Some light Saturday reading

It’s Saturday, it’s the weekend, it seems like this should be a break from my usual ramblings. So here are some other things to read and enjoy:

  • Warren Ellis is my go to comic guy, from Dave’s Corner of the Universe. Some good discussion of Ellis’s comics that explains why my favourite comic writer is so awesome. If you’re wondering what to read next, or considering dipping your toe into comics for the first time, then you could do far worse than to pick things from this list.
  • An article on Tor that should have come from a steampunk story but covers a real thing – New York’s pneumatic post system of a hundred years ago. As Alan Gratz says win his article title, it’s like the internet before electronics.
  • Review: The Adventures of Hergé on Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog – turns out there’s a biography of Tintin’s creator in the style of a Tintin comic – how cool is that?

If you’re still stuck for something to read after all that, why not try my booksMud and Brass and Riding the Mainspring, out now through Smashwords and Amazon.

And let’s finish with some music, from the ever excellent Postmodern Jukebox:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPimt0Zu_To&w=560&h=315]

My favourite steampunk things

I’m about to launch my first e-books, a steampunk short called Mud and Brass and a collection of my previously published steampunk shorts titled Riding the Mainspring. Those of you on my book mailing list will receive a free copy of Mud and Brass on Monday, and anyone else who’s interested has until the end of the weekend to sign up and get the free story. I am very excited, and more than a little tense.

In the meantime, and to celebrate the occasion, here’s a list of some of my favourite steampunk things…

That really is quite a different engine
That really is quite a different engine

Favourite steampunk book

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was the first steampunk book I ever heard of. I was fascinated by this transformation of Victorian history. From steam powered computers to aerodynamics inspired by dinosaurs to battles in the smog, this sold me on steampunk.

There's nothing gentle about that boat
There’s nothing gentle about that boat

Favourite steampunk comic

The second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was still coming out when I first got into comics. While the first volume of League is great, this is the one that really excites me. Featuring icons from my childhood such as John Carter’s Mars, Rupert the Bear and H G Wells’s alien invaders, this is an incredibly vivid, incredibly exciting, and incredibly warped tale. The detail of O’Neill’s art is extraordinary, and this is some of Moore’s finest writing.

IMG_0568[1]

Favourite steampunk music

My friend Will is part of Pocketwatch, a great steampunk band. But before they were Pocketwatch they took part in The Clockwork Quartet. The Quartet‘s gig that I saw in London was fantastic. The whole room was decked out in steampunk style. Half the audience was in costume. The bar served espresso and absinthe. The show featured a sword fight, a dancing conductor and a virtual orchestra of performers, far more than the four of a traditional quartet. I love Pocketwatch, but that Clockwork Quartet performance is one of the best gigs I have ever been to, and I love my souvenir CD.

Oh the adventures we have seen, this hat and I
Oh the adventures we have seen, this hat and I

Favourite steampunk event and costume

I was privileged for a few years to be part of a small steampunk live roleplay group called The Company of Crimson, in which I played the valet Jackson. Thanks to a player’s family connection we once played an event at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire, during which we stormed the castle on Sunday morning, leading to a gunfight in the back garden. I roamed the grounds serving tea and bullets, while Rasputin and his evil minions leapt out at us from the undergrowth.

It was a fantastic experience, and my bowler hat, which saw occasional use by Jackson, remains one of my all time favourite pieces of costume.

What are your favourites?

Those of you who dabble in steampunk or alternate history, what are your favourite examples?

And remember, if you sign up for my mailing list by the end of the weekend you can get that free e-book on Monday.

Subscription services – a bold new future?

Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.
Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

Stockport Central Library, how I love you
Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?

Moth City by Tim Gibson

I love the way that e-reading allows stories to be presented in whole new ways. Sometimes it’s bold experiments in multi-media like Device 6, sometimes it’s just drawing your gaze through a comic slightly differently like Comixology can do. The comic Moth City by Tim Gibson does something in between.

Tim Gibson by Tim Gibson
Tim Gibson by Tim Gibson

Moth City is a dark historical thriller, set on a fictional island during the civil war that racked China from 1927 through to 1950. There’s a speculative element to it, the dieselpunk-style device of a high tech industrial island producing weapons of unimaginable devastation. But I’m only one issue in, and I don’t know yet whether this story will see many wild, fictional technologies, as opposed to just one to drive the plot forward. Either way, the island’s an interesting idea.

What’s really interesting is the way that Gibson has used the potential in digital comics to change the way that the story is revealed. Rather than show you a whole page at once, or guide you through panel by panel without showing the whole page, he’s set his comic up so that panels are added to the page as you read. This allows you to enjoy the extra surprise of not seeing what’s coming up, while also getting to enjoy the dramatic art of a good page layout. Sometimes panels even replace other panels, creating an added sense of movement, of passing moments.

You can get the first issue of Moth City free from Tim’s website or through Comixology. If this has piqued your interest then give it a go and let me know what you think. I’ll certainly be going back to read more.

I found out about Moth City when Tim appeared on an episode of the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast, so if you want to know more about Tim and his comic you can listen to that too.

The power of fandom: Phonogram by Gillen and McKelvie

I’m currently more excited about comics than I’ve been in months, and it all comes down to one release – Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. It’s everything you’d expect from this talented team – beautiful illustrations, characterful dialogue, an intriguing mix of modern culture and fantasy. It’s the second best comic I’ve ever read about pop music as magic.

So naturally I’m going to talk about another comic – Phonogram.

Phonogram

Memories of music past

The first volume of Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie’s previous collaboration, came out in 2006. Collected as Rue Britannia, this was the story of phonomancer David Kohl, a man with the power to make magic through music. Not playing his own tunes, but channeling the power of other people’s records. Ten years on from the phenomenon of Britpop, Kohl took a stroll down musical memory lane, digging into that era’s music, a mixture of daring and disappointment, in an attempt to solve a curse falling on him in the present.

Rue Britannia was unique and fascinating, and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. You didn’t have to have listened to a Shed Seven record to enjoy it, but if you remembered Menswear or had leapt around a nightclub to the sound of Elastica then it was going to be much more personal for you.

I don’t remember when I discovered Rue Britannia, but I was fascinated by its flawed and daring mishmash of subjects, as well as nostalgic for a musical era I’d experienced slightly differently from Kohl. It was enough for me to buy the second collected volume, The Singles Club, and…

Best. Comic. Ever.

There are comic series that I love as much as Phonogram, if not more. The jagged science fiction poetry of Transmetropolitan. The surreal humour and world building of Chew. The noire grandeur of 100 Bullets. But for a single impeccable volume, consisting of seven spectacular individual issues, nothing beats The Singles Club.

The Singles Club consists of seven short character studies, all set around the same night out in the same club. Each one contains a complete character and story arc, intersecting with the others to add depth to the whole. Each one grounds its fantasy and character elements in a passion for pop music that connects the story to familiar early adult lives. The art and writing are both clearer and more characterful than the previous volume. It is a thing of beauty that should appeal to anyone who enjoys both music and comics, or anyone looking for an offbeat approach to fantasy and magic, or frankly anyone with good taste (OK, maybe I’m getting a bit subjective there, is it still subjective when I’m clearly right?).

This is literature as a presentation of character, of growth, of the joys and challenges of life.

The Singles Club is the only book in my house that I read several times a year. I love it.

A magic about empowerment

The Wicked + The Divine is about musicians as people with magical power. Their ability to craft songs is clearly central to their ability to do something more potent. That’s all well and good, but it restricts power to the hands of those who can strike up a tune. There’s an implied message here – ‘if you’re creative then you’re special’. It’s a familiar message, and not a bad one, but it has a certain elitism to it.

Phonogram carries a message that is more egalitarian. For all the snide elitism of characters like David Kohl, the underlying message is that culture isn’t just about creativity, it’s about appreciating and being empowered by what others have created. It’s fandom as empowerment. It says that your love of music, or any other cultural form, is as valid and as powerful an act of empowerment and self-creation as anything else. And I think that that is a fabulous message.

Listening to music, loving music, discussing music, sharing your passion, these are actually incredible things. The same applies to the fandom of TV, of books, of films, of any other form. Being an engaged audience makes us come alive. It creates bonds between us. It is as vital to a thriving culture as the acts of creation that it revolves around. Appreciating that, making it central to a story, that’s a great thing.

Go forth and listen

The Wicked + The Divine is currently coming out month by month via Comixology and comic shops. If you’re into comics you should give it a go – the first issue certainly promises good things.

But Phonogram, and The Singles Club in particular, that is a truly great thing.

And in the spirit of that book I give you a mission today. Go forth and find a song that you loved in your formative years. Or if you’re still in those formative years then just a song you loved recently. Sit down and listen to it, doing nothing else with the time (OK, you can dance, though personally I’ll be leaning against a wall trying to look nonchalant, because that’s how sixteen-year-old Andrew rolled). Then come back here and tell us all why that song is so damn awesome, or why it seemed that way to you at the time.

Share that passion.

Facing the alien: Warren Ellis & Jason Howard’s Trees

I love the comics of Warren Ellis, have done ever since I first picked up a volume of Transmetropolitan. He is like some angry god, hurling thunderbolts of wisdom and profanity down on his fear-stained yet adoring worshippers. His deeply researched, fascinatingly plotted comics are full of dialogue that, while often unrealistic, is always sharp and amusing.

So of course his new series Trees was near the top of my list once I got Comixology.

So it’s a story about trees?

Trees, written by Warren Ellis with art by Jason Howard, is very much an Ellis story. Set some unspecified but relatively small distance into the future, it begins ten years after the arrival of the Trees, vast alien monoliths that have planted themselves in the Earth’s surface, apparently ignoring the humans who scamper around their bases.

trees

This is a collage of a world-building story, showing moments in the lives of characters around the globe, living in the literal and figurative shadows of the Trees. Italian criminals, Latin American slum dwellers, a New York politician, the technocratic president of Somalia. And probably most importantly (certainly most prominently) the inhabitants of an Arctic research station who may be on the verge of a new discovery about the Trees.

This is a high concept science fiction story, but one that is very much focussed on understandable human lives.

Keeping it alien

One area where a lot of science fiction falls down is in failing to make the alien truly alien – showing us people, worlds and ways of thinking that are genuinely strange and un-knowable to us. It’s hardly surprising – as humans we tend to write human.

But this is something that Ellis is particularly good at. His wild imagination and fascination with the strange and unsettling comes across in his depictions of the other, from the story world seen in an issue of Planetary to the swarming hive form of Ultimate Galactus. Trees is a great example of this. The alien presence just sits there, its motives, meaning and behaviour unknown to readers and characters alike, having an impact on the world unlike anything else.

This is the alien as a truly unsettling presence, not just a bunch of guys with green skin.

Action and reaction

This allows Ellis to once again explore one of his favourite themes – how humans react to encounters with the alien. Will we try to use it for war and profit, as in Oceans? For fashion, as in Transmetropolitan? Will we try to hide it away to make ourselves powerful, as in Planetary?

Here we see a whole range of reactions – emotional and intellectual, personal and political, ignorant and informed, instinctive and carefully strategised. The story revolves around the Trees, but so far it isn’t actually about them. It’s about how people react to their presence, how they cope with it or even use it, how they come to understand it.

If story is about action followed by reaction, then that causal chain is what allows Ellis to make this story both alien and sympathetic. The instigating action is something dark and mysterious. The reactions are human and familiar. It makes for a fascinating combination.

Read it, but maybe not yet

A brief note on the art: It’s good, but I read with a writer’s eye, not an artist’s, and have no more to say.

Sorry Jason Howard. I know comics are a collaborative art, but any time I see Ellis’s name it’s the writing I’ll be focused on.

This is another intriguing Warren Ellis book, and one I’ll carry on reading as it comes out. But due to the nature of the story it’s moving in a slow, disjointed fashion that might read better in a collected edition.

I recommend reading it, but if you’re impatient then not yet.

So, three unrelated points for discussion. Have you read Trees, and what did you think? If you’ve read Warren Ellis’s other work what did you think? And what other examples can you think of where science fiction depicts the truly alien?

Changing the way we read

In among all the palaver about how e-reading is changing book distribution, we often forget that it’s also changing the other part of the business and art of books – the reading experience

Comixology, Device 6 and navigating books

I recently raved about the unusual reading experience of the story/game DEVICE 6. One of the joys of that experience was the way in which the reader navigated the text. Sometimes you had a choice of two ways to read, scrolling in different directions. Text layouts reflected the story environment. Visual puzzles and audio elements were interspersed through the surreal short story. All this was possible because of the different formats that e-reading allows.

Believe it or not, this logo represents a sophisticated leap forward in comics reading. More importantly, it let me read the new Gillen & McKelvie comic, which is awesome.
Believe it or not, this logo represents a sophisticated leap forward in comics reading.

But this is also being used in more low-key and more widely read formats. I recently acquired a Kindle Fire and the Comixology app, letting me indulge in my neglected comics habit.* Comixology changes the comic reading experience. You can view one page at a time, enjoying the art of the layout as in a print comic, though without the intrusive adverts. But you can also view the comic one panel at a time. This means that elements later in the page come as more of a surprise, but that you miss out on the tricks of layout that truly great comic writers and artists use. The pacing and tension of the reading experience is subtly changed, and as creators adapt to this new format so will the medium.

Joanna Penn and intertextuality

Look at me, pulling out the ten dollar words. But intertextuality – the relationship between texts – is transforming and being transformed by e-reading as books start to adopt the tricks of the internet.

I recently read Joanna Penn’s Author 2.0 Blueprint, which is essentially a beginner’s guide to self-publishing.** Joanna includes a lot of links in her book, letting you read more on particular topics without slowing down the main points. It’s a smart approach, one we see all the time on websites but could not do in paper books. With e-readers we can.

And this is changing the way that we validate knowledge through references. It used to be that a factual book would provide a footnote referencing the source of information, but now you can provide direct links to that source if it is web-based, for readers to go and check the information themselves. How long before this is used to connect between books as well, giving readers a more inter-connected reading experience and marketers a way to sell you even more books? Could this be the future of academic journals?***

Mo Options Mo Awesome

The Notorious BIG provided a powerful metaphor for the dangers that come with a growth in our wealth of creative options.**** But the flip side of this is that these options let us do ever more interesting and creative things. They let us connect ideas together in new ways, experience stories in new formats. That’s great. The old forms aren’t dying – they’ll still be there if we want them. But new forms are rising up to join and in many cases surpass them.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you enjoying the experience of e-reading? Have you seen it used in interesting ways? Share your experiences below.

 

 

* Turns out that freelance work from home does have a downside – not working within walking distance of a comic shop.

** Joanna actually covers the full range of publishing options, but the emphasis is on the tools, techniques and challenges of self-publishing. I’ll be returning to this another day I’m sure.

*** It should be, but for smart people academics can be very slow to change.

**** Or maybe he just wanted to show off. So hard to tell with champagne-swilling jewellery-covered superstars.

Geek music

There’s a lot of nerdily-themed music out there. Whether it’s songs about steampunk, sci-fi rapping, or a hymn to the joys of board games, if you’ve got a hobby you can bet someone’s made a tune about it.

And sure, a lot of it isn’t great. But have you listened to the radio recently? I’ll take something amateurish but interesting rather than over-produced pop six days out of seven (on that seventh day I’ll be leaping around the house to Take That and Taylor Swift, because even over-produced pop has some great talents).

Neither am I saying that nerdy music is all amateurish. Any genre in any medium has a lot of amateurs and a few skilled or lucky pros. Here, for your weekend listening, are some of my favourites.

The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth by I Fight Dragons – geek rock with computer game bleeps, wonderfully exuberant:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV0YPfJ_EoU&w=560&h=315]

 

Drawings With Words by Wordburglar – the joys of comic collecting as expressed by a Canadian rapper with a talent for unexpected rhymes (contains swears and obscure superhero references):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JK93xfHZug&w=560&h=315]

 

Fire Fire by Steam Powered Giraffe – steampunk robots sing about a space disaster:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLNgD5vsZsM&w=560&h=315]

 

We Do Not Sow by Adam WarRock – the latest in a string of Game of Thrones raps from an incredibly prolific artist (again, it’s hip-hop, do not play this language around young children):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU6HAc1K4Go&w=560&h=315]

 

Stan Lee cameos and the cult of the creator

Hey, did you all notice that cool cameo by Ed Brubaker in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Seriously, sinister scientist number two was played by one of the greatest living comic book writers. What a guy. What a beard.

Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat
Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat, and with more beard

OK, if that one passed you by did you notice Stan Lee in his role as a museum security guard? Of course you did. Stan turns up in every Marvel film these days. He was even on a train in Agents of SHIELD. You don’t need your comic nerd friend to point him out to you any more – he’s one of the most recognisable faces in the whole Marvel Movie Universe.

I have huge admiration for Stan Lee. His plots and dialogue are old-fashioned for my tastes, but the guy co-created some of the greatest characters in comic book history and was instrumental in making Marvel the giant it is today.

But having him turn up in every film makes it seem like he’s the guy behind every aspect of Marvel ever. Which is true, except for the many characters he didn’t create. And the fact that they were all co-creations with artists. And the fact that all of those characters have been given their depth and richness by generations of writers, not just Stan.

Art is never really a lone activity. It’s about collaboration, not isolated acts of genius, and the cult of the individual creator bugs me. It’s why the endless Stan Lee cameos are starting to vex me as much as they amuse. Maybe it’s time to cut down on Stan’s screen time and give some of it to his hundreds of collaborators down the years.

 

Ed Brubaker picture copyright Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Trying my hand at scripting

It turns out I officially have talent. Or half a talent at least, as I’m a runner up in comics publisher Top Cow’s 2013 talent hunt.

Top Cow logo

This is only the third time I’ve even tried to write a comics script, and I clearly got something right because they’re going to publish a short comic story written by me. It won’t be the one I entered in the competition, which is a shame because I’m quite proud of it, but this is still very exciting. It’s a great thing to have in my portfolio, and a way to sell myself when approaching other companies.

Writing a script was a very different experience from writing prose. It’s not just a matter of dialogue, it’s explaining other aspects of the scene in the right type of detail for your medium, in a way that will make the story flow. Comics have their own particular challenges and opportunities, and I’m glad I’ve read plenty of Scott McCloud‘s books on comics storytelling. If you’re at all interested in how to write comics, or just how they work, then I really recommend reading McCloud, he has a fine analytical mind and explains things very clearly.

So anyway, now I need to spend some time working out how to make the most of this opportunity, and of the possibility that I don’t suck at scripting. To the keyboard!

Wait, I’m already there.