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