Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A grand ship out on the ocean, all mounted with silver and gold

We are currently making plans for what we’d do with Mirabilis if we can get full control of the publishing rights. To explain that remark and put it in context, I need to take a short historical detour.

As I’m sure you’re aware, Mirabilis originally appeared in the last few issues of Random House’s short-lived weekly comic The DFC. Consequently they are the company that currently controls the publishing rights for those initial ten 5-page installments.

Leo, Martin, Nikos and I have plans for how we would turn that original stub of material into an 800-page epic. But of course to do so we need to be able to publish the first 7% of the story, namely the pages from The DFC. We’re still hopeful we can make some kind of deal to free up those rights. Currently it’s not doing any good for anybody, and the longer it languishes in limbo the harder it is for our whole team to resume, so we're trusting that reason will prevail. (Short pause while I bang my knuckles on this fine oak desk.)

So, if we can get back control of that first chapter, what will we do with our baby then? First of all, we’d reinstate the flipbook episodes on the Mirabilis website. The next step would be to immediately start publishing Mirabilis as a monthly comic book. Eventually there would be collected book editions too, of course, but I like the sense of community you get with a monthly comic, and even a small print readership would help to sustain the team (moral support being far more vital to creatives than financial support, though both are nice) as we continue to work on further installments.

Our current plans would lead to at least a three-year run for the Mirabilis comic, with the four big books (Winter, Spring, etc) appearing at six-monthly intervals once we are well under way. We have to ensure there’s not too much of a gap between release dates for the books because Mirabilis isn't like Alex Rider, for example, where each book is a standalone story. This is one continuous epic – more like Lord of the Rings, say - so readers won't want a long wait between volumes.

One thing we’d be able to consider is whether to stick with the old comic’s A4 format or go with regular US comic book size, which I prefer. It may be too late to change, as any resources we have are better spent creating new material rather than reworking the earlier stuff. That’s not a priority, then – though I do think it’d be a shame not to change it, as Mirabilis leans towards America rather than Europe in that split personality thing we Brits have going. A4 is not a format that would find much favor on the far side of the pond.

We’d look to put the comic out in electronic form too, of course, with PDFs on DriveThru and an app for both iPhone and iPad. All the episodic formats we can release it on would bring in regular revenue - maybe not a lot but it's cashflow, and that’s vital if we’re to keep the whole team together and have any chance of completing this Herculean task we set out to do.

That's not forgetting the Royal Mythological Society stuff, which could serve a useful peripheral function like the Black Freighter to Watchmen, or the Animatrix to The Matrix. We actually have the RMS shorts all ready for publication on the Kindle - and that material has the advantage that it could quite easily be repurposed if need be. I'll just keep touching the desk.

So those are all the what-ifs. What if we can’t get control of the opening installments, though? Well, in that case I suppose you may end up reading the adventures of blond John Spark and red-headed Astrid Fieldweather under the mysterious blue comet, in Fabulosia: 365 Days of Miracles. Or maybe we shouldn't even joke about that, judging by the look on their faces there...

Monday, 29 March 2010

Fantasy isn't meant to be cosy

Mirabilis never had any of that sword-n-sorcery stuff. It was our deliberate policy. Mirabilis was about what happened if the imagination spilled over into everyday reality, indeed into the stuffy keep-the-lid-on reality of Victorian/Edwardian life. (Which is the same theme as Mary Poppins, now I come to think about it, although perhaps our take on it was a little different.)

Swords and sorcery fiction, pulpy fun though it may be, is not generally about letting the imagination off the leash. More usually, in fact, it turns out to be the most conservative of all genres, a concrete branch of fiction with carefully defined rules, more about cosiness and reassuring formalism than the often disturbing and elusive nature of true fantasy.

The only reason I feel justified in plugging the world of Abraxas on this blog is that it belongs to a branch of swords-&-sorcery that has so long fallen into disuse that it has all but regenerated itself. I refer to science fantasy, the ancient-world-flavored genre of swordplay, magic and vril-powered technology once popularized by the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Leigh Brackett, Robert E Howard, L Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber Jr and Edmond Hamiliton. Devised by me and Jamie Thomson, Abraxas is the kind of swashbuckling fantasy world that kicks elves off the side of air cars and would shoot hobbits in the face with an ionic blaster (3 charges remaining).

No, it's not Tolkien nor urban/dark fantasy and it's not steampunk neither. Oh, I can't tell you how bored I am by elves and hobbits and their ilk, whether cybernetically enhanced and palely nightclubbing or prancing around dank dungeons looking for orcs to twang arrows at. Unplug the jukebox, try another flavor. In the Burgess Shale of pulp literary history, there were a few more fantasy genres than that and the blood stirred fast and hot in their veins. If you're interested to find out more, pop over to the Fabled Lands blog.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The 1970s Weird Tales - when Coven 13 came back from the grave

Attentive readers, or those with nothing else to occupy their time, may recall that I’ve posted before about Coven 13, the New Yorker of horror, a uniquely flavored digest-sized magazine that flared and faded in the space of only a few months at the end of the ‘60s. I remember well my youthful disappointment when I arrived at Dark They Were & Golden-Eyed to ask after issue 5, exactly as editor Arthur H Landis had told us faithful readers to do as he signed off in issue 4, only to be told by proprietor Derek Stokes that it had folded.

Except: “that is not dead…” and after strange eons, or indeed just a year or two, Coven 13 returned like the departed loved one in a Poe story, or indeed a Kate Bush song, smiling with cold white lips and telling me that I had only to unlatch that bedroom window, or indeed send off a US postal order, and the days of delicious fear would return on swift wings.

Yet its time in the grave had brought about a change. What returned was not Coven 13 and soon discarded even the name, calling itself instead Witchcraft & Sorcery. Gone was Landis’s debonair brand of dry, whimsical and very sophisticated horror. In its place now, the more traditional brand of fantasy-horror populated by demons and werewolves. There was more blood, more action. Where Coven 13 had uncurled itself across the chaise longue of pulp literature with the sensuality of a Chandler femme fatale, Witchcraft & Sorcery offered a more immediate and red-blooded sort of gratification. Women took their tops off, guys got horny, there was screaming and there were tentacles… But it wasn’t at all the same delicate lacing of erotically charged horror you got in the Coven cocktail.

I didn’t complain at the time. I never knew the awful irony of the Monkey’s Paw. “Bring it back,” I was demanding of all the fates and gods. “I don’t care what shape it’s in, I don’t care how death has altered it. I just want it back NOW!” And so it returned, brought as it seemed by the mere and irresistible strength of adolescent will.

Its second incarnation had a new large-sized format that I wasn’t too sure about at first, but soon convinced myself that it gave a feel closer to the great days of Weird Tales. And so it did. Witchcraft & Sorcery was much more a close cousin to the honest, down-n-dirty pulps than Coven 13 had ever been. I ripped open the envelope and I breathed it in, that heady perfume of cheap print that Cloud 109 creator Peter Richardson has pointed out has no equal. And I read it cover to cover. And again. I could recite the stories. I copied the pictures. I knew the names of the current authors and the demigods of the ‘30s whom E Hoffman Price wrote about in his regular column. I may have even looked at the poems (they were by Robert E Howard, after all).

Oh, I knew now it wasn’t Coven 13. It was something new. A cheap showgirl who’d make do with candy rather than the champagne Coven would have insisted on. I still loved it.

After two issues Sorcery was already in financial trouble. The third issue (labeled #7, as they’d kept the Coven 13 numbering) was slimmer with a monochrome cover. The stiff white paper made it look more like a fanzine. But it was clearly a labor of love for the new editor, Gerald W Page, and that was enough for me. Then, as now, creative integrity earns my undying loyalty. Mr Page, I have to say, paid dearly for that loyalty because I bombarded him with letters. Whether there was an issue each month or not (usually there was not) he would get pages of correspondence from me, and stories too, battered out on my nigh-on indestructible typewriter. And he, sweet and patient man, would sometimes send me long replies, always kindly deflecting my submissions without ever straying over into anything so brutal as rejection. He gave me great advice on how to make my stories better. His letters were as precious to me as the magazine itself. I have them still, almost forty years later.

He published some fabulous stories, too. It wasn’t Coven 13, but it was something just as good. It was my Weird Tales, the next best thing to being transported back through time to 1930. (Actually, on reflection, very probably a lot better than going back to 1930, given the Great Depression and the lack of antibiotics and all.)

Mr Page’s own story, "Thirst", appeared in the seventh (that is, third) issue – took up most of it, in fact. I’d never read a vampire story like it. It was hard-boiled and grubby, the lead character just an ordinary working joe on his way home from a bar when he got bitten. He spends the story bewildered, frightened, obviously doomed. If it appeared today you’d call it modern; in 1972 it was as if that pale lamia tap-tap-tapping had lobbed a freakin' grenade into my bedroom. And the story was illustrated by Jeff Jones and Bernie (then plain Berni, he was still saving up for the e) Wrightson. That was it: my moment of heaven. And, so that you can share it, here are a couple of those pictures that, although I had not seen them for decades before I searched them out to scan just now, seemed like seeing my own face in a familiar photo, indelible as they are upon the surface of my mind. Enjoy!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Bernie Wrightson's first gig

It was always Marvel for me, never DC. Well, I say that, but a Gil Kane Green Lantern or Infantino Flash could always tempt me. Oh, and Kane illustrated The Atom so that got added to the monthly stack too. And when Neal Adams started doing Batman and The Spectre, I was in line for those, of course. Let’s say, then, that Marvel had my heart but DC still got a good share of my pocket money. And never more gladly than when, in the summer of ’69, I strolled into my local post office at the back of Mayford village green and there staring back at me from behind the copies of Valiant and TV21 was a pristine copy of Bernie Wrightson’s Nightmaster.

Nightmaster wasn’t a new book. It was a three-issue run of DC’s Showcase title, which was occasionally worth a look as the writers and artists could try out some interesting experimental stuff they never would have got away with in the pages of Superman. Maybe DC rushed this out because they heard Marvel were working on Conan. Certainly it was the first time I’d ever seen the two great loves of my young life get together like that. I’m talking about comics and swords-&-sorcery.

It was to have been Wrightson’s first professional assignment. Al Williamson took him into the DC offices to meet Carmine Infantino (of whom, more here on the encyclopaedically informative Cloud 109 blog) who by Wrightson’s own admission terrified him. He thought that Infantino looked like “a really big Edward G Robinson”, spoke like a fast-talking cigar-chewing Godfather, and when the older man got him in a friendly headlock, 18-year-old Wrightson thought he'd soon be sleeping with the fishes.

Actually Infantino was a much more understanding and supportive fellow than his appearance and lofty career eminence would lead anyone to believe. When, after weeks of working in mounting unhappiness, Wrightson came back with a badly over-thought and lifeless interpretation of the first few pages of the script, Infantino reassured him that it happened to everybody. He put him in the hands of the equally legendary and gentlemanly Joe Orlando so that he could get started on short stories for House of Mystery and build his confidence there. (Did I mention that House of Mystery was one of my must-buys? Phantom Stranger, too. Yet, y’know, I wasn’t a DC reader as such. You couldn’t be a mod and a rocker…)

Anyway, after a few months of the short stuff, young Bernie was flying. In the meantime, the first issue of Nightmaster that had defeated him had been completed by Jerry Grandenetti and Dick Giordano (you see where he got those notions about the Mafia running the NY comics scene) but now Infantino deemed him ready to handle it. Wrightson took the assignment and, with copious behind-the-credits help from his mates Mike Kaluta, Steve Hickman and Steve Harper, he turned in 46 glorious pages of swinging sixties swords-&-sorcery. Denny O’Neil’s script is nothing to shout about, and gives every sign of being knocked off in a few days to fill a gap in a genre that O’Neil probably had no interest in, but there are still some fun touches. The ship that flies with moonbeams in its sails – well, I swiped that for Down Among the Dead Men a quarter century later. And vivid in the memory, even after so long a time, are the flying vegetables and the Oirish Conan wannabe, and the pretty rock-chick barmaids and poisonous green warlocks. Ten years older and I would’ve taken it with a spliff and, man, I'd have instantly got where O’Neil was coming from.

Swords-&-sorcery is not a part of the Mirabilis fantasy tradition. We consciously steered clear of it because the genre barely existed in 1901, apart from the dark Ico-like tales of swordplay from earlier Gothic writers or the more romantic Arthurian vogue stimulated by the Pre-Raphaelites. Heroic fantasy was still a long way from evolving in the hands of writers like Burroughs and Howard into the genre we think of today. There are some Arabian Nights sequences planned for Mirabilis season two, but I’m not sure if I’d call that swords-&-sorcery, and in any case I digress. Connoisseurs of that style of fantasy will find plenty over on the Fabled Lands blog, which this month is running a wealth of Kull- and John Carter-inspired science fantasy in the form of my and Jamie Thomson's Abraxas project.

As a Showcase title, I suppose we have to regard Nightmaster as a failure. The character made a few cameo appearances in other DC titles over the years, but he was clearly never destined for star status. Bernie Wrightson, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength, and if he ever decides to take up the art duties on a Kull or Grey Mouser book, I’ll be right there with my pocket money waiting for the post office to open.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

King's heirs sue to get the crown back

Passing a newsagent's window this week, my eye caught a display for Ben 10 bubble gum or ice cream or something. A couple of steps later, I backtracked for another look, because (by gum) there were the distinctive "black dots" which, for my generation, evoked the coruscating, pulse-pounding force of cosmic energy as depicted by the one, the only, Jack "King" Kirby.

I love the idea of modern artists using the King's visual signifiers in corporately created stuff that's designed to sell toys to kids. It seems like a blow for freedom, as though they're smuggling something sacred under the very noses of the marketing wonks who are jabbering about whether little Ben needs to be fifteen percent more relatable or whatever.

Even better news this week is that Kirby's heirs are making some headway in their attempts to recover rights in the characters and stories he created. It's ridiculous that they should have to go to the lengths of shelling out money to lawyers in order to get their demands even acknowledged, but that's the world we live in. I've been on that ferry ride myself, and after you pay the lawyers to unleash shock and awe, the corporation turns round and says well goodness, you didn't need to do that, golly we always meant for you to have a share in those rights all along, you never needed to get legal folks involved, blah blah. To which I can only add that the Kirby family have all my best wishes and I hope they do get control of those rights, for the simple reason that (I assume) their interest is personal as well as financial, and creative works are valueless if they're taken away from the people who have genuine passion for them.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Spring is in the air...

It being the spring equinox today - surely cause for celebration in anybody's calendar, if you're not still hung over from yesterday's blog birthday - we thought we'd mark the occasion by putting up reminders of some projects of our own that we own and control. Most of these you can buy in shops or online or both.

To begin with we've got the Dragon Warriors Bestiary, one of the books in the totally rejuvenated and lavishly presented series from Magnum Opus Press. You can read more about things like that on the Fabled Lands blog. The painting is by the great Jon Hodgson, the Frazetta of his generation.

And then there's Frankenstein's Legions, illustrated beautifully (if that's the right word) by Martin, undisputed master of the macabre. His eldritch aura masks a very nice chap who's a demon with a cocktail shaker, and though his postman runs in fear from the dark portal of his manse, his dog loves him. You can't actually buy FL itself yet, but Martin has some gorgeous colour prints on offer.

The stunning comic book art here is by Nikos, our own Greek God of Visual Brilliance. This book is The Replica, with script by sci-fi author Michel Manolios. (I don't know him, but any mate of Nikos's is a mate of ours.)

And last but very definitely not least, this gorgeous howitzer, which is one of the super card models you can buy direct from Leo's Fantasy Cutouts site. Come on, this is what blokes of all ages live for. Get out your glue pots and start uber-geeking!

So, that's what's occupying us all individually. Such unbridled talent, we should really get together and work on a joint project. Oh, wait a minute - we already did.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Annus Mirabilis

This blog is one year old today, and it's almost a whole year too since the comic folded. At the time, Leo and Nikos and Martin and I thought of starting up a new project. I'm glad that instead we went on and completed the remaining three-quarters of Book One and planned the outlines of all four books.

That was certainly worth doing on a personal level. I would have hated to have just left it there with only the first 55 pages that appeared in the comic. It feels to me as an author that you have a duty of care to your characters not just to abandon them falling out of a train window or whatever. Now at least I know that Estelle and her favourite telescope are safe in one piece and back on terra firma. That hillside she's climbing leads to danger, but when aren't you out of danger? Time enough to rest when you're dead.

With the 200 pages of Winter done - working on the books and the website and the blog being a full twentyfourseven proposition - we found that we'd got way beyond what you'd call "low on cash". Nice as it would have been to go on and complete the full 800 pages, passion alone could only carry us (and Jack and Estelle) so far. We had a company willing to finance the other three books. We had a company that controlled the rights. Unfortunately they weren't the same company. Doh.

So, even as the blog celebrates its birthday, we're having to turn our minds to other projects. They're exciting and they'll keep us busy in the months ahead, but there'll always be a special place in our hearts for Mirabilis. I got to work with some marvellous people: Leo, obviously, and Martin, and also Nikos and his assistant Mike Toris, and our extremely patient and capable agent Stephanie Thwaites, and the freakishly multitalented Frazer Payne, who provided the music for the Mirabilis trailer but could also probably have written, drawn and animated it while eating a tuna sandwich made with bread he baked himself. Our families too have helped, not least by putting up with baked beans when a new Wacom tablet or software licence took the money that was set aside for steaks, but also with their own creative input (thanks, Inigo!) and most of all with their love.

And, I have to say, the Winter book that we produced in our year of living frugally is absolutely gorgeous. I have the whopping great Lulu copy of it all beside me and if I have any occasion now to glance at a page for reference, it's hard not to get engrossed and before you know it I've read a whole chapter. The characters and the images and the colours are so fabulous. Yes, and the story too; it's the best thing I've ever written. But even more than the labour of love itself, I've had the privilege of working with all those great people. So when I raise my glass of champagne this evening, it will most of all be in gratitude for that.

Those of you who follow the blog have helped too, more than you can know. When one is working without any feedback from an editor or publisher, the sense of community that comes from readers gives a level of moral support that cannot be overestimated. So if anybody out there would like to take this opportunity to stand up and take a bow, and introduce yourself, and say what you like in comics or fiction generally, and even to plug your own blog - go ahead. We appreciate every one of you.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Kissed by a bee

I was planning to hold off from reviewing Mezolith until it was actually released, but I got so fed up of waiting for Amazon to send my copy that I went back and read it in weekly comic strip form. And that's got me all geed up now, so here it is.

There's no need for a long review here. Others have written about Mezolith eloquently and perceptively, including Richard Bruton on the Forbidden Planet blog here (where you can also see a few pages) and a great analysis on The Book Zone (For Boys) here. There's not much more I can add to what those gentlemen have written except to say that Mezolith is a brilliantly original story: a loving biography of the human race told at the personal level through one boy's eyes. And it captures the whole timeless marvel of humanity, in that Poika is simultaneously the latest of many generations of his people, and at the same time a completely unique individual who is forming his own relationship with the universe, as we see in his charming connection with the bee that seems to become his particular totem, guide and rival.

But that's just detail. The point I wanted to make is that Mezolith is the most important British graphic novel of the last twenty years. A big claim? Look, I'm a huge fan of Watchmen, for example, but I know it's only ever going to be understood by comics fans; 99% of readers would be left baffled. But Mezolith, on the other hand - that's a timeless, engaging and yet unsentimental tale that anyone can read and appreciate. A French edition is already lined up for June this year, and that's only the beginning. It's not something to put alongside Tintin, it's something to put alongside Dickens or Steinbeck. Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank have created an honest-to-mankind masterpiece which you really should buy as a gift for any friend who appreciates the transformative power of great literature. No kidding. Button there at the right, Amazon will do the rest.

Friday, 12 March 2010

On the horizon

There are no more online episodes of Mirabilis planned, but we do still have a 200-page adventure all ready and waiting for you. What you've seen so far is barely the first quarter of just the first book. And, like Blondel searching high and low for the Lionheart, we're going to keep exploring ways to get that out into the world. One day.

In the meantime, keeping dropping by for updates on our other projects. It may still say "Mirabilis" at the top of the page but it's going to be about a whole lot more. We've got Sweet, a romantic comedy story in graphic novel form. The first 23-page instalment of that is already written and storyboarded, but of course it may take quite a while to do the artwork. If and when we have something to show, you'll see it here.

And there's Frankenstein's Legions, for which Martin and I have long been searching for the perfect storm to give it life. We just need to agree on the right medium. Videogame? Comic? Gamebook? There is already a prose novel, by the award-winning fantasy author John Whitbourn. While we make up our minds where to take it next, just glom onto that stunning image below and then zip over to PODgallery where you can buy it as a gleaming Giclée print.

And if you enjoyed the gamebook we gave away a short while ago, keep an eye out for a whole range of interactive adventures that Jamie Thomson, Mark Smith, Oliver Johnson and I have got planned for publication on e-readers. Fabled Lands is where you'll get all the breaking news on that.

The Fabled Lands Studio also has some plans to turn Fangleworths into a manga and, although that's very early stage and wouldn't directly involve me and Leo, it's still our baby and we'll be on hand to guide it along if it goes ahead. We might even do a series of Fangleworths books, Astrosaurs-style, to back it up - and those we would most definitely write personally. It's all a bit up in the air contractually, but we'll tell you more as and when.

And quite apart from all the above, Leo and I have been cooking up a completely new book series that we're almost ready to unveil. All that I'm going to say is that it's for boys and it makes extreme sports look like tiddlywinks. This series will have its own website and we'll tell you all about it very soon.

So, though 2010 may not be the Year of Wonders, it will nonetheless be a year of goodies!

Friday, 5 March 2010

ALL NEW episode today!

Something really special today - an episode that has never appeared before anywhere. "By the Pricking of My Thumbs" we've got robots, vanishing tricks, intrigue, fairytale kingdoms and vampire gamblers. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye.