Posts Tagged ‘comics’

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. You can get a copy now through Comixology or direct from the publishers.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

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!

My latest Commando comic, “Out of the Woods”, is out today! Set in the First World War, it follows twin brothers Tom and Harry as they travel from Canada to the trenches of Belgium. Far from home, their courage is put to the test during the horrors of a gas attack.

You can buy individual issues of Commando online, get digital versions through Comixology, or subscribe through the publisher’s store.

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.

Wind in the Willows But With Murder

Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.

One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.

Tying the Strands Together

As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.

Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.

Beautifully Illustrated

The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.

Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.

Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?

I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.

This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.

Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.

 The problem with superhero stories is making them convincing. Sure, that’s not a problem when you’re entertaining a drooling fan like me with big spectacle like Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you’re aiming to create something low key, or to draw in a bigger audience, that’s more difficult. It’s a challenge any genre writer will face if they want to reach plenty of readers, and so it’s interesting to see how Marvel and Netflix’s recent TV show Daredevil has handled this.

In my view, there’s one small element that’s incredibly telling.

Superheroes in New York? Yeah Right.

First, lets give a bit of context, because none of what I’m going to say will make sense without it.

The nature of the superhero Daredevil, aside from being the blind martial artist with super senses, is that he sits on the boundary between two worlds. He exists within a huge universe of superpowered characters in a sprawling interconnected epic of comics / films and TV shows. But he also exists as a street level hero fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood of New York.

This sets up one really obvious problem for Daredevil as a TV show. How do you reference that superhero universe while not making it sound absurd in the context of a gritty crime story?

But there’s another problem, one I discovered reading The Devil is in the Details, a book of essays on Daredevil. Hell’s Kitchen, which was a run down neighbourhood when Daredevil was created half a century ago, has become gentrified. As a setting for a gritty crime drama, it doesn’t work as well as it once did.

Given both of those challenges, how do you put the screen Daredevil in context?

Less is More

The answer, as shown in the first couple of episodes, is by bringing those two problems together and then applying some subtlety.

Almost the only link that the show directly makes to the Marvel universe, in its early episodes at least, is to reference the huge damage done to New York in The Avengers. They don’t talk about what the destruction was, thus avoiding tackling a world of Norse gods and super soldiers, but by referencing the destruction they let fans see that the Marvel Universe has affected these people’s lives. It’s the same trick that British TV show Ultraviolet used for its vampires – if you avoid using the word ‘vampire’ or ‘superhero’, and just include its implications, you can skirt around the potential absurdity.

This reference is also how they deal with Hell’s Kitchen. Thanks to the destruction done in New York, Hell’s Kitchen is a dump again. Hey presto, in a couple of lines they’ve tackled both of their biggest problems, and given the story a rich contextual background.

That, in my opinion, is some clever writing. A lot of thought and time clearly went into crafting a few seconds of dialogue, and it was well worth it. We could all learn from it.

If you haven’t already, then I really recommend watching Daredevil. It features some great writing and acting, a number of good fight scenes and at least one really imaginative one. It comes with a big warning though – it is really not for the squeamish, taking the Marvel tone as far from Guardians of the Galaxy as it can get.

And if you’re into superheroes or want to know more about Daredevil I heartily recommend The Devil is in the Details. It includes some fascinating essays, including one on the old question of how plausible his superpowers are.

It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.

This week’s exercise:

Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.

This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.

Back to the City

The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.

Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.

Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.

Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.

With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.

What Did I Get Out of This?

Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.

Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.

Spider Jerusalem - a writer's writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Spider Jerusalem – a writer’s writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:

Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.

Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy

The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.

The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.

But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.

Page 2: Subplot Time

Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.

This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.

Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight

On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.

It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.

The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.

Page 5: And Now The Main Action…

Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.

Understanding What Other Writers Do

This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.

If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.

Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.

Exciting news – I’m finally a comic writer!

Back in 2013 I entered the Top Cow Talent Hunt, in which I was a runner up. Off the back of this, I wrote a short script for Top Cow set in feudal Japan, which after much excited waiting on my part is finally coming out in May.

‘One Man’, a samurai-era story featuring the magical Bloodsword, features in Artifacts: Lost Tales #1, released on 6 May. You can see a few more details here, though you have to scroll down the page to find it.

I’m really excited to get my hands on this. I haven’t seen the art yet, and it’s going to be awesome to see someone else’s talent bring my ideas to life.

If you’re into comics then please consider pre-ordering Lost Tales at your local shop – pre-orders make a big difference to how many copies of a comic get onto the shelves, and so how many people can buy it that way.

Yay comics! (I’m a little excited)