Saturday, 30 April 2011

The dead travel fast

Walpurgis Nacht in Germany and Eastern Europe is the time for witches and spectres to roam abroad. Halloween might seem a better time for that than May Eve, but the principle is the same. As seasons change, there’s the chance for unnatural things to slip between the cracks.

In the deleted opening chapter from Dracula, Harker has already sent his coachman away with the rash assertion that, “Walpurgis Nacht has nothing to do with Englishmen” when he finds himself outside a tomb in the woods near Munich:
"Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad - when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone - unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me!"
Chin up, Jonny boy. At least you’re not in Transylvania. Yet.

The images here come from Mirabilis episode sixteen (“The Dark Side”) back from the days when we were running in The DFC in 5-page episodes rather than the 25-page issues we have now. It was timed to appear in print in the week of Walpurgis Night (although in story chronology the action there is still only mid-January) but, of course, The DFC was already buried in unconsecrated ground by May 2009. Never mind - we kept right on going with all the crazed energy of one of Dracula's Szgany servitors and are now working on what would be episode forty-three in DFC reckoning.

Turning to a whole other continent of vampiric lore, here’s a little bit of bitey action with an Indian flavour that I wrote years ago for the bright young film-making team of Dermot Bolton (producer) and Dan Turner (director). Turn down the lights, draw your chair closer to the screen, and shiver at the story of A Dying Trade part 1 and part 2.

Where’s Mr Pointy when you need him?

Friday, 29 April 2011

Princes, kings and heroes

“It’s usual in these stories,” David Fickling reminded me, “for the hero to be marked out by destiny. Often he’s a prince, for example.”

I didn’t want either Jack or Estelle to be predestined for greatness, preferring instead to explore the idea that the hour (or year, in this case) produces the man (and woman). On the other hand, I wanted Mirabilis to be commissioned for The DFC so I probably tried to get away with a noncommittal “Um.”

The heroes of fairytales are often royal, a shorthand for them being the sons of gods as they are in myths, because if you take a scion of royal blood and have him brought up in a woodsman’s hut you’ve got immediate rooting interest. The tension in such a gross disturbance of natural law means that the story practically tells itself, unfolding nicely until the lad sits at last on the throne that was always meant for him.

That seems too easy though. I would’ve preferred it if Arthur was not born to draw that sword, had been just a clever peasant who rose to the occasion. People who crown themselves, as Napoleon knew, create a more lasting myth. Likewise when Don Blake saw the inscription: “Whoever wields this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor” it seemed to say that an ordinary man could achieve greatness. It was only later that we found out he’d been Thor all along.

Leaving aside the X-Men, for whom destiny was in the double helix, most of the old Marvel heroes had heroism thrust upon them and had to grow into the part. Peter Parker may have been the archetypal orphan, but there was nothing special about him until the spider bit his hand. That’s what I liked, but it seems from Wiki that they since retconned it:
Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski began writing The Amazing Spider-Man with #471. Two issues later, Peter Parker, now employed as a teacher at his old high school, meets the enigmatic Ezekiel, who possesses similar spider powers and suggests that Parker having gained such abilities might not have been a fluke - that Parker has a connection to a totemic spider spirit.
Totemic spider spirit..? Ugh. Just, ugh.

Princes in fairytales embody the archetypal hero in rejuvenated form. “His greatest virtue is intuition,” says J.E. Cirlot (A Dictionary of Symbols) and who can doubt it: Arthur handing Excalibur to Uryens, Alexander taming Bucephalus, Luke deciding to just go with the Force. Each shows that, whatever wise gray heads may think, youth is stronger for not knowing what’s impossible.

Yet maybe the facile storytelling trick of having your hero royally born to greatness is wearing thin with today’s sophisticated audiences. Harry Potter, who appears at first to have everything including the birthmark, turns out merely to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, his special seal of greatness being earned not by birth but by accident and the magic of a mother's love. Likewise Lyra in His Dark Materials - despite being a Moses-like foundling, and having the requisite exceptional upbringing, she is after all just an ordinary girl. Her personality, not her pedigree, is what makes her special.

That’s how I think of both Jack and Estelle: exceptional but no more exceptional than anyone else might be. You will find little nods throughout the Mirabilis story in the direction of a kind of kingship. I won’t give any spoilers here, except to say that they all tie in to the question of whether one can be born heroic or must struggle with one’s self-birth as a hero. Neither Jack nor Estelle has any midichlorians (ugh, again) in the blood, no royal birthmarks, no prophecy to make their greatness a simple matter of jumping through hoops. In the end, we're all princes if we want to be.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Mirabilis e-comics are best bought from

The first Mirabilis hardcover goes on sale in just over a week, the second volume is likely to follow within two months, and we're back to working full time on season two. So what could possibly go wrong? Here's what: an update to the iPad app which, despite being approved by Apple, turns out to contain a fatal bug that prevents you from downloading any of the issues. Epic fail is not an overstatement.

If you already had version 1.0 and just got the update, you can fix everything by deleting the new version from your iPad, then sync with iTunes on your computer to reinstall version 1.0 of the app. You'll need to restore the issues you already paid for, but you don't (of course) have to pay for them all over again. The old app will just re-download them, and in a minute or two you'll be good to go.

It was particularly annoying to hit this bump in the road as we had planned an update with lots of cool new features, including a Read Next Issue button and a social networking feature whereby you could tell friends about Mirabilis. None of those were in the 1.1 update, though, which really only had a new front page. So I guess it's a case of fixing what ain't broke and suffering the consequences. Doh.

Our hard-pressed coder, Simon Cook, is unfortunately on vacation this week so we won't get the new version of the app fixed for some time. But Leo has been in touch with Apple, who promise to try and revert back to version 1.0 as soon as possible. In the meantime, I'm in the odd position of having to tell everybody not to get the Mirabilis app - and if you do have it, don't update to version 1.1. What we'll aim to do is stick with version 1.0 for the time being, as it does the job perfectly well, and we'll only update when we can bring in a whole lot of new features in one go.

Even this cloud has a silver lining, as all eight issues of season one are now available on, whose tech allows you to buy once and view the issues on multiple platforms including iOS, desktop and Android. And as a bonus, for a limited time only, issues #1 and #2 are both free. Get them from here.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Nothing but blue skies

The glorious early summer weather that London is enjoying at the moment provides the perfect excuse for a photo session with the scrumptious new Mirabilis hardback from Print Media Productions. This is the first copy to reach Britain - the rest are even now en route by lorry from the print works in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or possibly resting in a lay-by while the drivers fit in a well-earned cuppa and a sandwich.

I've previously gone on record as saying that the Mirabilis iPad edition looks "better than print", but that was before I saw the quality of colour printing that publisher Ivo Miličević has brought to this project. These books really look amazing - even better than iPad, in fact - and are such a feast for the eye that they almost eclipse the ravishing Dirty White Candy, who took time off from her punishing schedule of blogging, tweeting, script-doctoring and novel-writing to pose for the camera in a Mirabilis t-shirt.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Interview on Guys Can Read

Guys Can Read is a must-not-miss podcast series in which co-hosts Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill take a weekly look at books. What's really refreshing about their shows is that, no matter whether they're tackling a comic book or a literary classic, they always bring the same respectful attention, enthusiasm and demand for high storytelling standards.

Their love of story really crackles across the airwaves (I know but, come on, it sounds better than "cables") and it came as no surprise to me that Luke is working on his Literature Ph.D. while Kevin is the author of a exciting new fantasy series called Nikolas and Company that I think will appeal to Mirabilis readers.

I was honored to be asked onto their 50th show and we had a great time talking about comics and writing in general, role-playing games, fantasy, science fiction, mythology... Lots of cool stuff. And you know what? It's not a private party - you can come too. Jump in right here and then come tell me what you thought.

Monday, 18 April 2011

This is the universe. Big, isn't it?

“One is starved for Technicolor up there.” So says Marius Goring as the Conductor, a sort of bureaucratic ghost sent to Earth to convince David Niven that he needs to give up his life in order to balance Heaven’s books.

If the Conductor was looking for Technicolor, he wouldn’t find it done better than in Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 movie A Matter of Life and Death. Commissioned to improve UK attitudes to the US servicemen who remained stationed in Britain after the war, the movie almost immediately exposed the gaping cultural differences disguised by our common language. The title was changed to Stairway to Heaven for the US theatrical release, and the US censor took scissors to an early scene where Niven, encountering a little nude boy on the beach, assumes he’s already in the afterlife. The movie's humanistic message only escaped intact because it must have been too subtle for the studio suits.

Powell said:
“In the last twelve years, sixteen million human lives had been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas. The words ‘life and death’ were no longer the great contradictions they had been. They were just facts. Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy. Two worlds were fighting for one man’s life. It was indeed a matter of life and death. And now we were told that [in the USA] we couldn’t have ‘death’ in the title. […But ] after all, there was a stairway in our film, a moving stairway, and it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word.”
If you haven’t seen A Matter of Life and Death then why are you even reading this? Go and get it now, from Amazon or Netflix or anywhere else you can. And while you’re at it, why not take a look at E M Forster’s short story “The Celestial Omnibus” too? It provides another look at that particular English whimsy that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century. Except of course that Pressburger was Hungarian and Forster was Anglo-Irish and Welsh… Oh, I’ve been here before.

The movie is shot in full color and, for the scenes set in what might be Heaven, in monochrome – not black and white, but bleached color film that gives those sequences a fittingly pearly glow. The Conductor is trying to get Niven’s airman to accept that he died along with the rest of his bomber crew. But there’s a hitch. In his borrowed day, the airman has fallen in love. And thus begins a trial for his right to forego Heaven. Or, just maybe, it could all be in his mind, as the climax takes place while he’s lying on the operating table undergoing emergency brain surgery. You won’t object to the ambiguity. All the things that matter in the universe are in the mind, after all.

The reason I was watching A Matter of Life and Death for what must be the twentieth time is that James Wallis, former publisher of Dragon Warriors and brilliant game designer in his own right, recently released a mini-game inspired by it. The game is called Afterlives and is set in the celestial courtroom of the movie’s third act. It’s not easy to see how you’d play it – James suggests tying it in with a roleplaying campaign, but I suspect few campaigns would have the frivolous tone required. Not that that matters. As with James’s equally essential parlor game Baron Munchausen, the real joy is in the sparkling prose and dry humor.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Not so green as cabbage-looking

As part of our policy of listening to our readers (see comments for the Kapow! report) Leo noticed that quite a few people said they bought Mirabilis for the cabbages from Yuggoth - so here they are. In season one they just get three panels and then they're cooked, but I'm sure we haven't seen the last of them. They just need to lick the refrigeration problem. (If it's not too big of a spoiler, I have a feeling aphids will see them off in the end.)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

"Ugly, unaesthetic and repulsive"

The Times Literary Supplement in 1953 took a very dim view of comics. At the London Book Fair on Monday, Paul Gravett read out the full TLS article from which that quote comes, the thrust of the article being that the medium of comics had been given long enough to prove itself and, having failed to produce a masterwork, should be put down. (The same argument applied in Sparta to the boys who came last in cross-country - very definitely a view that still prevailed at my school in the early '70s.)

The panel were discussing "Graphic novels as literature" and included, among others, Kevin O'Neill and John Harris Dunning, author of Salem Brownstone. It directly addressed the high art vs low art question we've been pondering on this blog of late. Some of the "graphic novels" shown were very high art indeed, so high that you'd need to pack an oxygen bottle if you're not a creature of pure intellect such as many of the traditional book publishers seem to be targeting. GN is in inverted commas there because, as Kevin O'Neill pointed out, many comics creators are uncomfortable with the term: "It's like people using the word 'erotica' to disguise the fact that they're really interested in porn."

John Dunning picked up on that too, bemoaning the snobbish, high-minded attitude of publishers who are disdainful of "comics" but will publish "graphic novels" as long as they're not too brightly colored and deal with grown-up issues like cancer, unemployment or racism. Luckily some great graphic novel creators slip under the wire even so - Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds - but it was impossible not to pick up from the publishers a sense that the smart, ironic tone of these books meant they could turn up at cocktail parties and not have to hide behind the pot plants. It's a fair bet they're not going to be publishing Rex Mundi or The Walking Dead anytime soon. I don't think they'd care much for Love & Rockets either, come to that.

After a spirited rant that drew a discreet British murmur of approval from the front rows, Dunning went on to talk about the benefits of having a sophisticated high end to the comics/GN market. It has freed up forms, encouraging comics at all levels to experiment with pages without text, for example. "To have impact, comics need to be longer," he said, pointing out that the traditional comic book is just a short story. Manga stories often run to several hundred pages and it's necessary to move towards at least the same kind of length as a movie before people will start to take comics seriously. You need that space if you're going to properly explore a theme. As Leo and I are creating an 800+ page epic that was originally serialized in 5-page minisodes, that was a particularly timely reminder to us not to neglect the tropes of memory, prejudice, identity, thought v feeling, etc, that form the background weave of Mirabilis. It can be easy to forget that when you just have to get a character through a door and across a room.

We should be glad that traditional British publishers are willing to entertain comics of any sort, even if their inherent distaste for the medium inclines them towards self-consciously respectable forms (in the same way that the late and utterly unlamented UK Film Council only backed the worthiest cinema projects) because it is nonetheless a foot in the door of bookstores. I went into Waterstones on Oxford Street and found a wall of personal comics picks individually reviewed by the store manager, with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in all its lairy glory right there alongside Maus and Palestine. There's room for comics and graphic novels, low and high forms, even for beauty and ugliness. A thriving art encompasses them all.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

KAPOW continues

He thought he was out, but they sucked him back in. I'm talking about Leo and the noisy comics nirvana that is London's Kapow! Comic Convention. He's been staying with us in south-west London (a daily 8-hour commute from Somerset being less than ideal) and bravely holding the fort up in Islington, struggling onto the Tube with giant posters of Estelle in Goth gear and trying to draw superheroes he's never heard of, while I get to stroll across Wandsworth Common in the sunshine and tinker with the script for Mirabilis #10.

But don't think I wouldn't swap in an instant. At Kapow! Leo is getting to meet loads of fellow comics creators - not only our former colleagues on The DFC but new friends throughout the industry - artists, writers, publishers, journalists and fans alike.

This is pretty much the first time Mirabilis has been unveiled to the public and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately we still don't have copies of the UK hardcover books (they're traveling across Europe at this very monent) but Leo was able to take along a few of the limited-edition TPB editions. If you bought one of those off him yesterday, make sure to store it in an airtight box as it's already a collector's item. Particularly gratifying was the guy who bought Winter volume one only to come back an hour later saying, "I read the first 20 pages over lunch and I already know that I must have volume two."

If you want to meet Leo, he's on Table 8 today. Go and say hi, chat about Mirabilis - and I think he might be keeping a couple of emergency reserve copies of the trade paperback under the table, so just give him the secret RMS handshake and say I sent you. Just don't ask him to draw Kraven the Hunter.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

To France and Back

Leo here! I've just returned from a trip to Caen in Normandy, France to attend the 10th comic festival, "Des Planches et des Vaches", at the kind invitation of organiser and perpetual dynamo of bande dessinée enthusiasm, Eric Le Pape. I went with a small British contingent of fellow fantasy art and comic creators, Manon (Emily Hare), Kev Crossley and Dave Kendall.

After disembarking the ferry we were whisked away to the venue, La Fonderie, and the first of many fabulous meals cooked freshly, consumed with quantities of wine and great conversations with our hospitable hosts. After supper we looked around the extensive and beautifully presented exhibition of the star artist of the festival, Vincent Mallié.

Every year the festival highlights a single artist whose contribution to the art form has been particularly notable. The black and white originals showed beautiful line work and compositions, along with numerous patched corrections and changes that displayed how Vincent constantly changed his work to find the very best outcome.

Saturday morning saw us nervously take our places in La Fonderie, a large community hall on the outskirts of Caen, along with the 47 other artists. The doors opened and trickle of visitors was soon followed by a flood as the morning progressed. Dave, Emily, Kev and myself were soon drawing for the excited crowds. It quickly became apparent that there was no easily defined "type" of French comic enthusiast. We drew for children, teenagers, parents and grandparents, everyone of them delighted and respectful of our drafting skills. While we had a steady stream of interested customers the artists already established in bande dessinée had long queues of fans, so dedicated that they had brought fold out chairs and flasks of coffee.

I took a little time out to look through the bookstall selling hundreds of the "Albums", the hardcover large format favoured in France. As always I wanted to buy the lot, but had to settle for as many as my fist of euros would allow. What joy! What a broad selection of stories and art styles, from crime to fantasy, thrillers to love stories, full of every character you could imagine except, thankfully, lycra-clad superheroes.

I only had a couple of samples of Mirabilis as the UK hardback version published by Print Media hasn't quite emerged. (More news on this in just days now!) It was a shame as there was a great deal of interest in Mirabilis, and I was forced to turn away the proffered Euros. The conclusion, was that Mirabilis would be a perfect fit on any French shelf, and so Dave and I will be working hard this year to find European publishers and get it translated not only into French, but other languages too.

We returned to Portsmouth too soon, but full of inspiration and excitement, and a little despondency that the pure delight for "BD" is only fractionally evident on this side of the channel. I sit down now to work on the next set of roughs for Mirabilis with my Level 1 Idiot's Guide to French playing on the mp3. Viva Des Planches et des Vaches!

Next stop, Kapow! This coming weekend. See you there!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Is it a story about me?

“Once upon a time there was a handsome young prince…”

“Was his name David?” Or (having the art to conceal one’s interest even at a tender age): “Did he have blond hair and a red pedal car?”

That stage doesn’t last long. As we get older, we stop expecting to be cast in the starring role, but we do want to be poured into the skin of the main character. No longer an avatar of our everyday selves, they become a persona we adopt. A channel for us to vicariously live another life.

The first thing an author has to think about, ahead of making a lead character likeable (which is overrated) or interesting (which is underrated) is to make him or her relatable. Without that, we can’t identify with his predicament. And if we’re always watching from the outside we’re never going to care.

Humans empathize, but they also fear otherness – a paradox for the writer. To make an interesting story, you must take the reader on a strange journey, in the company of the kind of character who would undertake that journey. Yet we need to see enough of ourselves in him or her to start with, or we won’t connect.

Does that mean the lead character has to be exactly like us? There certainly are Everyman figures in some of the most powerful stories. Think of Neo, too frightened to get out onto that window ledge. Or most of Hitchcock’s hapless heroes. But most of the time if a writer starts off with a character who’s just like the audience, it's with with the sole intention of whisking them out of Kansas as quickly and rudely as possible.

Interesting stories deliver their relatability in unexpected forms. In Essential Killing, Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban insurgent. What’s relatable about that? He’s running for his life! Another movie starring Gallo, Buffalo 66, introduces his character in a way I can guarantee everyone on the planet will relate to. If you haven’t seen it, take a look.

A story begins with something we can relate to and takes us towards a place we aspire to be. From farm boy to Jedi Master – or Man of Steel. Few of us prefer stories where the hero stays exactly like us throughout. Mostly we're willing to make some kind of imaginative leap to get into the character’s skin. Chances are plucky young Luke Skywalker was just a bit too much of a sap to be your hero of choice. Many found the bad-boy sneer and beat-up charm of Han Solo more to their taste. There was a hero in need of redemption. And more importantly he was cool.

Relatability means not just like us, but like we’d like to be.

If your audience is small and has very specific interests, you can trade on their fear of the Other to create a strong identity they will eagerly embrace. For mumblecore fans, the world is divided into twentysomething, white, middle-class slackers – and then there's everybody else, but they don’t count.

Yes, that’s a shockingly unfair and sweeping generalization just to illustrate a point. Here’s another: for sci-fi geeks, the hero simply needs to be an elf, vampire or hitman. Preferably all three. And clad in black leather. That’s all they're going to need. Cool is their revenge on the world that’s excluded them, and it’s sufficient to provide the hero with all the relatability he or she needs. Writing for that audience, you may not even need what Blake Snyder called a Save the Cat scene designed to ease us into empathy. A bar full of lowlifes, the door smashes down, and the vampire manhunter comes in with shotguns blazing – with that first scene the geeks are hooked, their popcorn forgotten. These are folks that don’t need any foreplay.

If you’re not an urban fantasy geek and what I just said makes you feel smug – don’t be. The rest of us are just as shallow. Often the only ingredient necessary for a character the audience wants to relate to is to make them a handsome prince or beautiful princess. There’s a reason that movie stars get paid a tenth of the production budget, and it’s not usually because you’d kick them out of bed. A recent movie review criticized Luc Besson for casting too beautiful an actress in the part of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Oh, wake up and smell le café. That would be valid only if the intended audience was a tiny hardcore of bande-dessinée fans (like yours truly). Monsieur Besson didn’t invent our preconceptions, he just has to cater to them. Personally I prefer the characterful and far from fragile Adèle of the comics, but I can see why a director with his eye on the broader market can't afford to think that way.

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes how he accidentally stumbled on the importance of relatability when he was asked to write an opening credits scene for his movie Harper. It’s a masterclass in making us care about a hero.

Now get what I’m saying. They don’t have to be likeable. Remember the parable of poor, well-meaning, young Luke Skywalker and shoot-first-and-never-mind-the-questions Han Solo. Jack Ember, the hero of Mirabilis, has a chip on his shoulder. The scene early on where he gets promoted, he is basically being as mouthy as hell and deserves everything he gets, good and bad. I see Jack as a young John Lennon. That way, he feels more real and hopefully you find his flaws make him more relatable. If I’d made him passively hard-done-by, a sentimental working-class hero wringing his cloth cap while gazing in envy at the uncaring privileged – well, ugh.

Of course, I didn’t write myself a memo: “Must make Jack relatable.” I prefer writing him that way. But I did stop to consider that the reader doesn’t know anything about my character to start with. I can’t just assume you’ll empathize with him. It’s my job as writer to create some scenes that show you why you should.

You may say, “Oh, but I just write for myself.” Sure, so does every writer worth reading. But unless you’re writing fanfic, you want to reach out to an audience of people who aren't necessarily like you. You aren’t just preaching to the choir. A craftsman finds a way to connect, not to willfully seal themselves in a niche and damn everybody outside. If you do that, you’re not an artist, you’re a cultist.

Relatability isn’t hard. It’s what we all strive to project every time we meet someone new. It’s only in zombie films that the entire human race wants to shoot each other the moment legal restraints are removed. In reality we desire that spark of connection more than any other, so we don’t stand sulkily in the corner expecting to be liked. We reach out. We engage. Assuming you’re not psychotic or prejudiced against the other person, you’ll try to find common ground. And that’s all you need to do with your lead character – just remember they are meeting the reader for the first time. And first impressions are the ones that count.