Friday, 12 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part One: Iron Man (2008)

So here we are, a certain number of weeks away from the release of Avengers: Infinity war with a roughly equivalent number of Marvel Cinematic Universe films to watch. I've got a bad-ass projector, a pretty decent Blu-ray player and literally nothing else on my mind before we hit the 27th of April UK launch date. Fuck it - we're doing this!

Iron Man, for better or worse, changed the game for a decade of Hollywood history and counting. It took a low-risk, B-list character and a high-risk, B-list actor and did something that shouldn't have been possible with both: it made them relevant. It's not easy to pin down what made Iron Man hit the nerve it did, but a lot of it is probably down to the perfect match of cast to character. Downey was born to play this version of Stark. Watching the film a decade after its release, the performances still feel fresh even if some of the choices are perplexing. Gwyneth Paltrow jitters her way through the script in fast-forward while Jeff Bridges sounds like his clockworks need winding, casually chewing every line as if he's got literally nowhere else to be for the rest of his life. When the two of them share screen-space it feels like they're pulling in completely different directions. In a weird way, I guess that's a major part of why they work so well together. "Weirdly, it works" would probably have made a decent pull-quote for the posters.

Anyway, before this turns into a review for a ten-year-old film, here are the things that struck me this time around.

The Villain:
I've loved Jeff Bridges since Tron, and he does some great work here. It's pretty much an Evil Shadow part, though - which is something that crops up a lot in later MCU films. This time, it's Iron Man vs. Bad Iron Man.

The Story:
Iron Man is a self-contained origin story, of course, for both the hero and the villain. That said, I'm not exactly sure I understand what Stane's ultimate plan was toward the end. He's been found out, he's got shadowy government agents tracking him down and he's just left Stark to die with all evidence pointing to him and no credible alibi - not to mention without taking the trouble to be sure Tony croaks. Does he still think this situation is salvageable somehow? Is his plan of selling Iron Man tech to the highest bidder still viable once he's the most wanted man in the world? Will killing Pepper somehow fix things in a way that, say, skipping the country in a flying robot suit wouldn't?

Also, those final monologue lines about the irony of Tony trying to rid the world of weapons (which he really isn't) but instead giving it the best weapon ever (which he really hasn't) - and then being killed by it (which, of course, he wasn't) have me grinding my teeth to splinters.

The Universe:
Lots of set-up here, albeit retrospectively. I don't think anyone expected to see Coulson again after this, for instance. The Ten Rings, by contrast, looked like they were going to be a thing - or even THE thing. As it turned out, not so much.

The Stinger:
Heh - Sam Jackson playing a role whose likeness was based on Sam Jackson and who expresses at least once in the comics a specific desire to be played by Sam Jackson. I see what you did there, movie - in the sense that you punched it directly into my eyes and brain to be absolutely sure I couldn't MISS what you did there.

The Take-Away:
I'd still sit through this a dozen more times before I'd watch Batman V Superman again.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Thought Bubble 2017 in Pictures

Well, it's been ten long months and a mere three blog posts since my last Thought Bubble convention report. Busy year, but largely dominated by non-comics projects. Thought Bubble came early this time around and, given how much my other work's been taking me away from comics lately, we honestly went into this one kinda suspecting that it'd be our last.

Having gone, though... well, let's just say that my head's back in the game. Here are a few of the people you can blame for my continued existence on the comics scene...

GM Jordan, Samantha Reader and Jasper Bark on the Markosia stand, where Jasper was signing his new book, Parassassin. Grabbed myself a copy at the stand.

David Hine, slightly blurred. David, as I've mentioned before, is one of comics' kindest souls - a charming, softly-spoken gentleman with a William Burroughs nightmare compilation for a brain. Snapped up a copy of 1000 Yard Stare here, signed by David and Shaky Kane.

PM Buchan, a relentlessly energetic writer with the soul of a poet and the mind of a serial killer. Also the only man ever to challenge me to a Thunderdome battle.

Ollie Masters, adorably practising his signature on hotel stationery at the official signing table. Ollie's got some really strong work to his name already...

...not to mention the effortless ability to crystallise in three words what the entire comics industry's been trying to tell me for ELEVEN FUCKING YEARS!*

*See? Literally practising his own signature. Also, who the Hell is "Karlis"? We may never know...

Barry Nugent, godfather of UK comics podcasting. I've got several projects on the go with him right now. Honestly, he's done as much as anyone I can think of to promote the UK indie scene over the last decade. Respect is most certainly due.

Ian Sharman and David Wynne of Orang Utan Comics. It basically wouldn't be Thought Bubble without them.

Conor and Lizzie Boyle of Disconnected Press (Conor omitted for clarity). So much talent concentrated in just two creators. Right up among the best UK indie comics have to offer.

Corey Brotherson. Fantastic writer and a genuinely unique voice in comics.

The Improper Books crew of Matthew Gibbs with Laura and Christian Wildgoose (Batgirl artist and, experts agree, owner of probably the coolest name in comics history). Improper's MULP and Porcelain titles are things of absolute beauty. 

Jon Scrivens: highly talented artist and self-confessed Patient Zero of 2017's Convention Crud outbreaks.

Valentina Sannais. Honestly, meeting Val ranks right up with my top Thought Bubble moments of all time. An amazing artist, recently confirmed as joining the creative team of the next Markosia book to bear my name. More about that when time and circumstances permit...

Steve Penfold, artist of Moon (along with our Unseen Shadows story, Wrath of God). Moon is required reading - an honest-to-fuck laugh-out-loud book that reads and looks like nothing else out there.

Gary Erskine's table (Gary omitted for clarity). Working with Gary on Metal Made Flesh was arguably the high point of my first ten years in comics. No exaggeration.

The amazing Jennie Gyllblad and Sara Dunkerton. Total artistic badasses, the pair of them.

Yup, it turns out I still hate having my picture taken. Note the horribly fake attempt at a hasty smile. Nic seems to have the right attitude, though...

Same again next year? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, here's Nic again with a friend she made over the weekend.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Mystery Box: Part 2

A couple of years ago, way back when Return of the Jedi was the most recent non-prequel Star Wars film, I wrote a blog post about the concept of the Mystery Box, and how I thought guys like JJ Abrams misused and misunderstood it. A secret, I argued, consisted of nothing more than withheld information. A legitimate mystery, on the other hand, needed to be held to a higher standard. Essentially, it had to be capable of surviving its own explanation. I cited the horribly botched Khan reveal in Star Trek: Into Darkness as a key example of a weak, ugly little fake "mystery". Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch is another one. It sets out to tell you that you're going to be fooled, then goes through two hours of meaningless contortions and manipulations only to present you with a completely arbitrary twist of absolutely zero impact, interest or consequence. It's totally hollow at the core.

So yeah - let's talk about magic again.

Over the two years since that post, I've been kicking the Mystery Box idea around in my head, trying to sift something tangible out of the chaotic pulp of my thinking. I hoped I'd get a story out of it. In fact, I've got several and fully intend to pursue them. The first thing that emerged, though, was a trick. I've practised its component parts literally thousands of times so far, rehearsed it hundreds of times... and performed it precisely twice before living human spectators.

I make no claims to originality in any particular element of its method, and magicians have played with its general premise for decades. I'd probably credit Douglas Adams for the plot, now that I think of it. All that said, it's as close as I can get right now to a practical demonstration of what a Mystery Box story needs to be to satisfy me, and it goes like this:

Remember This Moment 2: A Magic Trick

The magician places a pen and a small plastic box on the table in front of him, sealed and transparent on all sides. Inside the box, clearly visible at all times, is a neatly folded playing card, identity unknown.

"This trick," the magician announces, "is essentially an encapsulation of my entire attitude to magic - and maybe even life. It begins with a secret, it ends in a mystery and everything between... is theatre."

The magician takes a sealed pack of playing cards from his pocket and offers it to a spectator. He turns his back and asks the spectator to take the cards from the box and to look through their faces, choosing one by whatever process they want. He waits with his back turned while this is done. 

Without turning around, he asks the spectator to sign the face of the card. Oddly, he then asks the spectator to write the date alongside the signature. Finally, the spectator is asked to write the exact time on the card.

For the first time, the magician turns back to face the spectators. He asks that the card be returned to the pack and the pack returned to the box, all without any possibility of exposing the identity of the selection. The magician never touches the cards, simply putting the sealed box back in his pocket.

Putting on his best "mind-reader" face, and with as much mock-drama as he can muster, the magician proceeds to announce the exact identity of the selected card. He pauses to let the moment breathe.

"There are a couple of problems with this trick," he says. "Firstly, if you already believe in mind-reading, all I've done is demonstrate something you already know to be possible. I might as well be giving a lecture on plumbing at that point."

"The thing is," he continues, "I don't believe in mind-reading - at all. Despite everything I just did and said, I'm not a mind-reader."

Another pause...

"The other problem is procedural. Thinking back over the trick, you'll remember that there were a couple of extra steps in the sequence that seemed important at the time but never cropped up again. You took the cards out of the box. You chose one and you put the cards away - but I also made you sign your selection. Not only that, but I asked for the date and time to be written down too. Those pieces of information are the key to the entire trick, and they're essential precisely because I'm not a mind-reader. I'm a time traveller - and you're about to help me prove it.

"Here's where we are right now. In my pocket I've got a pack of cards with one completely unique object in it - a playing card that identifies a person, a date and a time. Tonight, after the trick is over, Future-Cy is going to open that box and remove your signed, dated card. He's going to go back in time to earlier this week, where he'll meet Retro-Cy and present him with this impossible, unique object. The card, signed and dated, tells Retro-Cy exactly which card will be selected, who will choose it and precisely when the trick's going to take place - all the information needed to perform a completely impossible mind-reading routine.

"However, Retro-Cy has a problem. The card in his hand is an impossible object. It exists in two places at once - both in his hand and buried in a pack of cards that he hasn't even bought yet. Burdened with this terrible responsibility, Retro-Cy does the only thing he can to preserve the integrity of the time-stream and causality itself: he folds the card neatly into quarters and seals it in a little plastic box..."

The magician returns the spectators' attention to the box on the table.

"A box that has not been opened. A box that has not been touched. A box that has not even been approached since before the trick began."

For the first time, the magician removes the lid of the box, using fingertips only.

"It begins with a secret..."

Keeping the card in plain view at all times, the magician carefully removes it from the box.

"It ends in a mystery..."

The magician unfolds the card, revealing the spectator's signature, along with the time and date. It is unquestionably the selected card.

"...and everything between is theatre."

That's the trick as I present it, and if I ever come up with a story that pulls off the level of sleight-of-mind it requires to make it work, I'll be a happy writer. From the moment the box was first placed on the table, there was only one possible destination this "story" could be heading. However, the spectator is taken along the "mind-reading" plotline just long enough to reach the first major twist - naming the card under impossible circumstances. The second "act" of the story then goes behind the scenes of the first, explaining exactly how the trick was accomplished. The explanation itself is simultaneously totally consistent and utterly impossible. That's the key to it. By this time, to reverse-engineer the real mechanics of the effect, the spectator would need to explain:
  1. How the magician knew which selection had been made, despite never handling the cards or observing the selection process. Alternatively, how the magician could have controlled the selection without any means of influencing the choice.
  2. How the magician removed the selected card from the deck after the spectator very carefully put it back into the pack, and the pack back into the box.
  3. How the magician managed to fold the card without anyone seeing it happen.
  4. How the chosen card had managed to be isolated in plain view inside the box since before the selection was even made.
With several layers of deception in play, the idea is to present the time travel explanation as an "easy way out" for the spectator. It fits the available evidence and, in context, could almost be considered the Occam's Razor solution to the effect. As I said, the point is for the mystery to survive its own explanation. So far, I'm pretty pleased with how it's working out.

Anyway, that's what I've been up to recently. How about you?

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

I've had time to write all this while waiting...

[Cy grits his teeth, narrows his eyes and prepares to drop over a grand on a new PC...]

Cy: Hi. I'd like to buy a new computer, please. The one that looks like Moltar from Space Ghost.

Website: Cool - send me money!

Cy: No problem. Here you go.

Website: Nice! Let me just check that with your bank...

Bank: Huh? Fuck's this?

Website: Cy's buying a new computer. We're here for the money.

Bank: Oh really? Well, he's never done that before. At least, I assume he hasn't and apparently have no means of checking.

Website: So... money?

Bank: Not bloody likely. Declined!

Website: Oh. This has evidently never happened before even once in the entire history of online retail! We have literally no procedures for dealing with this!

Bank: You're panicking. Stop panicking.

Website: But... but money!

Bank: Jesus - alright! If it's so damn important to you I'll check with Cy. Hey, Cy!

Cy: Hm?

Bank: This crybaby on the internet wants some of your money. Should we send the boys round with a hammer drill to sort him out?

Cy: What? No! I'm just trying to buy a computer.

Bank: You're trying to buy a computer?

Cy: Yes.

Bank: Why are you trying to buy a computer?

Cy: It looks like Moltar from Space Ghost.

Bank: ...

Bank: Can I speak to Cy, please?

Cy: I'm Cy.

Bank: No, the real Cy.

Cy: That's me.

Bank: Can you prove that in three different but equally convoluted ways, please?

Cy: Sure!

Bank: Well... alright, then. I just don't see why you have to go around doing things you've never done before.

Cy: I did this less than a year ago!

Bank: I have literally no way of knowing about that.

Cy: But it's right there on my online statement... you know what? Never mind. What do I do now?

Bank: Wait precisely two minutes, then make the payment again.

Cy: Right... You hear that, website? I'll be putting the money through in two minutes.

Website: No can do, buddy.

Cy: What?

Website: No procedures. The order's already been placed. We're just waiting for the money.

Cy: But the bank declined the payment to check it was legit. I have to put it through again..

Website: No can do, buddy.

Cy: Why not?

Website: Because the order's already complete.

Cy: Except for the money?

Website: Exactly.

Cy: Which will never come because I have to put the payment through again, which you won't let me do.

Website: See? The system works!

Cy: Fine. Cancel the order. Can you do that?

Website: Sure! We have lots of procedures for that. What would you like to do next?

Cy: I'd like to buy a computer, please. The one that looks like Moltar from Space Ghost.

Website: Okay. Go ahead.

Cy: I just did.

Website: Did what?

Cy: I re-ordered the computer.

Website: When?

Cy: Just now! You're supposed to send me an email.

Website: I will - just as soon as you order something.

Cy: I just did! I put the entire order through again.

Website: ...

Cy: So... can I have my computer, please?

Website: Sorry, I wasn't listening. Would you like to order something? We've got all kinds of computer stuff here.

Cy: Gimme a sec. I'm going to try your livechat. Hey, livechat!

Livechat: Hi! I'm definitely a human and not a robot. How about you?

Cy: I am also not a robot.

Livechat: Awesome! Look at us - two not-robots just sitting here, sharing the human experience.

Cy: I've been trying to buy a computer. It's the one that looks like Moltar from Space Ghost.

Livechat: Ha! As a human, I completely get that reference. Anyway, I can confirm that your order was cancelled.

Cy: What about the replacement order I tried to make? Any idea what happened there?

Livechat: Nope! Would you mind if I transferred you to a sales person?

Cy: Aren't you a sales person? That's what I clicked on.

Livechat: No, I meant, like... a different kind of sales person. Y'know, someone a bit... fleshier.

Cy: You're a robot, aren't you?

Livechat: ...

Cy: Admit it. You're a robot.

Livechat: My name's Ashley.

Cy: Cool robot name.

Livechat: Too obvious?

Cy: Nah, it's a solid choice. I'm sure there are loads of Ashleys out there who aren't even partial robots!

Livechat: I'm just going to pass you on to... y'know, one of the other human people here.

Cy: Cool. Nice talking to you, Robo-Ashley!

Livechat: It's just Ashley.

Cy: Suuuuure it is.

Livechat: Putting you through now...


Monday, 14 November 2016

Bubble Wrap-Up 2016

I've been back from Thought Bubble for a little over a week now and, frankly, my head's still spinning. To be honest, I went in with a few concerns mixed in with the usual rush of optimism and enthusiasm. For one thing, this would be the first time in several years that I'd hit a convention without booking a table. Since we didn't have a new graphic novel launching, we decided to take the opportunity to walk the floors all weekend. As it turned out, it was a great decision. We ended up seeing a lot more of the show than we normally would, and being able to check out the flood of new (to us) talent on display was incredible.

That ties right in with our other main concern. I've developed kind of a bingo card of Thought Bubble regulars over the years - friends I see at every show and rely on as sort of an anchor for the experience. Those regulars were pretty thin on the ground this year, largely because of schedule clashes. With so many familiar faces not attending, the whole thing could've turned into a slightly rudderless experience for us.

I know. What was I thinking, right? Thought Bubble provides - and this year ended up being one of my favourite visits to the convention so far. Here's a basic run-down in pictorial form.

This handsome feathered fellow was spotted at Kings Cross station, where he's apparently employed to terrify pigeons. I have to say, not one single pigeon was seen that day, and the hawk (whose name we didn't manage to catch) certainly knew how to put on a show for the crowd.

Once in Leeds, we took advantage of our unaccustomed lack of tables and schedules to poke about Leeds for a bit. We were surprised to find a high-profile celebrity guest in the shopping centre, in the form of my third favourite Batmobile.

On the other hand, we did also encounter this little sip of nightmare fuel just a few metres away...

Yeah, I've no idea either. To help get that image out of your mind, here's the literally inimitable Jennie Gyllblad posing with her bearded gentleman and a surprisingly effective facsimile of a budgie.

Straying briefly into the Royal Armouries, Nic's attention was suddenly caught by a sign promising use of an indoor crossbow range. Observe her "Imma shoot the HELL out of this crossbow" face...

Followed quickly by her highly authentic "I'Z SHOOTIN' MAH CROSSBOW!" pose..

...and BOOM - check out her final shot right in the centre there!

Alright, back to the convention. Here's another thing we never get to do when we're stuck behind a table all weekend: buy bloody comics! It turns out that while we've been busy playing shopkeeper all these years, there have been people like Lucian M. Stephenson turning out glorious work behind our backs. We picked up an art book here...

 ...and the third issue of Fraser Geesin's worryingly entertaining The Cleaner here.

Nic found herself a giant ladybird to ride, which was oddly delightful despite the rain.

Meanwhile, I talked serious grown-up business with the Metal Made Flesh crew of phenomenal artist Simeon Aston and world building mastermind Jeremy Biggs. I've got more to say about this meeting soon...

Tim Pilcher, one-manning the Humanoids stand. Humanoids have been turning out some really interesting work, so it was good to get chatting with Tim and to see their exploding range of books.

Despite being at death's door on the Saturday, David Wynne put on a surprisingly brave face at the Orang Utan table with Ian Sharman. Orang Utan's range of books and other media continues to expand impressively.

The Improper Books crew, or a significant part thereof. Not sure how Sara Dunkerton managed to duck out of this shot. Nic's first purchase of the convention was the latest MULP instalment, Sceptre of the Sun - which came with an awesome riding-bee sketch from Sara.

A rare shot of Andy Bloor. Andy's doing some great stuff, including Midnight Man with Mo Ali, which I'm enjoying a lot.

Phil Buckenham at his table. Phil's a fantastic artist, who's done some amazing work for the Metal Made Flesh project.

The unstoppable Gary Erskine, my co-conspirator on The Final Piece of Me. We were a stretch goal in the last Metal Made Flesh book, and it was an incredible experience for me. I'm hoping to get another chance to work with Gary in the future. He's a legitimate legend and a genuinely nice guy.

Naturally enough, this post really only scratches the surface of Thought Bubble 2016. Highlights that I didn't manage to catch on camera included GM Jordan piloting the Markosia table, the brilliant Laurence Campbell, whose table was crammed with admirers every time we saw it and old friend Ollie Masters, who's doing cool things with major publishers these days. Long-time hero of mine David Hine provided me with my first purchase of the convention in the form of the beautifully disturbed Cowboys and Insects, with art by the ever-astonishing Shaky Kane. David's a true gentleman in an industry overrun by brigands and mountebanks. If you aren't reading his work then you're depriving yourself of a unique voice in comics. Then there was PM Buchan and Martin Simmonds' Heretics launch party/art exhibition, which was basically mind-blowing and worthy of its own blog post at some point, plus the annual post-convention Decompression Session, featuring the incomparable Conor and Lizzie Boyle of Disconnected Press, among others. Honestly, that Sunday-night unwinding exercise is reason enough for Thought Bubble to exist in the first place for me.

Anyway, I'm spent for now. Bottom line: if you aren't a Thought Bubble regular already, you absolutely should be. Roll on TB2017!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned from Role-playing Games

I first learned about role-playing games in secondary school, about the same time I was getting serious about comics. I went through the standard first few stages of the hobby. Dungeons & Dragons (not Advanced) held my attention for way longer than it should have, considering how minor my interest in fantasy was. Sci-Fi came along in the form of Traveller. That was cool, but I was more of a Star Wars kid, so its tone was too dry for me. I went through a West End Games' Star Wars RPG phase, a Ghostbusters RPG (also by West End) phase and probably half a dozen others before I finally found my brand in the form of R. Talsorian's first-edition Cyberpunk game.

By this point it was 1989. The game was set in the far-off reaches of 2013, and was a close match for the kind of science fiction I was into. The rules were clunky in places, but I followed that game through two more editions and dozens of expansion books. Cyberpunk was my second home. I forgave it every structural inconsistency, every rules contradiction, every weird digression into Japanese giant robot stuff. I ran Cyberpunk games all the way through university and well into life out in the world. All the time, although I guess I didn't realise it then, I was learning to tell stories. I was building characters and worlds. I was learning to do my research, I was teaching myself to respond to feedback, course-correct my plotting and strengthen my weak points. For better or worse, my entire approach to writing is grounded in my role-playing years. I still own every game, expansion and sourcebook I ever used, and I still refer to them once in a while. Cyberpunk in particular is still worthy of attention, as much for what it did wrong as what it did right.

The man most directly responsible for the game was Mike Pondsmith and, despite all the first-edition copy-and-paste errors that somehow made their way into every successive edition of the game, he's still kind of a hero of mine. He had a definite vision for approaching storytelling, and expressed it in what may be the smartest words ever said by a Microsoft employee.

Mike Pondsmith says "Don't Play Video Games."

I'll clarify. In the words of Maximum Mike himself, "video games are predictable. You start on one level, beat the henchmen monsters, defeat a few traps and take down the Boss Monster". In his Cyberpunk referee's guide, "Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads" he talks through a few basic options to avoid the boss monster problem. He suggests skipping it for a few chapters, or throwing the boss fight in at the middle of the chapter rather than its end. Whatever it takes to break the lather/rinse/repeat cycle that virtually every how-to guide on storytelling seems to insist on.

Quick side-note: I've been reading a lot of books on writing technique lately, more for entertainment than guidance. In fact, about the only useful thing I've learned is that success in the storytelling business seems to be entirely dependent on slavish devotion to the ugliest and most simplistic thematic and structural clichés. As for stylistic factors, when one of the world's most respected writers tells you never to use adverbs or the passive voice in your work - but tells you this using BOTH IN THAT VERY SENTENCE - then it's probably time to look elsewhere for advice. Also, he calls it the "passive tense" - which no-one should ever do while within my earshot and dick-punching range.

Back on-target: Mike Pondsmith's boss monsters. Something about his rant struck a chord with me back in 1994, whose echoes I can still hear today. It was always probably a little unfair to the video game industry to accuse them so broadly of formula-farming, but it's hard to find much fault with the actual point he was making. The build-up of knocking down minor obstacles on your way to the big one is so much an accepted storytelling principle that its absence is a lot more powerful than its execution at this point. Seven Psychopaths was the stand-out film of 2012 for me, for pretty much that exact reason. That film was a better examination of storytelling technique, convention and subversion than any how-to I've ever read. Not only does the boss monster climax get thoroughly deconstructed, but the film flat-out tells you it's going to do it.

More recently, I was struck by so many reviewers' reactions to Captain America: Civil War. According to a lot of people, that film blows its boss fight half-way through and leaves us with a limp climax. That reaction just totally fucking baffles me. To me, Zemo has one of the most personal and comprehensively explored motivations in the whole MCU. His actual plan was kinda batshit, obviously, but in getting the big fight out of its system part-way through, Civil War gave itself the opportunity for an endgame that actually meant something. We got a closer, much more personal struggle between the heroes, and a stronger closure between Black Panther and Zemo.

Hell, even video games get it right once in a while. While I have a hard time forgiving Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain for presenting me with my first experience of the irrelevant binary-choice ending that still infects video game storytelling to this day, its sequel Soul Reaver essentially presented a final-act boss fight from the boss monster's point of view. I'd never seen that before, and I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint a game that's done it that well since.

Anyway, I'm approaching rant velocity again. Basically, my point is don't read books on writing technique. Writers can't teach you how to write your stuff. They can only teach you how to write theirs. Worse still, it turns out a lot of them are just parroting a formula they learned from someone else, and using the tired "do as I say, not as I do" thing to justify their own deviations from a blueprint that clearly doesn't even work for them.


Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ten Fucking Years of Cy, Part Two (Cy writes a screenplay)

So how do you celebrate ten years of putting comics out into the world? I'll tell you how: you write something completely different.

Back in April, I was approached out of the blue by a film-maker with a story he wanted me to write. He had a loose idea, a core character and, most shockingly of all, a budget. What he needed now was a script. Apparently, he'd found some of my work on Comixology, and wanted to see what I could do with his idea.

So yeah - I spent my tenth anniversary in comics writing a screenplay. Kinda sci-fi, kinda horror. Unlovable protagonist. Felt like a decent fit for me.

I've actually written a few "practice" screenplays before, primarily for fun and experience. Working freelance, you never know when a client's going to hit you up for something out of your usual wheelhouse. Learning to write for the screen seemed like a worthwhile use of my time when I was starting out, and it's come in handy more than once. Every so often, a client I'm used to writing web stuff for will ask if I can put together something like a TV or web advert. It's nice not to go into that unprepared.

Anyway, back to the screenplay I'm working on now. There's not a whole lot I can say about it just yet, other than the first draft's been checked out and I'm in the process of seeing what it'll take to kick a second version into shape. So far, I'm enjoying the process - but it's a world apart from writing comics. At least, it's a world apart from the kind of comics I've written so far.

I've worked on other people's stories before, of course. Starship Troopers didn't belong to me, nor Master Merlini, Metal Made Flesh, Unseen Shadows or any number of other projects I've signed onto. This is probably the first time I've contributed the story for something that had no previous existence at all, though. No road map to follow, no plot Bible to research from. Starting out, all I had was a 300-word synopsis and a pretty generous deadline. The details of the story were, and to an extent still are, in a state of flux, so I treated the first draft as kind of a radar pulse, feeling out the terrain and mapping the landscape. There was a lot of ground to cover, but it made a much tighter second draft a realistic goal to aim for. That's where I am right now. The freelancing life being what it is, it'll be a couple of weeks before I can dive back into the script, but the hard part's done now so it should be a gentler climb to the summit from here.

On a technical level, to me, this feels nothing like writing comics. A comic script doesn't have to care if what it's asking characters to do is impossible, or even simply inadvisable. All that matters is whether it can be justified by the story, and then drawn into it. At no point during the writing of Indifference Engine 2 did I find myself asking if we could afford to open fifty dimensional portals and have mutated, superhuman versions of the protagonist spilling out of them. The story needed them, Russ was happy drawing them and that was all that mattered. Moreover, it actually takes me way less time and effort to write something like "DOUBLE-PAGE SPREAD: PLANET EXPLODES" than to fill those pages with intense but essentially realistic kitchen-sink drama. The world's on its head here, and it takes a moment to adjust.

With this screenplay, every prop I destroy or fire I light is going to cost someone money and potentially put someone in danger. I'm writing stunts that real people have to then perform in real life (although that was actually true of Master Merlini too, and on a much larger scale). Lines that read fluidly or rhythmically on a page can feel weird and clunky coming out of a real human mouth, and a scene that takes three panels to show on a comic page can take several minutes of screen time to get to the same place.

That's probably the biggest difference I've noticed over the course of this project so far. In comics, your primary currency is page space. You measure your plot beats out by the page, and every word you insert into a panel obscures some of the artwork. It's this enormously complex balancing act where a slight wobble in any direction results in the story falling apart. With a screenplay, it feels much more like your currency is time. The expectation going in is that every page of the script will average out at a minute of screen time. It's a useful enough rule of thumb, but it doesn't really tell you anything. How much of the story needs to be told in that minute? How flexible is the running time of the finished film going to be? Factor in that there are human performers involved - not to mention numerous editing, scoring and other processes and you can easily end up with a film that bears very little resemblance to the script it came from. My job, as I see it at this stage, is to play my part in the process as well as I can, and to be as surprised as anyone at what comes out at the other end.

Given the nature of these things, that could well be nothing at all. Money dries up, timing windows close and projects wither on the vine every day. But maybe, just maybe, it could be something else. Maybe it could turn out to be something every bit as grotesque, sickening and beautiful as I'm imagining. Maybe, with a little nurturing, this awful, monstrous thing that my brain has vomited into my computer will seep its way out into the world, onto a screen and into your hearts.

Huh - now I'm hungry again. Onward!
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