Monday, 26 October 2009

The DFC Library

The first three books in the DFC Library have been announced: Good Dog, Bad Dog on 4 March 2010, then Mezolith on 1 April, and The Spider Moon on 29 April. Yes, I know we already blew the lid off that one, but now the books are officially up on Amazon for pre-order. Read more on the Super Comics Adventure Squad blog.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Pet hates

In Britain we have a TV show called Room 101. (Or maybe we used to have it and now it’s gone; I don’t know, I don’t watch broadcast television.) Anyway, the idea of the show is to pick the things you really can’t stand to go into your personal Room 101, on the principle that “The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”

From comics, my 101s are:

  • Lots of different fonts on one page. Noisy. Extra aggravation points for multiple fonts in one word balloon.
  • Motion lines. Sometimes unavoidable, but mostly just crass. Like sticking on a caption saying, "Look, children! See Ben Grimm clobber the bad man!"
  • Talk scenes. Again, sometimes you just have to. But do the work, daddy-o, have something else going on while they gab.
  • Big eyes, small mouth. I don't find this cute, I just want to punch their faces to beefsteak.
  • Dandy, Beano, Viz - all those Brit comics. Apologies if they're your thing, but to me: wet chalk on a blackboard.
  • Solipsistic comics about splitting up with the person who was never quite your girlfriend. This is over. Next.
  • Stories about the mutant menace, superhero registration, etc. Metaphors are fine, but they have no power when they're that obvious.
  • Wolverine. He's so grumpy. Shoulda been stuffed in a sack and thrown in the river years ago.

Lock me in a room with the above and I’ll say anything to get out. But Room 101 is all about the personal. What are your comic hates?

Friday, 23 October 2009

"Just a story" is no excuse

When you have characters in a story taking action that’s out of proportion to the emotion you’ve built up, that’s melodrama. When you have something happen that doesn’t make any logical sense, that’s hokum.

Now, I loved loved loved the new Star Trek movie. Ordered the special edition on DVD, can’t wait. But there is that one little bit that I just have to put mental blinkers on for, and that’s where Spock decides to stick Kirk in an escape pod and blast him off the ship on account of he’s been a very bad boy and the brig just won’t do.

Maybe you’re saying, “Don’t you see? That shows how upset Spock was!” Nah, that’s a lame excuse. People show more restraint than that every day, and they don’t even have the advantage of being half Vulcan. The writers needed Kirk in that pod to keep the plot moving, so they just hoped we’d accept the idea of Spock being so worked up into a lather that he’d behave like a little kid whose toy got broke.

And why did they need Kirk in that pod? So he could land on a deserted planet and meet up with Spock’s future self and get told some important plot stuff. So that’s piling hokum onto melodrama.

Now, remember this is a movie I adore. You know that Yeats quote, “Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams”? This movie decidedly did not tread on them. It took them and it made them into something brilliant. It made Star Trek as great as it always should have been – as great, I mean, as it was in my 11-year-old imagination. I’m going to keep saying that so you know this is criticism of a loved one.

But that bit with the escape pod is still melodrama and hokum. And what’s more, the writers knew it.

In a recent interview, J J Abrams mentions a deleted scene:
"In the scene, Spock explains that [the encounter of Kirk and Spock Prime] is a result of the universe trying to restore balance after the time line is changed. They acknowledged the coincidence as a function of the universe to heal itself."
Abrams was right to drop that scene in favour of keeping the mystery, because a mystery is always going to be preferable to a really dumb bit of blather like that. That’s the writer’s equivalent of covering the bad brickwork with a coat of plaster. But if they had wanted an honest logical explanation, older Spock could simply have said he planted the idea in young Spock’s mind. That reincorporates the Vulcan mind-meld, so we know it wasn’t cooked up just for the sake of this one plot point. Doesn’t normally work over hundreds of thousands of miles, sure – but who knows the range of contact between two near-identical minds? And it explains both young Spock’s crazy overreaction and the apparent fluke of Kirk and old Spock’s meeting.

If I get a meal cooked by Raymond Blanc and he burns the steak then I’m going to send it back. Literature and cuisine – they’re both crafts. I want to believe good stories, but I don’t see why I should make allowances. The better the story, the more it’s important to get every detail right. Seduce my disbelief, don’t just count on it to tie itself up. And if you see me cutting corners and sticking on plot patches in Mirabilis or Sweet or anything else, shout it out loud and clear.

Oh, and go and buy the Star Trek DVD right now because it was the best movie of 2009 by several parsecs.

The idiocy of the system

At the height of its early-70s success, with millions tuning in every week to watch first Jon Pertwee and then Tom Baker at the hexagonal console, Doctor Who was nonetheless facing a budget squeeze. At the time, a BBC executive was rolled out sometime between lunch and the cocktail hour to explain that, although Doctor Who was a drama series, it was paid for by the Light Entertainment department, don't you see, so really it's a bit of a drain on resources and all that. Oh go on, then, just a small one.

I remember thinking, “Why don’t you just pay for it out of the drama budget, then?” How na├»ve I was. As if that simple solution wouldn’t have occurred to the big swinging dickheads at the Beeb. The problem was that nobody actually had the ability or the will to make it so. The system had defeated them, the BBC corporate structure itself, like one of those huge computers from old sci-fi pictures that takes over the world and nobody can shut it down.

Prof Thomas Schatz wrote a book, The Genius of the System, in which he argued that Hollywood in its heyday benefited from a structure that allowed commercial creativity to thrive. And it makes sense. Corporations are like artificial intelligences. They have directives, criteria for selecting goals, and protocols for how to achieve them.

More often than genius, though, we get to experience the idiocy of the system. A petrochemicals company dumps waste into the ocean despite a daily fine of $1 million, and everybody says that’s stupid, that’s evil. Well, the company is just an AI. It calculates the cost of refining the waste and weighs that against the fine. $1m is small change, so sploosh.

Paul Mason (whose wife Keiko is currently preparing the Japanese version of Mirabilis episode one; thank you, Keiko) mentioned something in an email that gives a perfect illustration of the idiocy of a system:
“Our television is network-capable, but I can't see any point in connecting as all the technological effort seems to have gone into the DRM preventing the network connection being used to show free content. Which is easy to show by simply connecting a computer up to the TV.”
Likewise, book publishers are expending effort on DRM and going to expensive junkets – er, conferences - on “the digital future” and they aren’t getting the point either. It’s not a digital future, it’s a digital now. They are trying to figure out ways to slot electronic publishing alongside print, or use it as a kind of lead-in to print. Bzz – WRONG. Now, okay, print isn’t dead, whatever you’ve heard to the contrary, but it’s just one part of the whole and it’s going to be at the prestige end at that. The publishers need to get to grips with electronic “books” (in many forms) as the broad and overwhelming majority of what their business will be - and to understand that any attempt you make at imposing artificial controls on content will simply drive the market elsewhere.

The media are changing. But the systems are all old and stupid. They were built for a different world – the world of bookshops and DVD stores and broadcast television. They don’t know how to cope when content can be delivered digitally across an international network. The necessary change cannot come at the lower levels: the individual nationally-based networks or publishers. It has to come right from the top, from the media conglomerates that bought up all these pieces and now need to break them down and rebuild them into a completely new structure.

Oh for a Tardis to show them all this. But would it make a difference? There are plenty of clever people in TV and book publishing and games. They all know about the meteor that’s about to hit the media industries. But the companies themselves only have dinosaur brains. Can they adapt, or will they have to undergo the most drastic motor of evolution we know of: extinction?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Sweet concept art

It's very early days yet, but here's some concept art for Sweet, our rom-com graphic novel. I just wrote the final art and color notes for Mirabilis so, although it'll still be a month or so before we can put that to bed, my writing time is pretty much freed up over the next few weeks to start sketching out a story structure for the new project.

Unlike Mirabilis, we're going to get Sweet onto iPhone as soon as possible (probably while we're still writing it) so you may even see episodes of that a while before Jack and Estelle and co finally appear in print.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The lowdown on Sweet

Leo and I were talkling more about our "rom-comic" idea today and we're getting amped about it to the extent that we're going to take a trip to Brighton, where the story is set, to charge up on the local vibe. Not that we don't both know Brighton very well indeed. Leo lived there for years, I used to be a regular customer at the Rodeo Steak Bar throughout the summer vac, always ordering the J.R. Texas Special (the name dates it) which was a 14oz steak, fries and two fried eggs with onion rings and a salad. Mmm... if only I had a Tardis.

Anyway, we need a working title for this thing. I can't use its actual title because that would be a total giveaway. Like My Best Friend's Wedding or Knocked Up, it does exactly what it says on the tin. So for now we're going to be calling it Sweet. That's not the real title, just a placeholder. So we're clear on that.

I don't know if we'll change the name of the blog. We'll still be talking about Mirabilis, of course, but I anticipate we'll be putting more emphasis on Sweet as we develop it - and then other projects after that. We could keep the name for historical reasons, of course, the way that - oh, say, the way that Dickens kept the title Master Humphrey's Clock long after his eponymous narrator had dropped out of the story. (Hmm, I think I still haven't quite got the hang of these Whedonesque pop culture references.)

Saturday, 17 October 2009

New direction

"If you liked that then you'll like this." Except... not necessarily. For me, Buffy is the masterwork of television drama. I buy everything Joss Whedon does on DVD because he and his team have earned it ten times over just for those seven glorious seasons. And Dollhouse and Dr Horrible too - fabulous. But I keep on trying and I just can't get into Firefly. I admire it, but how faint is that praise? "Don't you find me attractive?" "Well, I do admire you..." Ulp!

Leo and I have been talking about what we should work on next. Front runner among a whole bunch of notions is a graphic novel rom-com. See what I mean? If you were hoping for cyborg dinosaurs you're going to be bitterly disappointed now. I often hear from Dragon Warriors and Fabled Lands fans who are usually bewildered to see what I'm doing these days because they perceive little overlap between those old sword-n-sorcery adventures and the richer character-driven stories in Mirabilis. I feel like I've matured, the fans just wonder when I'm going to get back on track: "We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones." So to speak.

The Glass Half Full is that, because we are self-funded, we can work on whatever we like without publisher interference. Frankly, I doubt if any book publisher would commission us to do a rom-com graphic novel anyway. We need to do it first, then go looking for a publisher. I'm approaching it like we're making a rom-com movie that we would actually pay to see ourselves - and hopefully one that will be laugh-out-loud funny in places. It may not appeal to everybody who likes Mirabilis, but take a look anyhow. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The essence of a character

The bit of the iceberg you don't get to see is all the concept art that goes into deciding what the characters should look like. Jack and Estelle went through months of false starts before Leo and Martin hit on the right look for them.

Over on Martin's site you can take a look at some of that early concept work. The Kind Gentleman is particularly interesting. I originally imagined him dressed like a dandy of the late 17th or early 18th century. When he's putting on his mortal guise, he asks, "The latest fashion?" and his minion replies, "What they're all wearing up top." They are just a bit off the mark after sleeping for a millennium or so.

Trouble was, that look wasn't nearly sexy enough for the Arch Deceiver. So Martin hit on the idea of dressing him in late Regency style - below right. That most certainly does "cut a dash", as the Gent himself puts it - and he's still nearly a hundred years out, after all.

Above is Martin's design for the famous chess-playing automaton created by Wolfgang von Kempelen. In the Year of Wonders, of course, the Iron Turk is not a hoax. Just look at the wealth of detail: the leg shape resembling gentlemen's trousers, the glowing valve reminiscent of a turban, and the styling of the face that evokes a long, curving Turkish moustache. I particularly like the fig leaf - added, as Martin said in his notes, in the interests of decency.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Wrong Side of Bedlam

Nabokov describes the writing process as the interplay of inspiration and combination. I have never found that to be truer than in creating this scene that introduces the character known as Talisin, or as Gus, or as – ah, but that we should save for another time.

The idea of Gus first appearing in a mental asylum went right back to my pre-Halloween stay at
Bromfield Priory Gatehouse with Leo, Martin and Roz in 2003. Out for a drive, we had passed a poor, lost, shambling old nutter standing beside the road and I remarked that somebody who imagined he was Hannibal or Merlin at the start of the Year of Wonders might very soon turn out to be exactly that.

Five years later, I was sitting on the lawn of my mother’s house in Surrey on a very summery spring day, possibly with a cold beer in hand but just as likely with a cup of tea. Leaning back in my chair with the sunlight in the branches, I was building the set of Gus’s asylum cell in my mind while the reality around me was of a warm day with bees grazing drowsily and the scent of blossom in the air. And so the scene became the simple reversal of that: Gus in his cold stone cell was the reality, and the idyllic countryside became what his imagination had painted over it.

As the whole point and theme of Mirabilis is that reality and the imagination are part of one continuous spectrum – that reality happens inside the human mind, if you want to be scientific about it – there seemed to be no better way to mark the appearance of Jack’s unreliable mentor, and the start of Jack’s acceptance of “the world turned upside down”. As a writer, I’m always immensely grateful when the Muse does all the work and just drops the scene in my lap like that.

Inspiration over, the combination part just meant swiping a few perfect lines from Shelley (if you have to steal, steal from the best) and some jolly research into archaic slang. I still can’t look at the Home page on the
Mirabilis site without laughing out loud at Gus’s gleeful face where Leo has him shouting, “You drosty fat ear-boil!” Small things, you see.

This page was the one we picked for
Nikos to try out as colourist. As soon as we saw how brilliantly he handled the contrast between the vernal landscape and the grim stone cell, we knew we had found our man.

The scene, incidentally, is the opening of Chapter Two in the
Winter book and was the start of episode six when Mirabilis was being serialized in the DFC. You can read it on the website here or on fReado here. I had planned to mark the beginning of outright fantasy by having the masthead run sideways down the page, as you can see in my original sketch. It had been decided as a point of editorial style, however, that mastheads would always run across the top of each strip – or, if not across the top, at least consistently in the same position. So when this episode actually appeared (in DFC #34) the masthead was in its regular position. (Not to get trainspotterish or anything, but if you can’t stick trivia like that in a blog then what is it for?)

How to set up a threat

The most effective threats are the ones you set up in the course of your story. That’s why, if you’re going to have your characters menaced by a gun, you should ideally show your audience what the gun can do. Yes, they know that guns can smash vases and blow limbs off. But audiences tend to treat a story universe as an independent microcosm. Which is reasonable enough, as in some story universes (Road Runner) you can get blown up by dynamite and just end up with singed eyebrows.

So you need to
show them what the rules of your story universe are. They will accept these rules very readily, by the way. Audiences are actually hungry to find out the rules you’re using.

Suppose you have a bunch of characters enter a very spooky place, but they have a talisman or a protector with them. Spooky as the place is, they are safe as long as they have the talisman and don’t do anything dumb. If you set it up properly, you only have to have the characters
lose the talisman and suddenly your audience will be in a real panic. They’ll believe there’s a credible threat in the haunted house or whatever it is because, with that talisman, you set up the rules necessary to achieve suspension of disbelief.

More accurately, you didn’t suspend their disbelief at all. You actively engaged their willingness to believe.

In case this all seems a tad abstract, consider a bunch of little furry-footed chaps going through a really ancient, dark, eerie, goblin-infested cavern complex. But it’s okay because they have the world’s most powerful wizard with them. Except then they come up against a
really nasty monster and the wizard deals with it but he falls down a bottomless chasm. And now they’re alone. In the dark. And suddenly Moria seems like a very dangerous place indeed.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Where do ideas come from?

It was a dream. Or a daydream, perhaps – hard to say. I had been writing the Captain Scarlet books and struggling with how to find the drama when you have an indestructible hero. What came to me out of the blue wasn’t of any use in the book I was actually writing. Where the Muse is involved, you can never order what you want, only what you need. 

A man lies on a slab. In voiceover: “I always wonder if it’s going to work this time. If the eyes will open and let in the light. Will I feel the rush of blood coming back? Will I manage to take that first breath?”

(Yeah, it’s too much, but this is the stuff as it comes straight out of the depths. The craft of writing is to refine it.)

I realize it’s not a slab. He’s on a couch and this voiceover is presumably what he’s saying to his psychiatrist. And just as I think that, it's like a cut to a body floating in murky water. I'm looking at the body from below as it drifts up towards a patch of greenish daylight and is hooked by gaffs. Indistinct noises turn to shouts as it breaks the surface.

On Westminster Bridge, a sullen crowd has gathered. In the daydream, as it dropped into my mind, I know that the war against the Mysterons has dragged on for years and drained Earth’s resources. People live in poverty and fear, resenting the military types who descend – literally - from the clouds. The Thames is filled with dozens of corpses drifting by. Colonel White watches from the bridge as one of those bodies is hauled up onto the Embankment by his men.

An angry voice in the crowd: “Can’t you leave the poor devils in peace?”

Colonel White replies, almost to himself: “One of those ‘poor devils’ has a dinner date at the Savoy.”

The Spectrum agents have put up a tent beside the river. Inside, doctors work on the dead body they’ve fished up. Pumping the river water out of the lungs, washing down the body. A soldier starts to clothe the corpse in full evening dress. As White enters, a doctor is reading from the instruments they’ve wired up: “Biotoxin levels dropping. Cellular activity at eighty percent, ninety…”

And just as the soldier finishes knotting the bow tie, Captain Scarlet gives a gasp and sits up. He blinks, shows no emotion. He’s used to this; it happens all the time. It's one of the things that is edging him away from being human.

White puts an invitation card into his hand. “There’s a car waiting. Come on, Scarlet, no lying down on this job…”

Now, I didn’t “invent” any of that. Not in the way that, when designing a videogame, I identify a problem and then devise different ways to solve it. It’s not even like storyboarding a scene. That too is creative, but it’s creativity with a target. You’re using the tools of the craft to make something work. But in the beginning, faced with the blank page, creativity merely consists of making yourself a conduit. In storytelling, fragments like this just arrive. They’re only half-formed, but I don’t know who it is who has worked them even to that stage. The Muse, I guess. “The boys in the basement” as Stephen King calls them.

You hope for something you’ve never seen before. And when those fragments arrive, it makes the job as fresh for you as for your readers. Of course, that’s just the one percent. Then comes the perspiration.