Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Nic's Sticky Notes: Indifferences Of Style

Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow is underway, with gorgeous art flowing in from Russ Leach almost as fast as I can letter it.

I've been looking back over The Indifference Engine: A Holographic Novel for various bits and pieces and came across some old lettering files that I thought I'd share.

The Indifference Engine was one of the first books I lettered, and as with all things, there is quite a bit I would do differently now, but I thought I'd share something that I decided to do differently at the time, even though it meant going back and relettering a lot of pages.

Before you see it you need to know a bit about the book and the character of the Engine itself. I guess it's been out a while, so these are probably not spoilers, and I've not shown any pages with major plot points, but if you do want to read the book first, look away now!

Ok, then. The back cover blurb for book one says:

"Responding to a strangely specific job advertisement, a distinctly ordinary twenty-something suburban slacker finds himself in the middle of an inter-dimensional task force staffed entirely by superhuman alternate versions of himself. Struggling to fit in, he uncovers a conspiracy that strikes at the very heart of the organisation – a conspiracy that only he can stop."

The Engine itself is a supercomputer and it communicates with Alan Blake, our hero, by means of a direct brain interface. Rob Carey did a fantastic job of translating visually what it felt like to be taken into a multi-dimensional consciousness that could only intersect with our own in a fragmented way due to the limits of our own consciousness and understanding of 3D space. Think of it like Flatland for thoughts!

When I came to letter it I thought of lots of interesting visual ways to try and get this sliced and sliding feel across. What I came up with was something like scrabble tiles, with the idea that the Engine was having to take little fragments that could be understood by Alan's human brain and push them around and piece them together to get a very simplified version of its thought across to him.

I had thought of "ransom note" style lettering first, but that did not seem regular and "computery" enough, and gave too much impression of threat and hostage taking which would not have been appropriate (not at that point in the story anyway).

I also thought that the slight hesitation and concentration it would force on the reader as they worked out how to read it would be a good kinesthetic/mimetic experience to bring them into closer identification with Alan's experience of talking to the Engine.

So what it looked like at first was this:

From Issue 2: The Engine meets Alan Blake.Pencils by Rob Carey, Colours by Mel Cook
But that didn't quite work. The white tiles easily got lost in the colour of the art and were hard to read. Also, there was nothing to indicate that the "sound" of the Engine's voice was somehow different to experiencing normal sound.

So I turned the tiles black with white text, like this:

From Issue 2: The Engine meets Alan Blake Pencils by Rob Carey, colours by Mel Cook .

 From Issue 3: The Engine Explains The Spectrum To Alan Blake,. Pencils by Rob Carey, colours by Mel Cook

Black was better, but even though the Engine speaks in a staccato fashion, lacking pronouns for the most part, using only the words it thinks are important, it was getting tricky to fit it in.

Reading order was also becoming an issue. Alan talks back to the Engine as well as it speaking, and in later pages he is able to communicate with it remotely, unheard by others, who may also be speaking to Alan and each other. It was important that core storytelling and rhythm were not becoming distorted for the sake of one visual gimmick.

Although I still like the concept, it just didn't work in practice because, whatever tricks you pull out of your bag as a letterer, they must always be in the service of readability first and foremost.

This is really the book where I learned a lot about the practical side of the differences in meaning you can bring to lettering with the use of space and  the shapes you are adding to the overall composition.

What I settled on was a more standard balloon shape with an "electronic blip" to it. Still white on black, but much more readable and that didn't have to try and fight the script and artwork for the sake of the idea.

I think it gave the Engine a different voice, less fractured but more intrusive in the way it speaks to Alan. The fracturing is all there in the art, so covering that information with a less effective version of the same thing was not good lettering.

As things turn out (no spoilers!) I think having some visual disconnect between what the Engine says, is seen to do, and how it feels to Alan got across something fundamental about the story and characters from the script that would have otherwise been lost if each layer was not operating distinctly but together. 

It also took a lot less time to letter! All those little boxes were fiendish! Each one had to be done by hand, and each letter put in separately. :)

If you haven't read The Indifference Engine: A Holographic Novel and would like to then you can buy it from our Comicsy shop, or from Comixology (as well as many other places).

We will also have copies on our table at Thought Bubble (we are on table 121 in New Dock Hall).

Also on our table we will have work-in-progress previews of Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow for you to see.

The backcover for volume 2 says:

"Alan Blake, former mid-level programmer turned invulnerable murder machine, slaughters his way through a web of interconnected parallel realities. Blackmailed by an insane computer built out of his own brain matter, he is forced into destroying every single alternate version of himself - until 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 Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow will be out through Markosia in 2014

See you on the flip side!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The British Are Coming!

The British Showcase Anthology, masterminded by Adam Cheal and published by Markosia, is launching at Scardiff on the 27th of October. It weighs in at 144 pages, contains nineteen stories and features the work of over forty contributors - at least a dozen of whom will be signing the limited edition hardback release at the con.

My story, Gateway Drugs, has art by the ridiculously talented Row Bird and is coloured by my Cancertown 2 partner-in-crime, Pete Mason. It's lettered by the sharp-toothed Nic Wilkinson. Here's the blurb:

A domestic care worker is kidnapped by government agents in an apparent case of mistaken identity - but is the man he's tending his patient, his hostage or something else entirely?

Adam's done a stunning job putting this book together, offering support throughout the process and somehow juggling forty creators toward a single goal. I'm excited to read the thing myself.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Bone Idol (Or Why Artists Are All Sorcerers)

Working with artists is a consistently baffling experience for me. Here's a step-by-step example of a page from The Company of Killers artist, Pete Mason, in which he patiently walks me through his process. I imagine he intended it to be accessible to the life-long non-artist, demonstrating that the visual construction of a comics page is bound by rules and principles that can be grasped, learned and mastered:

When people ask me, as they occasionally do, why I write comics rather than novels, I tell them that there's still real mystery involved in the process for me. The script you turn out is only the skeleton of the story, and when you send it to the artist there's a process of interpretation going on that's (and I know I've said this before) as close to real magic as anything I can imagine. A workable definition for magic, in this context, might be the sensation provoked by the discrepancy between a perceived or expected state of affairs and their actual state, owing to obfuscation of the intermediary process. Pete's page here is a great example of that magic, because here's what I see when I try to interpret his sequence above:

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Scream Engine

The Indifference Engine was an important book for me. It was my first experience of pitching live to a publisher (screamed at the top of my lungs in a crowded convention hall), resulted in my first meeting with the phenomenal Rob Carey (at high velocity on a staircase at another convention) and was the first book I'd written that had for-real Hollywood agents actually tracking me down to ask about the movie rights.

Crucially, it was a lot of fun to write. The Indifference Engine: A Holographic Novel charts the evolution of a committed nobody from career doormat to one-man genocide. For me, it was an exercise in torturing something essentially harmless to see if I could train it to bite. Also, as I'm generally wary of stories that "go home" neatly at the end, it leaves its world and characters in a very different state from the way it found them. Reviews tended to comment as much on the sanity of the creative team as the story itself, which is always particularly gratifying to me.

Introducing Indifference Engine 2: The Suicideshow:

Alan Blake, former mid-level programmer turned invulnerable murder machine, slaughters his way through a web of interconnected parallel realities. Blackmailed by an insane computer built out of his own brain matter, he is forced into destroying every single alternate version of himself - until 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.

Indifference Engine 2 is coming out through Markosia with script from me, art by Russ Leach, colours by Michael Summers and letters by Nic Wilkinson. More when I have it, including information on the creative team - but for now, here's a deeply cool test sketch from Russ to kick things off:

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