Monday, 29 June 2009

Mirabilis graphic novel

New news – and something we’ve been eagerly waiting for. Our publisher (David Fickling) tells us that he will be able to give us a firm release date for the first Mirabilis graphic novel “very soon” now, ie within a month.

The Winter book is about 190 pages long, so possibly Random House will want to release that in two volumes. Knowing how distribution can end up uneven across the country, I’d prefer it to be just one book. But as it’s full colour throughout and should be on fine quality paper, we’ve got to be aware of pricing. Better two volumes for £11.99 (guessing, there) than one great whopping thing with a price tag of £25 to frighten off all but the wealthy few.

The story is broken down into chapters, each 20-25 pages long like a regular comic book. In fact, I can tell you now what they are:
#1: “The World Turned Upside Down”
 #2: “The Wrong Side of Bedlam”
#3: “Standing On The Shoulders of Giants”
 #4: “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight”
#5: “The Darkest Hour”
#6 “Saints and Sinners”
#7: “A Ribbon Across the Sky”
 #8: “Saltwater and Ashes”
#9: “Everything Changes”
The way publishing works, even though the Winter book is almost complete right now, we’re still looking at next summer at the earliest before it’s on the shelves. So, if it’s up to me, we’ll release those chapters as monthly 25-page comic books in the run-up to the trade paperback edition. Not the internet sales model that the DFC tried, though; instead it would be published under licence to an existing comic book publisher.

Okay, given the niche distribution that “pamphlet comics” get these days, a release in that form is not going to make millions. But it would help build a good head of steam for the tp release - and, as a bonus, the revenue just from the monthly comic sales would probably more than cover production costs. Everybody wins.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Hang onto your hats

As a late midsummer treat, here's a picture by the fabulously talented Mr McKenna showing what a day out on the south coast looks like now that Brighton's showmen have got hold of a few more-or-less tame dragons. (Eagle-eyed fans of Graphicly or Comics+ will recognize this as the full spread from which comes the cover of Mirabilis #3.)

Martin's still at work on his hush-hush project, which is shaping up to be something truly amazing. We'll bring you news or a sneak peek as soon as he'll allow. And of course we hope to get some more Mirabilis cover art from him before too long, as Leo, Nikos and I are already well into the Spring book that will comprise issues 9 through 13.

And just in case you were starting to doubt that fact is stranger than fiction, take a look at
Magnus Volk's Electric Overland and Submarine Railway, which began running up and down the Brighton seafront in 1883. In the real-life 1883, that is. Volk took it all the way out to Rottingdean, by way of the sea, in 1896. And he didn't have a magical green comet to back him, either - it was all pure, unassisted British eccentricity. God save Queen Titania!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Friends of English Magic

Possibly my favourite fantasy novel of all time (and certainly my favourite fantasy novel not written by Jack Vance) is Susanna Clarke's masterpiece Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. So it was a jolly nice surprise this week to come across the news that the movie is set for 2010. And the script is by Christopher Hampton and Julian Fellowes. I don't know how a 780-page book can be turned into a movie, but if anybody can pull it off, they can.

Strange and wondrous coincidences now abound. Remember I was telling you about my friend Mike Levy recently? Okay, well he's over in London tomorrow to meet with Ileen Maisel, whose company Amber Entertainment controls the JS&MN movie rights. And then it turns out that Tom Fickling, son of the DFC publisher and our unofficial editor (and much-appreciated moral support) on the first part of the Mirabilis story, also now works at Amber Entertainment. If those guys get involved in the movie then I'm really encouraged.

I'm still not sure that JS&MN needs to be a movie, or that something as big and complex can work as a movie (look at Watchmen) but it'll be interesting.

So, who do you like for the leads?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Time and relative dimensions

Not quite a spoiler today, but a teaser... Over on the Royal Mythological Society site, today's topic of discussion is time travel. Which reminded me of the Roman paperweight Estelle found in the gardener's shed. I first saw these things being discussed on Time Team - yes, they are real archaeological artifacts. You don't need to know that to enjoy our fantasy explanation of them, though, coming up in the Spring book. Fans of H G Wells and Doctor Who will not be disappointed ;)

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Midsummer miracles

We're now into June and the zenith of fantasy, with Comet Meadowvane filling the night sky as it did in Jack's dream from episode two.

This is the aestas mirabilis, and people can hardly remember a time when magic wasn't part of daily life. Every day, the headlines announce new extraordinary events until the astonishing has become commonplace. Atlantis rises! Camelot is rebuilt! Martians win the general election! The god Pan throws a party and invites everybody in the world (after five days, the Tsar of Russia sends a telegram complaining about the noise). The Long Man of Wilmington decides it’s time for a change and heads south to become the Long Man of Benidorm.

You'll see a change in the notes and queries being submitted to our learned chaps at the Royal Mythological Society. Correspondence is as likely now to come from aliens or faerie folk as from perplexed maiden aunts in Suffolk. This week, for example, distinguished movie director Georges Méliès wonders about the role of special effects in a world where magic comes on tap.

But watch out. In a few months, the green comet will start to pull away past Jupiter's orbit and back out into the void of interstellar space. How will a world that has tasted limitless enchantment cope with its loss? It's a story that must wait until our final chapter, "Dying of the Light". That's a long way off yet, though. Leo and Nikos and I are still putting finishing touches to the Winter book, which we hope to bring you on iPhone and electronic form, if not in the print graphic novel originally intended, in time for Christmas. More news soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the Summer of Marvels.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Dead or just resting?

LucasArts' Grim Fandango was a computer game by the legendary Tim Schafer that drew its inspiration from el Dia de los Muertos - the Mexican version of Halloween.

The setting is El Marrow, the city where the souls of the recently dead arrive to begin their journey to the afterlife. The land of the dead is depicted as sleepy and full of secrets. It has a sultry, dreamlike quality and yet things happen there.

By contrast, just over that border from which no traveller returns, the land of living is composed of brashly hued snapshots, styled on the 1950s work of Pop Artists like
Richard Hamilton. It's a garish, glossy world which is full of bustling action, the sound and fury of life which strikes us as superficial now that we’ve strolled through El Marrow and had a glimpse of eternity.

Day of the Dead imagery juxtaposes life and death. In an inspired inversion, characters in the
Grim Fandango world are despatched with guns that sprout flowers through their skulls and ribcages. The effect is beautiful and eerie, and at the same time more effectively shocking than the desensitizing carnage found in (yawn) so many videogames.

Because the plot involves mystery and danger, and the hero never knows who he can trust, Grim Fandango's film noir styling works perfectly. The guides of the dead are depicted like private eyes (though they are in fact travel agents) and their offices are located in an art deco building typical of the 1930s. Except that there's a subtle twist. Where art deco drew from ancient Egyptian design, the Grim Fandango version uses a restyled art deco substituting motifs from the Pre-Columbian civilizations.

Grim Fandango is far and away the most original game setting ever devised. It stands a million miles above the tedious floodwaters of super-soldiers, zombies, cloned hitmen, big guns, and monsters that always look exactly like Alien. Unlike just about every other videogame in existence, this actually would make a first-rate movie, TV series or graphic novel. Or all three.

So why have you never heard of it? Because it was an adventure game, in the days that adventure gaming meant stuff like tying a coat-hanger to a balloon to hook a message off a tree. And no, I don’t know why anybody ever thought that was fun either. It was like watching an animated movie where somebody keeps hitting pause and making you solve a Sudoku before you can see another few minutes.

But I’m thinking that old-style adventure gaming might turn out, with a very slight spin, to be just what those families around the entertainment hearth are looking for. Suppose that our hero (the very likeable Manny Calavera) wasn’t a damnable brainless puppet that you had to steer around while cursing at his inability to line up with objects. Suppose that he turned and asked you what he should do. Maybe all you have to do is give him the hint by pointing to something, so he's more like a character you can have a pretend relationship with. Suppose that, if you couldn’t be bothered to work it out, you could just give up and he’d figure it out for himself.

Or you could even say you don’t want to play it as a game, you just want to sit back and let Manny solve his own problems. Then it could be an animated movie that would be a darn sight more inventive than

Just using the art, writing and audio assets that are already there,
Grim Fandango could be turned into a graphic novel and an iPhone comic with just a few weeks’ work. Ay, caramba! I’d do it myself – right now, for nothing, out of sheer love of Tim Schafer’s brilliant creation. Hear that, LucasArts? Please do something with this great, great property! Make lots of money using the material you already have! Trust me on this. You don’t want to leave Manny in limbo.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The future of gaming?

This weekend I came across a feature in the paper headlined “The future of gaming is here”. You get inured to claims like that in the game industry press, but this was in the Telegraph. The “future of gaming”, judging by the examples given, is exactly like last year and the year before: same old same old, but with better technology and sweeter eye candy.

The game industry’s problem over the last decade has been its success. To clarify: the industry has done perfectly well by selling to a narrow, deep market so there hasn’t been much incentive to go looking outside the box. As home entertainment, you could compare it to porn – a big money-spinner, but relegated to the den rather than the living room, and always borrowing its ideas and imagery from TV and movies. (Usually the same movies, at that.)

Now games are finally changing. Thanks largely to Nintendo, games over the last year or two have been poking a wary snout out of the den. As a result, publishers are having to do more than pay lip service to the huge family/”casual” market. It’s like they’re having to throw away their porn collection and get to grips with a real live girlfriend instead. Take a look at Microsoft’s long-cherished idea of the entertainment hearth:

I’m all for it, though I am dubious about some of the content. Will mom, dad and the kids really all sit there while one person drives a racing car and occasionally somebody else gets to change the tyres? Even if they were racing each other, that’s still a “den” game; it doesn’t look like the interactive entertainment hearth of the future.

Among the games at E3 is
Heavy Rain, a successor to Quantic Dream’s earlier Fahrenheit. This is an adventure game, really, though no doubt tricked up with a whole lot of shooting and running and stabbing to disguise the fact. A “truly interactive story” is promised, the “revolutionary” feature being that there are four main characters, and if one dies you get to play on with one of the others.

Is that better than a regular story? Of course not. It’s a feature for the sake of being able to say something to journos and marketing dudes. Having four interchangeable heroes is not actually enhancing either the story or the gameplay. They’re blundering in the dark.

You could have interactive stories. Narratives where the interactivity actually enhances the experience rather than creating just a broken movie or a plot-overburdened game. Movie director Gore Verbinski shows that he understands this more than most game developers when
he said last week:
"Hollywood made a mistake to think it can enter the video game space and somehow provide better storytelling. Not only is that arrogant, but it hasn't worked. We start on a game with the way controlling it feels in your hands. Narrative has to be a byproduct of that in the same way story is a byproduct of character in films."
Come back another time and I’ll show you in detail how interactive stories could really work. But for now, I got to thinking how maybe you can steer a ship by looking at its wake. Because adventuring gaming, in the old Monkey Island sense, has been regarded for the last ten years as pretty much a moribund genre. And rightly so, in a way, because 9 out of 10 published adventure games were only enjoyable if you’re mildly autistic. You’d be in the middle of the story and suddenly there’d be some ridiculous puzzle to do with stacking crates or navigating a maze. It was entertainment by aliens for aliens.

And yet… if Microsoft and others really want to capture the family around that entertainment hearth, adventure games could be one way to do it. Not adventure games like they used to be, but a reboot of the whole genre. A lead character who asks for our help. Interaction by reaching “into the screen” to save him from a hidden assailant. Puzzles based on personality not logic. The ability to jump into the hero’s shoes at critical moments. You could really engage a sofa full of guardian angels with the life-or-death predicaments the hero is facing.

Sometimes, in ecosystems, evolution returns to a feature that had almost become obsolete - a dead end - but, as environmental conditions change, yesterday’s dead end can turn out to be today’s eight-lane freeway. One way to engage the broad market with games could be to look back at the kinds of games that never really got traction with the geek market. Not simply to resurrect those gaming genres, but to do a full reboot.

It’s not the really exciting future of gaming - we’ll talk about that another time. But it’s a start.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Atlas shrugged

Having talked a bit about Steve Ditko last time, I just have to put in a quick plug for Strange and Stranger, Blake Bell’s book on the great man’s life and work.

There’s not much point in me critiquing Ditko’s work here. It’s all been said better already (by Bell, for one) so I’ll just add that when I was voraciously consuming Marvel Comics the way modern kids do Twilight and alcopops, the official line had Jack Kirby as king of the artists - but, for me, Ditko always had the edge.

To this day, no other comic artist is so breathtakingly cinematic in his storytelling, nor as visually inventive and consistently surprising. I loved seeing Thor knock chunks off rock trolls with his uru hammer, but it was Ditko who kept coming up with new ways to amaze. You know in the Spider-man movie, when you first see Spidey swinging from building to building? The way the sheer momentum flings his limbs into extreme poses? That’s pure Ditko.

So, look: the guy was a genius. Blake Bell’s book is a large-format, lavish production on quality paper, so not cheap. But it’s a glimpse at genius. And it’s cheaper than a bottle of flavoured vodka. So go ahead and treat yourself. Me, I’ve already put in my order for
the follow-up.