force-fed LSD. One of the four Star Trek stories that were banned on British television until the 1980s was ‘Miri’. In this tale, Kirk, Spock and the others beam down to a planet occupied entirely by children, as all the ‘grups’ – the adults – have been killed by disease. Kids Rule UK seems very much in the same vein as these stories.

Mills’ story about Dr. Who not wanting to show a working class family, let alone a spaceship captain, shows how far the series has come when it was relaunched by Russell T. Davis. Christopher Eccleston basically played the Doctor as northern and working class, wile Rose Tyler’s family and friends were ordinary people in a London tower block. As for not wanting to show a working class spaceship captain, that probably comes from very ingrained class attitudes in the aviation industry. A friend of mine trained as a pilot. When he was studying, their tutor told the class that the British exam included a question no other country in the world required, and which was particularly difficult. He stated that it was put there to weed out people from working or lower middle class backgrounds, as they would fail and not be able to retake the exam, as their competitors from the upper classes could.

It’s great to hear Mills encourage people try to produce their own work, and not be disheartened if they are rejected by mainstream publishers. I’m also saddened by the absence of any comics for children. They offered me when I was a lad an escape into a whole world of fun and imagination. And at their best, they do encourage children to take an interest in real issues like racism, sexism, bigotry and exploitation. I hope some way can be found to reverse their disappearance.