Posts Tagged ‘‘Battle’’

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.

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Credo! Pat Mills on 40 Years of Thrillpower!

September 14, 2017

Pat Mills is one of the great creators of the British comics industry. In this video from 2000 AD on YouTube, he talks to host Tony Esmond about his career in the comics industry, politics and his determination to give readers working class heroes. The interview was at the 40 Years of Thrillpower convention earlier this year (2017).

Mills is best known as one of the creative forces who seriously upset the establishment with Action before going on to reoffend with 2000AD. Before then he started off writing for the 1970s children’s comics, like Corr! The experience of writing for them was not happy for him. He states that the people behind them had no particular interest in them and very much had a production-line mentality to their creation. He describes how one writer once asked him how many stories he could write in a day. When he said about one every two or three days, the other writer boasted that he wrote three in a day. And then went on to say, probably quite truthfully, that he was making more money than the prime minister. Mills states that the writers at IPC were able to do this because they wrote very much to a formula. He preferred the stories their competitors at DC Thompson produced. Although their comics were also stuck in the past, the stories were better crafted. He describes one strip about a man going around the country having adventures with a horse. As a concept, he says it wasn’t even at the level of afternoon television. But it was well done. The IPC comics, on the other hand, were soulless. It depressed him so much, that, when he and John Wagner, who also later went on to become one of the founders of 2000AD, were writing in a garden shed, he wrote all his scripts on a roll of wallpaper so they formed a continuous strip and he wouldn’t have to go back and read them all again.

British comics in this period were very much stuck in the past, even as British society changed. This was a time when the German experience of the war was appearing in the books of Sven Hassel, reflected in Action’s strip, Hellmann of Hammer Force. But yet Mills found it impossible to launch a strip whose hero was Black. This was to be a strip about a Black boxer. He was told that it wouldn’t work. People would not accept a Black hero. They’d accept a Black supporting character or friend. But as the central character, never. He also thought of introducing one about a Black football player, and that would have been even more controversial. There was a Black football player in one of the London clubs at the time, and he had been treated with racist abuse from the balconies.

Politics and satire have always been an important element of Mills’ work. He says that at one point he became dissatisfied writing for 2000AD, as the management were trying to shift the comic away from its traditional satirical stance, and this very much went against Mills’ own nature. He and Esmond discuss at one point Mills’ memory that, when they launched 2000AD, the management told him that they should imagine a future that they would actually live in. And now, he states, they’re living in it with Donald Trump’s presidency of the US, which Mills compares to the infamous Judge Cal. Cal was the mad Chief Judge in Judge Dredd, modelled on Caligula, who appointed his pet fish as a judge, called in the alien Kleggs to suppress any opposition in Mega City 1, and had another judge pickled. Perhaps we need to be very glad that NASA hasn’t made contact with intelligent aliens yet.

Mills remarks on how very many of the heroes of British literature, from Sherlock Holmes to John Buchan’s Hannay, have been members of the upper and upper middle classes. There are too many of them, and too few working class heroes. He’s been actively trying to redress this imbalance in his strips. It’s why Marshal Law, in his alter ego, used to be unemployed, but is now a hospital orderly. He’s not even a nurse.

He states that as he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, he read many the authors that were around then, like Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan, all of whom were members of the upper classes. And with some of them, it was actually quite sinister. Buchan was a major propagandist for the First World War, in return for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada. And he did it very well. Later on in the video, in response to a question from the audience he remarks on how there is a very definite campaign in this country to suppress anything with an anti-war message. He was asked what the research was for his story in Charley’s War about the British invasion of Russia in 1918-19. He states that there were only two books he was able to get hold of at the time, but since then he got hold of a very good book, which is a much fuller description. This describes how the British officers sent in to overturn the Russian Revolution behaved like absolute animals. This episode has largely been airbrushed from British history. He contrasts with the British media’s refusal to publicise anti-war stories with that of our cousins across le manche. Attitudes there are much different, and Charley’s War, which ran in Battle and was about the experiences of a working-class Tommy in the First World War, is more popular in France even than Britain. This bias against anti-war stories is why you didn’t see Blackadder Goes Forth repeated in the centenary year of the War’s outbreak.

Mills is also critical of the way the indigenous mythology and legend of the British Isles has been suppressed in favour of myths from further south – Greece and Rome, and ancient Egypt. Mills’ background, like Kevin O’Neill, was Irish, and his family were very patriotic. He grew up knowing all about Michael Collins, and his middle name is Eamon after the first president of Eire, Eamon de Valera. Yet it wasn’t until he started researching the Irish, as well as the Scots and Welsh legends, that he learned about any of those stories, and was shocked. Why didn’t he know about the warpspasm – the ultra-berserker rage that transforms the Celtic hero Slaine as he goes into battle? He also talks about how, in legend, London was founded by the Trojans as New Troy, and briefly mentions his treatment of this in the story he is or was currently writing for the Slaine strip. He states he wanted to produce a barbarian strip that was set in this country, complete with its grey skies and rain.

Mills has a deep admiration for these Celtic legends, but remarks on how they differ considerably from the other mythological tales. They don’t share their structure. If you read the Norse tales or Beowulf, there’s a structure there. But the Irish – which he uses to include also the Scots and Welsh stories – read like they’re on acid. He’s particularly impressed with the Tain, otherwise known as the Tain Bo Cualnge, or in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, and recommends the translation by Kinsella. He’s also particularly interested in finding the bits that were suppressed by the Christian clergy who wrote them down in the Middle Ages. He gleefully quotes one clerical writer, who says that the stories contain much that is true, much that is false, some lies, and some devilish invention, and some which is only fit to be read by idiots. Yeah! he shouts, that’s me!

He has the same mischievous joy when telling how he came to be persuaded to write the Invasion strip, in which Britain was invaded by a thinly disguised Soviet Russia. The management asked him if he wanted to write it. He said he couldn’t get up much enthusiasm. They urged him to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. So he worked his way as best he could through that. He still wasn’t enthusiastic. Then they asked him if he’d like to write a scene with Maggie Thatcher being shot by the Russians on the steps of St. Paul’s. His response: Yeahhh!

He also talks about how the brutal education he received at a school run by the De Lazare order inspired him to write the Nemesis the Warlock strip. The Terminators, and to a lesser extent Judge Dredd, were modelled on them. They were fanatical, and were quite sinister. He remarks that if you go on the internet you can find all sorts of tales about them.

He also talks about an abortive crossover story planned for Marshal Law and Batman. Marshal Law was a bitterly satirical, extremely violent and very funny strip published in the 1990s about a superhero in the devastated San Francisco of the early 21st century, who hates other superheroes. The superheroes in the strip were created for a Vietnam-like war in South America, and have come back disillusioned and traumatized by the conflict. As a result, they form violent street gangs, and Marshal Law is recruited by the police to clean them up. It was a very dark comic that relentlessly parodied superhero comics from a left-wing, feminist perspective. When DC announced they wanted to make the crossover, Mills thought that they weren’t really serious. But they were. So he and O’Neill decided that for the cover, they’d have the Marshal standing on a pile of bodies of the different versions of Batman from all across the alternative Earths of the Multiverse. Then DC’s management changed, and their story policy did too, and the idea was dropped.

Mills also discusses the various ways comics have been launched, only to be merged with other comics. With 2000AD the comic was merged with Tornado and then Starlord. It was a very cynical policy, as from the first these comics were intended to fail, but by merging them with 2000AD and other comics, the management presented it as giving their readers something new, even though it wasn’t, and they felt it was an intrusion. He also responds to another question about which comic he felt folded before its time. The obvious answer to this was Action, which upset the establishment so much that it was banned, before being sanitized and relaunched. Mills said that they knew the comic was doomed. The new editor, who was given control of it had previously edited – and this is almost unbelievable – Bobo the Rabbit – and so didn’t know what he was doing. Mills said that before then they had skated over what was just about unacceptable and knew just how far you could go. Because this new editor hadn’t had that experience, he didn’t, and the comic folded.

The comic that he really feels shouldn’t have folded, and could still have carried on today, was Battle. As for which comic he’d now be working on instead of 2000AD, if it had proved more successful, these were the girls’ comics, like Misty. They vastly outsold the boys’ comics, but ultimately folded because ‘the boys took over the sandbox’. The video ends with his answer to the question, ‘What is his favourite strip, that he wrote for?’ He thinks for a moment, before replying Nemesis the Warlock to massive cheering.

It’s a very interesting perspective on the British comics industry by one of its masters. Regarding Slaine, Mills has said before in his introduction to the Titan book, Slaine the King: Special Edition, that the achievements of our ancestors, the Celtic peoples, has been rubbed out of history in favour of the ‘stern but fair proto-Thatcherite Romans, who built the roads and made the chariots run on time’. I think part of the problem is that the legends Mills draws on – that of Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, and Brythonic Wales – are those of the Celtic peoples, who were defeated by the expanding Anglo-Normans, who made a concerted attempt to suppress their culture. As for the very frank admiration for the Romans, that partly comes from the classics-based education offered by the British public schools.

As for the very staid attitude of British comics in the 1970s, this was a problem. It was actually a period of crisis, when many of the comics were folding because they hadn’t moved with the times. Mills’ idea for a strip about a Black boxer is clearly modelled on Mohammed Ali, the great African-American athlete of the ring. Everyone knew Ali, and he was universally admired, even by kids like me, who didn’t understand or know much about the racial politics behind Ali’s superstardom. Ali said that he wanted to give his people a hero.

Even so, the idea of having a sympathetic Black supporting character was an improvement. Roger Sabin, in his book Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art, published by Phaidon, notes just how racist British comics were in the 1960s. This was very controversial, as Black people naturally objected. Sabin cites one strip, in which the White hero uses two racial slurs for Blacks, and another abusive term for Gypsies. And showing the type of strips that appeared in the 1920s, there’s an illustration which shows the Black characters from a strip in one of D.C. Thompson’s comics, either the Dandy or Beano at the time. This was The Colony N*gs. Only they don’t use an asterisk to try to disguise the term.

As for his experiences with the monks running his school, unfortunately he’s not the only one, who suffered in this way. I’ve met a number of former Roman Catholics, who were turned off religion, and in some cases became bitterly against it, because of their experience being taught by monks and nuns. Several of Britain’s most beloved broadcasters from the Emerald Isle were also turned off religion because of this. Dave Allen, who regularly poked fun at religion, and particularly the Roman Catholic church, said that he became an atheist because of the cruelty and the way the priests tried to scare their young charges at his old school. And that mainstay of British radio, Terry Wogan, in a series he presented about Ireland and his life there, said exactly the same about the effect the hard attitude of the teachers at his old Roman Catholic school had on him.

The Roman Catholic church does not have the monopoly on the abuse of children, and I’ve heard some horrifying tales of the brutal behavior of some of the teaching staff – and prefects – in some of the British grammar schools. Dad has told me about the very harsh regime of some of the teachers at his old school – not Roman Catholic – in Somerset. He describes the teachers as sadists, and has a story about how one of the teachers, when one of the boys couldn’t answer a question, threw the lad out of window. Brutality seems to have been built into the British educational system, leaving mental scars and bitter memories.

I’ve very mixed feelings about the British force sent against revolutionary Russia. Perhaps if we’d succeeded, the forty million Soviet citizens butchered by Stalin would have been able to live out their lives, and the peoples of the Russian Federation free of the shadow of the KGB and gulags.

But that’s with hindsight. That’s not why British troops were sent in. The Bolsheviks were anti-democratic and determined to suppress all other parties and factions except their own, even when these were Socialist or anarchist, like the Mensheviks, the Trudoviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries the Left Communists, Anarcho-Communists and syndicalists. But we sent in troops because Britain and the rest of the capitalist world felt threatened by the emergence of a working class, aggressively socialist state. Britain had many commercial contacts with pre-Revolutionary Russia, and Lenin had argued in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism that global capitalism depended on European imperial expansion. These nations enslaved and exploited developing nations like Russia. A socialist revolution in these countries threatened international capitalism, as it was here that the capitalist system was weakest. Hence the Bolshevik slogan, ‘Smash capitalism at its weakest link!’

Ordinary Russians, let alone the conquered nations of the Russian Empire, were oppressed and exploited. If you want an idea how much, and what ordinary Russians endured and struggled to overthrow, read Lionel Kochan’s book, The Russian Revolution, published by Paladin. This was the grotty system British troops were sent in to restore.

On a more positive note, one member of the audience in the video thanks Mills for encouraging him to read. The man says he was dyslexic, but it was the comics he consumed as a child that got him reading. He is now a teacher, who specializes in helping children with reading difficulties, and uses comics in his teaching.

This is really inspiring. Martin Barks in Comics, Ideology and Power, discusses how comics have always been regarded with suspicion and contempt by the establishment. They were regarded as rubbish, at best. At worst they were seen as positively subversive. I can remember how one of the text books we used in English at school included a piece of journalism roundly condemning comics as rubbish literature with bad artwork. And this was reprinted in the 1980s! My mother, on the other hand, was in favour of comics because they did get children reading, and used to encourage the parents of the children she taught to buy them when they asked her advice on how they could get their children to read if they wouldn’t read books. This shows how far comics have come, so that they are now respectable and admired.

The Bad Man Blog: Q & A with Comics Legend Pat Mills

October 3, 2016

Borag Thungg again, Earthlets! Pat Mills, one of the Britain’s leading comics creators, and the script robot behind the Nemesis the Warlock, ABC Warriors, DeFoe, and Slaine strips in 2000 AD, and the classic Charley’s War in Battle, as well as Marshal Law, is featured in The Bad Man Blog in an entry for the 5th April this year, in which he answers 10 questions. The Bad Man introduces him with the words

If you want to know where the edge in modern comic books comes from, whether that be the inception of DC’s 80’s Vertigo line, the Image creator evolution of the 90’s, right on up to the Indie Artist ripe market-place, vying for a spot amongst the giants in modernity, then perhaps turn your head back to the late 70’s and the birth of 2000AD.

2000 AD Creator Pat Mills wanted to write working class comic books that shook the establishment and reached out to an angry youth with a subversive message that spoke to them through sci-fantasy. He succeeded with a revolution in British comic book storytelling that’s been oft imitated but never replicated.

Mills talks about the difficulty of writing for a disenfranchised generation, both then and now, without sounding too preachy or ‘David Icke’, and his regret that he couldn’t hit the establishment harder. He talks about how his opposition to the establishment was a product of his upbringing, and particularly his experience with the Roman Catholic Church and the Masons. He gives advice to budding comic creators, and lists the writers, who have been the biggest influence on his writing. Among literary giants like Wilkie Collins, Graham Greene, Dennis Wheatley and Rider Haggard, and modern crusading journalists and polemicists like John Pilger, he also includes Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle for the Molesworth Books, and for Searle’s St. Trinian’s cartoons. In answer to the question of what motivates him to write, he states that it’s a kind of catharsis and a way through strips like Slaine to explore his own psychology. And he also states that its a way of paying tribute to his heroes, like the Levellers. He continues

Defoe is a Leveller – they were great men who schools deliberately do not teach kids about because they stood for freedom. If the Levellers had won it wouldn’t be Charles 1 alone on the scaffold. They’d have got rid of all privilege. And there’d be no Charles 111. How our country allows an idiot with a disturbing, troubled and suspicious private life to take the throne of Britain is beyond me.

He also urges aspiring comics artists and writers to take up social activism and issues in their work, saying

Challenge society, change society, widen perspectives outside the mental straitjacket the media would put us in. E.G. By acknowledging Britain was probably one of the most evil Empires the world has ever known (and it’s still pretty dirty when you look at Iraq and Syria,) it sets us free. It’s not self-flagellation, it’s actually taking pride in the true Britain of characters like Defoe and the Levellers, soldiers like Charley in Charley’s War, wild Celts like Slaine and so on.

He discusses more history you don’t and won’t read about in answer to the Bad Man’s question of what he would do if he could go back in time. Mills’ answer is straightforward: Shoot Lord Milner. He explains that Milner was part of a conspiracy that started the First World War. He states that Belgium was in a secret alliance with Britain and France at the time, and it’s only in Britain that we’ve been taught otherwise. Mills goes on to explain that E. Morel, who exposed the Congo atrocities, also revealed Milner’s role in igniting the War, but his work is simply dismissed as ‘wrong’ by historians today. He recommends that for further information people should read McGregor’s Hidden History, which is available online, Milner’s Second War, and E. Morel’s pamphlets. He explains

If Milner had been assassinated, in 1912, it could have just stopped Armageddon and opportunist characters like Churchill and Lloyd George might never have come to power with the terrible consequences for the people of 1914 – 1918 and beyond. With some areas of history, I’m still a student, but I’ve been studying WW1 since I was a kid and there is no doubt Britain was responsible.

Not something you’re likely to read about in school books or the mainstream media where Max Hastings and Paxman reign supreme, alas. As you can see, I feel strongly about this because we owe it to our ancestors that the truth gets out there. Not the ‘noble sacrifice’ bullshit of Cameron and co. The WW1 generation of young soldiers were murdered by the British establishment in conjunction with other forces, notably the bankers and merchants of death.

He ends the session by talking about the strips he’s working on at the moment.

See: https://therealbadman.wordpress.com/tag/nemesis-the-warlock/

Mills clearly has some very controversial opinions, especially about the Roman Catholic church, and that Britain is occupying Northern Ireland. That clearly isn’t the way the Loyalist community see it. Nevertheless, regardless of his views on the legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland, he is absolutely right about there having been a ‘dirty war’ there. Lobster has published a series of articles discussing the collaboration of the British state with loyalist paramilitaries in containing the IRA, and how secret SAS units were embedded in regular army units to assassinate leading Nationalists.

As for the Roman Catholic church, unfortunately he is right in that there is a problem with corruption in Vatican and the Church hierarchy, and this has left many Roman Catholics feeling betrayed. The many scandals around the world about child abuse by priests and clergy has led to many believers leaving the Church, particularly in Ireland and in Germany. Many German Roman Catholics left because of the last pope’s perceived reluctance or inability to tackle the issue and make proper reparations.

Mills also makes a very good statement about the misuse of power in local communities, when he says that in the small town where he grew up, everyone in power knew everyone else, and used their power in very negative ways. Dad and others had the same experience of the power of the local business community in Taunton, and the same abuse of social and economic position and authority still continues in Britain today.

It would be very interesting indeed to read and hear more about Britain’s responsibility for causing the First World War. This is not a view I’ve ever heard before. Quite the opposite. Just about all the historians I’ve ever read have blamed the Germans and Austrians. German historians argue in contrast that the War broke out almost as an inevitable accident, brought about through the web of alliances and the extremely volatile nature of the Balkans. Together, these caused the nations of Europe to ‘drift to war’. The German view, from what I’ve read, is not only rejected by British historians, but seen as something peculiar to Germany. It seems to me that it’s implied in British historians’ criticism of the German view of the origins of the War that the Germans are somehow trying to exculpate themselves from their responsibility for starting it. After reading Mills’ brief statements about the issue, the conventional historical view of German culpability no longer seems at all certain.

His is an extreme view, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And he’s right about contemporary historiography of the war, at least at the popular level, being dominated by establishment figures like Max Hastings, the former editor of the Telegraph, and Jeremy Paxman. I like Paxo, and think he did a good job when he was on Newsnight, at least of irritating the Tories. But that doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth as an historian. Indeed, Private Eye a few weeks ago pointed out the many mistakes he was making in his latest excursion into literary history. He was trying to argue that a number of literary genres were in fact the creation of British writers in the 19th century. One of these was detective fiction. In fact, the first detective novel is usually considered to be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mysteries of the Rue Morgue. Mind you, as with so many things, it can also be argued that the Chinese got there first. The Chinese also independently developed the novel, including tales of detection featuring Judge Dee. A number of these were translated by Van Lustgarten, who also wrote a story of his own using the character. So perhaps Paxo probably isn’t the most reliable guide either to literary history, or that of the Great War.

And as extreme as his view is, I don’t think it should be immediately dismissed because of the care Mills took in researching his stories. Charley’s War is a classic because it movingly portrays the reality of the War for the ordinary Tommy, and I’ve no doubt Mills did considerable research when writing the strip and subsequently after. He has said in another interview, a few years ago, how he broke with the traditional, very low view of comic writing when he started on 2000 AD. It was an SF comic, so he bought four books on science to research the subject, and invoiced IPC for expenses. Which left them shocked with the idea that anyone should do something as basic as that. Clearly, 2000 AD and its characters are Science Fiction and Fantasy, not fact, and in many cases very obviously are far from conventional scientific or historical fact. But the fact that Mills is prepared to research carefully the background of the strips he writes does make me wonder whether he’s right about this issue as well. But go and read what he says for yourselves, and make your own minds up.

Splundig Vur Thrigg!, as Old Green Bonce would say.

Zarjaz! Documentary about 2000 AD!

September 25, 2016

Borag Thungg, Earthlets! As the Mighty Tharg used to say. I found over at Moria, the Science Fiction Film and Television database, a review of the 2014 documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD, directed by Paul Goodwin, and made by Stanton Media/Deviant Films. The film tells the story of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, and the crew of recidivist cultural deviants, who responsible, amongst other offences, for bringing the world Judge Dredd, Mega-City 1’s toughest lawman. Among those speaking in the movie are the mighty comics creators Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner, Dave Gibbon, Bryan Talbot, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Cam Kennedy and Karl Urban, who played Dredd in the movie of the same name a few years ago.

The Moria review sets the origins of the comic in the context of Britain in the late 70s and early 80s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, unemployment was at three million and the National Front was on the march. 2000 AD appeared following the cancellation of Action, a previous comic that had been banned after parents’ concerns that it was too violent. The team assembled to produce the new comic were partly drawn from those responsible for Action, like Mills, and the new comic definitely had a subversive edge. It was partly reacting against the old Fleetway children’s comics, whose stories were very safe. It takes its title from a series of unrelated bizarre stories, ‘Tharg’s Future Shocks’. As I recall, the strip in which these stories were first announced set the tone by showing a jaded, spoiled sprog, defiantly unimpressed with the previous offerings from British comics, who is then taken by Tharg to see the terrible and dangerous visions that the Future Shock strips will introduce. This is too much for the enfant terrible, and the traumatised brat is led away to received much-needed medical care, while Tharg urges them to ‘treat him gently’. An example of the strong subversive theme running through the comic is Dredd himself. Dredd was deliberately intended to be something of an ambivalent hero, a parody of Fascistic US policing. The Moria review notes that the more extreme Dredd became, the more popular he was, to the point where Carlos Ezquerra didn’t want to continue drawing the character after producing the original design. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising, as Ezquerra had as his inspiration for Dredd’s uniform that of Franco’s Fascists with their helmets and shoulder pads, though the review doesn’t mention this. John Wagner, Dredd’s creator, was always insistent that the character should never take off his helmet and show his face, as he was the symbol of the faceless police state.

The review discusses 2000 AD’s role as the first British comic to credit the artists and writers, and how this led to a brain drain as their leading creators were then lured off by the big American comic firms like Vertigo. I don’t think 2000 AD were quite the first. I think a few years before then the war comic, Battle, had also started to credit the people creating the strips. It also covers the magazine’s drop in quality and popularity in the 1990s, and then it’s revival under Matt Smith. It notes that all of the creators interviewed saw the comic as edgy, subversive and individualistic. This is certainly born out by some of the comments made in the movie’s trailer, which is also included in the review. This features the various writers and illustrators remarking on the comic and what they intended to achieve with it. Several of them, such as one by Pat Mills, are along the lines that the comics company really didn’t know what was about to hit them.

I don’t think they did. 2000 AD was never as controversial as Action, but nevertheless there were concerns occasionally that the comic was too violent. It did, however, produce some of the greatest comic strips that are still going thirty years later, like the ABC Warriors, Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, The Ballad of Halo Jones, and, of course, Judge Dredd. The future’s ultimate cop was hailed at the time by the space fact magazine, New Voyager, as the Dan Dare for the 1980s. High praise indeed!

The review also talks about the three films or so have that were released based on the comic. These include the two Judge Dredd films, Judge Dredd, which appeared in the 1990s with Sylvester Stallone playing Dredd; and Dredd, which came out a couple of years ago, with Karl Urban in the title role. They also include Richard Stanley’s Hardware, which was taken uncredited from Shok!, a short story told by Dredd’s mechanical friend, Walter the Wobot. 2000 AD took the film’s producers to court in plagiarism case, and won. The film’s producers were forced to credit the 2000 AD strip, though I think Stanley still maintains that he didn’t steal the idea from 2000 AD. Of the two Dredd films, the first is considered a disaster, while the second was a hit with both audiences and the strip’s creators, who praise the movie in the film. Stanley’s Hardware is also a classic of low budget SF film-making, and has rightly received wide praise. It was made in 1989, but still looks good a quarter of a century and more later, and its relatively high quality of design and production makes it appear that it had a bigger budget than it actually had. Stanley’s career as a cinema director I think ended after he was sacked from directing the 1990s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This was at least partly the result of the utterly bizarre behaviour of Marlon Brando, who took the part of Moreau. There’s also a film about the making of that movie, which shows just how bonkers and extremely difficult to work with Brando was, to the point where filming at time degenerated something close to farce. it’s a pity, as Stanley was and is a talented film-maker with fresh, interesting concepts. If things were ideal, he and 2000 AD would ideally make their peace, and he should produce a film based on some of the comics’ other strips. But this ain’t an ideal world, and so that very definitely won’t happen.

I don’t know if the documentary is available on YouTube, and I don’t recall having seen it on the shelves of HMV, but it might be worth checking out your local comics shop, like Forbidden Planet.

The Moria review can be read at: http://moria.co.nz/sciencefiction/future-shock-the-story-of-2000ad-2014.htm

George Galloway on Nicky Campbell’s Show: Everything Ken Livingstone Said Was True

August 24, 2016

I’ve put up several pieces this week from YouTube of George Galloway speaking. As I’ve said, I’m not a fan, but I do believe that he is right about many of the issues he discusses. And he’s absolutely right about the Iraq War. This is a clip of him talking to Nicky Campbell on the Radio about Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah and the anti-Semitism allegations.

In answer to Campbell’s question, Galloway explains the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism, as he explains, is something of a misnomer, as the Palestinians are also Semites. It is hatred of the Jews as Jews. He points out that it has a long history, going back to the Middle Ages, and has resulted in pogroms, persecution and the Holocaust, which he declares to be the most terrible crime against humanity. Anti-Zionism is simply opposition to the state of Israel.

He answers a question from a Jewish caller from Liverpool, who states that as a Zionist, he has no problem criticising Israel for its crimes, but wonders why Galloway doesn’t criticise the Palestinians, such as Hamas, for the terrorism they commit. Galloway states that he is not just opposed to the state of Israel, but also to all the artificial countries created exactly 100 years ago in the Middle East by the Picot-Sykes agreement. He also makes the point that no system has a right to exist. Communism did not have a right to exist. To oppose Communism did not mean that you hated Russians. Rather, the anti-Communists stated that they wanted to liberate Russians.

He states that everything Ken Livingstone said about the Nazis and the Zionists was correct. There was an agreement between Hitler and the Zionist leaders to have Jews shipped to the emerging state of Israel. This was the Haavara agreement. This was because both the Zionists and Nazis believed that Jews were not Europeans: German Jews were not Germans, French Jews not French, and so on. It was ridiculous that Ken Livingstone should have been suspended for speaking the truth.

When asked about Naz Shah and her comments, he says that it was foolish, but it was a stupid, teenage joke she posted on Facebook months before she became an MP. On the other hand, the 800,000 people ‘displaced’ she mentioned, did not only occur on Facebook. They were real people, forced out of their homes.

Campbell asks about Ken Livingstone’s apparent obsession with the Second World War, the Jews, the Nazis and the Holocaust. Galloway states that he’s also been accused of anti-Semitism, and suspended from the Labour party, although that was under a different leader. He says Livingstone’s older than him, and he would not have mentioned the Nazis. But it’s because the Second World War and its legacy was a larger issue to people of Livingstone’s generation than his.

Galloway here is right, though I don’t think he convincingly answered the Liverpudlian caller’s question about his refusal to condemn Palestinian terrorism. As for Livingstone’s apparent obsession with the Nazis, I think this is part of the background of veteran Socialist of a certain age. Red Ken was head of the GLC in the 1980s, when racism was just becoming a real issue and many of the accepted attitudes towards race were being challenged. It was also a period when the National Front was active and very much carrying out attacks on non-Whites, Jews and Leftists. It was also a period dominated by the Second World War. Many of the films in the ’70s were war films, there were a number of comics and comic strips set in the Second World War, such as Battle, ‘Hellmann of Hammerforce’ in Action, Warlord and so on. It was also in the ’80s that the groundbreaking documentary, The World at War, was broadcast. For the anti-racist Left, the threat of Fascism was very real, and the Holocaust was the most horrific case of genocide, a terrible example of the horrific carnage racism can lead to.

Vox Political: Arts Just for the Toffs?

January 24, 2015

Mike over at Vox Political has a thought-provoking article on anti-working class bias in the arts. It follows James Blunt’s attack this week on Chris Bryant MP, in which Blunt accused the politicians of ‘classism’ and bias towards those from a privileged background. The article begins:

How many of you were on James Blunt’s side in his very public spat with Chris Bryant MP?
And now that Julie Walters has weighed in, saying Mr Bryant was right? What do you think now?

The Labour MP had claimed British culture was dominated by stars like Blunt and Eddie Redmayne, who benefited from a privileged background. Blunt took offence and they had a highly-publicised row about it.

But top actress Julie Walters agrees. Quoted in The Guardian‘s Weekend magazine, she said: “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today. I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now. Kids write to me all the time and I think: I don’t know what to tell you.”

As Mike’s articles says, the actress and comedian is worried that the education and training required to get into drama is now too expensive for people from working class backgrounds.

Also in agreement is the great British comics creator, Pat Mills. Among the many comic strips produced by Mills and the other writers and artists with whom he worked, was ‘Charley’s War’, which ran in the war comic Battle. The hero was working class, British tommy thrown into the chaos and horror of the First World War. Unlike many other war strips, which showed plucky British heroes sticking it to the Hun, and returning home with nary a scratch on them in time for tea, ‘Charley’s War’ was grimly realistic. It was a profoundly anti-war strip, and has rightly been hailed as the best British comic strip. Mills states that the strip, however, is still resented by some because its hero was working-class, its creators came from working class backgrounds, and were strongly anti-establishment. He raises the question of whether such as strip would be possible today.

Barker Book

Mills and the 1970’s Comics Revolution

Mills has been working in comics since the 1970s. The comics he wrote for and helped create include Battle, Action, and 2000 AD. His wife is also comics artist, and he himself wrote for the girl’s comics. Many of Battle’s strips, apart from ‘Charley’s War’, gave unflinching portrayals of war and its horrors, such as that other Battle favourite, Darkie’s Mob. Action was banned following concerns about its violence. While most of the strips were largely based on the film and TV of the day, like Jaws (‘Hookjaw’), Dirty Harry (‘One-Eye Jack’) and so on, it also ran ‘Kids Rule UK’, about a violently dystopian future, in which law and order had broken down and society was dominated by violent teenage gangs. Mills and the other reprobates from the comics rumpus-room had intended it to reflect the youth culture of the times. It was originally going to be called ‘Boots’, after the footwear produced by Dr Martens, beloved of teenage tearaways and skinhead bovver boys. To stress how contemporary it was, the title was to include the year. So you’d have ‘Boots ’77’, which next year would change to ‘Boots ’78’. Action and its violence were too much for the authorities, and the strip effectively banned. Mills and co decided that from now on, all the violence should be in the interests of law and order. And as a response, they created the Fascist cop, Judge Dredd, who has been laying down in the law in Megacity 1 against perps, muties, Sovs, evil dictators and the undead Dark Judges ever since.

He helped spark a comics revolution. Martin Barker in his book, Comics, Ideology, Power and the Critics points to the way comics like Action and Battle transformed British comics. They introduced greater realism and psychological complexity, even ambiguity. Barker’s book is about how working class literature, from the cheap novels produced for ‘the democracy’ in the Victorian period, through the penny dreadfuls to today’s children’s comics, have always been intensely controversial. Amongst the most notorious were the horror comics, which were held to be corrupting Britain’s youth, and girls’ comics. These have been attacked by both feminists and non-feminists. Feminists have accused them of inculcating into girls traditional values, and sacrificing female friendship and solidarity and putting men first. Non-feminists have attacked them for encouraging girls to abandon traditional female occupations, like sewing and knitting. Barker showed that neither side was right. Given the pressure from both sides of the gender issue, I wonder if the creators of the comics ever felt like giving up. It certainly seemed that whatever they did, it would be wrong. I’m not actually surprised that in the end girls’ comics collapsed, and were replaced by the equally controversial girl’s magazines.

Dan Dare and the British Class System

If you want to see how much of a revolution in class terms ‘Charley’s War’ represented, think back to that great British comic strip, Dan Dare. ‘Dare’ is rightly regarded as a classic, not least because of the superb artwork. It was created by the Rev. Marcus Morris as a wholesome antidote to the American horror comics, and Dare is in many ways the quintessential British hero. He can be seen as an RAF air ace, projected into a future world of rockets and alien worlds. And like British society of the time, there is a very definite class bias. Dare himself is upper class, while his sidekick, Digby, is very much a working class character. While I respect Frank Hampson’s strip, there is very much a danger that the class system which permeated it will come back to inform other strips.

Julie Walters, Chumley-Warner and Upper Class Portrayal of the Proles

Julie Walters also makes the point that if the trend continues, it will result in middle and upper middle class people attempting to portray the working class, just like it used to be. My mother has a story of just how patronising and inflexible this was, and how intolerant BBC bosses were when told that their idea of how the lower orders behaved were when it was contradicted.

My mother grew up on one of Bristol’s council estates. One of her neighbours had a relative, who was an actress. She auditioned for a role as a working class lass with the Beeb. At the audition, she was told that as she was working class, she would be drinking tea out of a saucer. She tried to put the producer right, by telling him that working class people didn’t actually do that. No, said the man from the Beeb, working class people really did drink their tea from the saucer. The girl could not convince him otherwise, and didn’t get the job. I’ve also heard from Mum that she didn’t get acting work again after it, though I hope this is untrue. Harry Enfield’s character, Chumley-Warner, on the wireless-with-pictures, is a caricature. But the attitudes Enfield lampoons were very real.

And if we don’t watch out, they’re coming back.

Mike’s article is at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/01/24/class-divide-in-the-arts-is-it-just-for-the-toffs/.

On the subject of James Blunt, Dead Ringers took the mick out of him years ago. This contained the lyric ‘And Morrissey is telling me James Blunt is rhyming slang’. Quite.

Here’s the sketch:

Grove, Blackadder and Comedy and Satire in the Great War

November 10, 2014

The idea that we were brought up on, that Europe is the home of civilization in general – nonsense! It’s a periodical slaughter-pen, with all the vices this implies. I’d as lief live in the Chicago stockyards.

Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to Great Britain, quoted in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 258.

The Knee

A knee is roaming, through the world,
No more; it’s just a knee.
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
It is a knee; no more.

There was a man once in a war
Got killed and killed and killed.
Alone, unhurt, remained the knee
Like a saint’s relics, pure.

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely;
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Christian Morgenstern, op. cit, 218.

Last week I posted a piece on the article on Mike’s site, Vox Political, reporting that Ben Elton was writing a satire based on Michael Gove’s denunciation of the last series of Blackadder. Way back at the beginning of this year, Gove had attacked Blackadder Goes Forth for what he considered to be its unpatriotic portrayal of the soldiers, who fought in World War 1. He criticised the series’ left-wing bias, and declared that it insulted the memory of those who fought and died in the mud and horror of Flanders by portraying them as cowards. To support his view, he then cited a number of history books presenting the alternative view of the War, which had his approval. Gove’s opinions aren’t simply those of a Tory politician, impatient and intolerant with any view that dares to contradict their own. His views were also based on by a number of historical studies of the Great War, that have attempted to overturn the traditional view that it was a bloody, brutal debacle, in which millions of men were sent to their deaths by out-of-touch and incompetent generals. These historians have argued instead that officers and the men, who served under them, got on well and that accounts of the class friction between them have been exaggerated. They concede that there were severe mistakes made during the first part of the War, but that the conduct of the War improved greatly from 1917 onwards, so that phase of the War was actually well fought with a high standard of leadership. A friend of mine a few years ago attended a military history symposium to mark the War. One of the speakers there presented a paper arguing that General Haig was actually a good general, or at least, not as incompetent as previously believed. My friend remained unconvinced.

Gove Missing Point of Blackadder Comedy

Along with Mike and many other bloggers, I also put up a few pieces on this blog arguing that Gove was wrong. At one level, Gove simply missed the point. Blackadder Goes Forth was a comedy, not a work of serious drama or historical investigation. Comedies entertain by poking fun. Their subjects and targets are the vain, the stupid, the pompous, the greedy, and the inept. The character of Blackadder throughout his four series and incarnations is that of a picaresque anti-hero. He is cynical, devious, and callous and manipulative towards his friends, particularly Baldric, but saved because of his cynical comments on the folly, greed or savagery of his social superiors. The audience likes him, without actually approving of his corruption and lack of morals.

And whatever the reality of the War, it left many across Europe feeling betrayed by a political and economic system that given rise to such colossal, horrific carnage. This bitterness and horror was portrayed in verse by poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It also inspired satirists and comic writers and artists across Europe to add their comments to the horror and absurdity of the situation.

Grimmelshausen’s Comedies of 17th Century German War

Writers have written comedies and comic novels about wars and their combatants since Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen wrote his Simplicissimus Deutsch in the 17th century. This narrated the strange adventures of a group of naïve innocents, who managed somehow to blunder their way through the Thirty Years’ War. This was the continent-wide war between Roman Catholics and Protestants during which a fifth of the population of the German Empire died from starvation. Apart from being a classic in its own right, Grimmelshausen’s work has also been important in 20th century literature. It was on Grimmelshausen’s Description of the Life of the Archdeceiver and Vagrant Courasche that Bertolt Brecht based his play, Mother Courage. The cartoons and satires on the War could range from the gentle and mild, to the bitter and savage. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) cartoon ‘It’s the Little Things that Worry’, with its caption from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “It is an ancient campaigner and he stoppeth one of three’, below, shows a serviceman, ‘Old Bill’, trying to hunt down the fleas that pester them in the dugouts.

First War Cartoon

Black Comedy of Christian Morgenstern

Others were far more vicious. The German poet, Christian Morgenstern, was also inspired to write poetry by his experiences in the First World War. His poems are black comedies, which express his sense of how absurdly humorous the killing and death around him was. Morgenstern himself described how he and a friend were on patrol through no-man’s land when a shell exploded nearby. His friend was killed instantly, literally torn apart from the blast, and his head and entrails thrown into a nearby tree. Morgenstern said that far from being terrified, or repulsed by the grotesque sight, he actually found it funny. This is truly black humour, far darker than anything Elton showed in Blackadder.

The Wipers Times

Although Blackadder Goes Forth was fiction, written nearly seven decades after the events it describes, it does accurately reflect the type of humour and the views of the servicemen themselves, who did fight in the War. A few years ago Private Eye’s Ian Hislop presented a programme, with an accompanying book, on the Wipers Times. This was a newspaper written by and for the troops. Hislop commented on how savagely funny and dark the Times’s humour was, stating that it was exactly like Blackadder. I’ve got a feeling it was also viewed suspiciously by the authorities, like Ben Elton’s comic creation and his view of the War.

The Good Soldier Svejk

One of the greatest satirical works of the Great War was Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Hasek was a Czech, and the book satirises the absurdity and incompetence of the War and the multinational army of the Habsburg Empire, of which the Czech republic, then Bohemia, was a part. Hasek portrays the German-speaking generals in charge of the Austro-Hungarian forces as brutal and callous. Svejk’s own motives and character are also ambiguous. He’s incompetent, but staunchly loyal to the empire. It’s unclear whether Svejk is feigning stupidity in order to divert attention from his attempts to get out of the War, or whether he is actually that stupid. The Good Soldier Svejk has become a classic of Czech literature, and been translated into a number of languages, including English. It has been filmed several times, including in German, and a few decades ago Radio 4 broadcast a play based on the book.

Post-WW II Satires on War

Satirical treatment of wars and their brutal, terrifying absurdity, did not stop with the First World War, of course. Joseph Heller famously based Catch-22 on the Korean War. The Second World War and its horrors were the subject of a number of satires in its turn. Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett satirised the war films of the period in their show, Beyond the Fringe, which launched their careers as satirists and performers. The War also inspired and influenced the SF writers Kurt Vonnegut and Harry Harrison. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was partly based on his experiences as a POW during the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut and the other captured American soldiers with him only managed to survive the bombing as they had been imprisoned in an abattoir called Slaughterhouse 5. If nothing else, it shows that the Fates have a very dark sense of humour. Harry Harrison has also served in the Second World War. He began his career as a writer through the education courses the American army laid on in order to prepare their squaddies for civilian life. His experiences of the army and war clearly influence his book, Bill the Galactic Hero. This tells the story of a recruit to the human forces waging a galaxy-wide war against a race of alien lizards. Far from being the murderous savages of propaganda, the aliens are actually highly cultured and civilised. It is the humans, who are the aggressors. His view of the absurdity of war is shown in incidents, such as one in which Bill has an arm blown off during a space battle. He receives a replacement, which to his horror is that of his Black best friend. Furthermore, it’s another left arm, like his remaining limb, as there’s a shortage of right arms. The book also contains Harrison’s comment on the violence and belligerence in human nature. When asked by an alien opponent why humans are always fighting war, Bill replies ‘I think we just enjoy it’. Bill is also given advice on surviving as a soldier by Cain, the first murderer, here presented as the first soldier.

George Grosz

Some of the most viciously satirical cartoons depicting post-War life were those of George Grosz in Germany. Grosz had enlisted in the infantry when war broke out, but became bitterly disillusioned with the conflict and its carnage. He was hospitalised, and managed to hang on to his sanity by pouring out his rage and hatred into his drawings. He was determined to hit back at the ruling order responsible for the horror, travelling to the USSR after the War. He returned to Germany even more cynical and disgusted in 1922. His cartoons, which appeared in the brief satirical magazines, Die Pleite and Der Blutige Ernst (The Bloody Earnest) depicted a corrupt and decadent society, in which rich profiteers enjoyed vast luxury on the backs of an underclass, eking out a living in slums and flophouses. The cartoon below, ‘Des Volkes Dank ist Euch gewiss’ (The People’s Gratitude is certainly yours’ shows the rich passing a beggar and a maimed ex-serviceman, forced onto the streets.

Grosz Cartoon

War Comics Spoof and Maggie’s Cuts to the Armed Forces

In the cuts that followed the Falklands and Gulf Wars, thousands of soldiers were laid off. Many of these ex-servicemen, particularly those traumatised by their experiences of conflict, ended up homeless and on the streets. Spitting Image satirised this callous discarding of courageous soldiers, who had risked their lives for their country in a spoof comic strip in their send-up of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, Thatcha: The Real Maggie Memoirs. Drawn in the style of the British war comics of the 1970s, like Battle, the strip told the story of a British soldier coming back from the Falklands. Made redundant from the army, the former squaddie takes out his rage and frustration by gunning a crowd of innocent people waiting on a bus stop.

How Long till Scenes from Grosz in Cameron’s Britain?

The Tories have introduced a series of cuts in military expenditure, laying off thousands of professional soldiers while attempting fill the ranks with recruits from the Territorials. Despite the high profile and work of charities caring for ex-servicemen, such as Help for Heroes and the Invictus games this summer, I wonder how long it will be before we see scenes like the above drawing by Grosz in Britain, as the vicious and decadent British upper class profit from the misery and horror caused by the war in Iraq.

Zarjaz! British Comics Lay in to Gove over First World War

April 2, 2014

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Pat Mills and some of the characters from 2000 AD

There’s a great bit of news for comics fans in today’s I. According to the article ‘Graphic Novelists Take on Gove over First World War’, Britain’s leading comic artists are to produce a graphic novel, To End All Wars. It’s going to be an anthology of 27 stories based on real events, some of which are told from the point of view of the soldiers themselves. The I states that the novel aims to undermine the jingoistic commemorations of the conflict’s centenary.

As part of this, it takes very firm aim at Michael Gove, who earlier this year complained that ‘left-wing academics’ were misrepresenting the War and casting aspersions over the courage and patriotism of the men, who fought in it. In the introduction, veteran British comics writers and editor, Pat Mills, states

Currently, we are fed the spin-doctors’ version of legalised mass murder, legitimised as ‘heroic sacrifice’ with challenging, embarrassing or difficult facts whitewashed from the record. Michael Gove and his ilk dutifully talk about a noble sacrifice and a just war. I hope this collection will help to counteract their lies and commemorate the centenary as … a search for the truth.

The I duly notes that Mills as the creator of ‘Charley’s War’ and, as Squaxx Dek Thargo (Friends of Tharg, the comic’s alien editor) will know, the classic SF comic 2000 AD. As the writer for ‘Charley’s War’, Mills has previous on such issues. ‘Charley’s War’ ran in the 1970s and 80s in the British war comic, Battle. Set during the First World War, the strip was profoundly anti-war, and portrayed the emotional and physical costs of the conflict on the troops. For example, I remember one scene in which one old soldier back home in Britain breaks down in tears as a squad of lead toy soldiers melts into the fire, reminding him of the very real mates he lost in the fighting.

The new comic book includes a strip, ‘The Coward’s War’, the story of first British soldier to be executed for desertion, Thomas Highgate, as well as other stories where the architects of the conflict are put on trial at the Hague.

I’ve blogged before about the need for more radical comics and graphic novels to tackle some of the injustices and wicked policies committed by this government. I’m very glad that Mills and the other leaders of the British comics industry have decided to wade in to tackle this issue. It certainly needs tackling, as yet more television documentaries and drama series set in the War come out. This should correct the historiographical imbalance and show just how terrible the War was, stripping it of some of the romantic glamour that may have accrued around it in some of the mainstream offerings.