Saturday, 29 May 2010

While there's music and moonlight

Not wanting to jinx it, but things are looking distinctly brighter for Mirabilis this weekend than they turned out to be for the Weinsteins and Miramax (see last post).

We have spent the last three months negotiating a release from the old DFC contract that will free up the Mirabilis rights. And at last that is looking like it’s about to happen, thanks to the heroic efforts of our agent Stephanie Thwaites and the personal intervention of Random House Children’s CEO Philippa Dickinson.

Getting back our rights will allow me, Leo, Nikos and Martin to complete the Winter book and get on with the rest of the series. We’ll also be able to go looking for publishers in various territories who really love Mirabilis and will want to get behind it. The size of the publisher isn’t all that important – it’s their passion and commitment we’ll be looking for. For example, look at comments by Tim Jones here and Alistair Spalding here that show their enthusiasm for Garen Ewing’s brilliant Rainbow Orchid series (next book out July 5th). Leo and I fantasize about finding Mirabilis a home like that.

You diehards won’t have to wait, though. We’ve got 200 pages almost complete and we plan to release those in a limited collector’s edition right away. We’re also iPad junkies, and you can expect to see a version in the App Store alongside Leo’s charming Sweet Pea series. (My wife thinks Sweet Pea looks like an infant Estelle. Close, except Estelle at five years old would probably be building a formicarium in her wardrobe instead of deciding what to wear!)

On top of that, what I’d really like is to get Mirabilis out in comic book form. Book One neatly slices into eight 25-page instalments. I’m not sure yet how Mirabilis: The Comic #1-#8 would dovetail with an iPad or print collector’s edition, much less what the eventual publisher would think about it. But a tiny part of the story was originally serialized in Random House’s weekly DFC comic two years ago, and that didn’t hurt – in fact, netted us several thousand blog hits.

And you know I mocked up those “Mirus Comics” covers a while back? Those might soon be a reality. My ten-year-old self is going to be ecstatic.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Max pain

Two guys who created a property that we'll just call Mira--- have been trying to get back control of it. Sadly their offer was turned down and now negotiations are back in the corporate glue from which nothing escapes. Our hearts go out to the Weinstein bothers and you can read the full story here. Don't ever let 'em grind you down, boys.

Friday, 21 May 2010

"The Dream" by A J Alan

We're still working on new Mirabilis but while you're waiting here's something just as good, a new (ie, 85-year-old) story as originally recounted by the pseudonymous Mr Alan on BBC radio:

They’ve asked me to tell you about another of my experiences, and I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to try and describe to you a dream I often have.

Before describing the dream itself it may be as we1l to explain a few things about it.

First of all, I've had it some fifteen or twenty times altogether at quite irregular intervals. Sometimes it gives me a miss for two years, at others it will happen twice in six months. There's no knowing.

It began—to visit me—when I was eight or nine years old, and I used to think then that it was just the same dream each time, but it wasn't, and it isn't. The general setting, or
locale, is the same, but there's a gradual moving forward of events which makes it somewhat interesting — to me, at any rate — and just a bit creepy.

It always begins in exactly the same way. I am walking up a broad flight of stairs in a very large house. The carpet is dark-blue and very thick, so thick that you sink right in.

The walls are all white.

The time, as a rule, is between eleven and twelve at night. It's evidently a party I'm coming to, and I'm rather late for it. My left forefinger is poking a piece of paper down into my waistcoat pocket, and I'm aware in some occult way that it's the ticket for my hat and coat.

The whole place seems deserted except for me, not even anyone to take my name and announce me. In fact, I'm not
rather late, I'm very late.

At the top of the stairs there's a broad sort of landing-place, and, immediately facing me, a very massive mahogany door with a large cut-glass knob. Through this door I go.

In my very young days I used to have quite a job to push it open, but now it's merely heavy and solid.

There's a screen inside the door which cuts me off from the rest of the room, and it just gives me the opportunity to pull down my waistcoat. I walk, with a certain amount of diffidence, round the screen. It's a great big room — very high and brilliantly lighted. The walls are white and the carpet blue — like the stairs — and the furniture is very dark oak.

The scene is rather peculiar. There must be at least forty or fifty men in the room, and they are all sitting on chairs in front of a little platform against the far wall. They aren't sitting in rows, but just anyhow. It looks as though they've drawn up their chairs as near the platform as they can get. I expect that's what happens, really, but I've never got there early enough to see.

They are all much of the same class, as far as general appearance goes; but their ages are widely different. They range from twenty or less right up to seventy and more.

I used to wonder, many years ago, what it was all about, but now I realise that all these people are watching, with very great interest, a conversation which is taking place between a man and a woman. Incidentally, she is the only woman in the room.

These two are sitting on chairs on the dais or platform. It's quite a low platform really — not more than a foot high.

I say they're watching the conversation because I'm sure that unless one happens to be in the very front row it isn't possible to catch more than a word here and there.

The
man on the platform doesn't call for any particular remark — at least, I don't know — it is rather funny about him.

He is evidently just one of the audience who has been invited up, as it were, and I've usually seen him a few times before in the body of the room. But the thing is that once a man has spent the evening on the platform he never appears again.

Now we come to the lady. She is very beautiful — almost too beautiful to be respectable. In fact, if one didn't actually know... However, when I say respectable, I don't mean that she would faint clean away if anyone said damn; but one would hesitate before digging her in the ribs on short acquaintance.

As far as I can tell, she's on the tall side, and very graceful. I've never seen her standing up. She looks as though she could dance well. By dance I mean waltz, of course. She has lovely copper-coloured hair, and she's had the sense not to cut it off. She apparently believes in looking like a woman and not like an ungainly boy. Most unfashionable — but then you must remember that this is a dream.

She's usually dressed in a simple black evening-frock and a hat. The hat is rather of the — I think it's called the turban type. It's a little difficult to describe. It's got a sort of asprey — no, osprey — thing that points backwards and downwards, rather like the tail of the comet does. I think Miss Lily Elsie wore something like that in
The Merry Widow (if she doesn't mind my dragging her in).

When I say she's wearing a simple black frock, I mean one of those simple little frocks which you can pick up anywhere for fifty or sixty guineas.

And it's never the same dress twice.

While she's sitting down she isn't having a perpetual struggle to make her skirt cover her knees. Not that I've any quarrel with knees —
qua knees — but those rows of bony excrescences which stick out at you in the Tube, well, surely some of them might be left to the imagination. In fact, if things go on as they are doing now, one won't want an imagination at all, and then what?

To go back to the lady's hat for a moment, I must confess that it rather beats me — why she's wearing one at all, that is — because she must be in her own house.

You can tell that from the way she behaves—I mean, that she's obviously acting as hostess, and her manner is a treat to watch.

She sits quietly in her chair without looking as if she'd been spilt into it, and she doesn't fidget. She hasn't any of those irritating little affectations which one often sees. She doesn't drag out a repair outfit every two minutes and plaster a lot of stuff on her face. Perhaps she doesn't have to. I don't believe she'd even powder her nose in public. Oh, I know that on this subject I'm only a locust crying in the wilderness, but it
is refreshing to see anyone who isn't ashamed of her complexion.

I've mentioned before that the conversation, or whatever it is, between the good lady and the man on the platform is so quiet that I've never been able to hear her voice, but there's no doubt in my mind that it's the kind that anyone vulgar, who wished to be extra offensive, would describe as a "refained voice"; but he wouldn't be there, so it doesn't matter.

I've racked my brains trying to imagine what on earth they can be talking about for such a long time. In the early part
she seems to be asking questions and getting very deferential answers. Perhaps she's applying some sort of test. Later on it's more as though she is giving information or instructions, and he just puts in a word here and there.

At about half-past twelve she usually lights a cigarette. Between you and me, I think it's a signal as much as anything to tell all the rest of us that we can smoke if we like. Some of us do.

Now, it's rather a funny thing about the time. More often than not the place where I'm standing gives me a view of a clock there is on the mantelpiece. It's one of those clocks which pretend they haven't got any works, like the women of the present day. You know them — er, the clocks. All you can see is a sheet of plate-glass with the figures and hands on it, and the hands go round in some mysterious way. This clock goes and it's right.
How do I know it's right? Let's see, how do I know it's right? Oh, yes, because it always indicates the time of about one hour after I've gone to sleep, and that may vary quite a lot.

As regards the age of the lady — well, it's a little hard to say. In my extreme youth she was about as old as an aunt. When I grew up she seemed more like a sister, and now I'm blowed if I know how old she is. Early thirties probably. It's rather unusual to grow
past anyone.

I think I said at the beginning that there aren't quite enough chairs for everyone, and those who come late — like me — have to stand up at the back. All the same, it becomes apparent every now and then during the evening that there is a vacant chair a little way in. It's always a mystery to me
how this happens, because no one would ever seem to go out (only a blind man would), but when it does happen one of the men at the back sort of tiptoes in and takes it.

We just settle amongst ourselves who, like you do in the Tube - "That's all right, I'm getting out at the next station" — you know. A man who has once sat down always has a chair after that, so you see there's a process going on all through the years whereby everyone gradually works forward to the front and eventually finishes up on the platform. It has often, undoubtedly, been my turn to take a vacant chair, but some instinct has always warned me not to. Even our hostess has noticed it, and she's occasionally looked at me as though to say: "Aren't you going to sit down?" but I've always half-shaken my head and let someone else have it — the chair, that is. Then she has given a slight, very slight, shrug of the shoulders, and I've felt rather ungracious and left it at that. I know now why I don't sit down, and I'll tell you about that presently.

It's extremely difficult to give you the facts about this dream in their proper order, because there isn't a proper order, and it differs in so many ways from ordinary dreams. There are none of the mad things in it that you ordinarily get... The one I'm telling you about is so abnormally normal.

The one constantly variable factor is the man on the platform, and it's rotten bad luck that I've always been too late to see how he comes to be chosen out of all the others. He was once just sitting down, but that's the nearest I've ever got.

It used to strike me what a rag it would be if only I could recognise anyone there. After all, it stands to reason that all these other people must be dreaming, too — and then we could compare notes next day.

Well, one night the man on the platform was a man, a rather famous man, whom I knew very well. When I say I knew him very well, I really mean that I knew his secretary very well, which is infinitely better, believe me. So next morning I rang her up — the secretary — and said, "I say, I wish you'd fix me up an appointment with the old man some time during the day, because I want to see him very particularly". And she said, "I'm afraid you can't because he was found dead in bed this morning".

Wasn't it just my luck? Fearful hard lines on him, too, of course, but it absolutely dished my chance of finding out what the dream meant.

However, the Fates were kind. Three or four years later I again saw a man on the platform whom I knew perfectly well. His name was Ribblechick, but he couldn't help that, poor chap. He recognized me, too, and we grinned at each other, and I thought now it's all right — he'll have heard her speak, and will be able to tell me what she is — if not who.

So next morning I trotted round—they lived quite near us—and will you believe it, the whole house was upside down. He, poor old Ribblechick, had been found dead in bed, too. Heart-failure, they said it was.

Please don't think that I'm suggesting for a moment that it was anything but the purest coincidence that these two unfortunate people happened to die in the same way. But all the same, each time I dream my dream nowadays, and a chair does fall vacant, I still let someone else have it, and the good lady still shrugs her shoulders.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The sweet smell of success - and why lucre doesn't have to stink either


Often on Cloud 109 (best blog in the universe) I'm reading Peter Richardson's fascinating accounts of the greats of comic art and writing, and the dismal truth dawns that most of these guys were chewed up and spat out to watch their creations soar to the heights while they expired in the gutter, usually with the consolation of a bottle of Jim Beam in a brown paper bag. And then you spend a little time working in videogames or TV or movies and you begin to see a pattern. It isn't just comics. Wherever there is creative talent there's a rip-off waiting to happen.

Jack Ember delivers a passionate speech about this in Winter. It comes close to the end of the book so I won't spoil it here. He seems to be talking more generally, and indeed I guess he is. When creative talent gets chewed up, that's the perfect Platonic embodiment of money oppressing labor, after all. But the wrath, determination and socialist sentiments expressed by Mr Ember come from Leo's and my personal experience. It's a theme David Mamet explores in many of his movies, such as The Spanish Prisoner, above, or The Verdict, below. (Though I should add that Mr Mamet is hardly going to want me lumping him in with us socialists; sorry, sir.)

Anyway, there's never any point in being defeatist. When you talk to people who want to oppress you, if you dig in they will start to talk over you. That kind of person views all talent as unworldly, so they will alternately try to bully or charm you. They are trying to turn you into a victim. This you must resist. It is said that genius is always to be found begging at the gates of wealth, but that is old business thinking - the zero sum game. There are now investors and business partners who have the vision to seek a new model with creatives. They are out there; you must find them. As a creative man or woman, you must learn enough about new business thinking to talk to these worthwhile partners and forge win-win deals. Remain positive and there is nothing apart from the raw quality of your work to prevent you climbing up the ladder to a new and better creative/financial model.

Here, like the stages of Dante's hell, are the thresholds you must cross to get there. Forewarned is forearmed!

1. At this stage, people are not interested in your project. They don't just pass on it, they act as if Derren Brown has put them under a hypnotic compulsion to ignore it. If you give it to friends and they don't give you any feedback, that's actually a good sign. It means that they don't know how to break it to you that they found it too weird. Too weird often (but not always) equates to original, which is what the project needs to have any chance of reaching stage 5.

2. People try to shoot the project down. This means that they feel there is a serious risk of it being successful. Tellingly, they see that as a risk to themselves - in most cases, they're envisaging that it will be a success for someone else. So they tell you all the reasons why you should abandon it. "Science fiction is not testing well with the 8-12 year-old ABC1 female demographic." Again, take heart. If they actually thought it wouldn't get anywhere, they wouldn't bother trying to discourage you. (Also, anybody who thinks that kind of marketing speak has anything to do with creative success is a moron anyway, so do you really care about their opinion?)

3. Now it's getting serious. People will come out of the woodwork telling you why you won't get anywhere without them. I'm not talking here about potentially useful partners like investors or publishers. These are people who you're not even sure exactly what they plan to do for you. They keep everything vague, which favors them because they don't have anything concrete to bring to the deal. You can recognize them in an instant by the lingo: fluent bullshit. Sit it out - they're just the early swarm of parasites that tells you real partnerships and deals are on the horizon.

4. Success is close now. You can smell it. Serious players turn up wanting a slice of your project. The only problem is, they don't want the goose (that's you), they just want the golden egg. Money will be offered. More money than a ditch-digger could make in a whole week, yay. This is the reverse of stage 1, as gradually you'll notice at meetings that people are talking about "our" project. Yeah, they like it now. They want to go home with it, and you're just the old chaperone who's getting in the way. The history of creative endeavor is a bloody battlefield littered with talent left clutching a few dollars while the big boys sit on piles of gold sucking their cigars. They'll do it without a qualm - they don't even think you deserve it. After all, they did all the work, didn't they? Beware of this stage. Having come this far you're probably desperate for a payday, but don't weaken.

5. Real success is when you find partners - publishers, studios, investors - who both have something real to contribute and see you as more than an upstart who found a treasure map in the attic. They know that you are the best champion the project will ever have. They figure that having created it, you might just come up with even more good stuff next week. As this type of deal is a genuine win-win, each partner may have smaller percentages but of a much bigger pie. I should add that few creatives ever get this far - most sold it at stage 4 or earlier to pay the rent. But if you have a good project, believe in it. The only thing that stops you reaching stage 5 is all the frogs you need to get through to find a prince.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A teller of tales

A guest post today from the long-dead Mr Kenelm Foss, who reveals some interesting details about the nature of the persona created by Leslie H Lambert for his radio broadcasts, thus firmly placing A J Alan in an English tradition that runs through Ziggy Stardust to the likes of Count Arthur Strong today. (For more on Mr Foss himself, see his daughter's book Stage, Screen and Sandwiches: The Remarkable Life of Kenelm Foss.)

On Januarary 31st, 1924, with the broadcasting of a short story, "My Adventure in Jermyn Street", there for the first time crept over the air a pernickety, shy, languid, somewhat emasculate, "posh" voice of the kind with which we are now only too familiar in radio-announcers. But its owner had something novel and original to sell, and it is not too much to say that, owing to the instant public acceptance of his delightful entertainment, Leslie Harrison Lambert, a civil servant in his early forties who elected to hide his light under the pseudonym of A. J. Alan, was the initiator of the B.B.C. accent.

This curious hybrid, which is neither the King's English of George V, Edward VIII, and George VI, nor the unaccented, unaffected Queen's English of Elizabeth II, but a class-conscious, mincing travesty of correct diction, was precisely suited to A. J. Alan's material. Those diffident hesitations of his were in reality artfully contrived stage-pauses, for dramatic or humorous effect. His radio-personality was in itself expert character-acting, not so much a disguise (like his borrowed name) as a facade to hide a much more exuberant and artistic personality than his Whitehall-inhibited self.

Rex Palmer, at that time in charge of
2LO, reveals how the mythical and fabulous A. J. Alan came into being. Palmer was a near neighbour of L. H. Lambert at Holland Park, knowing him as an agreeable but elusive, slightly-built, middle-aged fellow with a good job in the Foreign Office, married to a lady older than himself, a lady with private means and a county-family background. This childless couple, living in style in a large house filled with well-polished antiques, possessed also a holiday bungalow in Devonshire. Except for weekly whist-drives and an occasional evening where host and hostess played the Murder Game with their guests, the Lamberts stood aloof, and Rex Palmer was therefore the more surprised when his neighbour called at 2LO in some excitement, apropos of anecdotes told over the air the previous evening by a director of the old British Broadcasting Company, Sir William Bull, a well-known M.P., with a histrionic gift which has been inherited by his son, Peter Bull, the actor. Lambert was convinced that he himself had a flair for the same sort of "turn". Palmer, eager to uncover new talent, arranged an audition, being so impressed with the outcome that Lambert found self-expression and a new career as A. J. Alan.

All Alan's recitals were rehearsed and re-rehearsed in the meticulous and finicking way which was part of Lambert’s character. He sat on a high stool close to the microphone, the text on his knees being pasted on cardboard so that no rustle of paper should disturb the broadcast. On this script pauses for laughs were marked in red. The speaker even brought his own candle with him in case the studio lights failed. He invariably arrived in a dinner-jacket, but Rex Palmer considers that dress-clothes would at that period be the normal wear of an evening in the Lamberts' environment.

The new radio-star certainly never visualized a wider and more selective audience than was given him by the wireless. So modest was he regarding his attainments as a raconteur that he refused to broadcast more than, at most, three times a year. It was originally, no doubt, his meteoric, astonishing, but fully justified popularity which prompted a publisher to issue two volumes of his spoken tales. The pages of "Good Evening, Everyone!" and "A. J. Alan’s Second Book" revealed to the discerning that the author's talent as a dramatic monologuist had not bamboozled listeners into accepting as a first-rate yarn something which was really only a vehicle for an engaging and disarming personality. No: these proved to be capital yarns in their own right, even to people who were not biased, for or against, by that lackadaisical, old-school-tie delivery into the microphone.

Two decades later, nearer three, his printed volumes are virtually unprocurable collectors' pieces. But the stories therein still emerge as exceptional and individual, well worthy of reissue in a judicious selection, eliminating certain facetious
jeux-d'esprit and others too slight or ephemeral for exhumation, such as "Christmas Story". Restricted by the demands of his radio medium, all the A. J. Alan stories profess to be personal reminiscences (like the bulk of Somerset Maugham's output) but they are nevertheless quite un-egotistical. The speaker is always victim, dupe, or stooge rather than hero. No one man could ever have had so many peculiar things happen to him, and the adventures related by A. J. Alan had mostly occurred to his acquaintances, who were startled to hear over the air half-forgotten episodes in their own lives, deftly dramatised by their whimsical friend.

A. J. Alan the writer is no cosmopolite, like Maugham, any more than he can claim O. Henry's gift for picturesque dialect. Nor is he sentimental, like Guy de Maupassant, from whom this school of authorship derives. The chief resemblance between A. J. Alan and these greater craftsmen, not omitting also Saki, is in the invariable surprise ending, the sting in the tail. But in Alan's case the unexpected culmination is less often drama than pure spoof... The listener and reader find that a shaggy dog has been leading them up the garden path to a climax of anti-climax. As a radio "act" it was, of course, essential that the
conte should conclude with a good exit-line or "curtain punch", but Alan's preference for understatement and leg-pulling is distinctively English.

Though, like Maupassant and Saki, primarily a humorist, Alan shares with these other two a strong tendency towards the macabre. To call him merely a writer of ghost-stories is to do him less than justice, for his mischievous ghastliness when they occur (as for instance in "Wottie", where the preamble in a good-class school lures us to a stomach-turning denouement) are intensified by being phrased with the well-bred reserve befitting his alter ego, that circumspect civil servant, L. H. Lambert. The leopard had changed his spots to some purpose, for the cumulative effect is irresistible.

Exactly why is difficult to say. Though, in "Charles" and "My Adventure at Chislehurst", he is capable of a nice line in murderesses, besides proffering a convincing gangster's moll in "My Adventure in Norfolk", his character delineation is elsewhere negligible. On the credit side, his use of slang is sparing but effective; contrariwise, though habitually referring to himself as a West End clubman, educated at Rugby, a model husband resident in Kensington, his references to other females are embarrassingly skittish — wishful thinking, perhaps. His settings rarely range outside the upper-middle-class section of society to which he himself belonged. The clue to his nation-wide appeal probably lies in that overworked word, charm.

Standard works of reference are strangely silent about this man of mystery. The Dictionary of National Biography and Who Was Who both totally ignore him. One explanation may be that his last broadcasts occurred in war-time, when his prominent position at the Foreign Office and hush-hush service with the R.N. rendered advisable a diplomatic silence concerning his lay activities. In consequence, when he died in 1940, aged fifty-seven, in a Norwich nursing-home, his obituaries were sparse and uninformative, although from them we learned for the first time his real name and that he lived at Potter Heigham, Norfolk, his will being proved at £1,134 gross. Incidentally, Mrs. Lambert did not long survive him.

Stuart Hibberd, formerly Chief Announcer of the B.B.C., who introduced A.J.A. to listeners, tells us in his autobiography that Alan was cheery, slim, well-dressed, sported a dangling monocle, and always carried a neat, discreet, despatch-case. Genial, he could be irritable at any interruption. To keep his voice in good trim for his recitals, he neither smoked nor imbibed alcohol during the week preceding each broadcast, self-denial which must particularly have irked him, as a connoisseur of food and wine.

Anyone sitting by his ain fireside with an Alan volume is ensured a delightful evening. His is no book for a deck-chair on a beach, a hammock and a sunny day. Though laughter is plentiful, the supernatural hovers persistently; a skeleton is liable to pop its head out of the cupboard and mar the feast of mirth. But, Alan being the spellbinder he is, after pushing a corpse under your nose, a murdered corpse, sometimes a putrefying one, he will characteristically square the circle with politely insincere apologies for having curdled your blood.

So bizarre an amalgam is little affected by the passage of time. References by him to performances of "Bulldog Drummond" at Wyndham's and Lily Elsie in "The Merry Widow" establish his epoch, as do his female fashions: knee-length skirts, turbans with ospreys, and ostrich-feather fans. A pretty girl is to him a "peach" instead of a "smasher". Notwithstanding, this author does not date appreciably, because he is unique.

 

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight

Frank Frazetta died yesterday in a Florida hospital. My first encounter with his work was the tiny black and white images of Creepy and Eerie covers reproduced in the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Even in that form the images had the power to transport you to other worlds. I'd pore over them for hours, imagining scenarios of mind-numbing terror that Archie Goodwin's actual stories, marvellous as they were, could never quite match. A year or two later, I found some of the Lancer Conan books in my local newsagent and so got my first dizzying taste of Frazetta in color. It was as if the whole exotic world of American fantasy had come crashing through the plywood wall of 1970s Home Counties suburbia. I had a Frazetta badge (it was "The Death Dealer") that was still with me at college at the end of the '70s, and if I looked hard now I'm pretty sure I'd find it. For several generations he was one of the defining draftsmen of a gutsy, full-blooded, rock-n-roll brand of fantasy. The Aesir will greet him with honor.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Ain't broke

Well, I say it ain’t broke - but the voices, they’ve broken, haven’t they? Big and deep equals scary, obviously. We all know that, especially if we’re in marketing. And tall. Tall is threatening. Really, really tall. And big, like those Cybermen toys that sold so well last Christmas. When you think about it, why didn’t all the early Who team, people like Verity Lambert – why didn’t they get that? Big, tall, deep voiced. Like a Bad Dad. And easy to package so it fits on the shelves at Toys-R-Us. Golly, it’s a wonder the Daleks ever got going without ticking those boxes, isn't it?

That’s the committee view. It took one man to create the Daleks, and one man to design them, and after half a century it’s taken a committee to bugger them up. There are criticisms of the Daleks' brief off-screen appearance in the Paul McGann movie, but at least the producers of that understood what made the Daleks the best sci-fi villains of all time. Listen to them shrieking for the Master’s blood. They’re like angry children. Shrill, self-centered, hysterical. The Daleks are paranoid. They’re fanatics. You can’t reason with them. That’s why they’re scary.

I mean: why they were scary. Now that they’re big and gruff and pantomimey, you wait and see: the stories will all be about puncturing that pomposity. Don't worry children, there's no bully in the world that you can't see off if you just show him a bit of cheek. “Here’s a biscuit, I’m going to blow up your ship with it.” Rubbish - you can’t do any deal with a Dalek. You can’t say, “What do you mean?” and have it say, “I don’t understand.” They don’t engage with other life-forms that way (that’s their weakness, incidentally). They don’t bother with threats and boasts: “Pest control” – lazy writing, that; just prole-pleasing. To talk like that means you are engaging with the other person, that you have some inkling (and care) how he thinks. But it's when we come up against the wall through which connection cannot flow that, with a prickle of dread, we realize we are dealing with the Other.

The scariest thing about Daleks: they are untroubled by doubt. Put a floppy-haired schoolboy with a fake-blokey accent up against a Taliban theology student, see how much of a meaningful dialogue you’d get then. Turn the Taliban teenager up to eleven and give him a gun. Hate is all about fear. “Conquer and destroy”, geddit?

Look at what the Daleks were up to in The Invasion of Earth. Robotizing people, burning out their brains to enslave them. That’s creepy shit, man. Those little bastards were evil and relentless. Hate and fear were all they knew. Even the movie version, dumbed down and jokey, couldn’t help but deliver some real chills. Now we have “running to and fro" stories that are full of twaddle about DNA and empty threats and bloodlines and blowing up walking bombs and – yawn. It's like a Marvel crossover on fifteen double espressos. When did the Daleks cease to have a plan? When the writers ceased to have a clue.

It’s easy to knock the BBC. Well, it is if they make decisions on the basis of bone-headedness and greed. The new Dalek design was apparently imposed by order of BBC Marketing, who want more toys to sell. Allowing marketing to drive content is always a mistake (and, ironically, it's usually a commercial mistake as much as a creative one) but this is particularly iniquitous in Britain because of the TV Licence Fee, a form of poll tax levied on UK households if they want to watch any live television broadcasts, whether supplied by the BBC or another network. This makes the British viewing public the primary investor in the BBC itself; therefore to treat them as gullible punters who you can fleece of a tenner for a crap plastic toy is really unforgivable.

The one glimmer of intelligence in the whole sorry spectacle may be the message in a bottle Mark Gatiss planted, presumably after seeing exactly what the committee had cooked up to emerge from the magic cabinet – er, DNA replicator thingy: “We're talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.” Hmm, I know I’ve heard those words before...

Well here, for a generation who may never know, is an example of how single-minded the Daleks really were. “Every problem has a solution.” Yep, except the problem of the BBC committee.

SUSAN: Can't we stop them? Can't we do anything?
DOCTOR: Just a moment! I haven't told you how we came to this planet.
DALEK: It does not matter now.
DOCTOR: But…but it does! I have a ship capable of crossing the barriers of space and time. Surely this would be invaluable to you?
DALEK: A ship? What do you mean?
DOCTOR: A machine.
DALEK: I do not believe you.
DOCTOR: But I have!
SUSAN: It's true! We have!
DALEK: You are not capable of creating such a machine.
DOCTOR: You took a part of my ship away from one of my companions - the young man.
DALEK: What did it look like?
DOCTOR: A small rod with metal at either end. It belongs to my ship. A fluid link containing mercury. Examine it for yourselves. You will see it's part of a complicated machine.
DALEK: Yes, I have it here.
DOCTOR: Well, let me show you the ship, explain it to you, help you to build another.
DALEK: A bargain for your lives?
DOCTOR: Yes.
DALEK: Where is this machine?
DOCTOR: In the petrified forest outside the city.
DALEK: Good. When the neutron operation has been completed, we will find a way to travel outside the city limits.
DOCTOR: No!
FIRST DALEK: We will examine your machine.
DOCTOR: No! Not unless you stop what you're doing. Otherwise, I won't explain its secrets to you and its philosophy of movement.
DALEK: Now that we know of the machine, we can examine it for ourselves.
DOCTOR: But you can't operate it without me!
DALEK: Every problem has a solution.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Thanksgiving 1948: Buster Keaton, the silent movie star, came round to the house of his eldest son for dinner. As the drinks were being mixed, Keaton spotted something in the living room. A massive box like the Ark of the Covenant. The numinous, flickering light drew him closer. Keaton sat transfixed in front of the television set all evening.

Years later, Keaton’s son remembered that evening: “At dinner he said, ‘This is the coming thing in entertainment.’ This was at the time when Zanuck and many others were saying television was a fad that would soon disappear.”

Technical standards for TV in the USA had been set in 1941. But by 1948 there were still only 5000 domestic television sets in the USA and each one cost as much as a Chevrolet. It was still just a gimmicky new purchase for gadget freaks.

By 1951 it was a different story. TV was now in 17 million American homes. Keaton knew the power of content to turn a fad into an indispensable luxury. He dragged his career back from the wilderness to become one of the biggest stars on 1950s TV. Meeting with Charlie Chaplin a few years later, and nettled by his patronizing attitude, Keaton said, “Do you watch television, Charlie?”

“Of course not,” said Chaplin. “Invention of the devil. Soap powder. The modern kitchen. 'And here’s a word from our paymaster…' Ugh.”

“Oh.” Keaton smiled. “So you might be surprised to learn that I have an audience of 12 million every Saturday night.”

Why am I telling you all this? Because the other night I got my hands on an iPad. (Thanks to my good friend Andrew Rollings, publisher of Hiive Books.) And while it may not be quite the revolutionary invention that TV was, a few seconds of playing with it and I was sold. Comics on the iPad look fabulous. Not just color comics, either – you’d expect that. But look at the Ditko strip from a recent Cloud 109 post. Gloriously crisp, the perfect size for reading without having to fiddle around with panel-by-panel views like on a phone. Oh, and the device is surprisingly light too.

It may not replace my graphic novel collection, but it will certainly do away with the need to buy monthly comic books.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The original and genuine

And here, by popular request (well, actually nobody but Peter Richardson of Cloud 109 fame actually asked, but that makes it unanimous) is a snapshot taking you from pencils to finished art of a scene from Mirabilis episode 1.

Keep tuning in. At a panel a day, we will get the whole book up online by 1st May 2013. Oh, and I almost forgot, but notice how those uniforms changed between pencils and inks? That followed an intense concepting weekend in which Leo and Martin got together to really define the look of the main characters.

And you know, again I have to say I'm utterly in awe of what Leo and Nikos pull off. Separately, artists of exceptional talent; together, the best team in comics.