Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Eyes on the road

I've had my head down the last week tweaking the various versions of the Binscombe Tales series (see previous post) which is why there's been a dearth of Mirabilis-related material lately. But the good news is that's going to be fixed in a major way very soon, as we'll be bringing you nearly two weeks' worth of daily Mirabilis strips as a trailer for the first Spring book due next year.

In the meantime, although the Binscombe Tales books don't go on sale till October, there's already a trailer for them too, in the form of a story called "Eyes" which you can view on BookBuzzr (below), or as a free EPUB here, or as a Kindle version here, or PDF here. I feel guilty for neglecting you, that must be what it is.

"Eyes" (also known as "It Has Been Said") is one of my favourite Binscombe Tales. And if it should put you in mind of a certain long-running horror movie franchise, be aware that the story was originally published by the Haunted Library over a decade before the cameras started rolling on the first in that series. And there are twenty-five other tales in the series, each with its own killer weird concept. If you like ghost stories, horror, modern fantasy and dark SF, you'll want to keep an eye out. Um, okay, maybe that's a poor choice of words, considering...

In a few days we'll be back with more news of the Mirabilis daily strip. Don't miss.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Weird tales of old England

Leo and I do a whole bunch of work-for-hire jobs to finance the Mirabilis issues that are what we really care about. Because that's the life of a self-publishing comics team - not too dissimilar to bank robbers working in Starbucks to pay for the acetylene torches, I guess. But every so often we do at least get to work on something we're honestly passionate about. One such project is the Binscombe Tales series of weird tales that we're editing on behalf of Fabled Lands LLP.

My first encounter with the Binscombe Tales was in the late 1980s when John Whitbourn (a very old friend and fellow role-playing gamer) was one of several guests at a ghost story evening chez Morris. We had a nice dinner, a little fine wine, and settled down around the fire to entertain ourselves with some cosily spooky stories; an activity that mankind has only been doing for - what? - twenty thousand years and more.

Then John got up and produced the story he'd brought, the first (as it later turned out) of an ongoing series. As he read, a chill dark hand closed over the group. We were transported to a suburban street under dim street-lamps, hurrying past with just a nervous glance across the road at an ordinary but suddenly sinister bus shelter. With the final words, you could hear the sigh of long-held breath and we looked around at each other with that bright-eyed smile that says you know you've just had the bejasus scared out of you. Everyone that evening had come armed with a tale to tell, and there were talented, experienced writers there, to be sure, but there was no disputing who was the storytelling king of the fireside.

"Waiting for a Bus", the story that gave such a shudder to those dinner party guests who were privileged to hear it first, was picked as one of DAW's World's Best Fantasy Stories of the very next year. It has been widely anthologized since, as have other Binscombe Tales. Everyone who reads one of these stories will immediately recognize a fresh and authentic voice in English horror-SF-fantasy. And yet, until now, only a small cult readership has experienced the special delights, dreads and wonders of the Binscombe Tales series. Originally issued as limited-edition hardcovers thirteen years ago, the books are now out-of-print and fiercely sought by collectors.

These are stories in the tradition of Clarke's White Hart and Pratt & de Camp's Gavagan's Bar - themselves inspired, no doubt, by the tall tales of A J Alan and Dunsany's Jorkens yarns. John Whitbourn's stories are inventive, often whimsical, but unlike those earlier series there is a real bite to them. The Binscombe Tales will entertain you, but also they will unsettle you. Characters and relationships develop, usually not quite as you expect. The crackling fire and the convivial clink of glasses in the Duke of Argyll (the Binscombe local) often disguises a pitiless disregard of strangers' wellbeing. As a writer, John Whitbourn has bags of originality (check out his story "Hello Dolly", in the Fifth Book of After Midnight Stories, which happened to precede Amy Pond's domestic nightmares by well over a decade) and he is gifted with a compelling and engaging narrative voice; but it is that lacing of stark truth that, for me, elevates the Binscombe Tales out of genre into literature.

Well, connoisseurs of the uncanny, the outré, the darkly surreal and the just plain odd need look no further. In a few short months, Fabled Lands Publishing will issue the complete Binscombe Tales in a three-volume print edition and a set of Kindle chapbooks too. And in the process, Leo's and my comics "fighting fund" will be topped up with the wherewithal to see us safely through another three or four issues of Mirabilis. Doing well while doing good, I call that.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Another angle

What I enjoy about writing comics is that it's like making a movie, only better. You get to work out some rough dialogue, then you position the characters in the scene, then you get to refine the dialogue. If it's not working you can move them around, try another angle, another turn of phrase. And they never wave a contract in your face and ask for overtime.

The only way that regular movie-making has the edge is in the editing. Since every scene change should ideally come at the end of a page, or anyway at the end of a tier of panels, it's the very devil if you suddenly decide you need to slot something else in.

By the time Leo gets to doing the pencil art, we’ve already worked out 99% of the direction of each scene. Occasionally we find that a particular shot or line of dialogue isn't working. At most this involves changing one or two panels at the pencils stage. (We work in "episodes" of 5-6 pages at a time. Considering there are typically 35 panels per episode, that's not a bad batting average.) And we've never yet had to completely change a panel after it went to inking - though Nikos does work the occasional miracle at the colouring stage when Leo and I overlooked something.

The process is versatile, but there are times when you have to kill a darling. This scene between Jack and the Kind Gentleman, for instance. I really liked the way Leo positioned the "camera" - it made for a great dramatic face-off. But we realized that the bestowing of the magic key wasn't getting enough prominence. That key is going to be important, not only in plot terms (it can open any lock, though it can't blow up a Cyberman) but because this is where the Kind Gentleman really starts to bind Jack to him, dispensing gifts for all the world like a traditional faerie king to his favoured mortal godson.

So Leo did a new version of the panel to put the emphasis on the key. The preceding panel is a wide establishing shot, so we didn’t actually need to show their relative position or setting again. But the earlier version did look nice. The beauty of a blog, of course, is that you don’t have to kill your darlings outright. You can lay them sleeping in their glass coffin, as here, and invite people in for a look.

This scene, incidentally, is from the start of Chapter Five, "The Darkest Hour", which is almost exactly halfway through season one: Winter.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Why we need comics we can care about

Tom Brevoort, who is Marvel’s Senior VP of Publishing, recently spoke about the fundamental difference between the DC universe and the Marvel universe. As he sees it, the former takes an optimistic view of the world, the latter a pessimistic one. “Even something like Dark Knight Returns, which is gritty as hell, is at its heart about a heroic ideal, a larger-than-life figure who rises up to champion the city in its time of need.”

I’m not sure about this assertion – though, to be fair to Mr Brevoort, he’s a very smart guy and he did open with the caveat that it was too big a subject to talk about in one short post. As a kid, I turned to Marvel, not for pessimism, but for a more believable idea of what a hero was. I could see that Peter Parker’s heroism cost him more than Clark Kent’s ever did. He was a bigger hero. I didn’t need Aunt May to die to prove that, I just needed to believe that Peter was afraid she would.

In the Lee-Kirby-Ditko era, Marvel stood out because the stories took a deeper, more nuanced view of what it meant to be a hero. The regular guy behind the mask had problems like the rest of us. Courage had a cost. The Marvel universe was a dramatic canvas of love, secrets, misunderstandings, shame, emotional dilemmas. I’m not sure I’d call that universe pessimistic, just indifferent to human affairs. Marvel heroes didn’t get any helping hands from the storytellers.

Are today’s comics (and I’m not specifically thinking of Marvel) rooted in pessimism? Maybe. I don’t really follow superhero comics much, but I see that where once the most extreme stakes for the heroes were life and death, now they’re more often things like disfigurement and brain damage. Action has often been replaced with brutality, personal problems with politics, characterization with a stance on thinly disguised current issues.

Dilemmas in many of today’s comic books are no longer emotional but intellectual. Mutants, that’s like racism, right? And superhero registration, that’s the war on terror. Yeah, we all get it. My blank look is boredom, not confusion.

As I said, I’m not talking about just Marvel here. Comics are a shrinking market and yet the superheroes of the Silver Age are entertaining bigger audiences than ever before. The movies are watched by seventy million people while the comic books’ readership has dwindled to a diehard band of collectors and fanboys. Why is that?

Bambos Georgiou talks on his blog about some of the things that may have gone wrong with the comics market. You would think, after all, that comics as a medium should appeal to both book readers and moviegoers. That’s a pretty wide demographic. The problem is not in the medium but in the content. And we need to qualify that by adding that it’s specifically the US and UK that is facing this problem.

It isn’t a question of whether today’s comics are darker – look how dark Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are. Comics are strangling themselves to death because most people don’t care a jot about the impersonal and somewhat abstract themes in these stories. Fanboys love that stuff but, thing is, fanboys are not really typical. And in a desperate attempt to inject the missing emotion, writers too often turn to sadism and plot complexity, delivering story punchlines that, if they arouse any emotion, deliver disgust and dismay rather than thrills.

Remember, I'm not saying all comic books are doing this. We still have some great ones that are about the people at the heart of the story. But overall it's a trend that has bedevilled the creators who grew up in the long shadow of Moore and Miller, who ape their style without getting even a hint of their substance. It's like a tyro novelist trying to be Hemingway without earning it. And it's a trend that's putting off new readers.

The majority of us connect with stories about characters whose concerns are personal, immediate, emotional, simple and relatable. Explore themes, sure – but personalize them. Blade Runner is not an issue-based examination of human identity; Roy Batty wants more life, fucker. And he ups and shows us what it is to be human.

I was in France recently. There you’ll see kids, teens and adults reading comics. The genres are as broad as in cinema or TV drama. The stories are gripping, and wildly popular like Harry Potter books or Sherlock Holmes movies. A ten-year-old picked up the first Mirabilis book. I thought it might be too old for her, but she read it through twice (the second time on her eleventh birthday, actually) and then demanded more. Teens and adults can enjoy that same story, perhaps seeing a little more in it than younger readers but without demanding characters’ eyes to be plucked out to make it “mature”.

I’ll give you a good analogy that shows how comic books could turn themselves around. A few years before J J Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, one of the show’s TV producers was talking about how maybe the ST franchise was just dying. And indeed it was dying – of worthiness, of sterility. Dying because it had made its issues bigger than its characters. To paraphrase The Onion, it was dying because of the heavy-handed messages about tolerance and the scenes set at long tables in which interstellar diplomacy is debated in endless detail.

The reboot made Star Trek once more about characters on a journey. We were with people we cared about as they faced huge challenges, They had to reach inside and discover the part of themselves that could meet such challenges. We saw them grow and change.

You tell a story like that, in any medium you like, and they will come.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Spidey - on the Mirabilis blog?

Well, it's not so strange as you might think. The wall-crawler was my second favourite comic book character as a kid. (The first was Iron Man.) And here he is on the cover of the latest SFX Magazine showing off his classic-design web shooters in such an archetypal Romita Sr/Jim Mooney pose that I'm pretty much ready to start queuing already. And the magazine's feature on the new movie backs up the feeling that this is going to be a glorious return to the angsty alienated-teen origins of the character.

But that's not why I put the cover image of SFX #212 here. Well, you may ask, in that case is it SFX's news of Fringe season four? I'm a big fan, but no, that's not it. Nor the tantalizing peeks at Joss Whedon's Avengers movie - even though that on its own would be worth the cover price. And it's not even the Conan poster, awesome though that is too.

Nope, the reason we're talking about SFX is that this month's issue of the UK's premiere SF/fantasy movie magazine has a review of Mirabilis Winter volume one. A great review it is too, praising the "intriguing story" and rounding off with mention of the "audacious cliffhanger that will leave you desperate to find out what happens next, so let's hope that we aren't kept waiting too long for the second book." I hope so too, and if you still can't find the deluxe hardback edition of Mirabilis volume one in your local bookshop or on Amazon, I urge you to ask for it loud and clear.

In the meantime you can get hold of SFX very easily, either in print or digital form, via the link above. And if you're looking for the best in fantasy and science fiction coverage, not only of movies but games, books and comics too, it's the one to sling your webs at.

Monday, 1 August 2011

New version of the iPad app this week

And now we wait. Not for long, though. Our resident iOS coding genius, Simon Cook, has just uploaded the new version of the Mirabilis iPad app, and the only delay is while Steve Jobs satisfies himself that all the cool extra features do full justice to both Apple and the Year of Wonders. Give him a couple of days and you should be seeing the fruit of Simon's labours up there in the App Store.

But what exactly are those extra features? Well, in addition to having much easier access to the in-app storefront and your collected issues, there's direct connection to Twitter, Facebook and email so you can tell your friends about the comics you're reading without even leaving the app. Also there are next issue screens and buttons, the menu bar now comes with auto-dismiss if you're not using it, and you can look at the Mirabilis Facebook group from inside the application too.

In the next update we should have a news feed straight on the storefront screen, maybe even with material from this blog, making the app even more of a complete comics-reading experience. But Simon deserves a rest, so we're going to hold on that until the next 6 issues (that's all of Mirabilis Spring part one) are ready to start sending your way in a couple of months. In the meantime, if you haven't caught up with the 8 issues of Mirabilis Winter yet, here's the full round-up:
#1: The World Turned Upside Down
Jack Ember joined the army to find adventure. But when a green comet heralds the dawn of a new century, Jack is destined to get more adventure than he bargained for – in the form of warmongering cabbages from Pluto, a witch who can command the weather, antique pistols that shoot hornets instead of bullets, and a two-headed coin whose toss could decide the fate of the world.

#2: The Wrong Side of Bedlam
Magic shows its dark side as Jack finds himself caught between two very untrustworthy mentors. Gus is a centuries-old wizard or an escaped madman – or possibly both – while the Kind Gentleman is the kind of faerie godfather who’ll grant three wishes you can’t refuse. To save his grandmother, Jack is forced to undertake a quest that will change his life forever.

#3: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Jack is on the outside looking in when Estelle stows away aboard the Orient Express and McNab comes spoiling for another duel. Steaming straight into a gruesome case involving severed heads and missing blood, Jack finds himself the prime murder suspect. And did we mention the four hundred foot baby?

#4: Fire and Sleet and Candlelight
Open graves, a brooding castle, and dead men walking in the woods… You know when you’ve broken down in Transylvania. McNab gets bitten by a carnivorous plant, Jack’s listening at keyholes, and Estelle gets her Goth on.

#5: The Darkest Hour
Jekyll plans to cut out Estelle's brain and use it to make her monsterpiece. Only Jack can save her, but he's a continent away – oh, and he’s dead. Grab your wolfsbane and stock up on silver bullets, because the full moon is up and things are looking hairy.

#6: Rhyme or Reason
Jack's behind bars, betrayed by his friend and framed for murder. Estelle's out at sea, locked in a box and surrounded by enemies. Meanwhile, the Auction of Marvels gets under way and the only hope of saving Gran is slipping away by the moment.

#7: A Ribbon Across the Sky
Time’s running out and Jack is forced to make some hard choices. With Simeon closing in, Jack and his foe have their final, fateful showdown beneath the sea.

#8: Saltwater and Ashes
Jack's in deep water. Mentallo's at the end of a rope. Dougy’s had enough of being one of the good guys. And Bodgkiss is back, and she’s bent on revenge. All this and airships too.
Two hundred pages of awesome fantasy action - can it really only be $12.93 for all that? Go on, treat yourself.