TORQUEMADA – THE SWINGING MONK

A few years back, a publisher at Random House asked me to write a sample chapter for a proposed book that my agent – a big comic book fan – felt I should write.  It was to be called:

THE COMIC REVOLUTION

Judge Dredd, 2000AD, Battle and Action

My book would have covered my personal recollections of how those comics were created and what a bizarre world comic publishing was back then. The sample chapter I wrote was about Judge Dredd, which would have been Chapter 12 in the book.  Although editorial liked it and green lit the project, it was turned down by their marketing department, who felt there wasn’t enough interest in comics.  

Today, especially with the new Dredd movie just out, all that’s changed. There seems to be more interest in comics and their origins than ever. So I thought it was time to dust the chapter off, update and extend it in light of the new film, and present it here as the introductory piece to my new blog. If you missed them, here are PART ONE: THE KILLING MACHINE, PART TWO: THE LAWMAN OF THE FUTURE, PART THREE: BETTER DREDD THAN DEAD, PART FOUR: JUDGEMENT DAY, PART FIVE: EXIT WOUNDS, PART SIX: IN THE SHADOW OF THE JUDGE? and PART SEVEN: DREDD AND DARKIE’S MOB.

PART EIGHT: TORQUEMADA – THE SWINGING MONK

Frank Plowright, journalist and organiser of UK comic conventions, once interviewed me about Nemesis the Warlock and said how he envied Nemesis co-creator Kevin O’Neill and I our Catholic childhood because it clearly influenced and inspired our work. I hadn’t realised it showed, but of course it does – big time – and especially on Torquemada, the Warlock’s greatest enemy, so I need to digress a little here and talk about the Grand Master as well as Mega City’s finest.

The principal source of my inspiration was the De La Salle Brothers who taught me at my old school, St. Joseph’s College, Ipswich in Suffolk.

They were like cops, or Batman-style avengers: black-robed, fanatical figures.  They were incorruptible, stern, driven by some higher power, and I was awe-struck by them.  I imagined them sleeping in some kind of vampire-like hive: rather like John Hicklenton imagined Dredd slept in a cryotube.  They appeared to have no lives outside their job and no interest in sex, having taken strict vows of chastity.  Hence Torquemada’s famous words (once scrawled on the Berlin Wall):  “Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!” The smallest infraction of discipline and you would be punished severely. Dirty shoes? The cane. Talking? The cane. Smoking? The cane. You don’t mess with these guys. They are the Law!

My older brother, Terry, was less impressed. His cynicism was a great inspiration to me. (He was thrown out of the altar boys for frying onions on the charcoal in the incense thurifer, which made our church smell like a transport cafe.)  He told me he’d discovered that behind the scenes, the Brothers ate posh food, drank wine and smoked and watched telly. Wine? Fags? TV?  No!  Surely not! They weren’t ordinary human beings. They must exist on a strict diet of bread and water, accompanied by constant prayer, before self-flagellation, then suspending themselves, like bats, from the rafters of the Hive to sleep, before, suitably refreshed, going out to do more “good work”.

I saw them in fantasy comic-book terms, like the cartoon strips in the movie, The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys. “Good work” was Torquemada’s euphemism for his genocidal onslaught on the Galaxy. Already, I was creating the future basis of my evil monks in Nemesis the Warlock. I guess such comic book fantasies are common amongst kids. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, told Kevin O’Neill that he used to day-dream about Nemesis flying down in his Blitzspear to rescue him from his school playground.

I know the feeling. I could have used some rescuing myself. But there was only the classic Dan Dare in my day and he was a signed-up member of the establishment, originally a space chaplain, so he wouldn’t have listened to my complaints. And this is an important point.  Eagle was a middle-class comic, thoroughly approved of by parents and schools and created by a vicar – the Reverend Marcus Morris. (A colourful character in his own right).  2000AD was a comic of the streets, and loathed by the middle-classes. I wanted all my heroes in the Comic Revolution – in Battle, Action and 2000AD – to defy, fight, expose and challenge the evils of the establishment. That’s why I had a rule never to feature officers as heroes in my comics.  So even today I write Defoe, The Last Leveller – the last survivor of Britain’s first revolutionaries – up against the evils of the ruling class.  Because it is so important for readers to have their role models, too, who are fighting on their side. Even if the Blitzspear never actually managed to land in Graham’s school playground.

Brother Solomon was primarily my role model for Torquemada and Brother James the basis for Dredd. Brother Solomon rejoiced in the wonderful title “Prefect of Discipline” and was responsible for administering corporal punishment. Errant boys would appear before him in a room set aside for the purpose and present him with tickets detailing their crime.  He would read their offences, hear their excuses and then pronounce and carry out sentence, inevitably guilty as charged. This required them to prostrate themselves over a desk for a classic caning. He was judge, jury and executioner.  He was a figure of fear and yet I also admired him because he gave us the most brilliant musical appreciation classes.  He brought his friend Peter Katin, an internationally famous pianist, to play concerts in the school hall and as a result I have a love of classical music which I value to this day.

Brother Solomon AKA Mike Mercado, The Swinging Monk

Then he suddenly disappeared in mid-term with no official explanation why, although we all knew the reason: although us day boys were subject to his canings, it was the boarders who had to endure far worse. Brother James wrote a glowing tribute to all Solomon’s “good work” in the school magazine that year. But rumours were rife he’d gone to a De La Salle establishment in Jersey, which we believed was a reformatory for Brothers who messed with kids.  We would joke about ship-wrecked sailors staggering up onto the rocky coast of Jersey only to see all these monks descending on them so they would hurriedly turn and flee back into the sea. We needed such trench humour to survive.

In fact, Solomon went on to teach at St. Joseph’s College, Beulah Hill – presumably as part of the Catholic policy at that time of moving abusers to another parish or school when there were complaints. A Beulah Hill old boy angrily relates online that “as if there weren’t enough very strange, totally weird, ‘Christian’ Brothers, they brought in Brother Solomon.”  He was unaware that Solomon had just been thrown out of my school. He characterized him as perverted, debauched, detestable, monstrous, evil, and brutal.  Other posts on the site are in a similar vein. Brother Solomon’s predilection for schoolboys had not ended when he left my school.  Distinguished poet Paul Wilkins, in his book Truths of the Unremembered Things wrote about Solomon’s sexual assaults on him and his verses makes for chilling reading. In 1965 Solomon was eventually dismissed from the school and the De La Salle order and went into show-business to become a pop pianist, calling himself Mike Mercado: The Swinging Monk. He had a couple of minor hits. That’s a toupee in the photo, of course; he was actually bald. His smile reminds me of how Torquemada was sometimes depicted, leering at the readers with a similar knowing grin.

Kevin and I made Torquemada as warped and perverted as we could possibly get away with and we got away with a lot. Torque might preach against ‘deviants’ but he was quite a deviant himself, mirroring the hypocrisy of these De La Salle monks who were preaching strict moral codes, which at least three I knew never adhered to.

I hope this doesn’t shatter anyone’s illusions about the Grand Master? Creating characters is not just about having a vivid imagination or drawing on movies or books. All great fictional heroes and villains are based on someone, whether the writer chooses to admit it or not. I think if you’re going to create villains they should be genuinely evil; I’ve no time for pantomime villains. I’m sure that this is why Torquemada regularly won awards as comic’s favourite villain, because readers sensed he was real. And yet at the same time I mocked him, and enjoyed humiliating and defeating him, so no one could admire the terror that he stood for, that was inspired by the terror I had escaped. Nemesis the Warlock was my catharsis, my poetry (Kevin’s original Nemesis serials will be reprinted next year in a special colour edition, based on his Eagle comics version).

The writer above describes the De La Salle Brothers as “very strange, totally weird.”  Which makes them perfect material for a science fiction comic where I was looking for very strange, totally weird characters.  And amongst the Brothers was Brother James, part hero, part villain, and my role-model for Judge Dredd.

END OF PART EIGHT

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12 thoughts on “TORQUEMADA – THE SWINGING MONK

  1. Pingback: 2000ad legend Pat Mills on the digital release of Nemesis the WarlockPipedream Comics

  2. I was at Beulah Hill during Solomon’s days. Fortunately I was a day-boy and suffered little at his hands, although I feared him because of what I heard from others. I could never understand how a Christian religious order would let him get away with what was rumoured about him. As a lawyer, I came to disregard hearsay, but there comes a time when even second and third hand accounts from unrelated sources are so consistent with each other that it is impossible not to believe them.

    Now I find that he was moved to us from Ipswich for exactly the same sort of behaviour. No, I’m not furious: in would be 20 or more years before even the psychology professionals realised that perversions of Solomon’s sort are clinically incurable. At the time, the Church leaders genuinely believed that such predilections were victim-focused, not group-focused: remove the perpetrator from the victim and the abuse ends. They didn’t know that the lusts were transferable and, indeed, will drive the perpetrator wherever he goes.

    But it hurts, even 50 years later, to realise that we were put at risk of a man with such a record. Thank God I was untouched.

    • Yes, I was a day boy, too, so the danger was reduced, although it was still risky if you made the mistake of visiting the school during the holidays when the boarders were not available. I went past St Joseph’s Ipswich a few days ago and was struck by the sign outside which proclaimed the Christian school was run “In the Lasallian Tradition” (The De La Salle Brothers are no longer there). The school is clearly proud of its heritage and, presumably, the La Salle connection is a selling point to today’s parents considering sending their children there.

      This was ex-convict Jimmy Boyle’s experience of the “Lasallian Tradition”:

      “Scotland’s prisons were littered with the casualties of the De La Salle regime. Inside prison, we De La Salle boys were like a secret brotherhood. We all recognised the signs.

      “We knew instantly who’d been inside a De La Salle school because we all carried the same deep emotional and psychological scars. In our darkest moments, we’d talk about our horrific experiences there. All of us agreed, no matter how tough any prison regime, none was as brutal as De La Salle.

      “The stories were the same from all the De La Salle schools – St Mary’s, Bishopbriggs, St John’s, St Ninian’s, Gartmore, and St Joseph’s, Tranent.

      “We found many monks moved around from school to school, abusing boys at will.”

      As far as I’m aware, the De La Salle order has never publicly apologised for its still recent past. Presumably humility, regret and atonement are not Christian values the order regard as important.

  3. That photo of Brother Solomon in his hood reminds me of a panel from Nemesis book 1 where the guy playing the pandemonium turns round and is revealed to be Nemesis in a mink’s hood. Did you ever show Kev that picture?

    On another subject that you probably have some knowledge of, I’m trying to find out a bit more about Mike Dorey, who drew Hellman of Hammer Force in Action and Invasion and Ro-Busters in 2000AD. I loved his Bill Savage – the other artists drew him as your standard a square-jawed tough guy, but Mike’s Savage was a grinning maniac the resistance were right to have reservations about. Those sooty textures he did were fantastic. Did you ever meet him? Do you remember much about him?

  4. PS : I am in no way denying his good points in teaching you how to appreciate classical music, etc. Like most ‘villains’, he will have been a complex character in real life, with his own good side, not a one-dimensional devil, as usually portrayed by the media and popular culture. Still, it doesn’t excuse his crimes, in and of themselves…

  5. A bit off-topic but I think it’s worth mentioning : these are very apt recollections about ‘The Swinging Monk’ with all of the Jimmy Saville revelations going on, at the moment. Seems like they were all at it! I am sure this vile man would have continued his evil crimes in the pop-media world of the time, outside of the boarding and Catholic schools, where such predators would usually indulge such perversions. So, as you say, the fact that you partly used Brother Solomon as inspiration, makes the figure of Torquemada even more multi-faceted and resonant. It would be interesting to re-read the old Nemesis strips, now, with this in mind!

  6. Pingback: DREDD: HE IS THE LAW! | Pat Mills

  7. Chilling stuff, in light of all the stuff that’s coming out at the moment.

    It is also interesting to see how obvious some of the influences behind things like Torquemada are in retrospect – hooded religious maniacs with a creepy, hypocritical desire for moral purity and all that! But at the time I was entirely oblivious – sure I got the Spanish Inquisition thing, but it was historical, rather than something that I could see as contemporary.

    BTW, where did the idea for the Comic Rock stuff come from, and did you have an idea before the reader response came in that Nemesis & Torquemada had legs beyond it?

    As a side note, this is part eight rather than seven isn’t it?

    • Comic Rock… This was the rock video age and artists were interested in doing the comic fantasy equivalent. It had been extremely well done in Heavy Metal with SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL – with images to the words.I should have pursued it further cos there were some great possibilities.

      We always knew Nemesis would be popular. We had created it cos the old regime tried to suppress an earlier version of the Tube in Robusters. They thought it was too weird. That made me furious and Nemesis was our pay-back to prove them wrong.

      Thanks for the numbering check!

  8. The picture of Brother Solomon actually give me the chills. Great news about this Nemesis reprint, because not only the strip was colored by Kevin, but he also redo some of his works (alternative framing, new drawings, inclusion of 2000ad prog covers in the stories, redesigning of Torquemada in the very first strips to match its definitive later look …). And let’s not forget all the exclusive covers made for the Eagle comics!

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