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5.8.10

Redundant Pitches #7.1 (Reprise)

Originally posted 6/8/8.

Any sequel to Watchmen would, of course, be redundant by definition. You could catch up with the surviving characters, and make a stab at extrapolating the world of the series 23 years on, as once again a twisted mirror of our own - the Cold War replaced not by global harmony but rather a lot of paranoia about secret agendas, terrorism, and scientific progress run amuck - but even if executed with the same stylistic flourishes and meticulous attention to detail and structure, it would be at best a gloss on the original, more likely a travesty thereof.

That said, part of me did always wonder what might have become of these guys:



They only actually appear in about six panels of #8, and we don't see them again after that - but just at the point in the series when all hell is about to break loose and masked adventurers are in the news again for the first time in years, they stumble on a murder scene, in fancy dress, in time to see the culprits running away...

Sounds like the origin of a junior vigilante team to me.

Nothing ever ends...

25.7.10

Redundant Pitches #10

This one's about five years old. It was going to be a commentary on the creative bankruptcy of continually updating characters out of the context in which they made sense, which makes it at least one level more arch and knowing than Moffat's version. Which I shall of course be watching, nevertheless...

ULTIMATE SHERLOCK HOLMES
#1: FOUR COLOR PROFILE

Page 1
Splash page. Three stealth bombers fly towards the reader, high above a desolate mountainous wasteland.
Caption: TORA BORA, AFGHANISTAN
Lead Pilot (jagged): Target acquired. ETA 90 seconds.

Page 2-3
Establishing shot spread across both pages, with a few smaller panels beneath. A US military recon squad is pinned down at some abandoned farm buildings by firing from across the canyon. The officer acknowledges the message from air support, and they hunker down. Last panel: missiles fly from one of the bombers.

Page 4
Splash page. Huge explosion.

Page 5
Six panels. As the dust clears, it becomes evident that the bombers have hit the farm complex as well as the enemy position. Several of the soldiers are dead; one rages impotently at the sky; another yells to the CO that one of the fallen men is still breathing -- the CO shouts "Get that medic over here!", only to be told that it is the medic. Last panel, we see the wounded man's nametape: Lt. Watson, J.

Page 6
Splash page showing New York City from above.
Caption: NEW YORK CITY, EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER.

Page 7
Watson gets out of a cab at the offices of Hudson Security Inc, and introduces himself to the receptionist. He's come for a job interview.

Pages 8-14
Watson's job interview is an infodump for the reader. We learn that Hudson Security is a private contractor with government connections - some of Watson's old army buddies are working for it "back over there" on salaries way higher than if they'd stayed in the service, but Watson himself is too badly injured: he's got an artificial lung and pins in several limbs. However, the job he's applied for is based right here in New York, doing mostly forensic medicine: Hudson has acquired contracts to provide criminal investigation services to the NYPD and DHS. The scene ends inconclusively: they'll be in touch.

Pages 15-17
Reserved for introduction of ongoing subplot.

Pages 18-19
Six weeks later, Watson is back at the Hudson building: it's his first day on the job. 'Is 'andler, Jaq Lestrade, an ex-FBI agent wiz a ludicrous Chris Claremont Cajun accent, shows 'im round ze office and introduces him to his lab partner: a 22-year-old dreadlocked black guy called Sherlock Holmes, first encountered doing something unspeakable to a corpse (possibly using a virtual reality suit - nah, not gruesome enough) to see if the results match another one that's already on the slab. Their initial exchange goes something like -
Lestrade: Doctor Watson, meet Sherlock 'Olmes.
Watson: ...
Holmes: Watson, yo. You ex-army, right? Afghanistan?
Watson: That's right. How..?

Page 20
Holmes: Dog, your resume's on the company mainframe. You think I don't check out who I'm gonna be workin' with? Oh Jaq, I got an ID for your Spanish Harlem killer. DNA matched a DUI from two years ago - Anthony Seldon. Got an address on 110th, but I wanted to make sure he was there before I sent the bulls in guns blazing, so I tracked his cellphone on GPS.
Lestrade: Zat is not your responsibility, Sherlock...

Page 21
Using a combination of GPS, CCTV license plate recognition and the nearest beat cop, Holmes gets Selden arrested at traffic lights.

Page 22
Splash page, p.o.v. as if we're inside the computer screen. Holmes looking straight at us, hands behind his head, grinning. Watson and Lestrade standing behind him.
Holmes: What you think then, Doc? Am I good?

4.7.10

The Wake (Part Six) – Updated

... and any assurances I'd given Crawford about continuing to promote it were moot. I was now a freelancer without a book to punt, and my position on the fence was no longer tenable.

I'd already written him a fairly long email setting out the situation as I saw it, addressing the glitch in the contracts and advising him to drop some of his wilder allegations (the consequences of which for his own position he clearly hadn't thought through and which, in fairness, he hasn't since repeated) and call the whole thing quits. I got back a load of blather about how he didn't know what the problem was, he was "catering to everyone's interests", and was "pushing ahead" on negotiations with retailers about orders for a reprint. The trouble with the last point was that he'd been talking about such negotiations for months, and they had yet to produce anything concrete – perhaps not his fault, after all there's plenty wrong with the state of the book trade at the moment and things are tough all over; but by now we were, frankly, beyond the point where 20% of back end profit on a possible consignment of a thousand books for the discount table at HMV was going to change anyone's mind about anything. I began to wonder if he genuinely didn't get that, or just wanted us to think he didn't.

His next communication convinced me he'd completely lost the plot.

On Tuesday 22nd June, I received by email a PDF of a letter on headed notepaper, marked PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL and addressed to me, Martin and Paul, in which Crawford offered to release us from our contracts and give us the remaining unsold books in exchange for a four-figure sum close to the total cover price, on condition that we agree to concoct with him some anodyne PR spiel to conceal what had really gone on over the past few months. He didn't appear to be joking.

I tore a strip off him about the gagging clause especially, and resolved to go public as soon as I could spare the time. My patience had run out.

Martin and I having separately reminded him in no uncertain terms that actually, he couldn't even sell the remaining books to us except perhaps as damaged stock with the infringing pages physically removed, he came back on Friday the 25th with a revised "final offer" – or rather two offers, one including the seconded books (which at least he was now pricing closer to their notional "damaged" value) and one for the IP rights alone. It was a classic bazaar tactic: ask for something totally outrageous, so that when you discount to merely greedy it looks like a bargain. But none of us were interested in playing that game: we didn't want the books. They were only an issue because Crawford refused to discuss anything else on its own merits: as far as I was concerned, he could keep 'em. (Although, as Martin had by now gone off on his annual family holiday to America, and nobody else knew where they were, there was no way he was getting them back within three days, as his alternate "offer" demanded.)

All we wanted was the rights to our own work. But suddenly Crawford was looking to charge us hundreds of pounds more than we'd ever seen from him to buy them back. Such deals are a standard part of the Hollywood shyster's arsenal, of course; but considering it was Crawford himself who described Insomnia as "a creator-focused and friendly environment" with a "family feel" where "creators retain the rights to their work rather than selling them for a relatively small amount of money as with traditional publishers", and that the whole situation could have been avoided if instead of carrying on digging for a month he'd just apologised to Martin for whatever it was he'd said on the 24th of May, it struck me as a bit of a bloody cheek for him to now be asking us for money.

Challenged about it, he insisted he was being more than reasonable - that he had "costs" to cover (what, don't we all?). In a babbling phone call to me from a withheld number on the afternoon of Monday the 28th, he claimed that the whole Sony digital deal could collapse if Burke & Hare wasn't part of it, and pleaded with me to agree to his terms immediately before he was overruled by his shareholders and things became a lot more difficult for everybody. Which sounded, to me, like an admission that he'd lost control of his company.

So I made him a counter-offer.

Forget trying to negotiate with all three of us as if we were a corporate body with some kind of joint responsibility for each other; forget the books, which was a dispute (if it was a dispute) between him and Martin and could be addressed separately; forget the supposed but strangely unspecified "costs" of dissolving our contracts – I, as an individual, would buy the remainder of his 10-year-license on my, Martin's and Paul's IP for double the value of his original advance to us. Surely his mystery shareholders couldn't claim that was unreasonable.

I've heard nothing from him now in over a week. But no doubt he has other things on his mind: I gather that several other projects are also in limbo over contracts or the lack of them, among them Martin Hayes' and Roy Huteson Stewart's Crowley, which looked interesting. Certainly as much as I'd been looking forward to illustrating Richmond Clements' Pinkerton script, there's no way I'm touching it now so long as Insomnia still have it. On the other hand, Crawford's continuing to announce new signings, so who really knows what's going on behind the scenes?

Only the shareholders, presumably.*


* The original share allocation was 83% to Crawford, 1% to each of his parents in recognition of their being listed as Directors at incorporation, and 15% to Alasdair Duncan. Companies House has no record of any shares being transferred out of the family.

UPDATE 20th July

This gets weirder and weirder. A few days after this post, I checked the Companies House website and saw that Insomnia had submitted accounts for the period up to 30/06/10. I thought they might prove interesting, but I didn't get round to ordering them straight away. On Saturday just gone, however, it came out that these accounts (which because of the size of the company aren't required to show much more than the annual trading balance, so there's no real way of knowing how accurate they are) are glossed with the following note:
Regrettably, Insomnia Publications Ltd ceased trading on 30 June 2010. These are the final set of accounts.
This was news to a lot of people, not least those who were still acting as editors for Insomnia as late as the 17th of July. And all the books are still available as downloads on the Sony Playstation Network, so exactly in what sense Insomnia has "ceased trading" is still unclear – as indeed are the current whereabouts of Crawford Coutts.

The situation is still developing.

The Wake (Part Five)

Email tennis followed for the next week or so, Martin pressing Crawford for a straight answer to his request for dissolution, and Crawford refusing to even discuss it until he was in possession of all the unsold stock, unwilling to concede that they were separate issues – Martin hadn't even received Alasdair's shipment when they started arguing about it, and had already agreed in principle to hand it over; the rest was logistics, and in the meantime he wanted an answer.

Eventually, on Friday 4th June, Crawford came out and said a flat "No". The contract would stand.

Or would it? Independently of each other, Martin and I had been preparing for this eventuality by going back through our original contracts to check out exactly what the various reversion clauses did and didn't say. While there was nothing in principle that covered just the situation we were in, we did both notice an anomaly or two which meant that arguably the company had broken the terms months earlier and we'd been operating on goodwill ever since. Predictably, Crawford rubbished the point when it was brought to his attention – unpredictably, he accompanied his rebuttal with dark accusations of various kinds of misbehaviour on Martin's part, whereupon the whole thing went into the hands of his lawyers. My heart sank: however this panned out, there was no longer any prospect of it being resolved soon.

But something else was happening at the same time, the consequences of which were immediate.

Back when we were putting the book together in early 2009, we'd always intended to use a few pages at the back to acknowledge the contributions of the other artists who'd been attached to the project in its long journey to publication: chiefly Nulsh and Stuart Beel, who'd both been slated to draw it before me, but also Lynsey Hutchinson who'd been of great help to me in my research. Somewhere along the line, this idea mutated into a marketing opportunity, and since we were having a gallery section anyway it was proposed to try and fill it out with some big names who might add to the book's profile – none of your Jim Lees or Frank Millers, mind, but stalwarts of Scottish comics with whom we were on speaking terms anyway and who'd have enough empathy with us and with the material to knock out a sketch as a favour. Dave Alexander, Gary Erskine, people like that. In the end, eleven different artists contributed pages, and Alan Grant was persuaded to write an introduction on the same basis.

None of them were on contract.

If they had been, the terms under which Insomnia could use their work would have been clearly specified – whether for the first printing only, all editions for a period of five years, or whatever. In the absence of such agreements, a change of heart by any one of them could stop the book in its tracks at any time:
18 Infringement by issue of copies to the public

(1) The issue to the public of copies of the work is an act restricted by the copyright in every description of copyright work.

(2) References in this Part to the issue to the public of copies of a work are to the act of putting into circulation copies not previously put into circulation, in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, and not to—

(a) any subsequent distribution, sale, hiring or loan of those copies, or

(b) any subsequent importation of those copies into the United Kingdom;

except that in relation to sound recordings, films and computer programs the restricted act of issuing copies to the public includes any rental of copies to the public.

(Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, Part I Chapter II)


I'm not sure who was the first of the gallery artists to come out in sympathy with Martin and withdraw permission for their page to be circulated, nor who did or didn't follow suit, but it doesn't matter. Once somebody had pulled out, Insomnia could no longer sell the first edition of Burke & Hare intact. To all intents and purposes, the book was out of print...

3.7.10

The Wake (Part Four)

I wasn't privy to Martin and Crawford's phone conversation Monday 24th May – I spent most of that day on the train – but it seems to have been pretty heated. Things Were Said And Aspersions Cast; the dread word "unprofessional" was bandied around, again. I leave it to the reader to judge whether that's the best way to describe Martin's efforts to keep the Burke & Hare show on the road and salvage what he could from the weekend, but it will surely come as no surprise that he didn't think so – especially coming from someone who'd just spent two months alienating his business partner, stringing contractors along with platitudes, losing control of his supply chain and failing to turn up to major promotional events.

Thus, by the time I got home that evening, Martin had resigned from his editorial post at Vigil and formally withdrawn himself from future promotional support for Burke & Hare so long as it remained under license to Insomnia. I could see that he'd been put in an awkward position, but I hoped his resignation would simplify things. If he wanted to step out of the spotlight to avoid dealing with Crawford, that was a personal matter: I was just a freelancer with a book to punt, and I said as much to Crawford later that week.

Unfortunately, it didn't end there.

While I was out on Tuesday night, Crawford remembered the existence of the Red Eye blog, and posted there a diatribe which he quickly revised into an asscovering pep talk, dismissing all the problems of the previous few months as "spring cleaning" and rationalising the exodus of his senior editorial staff by saying:
"I guess some people just don't like change"
Mmm-kay.

Whether he'd have gotten away with that if Martin hadn't seen the unedited version is something we'll never know. As it was, it was a pinprick too far. On Wednesday 26th May, Martin asked for his contract for Burke & Hare to be dissolved, on terms which would leave Insomnia free to sell the remaining stock of the first edition and (assuming my and Paul McLaren's rights also reverted, being of limited value in the absence of a script) us free to look for a publisher who'd be capable of exploiting the book's potential without pissing on our goodwill.

In ignorance of these developments, I'd also contacted Crawford that morning to say that in Martin's absence, I was willing to do the National Library talk by myself. But apparently that wasn't an option. Which was a pity, as the event's cancellation left Dave Gordon still holding the box of books he'd agreed to deliver to it, and anyone else having physical charge of the books had been one of the things that set Crawford off in the first place...

1.7.10

The Wake (Part Three)

...with a box of Burke & Hare and a box of Cancertown to make the tables a bit less bare.

This did not compute. Here was the guy we'd been led to believe was responsible for the whole no-show debacle, making an eight-hour journey on one of the hottest days of the year to do us a favour*. Not just that, but furious to no longer be part of the company from which he had supposedly wanted out. You do the math.

(* It's a curious thing, which I'd heard some people on the train discussing the day before. Although it's only about an hour and forty minutes by rail from Paddington to Temple Meads, apparently if you want to drive you have to go by a circuitous route that takes a great deal longer.)

Still, willingly or no, he was out, and he wanted rid of the stock he was holding. So Cy Dethan took responsibility for the box of Cancertown; and Martin, as Line Editor of the Vigil historical imprint the most senior Insomnia staffer available on the day, agreed to take charge of all Al's remaining copies of Burke & Hare - both the box he'd brought with him and a few more he had at home and would ship north later in the week - in order to stop internal company politics affecting ongoing promotion of the book.

Laden as I was already, there was no physical way I could carry home more stuff than I'd brought in the first place, but we managed to arrange a favour from friend and fellow exhibitor Dave "My Excess" Gordon, who took the extra books home in his car - intending to return them to us at the National Library of Scotland talk we had scheduled on the 3rd of June.

I stayed in Bristol that night, but Martin emailed Crawford when he got home to bring him up to date on events, and that's when all hell broke loose...

30.6.10

The Wake (Part Two)

...from Martin Conaghan saying that nobody from Insomnia was going to the Expo after all. There was a story behind it which later turned out to be bullshit, but the upshot was that Martin and I would be there on our tods, and - with Martin at his day job and his baggage allowance maxed out - the only way we'd have any books to sell would be if I could somehow get some from Crawford that afternoon.

It's a good job I don't like flying.

As it happened, I was on my way into Glasgow to pick up a couple of things for the trip anyway; so a couple of hours and some phone tennis later, I met Crawford and Insomnia Business Manager Richard Murphy in the the Buchanan Galleries and took delivery of twenty copies of Burke & Hare, any proceeds from the sale of which they told me to split with Martin as a thank you for riding to the rescue. I didn't argue. Between the soulless atmosphere of the mall, the nondescript brown box and their haunted, hunted expressions, the whole thing felt like a scene from a low-budget conspiracy thriller, and all I really wanted to do was get out of there and go home.

I caught the London Sleeper that night, and on Friday morning in a Paddington internet cafe read the apology Crawford had emailed to the sixty-odd writers and artists who'd been waiting over a month for the chance to ask him face to face what the hell was going on. It wasn't very enlightening, and by the time I got to the bar of the Bristol Ramada that evening the rumour mill was grinding into action.

But the show went on. We sold a few books, and Martin and I managed to turn the erstwhile Insomnia table into an informal base camp where associated creators could hang out from time to time and leave their portfolios on display if nothing else. The most distressing thing for me was having aspiring artists turn up for the widely-advertised pitch sessions and telling all of them, no matter how talented, that I simply wasn't in a position to be any help at all. I had no idea if the company would even still exist by the end of the month - certainly it would be a different beast if it did, the way editorial people were continuing to quit as the weekend wore on. It wasn't the best convention I've ever had, but they can't all be. I used to work in marketing, and I was a self-publisher before that: I've manned exhibits alone or with minimal support before, and I'm quite sure I will again.

What made things really interesting was when Alasdair Duncan turned up on the Sunday...

28.6.10

The Wake (Part One)

Readers of m'colleague's column at Bleeding Cool, and anyone who attended the Bristol Comic and Small Press Expo at the end of May, will be aware that all is not entirely rosy at the House of No Sleep.

The company expanded quickly through 2009 - possibly too quickly, but with the lead time needed for an original graphic novel to reach fruition it's hard to tell. It's not easy for a small publisher to punch above its weight the way Insomnia was trying to do, and having a substantial release schedule was clearly a priority for them. When Martin began talking to them at the end of '08, it was still a tight little group of ambitious enthusiasts - I think Burke & Hare was the third or fourth book signed; by the time it came out ten months later, sharing a launch at the Birmingham International Comic Show with Jeymes Samuel's and Michiru Morikawa's Buskers, there were dozens more books in the pipeline and a deal had been done with Sony to distribute digital editions on the PSP. Which is not bad progress as these things go.

The first indications that anything was up came when the company blog stopped being updated quite as regularly as hitherto; but that's hardly a rare phenomenon. My book was out by then, and although positive press and successful talks and signings weren't translating into hard over-the-counter bookshop sales as quickly as we'd have liked, as late as March I had no inkling that anything was actually wrong.

That bubble burst on the 19th of April, when co-founder and Managing Director Crawford Coutts sent all Insomnia staff and contractors a long email which began by apologising for poor communications, continued with assurances that the company was "continuing to move forward" into unspecified new markets and modes of distribution, claimed that management had just been too too busy busy busy to take advantage of a "prominent position" offered free of charge at the London Book Fair*, and then moved on to berate "small numbers of creators who are causing trouble" with their "unprofessional behaviour" and thereby threatening the "creator-focused and friendly environment" and "family feel" of the company.

(*The organisers denied this when I spoke to them this morning. Yes, they had discussions with Insomnia about a presence at the comic & graphic novel pavilion, but no free space would have been or was offered.)

I didn't know what any of that meant, but gradually it emerged that a couple of key personnel had stepped down. Creative Director Nic Wilkinson had come to the realisation that while overseeing half a dozen books at different stages of production might be fun, riding herd on forty-odd was maybe more than she could handle pro bono on top of other commitments after all. (Here's something I've noticed time and again in all walks of life: Why is it that the people who're swiftest to start banging on about professionalism always want other people to work for free?) More seriously, co-founder and Sales Manager Alasdair Duncan - the guy responsible for physically shipping stock to retailers, and himself a shareholder in the firm - was also out, in circumstances that remain unclear. There are competing versions of the facts and I don't know enough to try and unpick them all, but suffice it to say that the company line about him resigning for personal reasons is not the way he tells it.

Clearly, that left the company with some logistical problems, to say the least - but after a bit of a wobble, creators were assured at the beginning of May that although there might need to be some adjustments to the release schedule, everything was still go and Insomnia would still be attending the Bristol con.

Radio silence descended again thereafter. Then on the morning of Thursday 20 May, a little over twelve hours before I was due to catch the train south, I got a text message...

TO BE CONTINUED

16.4.10

The Seminal Sweary Scottish Supervillain Comic of the 1990s

Coming in May…



184 pages of snappy dialogue, over-the-top action, weirdass conspiracy theories and psychic hoodoo; plus of course my usual impeccable period detail based on extensive research - I was in the nineties for ten years, how's that for dedication? All digitally remastered, as they used to say in the Old Times.









"Something Fast was the first small press comic I ever read. I remember reading it back in the day and thinking "I wanna do this"… It was pure genius."
– Jim (Ganjaman) Stewart









Expertly designed to slip neatly into your bookshelf beside Road to Perdition and the Black Diamond Detective Agency, the collected edition of Something Fast is priced at £12.99, and yes I'm taking advance orders. I've been meaning for months to get online payments set up*, but in the meantime just leave your email address in the comments and I'll tell you where to send money.

Or you can come and find me at the following fine events:
  • Comic & Small Press Expo, Bristol Ramada & Mercure 22-23 May
  • Edinburgh Book Festival, to be confirmed - August
  • Birmingham International Comic Show, Millennium Point 16-17 October
  • Thought Bubble, Leeds Royal Armouries 20 November

26.3.10

Monstrous

I was struck down by faceache in the middle of the week, and the painkillers I was initially prescribed proved hopelessly inadequate. Following a nine-hour campaign to have the latter fact recognised by anyone in the medical profession, however, I eventually managed to get an alternative script, and the pain is now under some sort of control. It was touch and go for a while, but I've had 24 hours now to get used to the new regime and I think I've got my schedule optimised.

Which means I can go to Hi-Ex after all!

Offline now till Monday.

19.3.10

Comics Economics 2

"I'd do it for free if I didn't need the money."
– Vim, Bad News Tour
The reasons why, and the ways in which, publishing is in crisis have been well rehearsed. I'm interested in solutions.

Kieron Gillen talks about the missing two thousand fans whose timely support would have made Phonogram viable as an ongoing series. Let's break that down: Phonogram is/was essentially a two-man operation, based in London, published in America and circulated internationally through a distribution chain that eats two thirds of the cover price before the printer even gets paid. If Gillen and McKelvie were making as much as 20 cents apiece off a three-dollar comic they were doing well. Times 4000 actual sales that's 800 bucks, or about £500. Times 6000, it's $1200/£800 – I guess their return per unit must be better than I thought, because I don't see how even that would keep the wolf from the door at London rents.

Around my neck of the woods, though, that extra three hundred quid is the difference between the dole and an office job after tax. It's the elusive "Doing Okay Thanks": If I could make £500 a month from comics, I could quit filling in application forms for Mac Operator and Admin Assistant jobs and just draw full-time instead. And I don't need to sell 4000 comics to do that.

For a start, there's only one of me. That's 2000.

For another thing, the comic shop distribution system is broken. It's fit for purpose, but its purpose is to funnel ever more Marvel and DC merchandise to a motley assortment of impressionable kids and middle-aged completists, and other publishers get a look in only in as far as they can generate their own buzz and/or seize on trends that the big two aren't already exploiting (there's a whole other post that could come out of this exploring the situation in more detail and adding some useful qualifications, but I'm not saying anything new here and I don't want to get bogged down). To get those 4000 sales, Image Comics and Diamond Comics Distributors had to punt Phonogram to every specialist shop in NAFTA, the English-speaking Pacific, the British Isles and a few more places besides – which seems like disproportionate effort. Yes, comics are a niche market, and indy muso wizard comics are a niche within a niche, but despite the vast difference in geographical scale, the population of the USA is only about 5 times that of the UK, and I'll bet you the proportion of sales of Phonogram in Britain is closer to 50% than 17.5.

2000 copies...

Back in the late 1990s, I was on the point of taking Something Fast to Diamond – it took four issues before they'd touch it with a bargepole, but once they realised I could stick to a regular schedule they were prepared to give it a chance. But for logistical reasons as well as financial, North American distribution meant I needed North American printing – partly because otherwise I'd be spending a bomb shipping boxes across the Atlantic, and partly because no printer in this country could match Kim Preney's quote in any case. At about US$700 for a minimum print run of 2000 (35c/copy!) in a bigger format (6.7x10.2" rather than A5) with a colour cover, I reckoned I could maintain my existing cover price of £1.50 (then about $2.50), give Diamond their cut and pay various logistical costs, and still break even selling about 70% of the print run. For all that adding 1200 extra readers from a single catalogue listing was a tall order, if I'd had a spare grand lying around to cover the gap between entering the payment cycle and seeing a return, I'd probably have gone for it. Of course, if I hadn't had to print 2000 copies to get a viable unit price in the first place, I'd definitely have gone for it. But in those days, that was how commercial printing worked: setting up the plates was the expensive bit.

Not anymore. Digital prepress really has changed everything. I'm looking at estimates now from printers in Britain who're charging a couple of quid for the equivalent of what Preney – the best value comic printer in the world at the time – was charging three or four hundred dollars for twelve years ago. The unit prices thereafter are higher (but they always were, over here), even in relative terms adjusted for inflation – for runs in the sub-500 range you're looking at a little over a pound, which is too much to sell through Diamond at even £3 a copy...

But do I really need Diamond?

If my goal is international distribution per se, then... even then it's not crucial. If my goal is to be in comic shops, it's the only game in town, but as we've established, that system is broken anyway. And for everywhere else, we have the Internet now: people buy things online all the time, to a degree I'm old enough to still be amazed by. Without even getting into digital editions, consider this: I posted a sample copy of The Spectacular Santa Claus to a New York publisher for under £1.50. If that had been in response to a £3 Paypal order, it would still have made a marginal profit of about 20-30p. Alternatively, I can use something like Comixpress to produce US editions of my work on demand at the same or higher margin, and I don't even have to lick an envelope. Neither of which solution will ever result in a thousand paid-for and unsold comics sitting mouldering in a distributor's warehouse four thousand miles and a retina scan from my being able to do anything with them. The risk that put me off in the Nineties is gone.

On the other hand, the rewards aren't great: if my short-term goal is to make £500-£800 a month from comics, then relying on 20-30p micropayments from the USA is not going to cut it – we're still looking at 2000 sales a month. America is irrelevant.

But Britain... That same £3 comic ordered direct from within the UK can make a marginal return of let's say £1.25 after p&p. If I had 400 regular mail order customers, that would hit my lower limit; anything more is gravy.

400 is the magic number.

10.3.10

Comics Economics 1

Boy, can I relate to this. Kieron Gillen at Comics Alliance:

Will we make some money off the trade? Maybe. And that's a big maybe. But that means Jamie not earning any money for the six months it would take to draw it, which is the main reason why we took over a year to do 7 issues. As in, every time Jamie ran out of money, he had to stop and do something else. A couple of hundred dollars doesn't cover rent or pay for his fashionable haircuts. And doing this bitty work f--ks up the production anyway, because you can't concentrate or plan. You just spend your entire life in low-level money panic.

...

Imagine if we could have just done the comic and not had to deal with any of the shit we've had to. We'd have been up to issue 44 now...

... just to give you an idea about narrow the margins are between what we are and what we could be, if we were selling 6K instead of 4K, we could have done those 44 issues. The difference between breaking even and actually being able to do it in comics is insane. It's like being kept under ice, clawing.


I got into Phonogram too late to really get into it, having initially dismissed it as gimmicky and self-indulgent*: I'm one of the missing two thousand, and I'm sure Gillen would spit on my sympathy. But he's absolutely right about this, and all of us who've been round the block even once trying to get started in this business know it, even if the numbers are different from project to project. Depending what you count as a serious attempt, it's something like third time out for me, and although technological changes have made things easier in a lot of ways, there's still a missing step between Almost Viable and Runaway Success, a sort of Daathic Abyss where Doing Okay, Thanks ought to be.

Lest this sound like special pleading, I'd point out that such a gap is not unique to comics: check out messageboards for film/TV production staff and you'll find similar complaints, and one of the things I discovered during my years in the so-called real economy is the extent to which it's increasingly adopting the showbiz model. Consider: twenty years ago, if you used the word "intern" outside of politics or the media, people would have no idea what you were talking about. Changed days.

But comics and publishing are what I know anything about, and have an interest in getting right. And I need to do it soon. As somebody commented on Warren Ellis' blog earlier, in response to the same article:

Waiting for someone else to fix publishing looks less and less sustainable by the minute.


Thinking cap is on. More to come.

*Which it is, of course. I just had to see the whole thing before I realised that was what made it good.

27.2.10

Making Movies II

Despite the snow, I made it to Stirling for 7:30 on Wednesday morning, a feat the National Rail Enquiries website had assured me was impossible from where I started. Pickering 1, Bloatware 0.

It being my first time doing anything like this, I assumed personal photography would be verboten on set, and didn't bother taking a camera. In reality, the whole moviemaking operation was effectively a temporary addition to the Stirling Castle tourist trail, and we were surrounded for much of the day by school parties and other onlookers happily snapping away. Plenty of my fellow extras were following suit (and there's something very surreal about the sight of a top-hatted Georgian gentleman adjusting the focus on a digital SLR), and as long as they weren't actually in shot at the time, nobody seemed to mind.

I did have a sketchbook with me, but I only managed to fill a few pages: even lightning sketches like these take longer to pull off than you can guarantee you'll have when you might be mustering into position at a moment's notice:

And we were actually kept surprisingly busy – yes, there was a lot of standing around, in or out of camera range, between takes or waiting for cues; but for most of us there were only a few periods through the day where we weren't needed at all and could go and sit down for half an hour or so. And most of the time we were at least in sight of the filming, so lack of documentary evidence notwithstanding, I had a great time.

For Edinburgh the following day, I did bring my camera. Unfortunately that was more like the sort of day showbiz memoirs warn you about: hours on end of sitting in a church basement while the interesting stuff happens elsewhere, followed by another couple of hours standing under a golf umbrella so my costume didn't get rained on between takes. Merchant Street, an odd, gloomy little nook underneath George IV Bridge, is almost tailormade as a film set, but it's an order of magnitude more confined than the courtyard of James IV's gaff, with far less space behind any given camera position for extraneous people to mooch about in, especially with horse-carriages trying to manoeuvre around. After a few false alarms, I was only eventually called into service around ten o'clock, so for me it was a relief to be finally doing something; but I could tell that for the crew who'd been slogging away in the rain since early afternoon, this was not exactly the best fun they'd had in months. Hats off to Stevie, Liam, Ellie and the rest for their patience and courtesy towards dillettante numpties like moi.

Onlookers from the bridge or Candlemaker Row would thus have had far more opportunity than I did to document the actual filming, but I did take a few snaps while waiting around inside. Hi to Fiona, Derek, James, Stuart, Dave, Patrick, and all the other extras, makeup girls and costumiers whose names I didn't catch.


Yes, he knows he looks like Noddy bloody Holder!


James from Stirling reads the graphic novel.


Stuart porte les pantalons fantastique. Shame he had to wear that coat over them.

When makeup girls get bored.


Lunchtime (i.e. 8:30pm or thereabouts) at Dropkick Murphy's. Even with the electric lights and Sky Sports blazing overhead, it kinda works.

I'm done, and the production now rolls on without me. My involvement was an in-joke all along anyway, and I'm fine with that. It's not the film of the book, it's not a documentary, it's a John Landis movie and that's plenty to be going on with. It's going to be great in ways that don't tread on our toes at all.

But you better believe we're going to a reprint in time for it hitting the cinema. We're not idiots.

23.2.10

Making Movies

John Landis' Burke and Hare film is shooting in Stirling and Edinburgh this week. The Moving Image website has set photos.

Your humble correspondent is joining the fun tomorrow. Or rather Thursday. No, it's tomorrow again now. Ah, the joys of agency work!


It beats reading barcodes with the naked eye, though. Anyone who knows me well will confirm that I could happily dress like this all the time.

9.2.10

Formative

"I had a wish to be an artist. Was that not mad of me? I had this work of art I wanted to make, don't ask me what it was, I don't know; something epic, mibby, with the variety of facts and the clarity of fancies and all of it seen in pictures with a queer morbid intense colour of their own, mibby a gigantic mural or illustrated book or even a film. I don't know what it would have been, but I knew how to get ready to make it. I had to read poetry and hear music and study philosophy and write and draw and paint. I had to learn how things and people felt and were made and behaved and how the human body worked and its appearance and proportions in different situations. In fact, I had to eat the bloody moon!"

"Duncan, remember what your headmaster said! In four years you can be head librarian in some small country town and then you can make yourself an artist. Surely a real artist could wait four years?"

"I don't know if he could. I know that none ever did. People in Scotland have a queer idea of the arts. They think you can be an artist in your spare time, though nobody expects you to be a spare-time dustman, engineer, lawyer or brain surgeon. As for this library in a quiet country place, it sounds hellishly like Heaven, or a thousand pounds in the bank, or a cottage with roses round the door, or the other imaginary carrots that human donkeys are shown to entice them to all kinds of nasty muck."
- Alasdair Gray, Lanark

27.1.10

Attention Lothianites!

Just a reminder that Martin Conaghan and I will be signing copies of Burke & Hare at Forbidden Planet in Edinburgh tomorrow, Thursday 28th January – the 181st anniversary of William Burke's execution.

We'll be giving a behind-the-scenes-making-of talk at the Central Library afterwards, although numbers are limited so best to check with the venue whether it's booked up or not.

There’s also a Burke & Hare Tour later in the evening. Gruesome geographical family fun!

14.1.10

Notes Without A Theme

The Scotsman newspaper devotes nearly a whole page to Burke & Hare today. Online here.

My mother was well chuffed to see her boy's name in the paper – and on her birthday too! – and spent the morning texting all her pals about it, until she got a call back and realised she'd sent the message somewhere she hadn't intended to. Readers of my old Pickering's Corner blog will know why she had the local police Incident Reporting number on her mobile in the first place... Oops.

Meanwhile, the printer I was looking forward to using took advantage of the Christmas break to move premises, take on extra staff – and oh look, now they're putting their prices up. I should have known it was too good to last. What recession?

Creative work is on hold at the moment anyway, while I get my house ready for a council-mandated refurbishment. I sense I'm going to end up drawing in pubs for a while, but right now I'm dismantling bookcases, packing stuff into boxes... It all seems strangely familiar...

2.1.10

REDUNDANT PITCHES #9

An irregular series in which I play with ideas I'll never get to implement.

Twenty years ago, when it would have been a smash hit, Rambo Versus Terminator would also have been a big, dumb, spectacular piece of trash: an unsatisfactory halfway house to T2, in which Sarah Connor (with baby John in tow) meets a hangdog-featured black ops commando who becomes her new survival tutor just in time to get involved in an epic donnybrook with Evil Futurebot Redux. A bit of interest could be introduced by making this Skynet's first attempt to wipe out the human resistance's future leader, its failure then prompting the events of the previous episode; but otherwise we're talking money for old rope rather than meaningful drama. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if big dumb spectacle is all you want...

...but Schwarzenegger and Stallone are no longer young men, and the window of opportunity for such an approach is closed.

Which is interesting.

Both series are, in their own ways, Frankenstein fables about the mechanisation of warfare. The army took John Rambo and turned him into a monster, a cold-blooded killer unsuited to civilian life; and the Terminator of course is a literal killing machine, albeit one designed to infiltrate and mimic the human enemy. The two characters are natural opponents. But pitting them against each other in the early years of the twenty-first century creates an opportunity to look at them both in new ways.

I haven't seen the most recent Rambo revival, but publicity at the time of its release seemed to present a more nuanced vision of the character than the wrapped-in-the-flag 80s sequels could tolerate – a grizzled, haunted loner without a country, still capable of extreme bloody ultraviolence when pushed (some things remain constant, this is Hollywood after all) but trying his best to fade away and be left alone. Watching the clips, seeing Stallone force his sexagenarian muscles through those stunts gives Rambo an aura of doomed defiance that chimes with his earliest appearance in First Blood but ramps it up to eddaic extremes: he's not just fighting authority or terrorism any more – his every movement now is a warrior's rage against Death and Time and Fate, against his own inevitable decay. More than ever, he's a man out of his era, a relic of an age of giants in a world that has no room for him.

He's just the sort of man we need in the War Against The Machines.

We now live in a world of automated global systems. Cybernetic warfare is a fact. True Artificial Intelligence is still a way off, but not for want of people working on it. The Terminator remains fiction, but the Rise of the Machines becomes less like science fiction with every year that passes. Imagine a film that starts off like a Tom Clancy technothriller, all GPS missile targeting, Predator drones and game-based AI warfighting algorithms – and then something goes wrong, and we cut to five years later...

It's still early in the War, before John Connor and his crew begin to turn the tide – so Arnold Schwarzenegger need not appear, unless he wants to cameo as whoever provides the genetic template for the T-101's cloneflesh. Any random bodybuilder could play the early rubber-skinned infiltration units, but even they don't need to be a big part of the story. In this phase of the conflict, the more inhuman and robotic the threat the better.

This could be the unwinnable final battle that a mythic figure like Rambo needs. Called out of retirement not by patriotism or injustice, but by sheer brute will to survive, facing an enemy that stands as a metonym for the very thing that made him what he is. The system, the meatgrinder, the war machine: it chewed John Rambo up and spat him back out; now, forty years later, it's happening again and this time he won't survive – but he will die fighting with and for his fellow humans. He will die a man, not a monster.