Sunday, 30 August 2009

The genius of Ditko

There is no greater comic art luminary than Steve Ditko. Leaving aside the brilliance of his draughtsmanship, any page of his work is like a masterclass by the world’s greatest storyteller, director and cinematographer all in one.

Take a look at this excerpt from “The Shrieking Man”, which originally appeared in
Eerie #4. The first page introduces us the set-up, hero, villain, dramatizes the whole thing with some vibrant Ditko drawing and atmospheric Dutch tilt, and incidentally slips in quite a bit of vital exposition without us even noticing. (To be fair, writer Archie Goodwin deserves his share of the credit for that.)

Now see what Ditko pulls off on the second page. In three panels he moves us from the set-up scene to a passage-of-time montage by way of a shot explaining the nearby graveyard. Three freakin’ panels, dude! Most modern comic artists wouldn’t be able to pull that off if you gave them three whole pages.

Then look at how Ditko kicks the story action into gear. A camera prowls to the window. See those tangled trees, the contrast of light and shade, the angles he picks, the care with which he locates the asylum relative to the graveyard so that we always know where we are. Again, many of today’s artists would miss this. They’d eschew the long shot to avoid having to draw too much detail, and a string of close-ups would leave us disorientated. Ditko never needs to clutter his frame with detail. It’s all there, but he carries it off with deft economy.

Yep, I’m kind of a fan if you couldn’t tell.

In a noose of light

Jack and Estelle arrive in Istanbul in Chapter 6 of the Winter book, which is about where the third act would be starting if it were a movie.

Having travelled a little in the Middle East, I've always loved the romance of the call to prayer and this was a scene we wanted to get in, but in the end the timing didn't work. The Orient Express pulls into Sirkeci station about forty-five minutes before noon, and it turned out that has quite a bearing on how things play out over the next couple of hours that make up the climax of the story.

As writers we have to kill our darlings, as both William Faulkner and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch used to say. So out the scene went, in this form anyway, and now the train's arrival is accompanied by a purely secular chorus of brakes and whistles and puffing steam and bustling crowds. All still beautiful and musical in its own way, of course, but without the haunting numinosity of the adhan.

Friday, 28 August 2009

The only reliable reference

You've caught up with the first four episodes, so now here's one more vitally illuminating page from near the start of Chapter Two ("The Wrong Side of Bedlam") where Jack finally learns what's up, docs. A green comet is causing reality and fantasy to merge, and it's only going to get worse through the year as the comet draws nearer to the Earth. The upside, from the RMS point of view: "We're going to need a bigger office..."

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Bliss was it in that dawn

Regular readers will know that we have no truck here with narcissistically personal posts. So you just cut your toenails? Bought a stuffed pelican? Your baby son just puked on the rug for the first time? Honestly, the world wasn’t holding its breath to hear that.

But look, grant me this one indulgence, for here is my bright-eyed younger self at the moment I first conceived of creating my own comics. Inspired by the legendary weekly comic
TV Century 21, I started producing Facer Fun. All I can remember about Facer is that he had a skipping rope and he caused a ton of mischief - an early example of the authorial alter ego, as in real life I hated skipping and was terribly well-behaved. (Apart from when I toppled the school flagpole, nearly squashing half a dozen other kids, and avoided the blame by manipulating poor Christopher Fry. No, really, that was a one-off. All the rest of the time, butter wouldn’t melt.)

By age 9 or 10, I was into superhero comics and Facer had been replaced by Photon, who had super-strength, super-speed and could fly. I think he was probably not as interesting as Facer, but 10-year-old boys really aren’t into the “less is more” ethic.

By the time I was in grammar school (RGS Guildford: top school in the country this year for A-Level results, not fee-paying in those days) the superheroes had gone and I was doing EC-style horror comics presented by “Uncle Grimmy”, who had a cowl and a scythe and a hard white bonce. My drawing wasn’t half bad by that stage, either. If I hadn’t given all the comics away to friends I’d post some of the strips so you could see. Actually, maybe I wouldn’t – I haven’t seen them for thirty-five years and it might be the touch-up brush of memory that makes me think they were any good.

Then I did no comics for decades, apart from a few short funny strips starring Necromageus Knoll, a dodgy sword-n-sorcerer who looked liked Richard Nixon, and it wasn’t until David Fickling unveiled his plans for the DFC that my interest in creating them was rekindled.

Now, I wonder… my dad’s nickname for me as that fresh-faced young nipper in the photo was “Sputnik”, a satellite whose antennae gave it a rather comet-like appearance. Could that spark of inspiration have been the reason why we picked Mirabilis as our first DFC project? But enough twittering. Next post will be back to business as usual.

Monday, 24 August 2009

New Mirabilis episodes

Just to qualify that a tad: they aren't actually new if you subscribed to the DFC, but if you missed our run there you can now read the first 25 pages (ie the first chapter of the Winter book) over on the Mirabilis website.

The flipbook we're using to display these episodes is, for my money, one of the best ways to read comics on the web, but it does have its drawbacks. The colors get turned both muddy and luridly over-saturated. I used to think it was a CMYK/RGB display issue but, as you can see from the page above, it displays perfectly well here. So just don't think that the harsh colours you'll see in the flipbook episodes are in any way indicative of Nikos's superbly subtle and rich hues as you'll get to see them in the graphic novels.

The cutest little baby face

When we started the Royal Mythological Society page as an adjunct to the main Mirabilis site, we intended it to carry a series of droll, semi-factual monographs in the vein of Borges's El libro de los seres imaginarios.

Writing the notes and queries for Professor Bromfield and Doctor Clattercut soon revealed itself to be more fun, and the monographs petered out. But we still had one that was supposed to tie in with episode 11 in the April 3 issue of the DFC.

Of course, there
was no April 3 issue, as the DFC folded the week before. But as for the RMS monograph on Gargantua (for it was he), c'est ici:


A giant of medieval Gallic legend who lived in the Alsace region. When he was born, his father took one look at him and gasped, “Que grand tu as!” (= “how huge you are”) which gave him his name.

He was a burly baby with (so Rabelais tells us) “about ten chins”. His pram was a cart pulled by oxen and he tore the turf off the village green to use as a comforter. When he was teething, he cried so loud that the weather-vane spun off the church and windows broke in all the neighbouring villages.

In later life he fought for his country. During the siege of Vede Castle he was shot by dozens of cannon balls, but they only lodged in his hair and made him itch. He thought they were lice and brushed them out using a comb made of elephants’ tusks.

At one time, Gargantua came in hungry from a battle and fell on his food so ravenously that he accidentally ate five or six people who were at the dinner table with him. He only noticed they were missing when he finished cramming the food into his mouth. To make matters worse, they were pilgrims. To atone for his sins, Gargantua built an abbey overnight with blocks of stone from the gorges near Strasbourg, where he used to find building blocks to play with as an infant.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Curios and bric-a-brac

This is one of my favourite Mirabilis pictures (from episode 3 “A Pottage O’ Trouble”) and it conceals an iceberg’s worth of inspirational source material.

Jack’s visit to
Selsey was a nod to the town’s most famous resident, the great British eccentric Sir Patrick Moore, who has instilled an interest in astronomy in many generations of young TV viewers. The germ of the idea for Comet Meadowvane will have been planted one of those magical evenings in the '60s when I was allowed to come down after midnight to watch The Sky at Night.

The cricket pavilion that houses the local museum was inspired by the collection of Sidney Sime’s artworks in Worplesdon. Sime is most famous these days as the illustrator of Lord Dunsany’s fantasy stories, and as Dunsany is probably the #1 influence on Mirabilis it was quite satisfying to be able to loop the loop with our hommages like that.

The witch bottle itself is very similar to one that I have often found myself drawn to in the
Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Mr Massey, the Selsey museum curator in the story, owes his name (but no other characteristics) to Dr Alan Massey, who analyses the contents of witch bottles for real.

The daffy ideas for the curios in the museum came partly from the library at Magdalen College, which still displays the fossilized wig worn by
Dr Routh, president for half the 19th century and more, and partly from local museums that Roz and I have explored while staying at a whole string of Landmark Trust properties.

Lastly, though it has nothing to do with how the scene came to be inspired, take a look at that bright wintry glare in the doorway. I doubt if Nikos has ever been in England to see the quality of light on a January morning after heavy snow. But he has caught it perfectly, just as Leo has caught the grain and even the smell of the wooden planks of the hut. When you find a couple of geniuses like these guys to work alongside, you don’t have any worries. Whatever I write, inspired or not, I know they’re going to make it look fabulous.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The dark side

A typically dramatic and atmospheric picture from Martin here. It will come as no surprise that this came originally from his movie concept art portfolio. We talked about using it for a DFC cover (#34, January 2009) to tie in with "The Wrong Side of Bedlam", the episode that introduced Gus. But when we saw the age group that most of the DFC strips were pitched at, it was clear that something like this wasn't going to fit with the rest of the comic. Call me fussy, but dark and brooding just can't rub shoulders comfortably with candy-colored lettering and a Lazarus Lemming cover insert.

Mirabilis is sometimes dark and chilling and, in hindsight, probably didn't sit well with the DFC readers, who I'd guess were predominantly 7- or 8-year olds. That's why I'm keen to get it out in graphic novel form. Then it can find its own audience. Not that our story is ever very dark, come to that. No more so than a Tim Burton movie, say; we're not talking Pan's Labyrinth here. You'll be seeing this and other brilliant pics by Martin in the Gazetteer.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

From page to screen

I have this theory about reviews: anything disclosed from the first act of the story doesn’t count as a spoiler. I mean, come on - nowadays you get movie trailers that show you three-quarters of the plot, so just revealing the premise can’t count as a spoiler, right?

(If you don’t agree, and you plan on seeing Surrogates, duck out now. You’ve been warned.)

Surrogates is a
movie starring Bruce Willis. But originally it was a graphic novel by Robert Venditti. Hollywood is, of course, going through one of its phases of being in love with graphic novels. There is some rhyme and reason in that. A graphic novel is a great way not only to tell the story (not many people can read a script nowadays) but also to give studio execs an idea of your intended look and feel. Even if it’s a look they don’t like – well, as William Goldman says, at least you’ve got something to change.

Surrogates is set in the near future when people can send out robot duplicates of themselves to experience any thrill they fancy while the real person remains safely hooked up to a cybernetic link at home. But somebody has decided that human beings shouldn’t live this way, and he’s making his point by going around trashing surrogates.

Now here’s the interesting bit. In the graphic novel, the mystery man’s campaign is on a par with somebody blowing up cars. You lose your Porsche. Well, that’s a bummer, boo hoo, but life goes on. I was reading it thinking, “It’s a fun concept, but the stakes aren’t high enough for this to be a movie.”

The screenwriters (Michael Ferris and John Brancato) obviously thought the same. They changed it so that the bad guy has found a method of destroying surrogates that also kills the user. See: simple and obvious, but suddenly the story has real bite. It is in fact pretty much the single most to-the-point story you can tell with that concept. If use of surrogates is all about staying safe, and somebody thinks this is breeding a generation who don’t know the real savour of living, how else are you going to unfold that story if not by bringing the danger close to home, by shattering that cocoon of safety?

My point is not that screenwriters are cleverer than comic book writers. Venditti created the concept from nothing, and that’s worth a big stack of kudos. And he wasn’t necessarily even trying to find the one big story; he was writing the first five comics in an ongoing series, no doubt with an eye to exploring many facets of the central idea.

The point is, this is the way Hollywood should be looking at graphic novels. Not as ready-to-shoot design specs, but as creative testbeds that you can use as a jumping-off point to work up a story structure, script, concept art - the works.

Considering that a graphic novel costs about $70,000 of everyone’s time, and the going rate for an original screenplay under
WGA guidelines is at least $109,000 – and that’s for just words, no art – you can see that it’s a good medium for showing the idea so everybody can decide if they want to jump aboard. But too many over-faithful adaptations of the original material will mean flops, and then Hollywood will get panicky and the execs won’t want to look at any graphic novels, worthy or not.

If we ever get to do a Mirabilis movie, it’s unlikely to be a retelling of the Jack and Estelle story. That’s intended as one thing, the movie is another. 700-page graphic novel epics are more in the way of being a TV series. We do in fact already have some ideas for a Mirabilis movie, and when the first four graphic novels are written we may write that as a screenplay – or, maybe, do it as a shorter, self-contained graphic novel. There are enough stories in the Mirabilis concept to keep Leo and me busy for a decade or more without ever covering the same ground. Luckily, when you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t feel like work at all.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Englishmen abroad

It's been a while since we let you have any sneak peeks at the Winter book, so as a reward for being soooo very patient, here's a self-contained scene from what would, if The DFC had continued, have been Episode 13: "Smoke & Mirrors". (To put that into the context of the graphic novel, it's near the end of Chapter Three - about a third of the way through the book.)

The Orient Express has stopped at Vienna and Jack takes the opportunity to stretch his legs on the platform. The main point of the scene was to develop the relationship between Jack and McNab. But looking back at it now, having completed the first book, it's interesting how many of the apparently incidental details get reincorporated into the story later.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Let down your hair

Disney has released some nice concept art for their upcoming movie of the Rapunzel story. Director Nathan Greno says:

“The design of [this] film will try to put a fresh twist on a 1950s retro vibe. Byron [Howard] and I are such huge fans of Disneyland, and of Fantasyland in particular. The architecture of Fantasyland is nostalgic 1950s Fantasyland. There’s real appeal and style that are used in films like Cinderella, so we’re doing research on that style.”
A piece about this on Jim Hill Media has more artwork featuring the lead character, plus an interesting insight into the design of the hero:
“We had a couple of versions [of the prince] and John Lasseter came in and went, ‘Well, this guy is okay, but I don’t know. Is he drop-dead gorgeous? I think women will want him to be drop-dead gorgeous [...] What you guys have to do is get all the women in the studio to send you the names of their favorite hot men. Put photos of all these hunky guys in the room, take the best features of each of them, and make one amazing, dynamic character.’ So that’s the process that’s going on right now. This place has turned into junior high. It’s like working in the office of Tiger Beat."
That interested me (and makes this post relevant to the Mirabilis blog) because Leo and Martin went through the same kind of development process with Jack and Estelle. It is important for heroes and heroines to be attractive. The movie star looks of a leader like Barack Obama or JFK gets people talking about Camelot - because we want our myths to come true.

There are different types of handsomeness, of course - a hero can be monstrously attractive, like Hellboy. Just so long as he isn't plain. See what John Lasseter said there? Amazing. Dynamic. The single most important thing in storytelling is to establish a connection - to make the reader or viewer want to be your protagonist. We'd all like to see ourselves as amazing, dynamic, charismatic. Attractiveness is a visual device to represent the inner light. In real life, we can see past a person's looks (sometimes). But art is not life, and it's important for creators to remember that.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The commercial side of magic

Here's another newspaper advertisement from the annus mirabilis. When we started kicking the idea of the gazetteer around, twelve years or more ago, we planned to do a lot of these. Since then they've become something of a cliche (Larklight, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you name it) but it'd be a pity not to do one or two. Like the five-storey removal firm Stoop and Sons and monster opticians Blink and Wiper, this won't just be a throwaway joke but will actually link back into the Jack & Estelle story. That's the plan, anyway.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Returning to our roots

Because there was a dearth of news on the graphic novels for a few months after the demise of The DFC, we got into the habit of doing occasional posts that were fairly peripheral to the main Mirabilis project. (Hey, had to fill the gap somehow.)

That's going to change now that Random House are firming up UK publishing dates for Winter - not to mention other goodies like the iPhone release and further books. We should be able to start bringing you much more focused features on the Year of Wonders from now on - and maybe some sneak peeks too.

So... all of the foregoing is a long-winded way of pointing out that we're stripping the site back to items that directly relate either to Mirabilis itself, to our creative process, or (in exceptional cases) to other projects that Leo and I have dreamt up over the years and might work up in the future. We've got lots of scoops coming up, all laced with green comety goodness, so stay tuned.