Read ‘Em And Weep Book One
by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill
310 pages, Millsverse Books
Review by Pat Black
Here’s a thing. If you’re British and you read comics from the mid-70s to the present day, then your life has almost certainly been influenced by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. This means you would probably want to read this book, no matter what it was about – the migratory patterns of Arctic terns, say; the distribution of lichen at altitude; by-the-minute commentary on the World Snooker championships.
But Serial Killer is about British comics, of course – set in the 1970s, when Mills in particular first burst on the scene. It’s a riotous, often filthy comedy, as if Vivian and Rik from The Young Ones had become writers for children. But it’s also a treasure trove for anyone into comics from this period in British history, when IPC/Fleetway Comics and DC Thomson ruled the world.
I am trying to rein myself in when it comes to talking about Pat Mills in particular, but it’s difficult. When you consider his output and you leave out 2000AD it’s still a fine CV. Even if he’d only written Charley’s War, the unflinching story of a British “Tommy Atkins” in the trenches of the First World War, he would have a place in the pantheon. I remember, at the age of seven or eight, reading about Charley’s return home, and he finds out one of his neighbours is selling watches encrusted with blood, stolen from dead men at the front. I also remember the cheerful bloke who keeps his comrades entertained with a string of patter, before shellshock turns him into a zombie. That stuff stuck with me, the way Spider-Man socking the Green Goblin hasn’t.
O’Neill’s pedigree as a comics artist ranks alongside Mills’ as an writer, and there was great wit in their work together, particularly on Nemesis The Warlock and The ABC Warriors. There is a lot of that devilment and mischief – picture the twinkle in Torquemada’s eyes – in Serial Killer.
I said I’d rein myself in. There’s a more detailed analysis of Pat Mills, Action! And 2000AD in a very early review of mine, which you can read here.
Serial Killer is the first in a quartet of novels in the Read ‘Em And Weep series, penned by Mills and O’Neill. Our main character is Dave Maudling, a writer with Fleetpit publications (*thinly veiled parody alert*). Dave is still in his twenties, but writes stories for The Spanker comic, which blends two British obsessions: the Second World War, and corporal punishment.
Corporal Punishment is the actual name of a character we meet in Dave’s serial, The Caning Commando, which sees a cane-wielding teacher sent behind enemy lines with his sidekick, Alf Mast, to take a stick to the bottoms of German soldiers. “Let’s carpet bum the hun!”
Inserts from the Caning Commando’s adventures in rigid discipline are drenched in double-entendre and gleeful smut, while still managing to be very close to the tone of many of the boys’ comic strips of this era. I remember Dennis the Menace’s dad clobbering his boy with a slipper every other issue when I was a child. As Mills and O’Neill are happy to point out, this seems a bit much now.
Dave is a mixed-up fellow, surviving on a diet of surplus free sweets which these comics often gave away as an inducement to draw in new readers. He seems to be haunted by the ghost of his mother, who disappeared when he was just a boy; he also has a fetish for fur, manifest either as lust for scarves and coats, or, memorably, the stuff stuck to the outside of a gorilla outfit. He is traumatised by a horrible set of experiences from when he was a little boy, when he was repeatedly assaulted by a sadistic newsagent whenever he asked for his favourite comic, The Fourpenny One – the title being a pre-decimalisation euphemism for a punch in the face.
Dave’s best friend/deadliest enemy is Greg, who is a similar age but whose career seems to be running on smoother rails. Greg has better ideas and plays the management game more cannily with his editors, which irritates Dave to his very core. The pair, while ostensibly friendly, continually one-up each other, particularly when a new editorial slot comes up among the Achtung Tommy Englander war-obsessed veterans ranked above them.
Then there’s Joy. She’s Glaswegian, which means that she is portrayed as violent and enjoying being violent, but she’s also a first wave feminist with her own very solid ideas about what direction her girls’ comics should go. Alongside the Caning Commando, the exploits of her star character, the werewolfish Feral Meryl, intrude upon the story. “It’s a true friend who can comb her best pal’s face.”
Joy goes out with Greg; Greg doesn’t really love Joy, and wants to dump her. Dave, curled up like a liquorice twist in his perversions, fancies something in Joy, but he’s too weird to see what it is. Greg, who fears violent retribution, tries to palm Joy off onto Dave, with very limited success. The vectors are all wrong, and this makes for some fine comic scenes – particularly a Christmas day nightmare which would have graced any classic sitcom.
I discovered Serial Killer was originally meant to be a sitcom, and you can see why. You have three people who might intermittently fancy each other, but there’s no love involved anywhere. The closest thing you get is jealousy, but even that fades into something a little more pathetic.
Serial Killer is also a murder mystery. Dave’s dead mother infests his consciousness in order to steer him towards the person who killed her. But being his mother, she doesn’t want to make it too easy for him. And there are other demons to contend with, particularly a mysterious figure in a brown coat who floats around Fleetpit’s archives, with one eye on Dave.
The references to the real comic world were beautifully done. Witness the title of Fleetpit’s Scottish-based competitor (*gossamer-thin reference alert*), Angus, Angus & Angus. Then there’s a sly nod towards Jimmy Savile, when it turns out Dave has been sneaking lethal advice into The Spanker under the noses of his editors – how to make a pipe bomb, for example, or how to synthesise deadly poison and put it in someone’s tea. He does this in the hope of killing children; he could well be the serial killer in the title. He takes pleasure in the fact his wickedness is hiding in plain sight, as Savile’s was. Later, we are introduced to a very Savile-esque character, which points us towards the second book in the series.
I can’t do justice to Serial Killer here. Like a review of the ersatz comedy comic Laff!, trying to condense what’s funny into these lines is an exercise in brutal unfunniness. You’ll have to take my word for it on the laughs… on the cackles. But if you’ve ever been into British comics, particularly the pre-2000AD era, taking in Battle, Warlord, Victor and Action!, it’s a must – and penned by someone who was right there in the thick of it. Grossly caricatured though it is, if you grew up with comics, then you know this world.
Serial Killer is an inside job. I loved the anarchy as much as I did the glimpses behind the curtain of a world I loved as a boy, and still love as an adult. The next volume will take in the era that changed British comics forever: the birth of 2000AD.
Place an order at your newsagent – today.
(Who actually did that?)
Read the interview with Pat Mills here.