Archive for the ‘commentary on my stories’ Category

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

This Thursday sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Out of the Woods. It’s a First World War story, telling the tale of Canadian brothers caught up in a gas attack at Ypres. But why tell this story?

The First Gas Attack

This April marks the 105th anniversary of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front. The German army had tried to use gas against the Russians that January, but cold weather had stopped the weapon working. It was at Ypres that the full horror of chemical weapons was unveiled.

The results of the attack were horrifying. Chlorine gas causes the lungs to fill with fluid, drowning its victims on dry land. Survivors were left with terrible damage. It was as terrifying as it was deadly.

That attack was the first of many. Rather than abandon these weapons in horror, each side escalated its efforts to develop killer chemicals. Phosgene, mustard gas, and Lewisite left men dead or forever scarred. Medical staff had to develop whole new approaches to save lives.

By the end of the war, these weapons had a sickening reputation. Countries that were happy to bomb and shoot thousands of young men agreed that chemical weapons were beyond the bounds of war. But for the men scarred in those battles, life would never be the same.

An International War

That first gas attack hit the French army, in particular Algerian troops stationed around the village of Neuve-Chapelle. These North African troops, already caught in a strange and bewildering environment, were hit by a weapon beyond their worst nightmares. Unsurprisingly, they fled in panic.

The gap in the line was filled by the Canadians, who were on the receiving end of the next chlorine attack. Knowing what was coming, and with improvised masks at the ready, they managed to hold out against the assault that followed, even retaking ground lost to the Germans.

This was one of the moments on which the Canadian army’s reputation was built. Like the Australians and New Zealanders, they faced some of the most deadly encounters of the First World War, earning themselves a reputation for toughness and courage. Modern Canadians might be known for politeness, but during that war, they were hardened warriors that the other side didn’t want to mess with.

That’s why the Canadians are at the heart of this story. Their part in the First World War isn’t widely recognised, but they played a crucial role, and on this occasion, they saved the day for the Allies.

That Name…

As for the title of this story, yes, it’s a Taylor Swift reference. My friend Al sings a modified and much more sweary version of the song at larp events, and when I was writing a story set in a wood, it ear-wormed me for hours on end. That made it the perfect title.

So here it is, a story of courageous Canadians and terrifying trauma, to a soundtrack of upbeat pop. Enjoy!

rosesEvery day for a month, as she walked through the palace gardens, Lady Elana looked up at the high balcony where Prince Novak sat, his handsome face as pale and sorrowful as old bones. She had read the books of poetry he wrote before his mother’s death, and so knew that there was joy and beauty in him, such joy and beauty that it had captured her own heart. But she had come to court too late to meet the man with whose words she had fallen in love. Now he sat alone behind locked doors and his father’s guards, slumped in sorrow.

Elana was determined to change that.

It took her weeks to identify the brief moment each day when the guards did not watch the wall below the balcony. She waited another month for the perfect blue rose to emerge in the garden, just as it had in Novak’s poetry. At last her moment came.

She plucked the rose, grasped it between her teeth and scrambled up the ivy. Stone scraped her knuckles red raw, and thorns drew blood from her lips, but at last she reached the top and held out the flower to Prince Novak.

“I found beauty amid brambles.” She recited the first line of her favourite verse, and the smallest of smiles flickered at his mouth.

“What is this?” The King was furious as he stomped out onto the balcony. “I keep my son here to protect him from harlots like you, preying upon his weakness as you scrabble to become queen. I will have none of it!”

“Please.” Elana trembled as she bowed low before the King. “Please, I just want to make him happy. The flower made him smile. Surely that is worth something?”

The King looked at his son, and for a moment his expression softened.

It was only a moment.

“Any courtly lady can make a young man smile,” he growled. “It is what you are trained for. Make me smile, and then I will let you see him again.”

#

Every day for a month, Elena was allowed into the King’s presence and given one chance to make him smile. At first she sang songs and told jokes, but his expression remained stern. Then she tried stories of glory and heroism, which she had been told he loved in his youth, but still no smile. She brought bouquets of flowers, fine artworks, beautiful and exotic birds, but not a hint of happiness touched the King’s lips.

Determined to succeed, Elena learnt new skills. Every month for a year she would dedicate herself to a new entertainment, perfecting some display before bringing it before the King. She became an acrobat, an illusionist, a high wire ballerina. Courtiers were dazzled by the spectacle of her displays, but the King continued to glare.

At last came the day when Elena could do nothing more. Every muscle ached from endless training. All her money was gone, spent on experts and tutors. So many crafts filled her mind, ideas and information cramming up against each other, that she could barely sleep at night from keeping them all in.

She bowed low before the King, her last threadbare gown sweeping the floor.

“I have failed, your majesty,” she said. “I am penniless, and must now leave court. But if my example inspires another, and one day they make Novak happy, then every moment of this has been worthwhile.”

With all the dignity she could muster, she turned to walk away.

“Wait.” The King’s voice was soft.

Elena turned to see a tear rolling from the corner of his eye.

“It amazes me,” he said. “That you could care for my son so much that after all this you are happy just knowing that he is too.”

He waved to one of his guards.

“Take her to Prince Novak.” At last a smile appeared on the King’s face.

#

Every day for a month, Elena visited Prince Novak on his balcony. They read stories, admired the garden, and wrote poetry together. Slowly but surely, the Prince’s smile returned. It became fixed forever when, the very next year, they were wed.

* * *

After enjoying my fantasy story ‘The Wizard’s Tower’, Joanna challenged me to write a story in which a female suitor must prove her worthiness for a sheltered man, the reversal of the usual roles. This is the result. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to receive a story each week directly to your inbox then please sign up for my mailing list.

As an added bonus, fellow writer Steve Cook has recorded an audio version of one of my previous stories, steampunk adventure ‘A Flash of Power’. He’s done a great job, full of sound effects and enthusiasm, and you can listen to that here.

Live by the Sword came from one of my basic desires as a fantasy writer – to write something that’s familiar and accessible, but that also brings something new to the genre. To provide my audience, and myself, with enough novelty to stand out but not so much that readers will feel lost.

To this end, I decided to write a Roman fantasy. It’s something I’m returning to at the moment, and that I think has a lot of merit. The majority of secondary world fantasy has a strong Medieval flavour – The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The First Law, etc. We’re starting to see more influences from the Renaisance and the Victorian era coming through, especially with the growing success of steampunk. But if writers go further back it’s normally to produce wild barbarians in a Conan style, rather than to build on ancient civilisations.

So I picked Rome. I picked the arena because it was an exciting setting, and because this was before the popular Spartacus TV shows, when it had more novelty. And I picked the gladiators as characters not for the glory and romance of men of action but because it allowed me to look at those harmed by the might of Rome, as well as to show the wide diversity that was the oppressed under-belly of the empire.

The plot came from something more modern. I saw paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery by artists who had survived the horrors of the First World War, and whose art was shaped by this. It made me think about the other forms of creativity that came out of that era, such as the war poets, and how art became a way for them to cope with the violence they experienced. I wanted to explore that, and it fit naturally with looking at how my gladiators escaped from the traumas of their lives. The fact that I was writing fantasy let me turn this metaphor into reality, the subtext into text, art into something literally transformative.

So there we go. A little insight into where this story came from. Now it’s time for me to take some of this inspiration and go write something new.