Saturday, 28 September 2013

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille

What I enjoy about writing comics is that it's like making a movie or TV show, only without having to spend years raising money first. You knock off some rough dialogue, then you position the characters in the scene, then you get to refine what they say. If it's not working you can move them around, try another angle, another turn of phrase. And they never wave a contract in your face and ask for overtime.

The only way that regular movie-making has the edge is in the editing. In comics, since every scene change should ideally come at the end of a page, or anyway at the end of a tier of panels, it's the very devil if you suddenly decide you need to slot something else in.

By the time Leo gets to doing the pencil art, we’ve already worked out 99% of the direction of each scene. Occasionally we find that a particular shot or line of dialogue isn't working. At most this involves changing one or two panels at the pencils stage. (Considering there are typically 170 panels per issue, that's not a bad batting average.) And we've never yet had to completely change a panel after it went to inking - though Nikos does work the occasional miracle at the colouring stage when Leo and I have overlooked something.

The process is versatile, but there are times when you have to kill a darling. This scene between Jack and the Kind Gentleman, for instance. I really liked the way Leo "positioned the camera" - it made for a great dramatic face-off. But we realized that the bestowing of the magic key wasn't getting enough prominence. That key is going to be important, not only in plot terms (it can open any lock) but because this is where the Kind Gentleman really starts to bind Jack to him, dispensing gifts for all the world like a traditional faerie king to his favoured mortal godson. There are troubled times ahead, oh yes.

So Leo did a new version of the panel to put the emphasis on the key. The preceding panel is a wide establishing shot, so we didn’t actually need to show their relative position or setting again. But the earlier version did look nice. The beauty of a blog, of course, is that you don’t have to kill your darlings outright – you can lay them sleeping in their glass coffin and invite people in for a look.

This scene, incidentally, is from the end of Chapter Five, "The Darkest Hour", which is almost exactly halfway through the Winter book.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Justice from on high

With news today of a Gigeresque alien gargoyle on Paisley Abbey, this seems like a good excuse to feature another letter to the Royal Mythological Society...

*  *  *

My esteemed friends

If you were to visit our most charming town, you would delight in the beautiful and historic church, much of the exterior structure of which dates from the 11th century. One of the features added in the 12th century were the many decorative gargoyles, each with its own personality stamped very clearly on faces of jocular menace.

Of late, the gargoyles have taken their traditional duty perhaps too much to heart. Charged with scaring away the ungodly from our church precincts, they first took to hounding out the bats that were accustomed to roost in the tower. My bell ringers were glad of this, as they often complained of the bats’ droppings, but I felt the departure of the bats robbed the town of some of its character at dusk.

More extreme measures were to come. When a young couple began stepping out in secret against their parents’ wishes, the gargoyles first chased them from the church and later began to swoop on them whenever they went courting, flinging pebbles and even bits of bone from the churchyard down on their heads. The poor suitor has entirely given up his love and now spends his evenings at cider and skittles.

And then—and this most intolerable—the gargoyles began to persecute poor Madame Cloville, who at eighty-two is the town’s oldest resident. I will break the seal of the confessional to tell you, good sirs, that this honest woman has committed no wrong save only when she was a schoolgirl, no more than nine years of age, and having broken a neighbour’s window she allowed another child to take the blame. Yet for that peccadillo over seven decades past, the gargoyles break her windows, steal her vegetables, and pelt her with dung. So unfortunate!

I would be loath to banish the gargoyles, as they are a venerable part of the church’s history, but pray tell me, sirs: whatever can be done to rein in the excesses of these zealous creatures?

The Reverend Père Blanchard,
St Julien de Brioude,

Prof Bromfield replies: A firm hand is what’s needed. Climb up there and biff them on the nose with a mallet. And while you’re about it, give them that sermon from the gospel of St John about casting the first stone.

Dr Clattercut: Perhaps it would better to avoid any mention of throwing stones, as the gargoyles haven’t shown any reluctance in that regard up till now. I suggest having masonry pins applied to fix them to the church walls. Then, like a fierce dog on a stout chain, they can make as much noise as they please but no-one need fear the bite.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The moon in June

Esteemed scientific gentlemen

I flatter myself that you may have seen some of my cinematographic presentations such as Un Homme de Têtes and Visite Sous-Marine. This year, I am resolved to bring to the screen a long-cherished project, a magnificent spectacle entitled Le Voyage dans la Lune. I envisage this as a drama almost fifteen minutes in duration — a true epic of the cinematic medium, I am sure you will agree.

In previous years I have achieved my astonishing visual effects with a combination of painted glass mattes, mirrors and double exposure of the film. It has occurred to me that, by reason of the green comet that currently looms so large in our sky, marvels have become easier to accomplish “in the field”, so to speak. In short, I am considering whether to shoot on location.

Could I ask your learned advice on any difficulties that might present themselves in the course of a trip to the Moon?

In anticipation of your help, Monsieurs, I ask you to accept the expression of my heartfelt regard.

Georges Méliès,

Dr Clattercut replies: I must confess that—although this year I have had to contend with kleptomaniac spriggans, some very rude spirit writing in the Gents, and a sphinx running amuck in the Babylonian Gallery—I have yet to visit one of these newfangled “moving picture” shows.

Prof Bromfield: Much the same thing as watching a stage play, only it’s all in black and white and you can’t hear what they’re saying—though, in the case of Monsieur Méliès’s films, I take it that what you can’t hear is in French anyway.

Dr Clattercut: Monsieur Méliès, I’m afraid I don’t know a great deal about astronomy. I advise you to write to Mr Selwyn Cavor at the Royal Institution, as he may be able to offer some practical tips about food, oxygen, anti-gravity and Selenite politics. Also, be aware that Mr Thomas Cook is now advertising weekly trips by ladder to the Moon, which may lessen the impact of your production to today’s audiences.

Prof Bromfield: If not the impact, I might add, on landing.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Reality kick

Every so often these days, somebody suggests using Kickstarter to fund one of my comics or gamebooks. I expect it was similar in the 1930s – “You just need to put it on the wireless.” Did Caxton tell Malory that the printing press would make him rich?

I’m no expert on crowdfunding. In fact, so much not an expert that I’m not even sure about the “crowd” part. Most projects seem to get off the ground because less than a thousand people stump up an average fifty dollars apiece. Those T-shirts had better be stunning.

But let’s say you put your comic or gamebook on Kickstarter and you raise $100,000. Whoop! Quit your day job, right? Well, no… Because you now have to print, parcel and post about six thousand copies of the book. Plus some T-shirts and a free lunch for the rich kids. A conventionally-published book doesn’t get onto the bestseller lists by selling six thousand copies.

Admittedly, by using Kickstarter as a publishing platform you cut out the bookseller. So that’s 50% of the cover price that you don’t have to give away. But you do have all the manufacture and fulfilment issues to take care of.

What’s the profit margin on a Kickstarter campaign? I haven’t looked (see Not An Expert disclaimer above) but I’d expect them to vary wildly. By profit, I mean the money you’re left with when the last cheque clears and the last book goes sliding down the chute at the post office. With that you have to cover all your fixed costs – writing, art, typesetting, leaving aside the risk of running the Kickstarter in the first place.

This is why I’m sceptical when somebody tells me how easy it would be to fund an entire book through crowdfunding. I can do all the writing for nothing (I didn’t pay myself a penny for all the work I did on Mirabilis books 1, 2 and 3, including layouts and lettering) but there’s still artwork costs. Editing, if you care about quality. Lettering. Typesetting. Printer set-up.

I’m pretty versatile. I can do about three-quarters of that stuff myself. But I still have to pay artists and colorists. And at the end of the rainbow I’m even hoping there might be a few coins left to pay for the thousands of man-hours I put in along the way.

Kickstarter is a way of raising a subscription to print books. It also serves as a great way to enthuse a core of fans who will hopefully spread the word about your project. But it is not a viable way to raise development funds – unless you are super-famous to begin with, in which case you probably don’t need the development funds that badly anyway.

But Kickstarter as a publishing platform? That’s something else. Now you have to make enough on sales to cover costs from scratch. I’m often asked about gamebooks because I wrote a lot of them in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A gamebook takes about four man-months to write. (My interactive adaptation of Frankenstein took nearly eight months, but that was much bigger than a regular gamebook.) Interior art, call that a man-month. Cover, editing, typesetting, another man-month. So a minimum of six man-months for just a black-and-white gamebook. For a full color graphic novel like Mirabilis it’s getting on for twice that.

Writers and artists do need to eat. (Nobody in the movie or publishing industries believes this.) No executive wants to pay them as much as you’d get for flicking paperclips around an office and setting up PowerPoint presentations, but even so that Kickstarter-based publisher will need to find some $23,000 to fund the gamebook, $46,000 for a graphic novel. If you build in a 20% profit on sales, that means the campaign will need to hit a quarter million to get the OGN paid for.

That’s not how it works, of course. I didn’t go out and get investors to do Mirabilis. We had some money in the early days from David Fickling and Random House, but when The DFC (blessed be its memory) had to fold, we didn’t shut up shop. I continued writing for nothing. I went out and found supporting jobs that would pay for Leo and Nikos. This is how most creators have to work. Kickstarter may be a shiny new thing, but it’s not going to change that.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Big bare behind

Dear Prof Bromfield and Dr Clattercut

We’re having trouble with our giant. He’s not content to lie on the hill any more; he goes for a wander at all hours, stepping right over the houses. Children are asking their parents all sorts of difficult questions and the nub of it is, we need to get some trousers on him.

Some of the ladies who organize the church fête were kind enough to sew him a big set of leather breeches, but he won’t keep them on for five minutes. Last week he went for a dip in the river to cool off, leaving the breeches blocking traffic in the high street. We had to cut them up with cavalry sabres so that the brewer’s dray could haul them off.

the Reverend Cuthbert O’Dwyer,
Cerne Abbas 

Dr Clattercut replies: He may simply be unfamiliar with the concept of trousers. Some of the pre-Roman tribes of these isles wore kilts. Perhaps you should try that.

Prof Bromfield: Not a lot of use, Clattercut, if you think about it. The altitude, you see, means the kilt would do little for propriety.

Dr Clattercut: Yes, I see. It would have to be something more like a nappy.

Prof Bromfield: Heavens, man, imagine somebody told you to put on a nappy! How do think you might react to that, eh? Good lord, the last thing we need in this heat is a giant on the rampage through Dorset.

Dr Clattercut: Or any county other than Essex. Well then, Mr O’Dwyer, let me suggest an inducement. Why not get everyone in the village to take up bee keeping? Then I think your giant will soon see the benefit of a thick pair of trousers.

Tales of the Year of Wonders abound in A Minotaur at the Savoy, a collection of curious correspondence curated by Professor Bampton Bromfield and Dr Cyril Clattercut, with the studious noninvolvement of Dame Sepia Belchamy.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

i-Magery: Mark Waid on the digital reinvention of comics

When cinema was first invented, plenty of people thought it would just be like pointing a camera at a play. Television? Oh sure, that's radio you can see. And again when videogames came along: all those wannabe-movie cut scenes with bits of shooting and platform jumping between. I'm sure I've said this all before. It sounds like the kind of thing I would say.

A new medium always has a period when it is struggling inside the confining box of an earlier medium. You don't get The Unfinished Swan or Shadow of the Colossus or even Telltale's Walking Dead until you've sat through the long linear infodumps of something like Metal Gear Solid. You can't arrive at the end of Tony Soprano's driveway without passing through Peyton Place.

I talked a while back about how digital reading platforms can change comics. For "change" read "liberate" - from the tyranny of the page, from having to hit a reveal on just the right panel, from having to take a machete to the dialogue (a particular bugbear for a word nerd like me) because it takes up too much space.

Comics have always been storyboards. In the absence of today's tech, writers and artists had to find ways to nudge the reader's attention to the right word balloon, to make them parse and run the images cinematically in their mind without the intrusion of a storyboard's zoom lines and motion arrows.

I've never minded doing that work. Captain Kirk said problems give him a bellyache, but I thrive on 'em. That said, if a new technology solves the problem, I'm not going to be a Luddite about it. There are plenty of other exciting things about visual storytelling to get my motor started in the mornings. This business is Ready Brek for problem solvers.

To be clear, I'm not talking about motion comics here. Motion comics are just cheap animation. Very cheap animation. And I like animation, almost as much as I like comics, but I'm not rushing to pay out for a cheap, bastardized form of both. When Porter Anderson, publishing industry scrutineer and a stalwart champion of serious literature, originally told me about Malk Waid's talk at the Tools of Change conference, I feared that's what it was about. I should have had more faith in the author of Irredeemable.

Porter described the attentive silence in the room as Mark demonstrated the comics that his company Thrillbent are producing. And this at TOC, where awe is awful hard to earn. So maybe that's another way that new technology can liberate comics - it can liberate the medium from the stigma of pulpy trash that so many people in publishing attach to it.

I'll close with the two key takeaways from Mark's talk: "This is using digital storytelling tools to do things you cannot do in print," and yet: "Like any other form of reading, you are in control of the pace at which you absorb the story." See, there's nothing to be afraid of. For all the glitzy new tech, right at the heart it's still comics. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Direct vs reported speech

When to use direct speech, and when to use reported? We tend to see the former more these days because so many novel-writers take their model from movies and television. But it would be a long book that could never draw breath to say, "He told her all about it," or words to that effect.

Brevity is not, of course, the main reason for using reported speech. A narrator character is less likely to tell us word for word what he or she said. Reported speech can help to convey states of mind like excitement or passion (precise wording can often come across as banal, even if - especially if - realistic). If used selectively, it can differentiate a character from the others in a scene.

It can also be used for comic effect, often in parallel with serving one or more of those other purposes. Notice how, in this scene from Bleak House, Dickens contrasts direct and reported speech to give us a sense of the nervously wittering Mr Guppy and the (apparently) cool, calm and collected Lady Dedlock.
"Let him come in!" 
He comes in. Holding the letter in her hand, which she has taken from the floor, she tries to collect her thoughts. In the eyes of Mr. Guppy she is the same Lady Dedlock, holding the same prepared, proud, chilling state. 
"Your Ladyship may not be at first disposed to excuse this visit from one who has never been welcome to your Ladyship"—which he don't complain of, for he is bound to confess that there never has been any particular reason on the face of things why he should be—"but I hope when I mention my motives to your Ladyship you will not find fault with me," says Mr. Guppy. 
"Do so." 
"Thank your Ladyship. I ought first to explain to your Ladyship," Mr. Guppy sits on the edge of a chair and puts his hat on the carpet at his feet, "that Miss Summerson, whose image, as I formerly mentioned to your Ladyship, was at one period of my life imprinted on my art until erased by circumstances over which I had no control, communicated to me, after I had the pleasure of waiting on your Ladyship last, that she particularly wished me to take no steps whatever in any manner at all relating to her. And Miss Summerson's wishes being to me a law (except as connected with circumstances over which I have no control), I consequently never expected to have the distinguished honour of waiting on your Ladyship again." 
And yet he is here now, Lady Dedlock moodily reminds him. 
"And yet I am here now," Mr. Guppy admits. "My object being to communicate to your Ladyship, under the seal of confidence, why I am here." 
He cannot do so, she tells him, too plainly or too briefly. 
"Nor can I," Mr. Guppy returns with a sense of injury upon him, "too particularly request your Ladyship to take particular notice that it's no personal affair of mine that brings me here. I have no interested views of my own to serve in coming here. If it was not for my promise to Miss Summerson and my keeping of it sacred—I, in point of fact, shouldn't have darkened these doors again, but should have seen 'em further first." 
Mr. Guppy considers this a favourable moment for sticking up his hair with both hands. 
"Your Ladyship will remember when I mention it that the last time I was here I run against a party very eminent in our profession and whose loss we all deplore. That party certainly did from that time apply himself to cutting in against me in a way that I will call sharp practice, and did make it, at every turn and point, extremely difficult for me to be sure that I hadn't inadvertently led up to something contrary to Miss Summerson's wishes. Self-praise is no recommendation, but I may say for myself that I am not so bad a man of business neither." 
Lady Dedlock looks at him in stern inquiry. Mr. Guppy immediately withdraws his eyes from her face and looks anywhere else. 
"Indeed, it has been made so hard," he goes on, "to have any idea what that party was up to in combination with others that until the loss which we all deplore I was gravelled—an expression which your Ladyship, moving in the higher circles, will be so good as to consider tantamount to knocked over. Small likewise—a name by which I refer to another party, a friend of mine that your Ladyship is not acquainted with—got to be so close and double-faced that at times it wasn't easy to keep one's hands off his ed. However, what with the exertion of my humble abilities, and what with the help of a mutual friend by the name of Mr. Tony Weevle (who is of a high aristocratic turn and has your Ladyship's portrait always hanging up in his room), I have now reasons for an apprehension as to which I come to put your Ladyship upon your guard. First, will your Ladyship allow me to ask you whether you have had any strange visitors this morning? I don't mean fashionable visitors, but such visitors, for instance, as Miss Barbary's old servant, or as a person without the use of his lower extremities, carried upstairs similarly to a guy?" 
"Then I assure your Ladyship that such visitors have been here and have been received here. Because I saw them at the door, and waited at the corner of the square till they came out, and took half an hour's turn afterwards to avoid them." 
"What have I to do with that, or what have you? I do not understand you. What do you mean?" 
"Your Ladyship, I come to put you on your guard. There may be no occasion for it. Very well. Then I have only done my best to keep my promise to Miss Summerson. I strongly suspect (from what Small has dropped, and from what we have corkscrewed out of him) that those letters I was to have brought to your Ladyship were not destroyed when I supposed they were. That if there was anything to be blown upon, it is blown upon. That the visitors I have alluded to have been here this morning to make money of it. And that the money is made, or making." 
Mr. Guppy picks up his hat and rises. 
"Your Ladyship, you know best whether there's anything in what I say or whether there's nothing. Something or nothing, I have acted up to Miss Summerson's wishes in letting things alone and in undoing what I had begun to do, as far as possible; that's sufficient for me. In case I should be taking a liberty in putting your Ladyship on your guard when there's no necessity for it, you will endeavour, I should hope, to outlive my presumption, and I shall endeavour to outlive your disapprobation. I now take my farewell of your Ladyship, and assure you that there's no danger of your ever being waited on by me again."
Notice the impact, after we've had only Lady Dedlock's reported speech through most of the interview, of that dramatic and sudden "No!" Those are the touches that mark out Dickens as a master of his craft.