Monday, 14 November 2016

Bubble Wrap-Up 2016

I've been back from Thought Bubble for a little over a week now and, frankly, my head's still spinning. To be honest, I went in with a few concerns mixed in with the usual rush of optimism and enthusiasm. For one thing, this would be the first time in several years that I'd hit a convention without booking a table. Since we didn't have a new graphic novel launching, we decided to take the opportunity to walk the floors all weekend. As it turned out, it was a great decision. We ended up seeing a lot more of the show than we normally would, and being able to check out the flood of new (to us) talent on display was incredible.

That ties right in with our other main concern. I've developed kind of a bingo card of Thought Bubble regulars over the years - friends I see at every show and rely on as sort of an anchor for the experience. Those regulars were pretty thin on the ground this year, largely because of schedule clashes. With so many familiar faces not attending, the whole thing could've turned into a slightly rudderless experience for us.

I know. What was I thinking, right? Thought Bubble provides - and this year ended up being one of my favourite visits to the convention so far. Here's a basic run-down in pictorial form.


This handsome feathered fellow was spotted at Kings Cross station, where he's apparently employed to terrify pigeons. I have to say, not one single pigeon was seen that day, and the hawk (whose name we didn't manage to catch) certainly knew how to put on a show for the crowd.

Once in Leeds, we took advantage of our unaccustomed lack of tables and schedules to poke about Leeds for a bit. We were surprised to find a high-profile celebrity guest in the shopping centre, in the form of my third favourite Batmobile.


On the other hand, we did also encounter this little sip of nightmare fuel just a few metres away...


Yeah, I've no idea either. To help get that image out of your mind, here's the literally inimitable Jennie Gyllblad posing with her bearded gentleman and a surprisingly effective facsimile of a budgie.


Straying briefly into the Royal Armouries, Nic's attention was suddenly caught by a sign promising use of an indoor crossbow range. Observe her "Imma shoot the HELL out of this crossbow" face...


Followed quickly by her highly authentic "I'Z SHOOTIN' MAH CROSSBOW!" pose..

 
...and BOOM - check out her final shot right in the centre there!


Alright, back to the convention. Here's another thing we never get to do when we're stuck behind a table all weekend: buy bloody comics! It turns out that while we've been busy playing shopkeeper all these years, there have been people like Lucian M. Stephenson turning out glorious work behind our backs. We picked up an art book here...


 ...and the third issue of Fraser Geesin's worryingly entertaining The Cleaner here.


Nic found herself a giant ladybird to ride, which was oddly delightful despite the rain.


Meanwhile, I talked serious grown-up business with the Metal Made Flesh crew of phenomenal artist Simeon Aston and world building mastermind Jeremy Biggs. I've got more to say about this meeting soon...


Tim Pilcher, one-manning the Humanoids stand. Humanoids have been turning out some really interesting work, so it was good to get chatting with Tim and to see their exploding range of books.


Despite being at death's door on the Saturday, David Wynne put on a surprisingly brave face at the Orang Utan table with Ian Sharman. Orang Utan's range of books and other media continues to expand impressively.


The Improper Books crew, or a significant part thereof. Not sure how Sara Dunkerton managed to duck out of this shot. Nic's first purchase of the convention was the latest MULP instalment, Sceptre of the Sun - which came with an awesome riding-bee sketch from Sara.


A rare shot of Andy Bloor. Andy's doing some great stuff, including Midnight Man with Mo Ali, which I'm enjoying a lot.


Phil Buckenham at his table. Phil's a fantastic artist, who's done some amazing work for the Metal Made Flesh project.


The unstoppable Gary Erskine, my co-conspirator on The Final Piece of Me. We were a stretch goal in the last Metal Made Flesh book, and it was an incredible experience for me. I'm hoping to get another chance to work with Gary in the future. He's a legitimate legend and a genuinely nice guy.


Naturally enough, this post really only scratches the surface of Thought Bubble 2016. Highlights that I didn't manage to catch on camera included GM Jordan piloting the Markosia table, the brilliant Laurence Campbell, whose table was crammed with admirers every time we saw it and old friend Ollie Masters, who's doing cool things with major publishers these days. Long-time hero of mine David Hine provided me with my first purchase of the convention in the form of the beautifully disturbed Cowboys and Insects, with art by the ever-astonishing Shaky Kane. David's a true gentleman in an industry overrun by brigands and mountebanks. If you aren't reading his work then you're depriving yourself of a unique voice in comics. Then there was PM Buchan and Martin Simmonds' Heretics launch party/art exhibition, which was basically mind-blowing and worthy of its own blog post at some point, plus the annual post-convention Decompression Session, featuring the incomparable Conor and Lizzie Boyle of Disconnected Press, among others. Honestly, that Sunday-night unwinding exercise is reason enough for Thought Bubble to exist in the first place for me.

Anyway, I'm spent for now. Bottom line: if you aren't a Thought Bubble regular already, you absolutely should be. Roll on TB2017!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned from Role-playing Games

I first learned about role-playing games in secondary school, about the same time I was getting serious about comics. I went through the standard first few stages of the hobby. Dungeons & Dragons (not Advanced) held my attention for way longer than it should have, considering how minor my interest in fantasy was. Sci-Fi came along in the form of Traveller. That was cool, but I was more of a Star Wars kid, so its tone was too dry for me. I went through a West End Games' Star Wars RPG phase, a Ghostbusters RPG (also by West End) phase and probably half a dozen others before I finally found my brand in the form of R. Talsorian's first-edition Cyberpunk game.

By this point it was 1989. The game was set in the far-off reaches of 2013, and was a close match for the kind of science fiction I was into. The rules were clunky in places, but I followed that game through two more editions and dozens of expansion books. Cyberpunk was my second home. I forgave it every structural inconsistency, every rules contradiction, every weird digression into Japanese giant robot stuff. I ran Cyberpunk games all the way through university and well into life out in the world. All the time, although I guess I didn't realise it then, I was learning to tell stories. I was building characters and worlds. I was learning to do my research, I was teaching myself to respond to feedback, course-correct my plotting and strengthen my weak points. For better or worse, my entire approach to writing is grounded in my role-playing years. I still own every game, expansion and sourcebook I ever used, and I still refer to them once in a while. Cyberpunk in particular is still worthy of attention, as much for what it did wrong as what it did right.

The man most directly responsible for the game was Mike Pondsmith and, despite all the first-edition copy-and-paste errors that somehow made their way into every successive edition of the game, he's still kind of a hero of mine. He had a definite vision for approaching storytelling, and expressed it in what may be the smartest words ever said by a Microsoft employee.

Mike Pondsmith says "Don't Play Video Games."

I'll clarify. In the words of Maximum Mike himself, "video games are predictable. You start on one level, beat the henchmen monsters, defeat a few traps and take down the Boss Monster". In his Cyberpunk referee's guide, "Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads" he talks through a few basic options to avoid the boss monster problem. He suggests skipping it for a few chapters, or throwing the boss fight in at the middle of the chapter rather than its end. Whatever it takes to break the lather/rinse/repeat cycle that virtually every how-to guide on storytelling seems to insist on.

Quick side-note: I've been reading a lot of books on writing technique lately, more for entertainment than guidance. In fact, about the only useful thing I've learned is that success in the storytelling business seems to be entirely dependent on slavish devotion to the ugliest and most simplistic thematic and structural clichés. As for stylistic factors, when one of the world's most respected writers tells you never to use adverbs or the passive voice in your work - but tells you this using BOTH IN THAT VERY SENTENCE - then it's probably time to look elsewhere for advice. Also, he calls it the "passive tense" - which no-one should ever do while within my earshot and dick-punching range.

Back on-target: Mike Pondsmith's boss monsters. Something about his rant struck a chord with me back in 1994, whose echoes I can still hear today. It was always probably a little unfair to the video game industry to accuse them so broadly of formula-farming, but it's hard to find much fault with the actual point he was making. The build-up of knocking down minor obstacles on your way to the big one is so much an accepted storytelling principle that its absence is a lot more powerful than its execution at this point. Seven Psychopaths was the stand-out film of 2012 for me, for pretty much that exact reason. That film was a better examination of storytelling technique, convention and subversion than any how-to I've ever read. Not only does the boss monster climax get thoroughly deconstructed, but the film flat-out tells you it's going to do it.

More recently, I was struck by so many reviewers' reactions to Captain America: Civil War. According to a lot of people, that film blows its boss fight half-way through and leaves us with a limp climax. That reaction just totally fucking baffles me. To me, Zemo has one of the most personal and comprehensively explored motivations in the whole MCU. His actual plan was kinda batshit, obviously, but in getting the big fight out of its system part-way through, Civil War gave itself the opportunity for an endgame that actually meant something. We got a closer, much more personal struggle between the heroes, and a stronger closure between Black Panther and Zemo.

Hell, even video games get it right once in a while. While I have a hard time forgiving Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain for presenting me with my first experience of the irrelevant binary-choice ending that still infects video game storytelling to this day, its sequel Soul Reaver essentially presented a final-act boss fight from the boss monster's point of view. I'd never seen that before, and I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint a game that's done it that well since.

Anyway, I'm approaching rant velocity again. Basically, my point is don't read books on writing technique. Writers can't teach you how to write your stuff. They can only teach you how to write theirs. Worse still, it turns out a lot of them are just parroting a formula they learned from someone else, and using the tired "do as I say, not as I do" thing to justify their own deviations from a blueprint that clearly doesn't even work for them.

Onward!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ten Fucking Years of Cy, Part Two (Cy writes a screenplay)

So how do you celebrate ten years of putting comics out into the world? I'll tell you how: you write something completely different.

Back in April, I was approached out of the blue by a film-maker with a story he wanted me to write. He had a loose idea, a core character and, most shockingly of all, a budget. What he needed now was a script. Apparently, he'd found some of my work on Comixology, and wanted to see what I could do with his idea.

So yeah - I spent my tenth anniversary in comics writing a screenplay. Kinda sci-fi, kinda horror. Unlovable protagonist. Felt like a decent fit for me.

I've actually written a few "practice" screenplays before, primarily for fun and experience. Working freelance, you never know when a client's going to hit you up for something out of your usual wheelhouse. Learning to write for the screen seemed like a worthwhile use of my time when I was starting out, and it's come in handy more than once. Every so often, a client I'm used to writing web stuff for will ask if I can put together something like a TV or web advert. It's nice not to go into that unprepared.

Anyway, back to the screenplay I'm working on now. There's not a whole lot I can say about it just yet, other than the first draft's been checked out and I'm in the process of seeing what it'll take to kick a second version into shape. So far, I'm enjoying the process - but it's a world apart from writing comics. At least, it's a world apart from the kind of comics I've written so far.

I've worked on other people's stories before, of course. Starship Troopers didn't belong to me, nor Master Merlini, Metal Made Flesh, Unseen Shadows or any number of other projects I've signed onto. This is probably the first time I've contributed the story for something that had no previous existence at all, though. No road map to follow, no plot Bible to research from. Starting out, all I had was a 300-word synopsis and a pretty generous deadline. The details of the story were, and to an extent still are, in a state of flux, so I treated the first draft as kind of a radar pulse, feeling out the terrain and mapping the landscape. There was a lot of ground to cover, but it made a much tighter second draft a realistic goal to aim for. That's where I am right now. The freelancing life being what it is, it'll be a couple of weeks before I can dive back into the script, but the hard part's done now so it should be a gentler climb to the summit from here.

On a technical level, to me, this feels nothing like writing comics. A comic script doesn't have to care if what it's asking characters to do is impossible, or even simply inadvisable. All that matters is whether it can be justified by the story, and then drawn into it. At no point during the writing of Indifference Engine 2 did I find myself asking if we could afford to open fifty dimensional portals and have mutated, superhuman versions of the protagonist spilling out of them. The story needed them, Russ was happy drawing them and that was all that mattered. Moreover, it actually takes me way less time and effort to write something like "DOUBLE-PAGE SPREAD: PLANET EXPLODES" than to fill those pages with intense but essentially realistic kitchen-sink drama. The world's on its head here, and it takes a moment to adjust.

With this screenplay, every prop I destroy or fire I light is going to cost someone money and potentially put someone in danger. I'm writing stunts that real people have to then perform in real life (although that was actually true of Master Merlini too, and on a much larger scale). Lines that read fluidly or rhythmically on a page can feel weird and clunky coming out of a real human mouth, and a scene that takes three panels to show on a comic page can take several minutes of screen time to get to the same place.

That's probably the biggest difference I've noticed over the course of this project so far. In comics, your primary currency is page space. You measure your plot beats out by the page, and every word you insert into a panel obscures some of the artwork. It's this enormously complex balancing act where a slight wobble in any direction results in the story falling apart. With a screenplay, it feels much more like your currency is time. The expectation going in is that every page of the script will average out at a minute of screen time. It's a useful enough rule of thumb, but it doesn't really tell you anything. How much of the story needs to be told in that minute? How flexible is the running time of the finished film going to be? Factor in that there are human performers involved - not to mention numerous editing, scoring and other processes and you can easily end up with a film that bears very little resemblance to the script it came from. My job, as I see it at this stage, is to play my part in the process as well as I can, and to be as surprised as anyone at what comes out at the other end.

Given the nature of these things, that could well be nothing at all. Money dries up, timing windows close and projects wither on the vine every day. But maybe, just maybe, it could be something else. Maybe it could turn out to be something every bit as grotesque, sickening and beautiful as I'm imagining. Maybe, with a little nurturing, this awful, monstrous thing that my brain has vomited into my computer will seep its way out into the world, onto a screen and into your hearts.

Huh - now I'm hungry again. Onward!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Ten Fucking Years of Cy, Part One


I've noted before that if you read this blog at all, there's a decent chance we know each other personally. At the very least, we've probably bumped into one another at a convention or something. That being the case, how are you? It's been an unspecified amount of time since we last met at that thing or place. There's probably an Other of measurable Significance to you, to whom I almost certainly offer wishes that are at least above the median line for such matters. Hey - remember that occasion in the past when an event occurred? Oh, how we laughed, complained or noticed!

So anyway, I imagine you're wondering why I gathered you here today. It turns out that August 2016 is a milestone for me. It's actually ten whole years since the publication of my first professional comics work! I knew this day was coming of course - or at least I reasoned that it would be coming eventually. Now that it's arrived, I'm sitting here trying to work out what to do with it.

In general, I think I feel pretty good about how these last ten years have gone. I've got seven graphic novels out, a run on an ongoing title under my belt and an ever-growing bibliography of one-shots and short stories. I've had one book optioned for a film adaptation and I'm currently writing a screenplay for a director who contacted me out of the blue. Looking ahead, I've got two more graphic novels and a fistful of short stories currently in production, along with at least five full-length stories nagging me to write them. I'm Marvel-styling a project with one of the best artists I've ever known, and there's basically a lot going on all over.

Right - back on topic. Here's where it all began:


That right there is the cover of Mongoose Publishing's Signs & Portents Wargamer magazine, issue #35. It's the issue that carried the first episode of Extinction Protocol, the Starship Troopers strip I co-created with artist, letterer and World's Greatest Human, Nic Wilkinson. The strip ran for around two years, right up until the licence with Sony expired. Without it, there would have been no chance encounter with Markosia in 2007, no run on the Starship Troopers ongoing series and, very probably, no second lease on life for Cancertown when Insomnia Publications notoriously shat the bed. Here's a taster of Nic's work on the story:


Extinction Protocol was what you'd call a true learning experience. Nic was dumped right in at the sharp end, getting to grips with both comics page composition and the equally demanding field of lettering. I had to come to terms with the technical side of scripting a monthly strip and the complicated process of working with an artist. Overall, a two-year run felt like a good innings for the series - and the massive readership (in the tens of thousands) Signs & Portents was pulling each month makes Extinction Protocol arguably the most successful thing I've ever done. The page rate was a minor bonus in comparison to the experience and enjoyment I got out of it.

So that's part one in a possibly one-part celebration of a decade spent with one foot defiantly on the lowest rung of the shortest ladder in the industry. Tune in ten years from now for more of the same, something different or nothing at all.

Looking ahead now - okay, let's see...

As for whether you'll ever see my name on a Big Two superhero cover, I can't pretend I'd turn it down if the opportunity arose. I'd have to say it's not something I've ever consciously chased, though. I've actually got a superhero book written and some of the most beautifully realised capes-and-tights art I've ever seen to go with it. You wouldn't want your kids to read it, though. Either way, we'll pencil a solid crack at mainstream work-for-hire in the "maybe" column for now. The indie world's been good to me and the future is, as ever, an unopened book of nameless terrors.

Onward!

Thursday, 30 June 2016

British Showcase Anthology: The Morlock Manifesto

Hey - just sticking my head up over the battlements for a minute to throw this out there. Adam Cheal's putting together a second British Showcase anthology book, and he hit me up for a submission. I fired back with a little work of retrospeculative fiction called The Morlock Manifesto. Here's a sample page of art from the glorious Alex Thompson:


Now, I can't wear a monocle. My skull was manufactured in the 1970s with a streamlined, cab-forward design that offers no purchase for the lower gallery. Seriously, it'd just pop right out. Steampunk for me, like its 80s cousin cyberpunk, has always been about more than the aesthetic appeal. As genres, their concerns can't be properly expressed on a purely cosmetic level. Seriously, I once listened to a guy explaining that the essence of steampunk boiled down to wearing goggles and adding little brass fixings to your iPhone. I don't agree, and The Morlock Manifesto is sort of a half-angry statement about that.

I'm approaching rant velocity, so I'll stop right there. Trust me, it'll all make sense when the book comes out.

The British Showcase Anthology Vol.2 is currently in production at Markosia. You can find the official Facebook page here.

Onward!

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Because You Can't Spell Cyberpunk Without C-Y...

Hey - remember that Kickstarter project I talked about a while back? Y'know, the cyberpunk one? Here's a quick reminder:



Izobel Vice is shedding her body ounce by ounce, discarding obsolete flesh for armoured plastics and murder-metal. Betrayed - reduced to vestigial organic components and at the mercy of cutting-edge killers, those last, wet scraps of humanity and the voice of a dead friend may be all that save her.

So yeah, that's the story I wrote for the Metal Made Flesh: Blood and Oil anthology from Subversive Comics. I was seriously pumped to get invited onto the project in the first place by powerhouse writer Jeremy Biggs and legitimate visionary artist Simeon Aston. Imagine the near-apocalyptic magnitude of my happy-face when they told me I'd be working with the legendary Gary Erskine!

Needle-drop to April 2016, and the first reviews for The Final Piece of Me are in. I'll, uh... I'll just leave these here... 
...Aaaaand, just because I can't help myself, a couple of highlights:
  • "Gary Erskine and Cy Dethan have set a very high bar for other indie comics to try and match."
  • "In this release we see Cy & Gary combining unbelievably well as they take an established character to new heights..."
  • "Nic Wilkinson keeps the lettering tight throughout and adds another element to a strong creative team..." 
Metal Made Flesh: Blood and Oil is coming soon. I'll keep you posted here, but check out the book's official Facebook page for all the you-heard-it-first-here updates.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Arr-WOOO!


You guys all remember Stephen Downey, right? He's the artistic dynamo who lent his talent and sacrificed his youth to my first two graphic novels, Cancertown: An Inconvenient Tooth and Slaughterman's Creed. We've been working together on and off for as long as I've been involved in comics, and now he's making a bloody splash into the world of video games.

As co-founder of Outsider Games, along with noted podcaster and occasional Mr. Green cosplayer Scott Grandison, Stephen got in touch recently about the company's new game, Wailing Heights. It's a musical, body-swapping comedy/horror adventure, and it's been tearing its way through the Steam Greenlight process recently. In fact, it blazed straight into the top 30 and got greenlit inside seven days! Here's the trailer:

 

As was just announced on the Wailing Heights production blog,  I've written a short comic for the game, introducing one of its characters - a womanising werewolf by the name of Abnorm. I had a lot of fun on this, not least because I got to team up with artist Ruairí Coleman and colourist Omi Remalante. Believe me when I say that these are names to look out for - and potentially injure yourself attempting to pronounce.

We're not alone, either. Other comics-related people contributing to Wailing Heights include Jennifer Wilde writer Maura McHugh, 2000AD's P J Holden and Battlemage author Stephen Aryan.

Wailing Heights is on its way. It's inventive, it's funny and it's definitely worth your money. Check the official blog page for updates.

Onward!
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