How I Write a Commando Comic

My latest issue of Commando is out today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I create a script. Buckle in, this is going to be one of my longer posts…

Inspiration

Desert Vultures cover art by Neil Roberts

My inspiration for Commando comics can come from a bunch of different places. TV shows, larp events, conversations on Twitter, things I studied at university, these have all fed into issues. Most come from plugging together more than one source.

The immediate inspiration for Desert Vultures was the 80th anniversary of Operation Compass, the first big Allied push of the Western Desert Campaign. Anniversaries are handy things for Commando, as they’re a good way to hook people into an issue. Sometimes my editor at Commando will send me a list of anniversaries they’d like to cover, and I pitch to those. Sometimes I spot an opportunity and suggest it myself.

My biggest source of inspiration, as I recently discussed in a video interview, is history books. I read a lot of them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for other writing projects. Back when I was writing for War History Online, I read a lot about the Second World War, which meant that I already had ideas for how to look at the Western Desert campaign.

When looking for a Commando story, I’m often looking for a conflict between people on the same side, not just a fight against the enemy. In-group conflicts often lead to more interesting stories, as characters argue and compete with each other – think about all the twists and tensions in Game of Thrones. I also like to cover the international nature of the Allied war effort. Fortunately, bringing people from different backgrounds together often causes conflict, so that became the hook for Desert Vultures – French and British officers forced to work together despite their differences, one of them rigidly rule-bound, the other relaxed and improvisational. Could they achieve a shared goal?

Pitching

Once I’ve got my inspiration, I write a pitch. This sets out the story in two ways – first as a three-sentence synopsis, giving the setting, the main character, and the hook for their story. Then a page-by-page breakdown of what will happen.

When I’m writing the pitch, my thinking is shaped by two things – the characters and the plot. As Robert McKee points out in his excellent book Story, these two aren’t separate, but it can still be useful to talk about them that way.

The character is the core of a Commando story. Readers have to care about the people they’re spending time with. That means making someone who’s interesting to Commando readers, and who will drive the story forward. There are dozens of different ways to achieve this, and I always consider the balance of competence, proactivity, and likability, as recommended by the team at Writing Excuses. Most importantly, the protagonist has to want something, to keep them motivated.

The nature of Commando does a lot to define the comic’s protagonists. They have to be involved in military activity, usually during the world wars. They need to have a mission or objective, something that propels the story forward, whether it’s saving lives, sinking a submarine, or perhaps escaping occupied territory. For Desert Vultures, it’s a specific military mission – finding and destroying a hidden Italian base.

The story is then driven by this mission. What does the protagonist have to do to achieve their objective? Who stands in the way? What setbacks do they face? I structure the broad strokes of the story around this, then flesh it out with cool details, often found in those books I mentioned. Give the plot a few twists, and I’ve soon got 63 bullet points, one for every page.

I send my pitch to my editor at Commando, then wait. After an editorial meeting, they come back to me with one of three responses:

  • Yes, write it!  My favourite response, for obvious reasons.
  • No, this isn’t suitable. This one doesn’t happen often, as I have a good idea of what Commando are after, but just occasionally an idea isn’t right for them, or has already been used.
  • Yes, but… The most common response. I’ve got a good idea, but it needs refinement. This might lead to a revised pitch, or just to me making some changes as I write the script.

Writing

Once the pitch has been approved and the outline adjusted, it’s time to write. My deadline is usually two or three months ahead, but I seldom wait that long, as I love writing comic scripts. As a fulltime freelance writer, I have the flexibility to make space in my schedule, but other projects sometimes have first dibs, especially if they’re on a deadline or offering a big payment. Within a few weeks of approval, I set aside some days when my focus will be on writing my script.

Having a detailed outline makes the writing relatively quick. I don’t have to think about the broad strokes of what’s on each page, just the details. How many pictures will there be? How will one lead to another, telling a clear and coherent story? What will everyone say?

For the flow of the images, a lot of my inspiration and guidance comes from comics guru Scott McCloud. His writing on comics is phenomenal and taught me about such critical topics as transitions. A comic isn’t just a bunch of pictures, it’s what’s implied by the way you move from one to the next, and thinking about that adds a lot of complexity.

I’ve recently changed my approached to scripting. At the time I wrote Desert Vultures, I wrote everything for one page, then moved on to the next, and so on, writing the descriptions and dialogue together. I’ve recently changed to writing all the descriptions first, then going back to the start and adding the dialogue. I find that works better for getting character voices right.

I’m no artist, but I do occasionally draw at the writing stage, to help me plan out the action. The things I draw are normally seen only by me and my waste paper bin, because I’m a terrible artist. But drawing can help me work out the flow of the panels, breaking a page down into a series of distinct images, each one with its own unique elements that together tell a story. Many stick men have died brutal deaths on scrap paper battlefields to improve my Commando scripts.

Writing dialogue is a funny thing. It’s never about being realistic, but it is about sounding realistic. In real life, people um and ah, they let sentences trail off and leave things half-said. They don’t deliver snappy dialogue while they’re busy fighting for their lives. But a story requires dialogue that flows while creating the illusion of people really talking. In the case of a comic like Commando, it means dreaming up things people could say while bullets whip past their heads or they punch each other in the face. It’s a fun challenge to create that sort of dialogue without it coming out stilted.

Creating distinct voices is important too. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always manage this, but if a character’s verbal ticks and preoccupations stand out, that makes them seem more real.

But the most important thing about writing isn’t any of these technical details. It’s sitting your arse down in the chair and having the discipline to keep going, even when you’re bored or distracted. Discipline, more than anything else, is how I get a script done.

Editing

Before I send a script off, I read it over a couple more times and make edits. This is usually just proofreading, as I’ve done my story edits at the pitching stage. Sometimes it’s adding more detail to the action of an image or sharpening up a piece of dialogue. Mostly, it’s finding my typos and grammatical errors.

If I have time, I leave a day or two between writing and editing. That way I can look at the script with fresh eyes. But the brutal truth is, often I need to be moving on to my next project. Then the script just gets left until after lunch, then given that polish and sent on its way.

Out of My Hands

From that point on, my work is done. The script vanishes into the ether for months on end, only to re-emerge some time later as a fully formed comic. To me, it’s magic, but this is where the hard work happens. I could never create the amazing images that Commando’s artists come up with. You’d have to ask one of them if you want to know how that part works.

Sometimes I’ll see the cover or snippets of art as Commando HQ build buzz for a release, but I don’t see the interiors until the issue comes out. This is also the point at which I get to read editorial changes to the story – how the team at Commando have sharpened up my dialogue, expanded on descriptive panels, or adjusted the plot beats to make the story even more exciting. The thrill of seeing a new Commando is as real for me the writer as for anyone reading it.

With a script finished, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Seek inspiration. Invent a character. Craft a pitch. Sit my arse down in my chair and start work on the next issue.

The circle of writing starts again.

Building a Better Fantasy City with Ex Novo

I’ve enthused before about the joys of world-building games like Microscope and Watching the World Die. I love the way that random chance and the structure of a rule set can lead to rich, surprising places that feel organic, coherent, and interesting.

I recently needed to develop the setting for a new story, and as it was set in a city I decided to try out a game designed for this very purpose – Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos.

Ex Novo is simple to play and takes only a few hours. Most importantly given recent circumstances, you can play it solo.  I was creating my city during lockdown, and while my cat does like to play with dice, he’s not so great at urban planning.

Play turned out to be pretty simple. You decide a few basic parameters, including the size and age of your settlement. Then you roll dice and check a couple of tables to determine the terrain it’s founded in and why it’s there. After that, you play a series of rounds in which you roll more dice, look up the results on tables, and add features to the map depending upon those results.

Those randomised additions might sound like a recipe for something disjointed, but that’s not how the game works. Every random choice is both specific and open to interpretation, accompanied by questions that invite you to flesh out the details. Role 325 and you’re adding a new trade route, represented by a resource on the map, but what the resource is, where it goes, who it’s traded with and how, these are all open to interpretation. Just adding that resource to the map creates a relationship between it and other parts of the city, which encourages answers that built on what came before.

It helps that the example game plays a little loose with the rules, in the interests of a better narrative. This encourages flexibility, adding extra details while benefiting from the structure the rules bring.

I’d expected this game to just create a map, but it’s more than that. It creates a history for the city, a history tied to that map. It also creates political factions and develops the conflicts between them, showing the politics and society of your city. As a writer building a setting, that’s incredibly useful for me. It means that my characters have a past to talk about and other people to interact with, enriching my writing.

But the map,  that’s the most useful thing. I don’t normally bother with a map while writing. I might sketch out where named places are compared with each other, for the sake of consistency. But this game has given me districts,  public buildings, surrounding terrain, roads, walls, and ruins. Any time my characters travel from place to place, I can look at that map and get instant, surprising inspiration about what they’ll see.

This sort of game isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like making up stories and imagining places then it can be a great tool, and with the designers currently letting you name your own price, Ex Novo is a bargain.

The Struggle to Keep Writing

Sometimes, keeping writing is a struggle. I know all the arguments for keeping going. The ones based in passion, in professionalism, in the need to pay my bills. I know that once I start writing the words will eventually flow. I know that sometimes you’ve got to write crap and refine it into something sophisticated later. All of that is there in my head whenever I sit down at the keyboard. But some days it’s a struggle to keep going. When you’ve been locked up in the house for days without direct human contact. When your understanding and that of a client are wildly at odds. When there’s too much work or too little work or just the sort of work that’s frustrating to deal with. When you don’t want to write the thing you’re getting paid for, but the alternative is not being paid to write at all. There are more days like that at the moment. The covid-19 crisis has made the world a tougher place to deal with and that makes everything feel like a struggle. Sadly, this isn’t letting up any time soon. So acknowledge those frustrations. Recognise them. Own them. Accept that the feelings they bring are valid. Then find a way to burn off the worst of that frustration, whether it’s by blogging about it, going for a walk, or killing a hundred orcs in a computer game. And once your mental health can take it, get back into the seat and find a way to keep writing, because all the reasons to keep writing still stand.

Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

Putting Real People Into Unreal Stories

I’ve been making my friends fight each other.

It’s OK though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Someone writing outdoors.

I quite often pick the names of characters based on people I know. The names have to come from somewhere, and scanning my social media feeds is a good way to get them quickly. Usually, I mix and match first names and surnames, rather than use one person’s full name.

Recently, I’ve taken a different approach. I put up a message on Facebook asking my friends if any of them would like characters named after them in my Commando comics. I got a lot of positive responses and started using those people in my story pitches. Some became protagonists, others villains, and many got bit parts in the stories I was developing.

This was all fine and theoretical while I was writing pitches, but now Commando have commissioned some of those stories, so I’m writing the scripts. When characters have the names of people I know, it’s hard not to picture them as those people, even if they’re very different in character. In my head, I’m making people I know fight, chase, and argue with each other.

It’s a little weird for me. I imagine it’ll be even more so for my friends when these stories are published.

Sometimes, this can work out really nicely. Years ago, I wrote a flash story featuring a character named Mantaj, after one of my friends. She never saw characters with her name in stories, and so was delighted with it. That made my day.

A lot of people get excited at having characters named after them, and as a writer that gives me an extra bit of fun. Still, it’s never going to stop being weird when I make them fight each other.

Deciding What History To Write

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write.

For me, there are several factors.

One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand.

Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character.

The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for.

The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head.

Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen.

Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard.

And that makes it part of the fun.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Live Fast and Leave a Beautiful Story

There’s something of futility in a writer’s work.

We’re always trying to capture a moment, real or imagined, to pin it permanently into place.

But nothing lasts. Your favourite blogging site might close down. Your book might go out of print. Google could refuse access to the ideas you’ve set down in a document because they claim it breaches their terms. And in the end, the terms of all our lives are impermanent. The words we set down will turn to dust, like all of us.

That’s not an argument against trying. Taking those words to a new site, saving your notes where Google can’t steal them, laying down a novel that gives joy long after you’re gone, these are all ways of asserting our own existence, of forcing meaning on the universe, of making ourselves just a little bigger and the world just a little better. You can’t escape death, but everything else is up for grabs.

Stories told around a campfire are as valid as those etched in marble a hundred feet high. It doesn’t have to be permanent to matter, because nothing is forever.

Live fast and leave a beautiful story.

End of Year Review

It’s the end of the year, a time to review my achievements over this circling of the sun. And while it hasn’t always been easy, it’s been a good year.

And yes, I kept doing my weird dressing up hobbies too – photo by Oliver Facey.

I’ve had five short stories published, and others accepted for publication. I’ve even written a few new ones, mostly for projects I was specifically invited to, which was an honour.

I’ve written and published a flash story every week, which will now become a neat little e-book collection.

I’ve had two comics published, and written several more scripts that will appear in Commando next year.

Russell Phillips and I finished and published our novel, The Bear’s Claws. It’s had the best sales of anything I’ve self-published so far.

I’ve had a fantasy novella accepted for publication next year. More news on that when I have it.

I’ve written the majority of a fantasy novel, which I’m very pleased with so far. Again, more news on that sometime soon.

I’ve kept the freelance work ticking over. Though the latter half of the year wasn’t as profitable as the start, I’m still earning more than enough to get by, while keeping enough time for my own writing. I’ve written a huge mix of things, from history articles to fantasy novels to business content. It’s occasionally been frustrating or boring but is still far more satisfying than any other job I’ve had.

And through it all, I’ve fended off the depression that I struggled with a few years ago. Exercise, mindfulness, and doing a job I enjoy have all contributed to keeping me sane and happy, even in a world gone mad.

Not a bad year, all in all.

Blogger’s Block

Sometimes you just need to start writing. It’s a thing I’m realising more and more, as I try to find ways past writer’s block, or past just not wanting to do my work. You put down words, and they might not be the best words, but at least they get the ideas flowing out of your bain.

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Like today, I couldn’t decide what to blog about. Tor.com had a piece on characters who we love because of how damaged they are, so maybe I could reflect on that. Or there was the larp I ran recently, I could talk about its story or my involvement in it. There’s the incident last night where I spent half an hour chasing down a mouse in my study, because this is what happens when you have a cat. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

And that’s the problem. When the possibilities are endless, how do you work out which one is good? Which one is relevant to my readers, and might grab attention in search engines, and will be satisfying to write? Because when your blog is part personal venting and part marketing tool, all of those things are relevant.

In the end, I’ve taken a copout path by going meta and writing about how tricky it is to write. Instead of deciding what to discuss, I’m discussing how difficult that decision is. Problem solved.

I mean, not really solved. I’ll be back to it next week. This is a regular blog writing problem.

Everyone gets stuck from time to time, staring at the screen and not knowing what to write. And sometimes the answer is just whatever comes into your head.

FantasyCon 2019

I’ve had a week to catch up on sleep, so it must be time to talk about FantasyCon.

The first thing to say is that I had a great time. I always do at cons. The people are lovely, the panels provide entertainment, and it’s great to browse the books of the indie presses that don’t make it into mainstream stores.

The highlights for me this year were about fun rather than learning new things. Breaking The Glass Slipper live and the Dungeons and Disorderly panel were both very entertaining, playing around with familiar characters and tropes. BTGS had panellists explain how their chosen sf+f character would deal with a difficult scenario, with the audience voting on their favourites. D&D was a ridiculous, improvised 45-minute roleplay game featuring the underdork, conspiring cows, and seven kobolds disguised as a dragon.

My panel seemed to go fine, though it’s hard to judge when you’re on the inside. I certainly got more insight into how franchise writing works, and now have some thoughts on what I can do to hunt out more work. But for me this was mostly a relaxing con, with a lot of bar chat.

Inevitably, I bought a couple of books. Luna Press are doing great work and I’ve already enjoyed dipping into their latest essay collection, as well as Gareth Powell’s new writing guide.

Going to Glasgow, or more accurately the edge of Glasgow, seemed to reduce the number of attendees, which was a shame. FantasyCon is a great event even when, like this year, it has a few organisational problems, and it should go as far north as Scotland once in a while. Multiple conventions close together also seem to have cannibalised membership, and hopefully con runners will consider that next year.

It’s a shame more people didn’t make it, but then that’s always going to be true. If you live in Britain and you enjoy fantasy then this is one of the most rewarding events of the year, especially for writers. I’m really glad I went.