Thursday, 31 March 2011

The author's promise to the reader

In the Best.Episode.Ever of The Simpsons, the Comic Book Guy is asked what right he has to complain about Itchy & Scratchy. “As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me,” he says, to which Bart replies: “They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.”

In most countries outside the UK you don’t have to actually pay for the mere right to have a television in your home. But even if you’re watching The Simpsons for free on Fox, you still get shown a bunch of commercials that aren't exactly an enrichment of your viewing experience. And then you give in and go and buy stuff you don't need and the advertisers give the network some money to thank them for bringing all those bees to the flower. So you did end up paying for that show, whatever the writers at Gracie Films may think. There are no free lunches, and no free TV dinners either.

The contract that exists between writer and audience is more complicated than that between a craftsman and his customer. The reader or viewer or player gives you their money, but on top of that they give you their undivided attention (the ones who keep up a running commentary all the way through a movie, please leave now). They are asking you to make them believe - and not only for the time it takes to watch the movie or read the book, but an enduring belief. That’s why I can’t abide plot holes. A story should bear scrutiny if it has any right to my time.

Neil Gaiman says that the reader’s contract when buying a book is for that book only; it’s not a mandate upon the author to deliver more in the series. The problem I have with that, as an author, is that I know the power of suspense. It’s the best trick I have in my writer’s toolbox to keep you reading. You want to find out what happens next - at least, I hope you do. And after all, I don’t have to promise a ten-book arc with a sweeping plot that hinges on many secrets with which I am enticing your attention. I could just tie up everything in the one book. If I choose not to, it’s because I’m trying to plant a compulsion in you to buy my next book - and in that case I'd feel under an obligation to deliver.

The corollary is that if I do start to weave a story around some far-reaching mystery, I’d better have in mind the real answer to that mystery. At the point when it because clear that Lost’s writers hadn't yet thought about why the polar bear was on the island (much less why it was also in a Green Lantern comic) and they were just going to figure out something later - at that point, the contract is broken. Why continue to pay their wages when you can make up your own ending and it’ll be just as good?

The flipside of all this, and just as undesirable, is when stories are spun out indefinitely. “A beginning, a middle and an end,” is what Aristotle stipulated, not “a beginning and then endless variations on the theme until you finally jump the shark.” Success is the usual culprit, as endings have to be left open enough to leave room for a sequel or a new season. Prison Break is a perfect example of the problem: what would have been a memorably taut, single-season narrative suddenly splurged into the diminishing returns of patched-on plot developments. And, although I realize this is heresy, maybe we could say the same of The Sopranos. I know we got six seasons of the best soap opera on TV, and thank you, David Chase - but what about the pitch-dark Greek (okay, Italian) tragedy that the first season was building up to? The network’s need for more of the same possibly deep-sixed a climax that, had they gone ahead and ended the show there, would be remembered now as the chilling, thrilling apotheosis of TV drama.

Any sense of obligation a writer may feel to his or her readers, beyond delivering the script or book that they actually paid for, is of course self-inflicted. George R R Martin and Neil Gaiman rightly take their own view on this. However, the writer’s duty is to the characters is not up for debate. You brought them to life, so it’s incumbent on you to give them a life. That means a proper story, not leaving them in limbo halfway through or dragging them into an endless and directionless existence where nothing is ever resolved.

Obviously I’m thinking now of Mirabilis. I can certainly promise that the story will not be spun out ad infinitum. Leo and I have one year of narrative, which we currently expect to take about 800 pages across four seasons. Then it’ll be January 1st 1902, the green comet will be gone, and all our loose ends will be tied up, leaving not a rack behind.

The harder promise to make is that the story will reach its conclusion. I would gladly swear to that right here and now, but it’s not just up me. Since the DFC folded, Leo and I have been continuing to finance the work at our own expense. At least in comics it's not too difficult to do that: digital publishing brings in a nicely regular if not (yet) huge revenue stream, and every time we sign to a print edition in a new territory, as with the upcoming Print Media hardcovers in the UK, that pays for a few more issues. Mirabilis #9 through #12 are already fully funded, and by the time we complete #12 we'll be able to say the same for the four issues that will tie up season two. A handful at a time moves the mountain.

That's why I'm glad I'm not doing this for television. Joss Whedon would love to have had enough viewers to make Firefly and Dollhouse viable; same goes for David Milch and Deadwood. My heart skips a beat every time Fringe's ratings are mentioned. Since they announced the season four renewal, the heart in question is looking healthy at the moment, and thank you for asking, but if I had to find $1 million per episode of Mirabilis then I'd be in cardiac arrest in a month.

If Mirabilis continues to build an e-readership as it has been doing since Christmas, and if we keep on picking up print publishers in the US and Europe - in short, if enough people care about Jack and Estelle to want to find out what happens to them - then we promise on bended knee at any altar you like to take this story right through to the end. We’ve planned out an epic with some really big surprises that we think you’re going to enjoy. Hope you can join the ride all the way to the end.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

London Calling

My wife Roz, in addition to being a million-selling ghostwriter, runs a thriving blog called Nail Your Novel, where she dispenses advice on the craft of writing. Most of the discussion there is about novels and screenplays, so I thought it might be interesting to see what Roz makes of a comic book. She certainly fits my definition of a casual reader of the medium as, while she might accompany me to the local comics store, she couldn’t find her own way there without a map and she won’t actually cross the threshold unless I drag her inside, preferring to poke around in the dress agency down the road while I’m sorting through the latest Dark Horse and Vertigo titles. Anyway, without further ado or indeed any ado whatsoever, here is what she made of London Calling by Stephen Walsh and Keith Page:

In a London flooded so deeply that nothing below the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is showing, a woman paddles a boat. She tells her three child passengers a story about Charlotte Corday, a French psychic agent who was sent to London on a secret mission. And so we flash back to the meat of the story. It’s the 1950s. Corday is newly arrived in London, waiting for further orders about her mission and avoiding a number of unsavoury folk who seem to know more about why she’s there than she does herself.

Ultimately the mystery is about vampires, which I thought was a pity. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t find vampires as interesting or original as many of the other ideas that were casually slipped in just for atmosphere.

But the strength of London Calling is not the story. The real fun is the richness of the world, drawn in a boldly inked black and white style with plenty of retro drama.

It seems to have diverged from ours around the Second World War, when Winston Churchill used psychics to tell him what Hitler was thinking before he thought it himself. Walsh and Page have had a lot of fun taking recognisable elements of London - both fictional and factual - and reweaving them into a punkish world of their own. Many ideas are used as throwaway textures in the background - for instance, Quatermass’s alien discovery is fact and Martians stride around central London against recognisable buildings such as the BBC headquarters in Bush House. Charlotte gets some of her orders when a TV puppet called Dennis the Donkey speaks to her from her landlady’s TV set (and, with fairytale humour, tells her switch off and to go to bed).

Charlotte herself is a likable and distinctive guide to this world, alienated by her Frenchness and harbouring a breezy disdain for the foes she meets. Her superiority and plain speaking in the midst of the madness is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Despite the slightly pedestrian vampires, it’s a charming and likable romp. London Calling is published by Time Bomb Comics. Walsh and Page have continued the adventures of agent Charlotte Corday in The Iron Moon published by Print Media Productions.

London Calling doesn't seem to be available on Amazon, but you can buy it direct from Time Bomb Comics. For comics cognoscenti, there's a longer review on the Forbidden Planet blog, and you can find out what artist Keith Page is up to (The Soho Devil with Christopher Fowler - looks intriguing) over on his blog. The Iron Moon is on Amazon (UK only) with the further - or earlier, or parallel - adventures of Charlotte Corday:

Saturday, 26 March 2011

A face of beauty, a mind for adventure

Here's the trailer for Luc Besson's upcoming movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. I found this on the Forbidden Planet Blog and I'm very glad I did, as the official English language trailer has a dumb-ass, gravelly-voiced narration that will make you want to punch a hole in your PC monitor. This trailer, though, is the real deal, and if it doesn't make you immediately resolve to catch up on all of Jacques Tardi's brilliant graphic novels then you're obviously one of those casual readers we were talking about recently.

I'm often asked if the pteranodon perching on the Eiffel Tower in Mirabilis #3 is our hommage to the Adèle Blanc-Sec books. Fact is, I'm very happy to let it stand as hommage because we certainly owe Monsieur Tardi a creative debt, but it didn't actually come about that way. Originally the pteranodon was atop Nelson's Column (above) as illustrated by Martin McKenna. That was part of our pitch to David Fickling years ago, and at that stage it was a nod to the pterosaur that escapes over London at the end of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

Later, in writing the comic, we reached a screne where Jack has traveled to Paris to board the Orient Express. That was the perfect place to work the pteranodon into the story, so it hopped over from Trafalgar Square to the Parc du Champ de Mars - becoming, in one fell swoop, a gestue of tribute to both Conan Doyle and Jacques Tardi.

And that's more than doubly appropriate, as I've always thought that if Estelle Meadowvane and Adèle Blanc-Sec were to meet ten years after the events of Mirabilis - well, they couldn't, of course, because the post-comet Mirabilis universe is our real world, meaning no pteranodons or pterodactyls. But if they did, I'm sure they'd be friends. It'd mean twice the trouble for poor old Jack, of course.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Just browsing: why should comics have to be "an art"?

I started off this week talking about the two ways of reading comics: as an aficionado appreciating an art form, or as a casual reader looking to while away a half hour. But what is a casual reader? These days, with the comics ecosystem looking like a rapidly drying waterhole, pretty much the only people reading comics are those who know their local hobby store like the back of their hand. In comics, the nearest equivalent to a casual reader in other media would be somebody who is picking up a comic for the first time.

Does that describe you? You don’t know where your local comic store is? You'd feel uncomfortable reading a comic book in public? You really never heard any name in comics other than Posy Simmonds and Hergé - and you don’t actually read even them?

Okay, let's say you answer yes. So you're a reader who might possibly pick up a comic with mild interest, but you're a long way from being the kind of comic reader who scurries home with the week's latest issues in mylar bags. As you're a casual reader, I've got a couple of scenarios to tell you about that might sound familiar. When Leo showed some pages of his comic art to a family member (most certainly not someone who has any affinity for comics) she angrily demanded: “All these panels on a page - how do you know which you’re supposed to read first?” A friend of mine, less emphatically, complained: “The characters were in one scene, then I turned the page and it was a different bunch of characters somewhere else.”

If those are your first hurdles, it’s simple. Read left to right, top to bottom. Most comics are not tricksy about this. You wouldn't hold a novel at arm’s length between thumb and forefinger and ask which end of this curious beast is its head. Fine, just read a comic the same way you would any book. And addressing the second point: yes, there will be cuts between different scenes. In the same way that movies have largely dispensed with intertitles in the last, oh, eighty years, so comics nowadays don’t often feel the need to flag the scene change with a big explicatory caption. You’ve seen a movie? You’ve watched television dramas? Know what a turtle is, Leon? Same thing.

For that relative of Leo’s, comics will always be disreputable and incomprehensible. This is quite a common attitude in Britain, at least if the comic is aimed at readers over eight years old, though it is possible to break through those prejudices. My friend persevered. Snowed in at Moscow airport over Christmas, he downloaded all eight issues of Mirabilis to his iPad and surprised himself by reading the whole story, understanding it, and most importantly eager for more. But that disqualifies him from reading today’s post, I’m afraid. He’s crossed the border country. He’s a comics reader now; even if he never looks at another comic, his sensibilities have been wakened. Remember we are just talking to the purest comics innocent here.

How should you read a comic? Just think of it as a movie storyboard. (Your hackles are rising at that? Then you’re in the wrong class. You’re one of them ay-ficky-oh-nadoes. Get outta here, this is 101.) A storyboard, I say. And as you are used to visual stories in the form of movies, TV and game cutscenes, which are all sit-back media that must resort to dramatic emphasis to engage the viewer’s attention, chances are you will prefer this:

over something like this:
You could almost call those the movie and TV version of the shot. And the casual comics reader is likely to respond more positively to the former. Which begs the question why the other style exists at all. Is it just the lazy or low-budget option? Like in Deadwood, say. If we are just given a straight two-shot of Al Swearengen berating some poor sap in language of the most baroque profanity, is that because the director didn’t have the time to mount the camera on a rail on the underside of the bar so we could get a low-angle tracking shot instead?

As the sophisticated comics reader knows, sometimes less is more. (And when I say “sophisticated” by the way, I just mean anybody who’s read enough comics to know their way around a thought balloon.) Consider the range of styles an artist might use for his comic book characters. Leaving off the extremes of realism and pure cartoon, we’ve got a spectrum a bit like this:
The novice, the which-way-do-I-read-this guy, will probably start off preferring one of the faces in the middle somewhere. Realism can easily end up looking stiff and spooky on the page, while the more stylized faces are more approachable but, as regular characters that we’re going to invest in, they still take some getting used to. So again: why would an artist deliberately choose to draw his character with stylized features? Well, think about a classic Disney movie like Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. Is it the normal human characters like the traditional prince and princess you most readily connect to - or is it the warm, daffy, rambunctious cartoony characters? See, realism isn't everything.

The dramatic, cinematic composition and the midway-realistic facial features are both designed to appeal to a sit-back reader. These style choices aim to push the story at us. Any of those big amazing splash panels that make you sit back in awe – think about it, unless those are intended as point-of-view shots to put us in the lead character’s shoes, they’re actually encouraging you to see the story from the outside. You are amazed by the spectacle, not seduced by the personalities.

And that’s what a casual reader wants. But as you read more comics, you’ll most likely start to get under the skin of the characters. Dramatic compositions then can seem distancing, and you want to see them sparingly if at all. The artist knows to save them up for when a zombie with a machete comes blundering through your French windows, not for a scene where two guys in an office are having an argument over the week’s payroll.

Characters too. The stylized character is closer to our own vague sense of how our face appears to others. The simplicity allows us to pour our own identity in. That, of course, is no longer a sit-back response to a story, which is why it’s not the casual reader’s choice. An airport thriller or a blockbuster don’t expect us to engage as an active process, they just want us to open our minds and let the story blow through. This is not to disparage the casual reader. People have a perfect right to experience stories however they like, and if you’re a busy man like, say, Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, I doubt if you want to have to make the degree of commitment to a story that the sit-forward approach demands.

We could look at content too, but I figured on leaving that out of this discussion just to save it from ballooning into an entire book. I will just point out that when fans say that the next Iron Man movie should follow some obscure and immensely detailed story that's been running in the comic book sometime in the last few years, they're missing the whole point. The most successful superhero movies are the ones that hark back to the simple, arresting, broadly accessible plots of the mid-'60s. Lost brought SF to millions who would never watch or read hardcore sci-fi. Phantom of the Opera appeals to a much bigger audience than are ever going to roll up for Rigoletto. It's not just the readers of superhero comics who've taped their heads inside a genre box - though look at their frankly ridiculous suggestions every time a new superhero movie is announced and you'll grasp the stratospheric disconnect from commercial reality that has had comics sluicing down a narrowcasting sinkhole for the last decade.

To attract a new, large, casual readership to story-based comics, I'm saying it helps to have bold, dramatic staging of action. Characters need to be not too cartoony (the masking effect, as Scott McCloud terms it) because to lock in on the empathic effectiveness of that first requires the reader to have developed a sophisticated approach to the material. The content needs to be pitched at "network" rather than "cable" as far as genre flavor and audience commitment are concerned. Don't rely on people becoming fans, in other words, because most people are not by nature fannish. And most of all the characters need to be relatable, not merely aspirational - with problems, failings, and character flaws that let us root for them to grow into believable heroes.

And you know what's ironic about this? None of it is new. It's exactly what Stan Lee and the guys at Marvel were doing with such phenomenal success through the '60s and early '70s. It worked precisely because they were just trying to entertain. The Bullpen approach didn't see anything wrong with comics being "low culture". They weren't out to make the "Ninth Art" equivalent of Last Year at Marienbad. Personally I love Mr Punch (Gaiman & McKean) and it's a book I'll read many more times. But it would be no use giving it to a casual reader. Something like The Clockwork Girl, that ticks the boxes I'm talking about here.

Yes, all the above are sweeping generalizations and are fuelled by egregious assumptions on my part. You will no doubt be itching to point out exceptions to every "rule" listed here. So leave a comment. I'm just getting the discussion started. And it's a discussion we need to have if comics are to break the stifling label of being "a worthy art form" that the fans would inflict upon it.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Two ways of reading comics

What I thought I'd do today is return to the subject I touched on with the Tintin post - only from a slightly less controversial angle. Put another way: comics don't have a broad readership anymore in the US or UK. In the Silver Age, a top comic could nudge a third of a million copies a month, and most of those readers were casual and uncommitted. Definitely not hardcore fans. I say we need to invite more readers in - not necessarily to become tomorrow's hardcore, or even tomorrow's regular readers, but because any artistic medium can only sustain its devotees if they are floating on a sea of casual and occasional buyers.

Leaving aside the question of content and retail outlets, both of which have slid comics across into their current niche state (or been slid themselves, it's a feedback loop) there's also the whole question of form. How are comics perceived by different kinds of readers, and are there lessons we could learn about how to give those casual readers who currently dismiss comics an easy way in? I picked on Tintin before, but I could just as easily have highlighted the transition from Ditko to Romita Sr on Spider-Man, or how Dr Who went from being a fanboys' favorite to family fare. What one person calls dumbing down, another sees as broadening the appeal.

And incidentally, even restricting the discussion to just form, we're hardly going to scratch the surface in a few posts, so think of this as just a preamble to getting a debate going.

In Bali (bear with me, this is going somewhere!) you can see some of the most exquisite woodcarving you’d find anywhere in the world. Craftsmen typically spend five years as an apprentice, five more as a journeyman, and only then qualify to call themselves masters of the art. Among aficionados, the market price of a master craftsman’s carvings reflects all that hard-earned skill.

Which is fine as long as the people buying the works belong to a culture for which woodcarving is an esteemed and deeply appreciated art. But now introduce tourists into the mix. On the lookout for something to put on the mantelpiece back home, they don’t look at woodcarving from a long artistic tradition. They can see that a journeyman’s work is better than an apprentice’s, but they don’t perceive the distinctive élan, that final five percent leap towards perfection, that hoists a master’s work up into the genius bracket. And they certainly won’t fork out the extra $100 that’s demanded for a finely carved cheek, the precise angle of a finger, the delicate lips that smile just so.

And so it is that the journeymen get rich while the masters can settle for pride or a living wage, but not both. The latter choice means turning their backs on what they’ve learned, eschewing the extra time and tears required to produce a masterpiece. They may as well just produce journeyman-quality works, that being what the market has chosen as the maximum value of the utility function.

All art is like this. At college, I had two friends who were really into classical music. They would laugh in delight at what seemed to me to be random notes in a piece, saying, “Did you hear what he did there?” Not me. I just wanted to crank up the volume and listen to “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”. You have the refined form, the high art, the medium in which the cognoscenti are tuned to detect every nuance. And then you have the guy who just came in to while away a half hour.

To talk about reading comics, we need to think about what kind of reader we mean. Comics have become such a niche interest, like crystal radio sets or the Japanese tea ceremony, that almost everyone who reads comics does so as a connoisseur. If that describes you, pop back next week. But if you’re honestly just a casual reader – maybe you enjoyed the Iron Man movie or From Hell, and you’re curious to see if the medium from which they sprang has anything to offer – then you need to pick the other box, opening here on Friday.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Interview on We Do Write

I've just been interviewed by Dorothy Dreyer for her We Do Write blog. If you're at all interested in the writing process, Dorothy's blog is a luxuriant oasis of insights that can easily eat up an hour or two as you have to read "just one more" author's answers to some fundamental creative questions. I don't know if I'm the first comic book writer to feature, but it's certainly flattering to be included in such august company. Thanks for the invite, Dorothy!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Is Hergé’s art holding the boy reporter back?

I admire Tintin. What comics creator could fail to? Charming, well-rounded characters in inventive plots, driven by storytelling that gracefully swoops from humor to suspense to danger and back again. Yep, Hergé is undeniably one of the great talents of the 20th century. I often describe Mirabilis as "Tintin with fantasy" and I'm always conscious of doing my best to live up to that.

But for all that, and even with the involvement of Spielberg and Jackson, the prospect of the upcoming movie hadn’t motivated me to dig out any Tintin books and re-read them. It’s the way many British people feel about cricket. Nice to know that it’s still played. What’s on the other channel?

Until this week, that is, when I caught up on Hero Complex with what Steven Spielberg has to say about the first movie, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.
“It just seemed that live action would be too stylized for an audience to relate to. You’d have to have costumes that are a little outrageous when you see actors wearing them. The costumes seem to fit better when the medium chosen is a digital one.”
It’s not so much what he said about the movie, interesting as that is. It’s the screenshots that have me really stoked. And those images have been on the web since last November, so why hadn't I even bothered to take a look before? Well, what did we know about the Tintin movie? At least it wasn’t going to be 2D. Gotta love those Studio Ghibli movies but it’s love with a shrug, admit it. And as for mo-capped 3D? If you see me shiver, that's the grisly memories of Polar Express that won't stay buried.

Instead of either of those extremes, Spielberg and Jackson have picked a very slightly cartoonish 3D styling. It’s a look that’s grounded in realism but with just enough Disneyesque stylization to nudge the characters safely away from Auton spookiness and into warm relatability. Of course. Should’ve figured that Steven Spielberg isn’t the sort of man who’d get trapped under a boulder in the Uncanny Valley and have to saw his own arm off.
So here’s the thing. Up until this week I could’ve waited for the DVD. Now I’m really keen to see the movie in theatrical release. But in the meantime, if I do happen to look at any of the original albums (European for “graphic novels”) it’ll only be one or two of them, and the reaction they’ll evoke will be a sort of kept-your-dinner-warm admiration. A rich glow of nice. Nobody is going to be devouring those old Tintin stories in a fever pitch of tunnel-visioned excitement as if the sun might go out at any moment…

And why not? That crazed all-consuming zeal is what I feel when I’m reading The Walking Dead or Irredeemable. You want the truth? The world moved on. The art in those Tintin books now, it’s been damned with the label of “classic”. Like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Vampyr, even Battleship Potemkin – sure, you and I and Martin Scorsese watch those movies. No, we don't; we study them. They’re what the vintners drink.

Tintin books shift, at best, two or three thousand copies a year in the UK. I doubt if it’s even as many as that in the US. Yet a movie can exponentially boost the sales of an attached comic. What’s the use of getting the Tintin books in front of the wider, non-fan market if they can’t see past the quaint old wrapping to enjoy the stories?

You know what I’m going to say. And you know I’m right, even if you don’t want to hear it. It’s time to modernize. Comics can be reinterpreted as movies, as TV, even as Broadway musicals, so why not as new comics too?

They need to remake the original Tintin books using the art style of the movies.

An expensive undertaking? Not when you have a crack at selling north of half a million copies of each of twenty-four books. And that’s just the English language editions.
I don’t say this to court controversy, whip up a fake debate, or take a potshot at a beloved and brilliant comics creator. In the English speaking world, Hergé’s stories are fading away into obscurity. They deserve a wide audience but, just like those classic old silent movies I cited, fewer and fewer people are going to seek them out in their current form. Do we want Tintin to be known only as a series of movies, or would it be a good thing if the movies drove people to read the stories as comics too?

If all this sets your blood to boiling, remember I’m not the one stopping people from reading Tintin. If it was up to me, the series would be taught in schools. And remakes wouldn’t invalidate the original albums. They’d still be there, and maybe the newer versions would provide readers with a stepping stone (a Rosetta Stone?) to real appreciation of Hergé’s work as a storyteller. And surely that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Audrey Niffenegger talks about comics and time travel

Today's Panel Borders audio interview with Audrey Niffenegger is now available for streaming or download. Most of the discussion is about her graphic novel The Night Bookmobile. I'm planning to read the book (intriguing reviews from Danny Graydon here and Graphic Novel Reporter here) having found that the original novel of The Time Traveler's Wife is a lot more complex and interesting than you might think if you've only seen the movie. And Ms Niffenegger did all the art herself too, so (as one of those comics writers who rely on somebody else to do all the hard work) I wouldn't dream of saying anything negative anyhow.

A reservation I have about the interview itself is that it betrays the typical British awkwardness about comics. Even that term "graphic novel" - I don't object to that, unlike my good friend Peter Richardson of Cloud 109, for example, who finds it unbearably affected. When it's used to mean a comic that's ashamed to say it's a comic, then I agree. (That's not why Ms Niffenegger herself used it, incidentally, as she explains in the interview.) But as a way of saying, "This is a complete story in fifty or more pages" as distinct from a 22-page monthly comic book, then it's fine.

The interviewer does wander off a bit into discussion about how comics pages can be designed so that you read them Calvino-style in multiple directions at once, and how that can lead to a disconstruction of the very nature of linear narrative, blah blah blah. None of which I have the slightest patience for. A story is good simply insofar as it engages the reader and makes them care enough to want to know what happens next. A good (ie effective) comic is a storyboard of static images, much like a movie but with the advantage that comics are a literary medium and can therefore provide the depth that a movie, having a set pace that the viewer must fall in step with, doesn't have time to explore.

But that's a minor quibble. Overall, if you can get past the zoo-visitor's wary fascination with the outlandish beast that is a British literary critic's view of comics, it's an entertaining show that takes in Doctor Who, comics, time travel and storytelling in general. Well worth a listen, even for someone who prefers Daredevil to Derrida.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Simply Irredeemable

Capes and cowls had lost their luster, and I was thinking it was me. Apart from Bendis’s run on Daredevil and Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, I haven’t been reading superhero books regularly for years. Oh, okay, there was Ed Brubaker’s Sleeper – good hard-boiled fun, but I’d trade all of those for one issue of Criminal.

My must-have titles these days: B.P.R.D., Hellboy, Buffy, Hellblazer, Criminal… Some have their roots in superherodom, but they’ve mostly looped the loop to the days when Kirby argued for heroes to wear utilitarian uniforms. Look at the way the Batman’s togged out in Joker – it’s not really a costume at all, a detail that tacitly acknowledged how tights and underwear would have blunted the hard edge of Azzarello’s and Bermejo’s story.

So I was down on superheroes, and I don’t seem to be the only one. My local comic store (Avalon Comics on Lavender Hill – hi, Bruce and Mark!) is sadly closing its doors after two decades. The kids aren’t coming in any more, and the increasingly long-in-the-tooth fanboys are getting distracted by wife and family.

Is narrowcasting reaching its logical conclusion, the collapse of the market to a singularity? The reasons for the decline in popular comic book readership, and what might be done to address that, is a big topic to chew. It would be the height of arrogance for me to lecture Marvel on ways to turn it around, so I’ll save that for next week. What I want to share today is my eureka moment, the comic that showed me superheroes can still enthrall and excite. That comic is Irredeemable.

You know how long it can take for a new thing to permeate through all the background noise? I must have been gazing blankly at ads for Irredeemable for almost two years, but it took a review on Guys Can Read to make me actually buy a few issues to see what all the fuss was about.

All the fuss? There hasn’t been nearly enough fuss. You want pace, inventiveness, rich characterization and sheer bravura storytelling? There's very little in either comics or prose fiction that can hold a candle to Mark Waid's Superman-goes-bad saga. I'm finding it hard to remember the last time I came across such a must-read story. After two issues, I bought the whole run to date. Sleep and eating were out of the question; each plot twist was more compelling than the last. There hasn't been a story this gripping since the second season of Fringe.
In a nutshell: what if Superman wasn’t brought up by Jonathan and Martha Kent? Without a stable, happy home life, he isn’t equipped emotionally to cope with the strain of being the Earth’s mightiest hero. And when he snaps it’s not at all pretty. Batman (his stand-in, that is, in Waid’s universe) dies after seeing his wife and kid vaporized by heat vision. The surrogates of Hawkman and Jimmy Olsen suffer much worse fates.

“I will do such things,” said Lear. “What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth!” So wait till you see what someone like Superman might do if he turns evil. It gets grisly. It will make your blood run cold.

What I particularly like: Waid’s story is completely driven by character. As a writer, I know the temptation to just block out a plot and make your characters run it. But when it's done properly, the plot is just something that arises from the character's lies, decisions, revelations, secrets, aspirations and actions. The characters live their lives and a story arises. This is how Waid does it in Irredeemable - and on an ongoing title it's incredibly brave, because you could be painting yourself into a corner. And you need to keep tossing another couple of plates up to be ready to replace earlier ones when they finally stop spinning. It could all go so horribly wrong, and there’s no going back to fix it.

To corral such a breathtaking narrative and still be able to keep the surprises coming, that’s the sign of a master at work. And the surprises Waid throws at us are rarely coming out of the blue. The most effective ones are blindingly obvious – after they’ve happened. “Surprising yet inevitable” is every writer’s goal, yet not easy to pull off. And Mark Waid keeps on doing it. Hmm, I can see how admiration can start to turn into hatred.

So, if you are rash enough to think that superhero comics have no power to impress you, and if you don’t mind starting on a story that will have you ignoring family emergencies, urgent calls and house fires for the next few hours, get the whole set of Irredeemable (twenty-three issues so far) and plunge right in. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

BOOM! Studios comics app comics app
Irredeemable Vol 1 on
Irredeemable Vol 1 on

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Mirabilis nabs top three slots on BookBuzzr!

We just heard that Mirabilis took the #1, #2 and #3 positions in the overall ratings on preview platform BookBuzzr for last month, with our first issue having clocked up nearly 30,000 views on that one site alone!

Now, impressive though that is, you don't need to read Mirabilis in the nifty little BookBuzzr widget any more because it is now (as I'll never tire of saying) up there for the whole world to see on's gorgeous array of digital platforms. And to cap that, the first two issues are free. That's 60 pages of green comety goodness for the whopping price of absolutely nothing. Grab it before the wind changes!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Walking on air

A red letter day today because I just packaged up the script and layouts for the first episode of Mirabilis season two and sent them winging their way over to Leo. In amongst readying all of our digital channels and getting the 200 pages of Mirabilis: Winter proofed for the imminent hardcover release, I haven't had a chance to put pen to paper (that is, fingers to keyboard) and actually do any new writing for months. And that's what I've been bursting to get on with more than anything else, because the ideas are flying thick and fast and you get to the point where you feel your head might just explode if you don't let them out!

Not to give any spoilers, but those of you who've already read season one will know that it ends with quite a cliffhanger, leaving a couple of our main characters in pretty deep water if not dead. The story picks up two months later, on the morning of the spring equinox, and nothing has been heard from those characters in all that time. So I'm starting out by exploring how the world has changed now that the green comet is getting nearer and magic is weaving its way into the fabric of daily life, and then I'm focusing in on the sharper and deeper impact that the disappearance of those two (whew - nearly gave their names away!) has had on those left behind. As Jack is fond of saying, "Everything changes," and in the episode I've just finished writing there are several OMG moments that are guaranteed to leave regular Mirabilis readers stunned. They even shocked me, and I wrote 'em!

We've got the whole eight issues of Spring pretty much mapped out now. So I know we're going to meet some new characters who are destined to be major players - some nice, some not so, some downright horrid. I know we'll be going to India, Atlantis, Valhalla, Shangri-La, Bloomsbury and Dorking. I know that relationships are going to get shuffled like cards, hearts will be broken, and at least two lead characters are facing tragic ends. I'm at that happy stage for a writer when the characters have taken over and all I have to do now is listen to what they're saying to me and get it on the page.

It's going to be great seeing the new issues going through the production line. Leo's pencils are a delight; I don't know whether it's because that's when the events of the story first come alive, or simply because loose sketches are so full of energy, but that's almost my favorite part of the process. Then my other favorite part is when the inks go on and everything acquires a real weight and luxurious detail. And then there's my equally favorite bit, when Nikos and his assistant Mike put the colors on and the whole story goes from being my script to a cinematically vibrant work of art. For a writer, there's nothing to equal it.

So when will you get to see the new issues? We're planning on #9 being ready by the middle of May, and therefore on Graphicly, Comics+ and our own Mirabilis iPad app by June 1st. Then we're going to aim to stick to a bimonthly schedule, meaning that the first half of season two will be reaching a climax at the end of November. (Seems a long way off? When you have 120 pages of a comic book like Mirabilis to create and publish, trust me, that's the blink of an eye.) Anyway, it's going to be a blast for us working on these new issues and bringing all those amazing story developments to life, and I think you're going to have even more fun reading them. In the meantime, there are eight issues to collect digitally for iPad, iPhone, Android and PC/Mac - so don't be shy, jump right in!

Monday, 7 March 2011

The digital future of comics

It's kind of odd, as I'm not really that much of a tech-head. I've designed videogames, but I always had a team of coders to handle all the complicated techy stuff. And suddenly Leo and Martin and I are embracing all the new-fangled digital media - and the biggest surprise is that I find I'm really getting into it. Not just the tech side, but the whole big picture of how it's going to change comics.

Like collecting an armful of books every month. That's in my bones, been doing it since I was 9 years old, but more and more I found I was saving all the latest issues of Hellblazer or BPRD or whatever till there was a complete story to read. If you're doing that, you may as well just wait for the trade paperback, but of course that's not much fun for the publisher, who really needs the regular cashflow of monthly sales. However, the cost of paper has gone up and the number of places you can find comics on sale has gone down. Monthly comic books are never going to be on the shelves in Waterstones. Hmm, problem.

Now, I know a lot of old-school comics fans hate digital comics with a passion. They shouldn't, though, because digital comics are the answer to that problem. What's more, digital comics don't spell the death of print; they're going to rejuvenate it. Now I can dip in and try the first few pages or even the first couple of issues of a comic for free. If I like it, I can buy all the issues I want straight away, and I can read those on my iPad, phone or desktop. That's the kind of freedom Steve Jobs was talking about when he said:
"Your den, your living room, your car and your pocket: I hope that gives you a little bit of an idea of where we're going."
So that's cool, but here's the thing: I now buy more TPBs and print graphic novels than I ever did before. Digital isn't replacing the whole comics reading experience, it's just gradually taking up some of the slack lost to falling monthly sales. E-comics sales aren't (yet) at a level that Dark Horse are going to drop their monthly books altogether, but already we can see how e-comics can add to and enhance the raft of formats available for fans.

Our own toe-dipping with Mirabilis began with our dedicated iPad app - still the best digital comics reading experience for my money, and I can say that because I did actually have to pay to buy my own issues through the App Store! We've got an update coming for the app that will introduce social networking features, reorganize the in-app storefront and improve the UI. But a dedicated app for each title, even if that's the jewel in the crown, is not going to be the future of e-comics. We're seeing the rise of... are they publishers? are they stores?... sites like Comics+ and, who take a modest share of revenue for adapting and hosting your comic on multiple platforms. This week we launched Mirabilis on (iVerse's Comics+ will follow later this month) and that means readers can buy once and then read the comics on iOS, Android and PC/Mac, with Sony PSP not far off.

Why is it good for creators? Fifty to seventy percent royalties, and a means of cashflowing your work without having to sign away any ancillary rights. Why is it good for publishers? Digital sales can give a title a leg-up to the point where it's ready to come out as a collected print book. And all those digital outlets build the brand so there is a ready core market for the print book. Also, because comics are no longer tied to the narrowcasting inherent in selling via hobby comics stores, that means the end product actually can sit on a shelf in a store like Waterstones and not look out of place. Comics can be for everyone.

And that's why, most importantly of all, e-comics are good for readers - even for those readers who prefer to stick with print. Because digital editions will create more choice, lead to a more robust business, encourage creativity and innovation, and broaden the appeal of the medium. It's all good news for comics fans, so look forward to some exciting things coming your way in the very near future.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A nice big purr from Shadowcat

There's a great review of Mirabilis #1 over on cool comics site Kitty's Pryde. Four-and-a-half stars and we didn't even have to leave a brown envelope stuffed with cash behind the water pipes. "Almost musical," is their judgment on the script, "with a nice storytelling feel." Heap it on, guys, I can take it. Better not repeat what they have to say about Leo's artwork as it'll only make him big-headed.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Mirabilis on Android, iPhone, Windows Phone 7

A picture may be worth a thousand words but, in the immortal words of Tony Stark, is it too much to ask for both? So here's the thousand words: Mirabilis season one launches this week on's multi-platformed storefront. If you've had your nose pressed like Tiny Tim to the Apple Store window wondering about that iPad, save your money - the new version's out in a month or two anyway, and in the meantime you can now get Mirabilis on a whole bunch of smartphones and other devices.

Which devices? Well, desktop or laptop for starters. You can get the free Adobe AIR application which really is a nice presentation frame for your comics. Then there are the iPad, iPhone and Android versions - also absolutely free, naturally. And if you prefer to go old school, there's's web reader that lets you have a look inside all their latest titles and to view the ones you collect on stunning fullscreen view. Setting up your ID takes a couple of clicks and then you can read your comics on any or all of the supported platforms.

Is that not enough great news for you yet? Okay, well try this: as an introductory offer you can get both Mirabilis #1 and #2 for free. And offer a whole bunch of other great titles in their online store, many of them free, and all backed up by the kind of extras we're coming to expect in digital comics: creator info, interviews, trailers, character tags and so on. Having just raised a further $3 million investment, are ramping up to be one of the major forces in the new comics media, and we're very proud to have Mirabilis as part of their 2011 flagship line.

Know what, that's not even three hundred words - but I don't want to hold you up. I'm sure you'll be eager to get your phone out and start reading!

From the ashes rises a burnished new bird

Evoking fond memories of Eagle but pointing to the future, it's going to be called the Phoenix. That was the message from David Fickling, Ben Sharpe and their reassembled DFC team at Oxford today. The party was held, not at the old DFC offices but a few doors further along Beaumont Street, underscoring that this is not to be under the wing of Random House, as the DFC was, but an entirely independent venture.

Phoenix will be weekly from January 2012 and is surely going to have a lot in common with the DFC of old, given the familiar faces toasting the glad tidings with glasses of champagne from the Jeroboam that David has been saving on his mantelpiece for just this occasion. Among the assembled terawattage of talent, Leo and I spoke to Garen Ewing, John Aggs, Ben Haggarty, Will Dawbarn, Neill Cameron, Jim Medway, Robert Deas and Philip Pullman (who dropped a remark about ebooks that left me stunned, but I don't think I can say any more about that here). There were a lot more creative folk besides those I've mentioned, but by that time we'd wedged ourselves in a comfortable corner by Caro Fickling's chocolate brownies and we didn't see any reason to move from there.

Most important of all, the funding for Phoenix is secure for three years, giving this new incarnation of the comic time to grow, develop and become self-sustaining. Even though everybody had pretty much guessed the news from the moment we first got the invitation (they didn't exactly try to hide it with all the DFC backronyms) I must say there was a very happy and warm glow in the room when Ben was actually able to climb up on the table and announce it, and I'm certain this goes for everyone there when I say that David Fickling's dedication, persistence and incredible energy are what brought the DFC back from the dead, and this time round it's going to be better than ever! More over on Andrew Wildman's blog.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Judging a comic book by its cover

Believe it or not, this was our early mock-up for the cover of The DFC issue 34 (Jan 2009). I mean very early, when we first started planning Mirabilis in the pre-publication days before we had any idea what the comic was going to be like. Back then, Martin and I were probably envisaging a cross between 2000 AD and Strange Tales. (I mean the original 2000 AD and Strange Tales, of course, though being like the new ST would be cool too.)

As we quickly came to realize, this kind of spooky mood piece wouldn't have worked at all. Truthfully, it would barely have worked as the cover for an issue of something like Eerie, would have fizzled and gone out as a regular comic book cover, and on the front of a weekly anthology comic like The DFC, with funny animal stories and some of its readers barely out of short pants? Doh, we're idiots; it would have sunk like a copernicium balloon. Not because it's a bad painting - Martin is never less than brilliant, and that's on his bad days. But he created this as a piece of concept art, and it was never meant to dramatize a scene.
In the event, DFC #34 had an absolutely superb cover by Andrew Wildman for Frontier. Whereas our Bedlam cover merely rewards you for already knowing about the accompanying story, that image of Daisy Adams and Mitch Seeker menaced by werecoyotes entices you to find out. The DFC editor, Ben Sharpe, must have thought we were a few bullets short of a sixgun for our suggestion, but I'm sure he was very polite in rejecting it. I do wish the real cover didn't have all that cluttering text and design element overload, though. Would you do that to a Wildman original? (You may say I'm not thinking like a kid, but my 9-year-old self had the exact same opinion about comic covers. That's another reason why in those days I followed Marvel rather than DC.)

Btw if you recognize the Bedlam picture, it's because we've talked about it before and that shows you've been paying attention. It's another of Martin's movie concept paintings, and I briefly considered using it for one of the covers of the the Mirabilis Kindle mini-editions. But those covers on Amazon are displayed sooooo small, and the content in each mini-edition so bite-sized, that a big atmospheric cover just didn't fit. Instead we went with three minimalist portrait-based covers that do exactly what it says on the tin.

What got me thinking about The DFC after all this time? It's because Team Mirabilis received an invitation to a party at the David Fickling Books offices, and the invitation came from Mr Ben Sharpe himself. So what's the occasion? Is The DFC coming back? My lips are sealed - for now - but the party is this afternoon, so right after I get back from that I'll be sure to tell you everything.