Tuesday, 31 March 2009

How I'd like to run a comic imprint

The big problem is the high set-up costs, because you need to keep the artist in food and clothing while he she does lots and lots and lots of drawing. (You really ought to pay a writer too, I say, but in UK comics - as in UK kids' television - the emphasis is always on the visuals because pictures are all that the executives can be bothered to look at.)

So I'd get a bunch of artists and writers and give them enough of an advance to see them through to completion of a 60-100 page graphic novel. Each graphic novel would go up online in instalments. People could preorder the book at a discount. When the book was complete, the online version would get taken down (most of it anyway).

How to keep the set-up costs down? Well, most of the online pages could be black & white, or only monochrome-coloured. Maybe they wouldn't even be full inks. That way, I could leave the decision whether to go to finished art till there was some idea of how big a fanbase each strip had built up.

And I'd pay smallish advances, maybe £100 a page, but balance that by giving the creators a bigger share of the back end. (As a creator myself, I know that's how most of us prefer it; against all statistical evidence, we always believe the next work will be the huge breakout hit.) Maybe I'd include a profit-sharing pool too, the way guys like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola used to do points exchanges on their early movies to spread the risk.

That way, for around £100,000 I could get a slate of maybe a dozen different IPs to a first level of completion - ie not yet coloured, but complete in story and art and ready for a yes/no decision on publication. Of those, maybe six would then go through the next gate and appear in book form. If average sales of the books reach about 10,000 copies, the venture can break even.

And every so often the venture would throw up an IP like Spider-man or Judge Dredd. And, for all the talk of long tails, that's still what would make the investors very very happy.

Monday, 30 March 2009

You know, for kids

Ian Chesterton had already jumped across the chasm but he was roped to Antodus, the cowardly Thal, who of course made a hash of it, slipped and fell, almost dragging Ian down with him.

Now it wasn't actually Ian, it was Roy Castle, but I was willing to look past that for the pleasure of Daleks. In colour. On a very big screen. And just as he had in the original, Antodus sucked it up and sawed through the rope holding him, allowing Ian to scramble up to safety.

And then... and then... we heard a plaintive cry from below. Antodus was clinging to a rock and there were smiles all round as he plaintively called up, "Hey, get me out of here."

Smiles all round? From Roy and co maybe, not from me. I was outraged. I'd watched the TV version when I was six years old, and with all the Biblical ruthlessness of children I expected Antodus to fall to his death in the movie version too, his fear of everything redeemed by that one act of self-sacrifice. Even though it was Roy Castle he was saving, not the real Ian, that moment of courage meant something. Having him live meant something too... it meant the movie producers were treating me like a little kid.

It scarred me forever, that little bit of bowdlerization. Which is a good thing btw. We are nothing without our psychic scars; like Kirk, I need my pain. That particular scar means that I will never, ever voluntarily patronize my readers. Children respond to honesty in storytelling. Doctor Who was dark, bleak, fascinating and often violent. You want pratfalls and cosy outcomes? Go see a pantomime.

When I'm writing for kids, I'm writing for the kid I was. And kids like me like it without sugar-coating.

The soul of wit

Paul Mason emailed to say he was going to leave a comment advising us to go for shorter posts. The funny thing is, I'd just been saying the exact same thing to Roz about her writing tips site. Do like I say, not like I do...

I'm wondering whether the font colour is a little hard to read too. Looks nice, though. I've put this up in a different shade to see if it makes a difference.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Recommended reading

Not a comprehensive list, just a few titles off the top of my head...

The Sandman: Dream Country

Includes the first part of Gaiman's take on Shakespeare's creative bargain with Morpheus in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story and quite right too. The stories are all standalones: "Calliope", "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" and "Facade". Also has the annotated script for "Calliope" - I'm always interested in that kind of thing.

Nine great stories. A man terrified by his nightmares of falling. Haroun al-Rashid selling the dream of Baghdad to preserve its beauty. The start of Gaiman's great heart-rending saga of Orpheus. And then there's old Baba Yaga in her chicken legged hut. We're going to have to get her into Mirabilis at some stage.

Kingdom of the Wicked

By the brilliantly talented (so obviously we hate them) British author-artist team Ian Edginton and Matt Brooker, aka D'Israeli . The story has some similarities to the Sandman classic "A Game of You" but not in any sense a rip-off. They're both interesting and very different explorations of a theme (like The Matrix and Dark City, say) worth reading as companion pieces.

Tiny Tom Fish-Head and Wavy Davy Dali from Kingdom of the Wicked.

Summer Blonde

The far end of the comics spectrum from something like Watchmen. Adrian Tomine's stories of urban alienation often don't really quite go anywhere - but in the most intriguing way.


Another superb, disturbing, elusive graphic novel by Adrian Tomine. But don't take my word for it.

Jonathan Lethem: 'Shortcomings is as deceptively simple and perfect as a comic book gets.'

Nick Hornby: 'Reading a comic book suddenly becomes as rewarding as reading good contemporary fiction. Tomine has both talent and a writer's eye for the truth.'

Ghost World

So you've seen the movie and, good though it is, the graphic novel is much better. Daniel Clowes describes it as the examination of "the lives of two recent high school graduates from the advantaged perch of a constant and (mostly) undetectable eavesdropper, with the shaky detachment of a scientist who has grown fond of the prize microbes in his petri dish". So there you go. If Adrain Tomine is disquieting, Daniel Clowes's stuff is like being trapped in an elevator with a raving madman. In a good way, I mean.

The Golem's Mighty Swing

Golems, baseball, racial intolerance, the Great Depression and the American Dream. But it's not just the great comination of themes or the way James Sturm tells the story, it's the marvellously simple drawings that pack such movement and flow.

The Death of Speedy
One of the best Love & Rockets stories - which makes it almost the best you're ever going to read in comics.

Free stuff

We've been having a lot of visitors this weekend, both to the main Mirabilis site and this blog - no doubt all pointed our way by the notice in the final DFC.

Some of the other DFC strips are finishing their run
online. Seeing as we left Estelle falling out of a train window a hundred feet off the ground, obviously we're going to have to stick up the next couple of episodes. You know, just enough to get her or Jack into another sticky situation.

But what else? We had planned to put all the earlier episodes online. So that would be a total of 70 pages of comic content. I believe the way to build an audience (or do I mean readership?) these days is to give 'em a bunch of free stuff and then ask who'd like to buy more.
Neil Gaiman thinks so and so do Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield with Freakangels.

Those earlier episodes aren't going up just yet because we have a publishing contract with Random House and so we need to square it with them first. But if you want to find out if Estelle got out of the cockadoodie train, take a look at the site next weekend and we should have at least the next two episodes ready by then.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Heads Hands and Eyes

Today I've been working on the roughs for episode 24 (we still think in DFC episodes, even after it's sad demise), that's about 115 pages into Mirabilis. I've done a little over two pages of roughs today, not great progress, I can sometimes manage 5 pages a day, but this scene is complicated with several characters in the same space. I thought I'd post one frame (that's not important enough to give any of the story away!), and briefly go through my process and thinking. Incidentally, I don't think this is a an especially good frame, it's just what I'm doing right now.

Actually, the process is rather vague, which is get it done as efficiently as possible any which way I can. I take Dave's thumbnail sketch as a good starting point. Dave is brilliant at taking on a lot of the leg work in arranging the elements of frame. Sometimes I change his perspective or viewpoint, but most of the time he's already sorted out the basics in the best way possible. It's where the writing and drawing phases mesh.

I'll then very roughly sketch in the characters and as little of the background as is necessary at this stage. Heads first, then vague body positions then hands. In fact, the heads and the hands often drive the whole process, they are the expression that carries the story and the dialogue. I move them around and have arms, shoulders, chest, etc. follow them, just like inverse kinetics used in 3D animation software.

At this stage I refine the overall positions of everything using the fantastic Transform tool (I'm doing all of this in Photoshop btw). When I used to draw on paper, (the last 20 years!) I would have to rub out sketches and redraw to make even small adjustments. I find scaling characters in their space something that I often get slightly wrong at the first pass or two.

Once happy with general positions I then draw in more detail, but only to the minimum level I will need to ink the final black line. I concentrate on faces and eyes, wanting to pin down the emotional connections between characters. I'll keep working on this aspect however long it takes, because it's critical. The reader will immediately look to the eyes, as in any interaction in real life, to try and gauge their thoughts. I then work on hands. With Jack's hand I experimented with a more forceful pointing, but what I wanted was a hesitant gesture, a half formed attempt at stopping the rushing Gus. It's like acting, I guess. I'll even get up up from my desk and test the pose. (I hope the postman doesn't catch me!)

I thought about Mentello, the guy on the right with the hammer. His left hand is slightly supporting him on the tips of his splayed fingers. This was to emphasise the kind of personality I imagined he would have. A precise man acting out a well rehearsed entertainment routine, where even leaning on a table is done with a practised flourish.

I'm not entirely happy with the positioning of Lady Whitmead in the background, her eyes need widening in anticipation of the hammer coming down and her head turned directly to it. She's a simple soul, totally engrossed in Mentello's trick. It'll do for now, I can give her a boost at inking. I just saw something unintentional, but sort of cool. Jack's hand mirrors Gus's pointing hand. This is good, both hands emphasis the Gus's need to hurry out of the frame. The fact that Jack's hand is accidentally sort of pointing emphasises his failure to react fast enough to slow Gus's advance. May be that last bit is a bit of guff-to-far. I don't usually take my work apart like this, there isn't time.

In the background of my studio I have on Radio 4, or a listening book, but miss big chunks as I try to figure out the drawing. It's quite irritating. Perhaps I'll listen to music. I'm constantly interrupted, my wife telling me not to forget the onions, and the boys asking where the Airfix is. On one level annoying, on the other a gladdening reminder that I'm still alive in the real world. Also I love 'em.

Passage of time

I just came across my chronology for the Winter season of Mirabilis:
  • Tuesday January 1st 1901 - the duel
  • Friday January 11th 1901 - Jack's trip to Selsey
  • Sunday January 13th 1901 - setting off from Paris on the Orient Express
The book by al-Mas'udi that Jack is supposed to fetch in Istanbul is going up for auction at noon on Friday January 18th 1901. (He would normally get there with time to spare, but obviously there have to be complications.)

Episodes 24-32 (I still think in episodes, even now the DFC is defunct) all take place over the space of a few hours on January 18th. Which means that if the DFC had continued, we would have been rounding off the Winter part of the story in August (our time) but Jack and Estelle would still be less than three weeks into the Mirabilis year!

After "episode" 32 there's going to be a jump, picking up the story several months later. By this time fantasy is getting to be a familiar part of everyday life, as you can start to see in the correspondence at the
Royal Mythological Society.

Amazing to think that at one point we were seriously talking about running Mirabilis over 52 weekly episodes in realtime, ie so that time passed in the story and the real world at the same rate. It was a nice idea but, with only 5 pages a week, it would never have worked unless we'd tried some variant of the two clocks system in Othello.

Looking for Dunsayn Manor

Roz and I went for a stroll in the hills south of Dorking last week. I say a stroll - where Roz is involved, it's never less than a hike and more usually we're pretty much climbing.

I had some idea of trying to get a precise location for Dunsayn Manor, Estelle's family home, which I know is somewhere around Dorking. Tanhurst Lane, south-west of Leith Hill, looks a likely spot.

As we drove through the town, I noticed a shop called
Astronomia. I'm pretty sure it wasn't there in 1901, but if it had been then obviously that's where Estelle got her telescopes. It also suggests that there's good seeing out that far from London, though before electric streetlighting that presumably wouldn't have been much of a problem.

Up above the village of Coldharbour there's a cricket pavilion and pitch, 870 feet above sea level. Hit a six the wrong way and the ball just sails off over a sheer drop. I like the notion that Lord Deerdand would have padded up for a few matches.

The look of Dunsayn Manor btw was styled after
Magdalen New Buildings (built in 1733 but still called New Buildings, as I'm sure will amuse our American readers).

Break out in monkey bites

Writing more dialogue today. As a Physics graduate, I often have to remind myself not to be precise. Dialogue should be poetic even if (especially if) that makes it vague.

I'm talking about words that speak to the EQ not the IQ. When a character states something in logical terms, that's something the reader can argue with. You can disagree, and then you've disconnected from the story.

An emotional appeal, on the other hand, is hard to pin down, so hard to contradict. It seduces you. Example. In Gangs of New York, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) has this voiceover line the first time Bill the Butcher leads his men to the Dead Rabbits’ house:

“The world turns. But we don’t notice it turning. Then one day we look up. A spark – and the whole sky is on fire.”

When it's done with honesty like that, nothing works better. The writer (Jay Cocks) is using a poetic phrase to sum up almost everything we've experienced in the movie to this point.

It has to come from the heart, though. Listen to the fake-poetic voiceover in a TV show like Grey's Anatomy, or the gosh-shucks homilies of A River Runs Through It. There it sounds like the vagueness is just covering up the fact that the writer has space to fill and nothing to say.

Those are the set-piece talk scenes. The big epiphanic moments of voiceover. But of course there needs to be a little lacing of poetry in even the commonplace dialogue:

Not “We’re in the middle of the ocean.”
Instead: “Look around, pal. Planning on growing fins?”

Not “I like fruit.”
Instead “I can never resist a juicy black plum.”

Howard Hawks said: "Hemingway calls it oblique dialogue. I call it three-cushion. Because you hit it over here and over here and go over here to get the meaning. You don't state it right out." And so, instead of a plain old "you're in love", he encouraged his writers (in this case no less a talent than Leigh Brackett) to come up with glorious dialogue like this: 

Sean: (Referring to the growing rivalry between Kurt and Chips over Brandy) So that's what's got you green around the gills this morning. The first sign of spring in the bush and the young bucks start butting heads.
Kurt: So what?
Sean: So... I can't answer that. Just don't let it gum up the works around here.
Kurt: Oh, I won't. But I won't let the Frenchman have a free hand, either.
Sean: Oh, this is gonna be great! The Indian is knocked off, I've got a woman photographer on my hands, now you and the Frenchman break out in monkey bites, and we're a month behind already!
Kurt: So?
Sean: So don't let him have a free hand.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A gothic talent

Just a quick plug for Martin McKenna's own site. Lots of gorgeous gothic fantasy stuff there - go see for yourself.

Martin is working on an all-new project that he's both wrting and drawing. I can't say any more than that, really, my lips being sealed with the sort of catgut stitching that Victor Frankenstein used to keep his creature's head from falling off.

Look for more info if and when Martin finally updates the news section of the site ;)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The last DFC

It's the final issue of the DFC on Friday. Wanting to mark it somehow, just off the top of my head here are some favourite moments:

Robot Girl by
John Aggs: "How many giant robots can the girl have?" Quite a lot as it happens... (#8).

Frontier by Jason Cobley and Andrew Wildman: "What in tarnation is it?" The wheat field coming to life in #31.

Mo-Bot High by Neill Cameron: "Honestly. Kids." Our first look inside the janitors' room (#9).

Monkey Nuts by the Etherington Brothers... Well, there were so many great, funny, dramatic moments but the corker has to be the jaw-dropping two-page spread from #21. WhooooSHOOOM!

Mezolith by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank: everything from the first teaser in #12 (should have been just that amazing image & logo and nothing else on the page imo) to Poika finding the handprints in the cave (#36). Special mention though for Talja's meeting with the giantess (#24) which is indelibly etched onto my memory.

And this marvellous scene from The Spider Moon by Kate Brown:
Shopkeeper: "Yes. Now don't break this one."
Bekka: "YES!"
Shopkeeper: "You mean no."
Bekka: "NO!"

What a lovely introduction to an engagingly boisterous character - a masterclass in comic storytelling in three or four panels. I saw that scene in the PR leaflet btw but don't remember it appearing in the comic (?).

There's been lots of other fantastic stuff. Such a lot of great talent came together in the DFC. Foolish to even try to pick any faves, really.

Biggest regrets:

  • That we didn't get to see Iain McCaig's bonkers and brilliant Dinosaur & Wolf after the dummy issue.
  • That we never got to see Garen Ewing's Nazaleod strip. Hoping for an early book release for that one.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Shiver me timbers!

For the sake of completeness, here's another of the comic strip concepts that we pitched to David Fickling in the early planning stages of the DFC.
In a parallel universe you are reading the blog, not of Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, but of Down Among the Dead Men, a rip-roaring pirate fantasy adventure. Here's the guff from the pitch document. I hate writing this kind of hyped-up summary btw - just seems so fake if you're not actually a foot-in-the-door Glengarry Glen Ross type of guy - which I'm certainly not:
Orphaned in a pirate attack, Angel Bones has grown to young adulthood aboard the Belle Dame, captained by the dreaded Captain Skarvench, most evil man ever to raise the Jolly Roger.

Greed and plunder, black powder and blood - this is the only world Angel has ever known.

Now Angel makes a bid for freedom accompanied by a motley crew of three: tough, abrasive Joe Oakley; lugubrious, lantern-jawed Ed Grimes, and timid but resourceful little Billy Blutz.

Pursued by Skarvench, our plucky band of heroes are sucked into an adventure that will see them cross swords with sea-going vampires, pit their wits against the wiliest wizards, and take flight aboard a galleon powered by moonlight.

Whether they like it or not, they must thwart Skarvench’s most evil and blackguardly scheme ever - to kidnap the beautiful young Queen Glorianne and hold her to ransom for a million gold doubloons.

A daunting task for any youngster. But wait - didn’t we say? Angel Bones has a secret no-one knows...

Angel is a mermaid.
Too Cap'n Sparrow for you? In fact the story was based on a gamebook that Leo and I worked on back in 1993, when Pirates of the Caribbean was still just a fairground ride. Not that that makes any difference, of course. By the time we came to pitch it as a comic strip, this particular mix of spookiness and swashbuckling was no longer looking as fresh as it had done. 
I'm happy we went with Mirabilis because I think it's a stronger story, but Dead Men would've been fun too.

Tip of the iceberg

It's 1% inspiration against 99% perspiration, as Edison famously said. Putting up some of those Fangleworths images reminded me how much work we did to develop the Mirabilis story and characters.

Early versions experimented with a more modern style of army uniform:

which we decided just wasn't working. Possibly it would have been more historically accurate (the story starts in 1901) but I always go by Emerson's advice that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The flamboyant hussar's uniform that Leo eventually chose is much more in keeping with Jack's dashing (over-) romanticism.

As you can see, in that very early version Jack looked about twelve years old. As we worked on character development, both he and Estelle became more attractive. And we opted to give Estelle more of a look that modern readers would find relatable. She cuts her own hair (with garden shears, as a matter of fact) and that was part of the character description from day one, so we were able to avoid any Princess Leia grannified weirdness.

All this work takes time, and even though it may seem blindingly obvious that the finished version is miles better, it isn't always obvious when you're groping your way through the maze of creative choices. More on this here.

The Factory of the Future

These images are from Fangleworths, a project that Leo and I spent a couple of years developing for television. I hope we might return to it one day, probably in comic book form.

The concept was of a factory run by robots. Not your modern hi-tech variety, but the sort of bumbling retro-future robots you'd expect in an Aardman movie.

The story in a nutshell:

Boomer is boss robot at Fangleworth’s and he runs a tight ship. At least he tries to, even though his crew aren’t the brightest tools in the box.

Nothing scares Boomer more than the thought of disappointing his boss, reclusive billionaire Hiram Fangleworth. So he’s all in a tizzy when Fangleworth sends a new addition to the workforce. And it's a girl!

Reluctantly Boomer accepts the inevitable. He and Nettie have a sparky relationship but they learn to get along. And for a while it looks like everything might be hunky-dory.

Then they discover the truth. Hiram Fangleworth has frittered away his fortune. Now he’s planning to sell out to his arch-rival, who intends to close the factory, flood the valley, and sweep our plucky band of motorized heroes onto the junk pile.

Boomer and Nettie set aside their squabbling to join forces. Will their combination of valve-powered determination and microchip sassiness be enough to save the day?
The flavour were were going for was Ealing comedy by way of Pixar. We came up with an interesting bunch of characters and I am still convinced they would get a lot of affection from fans.

I love the 3D models Leo created for this project. Especially the view of Boomer in his office here, which takes me back to the cherished TV shows of my childhood: Fireball XL5 and Torchy the Battery Boy!

Saturday, 21 March 2009


I came across this in a shop in Suffolk. It's a bit of a wonky model (built for a stage play later rewritten as the first Patrick Troughton story, "Power of the Daleks") but at least it isn't all rivets and Quake-industrial styling.

Oh, and another thing... Daleks nowadays move like motorized wheelchairs. But in those days they glided around with a really eerie grace, the way Terry Nation intended when he was originally inspired by watching how dancers move around a stage in long skirts.
When you're talking about Daleks, ranting is really the only way to go ;)

Friday, 20 March 2009

Pizza resistance

Here's Martin, me and Leo having lunch at the Gourmet Pizza Company in Oxford just before popping over the road to David Fickling's offices.

That was back in 2003 - our Halloween meeting (see earlier post) before The DFC was even thought of. The Gourmet Pizza Company isn't there now. Which is a shame.


I don't normally give interviews. Not in a Greta Garbo kind of way (slaps hand to forehead, gasps, sinks into armchair) but simply because I think work should speak for itself and authorial intention is irrelevant. Entertaining in its own right, okay; but still irrelevant.

Take Bruce Robinson on Withnail & I:

"I think if there was even the remotist hint of [homosexuality] in [Withnail's relation with Marwood] there would have been the remotist hint of it in my relationship with Viv [MacKerrell] and there wasn't."
Now Bruce Robinson is a true genius. He writes beautifully and his movies are like nobody else's. But I like the interpretation of that last scene in Withnail that implies an unrequited love, and I don't care what Robinson says. Maybe he can't see it. After all he is only the author.

Anyway, I did in the end give an interview to Efrem Orizzonte because his questions were really good and I figured people would enjoy reading them even if the answers I gave weren't much cop. So you can read that interview here - it's mostly about gamebooks and fantasy role-playing games like Dragon Warriors but there's also some stuff about Mirabilis.

Planting seeds in the reader's mind

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 at (you hope) just the right moment.

One of the most obvious kinds of story seed is when you embed the germ of an idea (sometimes thematic, sometimes a plot idea) early on so that the reader is prepped for it later.

A seed can be planted to carry the burden of complex discussion of a theme which would interrupt the story if put later. Ever seen a movie where they get bogged down in exposition in the last fifteen minutes? The writer should've planted seeds earlier.

For example, in "Crush" (episode 5:14) of
Buffy, 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.” So much later, at the climax, we’ve already covered the theme of what makes a hero: just doing good things, or doing them for a moral reason?

There are two levels of seeds. The first is at the basic level of craft, 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 Reinhart. 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 who we suspect of stealing the necklace. However, at the end we learn that it was not the American who took it, but one of the hotel maids. There are two scenes that show the basic level of seed-planting: one where Mrs Reinhart is delightedly swinging a pillow in her bedroom, letting off steam because she thinks she's alone, when the maid comes in with breakfast and surprises her. Later, Mrs Reinhart enters 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 that the maid has a key and could enter the room at any time, and also that the maid may act very 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 Reinhart 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.

I'm not convinced of the value of this kind of analysis. 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. This leads to the inevitable Garth Marenghi moments: "I often re-read my books to learn from them." Funny but true.

Only connect!

As Roz has been talking about her new writing tips site all week, I've been analyzing my craft a little more than usual.

Today musing on all the techniques you can use to make readers care about a character. You can show the character:

  • being resourceful
  • being brave
  • being clever (not the same as merely resourceful btw)
  • doing a good deed ("save the cat")
  • being unfairly treated (“kill the cat”)
  • standing up against unfairness or injustice
  • doing something we can relate to – especially if funny, but can be as simple as cleaning teeth, having breakfast, if made into an interesting “bit of business”
  • being in a relationship we can connect with
  • in a situation we recognize – hot/cold, needing a pee, late for a meeting, etc.
  • being interesting – this is how an audaciously badly-behaved, rude or even evil character can be made very compelling: what will they do next?

…& what DOESN'T work:

Making them
merely strong or lucky. (Although boys of a certain age do grok power fantasies.)

Writing with pictures

More musing on the whole agonizing creative process... Thinking about this a lot this week because my wife is starting up her story consultancy site. I came across this quote from Deborah Moggach on adapting Pride & Prejudice into a movie script:

'Film acting is all about reacting. It’s about the unsaid, and it relies on tapping into the heart of the story. For instance, in the opening scene, where the Bennet family is aflutter with news of Mr Bingley’s arrival, Elizabeth has little to say on the page. In the film, however, we can’t take our eyes off her because the camera picks up her reactions and holds on her stillness in the middle of a busy room.

'Films are deeply connected to the subconscious, and screenplays reflect this. It’s all subtext, and a good director and actors know what a scene is really saying. When Elizabeth bumps into Darcy at Pemberley they have the most stilted, dull exchange. “I thought you were in London.” “No, I’m not.”

'Watching it is almost unbearable, however, because they’re both in torment. Their faces betray their feelings. We’ve come on a long journey with them by this time, and the scene is poignant with what is not put into words. A novelist is terribly tempted to over-write a scene.'
I draw my little sketch layouts before finalizing the dialogue for this reason. For us control freaks it's actually better than movie making, because you get to look at how your dialogue is working and you have total freedom to change it.

And then often I change bits of dialogue again when the art comes back from Leo, because he will have put in some nuances of performance that means a line of dialogue isn't needed after all. Mirabilis is still pretty heavy on dialogue, but that is because it's meant to be. We wanted it to be a dense read - something with a big cast of characters and the room to introduce them all. In that sense it's more like a TV series than a movie.

I am toying with a silent episode, though. Partly in homage to the "Hush" episode of
Buffy, because when
David Bailey saw it he said it was the kind of idea he'd expect me to come up with. If you're not familiar with the story, it's about hideous levitating fairies who cut out people's hearts but can be killed by a mortal's scream, ergo they steal everybody's voices. So David's remark - well that's, you know, kind of the sweetest thing anyone's ever said about me.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

I found a few pictures of me, Leo and Martin from our creative sciving-off week at Bromfield Priory Gatehouse...

The Long and Winding Road

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, how it rained on that parade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yada Yada Yada

I’m writing a talking scene today, and I’ve been putting it off. I have 25 pages of script and in the middle of it there’s a block of panels that’s waited several weeks to have the dialogue added.

I hate talking scenes. Admittedly I write a lot of dialogue (so do Moore and Gaiman, is my hubristic excuse) but comics is a visual medium and you really don’t want it all to grind to a halt while two characters natter at each other. What I mean is: while they do nothing but natter to each other.

In a movie you can have characters walking while they talk. The changing background scenery creates visual interest. You can even work in some little visual details to counterpoint the conversation as one of them buys a newspaper or stops to light a cigarette.

In a comic it’s not so easy, because there it’s much more obvious that you’ve just got a bunch of two-shots from various angles and distances. The medium demands more visual variety than a movie, and then it can just end up looking desperately busy: the direct overhead shot, the over-the-shoulder, etc.

Okay, so spice it up with a secondary narrative thread. Two characters are talking and there’s a knock at the door, and one guy answers it while they're still talking, and gets a parcel from the FedEx guy, and they're still talking (not about the parcel) while he unwraps it, and then if the parcel contains something that ironically reflects the last line of dialogue you have an almost classic comic sequence.

For instance, say it’s one guy’s birthday and he ends whatever it is he was talking about with the line, "I'm not going be jerked around anymore." And he unwraps this parcel and it turns out to be a puppet. Just cut there and the die-hard comic nerds will love it. (Feel free to groan, by the way.)

That example is just tricksy, though - it has dramatic irony, which is entertaining, but it'd be much better if the secondary narrative thread illustrates something about the characters that isn't being said in the dialogue.

In one episode of Mirabilis I had Jack talking to Estelle, and a lot of it is exposition. They get to her car and the chauffeur says it's broken down and Jack is saying, "Newfangled contraptions, eh? I'll get you a cab." And Estelle says, "Nonsense," flips up the hood and fixes it - to Jack's astonishment. So that was good because it not only covered the expository stuff in the dialogue, it told us something about Estelle (she's independent, modern and good with machines) and more importantly it moved their relationship on, because Jack is left feeling like he's made a fool of himself so next time they meet he's got the baggage of this scene to deal with.

My ideal scene is one that does all of the following:

  1. Evokes the feeling of being there (setting, weather, time of day, etc)
  2. Reveals character (facts about somebody and/or aspects of their personality)
  3. Advances the plot
  4. Develops or changes relationships and/or emotions
  5. Contains the theme of the story (though not usually overtly!)
  6. Entertains the reader (ie is imaginative, interesting, intriguing, exciting - or just funny)

The scene I have to write today? It’s one of those scenes where two characters take stock so that we get to see who they’ve become in the course of the story before going into the big finale. A campfire scene. My favorite campfire scene ends like this:

You are what you love, not what loves you.
That’s what I decided a long time ago.

But that’s Charlie Kaufman. His dialogue is brilliant, he had a great performance (two performances!) from Nicolas Cage to carry it, and he had the genius to set that scene right in the middle of a life-or-death manhunt.

Now if I can just come up with something as good as that. And if I can’t, at least you’ll have great pictures by Leo and Nikos to take your mind off it.

So what are we doing here?

We have the main Mirabilis site for the in-world material. That’s where we have the comic strip, RMS stories, character bios and so on.

What we’re aiming to do here is take a step back and talk about the creative process – how we came up with Mirabilis in the first place, why it’s in the form it is, and where the project is going now that its original home, the DFC, is shutting up shop.

A Year of Wonders Already

Although this is the first post about this comic strip project, Mirabilis, I am actually working on page 111, with a 100 pages inked and coloured ready for press sitting on my hard drive. The frame above is from yesterday. No, you haven't stumbled on some super-team that can produce 100 pages a week, we've been working on it for over a year and the ideas have been in gestation for 10 years before that. Of course subscribers to the DFC will already have seen, and hopefully read, the first 12 episodes of 5 pages each. Sadly it looks as though the DFC will be closing in a couple of weeks due to the , "current financial climate", and Dave and I will find ourselves, not for the first time, back on the freelance street, a busy place even in the best of times.

We are ever the optimists, and are continuing to work with the full confidence that Mirabilis will find it's way into the ever popular graphic novel format. In the mean time, any reader who hasn't seen the comic can get a taster of the first 10 pages here, and keep an eye on the site because we are planning to post the next 50, or so, pages for your delectation.

I can't believe that a year of working on it pretty much full time has gone by. A lot of that time at the beginning was spent on pre-production and some tying off of previous flat-fee projects. We've settled down into a schedule set up for the weekly DFC, but find that even with the comic gone it's a realistic way of working. The system revolves around the DFC episodes, each 5 pages long, parceling them up into 4 episode, or 20 page, "batches". Each batch roughly takes 6 weeks, after which Dave comes to visit me in Somerset (he lives in London), for a "lockdown" weekend. This isn't some kinky bondage session but the chance to make final checks on the last batch, and discuss upcoming episodes and the direction of the story as a whole. We also manage to eat well, have a few drinks and perhaps one game of Age of Kings, where I ritually suffer defeat to Dave's superior tactical abilities.

If I were to drill down I would think , as a team on average we produce a page of finished comic every 1.2 days. From what I gather this is about the norm in comics, perhaps a little slower than average. When you consider that each page has around 7 individual images that's quite a throughput compared to my other work in children's book illustration, where each single image would be fussed over for at least a day.

For this reason I am always impressed by comic artists, along with animators who also churn out mind boggling quantities of work. I once worked next to an experienced professional animator who could draw faster and for more hours than anyone I've met before and since. He drew so much that he had grown horny protrusions on the fingers that gripped the pencil. When I told him how impressed I was by his speed and alacrity he replied, "Sure, but I have no ideas for what to draw". I guess speed isn't everything.