Sign of the Hammer!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Martillo: The Spanish Composition, Part One:

'Martillo' is a sell-out!

I don't mean he's changed his sound to appeal to a mainstream audience - he's as Manowar as ever. But the final copy of the first print-run is gone, which gives me the opportunity to do one of my perennially self-indulgent 'director's commentary' posts on the various chapters of the story. So here we go:

Chapter Cero: Maneras De Vivir (Ways of Living - the title came from a song by the Spanish rock band, Leño) is a four-page prologue that first appeared in Temple APA. I discuss it here. The original description of the character, from which artist David Broughton brought him to life, was as follows:

  • Martillo is a powerfully built, imposing man in his early 40s. He is fairly tall and exudes a sense of menace and solidity. He has a broken nose, a shaved head and a permanent look of grim contempt. He may have a few interesting facial scars if you so wish. However, he dresses in a priest's dark robes, complete with dog-collar, wearing a black cassock that makes him look like a shadow come to life. Around his neck hangs a huge ornamental cross. He wears very specific headgear, a remnant of his days in the Guardia - a black tricornio hat / helmet which gives him a distinctive and odd silhouette.

ABC #1: Including the two pages from ABC, a pro-government newspaper of Franco's era, was David's idea. I really liked how these came out - the masthead is quite authentic. Most of the stories in the first ABC frontispiece refer to later chapters of the book, but the 'Devil' story is all that remains of an idea for an alternate chapter in which Martillo would encounter Lucifer himself, ready to offer the priest some unwanted infernal aid. The 'Saint Xabat' story, meanwhile, is the first mention of an individual who would later feature in 'Gallo'.

Uno: Que Viene El Coco (Here Comes The Bogeyman) is named after a terrifying engraving by my favourite Spanish artist, Francisco Goya - the engraving was indeed the basis for El Coco's appearance, and you can see a rendering of it in the book Martillo holds on the second page of the story.

I think David did well to capture some of the ungodly horror of Goya's sheet-sporting nightmare: from the very start, I always knew El Coco would prove pivotal in resolving the overall plot of the book. This chapter also introduces Detectives Gallo and Moles - Gallo was based on Donald Pleasence (probably my favourite actor) in the film 'Death Line', and wasn't originally intended to appear in 'Martillo' quite as much as he did. However, I loved David's design for him and really began to enjoy writing the character's dialogue, hence his larger presence later in the book. By the time I'd finished writing the whole thing, I found I liked Gallo more than Martillo, which is why we gave him a spin-off comic rather than doing a straight sequel.

Dos: Martillo3. This is my favourite part of the story - I think this chapter is one of the best comics I've worked on,and a good example of the sort of thing I like to write. (Mad stuff, basically.) It's fun to see Martillo in a different context, and there's lots of little character moments I enjoy - his disguise (note El Coco on the shelf in the panel where he contemplates going undercover), the fact he wears a hair shirt to curb the allure of the prostitutes, and the fact he regards a couple of Frenchmen sitting in a cafe as somehow depraved. I also like the fact Martillo feels compelled to use Picasso's full (insanely lengthy) name - Picasso's response is an Eric Morecambe line. But the main reason I love this chapter is David's art - the way he handles Martillo's passage through increasingly abstract transformations is absolutely superb, and one of the best pages in the collection. His design for Dantalion is also excellent - I've toyed with the idea of the 71st Duke of Hell returning in 'Gallo'. Dantalion is one of the 72 goetic demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon - these fellas are a handy resource to plumb any time supernatural wickedness is required in a story, and if the sequel to Brahms & Liszt ever emerges, you may just see me returning to this source again...

Tres: Agony in the Garden. David had a free hand in designing the Knave of Thorns - here's one of his earlier try-outs:

This chapter is basically Martillo's origin story, and reveals his real name - Lucero Martinez. I figured we had to have a story like this, since I might never write the character again, and I wanted this book to be a complete picture of him. (The origin is hinted at in the prologue, where Martillo is shown battling a thorny, tendrilly thing.) I love the panel of Martillo trying to machine gun the Knave - David's choice of perspective is superb. I'm not actually so fond of my scripting in this one though - it feels a bit overwritten, though I quite enjoy the Knave's off-kilter speech patterns.

Right. Before the year is out, I'll discuss chapters Cuatro, Cinco and Seis, in Part Two of this post. That article will feature an unusual rota, the sound of David Broughton's brain frying, the unexpected horror of noses and why Martillo's beard grows when his other hair doesn't.

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."