Monday, July 18, 2016



I am drawn to the shore, but it seems I cannot reach it.  Sometimes I am so close I can hear the ever alternating ebb and crash, the crack of shoved, impacting pebbles, the hiss, the fizz…  It’s just over this ridge, through this last field where sheep or cattle graze, beyond those thorny, scrawny, wind disfigured trees, that patch of tangled bramble or yellow blooming gorse.  I only have to find a path. I only have to reach the edge of cliffs and find some track-way down.

I yearn to remove my shoes and socks, tread the slightly yielding sands and place my feet in the path of some cold, incoming surge of froth and water.  I long to dance and splash and play the fool, there where land meets sea.  To stride out ever deeper, throw my body forward and in that moment of immersion propel myself to swim.

I climb, I descend, I stride a line or zigzag through rougher terrain.  I can hear the gulls, their sharp peals seem to echo around me as they circle and swoop above.  I can smell the fresh, salty odour of the ocean that awaits me beyond these tangles and slopes that hinder my advance.  Oh but the wind that blows it to me, it too pushes me back, making a labour of simple footsteps.

I keep pushing on.  The sun, at its highest, seems to scorch my scalp.  I am sweating, footsore, my muscles ache with effort.  I have nothing to sustain me but the will to reach that ever-moving body of water, whose presence I desire.  Surely I will see it soon, I only have find some gap or gate in this stark fence of barbed wire that stands before me now.

There must have been a path.  That must be where I started.  Others have reached the sea and returned to tell tales of clear waters, sheltered coves, bright and fascinating rock-pools, the passing of pleasurable hours.  But, if path there was, it has disappeared, or I have turned away from it in some moment of careless distraction.  The fence stretches either way, as far as I can see, the barbed wire new and too taut to manipulate a gap through which I could clamber.  And then it turns a corner and I am forced to retreat from my destination.  I have no memory of the gate or means by which I entered this enclosure, but if this impedance continues, I will find myself back at that point.

At least then I might find some other route, or perhaps the path I guess I lost - this time to lead me with greater certainty.  But the sound I heard so seeming close is fading.  The gulls too keep distant, circle higher, their cries drifting out of range.  It is blackbird and song-thrush I’m hearing now, in the woodland from which the fence now divides me.  Another corner and surely soon I will find the gateway out.

My weariness is now bone deep, each lift of a leg an effort.  My spine is a long, dull ache; my stomach a void; my throat coarse with thirst.  I don’t know how long I’ve been walking for, pressing myself on in isolation, but I know that soon I can walk no more.  Perhaps the way back to wherever I came from will be easier.  Perhaps there will be food and shelter there, someone to advise me, to show me the way.

Rest and a good night’s sleep are what I need.

Tomorrow I will surely find the shore.

Won't be blogging next week, away from home.  Check me out again start of August.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 6: A Twisted Season

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 6: A Twisted Season

Last time, editor Lou Stathis and I, having found at least a few things in common, were starting to look at how we could turn 'Black Orchid' into the kind of comic that both of us wanted it to be.  Our cogitations led us back to 'Suzy', the orchidette, and her possible role in what was to come.

We’d put Suzy largely on the back boiler again, but had not forgotten or ignored her.  Indeed, at least one of the complete one-issue stories featured her exclusively.  A plan was hatching.  I can’t remember how much of this was my idea, how much was Lou’s, or whether some of it came from the other folk who were still giving me generous advice and assistance when they could, but whatever… it required us to embark on another multi-parter.  In this one Black Orchid would go off the rails, and the story would climax with her complete destruction.  Somewhere along the line, Lou and I had agreed that having two Orchid characters was a bit of a pain, and that reducing them to one – Suzy – would make a lot of sense.  ‘A Twisted Season’ was the running title we went with.

The fairly apocalyptic nature of the upset would enable us to then revamp the series into a new and different style.  I think, even as we embarked on the creation of this six parter, we were already beginning to discuss the intriguing directions in which the title might strike, once we had upset the apple cart.

However, this footnote in comics history is drawing to a close.  Whatever it was that we were planning, it was not destined to emerge.  The comics boom was turning into something of a slump as the 90s progressed.  I’m sure there were some notable exceptions amongst the elite (and deservedly so in some cases), but for those of us who had not set the world alight, sales figures were dropping inexorably, month by month.  One by one those Vertigo titles, that had been the great hope of a year or two before, were beginning to wink out of existence, like stars being erased by some cosmic super-villain.  (I’m sorry.  I’ve been writing about comics for several hours now.  It gets under the skin.)

I can’t remember the exact order in which they went, but for a while it seemed the dust was being bitten on a regular basis by ‘Kid Eternity’, ‘Doom Patrol’, ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’, ‘Books of Magic’ and more.  Lou and I hung on in the hope that our slightly better sales count would keep us above the cut-off line (which, I was told, is decided entirely by DC’s accountancy department).  If we could make it good enough, the post-Twisted-Season revamp might just have reversed the trend.

In retrospect, I don’t think we really had a hope.  Such gloss and glitter as the series had at its inception had long since been sanded off.  Where once we had received a fair amount of admiring mail for the letters column, towards the end I’m not sure we had any letters at all.  (Mind you, I think I recollect that Lou was not that keen on letter columns, so conceivably he just stashed the last few letters in a filing cabinet and I never got to see them.)

The final issue and last of those lush
McKean covers...

Inevitably the day came when I received the worst phone call of the lot.  We were below the line.  We would be given the grace to complete our final storyline, but the Orchid’s demise would be the entire series’ end.  Strange, it’s only in the course of writing this that I’ve noticed that I began my DC tenure with a story called ‘The Growing Season’ and ended with ‘A Twisted Season’.  But let’s not read too much into that.  Maybe I was already starting to run out of ideas and was just repeating myself.

I’ll say this for Lou Stathis, once you’d gained his trust he was loyal and supportive.  I met some very nice editors during my time at DC.  Tom I’ve mentioned, but I have fond memories of Stuart Moore and Art Young amongst others.  Youthful (then), interesting guys with a real zest for what they felt comics could be, a distinctly un-nerdy sophistication and a good sense of humour.  But with Lou, I genuinely think it went deeper.  For all his objections to what had been done with it before his editorship, he was – as far as I could tell – upset about the way Black Orchid ended.  And though he might understandably have dropped me at that point, like the proverbial ton of bricks, this did not prove the case.  He’d sussed, I’m sure, that I was no genius, no future Alan Moore (there never will be), but he knew that I worked hard, met my deadlines, took criticism – and that kind of stuff he valued.  We moved on to discussing ideas for what I would do next.  We both favoured the idea of the ‘mini-series’, stories that would be told over the course of two to six monthly comics and that were not part of any DC ‘continuity'.  After one or two duds, I came up with something he could see potential in and we began to work on the synopsis.

And then something awful happened.

The phone calls stopped.  I checked in with someone else at DC and discovered that Lou was off sick.  He’d begun to suffer severe, debilitating headaches and they appeared to be getting worse and more frequent.  In time I heard the reason why.  He had developed an inoperable brain tumour.  Within a few months, he was dead.  RIP Lou Stathis.

To speak of the negative impact of this event upon me seems entirely self-indulgent.  It should be pretty obvious how the land then lay and I don’t want to go there.  The fact is that, over twenty years later, here I am still alive, still relatively healthy and enjoying it.  This option was not on offer to Lou.  He was 45 years old when he died.  That’s way too fucking young to go.

I daresay there was a bit more toing and froing ‘twixt me and DC after that, but essentially it was over.  And those years of immersion in the world of comics had done something a bit funny to my head.  Comics weren’t the pleasure they once were.  With the exception of the very best, even reading them was beginning to feel like a bit of a chore.  

And I felt – wrongly or rightly – like I’d failed.  Okay, in my account I’ve presented some of the decisions made that appeared to be outside my control.  It’s conceivable that things might have turned out healthier for me if those decisions had not been made.  But I can’t be sure of that.  The fact is that I made a lot of wrong decisions myself.  And there is no doubt that the writing I did at that stage of my life could and should have been better.  End of story.  

All of a sudden I felt like it was time to move on.  Pastures new and all that.

I wrote a novel.  ‘On Earth, As It Is’ started life as a comic strip for a small press publication called Blaam!.  Only two episodes appeared, drawn by the estimable and charming John McCrea, before Blaam! winked out of existence (that villain again, I think he was called Doctor Lowsales).  But I’d always liked the story and had quietly developed it over the years as I felt it should be continued.  So I wrote it as a prose novel, on the old Amstrad word processor I used throughout my time writing comics.  I sent it to a bunch of publishers and now and again got some good and encouraging feedback.  Editors wrote back to say they’d enjoyed it but couldn’t see its place in the market.  Editors don’t have to say things like that.  They don’t have to say anything at all, beyond the standard rejection slip.  So I took it that there was some quality in my writing.

Then a film came out.  I forget the title but it starred Kevin Spacey as a man who could be from another planet, stranded on Earth, or who could be a human being with a powerful delusion.  Pretty much like the central character of ‘On Earth, As It Is’.  I think it was quite a good movie.  

It was time to move on even further.  I had a life.  There was a new relationship that had come into it, and that was full of promise.  My dearly beloved partner had a yen to move to South Wales, just as soon as she’d taken early retirement from a demanding job as a special needs teacher.  All of which takes us on to, as they say, ‘another story’.  A good one too – I wouldn’t have missed those years in Wales and still feel a strong connection with ‘Twin Town’ Swansea, the Gower and the Brecon Beacons.  

I pretty much stopped writing for a while, for a slew of reasons that I won’t bore you with here.  But the bug was dormant and had no intention of leaving me for good.  An encouraging prod from the direction of Northampton got me thinking about what I might offer to the newly launched ‘Dodgem Logic’ magazine.  Although what I was to contribute to that publication turned out to be something else entirely, it was that very prod that also kick-started ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’.  (For anyone new to this blog, ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ is a book that you really ought to have bought by now.  It’s ever so good, and you can find out how to get it in the ‘Brexit Blues’ post)

As for comics…  A few years back, as you do, I decided to Google myself and see what presence I had on the internet.  What little came up concerning me - rather than namesakes - led me to a comics review site.  I forget what it was called and have no idea whether the posting remains, but there was a bunch of reviews of my early ‘Black Orchids’.  I think they gave the benefit of the doubt to the first 1 or 2 issues, thereafter it made for some pretty excoriating reading.  Ouch!  Well fair enough – I’m not here to argue with the opinions expressed and even agreed with much of what was written (though the reviewer did make some seriously off-beam guesses about me personally, which was kind of fascinating).  I think it was about then that I came up with my ‘footnote in the history of comics’ epithet.

Well, thanks for reading.  You have reached the end of the footnote!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 5: Bonding Over Can and Don

Apologies for late appearance of this week's bit of bloggery.  It's been a hectic few days, gorblimey guv'nor.

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 5: Bonding Over Can and Don

Last entry's cliffhanger will hopefully have chalk biters everywhere on tenterhooks.  So, without further ado, here's what happened next...

I can’t quite remember my first encounter with Lou Stathis.  It was probably on the phone.

In those pre-internet years, communication between UK creators and US editors took place through the media of fax, phonecalls and Fed-Ex.  I didn’t have a fax machine so I was restricted to the last two.  Fed-Ex was fun: the feeling of relief when you finally got a script packaged and sent off; the feeling of excitement on receipt of a bundle of new artwork.  Phonecalls were, by and large, not so much fun.

I’ve always reckoned that, just as Marmite (or Vegemite or whatever yeast extract gets called elsewhere) divides the world into those who like it and those who loathe it, there is a distinct divide between those who relax into and enjoy phonecalls and those who dread them.  I’m one of the latter.  Even when I phone close friends I get nervous.  What if it’s a bad time to call?  Will I remember the stuff I really wanted to say?  Perhaps I should just leave it for now.  It’s all completely irrational.  (You thought I was sane?)

Owing to the time difference with New York, these phonecalls tended to occur between 9pm and midnight here, when the DC editors were starting their working days there.  Being of the larkish disposition rather than the owlish, this did not suit me particularly well either.  I was usually knackered and ready for bed when the phone rang and I’d find myself having to discuss fine details of plot, dialogue and artwork with some sharp young American, fresh from his coffee and waffles.

I think I’d heard a few things about Lou before that first encounter.  He liked to come across as a hard case, a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly.  Diplomacy was apparently not a strong point. He had some radical ideas about what he thought was wrong with Vertigo comics during their early years, and he was on a mission to stir things up.  And he had some clout.  He’d had extensive previous experience in an editorial capacity with the somewhat prestigious ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine, which ran high gloss, adult oriented comic strips along with some journalistic content.  So as you can imagine, that phonecall (if phonecall it was) was faced by me with the usual trepidation, enhanced to the power of ten (or possibly a Nigel Tufnell style ‘11’).  I had visions of a quick dismissal and the end of my barely begun career as a comics writer.  Lou Stathis would see right through me to the hollow man at the core.

Actually, he wasn’t so bad.  Remember ‘Black Orchid’ was still selling at least slightly better than the majority of its Vertigo contemporaries.  So I got some respect for that, and of course I kept quiet regarding my doubt about deserving it.  I think he wanted to sound me out and was prepared to give me a chance – so long as my ideas blended with his for the development of the character and the style the comic should adopt.

For a man who had to walk past Superman bursting through that wall every morning on his way to the pokey little offices in which DC editors laboured, it was perhaps rather unfortunate that Lou hated super heroes.  He was steeped in the work of the underground comics artists, and that of the European writers and artists whose adult oriented science fiction and fantasy had been featured in the pages of Heavy Metal for years.  As regards the former, so was I.  And I had a working knowledge of the latter, though I didn’t quite share Lou’s enthusiasm.  I think it became clear, even in our earliest encounters, there was some hope that a working relationship could yet ensue.

That said, his complaints regarding ‘Black Orchid’ as it had run so far were copious.  Tom Peyer, if you ever read this, forgive me – but I shifted the blame onto you for quite a few of them!  Lou loathed all those super-hero elements that had gone into the story so far – and you made me do it, Tom.  You made me do it.  And the Children’s Crusade related stories I’d done (one of which had flashed back to the original 70s Black Orchid super heroine) – boy, did he particularly hate those.  I could almost imagine him taking copies from his office and ritually incinerating them.

But of course, to back up my craven shirking of the responsibility, I had my original outline for the first twelve issues.  Ironically the very idea that had been so firmly rejected at the time of the comic’s genesis was pretty much of the sort that Lou hoped to see in Vertigo Comics.  When I described it to Lou, I felt a distinct warming of his attitude.  Maybe I could be an ally in his mission.

Two more things aided our developing relationship.  Lou was editing Jamie Delano’s work on – I think – ‘Animal Man’ (another obscure old super hero who’d been given a revamp).  Jamie tends to effect a hard-bitten, frequently cynical persona, which chimed quite well with Lou’s brusque approach.  That Jamie and I had a good friendship lent me at least a little more credibility in Lou’s eyes, or so I think.  Along with a shared appreciation for the work of writers such as William Burroughs.

The other thing was music.

I took a quick look at his Wikipedia page before I wrote and didn’t spot any mention of this, but I’m pretty sure that Lou had been at least an occasional contributor to US rock magazine Creem.  He was certainly a massive rock music enthusiast and had interviewed a number of musicians of whom I was in awe, including Don ‘Captain Beefheart’ Van Vliet (the interview can still be found on the website).   And it was the edgier, more challenging music that he was largely drawn to, particularly German band Can.  I too was a serious enthusiast for both Beefheart and Can.  Over this we bonded.  Phone calls became just that bit more tolerable with the occasional digression onto some rare Can live bootleg or similar that one or the other of us had acquired.

But what to do with Black Orchid?  How could we effectively change its direction to something we both thought would be more in keeping with whatever a Vertigo comic should be?  We couldn’t just change horses in midstream.  The threads I’d established in the opening issues had to be honoured and I’d come up with a few single-issue story ideas that, in the short term, met with Lou’s editorial approval.  He could be sharply critical but I often found his suggestions well worth incorporating.  Alternatively, if I made a strong enough case for something he initially disapproved of, he was prepared to listen and modify his views.

During that period I remember that I was enjoying the writing a lot more.  In many ways, when reading as well as when writing, I preferred stories that were complete in one issue to sprawling multi-part epics.  One story at least remains in my memory as a decent achievement.  Some research had led me to a creature of folk lore in the UK county of Leicestershire, a kind of hag figure known as Black Annis (aka Black Agnes) who had certain features in common with the Orchid herself, not least the similarity of name.  Because she was known as a ‘child snatcher’, a bogeyman, I blended the material I’d gleaned about her with stories of ‘phantom social workers’ that I’d read in Fortean Times.  I then contrived a way to bring the Orchid to England and wrapped it all in what I remember as a tight, tense storyline.  One of my better ones.

Yes, check it out, (issue 14) you can probably pick up an old back issue for a song, if you sing sweetly enough.  Or get in touch via my website, I've still got a copy or two left - though a fairly lengthy instrumental break will be a required part of any song you care to offer.

Next time, this epic winds towards its close, as we look at what Lou and I cooked up and, despite this, the subsequent demise of Black Orchid.  Which was followed by a deeper sadness, the death of Mr Stathis, a man I'd come to hold in high regard.  

I will, I hope, resume normal service next Monday.  Til then, may all your horses win their races...