Sign of the Hammer!

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Drunk Enough to Know No Fear: The Genesis of Brahms & Liszt

Many years ago*, when I was young, I got an email from Davey Candlish, editor of PARAGON. He had a number of projects he was interested in instigating for his comic, and was wondering if any writers fancied pursuing them. To me, one idea leapt out immediately - and this was it:

"A buddy movie / amateur detective type tale set in 1853 Weimar. Two
professional musicians who actually dislike each other's work team up to
solve... whatever, you choose. I want a light hearted tale with lots of
quips and digs at each other. Their names? Brahms and Liszt. You don't
need to know their music, or indeed like it - it's just a hook to hang
the story on."

 Brahms & Liszt, the famed composers, as music-themed detectives? I liked it. And almost immediately, I started to see how the double-act would work, and how it would suit the kind of stories I like to write.

My first point of reference, oddly, was the Tom Hanks / Dan Aykroyd comedy movie 'Dragnet', with the roles reversed. Liszt, the older man would be the wilder one - the maverick 'rock 'n' roll' showman, almost a Keith Richards of classical. He'd have the Tom Hanks 'Pep Streebek' role - the easy-going good guy. The younger Brahms would be the more uptight, OCD perfectionist of the pair, with an eye for detail - analogous to Dan Aykroyd's 'Friday' character.

Digging into Brahms & Liszt's first meeting in Weimar, both Davey and I simultaneously discovered that the local Grand-Duke had perished around the same time - could foul play be involved? I also discovered that the duo had not got off to a good start - Brahms had fallen asleep during one of Liszt's performances. With a little more research I was able to flesh out their characters. Here's the notes from my original pitch:

Franz Liszt: 42-year-old Liszt is a pop star before the term was invented, a somewhat Byronic ladies man who lives a Bohemian existence. Worshipped across northern Germany, Liszt goes in for theatrics and a baroque ‘n’ roll aesthetic. Liszt lives with a married Polish princess, Princess Carolyne, in Weimar. He has children from a previous relationship who live in Paris. For all his celebrity status and quasi-mystical hold over his audiences, Liszt is also a great humanitarian – he’s so wealthy he can afford to give away huge sums to charity, and whilst he seems to have a maverick quality, he has a strong moral core.

Johannes Brahms: 20-year-old Brahms is Liszt’s opposite, a young orderly, traditional man, of set routines and habits, and a notorious perfectionist, with a strong eye for detail and a slightly obsessive streak. He is a deeply sarcastic, taciturn figure, an old man before his time, who is always ready with a put-down or an expression of scorn for Liszt’s extravagant lifestyle. However, he gets on well with children, and enjoys nature. He is not at all vain, and dresses rather cheaply: brought up as a Lutheran, he has the classic Protestant work ethic and disdain for flamboyance.

With this in place, and an overarching plot whose nature I'll not yet reveal, I had the ingredients for what I hoped what be an enjoyable buddy comedy with a dose of murder, mystery and a slight touch of the paranormal. And now, drawn by Davey, coloured by Jim Cameron and lettered by Spencer Nero alumni Fillipo Roncone, 'Wotan Walks in Weimar' is finally about to make its debut in PARAGON #21.

I hope you enjoy it -  it's been fermenting a long time!

 *2011, to be precise.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Go Wilde in the Country

I love Oscar Wilde.

As a student, I studied his works at university; as a teacher, I've taught his works to senior pupils. My first ever published comic even featured Wilde's lover, Bosie, as the time-travelling companion of a particularly rum Doctor. I've always admired his insight, humanity and sometimes misguided courage, not to mention, of course, his revelatory wit. But it wasn't until The Psychedelic Journal of the Wild West that I finally attempted to write the man himself.

When the Journal moved from being solely about time-travel to focusing on a different genre per issue, I was intrigued. I hadn't written anything for at least a couple of issues of the comic - I'm not sure I had anything else to say about time travel at that point - but the Wild West brought fresh inspiration. At the time, I was fully immersed in the world of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (not as many middle names as Picasso from 'Martillo', but pretty memorable nonetheless) as I'd recently been teaching his plays to an Advanced Higher class. I knew Wilde had toured America in 1882, somewhat quixotically attempting to make the aesthetic movement the basis for this fresh civilisation's development, so he seemed a perfect fit. Thus 'Wilde Wild West' - its name a nod, of course, to the 60s spy-fi show - was born.

From the off, I wanted to get away from the idea of the laconic Eastwood-y cowboy type: Wilde's verbose nature was a perfect fit for my notoriously dialogue-heavy yarns. Indeed, much of Wilde's dialogue in the story is either a direct quote from one of his works, or at least a modified version thereof. I wasn't going to kid myself I could write with Wilde's incomparable talent, so it seemed best to hew closely to his actual words if I were to do him any justice.

I of course wanted Wilde to deal with something derived from Native American mythology - there's nothing I like more than delving into the folklore of a specific region and borrowing its monstrous denizens for my nefarious purposes. My first thought was to put Wilde up against the horrible Baykok, a foul emaciated Chippewa demon, that shoots men with invisible arrows, beats them to death with a club, and then eats their liver (not necessarily in that order.) I've always wanted to get the Baykok into something, every since I first read of the awful thing as a child, in Tom McGowen's 'Encyclopaedia of Legendary Creatures'. (See similar remarks on the phantom black dog from a recent Spencer Nero tale.) But this wasn't the right place, and I didn't want to diminish the creature's horror by having it fall victim to Wilde's wit. Besides, as a man and a writer, Wilde was firmly on the side of redemption, and the Baykok seemed rather hard to redeem.

Unlike the Rolling Head.

Coming upon this Cheyenne tale of a discombobulated fallen woman (slain by her husband for an affair with a river spirit, served up to her children for dinner, and then subsequently reanimated as a vengeful cranium), it struck me how easy it would be to shape her into a Wildean figure. Wilde loved women (well, to write about, anyway) and women with a past particularly fascinated him. Mrs. Erlynne from 'Lady Windermere's Fan' and Mrs. Cheveley from the brilliant 'An Ideal Husband' are two perfect examples of Wildean femmes who successfully reinvent themselves and find different ways to regain a place in the world of respectability. Therefore it struck me that Wilde's solution to the problem of the Rolling Head had to follow similar lines - he had to find a way to reintroduce her to society. In 'An Ideal Husband', Wilde wrote that "Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do," but also noted that "No one should be entirely judged by their past." I like to think my story follows this logic to the letter.

This was the first story of mine Scott Twells ever worked on, and he was a revelation. I was immediately drawn to the way that his panels are all framed within the expanse of a larger one. His art here is a mixture of rustic and cartoonish, his scratchy linework and expert grasp of perspective making him the perfect fit for the tale. Since then he's drawn many other stories I've written, and there'll hopefully be more to come in the future. A shout-out goes also to Andrew Scaife for his sterling job on the lettering.

Here's a few page-by-page comments:

Page 1:
  • Wilde is wearing an artificially-coloured verdigris carnation throughout the story: he loved the idea of the artificial, and believed nature should imitate art. When I wrote this story, I didn't know if it would be illustrated in colour, but in retrospect, I'd have quite liked if the green carnation had been the only piece of colour in the story.

Page 2:
  • Wilde really did go to Leadville to lecture on the early Florentines - this is memorably depicted in the film 'Wilde', starring Stephen Fry, where he gets a very positive reception from the miners. In real life, Wilde was particularly tickled when he saw a sign reading "Please don't shoot the pianist" - he loved the idea of bad art meriting death!
  • I'm not sure exactly what the Head lady does with that snake, but Scott has certainly given it a smug look. Almost as characterful as the profoundly demented gleam in the husband's eyes.

Page 3:

  • I like the fact that Jerome, the younger cowboy, is  remarkably ineffectual, and when the Head arrives, he goes into a flap and runs around waving his arms about. You could argue that while this subverts the stereotype of the capable cowboy, it plays into another one about the effete gay man. (His behaviour's in a similar vein to the chap who gets the spark in his hair in The Simpsons' gay steel mill.) The thing is, I'm pretty sure Wilde would have liked to play the role of hero to that sort of chap: he saw protecting the vulnerable but beautiful as his duty.

Page 4:

  • There's a fair bit of 'Pygmalion' in Wilde's attempts to re-educate the Rolling Head: fitting, as Wilde was good friends with George Bernard Shaw (Shaw sensibly encouraged Wilde  not to pursue a court case against the Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde, of course, didn't listen, it all backfired, and Wilde was jailed for homosexuality.)

And with that, I shall leave you with the words of Oscar himself.

"Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance, apart from buying a print copy of the Journal here, or a digital one here."

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Gallo: Done and Done 'er.

Watch your step, young Toro - those stairs look treacherous.
As 2016 careers towards the finish line, like a police car with a lightning god in the engine, so too does 'Gallo'. Yep, David Broughton and I have finally completed work on our 28-page tale, 'Detective Gallo and the Unholy Company' (to give it its Sunday name) and are pleased to report that it'll soon be winging its way to the printers. Spinning off from 'Martillo', 'Gallo' shows us how the tetchy titular 'tec deals with the supernatural in the absence of his hammer-wielding ally. But it also focuses on Gallo's relationships with three different colleagues - relationships which turn out to be closely intertwined. The story therefore consists of three separate sections, but all are linked by the mysterious bullet-ridden Cross of St. John - and the legacy of Spain's fascist ruler General Franco.

Having now seen 'Gallo' in its final state, I'm pretty happy with it. The creative process being what it is, inevitably that'll change at some point, and I'll find myself bemoaning various flaws that only I can see (whilst remaining oblivious to those that are screamingly obvious to others) but for now, I like it. It's a much tighter story than 'Martillo' - it has to be, it's about half as long - and there's a confidence and boldness in David's art that really pleases me. David currently hopes to debut the comic at the True Believers Comic Convention at Cheltenham Race Course, on February 4th 2017. After that, it'll also be sold online - more details as we have them. For now, though, the 'Gallo' team wishes you season's greetings - or as Gallo himself would say: 

Feliz Ano Nuevo!

(Actually, he probably wouldn't say that. I mean, all things considered, he's a bit of a dick. How much of one? Find out soon...)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Mythconceptions - Spencer Nero in India

And that's just for starters.

Some time ago, I wrote a story in which the protagonist was a Nazi. I was always worried that someone might think I approved of his beliefs and behaviour, but he was a one-off character, and it was hopefully pretty clear that I was mocking both him and his ideology fairly relentlessly.

But what happens when you do something similar with a long-running character who's supposed to be the hero? 'Spencer Nero and the Misapplication of Karma', as featured in Spencer Nero Vol. 2, poses that question. It's always been pretty clear that Spencer is a mass of contradictions - a cheerful, educated, heroic fellow, who can behave in the most boorish, grotesque and petty manner imaginable. He is, in short, all that is good about the British pulp hero, as well as all that is bad. Nonetheless, despite his personality quirks, he is usually on the right side, and though his means may be suspect, his end is generally laudable.

Not in this story.

This was in fact the fifth Nero tale ever written, but it's been a long time in gestation. At this point, Nero seemed to be hanging out in a different country every issue (he seems to spend most of his time in Britain these days) and it seemed inevitable he should at some stage end up in India. But an agent of the British Empire enforcing colonial oppression in India is a problematic figure, to say the least, so I decided not to hold back, and make Spencer flat-out ridiculous in his self-superiority. However, the only way I could see it working for the character is if his reasons for looking down on the locals weren't what you'd expect. Spencer isn't a racial supremacist - he's a mythological supremacist. India worries and confuses him because he doesn't understand the various belief systems that exist there, and he thinks his own belief - in incestuous Roman divinities - is more straightforward and user-friendly.

True, there's a get-out clause for him - the runic magic from way back in the Olympics story - and for a while I did consider this might become Spencer's equivalent of Father Ted's "That money was just resting in my account!" In the end, I didn't pursue this idea, though it does feature in early drafts of 'The Pack', and is resurrected for Spencer's introduction to the collected edition.

The Compass Mantis went on to front a quiz show with Richard Osman.
Does the story work? In terms of script, I don't know - I'm not convinced I properly resolved the tension between playing with the 'Indiana Jones'-style representation of the subcontinent, and mocking the attitudes associated with that representation. In retrospect, I feel the story tries to have its cake and eat it, and there's a couple of panels that, if you took them out of context, could give completely the wrong idea about where I was coming from. On the other hand, I do like a couple of the jokes - Spencer's business card amuses me - and I like the Compass Mantis, despite his cheerfully punning name and his dreadfully stereotypical use of the phrase 'Infidel!' He is probably one of the most capable opponents Spencer has faced, and were it not for karmic complications, the fight might well have panned out differently. It's also interesting to see Spencer taking orders from someone who isn't Mr. Alabaster - Governor Anderson is a real historical figure, and the later namesake for WWII Anderson shelters. And finally, this is the story that establishes Spencer's talent for offending deities, something which becomes a recurring theme throughout the series. (See 'Spencer Nero Feels Your Pin', also by Scott Twells and Jim Campbell.)

And speaking of those two gents, as far as art and lettering go though, there's no question - both of them play a blinder. Scott delivers what may be his finest work on a Nero story to date, handling humour, characterisation and action sequences with the kind of aplomb that make him one of the most exciting talents on the small-press scene. I'm particularly fond of some of the stylish perspectives he adopts, which really make the characters leap off the page. Meanwhile, Jim's font for Durga is sublime, and his ability to render my excessive dialogue in a readable format is remarkable - plus, if anyone does a better piano-falling-on-an-idiot KCHANNNGGG sound effect, I'd like to see it.

And now, let's finish up, as is customary, with some random observations:

  • On page 3, Spencer's 'Oh... bother' is borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, which is the best children's book ever written.
  • Edward VIII is on the wall in Governor Anderson's mansion because this was originally written as a 1936 story - it was probably going to slot in between "...Goes South" and "Mrs. Simpson."
  • Punching out big cats really is Spencer's speciality - it was the first thing we ever saw him do in a comic strip.
  • The Compass Mantis's name was inspired by a line from an Ian Gillan / Tony Iommi charity single, 'Out of My Mind', whereas Spencer's line about 'Instant Karma' is a John Lennon reference, several decades before the fact.
  • The Compass Mantis's South-South-East Strike occurs at (more or less) a south-south-east angle. And Spencer's response, 'Pedicabo Ego Vos Et Irrumabo' is the most unpleasant thing he's ever said, though I don't think he intends to do it literally. And no, I'm still not translating it.

And on that refusal to co-operate (in the spirit of Ghandi, I'd suggest) we end.

"I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order."

Friday, 16 September 2016

I have come here to chew Pedigree Chum and sniff ass... and I'm all out of Pedigree Chum.

Pious. And hairy.

The recently-published Spencer Nero Compendium Vol. 2 has some exclusive material in it - not least 'Spencer Nero and The Pack', with art by Ben Rose. 'The Pack', which sees Spencer Nero enlisting the aid of paranormal pooches to save Mr. Alabaster, has its origins in a 'Just William' story called 'A Few Dogs and William' - indeed, the original title was 'A Few Dogs and Spencer'. The stories aren't particularly similar - in Richmal Crompton's one, young William Brown wrongly thinks he's accidentally poisoned a dog and sets out to find the owner a new one - but both feature a quest for dogs and moments of canine mayhem.

All the dogs that appear in 'The Pack' are genuine creatures of myth and legend, of course. Saint Guinefort, The Pack's co-ordinator, may have first come to my attention in Fortean Times - his worship apparently continued right into the 1930s, when the story is set. The very concept of a Dog Saint is one that I wholeheartedly approve of - the pronouncement that "there is more faith and love in the heart of a dog than any priest could ever muster' is very much the voice of the author creeping into the story. On the other side of the good dog / bad dog axis, the villain of the piece is Black Shuck, an archetypal example of the 'Black Dog' phenomenon. The idea of phantom black dogs is one that has interested me since childhood, when I got hold of a copy of Tom McGowen's 'Encyclopedia of Legendary Creatures'. The art therein, by one Victor G. Ambrus, is the stuff of nightmares, and his red-eyed depiction of the black dog both terrified and fascinated me. Apparently, East Anglian black dogs are the worst, hence the origin of the shinbone that lures Shuck in. However, in an unfortunate example of random synchronicity, between my writing 'The Pack' and it getting published, 2000AD published a story called 'Black Shuck' which even features the fiery-eyed cyclopean version of the aforementioned haunt-hound. Just one of those coincidences that are all-too common in comics.

It's also worth noting that The Pack has been through more drafts than anyone realises. An early version, with Spencer's pal William Kitt in a more prominent role, involves Spencer accidentally feeding an artefact of the Sumerian dog deity Bau to his pet lion, Androcles. In this version, it's Spencer who faces Bau's vengeance, and has to form The Pack to protect himself. Another version, for which I have a complete script, substitutes Mr. Alabaster for Mandeep Chowdray, the Indian civil servant who works in the office next door, and gets a very brief mention in 'Spencer Nero and the Misapplication of Karma'. In this iteration, Spencer undertakes the quest solely to prove he's not a racist - unfortunately he ruins everything by being profoundly racist about the French, Irish and Chinese dogs he's recruited. I decided against this version - it was sounding a little too much like Father Ted - but I did like the way I wrote Mandeep, who proved witheringly contemptuous of Spencer, but charmingly so, to the extent Spencer failed to notice it. Maybe he'll turn up properly sometime - I think he works for the Department of Oversight.

Now for a few words on the art of Ben Rose. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Ben, like Louis Carter before him on a certain Dr WTF?! story, started slipping in his own visual gags, which both improved the story and made it significantly ruder. (Oddly enough, Ben's cartoony art and elongated, stylised figures actually remind me a little of Louis's work.) As I said to Ben at the time, if the original impetus for the story was the notion that dogs were great, the published version suggests that dogs are great, but also quite disgusting. Which I suppose is true. Examples of Ben's perversity-amplification (it's a super-power) include the source of St. Guinefort's distraction, the way Ben frames the bone-gnawing scene, and Spencer's reaction to the dogs 'making friends' off-panel. You are a sordid boy, Mr. Rose - I wholly approve, and am grateful you brought your own very apt ideas to the hairy proceedings! On a different note, Ben is the artist who's probably got William Kitt closest to how I imagine him looking - a bit effete and rather like a young Jude Law. It's all in the eyelashes. (Kitt has still never appeared looking the same twice between any two stories - it's starting to become a character trait that I may have to work into 'Spencer Nero' continuity.)

Hopefully 'The Pack' ends up making your tails wag - I like it a lot, and it's probably the least violent 'Spencer Nero' story I've ever written. Dogs clearly have a therapeutic effect.



Friday, 9 September 2016

Things Get Hairy - The Spencer Nero Compendium, Vol. 2

He's back! And this time he's screwing things up more spectacularly than before, and refusing to accept the blame more vehemently than ever! Yep, 'By Minerva's Merkin', Vol. 2 of The Spencer Nero Compendium, is finally out, and the Civil Centurion punches some serious bottom therein!

Wait, no, he kicks it. Kicks it.

I'm really happy to get a second volume of Spencer's stories out, not least because it makes my labelling the first collection as 'Volume 1' a lot less presumptuous. Who would have thought we'd manage over 60 more pages of 1930s shenanigans? Who could have imagined so many lovely artsy and lettersy fellas would contribute their time and talents to bring my demented scribblings to life and immeasurably improve them? Here's the complete contents and credits, so that blame is properly assigned:

Cover by Davey Candlish and Jim Cameron. Collection edited and compiled by Davey Candlish. Introduction by the actual Spencer Nero. (Born 29/2/1904, died - wait, I'm not telling you that bit.)

1: The Paragon Paradox, Part 1 - (6 pages) - Scott Twells, lettering by Jim Campbell

In which Spencer teams up with Jikan, Battle Ganesh and Bulldog to fight slavering beasts from another dimension.

2: Spencer Nero and the Dry Camel - (3 pages) - art and letters by Jim Cameron

In which Spencer actually does something nice.

3: Spencer Nero's Secret - (8-page prose story) - spot illustrations by me and Filippo Roncone

Crivvens! Jings! Help ma boab! Can it be true...?

4: The Paragon Paradox, Part 2 - (6 pages) - Scott Twells, lettering by Dave Metcalfe-Carr

The return of Bonaventure Nero and a startling revelation!

5: Spencer Nero and the Reckless Return of the Ruthless Rhymer - (8 pages) - Dave Snell, lettering by HdE.

My personal favourite story in the whole thing. Spencer strangles the ghost of Edward Lear with his own beard! Don't pretend you don't want to read that.

6: The Paragon Paradox, Part 3 - (8 pages) - Scott Twells, lettering by Ken Reynolds

The power of the Janus Mask unleashed against Spencer's arch-nemesis, Ekhidna!

7: Spencer Nero and the Bicycle Tree - (2 pages) - James Corcoran, lettering by John Caliber

Spencer gets wood.

8: Spencer Nero Feels Your Pin - (2 pages) - Scott Twells, lettering by Jim Campbell

The sort of thing the Two Ronnies would have written, if they'd had less talent and punched each other more.

9: Spencer Nero and The Pack - (8 pages) - art and letters by Ben Rose

Lots of nice dogs (and one bad dog.)

10: Spencer Nero and the Misapplication of Karma - (9 pages) - Scott Twells, lettering by Jim Campbell

Spencer Nero in India, and as enlightened and sympathetic to the people whose country it actually is as you'd expect an agent of the British Empire to be...

11: Whatever Happened to Anton Klumpen? - (3-page prose story) - spot illustration by me.

Find out what became of the animated mound of clay from the 1936 Olympics. I know you've all been wondering.

And there you go. Don't wig out - buy 'Minerva's Merkin' right here!


Sunday, 7 August 2016

Gimme Toro, Gimme Some More!

Almost three years ago (has it really been that long?) artist David Broughton and I unleashed 'Martillo' on the world - a hefty comic about an angry priest with a sledgehammer, smiting evil in 1940s Spain. However, when I was scripting 'Martillo', I found myself particularly enjoying the dialogue and antics of one of the supporting cast, Detective Gallo of the Higher Police Corp. In the grumbling Gallo, I had a character who seemed permanently exasperated by everything around him - particularly the supernatural - and whose caustic retorts proved enormous fun to write. As such, David and I are currently working on a spin-off, which will see the loquacious lawman starring in his own comic. Set in 1949, 'Gallo' sees the balding, smart-arsed sleuth dealing once more with paranormal peril - peril intimately connected to his own troubled past. But now that Martillo's no longer around, will Gallo have to face it alone?

Well, no. Much as he might wish otherwise, Gallo has a new partner, the energetic young Toro - a courageous cop, far more practical than his predecessor, the notoriously incompetent Detective Moles. But why does it often seem as if Gallo would prefer a more useless partner? The answer, as ever, may lie in the psychic upheaval of the Spanish Civil War...

'Gallo' will consist of three linked stories, and at time of writing, looks likely to be a 32-page volume. The scripts are done and David has completed the art for the first story, which looks smashing - he's using a slightly different approach to light and shade from 'Martillo', which guarantees that 'Gallo' will be a striking-looking comic. More updates as we progress - for now, here's a sneak peak at Toro, a man who needs no red rag to spur him into action.

"You think I ain't worth a peseta, but I feel like a millionaire!" Art by David Broughton.