What kind of villains are you interested in and where do you find them? In 2000AD, the greatest villains are undoubtedly Judge Death and Torquemada. Creating a dark version of a hero, like Dredd, is definitely a good way to go. Not only Judge Death but also Rico Dredd came from flipping a hero over to his dark side. In a similar way Blue Eyes and Grim Reaper are dark versions of my hero American Reaper, who appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine.
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Basing a villain on a schoolteacher, a cleric, or anyone else that you loathe is an excellent starting point. Especially if you have good reason to dislike them – then it can be a tremendous catharsis writing about them. Torquemada (and Judge Dredd himself) was inspired by my teachers Brother Solomon and Brother James. And the forthcoming Defoe story has a villain based on my old chemistry teacher. There was a mysterious darkness about the latter that I never really understood, probably because I was too young; all I knew was that it was there. But such a darkness can be enough in and of itself to create a villain.
I guess eventually I’ll run out of teachers, priests and nuns to feature as villains. That’ll be a pity because they need very little amplifying to turn into fantasy villains. Their costumes and their appalling behaviour were already verging on the fantastic. So many of them (in my experience, which was by no means unique) had their moral compasses pointing to hell.
Even in reality stories like Read Em and Weep they work well as bad guys. The nun headmistress really was that sinister. A school friend from my primary school days wrote to me recently and confirmed that I was always challenging the nuns as a seven-year-old:
‘I seem to remember, during our time with the nuns at St. Mary’s, that you always had a strong sense of natural justice and fair play. It seems a bit vague now, but I’m not sure this didn’t occasionally get you into a bit of conflict with The Little Sisters of Absolute Misery (or whoever they were) when you spoke up in some poor wretch’s defence. In our little gang, there was the perception that you were brave and would put yourself at risk (unwisely, we thought; we were all scared of penguin power) by speaking up if you saw something that was unjust. It was not unusual for ‘Paddy to be in trouble’ again but it was never for poor schoolwork, so what was it? I have, in my mind’s eye, an image of Paddy Mills being occasionally withdrawn from class ‘to be spoken to’; this memory is strong and indicates to me that this sort of thing happened several times.’
I dimly recall a confrontation with the headmistress where she tried to throttle me to get me to shut up. Below is the fictional version from Goodnight, John-boy, which is close to the reality. There was indeed a stained glass window depicting a tortured Saint Sebastian in her office, which I can still recall after all these years. Such an unhealthy image which speaks volumes about the true masochistic sub-text and message of the church. And there was a real life seven-year-old, who Konrad is based upon. He stepped out from behind a bus, was run over and killed and I always felt strongly as a child that he did it deliberately to end his misery; that the school was responsible because of the particularly awful way he was treated in the weeks leading up to his death. It’s an abiding memory of injustice that I’ve never forgotten. This is the kind of material that writers can draw on when creating villains. Note in this scene that it’s a sustained action-reaction sequence spiralling almost out of control. There’s as much conflict in it, and more subtext, than a conventional fight.
For me, the confrontation is, ultimately, a happy memory because the nuns don’t seem to have broken me as they broke so many kids. On the contrary. This is undoubtedly thanks to the support of my muse. Of course I hadn’t identified her at the time, but I could feel the presence of something urging me on to challenge the authority figure. I don’t suspect, I know my muse would have been chortling in the back of my subconscious in this scene where the nun gets her just desserts. So to speak.
Mother St Vincent’s bat sisters were also present to intimidate the hell out of Dave and ensure he never spoke of the Canon’s behaviour. Yet, already, she could see from the impertinent expression on his face, his horrid little eyes gleaming with delight, that this little monster was somehow enlivened by the thought of three nuns dealing with him. The very opposite eﬀect of what she had intended. He was meant to be awed by being ushered into the Holy of Holies and yet, perversely, he was enjoying every moment of it. As far as Dave was concerned, the more nuns the better. Ten nuns would have been good.
This made the headmistress afraid and somehow the child knew it; he sensed her fear. He couldn’t articulate it in his mind, couldn’t vocalize it with words, but the animal in him felt it intuitively and it gave him that slight smirk of triumph that also brought out the inner animal in Mother Saint Vincent. She was a small, Napoleonic woman, so she couldn’t tower over him, in fact, they were almost head to head, her features convulsed with rage behind her silver spectacles.
And yet she was afraid as she seized him by the throat and squeezed. Afraid of just what she might have to do silence this child who was endlessly talking about Konrad and the Canon and things that must never be spoken about. Because she had to protect the Church; nothing must ever damage its reputation. And that need and that fear drove her to violence, so, in that moment, she definitely wanted to kill him.
And the boy knew it. And he didn’t seem to care.
And so she squeezed, until he finally felt fear, causing her to increase her grip on his throat.
Now, at last, he was getting the message.
And, as his eyes bulged, he knew she was going to kill him and that was how it should be. St Sebastian looked down on him, glorying in his own pain. There was an inner calm and resignation about the boy that matched the martyr, but yet owed nothing to him, only to his inner being.
Because he knew his death would destroy the nun.
The accompanying nuns, warned her, ‘Mother… Mother… Please…Stop…’ And she realised she had almost gone too far.
But that didn’t actually stop her. Because it still had to be done. He had to be silenced. For the sake of the church.
It was the expression on Dave’s face as fear turned to resignation and now to triumph. She wouldn’t be able to hush up his murder as they had hushed up Konrad’s.
If there was a word in Dave’s brain as his young life slipped away, it would have been ‘Gotcha’.
It was that final defiance that brought her to her senses. Coughing and spluttering and breathing deeply, Dave returned to the land of the living.
And there was an inevitable gag reflex with unfortunate consequences for Mother St Vincent standing directly in front of him.
His school dinner was ejected in all its splendor on her black robes. Semolina: a pallid pink, after he had stirred in the little dollop of jam they put on top, diced carrots, mashed potatoes and spam luncheon meat, all thoroughly consumed following the exhortations of the school dinner lady and already partially digested. A second unidentifiable vomit, erupting from even deeper in his guts, also splattered all over her robes and crucifix.
He caught a treasured memory of the horrified expression on her face before he blacked out.
He awoke to find the antiseptically clean room was now septic. But the Sisters of Sorrow were well prepared for such everyday situations. A galvanized bucket of hot water, billowing Dettol-laced clouds of steam, was brought into the oﬃce; sawdust was liberally scattered on the floor of the batcave, Dave was ordered to clean the tiled floor. Disappointingly, they didn’t ask him to wipe down Vinegar Bottle herself.
The memory shook Dave with its significance. He had always thought he was afraid. Like when he received his fourpenny one every Saturday from Mr Cooper. Clearly this was not true.
In that moment, it occurred to Dave that kids needed to personally exercise their vengeance on adults. It was their right; why should it be passed to disbelieving, useless authorities? And they should do it in any way they could get away with. And his example showed there were many, many ways. He was destined for his role in this total war.
All super heroes have a seminal experience in their youth that they look back on and realise that the inciting incident – sometimes forgotten, yet secretly motivating their actions – is what makes the man.
So Dave, too, had an experience that confirmed the role destiny had chosen for him. He had vomited on a nun.
It was a seminal moment as well as a semolina moment.
No prizes for guessing who the villain Fabulous Keen – TV celebrity and national treasure – in Read Em and Weep is based upon. But he’s more than a composite of newspaper and TV accounts about a national treasure. Considerable research went into Keen; notably the curiously under-reported role of semi-masonic organisations in the Catholic church. In my story, Keen is a Knight of St Pancras, the patron saint of children, a fictional fraternal organization. It was only after I received confirmation from a number of people that I decided my own negative boyhood recollections of similar knights had more than a basis in reality and it was time to write about them. Of course, I’d been writing about them in ‘safe’ fantasy terms for years as Torquemada’s dreaded terminators.
But I’ve also had to search elsewhere for villains. You would imagine that colourful, foul-mouthed and nasty individuals would make perfect bad guys. But it’s not always so. Thus I faithfully featured in a screenplay a producer who was very unpleasant and very over the top, who I personally found fascinating. To my surprise, my script editor said they found the character too horrible, too cruel, too appalling and wanted him replaced with a ‘milder’ villain. The character in question wasn’t Harvey Weinstein, who I recall was featured in fictional form in the TV series Entourage, but it was someone of that ilk. So this is something to bear in mind when you’re casting villains: sometimes, it seems, they can leave too unpleasant a taste in the mouth.
Marshal Law COPYRIGHT © Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill
Gangs are safer and more acceptable as villains in comics, no matter how appalling their behaviour. Then it’s okay because they’re in a gang. There’s John Wagner’s brilliant Angel Gang. And my own Gangreen in Marshal Law, led by Suicida, who was so popular there were plans for him to have his own spin-off series. I came across the name ‘Suicida’ while I was researching guerrilla war in Central America. He was a real life gangster/terrorist – the kind who regularly turns up in TV series like Narcos. Then I overheard a college student ranting about authority and noted down their words: ‘They’re too full of themselves with their educated voices. If you try talking to them they just walk all over you with their big dictionary words. They try to bring you down. Make you look small. What they need is a smack in the mouth. I just want to smack the whole fucking world in the mouth!’ I featured this punk rant coming from Suicida in the opening episode of Marshal Law. Those words gave me the template to develop his embittered character further.
I’ll look at more villains next week.
“You would imagine that colourful, foul-mouthed and nasty individuals would make perfect bad guys. But it’s not always so. Thus I faithfully featured in a screenplay a producer who was very unpleasant and very over the top, who I personally found fascinating. To my surprise, my script editor said they found the character too horrible, too cruel, too appalling and wanted him replaced with a ‘milder’ villain.” – Thats something I’ve found too, with my own books. Even, or perhaps especially, when you create a character that is realistically bad or nasty or difficult quite often people say they dont like them and dont want to read such books. It’s an odd and not admirable way of thinking, it seems to me. An unnecessary limitation on creators, and less fun!
I think villains are of course one of the most exciting elements of any speculative fiction story. What are some of your favorites across all media?
A few big inspirational villanous characters to me are Marvel’s Ultron, The Fifth Element’s Zorg, Star Wars’ Grand Admiral Thrawn.
As a regular reader of your posts , they have been constantly engaging and quite frequently a treasure trove of information .Are there any plans for you to consolidate all your columns/posts into book form in the near future? Or perhaps even your recent posts on the craft into a “How-to Do Comics the Pat Mills Way” type book?
Looking forward to your upcoming Slaine book!
Thanks, Barry. Definitely! Probably ‘Storyteller’ will be out by the end of the year and ahead of the Slaine book which is taking longer to do.
That’s great news Pat, those are going to definitely be instant buys for me when they come out 👍🏻
Now that John Wagner is taking a back seat on Dredd, how about you stepping up and filling in some of the background on Rico and Joe as youngsters? There’s plenty of material to go at there, and you’d be the perfect person to expand on this era of Dredd’s life and character, and the contrast between the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’. Rico is still there as the darkest ‘shadow’ in Dredd’s background – the ultimate villain in Joe’s past above even Judge Death – and I wouldn’t trust anyone else to write him but you. The stories which mine those foundational aspects of Dredd’s world are always the strongest.
To be honest, without Wagner writing him regularly, Dredd just isn’t the same. Your input on that retrospective storyline would be fantastic until Wagner finds someone in tune enough to take over Dredd properly in the ‘present’ of the story. I’m assuming that you wouldn’t want to take on Dredd permanently – if you did, fantastic!
That’s very kind of you to say. But 2000AD have never asked me to, and I doubt they ever will. Because I don’t think it’s part of their policy. I imagine they prefer new writers who will be less vocal than me.