Thursday, 7 August 2014

Pick a side. The future or the past?

Funny how things get dredged up. I recently got to thinking about a very old idea of mine. I’ll tell you a bit later what jogged my memory. A long while ago – must’ve been a couple of decades at least – I was watching an old Carol Reed movie called Odd Man Out, about an IRA man on the run in 1940s London. Thinking of spies having to lie low – soldiers, that is, but out of uniform – I got to imagining a society that waged war against its own future.

What kind of a war would that be? Well, one way to do it would be old Nazis plotting revenge against a modern, distinctly anti-fascist Germany, but that felt a bit tired. It hardly counts as a war when a bunch of OAPs set fire to a bus stop or daub a swastika on a wall.

I was striving for something more jolting to the audience’s expectations, which probably meant more science fictional. A war against the future suggested society having reached an impasse that only time could break. So should it be sleeper agents in a literal sense, floating underground in suspended animation tanks until the moment came to rekindle the conflict?

Trouble with that, it’s a little like the core premise of Pyramids of Mars, only with a very different skin (or at any rate bitumen-soaked bandages) over the top. Nobody would notice, but I still felt that treating it that way would be wasting the idea. Obviously the best approach would be to have outright time travel, so that armies could pour out of the past to mow down their own descendents. Firing back could be a knotty problem. But done that way it’s not special. You wouldn’t notice that the interesting thing was a society at war with what it had become. The time travel business would overshadow all that.

Sometimes you just can’t see the way to make an idea work. Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant pursued by a tornado across Indiana. “But how can the heavies manufacture a tornado?” asked Ernest Lehman, who actually had to write the damned thing. Hitch settled for a crop-duster, but he wasn’t happy about it. I know how he feels. The war against the future got slung onto that subconscious junk heap of unworkable gems – or unpolishable you-know-whats. And then I came across a couple of brilliant tweets by Paul Cornell that bought it all back.
So there you are. No need for a Tardis or a cryonic pod. No need even for superannuated reactionaries blowing up their hippy grandchildren to teach them a lesson. The war against the future is interesting when it happens (as it always does) between neighbours, within families, both sides lining up to decide whether civilization should point forwards or backwards. And I knew that. I’ve read about enough revolutions, hot and cold, throughout history. That’s how to write my story. The answer was staring me in the face all along. Maybe it was just too close for comfort.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Between Stops

I was heartened recently to come across an article by Nabokov in which he spoke up for short stories. Thank goodness, I thought. Now I can own up to my private passion, and if anyone pours scorn I have the author of Lolita in my corner. But when did the short story become such a guilty pleasure? While the novel may date back a thousand years (The Tale of Genji – discuss), the short story is as old as fire. Why should it need defending?

Perhaps because it’s so old and familiar a form. Short stories often have the smack of wood smoke, of a yarn told intimately at hearthside or from a bar stool – in contrast with the high, declamatory idiom of many novels. Somewhere along the way from cave to drawing room, people started to confuse questions of high and low art with the quite different matter of quality and worth. As the Victorian middle class began to aspire to genteel literary tastes, the short story got thrown in among the penny dreadfuls. People continued to enjoy short stories. They just didn’t want to admit it.

And yet look at the short story’s champions. Dickens, Kipling, Mansfield, James, Hemingway, Salinger, Borges. I could go on and on. Plenty of literary giants haven’t shared the popular lack of respect for the form.

Graham Greene, for example. He said that, while a novelist needed to feel his or her way through a story, the short story writer could perceive the whole shape of the work before they began. Which is true, as far as it goes, but not every short story is a polished epicule in fractal miniature. The most interesting ones defy all sense of morphe and give us something nearer to real life: an elusive twist of truth without a definite end. So Steinbeck can write of haunted chewing gum, Lawrence of a family’s dark secrets revealed down a drainpipe. People can wake up as cockroaches. Repressed feelings manifest as overcoats, pocket watches, cleaning products and pet ferrets in ways that would blow Freud’s bow tie clean off.

Arguably the highest goal of the literary art is to represent things that have multiple meanings at once. Frankenstein’s creature – is he Victor’s id? His child? A real monster? An imagined terror? A philosophical question? Answer: all of the above. This is hard for a novel to pull off, especially these days as the entire orbit of the novel is being tugged off course by the mass market’s assumption that a novel, like a movie, is supposed to be straightforwardly a recounting of events. But short stories are free to be surreal, shapeless, irrational. When a writer takes on a short story, they get to kick off their shoes and go wherever the material takes them.

Polti said there are only thirty-six dramatic situations. Hollywood has supposedly boiled that down to just seven plots. A horrible future of reductive storytelling would await us, if not for short stories. The short story writer, like the poet, doesn’t have to give a fig for plots and dramatic situations. Story arcs can twist like Möbius strips, splice into something different with no more sense than a dream. Redemption? Closure? Put a coin in the swear box, please. This is fiction in its purest form.

Still, we admire artifice in a work. We look for the connective structure. We like to perceive a shape. In a collection of short stories, though, it is the whole that has the shape. It’s only when we step back that we can see the common themes being explored. The individual stories are free to dart away from definite analysis. Hence Between Stops, which is not just the time we have to while away but the mental space between anchors of logic. What will you discover on these journeys? The answer for each reader is a different one – and there’s the beauty of the form.

Friday, 18 July 2014


O magistri sapienissimi,

In a fight between Hercules and Thor, who would win?

Yours, Piers Craddock and Will Rice,
St Paul’s School,

Dr Clattercut replies: Ah, doesn’t that take you back, Bromfield? In one’s schooldays the world seems so simple, every problem so black and white. Well, Masters Craddock and Rice, I have to tell you that even in the Year of Wonders, reality is a little bit more complicated than algebra books and rugger pitches may have led you to believe.

Prof Bromfield: Quite. In any case, Thor would obviously win, being a god.

Dr Clattercut: The matter is entirely hypothetical, but even so I don’t think it is as clear cut as you say, Bromfield. Hercules’s father is Zeus, king of the gods.

Prof Bromfield: He’s half-divine, then. But still only mortal. And wrestling a few boars and oxen and whatever — all those tedious labours—hardly puts him on a par with the god of thunder. Remember that Thor’s hammer is so heavy that only he can lift it…

Dr Clattercut: What about when Hercules took the entire weight of the heavens off Atlas’s shoulders? I daresay that’s a greater burden than any hammer.

Prof Bromfield: Well, there you have it. The hammer’s the key. Big biceps aren't going to matter a jot after a clonk with a weapon like that. You know the Norse myths, full of giants falling like skittles. Think what it sounds like when a thunderclap goes off right over your head. Rattles the furniture, eh? Well that’s Thor’s hammer heard at long distance.

Dr Clattercut: It’s hardly an even contest if Thor is going to use his hammer. I’m saying that without the hammer, a straight grappling match — then Hercules is bound to be the victor.

Prof Bromfield: Why would the god of thunder agree to fight and leave his hammer at home? Not that he needs the hammer to defeat a Greek strongman, seeing as he actually is the mightiest of all the Aesir.

Dr Clattercut: But that’s…

Prof Bromfield: And I haven’t even mentioned Thor’s magic belt yet that doubles his strength. Or his iron gloves that double it again.

Dr Clattercut: I give up.

Prof Bromfield: As would Hercules!

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.