Sunday, 25 July 2010

Dancing with light

To fulfil David Mamet’s main criterion for storytelling, which is to make the audience wonder what happens next, the writer has to do more than just cook up an unpredictable plot. You have to make the reader care about your characters. That comes before anything else.

I was reading a pretty famous comic recently. It’s another one that is supposedly going to get turned into a movie. It starts with two characters talking about some item that’s been stolen, the whole world is in peril if it isn’t found, yada yada. Yet I don’t know who these characters are. The writer does nothing to establish them as individual personalities that I should find uniquely interesting and engaging. They aren’t talking as people really do, they’re just holding up placards that explain the plot.

Who gets it right? Not that many writers in any medium, fewer still in comics. It’s a difficult job and I’m constantly having to chuck out pages I’ve written because this simple truth is elusive. Characters who come to life will make a story come to life. The audience takes them to their hearts and will follow them through all kinds of scrapes. We just enjoy (I’ve said it before) hanging out with them.

This is the beating heart of Garen Ewing’s brilliant and charming adventure series The Rainbow Orchid. It stands out from other comics because you feel like you are joining an extended family of well-rounded characters. They’re your mates and you’re rooting for them all the way. In an epic plot involving family fortunes, life-or-death wagers, ancient secrets, skulduggery, cults, myths, loyalty and betrayal, Garen never loses sight of the importance of grounding us in the characters’ reactions to all these events in which they’re embroiled.

In this second volume, Julius Chancer and his friends arrive in India in their quest for the fabled rainbow orchid, hotly pursued by sexy bad girl Evelyn Crow and her henchmen. Without giving any spoilers, I just want to point out the richness and depth of the story. There’s plenty of thrilling action, but there’s also room to stop and marvel at the sights. Garen evokes his locations so wonderfully that you almost smell the spices in the marketplace, feel the hard seats of the railway carriage, sense the nip in the air as our heroes’ journey takes them up into the hills.

There’s a quiet, moving campfire moment that rounds out Julius’s backstory and develops his relationship with Lily. A dream sequence depicts in just a handful of panels everything about his self-doubt and desires. A betrayal that we see coming carries a poignant sting. Watch characters’ reactions – for example, Lily’s surge of emotions in the last three panels. That’s what makes them feel like real people. This is a book worth a million dumbly hip, smart-aleck zombie-killer comics. Because the author takes the trouble to make his characters live and breathe, we connect with them and so we care what happens next.

Other episodes make us laugh or shudder, a reminder that all the best stories, from Chaucer on, have plenty of room for the whole gamut of human emotions. But these aren’t just peppered in willy-nilly. Garen shows mastery of his craft in where he places every sequence. Look at the final pages. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away, but see how he juxtaposes danger, violence and (maybe) death with a breathtaking moment of wonder at the whole of life and creation. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. Buy the book now (and Volume One as well if you don’t have it) because this is a ride that you simply have to go on.

I realize I’ve talked all about the story and hardly at all about the art. Garen is using a ligne claire style that both suits the meticulous detail of vehicles and locations and that creates a great sense of warmth with the characters. The cover is a great example, but if you’re still not sold then head over to the Rainbow Orchid blog where you can feast your eyes on more excerpts. I just yearn for the day that a British director could get behind a movie of this true homegrown work of UK comics genius.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


I never used to be much of a fan of Jonathan Ross. I could admire the polish and professionalism in the way he transmuted American style late-night chat for UK television, but I was never especially keen on those shows anyway - except for Larry Sanders, obviously. The coolest thing about watching them was being in bed in California instead of London.

Anyway, it all changed for me when I saw Ross's documentary on Steve Ditko. Not only did he communicate exactly the same pitch of enthusiasm, devotion and obsession as I felt myself growing up with Mighty Marvel in the 1960s, he had the irresistible honesty to throw wide his arms and admit to the world: "Yes! I am a comics nerd. The shade of green of Doc Ock's lab clothes matters more to me than all your Beckhams and Madonnas."

This, in Britain, where nerds are not heroes, is the sign of a very brave man indeed. So now Ross is a-okay in my book, and I'm willing to go toe to toe with anybody who has a dismissive quip or withering put-down for his Turf mini-series. So he's not Alan Moore. But he's a better comics writer than many full-time professionals and it's not even his day job. (Or maybe it is now. I don't really keep up with the news.)

Ross is doing a great job of pretty much single-handedly proselytizing the rich and diverse medium of comics to a British public who are indifferent to the entire art form unless it involves either (a) teachers in mortar boards being hit in the face with plates of bangers and mash, (b) funny animals, or (c) profound right-on political comment which is like, ironic, okay, 'cause of being in this medium that's only for kids, see.

Today Ross has managed to talk The Guardian, an ever-so-worthy intellectual UK broadsheet, into giving him several pages to talk about (and to) Jim Steranko. That really is ironic. The Grauniad editors won't have an effing clue what Steranko's work is all about, and given the choice they wouldn't even wrap their designer fish and chips in it. Steranko is, of course, the master of dazzling visual storytelling, a major and somewhat unsung star in the late-'60s Marvel firmament. Which is why he is often featured in Peter Richardson's informative posts on the Cloud 109 blog (for example here and here) - usually at great risk to my credit card, which is immediately whisked off to Amazon to buy the books Peter has been writing about. Red Tide will of course be next. And by the way don't miss Jonathan Ross's reports from Comic-Con. Not too shoddy for a bloke who started his career as a mere primetime TV star.

Monday, 19 July 2010

New look website

More cryptic hints today, but I can give you some solid clues now. We've been working on the first eight comic covers (you can see them over on the Mirabilis website) and a lot of our tears and sweat have gone into converting from the A4 format imposed by the original DFC serialization of episodes 1-10. The all-new comic book issues use a format ratio nearer to 4:3 - and that's your first clue.

It could have been worse, incidentally. The original specification for The DFC insisted the comic was going to be in Berliner format, which is about 18.5 by 12.5 inches. That's the same size as newspapers like Le Monde, which would have been an absolute distaster for serious story-based comics (as distinct from the funny pages) and could never have been turned into viable trade paperbacks. Luckily all we had to do this week was wrestle everything down from A4, a ghastly enough page size for comics but not an unmitigated disaster.

The other clue is that there's no title text on these covers, unlike the ones we ran off at Christmas. But why, you ask? Well, that's why we call it a clue. More details, with a bit less of the enigmatics and some firm dates, figures and schedules, to come very shortly.

By the way, be sure to check out the new flipbook episode because it's now the whole of the first issue complete with letters page. This is the new look of Mirabilis. A lot is going to be happening around here in the next six weeks and you won't want to miss any of it.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Something wicked

Back around Christmas I had some fun putting together a bunch of comic book covers and I mentioned how it would be nice to live in the parallel universe where we could actually release Mirabilis in that form.

Well, Fringe-like, that shimmering gateway may be opening, and you won't need Walter Bishop to get you there either. (Which is probably just as well.) Snap a wishbone, cross all digits, and look out for falling stars. We hope to bring you some exciting news very soon.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The real measure of success

The girl came over because somebody at the bar told her I’d sold a million books that year. “Is that true?” she asked.

I nodded.

“So you’re a success?”

“I guess I am.” (I could have added, “This year.”)

She slid into the next seat with a sudden smile. “I admire success,” she said significantly.

This for me was a moment of real interest. (The only one in that conversation, actually; she worked in marketing.) It was the moment that I realized I don’t admire success. I admire talent, I admire craft, and I admire achievement. They don’t always come with success as a package deal. Just ask Van Gogh – or Dan Brown.

So when a publisher pressed me recently to say what I thought about Mirabilis, it was hard to give an answer. The publisher meant: did I think it would be a success. But all that matters to me, really, is have we been successful at what we set out to do.

And that we have. I am always praising Leo’s and Nikos’s and Martin's work, but in this instance I’m not too shy about praising my own either. I wanted Mirabilis to be “a modern Tintin” in the sense of an adventure with a family of characters who you feel warmly towards. I’m very happy with how it turned out. If it were a movie, it would be what Tarantino calls a hang-out movie. You keep coming back to it because it’s fun hanging out with these characters. “Only connect!” - that’s what I’m proud of. The achievement is what matters.

The movie question was what the publisher was really fishing for an answer to. Did I think Mirabilis would join the long stream of graphic novels getting turned into films? I might have said there are an awful lot of graphic novels that don’t. I might have said that most graphic novels that get turned into movies should never have been. But what can you answer, when your own criterion for success is personal, a measure of craft, and theirs is financial? The languages are too different.

You’ve got to have at least a sprinkling of the second kind of success, otherwise the first is unobtainable. Can’t paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling if the Pope never heard your name. But how much success do you want? Well now, there’s a question.

“Just enough,” I’d say. If twenty people grok your comic – well, you’re going to have to fit it in around your day job. If twenty thousand people love it, then it can be your day job. If two million people like it, though – well, bask in that, but it’s probably not your comic anymore.

Take Watchmen, ticking over pretty nicely with a hundred thousand fans for a couple of decades. The movie comes out and suddenly a million copies of the graphic novel are sold. Twenty million people pay to see the movie. Is that a good thing? Only if you sell action figures; I don’t think it meant a jot to Alan Moore. If he enjoys meeting interesting Watchmen fans, I’ll bet he found far more of them among that original core group. All success did was to dilute the people who appreciated Watchmen the way Moore intended in a vast ocean of casual browsers who didn’t really get it. That’s fashion, not passion.

Elitist, you say? Gimme a break, I’m a comics fan. I’m not talking about the poems of Rilke here. I’m speaking as an artist, not a critic. You create a work of art to communicate something. And what you want is for the people to whom that something has meaning to come across your work and be moved by it. And the people who find some other reason to like it – well, good luck to them. They should have a nice life. But you have no investment in them. They admired your garden as they walked by, that's all.

Being true to your own vision doesn't have to mean starving in a garret. The choice isn't necessarily personal success or financial success. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books come in for some flak because most reviewers find them tame. And that may be true; her brew of teen alienation is administered in a very weak dilution compared to, say, Kate Thompson's Creature of the Night, or Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin. I've only read the first book in the series and, while I don't share the opinion of those who think it's badly written, still it doesn't have anything like the subtle emotional insights of an author like Jill Chaney in her book Angel Face. But my point is that the Twilight books are genuine. Ms Meyer is writing what she wants to write. This is her version of vampires, and you may not care for it but at least you can't say it's manufactured to find an audience. That it did find quite a big audience is the icing on the cake for Ms Meyer, and I hope she enjoys talking to all the fans. I suspect she probably does. But her real achievement is that she had a vision and she put it on paper.

Francis Ford Coppola said recently, “The bigger the budget, the stupider [the movie] has to be, because it has to appeal to everyone. The smaller the budget, the freer you can be.” Another wise gentleman spoke to me the other day of having “a keen eye for volumes brimming with tone, atmosphere, character, and individuality - the comic book version of the great film producers of early Hollywood.”

And between those two statements I realized that’s where we want to be with Mirabilis. This is a labor of love. We do want it to make money. I think it will. We need it to make enough to pay our grocery bills, at least, so that we can go on with it and tell the whole story. But we don’t have to chase success – we must not – at the expense of the story and the characters and the soul of the thing. God forbid it turns into Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3. (Comparisons with PotC 1, you will notice, I find perfectly acceptable.)

All our experiences with Mirabilis over the last year or so have led us to this point. Like any revelation, it makes life so much simpler. We now know what we have to do: just be true to the work, make it available to those who want it, forget about anything that doesn’t serve the creative honesty of the project. Yes, it should be obvious. What can I say? Sometimes you have to go on a journey to arrive where you started and know the place for the first time.

That’s why Mirabilis will stay in our control, and no offer of movie millions (or even television thousands) will take it away from us. Because then it wouldn’t be Mirabilis, it would just be the latest corporate pod-product pretending to have a heart. It would risk becoming the awful zombie parody of itself which all wildly successful franchises eventually fall prey to.

You may now be saying, “Dream on, buddy. Your little comic strip would never get as big as something like Star Wars anyway.” And I agree. I hope it’s too personal for that. As big as Stardust would suit us just fine.

Quoted in The Guardian, Ricky Gervais says that the secret is to care about the project, not the money or the accolades: "I went into every meeting [about The Invention of Lying] with one great strength - I was always ready to walk away. I don't care if they say no and that makes me bulletproof. They don't know what to say when I say I don't care about the money. The room literally goes quiet." He adds: "If you want to make a good film, try to make your film for £40." (Note that laser-focussing on the quality of the work itself has not meant that the other kind of success eluded Mr Gervais - far from it.)

The satisfaction of a craftsman, the pride of a creator, the rapture of an artist. Those are the true measures of success. Accept no substitutes.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Go ape

Another old post revisited today so you can see what Nikos and Leo made out of my sketch - see below - which seems incidentally to have been set on Eurostar rather than the Orient Express.

Inspector Simeon began with the toy orang-utan in a top hat and opera cape who my friend Steve Foster used to have sitting by his telephone. My Mum made the opera cape. Steve called him Zak. Zak had a good innings, but when Steve got married it was time to put away nerdish things. I hope Zak found a good home, but I doubt if he’s nowadays so nattily dressed.
The orang-utan in fancy clothing came about because Steve and I had both been tickled by the corny movie version of Murders in the Rue Morgue, particularly the notion of the killer leaving a strikingly clear outline, including flowing opera cape, after jumping through a pane of glass. Wanting to give Jack a “friendly adversary” to balance his not-always-trustworthy mentor, Gus, I switched Zak to the other side of the law and gave him a more distinguished name. So was born Inspector Primo Simeon of the Sûreté.

Somewhere along the way , Simeon lost Zak’s elegant sartorial sense and acquired more of an honest, almost bohemian, style with crumpled coat and floppy painter’s hat. And quite right too. You should never trust a fella who dresses too well.