My phone rang and the voice at the other end asked, ‘Is that Pat Mills? This is Clifford Wright. I’m in charge of IPC Magazines training courses and I’d like you to give a talk about creative writing to a group of our trainees.’ Considering the low opinion I had of my own work, that seemed highly unlikely. Why choose me of all people, when I thought most of my stories were crap?
‘Really? Clifford Wright, eh?’ I jeered in response. ‘Me – give a talk to trainees? Yeah, yeah, sure. That’s very good. Who is this really? Wilf…? Malcolm…?’
‘No, I am Clifford Wright, head of training,’ the voice replied coldly.
All of us on Tammy regularly played hoax phone calls on each other and this seemed like a typical example.
‘Come on, ‘Clifford’, don’t take the piss. You know, I was almost taken in by you, Wilf. But that snotty voice gave you away. Otherwise, you’d have sounded pretty real to me.’
‘I am real,’ said the voice at the other end.
‘Oh, shit, really?’ Humbly apologising, I told Clifford I’d be pleased to help, although I was still rather baffled why he should have chosen me of all the numerous writers available to him. However, I insisted that I wanted to keep things informal, as I could only be a couple of years older than his trainees. And I’ve always felt storytelling is a universal gift: then and now I disapprove of hierarchies. ‘I don’t want to be a teacher standing in front of a class, so no blackboards or anything like that.’
‘I could bring a whiteboard and some marker pens,’ Clifford suggested helpfully. I think my talk with trainees went down okay. I recall I was very frank, telling them how they needed to find something in the magazines they would be working on that lit their fire. Otherwise they might as well be selling second hand cars for a living. I told them about my personal loyalty to girls’ comics because they produced stories with genuine emotions, rather than boys’ comics, which were pretty mindless at that time. And how I would force myself to write humorous scripts by using a formula and typing on a continuous roll of wallpaper, otherwise I’d fall asleep. I don’t think that was quite what Clifford had been looking for.
I fear I haven’t changed since those Tammy days. I still like to keep my talks on creative writing informal. If I’m honest, it’s because I’m not a great fan of traditional teachers who have to expound the virtues of a restrictive national curriculum and, all too often in my experience, restrict rather than encourage storytelling. Because they invariably want kids to write like someone else – Dickens, for instance. Rather than to be themselves. So they’re awed and overwhelmed by Dickens’ incredible prose and think they either have to imitate him (an impossible task) or give up writing because they believe they’re rubbish. This actually happened to someone I know. So we’ll do this without a blackboard (or a whiteboard) if that’s okay? Where to start? Naturally, with the hero. Hero, in this instance, is not gender specific – the rules apply to any gender. And this term also includes the anti-hero and the protagonist. We’re also talking popular culture and heroes who could appear in any media form, comics, novels or film. This is how I set about it.
- Pick an iconic and clearly defined hero that you want to write about. Secret Agent. Future soldier. Serial Killer. Assassin. Resistance fighter. Future cop. Detective. Wizard. Barbarian. And so on. The more defined the role, the more likely they are to be successful.
- Base it on someone you know, suitably amplified and added to. In the case of Rogue Trooper, the writer Gerry Finley-Day had a background in the territorial army. So he knew what he was talking about. It’s why his Rogue Trooper stories were always more popular than subsequent writers who took over his character. The same applies to his Fiends of the Eastern Front featuring German soldiers. And his V.C.s about combat in space. The readers intuitively sensed his conviction.
- If you don’t know anyone like your hero, but still feel compelled to write about them, turn to a non-fiction source for inspiration. With Sláine, I looked at accounts of ancient Celtic battles, and Celtic myths and legends, notably the legend of Cuchulain in The Tain. Draw on reality as much as you can.
- To ensure you’re staying within commercial tramlines, read books and watch films in the same genre. Not to copy them, but to see what the current style and appeal is. Understand the tropes. What are the key elements that readers or viewers expect from your genre? And ensure you have something equally valuable and powerful to offer. Don’t be disheartened by other authors’ impressive writing – they’re not always as elevated as you might think. For example, read any fantasy story by Lord Dunsany, a writer at the turn of the twentieth century (available free online), and you’ll see how he influenced most subsequent fantasy writers. Everyone from H. P. Lovecraft to Tolkien to Michael Moorcock. I didn’t know about Lord Dunsany when I was creating Sláine and I’m glad in a way, because I think my Celtic saga has a different fantasy tone as a result.
- Look at another genre – Westerns, for instance, which easily convert to fantasy, crime or science fiction. See how the ground rules are roughly the same, and plot lines and sequences can inspire stories in a different genre.
- The hero must go through an emotional arc. Often they refuse the quest, before reluctantly going ahead, and are impeded by the flaws within them, which they may or may not finally triumph over.
- They have to be up against powerful forces of evil that will make life incredibly difficult for them.
- Once you have your hero, consider what you want them to say or do that’s unique. How they can look or act in a memorable way. Go for long walks or sit in crowded, noisy pubs, musing on your character. Expect your hero to go through endless changes and refinements, a process that could take two weeks to six months or even longer, but if you’re passionate about the character you won’t care.
Let’s now look at what kind of hero they should be in a little more detail. All my heroes – whether in comics or in text novels – are invariably working class, and/or are the underdog.
- There’s Charley Bourne, the boy soldier hero of the anti-war saga Charley’s War.
- Defoe: an ex-Leveller and 17th century zombie hunter.
- Moonchild (Misty) fights an abusive mother and school thugs.
- Nemesis, an alien demon, leads the alien resistance against a tyrannical human empire.
- Cassy in Land of No Tears (Jinty) travels forward in time to compete with genetically perfect but emotionless schoolgirls.
- Old One Eye, a T-rex, battles human time travellers in Flesh.
- Marshal Law, a humble hospital orderly, hunts and kills America’s greatest superheroes.
There’s a common theme here – my heroes are all from an underclass in one form or another and they all win. They are relatively rare in fiction – a point that needs lingering on. Because I believe we are deliberately programmed and conditioned to think our own lives are not important and not worth writing or reading about. Instead, heroes are usually elitist. Superheroes, often billionaires with ‘shock and awe’ super-powers, dominate our cinemas. Yet I’m not aware of any good-guy billionaires in real life. It’s a fantasy of the elite. They are characters we’re taught to look up to.
Consider how the majority of classic heroes are middle class or upper class: Sherlock Holmes, Richard Hannay, James Bond, Scarlet Pimpernel, Batman, Superman and Iron Man. This is deliberate: the media gatekeepers want it that way. I once clashed with a Doctor Who TV script editor because he said I couldn’t possibly have a working class captain of a spaceship (which was a huge abattoir in space). The space captain was a fairly rough character, based on the working-class captain of a dredger, but that didn’t matter. We can’t have working class captains. We are meant to look up to our ‘betters’.
When there are working class protagonists, they are invariably desperate criminals, like Graham Greene’s superb characters: Raven in A Gun For Sale, Pinkie in Brighton Rock and Harry Lime in The Third Man. And they are usually destroyed. So we fed a relentless message: do not challenge the system. An extreme example of this is the film Never Let Me Go, where young people are harvested for their organs whilst accepting their fate. It’s the only film I’ve watched where a number of young women in the cinema audience were so disgusted by the characters’ defeatism, they rightly walked out.
The common theme to my storytelling is that the hero or heroine is taking back their power, challenging the system, and winning.
There’s a huge gap in the market for this kind of story today. Publishers will probably not agree with me, because they are generally gatekeepers, and instinctively react negatively to such stories. The 1970s era of New English Library with its hard-hitting titles and working-class heroes, aimed at a ‘down-market’ audience, is long gone. But today’s audience will still love such stories, even if the ex-public old boys now controlling the system don’t care for them. Hence Charley’s War, an anti-war saga, with a not very bright kid as the hero, was the number one story in Battle, a pro-war comic about World War Two, and it still has a strong audience today, both here and in Europe. But today, it would be impossible to originate a story with such a strong anti-establishment message. It would never get past the gatekeepers. Believe me, I tried.
The usual hero story today is rather different. We are brainwashed into Orwellian thinking that the system, and America in particular, is constantly under attack by sinister forces, rather than that the system has created those sinister forces in the first place. Consequently, so many authors produce mildly rebellious, but ultimately obedient establishment heroes: ‘My country right or wrong.’ They’re the stories most likely to get past the gatekeepers. Usually these heroes are dealing with ‘terrorists’, the designated villains of the 21st century. Just as Germans and Russians were the designated villains of the 20th century. Is that really what you want to write? Commercially, you would be absolutely spot on. The gatekeepers will love you. But it’s bad for the soul and it will cost you in some way, unless you’ve got an angle that is somehow still heartfelt and sincere.
Meanwhile, there are more valid home grown villains, perfect for drama, who are generally ignored because they have close links to the establishment. Corporate arms dealers and establishment paedophile rings, for example. Both are equally evil, yet they rarely feature in stories. People in the media have told me those subjects are usually ‘taboo’.
Equally taboo are working-class heroes shown to win – rather than destroyed, like Graham Greene’s protagonists.
In my stories, my working-class heroes win. Eventually. Such as Dave Maudling in Read Em And Weep.
Heroes are heroic, but can also be comedic in their efforts to defeat the bad guys. Here’s Dave in pursuit of bad guy Fabulous Keen, snooping around his apartment for clues and getting his tie caught in a comptometer – an ancient calculating machine like something out of Bletchley Park, which now threatens to strangle the life out of him.
‘Guuhhhh!’ said Dave as the tie was sucked deeper inside the comptometer, tightening around his neck. His strangulated cry was drowned out by the coughing and wheezing of the machine in infinity mode…
Positioned round the back of the machine, Dave couldn’t see where the ‘stop’ button was, so it continued to strangle him as he tried blindly pressing random buttons without success. It just seemed to make it worse, judging by its groaning and heaving and straining sounds…
Dave’s head was pulled down close to the carriage, as the ever changing numbers spun on their relentless journey to infinity. His ear mere inches from the machine, the noise was thunderous. He was trapped there until the end of time, or until the machine caught fire, burned out, or Keen returned – whichever came first. Probably Keen returning, although the machine was becoming unbearably hot and starting to smoke ominously now. (From Read Em And Weep 2: Goodnight, John-boy)
Dave finds damning evidence that Keen is part of a celebrity paedophile ring, and leads kids to strike back against him. Outside of fantasy, this is unheard of in fiction. Kids are generally portrayed as senseless terrors, as in Lord of the Flies, or Kids Rule Ok! (a strip in my comic Action). They are not meant to take the law into their own hands. It’s taboo. It’s all right for the privileged billionaire Batman to be a vigilante, beating up underclass street scum, but it’s not okay for young people to carry out vigilante justice. They are meant to accept their fate and become victims, such as in Never Let Me Go. Or, at best, turn to adults for help, who will intervene on their behalf. Really? That was a waste of time in the 1970s, adults just didn’t want to know, as Serial Killer and Goodnight, John-boy makes abundantly clear.
So, for me, this is something worth writing about – a hero fighting real life injustice and real life establishment villains. And what’s the alternative? For female protagonists, there’s a range of possibilities, but for male heroes, it’s most likely to involve two-dimensional but scary terrorists, CIA-created dictators, criminal scum or deranged psychopaths. There’s still horror, science fiction, fantasy crime-noire and historical novels, of course, but the possibilities in the present day are really limited. SF or historical stories can regularly slip under the radar of the gatekeepers because it was all a long time ago or in a galaxy far away, so who cares?
The success of 2000AD was based upon this premise. We consciously retreated from reality and regularly got away with some quite sensational and shocking stories because they involved robots, cyborgs or aliens, rather than humans. So our stories didn’t appear to be as hard-hitting as stories set in the present day. Appear. That said, I still personally see much of SF as a form of escapism and wish there were more film, comics and books focussed on modern times. It’s also possible to use a little subterfuge to get the green-light from the gatekeepers. I’m told writer-artist Bill Sienkiewicz got his wildly psychedelic series Stray Toasters past a Marvel editor by saying ‘It will be a bit like Die Hard’. Check out Stray Toasters and the comparison may well elude you! So there are ways. More on subterfuge later. After all, I did it with Marshal Law, where the hero, with a deep hatred of superheroes, was published by Marvel and is currently published by D.C. Comics, both premier homes of mainstream superheroes. This was definitely a case of ‘letting the fox in with the chickens’. And Law still has the feathers in the mouth slit of his gimp mask to prove it. These successes notwithstanding, it is a challenge to get past the gatekeepers and produce a story that has something valid to say without it being totally obscured by SF, fantasy or historical window dressing. If you succeed, your muse – and your audience – will love you for creating a genuine hero, rather than a phoney hero of the elite. Because, as John Lennon said, ‘A working class hero is something to be.’