Tuesday, 30 November 2010

It Helps to Talk About It...

So, it turns out it takes around thirty seconds for me to get genuinely sick of the sound of my own voice - and soon, through the magic of PSP, I'll be able to offer that exact same experience to you!

It actually seemed like a simple enough idea at first - just record a few thoughts about the development process, background and structure of Cancertown: An Inconvenient Tooth to run as an audio commentary in the Markosia edition of the book (coming soon to the Sony PlayStation Network). Even the technical side of things wasn't complicated to organise. I put down my take on the writing approach, the construction and influences of the characters and story, the book's launch and anything else that sprang to mind. Like I said - simple.

The thing is, we're talking about a project that took several months to plan and write, then a year to turn into a finished book (through the combined efforts of a four-strong creative team) - and even condensing my own thoughts down to 30-60 second soundbites, we're still looking at a couple of hours of material spread over the six chapters. Stephen Downey has also chipped in with a commentary of his own, and I'm pleased to confirm that he's managed to slow his hummingbird-like natural verbal rhythm to a level interpretable by normal humans. I learned a lot from listening to Stephen talking through his work on the book, and came away with much to think about for future projects.

Anyway, it's all finished now and will shortly be on its way to Sony. I enjoyed putting this together, and look forward to having the chance of doing more. I think I'll get Patrick Stewart to voice me in the next one...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Unbelievable News: The Beast of Bryn Boncath Rehomed

A great piece of news this week. Unbelievable: The Man Who Ate Daffodils by Simon Wyatt (lettered by me, Nic Wilkinson) has been signed up by Markosia for a 2011 release.

Unbelievable: (Adjective: Not to be believed: inconceivable, incredible, unimaginable, unthinkable. Idioms: beyond belief, contrary to all reason).

The remote mining village of Bryn Boncath has its share of stories, of local legends, of half believed histories. It is a close knit community, with closely guarded secrets. It is home to the orphaned Ben Ellis and his grandfather, Emrys, and it has become the scene of a series of bizarre and mysterious deaths.

A new neighbour has moved in. A man long thought dead has returned. Livestock are missing. There are noises in the night. People are afraid to go into out after dark and sightings of a giant hound, or maybe a big cat are on the increase once again.

Suddenly it seems to Ben that what he took to be the tall tales of his grandfather may be more than just stories. It seems that something is stirring in the forests and the mountains around Bryn Boncath. It seems that ancient history is repeating and this time round Ben has an important part to play.

Unbelievable is a dark masterpiece that weaves strands of Welsh legend, modern murder mystery and horror with a dash of crytozoology that wonders: What if seeing isn’t always believing, but believing will allow you to see?

As for how I got involved, well, this is what I said when I was asked that question for the book...

My Unbelievable Adventure

Folk always tell you not to stray from the path, don’t they? Although they never quite tell you why, and they never quite tell you when, or what will happen if you do, and I’m not entirely certain I know where the path starts, anyway.

Anyone would think they did it on purpose. Anyone would think they wanted you off that path, quick as you like, over the streams and under the hills and deeper and deeper into the forest.

As I sit, tangled in a heap of letters, with a large black dog at my feet it seems that I’ve been here all along. Was there another world I once belonged to? Let me see if I can retrace the steps of the dance.

I remember being warned that, should I chance to meet any creatures of worlds not our own, I must not eat their food, that I must not accept their gifts, but no one ever told me that I should not read their books.

One of the first books I can remember choosing, and then reading for myself, was a ladybird book called Legends of King Arthur: The Mysteries of Merlin. It was a hardback, filled with glorious pictures of swords of horses, of brave men and faery women, and stirring in some old dark way I couldn’t fully understand. That was that, then. I turned the page. The rune was cast. The trap was sprung.

The years wound on and my passion for northern mythology and folklore and the matter of Britain grew with me. So, really, you’d think I’d have been more wary, when on a day close to midsummer I thought I heard a distant howling, and glimpsing a black shape slipping away just on the edge of vision, I wandered from the safe and well signed path through the web. When I finally hurtled to a stop and looked around me the gods and heroes of the island of the mighty strode from the page before my eyes. Who had called them all to this place?

As sure as if 3 hot drops from a cauldron had landed on my thumb I understood everything at once. I had to be involved with this Unbelievable piece of work with its strong, sleek, powerful art and its playful, dangerous echoes of the very oldest tales.

I followed that black dog, and in the end he brought me to the great Welsh Dragon. Well, to Simon Wyatt, as you may know him, but how I tricked my way inside the book is a tale for another time.

Like all the best stories there were times when all seemed lost, the way was full of twists and turns, triumphs and setbacks, but we made it here, somewhat changed, in the end.

The black dog is in my house now.

There is no escaping him.

I wouldn’t even try.

Visit Simon Wyatt's blog for more art and updates as the launch approaches.

Keep a look out for news in the near future of some projects involving Cy and Si - and most likely me!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Pulling Focus

I've been a bit quiet and distant for the last week, I know. Don't worry, it's nothing you've done. I'm just really busy right now recording the commentary track for the upcoming re-release of Cancertown on PSP. It's been almost twenty years since I last spent any amount of time recording and cutting audio, and the technology has moved on a bit (like almost anything else worth doing in the 90s, sound editing actually involved razor blades and sticky tape the last time I had to do it). Anyway, my skill set has been updated and I'll hopefully be finished tinkering with the PSP files in the next week or so.

In the meantime, I should quickly point out that Cancertown co-conspirator, Stephen Downey, has opened up a shop on his website. He's got some cool prints on there already, so it's definitely work checking out.

So, on a recent trip to Canterbury, I made what I strongly suspect is a significant discovery. That discovery goes by the name of Aaron Moran, and I can honestly say that his art style is literally unlike anything I've seen before. I'm not alone in that assessment, either, as virtually identical words came out of Markosia Big Boss Harry Markos' mouth when I showed him a few samples at BICS this year. Take a look, and keep in mind that this is all hand drawn:

Aaron is currently working with me and two other writer/artist teams on Focal Point, a crime book that's in the works right now. I'm guessing that, once word about him gets out, he's suddenly going to find himself in great demand. Watch this space, and see some more of his samples on his website.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Nic's Sticky Notes: KillRaven

"...and now, brought to you by special request from the Lovely Mr Lee Grice himself..."

KillRaven – Warrior of the Worlds

Written by: Don McGregor, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman

Art by: P. Craig Russell, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Herb Trimpe, Gene Colan, Rich Buckler, Sal Buscema

Published by: Marvel (beginning 1973)

Yes – all those people really did have a hand in it, even though this incarnation of the title was just 39 issues long. Most of these creators were involved for only one or two issues and the “golden age” of Killraven began when Don McGregor took over writing duties from issue 21 and P Craig Russell signed on as penciller a few issues later.

The initial idea was co-plotted and designed by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams (not, in fact, Freddie Mercury’s mum as far as I know, but I could be mistaken…)

The story follows Jonathan Raven (or KillRaven as he was dubbed in the arena), an escaped gladiator who now leads a band of rebels, fighting for freedom against the tyrannical Martian overlords, as they cross a ruined America in search of KillRaven’s missing brother.

The subtitle “Warrior of the Worlds” refers to this being a kind of sequel to H G Wells “War of The Worlds” set on an alternate future earth (Marvel’s Earth -691). So far, so generic science-fantasy (Killraven is a gladiator with a sword in a world of cyborgs) update of classic literature. It is also, as with lots of 70s sci-fi across different media, incredibly, heavily “over-written” by today’s standards.

The story begins as a kind of all action, fast talking, pulp adventure along the lines of “Conan versus the Martians”, but after Mcgregor and Russell took over the comic developed a brooding, melancholy air and becomes something more introspective. Interestingly the character of Killraven does not really change, rather it is his supporting cast and the adventures they find themselves in that have altered, leaving the hero almost at odds with his own story. This is even directly addressed a couple of times by the characters, so leads me to believe it is deliberate commentary on the form. It sometimes works well, and is sometimes forced and awkward, but it is a brave and innovative thing to have attempted. This tension between creative fearlessness and successful storytelling is an issue that will raise its head again and again with this title.

The first issue shows us a world where the Martians have returned, successfully this time, and now occupy earth. We learn that the humans initially attempted resistance, unleashing biological weapons against the invaders but the strategy backfired spectacularly as the lethal pathogens turned on their creators wiping out a significant portion of the population. Secure in their victory the Martians subjugate the remaining inhabitants of Earth, apart from a handful of collaborators, breeding them either for food and sacrifice or for entertainment in the arena if they are strong specimens.

Humans are a hardy breed though and not about to stand for this kind of thing. There is always a band of rag-tag rebels, you know how this works, right? Killraven’s band of Freemen includes M’Shulla Scott (KillRaven’s black lieutenant – yes, the colour of his skin is very important to the message, this was the 70s, remember), the “scientist with a secret” Carmilla Frost, the cynical, bitter native American Hawk, the faithful but slow-witted strongman Old Skull, and Grok - a sub-human creature fanatically devoted to Carmilla.

At various points their paths are crossed by an exotic variety of dangerous females such as Volcana Ash (whose origin sequence has to be seen to be believed!), the human/plant hybrid Mint Julep and the sense defying Mourning Prey who help them in various ways. I’m not sure if this was intentional and was trying to communicate any specific message, if so it is never really developed and I didn’t really notice it at first reading but it struck me just now, thinking back over the story.

The main antagonists are, of course, the Martians, but they do not often appear “on page.”, which actually works well as a means of amplifying their alien menace. The band is primarily pursued by a Martian agent, the cyborg assassin Skar, leading to some beautiful fight scenes. Of course just having to defeat or escape from Skar would be far too easy and the heroes run into conflict with other mutants, monsters, human collaborators and transhuman creatures amongst them the wonderfully named Pstun-Rage, the Death-Breeders, Atalon the Fear Master, the Sacrificer and Abraxas.

Probably as a result of having such a “revolving door for creators”, the whole thing is really a messy grab-bag of scraps and half finished ideas that really shouldn’t work at all. You get the impression of “kids in a sweetshop”, and so what we get is a mad, dizzy sugar-rush of a comic where every individual concept probably “seemed like a good idea at the time”. It is clearly one of the most ambitious comics ever put out, but to realise that ambition it would have needed an Alan Moore or Grant Morrison on the script. It is keen and excited, but not always quite up to the job. Strangely though, it rises above all of this and manages to make something quite astonishingly ground-breaking.

Part of the mystery can be explained, I think, by the fact that this was a low selling book, constantly in danger of cancellation, and so was “beneath of the attention” of many people who would have been much stricter about what was allowed to be included in a higher profile title. This gave the creators a massive amount of freedom (in the end it gave them enough rope to hang themselves and it was cancelled and wrapped up quickly, as can be seen from the ending) and they used it to explore madness, love, violence, philosophy, justice, political satire, psychological trauma and the nature of “true freedom”.

The fact that the creators were open to experimentation and breaking boundaries means that Killraven is where we see the first inter-racial kiss in comics. The fact that you wouldn’t notice this as anything unusual when reading it now shows just what a different world this book was created in and you need to keep that in mind when reading it to understand just how dangerous it was to explore some of the concepts it did.

When this was published, of course, the Civil Rights movement in America was still very much a going concern - it was not quite five years since Martin Luther King had been assassinated when this came out. Imagine if you had read this in a small town in Alabama, by the light from the burning crosses, where everyone's daddy was a Klansman. Bear in mind that there was a recorded Klan lynching in 1981, for which the perpetrators were found guilty in 1987 and executed in 1997 - this stuff is not that far in the past.

McGregor looked to bring much more social commentary and psychological / emotional realism to the story than previous writers. This was accomplished mainly by means of a shift that puts the actual landscape much more at the centre of the story, rather than it just being “backgrounds” that fill in the white space of the panel. Much of the satire, though, relies on readers recognising the settings / locations in relation to what is happening in them. I will admit that much of this was lost on me, apart from the very obvious ones such as a slave market on the statue of Abraham Lincoln (nowhere did I say the script was subtle!), as I just didn’t know the places or their associations with American popular culture in the 1970s.

P Craig Russell’s art is beautiful, even on 30-odd year old cheap paper with the shocking colour repro available to printers then. In places he brings a fine art level of technical skill and his design sense is nothing short of incredible.

The best way to think of his art is “visual music” and it adds a lightness and subtlety to a script that can swing alarmingly from “sound and fury” to somewhat pretentious exposition and otherwise might have been heavy going. It is a very rare artist who has the ability to take a story so stuffed with concepts, dialogue and explanatory captions it is bursting the 32 pages allotted to it and deliver such graceful, seamless pages.

When it came to the idea of “location as character” McGregor was very lucky that in P Craig Russell he had an artist skilled enough to pull off recognisable “future ruined” real locations without them being intrusive. Similarly his “trippier” locations, such as the adventure that takes place inside a holographic dream world where we enter projected visualisations of the Freemen’s hopes and fears are in safe and capable hands.

The sheer imagination on display in the creature and concept design is some of the best I have seen in comics. I really want a purple serpent horse!

Whatever its flaws, though, it was trying to do something new and meaningful and adult with a medium that was elsewhere stuck in “monster of the week territory”, and it should be applauded for that. There are definite flashes of inspiration, but no-one had walked this way before, and so there is the impression that the creators were not always sure how to set about what they wanted to accomplish. To be honest, it does show its age a bit now, but this lends it a kind a eerie “retro-future” quality that has probably improved it.

All in all it is a flawed masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece none the less.

Oh - and if anyone wants to watch a special showing of the all naked version of the Dr Who Xmas special that's Lee's next request, so expect an emergency broadcast by the BBC in about 10 mins when he's had time to have a wee and make a cuppa!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Like Mine, but Better...

So, I was going to post a follow-up blog to the previous post, featuring some concept sketches to show the stages and processes that the cover went through. As it turns out, someone way more qualified to talk about that than I am has already done so. In light of this, I am forced into an act of plagiarism so great that I daren't even attempt to disguise it.

So, with Stephen's permission, here's what he has to say for himself.

Cover Story

You may have seen one of the Work-in-Progress Slaughterman's Creed covers slip out on the net this weekend while I was prancing around the MCMexpo. I finally have the chance to share the cover here along with the slightly unusual process behind it.

I had worked on another cover before with Ryan Brown and after seeing his digitally painted work over Simon Bisley's 13 coins comic pages, asked him if he would paint over my pencils/layout for the Slaughterman's Creed covers (Ryan's brother Andy is the co-founder of Beserker Comics, and inked the interior latter chapters of SC).

I had a rough idea for the cover and sketched out a quick layout (which I can't find at the minute, but I'll have found it by the time the cover is finished and post it then), set up my studio lights and took a few reference photos. Here's the one for Sidney himself:

Using the reference photos I sketched out the graphic novel cover layout below.

At this point (as those who were following my blog last year will know), I had planned to spend my Summer in Canada and continue drawing. Things fell through at the last minute and although we had a brilliant month in Belize instead, we did a lot more travelling and A3 scanners are few and far between.

Each digital chapter will feature an individual character so I had to draw each one separately and Ryan agreed to paint and compose them together for the GN. I had to wait to get to Seattle four weeks later to print out five blue lines copies of the sketch and pencil out the individual characters over it. Since Sidney was already in the foreground he needed the least done, but I did tidy him up a little.

By the time I'd finished drawing the characters we were on a plane to Las Vegas. I thought it would be easy to find a scanner there, but all I could find was slot machines and wedding chapels. I was sending my laptop back home the next day, so all I could do was take photos of the pencils on my camera (see above), load them into my dropbox, along with the original reference photos and some interior character shots and upload via the hotel wireless.

Yip, that WIP cover painting was actually painted over a photo sent from Las Vegas. I reckon Ryan did a bloody awesome job!

Expect another update, with more sketches and ref material when the cover is finished.

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