Tag: grant morrison

An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part III: playing in someone else’s sandbox

I’m back! And so is the vastly talented Patrick O’Duffy. And okay, yes I know, this week’s update is a day later than expected, and for that you can blame some feverish work last night on balloon research and some Nicolas Cage-inspired… stuff (it’ll all becomes clear next week, I promise). In this final installment, I dig into Patrick’s back-catalogue of work and bring the conversation around to one of our shared passions… and no, it’s not Rugrats cosplay.

HG: I understand that in your deep, distant past you did extensive work writing role-playing games. I know my way around a handful of odd-shaped dice, and my 20-year-old self would see that as a near-ultimate writing job (my 34-year-old self also sees it as pretty cool too, I should add). Were there particular challenges to writing, and worldbuilding, in a shared universe?
POD: There are definitely challenges to working in a shared world, and the biggest one is probably that you do have to treat it like a ‘world’. I’m not much of a one for worldbuilding; I like just making things up that I think would be fun or interesting and then justifying them later – or not at all. But when you enter a shared creation, like the World of Darkness or Thieves’ World, you don’t have that luxury – you have to answer to a higher authority (the publisher or IP holder) and you have to play nicely with the other writers and creator using the same toys. You do some of that by, you know, swapping emails and asking questions, but you also do it by treating the fictional construct of the setting as more of a real thing – poking at the corners, doing research, working your way back and forth the chains of consequences that attach to your ideas. Worldbuilding becomes more of a necessity, and so writing with others becomes more work than writing by yourself.

That said, it can be rewarding work, because it forces you to think things through and extrapolate, which can be fun and valuable. But I don’t know how much of that I could do for long periods these days. Which bodes ill for my chances of ever being given a major comics property to write, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s an inordinately good segue to my next question. Seeing as you have played with licenced properties before, have you ever had the desire to pitch to one of the majors of comics publishing? You blogged extensively about comics last month over at POD.com, so you’re clearly a fan of the medium.
Oh hell, man, you cannot imagine how much I would love to write me some comics. I think I read my first comic at about age 8 – I’m pretty sure it was about Batman, because what else could explain my lifelong obsession with the character? – and I knew right then that I wanted to write them. Or maybe draw them. Or, I don’t know, spit out the paper to be printed. Anything, as long as I was involved.

So yeah, I’d love to write comics. Any kind of comics. I love superhero fiction to pieces, and I have a bunch of concepts I’d love to pitch to Marvel or DC. But I won’t, or more to the point I can’t, because neither Marvel nor DC accept unsolicited pitches these days. They’re closed shops, and I get why they’re closed shops, given that fans have been submitting pitches since five minutes after Superman hit newsstands in 1939. They just hit a point where they had to stop the flood – and, of course, protect themselves from claims of stealing ideas.

It’s still frustrating, because godDAMN do I have pitches, albeit mostly Marvel ones these days (stupid DC reboot) and mostly ones with incredibly limited sales potential. I mean, I think a series about Spider-villain the Trapster turning state’s evidence and trying to give up the life of crime (and failing) is compelling, but Marvel need to sell that comic to other people as well, and the evidence suggests that most readers do not particularly want that. So my pitches stay in my head, or my hard drive, or occasionally get thrown up on Twitter for laughs, and I just keep on with my own stuff and occasionally cry in the dark while surrounded by Avengers action figures because no-one else understands me.

The alternative is go away from DC/Marvel and hit a smaller company, or indeed strike out on my own. That’s very tempting, and something I’d like to explore one of these days. There’s a real advantage on working on an established character, in that the audience has already done the heavy lifting for you – they’ve already decided to care about the character and their history and context. So comics work outside that umbrella takes more effort, but at the same time is (I imagine) more rewarding and has more potential to tell different kinds of stories. And that’s where you see so many of today’s exciting comics series, like ATOMIC ROBO, CHEW and the jaw-droppingly amazing LOCKE & KEY.

There have been a couple of times over the years that I’ve talked to artists and made vague plans to work together, or at least talk more, that never amounted to anything at all. Mostly that’s been my fault. But I really hope that once I finish the next project, increase my visibility a bit more and get some coherent ideas down, that it might finally be the time when I can hook up with an artist, come up with a script and put together a comic book, whether in print or online.

Huh. I hadn’t actually considered that as a goal until now. And now I can’t get it out of my head. Thanks for that.

Anytime, man. Now, for my final question I’ll ask perhaps one of the most inane questions possible about that medium: are you Marvel or DC? (Or Dark Horse, Image, &c.?)
Which bring us to what may actually be the trickiest question of all. For some historical perspective: if you’d asked this to me as a teenager, I would have said Marvel (with a bit of DC); if you’d asked me as a 20-something, I would have said DC all the way; if you’d asked me in my 30s, I would have been roughly half-and-half Marvel and DC, plus some Image on the side.

These days, I kind of have to say ‘Make Mine Marvel’, like they did back in the 80s, but without the exclamation mark. Part of that is that Marvel are in a creative high point right now and have been for like 6-7 years – not perfect, by any stretch, but constantly putting out some terrific titles. Part of it is that DC, on the other hand, is at perhaps their lowest creative nadir in their 75-year history. They have some good titles, certainly, but the DC reboot, the continual dwindling of Vertigo’s range and experimentation and this whole dreadful ‘Before Watchmen’ bullshit, along with some utter fuckheadery in their editorial and publishing wing, make so much of their output boring at best and unreadable at worst.

But the good news is that there are so many other independent comics and publishers out there right now, both in print and digital formats, that you could read nothing but great comics morning to night and still never crack open a Marvel or DC book. Image are in a place of unbelievable creative strength and diversity right now, for example, and IDW are also publishing some amazing books. There’s never been a better time for comics than right now, there really hasn’t.

Plus, you know, Grant Morrison on Batman. Win-win.

Oh, I’m with you there. Any time I get to see Bruce Wayne team up with El Gaucho, bat-hombre of Argentina, has got to be a victory for popular Western literature.

Batman and El Gaucho in… SCORPION TANGO!

Ghosts, and revelations

It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.

Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’

I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;

Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.

I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.

I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.

I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.

I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).

Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.

I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)

I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.

I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.

There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.

Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.

This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.

This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.

I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.

the mozz

When it comes to authors that have had an influence on me, Grant Morrison has got to be near the top of the list. Morrison’s work is many things – subversive, alternative, complex – but it also holds a tremendously deep joy, almost a reverence, for the characters and tropes that he plays with.

I won’t go into too much of Morrison’s writing history – lord knows, there are interviews, biographies and now documentaries aplenty dedicated to his work – but in short he’s best known for his comic books.

Morrison’s stories with the established properties of the Big Two (DC and Marvel Comics) are iconic. His run on Superman is the distillation of seventy-plus years of crazy stories and concepts, packed into twelve issues. His multi-year work on X-Men redefined characters that had been written by countless authors and artists before him. His current Batman stories are deeper and wilder than anything seen for years.

His creator-owned stories (as opposed to licensed properties like those above) are vastly different from one another, but share a love of the unreal. The Invisibles is a chaotic ride into hyper-cool magical terrorism, We3 melds the pathos of Watership Down with the action of an action blockbuster, Vinamarama is teen angst meets crazy mythology, Seaguy is sweet and kooky, Kill Your Boyfriend is a charming rampage across the English countryside. There is something for everyone.

Morrison’s more recent works can feel overloaded with concepts; there is more plot and characterization on a single page than most writers would have in an entire year’s worth of output. It can become a bit much, on occasion; works like Final Crisis become almost frenzied in their storytelling. There is a degree of overlap with William Gibson, who I wrote about recently. In both cases, you can feel like you’ve come in halfway through a conversation. With Gibson, you can study the words and let the points of information accrete into a whole. With Morrison, you can just shrug and let it wash over you; sure, you may miss half of what’s going on the first read through, but next time you pick it up you’ll notice more, join dots between previously (seemingly-)unrelated comments or plot threads.

Comics is a visual medium, but it’s also driven by dialogue. In Morrison’s case, characters have a voice that you just can’t find anywhere else. Take Mister Quimper, a crippled, dwarf-like alien from The Invisibles. Quimper is most certainly A Bad Guy, but he’s not a cartoonish villain. He has a twisted, almost perverted, hatred toward existence. Physically, he shields himself from the world through thick clothes, gloves and a near-featureless mask. His dialogue demonstrates his reasoning, his beliefs, his hubris;

Things are simple: you forgot you were parts of a machine. Because of your forgetfulness, the machine is inefficient. We can correct your functioning. We must correct it.

You, in your chaotic state, may experience our efforts in value-laden terms; feelings of degradation, shame and humiliation are common. Those states are simply the reaction of a damaged subjective unit during its return to the objective reality of the machine. ‘Individuality’ is the name you give your sickness, your deviation from correct functioning.

Understand this: we have come to free you from chaos and uncertainty and ‘individuality’.

There are no monsters here. There are no dreams. Your search for value is part of your pathology. Your questions are meaningless. There are no questions here. What is, is. Nothing is open to interpretation. Your search for God is over. God is in the machine.

Not everything that Morrison writes is so over the top; Quimper’s style works in The Invisibles, but is distinct and isn’t replicated elsewhere. For comparison, take Morrison’s speech in his final issue of Animal Man. The image here is of Morrison himself, wandering the streets of Glasgow at night, talking directly to his (mostly American) audience.

When I was young, I had an imaginary friend called Foxy. He lived in a vast underground kingdom. A utopia ruled over by peaceful and intelligent foxes. I used to signal to him.

My parents bought me a torch so that I could signal to him. Not a flashlight. We call them torches over here.

I used to stand at the top of Angus Oval and shine my torch out toward the hills. Foxy always signaled back. That was more than twenty years ago.

And here I am again. Don’t ask me why. Here I am at the end of the century, toiling up a hill in the bitter wind. I’ve come to send a signal out into the dark. In the end, it seemed like the only thing worth doing.

Are you there?
Can you see me?
Foxy, I came back.
I didn’t forget.
I came back.

The line of the hill stays dark. There is no answering light. No light at all.

Clouds pile up in the darkness, weighted with snow. Curtains are drawn, windows blink and go dark. Wind whines in the power lines.

Stars go out.
Streets are empty.
Goodbye.

What an odd, intimate way to finish up his work on a book that he’d written for years. It’s a wonderfully personal tale, and like nothing seen before – or indeed, since.

I think another reason I love Morrison’s work is that, at its heart, it’s filled with wonder, love, horror, laughter, mystery and passion. All the stuff that makes a great read is packed into the same book. Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy, and was pleasant enough to nod and smile when I waved hello to him while dressed as a character from Star Wars.