Conskipper may be brand new, but our journalists have been covering the world of pop culture conventions for years. The following interview was originally conducted by Nick Banks as a freelancer on December 9th, 2019.
Fans who grew up reading comic books in the 1980s are sure to recognize such 2000 AD staples such as the ABC Warriors, Strontium Dog, Slaine the Horned God, and the biggest export from the English weekly comic, Judge Dredd. If you haven’t been keeping up with the work being done in 2000 AD over the past years, you may have missed writer Pat Mills and and artist Leigh Gallagher’s Titus Defoe, another take-no-prisoners hero, cut from the same cloth as many of previously mentioned legends.
The latest Defoe serial,’Defoe the Divisor’, is currently running in 2000 AD and original creator Mills and current artist Stewart Moore took some time out of their busy weekly schedule to introduce the character to new audiences and describe his current escapades in space.
For those unfamiliar with Defoe and the concept of the story, how would you describe it?
Pat Mills: 17th century Steampunk fantasy background with zombies following the disaster of 1666 when an Alien comet brought the Dead back to life. Defoe is a Leveller – one of the great heroes of the British Revolution, largely unknown today, thanks to our education system which has carefully removed most references to the Levellers. But for a brief period the Levellers may have changed the course of history – bringing democracy to Britain and getting rid of the Ruling Class for good. Set against this background, there is a plan to send a British spaceship to the Moon to conquer it for the British Empire and Defoe is asked to provide security.
Stewart Moore: The favourite summary came from a ten year old boy on Twitter. He went out on Halloween as Titus Defoe and when asked why he loved the story he answered “Because it’s history and space and gods and zombies…”. The Defoe series begins with the great fire of London caused by a meteor impact carrying a pathogen that re-animates the dead. So it perfectly balances between the real world and a clockpunk reality.
Defoe is a blend of science fiction, horror, and historical fiction. Is it difficult to work with these various genres? How do they all add up to the sum of Defoe?
Mills: It’s fine. There are several Baroque 17th century novels exploring similar themes and I’m a history buff, so it’s not really tough.
Moore: Visually that meant a massive amount of research into an incredibly rich era of plans, drawings, conceptual visions of the godhead, masonic illustration, architecture, The Prison Series and so much more. I settled on trying to reach back to a classic early 20th century illustration style with baroque notes here and there, that way even the drawings themselves evoke an older fashioned drawing quality …well, I tried. The great EC Comics were never far from my thoughts. EC started publication in 1944 and easily blended between horror and sci-fi, with the same artists working across titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. But I still wondered how well a Clock-Steam-Raypunk blend would work and still not lose Defoe fans.
It was a bold idea for Pat to take Defoe and the Zombies into space because it could push things too far for ‘Defoe world’ and its fans, that was a risk, but it also opened up, quite literally, a whole new space of possibilities. It expanded the world into the cosmos.
The artwork and look of the series is also very diverse, with steampunk technology, as well as the visceral scenes of carnage. As an artist, how do you go about creating Defoe’s world? Do you alter your style based on the unique material?
Moore: I did alter my style significantly. In short the style is supposed to be what an artist, in the 1940’s, might have drawn if he had been given the brief to draw a comic based on an old German Expressionist horror film called The Divisor – that was trick I tried to play on myself. I watched many old UFA films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, M. Each morning as I drew I would run the Swedish masterpiece The Phantom Carriage on my ipad, so it was always at the corner of my eye. The Criterion version has a particularly haunting soundtrack and the atmosphere it generates is fantastic. There are direct visual links, to my eye, between TPC and David Lynch and, very famously, Stanley Kubrick found his ‘Here’s Johnny!’ scene in TPC.
The style that emerged for The Divisor is unique to it and won’t be repeated again, it points more to the Baroque than the modern ‘less is more’ view of the world and art. It evolved mostly by choice based on what I know of the development of art and design in that time. I’m a big fan of classical art and many obscure and strange art directions. I looked at the developments across science and design and tried to echo the rampant creativity of the 1600’s. Some of it was pure luck. I found that the early Bedlam hospital happened to look a lot like a chateau near my house. The window count was the very same, same frontal stairs, similar gardens. It was uncanny really. So much so that I wondered if the architects had played a cruel joke on the aristocrats by building them a copy of the ‘palace of lunatics’ to live in! The sarcophagus was inspired by a stone vase in the garden of the chateau, darkened after years of pollution.
The nods and links to science and mysticism, film history & history itself are very numerous, almost every page has something. The gravestones, for example, echo the names of horror luminaries. One grave has “Frederick William Plumpe”, as a reference to the real name of F W Murnau, director of Nosferatu. Other references include Plan 9 from Outer Space or H P Lovecraft, even the 1970’s British children’s TV show Rent-a-Ghost gets a nod. On a serious note I found links between science and maths and the story of Ezekiel (that I’ve yet to share). I looked at the drawings of Robert Hooke who had inverted telescopic lenses to build a microscope to study the microscopic world. Tons of things. It’s a bit obsessed really. The base gantry for example that holds the Dutch rocket in position is based on a design the physicist Huygens drew to explain lightwaves. Huygens is the chief rocket scientist in this story (on the Dutch side – It’s a space race). Anyway, Huygens also invented the pocket-watch. So I tried to make the rocket lighters more watch-like. Little things like that happened all the way through, some resolved enough to be obvious, others just suggestions and fairly invisible.
How does Defoe resemble some of your other strong-jawed protagonists at 2000 A.D. and how does he differ from them?
Mills: My heroes are generally working class, like Defoe. Thus he’s a sedan chair carrier, the equivalent of an Uber or black cab driver today. If you look at popular classic fiction, the heroes are invariably from the Ruling Class – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Scarlet Pimpernel etc. This is not coincidence, its deliberate so we ‘look up to our betters’. We’re overdue to reverse this. Defoe differs probably only by outer trappings of period and job, but deep down he has a great deal in common with Slaine, ABC Warriors, and so forth. They’re all working class heroes.
Is your approach to the story altered by the fact that it is broken up into short chapters, as opposed to a monthly title or graphic novel?
Mills: Not really. It ensures the story gives weekly value. But British comics have always been ‘condensed’ and give strong story value for money. Monthly titles and graphic novels can sometimes erode that very British criteria by proceeding at too leisurely a pace. But traditionally British comics often told stories in three pages and covered lots of ground. I’ve noticed a trend to similarly condense in movies – rather than spin things out so that’s encouraging. I think American comic writers would find writing six page sections quite strange and demanding.
Moore: Yes, some visual elements have to be repeated here and there because some readers may not remember or have seen the previous issue, so you have to keep echoing things and especially if that component is to become important or of use later. In a book the reader can always flick back and see where that ‘thing’ came from, or the pace is not broken by several weeks of issues. I think the intensity of what I drew is lost a little with only six pages a week because the whole thing glimpsed, in a book it will flow better.
Zombies are a tried and true staple of horror fiction, yet they feel unique in Defoe. What do you attribute this to?
Mills: That’s good to know. In “The London Hanged” – an earlier Defoe story – I gave each of the zombies character inspired by the famous book The London Hanged. So their crimes in life affected them in death. Often hanged for petty theft. And many were Diehards- not Bruce Willis, but the original use of the term. They would go their deaths laughing and joking with the mob, leaping from the gallows. Hard men! In this new saga, zombies are being manipulated by a Demonic Entity. So all these elements make the zombies very distinctive.
Moore: Well, that’s good to hear. All I can say is I vowed at the beginning that all my zombies would be unique people, no two would look the same…if I could help it. Maybe if I liked the look of one zombie I would try and bring it back. But almost all my zombies are one-offs and have totally different characteristics. I think that may be fairly unique in comics. Maybe.
Future projects for each of you?
Mills: Currently writing, editing and publishing Spacewarp, a one shot SF collection of six stories in the tradition of the early 2000AD – aiming at all age groups and genders. Should be out next spring. One of the stories could be of interest to you: Hellbreaker – there’s a mass breakout from Hell back into the Land of the Living with art by Ian Ashcroft.
A preliminary version of the title page is below showing the hero and the Prison Blocks of Hell. The angel alien is one of the Prison Guards. The ‘hero’ De La Rue (the guy in the evening suit) exacts the revenge of the Dead on the Living…Making them suffer all the tortures of Hell. And these Infernals can’t be killed. They just regenerate.
As you can see he’s on fire. And he’s also hot in other ways, with two significant women in his life. The woman on the top right is wearing Hell prison uniform. The other woman is the leader of an Infernal Squad of police. First there were Vampires and Werewolves. Now there’s a new breed of human monster: Infernals.
His aristocratic appearance is an illusion enabling him to enter the mansions of the rich and powerful. The clue is in his name… de la Rue: ‘Of the street’. So he also has plenty in common with Defoe!
Moore: Clover Press will be publishing my graphic novel Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA. next year. It is based on a true story about LSD mind-control experiments carried out on US citizens without their knowledge. This was a huge scandal. 20 years of files were shredded when Watergate broke, it was among Richard Helms first orders, I believe, following the revelation of the Watergate conspiracy, so it’s an irony to me that a big hippie conspiracy theory in the 60’s not only turned out to be even stranger than believed, it was buried because of another strange conspiracy, Nixon’s. Of course most conspiracy theories are false, but in this case, this is a conspiracy, buried under a conspiracy and uncovered only because there was a fear of conspiracies of assassination. The Frank Church Commission into CIA assassinations uncovered it in the mid-70’s. It’s simply an unbelievable story and I cannot wait to share it.