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From One Steel City to Another

“You’d have to be here to believe it!”

January 22nd, 2016. For most Penguins fans, just another home game against the Philadelphia Flyers- obviously important for bragging rights and playoff positioning, but nothing out of the ordinary. For me, it was the first time I’d stepped into Consol Energy Center, the house that Mario and Sid built; the first time I’d seen in person the ice that had long been almost mythical, on the other side of the computer screen. After almost 6 years of dreaming and supporting them from afar, I was in Pittsburgh, watching a Penguins game. I’m not ashamed to say that as I turned a corner and saw the ice from up on the concourse, I teared up.

Consol Energy Center

The ice at Consol Energy Center.

I started watching hockey back in 2010, thanks to the efforts of my very good friend Ellie who convinced me to come and see our adopted hometown’s professional team, the Sheffield Steelers. I’d been to games as a child, back in Manchester (in the UK, not New Hampshire!) when the Manchester Storm were drawing big crowds to the Nynex Arena, but hadn’t really taken in the game- I was a small kid, I just liked the atmosphere and the music. When I first saw Sheffield at the age of 22, something clicked- it was the perfect combination of elegance and brutality, skill and determination. This was the sport for me.

I watched a few NHL games, mostly picking random teams to try and find one that I liked. I still remember the first Penguins game I watched, against Tampa Bay- I vaguely knew the Lightning’s name, but I hadn’t heard of the Penguins. I was entranced. It was 2010, the year after the cup win but still firmly in the Bylsma era- this was an up-tempo, high-offense team with a core of incredibly dynamic players. They played the game beautifully, and I remember them completely out-skating Tampa Bay. I flirted with a few other teams for a while (including Vancouver- thankfully I didn’t go any further down that road, given how badly mismanaged that franchise has been) but by the time Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens had stonewalled the Crosby and Malkin-less Penguins in the 2010 playoffs, I was a committed fan.

During that offseason I spent a lot of time researching the team. I had been attracted to the Penguins because of the way they played- after spending some time on Wikipedia, I became entranced with the city and the team’s history. The towering legacy of Le Magnifique; Mario’s incredible return from cancer; how he saved the club and kept it in Pittsburgh; the back-to-back Cup wins; and of course, Sid the Kid and his impact on the city. The story of the Penguins was, to my eyes, one of determination, triumph in the face of adversity and a passionate love affair between the team and the city.

As the next season rolled on, including Crosby’s incredible 25-game point streak and of course, the Winter Classic, I continued to read about Pittsburgh. The opening shots of every home broadcast showed me how beautiful the city was, and HBO’s 24/7 documentary leading up to that fateful evening at Heinz Field convinced me that this was my team. The similarities between my own adopted hometown of Sheffield and Pittsburgh began to mount up- both are ex-steel towns, both have coped with the decline of the steel industry by moving into higher education (Sheffield has two universities, Pittsburgh has four) and technological innovation; our hockey team (established in 1991) is called the Steelers. Even my university’s team colours are black and gold (the only thing spoiling this is that my Steelers’ team colours are, annoyingly, orange and black!) I dreamed of visiting the city, of watching a Penguins game, eating at Primanti Bros’, seeing the view from Mount Washington.

As the Penguins sputtered through that horrific 2012 series against the Flyers I was up until 3am watching every game; the same the next year when Fleury ceded the net to Thomas Vokoun and the Pens advanced all the way to the Conference Finals before being stoned by Boston. I watched Crosby’s struggles with concussion and his effervescent return against the Islanders on November 21st 2011 (that backhand goal, and Sid’s passionate celebration!) I couldn’t hope to count the hours I’ve spent (usually in the small hours of the morning, huddled in front of my computer with headphones on) watching games online, following along on Twitter and going to bed either joyful and animated or sullen and angry (depending on the result), before waking up for work the next morning.

Late last year, I decided to take the plunge- to make my pilgrimage to Pittsburgh and finally watch a Penguins game in person. I went via Austin, spending a few days with a friend there, before taking an afternoon flight to Pittsburgh through Dallas. I was staying with some AirBnB hosts up in Grandview, who’d arranged to pick me up at the airport; as we drove back, late at night, they graciously agreed to take a detour through the Fort Pitt tunnel. The city unfolded in front of me, covered in a light dusting of snow, and I had to pinch myself- I was really there.

Pittsburgh Downtown (from Grandview)

Perfect Pittsburgh (a.k.a Gotham City)

I left the house quite early the next day, eager to tick some things off my bucket list. I marvelled at the sight of the city from Grandview; I rode the Monongahela Incline down to Station Square; I convinced myself that I was sitting just behind Dejan Kovacevic as I took the T across the river into downtown. I wandered up to Consol and bought a Pittsburgh Gold jersey at PensGear, ate lunch at Primanti Bros’, had a brief skate on the temporary rink in PPG Plaza.

By the time the Flyers game rolled round, I had fallen deeply in love with Pittsburgh, and the incredible atmosphere and result that night only cemented it for me. My neighbours on either side at the game were friendly, polite and passionate- I felt immediately at ease. As I walked back up Grandview that night, the city twinkling with a million and one golden lights on the other side of the river and my face slowly going numb from the freezing cold, I couldn’t have described the feeling of travelling thousands of miles, across half the world, only to feel like you’d never left home.

Panoramic Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh at night.

 

Pittsburgh is a very special city. I know I’m probably reading a lot into the relationship between the city and my own home of Sheffield, but the connection between the two (for me, at least) grows stronger by the day. Sheffield is built on and around seven hills; Pittsburgh might not have seven, but it certainly has a lot of ups and downs. Sheffield is the fourth-largest city in the UK, but feels like a small town where you know everyone; Pittsburgh has exactly the same feeling, and several Uber drivers told me they always see someone they know in Downtown while they’re there. Sheffield has a blue-collar, working-class ethos (it’s often jokingly dubbed ‘The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’) which is mirrored in Pittsburgh. We have slightly more rivers (five in total) but they’re smaller, and we have fewer bridges. And of course, there are the people- everybody I spoke to was friendly and welcoming, more than happy to share their love for their city with me. My AirBnB hosts made me feel instantly at home, and I couldn’t have asked for better people to stay with. I know from personal experience how friendly Sheffield people are- it’s often called the biggest village in the UK, since it’s developed such a reputation for friendliness, and it was wonderful to see that Yinzers have the same approach.

And above all, both Pittsburgh and Sheffield have hockey. We have one professional team, a few semi-professional teams, a slew of recreational teams and a veritable army of passionate fans at all levels. Lord Stanley’s Cup was even forged by a Sheffield silversmith and sold from a London shop, so in a sense, the NHL and the most iconic trophy in sports was born in my city. The Steelers have gone through their own hard times and their own struggles, not helped by the collapse of the British IHL in the late 90s, but since the birth of the current Elite Ice Hockey League in 2003 they have won five championships and a slew of other trophies, including back-to-back championships this season and last. As Pittsburgh and Sheffield reflect each other in so many other ways, my hope is that this year’s Penguins will reflect Sheffield’s success- and bring the Stanley Cup back to the Steel City where it belongs. I’ll be watching from the other side of the Atlantic and rooting for the team, as I have done for the past 6 years. Pittsburgh is as much my home as Sheffield, in the emotional sense if not the physical, and I’ll be there in spirit as the Cup is paraded down the Boulevard this year.

Let’s go Pens!

 

A Barrage of Comics

Writing small press comics involves a lot of waiting and a lot of patience- it takes you a few minutes to write down some words describing an epic battle scene, but it’s often several months before you see how that scene looks on a page, after the artist has reached the right bit of their to-do list and spent hours/days/weeks drawing it. It makes it important to keep busy- rather than finishing a script, sending it off and then sitting by your inbox twiddling your thumbs until you see some pages, it’s good practice to start working on something else, keeping yourself busy.

Sometimes, though, everything comes back at once and you have several things to shout about- which I found out was the case this morning, when I realised that not only was the final part of Hadopelagic (my story in Aces Weekly with Neil McClements and Nigel Dobbyn) now available, but that a short story I wrote for Futurequake #27 (drawn by artist Joe Palmer) is also out and available now from the Futurequake webshop.

And as well as seeing finished work come to life, this morning also saw the next step in the journey for Brigantia, my project with the wonderful Melissa Trender- we’ve been hard at work putting a pitch document together, complete with 5 (gorgeous) sequential art pages, and have this morning sent that off to Image Comics to see whether it’s something they’re interested in. Now to cross absolutely every digit that I possess and hope that they like it! #TeamBrigantia

So, that’s the life of a small press comics writer (at least in my experience)- long periods of calm and relative quiet, interspersed with manic bursts of activity. The trick is to try and shorten the quiet periods by getting as many stories out as you possibly can!

All the best,
Chris

On Comics: Pacing

Part two! In this post (following on from my previous entry about writing comics dialogue), I’m going to have a quick look at pacing, or how a story flows from panel to panel. This is another important part of building a story- if you’re writing a chase scene, with your heroine escaping from a mob of angry villains, you want to ensure that the pace of the scene is quick and exciting in order to reflect the subject matter. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s often overlooked in a lot of comics, meaning that the pace of the scene jars with the content.

 

Pacing is largely a subjective thing, since everybody will read a comic at their own speed and the beauty of the medium is that the reader can linger on a panel for as much or as little time as they want to, but knowing how to arrange your panels to achieve the desired effect can go a long way towards drawing the reader into the story. The best comics (in my opinion) are like a dynamic symphony- they slow down and speed up when it’s appropriate, pulling the reader along with them. Pacing is also very important in the kind of short 4-6 page stories that I’ve written a lot of for the Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel and Professor Elemental- when you only have a small number of pages, pretty much every panel has to move the story forwards and finding space to pause for breath is integral. Getting the pacing right can make or break the flow of the story, so it’s important to practice.

 

Let’s begin with an example of a slow-paced scene. The atmosphere for this meeting between two rivals is tense and electric- if this were a film, we’d expect lots of slow, long camera shots looking around the room and giving the two characters time to converse. However, we also want to pick up the pace towards the bottom of the page, to keep the story moving.

 

 

Page
Panel 1
Wide-angle; the NEMESIS is standing with his back to the reader, looking out of a large plate glass window. The room is lushly adorned in a sleek, contemporary style. There is a wisp of smoke drifting upwards from the cigarette the NEMESIS is holding in one hand.

NEMESIS: I knew you’d come.

Panel 2
Another wide-angle panel, side-on; we see the HERO walking across the room towards the NEMESIS, looking bruised and battle-scarred. The NEMESIS is turning to face her.

HERO: Where is he?

NEMESIS: Not so fast, hero- relax, have a drink. We have much to talk about.

Panel 3
Wide-angle again; our view is now behind the NEMESIS. We can see the HERO in the background of the panel; the NEMESIS is slowly drawing a pistol out of a holster underneath his suit jacket.

HERO: Don’t try and distract me, Nemesis- I know what you’re up to!

NEMESIS: On the contrary, Hero… you have no idea.

Panel 4
Small, inset panel- close in on the NEMESIS as he takes a drag from his cigarette.

Panel 5
Another small panel- the NEMESIS raising his pistol to fire at the HERO.

 

 

As we’ve used three large, wide-angle panels on this page, we’ve been able to really slow down the pace of the story- it’s a break, a brief section of quiet and calm that gives the reader time to really digest both the surroundings and background of the panels and to sense the build up of tension between the two characters. If we hadn’t used these wide-angle panels (and panel 4, the close-up with the cigarette) the scene would have felt a lot more rushed and a lot more frenetic- which could also work, but not for the atmosphere that we wanted to achieve. We also used an inset panel for panel 4- these are very useful when trying to get the pacing right, since an inset panel (a small panel which is overlaid on top of a larger panel, often used to draw attention to something within the larger scene) can either reveal details about the scene or it can act as a sort of ‘quick cut’ between actions. In this case the larger scene (panel 3) was the Nemesis slowly drawing his pistol; we then built up the tension with an inset panel of him smoking his cigarette, to prolong the reader’s eye on panel 3. Finally, the small panel 5 acts as a clean break and shows a change in the status of the scene- the Nemesis raising his gun to shoot at the Hero.

 

I like to think of it as being the editor on a film- as the writer, you have the choice of whether to make quick cuts (smaller panels focussing on action), quickly switching from shot to shot to keep the tempo of a scene high, or slow cuts (larger panels focussing on atmosphere), to allow the build-up of tension. Study the work of some directors that you admire to see how they’ve approached the editing- Akira Kurosawa, for example (one of my favourite directors), is a master of using movement (and the lack thereof) to build tension and his films balance slow scenes with quick action masterfully. Here’s a great Youtube video about some of Kurosawa’s techniques, especially his use of movement (which isn’t something that can be directly shown in comics, but can be alluded to):

 

Pacing is definitely something worth studying if you want to improve the dynamism of your scripts- a lot of it will eventually begin to come naturally, and you’ll have a feel for how large or small or numerous the panels on a page need to be for the scene that you’re telling. Even if you’re constricted by a page count, think about the pacing and try your hardest to include breaks and panels that pause for breath, rather than action after action after action. Think about how great directors structure a movie scene and construct your scripts similarly.

 

Thanks for reading!

Chris

Sir Terry Pratchett: R.I.P

So, in case you somehow haven’t seen the news- Sir Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld series and a host of other books, passed away peacefully in his home following a long battle with Alzheimers disease, one which he made public around 8 years ago. During that time he spent much of his life trying to raise awareness of the disease, championing the right to die and trying to generate more funding for research into how to cure and treat the condition.

This alone would make Sir Terry worthy of praise- being dealt an absolutely terrible hand and still fighting to try and make the world a better place for others in the same position as himself. I can’t say enough for his attitude towards death and how he undoubtedly made it much less scary for a lot of people.

However, I mostly wanted to talk about his writing, because Sir Terry has been and always will be my favourite author. Not just my favourite- those words aren’t strong enough. He has been my biggest inspiration, and is responsible for giving me the passion to try and write myself.

I first pulled a Discworld book (Guards, Guards) off my dad’s bookshelf at the age of about 10 or 11 and was immediately captivated by the richness of the world and the incredible humour and warmth which suffused it. Some of the jokes undoubtedly flew over my head, but I loved it, and continued to quietly plow through the rest of the books in the series until my dad noticed and got annoyed about me bending the spines, insisting that I use my pocket money to buy my own copies so as not to ruin his. (I always picture the Librarian’s opinion on books when thinking about this- books aren’t meant to be read, you might wear the words out!)

What captured my imagination most about the Discworld was the strength and power of Pratchett’s “author voice”. Reading them makes you feel as though you’re being told a story by a kindly, bearded uncle with a twinkle in his eye- sometimes. At other times, Pratchett’s anger and fury at the injustice of the world and the many problems that our species has pours through and scorches its way off the page. His mastery was in being able to weave together the different strands of his voice- from telling fantastic tales of magic and dragons laced with dry humour and wit, to stark, thinly-veiled commentary on the problems of our own society as mirrored by the Discworld. And then there was the inspirational side of his writing, where his characters stepped off the page and into my head. Moist von Lipwig’s life motto in particular has stuck with me since I first read it in ‘Going Postal’;

“Run before you walk! Fly before you crawl! Keep moving forward! You think we should try to get a decent mail service in the city. I think we should try to send letters anywhere in the world! Because if we fail, I’d rather fail really hugely. All or nothing, Mr. Groat!”

I could wax lyrical for thousands of words about every one of Sir Terry’s characters. Of Death, who somehow became human and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, while still being a 7-foot tall skeleton and the reaper of souls. Of Granny Weatherwax’s incredible, innate stubbornness and sheer, bloody-minded refusal to quit. Of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, the most optimistic businessman in history, constantly coming up with schemes and ideas to make a fast buck. And of course, of every member of the City Watch- and Commander Vimes in particular, the very first Sir Terry creation that I encountered and my all-time favourite, a man who distrusts every kind of authority despite being an authority figure himself, who despises the Gods themselves for getting the world wrong, who balances himself on a knife-edge and willingly battles with the knowledge that he could be very bad but chooses instead to be very good.

I could keep going, but I’d be labouring the point. Anybody who’s reading this and has read the Discworld will know exactly what I’m talking about- anybody who hasn’t picked up a book, please do, I can promise you won’t regret it.

Thank you, a thousand times thank you for letting us into the world inside your head, Sir Terry. We promise to keep the lights on for you.

Non timetus messor.
Sir Terry Pratchett 28 April 1948 – 12 March 2015

On Comics: Dialogue

Hey, everybody!

This is intended to be the first of a couple of posts in which I espouse my thoughts on writing comics, distilled from having been doing it for the last few years (and from writing a swathe of fiction before that). I’m not going to claim that I know everything (because I absolutely don’t), but hopefully I can provide some insights and start some discussion about the whole process!

Anyway, in the first of these posts, I’m going to be talking about dialogue.

Dialogue is, in my opinion, the most important part of any comic, especially from a writer’s perspective- dialogue is the part of the comic where you, as a writer, get to speak directly to the readers. You can write all of the incredible prose descriptions that you want for your panels- you can evoke scenes of sweeping, Elysian majesty when describing a landscape, or set the tone of a moody cityscape with thunder and lightning and poetry. You can do all of those things. However, it’s probably not really worth it- because your readers will never read those descriptions, they’ll only see what the artist has interpreted from them (which may or may not match the image in your head).

Dialogue is the part of the comic where the artist cedes the floor to you, as a writer, so it’s incredibly important that it sounds natural, conversational and not forced. There are a couple of things that can help with this, and I’ll go over two of them below.

1. Read your dialogue out loud.

Dialogue is speech. Humans are a conversational species- we like to talk, we like to listen. Comics dialogue is characters speaking to each other or to themselves, and therefore it must mimic the nuance of human conversation. The easiest way to achieve this is to read every line of dialogue that you’ve written out loud (or maybe in your head, if you’re in a crowded place and don’t want to look like some kind of sociopath) and see whether it sounds natural. It should be immediately obvious if it doesn’t, because the words won’t flow naturally out of your mouth!

One of the undisputed masters of dialogue (in my opinion) is Garth Ennis, writer of Preacher and The Boys, and the reason his dialogue is so good is because every line sounds like it could be spoken by a real human being. He makes heavy use of slang and contractions so that you can hear the regional accents that his characters have in your head (Cassidy from Preacher, Wee Hughie from The Boys) and this makes every line seem natural-sounding. Furthermore, this makes the characters much more likable because despite the unrealistic nature of their surroundings (Jesse from Preacher and the angel/devil hybrid that lives inside his head) they come across as real people with real voices.

That leads into an additional point- take some time before you start writing scenes to think about how your characters sound, and to try and hear their voices in your head so that when you write their dialogue, it fits who they are. If your character’s an American redneck from good ol’ Tennessee, his dialogue had better sound like he’s from Tennessee instead of the clipped ‘received pronunciation’ of a British aristocrat! You can achieve this by throwing in speech characteristics (like “y’all”, or other similar things) but also just by trying to emulate that voice in your head and speaking it out loud so that you know whether it works.

2. Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation

Punctuation is another incredibly important part of writing dialogue. When humans speak to each other, we naturally add in punctuation- we pause for breath, use linguistic techniques to indicate a break in what we’re saying and indicate full stops, semi-colons and others through the tone and pitch of our voices. Therefore, since dialogue is speech, dialogue must contain that punctuation in order for it to sound natural. Here’s a fairly obvious example:

Ex. #1: “Oh I didn’t see you there is everything okay?”

Ex. #2: “Oh! I didn’t see you there, is everything okay?”

The first example has no punctuation beyond a question mark. Try reading it out loud- there isn’t a natural break in the sentence, it’s just a stream of words, and means that the “Oh” at the start of the sentence doesn’t indicate any surprise, despite the words that follow it. In the second example, the exclamation mark makes that “Oh” into an expression of surprise, as well as breaking up the sentence so that it’s clear that the character is shocked by somebody’s arrival. The comma in the second example also helps provide a natural flow to the sentence, creating a break between the statement (“I didn’t see you there”) and the question (“Is everything okay?”)

Punctuation is incredibly important in emulating human speech patterns when writing dialogue, because it can turn a string of words with no grace or elegance to them into human-sounding speech that our brains will recognise and respond to. Learning what punctuation to use and when is vitally important, and will elevate the dialogue in a comic from a kind of breathless recitation of facts and statements into something with nuance, something that bypasses your brain and goes straight into your ears.

It’s my firmly-held opinion that a great comic should read almost like a movie or a TV show- the panels should flow from one to the next naturally, as though in full motion, and the dialogue should sound like it belongs there. Some of the truly great examples of the medium achieve this perfectly- Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo and the aforementioned Preacher are just two that spring to mind. Put time and effort into crafting your dialogue, since it’s the part of the comic where you as a writer are most fully on show.

Thanks for reading!

Chris

She Rides to the Sabbath

Well now, it’s been a busy month since my last post!

 

Life continues unabated, as usual- working full time and trying to cram comics and music (as well as some actual free time) in around the edges is still just about holding up, even if the house could really do with some more spring cleaning and our dog Tia continues to pester for walks and attention. Since last time, I’ve started working much more strenuously on pulling together a pitch for Brigantia, my big project with incredible artist Melissa Trender– we’ve gone over the scripts, tweaked bits here and there, discussed story ideas and character motivations and I’ve even driven out to the Peak District to take some reference photos of a particular part of the landscape that inspired one of the scenes in the first issue. Our next step, once we have some sequential pages and character designs to really sell the world and the story of Brigantia, will be to research exactly who we can pitch to! We have a few publishers in mind who we’d like to approach, some more ambitious than others, so we’ll see what happens. Better to aim high!

 

In the music sphere, this past weekend saw me play one of the biggest shows I’ve ever done with Northern Oak- we supported pagan folk metal band Moonsorrow at a venue called Fibbers in York. Moonsorrow are one of those bands who are very highly-regarded and “famous” in the underground metal scene, but not really outside of it- they’re not going to be on the X-Factor any time soon, but they’ve played the main stages at some of the biggest metal festivals in the world and have a legion of devoted fans. We were very honoured to get the chance to support them, especially since our flautist Catie is a huge fan of theirs, and I think we did a great job with the half-hour set we had- the pictures I’ve seen so far certainly look impressive, the crowd were shouting for “one more song” when we’d finished and we’ve had one great review come through already. I’m hopeful that the show will have given us some good exposure and earned us some new fans, so fingers crossed!

 

That’s all for now- I should probably get back to (real) work, bleugh. We out! *mic drop*

Chris

Website Updates

New year, new start! 2015 LET’S DO THIS.

I’ve finally gotten round to doing some updates on my website- adding the various projects that I’ve been involved in over the last year, changing up the appearance and generally sprucing the place up a little. There’s still some more tweaking that needs doing, but at least it’s starting to look a lot more fleshed-out!

This year is going to be a big one for me- we’re going to be touring and playing a host of gigs to promote the new Northern Oak album, which came out in October 2014 (and had a slew of excellent reviews- check ’em out if you don’t believe me), issue #4 of Professor Elemental Comics is being officially launched in Leeds in March and then we’re aiming to get issue #5 out for Thought Bubble 2015 in November! On top of that, myself and Melissa Trender are going to be working hard on preparing a pitch for our Brigantia project so we can finally get that moving, and I’m hoping to make some progress on the Promethean Foundation as well once issue #5 of Prof Elemental is out (issue #5 will contain the second part of the Locomotive story that began in issue #4, and I sincerely hope that people will love the character enough that they want to see more of him!)

*deep breath*

So yeah, it’s going to be a big year. In the words of the almighty Becky Cloonan- COME AT ME, 2015!!

Chris