Thursday 26 May 2011

People of quality do not queue

As we crack on with the opening installments of Mirabilis season two, here's a look back to "Outside Looking In", the episode that appeared in the last issue of Random House's UK anthology comic, The DFC.

British kids' comics fans will be well aware by now that The DFC is returning - well, kind of - in the form of The Phoenix. But if you missed the earlier issues of Mirabilis, you now have plenty of options for catching up. We've got the trade paperback here, the multi-platform version here, our new and improved Mirabilis iPad comics reader here, and any day now we'll be launching the whole of season one on iVerse Media's top-selling Comics+ app.

UK readers may want to hang on just another couple of weeks, though, as I'm reliably informed that the hardback edition from Print Media Productions has finally cleared UK customs and should be on sale very soon. And a thing of beauty it is too, so worth waiting for.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Green fingers

Kind of a lazy post today, as I'm finishing up the script for Mirabilis #10 and, as each issue nears the end, you feel like you've thrown so many balls in the air that you have to keep checking none of them have stuck to the ceiling. This has been a particularly fun but challenging story to write, too, because Jack and Estelle have crossed a line in their relationship from which there's no going back. Oh well, you'll get to read all about it in the iPad reader in a couple of months. In the meantime, here's a new letter addressed to the Royal Mythological Society:
Dear sirs

Please help me; my husband has turned into a pot plant. He is a salesman for the ‘Num-Num’ relish company and spends half his life on the road. When he got back from his last trip I could see he was done in, and I felt quite guilty reminding him that he needed to cut down the bay tree that has taken over our tiny back garden.

He just stood there with the axe, saying, “How does a thing grow so big on just sunshine and water, when we have to work the long day just to find the rent and the price of a mutton chop?” He didn’t cut down the tree, I just found the axe lying on the grass, and indoors my Albert had flopped on the settee and stuck his feet in a tub of soil where I’d been going to sow some bulbs.

By the next morning he was a plant - I think a begonia, but can’t be sure as he hasn’t flowered yet. It hasn’t made a lot of difference around the house because he doesn’t say much as a rule. I’ve just been watering him from the teapot and leaving his paper for him to read. But I’m a bit worried because the cat sometimes goes about her business in my plant pots, and I don’t think Albert would like that.

Yours in concern, Mrs Beryl Gartside, Denham
Prof Bromfield replies: Num-Num relish, ah yes. Just the thing with a plate of sausages. Strong stuff, though. Clears the sinuses like curried mustard! Talking of curry, some of those bay leaves…

Dr Clattercut: Of course; right to the nub of the problem, as usual - or the “num” I might say in this instance. Leaving aside the culinary aspect of Mrs Gartside’s letter, I think we can say with some certainty that the transformation is unlikely to last beyond October as the effect of the green comet diminishes. In the interim, Mrs Gartside, I suggest a litter tray for the cat and regular repotting to ensure your husband doesn’t become root-bound.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Stories - how long is too long?

How do you know when it’s time to bring the curtain down on your characters? I got to thinking about this because Kevin McGill of the edutainingly brilliant Guys Can Read was lamenting this week what a damp squib the Smallville finale turned out to be.

I haven’t seen many episodes of Smallville, but after ten seasons there are only two places a show can end up. Two different kinds of whimper that can supplant the bang of a timely end. One is when the show runs out of steam. You keep tuning in because you care about those characters, but you know they’re not going to be hitting balls out of the park ever again. Case in point: the final season of Babylon 5. That wasn’t Mr Straczynski’s fault, but it was still an exhausted winding down, best forgotten, of what had been at times the most exciting SF show on television.

Or the show can spiral into the sucking singularity that is narrowcasting. I’m a devoted Buffy fan, but I’m not sure that anyone could pick it up at the start of season seven and have any idea what was going on. I began to get a whiff of the narrowcasting bouquet this week with the Doctor Who fan discussions (in which I took part, got to admit that) about whether or not Rory is still an Auton. And if that means nothing to you – okay, you got it; that’s narrowcasting.

Stories have an end, even when they’re about characters we really love. You may not want to admit it, but your parents’ story ends when you leave home. After that it’s all reunion shows – usually “The One with the Cranberry Sauce”. And endless reunion shows are fine for real people whom you love, but in the case of fictional characters then it really is time to boot them off Reichenbach Falls.

The Norse gods had Ragnarok. The British Empire had World War Two. Beowulf had his dragon. The end dignifies what came before, and sometimes redeems it. Stories need endings. At the close of a well-crafted tale you should be sad to leave the characters – even the bad ‘uns – but you know it’s right. Their story is over. “I feel… cold,” says Captain Barbossa, and it’s such a brilliant culmination of everything that’s gone before that it ought to be the end. Only the magical might of Calypso and the million-dollar demands of Disney could undo so absolutely essential a demise.

Ongoing comic book sagas risk the calamity of too long a life more than most. Sandman is great because it built to a definite conclusion. If we properly cherish what we were given in Watchmen, we won't ask to read the ongoing adventures of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Conversely, at a full century of issues, even the freshness of 100 Bullets was starting to feel more than a little stretched out. Knowing when to take a last bow is the mark of an effective performer.

Because of this, Leo and I are resolved that Mirabilis will run to issue #40 and sufficit. After the green comet has gone and normal service is resumed with the beginning of the real year 1901, whatever happens to our characters after that is up to you. Gentle breath of yours must fill their sails - Shakespeare thereby acknowledging, as he threw aside his pen for good, that ultimately all great stories are merely enablers for the reader’s own imagination.

Monday 9 May 2011

Front row seats, or up in the gods?

About half way through the Thor movie, I started noticing the Dutch tilt. That’s where you cant the camera over at an angle, as in the trademark shot above from Carol Reed's The Third Man. It’s a trick that works great for creating unease, or even outright panic when you combine it with tracking in and out. (Optional corkscrewing is for mad zombie pics only.)

The best example I know comes near the end of Brief Encounter, where Celia Johnson seems almost to fall across the frame as she runs to the platform edge, completely out of control, propelled by destiny in the form of the skew-whiff gravity of the canted shot.

Thor has quite a lot of tilted shots, especially after Loki has taken over Asgard – which I don’t think is a spoiler. (You already knew that, right? He is the god of mischief.) I don’t want to put anyone off going to see it. It’s a good, fun movie and one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations so far. Now that I’ve pointed out the Dutch angles, you might notice how many there are. Or maybe you won’t. I’m probably a little over-tuned to looking for composition and framing since my day job involves sketching a lot of storyboards.

The point is that tilting the camera, like any technique for creating intensity in a shot, loses its bite if used too much. Same with low angles, short lenses, extreme close-ups, and constantly moving cameras. You have to pick your moment. It has to be when you really need to disturb the viewer or reader. And you need to have done the establishing work first; otherwise that sense of aggravation you’re building up won’t feed back into the story, it’ll all be directed at you.
“Ramp up [the intensity] too much and you get an incomprehensible jumble. In such cases, the intensity of the work as a whole can actually go down. After all, if every panel is turned up to full volume at all times, any hope of dramatic contrast is lost. […] It’s in the variation between panels that true dynamic effects are created.”
- Scott McCloud, Making Comics
The trade-off between camera tricks and solid establishing shots illustrates a dichotomy familiar to comic storytellers. Scott McCloud talks about the opposing poles of intensity and clarity in his book Making Comics. If you don’t own a copy, go to your local bookstore and look at pages 48-49, where he illustrates the point by rendering a sequence of panels several times over from different points on the clarity-intensity spectrum.

I’ve done the same thing in the single panel below. We have a scene where a boat is approaching an island. The low-angle shot would be my usual preference, not simply because it is more dramatic but because it locates the reader right in the story. On the other hand, turning the dial all the way over to full clarity, we get a seagull’s eye view. All is clear, serenely so.

Intensity doesn’t care about being serene. It’s all about the subjective view. In the climactic scene of Rear Window, as Raymond Burr comes to kill James Stewart, we don’t see one master shot. It’s all close-ups and jarring cuts. Because that’s how it feels if a guy is trying to throw you out of a window, said Hitchcock.

It helped that Hitch had the previous 100 minutes to establish the apartment where Stewart is holed up with a broken leg. Establishing shots can be as simple as those building exterior inserts that you get in TV comedies – the coffee shop, the apartment block. Television audiences like to know where they are at all times. And why not? Clarity was the first rule that Jim Shooter used to impress on new artists at Marvel:
“He always stressed that the essence of good storytelling was in the establishing. He had it almost down to a formula; every two or three pages he wanted to see a wide shot of where you were, so that the reader never has to stop and wonder. […] |He was, ‘Be specific, be strict.’”
- John Romita Jr talking about Jim Shooter, Artists on Comic Art
“The reader never has to stop and wonder.” Yes, that is important. But important too is that the reader is smack dab in the thick of things – not just observing the story but experiencing it. Too great an emphasis on clarity can feel a bit like you’re playing a Sims-style computer game: detached, intellectual, dispassionate. Arguably, a comic striving for absolute clarity would even present you with The Sims’ “chemistry set” interface of character needs and moods. You’d never need to stop and wonder, but – oh boy.

Of those thumbnail examples, which is better? The first thing I’d ask is what’s important to the story. In this case, the panel has to establish that the setting is a remote island. Is that clear from the first picture? Although the framing is more dramatic, probably not. The second version leaves the reader in no doubt. And because that clarity creates a sense of isolation out in the middle of the ocean, an emotion that feeds into the subsequent scenes, I’d come down in favour of that version of the shot.

If it were a movie, of course, I could have both. But in comics we have to kill a few more darlings in order to hit that page break.

Sometimes it doesn’t even come down to a trade-off. Think about your scene and you may find a way to frame it that is both lucid and involving. But more often it seems there is a law in the physics of storytelling that says the balance between clarity and intensity has to be a zero-sum game. It’s the trade-off between objectivity and subjectivity. Hitchcock says never to confuse an audience because when they’re confused they aren’t emoting. Despite the Rear Window example above, that seems like a clear vote in favor of clarity. On the other hand, what counts for Forster is not precision and logic but emotional engagement and intuition. Which is why he tells us: “Only connect!”

And you know what? They’re both right.

Saturday 7 May 2011

A glimpse in the crystal ball

Now that Leo, Nikos and I are hitting our stride with the first issues of Mirabilis season two, there's a daily temptation to show what we're working on. The spring is here, the comet looms large in the sky, and magic isn't hiding in the shadows anymore. That means lots of spectacular locations and fabulous new characters. At the same time, I don't want to spoil the fun by showing too much too soon. It's the biggest dilemma since Sir Lancelot was dying to tell his best pal about the hot chick he'd just been banging.

As an entire page of the next issue has appeared on Facebook, I guess it's okay to trot out one little glimpse here. I say "trot out" mainly because of two of our new characters. That's Withers on the left and, on the right, Cannonbone. The fellow in the middle is an old acquaintance from Mirabilis: Winter, last seen climbing a rope into the wild blue yonder, while the lady shall remain anonymous for now.

In comics and movies it's pretty hard to make a centaur character like Withers work. The hindquarters are out of scale for everybody else in the scene, as you'll know if you've seen The Philosopher's Stone or The Lightning Thief, so I'm going to do a post on how we designed Withers with that in mind. But that's for another day.

Here you can see how our art process works from my thumbnails (below) to Leo's pencils (above). I obviously drew the girl on a whole other level from the other three. She's actually supposed to be sitting in front of them, not (as in my sketch) waist-deep in the ground. Luckily I have Leo to fix my mistakes!

Tuesday 3 May 2011

App woes banished

Our tech genius, Simon Cook, just got back from vacation and barely had time to throw off his coat and brew up a cuppa before he was hard at work fixing the hitch we had with version 1.1 of the iPad app.

Apparently it was a pesky one-line bug that meant the update didn't know where to find issues of the comic. But that's all fixed and the new version (which we're labeling 1.1.1) will be up this week. When you get it, you just have to Restore your back issues and they'll reappear like magic, as ably demonstrated in the photo above by the dashing Mr Fin Hartas, who is just back from orc-slaughtering and mead-carousing with Leo at the Dumnonni live action roleplaying weekend.

In a week or two we'll be announcing the publication schedule for issues #10 through #13. That's got rakshasa, robots, Bifrost, Babylonian sphinxes, fairytales as dark as Russian bread, and not one but - count 'em - two undersea kingdoms. And wait till you see Jack in his Hulk pants. All coming soon, so don't go away.

Monday 2 May 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

Now that the days are getting longer and warmer and the world is waking up, here's a letter from the RMS files for May 1901:
Dear Professor Bromfield and Doctor Clattercut

It gets to being quite warm here in the valleys at this time of year, and for several months in the summer I do without my old boiler altogether. Only this year, see, the boiler’s still going and the cottage is as hot as a greenhouse, and if you find this note rather smudged and hard to read, that will be the literal sweat of my brow, dripping onto the page even with all the windows open.

The way of it is, some little being has taken up residence in the boiler. He says he’s the spirit of the hearth and refuses to go out. If I don’t bring him coal, he gathers up other bits to burn when I am asleep. I have already lost an occasional table, my dad’s old writing desk and the breadboard.

I don’t like to mention it to Pastor Richards as he’d make an awful fuss of anything like this with a bit of a pagan whiff to it. And perhaps after all it is a sort of household god. You can’t be too careful, can you? But if only it wasn’t so blasted hot, you see.

Yours, Talfryn Jeavons, Kidwelly

Dr Clattercut replies: This type of creature - the genius loci, or spirit of a place - has been known since Roman times. They usually dwell in the chimney or fireplace and on the whole constitute a good bargain, as they protect the household and may even keep it spick and span, often for no more remuneration than a saucer of milk or a bit of cake.

Prof Bromfield: On balance, though, I think it’s safer to have no deity at all in your house. You never know when the damned thing will feel slighted. It may protect the house, after all, by deciding that you’re no longer a suitable resident.

Dr Clattercut: True, but I suspect that what Mr Jeavons has there is probably just a hob or brownie that has got into the boiler and decided to stay. They can be like squirrels and stray cats in that regard. A real household god usually starts its career as a ghost. At one time, builders used to sacrifice a lamb and put its body under the cornerstone in order to get the process started.

Prof Bromfield: Similar thing used to go on with new churchyards. Traditionally a stallion would be buried before any human graves went in. Then you get a hell horse, as they call it in Scandinavia - sort of a spectral guardian of the cemetery, if you like. It provides psychic protection in the same way that leaving a rabid dog running about in your garden will protect the house from burglars.

Dr Clattercut: At any rate, returning to the problem at hand: Mr Jeavons, if it is a brownie, all you need do is leave it a pot of ale. When it has become merry, fish it out of the boiler with iron tongs, demand that it tells you its true name, and then you will have complete command of it. Think of that; you will be able to set the precise temperature of your home merely by asking. I’d like to see modern technology achieve such a marvel.

Prof Bromfield: Hmm. If it is a true household deity, however, then the plan could backfire quite severely. And not in a metaphorical sense.
More questionable advice and curious correspondence from Clattercut and Bromfield here.