It’s 1985. You are one of the guiding lights of The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. The choose-your-own adventure gamebook craze is in full-swing. You’re looking for a new magazine to spin off from 2000AD. What would YOU do?
That was exactly the choice Pat Mills faced when he created Dice Man, a revolutionary concept in British comics. Using the format popularised by the massively successful Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, Mills developed a version of 2000AD where the reader could become Judge Dredd, Nemesis or Slaine. Each decision you made changed the story, with no guarantee of even completing it, depending on choices made and your luck in dice-rolling.
Instead of the text-based adventures of the gamebooks, Dice Man was lavishly illustrated by some of the biggest and best artists in British comics such as Bryan Talbot, Kevin O’Neill and Steve Dillon.
Looking back on the genesis of the project, Mills felt it was an obvious thing to try. “I was aware of the gamebook craze and felt comics should do the same. So I designed a game system. The issues of Diceman sold, made money, but not enough for the publishers to continue.”
With a typically eye-catching cover by Glenn Fabry, the first issue of Dice Man appeared on the shelves in February 1986. Inside, Bryan Talbot brought his considerable talents to Judge Dredd for the first time, while Kevin O’Neill came back to the character he’d created with Mills many years before, the arch-villain Torquemada, while none other than V For Vendetta’s David Lloyd was brought in to handle Slaine.
Printed in large magazine format and on glossy paper, Dice Man looked stunning and showed off the art infinitely more than the cheap newsprint that 2000AD was still using. Even if you had no interest in playing the stories as a game, this was a damn fine collection.
The Dredd story also marked the only appearance of the flagship character in its 5-issue run as well as being the only strip not written by Mills himself. Instead, Dredd-mainman John Wagner scripted a brilliantly atmospheric haunted house story featuring the Dark Judges.
Pat says “John wrote the story, I did the game version. It was simply easier for me to write and game everything. Less liason, less hassle. Readers weren’t especially rooting for Dredd anyway. I think Slaine was their favourite.”
Slaine was indeed the obvious choice as the big draw in a title like Dice Man. The role-playing world was full of Sword and Sorcery/Fantasy titles, so the Celtic hero was a natural fit.
The character had been an instant hit with the readers of 2000AD since his first appearance in Prog 330 a few years before, even on occasion displacing Dredd as the favourite story in the reader surveys, a feat previously unheard of.
Of course it helped that Mills used the title to advance the story running in the main comic, with Slaine’s quest in Dice Man to find the Cauldron Of Blood becoming lost chapters in the ongoing story that would lead to the epic Slaine The King.
While the nature of the format meant the stories had to be fairly straightforward in complexity, Mills’ concepts really allowed the artists to cut loose, initially under the stewardship of Art Director Kevin O ‘Neill, who was then replaced by Ian Stead for issues 2-5.
Pat says “Kevin had some other stuff to deal with in his life, so reluctantly had to leave. We missed him! Diceman was a great way to develop worlds and to use ideas which would be otherwise hard to feature, for example, the Bosch story in Nemesis.”
That story (“You are Torquemada in…The Garden Of Alien Delights!”) is perhaps Dice Man’s finest moment. Taking the villain through a Nemesis-created nightmare, the tale was a loving tribute to the horrific imagination of Heironymous Bosch, with a dose of Lewis Carroll surrealism thrown in the for good measure.
Artist Bryan Talbot clearly relished the opportunity to go wild, delivering a frankly stunning collection of pages that is up there with anything he’s done before or since.
That this insanity was available in every corner newsagent in the country of testament to Mills’ gleeful enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries in the name of quality storytelling.
It wasn’t just established 2000AD icons in every issue either. Mills felt the title needed something else, so alongside artist Graham Manley, created something new, The Dice Man.
A prohibition-era gumshoe with psionic powers, Rick Fortune was in possession of a mystical pair of stone dice recovered from the ruins of Atlantis, that could affect reality around him, allowing him to do anything from simply push his luck to summon a three-faced demon called Astragal. Falling somewhere between Dashiell Hammet and HP Lovecraft, Dice Man was an immediate hit.
Pat said: “I wanted to really focus on the title and to have an Indiana Jones type fantasy character specially for the publishing. It needed a noir character, something that’s still missing from 2000AD in my opinion.”
The character would feature in every issue from 2 onwards and fast became one of the real highlights.
Despite the strip’s popularity, it never made the jump over to 2000AD, much to Mills (and many readers’) chagrin.
He said: “It’s a nice thought and I have suggested it to editorial. They’re kind of lukewarm about it. If I pushed like mad they’d probably agree, but their heart is not really in noir. God, I have enough trouble getting Visible Man into print. Hence why it appears so sporadically. I don’t know if I could go through all that pain on Dice Man, too. Great, great shame. They don’t know what they’re missing.”
Mills was clearly lavishing a serious amount of care and attention on each strip, so it’s no surprise he has trouble picking a favourite. “Bosch was great! I liked Kevin’s Nemesis, but Dice Man and Slaine definitely suited the format. David Lloyd’s Slaine was superb. Of course You are Ronald Reagan led to You are Maggie Thatcher.”
Yes, You Are Ronald Reagan. Exploding from the cover of what would become the last issue, the then-President Of The United States stood, armed to the teeth in front of a nuclear explosion. Illustrated in suitably irreverent style by undergoing comics legend Hunt Emerson, this was a laugh-out loud blast of Cold War satire and proof of how flexible the format Mills had created really was.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The usual “next issue” ad in the back advised readers to check 2000AD for details of issue 6, hinting that there was more stories in the pipeline, but the title was already dead in the water.
Pat said: “I don’t think there were any unpublished stories that were caught in production. No. Truth is, the publishers at the time were crap, they weren’t supportive and they didn’t care. It had started off as a bigger project with more people involved and it ended up with me solo. Similar to Toxic and others. If you want something done, just go it alone. That’s how I made 2000AD happen. Don’t rely on others.”
As great as these strips were, for the most part they’ve been poorly served by reprints. Occasional stories have popped up here and there, but that full collection has never happened.
Why? “Not enough demand” says Mills. “I think if enough readers say ‘Reprint’ it would probably happen. It deserves to happen and I really appreciate your support!”
Maybe one day we’ll see a Rebellion reprint of the Complete Dice Man. Even better, maybe if we ask Tharg nicely Rick Fortune will finally take his rightful place in the Prog. Until then though, get scouring eBay and the back issue bins for copies of Dice Man. You won’t regret it.
The writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy