graphic novels

Warning: timeshift approaching

Preparing to leap into 2018 with renewed vigour and a sense of purpose (no, really) I thought I’d wrap up the year with some random observations, mainly springing from Christmas.

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OneMonkey’s parents kindly bought me a couple of graphic novels for Christmas: Grandville Force Majeure, and Blacksad. The Grandville novel is the final volume of Bryan Talbot’s fantastic series about a badger who’s a detective in an England where France won the Napoleonic wars, and I’d been looking forward to it immensely (I read it the day after I got it, and it was tense, thrilling, and a fabulous end). I think OneMonkey’s parents have bought me all five of the Grandville novels, and before that they supplied a few volumes of Cerebus the Aardvark (which kickstarted my love of comics, as detailed here in 2010) so maybe there was a need to fill the gap, or maybe the lass in the Newcastle Travelling Man was particularly enthusiastic, anyway they hit upon Blacksad. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s from Spain, sounds good, and is about a detective (spot the theme?) who’s a cat. OneMonkey immediately noticed the abc of anthropomorphic lead characters in his parents’ gifts (aardvark, badger, cat) so I’m intrigued to know where I might go from here. Any good ones about dragons kicking about?

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I got a couple of other books for Christmas (the Mike Savage one has graphs in, that’ll keep me happy for a while), some notebooks, a beautifully distracting Moomin diary to keep on my desk and write deadlines in, and a pen and pencil set from The Nephew (who I didn’t see until a couple of days after I took the photo). Not many books were exchanged in our house on Christmas Day this year, though we gave The Nephew three: two as presents and one I’d finished with and thought he might like (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow). And come to think of it I bought three for Big Brother and my dad gave him a Robert Rankin novel I was returning to the Library of Mum and Dad (basically he didn’t have anywhere to put it and Big Brother was sitting next to him on the sofa). So some of us did ok for reading material.

I’m yet to count up how many books I’ve read this year, but not as many as in 2016 I think. That could be the lack of a commute beginning to show, or it could be related to the number of story submissions I’ve made this year (again, not counted up yet but a huge increase on 2016). The final submission of the year was made this afternoon, now I’m going to get my reading and writing back in balance by settling down with a cup of tea, the last mince pie, and a half-read copy of Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

Wishing you all a peaceful 2018 filled with all the books you want to read, all the creative endeavours you’ve got the energy for, and a liberal sprinkling of quiet contentment.

Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.

Sixth annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Whose word-enhancing art are you going to appreciate today? Five years ago I tried to boost the profile of artists quietly providing book covers and magazine illustrations. In the last few days, by coincidence, I’ve had my attention drawn to this vote for artwork (suitable for a future book cover) at Spark. Hard to choose, but I particularly liked Monsters and Marvels by Luke Spooner, Snake Bones by Rodrica Cogle, and The Carrot is Mightier Than the Sword by Sean Greenberg.

It’s also been a week for comics exposure, what with Dave Gibbons being created Comics Laureate in the cause of literacy, so in case it’s not your usual medium why not check out some freely available volumes? There’s The Only Living Boy at NoiseTrade, and a whole graphic novel list at Free Online Novels (including 2 written by me, with fabulous art by Mark Pexton, which you can get here).

The Moon of Endine: free sci-fi werewolf comic

I don’t always put the comic/graphic novel stuff on this blog but it occurred to me that readers here might be missing out because they ‘don’t read comics’. Mark Pexton’s art is (in my biased opinion) pretty special at times, and if you’ve enjoyed any of my sci-fi or fantasy stories you might like the one about werewolves on a frontier planet. So try our comic The Moon of Endine which (like we did for Boys Don’t Cry) we’re now making available online for free under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND, though you can still buy the print copy over at our comicsy shop or at Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man in Leeds. You can download the pdf if you like, or just sit and page through it here (it opens up a full page when you click on it)…

Free ebook release of my first graphic novel

The death of books and traditional publishing is a hot topic at the moment, and while I firmly believe that print books will be around for a good many years yet, I do also think it’s time to admit there’s more of a mix than there used to be. Readers of this blog (as opposed to my other one) might not be aware of my graphic novel/comics output, self-published but that’s not as unusual for comics as it is for mainstream fiction. In further experimental fashion we (me, the artist Mark Pexton, and OneMonkey who does all the technical stuff) decided to make a pdf copy of the first graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, available for free (under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND) here. This is an enticing picture of the cover:

Boys Don't Cry front cover

And here’s what the back cover says:

Teenage boys aren’t known for sharing their fears and emotions, so if you’re the father or sister of one, how do you know how he’s coping with his mum’s death?

Fifteen year old Hunter isn’t entirely sure himself, and even if he could put any of it into words, he no longer knows who to say it to.

So if zero pence sounds like a good price to pay for the beautifully-drawn saga of a bereaved teenage goth in Edinburgh, feel free to peruse and comment – part of the reason for doing this is to reach a wider audience; there’s only so many people willing to buy an 80-page graphic novel by relative unknowns and I’d prefer to have more people read it. Particularly those that might not normally think of themselves as graphic novel audience material.

Creative Commons License
Boys Don’t Cry by Jacqueline Saville, Mark Pexton, Andrew Woods is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Rex Libris: I, Librarian by James Turner

I couldn’t resist a graphic novel with a title like that, and when I pulled it from the library shelf the art-deco artwork sealed it for me (though actually the interior art style is nothing like that, more like early 90s computer graphics). The introduction by Dave Sim helped, too (if you’ve read the Ostragoth blog you’ll know he single-handedly got me into comics as something that went beyond The Beano).

Rex Libris was a librarian at the great library of Alexandria, and is still going strong in the present-day. He’s a good librarian, he likes discipline and order. And if that means chasing overdue books across the galaxy and fighting evil warlords, that’s what he’ll do. Since he feels that librarians don’t always get the credit they’re due, he’s chosen to break the code of silence and describe his life and adventures via a series of comics.

You can read this graphic novel (which collects the first five comics) as an entertaining adventure story with enjoyably ludicrous plots, but you can also appreciate a dose of satire and a handful of classical and literary references if you feel like it. On the whole I liked it, but I confess I didn’t understand why Rex occasionally said ‘dat’ and ‘dis’ instead of ‘that’ and ‘this’ (I couldn’t see any pattern to it and it seemed a little out of character), and a few instances of spelling mistakes, repeated or missing words in the captions/dialogue jumped out at me. I will be looking out for further volumes though.

Script focus

Halfway through Script Frenzy – yes, I have a one-track mind at the moment. This month so far has been a revelation, and I hope it’s been as good for you if you’re participating in the 100-page challenge. I’ve discovered, for one thing, that I’m more visual than I used to be – the graphic novel script I spent the first 10 days writing came much easier than the radio script I’ve now embarked on, whereas I used to write radio scripts for my own, friend T’s, and Big Brother’s entertainment quite often when I was a kid. Now I’m finding that while dialogue’s flowing (as it often does when I’m writing prose), it’s not always conveying the whole scene and I realise a couple of scenes later that the audience couldn’t possibly know some key fact that I’m building on, and I have to go back and rewrite.

Productivity is the other big discovery. For no other reason than that I’ve said I would, I’m sitting down to write every day, maybe only for half an hour, and I’m focused on one project. In ten days I wrote a graphic novel. Ten days! Of course it’ll take Mark much longer than that to draw it, even if he didn’t have the inconveniences of daily life to distract him, but that’s quite an achievement for me. The thing about that script is that it doesn’t need to be polished – no-one else needs to see it and I know because of the way we work that it will get discussed and adapted as we go along. The radio script is another matter, and would need serious redrafting once April’s over. However, I’ve got 20 pages of it already and I’m enjoying the challenge and the revisiting of a long-neglected format.

That’s the essence of Script Frenzy, I guess – it’s making me feel good. I can see the pages stacking up and I’ve got an excuse to write in a form I don’t normally use these days, it’s stretching my capabilities but there’s no deadline pressure, in the sense that I don’t have to use or even show anyone the script when it’s done. If you’re not taking part in Script Frenzy, and aren’t planning on NaNoWriMo (I’m planning a detective novel for that – another project that’s slightly outside my normal field), I highly recommend setting yourself a fun challenge in the near future. A sketch every day for a fortnight; a fresh photo (different angles, macro, black and white) of the garden every weekend of the summer; a poem every Sunday lunchtime in May; or anything else that takes your fancy. You may remind yourself of forgotten talents, or discover new ones, and you will almost certainly have a great time. Feel free to let me know how you get on.

Frenzied scripting

Script Frenzy is now 2 days in, and so far I’m enjoying it. A French classical station on the internet radio (moved from the kitchen to my bureau for the occasion) – no adverts and plenty of piano. A mug of something warming (coffee just now). A computer and a dash of inspiration.

So far I’m at 6 and a half pages, which isn’t too bad considering the average of 3 and a third pages a day which would be necessary to hit the 100-page target by the end of the month, but I would like to get ahead of myself this weekend to make up for the inevitable slackening at some point during the week. The script may well end up in some adapted form as the next-but-one Ostragoth venture, though it may not. And since a graphic novel’s unlikely to take me all the way to 100 pages, I’m also planning a radio play, largely for my own amusement (kind of like 20 years ago, when friend T and I wrote a whole series of plays and radio plays with recurring characters, which certainly entertained us).

Good luck to anyone else who’s currently frenzied. Back to the fray.

How to hook a reader in seconds: finding a good title

What’s the first part of your story that a reader sees? Whether it’s on the spine of a book, at the top of a magazine page, or in a table of contents, it’s the title, so it had better be a good one.

Pretty much all you can see is the title

Sometimes the title is the only thing someone will see, for example a bare list of titles and authors on a webpage – you have to entice the reader to click on your link purely on the strength of that title, before they even get a chance to experience your story. It can be amusing, quirky, groan-inducing, exciting and full of promise, but it definitely has to be eye-catching. If it’s in a mixed-genre setting it may also have to suggest its genre within its limited character set.

The Menagerie. Goth Opera. The Mind Robber. Shadowmind. Mission Impractical. Doctor Who and the Green Death.

Those are all titles of Doctor Who novels, but they don’t all have the same feel. When I acquired all those Doctor Who novels recently it struck me how the titles variously suggested horror, sci-fi, highbrow fantasy, tongue in cheek comic fantasy, old-fashioned mystery, adventure story for children, thriller, or some combination of these (and other) moods. Titles have such potential, but if you’re anything like me you may often throw one at your story at the last minute, an afterthought considered vaguely acceptable and sent out into the world. If so, you and I both need to think harder.

Blame my unfortunate affection for dodgy puns on my dad (and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again) if you like, but whatever the origin, I know I do use them in titles. Leaf Encounter for instance – their eyes met in a greengrocer’s shop and it seemed like an obvious choice; I hoped that it might also suggest to others some of the things it suggested to me, that maybe it wasn’t entirely serious and that it might involve a love that wasn’t to be.

For that reason I also use common phrases like Rain Stopped Play or Windows to the Soul. Rain Stopped Play isn’t about cricket (though it is about rain) but Windows to the Soul does have eyes as a central point. I use song-titles, some of which fit the mood (Resurrection Joe and Boys Don’t Cry are both about goths), some don’t (Wasted Years has very little to do with Iron Maiden but I still like it as a working title). Sometimes the title comes first – I have a few in my bits file that have only sparked glimmers of ideas or very rough outlines so far, and most of them will probably stay that way.

I don’t always throw in a title at the last minute, and I don’t always stick with the first title I think of – Boys Don’t Cry had two previous titles I think, but was usually known as the gothlad comic. A good indication that your title isn’t so hot is when you and your closest friends can’t remember it; I had another story recently which a friend was trying to refer to and had to fall back on a plot summary, and when he apologised for forgetting the title I had to confess I couldn’t remember it either (I’ve renamed it since, and I now know it’s called Cracks in the Foundations).

I’d already started drafting this post (see the work that went into this) when I spotted a link to a wordpress advice page about choosing eye-catching post titles, and certainly the basic principles of that also apply to story (or any other) titles. I’m not claiming I come up with good titles, in fact mainly I’m saying the opposite, but I’m trying to learn, both for stories and blog posts, and if I’ve made you think a bit harder about the next title you have to come up with, that’s probably a good thing. Just don’t blame me when you’re stressing about it.

Introspective retrospective

Partly for inspiration, partly to avoid repeating myself too much, I’ve just had a read through my posts from the last couple of Christmas breaks. It made me realise how little reading I did at Christmas this year, in fact I haven’t picked up the book I’m currently reading (History of Education in Great Britain by SJ Curtis, interesting but heavy-going so it’s taking me a while to get through) since the 23rd.

Books were still quite a feature of Christmas in the parental home, being given to OneMonkey (by me), me (by OneMonkey and my parents), my mum (by me and my sisters), Big Brother (by sister number 2) and my dad (by Big Brother and probably my mum and sisters though I realise I wasn’t paying attention at that point). On Christmas Day, however, the spare hours were filled with board games and Doctor Who. This year I was sitting next to BB, so we didn’t have to pull it to pieces on the phone later, though given the high quality of Moffat-written Christmas special we wouldn’t have had to anyway. Most enjoyable (and very little Amy Pond, which is a bonus in my opinion).

Which brings me to the other recurring feature, the resolutions and the look-back over the year. In 2010 I made only about three-quarters the number of submissions I made in 2009; 2 are still out and I had 6 accepted (compared with 7 in 2009) so although I slackened off a bit in 2010 (submissions between the end of February and the end of October only) I still did OK. One of the accepted pieces is due out soon in The View From Here.

The graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, finally came out in 2010 which was probably the high-point of the year for me – it’s something we’d talked about for so long, and its emergence has provided me with proof that with enough nagging from OneMonkey I really can stop talking about doing something and actually do it. I also bought a fabulous trilby this year (as seen at Thought Bubble) which lives by my bureau and is worn for inspiration, particularly for that noir mood (though I am in fact wearing it as I write this).

So all in all, another good year but as usual with a hint of ‘must try harder’. I shall finish this now, replenish my new mug with Earl Grey, grab a mince pie and get down to the serious business of finishing the story for Ostragoth Publishing’s next moody venture.

A proud moment at the bookcase

One of the reasons I’ve been quiet recently is that I’ve been concentrating on the graphic novel, its associated blog, and attending the Thought Bubble comic convention in Leeds. Well, Thought Bubble was on Saturday (hectic, tiring, but most enjoyable) so I might get round to doing other things for a while (like making the submission I’ve been almost completing for about 3 weeks) but in the meantime I thought I’d share the proud moment at which my own graphic novel joined Cerebus on the shelf (even if it was just in my own living room)

Boys Don't Cry joins some of my Cerebus volumes

See the main Ostragoth website if you think you’d like to know more or maybe even buy a copy.

A new blog to neglect

I now have a second blog, dedicated to the graphic novel I keep mentioning, Boys Don’t Cry (I never claimed to be good at titles). So now I have two blogs that I won’t quite get round to posting on (or maybe I should think more positively). OneMonkey has his editorial hat on (literally – it’s quite a fetching trilby though I think he should get a red fedora), and also his (metaphorical) lettering hat as he’s adding all the words. So if you’re interested in our progress, I’ll try and keep you posted over at the other place, and in the meantime I’ll occasionally ramble on randomly here as usual.

Interzone excitement

I may have mentioned before (just once or twice) that my artist friend Mark/LeMat is going from strength to strength these days. Excitement overload last week as I bought issue 222 of Interzone, the first to feature his artwork, though apparently not the last, as he’s already busy on his next illustration for them. In my view (and I don’t think I’m alone here) if you make it into the pages of Interzone, then you know you’ve arrived (or you’re walking up the path to the front door, anyway). If we assume this applies as much to artists as it does to writers then we could consider Mark to have broken through some kind of threshold now, from small-press comics to the Great Beyond.

In typical self-deprecating fashion (typical if you know him, obviously, and unless you’re my friend D, if you’re reading this I’m guessing you probably don’t), Mark refuses to declare his triumphs in public in case anyone thinks he’s bragging. So while he’ll mention in a picture description on his deviantArt page that the painting was done for a book cover or for Interzone, he won’t list his successes anywhere as a whole. As a poor attempt at crowing from the web-based rooftops on his behalf, his artwork (including comic strips he wrote rather than illustrated for someone) has appeared in: 2000AD fanzines Dogbreath and Zarjaz, Violent! and the Girly Comic (including the latest Violent! cover), Shroud magazine (and the cover for a forthcoming Shroud book), Morpheus Tales, and is in the next issue of fantasy art magazine Imagine FX (which as he keeps pointing out, is even available in Tesco). A band have asked if they can use his art on their stage backdrop, someone wants to get a tattoo from one of his pictures, and more homes than mine and OneMonkey’s now house LeMat prints. I know I’ve forgotten a few things from the list, and there are probably some I don’t even know about, but you get the general idea.

I have an ulterior motive in all this I guess: the storyboard of his graphic novelisation of my Boys Don’t Cry is all but complete, with luck and a good supply of chocolate biscuits we’ll be ready to print by Christmas. You heard it here first.

Long time gone

The more astute among you will have spotted a gap here, and may have wondered what I’ve been doing. Some of you may even (though I doubt it) have hoped I’ve been busy writing brand new fiction, or fine-tuning some almost-completed pieces. I’d like to be able to say that was true, but while I have made a couple of submissions this week, mainly I’ve been coughing, sneezing and feeling sorry for myself. However, with the help of a lot of tea and a couple of afternoons working outdoors instead of in a stuffy office, I’m now feeling much better, my voice is back, and OneMonkey’s peace has been shattered.

Now that I’m well (or not being as pathetic) I’m going to have to get myself organised (I’m already planning a regime for the Easter break): apart from a friend eagerly awaiting (mildly interested in) the serial novel, who won’t start reading it till it’s finished, I’ve also got the chance of a collaboration with Mark. I know we’ve said before that we were going to write a comic, sketch show, play, radio script, TV script, sitcom, drama, comedy-drama… but we never seem to get beyond rough notes and hazy ideas. The exception is his graphic novel adaptation of my story Boys Don’t Cry (oh I’m so fond of those goth song titles) which is on the back-burner but is at least slowly progressing. Now, spurred on by a recent burst of success with his art we have a definite aim: write something short that’s somewhere between an illustrated story and a more traditional comic, and get it finished before his name’s faded from the minds of the great and the good in the world of sci-fi. All we need is the time and space to sit down and work, then we just agree on a plot, characters, style, length and approach, and write it all down. Simple.

Digressions into praise

So, another long gap; obviously I’m settling into my long-term pattern here. If truth be told, I’ve done very little writing of any kind lately, and apart from taking up archery (that’ll be the LOTR influence, then) and surviving the trauma of sliding into another decade of my life, I haven’t done much else either.

My friends have been pretty busy though, so I’ll talk about them for a change. One of them has had their first (as far as I remember) story accepted in a magazine, but that doesn’t come out until next year. Another (nearly wrote ‘the other’ there, but I do have more than two friends. Just) has a new comic out, or rather there’s a new comic out there with some of his artwork in. For the last couple of years Mark’s been slowly building up a portfolio of small-press comic art, collaborating at one stage with a guy who wrote a couple of Doctor Who novels (and how excited was I about that?), though he does write some of the stories himself. His style’s quite dark and brooding, perfect for illustrating some of my more goth or sci-fi stories, but somehow we’ve never got round to producing a joint venture. Yet.

I like the idea of one or more of my stories becoming graphic novels (however short they may be), but it’s harder than you might imagine to adapt something written as a long piece of prose. Strip it back to the dialogue and you encounter the same problem I mentioned with Trollope adaptations; if nothing else it shows up a weak plot. Trying to picture the story as a film helps to a certain extent but often subtle points would require too many frames to convey in a strict linear way like that. In a sense, the graphic novel can be quite liberating though, and at the risk of revealing my inner geek, I’ll mention Cerebus by Dave Sim, which was a long-running (more than twenty years) monthly comic with one over-arching storyline, which I’ve read about three-quarters of (so far) in its collected form. Stating the basic idea (mercenary soldier aardvark wanders a medieval-esque world for years, drinking ale, eating raw potatos and becoming pope, while Groucho Marx rules one country and Mick Jagger is prince of another) doesn’t do justice to the creativity involved in presenting visually something it might take pages to describe.

Another friend of mine (see, that’s three already), being French and knowing that comics are more popular in France than in England, has suggested Mark and I translate to French (just to add an extra layer of complexity to the process) and release our comic (when it eventually exists) over there. There is a certain appeal to that, though unfortunately the big comic convention takes place not in beautiful Paris, but in Angouleme, which will forever remind me of a school trip from sixteen years ago. However, I’m willing to give it a go, just as soon as I find the time and skill to adapt a couple of thousand words of prose into directions for a handful of drawn pages.