Crisis: Pat Mills Remembering the Comic That Changed The Game

Art & Culture

For a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, the iconic British sci-fi anthology 2000AD branched out into a sister title, Crisis. Crisis was a explicit shock of radical politics, satire, sci-fi, and youth culture. Created in part to match rival anthology Deadline, an adult comic threatening to render 2000AD irrelevant, Crisis swiftly became incredibly successful –popular enough to break out of the comics ghetto to become a mini phenomenon. Where America had the misanthropy of Daniel Clowes, or the social realism of Love & Rockets, Britain had Crisis; an aggy, entertaining manual for ravers, conspiracy theorists, trendies, lefties, and punk diehards. 

The anthology was led by the story Third World War (3WW). Written by long standing 2000AD & Judge Dredd author Pat Mills, 3WW focused on the stories of a group of young layabouts conscripted to serve in an ‘eco-army’ owned and funded by a multinational corporation. The army was tasked with peacekeeping in third world countries –essentially protecting the multinationals’ right to steal land from Africa and South America, while dressing the theft up as paternally motivated development projects. Over the years the story spiralled from its original setting to cover UK police brutality, imperialism in Kenya, shadowy groups of free masons, and the complex troubles of Northern Ireland. If nothing else, it earns a place in the history books as one of the first (if not the first) mainstream comics to feature multiple black characters in lead roles. Unashamedly polemic in its approach, and touching on everything from environmental politics, to food monopolies, to state surveillance, 3WW pre-empted the obsessions of current online activists by some quarter of a century. In light of the growing power of seed giants Monsato, the looming threat of TTIP, and the revelations about what actually went on in British Kenya, Third World War has proved to be disturbingly accurate.

It’s interesting then, that it remains so unknown. The main reason for this is that it has stayed out of print since dwindling sales forced Crisis to fold in 1991. Having read the comic as a kid, I jumped at the chance to buy a complete run I came across in a charity shop. What struck me was how relevant its themes were, and how a new generation are trying to express ideas that Mills and co were laying down so far back. I sought out Mills (it’s not hard, he’s still very active in British comics), and spent an hour discussing his attempts to bring some truth to sci-fi, to open out the voice of British comics, the controversies he got into, and the fact that maybe- just maybe – the whole series is about to finally be reprinted.

So what was the impetus that got Crisis off the ground?

At the end of the 80s and start of the 90s there was a genuine interest in the politics of food, and an interest in politics generally, and I felt like that needed nurturing and broadening. The tragedy of Crisis is that it fumbled the ball. There were other problems as well, but for a while at least it was very commercially viable. It definitely indicated that the readership is there if you can find a way to reach them and to hold their interest.

As the 80’s progressed and the political situation got much worse, there was a very strong reaction against Thatcherism. 2000AD readers had grown up with us; when the comic first came out in 1977, the readers were juveniles. Move on 10 or 12 years and they’re all students, and they’re looking at the world in a very critical way – and 2000AD has been winding them up on subjects. Crisis was very much a response to that. The case was put to me by quite a few 2000AD readers that criticising the authorities or the state through science fiction is a kind of disguise, and why not tell it like it really is? That interested me – I was almost stung by readers saying, look, tell it how it is, don’t wrap it up in science fiction bullshit.

But I would never have taken the risk to do a story like Third World War if the editor Steve McManus hadn’t rung me up and said, ‘I’d like you to do something on the politics of food’, so I started to look into it. At first I thought, God is this going to be too dull to do anything? But then as I dug deeper, I could see the dramatic possibilities. And also I started to become… let’s say… emotionally affected and deeply disturbed by what I was finding out. How many of us have the time to really look into banking, or to look at how transnationals operate, unless we’re journalists? It was quite a responsibility for me, and I thought God I better get this right- I’ve really got to know what I’m talking about!

I kept some sci fi elements, and there was criticism from some readers because of that; they felt like I was getting close to telling it like it is, but they wanted me to go further. I was like, well how do I do that and still tell an entertaining story? But that meant the readers had a real taste for politics and dramatizing them in comic form. That was tremendously exciting – whether that would be possible today is another matter, I think there’s an acceptance that there’s been a dumbing down in society to a certain extent. The media in general is nowhere near as abrasive as it was back then. I’d like to think it’d still work. When 3WW first came out one of the criticisms was that it was ahead of its time, well I think the times have caught up with at the very least… if anything things are much worse now!

What were you’re sources? The comic is peppered with ‘real world’ facts…

They were pretty solid – one reader told me he used them to help with his degree. I was going to pretty radical sources. There was a publisher called Pluto Press – I think they’re still around – they were publishing writers in the tradition of Noam Chomsky, who were going deep into the politics of food. One name that springs to mind is the writer Susan George who wrote quite emotionally on the subject with titles like A Fate Worse Than Debt. I remember having a fairly brisk debate with an economist I was on holiday with one year, and we got into food politics. I mentioned Susan George, and his reply gives you an idea of the weakness of the opposition to this. He said he knew about her, and her father was someone important in the EEC, and as far as he was concerned everything she was saying was just a way at getting back at daddy. And I thought, Jesus Christ, is this the best you can do? That these very balanced but emotional arguments that Susan George was putting forward about the third world and starvation was just the author getting back at her dad? That’s pathetic.

You made some quite bold decisions; your main protagonist was a black woman, which was pretty much unheard of in comics at the time – was that a conscious choice about representation?

It was conscious to a certain extent. One of the things I did was I looked at all my characters and wondered how I was going to get it right. So, every one of the principle characters, pretty much all the way through, was based on a real person. There’s nothing new about that, but they were based on someone that I knew very well, and had access to. So I would go to the person concerned and ask them, what would you do in this situation? I don’t think this is how writers usually operate. I think usually – and this often works very well – characters are shards of the writers own personality. But this was very different. In the case of Eve, I went to a particular young woman of that age, who had the right personality for the story.

Who was that?

Well, it was a friend of mine. Let’s put it that way. And I said, what would you do in this situation? [as in, you’ve been conscripted to an army that is run by a multinational] And they said, if I had to join some sort of conscript army, I wouldn’t be able to deal with it and I’d probably take an overdose. The original artist who drew 3WW was Ian Gibson – he objected and pulled out of the project. He thought, and it’s totally understandable, that to have a main character who had contemplated or attempted suicide was negative for young people to read. I disagree with him, but I respect his views.

And that’s how the series starts, with Eve trying to kill herself.

Yeah, and he had a real problem with that. But those kind of things were coming into the story so naturally because I’d just go down the road to one of my friends and say, OK, you’re in this situation, what do you do? And often their responses would be quite unusual, particularly in the case of the character of Fin. To start with there were two guys it was based on but over time it became just one, I guess he was more vocal and had a more dominant personality. So I’d say, OK, you’ve seen all these dead bodies, how do you react? Now my reaction would be horror; that’s a normal reaction. His was very different, he said, ‘oh I’d be interested in seeing what the cause of death was’ he was almost like a pathologist in his response. So I was really using this to build the stories, I’m told this is what Mike Leigh did with his TV dramas, he’d get his actors to adlib. In my case they often ran a little off the rails, they didn’t go where I was guiding them, and I had to be faithful to my sources, so sometimes some of the things they would say could be quite scandalous, quite shocking. Readers would write in saying, ‘I really disagree with what your character Fin is saying, it’s quite appalling.’ And I’d say, he’s a character in a story; we’re not suggesting any of them should be moral icons.

Even Ivan the punk character was very much based on a real person – the punk was a still a punk when I was interviewing him, and at the time I remember Grant Morrisson saying ‘why has Pat Mills got a punk in the story, punk is dead’, and I was thinking, well it’s not in Colchester mate! It’s still going strong just down the road from me hahaha….

I’m interested in the contemporary response to the story. Even now what it says would be seen as radical agit prop – did you face any backlash at the time?

Initially there wasn’t. Although I think foreign publishers backed away from it in terror. We got a hell of a lot of publicity on Crisis and particularly on 3WW, real mainstream media stuff. There were no bad reactions at the early stage of things, later yes we did. I could give you any number of anecdotes. We covered the Nestle baby food scandal, and the advertising manager of our publishers at the time sent a letter to the editor saying, ‘are you aware that Nestle are a major advertiser for our group?’ Nestle were definitely aware, they didn’t do anything as such, but there were definitely rumbles. Another incident that comes to mind, this was much later in 3WW, was where I did the story of the Mau Mau, and just what the British imperialists did in Kenya. The printers threatened not to publish that issue of Crisis. They were pretty old school, these older guys who’d lived through that period of Britain’s imperial history, and they very much objected to my viewpoint of the very fierce way the Brits dealt with the Mau Mau insurrection.

It’s interesting that the story of the Mau Mau you told has been very much vindicated in government tribunal, there’s been an admission that the British were far more savage in Kenya than the Mau Mau ever were

Yeah, it’s finally been acknowledged, only about 5 or so years ago. The tragedy of it is, they’ve waited until the majority of victims are dead so they only have to pay compensation to a handful. I do think we were ahead of our time there. One of the reasons I wrote that story was that I wrote it with a colleague of mine, Alan Mitchell, who’d got into conversation with a British veteran who’d been in Kenya. This veteran was trying to wind up my friend by saying, ‘oh this is what we did to your brethren in Africa..’ My friend being a writer, he just sat there patiently making a mental note of everything this rather unpleasant character was saying. But for me personally, growing up as a child I remember being told that the Mau Mau were the most evil people on earth, that they were savages, and I really wanted to reject that conditioning. If you’re told lies as a child about something, it probably sticks, you want to throw it out and say, this isn’t the truth, here is the truth. I guess I had my own personal agenda there as well.

There’s something I haven’t touched on – I felt like it was essential that, if you were going to do a story called Third World War it was important to explore third world issues wherever they turned up. So therefore I decided at a certain point, OK, when it’s all going on in South America, it’s distant from the readers, but the third world is a state of mind, and there were third world issues in Britain and the United States. So I thought, well if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to write about issues of race, and about black people in a way that I previously hadn’t. And I started thinking, well when a white guy starts doing it the chances of getting it wrong are so high! There was only one solution to my way of thinking, rather than writing something patronising, or being too politically correct or whatever, I bought in a black co-writer, that was Alan Mitchell. We wrote on a variety of subjects covering black issues. He was from inner city London and really knew what he was talking about, so we combined our talents.

The reaction to black issues from our readership – and it’s hard to pin this down, because no one’s going to come out and admit it – but there was a negative reaction from our ‘politically correct’ readership. They weren’t that comfortable with black issues being dealt with. They might argue that they didn’t like the way we dealt with them, I’d disagree, I think that they were authentic portrayals – for example when we had the Rastafarian, that was based on someone Alan knew, so we got the speech patterns right. Alan would ring up friends and say, how would this character say this or do this. The one story I was always thrilled to be part of was where Alan wrote a very negative image of a black guy; he was a character defrauding the welfare people with some bullshit story he’d come out with, it was echoing that Daily Mail prejudice, then we turned it round and showed another side of it. It was quite funny and satirical. I think it was really good to do those stories, and 3WW was probably one of the only platforms where we could tell stories like this to a mainstream audience. But, that said, there was some negative reaction from white readers. And I think it’s too easy to say, oh you over did the speech patterns, that’s a cop out. I think we got some things wrong dramatically, and perhaps we paid a price, but the editor Steve McManus’s view was that there was just a negative reaction to featuring black characters so heavily in the comic. I know that sounds crazy… but to give you an example, just to go back 10 years, I was featuring a black boxer in a comic called Action, which to me seemed so bloody obvious! The managing editor at the time said, well you can’t have a black boxer hero. And this is post Mohammed Ali and everything, so I said, of course you can, what’s the problem? He said, no, no, no, what you want to have is a white boxer, and give him a black side kid. I thought Jesus, I can’t believe I’m hearing this, this is 1976 and I’m hearing Lone Ranger and Tonto. I was quite naïve thinking all that stuff had disappeared at the end of the 60s. Right up to Crisis, readers were quite uncomfortable with the heavy emphasis on black characters, and I think it probably contributed to the decline of 3WW as a story in the comic.

So have you ever considered returning to Crisis?

Well I would love to. The last time I spoke to Titan there were doing a pagination on a 3WW reprint – it’s not definite, but they have got to a certain point with it, so they are probably going to do it. Were it to come out and sell in sufficient quantities that would mean that the climate to do something else of that sort would be there, and I would absolutely love to, because the world we live in is much more direct now, it’s much more obvious. As people go through the pages of 3WW they may say, well actually it’s much worse now. And something like the TTIP thing I would say is worse; it’s similar to what I was writing about, transnationals taking control of governments. It’s always been behind the scenes, but now it’s much more out in the open. It’s very sad knowing that transnationals are in effect saying ‘we are above government, if you put in place laws we don’t like, we’ll sue you’. So I’d love to bring in back. Whether I‘d be able to, I don’t know.

You can follow Pat Mills on Twitter here. 

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