Sign of the Hammer!

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.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Paragon Paradox Part Three (Final Part, Honest!): Eliminate 'Er!

Welcome to the final part of my thoughts on 'The Paragon Paradox' - and rest assured, it is the final part. (First part here, second part here.) First, a few words on the artist currently known as Scott Twells - a remarkable talent. I first  encountered his work when he illustrated a yet-to-be-published story of mine for a yet-to-be-disclosed comic. Discussing his work with the editor, it struck me that though his style for that story was deliberately scratchy and cartoonish, it was also blessed with a remarkable sense of composition and some sublime posing. Oddly, Davey Candlish had also sent Scott a short Spencer Nero script to illustrate, which meant he ended up drawing two of my stories in quick succession - before being handed The Paragon Paradox on the strength of 'Spencer Nero Feels Your Pin'. The upshot is that only David Broughton has ever drawn more pages of my scripts* - a gent with whom he shares a similar talent for swiftness, without ever sacrificing quality.

Now for a few random observations:

Part One:

Lettering by Jim Campbell
  • The Dalmatian hanging out with Bulldog at the start is called Gooch - this is not a reference to any weird piercing (look it up! No, wait, don't!) but in fact a nod of the head to a book I enjoyed as a child, namely 'Mr. Gooch and the Penny-farthing', a story about some dogs that run a bicycle shop. The lead dog is a Dalmation in a boiler suit.

  • Mr. Twells notably places the number '18' on Bulldog's hangar - 'Hangar 18' is, of course, a key song on Megadeth's 'Rust In Peace', one of the greatest albums in the history of the human species. Ergo, I posit that Scott Twells is likely a thrasher of some description.

  • Ganesh's foe is a Promethean Eagle - the horrible thing that used to pull Prometheus's regenerating liver out on daily basis. At one point I was going to have Bulldog carried away by the eagle - until I remembered he'd just been carried off by a pterodactyl in his own series a couple of episodes ago!

Part Two:

Lettering by Dave Metcalfe-Carr
  • Jikan's arrival line is paraphrased from 'Shogun Assassin', in which Ogami Itto exclaims "They will pay... with rivers of blood!" On reflection this sounded a bit Enoch Powell, so I changed it. It wouldn't have been the most appropriate line for a story in which extradimensional immigrants threaten Britain...

  • Ekhidna's changed slightly from James Corcoran's depiction - she's a bit better looking (still got nice cheekbones) and actually closer to what I originally imagined she'd look like.

Part Three:

  • It struck me as I reached the end that this story is a Freudian nightmare - a gigantic archetypal mother-figure gets gang-banged mauled by a bunch of macho men. Someone had to articulate it (but not excuse it.)

Lettering by Ken Reynolds
  • Bulldog and the big hairy metaphor: Wait a minute - didn't I say in my last post that Bulldog was the most down to earth of the team? Why is he going all metaphorical here? Well, given his lineage and pre-eminent status as small-press icon, I decided he was the best person to articulate the subtext of the story - namely that it's all about the difference between small-press comics and the work of 'the big boys' (as Davey Candlish likes to call them) at Marvel and DC.  Ekhidna represents the latter - constantly repeating herself, squirting out debased copies of myths that once mattered, unable to do anything particularly original but always ready with a new #1. She's finally floored by the PARAGON characters, who of course represent the small-press: varied, versatile, hit-and-miss, off-the-wall and representing the true spirit of their creators. All done in the context of the crossover, that most quintessentially American of comics formats, filtered through PARAGON's 70s/80s Brit sensibility.

And that, as they say, is your lot!

*James Corcoran has drawn the same number as Scott.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Paragon Paradox Part Two: Tres Hombres (Plus One.)

Art on Paragon Paradox by Scott Twells - more on him in the next part!

Happy new year, and welcome to the second instalment of my rambling commentary on 'The Paragon Paradox' from PARAGON Annual 2016. (First part here.) In choosing my Paragon Patrol, I had three characters in mind from the off. Obviously I'd use Spencer Nero - Ekhidna was his nemesis, after all, and I figured his tendency to jump to conclusions might cause a bit of friction with his peers. But although leaning heavily on Spencer Nero continuity with the story, I wanted Jikan to take a leading role. He's the comic's flagship character - PARAGON's equivalent of Judge Dredd -  and I deliberately held back his arrival till Part Two to give it more impact. Jikan subsequently galvanises the team and is pivotal to all that happens afterwards. I've never written Jikan before, and whilst he looks like Toshiro Mifune, I originally thought he should probably come across like Tomisaburo Wakayama  - Ogami Itto from the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' movies. (Yeah, I know they're based on some remarkable comics - I have the first couple of volumes - but I saw the movies first and they've had a lasting impact.)  That notion didn't really stick - Jikan seems more amiable than the gruff Lone Wolf - but he does carry out some theatrically over-the-top blood-letting that is hopefully in the spirit of the films.

Lettering by Jim Campbell

Next up was Ganesh: a mainstay of early issues of PARAGON, who these days only appears in his 'Li'l Ganesh' or 'Oor Ganesh' incarnations (both of whom also make cameos.) I wanted to bring him back in his full atomic-stomping glory. I wrote him as quite knowing and slightly fed-up - he really just wants to get back to his celestial garden, but the universe keeps conspiring against him, in ways whose outcome is all too clear to him. I also gave him a slightly pompous side - he's a god amongst mortals, after all.

Spencer Nero's role in the story is basically to screw things up. Everything that happens is his fault (dating right back to PARAGON #13) and he doesn't make things any better by picking fights with his team-mates, getting his uncle into difficulties, and breaking the entire multiverse.
It's a running theme that Spencer is often architect of his own troubles, or at least doesn't always make things easier for himself, and that plays out in spades here. But what's really significant is that this is the story that properly settles whether or not the Janus Mask does actually have mystic powers, or whether it's all in Spencer's head. It turns out it does indeed have remarkable, untapped powers - but Spencer's spent fifteen years using it on its most basic 'setting'! Might we now witness him trying to explore these powers in future stories? We shall see. There's something of same conceit here that Arnold Rimmer faced in Red Dwarf: Back to Reality - the suggestion that he was stuck playing the useless-gimp-cover-identity of a vastly more capable secret agent.

So, who would the fourth man be? Originally, I thought Icarus Dangerous might be good, not least since he actually hails from Ancient Greece, and would therefore be a logical fit with Ekhidna. I imagined Spencer Nero would look at him with the same kind of star-struck awe in which teenage girls view boy bands - a living, breathing person from classical mythology! But that didn't prove possible, so Davey Candlish suggested I use Bulldog. Bulldog was created by Jason Cobley, who very kindly agreed to let me write his character - for a brief history, have a look at Jason's blog here.

Bulldog I saw as working-class (even though he's an officer), effective and fairly blunt - the sort of chap who might prick the pomposity of the more flamboyant members of the team, and undercut their pretensions with a dry quip. Bulldog's role swiftly became the guy who gets things done - the reliable, sensible backbone of the squad. Compared to the other three, he seemed a much more straightforward, much less troubled character. In some strange way, it felt to me like having Bulldog in the story somehow 'legitimised' it, helping draw a clear line to some thirty years of small-press comics history (but more on that in the next post.)

So, this was the team, with a few others pencilled in as cameos, to show Ekhidna's impact on various parallel worlds. Except, in my original synopsis, Ekhidna was only the first villain the heroes would face - she'd swiftly be superseded by a related character (and, in even earlier drafts, his minions too), out for revenge. I'm not going to name these fellas here, as I still hope to bring them into 'Spencer Nero' in the future, but if you know your Greek mythology, you'll know that Ekhidna didn't create most of the monsters of antiquity on her own...

The problem was, of course, that this was wildly overambitious, and as usual, I was trying to squeeze too much in. At one stage, I even wanted some of the PARAGON heroes to end up stuck in the dimensions of the cameo characters - I had a plan that they'd have to escape from Oor Ganesh's Dudley Watkins dimension, in which Spencer Nero (secretly Scottish - see PARAGON Annual 2015) might end up going native. Actually, I still like that idea - might make for an interesting Nero two-or-three pager.

Oor Ganesh, by Davey Candlish

Anyway, that's quite enough for now. In the next and final part of this series of posts, I'll provide commentary on the finished strip itself, speculate on whether Scott Twells likes thrash metal, and explain what the story's really all about...