Sunday, 27 June 2010

Slaying the monster

Here's an early post revisited more than a year down the line. I thought I'd update it just to show the full evolution of a page from my scrappy sketches to the finished work of brilliance as crafted by Leo and Nikos.Like a lot of writers, I spend more time than is healthy musing on (read: fretting over) the whole creative process. And it always helps when you find something that reminds you other writers find that a long, hard road too - at least if they're doing it right. Thank God for a guy like William Goldman, who's always ready to jump into the foxhole and put a supporting arm around your shoulders. Which Lie Did I Tell? - that's my Gideon bible.

While obsessing about dialogue, which in comics has different requirements from both prose and screen, 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.'
That's the reason I draw my little sketch layouts before finalizing the dialogue. 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 pretty heavy on dialogue compared with some comics. We mean it to be. We want this epic of ours to be a read with plenty of meat to it. A broad canvas kind of story with a big cast of characters and the room to introduce them all. We intend for it to be a series you'll keep and return to many times, each time finding something you didn't notice before. It's not the kind of comic you read once and forget.

And on that note we hope to have some very exciting news for you in the next couple of weeks. Don't go away.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Victorian halls, medieval knights & elves in mithril swimwear

I've played a little World of Warcraft, though I have to confess I never really got into it. I think I reached 6th level, which devotees of the game will know you can manage in about an hour's play. I chatted with other adventurers in textese. I may have killed some orcs.

Those fantasy CRPGs and MMOs all seem too much the same to me - a vaguely medieval/gothic world, dwarves (often Scottish), elves (often dressed for Venice Beach), clanking armor, rangers and "magic-users". If it's medieval, it's the themepark version: medieval America. It's like a bunch of writers copied Tolkien, and then the Dungeons & Dragons designers took their cue from those guys, and then a dozen other role-playing games copied D&D, and then CRPGs like WoW drew their inspiration from there. Result: all too far from an original concept to avoid tasting stale.

Look at orcs. Tolkien's concept was interesting, a dark mirror held up to humanity's undercurrent of xenophobic hatred. Whereas all these green-skinned tuskers are a vague sort of mash-up with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Specifically, ERB meets Aurora monster kits by way of some cheap 1980s straight-to-video adventure.

When did orcs turn green? I think it was in grimy Brit hack-n-slay RPG Warhammer. But it could have been any one of a dozen games - once these tropes come in, they often spread like wildfire. It's like the selective sweep that proliferates a useful new gene - except that, in creative work, you aren't trying to evolve towards a perfect fit, you're hoping to create something a little bit different. Rather than look at what somebody did last week, it's often worth tracing right back before the new gene came in and taking a different path. That's how the designers of Ico came up with such a cool and coherent vision.

But that's just me. With upwards of 11 million subscribers, Blizzard needn't lose any sleep. Those orcs are making them some serious green!

Anyway, that's all just preamble to this interview with Sam Raimi on Collider. After Spider-Man 1 & 2 (let's try and forget 3) any new project of Raimi's commands serious attention and should get the benefit of the doubt. So it'll be interesting to see how he turns a D&Dish computer game into a story we can really relate to. All the same, when I hear him enthusing about the cinematic landscapes in WoW, I'm thinking how cool it would be if somebody showed him Outcast. Now that would make some movie!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Stay in your seats

Now that we're gearing up to get the Gazetteer completed before the end of the year, it's an opportunity to go through the files and admire some of the incredible paintings Martin has already done for it. Try this one - an hommage to the classic Dr Who adventure "Talons of Weng Chiang", as well as a salutary lesson to the stage magicians of the Edwardian music hall not to put on too spectacular a performance in a year when the miraculous is as common as card tricks. Derren Brown would get burned at the stake!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Brought to book

Much to our surprise, the Gazetteer has been moving up into pole position this weekend after more than a year of trailing the pack. The idea of doing a Dinotopia or Spiderwick's Field Guide type of book was how we originally conceived Mirabilis more than 12 years ago now, and was the form in which we first pitched it in 2004 to David Fickling, who several years later invited us to turn it into a comic strip for the dummy issue that he was putting together to help sell the idea to Random House of publishing a weekly comic.

The Gazetteer was to be a complete story of the Year of Wonders told through the eyes of many characters whose lives would intertwine throughout. When we got going on the comic, the Gazetteer took a back seat - but it was part of our contract from the outset, and the intention was to release it once the graphic novels started coming out. Not only did Martin do a great bunch of paintings and illustrations for it, we also had the half-dozen standalone comic stories that David Fickling had asked us to prepare for The Guardian, a UK newspaper, but which were never used. The Gazetteer would be the ideal place for those.

The real value of the Gazetteer, I think, will be as an easy-in to British readers who look askance at graphic novels. Indeed, we at Team Mirabilis often speculate that the Gazetteer might be the real money-earner and the 800-page graphic epic might just turn out to be our labor of love. Still, it has languished for about a year now on the back burner, but just recently we started to think that maybe it is the right place to start after all. Or, at any rate, it's worth getting out there so that readers have a choice of starting points.

Our new plan is to get the Gazetteer all ready in time to go to the Bologna Book Fair next March. So it might actually be out early in 2012. Only two and a bit years after the original publication date, but in the mazy world of book publishing that's all too frequent a tale.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Up against the wall

I'm sure you're aware by now that some guy got famous by sticking zombies into the text of Pride & Prejudice. Well, I say famous; I couldn't actually tell you his name, but I saw an interview where he said: "It's a novel that really cries out for the inclusion of zombies. At least, it is for me."

Anything overused in fiction is a turn-off - and blimey, surely zombies have been warmed up so many times now that nobody who values originality could find them appetising fare
. Whenever a new videogame trailer shows people trapped in a hotel or shopping mall, grabbing at shotguns and fire axes as blank-eyed attackers shuffle around groaning, I just think - Why? Why bother? We've seen the exact same thing hundreds of times before. Even sparkly vampires are a smidgen fresher than that.

So I doubt you'll be seeing any zombies in Mirabilis. They weren't really a major fantasy trope in Edwardian times, anyway, so it's not just prejudice. But if I had to tell a story about zombies, I could do worse than characterize them as dull creatures wandering through libraries rather than shopping malls, inanely crayoning pictures of brains onto the pages of all the books and chortling at the improvement. (Actually, maybe that explains why zombies are such an obsession. We encounter them every day.)

Anyway, here is a bit of the real deal. There are no shambling undead in this unvandalised version of
Pride & Prejudice - nor need for them; the human monster is more than enough.
If you have a soul, you'll appreciate that the conflict in this scene is sharper than any run-in with a moaning stiff. And see how brilliantly Jane Austen captures the self-important diatribe of somebody who simply refuses to see the other person's point of view. Fortunately Lady Catherine de Bourgh has met her match in the spirited Elizabeth Bennet. You almost long for Lizzie to pull out a blunderbuss and blow this odious old bat away.
As soon as they entered the copse, Lady Catherine began in the following manner:

"You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come."

Elizabeth looked with unaffected astonishment.

"Indeed, you are mistaken, Madam. I have not been at all able to account for the honour of seeing you here."

"Miss Bennet," replied her ladyship, in an angry tone, "you ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you."

"If you believed it impossible to be true," said Elizabeth, colouring with astonishment and disdain, "I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?"

"At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted."

"Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family," said Elizabeth coolly, "will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence."

"If! Do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously circulated by yourselves? Do you not know that such a report is spread abroad?"

"I never heard that it was."

"And can you likewise declare, that there is no foundation for it?"

"I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer."

"This is not to be borne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?"

"Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible."

"It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in."

"If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it."

"Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns."

"But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit."

"Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?"

"Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me."

Lady Catherine hesitated for a moment, and then replied:

"The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family! Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss de Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy? Have you not heard me say that from his earliest hours he was destined for his cousin?"

"Yes, and I had heard it before. But what is that to me? If there is no other objection to my marrying your nephew, I shall certainly not be kept from it by knowing that his mother and aunt wished him to marry Miss de Bourgh. You both did as much as you could in planning the marriage. Its completion depended on others. If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?"

"Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us."

"These are heavy misfortunes," replied Elizabeth. "But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine."

"Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score? Let us sit down. You are to understand, Miss Bennet, that I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person's whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment."

"That will make your ladyship's situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me."

"I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient--though untitled--families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up."

"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."

"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."

"Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, "if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

"Tell me once for all, are you engaged to him?"

Though Elizabeth would not, for the mere purpose of obliging Lady Catherine, have answered this question, she could not but say, after a moment's deliberation:

"I am not."

Lady Catherine seemed pleased.

"And will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?"

"I will make no promise of the kind."

"Miss Bennet I am shocked and astonished. I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. But do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require."

"And I certainly never shall give it. I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand make him wish to bestow it on his cousin? Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject."

"Not so hasty, if you please. I have by no means done. To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man's marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expence of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew's sister? Is her husband, is the son of his late father's steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth!--of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"

"You can now have nothing further to say," she resentfully answered. "You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house."

And she rose as she spoke. Lady Catherine rose also, and they turned back. Her ladyship was highly incensed.

"You have no regard, then, for the honour and credit of my nephew! Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?"

"Lady Catherine, I have nothing further to say. You know my sentiments."

"You are then resolved to have him?"

"I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

"It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world."

"Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude," replied Elizabeth, "have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern--and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn."

"And this is your real opinion! This is your final resolve! Very well. I shall now know how to act. Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified. I came to try you. I hoped to find you reasonable; but, depend upon it, I will carry my point."

In this manner Lady Catherine talked on, till they were at the door of the carriage, when, turning hastily round, she added, "I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased."

Thursday, 17 June 2010

L'Age de Pierre

Amazon lists the Editions Soleil version of Mezolith as coming out any day now. If you're reading this in France, go buy it here. I don't need to reprise my previous post, I think - and my French really isn't up to it anyway. Suffice it to say that if any British graphic novel deserves to sell the kind of numbers that the top BD albums achieve, it's this consummate masterwork by Messrs Haggarty and Brockbank. Bonne réussite, mes amis.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Sime no more, ladies, Sime no more

With shades of Piranesi meets Beardsley by way of Dulac (?) here's Mr Sime's picture The Edge of the World, which illustrated (and/or inspired) Dunsany's yarn, "The Probable Adventure of Three Literary Men", which can can read here.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Three faces of Mr Sime

Sidney Sime is nowadays remembered for his collaborations with Lord Dunsany, when he is remembered at all, but in his time he was a highly celebrated artist and cartoonist. Here we have three examples of his solo work. "Midnight Oil", above, was drawn for The Idler in 1899. Take a look at that face, that hand, and tell me Bernie Wrightson never studied Sime's drawings.

Then we've got this cartoon from Punch. Dunsany liked huntin', shootin' and fishin', and was often gadding off to Scotland, where Sime lived in his early thirties, to pursue these leisure interests. However, I think this predates their first meeting.
Lastly a portrait in oils of Miss Mary Susan Pickett. In 1898, at the age of 33, Sime was studying watercolours in South Kensington. A reflected face appeared in the glass of a dark picture. She was a painter too. He asked to borrow a tube of lamp-black that he didn't need. That year they married in Edinburgh, and were together until Sime's death in 1941.

My Talks With Dean Spanley

Sime called this one "When We Had Hunted the Moon Enough We Came Back Through the Wood", and it was the frontispiece for My Talks With Dean Spanley. Buy the book here, and if you haven't seen the movie then you are missing a treat, an oversight that you can rectify here.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Tom O' the Roads

For the stories in The Book of Wonder, Dunsany started with Sime's pictures and created a scenario around them. More usually their working relationship followed the conventional model, with Sime illustrating what Dunsany wrote. Even then it was usually a case of close creative collaboration, as the two men were firm friends and very much in sync with each other's imagination.

The illustration above appeared in The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, possibly the first time that one of Sime's pictures was the inspiration for the story. Dunsany bought the picture, described to him in a letter as showing "a man much decomposed, hanging in chains, while three villainous people in ancient hats come by the light of such a moon apparently to cut the man down." The story Dunsany created from this was "The Highwaymen", a perfect example of his mixture of weirdness, beautiful prose and a good heart:
These three were the staunchest friends that ever God had given unto a man. And he to whom their friendship had been given had nothing else besides, saving some bones that swung in the wind and rain, and an old torn coat and iron chains, and a soul that might not go free.
Years later, Dunsany asked Sime what he had intended in the picture, and was told that the men had come to cut off the dead man's hand to make into a Hand of Glory. It was typical of Dunsany that he made them instead the man's loyal friends. Read the whole story here.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Hoard of the Gibbelins

This Sime drawing illustrates one of Dunsany's most famous tales:
The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again.

Their tower stands on the other side of that river known to Homer - Ό ρόος ώχεανοίο, as he called it - which surrounds the world. And where the river is narrow and fordable the tower was built by the Gibbelins' gluttonous sires, for they liked to see burglars rowing easily to their steps...
Read on here.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sime's moody Sphinx

Another of Sime's pictures that Lord Dunsany used as the springboard for one of the stories in The Book of Wonder. This is "The House of the Sphinx":
When I came to the House of the Sphinx it was already dark. They made me eagerly welcome. And I, in spite of the deed, was glad of any shelter from that ominous wood. I saw at once that there had been a deed, although a cloak did all that a cloak may do to conceal it. The mere uneasiness of the welcome made me suspect that cloak.
Read on here.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

More of the Sime

This is for Peter Richardson, artist and co-creator of the marvellous Cloud 109 and host of the fascinating blog that bears its name. If you would like to read the stories that Lord Dunsany spun around Sime's pictures, "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller" is here and "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles" (illustrated above) is here. It looks as though you can buy the whole book on Kindle - or for reading in the Kindle App on iPhone, take your pick. I heartily recommend it to aficionados of Edwardian English (well, Anglo-Irish) fantasy.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Neglected genius: the art of Sidney Sime

That’s where Virgil Finlay got his trademark starry effect. You can just see it, can’t you, as the illustration for a Grey Mouser tale in Unknown? Except that this fellow is not the Mouser but Thangobrind the Jeweller, alarmed by an ominous cough when Fritz Leiber Jr was still in his playpen.

After a lecture at Cornell in which Lord Dunsany had mentioned his longtime collaborator, the artist Sidney Sime, somebody said what a perfect name Sime was for him. “I don’t know,” said Dunsany; “I think Rhibelungzanedroom would suit him better.”

Which bothers me, because firstly I want some of what Dunsany used to smoke - but also because I would really like to know how Sime’s name was pronounced. Some books say “seem”, and the Cornellian’s comment would appear to bear that out. And yet I have spoken to friends of the Sime family in Worplesdon, who assure me that it rhymes with “lime”. So there’s a bit of a mystery, eh?

Eating strawberries in Dunsany’s garden at Dunstall Priory, Sime remarked, “Last year I think summer was on a Wednesday.” Later he went for a walk through Shoreham and an old lady asked him the time. “Later than it has ever been, madam,” he replied.

From Gallipoli, depressed by the high rate of casualties among his men, Dunsany sent a letter to Sime, the seal engraved as usual with a little human figure. Sime wrote back: “The god on your seal received due salutations from me. I can guess from the sinister gleam of satisfaction in his eye that he has just created a world a little bit worse than this one.”

Wells and Lady Gregory and A.E. Russell - that was the company Sime kept. (He did not much get on with Wells.) Lady Dunsany liked him very much, noting in a letter that, “He started life as a miner, but the only trace left is in his features, which are rough looking. His head is magnificent, his manners perfect, his conversation that of a scholar and a philosopher, his interest and knowledge vast and varied.”

Oh yes, Sime was ten years a miner before he took to drawing. As he was born in Manchester, he might very well have been down the same pit as my great-uncles. And then he fetched up in Worplesdon, just a short walk across the heath from where I grew up. And in the meantime he honed his craft at the Liverpool School of Art, which I believe is where Leo’s dad studied. It’s a small world on this, the mundane side of Sime’s canvas.

It’s hard to look at Sime’s pictures without getting pulled into an entire universe. He might show only a little house in the woods, but your imagination travels on beyond the woods and finds a castle, teeming with courtiers in outlandish robes, all bearing a succession of silver platters down to their imprisoned king in the dungeons. Or a herald on the battlements sending a dove aloft, carrying in its beak a secret message which will be passed from bird to bird and never again come down to earth where it might be read. Oh, the hours of fancy you get from one Sime image!

Dunsany must have thought so too; he would often weave an entire story around one of Sime’s pictures. If you are ever in Worplesdon, make your way to the cricket pavilion and see if you can find somebody to unlock the Sime Museum, which is a room on the upper floor. The village owns his works now – once the toast of the Café Royal crowd, now curling in dusty sunbeams. The old lady who kindly showed me round said, “We had some American gentlemen who wanted to turn Mr Sime’s drawings into a calendar, but we thought it would be a bother.”

Sime died very nearly that magic seventy years ago. The door to public domain opens. Will fame again be there to greet him?

Monday, 7 June 2010

"For heaven's sake shut that window!"

We certainly don't need much of an excuse to plug the brilliant and always enlightening comics blog Cloud 109. But this week it's essential reading for Mirabilis enthusiasts because Peter Richardson is running a complete Adèle Blanc-Sec story by Jacques Tardi. A pterodactyl terrorizes Edwardian Paris - you can see why that's right up our rue. There's the link - and if you're not familiar with Tardi's work, you're in for a real treat.

There's a Mirus Comics no-prize for the first person to identify who is being quoted in the heading of this post. Hint: John Rhys-Davies would be ideal casting.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Future shock

Verlyn Klinkenborg is perhaps the greatest stylist writing today, a man whose prose is so beautiful as to be simply astonishing. Last November I quoted his little prose poem on autumn, words so evocative that you can smell the smoky tang on the air, feel the damp chill as the sun sets early. It’s one of my favourite passages in the English language.

On other seasons, and the countryside, and our lives as part of one grand picture, he has no equal. But his thoughts on e-readers I found a little disappointing. These are just the sentiments that everybody else expresses:
“I have been reading a lot on my iPad recently, and I have some complaints — not about the iPad but about the state of digital reading generally. Reading is a subtle thing, and its subtleties are artifacts of a venerable medium: words printed in ink on paper. Glass and pixels aren’t the same.”
So many people are getting defensive about e-readers. It’s like a child screeching, "But I don't LIKE the new thing. I want the OLD thing." But nobody has said ebooks are here to do away with print books. They're an extra thing, a new variation, not a replacement. They surely will replace some books - disposable thrillers, for example, where all you're buying is the story. But for those who want a beautiful print edition of a fine book, you'll still be able to get those. No need to fret yet.

Ebooks will diverge from print books. They may complement the print edition. A book about great battles of the world could have interactive maps of the battlefield, for example. Clearly in many cases of nonfiction, the ebooks will be better.

Every reactionary opinion focuses only on how ebooks fail to do what print books do. But what about the things they do that traditional books don't? The ways they are better? Not crowding you out of house and home, for example! Any time a new technology comes along, it will do things differently from the technology that went before. That doesn't make it bad. Just different.

If you look at literary forums about e-readers, most comments focus on the negative. "Oh, but I like the fusty old smell of my books." "You can't give e-books as gifts." "What about reading in the bath/pool?" (Who the hell does?) "If I lose my e-reader I'm going to lose my entire library." (No you're not.) "I can't make notes in them." (Who said?) "But they just aren't as nice to fondle as my books... it's the end of the world... the barbarians are at the gates, wail, gnash."

Mr Klinkenborg is far better informed than that. But in his New York Times article he does express concern about not being able to lend ebooks, not being able to have libraries, and so on. To those who feel this way I would say, "Fer Chrissakes, the iBookstore has only been going a couple months! Give it a freakin' chance!" If people want to lend ebooks, that'll come. An online library where you get the book for a month? Sure, if enough people want it, you’ll get it. No need to look for things to gripe about.

And what about the good things that will come as a result of epublishing? More books will see the light of day, because publishers no longer need to be convinced that 1000 people will buy it in Chicago, 1500 in New York and so on. As long as an ebook justifies the cost of writing and illustration (largely undertaken at the authors' risk even now) it can be published. Online it will find its readers wherever they may be. Think of how often a book has failed because of the print medium. Good books been sent in the wrong quantities to the wrong places, then remaindered and pulped - not because there weren't readers out there for them, but because the print distribution system didn't get the book to the right places.

And then there's self-publishing. Peter Richardson on Cloud 109 has been discussing the problems of getting new ideas past the marketing people. Jon Higham’s Elly books have now appeared in the App Store and are doing very well. We hope to have Mirabilis in the App Store soon. This is a glorious dawn for authors. It might even turn out to be rather good for publishers too - at least those, like Nosy Crow, that are willing and able to evolve.

As for the reading experience on iPad... Well, comics and magazines are just better, no question. As for books, I am of that generation that loves the feel and aroma of books. My senses quicken as I enter a secondhand bookstore. But we're going to die out. No use crying about it, it's the USP of the human race: forever reshaping our relationship with the world around us. Future generations will find other things to love. It won't mean they're soulless or can't appreciate the beauty of a book, but they'll find that beauty in other ways. Heaven knows, they might even start to pay a little more attention to the text.

Mr Klinkenborg writes, as I say, beautifully. His insights have often brought my brain to a full stop as I rearrange my thinking in response. But comments like this on ebooks and e-readers are all too common among book lovers. They depress me because they seem to be drawing up lines for a war we don’t have to fight. There are few enough folks who read books in the world today. The barbarians aren't at the gates, they're plonked in front of network TV and texting their friends while listening to a greatest hits playlist at the same time. So let’s not have a schism between the print book cultists and the worshippers at the iShrine. Let's just support books in all of their forms.

"Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside, is the proper relation between a man of sense and his library."
- Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield