Wednesday, 24 June 2015

White Knuckle: The Movie

Yep, I'm not even shitting you...

White Knuckle, published by Markosia back in the murky mists of 2012, was a book that Valia Kapadai and I created with the arguably insane goal of taking a character with a decades-long history of horrific, murderous violence behind him and making him... well, "hero" really isn't the word I'm searching for here - although some of his actions in the book are viewed in that misguided light by other characters. The idea, though, was to turn a man with the blood of innocents on his monstrous hands into someone a reader could invest in. That, I reasoned, would be a story worth telling.

Valia was an ideal artist for this, with soft, visually melodic colours and the ability to find beauty in even the most brutal of places. In terms of setting a tone and making outlandish characters breathe (or stop breathing) on the page, I couldn't have asked for a better co-creator - and White Knuckle is definitely a book that gives me a massive Evil Brain-Grin every time I watch someone flip through it or read its back-cover blurb for the first time:

Forty years ago, Seth Rigal was a man to be feared – a serial strangler with a string of victims. Now nearly seventy and tormented by a lifetime of monstrous violence, Rigal lives on the verge of poverty and quietly waits for the death he knows he deserves. Tortured and confused, still haunted by the drives that made him a killer in his youth, Rigal finds himself almost unconsciously stalking the daughter of his final victim – only to have his precious anonymity snatched from him when he accidentally saves her son’s life. Seth Rigal, formerly known as the Gripper, just became a local celebrity. The bodies won’t stay buried any longer.

Skip forward to January 2015 and an out-of-the-blue email rocketing into my inbox from a place called "Australia", which my limited understanding of geography tells me is where kangaroos and Mad Maxes come from. The email is from a film producer by the awesome-sounding name of Alexandros Ouzas, and the long-story-short of it is that he'd like to talk about turning White Knuckle into a film. Now it's June and the White Knuckle film is a thing that is ACTUALLY SET TO HAPPEN.

To give you an idea of what you're in for here once things get rolling, Alexandros - along with writer/co-director Kosta Ouzas and co-director Nick Kozakis - just launched Plague, a zombie film currently closing in on the iTunes #1 spot in the horror category.

You can find out more on the official Plague website, along with details on how you can get to see the film for yourself. I strongly recommend you take a look. Here's the premise:

A small group of survivors seek shelter from an infection that has spread like a plague among the human race. Evie (Tegan Crowley) and her fellow survivors find refuge and wait for her husband John’s (Scott Marcus) return. After the infected attack, Evie refuses to abandon her husband against the wishes of the group. The survivors revolt leaving Evie to an uncertain fate. With the unexpected arrival of Charlie (Steven Kennedy) what appears to be an opportunity at a new beginning quickly turns into a horror as menacing as the infected that pursue them.

I'm actually already a fan of Australian zombie horror, with both Undead and Wyrmwood in my top ten zombie flicks, so my zomboner for Plague after seeing this trailer is, frankly, immense. Add to that the fact that these are the people currently adapting White Knuckle for the screen and, were you to look through my monitor right now, my Happy Face would BLAZE LIKE A MILLION SUNS AND EVAPORATE YOUR ENTIRE HEAD!

So, y'know... be a bit careful there.

More on this as things develop, and watch for an official Markosia announcement in the next few weeks. I'll also be posting information, updates and weird, ululating animal noises on the White Knuckle Facebook page - so watch this space, and that space, and ALL THE SPACES!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Step One: Cut a Hole in a Box...

Fair warning, I'm going to be talking about magic a lot in this one. No, I'm not proud of myself.

JJ Abrams, now well on his way to fulfilling the universal dream of uniting two endlessly warring SF nations in a hands-across-the-fanverse exercise I never would have imagined possible, owns a box of magic tricks he claims he's never opened. It's his "Mystery Box" - and if I'm honest, the way he talks about it goes a long way toward solidifying in my mind why I've never really been excited by anything I've seen of his.

I'll qualify that. I've seen both his Star Trek films, but I've never been a Trek guy so they didn't do anything for me. I've seen the first two episodes of Lost, but only because they got Rifftraxed, so that's hard to judge by. I did like Almost Human, but I don't know what he actually contributed to the show beyond composing the theme music. Basically, my sample size is just way too small to draw conclusions from, and almost none of what I've seen was aimed at me - I'll also mention here that despite all of the above he's got me optimistic about the future of Star Wars now in a way I haven't been since before the turn of the century.

In his TED talk, Abrams performs a quick magic trick using (and implicitly exposing) a fairly standard sleight called a backpalm. In fact, whoever was in charge of the camera angles that day actually goes a step further and gives the game away outright with a carefully revealing shot at the critical moment. What caught my attention there wasn't the magic or the instant undermining it suffered, so much as the vital distinction that wasn't being made.

A secret isn't a mystery.

When Star Trek: Into Darkness was being promoted prior to release, the concept of the Mystery Box seemed to be all around it - at least for the length of time it took for someone to cut a hole in it. It was the second Trek movie of the new series, and we were told there would be a mystery villain. Only, the "mystery" lasted about five seconds because the immediate response from anyone who could possibly care about it was "is it Khan?"

What followed was an embarrassing mess of unconvincing denials and obvious question dodging. In the end [SPOILERS] it obviously was Khan and what should have been a jaw-dropping twist went off in cinemas like a sickly, wet fart. Iron Man 3 kinda went the same way for me with a twist that was purely cosmetic and contributed nothing but some pace-killing comic relief. The main bad guy and his boss basically switched places and nothing that actually mattered had changed. To me, it was a mildly irritating bit of sleight-of-hand that accomplished nothing concrete. To lock a frame around this for a moment, imagine if Return of the Jedi had pulled the same switch, revealing that Vader was the real head of the Empire and "the Emperor" was a hired stooge. What actually changed there, really? We already knew that Vader/Killian was a powerful bad guy doing powerful bad guy stuff. Now it just turns out that the story's mid-game mini-boss is actually the final boss and the whole third act just kinda deflates on itself.

Anyway, I'm drifting. My point is that if you're going to build a Mystery Box around your story, I think you need to be sure that what you have isn't just a poorly guarded or irrelevant secret. Every magic effect has a secret to it, and pretty much any magician will tell you that in general that's the least important or interesting thing about the trick. Knowing a secret, or revealing it, will eliminate the magic in a heartbeat - unless the secret itself poses further questions of its own. At that point it's possible you have a legitimate mystery to work with.

Example: there's a magic trick out there that I first encountered under the name of "Smash and Stab". It's possible you've seen some variation of it, and would probably recognise it as the "spike under the cup" trick. Essentially, the magician engineers a situation where he's slamming either his own or a spectator's hand down on a set of polystyrene cups, under one of which the spectator has hidden a spike or blade while the magician looked away. It's always struck me as a weird idea for a piece of magic, because it makes virtually no structural sense. There are literally only two possibilities for the spectator to consider: either the magician somehow knows where the spike is (in which case there's a legitimate magic trick at work, but no danger) or he doesn't (in which case there's very real danger but no actual magic). However, that trick alone has made the reputation of many magicians - crucially, even when they've injured themselves or others failing at it - because the secret is the least important part of the story it tells, and if it's the secret you're focusing on then you're - ahem - missing the point. The drama is undeniable whichever of the solutions is correct.

Counter-example: while the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable still arguably work as films when the twists are revealed, you'd be hard pressed to say the same about something like The Village. The Mystery Box they've built there amounts to nothing more than "what's the twist that we know is coming actually going to be?" - and that weak premise ends up being the only point of the story. It's the movie equivalent of a comedian saying, "I dreamed last night I was eating a giant marshmallow, and when I woke up YOU'RE A MORON!"

All I'm really saying is that a secret is nothing more than information withheld. It's up to the storyteller to make that information meaningful and, because you can only answer the question once, it's a fragile thing to build focus and tension around. A magic trick that, for example, leaves the spectator with an impossible object in their hand uses secrecy to create a mystery that they can take away with them - which to me is a much stronger storytelling principle. The greatest mysteries still have value once the secrets that enable them to exist are revealed. They can survive the revelation. Spoilers for good stories never bother me for precisely that reason. If the only thing keeping your story upright is the secret at its heart, then all you've actually got is a joke with a one-shot punchline that'll never be funny again.

The above is really just the tip of a much longer conversation that's permanently raging in my brain about the relationship between magic and storytelling. There's a lot more and, as anyone who knows me will affirm, if you catch me in person at a convention you'll be lucky to walk away without hearing at least fifteen minutes of it. I'll save the rest for then...

Monday, 23 March 2015

Celebrity Endorsements

 Pictured above: Yel Zamor

So, London Super Comic Convention 2015 is in the rear view already. Indifference Engine 2 is officially a thing that exists, is out there and has actual human people touching it with their bodies or allowing the light reflected from it to strike their retinas. Book launches are always fun, and Nic and I had a great weekend of catching up with old friends and making new ones.

Meeting Indifference Engine 2 artist, Russ Leach, was always going to be a highlight, and in-between signing slots we were able to talk a bit about our next Markosia book, Phantom Lung and the Garden of Dead Liars. No time frame on that yet, as Russ is very much in demand these days, but I'll post updates as and when.

I finally managed to score a copy of Moon #3 from Beyond the Bunker, although Dan Thompson and Steve Penfold were nowhere to be found, and it's basically one of the purest, most undiluted reading pleasures available. I also picked up a copy of Bloodfellas, the new Markosia book from Jasper Bark and Mick Trimble. I've spoken briefly to Jasper at previous conventions, but this was my first real chance to chat with one of the most unusual and interesting writers on the indie circuit. Already looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

This was the first convention I'd been to where the Groot cosplayers outnumbered the imperial stormtroopers (side note: about the best fun you can have at a comics con is stopping a passing Groot and asking, "...and who are you again?"). In fact, there was probably a wider diversity of cosplay choices on display at this con than at any other event I've been to. A particular high point for me was comic-colouring rock star Yel Zamor's stunning Asterix transformation (shown above), which was so good we didn't even recognise her until we were tipped off.

All told, it was a fun weekend where pretty much anywhere you looked revealed something you'd never seen before. The atmosphere was positive throughout, and everyone seemed to be having a good time of it. Ten minutes before we left, Sam Gardner from Cape Fear Comics showed me the next digital evolution of his highly experimental Sioux Warrior book, which adds some really intriguing features to a comic that already boasts a fully musical issue using singing birthday card technology and another that included a functional utility belt. Amazing and inventive stuff, and I'll be watching to see what comes of it.


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

London Calling

With London Super Comic Convention 2015 looming and Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow a heartbeat from deployment I thought this might be an opportune moment to drop some more Russ Leach art on you, with Mike Summers colours.

Russ and I'll be signing copies of the book at the Markosia stand both days, between 1pm and 3pm on Saturday and from 3pm to 5pm on the Sunday. If you have the faintest clue who either of us is, then feel free to stop by and say hi.


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

My Own Worst Enemies

As I type this, The Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow is at the printers and on track for a March launch at this year's London Super Comic Convention. Review copies are sneaking out and I'm biting down hard on the urge to give the thing one last proofread to find too late that punctuation error or continuity glitch that I didn't notice on the last five readings but which my mind is screaming absolutely must be there.

In other words, I'm going through my usual routine before a book launch.

I've done some horrific things to characters in the past. Things that I'd honestly have a hard time looking them in the eye after - those that still had eyes, I mean. I've drugged and burned them, had them dissected and loaded them down with crippling nightmares of backstories, just to see if they could survive them. Alan Blake is a kind of special case, even in that company.

Alan Blake is the only one I've ever felt I owed an explanation.

When Alan wandered inoffensively enough into the original Indifference Engine on page 5, we were already an entire flash-forward scene of foreknowledge ahead of him. We knew exactly where the story was heading (although not exactly how it'd get there) before Alan himself even knew he was part of it. Over the next few scenes, I took away Alan's job, his girlfriend and a cat I'd already secretly decided had always hated him. I was also, behind his back, plotting to involve him in a vast inter-dimensional conspiracy composed entirely of super-human alternate-reality versions of himself. Alan Blake spent that whole book in an uncontrolled plummet, frantically pedalling his feet like a cartoon coyote.

With a gun...

...and a total metaphysical certainty that nothing he does in this life has any moral implications whatsoever.

So, I started with a well meaning but down-trodden doormat and ended with a nihilistic destroyer of universes. Along the way, I've killed Alan Blake more times and in more ways than any other character I've dealt with. You'll forgive me if I take a little pride in that.

The Suicideshow (and I can already tell that I'll be spending a LOT of time correcting people who break that into "Suicide Show") picks up the story some time after the end of the first volume and, instead of Alan Blake, we find ourselves following a new character called Alan Blake. It's okay, though, because our old Alan Blake is following this new Alan Blake, too. Of course, that's complicated slightly by the fact that there's another Alan Blake following that Alan Blake. With me so far? Good, because we've got another 84 pages of story to go from there. Don't worry too much about the number of Alans we're juggling. We burn through them pretty fast.

Anything more would probably veer into the spoiler lane a bit, but here's the blurb for a rough idea of what we're dealing with:

A suburban IT professional turned one-man genocide is blackmailed into slaughtering his way through a web of interconnected parallel realities, destroying every single alternate version of himself. Frustrated and desperate, everything changes when one of his targets unwittingly presents a possible way out. It's his only chance of freedom, and all it will cost him is the future.

The art on this book is a perpetual source of joy to me. This was my first chance to work with the amazing Russ Leach and Mike Summers, but I'm already looking forward to doing it again. There was literally no situation I could throw at those two that they couldn't handle with technical precision and genuine charm. Angry cat who secretly hates one of its owners? Check! Man with vat of acid dumped on his head, falling from a window? Can do! Bloated, mucus-oozing giant with a half-mummified homunculus version of himself for a cock? Not a problem! Seriously, nothing I could send their way could break Russ and Mike's stride for a second.

I live in awe of Nic Wilkinson, as all mortals do, but even so I'd have to say that Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow represents her finest lettering work to date. I'd already given Russ a script that was clearly impossible to draw and he'd made it look glorious. Mike's colours, as with Mel Cook's on the first volume, served an actual narrative function throughout the story, so Nic's job in lettering it was to preserve the all-important rhythms of the dialogue without ever swallowing up any of the actual storytelling. I still don't understand how she does it, but she always finds a way.

Long story short, Russ and I'll be signing copies of the book on both days of the London Super Comic Convention (March 14th-15th), and if it causes 1% of the near-biblical migraines to its readers that it caused to me then I'll consider the whole expedition a mighty success!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Legally Obligatory Post-2014 Best of Everything Run-Down

However else we differ, I'd like to think that we can all agree that 2014 was a year that happened recently. It occurred in a roughly conventional sequence from January through to December and, according to my records, didn't skip a single day in that time. During 2014, various things were noted to take place, and the quality of those things can be quantified in list form. This list belongs to Nic Wilkinson and myself, but I post it here for those who haven't yet been able to come up with lists of their own, or those who perversely find value or interest in the opinions of others. As always, we caution that the items cited below may technically have originated in years other than 2014, but if we first encountered something last year, or if we were already aware of it but it did something especially notable in that period, it still counts. Go and make your own lists if that bothers you so damn much.

1. The Raid 2: Berandal
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
4. The Babadook
5. Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

Honourable Mentions: Maleficent, Edge of Tomorrow, The Lego Movie

Prometheus Award for Worst Thing to Exist Since Prometheus: The Expendables 3

Note: Tough competition for the Prometheus Award in the film category this year, with the double-shot of X-Men: Days of Future Past and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For both showing utter contempt for their respective audiences and taking giant shits on their own established continuities in the process. Professor X is alive again with no attempt at an explanation and Nancy's Last Dance can't take place at any point in the Sin City timeline and still make sense. Still, in a year that saw both I Frankenstein and a hilariously misjudged Robocop remake, we still have to give the crown to Expendables 3 for completing the series' transition from gloriously brutal homage to the 80s action flick to pitiful, family-safe self-parody.

1. Eagleheart
2. Archer
3. Fargo
4. Hannibal
5. True Detective

Honourable Mentions: Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, The Walking Dead

Prometheus Award for Worst Thing to Exist Since Prometheus: Sons of Anarchy

Note: Sons of Anarchy gets the nod here solely for its finale, which set about destroying the entire reputation of the show with such rabid and over-ambitious pomposity that Nic and I were laughing out loud for most of the episode. The sheer, sickly depths of its overwhelmingly clumsy symbolism and cliché-driven storytelling were so at odds with the tone and structure of the show that they turned the whole thing into a sloppy, half-digested mess. Seriously, it was like someone had bolted the last episode of The Prisoner onto the end of Breaking Bad.

1. Worry Wart
2. Velvet
3. New Lone Wolf and Cub
4. Lazarus
5. Beautiful Darkness

Honourable Mentions: The Kitchen, Outcast, Wild's End, Southern Bastards

Prometheus Award for Worst Thing to Exist Since Prometheus: No serious contenders in this category. I didn't think much of the first Prophet trade, though.

Video Games
1. Alien: Isolation
2. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
3. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
4. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
5. Rocksmith 2014

Honourable Mentions: Steamworld Dig, InFamous: Second Son

Prometheus Award for Worst Thing to Exist Since Prometheus: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Note: Sorry, sorry. Believe me, I know how many people love The Binding of Isaac - but fucking Hell, what an insulting piece of shit that thing is! Listen - I've been gaming since the fucking 70s and this retro kick the industry seems to be embracing so whole-heartedly does absolutely nothing for me. I lived through the days of piss-poor presentation and perma-death when there was literally no other option. It was one thing playing that crap on a 4-colour, 3-audio-channel microcomputer that didn't know any better, but asking for actual money to play it on a £400 gaming system is... well, it's... I mean... just wow...

1. Possession by AS Byatt
2. The Little Red Wolf by Amélie Fléchais
3. The Stonebook Quartet by Alan Garner
4. The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris
5. The Voice That Thunders by Alan Garner

Honourable Mentions: Rune's World by Rune Klan and Joshua Jay, Japan Ingenious by Richard Kaufman and Steve Cohen

Prometheus Award for Worst Thing to Exist Since Prometheus: Dexter's Final Cut by Jeff Lindsay

1. Dave Monteith and Barry Nugent's fantastic My Life in Science Fiction episodes showing up in iPlayer.
2. Every single thing about Thought Bubble 2014
3. The Gizmonics Institute Radio podcast, although it sadly appears to have died
4. Jim Sterling's Jimquisition show on YouTube
5. The amazing Too Many Cooks short from Cartoon Network

Honourable Mentions: Fantasy Flight Games' string of X-Wing Miniatures Game expansion ships and Android: Netrunner datapacks

Prometheus Award for Worst Thing to Exist Since Prometheus:The inevitable, catastrophic decline in Sony's PlayStation+ Instant Games Collection. We all knew it was coming once PS+ became compulsory for PS4 online play. We'd simply had it too good for too long and now the service has degraded out of all recognition. The crazy thing is that we're still clearly getting more than we're paying for. It's just that what we used to get was so much better, and it's hard to let go of that.

So, in summation - go to Hell, 2014. 2015 is newer and therefore scientifically better by every standard we can logically apply!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Convention Report: Thought Bubble 2014

Wow - pretty hard to believe that we almost skipped this one when it turned out that the Indifference Engine sequel wouldn't launch in time. Missing this year's Thought Bubble would have been a serious mistake on basically every level.

Right from the first hour, it was clear that there was a real energy to the convention this time, and the fact that we didn't have a new book to launch actually ended up giving us a lot more freedom to explore the three venues than we've had in recent years. When I started out doing UK cons, I was a blur throughout the whole weekend. As time went on and my catalogue of books stacked up, I found my horizons gradually drawing in to the point where I've barely been able to leave the table. Nic and I were determined not to let that happen this year, so we organised a tag team system that let us both prowl the floors in a flurry of catching up with old friends and furiously networking new ones. It looks like that's the format we're going to be pursuing from now on.

A major highlight this year was getting to watch Ollie Masters doing his first signing for his new Vertigo series, The Kitchen. Ollie's an old friend from the Insomnia days, and he posed for Stephen Downey as the body-double for the "Mr. Green" character in Slaughterman's Creed, so I've been enjoying watching his dazed, increasingly bewildered expression at being so violently catapulted into the spotlight. I scored a copy of The Kitchen #1 from him on the Saturday, and I have to say it takes me right back to the first days of Vertigo, when they were exploding out in all directions, creatively. Ollie's really onto something strong with this book and the fact that Vertigo saw that so clearly has actually ratcheted up my respect for them several notches as a publisher.

I picked up my copy of Cross from Lizzie and Conor Boyle at the Disconnected Press stand. This book was an amazing experience to work on, and Matt Timson's art on our story, Pulling the Plug, is breathtaking on the page. I grabbed a few extra copies to put on our table as well, because full-blooded satire is thin on the ground these days and that's actually a legitimate cause for concern.

Book sales in general were flat-out fucking scary from the start. We blew through our entire Cancertown vol. 2 and Harlan Falk stacks well before kick-out time on Saturday and, despite having brought literally double what we'd expected to need, we ran out of Cancertown vol. 1 the next day. More than anything, though, this year's Thought Bubble was about plugging back into the community and remembering why I signed up in the first place.

With that in mind, here's a partial run-down of the people who made it worth showing up, with immense apologies up-front to those I've inevitably missed:

Laurence Campbell: for continually proving that it's possible to be a major talent with mainstream recognition while remaining one of the nicest, most genuine people in the business.

Harry Markos: immortal, unstoppable - the indie publishing world's true Man of Steel.

Steve Tanner: indie Godfather of the UK scene and arguably the most energetic organism I know.

Sara Dunkerton: for this amazing cyberpunk/MULP commission...

Jennie Gyllblad: super-talented artist and probably the best dressed human ever.

Yomi Ayeni: amazing ideas man, writer and deliverer of the "double-fisting" joke that almost caused a catastrophic tea spillage.

Brett Uren: because catching up with the man behind Torsobear would have been worth the trip on its own.

Richmond Clements: a weapons-grade wit and among the most mercilessly hilarious people I've met.

P. M. Buchan: for making me look like the sane one with the family-friendly portfolio.

Valia Kapadai, Pavlos Pavlidis and Andreas Michaelides: three immensely talented storytellers I'm genuinely honoured to know.

Tim Pilcher: for tirelessly staffing the Humanoids stand all weekend and skilfully convincing Nic to let me buy her that glorious Barbarella hardback for our anniversary next month.

Eoin McAuley from Lightning Strike: for stopping by and getting me hyped up about potential projects.

Ben Read and Christian Wildgoose: because that new Porcelain teaser is a thing of heartbreaking beauty.

Nic Papaconstantinou: effortlessly likeable raconteur and self-confessed Ron Jeremy of comic book podcasting.

Jane from We Have Issues: whose last name has never been revealed to me, but who said very nice things about the Cancertown books.

Conor Boyle - getting another mention here for teaching me a trick that totally works to completely remove Snow's fuck-awful 1993 track "Informer" (I'll spare you the link) from my head.

Andy Bloor: for putting up with one of my more adrenal talk-bombs and still having the wherewithal to sell me a copy of his excellent Midnight Man (sadly, missed Mo Ali on the Saturday).

Roy Stewart: a man of few words and unbelievably expressive artwork. More from him as projects develop.

That Guy I Met Last Year: who came back to the table while I was away this time with a reminder that I'd promised an eventual Cancertown 3.

The entire crew of the now-traditional Post-Bubble Decompression Session, which this year consisted of Nic Wilkinson, Conor and Lizzie Boyle, Row Bird, Will Pickering, Valia Kapadai, Pavlos Pavlidis, Andreas Michaelides, and that guy named Duncan.

Wrapping it all up, I think it's done me a lot of good to reconnect. A few interesting possible projects cropped up, and I'll be talking more about those if, as and when they develop. For now, I've got a metric shit-tonne of following up to do, so I'd better get into it. Onward!

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