Monday, February 9, 2009

From History to Story: Scripting Cold Iron Badge, Part 1

Aaaaaaaaaand I'm back.

Upon reflection, I think we've moved to a slightly different phase of the story of Cold Iron Badge; less how it came to be, and more how it actually got made.

So: How did we go from some characters and a concept to having an actual comic?

There needed, of course to be a genuine plot of some sort. As I've mentioned in previous posts, by this time, the character dynamics were starting to, if not take on a life of their own, then certainly continue to gestate, and those dynamics implied certain things that needed to happen in the story to introduce, build and service them.

Similarly, as a genre mashup, there were certain tropes that needed to be addressed, whether by serving them up straight or by subverting them.

And there were things that it was simply important for me, or important for Patrick, to have happen in the story.

So I took all those things, and I made a list of them.

I wouldn't call what I came up with an outline. My first list was sufficiently vague and disorganized that calling it an outline would have been an insult to tracery. But it certainly aspired to be an outline, and hammering it into an outline is what I set about doing, with rather a lot of feedback and input from Patrick.

By this point, we were both pretty clear that Cold Iron Badge would be a finite story in three installments. Three substantial but not Cerebus-long graphic novels is what I was thinking (since, as good geeks, we are both of course drawn towards trilogies).

This was helpful, because it took off the pressure to pack everything into the story willy-nilly. Something that didn't fit could be shunted aside, saved for Volume 2 or Volume 3. Whether those things actually get used in subsequent stories remains to be seen. Whether they do or not, the value was in having the psychological release of not having to use all our ideas at once.

Then I got a little more organized. I took all the character notes from the emails we'd been sending back and forth and put dropped them into the same document as the Not-An-Outline-Yet. I added other notes, from our conversations and from my head. Then I took the plot and scene suggestions that had inevitably crept into those notes and moved them down to the list.

Using the organizing principles of three-act structure that I picked up from my years in the screenplay trenches -- which is a long story for another time -- I separated the events of the story into four chapters

Four chapters from three act structure? Yeah. That's because in standard Hollywood screenplay structure, Act 1 is the beginning, Act 2 is the middle, Act 3 is the end, and the middle is about as long as the beginning and the end put together. This has the advantage of lining up well with, for instance, the story structure needs of a four-issue comic book mini-series... or a four-chapter graphic novel.

At some point along the way, with the ideas for the characters, events and cool-stuff-we-wanted-to-happen getting laid out before me in the structure of an actual story, my Not-Outline began to look more like an Outline.

In case you're curious -- because we didn't make a big deal of it, even to the point of noting the chapter breaks in the comic -- as of today's date, we're something like half-way through Chapter 2 from a structural standpoint.

Although not necessarily in number of pages. Scenes, especially action scenes, can take up a lot more pages of comics than they do points in an outline. And, as I've mentioned before, Patrick can take a description like "Christine fights the goblins. At first it looks bad, but then she kicks their butts" and turn it into an epic sequence that would make a wuxia choreographer weep with envy.

In case you're really curious, here's the first draft of what it would be fair to call an Outline. It only covers the story so far, to avoid spoilering.


Cold Iron Badge

Act 1

Introduce CHRISTINE MCCALL, a tough, smart lieutenant with the Borderland Guard – the cops who patrol the border between Earth and Fairyland. With her are her partner (and lover), ART JOHNSON and two rookies, KAY and DE LINT.

The Iron Badges are acting on a anonymous tip, tracking down what may be a network of smugglers between the two worlds.

Arriving at the (??? warehouse ???) they find nothing. "Another wild elf chase," snorts Christine. Suddenly, elf-shots rain down on them – it’s a trap!

Christine sees the rookies go down. But where’s Art? She fights an attack by creepy gobliny kind of things, and just barely takes them down. She’s on her hands and knees, gasping for breath when somebody – actually, Nobody – hits her over the head, very hard.

Christine wakes up on a stretcher. She jumps to her feet, almost falls down, but heads towards the (??? warehouse ???).

The Guard, under the command of CAPTAIN DAVID REDMAN, investigates the scene.

Despite her injuries, Christine insists on joining them – and sees her dead partner, strung up like the Hanged Man in the Tarot.

To everyone’s horror, Christine starts to LAUGH HYSTERICALLY. Through laughter that turns to sobs, she manages to gasp out: "Hanging Art. Freakin’ Sidhe and their jokes."

Christine wakes up, hung over. Bottles are strewn everywhere. Head still aching, she heads into the office.

Christine debates with Redman whether she’s ready to return to duty.

Suddenly, Christine spots DELRIC. "Sword! Sword!" She tackles him – and learns that he’s the new Sidhe liaison to the Guard.

Possibly as a punishment, Redman assigns Christine and Delric together. Their task, he tells them, is to find out why the Unseelie have suddenly become so murderous, and bring the Fae
responsible for killing the three Guard to justice.

Act 2, Part 1 – up to the mid-point

Christine, out for a morning jog, is attacked by a kelpie.

Christine tells Redman that she thinks Delric is behind the wave of attacks. She wants him questioned. Redman explains they can’t – it was a political minefield just getting both sides to agree to a Sidhe liaison. Accusing Delric without a lot more evidence could blow up in their faces. Angry, Christine tells Redman that in that case, she doesn’t CARE how short-staffed they are, he damn well better assign two more people to the case. Seeing his smirk, she realizes that she’s walked right into something. But what?


Bunny Mayhem, the new recruit. Christine asks if she brought a loaf of bread, as advised. "I did better than that! I brought PIE!" Teeth gritting, Christine reminds Bunny that some faeries are repelled by bread. Not by pie. "Whoops."

Ray has been kicked around the Guard for years, never lasting in any one position for very long. Christine wonders if he’s a putz, or maybe even dirty – but his record is no worse than hers. Better. Reading between the lines, she realizes that he must be a Jonah.


So, yes, obviously, there was some improvement -- and more than a few changes -- between what you just read and Cold Iron Badge as you know it. More on that process next time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

I Have Not Forgotten You...

Assuming, of course, that anyone besides Patrick and me is reading these!

The rest of my life intruded over the weekend, via an annoyingly bad cold. So I lacked the time and energy necessary to craft the next installment in the Brief History. Or indeed, the mental faculties to recall the Brief History.

Unless you wanted to see an installment that read, "And then I said some stuff and Patrick said some stuff and some stuff happened and we made a comic."

Wait, let me guess -- you wouldn't have noticed a difference?

Actually, I'm going to take this opportunity to ask for a shout out from those of you who are reading -- could you drop by and say hello in the comments section?

And I'll be back with a real post in a day or so. Thanks for your understanding!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Manga Ja Nai! (Not Manga!)

So I went to Japan and returned a manga apostate. But if I wasn't going to draw anime-style, then how should I draw?

My assistant at the time was making weekly pilgramages to the comic shop. After a while, I started going with him. I have been in plenty of comics shops over the years, but I virtually ignored everything expect the Japanese imports and their North American clones; and superheroes still didn't interest me much. Fortunately for me, Mike was into the alternatives, stuff I knew nothing about. I had a whole new world to discover.

I started collecting again. After getting burned by the sporadic releases of my favourite Japanese authors, I didn't want to get sucked in again. So I stuck mostly to graphic novels and trade paperbacks. And I was choosey. I wanted something different but I had become picky about what I would spend money on. I picked up stories by Matt Wagner, Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, David Mack and more. I was looking at a wide variety of artists and borrowing freely from what I liked. Eventually, I think, (I hope) it all evolved into something that was greater than all the parts.

Next time: an overview of my favourite artists and why I like them.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge, Part 4

Once upon a time, before Professor Stephen Hawking wrote his book, it was possible to write a brief history of something and call is something other than 'A Brief History of Something'.

Not afterwards.

At first it was a joke, an increasingly obvious and un-clever go-to reference. But then it stopped being a reference and, because of its ubiquity, simply became the natural way to refer to a not-very-long written narrative detailing the origin and development of something.

(There were other Brief Histories before Hawking's, of course. But he put the phrase on the popular cultural map in a way that it hadn't been before -- or, to use a more elegant and apt turn of phrase, he put it into IdeaSpace.)

Not to expend too much effort justifying my own lack of creativity in blog post titles, but it never occurred to me to call this series anything other than 'A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge'. And I'd be willing to wager that none of you saw that title and thought that I was referencing Hawking particularly, whether cleverly or (more likely) not.

A Brief History of Blah-de-blah has become a trope.

This is not the only evolutionary path that a trope can follow, but it's an important one for storytelling -- for fiction. Because, occupying a level of universality that lies beyond references, homages, rip-offs and cliches, tropes are fundamental concepts that don't need to be explained for the audience.

Whether something is really a trope, or merely a reference/cliche/et cetera of course depends on who the audience is. There are tropes that are common to every culture, every demographic, every sub-culture, even every clique, that someone from outside those particular groups wouldn't get on the same subconscious level... and there are tropes that are common to all of humanity.

Cold Iron Badge was deliberately designed to be very, very tropey.

I touched on this in my last post, but it bears repeating and exploring in more detail: There are a number of points where Cold Iron Badge pretty blatantly uses tropes -- touchstones, storytelling conventions -- from either fantasy literature, cop shows, or both. And this was entirely intentional on my part.

A story that is fundamentally -- as I also noted last time out -- a genre mashup absolutely depends on honouring the key tropes of the genres that it's drawing from (and sometimes on subverting them). It's important on many levels, but one of the most important is the most basic. Because tropes, especially genre tropes, tell the audience what sort of expectations to have of the story. And when those expectations are either entertainingly fulfilled, or entertainingly subverted, the audience is generally happy. Which makes the writer happy.

This is true of all genres, but genre mashups are particularly fun for this, because an audience familiar with the tropes of all the genres involved will understand when there's conflict between the tropes of the underlying genres. Which creates dramatic tension, interest, and lots of opportunity for expectations to be fulfilled or subverted in a most entertaining manner.

And this, more than anything else, is what pushed the evolution of the collection of characters and other loose concepts that I've been talking about to become Cold Iron Badge.

What, for instance, would cause an interesting dynamic between Christine and Delric, while also forcing them to work together? Why would people like Ray and Bunny -- with their, to be tactful, questionable degree of competence -- be front-line law-enforcement personnel? What would cops as we understand them have to do with Fairyland at all?

The answer came to me, as many do, on the subway. I couldn't tell you what inspired it -- well, the whole process I've been discussing in these posts inspired it, but I don't remember what specifically led to the, "Eureka!" moment.

But there it was: After a mysterious event opens the doors between Earth and Fairyland, people who are themselves strange and marginal enough to be able to cope with all the weirdness are tasked to watch the new border between the two worlds. To enforce the laws, prevent incursions and excursions in either direction, and to keep a fragile peace.

I liked it. It made sense to me, it made sense for the characters. It gave both fantasy and cop show tropes free rein and it provided a roomy stage that would fit all kinds of stories and ideas.

It worked for me, and a couple of emails later, I knew that it worked for Patrick too. We didn't have a plot yet, but the core of what was now definitely called Cold Iron Badge was all there.

Next step: Go from characters and concept to an actual story. More on that next time...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Manga ga daisuki! (I love manga)

So, I fell in love with manga as a teen.

I mentioned that I had been an anime fan for a long time. A really long time. So long that I was a fan before I knew what Japanese animation was. Even before I knew what Japan was. And that was thanks to Gatchiman. Or as I knew it first, Battle of the Planets. I loved that show. I was in grade four when it arrived here and I was absolutely crushed when it got cancelled. Then I discovered Captain Harlock, in French. I stumbled upon it by accident on one the CBC's french channel. I couldn't understand any of it but I was convinced that it was somehow related to Battle of the Planets because the characters looked the same.

Then years later, when I was in high school, Robotech came on. I was hooked again. For Christmas that year, my parents gave me the book, The Art of Robotech. It was from there that I finally learned what I was. An anime fan. I discovered that all of my favourite cartoons from childhood were originally from Japan. Well, from there I was able start seeking it out, although where I was from, there was precious little to be found. The thing that really got me about all this anime was the look of it. I loved the designs. Especially the characters. I learned to draw from freezing videotaped episodes of Robotech and copying them. Which brings me back to where I was.

In the comic store looking at manga. I couldn't get my hands on enough of these wonderfully designed anime cartoons. But manga is like anime in print. The aesthetics are the same; the story values are the same. I was in love again. As I mentioned before, the first issues I bought were Appleseed and Nausicaa. At the time I liked Appleseed better. The drawings were less crude (Miyazaki fans, bare with me) and there was more action. But there was something about Nausicaa that I liked, too. I just couldn't define it at the time. That was the beginning of my comics collecting phase. I decided to collect there two titles and anything else that caught my eye until both of them were finished. I though they were five and seven issues, respectively and that I would be collecting for only a few months.

I was wrong. Both stories were published in volumes of five or so issues at a time, with months and sometimes years in between. So I would devour them when they came out and fill the times between collecting other manga titles. I continued to study them and learn from them. This went on for a few years. Then I went to Japan.

I first visited Japan while in college for a couple of weeks and enjoyed it so much I wanted to try living there. I had my chance after being in the animation industry for a couple of years. I worked for a man with connection in Tokyo who helped me get a job as an assistant animator. I was living my dream! Or was it a nightmare? I was there for six months and although I have very fond memories of Japan, few if any of them are of working there. It was an incredibly valuable experience, but it wasn't fun. And one of the side effects of that experience was that anime and manga now longer had the same magnetic hold on me. Simply put, now that I had been behind the scenes, the magic was gone. Now that I had made it myself, in Japan no less, anime (much like the Japanese language itself) was no longer exotic and mysterious. It was a job. And a dirty one at that.

After I returned from my adventure, I was the opposite of a fan boy. I was vehemently critical of the Japanese style. I would harp on about how all the characters look the same and how annoying speed lines are. All the things I used to defend with equal fervour­. It was made worse by working closely with others who also hated anime.

It took time for the bitterness and the disappointment to fade. But it did. And little by little I was able to recognize the value of manga and to see it for the first time in a truely objective light. So, yah, the characters do look a lot alike, but there's a lot more to comics than character design.

Next time: if not manga, then what?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge, Part 3

So Patrick was in a "super" mood -- eager to work on a story with superheroic or supernatural elements.

I can get behind a good superhero story, but I wasn't in the mood to write one.

(An idea that Patrick and I had talked about working on a couple of years previously had been a superhero story -- it got as far as being outlined, having the script for the first issue written and all the key characters designed. Then, between our schedules at the time, and someone else independently coming up with another version of the same idea, it fell by the wayside. I may talk more about this project another time, as I still have a great deal of affection for it.)

That left the supernatural.

As you've probably already inferred from some of our previous posts, though -- as well as the comic that we eventually cooked up -- we were both of a mind to create an action-adventurey kind of supernatural tale, rather than one that focused on, say, horror.

(Actually, I pitched Patrick a teenagers-getting-disembowelled story that I had on the shelf, in the form of a mostly-finished screenplay. It wouldn't have been difficult to turn into a comics script, but it wasn't Patrick's cup of tea.)

So we were looking at at least some of our protagonists being tough and competent.

But despite that, "Bunny Mayhem" was the first character to be imported into Cold Iron Badge.


Yes. A lot our our characters existed in some capacity previously to Cold Iron Badge. Not precisely, of course... not in the final forms they appear in now. But Patrick and I -- entirely separately -- had character concepts or sometimes just names, from years of ideas that were waiting for the right venue.

Patrick had been looking for a story to use Christine McCall in for years. Ray Donovan was a character name I'd made up as a teenager meshed with a character concept that was much more recent. And Delric... well, Delric's origins are dorkily embarrassing.

But Bunny was the first. Bunny was one of mine, but I think Patrick suggested using her. And because she was the first, Bunny ended up defining a great deal of what came afterwards.

Because of her name, you see.

Because in the time between me coming up with the name "Bunny Mayhem", there was another supernatural action-adventure story that achieved some degree of success, featuring a title character with an ever-so-slightly similar name.



Bunny. Buffy.

Buffy. Bunny.

You see the problem?

I felt, very strongly, that I needed to deal with this similarity -- which really was a coincidence -- by crafting a story that would not otherwise invite comparison with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But was still a supernatural action-adventure story.

Well, this happened to dovetail with some other things I'd been thinking about. I tend to enjoy genre mashups, and I like procedurals a lot -- they provide story hooks that are immediately understandable to the reader and don't require a lot of complicated backstory to understand: The heroes are involved in the story because it's their job. This balances nicely with the need for fantastical stories to establish and explore a world that is clearly different from our own. So fantasy and procedural seemed like a good fit.

But what sort of procedural?

As I suggested in an earlier post ('Does Fantasy Have To Be Anti-Democratic?'), inspired by both the fiction and the criticism of Ursula K. LeGuin, I think a lot about ethics and fantasy. Much fantasy seems to be seriously at odds with contemporary ethics, and one ethical issue that bothers me a lot in many supernatural action-adventure stories is secrecy, a distrust of the public, and a lack of accountability.

The illustrious Vampire Slayer, for instance, operates in secrecy, aided by a few friends. An attempt by the U. S. military to get involved in battling the supernatural was a major plot point in one season, and interestingly, was treated as being at best horribly misguided, at worst an immoral conspiracy that became a tool of the forces of evil.

The irony of this wasn't lost on me, and neither was the opportunity to resolve my own ethical issues with some of the elements of my chosen genre while also clearly differentating my story from Joss Whedon's.

My heroes wouldn't be secretive vigilantes, but cops, protecting a public that was fully aware of both their existence and that of the supernatural menace...

Um, which was going to be what, exactly?

More on how we solved that problem next time.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Secrect Origins

Happy New Year! 'Tis the season to regroup, rethink and forge ahead. So, in honour of the coming new year I thought I'd take a look back at how I got into comics. It all started way back when I was a lad... Well actually it wasn't until I was in high school that I really became aware of comics. Oh, I knew the iconic characters like Batman and Superman and Spiderman but only through their spin-offs into TV and movies. I had a friend in high school who decided to start collecting comics. I flipped through a few of his books but wasn't really impressed. It was all superhero stuff and full of characters I'd never heard of with names like Dare Devil and Wolverine. I was more interested in playing AD&D and watching Robotech (I think I just dated myself there.) so that was as far as that went.

Stephen introduced me to the New Mutants some time after that. I remember thinking that Illyana Rasputin (Colosuss' little sister, for those who care) was kind cute and I was intrigued by a six armed samurai woman who's name escapes me now. (Spiral?) That was enough to get me to read the section of Dragon magazine dedicated to the Marvel role-playing game. So even though I didn't read any of the comics I was becoming fairly well versed on the backgrounds of some fairly obscure characters. Surprisingly, this all became useful a decade later when I was living Japan.

I was working as an animator in Tokyo and the friend of an acquainence who helped me get into the industry there asked me for help translating some storyboards for the Spiderman cartoon that was being animated there. It wasn't actually translating words that was the problem. The translator simply couldn't follow the story; it was too convoluted to make sense.
(This was the cartoon version that included half the Marvel universe and had Peter Parker sprout a set of ten-foot hairy spider legs out of his rib cage.) My job was to explain things like who the Kingpin is and why Kraven the Hunter want to kill Spiderman...

But I didn't really get interested in collecting or reading comics until after I finished high school and started seriously pursuing animation as a career. I met an new friend (this is getting confusing so I am going to start naming names. I may or may not change names to protect the innocent.) His name was Dave. Dave lived for comics. So I would accompany him to the comics shop and there I discovered... MANGA.

I was already an anime fan and manga had the same look and feel so, while Dave bought his superheroes,I would browse. A lot. But I was very particular about what I would buy. I recall liking the artwork in Akira when it came out but I didn't want to collect it because it didn't have any giant robots. (So my exposure to anime at that point was very limited.) There were, however, two comics that did catch my fancy: Nausicaa and Appleseed. So I decided to get my feet wet. I told myself I would collect anything that caught my eye until I had all of these two series and then I would quit. And thus began a long and intense love affair with Japanese comics.

Next time: why I fell for manga and how it all ended.