Research in comics was a dirty word. It was seen as largely unnecessary, an indulgence, and an obstacle to the high-speed method of writing comics, which was the only way writers could make money – as they had no rights to their own creations. When I started 2000AD, I needed a library of science fiction: books on space, the latest inventions, visions of the future such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, illustrated histories of SF, plus classic SF novels by Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke et al. To reclaim my expenses, I had to get them signed off by the managing editor and went through a time-consuming, form-filling procedure. He looked at my various book claims with barely concealed hostility and scepticism, like I was pulling some kind of scam. After all, it was science fiction, horror and fantasy, so why the need for research? In the end, I was so fed-up with his passive-aggression, I gave up and just bought the books with my own money.
But research should be second nature if it’s a story or comic you care about. The problem was that, in comics, writers were conditioned by publishers not to care about their stories, to see them as ephemeral, disposable, and not to get angry if another writer took them over, or if an artist delayed drawing them for years – or even forever. It’s a problem that has still not gone away to this day.
But John Wagner and I both cared about our stories, greatly. So I know John spent an impressive amount of time researching his HMS Nightshade for Battle, including talking to navy veterans. Similarly, I read everything I could find on World War One for Charley’s War, spent time in the Imperial War Museum, and collected original postcards and magazines, which I actually used in the series itself.
I wanted to continue Charley into World War Two, but I soon discovered that there are few anti-war books available – even though there are some aspects of the conflict, at least, that are ignored in comics and shouldn’t be. For example, to quote the The Spectator: ‘Hitler didn’t start indiscriminate bombings – Churchill did.’ Veterans I’d previously talked to told me a somewhat different story to the simplistic, heroic and patriotic version of the war usually told in comics. For example, shooting fleeing Italians in the back ‘for fun’. Or how to beat up a prisoner during interrogation and make it look an accident.
My solution was to interview British Legion veterans, but this would require a research budget. The new managing editor said it was out of the question – even though no figure was discussed and even though Charley’s War was the number one story in Battle. So I walked. I believe he’d been hoping to get me off Charley’s War – as he had tried once before – and this was his chance. The harsh reality is that the majority of people in comics, then and now, are highly conservative and don’t want controversial stories. They prefer ‘entertainment’. I’d entered a sedate, establishment media enclave, imagining it was, or could become, rock and roll, which was somewhat naïve of me. The artist co-creator Joe Colquhoun had the courtesy to phone me and ask if I’d mind if he continued Charley into World War Two with another writer until his retirement. Of course I agreed and Joe did a superb job on it. But because it no longer had an anti-war tone, the series became unpopular with the readers and was quickly killed off.
I cite this example to show just how far research is seen as a dirty word in comics. But not only is it essential – it can be fun, or at least creatively rewarding. It’s possible I use some different research methods to many writers. Here are two examples.
There are some things many male writers are unlikely to get right. I’m thinking particularly of shopping. In Claudia Vampire Knight Book One (not currently available in English, I’m afraid) she arrives in Hell and goes shopping for a coffin in Herods – the top vampires department store. I think male writers, myself included, could attempt to capture that appetite for shopping that women have, but I doubt any of us would come close. After all, in the huge department store near where I live, there’s a sign saying ‘Man Creche’ at the entrance to a café – where wives can leave their husbands to drink coffee while they take their time shopping. So for the coffin-buying scene, I paid an ex-girlfriend, who I knew was an avid shopper, to tell me what she would look for if she was a vampire shopping for a coffin. If I’d written it solo, it would have been a brief scene, instead, it became a delicious three-page shopping tour-de-force! It’s those finer shopping details that count and I don’t think I could possibly match! Claudia begins by asking…
Claudia: Have you got a black leather coffin, made from human skin? Padded inside with lots of support for my back. Queen size so there’s room for my victim.
Assistant: Unfortunately, madam, the Ed Guine model is very popular and we’re temporarily out of stock.
Claudia then considers a Techno coffin, which she decides isn’t feminine enough. This is followed by the Black Rose coffin, which she rejects as too girly. So the assistant suggests the Dracula special with earth imported from Transylvania. She turns that down as too messy. But the assistant doesn’t give up.
Assistant: This is the Victorian model with extra space for your crinoline so you can emerge from your coffin ready to bite.
Claudia feels it’s too old-fashioned. The assistant is exhausted, but Claudia suggests she try the Techno coffin and the Black Rose coffin on a week’s trial.
Assistant: No, Madam. Because you’ll leave your shape and odour in the coffin. It could be very difficult to sell afterwards. Not to say that you smell, of course.
Claudia: There’s no need for that. I only asked. If you don’t mind me asking.
Claudia: Oh, well, I suppose I’ll have to take the Techno, after all. It is the most expensive. I don’t suppose you could carve a black rose on it or give it a black silk lining? That would be absolutely perfect.
Claudia’s equally exhausted male vampire companion tries to hurry her out of the store, but she’s not finished yet.
Claudia Vampire Knight, COPYRIGHT MILLS/TACITO/GLENAT
Claudia: Wait! Just one last thing…Could I have a discount?
Claudia: Well, it’s a little dusty. It’s been in the shop for some time. How many vampires have tried it already? Ten per cent would be enough. I’d be very pleased. And then we’d all be happy
That was hilarious to write. Another subject that features in comics a great deal is insanity. Villains in comics often seem to be insane, but it seems to me to be ‘off the peg’ insanity, not backed up by any research or reality. Accordingly, I asked another friend for some research input on the subject. They knew someone who had described his psychotic feelings in some detail. They were pretty chilling, so I featured a synthesis of them in a script, retaining their original speech pattern. Unfortunately, the artist rejected the story. He said it felt too real, too grim, too disturbing for him – which was exactly my intention, of course. Once again I’m reminded that the world of comics often seems to have more in common with People’s Friend. Eventually, I used the identical research material and scenario for another story.
Illustrated by Fay Dalton, it’s an American Reaper standalone ‘crime file’ story called False Flag. It features Blue Eyes, a serial killer on a subway train, deciding which fellow passenger/s he’s going to kill. It’s that situation we all dread – when someone who is drunk or insane gets on a bus or a train and we don’t know what they’re going to do or say next, and who they might want to confront. I really wanted to tap into that primal fear. Here’s an excerpt from his thoughts as he looks at the nervous people opposite him.
‘Nobody is who they seem. Everyone wears a mask. It’s not who they really are. The more normal they appear, the more they’ve got to hide. I can see they’re hiding. There’s that lie being told. They’re not real.’
His scared fellow passengers desperately try to avoid eye contact with him.
‘They try and avoid eye contact with me. They pretend this isn’t happening. Ignore me. Hoping I’ll go away. I’m not going away. They’re thinking about getting off at the next stop so they can escape the truth. That’s four minutes away. They’re never going to make it.
‘… I know they’re not whole human beings. Yet they persist with this lie. That’s why I’m here. To remove the lie.’
He goes crazy and opens fire on them.
‘Time to take away your masks!’
Because I was inspired by real life, I was able to write that story with great conviction.
False Flag Reaper Files by Pat Mills & Fay Dalton, COPYRIGHT © REPEAT OFFENDERS, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
A similar principle applies to Slaine. Because I was drawing on the original Irish sagas, the real life of the ancient Celts, I was tapping into their minds, imagining how they thought and it was a lot crazier than Blue Eyes!
Research can take forever; so if you possibly can, write about people and places you know really well, disguising them if necessary, as science fiction or fantasy. It can cut out much hard work. Unfortunately, my muse often drives me to write history, so I don’t have that option. The novel I’m currently researching is set in World War One. It’s a very different scenario to Charley’s War but equally hard-hitting. The research seems endless, but, if you’re driven to write a story and your muse is backing you, it’s never onerous.
Here’s an example of the research process I’m currently going through on one important aspect of the book: the train finale I mentioned in an earlier blog post.
I came across an account of an unusual train that may have travelled behind the lines of the Western Front and decided it was perfect for drama, action and colour. Now I need to characterise some of its equally unusual passengers who play a supporting role in the plot. This will involve skim-reading five memoirs which are, fortunately, available free online. I will then colour mark key sections for easy reference. They are minor characters, primarily there for colour, so we will only catch brief glimpses of them in the story. One of the dangers with minor characters is that they can be either flat and uninteresting, or take up too much space in the narrative. So I’m looking for quotes or attitudes that briefly convey their personalities. If I don’t find any good quotes, I have alternative dialogue ready from my imagination, which may actually be better.
But the toughest challenge has been to confirm which railhead this train was likely to have steamed towards after leaving Boulogne. It has to be Amiens so that it’s a suitably long journey, especially in wartime. I’m looking for details concerning when and where my passengers disembarked. The railhead would have been a massive and atmospheric complex – endless supply trains would have pulled in here with troops and munitions for the Battle of the Somme and subsequent battles. Once I have that information, I can then let my imagination loose on the rest of the story.
With this in mind, I bought the BBC’s Railways of the Great War DVD, presented by Michael Portillo. It’s a heartfelt, emotional and fascinating series, but not as relevant to me as its title suggests. There’s the odd reference to the railhead at Amiens; a supply depot at Abancourt to the south; and some great film footage of massive, towering supply dumps which may come in useful. But it’s not the information I’m really after. When this happens, it usually means I’ve already got everything I need or am likely to find, and it’s time to move on. It’s too easy to get bogged down in research. So if I don’t find any useful descriptions of the railhead itself elsewhere, I will simply cut that scene and move on to the next one which will feature the protagonist approaching the trenches.
However, in the course of watching the documentary, I noticed a surprising omission, which the programme makers must have been aware of. I was so taken aback, I’ve now watched the series a second time, just to be sure, and, there’s no doubt, a crucial feature is missing.
This concerns how our forefathers went to the Western Front in ‘cattle-trucks’ with ‘40 men, 8 horses’ inscribed in French on the side of the wagons. It’s a famous, even iconic image of the Great War, and I remember seeing many photos of the trucks when I was researching Charley’s War. Not anymore it seems.
You would imagine the grim conditions under which our ancestors went to war would be crucial, but then the documentary did appear in 2014 during an extended period of history revisionism that continues to this day. So its tone is that the Great War was a ‘just war’, a patriotic conflict in which extraordinary and necessary sacrifices had to be made. Its subliminal message being that in modern ‘just wars’, such sacrifices may also have to be made. Thus it cuts from a Tommy of the Great War boarding a steam train to a modern soldier boarding a modern train. A poem of sheer hate towards the enemy is quoted at length, and the anti-war poetry of Sassoon and Graves is dismissed.
I’ve given talks and written elsewhere in some detail about how the revisionists operate. To achieve their jingoistic objectives during the centenary years of the Great War, they have noticeably excluded from public broadcasting most, if not all, anti-war films, TV series and veterans that would challenge their carefully presented propaganda.
So it’s fascinating to see, or rather not see, this blatant example of revisionism. Normally, they’re better at covering their tracks and have their excuses ready for why a classic anti-war film wasn’t shown on TV. ‘Contract problems’ is a typical excuse. Censorship in Britain is subtle but widespread and usually involves plausible deniability that it even exists. It’s hard to imagine what their excuse would be this time. Similarities to World War Two cattle-trucks going to concentration camps, perhaps? It’s not a similarity that had ever occurred to me before. But if there is such a disturbing comparison, that’s no reason for the cattle-trucks not to be shown. Because so many Tommies were travelling in them to an equally tragic and awful fate.
Whatever the reason, I think our forefathers deserve better. So here is a photo and a cartoon of them in their cattle-trucks. And accounts of what the Tommies themselves thought about this method of transport.
The men complained bitterly about the way they were transported to the front-line. As Private W. T. Colyer commented: “We were not expecting to travel first or even second class on the train, but we thought we might have a reasonable chance of 3rd. It turned out we were to go about 7th class; i.e. in plain cattle-trucks with a little straw on the floor of them.” Another remarked that the experience convinced him that the: “Army have no consideration for the men at all”. (Spartacus Educational)
‘I look along the train…it’s the longest I’ve ever seen – with open gun-carrying wagons hitched behind the engine, followed by what looks like half a mile of cattle-trucks.
Everyone bears the same legend as ours stencilled on its side:
…The train’s on the move again…Maximum speed now, a steady twelve miles an hour. Most of France seems to be uninhabited. Everywhere we’ve been, everywhere we go, it’s flat and covered with this greyish snow…’ (The Reluctant Tommy by Ronald Skirth, Duncan Barrett.)
Fergus Mackain from the postcard series “At the Base” (“Humorous postcards, artistically coloured”).
Photo from The Great War … I Was There! Undying memories of 1914-1918. Edited by Sir J. Hammerton
Reading these accounts was a reminder to me of what research should be about.
A search for truth.