Thursday, 12 May 2016

Writing a book: Part One, Revelation

Here's a revelation. I'm nearly finished writing the first in a series of novels, co -authored with John Watson, who you may know from his work on the X-Men and Marvel's Civil War:Frontline series.

Why? I hear you ask. Why are you writing a book with an artist? Isn't that a bit like asking a gardener to do some plastering? Or ringing up Halford's for recipe ideas? I'll tell you. It's a long and fascinating story.

Well it's long.

It's been quite a few years in the making, so this is the first in a series of posts giving a blow by blow account of the lengthy, often painful journey from inception to completion. John is writing his own wildly inaccurate version of events on his own blog, so you can have fun spotting all the discrepancies. As a general rule, I'm right.

A beginning is a very delicate time”

About 9 years ago John asked me to write a comic with him. I'd collaborated before, but mostly with screenwriting, and I knew how difficult the process could be. A little difficult for me relinquishing control, but mostly difficult for the other person.

I don't play well with others.

Writing anything is such a personal battle against yourself, and such a complex tapestry of interconnected things, like most writers I enjoy writing only when the process is over, and it's best to stay out of my way before then. I find that most readers, even the fans, (not you obviously, the other ones) don't even pick up on the point of half the things I write, so the thought of someone else getting involved in the creative process who couldn't possibly understand the complexity of my narrative is an anathema to me.

On the other hand It's also unusual to find a collaborator that you can have an honest dialogue with. So much of the creative industry is plagued by sycophancy and I had no time to waste with someone who would do nothing but say how fantastic my writing and everything else I do is. I don't need someone to fulfil that role, I have my Mother. In that sense, John is the perfect collaborator, he has exacting standards and is as critical with others work as he is his own. I'd like to take this opportunity to say what a pleasure it has been working with John and how easy it has made the process of writing. I'd like to, but I can't. More on that later.

9 years ago I was freelance writing in my spare time, while working 9 to 5 for the government. Fortunately the unique structure of the British Civil Service meant that I had a lot of spare time during the day to write as well, often fitting in a much as 6 hours writing into a standard 8 hour day. The other 2 hours were my lunch break. This allowed for me to drive to John's at least once a week and chat about the comic during lunch, then drive back to work and write.

The Inferior Five

Aside from John's singular obsession with Aqua Lad, we like (and dislike) a lot of the same things in comics, Kirby, Toth, Adams, Romita. Many hours were spent creating a definitive spreadsheet of the “top 50 comic artists of all time”. I think aside from Don Newton and Kevin O'Neill we agreed on just about everyone. We also found we had a shared appreciation of the relatively obscure DC humour comic “The Inferior Five”, so we had a few chats about the direction we wanted it to take if we wrote a comeback for those characters. I'd written mostly comedy before, so was significantly happier writing something comedic rather than your usual superhero fare.

I went away and wrote a script for the first issue and a synopsis for the next five. It was mostly parody, picking at current storylines like Infinite Crisis, Civil War and Secret Invasion. You can read the full "Inferior Crisis" script here. I wanted to try something a bit new, a humour comic with proper jokes within the plot and situations, not just funny visuals and one liners. The world's first “Sit-Comic”. In my objective opinion, it was one of the greatest comics ever written. John drew up a few of the pages, they were pretty great too. Don't take my word for it, here's a few of them, hastily lettered by me just now to give you an idea of what might have been-

DC Editor Mike Carlin took one look at the idea and although he obviously could see the sublime talent behind it, told us that DC just didn't do humour comics anymore, so passed on commissioning it. Possibly a commercially wise move, the comic did revolve around an inflatable man battling a giant budgie, but disappointing after all the work we put in. In hindsight, it was a classic rookie mistake, developing a series using characters other people own.


So the next logical, obvious step was - develop our own series. I adapted the Inferior Five script, but altered the characters. In some cases obvious rip-offs, in others we came up with new stuff. We called it “The Randomers”. Still a sit-comic, but slightly more grounded in reality than the Inferior Five. Ideas came and went. After many long chats we both decided we may as well go the whole hog and design a team from scratch rather than base it on existing DC characters, so we kept the name “The Randomers” and I wrote a new script with no inflatable men or giant budgies. It was progress. Version 3 and it was still a comic, with me writing and John drawing. This time though John had much more input into the writing, I used characters he suggested, and we spent time discussing their motivations, their personalities and how it all worked into the new plot. It was a constant process of distillation and refining. Barely anything of the original Inferior Five plot or characters remained, but when some really good was in there, I tried to keep it in. In theory, the longer we spent on this, the better it would get.

John drew up some character designs. One he did of “The Fifth Dimension” with Kirby Krackle running diagonally across the centre was particularly nice. It was starting to be a true collaboration, like comics should be but often aren't. With most modern comics the writer and artist never meet each other, often barely speak to each other if at all, and the end result suffers because of it. I wanted to do a comic where it all came together as a cohesive whole, like comics at their best can be. John was now having much more input, throwing in ideas, characters, changes, it was a proper back and forth and I could see something potentially special starting to form.

The comedy was still in there, one of John's character - “Johnny Zebra” was a gangster with the head of a zebra. In one scene he was battling “Captain A” a Czechoslovakian character. Johnny asked the Captain why he continued to persecute him and broke John Cleese's three rules of comedy and had him reply -

Because Czechs don't go with stripes.”

The merits/failings of that sublime pun were the topic of much discussion over the next few months and are probably representative of an ongoing battle – I think we're writing a comedy, John doesn't.

We had a few issues planned out and started planning covers, basing characters on people we know. We even had some photo pages mocked up in photoshop and plans for romance issues and even an issue entirely in Czech. There were t-shirts, songs, videos planned. We were going to take over the world.

In my excitement I registered a domain – This was in October 2009. In hindsight, not the best use of my money. In our heads it would all be ready for 2010, published by Marvel or DC the same year depending on who won the bidding war, and the film adaptation would probably be in cinemas by 2011. I'd pencilled in Chris Hemsworth to play me, with Danny Devito playing John. We still had a long way to go. The next step was a big one though, seismic, we had a revelation about the state of the industry and what we both really enjoyed creatively and it changed the whole direction of the project - dropping the comics part altogether and re-writing the Randomers … a novel.

Find out how that happened in part 2.

1 comment:

  1. Well, it's nice to see you contribute something, however belated.

    You can write as pretentiously as you like about the writing process but as far as I know, most writers actually enjoy writing. Also, I believe that being obtuse is not the point when writing a series of books.

    Nice to see those Inferior Five pages again, no matter how bad they are!