I did a most enjoyable talk for SelfMadeHero for their Guardian Masterclass  last Saturday on how to write a graphic novel.    Thought it would be useful to share some of my key points for those who couldn’t make it to London, and have ambitions in that direction.

I based my talk around a new project I’ve only been working on for the last six weeks.   It’s a WW1 series in the tradition of Charley’s War but with a number of significant differences.  It started off as Fred’s War but is widening by the day into a group story.  I’m very lucky to have the artist David Hitchcock on board, who has a superb Edwardian/gothic-y style with tonnes of atmosphere.

Fred's War character study by David Hitchcock

Fred’s War character study by David Hitchcock


  • Market?  Mainstream, Fan, Superhero, Comic Lit or other?  This is clearly Mainstream and most of you will know that’s where my heart is.
  • Unique Selling Point?  World War One because of anniversary and because there’s a lot happening with Charley’s War during the anniversary years.  Six years ago, it wouldn’t have flown.  See Hislop’s Wipers Times where he said the same thing.  He tried six years ago with it and couldn’t get any interest.
  • Test the water. Hence the summary image which shows key elements of the story.  That went down well and attracted a lot of interest, so it’s encouraged me to go much further.
  • Bible. Use a bible.  I use Robert McKee, who wrote Story. I’ve attended one of his seminars – great value for money.   The fact that several people in the business don’t like him is a further recommendation for me.  You don’t expect his abrasive style to win him friends.  His book is pro-“Classical” (mainstream) and less enthusiastic about Arthouse, so that’s another reason he works for me.  McKee has a lot to say on the concept of “positive and negative” values. Worth buying his book for that alone.  Although it’s about film, the principles for graphic novels are almost identical.
  • Theme.  ALL scenes should further the theme.  If they don’t, ditch that theme or story strand.  I cited an example where I dumped a Home Front scene with Fred’s working class girlfriend, where she falls from grace through drugs (widespread scandal in UK no one talks about even today).  Didn’t fit the theme – so, much as I was attached to that scene, out it went!

Charley’s War theme is:  The ordinary soldiers’ patriotism was betrayed by the ruling class.

It’s almost but not quite “World War One was a class war” which would have meant ditching certain stories and adding others. (E.g.  Add a scene in 1919 when the tanks arrived in Glasgow).

Accident Man theme is: Materialism is almost all you need in life.  The “almost” is the problem for Mike Fallon!   (Accident Man collection due out in Feb 2014 from Titan).

Slaine theme is: “Searching for the Celtic other.”

So the theme for my new war story is:  The World is my country.

The story started with Fred and his conscientious objector younger brother. That phrase “The World is my country” comes from the Wheeldons*: pacifists who feature heavily in my story.   We need more working class heroines like them for this anniversary, otherwise we’ll all be submerged by tales and poetry of middle and upper-class heroes.  (Read about Alice’s extraordinary story here).  * Edit: Many thanks to Fiona O’Neill for pointing out that the quote is originally from Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1792).

Directly pursuing the theme led to secondary but significant roles for a German, Frenchman, Australian (Fred’s older brother), American and even a Russian.  So, combined with the conscientious objector, there is a “Magnificent Seven” of the Great War where “The World is my country.”

So theme is everything.

  • Positive and Negative. If a scene starts with a positive value, then it will end with the negative of this value.  Or vice versa. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably exposition, according to McKee, and it should be dumped. He’s right. We hide this error in Mainstream because we have so much action it disguises our faults.  And sometimes we write this way intuitively. Ditto in Lit.  But if you look at Comic Lit, I’ve come across pages which despite being well written and beautifully drawn, were boring.  It’s because they do not follow this principle.  Being literature or art-house is NO excuse, it’s a cop out.  The principles go back to Aristotle. McKee has much to say on this and it’s all excellent.
  • Edit your script after it’s drawn. Some artists won’t let you do this and if they’re top names you have to put with it.  And it may not be necessary if they’ve got a big following But if you can it a) acts as an extra draft  b) tailors the words to the art. c) If artists are poor storytellers, you can hide it with good editing.  d) If their art is empty or even rushed, you can disguise this with extra words. e) If when you wrote it you were having a bad day you get another chance.  f) If your dialogue is too heavy or light you can shift it around, so it doesn’t mess up the art.

Your arse is on the line as writer. Because if an artist tells a story badly, the reader usually think it’s cos your story ‘ain’t up to much’ and blames you! But with good editing the reader will say what a brilliant storyteller the artist is. And you can smile quietly to yourself…

This technique is rarely applied today, by writer or editor, partly – and understandably –because of economics, but it was STANDARD practice when I started.  Standard practice for a reason – it worked.  (Excepting of course editors who don’t know what they’re doing and made changes, e.g., in Charley’s War, Charley’s working class catchphrase: “Alf a Mo” regularly got altered by the editor to “Half a Moment”. FFS!

I have to say, I enjoyed my first tutorial in a helluva long time.  There’s something in this teaching business.  Hope it was useful to you, too.

Some pictures from the day

First unveiling of David Hitchcock's Fred's War character study to the public.

First unveiling of David Hitchcock’s Fred’s War character study to the public.

One of David's previous projects: the wonderfully creepy The Signalman, by Dickens.

One of David’s previous projects: the wonderfully creepy The Signalman.

Inspiration for my theme 'The World is my country': The Wheeldons, whose efforts saved countless lives during WW1.

Inspiration for my theme ‘The World is my country’: The Wheeldons, whose efforts saved countless lives during WW1.

I was invited to take part in a panel after the talks.  With Roger Sabin, academic and author, Emma Hayley, Managing Director of SelfMadeHero, Alex Fitch, Panelborders.

I was invited to take part in a panel after the talks with Roger Sabin, academic and author, and Emma Hayley, Managing Director of SelfMadeHero.  Chaired by Alex Fitch, Panelborders.

pat mills emma hayley alex fitch selfmadehero guardian masterclass

Gathering for a group shot of the last remaining stragglers.  Deeply admiring of Paul Gravett's snazzy jacket.

Gathering for a group shot of the last remaining stragglers. Deeply admiring of Paul Gravett’s snazzy jacket.

Paul Gravett, Audrey Niffenegger, Pat Mills, Roger Sabin, Alex Fitch.

Paul Gravett, Audrey Niffenegger, Pat Mills, Roger Sabin, Alex Fitch.

And we manage to squeeze illustrator JAKe in, too.

And we manage to squeeze illustrator JAKe in, too.

Big thanks to SelfMadeHero and the Guardian Masterclass teams who invited me along, and made it all happen!


The French edition of Charley’s War Volume 3 will be on sale in French stores on October 15th.  It’s astonishing and very gratifying that such a series should sell so well in France.

But this latest edition has something extra, never seen in the British editions. Selected pages in colour!  They were in a half-tone on the Titan version, but now they can be seen for the first time as they originally appeared in the pages of Battle.

Although they were coloured by an in-house artist, and not by Joe Colquhoun, they are generally sympathetic to Joe’s line work.  More importantly, now they’re printed on the excellent high quality glossy paper the French are renowned for (Grumble, grumble that the French always have the edge on us!), the colour pages look a lot better than on the original, good old British bog paper.

So here is a selection of my favorite pages in colour (apologies for the poor home-scan quality),  Including the scene where a British bobby – memorably – has a “Take Cover” sign written on him in French.  Does that only seem funny to us Brits?

La Grande Guerre de Charlie, Vol 3. By Mills & Colquhoun (Delirium)

La Grande Guerre de Charlie, Vol 3. By Mills & Colquhoun (Delirium)

La Grande Guerre de Charlie, Vol 3. By Mills & Colquhoun (Delirium)

La Grande Guerre de Charlie, Vol 3. By Mills & Colquhoun (Delirium)

The publisher, Delirium has done a truly excellent job on this version with very careful and thoughtful French interpretations on English words in the art.  My thanks and congratulations to them.

BTW… Later volumes of Titan Book’s editions of Charley’s War are now often shot from Joe’s original pages, so you can really see the beautiful detail in his artwork.

THE CHARLEY’S WAR that might have been: An Unpatriotic History Of The Second World War

An important and unique book

Just received James Heartfield’s An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, kindly sent to me by Tariq Goddard, novelist and publisher at Zero Books.   It’s a really important and unique book and I can’t wait to read and review it.

Previous titles in this genre, which I’ve made a special study of, include James Bacque’s Crimes And Mercies: The fate of German civilians under allied occupation, 1944-1950; Sean Longden’s To The Victor The Spoils: D-Day to VE Day, the reality behind the heroism; and Clive Ponting’s 1940 Myth And Reality.  All three were insightful and revealing, but only cover aspects of the war.  And Ponting’s book is still written by a member of the establishment.  This book, however, is absolute dynamite!

It’s the kind of book I was looking for when I wanted to carry Charley’s War into WW2.  But it didn’t exist.  More soon!


First published on Facebook on 15 April 2011

A  graphic novel about one soldier’s return from Afghanistan

Story:  Rodge Glass  Art:  Dave Turbitt

Just been re-reading it and looking at the extras.  Very powerful ending.  The publisher credits Charley’s War as one of the inspirations and I’m delighted it helped make this book possible.  Frankly, Dougie’s War is the only new anti-war graphic novel out there and the only genuine successor to Charley’s War – apart from Steve Beeny’s Rebellion 1920 about the first British invasion of Iraq – when Churchill authorised poison gas to be dropped on the Kurds, just like Sadam Hussein.  (Of course when Sadam Husssein did it, it was evil. When Churchill did it,  it was  regrettable but okay.)

Anyway, back to Dougie’s War: it’s excellent and focuses in particular on post-traumatic stress disorder which is a fact of life for many vets.  There’s a section from Charley’s War printed with it, covering the same subject.  I’m delighted to recommend it.  Too many “War is Hell” films and comics masquerade as anti-war stories.  They’re not.  E.g. Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now were watched by US soldiers to psyche them up before they invaded Iraq.  No-one could read Charley’s War or Dougie’s War and want to invade anyone and that means they’ve done their job.

If you’ve come across any friends or relatives with PTSD, this book has particular relevance. There’s a help section at the back with phone numbers.

It’s embarrassing to admit that there are no other graphic novels about our modern colonisations  of other countries.  In comics, we usually stick to science fiction and men in tights.  Hopefully Dougie’s War might inspire others to write and draw something on the subject and expose what we’re really doing in the Middle East.




First posted on Facebook on 18 May 2012

Vol I of the French edition of Charley’s War

Delighted to learn that Charley’s War French edition is selling very well – better in fact than many successful French fantasy albums and also other British fantasy comic series reprinted in France. This is particularly impressive given that the French comic market has been going through some tough times and CW is a series never originally designed for the French market; thus it’s in black & white with a storytelling style designed for three page episodes rather than a graphic novel.  I guess there must be many factors involved in this success – the excellent art, the historical significance for France (even though it’s about a British soldier); its fairly unique anti-war stance; the approaching 100 year anniversary of the start of the Great War and not least the publisher’s great efforts to publicise the book, which have met with an enthusiastic response from the French media and French museums.  By comparison, Charley has been published in the UK and it’s only very recently that there’s been similar interest with the series featured at an Imperial War Museum event.

I like to think the real reason for Charley’s current success is that it appeals to the ordinary reader in the street who may hardly have read a comic before, but finds the story accessible, informative and about real people whom he cares about.  All too often this audience has been neglected in the UK – where no one is interested in reprinting girls comics of similar ilk, despite documentary evidence that there is a gap in the market – and I rather suspect the same is true in France.  I think our industry has paid a high price for catering almost exclusively to older male, adult fantasy fans and neglecting the original core readership on which comics used to be based.

Congratulations to Laurent Lerner (360 Media Perspective) in partnership with Editions Ca et La for making this happen.  Let’s hope we can build on this success in France and in the UK and that publishers in the UK will recognise there is an audience they are missing out on. However, I’m not holding my breath: they do know and they’re not interested. I fear they’re rather like a publicist I once met when I worked at IPC Magazines.  I talked about attracting teenage bikers to buy comics, and his response was, “We don’t want to attract those kind of readers.”  The same I fear is true today for girls comics and boys comics.  No-one actually wants to attract “those kind of readers”, even though we were all “those kind of readers” once.  No, stick to the chattering classes and mature fandom – much better for everyone’s elitist egos.

I hope CW will continue to grow in France and perhaps herald not a new era, but a revival of a great and populist era.   Those “ordinary readers” are the ones I’d very much like to attract back into comics.