The future looks rosy

Pat Mills Q&A

 

I posed some questions about the dearth of quality girls’ comics to ‘the godfather of British comics’ Pat Mills. He is a keen advocate of girls’ comics, having begun his career in the 1970s working on British girls’ titles Romeo, Tammy, Jinty, Pink, Girl, Sandie and Misty, before helping to revitalise British boys’ comics and going on to create 2000AD and other titles. With Pat Mills leading the way, the future of girls’ comics looks very promising. Here’s what he had to say on the subject…

Comics for girls

You began your career in the 1970s on girls’ comics. Do you look back on those days fondly?

Very much so. Those comics didn’t disappear because the market wasn’t there but because there weren’t enough professionals keeping them alive.

This is something I’m trying to change at the moment and I’m making a little progress.

Did you have a favourite title(s)?

I guess it would have to be Misty, which I originally devised as a female equivalent of 2000AD, but I dropped out when the publishers didn’t offer me the right deal. I then became an advisory launch editor.

Did you have a favourite story/strip?

Probably ‘Moonchild’, my lead story in Misty. Based on Carrie it was the first story to have a more visual and adult approach. Bunty was great and original in its heyday, but it could be rather “young” on occasion. I wanted Misty to be cool. Sadly there was still some old-style thinking amongst the professionals and it was not as cool as I’d have liked.

Moonchild

 

Can you pinpoint what it is that makes a comic written exclusively for girls different from one for boys? Do you write differently for girls?

Girl as lead character. Although they may be unisex, there is an emphasis on the heroine. The objectives are different… a typical heroine wants to overcome obstacles to achieve some sport objective which provides some action. A typical hero for boys wants to kick ass and possibly destroy something! Okay, that’s superficial, but you get the idea. There are key differences as I found to my cost. Thus girls love mystery (what’s in the locked room?) boys don’t care.

Girls’ stories influenced boys, thus my very successful series Charley’s War (anti-war, sixteen-year-old kid in the trenches of the Great War) is essentially a girls’ comic in its thinking. When new volumes are reprinted it outsells all the macho superhero stuff in Forbidden Planet (the number one comic shop in the UK), for between two to four weeks. This is so embarrassing to my superhero-orientated peers you will rarely hear it mentioned, which is why I enjoy relating it.

Basically the industry is now run by blokes who love superheroes and they don’t want girls’ comics (or girls’ comic thinking) spoiling their fantasies. They all ignore the fact that girls’ comics used to easily outsell boys’. What a surprise! It’s common knowledge that women have always bought more reading matter than blokes. But that, too, is embarrassing – so it’s quietly ignored.

The gap in the market is actually a chasm!

Do you write for girls knowing that boys will read them too? When you wrote for Jinty etc did you hope that brothers would also pick them up? (My husband says he always read his sister’s comics and he was a big 2000AD fan!)

Yeah, I’m aware of that. I used to read girls’ comics and girls’ novels (What Katy Did, Heidi etc) when I was a kid and when we did a recent straw poll, a twelve-year-old boy really enjoyed the girls’ stories we selected. That’s why with a revival I think we would avoid using full-on terms like “girls’ comics” which sounds rather dated, so boys can read them, too. But it’s vital to keep that “girls’ comic thinking” at the core of any revival, even if the phrase is not used.

In an article written by John Freeman in 2004 (“Let’s Hear it for the Girls”) you are quoted as saying girls’ comics were “destroyed from within”.

Yes, that’s right.

As you were working within the industry at the time, do you think this was the main reason for the decline of girls’ comics? Did girls’ interest in comics change, or was it more of a cultural shift? Perhaps the existing titles were unable to adapt and appeal to that generation of girls?

The main reason for the decline was the negative and even hostile attitude to girls’ comics from professionals and publishers – an attitude that continues to this day.

Most creative talent then and now either wants to do art house rather than mainstream or receive a proper financial reward and acknowledgement for their stories. When that was not forthcoming and faced with negativity, many left the industry. It has nothing to do with changing trends or demographics – although that will sometimes be used as an excuse. Many of us went on to revive the flagging male comic market and this left a hole in the girls’ market.

You then went on to write for and create new boys’ titles such as 2000AD; did you miss writing for the girls?

Totally. I still do.

There were some strong female characters in the 2000AD stories you created; did you write the stories to appeal to girls too?

Yes, as far as that was feasible.

Comics today

I have spoken about girls’ comics to many parents, teachers and comic creators over the past couple of months; there has been unanimous agreement that there is a gap in the market and much support for something new.

That’s good to know and I’m currently trying one approach with one publisher. If that fails, I will try another. There’s certainly strong interest – the key is to get them to reach for their cheque books, though! I’m one of the last professionals from the original girls comic boom era, so I feel I have some responsibility to do so.
 

NewsstandsNewsstands1

What do you think of the quality of children’s comics and magazines available on the newsstands today?

They’re aimed at a younger audience and seem pretty shallow. Or they’ve picked the wrong material (e.g. the recent Best of Misty was actually the worst. Whoever chose it didn’t understand the market). Or they’re poorly packaged for reading – thus the Best of Bunty is a great sampler but no one could get into the stories and it’s clearly not designed for that. I also wondered about the content – I recall far better stories which were not included. Probably because the editor didn’t completely understand or know which stories worked and WHY.

A notable exception is W.I.T.C.H.E.S. Slightly younger than the age group that I know, it was very cool, fashionable and interesting – at least to start with. This was an international best seller – all over the world except for guess where? UK and USA. What a surprise. There’s something in our sensibility that is resistant to a product which sells in Croatia, Denmark, France, Italy and I’m told even in the Middle East. I actually read passive-aggressive comments from the US parent house towards W.I.T.C.H.E.S. I was left with the distinct impression they didn’t want their “junior” European publishing house upstaging them. Of course not. Let’s stick to Disney pink princess vapidity. It may have appeared in the UK, but it didn’t make an impact.

If a publisher or editor doesn’t want something they can be passively aggressive towards it and kill it. For a comic to work, it needs pro-active professionals and enthusiasm and energy with knowledge of what the Market wants (rather than what they want). This is at the heart of why British mainstream comics largely died and the malaise is still there today.

It’s particularly interesting that the teachers agree, as comics can help to improve/advance children’s literacy skills, especially “reading for meaning”; in KS2 literacy lessons the children often use storyboards to show their understanding of a story.

Absolutely. Although the subversive nature of comics is at the heart of why they worked. The middle-class Eagle worked, because of exceptional talents, but most of its successors failed because of a conscious need to impose education which kids will resist. For example, there’s a magazine called Aquila (latin for Eagle) put together by teachers, available by mail order and hostile to mainstream comics. I bet that sells like a lead balloon, no matter what they say to the contrary.

The reason mainstream (aka working-class) comics worked is because they reflected what readers rather than teachers wanted. Thus The Guardian loathed 2000AD when we first appeared – to my great delight. If they hated it, I knew I’d got it right.

There seems to be a huge jump from pre-school comics to commercially branded magazines for older children. Many of the magazines available to Key Stage 2 girls contain advertising, not much substance and barely any stories. The young girls who I know love reading, playing and just being girls; they’re not particularly interested in the latest fashions/pop stars. Do their advertising profits or their readers’ desires drive these magazines? Are they encouraging an aspiration to be older when girls should be allowed to be girls?

I totally agree with you. The girls’ stories I’ve devised and want to revive are free from those elements.

Seeing my own daughter’s interest, excitement and enthusiasm for the secondhand comics and annuals I’ve found for her, I think there is a need for a new contemporary girls’ comic. Do you agree?

Yes. I’ve pitched one and am waiting to see what happens. It has been adjusted for a 2011 sensibility, but its core will remain the same, because those stories from the 1970s still work today. A good story is not ephemeral – it will always be a good story.

Even though I don’t like them (for their middle-class “values”), Enid Blyton’s stories still appeal today, despite the negative press. Because she knew how to write. If I have the time, I want to analyse Angela Brazil who predated Blyton and see if I can identify on-going story elements that are relevant today. Because once again she knew how to press buttons. I’m also told her stories were totally innocent, although I recall buying a friend a book about Brazil’s heroine Lesbia. That seems a bit unnecessary – but perhaps subversion didn’t start in the 1970s. I guess every author has some kind of agenda whether it’s conscious or otherwise. In my case it’s anti-establishment and anti-middle class, as is fairly obvious I fear (!!)

Harry Potter is set in a classic boarding school. So is Never Let Me Go (although I really dislike it for its passive characters, no matter how stylish and fashionable I’m told the author is. Heroes and heroines should fight back against oppression, not take it). So some kind of boarding school story is high on my list!

Many parents I know spend lots of money on children’s magazines, as many of them cost about £3 each. The variety of children’s magazines is huge and people do buy them, because that’s the only thing available. Why not more comics full of stories instead? Is the choice of comics different today simply because there isn’t one? Can a comic that contains only stories work in today’s market?

The reason they’re not there is because most professionals don’t like mainstream comics very much. They want to appeal to elite audiences because of the financial rewards or prestige it will bring them. Although writing for mainstream is much harder.

Recently – when we did that poll – I was delighted to know ten-year-old girls thought my stories were great. That meant a lot more to me than some “prestige” award from an industry which has largely devoured itself through its obsession with superheroes.

Comics in the future

Many newspaper and magazine publishers are extending their frontiers on the Internet. Comics look great online, on computers, iPads and smart phones, where readers can interact with the story and individual images. As many children have access to the Internet, do you see digital media as a way for children’s comics to forge a future? Do you think a digital comic could open up a new audience?

Digital is the direction I’m coming from. Paper would be secondary. Whether we like it or not (and many don’t!) digital is the future.

In my limited research I’ve spoken to a large number of enthusiastic contemporary comic creators – there is a wealth of talent out there! It would be great to have some new comics, be it in paper or digital form for children to read and enjoy, weekly or even daily.

That’s my plan… To start with one digital comic and then expand. Formulae is everything in fiction. The wrong formula and it’s dead in the water. Art house creators are about personal expression, mainstream is about following story tramlines. Many creators don’t wish to do this, seeing it as a restriction on their vision. The trick is combining the two – not easy but possible. But I need to ensure the right business structure is also in place to make it happen. It’s looking promising.

Children love stories, be they traditional, Sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, jeopardy or another genre, and this love is reflected in their exciting and adventurous playground games and in the huge success of Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Star Wars and similar series. Which kind of stories do you think make a successful comic? Should a comic have a variety, or stick to one type of story/genre?

Bitter experience has taught me that children want one type of story/genre per comic. As adults we think variety would be great. Not so. Or not in the way we think as adults. Theme is everything – which kids understand immediately but adults are pretty slow on, often failing to recognise that theme is vital. Or even to understand what a theme is. I learnt that the hard way. I found any story that was slightly different to the others (usually in tone) would be pounced on and torn apart by the readers. Often unfairly and with a Lord-of-the-Flies savagery! I doubt today’s kids are different. These are lessons you never ever forget!

My daughter often wants to buy a book, but at roughly £5 each it gets expensive (we try to buy secondhand and borrow library books instead). A friend of mine was a great fan of the inexpensive “Picture Story Library” comic books. Do you think there a place for these in today’s children’s market? Perhaps publishers could consider releasing their back catalogue, or are the stories too old fashioned?

Good point. I have some personal insights into this. The potential is there and there’s around (say) 25% of the back catalogue which is cool and will work. 75% doesn’t work and is dated. But publishers don’t know which is which and are likely to print the wrong stuff – for all the reasons I’ve given (and more) about professionals. Hence the Best of Misty was the Worst of Misty.

It’s a jungle for other reasons, too, which I’d better not get in to here.

But your optimism is confirmed by one example – Commando… It recently went digital and has excellent digital sales AND paper sales went up too.

You and I can immediately see where that could lead the industry, but don’t hold your breath. Remember – the majority of people in comics don’t like mainstream, or don’t understand it, or don’t care, or want to impose an art house perspective or (worse) a middle-class perspective, or want to work for America (seeing Britain as beneath them or just a stepping stone to better things), or don’t have a pro-active publisher wanting to make it happen. If that sounds disgraceful, you’re right. It is. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: recently one leading publisher had to turn down reprinting a proven successful girls’ comic because none of his editors were interested including female editors.

You will note I barely mention female journalists/editors/writers in classic comics. This is because the majority (there were brilliant notable exceptions) actually hated girls’ comics because they wanted to work on features for teenage magazines and saw girls’ comics as embarrassing. That’s why us blokes mainly wrote and edited them – because we didn’t think it was beneath us and what would we know about teenage make-up and fashion?!! So you see very little has changed – good and bad – over the years!

Mulling over the comics of our childhood with friends and fellow parents, it seems most of us had regular access to comics when we were children:

We bought copies with pocket money, reserved copies with newsagents or subscribed weekly. We read our friends’, neighbours’ and relatives’ comics; we read them at sleep-overs, we poured over annuals all year long and re-read great piles of comics when we couldn’t get to sleep. Our bedrooms had a large heap of comics stored somewhere, and we read a huge selection of titles.

I feel for this generation missing out on all those wonderful, creative stories; it’s such a shame that the variety we had isn’t there anymore. Do you think today’s children are missing out too?

Completely. That’s why I’m so passionate about it.

You have been alluding to a possible return of girls’ comics; can you shed any light on your intentions?

Some clues above. It’s going to be a battle but I’m optimistic. I think it would broadly speaking be a digital girls’ mystery/supernatural.

Do you know of other past writers and artists keen to revive girls’ comics?

I’m the last man standing I’m afraid. One exception, Jenny McDade was writer on ‘Bella’ for Tammy. Very popular. She went on to write ‘Supergran’. She’s currently working on a female graphic novel. We were so desperate for an artist that a competition was held with a 1K prize. We found a fantastic young artist.

One other promising sign… I wrote some short digital strips for inFamous2 publicity. They will be on their website. That is a promising intro to a new generation of mainly female comic artists and mainly female-orientated strip.

It’s not much, but it’s a start!

Thanks for listening.

Pat

Image is copyright of Egmont, image is used for review purposes only.

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4 thoughts on “The future looks rosy

  1. Wow, what a great and insightful interview! I had no idea that the politics between editors and publishers was that bad. All the artists I know are so keen to do something like this, I always assumed everyone in the UK industry was feeling the same way as us!I never imagined that the classic problems of pretentiousness/self image/fashion, that float around all art scenes, had that much effect on the industry! I always thought that when its the mainstream industry, people dont think like that so much 0_0Well I sure wish Pat luck in his ventures into this! An encouraging interview!! 🙂

  2. Great to hear that Pat Mills is still trying to shake up the comics industry from the inside. He appears to be one of the few people in it who actually understand the audience.I have been reading 2000AD and comics by its alumni for 30 years. I also used to read Bunty and the like when I was younger. I suspect that the type of relaunch Pat is talking about needs to be built on new talent who don’t have the baggage of the old system. How about using Kickstarter or similar to fund a trial and prove it to a publisher. They will pick it up quickly enough if they can smell the money :-)All the best for your mission, Andy.

  3. Read this article, and interview with Pat Mills, with interest, as someone who contributed artwork to many of the DC Thomson girls titles such as Bunty, Tracy, etc. in the early 80’s. So if this ‘new’ title ever goes ahead, and my stuff appeals [it may not] do get in touch. Of course, after reading the comment about it needing ‘to be built on new talent who don’t have the baggage of the old system’, which I don’t agree with, maybe I’m past my ‘sell by date’. lol.

  4. I found both the article/interview and the responses posted so far to it both intriguing and frankly annoying. Some of the points Pat Mills makes indicate some ability to analyse things but too often these are subverted by lazy and, revealingly, self satisfied comment. Let’s unpack one or two. First, who on earth are these middle classes to which reference is made? Or for that matter working classes who, Pat seems to claim, are the real inheritors of his proper comic sensibility? And of course, to which of these angel/devil class groups does Pat think he belongs? Does he float amongst classes, has he achieved classlessness? What is his postcode? Here, too, is the inevitable ‘Guardian syndrome’ comment – the representative of all things despicable (though, of course, not the real rotten core, that accolade goes to the redtops as has been so graphically revealed). I have to dismiss Pat’s notions of class out of hand. Something a little more rigorous is required which is not met by setting up the eponymous ???middle classes’ as the repository of everything negative. Pat will be talking about ‘the kids’ next.I also find the strange mixture of ‘trust me I’m the professional that shook the comic world’ stance linked to the most conservative, with or without a capital c, ‘analysis’ of readership groups and gender difference sadly contradictory. Of course, the blindingly obvious addition to this sort of popkultur approach is the distrust of those arthouse types who refuse to see the real (wait for it) world. I do agree about the uneasy, cap-in-hand relationship with the USA and would agree with a far more stringent attack on all that Disney has come to stand for. Equally, reference to the real and potential profile of comics in other parts of the world, and particularly of Europe could reveal some interesting comparative material and a better basis for class comments if evidence for such exists. There might be some uncomfortable arthouse moments however. And Oh Dear, aren’t those females who don’t promote what Pat sees as the formula for comics for females annoying? Now, if Pat himself finds the field so messy and his own work and pitches the victim of editorial and other politicking, how much more, in a dreadfully male dominated industry, will female contributors? Perhaps Pat should be more perceptive here and allow that what he finds difficult from his lofty perch, might be almost impossible from a female career perspective. I have been a keen comic reader all my life, which is now in its sixth decade. I have had much fun finding back copies of all sorts of things on ebay and am still searching for a particular horror comic that went around the playground when I was 10, causing huge fright and a feeling of having the forbidden. Some of these glances back have been at ???girl??? comics like Romeo – and the stereotyping for even that date is so awful as to be genuinely funny now. The same could be said for the caricatures to be found in Adventure, Hotspur, Eagle…..What binds them all, what makes them different, what is the real subversive element even when the plotline reinforces every establishment need, is that they are VISUAL. That is the subversive, the active thing. For once words are secondary, even when the publication still contains block type stories. I remember the Eagle for the wonderful Dan Dare illustrations, the Mekon lives on in my memory – these things transcend class, or rather they are classless in the Benjamin construct of ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. The Beano was the staple for me as a child, as with most of my Brummy friends. It makes an interesting comparison to look at the cleaned up imagery of the most recent Beano???s in comparison with what was published in 1953. More recently (though hardly recent) I was excited by early editions of Shockwave, the sadly short lived Revolver (2000 ad!!!, who would have thought it? Bit Guardian friendly arthousy stuff) and Black Orchid that came from them. Perhaps the examples I have offered (scant and not representative I know) are too ???arthouse??? or too ???middle class??? or possibly too likely to be praised by The Grauniad.I finish with this because I have to express the greatest distrust with people in influential positions who deal in such clich??s. And I am, as always, saddened by people who seem to place glass or other ceilings over whole groups of others of both genders with their formulaic and proscriptive attitudes. Never mind you workingclass people, don???t you bother with those Guardian reading, middle class arthouse tossers ??? my stuff will keep you safe from those destructive ‘middle class’ things that you must never want. Yes, sounds bunk, is bunk ??? the smell of bullshit wafts into the air.

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