Thursday, 30 July 2009

The adventures of Julius Chancer

Quentin Tarantino talks about a "hang-out" movie as one you can revisit time and again because the characters are so personable and you're being told such an engaging yarn. If there's an archetypal hang-out comic it would be The Rainbow Orchid, the first volume of which arrived in the post at midday today and basically blew any chance of my getting more useful work done today.

This book has been a long time in coming and it has been worth the wait. Garen Ewing's deceptively simple ligne claire style evokes the 1920s setting with charm and verisimilitude. There's a big cast of characters but, unlike with many comic artists, you don't get confused by two characters looking the same. (Except for the identical Tayaut twins, that is.)

It's rare to talk about "voice" in comics, but I love the sparkling sense of warmth, depth, intrigue and fun in this book. You reach the final page and you think, "Wha-hey! We're on an adventure!" And then you think, "When can I get Volume 2?" (answer: early next year) and then, "Why doesn't Peter Jackson make a movie of this? (answer: he's been sidetracked by The Dambusters).

You can buy the first book in the series here. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go hang out with the characters again...

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Step on it, Dad

A few months ago, I mentioned the Mirabilis stories we planned for UK newspaper The Guardian. Those are all written and the first of them, "Wrong Turning", has been pencilled by Martin.

It's very much in the (jugular) vein of a Warren horror story. A father and son are forced off the main road and find themselves taking a detour via "the undiscover'd country". Okay, the story is a little less cautionary and a tad more uplifting than the sort that Uncle Creepy used to tell, but the art style is eerily reminiscent of the great Reed Crandall. Only even better.

Don't expect this any time soon, but we will try and get it ready for Halloween. And it and the other stories will appear in the Mirabilis gazetteer sometime in - oh, I dunno. When we've finished the Jack and Estelle story. So not till 2011, probably. Meanwhile, there's plenty of McKenna eldritch brilliance as usual over on his site.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Getting this show on the road

We promised to reveal news of the graphic novel publishing schedule this month. The exact dates have yet to be firmed up, but the UK edition of the Winter book will be released either June or Sep/Oct next year.

That's a bit of a wait but it's par for the course in publishing, where books are not infrequently printed up in the Far East and the binding is done on board the ship bringing them back to Europe. As consolation, if we can arrange to get on with Spring reasonably promptly, you could be holding that just a few months after the first book.

In the meantime, we're going to see about bringing you a few more episodes on the main Mirabilis site.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Beautiful friend

Finally! Today I wrote "the end" at the bottom of the final script of the Winter book. The closing scenes have actually been planned for weeks in my customary first-draft form, ie on the back of envelopes and bank statements. But I managed to dream up a dozen other chores to put off the fateful moment.

When Poe wrote about the Imp of the Perverse, he meant simple procrastination:
"We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until tomorrow, and why? There is no answer… "
Actually, Edgar, my boy, there is an answer. Most procrastination occurs because, in the absence of a plan, our brains are overwhelmed with the number of possible routes forward and so nothing gets done. That's not what's been putting me off, though. I've been fiddling with sound effects and word balloons and historical research and checking continuity and writing RMS entries because I didn't want to say goodbye to Jack and Estelle and our other characters. Especially considering where I left them at the end of the book... Well, you'll see.

Of course, there's still a whole lot of work to be done. The script is just the start of it. Leo has almost 30 pages of pencils to go, and Nikos and Mike still have 50 pages of coloring. So we'll be immersed in the world of Mirabilis for a good month or two yet. But the end is in sight. So now we can start the really big task of actually getting this epic out into the world.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The twist you don’t see coming

More storytelling tips today. But if you're not into the writing, don't fret - we'll be back with more luscious artwork later in the week.

When you're getting to the climax of a story, simply piling on more and more difficulties for your hero won't do. The audience sees a string of things that have to be dealt with and they project forward: “Once the hero has done A, found B, discovered C, it’s all going to be sorted.” So you need to throw in something completely from left field - a development that takes the reader or viewer by surprise: “Whoa, I didn’t foresee that at all!”

See, a storyteller is like a hypnotist or a con man. Shock is one of the best tricks for stunning your victim. I mean reader.

Here's an example from the movie of My Favorite Martian. Tim has to prevent the TV broadcast of a video of Uncle Martin which would prove the existence of aliens on Earth. Meanwhile Martin himself is going to pieces - literally - and his spaceship (which is counting down to self-destruct) has been reduced in size with Tim’s girlfriend inside and left in the garage, where the neighbour picks it up for a jumble sale. With a bit of fast-paced rompy action, all these problems are neatly fixed. They get the video, Martin is reassembled, and they catch up to the neighbour’s car and retrieve the “toy” spaceship. Whew! Exactly what we expected. But then, just at the moment of triumph, the government agents who were chasing them earlier turn up and zap Martin and Tim with a tranquilliser gun, and take them off to a remote army research base. Now we have no idea what’s going to happen next. The stuff we foresaw all got resolved; this is a new development we didn't see coming. And the story shifts into high gear as a result.

That's how it works on the overall plot level - the "break into three" as
Blake Snyder puts it. But stories are fractal, and the same principle applies within one scene. In James Saxon's book Red Chamber, the hero, who is wanted by the police, has to sneak on board a Tube train at Sloane Square. The writing team's initial plan was for him to climb over the wall (the Tube line is open to the air at Sloane Square) but of course that on its own wouldn’t strike the reader as much of a challenge. So the hero climbs the wall from the street, but it's a big drop to the platform on the other side, and he has to get down by edging along a narrow iron pipe to a point where he can jump. On top of that it’s snowing, so not only is the pipe treacherous with ice, but he has to be careful not to dislodge snow so that the police look up. Then, to stay out of sight, he jumps onto the roof of a carriage, intending to swing down into the carriage just as the doors are closing...

But all of that stuff is just the sleight of hand to set us up for the real twist in the scene. Getting onto the Tube train roof calls for nerve and athleticism, and is undoubtedly all quite difficult without spider powers, but it's still only a “skill roll”. The reader knows that the writer can just decide to have the hero succeed. What we need is to see the hero come up with a solution to an unexpected problem, preferably under extreme pressure where we can’t imagine being able to do it ourselves in the time available. And that’s what happens next. There’s a policeman right there on the platform, so the hero can’t get inside the carriage after all. The doors close. Okay, he thinks, I’ll ride on the roof to the next station. So he (and we) start to relax… too soon! Because he now sees there is only about a foot’s clearance on the tunnel. Scrabbling back, he falls between two carriages and holds onto the “bellows” between the carriages with his shoes almost touching the tracks. Then at the next station he climbs onto the platform and makes his getaway. And boy, do we feel he’s earned it.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

All in color for a dime

I'm lucky and I know it. The team I get to work with - Leo Hartas and Nikos Koutsis - are for my money the best in the business, matched only by Guy Davis and Dave Stewart on B.P.R.D.

Well, "de gustibus non est disputandum", so feel free to have your own favorites. But can you imagine what it's like to see your characters come to life in scenes illustrated by these two great talents? (Every week, no less!) It's something else. I'm a kid again, ripping that brown paper wrapper off Barry Windsor-Smith's Conan or Neal Adams's X-Men and plunging into a world of mind-blowing images.

But, you know, the next best thing to seeing those finished full-color pages is when I get a look at Leo's rough pencils. That's when a scene first becomes real to me. In the graphic novels, I hope there'll be space to include some of that lovely pencil work in the back too. It has a charm all its own, not just as part of the overall art process.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Confound expectations!

Back when I wrote the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle books, a schoolteacher friend asked me to come in and talk to her pupils. (It was Leo’s sister Lucy as a matter of fact, but that’s just one of those Lost-style coincidences.) One class after another, the whole school dutifully sat and listened to me talk about the books, and then they all filed up with their exercise books and asked the same question:

“Will you draw me a picture?”

I know, I know - writing ain’t as sexy as drawing. But even though I always loved comics and was an absolute
otaku when it came to the great Silver Age artists, the writing was what I set my heart on doing. (And listen, Richard Starkings always wanted to be a letterer, so I’m not that weird, okay?)

Most people think writing is just making up the words, but the
words are the tiniest part of it. Before that, there’s coming up with the story. And when you have the story (which is the second tiniest part) you get to the real job, which is to make it entertaining.

Ninety percent of writing is pure instinct. You rarely have exactly the same problem to solve twice. That’s what makes it rewarding and very, very lonely.
Graham Greene said that “a writer is one who knows the long despair of doing nothing well.” A bit of a tortured genius, our Graham, but he hit the nail on the head with that one. After twenty-five years of doing this for a living, I’m still flying by the seat of my pants.

Ten percent is craft, though, and that can be taught. Which is why, from time to time, I do these little posts on writing technique - just in case you’re in that almost-crazy zone between the guy who wants to be the artist (that’s lead guitar) and the freak who enjoys lettering (I guess he’s the drummer).

Okay, today’s writing tip is about the necessity of confounding expectations. What that means is that often you will set up the story so that it needs to go a certain way. And most of the time the reader will be there before you - not just because they’re smart (though they are) but also because you’ve planted all the signs properly. But here’s the rub. If the scene just goes the way you seem to want it to, the reader is going to kick against that. To enjoy the story, they’re having to suspend disbelief, and every predictable moment risks bringing disbelief right back into focus.

Let me give you a couple of examples of how it works. First from
Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) is waiting for Judy to return from her makeover. We expect him to go “Gosh!” the moment she shows up dressed as Madeleine, her hair now dyed blonde, wearing the gray suit he picked out for her, and so on - but something still isn’t quite right. It’s only after he gets her to pin her hair back just the right way that he can finally see her as Madeleine.
And this one from The Last King of Scotland:
Dr Garrigan (James McAvoy) spins a globe and decides he will go wherever his finger lands. Of course, we know he’s going to Uganda. Only that's not where his finger lands. The first time he stops the globe at Canada, but immediately decides that won’t do. He wants adventure. He spins it a second time, and then he gets Uganda.
These scenes both use a kind of narrative sleight of hand to overcome our natural resistance to being spoon-fed a story. While we are concentrating on what we expect to happen, we are not expending our scepticism on any other outcome. So when the scene plays, as it were, out of the magician’s other hand, we are surprised into full acceptance.

Right, so now you can do it at home for fun and profit. Well, for fun anyway.