Wednesday, December 24, 2014

VIDEO: Watch the creation of a book cover

I thought you'd like to see the process of creation of the cover of my latest novel, Stormteller.

The cover illustrator is the awesome Elaine Franks and she happened to take photographs of every stage of the production of the artwork, in her Garden Studio. From a variety of thumbnail ideas to the finished digital artwork, the publisher has compiled the images into a video.

Part of the process of creating the cover involved showing drafts on Facebook and inviting people to choose the one they liked best. I enjoyed the process of crowdsourcing opinions, because I got an idea of what engages readers. Thank you to everyone who took part in that process.

I have made a Pinterest board of images connected to the novel. Amongst other things it contains some of the photographs I took while researching the location of the novel, as well as some of the cover images that Elaine sent.

Since the novel contains detailed descriptions of places, I found the process of taking photographs essential for understanding the landscape. I'm a very visual writer and want to 'see' the scenes I describe.

Besides the location, the research included investigating the legends that I used as a basis for part of the book, and the science of climate change – particularly as it applied to that location: Borth, Taliesin, Pumlumon and so on, which is also the same area that is used as the setting for the successful Welsh TV series Hinterland.

I've collected all this together on my website here. There's also a link on that page where you have until December 10 to enter a competition for a free copy!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Using Comics To Communicate Sustainable Cities

Humour has the power to cut through conflict, and art has the power to bypass reason. Cartoons equal art plus humour. So all credit to the 4th Future of Cities Forum for using comics to log in real time what delegates were debating and concluding in their workshops last week.

Drawnalism is the name of the artist who was commissioned, who in reality is two people: the cartoonists Matt Buck and Alex Hughes. They were bought in by the organisers, Energy Cities, to lighten up what can be a too-serious process of tackling the world's problems, by tapping into people's creativity and encouraging lateral thinking as a form of problem-solving.

Coincidentally Matt and I have worked together before, on two series of cartoon strips, Public Servants and Managing Hell. It is really good to see him in action, both of us now working to promote sustainability in cities.

The first cartoon kind of sets the stage for the discussions, as delegates laid out the problems facing cities on the route to sustainability:
Cities as the problem and the solution cartoon small
This little cartoon exemplifies in one brilliant image how one person can release so much energy in another when they become inspired:
Creating engagement cartoon small

Imagine is an ongoing project form Energy Cities which is about envisaging solutions to problems of energy and cross-border issues in Europe. Although there are an increasing number of cities working to minimise their energy use and generate energy themselves, they also come up against many obstacles, one of its is quantify the extent of the changes required and finding ways to overcome these problems.

This cartoon sets out the result of workshop on this subject:
Learning from imagine small

Part of the problem facing cities leaders is getting others to buy into the sustainability agenda, and this cartoon summarises the results of a workshop on this subject:

Getting stakeholder buy-in for sustainability cartoon small

As delegates prepare to leave the conference they need to take with them the energy generated by committing to do particular actions, and this cartoon is intended to energise them in this respect.

Getting delegates to commit to act cartoon small

Cartoons are a great way to facilitate decision-making, and create memorable but enjoyable encodings of the messages that arise from that creative process. They reach the place other forms of communication cannot. #FutureOfCities is to be congratulated for having the imagination themselves to commission cartoonists to work with them.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The inspiration for my new novel

Stormteller David Thorpe
My first novel in several years is out this week – Like Hybrids it's still YA, it's still set in the future, but it's very different in subject matter. I thought it might be interesting to talk about why I wanted to write it.

I lived in mid-Wales, where Stormteller is set, for nearly 20 years. After separating from my first wife I eventually landed up in Taliesin, partly because I was attracted to a place named after Wales' legendary bard.

I know the landscape almost as well as I know my back garden now, having walked over much of it. I always felt when I moved to this edge of the British Isles from London that here, unlike most places, the skin of the present is thin: you can feel the vibrations from the past still reverberating down the centuries like thunder beneath your feet.

Just inland from Taliesin village is a collapsed dolmen that is given the name 'Taliesin's grave' – though it is much older than that.

Between my house at that time and the sea, lies Borth bog: you may remember the images in the media last winter when flames were leaping across it from burning peat despite the snow: spooky.

And then Borth itself: a long sliver of a town that shouldn't be there, streamed onto a spur of land against the glint of the sea, on a section of coast that is the most vulnerable in the whole of Wales to storm surges. Again, it was in the media last winter when it was attacked by giant waves.

The spur continues to Ynys Las, a nature reserve of sand dunes opposite the Dyfi estuary from Aberdyfi – a colony of English retirees and yachting people largely immune to the influence of the past.

Above it, however, by the Bearded Lake, is allegedly a footprint left by King Arthur when he passed this way, and north of there the mountain Cader Idris, Welsh for Seat of Arthur.

But the real stories that come from this area are older than Arthur's: the birth of Taliesin and Cantr'er Gwaelod, which is the tale of how the land that now lies beneath Cardigan Bay was drowned by the sea.

It's these, and the beautiful, wild and dramatic landscape, that sparked my imagination to write this novel.

Let me tell you the beginning of the first story: a mother had two children – a beautiful girl and a hideous boy with a hunched back. The girl wasn't a problem, she's not even part of the story, probably got married off to a Prince.

But the boy... the mother felt sorry for him. Perhaps the gift of wit and wisdom might make him popular so she could get him off her hands. So she laboured a year and a day to make a magic potion for him, but on the last day she left the servant boy, Gwion, in charge while she popped out. "Just stir: don't taste," she told him.

You can probably guess what happened next. The long and the short of it is that Gwion got to sample the potion and he received all the gifts intended for the son. He was the one who became Taliesin.

Nowadays, Taliesin is revered in Wales and beyond for his poetic and shamanic genius. But his talents should have belonged to someone else – the son, whose name is Afagddu. No one remembers him now, but Taliesin has a village and even an arts centre named after him.

So I thought: how would Afagddu feel? What would he want?

And this is a starting point for Stormteller.

As a rebirthed baby, Gwion floated down the Dyfi river to Ynyslas where he was found by a local prince, who named him Taliesin. That leads into the second story....

...with a tragic ending – the flooding of the land – that it seemed to me has echoes of the threat that Borth and the whole coast of Britain faces now and in the future: rising sea levels, more storms and extreme weather caused by climate change.

We all feel threatened by climate change. We feel powerless to do anything about it. So I wanted the novel partly to be about giving some degree of optimism. It's trying to look at the question of rewriting the endings of stories: ours – about climate change – and these two old legends.

It's easy to give into a sense of fatalism. I believe that we can all rewrite our stories, we at least have the power to do that. And this is true for the teenagers in the novel. But, as in life, there are always sacrifices to be made...

You can find out more about the background to the novel here.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Do Dystopias Ever Motivate Anyone to Change the World?

When I was starting out as a writer as a student and concentrating on comics I had a mental crisis that I wasn't going to make enough of a difference to the world just by writing comics. 

But then I had a dream (while camping in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris) which was very explicit. It said that if one person has their life changed as a result of something I write, then it would have been worthwhile.

Fine. So, eventually, I ended up working for Marvel comics, etc.

Then I started writing YA dystopias.

And I thought that by writing dystopias I was getting people to question the way the world was going and perhaps work for a better world. After all that's how it worked in my case. (I have parallel careers as an environmentalist and a writer.)

Then dystopias became two-a-penny.

And it turns out I was wrong. Firstly there's this article which has just appeared in the Guardian Online, which appears to suggest that modern dystopic YA novel such as the Hunger Games do nothing of the sort. This, despite the obvious satirical intention was partly a critique of mass entertainment.

I don't particularly agree with this critique, which also says that this book and Divergent are right wing attacks on more egalitarian types of government. I think it's more than a little paranoid. I think it's more likely that readers only end up being sucked into the consumer market, instead of questioning it.

But here's something even more damning to the notion that by getting kids to read dystopic fiction we're helping to create a better world.

My friend George Marshall was researching his new book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and, because he is a comics fan, despite the fact that his book is about psychology, managed to wangle it that his research included going to the biggest comics convention on the East Coast, ComicCon. Well, of course.

In between looking for great graphic novels, he asked fans of dystopias what they thought the future will be like. He said: "My reasoning is this: These people are young, smart, and curious about technology and future worlds. They must have some good ideas."

But no. Marshall writes:
Brian Ferrara is selling nine-hundred-dollar replica weapons from science fiction video games. “I’m not a doomsday prophecy kind of guy, but I am a realist,” he says. So, being realistic, he doesn’t see a bright future, but he is very vague about the details. Maybe, he speculates, we will be immobilized, strapped to a chair with a feeding tube.  
One couple are more politically alert, having spent time with the Occupy movement. They anticipate some kind of corporate dystopia, But, they say, there are other issues too. Overbreeding. The constant battle over fertility rights. “Yes,” says the woman, warming to the theme. “Politicians! Get out of my uterus! Leave my lady parts alone!” In her onepiece latex Catwoman outfit, she looks reasonably safe for the moment. 
And climate change? In over twenty interviews, not one person mentions climate change until I prompt them to do so. Then they have lots of views. No one doubts that it is happening or is going to be a disaster. “It will escalate into catastrophe.” “If we can’t cope with that, we’ll all die like the dinosaurs.” But asked to identify when these impacts might hit, they reckon it’s still a long way off. “Maybe my great-grandchildren will have to deal with it,” Catwoman says.
It doesn't really prompt them to do anything about it. Except buy more comics.

So, I conclude, dystopias have become just another commodity, dealing out escapism. Which is a bit depressing, given that my next novel, Stormteller, out next month, is a dystopia/fantasy about climate change.

Do you think your writing can change anything?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

The phenomenon of Adventure Time and what it means

Have you watched Adventure Time? Maybe you have seen the comic or the graphic novel or some of the merchandise. It's a phenomenon, not least because of the age range it seems to appeal to. It is a show on the Cartoon Network, which the network claims tops its ratings and is watched by 2 million 2–11 year old boys – but I know many older kids, including students, who watch it avidly too.

When I first saw it I must admit I was surprised that something as violent, surreal and bizarre – and sometimes with such horrific and sexual content – was being aired for young children. It has a PG rating but that does nothing to keep it from young children's impressionable brains.

Here's a list of extreme stuff you can find in it. It includes: "Lots of references to sex, ejaculation, viagra, sex-positions, sexual remarks and humor." And here's a spoof web page parodying the reaction of the Christian right.

Disney it is not.

I think it's brilliant (but then I have a degree in Dada and Surrealism), and its freshness is perhaps partly because it's not written in the conventional sense (by a writer or writer team) but produced by artists using storyboards that are then developed by a team, even going so far as deliberately to employ surrealist techniques such as the Exquisite Corpse game in order to come up with ideas. It's also hand-drawn, each 11 minute episode taking 8–9 months to make.

Now: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" This was the line that introduced the American radio show The Shadow in the 1930s (it later became a film, comic book series, etc etc). One answer is (besides the eponymous detective) – that children do. Children are far more preoccupied with questions about what adults call the dark side of human nature than many adults give them credit for. The best children's writers know this.
the Shadow knows

Adventure Time is therefore in the same ballpark as Where the Wild Things Are...

... and the darkest of nursery rhymes and fairy stories....

 ... the kind that were explored by Angela Carter in her novels about growing up such as the Magic Toyshop and the Company of Wolves...

...stories where grandmothers turning to carnivorous beasts, the bedroom is populated by monsters, and the house next door contains versions of your own parents but with buttons for eyes (thanks, Neil)...

But it's also in the same ballpark as beautiful wonder-filled Hayao Miyazaki films such as My Neighbour Totoro.

There is a genuine sense of beauty, spirituality and awe in many of Adventure Time's episodes or scenes, that is also shared by children who are viewing the world for the first time. It's as if the creators have been able to access their own infantile selves to identify with the way that children see the world.

My reference to The Shadow was chosen for another reason: the parts of the personality satisfied in its fans by Adventure Time and these other stories can be seen as parts of the 'shadow self', as described by the poet Robert Bly in his A Little Book on the Human Shadow.

The Jungian theory of the human shadow, itself part-derived from myths and old stories, is that babies and young children have what Bly calls a 360° personality. But much of this compass of human potential is socialised out of their behaviour during their upbringing. By the time they are around 20 years old just a slice remains. This is the socialised personality that becomes fixed as an adult.

The remaining portion is buried – the shadow – but it emerges in odd ways: our obsessions, the imaginary traits we project onto situations and other people, particularly our partners, the things we are frightened of, particularly in ourselves.

Bly says that after the age of 40 or so – the age of the midlife crisis – adults often start to unpack their shadow. Their reaction to this process determines the rest of the course of their lives.

The shadow is not bad, nor evil. Those are labels that adults put onto things. The shadow contains just what was suppressed, punished or ignored during the socialisation or upbringing process, and depends on the values held by the parents and the culture they belong too.

And this, I think, is why Adventure Time appeals to young adults as well as children. Young adults are struggling with those aspects of themselves which adults want to repress. In young adults there is a sense of nostalgia for their childhood self, that remains as a fading echo before the responsibilities of adulthood unkindly snuff it out altogether and they forget forever what being a child is like. They know this is going to happen, they regret it and they try to cling on to its last vestiges as long as possible.

The shadow is important, vital, necessary, and it is dangerous to repress it or ignore it. The makers of Adventure Time, and the Cartoon Network that commissions it, cannot be unaware of this. It is a liminal gate to the subconscious, the place where creativity thrives.

If I seem to be making rather grand claims for what is after all a children's cartoon I make no apologies. We all, as writers, are gatekeepers to this realm, aren't we? And each of us, in our own unique way, delves beyond the gate to do our work.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Is the structure of a story archetypal?

This is weird. For years I went by the standard Hollywood scriptwriting rule which says that the three act structure is god. As it was taught to me in my scriptwriting class and as I taught it to hundreds of students, in a standard drama act one finishes one quarter of the way in and act three begins one quarter before the end. There's also a midpoint where there's another not quite so pronounced change of direction or momentum.

I tested it out many times with my watch while watching movies and even when writing scripts, counting the number of pages in, to confirm that at these magical points the main plotline undergoes a major shift of direction or gear. Of course you all know this.

Plenty of stories do not quite conform to this rule (usually short or very long or episodic ones) and post-modern writers mess about with it. If there are many subplots or intertwining storylines there will also be distortion, but you can often pick apart these individual storylines and apply the same rule to them.

It's not as if this is deliberate. It seemed to be an intrinsic quality of the way the human mind appreciates the telling of a story and, correspondingly, the writing of one.

Now the novel I am principally engaged on right now has an unusual storyline: it is circular, so in principle has no beginning, middle or end. It's a story (and I don't want to give too much away) that I had been wrestling with how to tell since I first thought of the idea almost half a lifetime ago.

Many times I came to it, tried to write the opening pages and got nowhere. I put it down but it kept bothering me. I knew there was a really good idea in there somewhere. But because it was circular I couldn't get a handle on it, from a dramatic point of view. There were other issues: I needed to do research and at the time wasn't fully capable of it. Some stories have very long gestation period.

Sometimes when you are struggling with a problem like this you read another novel that is quite different and it can give you a sudden insight into your own story, and for me in this particular case it was reading The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall which is a very curious book indeed. In case you haven't read it, it is about creatures which exist beneath the surface of a page when you are reading a book which have a life of their own and if you're not very careful they can devour you.

That's quite a powerful idea. It gave me another idea, also, I like to think, powerful. I put it into my mix.

The second new ingredient came from reading a non-fiction book, The End Of Time by Julian Barbour, which argues that time does not exist – except in our consciousnesses. It's quite possible to describe the universe mathematically without recourse to time, he argues.

But if there is no time, how can a story have beginning, middle or end? In fact, how can there be stories at all? Logically, outside of our consciousnesses, stories are impossible. They do not exist 'out there'. We invent them to entertain each other and help ourselves remember stuff.

The third and final necessary ingredient for me to get a handle on my story was to determine the point of view. Up to then I did not have one, other than that of an omniscient narrator. It all fell into place when I realised that I needed a new character from whose perspective everything else was told. Once this had dawned on me, and I'd decided upon who that character was and his relationship to the other protagonists, the story could be written.

First I wrote the synopsis, then a long treatment. I needed to have it all plotted out because it was very complicated. Two years later I found the time to write the first draft and completed it by summer 2013. I left it for nearly a year and then completed the second draft last month.

I then thought I would try an experiment, and I looked at what happened precisely one quarter, one half, and three quarters of the way through the draft. Lo and behold, there were the plot points – in exactly the places where the theory said they should be.

How did this happen? I have a hypothesis, but that's all. Even though the story is circular I had to start it somewhere. Given that my narrator is deliberately telling the story for the benefit of another character in the novel, then the story begins at the most significant entry point for him. He then recounts the story until he reaches the point at which there is a suitable ending for him. This is just his perspective on the events.

Another character might have begun to describe the events at a different temporal point. Nevertheless I chose the character of the narrator, and therefore I am ultimately responsible for choosing where the novel starts to describe the circle of events, and it made total sense to start it there once I had made that choice.

I am incapable, however, of working out whether the final emergent structure is subconsciously imprinted into the novel because it is so deeply engrained in my own mind – as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – or whether it would have been there anyway. I know that I needed to establish the characters and the situation before the story could really take off, and I know that the pacing and dramatic intensity needed to increase as the narrative progresses. So I surmise that I had probably adopted the structure and these principles without deliberate intention.

3-act-structure and dramatic tension

It's vaguely satisfying to know that this happens automatically but also slightly disturbing. I have felt, at times, like dividing the chapters or episodes up and randomly shuffling them to see if anything interesting emerged from the new ordering, but intuitively I suspect that might be a waste of time. An interesting experiment nonetheless. Perhaps I still ought to do it.

I think Barbour is right, and time – therefore stories – do only exist in our minds. Story structure is a necessary consequence of consciousness because we cannot appreciate what comes later without knowing what has come before – whether the story is true, historical, or fiction. We also need to be made to care for the characters before we are motivated to turn the page.

We are prisoners of time and so bound to the logic of narrative. We seek beginnings, middles and ends even where there are none.

I wonder if any of you have similar experiences your own writing processes?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

My new novel Stormteller - out in November!

I'm very pleased to announce that Cambria Books has offered to publish my new YA novel Stormteller. It will come out in November 2014 to coincide with the release of my non-fiction book from Routledge on the same theme, The One Planet Life. The cover is being produced now by the amazing illustrator Elaine Franks. Here's the blurb:
“Mererid’s cry:
it compels me away from my room tonight.
Distant death is common after the sins of arrogance.”
- Seithenhin
from the Black Book of Carmarthen, folio 74.r. Currently housed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, the Black Book of Carmarthen (Peniarth MS 1) is a manuscript dating to the middle of the 13th century recording poems from much earlier.
If our lives are governed by forces outside our control, where can we find hope?

When a storm surge destroys Tomos’ luxury home and his parents die, and Bryn’s eco-home is torched and his parents killed by starving marauders, these two rivals for the same girl, Eira are forced to rely upon each other for survival in the wild uplands of Wales (the same locations as appear in the TV series Hinterland).
One of them will die, but not before they discover the astonishing bond that joins them together. And none of these three teenagers are aware that they are living out an ancient rivalry between fabulous beings – such as Ceridwen, the Welsh Goddess of Inspiration - who are seeking to rewrite the endings of their own stories.

This bewitching drama set in the very near future entwines Celtic myth and climate-changed destinies to answer the fundamental question: can we escape our apparent fate?

"A fabulous piece of story telling" - Richard Collins, author of The Land As Viewed From The Sea (shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award) and three other novels.

"David Thorpe has written a compelling story in which elements of ancient Welsh legends of drowned lands and villages combine with a prescient account of a near future in which global warming is causing catastrophic flooding. Set against this background three teenagers are caught up both in the throes of ancient magic and a modern tragedy." - Frances Thomas, author of many children's and adults novels.

"David Thorpe's Stormteller is an intriguing and enthralling novel about the relationship between two teenage boys, leading totally different lives yet strangely alike.  The novel is set in a coastal Wales ravaged by climate change and rising sea levels.  Underpinned by fascinating parallels with local folk tale, the story of two boys who both love the same girl at a time when fear stalks the land is sure to appeal to a wide audience." - multi-prize-winning author Malachy Doyle.

ISBN 978-0-9928690-8-3.

Read more about:

Friday, June 06, 2014

Let's hear it for the kids: more literate and creative than ever

Who says today's children are being dumbed down? Who says the intelligence, literacy and creative ability is weakening compared to previous generations? (Could it be Michael Gove?)

I personally detest it when people put down children in this way. Any writer or teacher who goes out to meet kids in schools knows how smart they are. I believe that modern technology has made them far smarter than us oldies were at their age. They have a wider vocabulary and a much greater appreciation of the world, brought about by the broadened horizons made available by the Internet, games, books and a smörgåsbord of television channels. They probably also travel much more widely than we did 50 or more years ago.

All of this has had a marvellous effect. This is underlined by the results of BBC Radio 2's and the Oxford University Press' 500 words competition for children announced a few days ago, in which children had to compose an original work of fiction of 500 words.

They received a record-breaking, staggering 118,632 entries. Wow. Oxford University Press dictionary's team has analysed the stories to find out what words kids are using the most and the extent of their vocabulary, etc., all stuff that is of interest to us writers.

The most interesting thing first of all is the gender split. Girls outnumbered boys entering the competition by about 2 to 1. Three quarters of the entrants were in the 10 to 13 age range, the rest being nine and under. That probably means that girls in that age range are more likely to read books than any other children.

Now: how reassuring that the most common noun used in the stories is: 'mum'; and the most common adjective: 'good'.

Despite the fact that girls wrote twice as many of the stories, the main protagonist is more likely to be a boy. Now why do you think that is?

And the commonest name, used 27,321 times, is Jack, closely followed by Tom, Bob and James, all solid Anglo-Saxon names. I was certainly surprised to find that the most common girl's name is Lily/Lilly (17,981), closely followed by Lucy, then Emily and Sophie, also traditional English names.

And the most common historical figure? Adolf Hitler (used in 641 stories) followed by Queen Victoria (258).

I'd like to see Nigel Farage and his ilk use this as evidence for the insidious infiltration of multiculturalism into British culture. Actually it goes to show the opposite: there is no cause for concern, if anyone is concerned, that British culture is being watered down (although the research results are not accompanied by an ethnicity breakdown of the entrants to enable us to determine whether Celtic or Anglo-Saxon-originating Brits are unevenly represented amongst the entrants).

Looking at the keywords used in the stories, children were especially interested by this year's floods, with that single noun being by far the most commonly used (4008 uses), followed largely by non-real-world originating terms, coming from films and computer games: Lego, minion (used in Despicable Me), Minecraft and flappy (from the game Flappy Bird). Other words commonly used derived either from games or recent events such as the Winter Olympics.

What about new words? The research found that popular culture and social media have given rise to new verbs such as 'friended', 'Facebooked' and 'face-planted'. These will no doubt be finding their way into the next edition of OUP's children's dictionary.

Now for the really good news: children know - and are not afraid to use - really long words, including some that you or I may not even know: how about 'contumelious'? As used in the following context:
The girl springs to her feet losing all caution and apoplectic with outrage. "How dare you?" she cries, "Fighting them is bad enough, but capturing one to be slaughtered, as if it were a common boar, is contumelious. They will take their revenge and it will be terrible." (The War Party, girl, 13)
Or hands up who knows what 'furfuraceous' means? As used in:
Folkrinne's crown was placed on his furfuraceous head. The Basilisks applauded and cheered for the corrination of their new king of Malroiterre. (The Basilisk king, girl, 12)
(OK, so there was a spelling mistake in that, but I forgive this author because I think furfuraceous is a lovely word, conjuring up such a beautiful image in my mind).

And what about making up words? Children are not afraid to do this because, as you and I know, it is so much fun. My favourite made-up word quoted from the stories is 'historytestaphobia' because I absolutely used to suffer from that when I was at school. I also love 'Mucaologist', which is apparently a collector of mucus.

Finally, telling stories is not just about the words you know but the order in which you put them, and these children seriously know how to build suspense using perfectly ordinary words. As the report writers say:
If asked to write on a theme of mystery and suspense, one would not immediately think of the words door, house, step, and walk and yet the following example shows clearly how these words can be used to build suspense:
'Something had caught his eye. He turned around and saw an old, creaky house standing on its own in the middle of the woods. He took one step towards the scary house. He got closer and closer until he reached the house. Ben slowly walked up the cracked steps to reach the front door. Ben was scared out of his skin. Although on the outside he was brave. He pushed the rotten door and took a step inside the house.' (Haunted House, boy, 11)
All of this makes me happy, because it shows that there will continue to be a hungry audience for anything we writers produce, and, moreover, in a few years' time there will be more fantastically creative young adults ready to take our place.

Let's hear it for the kids.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Comics, anarchy, chaos magick and George Orwell

The founding fathers would turn in their graves. The British Library is hosting an exhibition of publications in a medium once accused of undermining literacy, decency and the very establishment itself: comics.

I haven’t yet visited Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, which has been curated by Paul Gravett, author of Comic Art, which I reviewed last month, but I have a shrewd idea of much of its contents because of my own involvement in the industry from the 1980s and ‘90s.
A frame from the original artwork of a page of ABC Warriors
from 2000AD comic that hangs in my studio.
Story by Pat Mills, art by Simon Bisley.

Deadline 3 - which published Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl
Previously I’ve been at pains to emphasise that comics are about much more than men in lycra, but we can’t ignore the lycra or the science fiction and fantasy, which is in strong evidence here. What deserves wide recognition, however, is the role of attitude in providing the energy of iconoclastic creativity that has seen so many writers and artists whose target audience was originally children become internationally hugely influential.

British comics and their creators have an anarchic spirit. In the late nineteenth century the 'Penny Dreadfuls' were sometimes considered so subversive and dangerous to the Establishment (in fomenting an industrial dispute) that at one point printing presses used for printing them were destroyed by the authorities, as documented in Martin Barker’s book Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics.

There is a direct line from these through Fleetway’s Action comic to 2000AD, which in the late ‘70s and ‘80s saw the work of Pat Mills and John Wagner produce strips such as Nemesis the Warlock, which satirised corrupt organised religion, and Judge Dredd, which satirised just about everything including a corrupt totalitarian state (although sometimes Dredd seemed as though it was applauding the very summary dispensation of justice which it avowedly condemned).

Action was created in 1975 by Pat Mills for publishing house IPC. Soon banned for its violent content it nevertheless spawned 2000AD, the home of Judge Dredd.

Jamie's Tank Girl - whom he called a female Judge Dredd with bigger guns on speed.  
2000AD could have been deliberately designed to be the kind of left-wing comic imagined by George Orwell in this fascinating article he wrote about the heavily middle and upper class boys’ comics like Gem, Magnet, Hotspur, Wizard and so on.

These class-ridden, patriotic comics were produced by the ultra-conservative family-owned Scottish DC Thompson publishers, for much of the twentieth century - up until the days of punk rock - as staple fare for boys, a deliberate antidote to the previous, anarchic Penny Dreadfuls. Orwell describes them in depth in the article and observes their propaganda value as follows:
“the stuff is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party.”
The cover of Revolver 1, which serialised Grant
Morrison's deconstruction of Dan Dare
That aside, there is another ideological gradation that has Leo Baxendale’s Bash Street Kids (also published by DC Thompson in the Beano) and 2000AD at one end - produced by angry, anti-authoritarian working class writers and artists - and the middle class Frank Hampton’s neo-Imperialistic Dan Dare at the other.

Common to both is the preoccupation with slapstick humour, fantasy and science fiction as a way of boggling minds and examining present-day trends taken to extremes.

Orwell himself notes the value of Sci-Fi (which he calls Scientifiction) in this fascinating sentence:
“Whereas the Gem and Magnet derive from Dickens and Kipling, the Wizard, Champion, Modern Boy, etc., owe a great deal to H. G. Wells, who, rather than Jules Verne, is the father of ‘Scientifiction’.”

You can even position later writers, influenced by these earlier names, on this spectrum, such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison on the left, and Neil Gaiman more in centre-ground. Grant slyly subverted Dan Dare himself, imagining him as an older man morosely looking back on the glory days of space empire in the pages of Revolver in the late ‘80s.

The ‘80s was a key time, because it was then that the kids who had been brought up on the Beano and 2000AD hit adulthood and it became cool to continue reading comics. Inspired by Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and the American Frank Miller’s Batman: Dark Knight Returns, younger artists and writers gave birth to an explosion of creativity.

The cover of Crisis issue 3 - probably the closest
ever to Orwell's dream of a left wing comic.
Pat Mills' and Carlos Ezquerra's Third World War deliberately made
very cool heroes out of disabled, black, gay or female characters. 
Eight years after my own story in Marvel's Captain Britain about the Northern Ireland Troubles was censored, Fleetway felt able to publish, in the overtly political Crisis comic, Garth Ennis' True Faith, (but even that graphic novel was scandalously withdrawn from sale, following complaints).

Crisis was, again, largely Pat Mills' brainchild. Overtly political and radical it ran the amazing anti-American Imperialism strip Third World War, which attacked CIA involvement in central and south American countries, a topic already tackled in comics by Alan Moore's and Bill Sienkiewicz's documentary graphic novel, Brought to Light.

The cover of Doc Chaos 1 by me, Lawrence Gray and
Phil Elliott published by Escape

As opposition to Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax spilled over onto the streets and while Spitting Image was on tv, independent creator-owned comics sprang up all over the place, from my own satirical Doc Chaos, published by Gravett's Escape imprint, to Deadline, from Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon, which came directly from a collision between comics and the new House music club culture, the true star of which was to become Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl.

And most of us know what happened when Hewlett met Blur's Damon Albarn: Gorillaz, the first band in history that was made up of comics characters.
Peter Stanbury's and Paul Gravett's Escape magazine
- beautifully designed, arty and hip. 

I must given a special mention to Don Melia and Lionel Gracey-Whitman for publishing Aargh!, Heartbreak Hotel magazine with the supplement BLAAM! Because the mere fact that this anti-homophobic publication could be a comic was testimony to how far the medium had come since the days of Wizard and Hotspur weekly comics in which homosexuality was a heavily suppressed element. Here is Orwell describing a  cover image: “a nearly naked man of terrific muscular development has just seized a lion by the tail and flung it thirty yards over the wall of an arena”.

Heartbreak Hotel issue 5 cover by Duncan Fegredo
The first comic explicitly for black people, Sphinx
Repossession Blues from the pages of Blaam!
A cover of chaos magick journal Chaos International 
which shows the use of comics iconography
- the exchange of ideas went both ways.
There was a huge amount of talent around in the ‘80s, much of which will be on evidence in the British Library show, but I find it fascinating that I, along with the far more successful Bryan Talbot, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, (particularly the first two) and probably Pat Mills (although I never met him) were also at the time heavily into chaos magick. We’d discuss this when we met occasionally at the bar that used to be at the foot of Centrepoint, near Titan Books’ offices where I worked, and Forbidden Planet bookshop, and at comics conventions.

Alan only went public on this more recently, but Grant overtly used his research in long-running strips such as the intensely surreal Doom Patrol and subsequently The Invisibles, both for DC.

It is not necessary to believe in any of the gods and forces invoked by magical ritual in chaos magick to utilise its effects. The point for all of us was that Nothing is Forbidden, Everything is Permitted, to use Aleister Crowley’s mantra. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" - a phrase deliberately echoed by Mills in the story at the top of this post.

Chaos magick provided an almost limitless kit of tools to access the far reaches of the imagination. I learned my tricks from a group that met every week in Greenwich, above Bulldog’s café, from the legendary Charlie Brewster, aka Choronzon 666.

I used this massive wellspring of creativity when writing The Z-Men for Brendan McCarthy. Brendan was a maverick comics artist who started work in 2000AD, later becoming like many comics artists a film storyboarder, who was renowned for his psychedelic, mystical artwork.

All of us were also heavily influenced by Dada and Surrealism – this was the premier topic of my undergraduate degree.  It is very obvious in Grant’s Doom Patrol - just read my favourite story The Painting That Ate Paris; and how else could you come up with a superhero who is an entire street (named - of course - Danny)?

Pure anarcho-comics: Hooligan Press & Pete Mastin's
Faction File collected from the pages of
squatting magazine Crowbar -
back full circle to the aims of the Penny Dreadfuls.
Arguably, the most successful comics writers working for American publishers in the ‘80s and ‘90s were Neil, Alan and Grant – Brits all. Frank Miller, also a giant, is American of course, and, while anarchic, is sympathetic to the other end of anarchism – right wing libertarian, which approves the right to bear arms and use them against Commie radicals.

I attribute all of their success not just to their supreme storytelling abilities but to their political views and their involvement in anything occult, arcane and extreme, because in these genres of comics, what readers demand is out-there imagination – and it takes some serious head-space distorting tricks to cultivate a mind that can repeatedly and frequently, on demand, to a punishing production schedule, come up with the mind-boggling concepts, characters and storylines required.

These lessons were not lost on the more recent wave of massively successful British writers, such as Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch, the creators of The Authority, (just read Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan for a taste of his brand of anarchy).

And I believe there are lessons here for all writers and artists who aim at children and teens, that most demanding of all audiences, to help them feed and stoke the furnaces of creativity and imagination.

I could even attempt to sum them up in the following seven guidelines. Bear in mind that these are methods I am suggesting, and in no way am I advocating tackling a particular kind of subject matter. These are ways of researching, preparing to write and draw, and of writing and drawing itself:
  • Feed your mind with stuff from the far reaches of experience; and apply that to the everyday.
  • You can’t be too extreme.
  • JG Ballard's maxim: follow your obsessions.
  • Never censor yourself – leave it to someone else.
  • Boggle minds.
  • Maximise drama.
  • Above all - don’t take it too seriously.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cycling in Bruges - A photo essay

 Two girls on a tandem
Bruges, the ancient mediaeval town near Flanders fields in Belgium, is a city best cycled or walked around.

The authorities have made it easy by providing plenty of signage, bicycle lanes, and even free public bicycle pumps (below).

Public bike pump

It's easy to hire bikes and even to cycle to the city along cycle tracks constructed alongside the railway lines, or bring a bike to the city by train. Of course it helps that Belgium is a flat country.

You'll find people of all ages cycling.

Cycles allowed sign

Bikes and walking have priority sign

Attention pedestrian zone sign in Flemish
My wife Helen and I visited it earlier this month for the first time. I realise that with two million visitors the city gets each year, and with a 700 year old street plan, the authorities don't have much choice but to encourage cycling and walking. They do it by prioritising these modes in zones and at certain times of day.

child riding a bike in Bruges

older man riding a bike

Couple riding a bike
Everybody who lives here, almost, rides a bike. There is a culture of it. You can see from the aerial photo below taken from the top of the bell tower (366 steps high - I counted them) - that there are more bikes than vehicles on the streets.

Aerial view of street showing more bikes than cars

Cycling in Bruges

And people ride all kinds of bicycles.

Reclining bicycle in Bruges

Tricycle in Bruges
I saw a man carrying two children on his bike, one on the front and another on the rear.

You can hire bikes easily and cheaply in many hire shops dotted around. We hired bikes and cycled on the lanes around the canal that encircles the city and goes past the old windmills. There is a bridge which rises and lowers to permit either canal traffic or cyclists and pedestrians.

Bridge of cycle and walking path over canal in raised position

Bridge of cycle and walking path over canal in lowered position

Cycle lane by windmill and canal in Bruges

I love going to cities and cycling round them.

Lock your bike sign

There are so many bikes many people don't bother to lock them when they are parked, even though the city encourages you to do so with signs like the one above.

No wonder other cities in Belgium emulate Bruges. It is a city to which others come to learn about prioritising cycling and walking in their own urban areas.