Sunday, 31 October 2010

Drinkers of vein-wine

The king wanted a game of chess, but feared that his courtiers were letting him win. So he offered a boon to any man who could beat him. A man requested that if he won the king should reward him with one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, two on the next, four on the next, and so on. It seemed a modest proposal. The king didn't discover until he lost that he could never hope to grant the boon, even by emptying every granary in the land.

Some authorities have extended the same principle to the spread of vampirism. If each vampire were to take just one victim a week, they argue, the number of vampires in the world should double and redouble until quite soon all of humanity would have joined the ranks of the undead. In less than the time from conception to birth, in fact.

Since this has obviously not happened, it follows that the condition of vampirism is not passed on quite so easily or so quickly as people imagine. Actually it is misleading to think of vampirism as though it were some kind of virus at all, and most of the misconceptions about it can be blamed on popular novels like Dracula.

Let us be clear about one thing: there are many kinds of vampire, and few of the vampires of history have had the stature of Count Dracula. Dracula became one of the undead, not by contracting an illness or being bitten by a bat, but by the sheer implacable force of his will. He was a man who simply would not submit to death. With energy born of relentless evil, he set about the task of building an empire of bloodthirsty dead in a manner that most vampires would never conceive of.

A megalomaniac, Dracula desired subjects to serve and worship him. But most vampires yearn for a solitary existence, and would prefer there to be no others of their kind in the world. This is the one and only reason that we are not overrun by the legions of undeath even now.

"O pity the dead that are dead, but cannot make the journey. Still they moan and beat against the silvery adamant walls of life's exclusive city."
What do all vampires have in common? It is much easier to list their differences: some drain life in the form of blood, some by stealing the breath or dreams of their sleeping prey, some (called succubi and incubi) by the enervating snare of their sexuality. Some are animated corpses, while others have no true material form but manifest themselves as extremely vivid and substantial ectoplasmic emanations. Some can pass for human, and may haunt the backstreets of our cities by night. Others, lacking the intelligence and charismatic force of their cousins, are barely more than monsters. The Feng P'o, or Northern Chinese Vampire, for example, has a manlike head but a giant apelike body covered in gore-soaked fur.

Some vampires, such as the Murony of Eastern Europe, can appear in the form of a black dog, cat or crow. Others are bound to a single hideous form - such as the Tzitzi Mimeh, or "Devil Women" of Ancient Mexico. They were the revenants of women who died in childbirth, and on nights of the new moon they would claw up out of their graves and hover around houses where there was a baby or a young child. If you caught a glimpse of their grinning, fleshless faces at the window it was a sure sign that plague would soon strike your household.

Like dragons, vampires have been known to all cultures of the world in one form or another. The Japanese are familiar with vampiric Gaki - souls whose karmic burden is so terrible that they are reborn as malevolent spirits with an unquenchable hunger. The Ketsu-Gaki is the residue of someone who was excessively cruel or violent when alive; it flits about the night like a giant macabre insect, seeking victims whose lifeblood can sustain it. The Yokushiki-Gaki is more like the vampires we are used to in the West. It can appear as an attractive man or woman, cultured and charming, and when it seduces its victims it drains them like a leech.

In Malaysia there are vampires known as Penangga Lan that appear as disembodied heads trailing a mass of bloody entrails as they float through the air. The Langsuir of the Phillipines is a female vampire that punctures a hole in the back of its prey's neck in order to drink the blood; it can hunt in the form of a glittering white owl or use its beauty to ensnare a victim. From Greece and Turkey come reports of invisible vampires called Opir, who interbreed with mortals and who can only be seen and slain by their own deformed offspring. The aborigines of Australia not so long ago lived in terror of a batlike demon called the Garakan, while 19th Century Cairo was haunted by a vampire that tore out its lovers' tongues with a deadly kiss and then drank the spurting blood that pumped from the wound.

"Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for."
In the midst of all these tales of horror there are a few crumbs of hope. Accounts of vampires are almost unanimous in affirming that a vampire cannot enter a household unless invited to do so by someone who lives there. (This perhaps explains why vampires have developed abilities of charm, command and persuasion.) Most vampires, in Europe at least, are driven back by garlic. This must be wild garlic - "sorcerer's garlic" - and it is the small white flowers that the vampire abhors. Garlic cloves give no protection, and regular consumption of garlic is more likely to drive off vampire hunters than the demons themselves.

Mirrors can give some warning when a vampire is present, as it is said that vampires do not cast a reflection. Beware, though: only a mirror of polished silver has this effect, and it only works against Undead of the ethereal variety. A vampire with a true physical existence (a walking cadaver, that is) will still cast a reflection. A vampire of this type may also be immune to that other traditional defense, sunlight. Even Dracula, who was more probably a vampire of the ghostly sort with the ability to manifest in a variety of forms, was able to go about in broad daylight - though it was only at night that he was able to utilize all of his uncanny supernatural powers. Some sources claim that a vampire cannot cross running water, but it is inadvisable to rely on this. It derives from an old folk-belief that running water, particularly southwards running water, is holy and thus impervious to evil spirits. Possibly only a rural vampire who shares this belief will be affected by it.

Faith is the principal line of defense against the Undead. The crucifix, being the most potent symbol of Christ as well as an ancient talisman of the division between life and death, is anathema to any vampire. The vampire's personal religious conviction is immaterial: as a soulless monster, it abhors the sight of the cross and must retreat from it. In the hands of a sufficiently pure and pious individual, the cross can cause a lesser vampire to dissipate altogether. A more powerful vampire is simply "turned" - forced to depart.

Other religions also have some power over vampires. The Gaki of Japan are the result of a glitch during the proper course of reincarnation, the cycle of death and rebirth which Buddhists believe all things are subject to. They can usually be laid to rest by applying the Buddhist segaki rite for the dead, although first the Gaki's grave must be found. Islamic vampires tremble at the name of Allah and can sometimes be led to renounce their evil ways by reference to the Quran. Jewish vampires are motivated by demonic spirits. They are the forerunners of the traditional European vampire and are more powerful and purposefully malign than the vampires of the Slavic countries. Fortunately the elders of the Jewish church have access to magic via the cabbala, and are better equipped to deal with demons than Christian priests are. In former times Chinese vampires were generally courteous and quite conscious of their wickedness, needing only an appeal to Confucian ethics to point out the weakness in their character and impel them to self-destruction. This tendency has declined since the Cultural Revolution, however, and Chinese vampires are now among the most intractable and deadly in the world.

"What disturbs our blood is but its longing for the tomb."
Once a vampire has been rendered helpless by whatever means, it must be destroyed immediately and without pity. The creature will use all its wiles to escape this fate: threatening, conjuring images, pretending remorse, trying to hypnotize its captors, and so forth. Ignore any such ruse - even a show of hesitation is sometimes enough to dispel whatever advantage you have achieved.

First a sharp implement should be driven through the creature's heart. Some authorities insist on a stake of hawthorn wood (because of the hawthorn tree that Joseph of Arimathea caused to sprout at Glastonbury), but it seems that Harker and Morris were able to dispatch Count Dracula with a kukri and a bowie-knife. If the vampire is of the walking corpse variety, the demonic spirit possessing it will instantly be driven out and the body will attain its proper age and state of decomposition. If it is a vampiric ghost, its visible form will disband and you must then seek out its grave and repeat the procedure on its disinterred remains.

Once the corpse is impaled, any appropriate rites for the dead should be given while at the same time cutting off the head and - as an added precaution - the hands and feet. Various other measures can be taken at this point such as sprinkling holy water or wafer over the body. Lastly the remains should be burnt to ashes and those ashes either scattered over water or hallowed ground or else buried at a crossroads. If there is no crossroads nearby, a T-junction will do.

Van Helsing considers that no technique for dealing with and destroying vampires can be considered one hundred percent effective. These creatures assuredly are the most devious and mighty of all Earthbound unholy things, and the fate they threaten their victims with is nothing less than the damnation of the immortal soul. The best advice is not "Approach with caution", it is "Do not approach at all."

* * *

Hope you enjoyed our special Halloween feature. The story of how it came to be written is over on the Fabled Lands blog, along with the short story that eventually became the basis for A Dying Trade. The illustration is by Russ Nicholson - go and check out his blog too because I'll bet he has something really tasty for tonight's festivities.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Renaissance men in training

The last month has been a super-steep learning curve for me and Leo as we’ve been busy making ourselves familiar with the worlds of printing, book distribution, marketing and app development - all at the same time.

At times over the years we have worked in prose and illustrated novels, choose-you-own-adventure style books, role-playing games, comics, television, videogames, websites and Flash design, radio and even movies. And now we’re getting up to speed on the production as well as creative side. It’s exhausting but exhilarating. Like pushing your bike up Porlock Hill and then coming down without brakes.

It means that at long last we can start to firm up some details of what you can expect to see between now and Christmas. First of all there’ll be the long-awaited iPad app. I know – not everybody has an iPad yet. But why not? It’s like going from black and white to colour TV. Comics have dawn-of-time colors on that perfectly-sized screen and, with average prices per issue around $1.99, you’re saving money and shelf space. And with most comics apps (ours included) you get to read the first issue free. So you can try more titles.

A friend of mine who works in marketing asked about our pricing. I said each episode of Mirabilis after the first will be $1.99, because that’s a dollar off the cost of a typical print comic. He was surprised. “In most fields you pay more for convenience, not less.” So there you are. Get ‘em now, as the comics ads used to say, before we come to our senses.

The iPad versions will be the only way you’ll get the full comic book style layout for Mirabilis including letters page and “coming next issue” blurb. But if you aren’t ready to give up buying physical books just yet, we have a couple of options planned. First of all we’re looking into getting our own paperback edition of the Winter book up on We’re risking the supposed stigma of self-publishing but we just like being in control, striking out as pioneers, doing our own thing… Also we don’t have any contacts among US book publishers yet!

Here in the UK, we have a publisher negotiating to release Winter as two 112-page volumes early next year. These will be European-style large format hardbacks, a little pricier than the iPad or paperback options but eminently collectable.

I’m cautious about giving definite release dates as we’re breaking new ground with all these ventures. Each day usually brings an unexpected setback followed by a flash of inspiration to solve it. But Christmas is the season we’re working towards. Updates to come…

Saturday, 16 October 2010


I was sitting on the stairs nursing a Coke and a hangover when the bell went and several hundred kids poured out of assembly like Genghis’s horde. The hangover was Leo’s sister Lucy’s fault. The kids went around me in two waves. I noticed the furtive sidelong looks, full of crafty young speculation. They looked like bundles of twigs in short pants.

One of them stopped in front of me. Genghis himself, all forty-two inches of him. The horde went into slo-mo. “Are you him?”

“I am he,” I said. It was a school, after all.

He nodded, satisfied. The horde drained away. They had established what they needed to know. Sometime that morning, between reading and sums, they would get to hear about something they actually cared about. Because the Turtle guy was here.

They were called the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in Britain. Ninja were banned because some government busybody had decided the very word might incite kids to tiptoe around in black balaclavas and slit each other’s throats. We also weren’t allowed to show Michelangelo’s nunchaku. Back in the ‘70s, a kid in the UK hit another kid with two sticks tied together with rope. Consequently nunchucks were considered a deadly weapon. Unlike the katana, sai or bo, obviously.

How it started: the editor at Random House Children’s Books phoned me up. “Dave, we want to do a series of books for 8-10 year olds. Have you heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?”

“Yes, it’s an indy comic book. Pretty violent. It’s not for 8-10 year olds.”

What did I know? Eastman and Laird had taken the $10 million check. Whatever the TMNTs used to be, they were now the next must-have action figures. And lunchbox. And bedspread.

Whoever made the movie hadn’t been told. That was a dark, bloody affair of revenge in which Raphael got beaten to a jelly. It was a story taken straight from the comics but it wasn’t going to play well on a Saturday morning alongside Scooby Doo. So I rolled off four kid-friendly plotlines and wrote them in a week each. Nice work if you can get it – especially when Random House in the States paid me for the stories all over again. That was gratifying, but not half as gratifying as seeing ninja back in the title.

The editors told me I was the only writer outside the US authorized to come up with completely new TMNT storylines. I doubt if that was true, but I appreciated the flattery. The penny dropped when they came calling for an adult novelization of the movie. “Can you send over a video?” Uh-uh, all they had was the script, which came on a bike that same morning. I read it over lunch and called them back.

“There’s not a lot of story here for a 60,000 word novel…”

“Will you do it?”

“I suppose so.”

“Great. You’ve got three weeks.” Click.

When I finally got to see the movie, there was a whole flashback sequence concerning Splinter’s origin that had never made it off the page. Rightly so, as it would have bogged the movie down, but if you track down a copy of the novelization you can read all that stuff. Stretching a screenplay to novel length is never easy, and I was glad of all the padding. I also tuned up the cricketing jokes. The scriptwriter had put, “You have to eat scones if you like cricket.” Oh, come on, cricket is a gift to a gag writer. Silly mid-off. Googlies. Howzat! And all he could think of were scones?

Back to school. The teachers brought them in class by class. Each time I’d show a video of the TMNT song by Partners in Kryme. The teachers winced through that with teeth gritted in a big smile. And gradually my hangover lifted as I chatted with the kids. What the teachers didn’t get was that this wasn’t just about a movie or a TV show or the toys the kids wanted for Christmas. The Turtles were one of those concepts that sets a spark inside kids’ minds and fires their imagination. About everything. They barraged me with questions: What were the costumes made of? How did the actors do martial arts inside them? What was green screen? How were cartoons made? What was a katana? Did turtles really live in sewers? How do you know if you’re a mutant?

By the time Lucy came to fetch me for lunch, I remembered why I did this. Because the stories you tell kids aren’t just a way for them to while away a couple of hours. Those stories are the beacons that draw them into the wider world, thirsting for knowledge, excitement and understanding. Even stories about green teen crimefighters? Especially those.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Mirabilis murder mystery

A cross-post today to the Fabled Lands blog, where we have news of a Mirabilis adventure game that Leo and I are working on. There's no firm deadline, it's just something we plan to tinker with while working on the Spring book, but I'm hoping we'll have it ready early next year.

It's a whodunit, the working title is Timber! and if you can guess the plotline from that then you deserve one of Leo's virtual wine gums.

The chap above is nothing to do with it, incidentally, but he does feature in Leo's Flash POW game that inspired us to start work on Timber!

Monday, 11 October 2010

National Graphic Novel Writing Month - part 5


It was 1989 and I was reading Hellblazer Annual #1 round at Paul Mason’s place. (Script by Delano, art by Talbot – we didn’t know how lucky we were.) “Guy’s seen a lot of Roeg movies,” I said.

Paul looked at the page. “Huh.” A week later he added, “I thought you were talking nonsense, but I just read an interview with Bryan Talbot where he says he’s heavily influenced by the films of Nic Roeg.”

Movies are my other big passion, so inevitably I spend a lot of time talking about my comics work – and storytelling in general – in terms of cinema. When I was posting about dialogue recently, most of the examples came from movies because I figure they’ll be more widely familiar than if I were to quote, say:
“I’d fall in love, or fall in lust, and at the height of my passion I would think, ‘So this is how it feels,’ and I would tie it up with pretty words.”
Not so easy to place as a classic movie line, perhaps? Though there are some you can’t mistake:
“Soft on scum. Too young to know any better. Molly-coddled them. Let them live.”
But comics are not movies and, as Alan Moore has pointed out, they can only suffer in the comparison:
“The use of cinematic techniques can advance the standards of comic art and writing, but if those techniques are seen as the highest point to which comics can aspire then the medium is condemned forever to be a poor relative of the motion picture industry. That isn’t good enough.”
Comics both allow and demand that the writer supplies visual interest to a scene as well as the plain events and dialogue. It’s the same with movies, true - but comparisons are invidious, as we know. A movie has its own predetermined momentum (unless you choose to hit Rewind) whereas you’ll adjust your reading pace with a comic or graphic novel to fit how much each page gives you to take in. You can flip back easily to check on something earlier – in that sense, the experience is more like a prose novel than a movie. Yet it’s not prose either.

Take a scene where two characters are talking. In a movie you have to cut that right to the bone: the audience is impatient with waffle. In prose, you can let it go on for page after page, and not even bother with what the characters are doing. Eg:
"You have overlooked the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," he said.
Watson stopped walking and stared at him. "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes speared a dock leaf with his cane. "That was the curious incident."
See, that’s too much detail for prose. Any decent editor would strike a red pen through all the dock leaf and stage direction stuff. But in a comic, that isn’t enough. You can have the talk, but you’ve got to keep interest in the scene in other ways too. It’s neither movies nor prose, nor a halfway house between the two. It’s a medium in its own right.

In Mirabilis #3, I planned a long sequence where Gus is telling Jack about the green comet. As exposition, even with the little frisson of uncertainty around Gus, it would lie there on the page like last Friday’s fish. Starting with the sense of unreliability Jack should be getting from Gus, I found a solution that injected surprise, action and danger into the scene. Serendipitously that gave me an opportunity to undercut all Gus’s wordy explanations with another bit of business which has Jack eavesdropping on part of a conversation between McNab and Estelle and hearing (he thinks) nothing good about himself. That accidental inspiration in fact gave me a title ("Outside Looking In") for the sequence when it appeared in Random House’s weekly David Fickling Comic. And as an extra bonus, the way the scene was set up provided an easier and more dramatic way to reveal Gargantua, the cause of that episode’s cliffhanger.

In prose, that same scene would have been so cluttered with different strands that it would have been impossible to follow. In a movie, it would have needed to be rewritten to reduce the expository dialogue while massively amping up the action beats.

Being a frustrated novelist or a wannabe scriptwriter are the wrong reasons for choosing to work in comics. A good storyteller can move between those media, but he or she will appreciate they call for different techniques. That’s why they call it an art.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

National Graphic Novel Writing Month - part 4

You can go haut cuisine:
You should’ve popped the girl... Look.(PICKS UP A SHEAF OF PAPERS FROM HIS DESK.)This Swiss thing? After how long we waited?

Woulda shoulda coulda.

I was a publisher, man, I'd publish the plans. It's the Mona Lisa.

You're too kind.

Why don't you publish the plans?

Yeah, no, I'm saying, that's what I would do if I was in the book business. Unfortunately I'm a thief, so I have to do that thing.
Or go nouvelle:
Show me the money. Show. Me. The. Money.
Today for National Graphic Novel Writing Month we’re talking about dialogue. Howard Hawks used to work with his writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur on what he called three-cushion dialogue. Never simply, “You’ve fallen in love,” but rather, “Now you break out in monkey bites!”

That part is the poetry of dialogue creation – and poetic is the word, even when it’s the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the street:

“If you give this nimrod fifteen hundred bucks, I’m gonna shoot him on general principle.”

I write the plain unadorned English of my characters’ dialogue and then I spend a few days finding the poetry, the oblique way to say it: “I’m staying neutral” becoming “I’m Switzerland, baby” and stuff like that. You need to know each character’s voice and also the overall tone of the whole piece. Mamet writing Heist (where the quote at the top came from) is not the same as Mamet in Edmond or Redbelt. You're not looking for any old oblique way to say it, you're looking for the right way for that character to say it. Sometimes, "I'm staying neutral" is all you need.

Poetry doesn’t have to mean baroque complexity. Writing for the page rather for the ear, you’re not going to want to go the whole Mamet. Keep it simple almost all the time. That way, the parts where you want to take off and soar will have more impact.

Before you get to how a thing is said, you have to decide what is said. And here it helps if there is a good story reason why a character can’t or won’t just come out with exactly what’s on their mind. This is where the subtext of a conversation comes in. Subtext is interesting to the reader because, firstly, it’s more true to life. We rarely say exactly what we mean. And secondly, when we do say exactly what we mean it’s because we’re in a situation of zero conflict, and those situations don’t belong in your story unless it’s right before where you type “The End”.

In the movie Dean Spanley, there’s a scene where the main character, Fisk, is trying to talk to his father about Fisk’s brother’s death in the Boer War. Instead, the old man starts talking about the dog he lost when he was a boy. This is a safe outlet for his real deeper feelings about the son killed in the war. The great thing about this is that it’s not only a plausible surrogate expression of the underlying emotion. Because of the canine connection, it feeds into the bigger picture of the movie too - which is, of course, about a man who remembers his life as a dog.

Dialogue subtext is at its most powerful where a character’s own fears or the pressure of social conformity prevent them from saying what they really mean. Watch a movie like The Remains of the Day or The Wings of the Dove, where the tension in even a simple talk scene is often nearly unbearable.

But another type of subtext readers respond to quickly is when characters are speaking in code. Take this scene from The Third Man, by Graham Greene, in which Martins and Popescu are having a very direct conversation in front of the audience at a literary talk, who think the conversation is about something else entirely:

Can I ask... is Mr Martins engaged on a new book?

Yes, it’s called The Third Man.

A novel, Mr Martins?

It's a murder story. I've just started it. Based on fact.

Are you a slow writer, Mr. Martins?

Not when I get interested.

I see you are doing something pretty dangerous this time.


Mixing fact and fiction.

Should I make it all fact?

Why no, Mr Martins.I'd say stick to fiction. Straight fiction.

I'm too far along with the book, Mr Popescu.

Haven't you ever scrapped a book, Mr Martins?


And you can use subtext also to express the central idea of a work, as in this opening scene of William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.

People kept robbing it.

That's a small price to pay for beauty...
More on writing dialogue for graphic novels on the Mirabilis site. And read these general dialogue tips on K M Weiland's Wordplay blog.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

National Graphic Novel Writing Month - part 3

Okay, enough chit chat. If you're taking on National Graphic Novel Writing Month then you'll have already rolled your sleeves up and got stuck in. So we'll be running some practical advice over the next week or so - starting off with how you make your lead character(s) compelling enough to keep the reader's attention through 48 pages or more.

There are several techniques you can use to make people care about your character:

  • make them resourceful
  • make them brave
  • have them be smart and/or funny
  • show them doing a good deed ("save the cat")
  • show them being unfairly treated (“kill the cat”)
  • show them standing up against unfairness or injustice
  • show them doing something we can relate to

There's nothing wrong with a character having more than one of these qualities! Just don't get lazy and have the character merely be strong or lucky. A smart character like Odysseus has to convince us with his solutions to obstacles in the story, whereas if he just punched his way out of trouble like Ajax then we know that's at the arbitrary whim of the author.

My favorite example of the last bullet point on the list (simple everyday relatability) is the opening scene of the movie Harper, as described by William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade.

It's more important to make a character interesting than to make them likable. Very often you don't want them to start out likable because their redemption may be the point of the story. (Or even their downfall - think of Macbeth or Richard III.) Leaving aside stories, think about the people you know in real life. Isn't it true that you spend more time talking about the person who behaves outrageously or amusingly or unexpectedly or brilliantly, than you do paying attention to that really, really nice friend who is just a little bit boring? Come on, you can admit it - we're professionals here!

How do you make a character interesting? Simple. Show us the side of them that we can see will inevitably lead to conflict. The anticipation of that, and the desire to see how the conflict will play out, will keep your reader riveted to the page.

The illustration above is from my graphic novel Billy Graves, of which you can read the opening half of the first act online with fantastic art by Dan Strange. More about creating compelling comics characters on the Mirabilis blog. And there are truckloads of good general writing tips on Nail Your Novel.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

National Graphic Novel Writing Month - part 2

We’ve all seen Harlan Ellison’s brilliant rant. I know that doesn’t narrow it down much. I mean his rant about the miserable treatment of writers. I used to work with a producer who was fond of saying, “Nobody wants to pay the cockadoodie writer!” Only she didn’t use the word cockadoodie; it was a bit more heartfelt than that.

It was brought home to me this week when a comic book editor told me he expected to pay “name” writers no more than $800 to write a full 22 pages. How fast would you have to churn out the words to make that pay? It certainly puts the target of National Graphic Novel Writing Month into perspective. For NaGraNoWriMo you have to complete the script for a 48-page book by the end of October.

No grumbling, now – based on those rates, the pro writer would expect to do it in under a week. But that’s if you’re writing monthly comic books, the majority of which are intended to be read and chucked away. “Wonderful trash,” as David Fickling once said, “has its place in comics too.” A graphic novel, though, ought to be a work that people will keep, cherish and re-read many times. Here’s Neil Gaiman, quoted in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting by Mark Salisbury:
“I remember being told off by one writer who writes a comic in a day. We were talking and I was saying, ‘I've just finished this last Sandman, and it took me about three weeks to write,’ and this person looked at me and said, ‘I bash them out in a day. How can you afford to do it?’ Because at the time we were only making $1,500 to $2,000 a script. On the other hand, the ten volumes of Sandman are still in print, and they still sell more than anything else does. We've done roughly a million of them in the US alone and well over a quarter of a million in the UK, and over the years they've paid me back for the amount of effort I put into them. There was no guarantee that they would in the beginning, it was just how I felt they had to be done. Looking back, I'm not sure why I was doing it. I definitely wasn't doing it for the money. It was partly the fun, the joy of creating art, and a lot of it with Sandman was just the joy of doing something I didn't feel anyone had done before, which is not something that you get very often in any field of art or literature.”
Sandman was worth all the care and effort Gaiman poured into it. That book was never an example of Mr Fickling’s “wonderful trash” species of comics. It may have been released in monthly installments, but at heart Sandman was always a graphic novel. It’s a work that you keep discovering new layers to, that keeps on rewarding you each time you return to it- in the same way that the works of Dickens (originally serialized, of course) stay on the shelves while airport thrillers are intended to be read once and left in the bin when you check out of your hotel.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is with television. I can enjoy a series like Monk or House, where the episodes don’t really build into much of a bigger whole. And on the other hand you’ve got the shows like The Shield or Deadwood, which genuinely are 13-hour movies. And it's the latter that are the equivalent of graphic novels.

Now, I know lots of people hate that term, but I think it has its place. ‘Graphic novel’ doesn’t have to betoken a badly-drawn semi-autobiographical work about an overeducated introvert losing love and gaining wisdom in a Third World warzone, or New Yorkers living in cockroach-infested apartments while ogling a girl they’ll never talk to. Swamp Thing was a graphic novel. Right from the start, even published as a monthly book, it was one big graphic novel. Watchmen too. Two of my current faves, B.P.R.D. and Hellboy, are so thoroughly conceived as graphic novels that I save up a complete run of issues before I’ll even start on a story.
The NaGraNoWriMo exercise isn’t about Mr Fickling’s “wonderful trash”, it’s about writing a graphic novel like that. To give you an idea of the difference, here is a script for a comic book I wrote in a weekend. That was for an issue of Frankenstein’s Legions (whence the pictures) and I wrote it over a weekend because I was doing it as a favor. The Frankenstein’s Legions script is for an 18 page book. It's rough, improperly formatted and a little underlength, but if somebody was only paying me $800 then I'm not going to spend much longer than a day or two on it.

Now contrast that with the opening episode of Mirabilis. Those 25 pages probably took me about five or six weeks to write – and that only after spending several months planning out the whole story. Mirabilis is intended to be for keeps, it has a good part of my heart and soul in it, and I hope the difference shows.

My point here is not to put you off attempting NaGraNoWriMo. (And boy do they need a better acronym. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s already taken, unfortunately.) I just want to make it clear to everyone – and in particular to the penny-pinching comic book company editors out there – that something of the quality of a great, or even halfway decent, graphic novel is not something you can knock out in a day or two.

Forty-eight pages in thirty-one days is an achievable target, but it’s not an easy one. Bring your best game and, as Ronald D Moore says, write with confidence.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

National Graphic Novel Writing Month - part 1

Once a year, as the nights draw in, aspiring writers bolt the door, disconnect the phone, and buckle down to hammer out a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. That's NaNoWriMo and if it sounds like fun, (a) seek help and (b) don't worry, because that doesn't start for another three weeks. Ah, but in the meantime, what to do with October? Well, ComicMix has declared this to be National Graphic Novel Writing Month and they've got a lot of great tips for writing graphic novels to get you started.

NaGraNoWriMo may not trip off the tongue quite as readily as its prose writing equivalent, but the goal of completing the script for a 48-page OGN in thirty-one days sounds a lot less frantic. Almost leisurely, in fact - just so long as you already have the concept and the plot outline in mind.
I was going to sound off about the commonly held assumption that writing is a breeze and that comics writers in particular have an easy life. They just have to "add the words", after all - how long can that take? Well, I figure on writing one 25-page episode of Mirabilis in a month. I could speed that up, but I don't think it would do much for the quality. Graphic novels aren't quite the same as monthly or weekly comics. You buy a graphic novel, you expect to have it on your shelf for years. At least, I do. And if you collect something like Hellboy or Northlanders or Scalped, you're probably hanging on to those too. But I'll bet you Mignola, Brian Wood, Jason Aaron and co are pouring most of their time, energy and soul into those books. Contrast that with the majority of comics, which are written fast and intended to be disposable.

Thing is, you're not supposed to be spending October writing two throwaway comic books. NaGraNoWriMo is about writing one 48-page graphic novel. A keeper. Now that's a task. But you know what? You can do it. I'll be putting up some tips through the rest of the month, and to start off here's my process for writing an episode of Mirabilis.

I begin with very rough drawings like the ones above. I don't know if you could even call them thumbnails. They tend to get drawn on scraps of paper while I'm eating dinner, or out for a walk. No used envelope goes to waste in our house. There's nothing like a script at this stage. The story comes to me visually first, maybe with single lines of dialogue that I'll write alongside the thumbnails.
So then the next stage is to write all the dialogue, along with any scene descriptions I think Leo and Nikos are going to need. For the first panel on the page above, for instance, I had:

Estelle descending the stairs, smiling for Gertrude’s benefit as she whispers out of the corner of her mouth. Jack whispering urgently as he comes down just behind her.

The Venus fly-trap is also coming down (its little roots barely long enough to manage each step) but looking back the way McNab is going.

JACK (whisper)
We’re going to rely on “McFabulous”?

ESTELLE (whisper)
No choice. Play along with me, Jack.
I guess it's a little like the "Marvel Method" in that the process is story synopsis followed by layouts followed by script, the only difference being that it's me doing all those stages. The artists still haven't seen it at this stage; in fact Leo is typically pencilling twenty pages or so back from this episode, and Nikos will be coloring ten or fifteen pages back from that.

Then I refine the thumbnails into slightly less scrappy layout drawings for Leo to work from, as you can see here. At this stage I keep copies of Jennifer Van Sijll's Cinematic Storytelling and Steven D Katz's Film Directing Shot by Shot close at hand. I have in fact duplicate copies of these books as I tend to walk from room to room while planning out a sequence of panels and I need to be able to pounce on some expert advice at any moment!
I also make any changes at this stage to fit the story to page length. I like to work out a 25-page episode in 5- or 6-page acts, the aim being to hit a major plot point at the end of each act . In this case, you can see that I decided I was squeezing too many panels onto page three, so I shunted that final tier onto the next page. That made more sense in story terms too, because it was the start of a conversation between Dougy and the villain that marked where the scene started to go downhill for the heroes, and fast.
Next the script for the episode goes off to Leo - which is usually an excuse for me to go and spend a few days at his place waaaay out in the backwoods so we can talk through the scenes, think a little about what's coming up in the next episode, and watch a few movies that will help inspire us. For this episode it was The Fearless Vampire Killers, Murder on the Orient Express and Howl's Moving Castle. Beer is usually drunk also. For when we need to get very creative, Leo keeps a bottle of Siberian-temperature vodka in the freezer in one of his outbuildings.
After the pencils stage, I might still be polishing the dialogue but obviously nothing changes in the story itself. In very rare cases we might see the need to change a panel, but usually there are just minor changes before Leo inks the episode and sends it off to Mike Toris, who does the flatting, and Nikos. We keep an "Art & Color Notes" doc online between the four of us that we continually update as any potential problems are flagged and dealt with.

Over on the Mirabilis blog, you can see the whole process laid out in detail for an entire 5-page act - we used to call those "episodes" back when we were running every week in The DFC.

Monday, 4 October 2010

It's clobberin' time

Here’s a post that started out in one place and then veered off in a whole other direction. I was shooting the breeze the other week with Peter Richardson, one half of the awesomely talented Cloud 109 team, and we got onto the subject of early-stage concepting - that sweaty, lip-gnawing period when you’re taking cautious steps in a fog, feeling your way around a project that might be a Michaelangelo masterpiece but could as easily turn out to be an elephant.

I remembered a very early version of the scene from “The Door in the Water” (originally episode 3 in The DFC for 2 January 2009; now part of Mirabilis #1 on the forthcoming iPad app) where Jack is reminiscing about how he got into an argument with McNab at the New Year’s Eve ball. “I was going to clout him, then Gerard stepped in and explained it was a matter of honour.”

Well, at that stage we were ploughing through a bunch of pages, feeling our way as to dialogue and art style. Jack’s regiment was in World War One style uniforms. The Kind Gentleman had a powdered wig and boot buckles the size of dinner plates. Estelle’s hair was Princess Leia scary. We weren’t even sure as to the page size we should be working to, as the DFC’s original brief was for a hardly believable 12.4” x 18.5”. So we just figured to get a whole bunch of rough-cut pages done and then take stock.

That scene on the raft stuck in my mind because Martin and Leo got together – that must have been the summer of 2008, tempus fugit – and did some playing around with a camera, acting out the scenes and trying out different angles and focal lengths. And I was saying to Peter that I preferred the original picture of Jack because it seemed more in keeping with what he was supposed to be feeling. He was acting out the punch he would have liked to plant on McNab’s fat kisser. True, in the same panel he does go on to say, “Pistols at twenty paces. Is that it? Am I dead?” But it’s not really in Jack’s nature to be so melodramatic as to drop to his knees and do a “why me, O Lord?” pose. Also, he doesn’t quite look like Jack in that picture. (Though he does look a bit like Martin!)
So I set to work to dig out those pictures for comparison. And that’s where my preconceptions took a pounding and this post changed tack. Because look at the prototype pencils and then at the way the page ended up. Suddenly it’s clear that Leo and Martin weren’t just fooling around with a camera – they were bringing the strip to life. And the dynamism of the finished page crackles with incredible energy and drama – thanks not only to Martin and Leo, but of course to Nikos’s vibrant colouring work too.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen Mirabilis gathering such narrative momentum, and got so used to being wowed by panel after panel of cinematic brilliance, that I’d been taking it for granted. And then I look back at our first faltering steps as a team and I appreciate how much thought, care and effort Leo and the others have been putting into the art. We’re now poised to start work on the next 200-page season (Spring) and we’ve got undersea kingdoms, Russian witches, Norse gods, Babylonian sphinxes and Indian demons – and that’s just for starters. I can’t wait to see how Leo and the guys turn all those ideas into living, breathing images!