Sign of the Hammer!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Martillo: The Spanish Composition, Part Two:

As I type, 2017 draws to a close, meaning it's time to do likewise with my commentary on 'Martillo'. This post deals with the second half of the story - and the future for the characters. (The first part is here.)

Cuatro: The Sharp and the Dull. I really like the telephone conversation that opens this chapter. It reveals a lot about the characters involved and suggests a more complicated relationship than at first seemed apparent between Martillo and Gallo - they clearly are, on some weird level, friends. This is definitely the point in the story at which I'd  decided to  do a bit more with Gallo, and I particularly enjoy his reaction to Martillo's request for a weather update. (Of course, Gallo's completely wrong to say a thunderstorm comes with low pressure - it's the opposite. I always get these things confused.) However, the best thing about this chapter is the notion that the Toledo priests have a rota for riding the bicycle, in order to keep the Sharpener trapped. When I visited Madrid, hearing the distinctive trilling whistle of real sharpeners was something that really stayed with me, hence I knew I had to include a reference to it in 'Martillo'. (You can hear it here.) As for Nuberu - though he ended up looking a little more of a classical mythology-style muscle-man than I expected (I was imagining something slightly more abstract), he turned out to be a surprise survivor of 'Martillo' - he's present in the first chapter of 'Gallo', though never directly referred to in dialogue, only visually.

Cinco: The Good Workman. The truth of Martillo's supernatural talent - that any workman's tool becomes a holy instrument in his hands - came out of an idea I once had for a non-player character in a Marvel Superheroes RPG campaign, set in the UK, focusing on distinctly British archetypes. The character was going to be called 'Hammer Horror' - his superpower was what the rules referred to as 'Ultimate Skill - Blunt Weapons'. (I have a note somewhere of an idea for Martillo having an adventure at sea, where he uses a hammerhead shark as a weapon - swinging it around by the tail, presumably.)

This revelation out of the way, time to throw in as many Spanish monsters as possible in a cavalcade of the grotesque. Time also to fry David Broughton's brain by casually requesting he draw a giant winged serpent in a photo-accurate Plaza Mayor, fighting historically on-model tanks. Oh, and all this in a page with five other panels! When David says I made him work hard drawing Martillo, I sometimes suspect this page (and the bank on the next) may be the perfect example.

Speaking of the bank, the Ramidreju are, I believe, much less 'An American Werewolf in London' in actual mythology, but the idea of bad weasels on the rampage was irresistible. Martillo's cry of "Weasels!" is a recycling of a war-cry uttered by a particularly infamous AD&D character I played in my teenage years, whereas Martillo's mad drilling antics are halfway between 'Driller Killer' and 'Bad Taste'. But the real triumph of this chapter is the 'Home Del Nassos' - the Man of Noses. He's based on a Catalan legend which suggests he has as many noses as there are days of the year remaining - children are encouraged to look for him on December 31st, when he has only one nose left (and could therefore be anyone.)  Inevitably, I wanted to know what he looked like when he had lots of noses - utterly horrific and disgustingly Freudian, as it turned out. As such, David and I took a jolly folk tale and turned its star into an absolutely horrible bogeyman, adding the idea that he also has nostrils in the palm of his hand. I wish I'd done much more with him - he could have carried a whole story himself, rather than receiving the short shrift we gave him.

As for the over-riding plot of 'Martillo' - a fascist scheme to engender terror in the populace, fear being the very root of fascism - I've always been fascinated by the idea that the shadow of a hawk triggers an instinctive fear in mice, even if they've never actually encountered said bird. Where does it come from? Ancestral memory? Might there be creatures whose spiritual shadow is so terrible that human beings subconsciously know it is upon them? For the purposes of this story, the answer is a resounding "Si!"

ABC #2: The second ABC page is all tentacled-up, so two of the stories can't be properly read. Until now, that is!

Bank of Madrid Closed For Refurbishment
The Bank of Madrid has announced the temporary closure of its central branch, in order to complete a full redecoration. Whilst apologising for the inconvenience this would cause the general public, a spokesman for the bank told ABC that the refurbishment was necessary to improve the experience of customers. “We feel it’s best to briefly shut the branch, as an extensive job of this nature is not the kind of thing that can be accomplished weasily otherwise. I’d hate it if, for instance, customers got paint on their stoat. I mean, coat. Coat.”

Swift Arm of the Law
A member of the Higher Police Corps was involved in a high-speed road-chase yesterday with a thief who had attempted to rob a local grocer. Detective Andres Moles, 30, who was off-duty at the time and visiting a local churro stand, was somehow able to close a significant gap between himself and the thief, Alberto Garcia, 28, in order to get his man. When asked whether Detective Moles was afraid of driving at such high speeds, he replied: “There’s not much that frightens me, except the possibility of criminals getting away. It’s just a case of focus and shutting out distractions. I like to think I’m the sort who can keep it together when all around are going to pieces. Unless there are churros involved, obviously. I can’t control myself around those!”

Seis: Apocalipsis Madrid

2000AD artist Ben Willsher, who very generously drew us an illustration for the inside of the comic, asked why Martillo stays totally bald in prison, even though his beard grows. Complex answer: it's something to do with the shock his system received when he first discovered the existence of the supernatural in the form of the Knave of Thorns - on witnessing that being's horrible growth, Martillo's scalp elected to remain barren henceforth. Short answer: male pattern baldness.

But the real question - why did I decide to make the sum total of Spanish fears take the form of a big jellyfish (a Portuguese man o' war, no less)? I have no idea. The final foe of the piece was always going to be a gestalt entity - I love gestalt entities - but I'm not sure when it specifically became an 'aguamala'. (Don't you love the fact that in Spanish, a jellyfish is literally a "water baddie"?) The presence of Picasso's 'Guernica' as part of the aguamala is much more directly attributable to my seeing the original painting in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid - it is both huge and hugely powerful. Seeing a picture of it doesn't remotely compare to the impact of experiencing it in person - but I bet seeing elements of it incorporated into a Godzilla-sized jellyfish would have a greater impact still!

In this final chapter, I brought elements of every previous chapter together. This was planned from the outset, particularly El Coco's role in proceedings, though the precise details of how each chapter would contribute developed as I was writing them - the use of Nuberu in Gallo's car, for instance. I slightly regret killing off Detective Moles - I liked the character, and he'd evolved organically to become a fun foil to the other two - but I thought it appropriate that this more amiable, overtly comedic figure received a darker fate than the two surviving cynics, Gallo and Martillo. That said, Gallo nearly didn't make it out alive either - my original plan was that the duende got him! However, it occurred that someone needed to be left behind to know the full story - and besides, I always love stories that feature leftover / supporting characters taking on lead roles. There's a reason the Muir Island X-Men - #253-255 - are my favourite iteration of that team. (Besides, I got a chance to return to Moles in 'Gallo', and in the process explain why Gallo, given the choice, preferred an incompetent sidekick.)

And so, after the aguamala is dealt with, Martillo jacks it all in. History dictated I couldn't give General Franco what he deserved, and besides, I'd run out of book. Still, Franco getting away with it scot-free bothered me, and became an impetus to write 'Gallo', in which I finally dish out a lasting punishment to him. But why does a career as goat-herd beckon for Martillo? Well, there's nothing too untoward here. On some level, I think there's the weird influence of 2000AD's Tyranny Rex, who ends the story 'Soft Bodies' by randomly becoming a nun. On another, there's my own oft-stated exclamation "That's it! I'm going to go and work with goats!" whenever I get fed up of my own day-to-day job. But really, it was to bookend the whole collection with goats, and pose the reader a question. Is Martillo choosing to keep an eye on goats, because he still believes they're Satan's animals? Or does he regret lobbing them out of windows, and now wishes to repent? You decide.

My own overall assessment of the story? Well, it's a bit too long - some of the chapters are a bit similar - and it's too wordy (as usual) but it's also got the best art I'd seen David draw up until that point, and as a collaborator, he was tireless in his efforts. No ridiculous panel description was too much for him (though he did have to expand Part Seis by a couple of pages to properly fit in the El Coco vs. Aguamala scene.) But I do like both Gallo and Martillo as characters - I quickly found a 'voice' for both of them, which made them both very easy to write, and easy to return to. I feel 'Gallo' (the spin-off) is the better-written story though.

So, what is the future for these characters? Well, as I've said, Gallo stars in his own book, in which Martillo makes an appearance. Gallo also gains a new partner, Toro - together, their names mean 'Cock and Bull', which seems fitting. I would like to do a second Gallo story, but I do also have an idea concerning what Martillo gets up to in the countryside - the smiting never stops! However, David Broughton is a busy man, working on not only his popular Shaman Kane sci-fi / horror stories (one of David's preferred genres) but also a savage superhero saga, Slaughterhawk. So whether a gap will open up in his schedule, and whether he'd want to draw the continuing adventures of either Spaniard remains to be seen. (I'd keep the architecture to a minimum this time, David!) Anyway, if you bought a copy of 'Martillo', you have my thanks, and I hope you enjoyed it. And if you didn't buy one, well, we're probably going to do electronic copies eventually, so the possibility remains open.

And with that, happy new year! May it bring much comicsy goodness.

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."