Sunday, 26 June 2011

Stories are gardens

Stories are organic, but they're not single organisms like a tree, say. A story is more like a garden. You plant seeds and then as you walk through the garden those seeds are sprouting and growing and flowering all around - at, you hope, just the right moment.

One of the most obvious kinds of story seed is when you embed the germ of a plot idea early on so that the reader is prepped for it later. Ever seen a movie where the characters get bogged down in exposition in the last fifteen minutes? That's because the writer failed to plant all the seeds. At the end of a story you need to be thinking, "Oh my God, this is happening!" not "Wait - what's happening and why?"

A seed can also be planted to carry the burden of complex discussion of a theme that would interrupt the story if it had to be fully elaborated in dialogue. For example, in the Buffy episode "Crush" (ep 5:14) very early on we hear Willow explaining to Buffy and Tara that Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame wasn't really a hero because his decisions were not taken as part of a moral compass: “He did good things for love of Esmerelda, but that doesn’t make a hero”. Later in the story, Buffy is arguing with Dawn about hanging out with a dangerous vampire like Spike. Dawn says, “You used to date Angel,” and Buffy says that’s different, Angel had a soul. To which Dawn replies: “And Spike has a chip. Same difference.”

Because of these seeds, when the climax arrives we’ve already covered the thematic question of what makes a hero: doing good things, or having good motives?

There are two kinds of story seeds. The first is at the basic level of craft. At the risk of mixing metaphors, those are the screws and washers that hold your story together. The second is a more subtle foreshadowing of things to come.

The two types are used well by Edna O’Brien in her BBC adaptation of her own short story Mrs Reinhardt. The main character, who is staying at a French rural hotel, has a valuable emerald necklace that she wears most of the time. She meets an American whom we suspect of stealing the necklace. However, at the end of the story we learn that it was not the American who took it, but one of the hotel maids.

There are two scenes that demonstrate the basic level of seed-planting. The first is in Mrs Reinhardt's bedroom where she is delightedly swinging a pillow, letting off steam because she thinks she's alone, when the maid comes in with breakfast and surprises her. Later, Mrs Reinhardt strays into the kitchen to find the maid and the other serving staff fooling around until the chef brings them to order.

So those two scenes do the basic craftwork: they tell us (1) that the maid has a key and could enter the room at any time, and also (2) that the maid may act all serious and deferential when on duty, but she is an individual who in private is frivolous and playful like any young girl.

But that's not all. In the second scene, O’Brien goes further and plants the higher level of seed. As the maid is going past her out of the kitchen, Mrs Reinhardt points at a plate of fruit and says, “May I?” and the maid says, “Of course, madame; they’re all hanging out there in the garden to be picked.” So that introduces, very subtly and in retrospect, the notion that the maid might regard things that are lying around as there for the taking.

Now, having pointed out how the story mechanism works there, I'm going to add a caveat. Analysis is not the same as synthesis. All these patterns, where to put the plot points... well, knowing the paradigm of a Mozart concerto, say, wouldn't mean that you or I could write one. Storytelling has to get into the bones, to the point that you do this kind of thing without thinking. You only notice it after you've done it. When Garth Marenghi says, "I often re-read my own stories to learn from them" it's intended as a joke. But so you should. It's analysis of your own work, even more than that of the masters, that will guide you in planting the seeds to make your story grow.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Farewell to Genial Gene

The first new comic I bought had a classic Gene Colan cover: a dramatic up angle with just enough architectural detail to establish a sense of place but all the emphasis on the characters in muscular action pose.

I don’t know why I picked Daredevil. I’d been following Marvel characters in tattered old anthology books from the secondhand store across the road, all the stories out of order, covers scuffed white, and I already knew I liked Iron Man and Spider-Man best. But Daredevil had Colan’s art, and that was a revelation to me.

Ninepence on the counter and now I was a true collector. And immediately Gene Colan was the artist for me. I liked the openness of John Romita’s work, the gut-busting cartoony energy of Kirby, the clean precision of Don Heck, but Colan’s stuff was rawer and it was real. He could skimp on background detail, favoring tight shots that let him focus on the characters. But after all, the characters’ feelings and actions are what matter in a story. Lavishly depicted scenery in a comic book is like descriptive prose in a novel – you want just enough. And Colan knew exactly how much that was.

Take a guy hailing a cab in the rain. Kirby would give you a beautifully formalized fire hydrant and newspapers billowing soggily in the gutter. Ditko might give you a shot down on the whole street, with rain sluicing off gargoyles and the character dwarfed by the elements. Colan, though – he’d just show part of a building, the curb and the fuzzy headlights lights of the cab, all as sketchily under-detailed as possible, leaving the emphasis on the man raising his arm. And that line of action would be perfect – not the “model posed in the act” that most comics artists would give you, but a panel like a paparazzi shot catching a moment of action in a continuous movement.

That’s what Gene Colan had that other comics artists lacked. They’d dress a scene wonderfully, like a movie set, but Colan clothed it in reality. If he drew characters in a gym, you could smell the stale sweat. His New York sweltered in the summer and in the winter you could feel the bone-scooping cold. If he drew a ceiling collapsing, you felt the weight of the rubble. And most of all there was the constant sense of movement. His cars and trains sped by; his characters lunged and spun; emotions seemed as real as if the characters were in the room with you; a kick from Daredevil looked like it’d knock your teeth out.

Gene Colan died this week and the Silver Age of individual, idiosyncratic artistic talent like his slipped further away from us. But it gives us an excuse to briefly push aside the veil and bask in a ray of sunlight from those halcyon days. Thanks to digital comics, a lot of those great works are available again, and I advise anyone with a dream of working in comics to take an afternoon or two and really look at Gene Colan’s work from the late sixties through to the mid-seventies. We lived in the presence of genius then and we could buy it for ninepence a month. That’s something worth celebrating.

Also, imagine my delight, having read Daredevil #24 and gone back for more, when I discovered he was also drawing Iron Man!
Gene Colan September 1, 1926 to June 23, 2011

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Fairies and foul play

Here to mark Midsummer's Day is a little story I did for a packager who wanted it overnight before Bologna a few years back. The packager absolutely hated it, but the reasons she gave only made me like it all the more. When you write something in such a rush, you tend to be more unshakable in your confidence than when it's a piece you've agonized over for days or weeks.

Ostensibly it's nothing to do with the Year of Wonders, but I wonder... When the green comet's tail brushes Earth's atmosphere, everything that lives in the collective toybox of the imagination should be on the loose, so why not this mash-up between the worlds of Kenneth Grahame and Jack Vance?

The story is dedicated to my god-daughter, budding game designer Eliza Wallis, who is quite a fan of Noggin the Nog too, and therefore no stranger to a bit of gall and wormwood in among the peonies. Read it to your own kids if you don't mind them growing up a little strange - though no guarantees.
A Midsummer Night's Moustery

It was the kind of night in early summer when the moon gets as thin as an old penny and the stars are as bright as sparklers.

Homer the cottage mouse was just turning to the last page of his book when it came into his head that a piece of cheese would go down nicely.

Once he’d thought of it, he couldn’t read a word. Nothing would do until he got himself that bit of cheese. Homer banked up the fire, put the guard in front of the grate, and locked his front door – which was a little loose knot in the wainscoting.

As he set out across the kitchen floor, he saw that the fridge door was open. The light was on inside and he could hear somebody moving about. Inside the fridge!

Homer looked up to his favourite shelf, the one where the cheese was kept. When he saw who was there, he gave a little gasp of surprise.

“What are you doing?”

Virgil the field mouse gave a start and almost fell into the blancmange on the shelf below. He turned around holding a wedge of cheese almost as big as he was.

“Help me cut this cheese in two,” said Virgil, nimbly climbing down to where Homer was standing.

“Why?” Homer wanted to know. But he did it anyway. He always did what Virgil told him.

Virgil handed half the cheese to Homer. “Come on, we have to hurry.”

Homer followed Virgil outside and across the lawn. The grass had been cut recently, but even so it was hard to keep up with Virgil. He was so excited, he kept breaking into a run.

“Where are we going?” said Homer as they got to the field at the end of the garden. But all Virgil would say was that it was a surprise.

The corn stalks were so fat and stiff that it was like travelling through a forest of walking sticks. Homer, who rarely took much more exercise than a stroll to the larder, was soon out of breath. He was very glad when Virgil slowed down to tear a leaf off a dock plant.

Virgil gave half the leaf to Homer. “Tie it round the cheese.”

Soon they each had a little parcel of cheese, wrapped in a dock leaf and tied with a couple of blades of grass. Homer was a little disappointed. He had hoped the surprise involved having a bite of that cheese. It smelled so good!

“Perfect,” said Virgil. “Now we’ve each got a present.”

“A present?” said Homer, quite bewildered by now.

“Yes,” said Virgil. “A wedding present.” And he pushed aside the stalks of corn.

There, in a wide clearing in the middle of the field, stood the old fairy tree. It was glittering with lights of all colours. Troops of pixies, goblins, imps and sprites were coming from far and wide. There was music drifting through the warm night air, and the sounds of laughter from inside the tree told of a party in full swing.

But best of all, there were the most delicious smells of cooking. Pastries baking and parsnips roasting. Dumplings steaming. Pancakes frying. And sherbets and jellies and sugar-sprinkled cakes wafting such a sweet aroma that it was hard not to just bolt inside and scoff the lot.

The wedding banquet was all ready for the guests to tuck in. And they were invited!

* * *

Princess Thissaly was in her bed chamber near the top of the tree. She had just climbed out of a scented bath and was gazing out over the cornfield with a dreamy look in her eyes, taking no notice of the bustle all around her.

Some of her maids patted her dry with soft white towels. Other maids were laying out her bridal gown, brushing her long golden hair, sprinkling fairy dust on her skirts, and making cooing noises like a gaggle of pigeons.

Thissaly’s mother, Queen Araminta, had once been the most beautiful woman in Fairyland, so you can bet she had plenty to say about fashions, make-up and perfume.

“I think the essence of jasmine, dear,” she said, spraying her daughter from a gilded glass bottle. “Oh, how lovely you are! The prince will think a painting has come to life! He will say his most wonderful dream has come true!”

Princess Thissaly was hardly listening. As the maids pulled the dress on over her head, she thought about the note she had received only hours before. It had been brought by a bumblebee who, of course, couldn’t remember what the sender had looked like. Silly muddle-headed creature!

“If I can’t have you,” the note had read, “no man will.”

Well, that was all very flattering, but in an hour Thissaly would be wed to Prince Drawlight. So much for secret admirers!

* * *

Virgil and Homer had arrived at the foot of the tree. Everybody from far and wide was invited to the wedding, and everybody was wearing their best clothes and carrying a present.

“I hope fairies like cheese,” muttered Homer, wishing that he’d had time to trim his whiskers, comb his hair, brush his jacket and maybe tie a ribbon round his tail.

“Who doesn’t like cheese?” said Virgil. “Oops, watch out.”

He tugged Homer back out of the way just as a pumpkin coach rattled past drawn by a red squirrel. They caught a glimpse of a proud-looking young fairy fellow sitting inside. He wore an expression like the last prune in a dish.

“That’s the Duke of Hoit-de-Toit,” somebody said. “He doesn’t care whose toes he runs over.”

Inside the tree, the main hall was festooned with garlands of flowers that made the air smell sweet and heady. In the middle of the hall stood a floral arch. “The happy couple will walk through that arch at the end of the ceremony,” a pixie waiter said, handing them each a glass of rosehip punch.

“What lovely big presents you’ve brought,” said a pretty, dark-eyed fairy.

“Just a couple of things I pinched earlier,” piped up Virgil as she cast him a mischievous smile over her shoulder.

He nudged Homer in the ribs. “Don’t look so disapproving. Fairies like a dash of roguery, you know.”

“You don’t have to make us sound like a couple of gangsters, though!” grumbled Homer. He was a respectable mouse and he wanted people to know it.

* * *

Having greeted all the guests in person, Prince Drawlight was pacing up and down the fairy garden that filled the treetop. He felt quite queasy now that his wedding was less than an hour away.

“It’s odd,” he said to his best man, Spattershaw, “I feel like I had butterflies for lunch. I didn’t, did I?”

“It’s just your nerves,” said Spattershaw, looking at his pocket watch – which was the size, to you and me, of a sequin. “Once you’ve got the vows out of the way, slipped the ring on her finger, and planted a kiss on those sweet, strawberry lips – why, then you’ll be fine.”

“Oh, but then there’s my speech!” groaned the prince. “And King Usk will want to shake hands – he’s got a grip like a bad-tempered badger. And – oh no, Spattershaw! I’ll have to kiss my new mother-in-law!”

Spattershaw nodded grimly, as if to admit that was good cause to be nervous.

Prince Drawlight was patting his waistcoat pocket for the umpteenth time. Suddenly he stopped short, gave a croak of dismay, and went as white as a dandelion in the moonlight.

“Indigestion?” asked Spattershaw.

“Worse,” said Drawlight in a tiny, dismayed voice. “I’ve lost the ring!”

* * *

There were so many guests crowding in from outside that Homer had to stand on tiptoe to see to the back of the room. Thissaly’s fairy godmother waited there in front of a golden altar, ready to read a few words out of a big leather book whose covers lay so floppily in her hands that it looked as if she was holding a slumbering bat.

The guests were filing to their seats. Homer and Virgil squeezed in at the end of a pew. The babble of voices dulled to an expectant murmur as the musicians stopped tuning their instruments and began to play the first bars of the wedding march. Homer saw the bridesmaids peeping down the stairs, ready to signal the princess to come down.

Then suddenly Prince Drawlight rushed into the room. He was going so fast, and waving his arms so wildly, that several people later swore that his trousers were on fire.

“Stop the ceremony!” he cried. “Bar the doors! Nobody gets out!”

A big figure at the front lumbered to his feet. Homer guessed it was King Usk himself – the jewelled crown being a dead giveaway. Queen Araminta burst into tears. The King growled in a voice like a ton of gravel in a cement mixer: “What the deuce is going on, Drawlight?”

“There’s a thief among us,” shouted Prince Drawlight. “And he’s stolen the ring!”

Instantly there was uproar.

“Quiet!” said King Usk.

That got their attention. You could hear a pin drop.

A dark-eyed fairy in a slinky black dress stood up. “Your majesty,” she said in a loud, clear voice. “I know who stole the ring.”

“Well? Out with it,” thundered King Usk.

She turned. Homer shrank down in his seat and wished he could turn invisible as she pointed her finger straight at Virgil beside him.

“That’s him, the field mouse,” she said. “He was boasting to me about how he thieves for a living.”

Virgil opened his mouth to protest that he was innocent, that he wasn’t a thief. And even when he took the occasional crumb of cheese, which was pretty rarely, he usually made up for it by running little errands.

He was going to say that he was a law-abiding kind of mouse really. That, yes, he had taken the cheese from someone’s fridge. But the fridge practically belonged to his very good friend Homer, who was now sitting right beside him, and who would certainly vouch for him as a mouse of the most honest character.

And he was going to say that he most definitely had not taken the ring. He never saw the ring. He didn’t know what it looked like. And in any case, he had no use for rings – even though he was sure it was a very nice ring – and that wouldn’t they do better by looking for a jackdaw or magpie to pin the blame on?

But he didn’t say any of those things. His mouth just hung open and he looked at the terrifyingly fierce expression on King Usk’s face, and all the accusing faces staring at him, and all he said was:

“I’m stuffed, aren’t I?”

* * *

Virgil was carted off to a dungeon built into a big split gall on the side of the tree trunk. His gaoler looked like the kind of fairy who pushes maggots into apples and writes rude graffiti in the dew on bedroom windows.

“I used to be a tooth fairy,” said the gaoler, “but then they found me knocking children’s teeth out while they slept in order to meet my monthly quota. It all got a bit nasty. So now I keep criminals like you under lock and key.” He gave Virgil a look that mice usually only see on the faces of cats.

“What will happen to me if I’m found guilty?” asked Virgil, holding onto the bars of his cell.

The gaoler looked puzzled. “What do you mean, found guilty?”

“You know,” said Virgil. “At my trial.”

“What’s a trial?” said the gaoler.

“Oh dear,” said Virgil, “I’m getting a nasty feeling about fairy justice – mainly that there isn’t any. So what’s the penalty for theft?”

“Hanging or tickling.”

Virgil gave a sigh of relief. “Phew. I’ll go for tickling then. It doesn’t sound too bad.”

The gaoler pointed to a huge steel axe hanging on the wall. The blade looked sharp enough to open a knight’s armour like a can of sardines. “That’s ‘Tickler’.”

Virgil gave a gulp. “Oh dear, I am in a pickle. And a pickle with no cheese!”

Talking of cheese, at that moment Homer came down the dungeon steps carrying his parcel under his arm. “I just came to give this to the prisoner,” he said, holding the parcel between the bars of the cell. “I thought you might be peckish, Virgil.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” said the gaoler, pushing the parcel of cheese back into Homer’s hands. “I’m wise to those tricks. I’ll bet you put a hacksaw inside it so he can cut his way out.”

“What a good idea,” Homer whispered to Virgil when the gaoler turned away. “I wish I’d thought of it.”

“Listen, Homer,” said Virgil urgently. “You’ve got to get me out of here. At sunrise they’re going to see if I’m ticklish. Particularly around the neck.” He pointed at the axe.

“I’ll help any way I can,” said Homer. “But what can I do?”

“You’ve got to catch the real thief, Homer. It’s the only way to clear my name.”

* * *

Homer decided the best place to start would be with people who might have witnessed the crime. So he talked to Spattershaw, the prince’s best man.

“Come to think of it, I did see a suspicious sort of character in the garden,” said Spattershaw. “That was just before Drawlight noticed the ring was missing.”

“Suspicious? Male or female? What were they doing?” asked Homer.

“Yes. Dunno. Loitering,” said Spattershaw.

“You don’t know if they were male or female?” cried Homer. “Can you remember anything about them?”

Spattershaw nodded. “A tall head cosy.”

Homer blinked in astonishment. “A what?”

“Like a tea cosy upon the brow. A crown of woven locks. A nest for the pate. You know…”

“A wig!” realized Homer, remembering that fairies love riddles. “What colour?”

“Dawn herald, dusk glimmer, hue of blown cinders…” said Spattershaw. But Homer was already off to interview his next witness.

“Did you see a fairy in a tall red wig?” Homer asked a footman on the stairs.

“I can’t leave my post,” said the footman, staring straight ahead as if he was carved of wax. “But I did see somebody bustle past towards the kitchens.”

In the kitchens, Homer could get no sense out of the cook, who was shouting furiously about a missing cake. But a small serving girl told him that she saw a figure in a red wig wrap something before dashing out.

“Wrap it in what?” said Homer.

“In petal chains. In a rope of flowers.”

“That’s easy,” said Homer. “You mean the garlands decorating the table.”

He noticed one of the garlands was missing. A trail of petals led down the stairs…

In the cellars at the roots of the tree, Homer came across an apple-cheeked little sprite who was looking at a garland of daisies.

“Did you see who dropped that?”

“I did, sir,” said the sprite.

Homer was quite taken aback, as people didn’t usually call him ‘sir’. He supposed it had something to do with being a detective. It made him feel important.

“What’s in the parcel, sir?” asked the sprite, nodding towards the cheese Homer had under his arm.

“Er… never you mind, lad,” said Homer. “Did you see what the culprit did then?”

The sprite nodded. “Hid something, it looked like.”

Homer followed his gaze to the back of the cellar. “Where?”

“In the cooper’s egg.”

“You fairy folk do love your riddles, eh?”

“I can’t say it more plainly, sir. The wooden cradle of merriment. The sloshing box. The inn-keeper’s piggy bank.”

Homer’s eyes alighted on a big shape in the shadows. “A keg of ale!”

“If you must say so, sir,” grumbled the sprite, as if Homer had just spat on the floor or eaten ice cream with a soup spoon.

Homer tipped up the keg, but all it contained was beer. The ring was not there.

* * *

Homer found the butler, a tall fairy with spindly legs and an outraged face as if someone had stuck a pin in his bottom. He asked him if anyone had taken anything from the beer keg.

“Oh yes,” said the butler, smoothing his green silk waistcoat. “A figure lurking there in the darkness, waiting till the coast was clear, I dare say.”

“A thief, perhaps?”

“Very likely,” said the butler, nodding vigorously. “They took something small and glittery from the tap of the keg. It may have been a stolen item. Now I come to think of it, possibly a ring.”

“But you didn’t think to call for the guards?”

“I was about to,” protested the butler, looking doubly indignant, “but just then the prince started shouting, so I rushed upstairs and forgot all about it.”

Homer shook his head. “And what about the thief?”

“He – or perhaps it was a she; I didn’t have my spectacles on – looked for a new place to hide whatever it was. I noticed them go to the soot door, the fire cave, the throat of sparks and ashes.”

Homer was already at the chimney. He reached up inside. Perhaps a loose brick - ?

“Use the coal tweezers,” suggested the butler.

“Hmm?” said Homer, frowning.

“The long iron fingernails!” said the butler, pointing.

“You fairies and your kenning talk,” sighed Homer. But he took the tongs, reached up the chimney, and drew down – the missing ring!

* * *

Homer gathered everybody together. When Virgil had been brought up from the dungeon, and with guards standing at all the doors, he turned to the King and Queen.

“Your majesties – here is the ring!”

Everybody gasped.

“Virgil is innocent!” added Homer.

Another gasp.

“And the real thief is in this very room!” announced Homer.

There was no gasp this time. Everybody was out of puff. But an excitable goblin cried, “Ooh!”

King Usk glared at everybody – as he always did. But when he glared at Homer it was a glare of approval. “Go on, sir mouse,” he boomed. “Catch me a thief.”

Homer lined everybody up. Every single wedding guest, with no exception. And he walked along examining their fingernails. Whoever had hidden the ring up the chimney, he reasoned, couldn’t have avoided getting soot under their nails. And it would take hours of scrubbing to get rid of it.

The only trouble was, two of the guests had sooty fingernails. The Duke of Hoit-de-Toit and a pretty little bridesmaid called Ammernaddy.

“Please, sir, that’s not soot, it’s mascara,” explained Ammernaddy.

“I admit to having a dirty nose,” said the Duke of Hoit-de-Toit vainly. “That is the only place my fingers have been.”

Homer looked from one to the other.

“Which one did it?” Virgil hissed in his ear.

Homer felt everybody staring at him. He didn’t want to get it wrong. He liked being called ‘sir mouse’. And most of all, of course, he wanted to prove his friend was innocent.

Suddenly the answer came to him. “My lord Duke of Hoit-de-Toit,” he said, “I hereby arrest you for the theft of one wedding ring, which we’ll call exhibit A. Your grace doesn’t have to say anything – and really, if it’s a riddle I’d rather you didn’t – but anything you do say will probably lead to you being severely tickled.”

The Duke started to laugh.

“You haven’t seen ‘Tickler’,” said Virgil, and the way he said it took the smile off the Duke’s face as sure as cleaning a windowpane with vinegar.

“I admit it!” shouted the Duke. “I wanted to marry Thissaly, and with the ring gone I knew her wedding to Drawlight would be called off.” He ran to a window, threw it open, and struck a dramatic pose on the sill. “But you will never catch the artful Duke of Hoit-de-Toit.”

He leapt. A moment later, there was a muddy splat and a muffled cry of disgust.

“Oops. I told the servants to clear away that cowpat before the wedding started…” said Queen Araminta.

“How did you know it was him?” Virgil asked his friend. “Was it just a guess?”

“A guess!” sputtered Homer. “Of course not! I remembered that I needed tongs to get the ring. So whoever put it up the chimney needed a long reach, and Ammernaddy is no taller than I am.”

Virgil gave a low whistle. “Well, I call that plain brilliant.”

* * *

After that, the wedding went off without a hitch – except, of course, for the two young people who got hitched. They did everything the way it’s supposed to be done. They gazed longingly into each other’s eyes, they held hands throughout the banquet, they sighed sweet nothings, and afterwards they rode off on honeymoon in a little flying boat carried by doves.

The sun was just coming up by the time the party was over. Homer looked up into the paling sky and he could have sworn he saw the dawn light glinting off the princess’s ring, far, far off up among the clouds.

Half the wedding guests had just fallen over and gone to sleep where they lay. The Queen, well oiled with rosehip punch, was the last on the dance floor, boogying for all she was worth. The poor musicians had had to prop their eyes open with toothpicks, they were so tired. The King lay flat on his back snoring, and his snores were so loud that they shook the whole tree. It sounded like somebody had taken a buzz saw to the trunk.

“Well, I’ll bid you good morning,” said Virgil as they reached his front door. He lived in an old rusty oil can half-buried in the bank at the edge of the field.

Homer was so tired that all he could do was nod. He yawned as he trudged home across the field. Just as he reached the end of the garden, he heard Virgil yelling. He turned around.

“I just wanted to say,” called Virgil, “that you’re the best pal anyone could have!” And, with a wave, he disappeared into his oil can.

Even though he’d been up all night, Homer was too excited to go straight to bed. He flopped down in his armchair and looked at the cold ashes of the fire. What an extraordinary adventure it had been. Better than a dream!

Then he saw his book beside the chair. He’d been about to finish that when Virgil showed up. He picked up the book and gave a great big yawn.

“This will put me in the mood for bed,” he told himself.

But, you know, he was so exhausted that he fell asleep without reading the last page of his book. And it was a whodunit!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Tips from a master

I just came across the Temple of the Seven Golden Camels blog, which I see is going to keep me happily absorbed for weeks.

Here's just one of many gems, a set of comic book guidelines by Carson Van Osten, renowned Disney artist. If you like the sample above, shoot on over for a treasure trove of other great creative tips.

More mouse action tomorrow.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The day I met a Dalek

It wasn’t the winter of the Big Freeze, with its twenty foot snowdrifts and the sea turning to ice. That was the year before. But car heaters didn’t count for much in those days – not in our big old refrigerator-doored grey Wolseley, anyway. So it must have been very cold that January night. But discomfort doesn’t matter, of course, to a boy who’s going to meet a Dalek.

Television Centre burned with lights. It wasn’t three-quarters empty then. The curved face of the building made me think of opening the Tardis doors to find an alien city. There had only been half a dozen episodes of Doctor Who broadcast, but already most things made me think of the Tardis. The real raw London wind, as my dad led me across the BBC car park, was not so chilling as that low, mournful soughing in the boughs of a petrified forest. No hum of traffic thrilled like the radiophonic pulse of a Dalek control room. Six years old, and I already knew that my natural home was the world inside the head.

Daleks. It was as if I’d been waiting for them. Like they were an inevitable discovery, not something somebody had just dreamed up. And meeting one for real – that didn’t seem then, as it does to me now, like the most incredible and lucky privilege. It seemed like it was naturally bound to happen.

Dad was an electrical engineer and in early 1964 he was doing design work for the BBC. Not on Doctor Who itself – that really would have been proof of a benevolent god – but some complicated stage machinery for Billy Cotton. His friends in the workshops may have included Ray Cusick – not a name anybody knew back then, even though Terry Nation was already my J K Rowling.

“DAL to LEK,” said Dad as we crossed the cavernous workshop with its pitted green lino floor. “So that’s one volume to cover A to C and then another for the next nine letters?”

“But, Dad, it’s true. It said so in the paper.”

Beyond the shelves full of wire and brown boxes of rivets was a wide space between drill-lined workbenches. Sharp parings of aluminium littered the floor. A group of men in long beige work-coats waited for us there. They parted and I got my first glimpse of it. You just can’t add a Dalek to a real-life scene without causing a tingle at the back of the scalp, even back then when they’d had two or three appearances at most. Its presence behind the group made them seem for a moment like prisoners.

Dad and his friends went off to talk shop, leaving me with the Dalek. Maybe it was ten minutes, though it could have been hours and still not enough. I was never the kind of kid to go in like Flynn with a new toy. I probably walked around it dozens of times just brushing the surface with my fingers. Details remain sharp nearly fifty years later. The hemispheres down the side – bobbles, as I called them – are my first memory of light blue. Anything that I’d seen of that colour previously was overwritten. A neural map of my brain at that moment would have seen it glowing like the LHC, counting and memorizing the panels on the sides, the metal bands, the Perspex disks behind the eye. The lights – ping pong balls, I think – that flashed when the Dalek was speaking. The ball joints on which its limbs swivelled.

The eye itself, that was a gaze thrilling to meet. I knew the alien mind that lay behind it like my own. I had to look up to meet its eye, the same way a Dalek looked up at Thals and humans. It was part of the key to its psychology, that small hectoring thing ranting with tinny hysteria as it swung its eye-stalk up to scrutinize you.

The gauze grille around the head was easy to see through with the light behind it, making the casing look disturbingly hollow. I pulled at the sucker arm and it telescoped out and out. So far! A Dalek could reach out and grab you from right across a room.
It wouldn’t need to, though. Because there was the gun. What an artefact of absolute perfection. A design that expressed alien violence, cell-smashing radiation, extermination. A device that would flip you like a negative and leave you without a spark of life. Oh, I wanted one.

The adults came back and one of them lifted the top off. The casing divided below the torso, the head and arm section coming away to reveal a plain wooden interior with a little seat.

“You could sit inside it,” suggested Dad, but I didn’t want that. I preferred the Dalek interior that I saw in my mind’s eye: something small, vulnerable and fearful surrounded by electronics and armour, gazing out at the world through a screen. With a gun. With that gun.

“I’ll make you one,” said Dad as we drove home. I didn’t even need to tell him; he just knew. And fifty years later, I realize I was the luckiest boy ever.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Darkness is too easy

Back when I was working in games I saw a lot of concept pitches. If you’re picturing the likes of Pikmin or Ico or LittleBigPlanet – well, that would’ve been a job to get in early for. Instead, what actually seemed the most common effusion of the collective unconscious was a succession of dark, edgy takes on something like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz.

In these pitches, Alice/Dorothy had usually gone psycho, confined to a mental asylum, her family dead or abducted by stark horrors that had pursued her from Wonderland/Oz. And from there it’s a paint-by-numbers to decide what had become of the Tin Man (cyborg), Cowardly Lion (serial killer), Scarecrow (cyborg serial killer) and so on. Those same writers would even have pitched Dark Pooh if Disney weren’t standing guard over Hundred Acre Wood with a very big stick indeed.

The reason why that’s such a heart-sink is not because I don’t like stories with a bit of darkness. More than a bit, in fact. My fave comic of all time is Sandman. No wait, it’s Watchmen. No, maybe it’s Swamp Thing. Whatever – all of those had darkness but they had light, beauty and humanity too. And, in the case of Sandman, real sweetness.

But plain unadorned darkness is just too facile. My wife Roz used to ghostwrite a middle-grade action-adventure series for a brand name author. The heroes were mid-teen crime fighters but the readership was centered on 10-12 year olds, meaning that sex and violence were mostly just hinted at. Over dinner one evening, for fun, Roz and I envisaged a YA version of the series, revisiting the characters a couple of years on and going right into the abyss with them. The kid whose obsession with computer hacking had given him a dangerously detached view of justice. The one who achieved his dream of joining the army but quickly became traumatized by the realities of modern warfare. The rich one, who had hardened and become arrogant working for her father…

In a dark pit struggling to reach the light. It almost writes itself. Trouble is, that’s so easy to do. And nothing good in writing is accomplished with ease.

As well as being the lazy writer’s option, a story of unremitting darkness is tonally boring. It’s way harder to write hope and humor and humanity alongside the horrors – which is why I value TV shows like Buffy, Fringe and Doctor Who. Yet in comics these days we so often see the stories copying the least original videogames, with heroes constantly being maimed or disfigured or driven mad. And, trust me, relentless twentysomething angst is not the way for comics to tap back into a broad market.

The best of the horror comics have heroes who are surrounded by darkness but who haven’t got darkness in their souls: Hellboy, B.P.R.D., even (believe it or not) John Constantine. And the authors of those books don’t gratuitously wallow in the darkness of their stories; they remember they are telling underworld myths that must lead the heroes back to the surface world. Like Alice, emerging from the rabbit hole disturbed, enchanted, altered – a far more interesting fate than simply being forever scarred.

The page worth $10

It was the name of a Ray Bradbury story too - okay, it was that to start with - but mainly it was a tiny, stuffy, absolutely brilliant science fiction bookshop tucked away in a maze of streets along of St Martin’s Lane. There was barely room to turn around between the shelves that were stuffed to bursting point with paperbacks from the US and copies of Galaxy, F&SF and Worlds of If. Every one of them priceless - and only seven shillings and sixpence.

It was there I discovered Coven 13, the Weird Tales of my generation for a brief, brief moment, but this isn’t a nostalgia trip. I want to talk about the value of giving stuff away. The value to the author, that is.

The shop was run by Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes, whose wife must’ve taken pity on a tubby schoolboy balancing a pile of books he could hardly see over, because she vanished out the back and returned with a load of stapled pages from SF magazines. The originals had got damaged in transit from the States, but they couldn’t bear to just throw them away so they'd salvaged the pages they could.

Okay, basically what I was being offered was a bunch of stories by the likes of Brunner and Moorcock and Pohl and Silverberg. For free. As long as I didn’t mind not having the covers. So, Moses, you want these tablets or not?

A few years ago, after moving to Surrey and then back to London, I was carrying boxes back into our renovated house when I came across that pile of salvaged stories. (Do I have hoarding issues? No no no, I sold my Stingray kit and my Corgi Aston Martin DB5 with box and secret code sheet.) Improvising a sofa out of cardboard boxes and the Ikea flatpacks I was supposed to be turning into bookshelves, I started reading “Wizard Ship” by F Haines Price, torn from the pages of Worlds of If for November 1968. And, you have to understand, this was from the days before Star Wars. SF was the real deal then - we even said it stood for ‘speculative fiction’ - and, despite its title, the story most definitely was not about sword-wielding heroes and mystical galactic princesses.

Anyway, just like that damned whodunit you find on holiday, the last page of the story was of course missing. After a gap of forty years, I could defer gratification no longer. Technology, though it withheld the flying cars and fusion drives we were promised, in the interim at least has given us eBay, so I only had to pay $10 and postage to see how the story ended. By curious coincidence, that's pretty much what 7s/6d would have inflated to over the four decades.

How does that sound as a sales model? You give away 99% of your story and people pay because, because… they just have to know. Okay, done just like that it mostly wouldn’t work. Too many other distractions, too many movies and books and music downloads demanding our time. But the idea of giving away the first third, say, of your story? That I like. If you’re gripped by what you’ve seen, you’ll want to read the rest. And if you aren’t - well, in that case we wouldn’t have done our job properly and we wouldn’t deserve your money, now, would we?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Comics 2.0


Six months ago, when we launched the Mirabilis iPad app, we had only the vaguest idea about online stores like Graphic.ly and Comics+. We figured that getting our work out on them was just like putting it in Barnes & Noble as well as Borders.

Well, these are interesting times. There's a lot to learn, and it's fun having to learn it. Like seeing how the online comic stores are as much like fan clubs as they are places to browse and buy digital comics. I enjoy Graphic.ly boss Micah Baldwin's regular mail-outs, wherein it seems to me that he has picked up the mantle of Stan Lee's old Bullpen Bulletins that made Marvel not just the home of fabulous stories, but a great place to hang out too.

If you haven't encountered Graphic.ly yet, this update by Micah on the revamp they're doing this week ought to whet your appetite:
When we started Graphicly, our intent was always to create a place for people that love creating, sharing and discovering great stories.

Remember the first time you ever heard a great story? What was awesome about it is that someone shared the story with you. Story is not a solo activity.

We are taking a big step towards making story truly social and collaborative with the launch of our new site. There are the features you would expect: Profiles, Twitter and Facebook integration, amazing reader, solid search and a great store.

But, here is what is cool. Take the comics with you. Just like a YouTube video, you can now embed the comic wherever you want. Put it on your blog. Include it in a story.

Story has become truly shareable, and great content has become discoverable.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The jewel in the crown

I'm just back from a week on the continent, where I sipped cocktails and watched polo matches and slept in the bed of a member of the British royal family. But never mind all that; it's another story. What made the homecoming a pleasure, despite the water torture of an English summer after the dazzling blue skies of France, was the waiting parcel of Dark Horse titles from Avalon Comics, formerly my local comics store on Lavender Hill but now a mail order business with a difference. (Try them, you won't be disappointed.)

Any visit to the Mignolaverse is a treat, but this package of titles really stood out. "Being Human" in Hellboy 54 is another quantum of perfection from the team of Mike Mignola and Richard Corben. We previously had "The Crooked Man", which must be one of the spookiest stories ever. And "Hellboy in Mexico", in which the big red boy took on a masked wrestler who was the avatar of an Aztec bat-god, followed by the deliriously Weird Tales-y "Sullivan's Reward". Mignola's writing seems to inspire Corben to attain the very pinnacle of his art; having Corben there to realize his imaginings spurs Mignola to create stories that really matter. And when you have those two guys working at the top of their game, it really doesn't get any better than that.

Another treat in the package was the latest outing for Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder. The story itself in this case isn't anything special. Sir Edward himself is unconvincing as a character and, perhaps recognizing that, Mignola uses the story as a showcase for a bunch of new cowboy characters. It's like that old episode of Star Trek where Roddenberry was trying to set up a spy series spin-off. But any tiredness in the storytelling is more than redeemed by the art of comics legend John Severin, now pushing ninety and still able to conjure up atmosphere and drama with the best of them. It's actually the simpler touches that I like in Severin's art, like this:

But there's no denying that his action drawings have extraordinary power too:

Artist's legs need sponsoring for charity!

Leo here again! I am casting my pen aside to jump on my bike and pedal 100 miles in a day on the 26th of June. If the green comet were in the heavens I would probably manage it on a penny farthing. I'm doing it in aid of the Force Cancer charity in Devon, England. It will involve hefting my old bones up Dartmoor and then Exmoor, both of which are rather hilly.

Please sponsor me at the link below. Thank you!



Ipad and Iphone users will not see the link above due to a disagreement between Mr. Jobs and the Adobe Corporation, but this link should work:

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Hardback sighted on Ebay

Leo here! Dave's away in France for a well earned break after writing the new issues #9 and #10 of Mirabilis for the Spring book. Here's a photo of the new splendid Mirabilis hardback (with a bit of a frame from issue #9 on my computer behind). I know there are those of you desperate to get your hands on it, and now you can.

Our publisher has been having dreadful trouble getting the copies from their print works in Bosnia to their base in Lancaster, England. Now a few advance copies have arrived and John Freeman, (our editor and proprietor of the Down the Tubes comic news blog) has made them available on Ebay as "buy it now", fixed price, while the usual distribution channels to Amazon and bookshops are put in place.

So, for you early birds, be the first to own Mirabilis in your town! Buy on Ebay Now!