Sunday, 31 May 2009

Something fantastig (sic)

My friend Michael Levy was at a cocktail party this weekend. His host: none other than Stan Lee. (There they are below.)

I’ve never been given to hero-worship as such, but Stan Lee was a big figure for me growing up. He’s J K Rowling, Anthony Horowitz and Stephenie Meyer rolled into one. I doubt if any other writer in history has created so many characters who inspire such levels of absolute devotion.

In the rush to make movies based on comic books, many Hollywood execs have missed the point that the really big hits have all come from the mind of Stan Lee. The Spider-man movies, for example; even if we forget the third one (and believe me, I’ve tried) that’s nearly $2 billion in box office takings alone.

Not that the money means a thing, but look at the love. Aunt May, Pepper Potts, Foggy Nelson, Mary Jane Watson - Stan created families of characters we can connect to and care about. Now, tell me: does anybody even remember the name of the lead character in Wanted?

Stan matters to me because his work taught me that stories in print form could be as compelling as movies. And, month on month, he showed me how to do it. The power of suspense to draw you in. The effectiveness of surprises and reversals to keep you guessing. The impact of cliffhangers to bring you back. And, most important of all, the through-line of characters that makes us want to invest in them emotionally.

There’s only one other cocktail party in the world that I’d want to crash as much, and that would be one hosted by Stan Lee’s
one-time creative partner, Steve Ditko. (This is completely hypothetical, as I’m pretty sure Ditko isn't the type to throw cocktail parties.) The Spider-man stories were created by them both, following the “Marvel Method” whereby artist and writer would agree on a plot, the artist would go off and pencil the comic, and the writer (almost always Stan in the early days) would only then add the dialogue.
Famously (though not necessarily accurately, as Jonathan Ross has pointed out
)the two are said to have fallen out over the identity of the Green Goblin. This had been set up over many issues and had all the readers guessing, including an earnest little wonk in short pants called David Morris. After forty years, I don’t think I’m throwing out a spoiler if I say that the Goblin turned out to be Norman Osborn, father of Peter Parker’s best pal Harry. Ditko had supposedly wanted him to turn out to be someone we had never seen before, on the grounds that was more realistic.

So it was. But stories aren’t realistic, and Stan was right. For whatever reason, Ditko left the comic before the Goblin was unmasked. He was replaced by John Romita (that’s J.R. senior, kiddies) - a towering talent in his own right, so it wasn’t exactly a George Lazenby moment. But I hope that there’s an
Amazing Fantasy-style parallel universe out there somewhere in which Lee and Ditko never parted company and went on spinning intricate webs of narrative to ensnare us for decades more. Maybe they’re poolside in LA right now clinking piña coladas. In the hearts of True Believers ‘tis so.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The whole story

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.”

If you’re not British then don’t have to actually pay for the mere right to have a television set in your home. But even if you’re watching The Simpsons on Fox, you still get shown a bunch of commercials that, let’s face it, really don’t enrich your viewing experience. And then you go and buy stuff and the advertisers give the network money to thank them for bringing all those bees to the flower. So you paid for that show, matey, 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 gabble away in the back row can leave now). They are asking you to make them believe - and not only for the time it takes to watch the movie, 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. Now, I don’t have to promise a ten-book arc with a massive, intriguing 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 feel I’m under a bit of 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 didn’t know 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 then 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 either leaving them in limbo halfway through, or dragging them into an endless and directionless existence where nothing is ever resolved.

Obviously I’m thinking mainly 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 600 pages across four books. Then it’ll be December 31st 1902, the green comet will be gone, and all our loose ends will be tied up, leaving not a rack behind.

The harder promise is to say that the story will reach its conclusion. We would gladly promise that right here and now, but then it’s not just up to us. Since the DFC folded, Leo and I have been continuing to finance the work at our own expense to ensure that at least the Winter book will be complete. Joss Whedon would love to have had enough viewers to make Firefly viable; same goes for David Milch and Deadwood, etc, etc. That’s why our guarantee comes with ifs. If we can find a way to get Mirabilis out in book form, and if enough people care about Jack and Estelle to want to find out what happens to them, then we can promise to take this story right through to the end. We’re planning an epic with some really big surprises that we think you’re going to enjoy. Hope you can all join us for the ride!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Ask the experts

On the off-chance you haven't yet noticed, over on the main Mirabilis site the Fellows of the Royal Mythological Society are answering your queries about extraterrestrial etiquette, fairy faux pas, and how to live with a minotaur next door.
Dear perfessors

I hope that you may help me with my Trouble and do not object to a letter from one as does not know you. I have the agreeable position of regular employment at a public house by the Strand, name of The Three Gypsies. My duties there in the main being the stabling of horses, polishing brasses, and co. I also do in the taprooms and some private bedrooms that are kept for travellers, though not so frequent as in former days, now that the coach stand is not there no more. In the morning I rake out the fires and carry the ashes in a pail, which I have been in the habit of tipping down the drain that is in the street near the entrance to the yard. Only the other morning I went out that way and saw what had the look of two sooty, or I should say ashen, footprints on the pavement outside. Scuffing at these with my foot had no effect to remove them, and thinking no more I went and poured the ashes down the drain as per usual. Then on the next day I found two bare feet standing there. Just the plain feet, you understand, and not with no body above them, the feet being grey and looking to my eye to be made of ashes. Subsequent to that, having visited the drain on my purpose some other times, the feet have now been joined by ankles and the lower part of the legs, that is the calf. Mr Bardley, him being the landlord, says not to be tipping the ashes that way no more, but I have become quite driven with Curiosity to find out what will come. Today I tipped out another pail of ashes and in the morrow I’m in expectation of a pair of knees. Do you gents think this is advisable, or is Mr Bardley right?

Yours, Joe Gammock, Raven Row E1
Dr Clattercut replies: Mr Gammock, I have no direct experience of exactly such a phenomenon as you describe, but I implore you to consider all the ways that it could turn out if you continue as you have. One does not have to be an avid reader of the works of Mr Bram Stoker to foresee something rather chilling. There are many bad endings to the story and few good ones.
Prof Bromfield replies: Hmm. You do not say as much in your letter, but I surmise that the pedal extremities in question are feminine, and reasonably shapely. For once I have to agree with Clattercut. If this goes on, Mr Gammock, I feel it could be a case of curiosity killing the cat.
Remember we rely on our correspondents around the world to keep us apprised of what's going on as the green comet gets bigger and bigger in the sky. What will happen on midsummer night? You tell us!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Just the facts, Jack

Exposition – spoon-feeding your reader with the facts they must know to make sense of the story – is the red-headed stepchild of every writer’s working day. You need to get the information across. You need to give only as much information as the reader really, really needs. You need to make it emerge naturally from the story. Most of all, as with everything else, you need to make it entertaining.

It’s not always a problem. “Luke, I am your father.” That’s got enough of an emotional punch that Vader can just say it – though notice how the fight scene had to build up to Luke’s physical defeat before this truly terrible news could be imparted to maximum effect.

Pure plot info, though, that can be a real pain. It doesn’t carry any emotional charge to connect it to the characters; it’s just some guff about what time the bank guards complete their rounds, or what will happen if the control codes aren’t entered into the starship’s computer. Stick it in as a plain statement of facts and it’s like shoving a stick into the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Instant momentum killer. Suspension of disbelief goes sailing over the handlebars and ends up nursing a bruise from which your narrative may never recover.

Television writers learn quickly how to deal with pure plot exposition. There was a good example in the first season of
Desperate Housewives. One of the four leads has some major piece of local gossip that she needs to impart to the others. But, when she tracks them down they're in the middle of a coffee morning with a bunch of other neighbours who she can't let in on the secret. So she gets them out into the kitchen on some pretext and closes the door. Now she’s imparting this info to her friends (and us, the viewers) but she’s having to whisper – and she’s got to say it all fast before the others come back in. The tension, though completely contrived, distracts us enough that the exposition slips by quite entertainingly. We hardly notice we’ve just been fed a wodge of facts.

The most overtly expositional scene I’ve had to write for Mirabilis comes in chapter three ("Standing on the Shoulders of Giants") when Inspector Simeon tells us about the murders that have brought him aboard the train. The information is essential to the whodunit subplot that will embroil Estelle in more than a little trouble later. At the same time, it’s just a bunch of facts that the reader has no reason to care about right now.

So let's look at everything that actually goes on in that scene (see below.) Jack is riding high after saving the day with Stephenson’s Rocket. He’s cornered by Simeon and lets himself be cross-examined so as to cover for Gus, who is sneaking onto the train behind the inspector's back. Simeon gasses on but Jack is distracted; we know he's got other things on his mind. They’re in a narrow corridor and other passengers are squeezing past – specifically Sir Archibald Whitmead, who thereby gets a perfect opportunity to overhear what Simeon is saying.

Jack shows no more interest in Simeon’s theories than we readers have any reason to. But when he walks away, we stay with Simeon and Caitou. And now we learn that Jack’s nonchalance has aroused Simeon’s suspicions. (That’s another piece of exposition, covered this time by our amusement at Simeon’s sense of self-importance.) Ah, so it turns out that the plot details that Jack (and we) barely listened to could land him in hot water. See, now we’ve been given a reason to care.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Mirabilis collectible card game

I’ll be finishing up the script for the Winter book in the next few days, but I’m not going to be idle. Among the projects clamouring for attention is the long-promised collectible card game that Leo and I have been toying with for a few months now.

The only goals we started with were that it should feature scenes and characters from the comic, that new cards could be added without breaking the game, and that you don’t need to be a member of Mensa to understand the rules.

Originally we were thinking of a game where players would actually create stories, along the lines of James Wallis’s
Once Upon A Time. The cards in OUAT represent near-abstract elements of storytelling (A Stepmother, Time Passes, Happy Ever After, etc) and the game exploits the overdetermination of fairytales to let the players read in their own interpretation. When the cards are specific to one story, like in Mirabilis, that isn’t really going to work.

Okay, so then we tried variants of Gin Rummy or Top Trumps. But it’s hard to get excited about rehashing – er, being inspired by - somebody else’s idea. And, y’know, the litigation could be tiresome.

Happily we’ve now come up with an idea that is original and should make for a quick, fun game. I won’t say too much more until we’ve had a chance to playtest it. If it works, we’ll be putting new cards up on the Mirabilis site every week. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The Weird Wild East

The posts over on Garen Ewing’s blog and Sarah McIntyre's blog about the Royal Academy's Kuniyoshi exhibition (till June 7, don't miss it) gives me an excuse to show another of Russ Nicholson’s great illustrations for the Fabled Lands series. This was from Lords of the Rising Sun and I had specifically asked Russ to let himself be influenced by Kuniyoshi.

The scene illustrated is where the hero falls asleep and is asked by a queen to help her black-&-yellow liveried retainers fight off a dragon that has entered the castle. When the hero wakes, he is told by his friend that he missed the extraordinary sight of a snake trying to enter a beehive and being driven away by the swarm. In the jagged pattern of the samurai coats you can see Kuniyoshi’s design for the livery of the 47 Ronin.

Kuniyoshi himself had a marvellous ability to convey movement and drama. His heroes skate down roofs and tiles go flying. They grapple – sometimes underwater – and sinewy limbs entwine. Beams of magical force fling characters bodily through the air. Warriors are caught mid-leap in images that could be stills from a
King Hu movie.

And the monsters..! Massive earth spiders, grinning demons, smoky flying things that look like aborted foetuses. Kuniyoshi was depicting the famous actors of his day, but he didn’t leave them becalmed on a wooden stage – he put them in a $150 million SFX blockbuster. When I say he was the 19th century
Gene Colan, that’s not me being lowbrow; I like to think Kuniyoshi would see it as the highest praise.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Comics don’t have to be niche

Before Zak Snyder’s movie boosted its sales into the stratosphere, Watchmen had been simmering away in the UK at an average of about 10,000 copies a year. This is actually less surprising than the fact that it is now shooting towards being a million-seller. Because, when you think about it, Watchmen is a pretty rich dish.

Compare Watchmen to sales of the
Artemis Fowl graphic novel, estimated around 15,000 copies (UK sales, that is) in the year since it was released - and bear in mind that was just an adaptation of an existing prose novel. It could provide a valuable steer to UK publishers looking to tune into the same riotous increase in graphic novel sales that the USA has seen in the last five years.

To reach the real, untapped readership with comics, UK publishers need to stop confusing comics content with the medium itself. There are a lot of demanding, edgy stories being told in comics, but that’s very far from being the only kind of narrative that comics can be used for. It’s kind of like cinema in the mid-‘70s: complex, elitist, and dying on its feet till guys like Spielberg and Lucas came along and reminded the world that it was
all about entertainment.

The DFC showed that comics could be accessible to a mass market. In the last few months, Leo and I have encountered a lot of Mirabilis readers (adults as well as children) who don’t really see it as a comic; they just enjoy the story. They aren’t the kind of niche readers that UK publishers often assume all comics readers are. In fact, many of them weren’t even buying comics until the DFC came along.

Another example: there’s been a lot of talk about
the growth in manga. Forget the art style and the themes addressed, there’s a simple reason why manga is faring well. It pares right back to the essential qualities of an engrossing story. It addresses questions that actually matter to the reader, and it does that using bold movie-like emotion, character and plot. That’s why it appeals to the right kind of reader (I’m purposely not saying age group, because those big breakout properties transcend age groups) to reach a big market.

But hold on now. What do we mean by “big”? The American graphic novel market is about twenty times bigger than in the UK. (The US top sellers only shift five times as many copies, but the British market has way fewer titles.) Some will argue that’s because the UK doesn’t have the tradition of superhero comics. But it’s not as if British authors aren’t capable of cooking up some pretty successful home-grown versions of those fantastic epics – Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Young Bond, etc.

What we need are graphic novels in that vein that aren’t just the prose versions re-released with pictures. Original hot-dang stories with heroes and villains we can relate to. The creative talent is there, it just needs publishers to take a leap of faith.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The world of ideas

A quick plug for the final part of Pádraig Ó Méalóid's in-depth interview with Alan Moore over on the Forbidden Planet blog.

Everything Alan Moore says is worth hearing, and he is without a doubt the ne plus ultra genius of comics. This particular bit caught my eye because it expresses everything I'd like to have said about our reason for doing Mirabilis in the first place - although Alan Moore, of course, says it far better than Leo or I ever could:
PÓM: Do you believe in fairies?

AM: Do I believe in fairies? Well, I believe in absolutely every creature that the human imagination has ever thrown up, in an ontological sense, in that the idea of fairies exists, and I believe that fairies are the idea of fairies, just as I believe that gods are the idea of gods, that these things exist in a world of ideas in which they are completely real, and you only have to look at the Victorian fairy painters, and how many of them ended up mad, you only have to look at Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke to see that little figure of the old man with Richard Dadd’s face sitting there, looking really anxious, staring out of the picture at you, sitting there on his log, and I look at that, and I don’t think, “Oh, that’s Richard Dadd painting himself into his own, you know, miniature masterpiece,” I think, “That is Richard Dadd trapped in a painting. The fairies got him.” He was away with the fairies.

The same went for Richard Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle’s dad, and some of his paintings look like, the later ones, that are not jubilant at all, they look like they’re taking place in the dayroom of a madhouse, and you’ve got a figure staring at the table, trying not to look, as these little imps and fairies caper through the air. I mean, I’ve experienced fairies during some of my magical experiences, or things that seemed to be fairies. They were quite traditional cute Victorian ones, rather than spiky post-modern Neil Gaiman ones. That’s just my mind, I guess, but yes, in the terms that I’ve just described, yes, I believe in everything.

PÓM: Of course, Conan Doyle himself was a big believer, wasn’t he?

AM: I mean, whether I believe in the same literal way that Conan Doyle wanted to believe, I believe these things are real; I do not believe they are real outside the world of ideas and the mind, but then they have no need to be real beyond that realm, because in that realm they’re completely real, and they can affect us profoundly, as with any of the other denizens of the imaginary terrain, the angels and demons and monsters.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Mirabilis on your iPhone

Did the filmstrip effect there make you do a double take? It’s a bit of artistic licence to draw attention to our latest experiment. We’re going to pick a few episodes of Mirabilis (probably ones you haven’t seen yet – yay!) and convert them into e-book form.

In the demo versions this will entail using Flash for some fancy fades, zooms, rostrum work, and maybe the occasional visual or sound effect. The end result will be a little like
the trailer (US readers will need to look here for that) but it’ll be a complete episode that you can pause while you read the text.

For something similar, see the Watchmen
Complete Motion Comic. When I first heard about that, I couldn’t see the point. But if you think of it, not as a slightly messed-up version of the book or a low-rent version of the movie, but instead as a trial run for how the original content could be repurposed for e-reading then it starts to make sense.

Okay, this is not how I prefer to read a comic. Viewing one frame at a time means sacrificing the effect of the page as a whole. But that’s just personal taste, and in any case it’s all swings and roundabouts. What we lose in terms of the richness of the reading experience, we gain by opening the story up to a whole lot of people who never go near print comics. And with paper getting more expensive every year, that might soon be the majority of comics readers.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Coven 13

Coven 13 was a magazine of horror and fantasy fiction that flared briefly and vanished after four issues from September 1969 to March 1970. The approach to scaring readers was fresh and sophisticated, taking Fritz Leiber's vein of modern urban horror and giving it a kind of cool late-'60s vibe. In Alan Caillou's "Odile", a young witch arouses violent feelings in the neighbourhood, but after she is murdered it all gets much worse. In Harlan Ellison's "Rock God" a Madison Avenue office block becomes the epicentre of prehistoric worship.

And the little lacings of whimsical fantasy amid the horror were of a distinctly Unknown flavour: imps that signed contracts over a Campari and soda, family ghosts that took out the trash, princesses with gold fur.

The mag (we didn't call 'em "zines" in those days) was edited by Arthur H Landis - for whom, incidentally, I landed a three-book deal with Donald A Wollheim when I was still in my teens. (I never saw a commission. Oh well.)

But the best thing about Coven 13 by a very long way? Almost all the art, including four fabulous painted covers, was by the legendary William Stout at the very start of his career. He obviously had a profound influence on the youthful Morris imagination - look at the opening image from Mirabilis episode 4 ("The World Turned Upside Down") which came to me full-blown out of a daydream, or so I thought at the time, and compare it to the cover of Coven's second issue, above. To think that was lurking in there all those years, waiting to be dredged up out of the subliminal mire. It fair gives you a shudder.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Dark They Were & Golden-Eyed

It was the name of a Ray Bradbury story too - okay, it was that to start with - but mainly it was a tiny, stuffy, absolutely brilliant science fiction bookshop tucked away in a maze of streets along of St Martin’s Lane. There was barely room to turn around between the shelves that were stuffed to bursting point with paperbacks from the US and copies of Galaxy, F&SF and Worlds of If. Every one of them priceless - and yet only 7s/6d.

It was there I discovered Coven 13 (and if you don’t know what that is then obviously I need to do a post about it very soon) but this isn’t a when-I-were-a-lad story. I’m talking about free content, just bear with me.

The shop was run by Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes, whose wife must’ve taken pity on a tubby schoolboy balancing a pile of books he could hardly see over, because she vanished out the back and returned with a load of stapled pages from SF magazines. The originals had got damaged in transit from the States, but they couldn’t bear to just throw them away so they'd salvaged the pages they could.

Okay, basically what I was being offered was a bunch of stories by the likes of Brunner and Moorcock and Pohl and Silverberg. For free. As long as I didn’t mind not having the covers. So, Moses, you want these tablets or not?

A year ago, after moving to Surrey and then back to London, I came across that pile of salvaged stories. (Do I have hoarding issues? No no no, I sold my Stingray kit and my Aston Martin DB5.) Improvising a sofa out of cardboard boxes and unopened Ikea flatpacks, I started reading “Wizard Ship” by F Haines Price, torn from the pages of Worlds of If for November 1968. And, you have to understand, this was from the days before Star Wars. SF was proper then; we even said it stood for ‘speculative fiction’. Despite its title, the story most definitely was not about sword-wielding wizards in spaceships.

Anyway, just like that damned whodunit you find on holiday, the last page of the story was of course missing. And naturally I then had to go and track the magazine down on eBay and pay $10 and postage to see how it ended.

That’s the ideal in free content. You give away 99% of your story and people pay because, because… they just have to know. Okay, it wouldn’t work. Too many other distractions, too many movies and books and music downloads demanding people’s time. But the idea of giving away the first third, say, of your story? That I like. If you’re gripped by what you’ve seen, you’ll want to read the rest. And if you aren’t - well, in that case we wouldn’t have done our job properly and we wouldn’t deserve your money, would we?