Bristol Comics Expo

The Amazon link on the right connects to something I’m very proud of: the collected edition of XTNCT, a comic strip I wrote for the 2000AD Megazine a few years back. It’s your standard post-apocalyptic dinosaur heroes seeking to wipe out the last remnants of humanity stuff, with a Dinosaur Messiah and a full on dinosaur epiphany experience. The artist, Matt Brooker, otherwise known as D’Israeli (best known for his work on Sandman and recently his War of the Worlds adaptation) did a wonderful job interpreting my sometimes a tad complex script. On the cover is my hero, Raptor, the turbo assisted supersonic dinosaur with a vowel-pronunciation problem, holding back the cute mammalian hordes. (Note marmoset with a flamethrower, the greatest album The Smiths never made.) The title of the collection is Cm nd Hv G f Y Thnk Yr Hrd ngh! Despite Amazon’s promise to deliver within a week, it’s not out until December 7th. If you fancy it, please buy via my link.

Further to that, I should catch up on some recent comics adventures. I’m currently writing both my second Robin Hood episode and the first part of my Doctor Who two-parter, plus Dad’s back in hospital, so my apologies that I’ve been neglecting readers here. The most exciting comics news for me is something I have to keep under my hat right now: more on that story later. But in the meantime…A couple of weekends ago, I popped along to the Bristol Comics Expo, a yearly get-together for the British comics industry. In the past, it wasn’t always the bees knees, but these days it’s got its priorities sorted out: a big market hall near Temple Meads station, with stalls for everything from your regular comics stores, to back issues, to the inventive small presses with their gimmicks, and a nearby hotel with two streams of events and a dirty great bar. This, in my experience, is what makes a convention work for business: one is called from the bar to go and talk about something mad for an hour, and one’s experience of that is mixed into the encounters and conversation of the evening. Keeping the more kid-friendly comic mart at a slight distance makes sense. This year, as well as the regular gang of British artists and writers, DC Comics sent a good number of creators over from the USA. I got to shake the hand of former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas, who was full of sweet Stan Lee anecdote on his panels. Also much impressive were the very dry writer/artist Howard Chaykin and the far too young writer Geoff Johns. Chaykin looks rather like his typical hero: dark hair, square jaw. And cartoonist Hunt Emerson turned out to look like his graphic alter ego too. If one met Gil Kane, would one find oneself looking up his nose?

I spent the Friday night in a state of supreme drunkenness, in my ultra social mode. I really enjoy that when it comes over me, and wish I could summon it up at will. I flitted from table to table, talking and talking. Of course, this may be like Homer Simpson’s recollection of his witty erudition of the night before. And there were quite a few tables who quickly tried to work out whose friend I was exactly. But a lot of people waved to me the next day. Amongst those I encountered that night was a wonderful chap by the name of Emil Fortune, who is moving Walker Books, the people who publish Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Ryder children’s bestsellers, into graphic novels. That weekend he showed the trailer for the upcoming movie version of the first of the Ryder books, Stormbreaker, which looks excellent, and boasts an incredible cast including Ewan McGregor and the now increasingly stellar Sophie Okonedo, whose work illuminated my Scream of the Shalka animation.

http://stormbreaker.com/

He was chatting when I met him to his author Tony Lee, matey, boisterous, and on every hungover (and some still drunk) morning a koala that has fallen from his tree, in search of love and eucalyptus. I mention that because he did literally fall out of a tree that weekend. I have still to find out what he was doing up it. Tony is currently the writer of the Doctor Who strip, may God have mercy on the nation’s children.

http://www.tonylee.co.uk/journal/blogger.html

Also along for the ride were my mates Leah Moore and John Reppion, whose Albion revisits ancient heroes of British comics like The Steel Claw, The Spider and Robot Archie, and whose new exclusive deal with an emerging comics company promises some very mad stuff indeed –

http://www.dccomics.com/features/albion/

And Andy Diggle, down from Lancaster, still wonderfully straightforward and helpful to newcomers. Andy introduced me to Mike Carey, author of Lucifer, one of my favourite titles of recent years. Mike is lovely, but incredibly quiet. In that I couldn’t ever quite hear what he was saying. Perhaps, in the state I was, that’s for the best.

Jonathan Oliver, graphic novel editor for Rebellion, and his gang of 2000AD artists and writers were also good value. Babies were a recurring theme of the event, with Judge Dredd artist P.J.Holden sharing his shellshocked memories of attending childbirth, and writer Rob Williams topping us all with the actual delivery of his son, Elliott, while he was meant to be attending a panel on the comics/television interface.

I was most impressed with the manga content of the weekend, with Tokyopop having brought along a wall of the stuff, British ‘in the style of manga’ (purists hate the use of the term for non-Japanese comics) collective Sweatdrop selling their wares -

http://www.sweatdrop.com/

And another title being promoted that I particularly want to mention. The Japanese Drawing Room: Victorian Travellers in Japan by Sakura Mizuki, Shaun Garner and Sean Michael Wilson is a one off graphic novel in manga format (can we just call it manga, please?) that adapts a real life book of traveler’s tales into a stylish and illuminating comic. Lady Russell-Coates by no means had adventures, but she did record the lives of the Japanese at a moment when everything was changing. It sounds slight, but the subject matter suits the clarity and detachment of the art. The project is supported by Russell-Coates Museum in Bournemouth, a textbook example of comics making headway in mainstream culture. Mizuki-San was kind enough to draw me, manga style, in the front of my copy. Is my nose really that pointy? Sample pages can be found at:

http://www.boychildproductions.co.uk/

I was also pleased to meet Rich Johnston, the gossip columnist of the comics world. We like to think of comics as a pop medium, and he’s vital to that buzzy feeling of hype and intrigue. He’s a comics writer himself, on The Flying Friar for Speakeasy Comics, and the victim of murder at an L.A. comic convention in the latest C.S.I. comics. His latest diggings can be found at:

http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/index.cgi?column=litg

Comedian and musician Mitch Benn was also in attendance, hosting the Eagle Awards, British comics' highest honours. He did a great job, very professional, and the award statuettes themselves are very impressive, but I have to say, I think it’s time for reform of the awards themselves. The ceremony was shoddy in a number of respects. Fine, some recipients aren’t going to be in the country, but if they’re at the convention, then they ought to be in the room to get their award. Similarly, a couple of those meant to be presenting weren’t told where to go or what to do, so innocently remained in the bar. And on each occasion, Mitch didn’t seem to have been told who was going to be there and who wasn’t. The nominees in some categories also seemed an odd assortment. I have no doubt that they were the honest conclusions of a jury, but isn’t it about time that someone bit the bullet, got a spreadsheet going, and just let everyone vote from a free field? And some of the categories themselves are relics from the time when the Eagles were voted for by schoolboys. What is the category of Best Villain for? Who benefits by it? In whose office should the statuette go, when many different people have contributed to that character? It’s not like the Joker is going to turn up and accept, and if he does we’re all in trouble. Having an organised, sober, even slightly pompous awards process and ceremony benefits the whole industry. It can still be drunkenly laughed at, as is apt for our culture, but it should take itself seriously, so that those who receive the awards feel genuinely honoured. At the moment, an Eagle feels like something you collect in a carrier bag.

My central guides in the world of comics are the inhabitants of Millarworld, Glaswegian comic writer Mark Millar’s friendly forum. They tour the country as a loose fraternity, declaring a particular bar the location for a ‘drink up’ and then spending the day in a merry daze. They’re all kinds of people, including the wonderfully up for it Spaniard Carlos Fraile and bank security man James Dodsworth. Some of them have ambitions to work in the industry, many of them don’t. They like to gossip, keep ongoing jokes ongoing (such as their collection of photos of celebs in their Mr. T t-shirt), and get things done. They give me a corner I can always fall into, and I appreciate that.

Mark is probably the biggest name in comics today, and his current Civil War event at Marvel was the central talking point at Bristol:

http://fractalmatter.com/main/?p=145

Marvel have been making available website banners which proclaim which side in Civil War (an ideological conflict between Marvel’s heroes) one has chosen. Of course, these have been hacked straight away, and many variants have appeared on the standard: ‘Civil War, I’m With…’ including Mark’s own: ‘I’m With My Bank Manager’. Many of my favourites can be found here:

http://forums.millarworld.tv/index.php?showtopic=60060

Who wise, I particularly like ‘Am I With My Mummy?’ And on the subject of Who, there was a strong presence from the show at the Expo. I got to catch up with Terry Molloy, who played Davros back in the day, and, following the last time I’m ever going to do a live commentary on ‘Father’s Day’ (always so exhausting!) I shared a panel with Si Spencer, 2000 AD writer and now one of the scriptwriters on the Who spinoff Torchwood. Unable to say anything about the show, he was a game sitting duck for ‘so… tell us everything!’ from me, until he realised that he could tease me similarly about my two-parter next year. It’s good to see comics writers getting into television, though it must be said that Si served his time like I did, with long runs on shows such as Eastenders and Grange Hill. We still haven’t reached the point where a successful comics writer can walk out of Marvel and into the BBC, though they can to some extent walk into Hollywood. The show, and his contribution, seem much to be looked forward to.

Announcements:

I’m going to be appearing at the Dangercon, organised by SF fanzine Plokta, on 27th May. Tomorrow, that is! I’m going to be talking with Kim Newman and Paul McAuley about ‘alternative Londons’ and then with Kim about literary influences on the character of Doctor Who. You’ve got to love an event that includes a panel on ‘Subverting sex roles in Dangermouse Fandom’. I half hope it’s serious.

http://taff.org.uk/news/ann0604.html#event

And, finally, common sense takes another pounding as the universe takes another sudden swerve away from our understanding:

http://www.redorbit.com/news/display/?id=126649#121

Phew! Back to Robin and Who I go! Until next time, cheerio!

The Faringdon Scene

On the first Sunday of every month, the Corn Exchange of Faringdon in Oxfordshire plays host to the Fifteen Minute Club, a showcase for local talent. ‘Local’ has now come to include everywhere from North London to South Oxford. The talent tonight happens to be entirely musical, but everyone from comedians to poets are welcome.

At 7pm precisely, impresario David Reynolds steps down from a stage fitted out to cater for any kind of instrument or vocalist, and declares himself open to requests from slots. This procedure has recently become formalised, because previously David would spend the week leading up to the Club taking requests over the phone, by e-mail, and on the back of beermats. It’s fairer, he’s decided, if anyone who wants to fight for one of those peak audience slots (around 9pm), has to actually be there at 7pm to claim it. So bands, representatives of bands and individuals are hanging around a hall that so far doesn’t even have the bar open, while interested parties discuss tuning and twiddle controls on the sound deck.

Tonight, not just the prime slots, but all the slots get claimed within five minutes, a new record. A slot is fifteen minutes. The show ends on the last click on an atomic clock at 11pm. But it can and does spread a little early, for brave, new, or old friend performers who don’t mind going on for the folk who’ve shown up to tune and twiddle, before the official start time of 7.30pm.

Tonight, that means Abby, wife of Noel the taxi driver. Her ‘Streets of London’ has been getting stronger and braver every time we’ve seen it, and now features David himself supporting on guitar. David helps out like that wherever he can, not just in terms of arrangement, but offering advice and tutouring. His support, the success of some local musicians, and the Darwinian competition of the Club itself, has resulted in a hothouse environment for the town’s music, one side effect of which is that nobody at the Club sings a capella anymore. And since the Club outgrew the Portwell Bar, not one off-key drunk has been brave enough to get up and compare themselves with the level of talent on display.

Peak audience tonight will be around one hundred and eighty punters. Formerly competing pubs and bars have started to shut down on the night. ‘The value of it,’ says co-founder Martin Philips, ‘is to make people aware of the musical talent around Faringdon. And that awareness has traveled much further afield than we anticipated.’

The fifteen acts tonight include Steaming Nina, a group of Year Nine kids from the Commonweal School, who, with a trilby hatted lead, a second singer, a disciplined drummer, a soaring guitar soloist, a keyboard player, and a silently cool girl bassist… rock! They’ve brought largely their own material, including songs such as ‘Behind the Bike Sheds’ and ‘Generation Poetry’. The crowd, hard to please early on, shut up and listen. The distance from Abby to them is precisely what the Club is about.

The Strand are an accomplished band who like to share their djembe player around: when the Club manifests in its ‘unplugged’ incarnation, back at the Portwell, with acoustic acts only (although last time there was a bit of plugging in going on), he was asked to sit in with virtually everyone. The way Strand use drums make one think it’s 1974. In a good way.

Kyra is a singer/guitarist who’s been getting paying gigs on the back of the Club, like various of the bands. She belts out the White Stripes’ ‘Doorbell’ tonight, part of an increasing repertoire and range.

Only half of The Valves are here this evening. Simply Acoustic do the folk thing with great confidence. (‘It’s a good variety of music, and a lovely crowd’, they tell me after.) Jack and Chris let fear overcome their good voices this time: the size of the audience, and their potential, in this cabaret atmosphere, to ignore and talk over, can get to the best of them.

My wife Caroline and her guitarist John win over a chunk of the crowd with ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘Hallelujah’. I’ve been feeding off their nerves at our table, clenching as they go up, willing the applause. Which they win without my psychic urgings.

Trev Williams is a talented local singer/songwriter, with an album out and a website: Trev.Williams.co.uk He’s known for dealing wittily with the cries of hecklers and for his stomping cover of ‘Take Your Mama Out’. Neither of which he uses tonight, preferring to stick to original material and taking the audience with him.

Gorgeous Moron are the hit of the evening, being Joe Moore and Gordon Campbell, two chisel-cheeked music teachers who’ve brought a chunk of audience and get everyone else swiftly onside. (‘The crowd is excellent, dead friendly.’) Amazingly, this is their first gig as a unit. Like so many others here, they write a lot of their own material, including anthemic numbers like ‘Last Seat on the Front Row’, and something about their star quality just makes you think The X Factor.

Also like many others here, they’re a part of Faringdon’s most complicated rock family tree, a dynasty to rival Fleetwood Mac. Rank Longhop and the Beamers may one day end up being the single most terrible band name to spawn a number of different well-known acts. Originating at the Faringdon Cricket Club (of course), they split along indie/rocker lines, the indie half, Roger Clarke and Tim Thurston, opting to learn their craft as tonight’s next act, Bobby Moore’s Shorts, while the rocker half went off to join tonight’s closers, Powertrain. Gorgeous Moron were Bobby Moore’s replacements in the briefly-existing (just) Beamers, while…

Anyway.

Bobby Moore’s Shorts started off pretty diabolical, supported by their mates because we liked their attitude, and the fact that they always played ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’. But the Faringdon Scene made them get better and better at high speed. And pop music swerved in their direction. These days they’ve got DJ Tim Cartwright (otherwise known as Riot Act, with a Top 40 hit of his own and remixes for folk like Mary J. Blige) on drums, and new mate Darryl on percussion, and can rock a big crowd with style and presence. They follow a policy, beside their own material (songs like ‘Hometown’ and ‘Never Gonna Agree’), of ‘cutting edge covers’. Tonight’s set list includes the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Mardy Bum’, ‘Sexy in Latin’ by Little Man Tate (one single, only released in Sheffield!), and ‘Brewster’ by Milburn. ‘We go and watch a lot of bands at the Zodiac in Oxford,’ says Roger. ‘Bands that are just breaking through. It's nice to pick good unheard tunes and promote them by playing them locally.’ Bobby Moore’s are the band that Faringdon folk most associate with ‘I Predict a Riot’, because we heard them playing it before we heard the Kaiser Chiefs. ‘We’ve been playing ‘Brewster’ by Milburn for about ten months, and they charted last month with their first single 'Send in the Boys'. We went to see them at the Zodiac in March and they wouldn't play ‘Brewster’ live any more. It's about a Sheffield United fan and they’re all Wednesday fans. We said we covered it, so they said we could have it!’ Bobby Moore’s would like me to say that Milburn have a website, so here it is: http://www.milburnmusic.com/

It’s getting to the best part of the night, the jams and party bands, and the place is packed, standing room only, dancing down the front, teenage girls hanging around the school bands, pretending not to care. Flautist Gillian Jacobs leads a jazzy, soulful scratch band that includes rocker Phil Baker from Swindon, then his own hastily-constructed ensemble take over, featuring Snowy, the Wantage saxophonist. Things have been professional, spontaneous and danceable for ages now, David Reynolds dropping in and out to add quality guitar swirls as and when. And the evening concludes with just ten minutes of Powertrain, big chorus rock specialists. They’re playing ‘Get it On’ and people are dancing with their hands in the air as the clock clicks up to eleven and the power switch is pulled down.

'It's a disgrace,' sighs local bon viveur Simon Holmes. There are cheers, applause, and that echoing, sweaty, post-gig feeling that says a good night has been had by all. ‘It was perfectly timed,’ says Lesley the caretaker, who is all about the health and safety, but has also had a boogie. ‘I’m extremely happy.’

The extremely mixed audience, everything from those kids to pensioners to whole families, who come to this night to see music across the spectrum (including people like Mervyn Penney, oldtime music hall singalong ukulele specialist), depart in a happy, peaceful, throng.

Of course, this is just one aspect of the Faringdon Scene. One should also include the Faringdon Arts Festival (July 7-9), with Glenn Tilbrook returning this year; the Madd May Fest, who this year featured Pentangle, Eddie and the Hot Rods and many others; the many pub venues, with music at the Portwell Bar every Sunday; the school band scene, home to bands like Tinnitus, Glass Factory and The Free Radicals; the studio complex that’s about to go online; classical pianist Mark Viner; singer Simon Stafford; opera diva Louise Woodgate; all the local music societies like the Faringdon Singers and above all the success of Belarus, as yet the town’s best bet for a Number One single.

But they’re going to have competition. And that’s because right now, as David Reynolds puts it: ‘I think Faringdon is becoming the centre of the musical universe… in Oxfordshire!’ Give it a couple of years, and that might sound like understatement.

Clarkes, UFOs and Cybermen

First off, thanks to everyone who’s got in touch congratulating me on being commissioned to write a two-part story for the third season of Doctor Who. It’s really very much appreciated. I’ve known about it for quite a long time, ever since Russell called while I was lying on my sofa, contemplating a letter from the estate agent which ended by congratulating me for writing Star Wars. (It is, I think, No Wonder About The Roof.) I’ve thus been systematically lying when I had to, and harrumphing around the truth when I didn’t, about whether or not I’d been asked back. So, erm, sorry about that. I’ve just finished the first draft of the first episode, and I’m loving how much fun the script meetings are, especially since Executive Producer Julie Gardner has been very much involved so far, and it’s always a great gig when she’s in the room.

The reaction to ‘Father’s Day’ in the States has also been very pleasing. Judging by the reaction on various forums, it didn’t suck. It’s also interesting to see the reactions of complete newcomers to the series.

Since the last blog, I’ve been to two events in the same venue: the Clarke Awards and last night’s Cybermen screening (of episodes five and six of this season's Who), and to the Fortean Times Unconvention, held in the gorgeous Friend’s Meeting House in Euston. Geoff Ryman deservedly walked off with the Clarke (given for the best SF or Fantasy novel of the year), amongst a strong field, and I spent the night catching up with new friends. (The book in question, for my non-SF readers, being Air.) My agent responded to the retirement announcement of chairman Paul Kincaid, after twenty years’ service, by leaping to his feet and yelling to the audience to ‘stand up, you bastards!’

What can I tell you about the Cybermen story? Nothing, obviously. Only that it’s in-bloody-credible. The kind of thing we were dreaming of when there was no televised Doctor Who and we imagined what we wanted it to be like if it came back. The story has an epic quality, in every sense of the word. That is, it plays on a large scale, but also feels worth the weight, hitting notes of truth and meaning, blockbuster when it has to be, tiny when it has to be, referring carefully to old Doctor Who, but absolutely new.

It was deeply cool to meet director Graeme Harper that night (who returns from classic Who for the Cybermen story), and a pleasure as always to have this story's writer, Tom MacRae, in one’s company. I whispered to him at the end of the screening that he should be very proud. Tom is young and fearless, the creator of one of the best TV shows I’ve ever worked on, one that sadly remains unmade, and for which I wrote what I think is my best script.

And then me and Moffat got rather drunk, and I can only hope I didn’t tell composer Murray Gold how much I loved the warpy musical bit from ‘Father’s Day’ more than eight times.

I only popped in to the FT event on the Saturday, for a few items, including two lectures on UFOs as a social phenomenon, in hippy and Fundamentalist circles, and an interesting cabinet of musical curiosities, in which a musician played us delights such as ‘a melody heard from inside a hill in Norway’, a piano piece whose origin claimed to be the planet Saturn and the only existing recording of a castrato. Best of all, I finally got to see the excellent recent silent movie Call of Cthulhu, a piece which makes a virtue of the low budget and theatricality of the silent form to go beyond pastiche and project a genuine sense of fear. There does seem to be a sense of Fortean Times casting around to find something to talk about these days, and the thin nature of the programme reinforced that: so much Da Vinci Code conspiracy nonsense, which for me doesn’t have the romantic sweep of flying saucers, and only one strand of lecture programming. The whole event has shrunk since the days of Mulder and Scully. And Fortean Times itself seems to have gained that most un-Fortean of things: a point of view. It now reads rather as a voice for some sort of loose would-be underground with an assumed political consensus rather than as a journal of record which stands back from comment. It’s a small change of emphasis, but as someone who loves the magazine, it annoys and worries me. Still, the gathering itself was happy, the lecturers suitably non-judgmental. I’m only sad I didn’t get to see my favourite cryptozoologist, Richard Freeman.

Announcements:

The lovely Who script editor Helen Raynor has her first bit of TV on soon, on Monday 8th May at 2:35pm, on BBC 1, right after Doctors. It’s a fifteen minute play called Cake, in a series entitled Brief Encounters.

I think it was Nick Whyte who found this downloadable Dalek font: the letters Daleks always shouted in the comic strips. If it was someone else, let me know.

http://www.fontfinder.ws/23453/Dalek.html

And there’s now a lovely new Robin Hood BBC website, with quite a bit of new info:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/robinhood/