From the day John Wagner – the writer-creator of Judge Dredd – and I worked together on Romeo at D.C. Thomson, Dundee, I knew we were kindred spirits. We shared the same cynical and satirical sense of humour. Thus we used to wander the corridors of D. C. Thomson wearing green visors, on which was emblazoned in white Letraset the word ‘Hack’.
Working with a collaborator – ‘creative jamming’ – can kick start your muse. It certainly did mine. I thoroughly recommend it as a way of getting started, particularly if your solo career is faltering. Nearly every comic and magazine John and I submitted stories to accepted them straight away. These included Lover magazine, Cor!!, Tammy and Battle Picture Library. I went freelance first, working out of a garden shed, with John joining me in evenings and at the weekend. Soon we were so overloaded with work, John went freelance, too, and joined me in the shed.
Tammy (IPC Magazines)
Another advantage of having a partner is that you can edit each other’s work, honing it to a remarkable degree. John and I had already had a thorough training in editing stories at D.C. Thomson. Now we took it to another level: endlessly rewriting and polishing our material. I think it was the sharpness and clarity of our stories as well as our cynical and powerful ideas that got us through. I’ll come back to editing later on, which is an art-form in itself.
It was a very successful relationship that lasted for over a year. When the garden shed got too much, and John headed south to work in IPC, the various editors were really concerned that we were splitting up. They saw us as a creative duo and didn’t think we would work so well on our own. They didn’t know ‘which one had the talent’ and feared standards would drop. Of course they didn’t, and we went on to successful solo careers. Later, John would have another very successful writing partnership with Alan Grant.
Finn ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT © REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It’s worth describing some other collaborations because they show various advantages of teaming-up with another writer. Undoubtedly the most successful was with Tony Skinner, a rock musician and practising pagan. He gave me some insights into the Celts on Sláine and I later encouraged him to write with me full-time. Together we wrote Punisher 2099 for Marvel Comics, which sold a million copies on issue one; Finn, an urban witch; and Accident Man, the number one story in Toxic! and now a movie starring Scott Adkins. And many other successful stories.
The advantage of working with Tony was I no longer had to get bogged down in boring but necessary research. He was an expert in martial arts and had met endless unusual characters, who were perfect for stories. Extremely knowledgeable on a vast number of wholesome and not so wholesome subjects (guns, knives, cars, motorbikes, fashions, murders, assassins, police, army – literally anything and everything that comic writers need to know about), Tony was also a hereditary witch, with some fascinating insights into the occult. So, armed with all this material, we were able to write at incredible high speeds together, without any loss of quality.
I was so impressed by our approach, I’ve repeated it since – writing with many other collaborators who have expert knowledge in their field. I thoroughly recommend it as a method of getting started– it sure beats Wikipedia.
In many ways, Tony is, potentially, a better popular culture writer than I am. If he could be bothered, I’m sure he could write any number of bestsellers, but his musical career was always his first love. I’ll get into the methodology of collaborations a little later, but he would dictate stories to friends who would type them up, several at a time. With the right set-up, he could have been as prolific as Alexander Dumas. He also has a voracious appetite for popular culture films, including SF, which I’m afraid I lack. I’m sure he’s seen every single one of the various Marvel and DC films, whereas I’d have to be strapped into a seat to watch them and even then I’d fall asleep. (I was forced to watch Spiderman 2 because there was an actor in it who was interested in optioning Marshal Law. It practically killed me. I went out for toilet and ice cream breaks every thirty minutes to try and stay awake.) And anyone who can stay awake in a Marvel crossover script conference has my greatest admiration (see 2000 AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History).
Pat Mills photographed by Lisa Mills
But for some reason, writing with great conviction and authenticity about murders and other dark matters in Accident Man and elsewhere seemed to greatly disturb my peers. I guess it’s okay for Agatha Christie, but not for comic writers to delve into such sinister subjects.
As I’ve also related in my Secret History, the editor of 2000 AD, Steve McManus, complained bitterly that he couldn’t possibly have a witch like Tony writing for 2000 AD. Although, magicians like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore were fine. It would seem there’s some kind of class system in the occult world I was not aware of/ and witches are the unacceptable underclass. When no lurid stories of witchcraft were forthcoming to bear out Steve’s fears, a member of his staff simply made them up and spread them through the industry. Tony thought the whole thing was absolutely hilarious, although I was furious and tried to pin down the source of the pernicious gossip. In response, to amuse ourselves, we wrote Finn in my basement office with a skull on the desk, illuminated by a black candle, and reflected on the various esoteric experiences we had shared and chuckled, ‘If Steve only knew what we really got up to…’
There’s no doubt 2000 AD suppressed Tony’s talent – stopping Finn when it was more successful than Sláine – as they suppressed so many talents in the late 90s. At a time when they were desperately short of new talent. But wielding editorial power was more important to the 90s Thargs. For my muse, the more eccentric and colourful – the more rock and roll the talent, the better. I hadn’t realized Tony and I were working for People’s Friend.
So if you’re going to write with someone who is rock and roll and larger than life, I recommend discretion or you just might fall foul of the gatekeepers, too. It may well be unconnected, but, to this day, Finn has not been reprinted in book form, despite other far less successful titles being published, and countless readers campaigning for his return. The only response to their many enthusiastic requests for Finn to reappear was: ‘Noted’. I’m still not entirely convinced by the reasons for the delay.
Another favourite collaboration was with an Iranian actor friend I’ll call ‘A’. We wrote together in Tehran for several months and although it was some years ago now, it’s best to be careful as Iran is still, sadly, a police state and all the usual fun things in life are banned. Even minor ‘transgressions’ can attract the attention of the police. Thus in Tehran the only videos I could rent were violent action movies like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Judge Dredd (pirated, of course). There were no movies majoring on female roles although they made an exception with Gone With The Wind, for some reason. So when I returned to the UK, I posted a video of Citizen Kane to my Iranian girlfriend. She received a visit from the police and was told Citizen Kane was unacceptable viewing and the authorities posted this dangerous movie back to me.
And ‘A’ is larger than life. The religious police are dangerous guys with fearsome reputations. I featured them in my secret agent serial Greysuit after I witnessed them arrest teenagers for dancing in the street, which is against the law. They once stopped ‘A’s’ wife and complained that her legs were showing below her black robe. ‘A’ went up to the policeman and said, ‘But why are you looking at my wife’s legs? You should not be looking at her legs.’ A large crowd quickly gathered, agreed with ‘A’, and asked the cop, ‘Yes. Why are you looking at a woman’s legs? This is not right. What is the matter with you?’ The cop fled!
Middle-Eastern humour is easily as dark and funny as Western humour. It was ‘A’ who told me a story I also used in Greysuit: A teenager is forbidden to have sex, so he makes use of a sheep every evening when he returns home from school. In anticipation of his return, the sheep regularly baas and bangs its head against the wall at the same time every evening. His mother becomes suspicious, discovers them in flagrante and kills and cooks the sheep, forcing the boy to eat it. Consequently, the disturbed boy grows up to be a serial killer, endlessly looking for women who will make sheep’s eyes at him, reminding him of his first lost love.
My Judge Dredd serial Birthday Boy about a guy covered in numerous candles stuck in his flesh, an illuminated Pinhead, was also inspired by a story ‘A’ told me, based on an Iranian myth.
We would write so many stories like this together, I would be absolutely aching from laughing. In fact we laughed so much, my Iranian girlfriend, sitting in the next room, became jealous and angry. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t laugh like that when I was spending time with her. So ‘A’ and I would quickly ‘shush’ each other when we came up with another humorous story together – in case we annoyed her. ‘A’ and I also worked out Mother Theresa as a ghoul in Hell in my Requiem series, which amused us both greatly, but horrified my Iranian girlfriend. It was no good telling her the truth about Mother Theresa and the missing millions, and the extensive evidence that she was a dangerous fraud. Even in Iran they have been conditioned by the media to believe Mother T is a saint. Sad but true.
All this proves that writing should be FUN, not some dreary, deadly serious business of stories just churned out for the cash. That, I’m afraid, is my take on how much of the comic industry was when I started and has slowly become again over the years. Laughter was my consciously chosen antidote to keep this soulless regime at bay. And creative jamming with someone else is most likely to bring that humour out. After all, it’s hard to laugh at your own jokes in quite the same way.
So how does the methodology of collaborating actually work? John Wagner and I would think up and write stories together, type up the descriptions separately, then swap and read each other’s work for typos. Once Tony Skinner got into the swing of it, he’d eventually be writing, dictating and sending off scripts – like Ravage 2099 – solo as well as stories we worked on together. He was based in France, so sometimes he’d think up a storyline himself, have it typed up and sent over to me for my thoughts. Accident Man in New York was a case in point. That was very much Tony’s baby and it was perfect. In recent years we’ve done the odd creative jamming session by Skype, which has also worked fine. But my happiest memories are sitting around drinking in bars or lying in a bluebell wood, writing the most violent, hilarious and subversive stories together. It’s certainly better than a real job. With ‘A’, we would write it together but I would do the final typing, as English was his second language. For the most part with collaborators, we’d dream up stories from scratch and write them side by side.
One collaborator, Steve Earles, had a unique gift for illuminating and colourful dialogue on certain characters, so I would email him a particular scene and then let him loose on the dialogue. The results were often impressive. I’d compare it to the system used in The Thick Of It. Apparently, ‘prior to rehearsals, the scripts are sent to a “swearing consultant” in Lancaster called Ian Martin, who adds some of the more colourful language.’ Steve had a similar role with character-based dialogue.
SABBAT: FIRST, I WANT YOU TO TRAVEL TO ETRONIA TO ABSTRACT THE PLECTRUM OF NEW RECTUM AND BRING IT TO ME.
HEAVY METAL FANS: (voices off) THE PLECTRUM OF NEW RECTUM!! SATAN’S NAIL!
- A fan looks enthusiastic. Black Sabbat replies with great sarcasm.
FAN: THAT IS THE VERY SAME PLECTRUM KIRK HAMMETT OF METALLICA USED FROM THE BLACK ALBUM ONWARDS!
SABBAT: YES. IT’S AN OBJECT OF VENERATION AMONGST THE ETRONIANS.
(2); THE FACT THAT ETRONIANS ARE COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF FECAL MATTER MAY POSSIBLY EXPLAIN WHY THEY ADORE IT.
- Sabbat shows the Fans another location on the globe.
SABBAT: NEXT, YE SHALL SEEK AND RETRIEVE THE ALBUM OF ATTAKUS IN CECROPIA.
HEAVY METAL FANS (voices off) THE ALBUM OF ATTAKUS!! HEAR IT AND FEAR IT!
- The Heavy Metal fans discuss as Black Sabbat looks on, barely hiding his disdain for them.
HEAVY METAL FAN: IT IS RENOWNED AS THE ONLY SURVIVING COPY OF METALLICA AND LOU REED’S ‘LULU’ ALBUM! ALL THE OTHERS WERE DESTROYED BY METALLICA’S FANS WHEN THEY FINALLY REDISCOVERED THEIR SENSE OF TASTE.
Unfortunately the money in comics is just not in the same league as TV and with all the aggro I’d get for trying to have joint by-lines, it really wasn’t worth continuing, so I gave up. And, even when I succeeded in getting collaborators by-lines, like Tony and Alan Mitchell (My co-authors on Third World War), it never did them any good. The gatekeepers saw to that. As one jealous member of 2000 AD editorial staff said to Tony, ‘You haven’t paid your dues.’ So there was no admittance.
I know other writers use other systems for collaboration – like writing separate chapters or different stories under one by-line. John Wagner and I alternated when we were writing Dan Dare and Doctor Who, but I don’t know if it’s a particularly good system. Certainly we didn’t stay with it. Much as I like the classic assassin novel series Fantomas, written by two authors, when they swap chapters it really shows. Continuity is a bit rough and there’s an uneven quality about it that makes it a bit jerky to read.
No account of collaborations would be complete without the one closest to my heart: Read ‘em and Weep. Kevin O’Neill suggested the idea of a comedy based on the outrageous world of British comics in the 1970s and, over many happy days putting it together in bars, we wrote it as a sit-com. Gareth Edwards, producer of Spaced, liked it, went over our scripts with us and finally green-lit it, but he couldn’t get it past his boss at the BBC who felt comics were ‘too niche’. We had similar responses from various TV production companies who thought it was ‘very funny’ but again ‘too niche’. So I decided to novelise it, developing the characters and plots further to have the power and drama needed for a four volume series. There were already several dark mysteries about Dave Maudling’s past which couldn’t be developed in a sit-com. These had always fascinated me. Who was his mother? Why did he have a strange fascination for fur coats? Now, in a novel, I could explore the answers. Practical considerations and geography meant that this was down to me.
Here’s one of my favourite scenes from Serial Killer to end on. It’s the one where Dave explains his unique obsession with fur and it’s straight out of our original sit-com.
‘My sister first noticed when the nap of the fur went a bit flat …’ Dave said meaningfully. ‘We never discussed it, but she left the key to mum’s wardrobe out …’
‘That was thoughtful of her.’
‘Then my dad saw what I’d been doing with it and he went mad: “You never even took it off the hangar!” He said there’d never been anything like that in his family.’
‘What did they do about it?’ Greg was curious.
‘They talked about sending me for treatment… The doctor preferred not to talk about it,’ recalled Dave. ‘There was no pamphlet for what I had. And he didn’t want to write one either. I was very disappointed when I grew up to discover that women weren’t all furry like a grizzly bear. I would long for a woman with a back like a Turkish deck-hand. I wasn’t sure I was alone with these feelings, but apparently I am.’
‘So what happened to the fur coat?’
‘It packed me in,’ Dave frowned. ‘It was pretty terrible. The wardrobe dumped me.’