ULTIMATE SHERLOCK HOLMES
#1: FOUR COLOR PROFILE
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.
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.
Splash page. Huge explosion.
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.
Splash page showing New York City from above.
Caption: NEW YORK CITY, EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER.
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.
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.
Reserved for introduction of ongoing subplot.
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.
Holmes: Watson, yo. You ex-army, right? Afghanistan?
Watson: That's right. How..?
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...
Using a combination of GPS, CCTV license plate recognition and the nearest beat cop, Holmes gets Selden arrested at traffic lights.
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?
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.
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...
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...
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...