Strange Animals 10apr17: Be Grateful I’m Not Calling This a Dispatch

Helpfully, Everything Is Meaningless

Hello, and welcome to the first edition of this thing.

Technically, I have no right to start a newsletter. a. My blog lies fallow most of the time, b. I have nothing to promote, and c. most of the time I find it difficult to believe anyone will be interested in things I have to say (that’s the main reason for a., in fact). But over the last few months, whatever the ghost was that made me want to write in public has returned, and I’m indulging it.

I quit writing, some years ago. To be precise, I quit trying to make writing my career. I don’t remember half the reasons for it, but by and large I’ve thought it a good decision. Writing for a living was a pressure that I didn’t want to handle anymore, and, just as bad, it had a negative effect on the quality of the writing. So I decided I’d only write for pleasure.

But quitting is quitting, so functionally, it worked like a block. Writing became unimportant to me. I still wrote a few comics, and two published short stories, but they were at a distance – they were fun, but I cared more about their mechanics than what I was trying to say through them. Mostly, there was no motivation to be writing. I wrote about this phase on my blog.

Until late last year, when the block seemed to lift, and I started getting excited again.

Part of it is the impression that the world is becoming an unpleasant place. There are a lot of things to unpeel here, and a majority of media commentary right now is engaged in trying to pick apart this moment we find ourselves in, so I won’t comment on the State of the World, but I find the collective impression of an oncoming apocalypse fascinating.

We always consider the Now as very close to the end of history, as the moment the Final Episode of history is being set up. “History will prove us right.” “You’re on the wrong side of history.” As if there’ll come a point when the story ends and the good guys win.

Hence the feeling so many of us have in the current climate that we’ve somehow gone down the wrong trouser-leg of time – that history wasn’t supposed to go this way – that we’ve now discovered we’re living in a tragedy. And writing fiction is a good way to dig yourself out of a parallel universe you didn’t choose to wake up in. (It won’t be a surprise that the story I’m currently writing involves parallel universes.)

That’s one thing.

The other thing is mortality, which relates to the above. Your life – a 70-80-year-long section of the continuum – is all that you have to do what you do. It’ll eventually mean nothing, but sitting inside it, we tend to look at now, rather than the whole of it. We think of who we are now as the ‘real’ us, and the past as work-in-progress. But so did we back then. We’re never really a finished product. (Alan Moore’s idea of the continuum as a fixed solid rather than an arrow begins to make sense here.)

My father had a stroke a couple of years ago, and a second one last week. He’s doing as fine as can be expected, but he’s lost a lot of mobility, his speech is slurred, and his memory’s begun to go. I look at his deteriorating physicality, and I can’t help but think of myself at his age, 30-odd years from now.

I won’t be closer to being a finished product. That’s not how that works. So who I am now matters, if only to me. I’m not turning into somebody. I am me now, I will be a different me then. And by changing, I’ll lose what is important to me now.

It’s not, precisely, the feeling that “I have so much to say,” but that I want to have a better record of who I am at this moment, and I want to be more cognisant of what this body is and does. Writing stories is a part of it. When my memory begins to fail, or I just think of 31-year-old me as a different person, I want a more concrete idea of what I was like. And even if I won’t care then, I care now. (“These people ought to know who we are and tell that we were here.”)

A newsletter’s purely a matter of practicality. Blogs – the way they used to exist back when I started blogging, with an active base of engaged commenters – seem to be dead. So I’d rather write for an engaged bunch of people, even if that’s just my sister and the fake email account she set up to make me feel better about my readership.

You’re welcome to comment by replying to this mail, and I’ll do an old-style quote-reply in the next newsletter. Let’s be fogeys together.

Swagger Will Get You Through Most of This Anyway

(Note: Major comics nerdery ahead.)

If you make comics, it’s always interesting to see what’s on Warren Ellis’s mind. (I’ve been unable to get into Injection, but Trees is one of the best books around, I can assure you.)

I’d looked forward to Karnak, but fell off the book when the first issue (or was it the second?) ended mid-action, like someone hiccuping and deciding not to finish the sentence they’d started. If he wasn’t gonna be bothered, neither was I.

But The Wild Storm is a different beast. I callously dismissed the first issue on an initial read – the dialogue is frequently iffy, with everyone sounding like a teenage Elijah Snow, and there’s a point where one character literally says, “I need to hear the words,” to prompt exposition from another character that they’re both aware of. But a second read made me realise I was looking in the wrong place.

To me, the interesting thing about this comic isn’t the characters, or most of what’s actually happening inside the panels (although the ‘Future as Oncoming Natural Disaster’ is a good riff on the old WildStorm). It’s the panels themselves. If you’re a fan of grid-based comics storytelling, this book is a great study. Ellis, his excellent artist Jon Davis-Hunt, colourist Ivan Plascencia and letterer Simon Bowland are making some formally fascinating comics.

First, there’s the grid separation – some pages are a nine-panel grid while others are a six-panel grid (with an eight-panel grid when you’re looking at tv screens – that just happens on one page in the first two issues). At first, I thought he was doing this for alternate scenes, or perhaps keeping the six-grid for dialogue-heavy scenes, but by issue 2 you figure out it’s specifically for the pages with Miles Craven. I’m still not entirely sure why the separation works like that (good vs. bad? Nah!), but my theory is that this is about past vs. future – the six-grid, obviously, was the old default which was supplanted by the nine-grid, a sexier, leaner, denser beast. But that’s just a theory.

Secondly, while not on every page, Ellis* tries to break what happens in a nine-grid in some interesting ways. I can’t quite nail all of the tricks down just yet, but the first page of issue one itself (you might have to turn on images to see it above) is a fantastic way to set up an entire scene in a page, combining aspect-to-aspect changes with the hermetic stillness of the scene being depicted – like an extended establishing shot for the entire series. Even the dialogue is all about place-setting, situating you in the universe, and completing this weird single-page story, with a single line hinting to what’ll happen next. As close to quintessential as it gets. Kieron Gillen talks about the opening scene here.

* I’m assuming here that most of this was determined through the script, because this is generally the case for grid-based books, but if Davis-Hunt is responsible for any of these tricks, my apologies and a tip of the hat to him.

Finally, there’s the way he drills further down into the grid to depict Spica’s conversion into the Engineer, splitting individual panels into four tiny panels (calling to mind Frank Quitely’s work in both We3 and Pax Americana), so you have a potential total of 36 panels per page that you can deploy at your convenience.

You can see above how two batches of six get combined into ultra-widescreen panels, while the rest go into parsing the action into component bits.

It’s an excellent trick. Ellis uses it specifically for aspect-to-aspect and action-to-action movement – to simultaneously slow down Spica’s transformation, and to depict the alien minutiae of the process to make us stop and really look and feel a sense of wonder, while not taking up too much real estate.

That’s where it loops back to my writing, because I’m totally stealing that trick for the comic I’m working on right now, which, as you might guess by now, uses a nine-panel grid for its entire length.

Elsewhere, But Still Me

I know I said I don’t have anything to promote, but I’m going to assume you have a modicum of interest in my work, and we’re already here.

1.

Black Cloud #1 came out last week, written by Jason Latour & Ivan Brandon, drawn by Greg Hinkle, coloured by Matt Wilson, designed by Tom Muller, edited by Maria Ludwig, and lettered by me. It also promptly sold out at the retailer level. There’s going to be a second printing, keep your eyes peeled. In the meantime, you can buy it on Comixology.

2.

This was some time ago, but I wrote a little article about hand-lettering Grafity’s Wall, which will be coming out sometime in 2017/18, written by Ram V., drawn by Anand Radhakrishnan, coloured by Irma Kniivila, edited by Lizzie Kaye, and lettered by me.

Honestly, I was scared that laypeople would think the article was boring, and that veteran letterers would tell me I was doing it all wrong. But none of that happened, which made me happy. People seemed to like the glimpse into process, and I got a couple of really helpful tips from letterers to make it go easier.

Grafity’s Wall is currently crowdfunding at Unbound Books.

Recommended Watching

I thought that instead of a deluge of recommendations, it might be more helpful to both you and me if I recommended exactly one thing in precisely on category in every newsletter. You might actually be moved to experience it. This fortnight’s recommendation is …

Chewing Gum: Based on Michaela Coel’s play Chewing Gum Dreams, this was my favourite comedy tv show of 2016. Written by Cole, it also stars her as Tracey, a young woman from a religiously restrictive family living on a council estate who wants to lead her own life and, hopefully, lose her virginity. It features some astoundingly good comedy writing and performances, anchored by Cole’s central turn as the sometimes-infuriating, self-absorbed, but utterly endearing Tracey. The second series was released in its entirety on Netflix earlier this month, and I unreservedly recommend both series.

Next Time

More about fiction than about my life, more on grids in comics (and the sexiness of the 9-grid), page division in Terry Moore’s Echo, and hopefully something about lettering, which is my actual job, in case you were wondering.