Fiction doesn’t have to present a radically different world to be speculative. In fact, as James Albon’s A Shining Beacon shows, sometimes a subtle shift can be the most powerful one.
A Shining Beacon is a graphic novel set in a country that isn’t real, but that which seems all too familiar. The names of people and places, the look of the landscape, even the tone of the language is unequivocally British.
Yet this isn’t Britain, at least as we know it. This is a modern dictatorship, where the government strictly stifles dissent. Uniformed wardens patrol the streets ensuring that people comply.
Our window into this world is provided by Francesca Saxon, an artist and loyal citizen. Summoned to the capital to create a grand piece of public art, she experiences the heavy hand of the government first-hand, even as rebels try to use her for their cause. Excitement gives way to uncertainty as she struggles to create.
A Shining Beacon is a powerful evocation of totalitarianism in a Britain that could be. It’s all the more unsettling because it stays to close to the world as we know it. This capital could so easily be London that the small differences become far more chilling, the breaches from a peaceful normality all the more shocking. It feels real, so it hurts.
This is a beautifully created book, a watercolour story that uses soft techniques to send a hard message. One of those soft techniques is unsettling the familiar, taking our world and shifting the boundaries in just a few ways, speculating without running wild. Its people are us, but not.
Grand, sweeping speculation can be a powerful thing, but a more subtle style can be too.
I recently spent nearly a whole week writing comics.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written comics. I’ve created quite a few scripts for Commando, not to mention the short I did for Top Cow a few years ago. But this is the first time I’ve had enough of that work, and few enough other urgent work distractions, to make it my main focus for a whole week.
This is one of the things about building up your own business. These moments creep up on you. You’re just trundling along, doing a little more of this, a little more of that, and suddenly you have a week that would make the you of a few years ago sit up and say “damn, that’s great!”
So yeah. I’ve spent a week writing what I like. It was fantastic. Here’s hoping I get more of the same soon.
We crave the novelty of the new but also the comfort of the old. You can see it any time a superhero gets a revamp – some people will love the bold new direction, others will cry out against it, and some will take entirely different views on the next controversy over.
One of the publishers I work for is trying to adjust its output. They want their content to be more modern in its style and more diverse in its content. But when they say this to me as a creator, I face the implied question – how much do you really want to modernise? How much do your readers want? How much will they take before they feel that they’ve lost something familiar and comforting?
I would be happy to play around with different story formats and to fill those stories with characters who aren’t white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and neurotypical. That would be a lot of fun for me and much more in line with how I want my culture. But if this publisher’s style moves too far too fast, it’s going to lose the audience. I want to change things up enough to keep readers entertained but broaden their horizons. I rely on the publisher to guide me in this, just as they rely on me to do it well.
Creatives and marketers face this problem every day. When asked, they’ll get lots of responses asking for new things. But if they actually deliver on that, they’ll often find that their audiences miss parts of what they had.
Of course, some people will complain no matter what you do. You can see that in the pre-release complaints about the Captain Marvel film from entitled men who think that a trailer featuring a female superhero is feminism gone mad. To them I say, you can fuck the fuckity off. Superhero films currently have more white male leads played by guys called Chris than they do female leads, there will still be plenty of what the whiners want. Asking to be represented is fair. Asking for everything to be about you is bullshit.
But when writing for the rest, the question remains, how much challenge and change do people really want compared with familiarity and comfort? How much innovation is too much innovation for this audience? And that’s a question I face when I sit down to write.
What’s this, a Christmas Eve post full of fine things you might enjoy? It’s a Christmas miracle! And this time, it’s all about comics – my favourite ones of this year.
Fifteen years ago, I had a dull admin job for a small office of a vast multinational construction firm. I was the only admin in the office and could get through the work at speeds that dazzled my employers, thanks to the poor quality of their previous admins. This left me with a lot of time to kill. I disappeared down a rabbit hole of webcomics, where I stumbled across the work of John Allison. I binged my way through Bobbins and Scary Go Round, which at the time was his main ongoing project. It was a discovery that warped my sense of humour forever.
Allison’s biggest current creation is Giant Days, made in collaboration with artists Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, and Julia Madrigal, with inks from Liz Fleming, lettering by Jim Campbell, and colour from Whitney Cogar. It’s a comedy-drama about a group of friends studying at Sheffield University, where they face the challenges of study, romance, friendship, and trying to work out how to be an adult human being.
Giant Days is a wonderful book. Its stories are full of whimsy, its characters full of heart, its dialogue full of odd British humour. Allison’s tendency towards fantasy is almost entirely reined in in favour of slice-of-life storytelling, but the offbeat tone of his Tackleford stories remains. The art is uniformly vibrant and characterful, the ongoing story well balanced against the self-contained arcs of each issue, and I find myself utterly absorbed in these characters and their lives. A humour book about students might not sound like anything special, but I re-read every issue at least twice in the first week, bathing in its warmth and whimsy.
Thought Bubble, the annual comics convention in Leeds, is a dangerous place. So many creators, so many comics, so much temptation to buy it all. This year, I was relatively restrained, but I’m very glad that I gave in to temptation and bought the first issue of Crowded.
Crowded is set in the very near future. There’s a crowdfunding platform for assassins, an app to hire bodyguards, and celebrity streamers turning death into entertainment for their subscribers. When Charlie Ellison becomes the target of the biggest ever crowd-funded killing, she hires the only bodyguard she can get – the poorly rated yet incredibly competent Vita. If they can stay alive for thirty days then the hunt for Charlie will end. But Charlie’s a narcissist with the attention span of a goldfish and no understanding of the word “consequences”. Staying out of trouble is going to be tough.
Crowded is written by Christopher Sebela, with pencils by Ro Stein, inks by Ted Brandt, colours by Triona Farrell, and letters by Cardinal Rae. It’s a darkly funny thrill ride that takes satirical jabs at modern culture without letting up on its tense storytelling. As the issues progress, the characters are revealing their depths, raising questions about who they are and how they got to this place in life. Even Trotter, the celebrity streamer using Charlie to maintain his channel’s upward momentum, has developed in five issues from a one-note caricature to a troubled man struggling to cope with his own monstrous persona.
This is as close to Transmetropolitan as I’ve read in years, and that’s very high praise.
The Wicked + The Divine
As it heads into its final year, the latest masterpiece from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie goes from strength to strength. This is one of those creative pairings that always leads to something wonderful, as shown in Phonogram and Young Avengers. This latest series, with colours from Matt Wilson and letters by Clayton Cowles, might be their strongest yet.
Every ninety years, twelve gods return in the bodies of young people. They live brief, glorious lives, only to burn out within two years. This time, they’re pop stars, their magic channeled through their music. They are stalked, studied, adored, and sometimes hated. They are the embodiment of fame.
The Wicked + The Divine is a fascinating exploration of celebrity culture and the power of music. Where Phonogram gave magical power to the audience, WicDiv gives it to the artists, creating a very different dynamic. Given Gillen’s background in music journalism, there’s a lot here that’s clearly personal, but that doesn’t turn it into something maudlin or shoe-gazing. This year’s comics have revealed the dark secrets behind the pantheon, dragging the story ever deeper into tragedy while letting a glimmer of hope still shine. It’s nearly finished, so if you don’t like to risk a story that might never end, you’re in safe hands here.
Gillen and McKelvie like to experiment from time to time, and that’s resulted in some unusual issues. I won’t spoil the surprises, but it’s great to see a creative team pushing the boundaries of the medium while maintaining the momentum of their story. This is a comic we’ll be talking about for decades to come.
There you have it – my top comics picks this year. If you haven’t read them yet, I hope you give at least one of them a try. Now I’m off to indulge in mince pies, mulled wine, and all the other festive treats.
Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.
You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.
This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.
Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.
As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.
Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.
The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.
This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.
Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.
Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.
Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.
On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.
Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.
A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.
In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.
There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.
I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.
But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.
Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.
I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.
I have a new comic out now, courtesy of the fine people at Commando.
The Forlorn Hope is the story of Tom, a young ne’er-do-well who drunkenly signs up to fight in the Napoleonic wars. Sent to Spain, he struggles to escape his new life of hard work and danger. But as the redcoats are thrown into a series of bloody sieges, Tom has to decide what sort of person he really wants to be.
Like my previous Commando story, The Forlorn Hope‘s characters are fictional, but the events they’re caught up in are entirely real.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British army expanded hugely to face the might of the French Empire. To get enough men, recruiting parties scoured the country, often relying on drink to make men susceptible to exaggerated promises of pay and adventure.
The unit I put Tom into for this story is a real one – the 45th Nottinghamshire Regiment. The events of the comic cover actions they took part in, including the bloody storming of Badajoz. The details of the fighting are as close to the truth as I could make them, down to the moment when a grenadier named MacPherson turned his red jacket into a flag. I’ve skimmed over the uglier details of the aftermath, as they seemed out of place in Commando, but the moment when the victorious British immediately start drinking reflects the real behaviour of Wellington’s army.
As for calling assault parties “Forlorn Hope”, that’s also real, though its original meaning isn’t what you might expect. The phrase arose during fighting in the Netherlands. It’s a corruption of the Dutch phrase “verloren hoop”, literally meaning “lost heap”. So a similar sentiment but with a different meaning. It’s a fitting description. Many men were lost in the assault parties sent to storm besieged towns and forts. It was a difficult, dangerous business, and it was with good reason that the survivors were held in high regard.
You can find Commando #5139: The Forlorn Hope in British newsagents now and in digital form via Comixology.
I’ve recently written some reviews on books for writers for Re:Fiction. As is usually my way, I’ve focused on the positives, while trying to provide some balance. I generally don’t bother to review things I don’t like, which helps with that.
So if you’re looking for interesting writing resources, you might want to check out my reviews of…
We pulled hard at the oars, twenty of us rowing in unison, pushing our boat as fast as we could towards the shore. We wanted to be off the water and on dry ground, where we could fire back at the Turks on the cliffs. But more than that, we were excited to join the fight. The Great War had come, and we were keen to play our part.
With a crunch and a lurch, the boat hit ground. We let go of the oars and grabbed our rifles, leaping out into the shallows. Water filled my boots and soaked me to the thighs.
Billy grinned as he leapt into the water beside me.
“Last one up the beach digs the latrines!” he shouted before heading off at a run.
I followed eagerly, just as I’d followed him into schoolyard skirmishes and into the recruiting station when war came. We’d been lucky, just old enough to sign up. Now here we were, ready to stick it to the Turks.
Our captain stumbled as he climbed out of the boat. Blood streamed from his arm and his gaze was caught on a body bobbing in the surf beside him. My stomach churned but I forced the bile back and raced on up the sand.
Billy halfway up the beach when he suddenly spun around. I thought for a moment that he’d turned to urge me on. Then I saw the stain on his chest and the shock on his face. He fell sideways in the dirt.
I rushed towards him, a scream bursting from my lungs. All around, men were dropping like flies – some dead, others scrabbling in the dirt to dig a safe place. More bullets tore through Billy’s body and the sand beneath. I dropped to the ground and pressed a hand against his wound, but it was too late.
As I stared into my friend’s lifeless eyes, the guns thundered all around.
“Private Hughes, isn’t it?”
Captain Arundell approached along the sandy trench. He was the third commander we’d had since the landings. At least this one had the sense to keep his head down.
“Yes, sir,” I said, delivering a weary salute.
“I’m looking for volunteers for a raid on the Turkish lines,” he said. “They say that you’re a tough one, a survivor. I thought you might be a good choice.”
I snorted. “I’m a survivor because I don’t volunteer, captain. There’s nothing here worth sticking my head above the trench line for.”
“I have men who are keen to go,” Arundell said. “But they’re all new and inexperienced. Without some veterans to round out the team, they might not make it back.”
“Then good luck to them,” I said.
Arundell looked at me. We both knew he could order me to join. We both knew how well the rest of the men would view that sort of treatment, given what we’d already been through.
He turned and headed away down the trench.
I watched as the corpsmen carried Jones’s body off on a stretcher. He’d survived the landings and months on the beaches, only to succumb to a fever. He wasn’t the only one. Between disease and shelling, our safe positions felt more and more like a death trap.
I huddled against the wall of the trench and prayed for deliverance.
A private from the next platoon scurried along the trench. He paused as he reached me.
“Have you heard?” he said. “We’re leaving.”
I stared at him, hardly daring to believe.
“When?” I asked.
“After Christmas. They’re taking the ANZACs out first, then us.”
His smile was so wide, his face still fresh and innocent, it reminded me of Billy. I felt a moment of warm nostalgia, then one of nausea as I remembered him lying bleeding on the sand.
“Major Arundell’s looking for volunteers for the rear guard,” he continued. “We’re going to make sure the rest of you get out safely.”
My stomach sank at the thought of leaving this kid to face the Turks. But what could I do? My prayers had been answered. We were getting out at last.
The air stank of blood, cordite, and loose bowels. Even in the darkness of the night, I could make out the piles of bodies beyond our shell-shattered trenches, the remains of the last great Turkish assault.
I finished setting my rifle in place, rigged up with a tangle of strings and slowly leaking cans. It was a messy device, but a functional one. It would pull the trigger at odd intervals after I was gone, creating the illusion that a soldier was still here. At least, that was the theory.
The Turks had to know that we, the last few men standing, were about to leave. That was why they had launched the attack, to beat us while we were alone, before we could make our escape. And it was why we were still doing every last thing we could. Even if it only bought seconds, this still gave us a better chance of survival.
“Good work,” Major Arundell whispered, patting me on the shoulder. He pointed down the beach to where the boats were waiting. “Now let’s get out of here.”
As we grabbed the oars and set to rowing, I looked back at the cliffs of Gallipoli. I’d never been so glad to leave any place on Earth.
And I’d never been so glad to be alive.
* * *
I have a comic out!
“To Win Just Once” is a Commando comic, released yesterday in print and through Comixology. It’s about the experience of New Zealanders in the First World War. It deals with events on the Western Front, but references the Gallipoli campaign, and so this story is meant as a matching piece, showing what that campaign was like. If you want to read more about Gallipoli you could start with this article I wrote for War History Online.
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