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...

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