Land of the Lizards (2009)
This was actually written for Deep Thought, Death Ray‘s opinion section, but it’s more of a retrospective feature on the 2000 AD dinosaur series Flesh!, so it’s going in here. I’ve interviewed Pat Mills several times now, and he’s always really obliging. Thanks Pat!
Sadly, this piece is from the last ever issue of the magazine.
Flesh… A single world, dripping with blood, announced the arrival of a new theory on dinosaur extinction – cowboys from the meat-hungry 23rd century ranched them out of existence. It could only be a story from 2000 AD.
Cowboys load up herds of dinosaurs at a time into giant “Fleshdozers” to make burgers; captured animals go on the rampage; an army of annoyed Tyrannosaurs attack a futuristic wild-west town… Could this have come from any other mind than that of Pat Mills, launch editor of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000 AD?
Commencing in that esteemed publication’s very first issue, Flesh followed a similar pattern to Hook Jaw, the merciless shark from 2000 AD‘s sister comic, Action, with many bad men gobbled up in as graphic a manner as the publishing mores of the day would permit.
“I wanted something similar to Hook Jaw for 2000 AD, so I came up with Shako, a huge polar bear,” Mills tells Death Ray. “That didn’t seem to quite have the right science fiction ingredients, so then I came up with Flesh. I figured only dinosaurs could compete with Hook Jaw.”
Although Flesh was a bloodthirsty affair (it’s a rare page that doesn’t feature a man screaming “Aiee!”, “ARGH!” or “Noooo!” as the wide jaws of some sharp-toothed predator descend), like Hook Jaw it carried a message in deadly earnest. The dinosaurs weren’t the monsters – man and his rapacity were. With the Trans-Time corporation unequivocally painted as the bad guys, it seemed only right when Old One eye, a monster Tyrannosaur, led an assault of prehistoric beasties that destroys Flesh Base 3.
“I wanted it to be a complex world,” explains Mills. “This was the direction science fiction was moving in, away from stereotypical views of dinosaurs and monsters. My heart sank when the editor of Fantasy Advertiser (the leading fan magazine at the time) said, “So I guess at the end , Old One Eye will be defeated by the humans. Like King Kong.” I thought: You don’t get what 2000 AD is all about. In this comic, the ‘underdogs’ win; the ‘monsters’ win. Because the real monsters are the bastards destroying the planet. That was and is a constant theme in my work, and I guess has always inspired me. I had bought issue one of the Ecologist magazine back in 1969, by 1977 green matters were taken extremely seriously. But I don’t think they were so relevant in the world of comics. I remember writing a Mach One where he’s on an island destroyed by a mining corporation (there’s a Japanese Samurai from WW2 still on the island) and being delighted that I’d found a way to bring in ecological issues. I recall talking to another leading fan editor and telling him how excited I was at creating a possible template for future stories and he looked totally blank and disinterested. That’s when I realized how out of step I was with the views around at that time.”
Thus, as in Hook Jaw, evil men were punished, to “create an emotional response,” says Mills, though he adds that he could have had the dinosaurs chow down on more pure-hearted folk. He never had any trouble with his publishers over the gore – it made the strip extremely popular with the teenage market – except once.
“The publishers did take exception to one scene where styracosaurs were being loaded into a Fleshdozer,” he says. “They thought this was being cruel to them. But we still got away with it!”
Flesh was an instant hit, and though the first book ran for only 17 weeks, it was to return time and again. “It’s a cool idea,” says Mills of the strip’s popularity. “A great title that I agonized over for a week. It’s written from the heart. It was laid out and designed by Doug Church – the first art editor – who was very influential on those early 2000 ADs and the only person I would say was also vital to the comic’s early success. The stories – including Flesh – were designed in the light of the successes and failures of Battle and Action, so I knew they would work. But it succeeded above all because genius artist Ramon Sola (Hook Jaw) drew Old One Eye. What a fantastic animal artist that man is! Please lobby for him to come back again. He was shot down in flames by critics after his first comic story for 30 years recently, which I felt was a little harsh. Yet who else is in his league? Like many brilliant artists, he needs a lot of encouraging and support and PATIENCE to bring out his best. Great artwork just doesn’t appear out of nowhere, it’s trial and error and nurturing. I’d go out of my way to lure him back again into comics, because, believe me, artists that good come by just once in a lifetime. Don’t let him pass us by.”
Even without Sola, Flesh was to return several times to the comic. But it was never as regular a fixture as other strips. It found most fame as a scaffold tying the initially disparate universes of 2000 AD‘s other stories together. Characters from Flesh, mostly clones and relatives of Satanus, Old One Eye’s evil son, bring the worlds of Judge Dredd, ABC Warriors, and Nemesis the Warlock into one continuity, though this was not entirely intentional.
“It was really the only way I could keep my Flesh fantasies going,” says Mills. “Satanus was a brilliant monster so I had to bring him back wherever I could. Hence why he appeared recently in Judge Dredd Megazine, drawn by the fantastic John Hicklenton who brought some serious savagery to the character of Satanus.”
Later Flesh stories were to move the environment-busting of Trans-Time from the Cretaceous to the Triassic, where a nothosaur named “Big Hungry” causes problems for the corporation’s fishing station, and then to the recent Quaternary period, where Trans-Time has terrorists as well as beasts to cope with.
“I wrote the first one,” says Mills. “Flesh Book Two, illustrated by Massimo Bellardinelli came next. In my view: wrong monster. Flesh was a high concept idea and – in retrospect – it was unrealistic to hope that subsequent writers could see things from my particular standpoint. Similarly no artist who followed compared to Ramon Sola, except Mike McMahon in the Cursed Earth and Carlos Ezquerra in ABC Warriors, where the same tyrannosaur family come up again. You see, I was desperate to keep the Flesh saga going and also to keep at bay writers keen to – er, what do they call it? – write ‘homage’ stories on Flesh or Satanus. Having spent many hard weeks working out the original world of Flesh, I’m still highly proprietorial about it and still as mad keen as ever to continue, but where is the artist? Ramon has fallen to the critics’ sword and there ain’t nobody else out there. Despite this, I’m currently researching reptiles to get some new angles.
“Funnily enough,” he continues about his research, “a leading museum paleontologist recently wrote a paper for an academic body about Flesh because of its authenticity compared to the hackneyed dino-stuff around at that time. For instance, I was using Scott T. Bakker’s theory of the warm-blooded dinosaurs way back when it first appeared. The hairy tyrannosaurs who ‘came down from the north’ and greeted their equatorial brothers before going on to kick the humans’ asses… [some scientists think that Tyrannosaurs might, like many dinosaurs, have been covered in fur-like feathers, so he got that right]. Happy days!”