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!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Get Cross!

A while back, I was approached by Disconnected Press about an anthology of satirical short comic stories they were putting together. I sat and thought about it for a while, and before long realised that there were things that I was angry enough to write about. Now that anthology, featuring three pages of heartfelt venom from legitimate artistic phenomenon Matt Timson and myself, is up on Kickstarter under the title "Cross".

The official page for the project does a superb job of explaining the concept and reasoning behind the book, and with a contributors list that includes Mary Talbot, Rob Williams and PJ Holden, it's definitely worth taking a look at.

Cross is Disconnected's most ambitious project to date, and serves as a timely reminder that satire still has purpose in a world where the predators it targets have forgotten that they ever used to fear it. Check out the page here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Comics

I've been flat-out on non-comics work for the last month or so, but I'm breaking radio silence for a moment to bring you this important message...

I've met Dani Abram precisely one time for a grand total of less than sixty seconds (just after a talk by David Hine in Bristol), and my primary recollections of that sub-minute encounter are an impressive flurry of energy, an explosion of red hair and being introduced to a nearby, unsuspecting innocent as "Cy Dethan - Argh!"

For the benefit of anyone who doesn't know her name already, Dani's a dangerously talented artist and animator whose professional work you've very probably seen in The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists (or The Pirates! Band of Misfits if you're in the US), where she did lip sync animation. She's also the artist of Razarhawk and has worked on The Pride Adventures, Bayou Arcana and a bunch of other cool stuff - including her own webcomic, Worry Wart, which is the reason I've gathered you all here today.

Dani was down to two copies of the collected Worry Wart on her Comicsy shop when I managed to score mine, selling through her entire inventory in a week. If you're the least bit plugged in, that ought to tell you something. Worry Wart isn't the most expensive book I've bought this year, nor is it the most aggressively promoted.

It is, however, almost certainly the most important.

Dani was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder in 2009, working her way through a range of treatments and coping mechanisms and coming out stronger for the struggle. Worry Wart is less a roadmap of the journey she took than a series of snapshots of some of the landmarks, crossroads and dark, blind alleys she negotiated along the way. The book ranges from the fearlessly personal to the supremely practical. It's inspiring, eye-opening and, in places, legitimately heart-breaking.

Structurally, the book is sort of an illustrated diary, with text passages running alongside the artwork. Dani's art has the kind of raw emotional content that only a skilled cartoonist can manage, but there's nothing cynical or manipulative in the way it's delivered - just a painful honesty that drives the whole book.

Listen - I don't write a lot of reviews on this blog, so when I post one it's because I feel strongly about it. Worry Wart is important, so just fucking buy the thing, okay?

You can find Dani on Twitter and Facebook, and buy from her directly at her Comicsy shop.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Villain's Journey

Rounding off this series of Torsobear posts, here's an overview of the evolutionary process Peter Mason took our protagonist through as we kicked ideas back and forth between us.

Pete's initial take on Snaplok was pretty cutesy, but you can already see most of the character's key points in place. His horizontally hinged mouth, robotic appendages and peg leg are all there. However, I felt pretty strongly that he needed to have more weight and danger to him, as befits an 80s action figure.

With the main shape of Snaplok nailed down, Pete and I talked over some costume options. As Snaplok had traded in his old villain persona for the life of a private investigator, Pete was experimenting with a crumpled suit. It looked cool, but with only eight pages we needed to get as much information about the type of character he was across visually. Something wasn't quite "there" yet.

We shaved Snaplok's head to give him more of an aggressive look. Pete continued to experiment with the mechanism of his jaws, and we talked over some ideas about what we would see when he opened him. I wanted it to be visually interesting, but not too horrific to be believable as a toy. From this stage on, I was confident we had a legitimate badass on our hands.

At this point, we dropped the suit entirely in favour of more dynamic attire that emphasised Snaplok's tech-villain origins and brutish posture. At the same time, Pete tightened up the details of Snaplok's detachable limbs and gave him a heavier boot on his right foot.  We showed the concept to Torsobear editor Brett Uren for approval, and at his suggestion Pete reworked Snaplok's joints to make sure the toy as a whole looked solid and functional.

With the details all in place, Pete selected a suitably bold colour scheme and the job was essentially done! Brett has already floated the idea of more Torsobear comics featuring characters from the first volume, so watch this space for possible news about the further adventures of Toyburg's resident trapper and snapper...

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