Thursday, 4 February 2010

Cave canem

There’s something outside on the pavement (the sidewalk, to our American cousins). Nobody wants to touch it. We’re waiting for the rain to wash it away. One of the neighbours has pinned a big notice on a tree nearby: PLEASE CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG.

My point? That little brown pile, that’s how UK publishers view comics. By and large they wouldn’t actually want to pick one up.

Having grown up with comics and got my love of fiction from them, I really don’t get it. Movies, comics, novels, games – aren’t those all valid and effective ways of leading somebody on an imaginative journey?

I’m sure American and continental European readers will simply be baffled by this, but most adults in Britain see comics as a mean and contemptible medium. I tell people I’m writing a graphic novel and they look at me like I’ve joined the Hare Krishnas. It goes beyond blank uninterest; it's more like pity. Some (and these are the worst) will say, “Oh, I think comics can be ever so helpful in getting reluctant readers to pick up proper books.” Nobody can do condescension like a British literary snob.

Leo, Martin and I have sometimes toyed with writing Mirabilis as a prose novel instead of a comic. Just to get some respect, you understand. I think publishers would sit up and take notice then. Some of them might even read it!

We’re not going to do that because – well, for a bunch of reasons. Because we like comics. Because we love making comics. Because Mirabilis is a visual story. And because anyway who needs respect from those twits? Stuff ‘em if they don’t like comics. Me, I don’t like crap novels where nothing actually happens. We’ll have to agree to differ.

But all the same, Mirabilis was conceived to be medium-agnostic. I’ve worked in games, television, books, you name it, and any way that gets the story across is fine by me. So Mirabilis is a comic but it isn’t only a comic. We have all the Royal Mythological Society
story snippets, for example. And there are other bits of prose that got written for various reasons. Some of them we’ll use in that form, some get repurposed.

This vignette for instance. It was originally planned as a prose story to go in the Gazetteer, but got reworked as the basis for one of our newspaper comic stories. Though the pterodactyl didn't make it into the comic version, it got airlifted to Paris for a screech-on role in the main Jack and Estelle story instead. (And, as you can see from the picture, it had to dress up in a pteranodon costume.)

Hope you like our little amuse-cerveau. Tomorrow we’re back to picture stories. With flying dinosaurs. Promise.

Never Never on the Portsmouth Line

"You know, Jennings, it's getting worse if anything," remarked Sanderson over the glass bubble-helmet of the little green man on the seat next to him.

"I think you're right," his friend said in the same matter-of fact tone. "Take that last station. I could have sworn the sign said Never-never Land. Never-never Land didn't use to be on the Portsmouth line, did it?"

"That's not all. Do you know, just as we were leaving the office, there was something rather large perched on the top of Nelson's Column." Sanderson hesitated. "I didn't like to say at the time, but..."

"No need to apologise, old chap. Pterodactyl - no mistaking it. That's the second time this week it's been there. I suppose it's been keeping an eye out."

"For pigeons?"

"Well, I was thinking more of tourists."

"It's this comet that's to blame, of course."

"Without a doubt. No other explanation. Chap on the radio last night saying the same thing. Oh I say! What a cheek!"

The Martian sitting on the other side of Jennings had clamped a tentacle onto the page of his newspaper and was silently reading the share prices.

Jennings tugged the paper away and folded it up. "The nerve of these blighters, reading over a fellow’s shoulder like that."

"Tickets please," said the inspector.

Mr Sanderson handed over his ticket. The Martian beside him sat immobile. The inspector leaned down and rapped his knuckles on the glass dome. The green brain inside opened several eyes like a crab waking up inside a shell.

"Tickets," repeated the inspector.

The train rattled on through the dusk. The Martian sat in dumbfounded silence.

"He wants your ticket," explained Jennings, enunciating one word at a time as though the Martian was a very small child.

The Martian turned its eyes in several directions at once. Reaching into its little silver knapsack, it pulled out a ray gun.

"Ticket," said the inspector stolidly.

The Martian seemed taken aback. It leaned over Jennings' lap to confer with its comrade. The two buzzed and twittered at each other for a few moments, while Jennings stared at the ceiling of the carriage with a disdainful expression and pretended to ignore them. Finally the ray gun was put away and the Martian produced a ticket.

"Tak uz to yir leader," the second Martian said. Sanderson thought that its accent sounded faintly Scottish.

The inspector glowered at their tickets. "You want London, then. This is the down train."

The Martians sat bolt upright like glove puppets and started waving their tentacles. There was more buzzing, quite heated now. The inside of the glass helmets was beginning to steam up.

"He said you're going the wrong way!" said Jennings, losing his patience. "No use arguing about it."

"You'll have to go back to Woking and change there," said the guard. He gave the Martians their tickets and went on to the next compartment. They looked at each other glumly, silent now inside the fishbowl helmets.

Sanderson looked up at the window. "This is my stop," he said, rising.

Jennings nodded. "Looks like it.” He raised his paper and leaned over to speak confidentially. “What do you know? Martians. It’ll be Venusians next week.”

Sanderson paused as he stepped down to the platform. He thought about what Jennings had said and brightened. There was even a bit of a twinkle in his eye that had not been seen since Mrs Sanderson was a Miss.

“Venusians…” he said dreamily. “Marvellous!”


  1. Love the description of the Martians, they're so ... cute, adorable even.

    As you know I echo your thoughts about the kind of snobbishness that confounds a lot of comic creativity in this country, but the idea of being able to commune with an international constituency via new media and circumvent the staid and increasingly conservative world of U.K. publishing ( now even more so as they have really serious financial pressures to contend with beyond their natural aversion to comic art) does give me a lot of hope - in the long term at least.

  2. I'm very upbeat about this too, Peter. Thanks to e-readers and iPhone, it's not really going to matter what a tiny group of self-appointed literary gatekeepers may think - comic creators can reach their audience directly. The next couple of years will be very exciting, and I do think that the traditional publishers are going to get left behind. Perhaps I'll shed one tear :-)