Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Long and Winding Road

It began, as so many ideas do, with a bottle of wine. Leo had been in London for a meeting and he came to stay over before heading back to Brighton the next day.

“You know what the publisher said they really want?” (I won’t do the voice; he was slurring by this stage.) “Something like Dinotopia. A fantasy complete world that we can present as a big visual feast like that.”

We used to have a notepad to hand whenever we got together. Our record was ten new book ideas in one evening. But this time it was as Aesop said: only one, but a lion.

Mirabilis is our celebration of the imagination. That’s why it has everything from Martian embassies to princes of Elfland. Even the odd dinosaur, though mostly of the Crystal Palace variety rather than what is today regarded as scientifically accurate. Normally we wouldn’t put all these things together, but in Mirabilis they all belong – like in dreams.

We spent hours working out the details and got so excited that we took it first to Leo’s publisher, then to all the others we knew.

Oh, how it rained on that parade.

Typical comments: “But this isn’t about dinosaurs! We told you we wanted something like Dinotopia.” Or: “You’ve got martians in the same world as dragons. That can’t happen.” (They’re right about that last point. I studied physics at Oxford and those things absolutely can’t happen. So I’m glad fiction editors are all fully clued up about that stuff.)

That was April 1997. Next thing you know it’s July 2003 and we have a meeting at David Fickling Books in Oxford, along with Martin McKenna who was working with David on another book. I also knew David from way way back in his OUP days. Like Russian dolls, this book business is.

We talked about a bunch of ideas of which Mirabilis (suitably dusted off) was just one. David liked it but with reservations. Living in the freelance wilderness, we could subsist on a few crumbs of encouragement like that for weeks. We took ourselves off to Bromfield Priory Gatehouse near Ludlow for a week of larking about… er, creative brainstorming. We set a date to go back and see David on Halloween.

This time he was less encouraging – or maybe our rose-tinted specs had slipped. The publishing industry was not what it was when Dinotopia first appeared. He felt that we couldn’t now get the big Mirabilis art book off the ground without first building a following with some novels. I could see his point, but I wasn’t keen to write Mirabilis novels. It felt too big a story to squeeze down to just a few characters. It would need to be the War & Peace of fantasy novels, the Genji Monogatari, the Gone With The Wind. And I didn’t think prose was the best medium for describing the profusion of fantasy - almost ridiculously ubiquitous and varied by midsummer - that we wanted to pour into our world.

The solution was staring us in the face. It only took another three years…

So now it’s June 2006 and the DFC is a glimmer in David Fickling’s eye. Leo and I pitched him a bunch of comic strip ideas and yet again, despite its weighty accretion of dust, Mirabilis rose to the top. This time I wrote an outline of the whole 52-episode story of Will – no, Tim – no, Jack Ember, plus a detailed treatment for the first 13 episodes. David emailed us a few days later:

Dear Dave, Leo and Martin - I read this with mounting excitement on the train to the west country today and half expected a band of elves to get on at Taunton. I think it is absolutely glorious and can't wait to see it visualized. This is just marvellous. I checked the sky for a comet when I got off at Exeter. And I can see how the story will absolutely work.
So… almost there, right? Not quite. We learned a lot preparing the pilot strip for the DFC’s dummy issue. The characters didn’t look quite right – too young, their WW1 style uniforms evoking too grim a period of history. And I was trying to squeeze way too much story into too little space. The same script that we had 6 pages for in the dummy eventually became the first 10 pages that you can see on the Mirabilis site.

David Fickling must have had confidence that we would get it right on the night, because he took the extraordinary step of signing us to a 52-episode deal. Perhaps not grasping yet just how much of a chunk of our lives work on the comic would take, we still held onto the idea of doing a big Dinotopia-style art book as well. In a magnificently generous gesture, David signed that book as well, even though he must have known it would be years before it could be released. In the event, we got a few images done but it was clearly not coming together, and in the end we shelved the art book indefinitely to concentrate on the comic.

And that’s where we are now. Who knows where it will lead in another twelve years, but we're up for finding out.

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