Thursday, 30 April 2009

A dream to some...

This is from another of the projects that Leo and I pitched to David Fickling as a possible DFC strip before we settled on Mirabilis.

We originally developed New Knights of Camelot as a TV show. In fact it got as far as a complete series bible, 13-episode season treatment and the first couple of scripts. (You can do an awful lot of work in television that goes nowhere, even if you do get paid for it.)

The idea originally came from Ian Marsh, one-time editor of
White Dwarf, in the form of a role-playing game he ran. After the final battle, King Arthur and most of the Round Table are dead. Right… so get over it. What happens next?

In our story, a group of kids try to keep Arthur’s ideals alive even as Saxon war-bands are sweeping across Britain and Morgan le Fay is planning some occult nastiness that will pervert the power of the Holy Grail and make her queen of a poisoned land. Oh, and Merlin is in there of course: the New Knights’ extremely unreliable mentor.

Our Scoobyish little band are recruited more eclectically than the chivalric classes Malory and Tennyson wrote about. We’ve got a poacher, a blacksmith’s apprentice, a youth from Judea, a squire from north Africa called Hannibal. (That wasn’t just some odious BBC-style box-ticking approach to diversity, incidentally; it was the whole theme of the story.) Admittedly two of the main characters are Gawain’s offspring, but they’re not exactly your snooty public school types, this being the grubby post-Roman end of the 5th century. Only Lancelot’s niece is really what you’d call posh, and even she’s going to have to learn to get down and dirty before the story’s done.


This lad here is Ozzy, the self-taught alchemist – who looks spookily like me when I was a teenager, come to think of it.

Try before you buy

A little experiment here. No, we're not switching to black and white. But Garen Ewing was saying on his blog how the full online version of his comic Rainbow Orchid is having to come down now that it's all going to be appearing in print. Which set us thinking...

We'd like to get a good chunk of Mirabilis up on the main site very soon. (Yep, still waiting for clearance from our publishers on that; it's a bit like filing a request for 100 bottles of olive oil when you're stationed on Hadrian's Wall.) But then, looking beyond that, we'll have to take most of it down as the publication date for the Winter graphic novel approaches. So one option then would be to switch the online material to black and white.

As you can see, it still looks pretty tasty - a testament to the great artwork by Leo and Nikos. You'd be able to read it in this form up to the end of chapter two (45 pages, which is most of what has already appeared in the DFC) and that's probably enough to decide if you'd want to shell out £15 to read the whole story in living colour.

That whole story - the whole Winter book, that is - will weigh in at an epic 180 pages. I'm just writing the last few pages this week. The book wants to end on another cliffhanger and I'm not going to be able to stop it - so roll on Spring!

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Once upon a time

There was a boy I sometimes played with. I can’t say that he was quite a friend. His mother was French, and I asked her one day about some translation in my homework. She couldn’t remember the word. She had lived so long in Britain that she had forgotten half her native tongue. At the same time, she had progressed only a very little way in learning English. So there she was stuck in a no man’s land of miscommunication where only the least complex thoughts could be expressed. And even then, only in the present tense.

I’m getting to that stage with the books I can bear to read. Once I devoured heaps of “glorious trash” – science fiction and fantasy written in the crudest pulp fiction style, but as long as they were good yarns with plenty of surprises and reversals they’d keep me engrossed. (I don’t mean, by the way, that all SF and fantasy is badly written; but remember Sturgeon’s Law.)

Nowadays I need more. Prose should be beautiful – not showily beautiful, necessarily, but writing is a craft and like any craft it should be executed with panache.
Virginia Woolf spoke of her anguish when “the smooth gliding of sentence after sentence” was interrupted: “Something tore, something scratched; a single word here and there flashed its torch in my eyes.” Her tastes had become refined to the point where bad writing was literally unreadable.

Why this puts me, if not in no man’s land, at least on a small island vanishing faster than the Maldives, is that there is very little modern fiction that is both elegantly written and that has a plot. There are, of course, lots of modern writers who are superb wordsmiths. I’m reading – trying to read – a novel at the moment by a very famous author, the sort who wins the Man Booker and the Nobel prize for literature. The prose is breathtaking, the imagery vivid. But there is absolutely no plot. No suspense to draw me back, no sticky situations, no real problems for the characters to face.

Modern literary authors are frightened of story. As long as they spin elegant sentences into a web of slightly hard-to-follow prose, and make sure to pour in a sackful of literary allusions, they can hold their heads up at any dinner party. But writing a narrative where – omigod – stuff actually happened could expose them to ridicule. What if they got it wrong?

In The Art of Fiction,
David Lodge said: “Novels are narratives, and narrative, whatever its medium - words, film, strip-cartoon - holds the interest of an audience by raising questions in their minds, and delaying the answers.” He goes on to quote this very short story by Leonard Michaels which is at once elegantly written and complete as a narrative with beginning, middle and end, conflict, surprise, and a theme that leaves you with something to think about. Things that every story ought to have.
THE HAND
I smacked my little boy. My anger was powerful. Like justice. Then I discovered no feeling in the hand. I said, "Listen, I want to explain the complexities to you." I spoke with seriousness and care, particularly of fathers. He asked, when I finished, if I wanted him to forgive me. I said yes. He said no. Like trumps.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The dead travel fast


Walpurgis Nacht in Germany and Eastern Europe is the time for witches and spectres to roam abroad. Halloween might seem a better time for that than May Eve, but the principle is the same. As seasons change, there’s the chance for unnatural things to slip between the cracks.

In the deleted opening chapter from Dracula, Harker has already sent his coachman away with the rash assertion that, “Walpurgis Nacht has nothing to do with Englishmen” when he finds himself outside a tomb in the woods near Munich:

Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad - when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone - unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me!
Chin up, Jonny boy. At least you’re not in Transylvania - yet.

If the DFC had continued, this Friday you would be reading episode 16: “The Dark Side” which we planned as a Walpurgis Nacht special (although in story chronology it’s still only mid-January 1901). As we’re still waiting to get contractual clearance to put some of these new episodes up online, here’s a little bit of bitey action with an Indian flavour that I wrote years ago for the bright young film-making team of Dermot Bolton (producer) and Dan Turner (director). Turn down the lights, draw your chair closer to the screen, and shiver at the story of A Dying Trade
part 1 and part 2.

Where’s Mr Pointy when you need him?

Monday, 27 April 2009

Mirabilis monthly

The discussion under NEW EPISODES about serializing Mirabilis set me thinking. What would be the perfect way for it to appear?

Obviously it’s going to appear as a graphic novel. That will be how most people first experience the story. But most of the comics I’m into, I don’t buy in trade paperback. (Actually not quite true – I do buy the tp, but I’ve already bought the monthly books first. Dark Horse and Vertigo, I’m your ideal customer.)

I don’t think Mirabilis worked at its best in 5-page instalments. There’s too much story going on for that. Imagine reading one chapter of a
Garth Nix or Philip Pullman book and then waiting 7 days for the next. There's such a thing as taking deferred gratification too far. The older kids I've spoken to (11 years and up) weren't interested in stories that were broken down into such minute chunks; they'd rather have read 20 pages every month.

The first episode,
“Stung!” was originally written as an 8-pager. For the dummy issue of the DFC, we squeezed it down to 6 pages - should’ve come with a free magnifying glass! When we got the go-ahead, I reworked it into 10 pages and that would have made up episodes 1 and 2. (In fact, all our files still use that numbering – always takes a bit of mental arithmetic to work out the number of an episode in the DFC.)

I like the discipline of having to hit a big dramatic beat every 5 pages. And I’ve been sticking to that even now I’m not writing the story in weekly instalments. But if it were serialized, I’d want to read it the way we’ve organized the chapters of the graphic novel. Every 20-25 pages there’s a mini-closure that feels like you’ve just been served a satisfying chunk of story and you’re gearing up for the next.

Jack bottles the witch at Selsey; the Kind Gentleman delivers his ultimatum; everyone is settled aboard the train as they steam into the Carpathians. These are comic-book-sized instalments which, if they appeared monthly, would deliver more than just a cliffhanger to entice you back.

That was the way I read comics growing up. Collecting a dozen monthly titles meant that there’d be something to buy every Saturday when I did my trawl of the newsagents. The 20-page format allowed the story room to breathe.

You can tell stories in less space -
Adrian Tomine, for example, regularly ties up a complete narrative in 2 or 3 pages. That’s not the way I’d want to tell a story like Mirabilis, though. In a perfect world, we’d come out as a monthly comic book with a new collection in book form every nine issues or so.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

NEW EPISODES!

No need to fight - they're free to one and all. Episodes 2, 3 and 4 are now on the main Mirabilis site. Enjoy!


Wednesday, 22 April 2009

New episodes on the line

We're going to get some new episodes up on the main Mirabilis site this week.
Yep, I said new episodes. Not all-new (that's coming soon, though) but it does mean that anybody who missed the start of the story when it was serialized in the DFC can now catch up.

We already have the pilot episode up, of course - and in French here, mes vieux chanceux. The new episodes will complete chapter one ("The World Turned Upside Down") of the Winter book, comprising episodes 2, 3 and 4 as published in the DFC.

Even if you've read them before, they're still worth checking out online as you'll be able to see Nikos's magnificent colours as they were meant to be seen. Keep an eye on the blog and we'll let you know as soon as they're up.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Draw up a chair

“From the Floor of 64” was the British Power Comics’ version of Marvel’s “Bullpen Bulletins” – a page of gossip, insider info and tantalizing glimpses of upcoming projects. I’ve no doubt that’s a big reason why I was such a staunch fan. Stan Lee (and, over here in the UK, his emulators Alf Wallace and co) knew how to create an inviting sense of community.

DC titles carried a letters page, but there was nothing to glue the whole slate together the way Marvel did. (Also, the coolest their characters got was Batman – and back then he was no Spidey, I’ll tell you that.)

If you look at
Bullpen Bulletins pages from the mid-‘60s now, your impression is likely to be, “This was Marvel’s website.” The theory of community was in their genes, even though the technology was still thirty years away.

They also had the letters pages, of course. Most of what got discussed went a little over my head at age 10, but I liked it that way. It made me feel that the comics I enjoyed weren’t just for kids (not that “just” for kids is any kind of a bad thing anyway). Listening in on that thoughtful, intensely enthusiastic dialogue between readers and creators taught me how to think about stories.

At some point we’re going to set up a letters page – I mean a forum – for discussing Mirabilis like that. Any and all suggestions welcome. Excelsior!

Monday, 20 April 2009

What’s it all about, "Alpha"?

When I was about six or seven, my Dad and I would have pillow fights with special Hogwarts (or rather Greyfriars) style rules. You could keep throwing pillows as long as you knew the next letter. But if you zeta-ed when you should've theta-ed, it was the other fellow's turn. To this day I know the Greek alphabet off by heart. I can reel it off quicker than the English alphabet, as a matter of fact.

That alphabet was one of about a million facts and look-up tables in a book my Dad got for his thirteenth birthday. I still have it:
The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book. It's a big old door-stop of a thing that would do 1d6+3 damage in any role-playing game you can name. And my favourite item in the whole book is this photograph. The caption reads:
THE ROBOT "ALPHA"
On the word of command it will stand, raise both arms above its head, and reply to questions. It weighs half a ton and was created by "Astra".
(You see what I did there? The Greek alphabet segue? Can't say you don't get your money's worth.)

Well, well - enigmas within enigmas. When exactly was this magnificently odd mechanical man built? The book was published in 1933. But we'd already had
Metropolis in 1927, after which wouldn't a big chunky robot like this seem a bit outmoded? Though, having said that, Alpha undoubtedly wins hands down in the elegant design stakes against Elektro, the blocky robot exhibited at the Westinghouse stand at the 1939 World's Fair.

And then there's the most intriguing mystery of all: who was "Astra"? A Randian visionary artist? An electrical engineer with a sense of mischief? A would-be super-villain who gave it all up through lack of venture capital?

Stylistically, Alpha is not at all right for the
Belle Époque fantasy of Mirabilis, but something about him keeps nagging at me. I want to use him somewhere, somehow, someday. With ears like that, he can't be left to languish in obscurity.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Horse de combat

Having had a centaur rear up, so to speak, on the RMS Notes and Queries page, this seems like a good time to show off a couple of pics of the beasties by Leo and Martin.

Why the military angle? Here's the snippet from the Gazetteer:
"Thank heavens for these centaurs we were issued with in the spring," said the brigade's commanding officer today. "They're the bee's knees, I can tell you. Much nippier than our horses used to be. Which is just as well when some damned fool tells you to charge a Russian artillery emplacement. Er, don’t print that."
That's one of our fake news reports, obviously. And why is the Crimean War going on when the setting is supposed to be 1901? Fantasy, you see. The unreal. Breakdown in the natural fabric of things. Logic has gone on holiday and didn't leave a forwarding address. Trust me, it all gets stranger and stranger from here on.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Jack the lad

A couple of early drawings of Jack. The original design from the dummy issue of the DFC in 2006 had him in pre-WW1 army uniform and he ended up looking quite young and podgy. When we knew we had a green light (yeah yeah...) Leo and Martin worked together to come up with the more heroic look you see here.

The key thing was to give him a dashing hussars-type uniform - just the ticket for a young hero. His regiment btw is the same one that Coleridge briefly enlisted in: the 15th (Elliott's) Royal Dragoons.

I like the strikingly heroic poster image that Leo drew of him, although I don't think it will end up being an actual scene from the story because the giant lion is a touch too Narnia. But we do plan to have him astride a flying something before too long. Wait and see.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Dinosaur lives! Or he should do...

In a parallel universe, some very interesting strips appeared in the DFC that never made it into our timeline. Even now, they’re out there. They exist. Within a year, they could be graphic novels on the bookshelves in our reality. There’s no reason why other universes should have all the fun.

So, publishers: buck your ideas up! Didn’t you see the success
Borders has been having with their new graphic novel section? Pull your collective fingers out and start releasing some great original story-driven graphic novels here in the UK. No, I don’t mean dreamy melancholic reminiscences about growing up in ‘80s Britain, or worthy would-be award-winning stuff about being a child under the Khmer Rouge. Just some pulse-pounding, imagination-thrilling stories that will – good heavens – actually sell.

Here are a few I’d snap up in an instant:


Zhanna: Adventures in Time and Alternative Realities
Garen Ewing
posted about this on the Super Comics Adventure Squad blog. He said that was just a working title, but you know what? I like it. Zhanna didn’t make it into the DFC because the time travel theme clashed with John Blake. (Hmm. So I guess it’s just as well we didn’t tell them about Gus…)

Dinosaur and WolfBy the absurdly talented, charismatic and inventive Iain McCaig, who was born the same day as me but probably not in Slough. The characters are a pigeon and a dachshund who think they’re epic heroes. At least, the pigeon does; the poor old dog just gets dragged along. It’s funny, wondrous, exuberant storytelling at its very best. You can find out more about this and some of Iain’s other projects in his gorgeous art book
Shadowline.

Kingdom of Feathers
This strikes me as a kind of modern
Trigan Empire or Atlantis Chronicles. The premise is absolutely brilliant and is the sort of thing that would have had me enthralled at any age from 8 onwards (right up to the present day). I’m not going to spill the beans here as I don’t know how the writer intended to unfold the story – or indeed who the writer is. But here are some pencil pages by Russ Nicholson.

The 3rd dimension















Here’s a charming, steampunkish 3D model that Leo built to use as reference when drawing. He also found a 3D model of the Orient Express online that has been extremely handy for the last few Mirabilis episodes.

It was the post about the Royal Mythological Society
Flying Fish that reminded me about this, though in fact the model you see here was built for another strip that Leo wrote called Deep Sea Star. Unlike the Fish, this vehicle does go underwater. See more in his book on digital cartoons.

Leo actually isn’t that keen on working in 3D although, as you can see from these images and the
Fangleworths robots, the Lightwave models have the same uniquely characterful touch that you see in his regular drawings. I find 3D interesting because you can experiment with camera position and lens. Too many comic strips use only a human-eye lens, which quickly gets boring to an audience raised on movies. But it is like moving a mountain of sugar with a tea-spoon - we used to develop animated shows for TV, and you can spend a whole week just to get a few seconds of footage.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Royal Mythological Society

The RMS boffins were originally going to be three interchangeable male professors called Bromfield, Shelwick and Sackville – after Landmark Trust properties where Roz and I have stayed.

I think I always knew the names were just going to be placeholders. As the idea developed, Bampton “Bammy” Bromfield remained (in honour of the brainstorming week we took with Martin and Leo at Bromfield Priory Gatehouse near Ludlow) but the others became more clearly defined and differentiated, in the form of Dr Cyril Clattercut and Dame Sepia Belchamy.

The panel of them explaining the green comet to Jack is from episode 5, now the opening of Chapter Two in the Winter novel. If you spot the deliberate mistake, award yourself an RMS silver medal. I often find Leo’s and Nikos’s style on “domestic” panels like this to be reminiscent of the work Guy Davis and Dave Stewart are doing on
B.P.R.D. – anybody else think that, or is it just me?

Digging around in old files, I found this scratchy copy (below) of the original pencils. In this version you can see Jack still has the more modern looking army uniform that we later decided to drop. That’s surprising, as I wasn’t aware the pencils had got so far (this is page 29 of the book) before we made the switch. On the other hand, I don’t often remember what I had for lunch yesterday…

Incidentally, if you haven’t yet caught Bromfield and Clattercut answering RMS correspondence, pop over and
take a look. We’re planning to give Dame Sepia her own spot before long. More news about that in a month or so.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Life and death are only a mouse-click away

This might seem kind of off-topic, but bear with me... Magnum Opus Press have this week released the first two books of the Dragon Warriors role-playing game as downloadable PDFs. I wrote Dragon Warriors with Oliver Johnson back in the 1980s, and I'm proud to say that it introduced a whole generation of British, Canadian, Australian and South African gamers to fantasy role-playing. (I'd like to say the same about US gamers, but as it happens they got D&D instead.)

Rather than attempt a blurb-type description myself - never a good idea - I shall quote from Magnum Opus's own summary:

ABOUT THE DRAGON WARRIORS ROLE-PLAYING GAME

Dragon Warriors is a fantasy role-playing game of adventure, magic, folklore, superstition and horror. The players take on the roles of gallant heroes in a world of fantasy who undertake dangerous missions and adventures, pitting themselves, their wits, their weapons and their magical abilities against any number of foes and challenges. Some do it for money, some for honour, and some for darker, more personal reasons.

The game is set in a world known as Legend, loosely based on Europe at the time of the medieval crusades. Human civilisation has spread across the world, but its links are fragile and are often broken by conflict, invasion, or reasons natural or supernatural. Man has learned something of the art of magic, though spell-casters are widely feared by normal folk. Creatures from folklore and myth roam outside the human communities, or sometimes inside them, spreading fear and ruin. And there are ancient quests and long-dormant discoveries to be unearthed by the brave, and riches and status to be gained.

The world of Dragon Warriors feels familiar but at the same time it is a place filled with threats and the unknown. The further you stray from home, the stranger the places you will encounter. The desolate tundra and pine forests of Krarth - reached by crossing the Rathurbosk, a magical mile-long bridge-city built over a gouge between two continents. The ruins of the city of Spyte, destroyed by its mad rulers the Magi whose descendents still control Krarth today. The peril-filled tropical jungles of Mungoda that grow over the faded remains of dead civilisations - jungles now home to the Volucreth bird-men, who hunt humans like animals. The New Selentine Empire, desperate to recapture the glories and power it held in the previous millennium. The Nomad Khanates. The Ta'ashim lands, steeped in magical stories and now in uneasy truce with Principalities of the Crusades. The great city of Ferromaine where money is king and anything can be bought if the price is right. And much more.
DW belongs to a very different tradition of fantasy from Mirabilis (as different, indeed, as Jack Vance and Lord Dunsany) but the connection is not as tenuous as it seems. Not only did Leo devise the Rathurbosk, which he did a great painting of, he also helped create the basic map of the whole world of Legend.

I was living at that time in Abbeville Road in South London. Leo had come up to stay the weekend and, as often happened, we got to talking about our latest projects. I had to create a setting for Dragon Warriors, the way Lord of the Rings has Middle Earth, but the only part Oliver and I had worked out in detail up till then was Ellesland, the setting for the first five books. With book six looming we needed to give players a full worldbook with details of all the other countries we had so far only mentioned in passing. As Oliver was wrapping up book five, it was high time I made a start on Legend but so far hadn't got much further than sketching a few ideas on the back of that familiar envelope...

At which point Leo grabbed a big sheet of tracing paper from his bag and drew the outline map of the DW world. Just like that. And then we starting riffing on what each bit of the world might contain, and that's when the Rathurbosk got added to the world - and the gothic idea of the degenerate descendants of the original Magi, many of whose armorial emblems Leo drew on the spot. The map above is by Russ Nicholson, and marvellous it is indeed, but I also treasure that original scrappy blueprint map that Leo drew.

...though clothed in scarlet

I gave my friend Steve Foster a toy orang-utan in a top hat and opera cape who used to sit by his telephone. My Mum made the opera cape. Steve called him Zak. Zak had a good innings, but when Steve got married a few years later it was time to put away nerdish things. I hope Zak found a good home, but I doubt if he’s nowadays so nattily dressed.

The orang-utan in fancy clothing came about because we had both been tickled by the corny movie version of Murders in the Rue Morgue, particularly the notion of the killer leaving a strikingly clear outline, including flowing opera cape, after jumping through a pane of glass. Wanting to give Jack a “friendly adversary” to balance his not-always-trustworthy mentor, Gus, I switched Zak to the other side of the law and gave him a more distinguished name. So was born Inspector Primo Simeon of the Sûreté.

Somewhere along the way , Simeon lost Zak’s elegant sartorial sense and acquired more of an honest, almost bohemian, style with crumpled coat and floppy painter’s hat. (And quite right too – snappy dressing is for bad guys.)

I put my own drawing up here to avoid showing too much of Leo’s and Nikos’s material before you actually get to see it in the context of the story. (Update: May 2013 - here is the finished panel.) I don’t know why my McNab always has that Snipcock-and-Tweed thing going on – it makes him look far cuddlier than he really is.


The chap on the far right appears in the very next episode (#13: "Smoke and Mirrors"). But more on him another time.


Saturday, 11 April 2009

Water would put the fire out!

Couldn't resist giving a sneak peak of the Royal Mythological Society's steam-powered flying fish, even though it's not going to be seen until the Summer book, which Leo and I won't be working on for another year (!) yet.

The idea behind the RMS is pretty much the same as for Gus. Before January 1st 1901 they were just three old fruitcakes in an office at the back of the British Museum. After the green comet appears, nothing will ever be the same again. (A bit like Vince Cable now that the economy actually has collapsed - see, bet you wish you'd listened sooner.)

The girl in the pic is not Estelle by the way. She's a whole other bit of skirt (in this case, armoured skirt) for Jack to hang around with. See, I learned my trade from Stan Lee, and the Gwen/Mary Jane dynamic made a big impression on me ;-)

Some people have categorized Mirabilis as steampunk, incidentally, but I never thought of it that way myself. Steampunk as a genre postulates a world in which Victorian technology takes off in a direction that allows airships, robots, and all that - er, not jazz. (Ragtime?) Anyway, we do have steam-powered robots and so on in Mirabilis, but we also have Martians, faeries, gods, goblins, ghosts, witches and outright Dunsanian whimsy. Like I was just saying: before New Year's Day 1901, this was our world. The real world. Now it's the year that history forgot. "Everything is going to change." Keep that in mind.

Friday, 10 April 2009

One lump or two?

A little bit of Mirabilis magic for Good Friday: here's Pan taking tea with the vicar.

Actually it's still a bit early in the year for fantasy and everyday life to be quite as intertwined as this. By April the vicar would be torn between admitting dryads into his congregation and trying to get them to dress more decorously in church. But it's going to be May or June before you're likely to get pagan gods turning up for afternoon tea. The Royal Mythological Society's notes & queries give a pretty good idea of how things are changing as the green comet gets bigger in the sky.

This picture (by Martin, not Leo) was originally intended for the Gazetteer. Unfortunately very few of the pictures that were planned for that were ever completed - if we were to release it we'd have to call it the Pamphlet of Wonders. Oh well, you're going to get four thumping great Mirabilis graphic novels instead. Not a bad trade-off!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Where's the meat?

Borders’ announcement of an eightfold increase in graphic novel sales since March has me dreaming of a resurgence (actually it’d be pretty much a protosurgence) in UK comics.

I started collecting properly with
Daredevil #24 (Jan 1967). I’d enjoyed British comics well enough before then – there were great high-concept Valiant strips like Kelly’s Eye and The Steel Claw, and of course The Daleks in TV21 – but discovering Marvel was like when TV went to colour. Character as well as plot moved the stories forward, and Stan Lee and crew were in the process of creating a whole mythology. Glorious, heady stuff for an imaginative 10-year-old.

So it always baffled me that when most people in Britain talked about comics, they meant stories where teacher got a custard pie in his face. Okay, why would they be aware of the really great stuff – when Mjolnir broke, when Black Bolt spoke, when Ultron-5 met his end on a rubbish tip? When Mary Jane stood in that doorway, for heaven’s sake! (Face it, tiger – you hit the jackpot.) But didn’t they know that over 100,000 kids were lapping up Tim Kelly’s adventures in time, the mysterious Victorian adventures of Janus Stark – and, not too many years later, the truly brilliant
Charley’s War?

Supposedly, boys lose interest in reading around the age of 11 or 12. But I think it may be just that they lose interest in the form and the content of print fiction that’s on offer.

My godson and his friends are now the same age as I was when I took my tenpence to the counter for Davedevil’s battle with Ka-Zar. I listen to their unbridled enthusiasm for Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, God of War, Mirror’s Edge… It’s not just the games, it’s the backstory too. Give them stories they can get their teeth into, stories on which their imagination can take flight, and they’ll read them.

I’m not only talking about sci-fi and war action here, by the way. Rich, developing storylines and three-dimensional, compelling characters are what we need. The best British graphic novel I’ve read all year is Siku’s
The Manga Jesus. It’s literally breath-taking – and, in case you think I’m proselytizing, I say that as a devout agnostic.

British publishers could right now be offering graphic novels that would grab the same kind of dedicated following that Assassin’s Creed does. Only first we have to catch up with America, France, Holland, Japan and the rest of the world where comics aren’t looked down on as just “the funny papers”.

Graphic novels sales hike

Heartening news from The Bookseller that Borders has seen an 800% increase in sales of graphic novels since introducing a dedicated section for them in their stores in March.

When they launched this initiative, Borders' children's buyer, J P Hunting, said: "Previously children's graphic novels got put into the children's section so titles got a bit lost. With a dedicated section, it will be easier for customers to find these titles." Darn tootin'!

However, balance Mr Hunting's very sensible remark with this from Claudia Mody, who is children's fiction buyer at Waterstone's: "There's some interesting publishing in this area coming up. It's a clever way of tempting new and reluctant readers." Yeah, there's the problem right there. Too many people in the UK think that comics are just an easy-in for "proper" reading.

Graphic novel sales in the UK grew 21% last year, despite scarcity of product, poor distribution and patchy display in bookshops, so it's to Borders' credit that they were bold enough to take a leap of faith.

Now we just have to hope that publishers will follow suit. But they need to take a look at what is selling. Borders say that their best sales are being achieved with the Alex Rider graphic novels, Clone Wars, etc - ie story-driven comics for 11+ years. It augurs well for works such as Garen Ewing's brilliant The Rainbow Orchid, the first volume of which is scheduled for publication in August. (Order it now - we have.)

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The magic has come back

Here is one artifact of the development process that is a real curiosity. After our first meeting with David Fickling, back in mid-2003, we knew that Mirabilis couldn't just be the Dinotopia-style art book we originally intended. In short, we needed a story. But I didn't recognize that twinkle in David's eye as the first glimmerings of the DFC - I thought it was just a fond memory of lunch. So I started to shape the story as a prose novel.

I don't think it would have worked. A setting that is rich in all kinds of fantasy elements, many of which you want to flick past the reader while something else is going on, cries out to be treated visually. Also, our idea was to have fun creating this thing together - going off on my own for a few months to crank out a 50,000 word novel didn't strike me as very appealing. I've written over two million words of fiction in my time (that's just the published work) so the prospect of describing yet another sunrise or another person walking across a room has me as wild-eyed as Kirk Douglas after the fourth espresso.

Some of it was useful, though. While writing prose you can play around with scenes quite cheaply. If something isn't working, you throw it away and all it cost you was a few hours. Sometimes you decide that what you've written did happen but the reader doesn't need to see it. Those scenes can be the most useful of all.

This, then, was the origin of Jack's duel scene at the start of the book. For some reason I marked it as Chapter Two - I'm not sure what was to go before it, as I doubt if I intended to start with the New Year's Eve ball. Jack was called Will in the first version, but that was changed when David pointed out it was the name of the hero in the Dark Materials books. I prefer Jack.

The whole chapter is 3407 words long. To spare you that (and another long post on this blog) here's the final bit where Jack first sees the Kind Gentleman. It's a little different from the scene in the comic - as you'll see:
As the sky paled to grey, patches of high cloud were revealed like charcoal smears. Jack looked up and for a moment found his gaze lingering on a glittering pinpoint high up in the heavens. The stars had faded, and Venus would have been close to the horizon rather than directly overhead. Absently Jack noted that the point was green. He focused on it, bringing all his thoughts in to a single intense glow like that pinpoint of green light, and waited.
Over the wall of the gardens he heard the church bell of St Mary’s on Kew Green striking the hour. Gerard and the other second raised their handkerchiefs. They had agreed that the signal to fire would be the stroke of eight o’clock.
Jack allowed his arm to come down in an arc, straightening with an action like the unwinding of a clockwork mechanism, until his pistol was levelled directly at McNab.
It’s now, he thought. Do it! Pull the trigger!
Under a heavy lid of cloud, a line of white gold flared along the horizon. The sun rose, catching in the hothouse glass behind McNab so that every pane blazed with light. It was dazzling, as though the entire building was suddenly an inferno, a cathedral of the dawn. Jack squinted, trying to make out the silhouette of his opponent against the glare.
He raised his left hand, shielding his face, but the glow only grew brighter. The sunlight rekindled the ache behind his eyes and he felt bile rise into his mouth. Suddenly his vision telescoped, images blurring and distorting and flying past him. He felt as though he had been wrenched out of the world and left drifting. He saw the nearest window of the hothouse as if he were floating right in front of it. He could make out the pock-marked black enamel on the iron girders, the beads of condensation on the inside of the glass, the palm fronds stirring in the thick hot air within.
Shadows moved there, sending tiny refracted images dancing in the water droplets. A group of figures who appeared in miniature a thousand times, inverted as if each droplet were a microscope lens. They drew slowly nearer out of the glass-caged jungle until they were standing on the other side of the window – just a few feet away, it seemed. Jack felt a tingling of fine hairs all across his neck and arms.
A hand was raised and Jack distinctly heard the loud squeak as the hand wiped the condensation from the glass. Then he was looking right into a dozen white, almond-shaped faces – startlingly sharp and real and vivid against the backdrop of tropical foliage. They wore clothes finer than Jack had ever seen. There were silver clasps and rubies at their throats, and azure diadems that bound long hair the colour of brushed white gold.
The faces looked out into the dawn light at Jack, and at each other, and they smiled, cruel as cats. He felt as though he were a specimen they were examining as they peered down from their magnificent world of vibrant colour into a drab white dish of hoarfrost and sluggish life.
The leader of the group pressed close to the glass and, as he met Jack’s gaze, his smile broadened until it was the impossible painted smile of a clown. He took a pinch of snuff from an ivory box. Jack noticed his nostrils suck and flare as he breathed it in. His grey eyes sparkled, narrowing with quickened interest, and now Jack saw that they were slit eyes, like a snake’s.
He spoke two words. Words that Jack heard as clearly as if they had been hissed right in his ear. Two words that fell and rippled into reality like stones flung into a pond:
“We’re back.”
Jack’s senses rushed back into his body. He was aware of the last stroke of eight hanging in the air and felt a stab of panic. He hadn’t taken his shot – but there was still time. Thrusting out his pistol in the direction of both McNab and the white-faced figures in the hothouse, he screwed up his eyes and fired.
There was no recoil, no crack of gunfire. Jack opened one eye. He looked at the pistol with a puzzled scowl. It began to shake violently and emit a furious whine. He heard the spectators shouting something, but all his attention was focussed on the pistol which was now vibrating so strongly in his hand that it was hard to hold onto it. The whine grew louder and lower in tone and, as it reached a crescendo, to Jack’s astonishment a huge hornet pushed itself out of the barrel and hung quivering on the air.
The hornet swivelled – a compass needle jumping to the north set by McNab. Drawing a bead on him, it flashed forward through the air.
McNab saw it and reacted in shock, jerking his hand up and shooting not at Jack but at the hornet that was streaking towards him.
Jack saw a flash and had time to register a blurred projectile whistling through the still air. It struck him across the eyes and there was a blinding stab of pain followed by absolute darkness

It was only as he fell that he heard the whipcrack of McNab’s pistol shot. But in the yawning pit of unconsciousness there were no thoughts.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Episodes in French and English

We probably won't be able to upload any more episodes for a couple of weeks now, as Leo has to load his family, chickens, cats and easel (with Wacom tablet attached) aboard the car and travel the country like Jed Clampett and clan, visiting his far-flung relatives for Easter. But I wanted to give a sneak peek of the French version, which you can read along with other episodes (in English!) over on the main site.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

New Mirabilis episodes!

Leo and I just put up episodes 11 and 12 on the main Mirabilis site. This brings us up to "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" which introduces Inspector Primo Simeon (of whom, more later) and his loyal, long-suffering sidekick, Officer Caitou.

The story at this point has almost reached the end of Chapter 3 (of six) in the Winter book. Ideally we're going to have episodes 1 to 13 all available to read online before too long, though that's something we will need to agree with David Fickling and Random House. (Is it a good idea effectively to give away half of your graphic novel for reading online? Some current thinking would say it is.)

There's also the pilot episode ("Stung!") which you can read in French thanks to the aforementioned Rev Fitzroy Hallpike, expert on Babel, and the very wonderful Mikael Louys who has sent a polish of the translated script.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

L'année des merveilles










We're hoping to get the first episode up on the main Mirabilis website in French this weekend. (Translation courtesy of one of our RMS correspondents, the Rev Fitzroy Hallpike of Chalfont St Giles.)

We see our work as belonging as much to the Continental tradition of Tintin and Adele Blanc-Sec as to the American comic book influences of Ditko, Wrightson and Mignola. So welcome aboard to our French comrades!
The slightly muddy colors here are just an artifact of the compression used to get the images ready for Blogger, incidentally. The originals by Nikos are infinitely richer and more subtle.

The well-dressed cyclops

Another relic of the Gazetteer is this example of the sort of spoof newspaper ads were were going to use to evoke the Mirabilis world:

That path has been well-trodden in everything from Extraordinary Gentlemen to Larklight, but eleven or twelve years ago it still had a slightly fresh whiff about it. I like this one anyway - and that is not vanity speaking, because art and text are both by Leo.

Grauniad strips

A real old curio here. Back around September 2007 we were asked to do some Mirabilis strips to go in the Guardian. There was no way we could get the main storyline started at that stage, as Leo was still finishing off a couple of books. So I wrote a bunch of one-off stories set throughout the Mirabilis year: "Diamond in the Sky", "Two by Two", "The Happy Event", "Home Front", "The Jar of Piccalilli", "Wrong Turning", "A Flower in Your Hair" and "Never Never on the Portsmouth Line".

With Leo tied up, we turned to my old mucker Russ Nicholson for the art. Russ used to illustrate girls' comics like Jackie way back when (not many people know that) and I can only imagine the effect of a shoggoth in the Lower Fifth hockey team.

Anyway, we made a start but decided that Russ's comic style and tone (as shown) was too different from Leo's for the strips ever to mesh, so the idea got dropped. Pity - I would like to have had a strip alongside Posy Simmonds. Oh, behave.

Martin McKenna later pencilled another of the stories - the Halloween one: "Wrong Turning". At some point in the distant future, when the four main Mirabilis graphic novels are complete, I'm hoping we can return to the short stories. We could use a blend of styles, with Leo and Nikos inking each other's pencils or whatever. Could be interesting?

The Gazetteer

Before we thought of the comic, Mirabilis was originally planned as a kind of Dinotopia art book which we ended up referring to as "the Gazetteer".

We wanted to try telling a story in the form of lots of interwoven strands in the form of newspaper clippings, diary entries, letters, music hall posters, etc. This would be the only way to cover a canvas as big as Mirabilis - an entire world, transformed for an entire year.

For example, there was the explorer who got disgruntled at the lack of challenge now that so much fantasy was becoming commonplace. He set out alone to cross the Antarctic, only to fall through into a subterranean jungle world populated by prehistoric animals. His increasingly desperate attempts to find solitude in his explorations were thwarted by the savages of the jungle world, who led him to a lost Egyptian colony far below the surface who insisted on crowning him their absolute ruler and god-king - much to his disgust.

Martin McKenna completed a half-dozen very nice pictures that were intended for the Gazetteer, like the one above featuring the giant removal man. The ad on his cart reads:

STOOP and SonsThe BIG name in removals
From baths and bedsteads to the tiniest teacup
“Lift it and shift it? You want Stoop!”
Breakages ensured!
Head and shoulders above our competitors
We're hopeful that the Mirabilis Gazetteer will appear eventually - the current idea is to release it after the graphic novels as a back-up book to the main story, like Lyra's Oxford or The Guide to Middle-Earth. It's certainly one of the things we're signed to do for Random House. But first things first. We're got an awful lot of Jack's and Estelle's story to tell before we can return to the broader canvas.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Lockdown

... that's not a wrestling manoeuvre, it's the weekend when Leo and I set the seal on another batch of episodes. Still thinking in episodes, you see, even now the DFC has gone.

We lock down 5 episodes - I mean 25 pages - using Serif PagePlus for the final layout. It's also an opportunity to declutter the website, talk about the next part of the story, watch a few inspirational movies on Leo's huge screen, play a couple of games of Age of Empires with my godson Inigo, and maybe stroll over the field for a pint or two at the Globe.

With luck we might also make some progress on the Mirabilis collectible card game, which will be there on the site free to one and all as soon as we're happy with the way it plays.

This weekend we're finishing off pages 76-100, ie episodes 15-19, and Leo is well into the artwork on pages 101-128 while I am writing pages 150-160 at the moment. The Winter book wraps up after 160 pages, so... we're getting there.

When will you be able to see all this? We have no idea. The rights are still tied up with the company that originally published the first 55 pages in weekly comic format. But we can promise that when we know, you'll know.

Every problem has a solution!

Okay, so I know this is the Year of Wonders and not Skaro, but I had to put in a link to this feature on Down the Tubes about a Dalek TV series that never got made. (It was posted up around my birthday, when I was having my first beer since New Year's Eve - hence the long hangoverish delay in flagging this up.)

I actually did try (here's hubris) to get a Dalek TV movie going with the Sci-Fi Channel. This was before Russell T Davies's reimagining of Doctor Who, so not quite as long a shot as it sounds - the Daleks hadn't been on air for years. But Nation's agent explained that the BBC, although not actually having the rights, could stick their oar in to any production involving Daleks. Well, I've had some dealings with the BBC and I knew enough to drop the idea right there...

I'd heard years ago that Nation spent a while trying to get a Dalek series going in the USA, and that the stage play on which "Power of the Daleks" was based (see earlier post) had originally been written to pitch that. I assume the idea would have been to follow the history of the Daleks, along the lines taken by the Dalek comic strip in TV21.

I know at least one six-year-old who would have given every penny of his pocket money from then till the present day to see that ;)