The two campaigns, 'Remain' and 'Leave', have hardly covered themselves in glory when it's come to giving us - the general public - the facts of the matter. To make things worse, the EU is a bit of a mystery to most, often characterised by its more bizarre attributes, either as the butt of a joke or, sometimes, in the form of an outright conspiracy theory.
My general feeling a few weeks ago was that I'd be voting Remain. I like Europe, I like Europeans, I love visiting Europe (as I have luckily had the opportunity to do several times with my book published in a number of foreign editions), and I like Europeans being in my country (I believe diversity does not dilute our culture but enriches it - not to mention the fact that migrants give the UK a £20 billion tax benefit). Most of all, I like the idea of a shared international vision and of being an active part of that vision.
As the date has drawn closer, I've become more interested in the debate, especially in how the result will affect me - both in the things I care deeply about in the wider world, and in my own personal life. The more I've researched and learned about both sides of the argument and about the EU in general, the more I now think a vote to Remain is pretty much the only sane choice. In fact, I think a vote to Leave could be potentially devastating.
I'm not going to write an essay going into all the details and conclusions I've come to, but I would like to present some of the broad strokes, and let you know why I think being part of the EU is a good thing, despite the fact that it, of course, has many problems too.
First of all, I believe the EU is generally a force for good. It was born out of the desire to see lasting peace in Europe, and it has achieved that very well. It promotes cooperation and has what I see as basically a positive Humanist agenda. It also provides a number of checks and balances on our own government who may not always pass laws with our best interests at heart. An example of this would be various directives that serve what I call the 'greater good' - that cover the health of the environment, tackling climate change, defending human and civil rights, limiting the power of private corporations and protecting minorities. The EU does all these things.
Of these I think the question of climate change is the most urgent, and this is something that simply has to be tackled with a united front. We're not doing enough as it is, but if we break from the EU then it will set the progress we have made back by vital years, maybe even decades. A united Europe working together sets an example and raises the game for the rest of the world.
Speaking of which, there has been a lot of fear-mongering about Turkey joining the EU. The fact is, it will be many years before they are able to join, the reason being that they must first fulfil a large number of tests set by the EU. This is because the EU has a moral and technical standard that must be met - the EU makes countries aspire to be better. We don't want Turkey to join as it is now, but a Turkey that eventually passes the EU test will be an asset.
Turkey is just one of the un-facts touted by the Leave campaign, but it is not the only one. Perhaps the most blatant is that the UK "sends £350 million a week to the EU". This figure is false, as we get a substantial rebate (taken off before any money is sent) and we get a lot of money back in various forms of important funding, not to mention the incalculable extra value we get from goods, services and protections by being a paid-up member of the Union. The UK's contribution is only 1.2% of our total government spending.
Boris and his cohorts have said, if we leave the EU, we can use that "£350 million" to use as we wish, and they give the example of "a new hospital every week". The problem is, most, if not all, of the spare cash will be wiped out due to the massive economic downturn we'll experience on Brexit, which may even go as far as a pretty bad recession. And then what will we use to re-make those vanished laws and systems that we'll be 'free' of? The NHS will not get anything - especially from the likes of Boris, Gove and Farage, all of whom are on record as saying they would like the NHS privatised.
Okay ... I'm getting a bit verbose! The economic argument is the one that worries me most on a personal level. Almost every major financial institution predicts a monetary loss for regular families if we leave the EU, and quite likely a return to recession. Even many in the Leave camp agree with this assessment - though they think we can ride it out. Well, I probably won't be able to ride it out. My wife and I are both self-employed and we are just starting to get our heads above water after the hit of the last recession.
I lost clients in the last recession and it's been a struggle to climb back up. As the UK's economy started to improve, so did my own finances - but I am very close to the breadline on a monthly basis, sometimes under, sometimes a little over (illustration is not generally well-paid). Unlike the last recession, I now have two young children, so I'd be punched a lot harder this time. Even on the least-worse predictions I dread to think what our family situation could be if the UK economy shrinks again and businesses stop hiring freelancers like Ellie and me.
The UK is one of the strongest voices in the European Union, along with our allies France and Germany. Together, the 28 countries present a powerful force in the area of trade (giving us international bargaining power), diplomacy (preventing other powerful states from flexing their muscles too readily) and security (with shared intelligence and joined-up reaction to events). Scientific research, resulting in better treatments for disease, the solving of technological problems, and even space exploration, all benefit from EU funding.
The EU is often mischaracterised as undemocratic, yet a close look at the way it actually works shows that it is just as democratic as the UK (despite our unelected House of Lords!). We vote for our MEPs and they have real power to accept, reject or amend European legislation. They can even dismiss the Commissioner, and our Prime Minister and various other UK government ministers hold important positions when it comes to making legislation. The lack of democracy is a myth repeatedly peddled by the leave campaign.
Going back to a more personal level, the EU provides protection for my work and my rights as an author and artist on the international stage. There are a greater number of opportunities for grants and easier access to a wider readership. Membership of the EU has allowed me to easily travel to other countries where my books are published, to get paid more easily, and even to make sure I'll be looked after should I ever fall ill on one of those trips.
On a slightly more negative note, the kind of politicians who I feel most ideologically opposed to are the ones who might come out of a Brexit vote with the greatest amount of power: people such as Boris Johnson (whose main agenda with this referendum is to get himself into No. 10), Michael Gove (who wants to scrap the Human Rights Act) and Nigel Farage (who only turned up to one out of 42 EU Fisheries meetings, despite being an MEP on the Fisheries Commission, showing just how much he cares about British interests). They are on the side of privatisation and less social responsibility, and what they might have in store for us, if given a mandate, worries me greatly.
There may well be some benefits in cutting our ties with the EU, but I have seen none that have convinced me, and none that outweigh the huge number of advantages we get by staying. The vast majority of arguments for leaving have been gut feelings, amorphous patriotic slogans, and - I'm sorry to say - rather a lot of xenophobia.
For me a vote to Remain is a vote for the future, a vote to stay involved and an opportunity to try and make things better. I will be voting to Remain, for me, my children, and for the world. If you're undecided, I urge you to do the same. Please vote.
Mark William Cameron was born at Parkhurst Barracks at the beginning of 1884, his father being a Sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders, stationed there after returning from service in Egypt and Afghanistan. His mother was only 18 at the time, and had married his father just five days before he was born.
Mark joined the Royal Navy, possibly inspired by his father's tales of campaigning in exotic lands for the British Empire, and perhaps also by distant tales of his great-grandfather, who had battled Napoleon's forces at Waterloo. As the new century began, he found himself as a Boy, 1st Class, aboard H.M.S San Pariel after stints on the Caledonia, Minotaur and Agincourt. In 1910 he married his cousin Margaret, daughter of his uncle Donald who had served abroad with his father in the 72nd Foot. In 1913, with the British and German Navys trying to outbuild each other as European tensions grew, he was in the Gunnery School aboard H.M.S Excellent, before being promoted to Gunner and joining H.M.S Invincible - the world's first battlecrusier - at its commissioning on 3 August 1914.
"The First World War had begun. In the northern mists the Grand Fleet (21 dreadnoughts, 8 predreadnoughts, 4 battlecruisers, 21 cruisers and 42 destroyers) was at its war base in Scapa Flow, under the command of Admiral Jellicoe. Diagonally across the North Sea the German High Seas Fleet (13 dreadnoughts, 16 predreadnoughts, 4 battlecruisers, 18 cruisers and 88 destroyers) were assembling in the River Jade under the command of Admiral Von Ingenohl." - V. E. Tarrant.
Invincible was involved in three actions. It had a small part to play at Heligoland Bight later in August, and then in December was involved in a naval battle against Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee at the Falkland Islands. But the Invincible will be forever associated with the Battle of Jutland, on the last day of May in 1916, when at 6.34 p.m a salvo from the Derfflinger penetrated the 7-inch armour and causing explosions in the gun-house, turret and the magazine, rent the Invincible in two, sinking it and killing 1,019 men. There were only six survivors, and Mark Cameron was not amongst them.
To boys who had grown up with the heroic deeds of their grandfathers, fathers and uncles, or the gallant officer adventurers in the novels of G. A. Henty, who had read of the brave thin red or khaki lines defending outposts against Zulus at Rorke's Drift, or Afghans at Kam Dakka, and where casualties rarely exceeded fifty on a bad day, or a few hundred on a disastrous day, the Great War will have come as a shock. Over 21,000 Britons killed in the first day at the Somme in 1916, and 6,000 Britons and 2,500 Germans lost to a watery grave at Jutland is a severe lesson indeed.
I didn't create the game, that was done by people far cleverer than I - but I did illustrate the map and all 100 locations - rather a mammoth task (especially all those cathedrals!), but enormously interesting, fun, and educational too.
As well as an online game, the map is appearing on JCDecaux digital screens across the nation over the next four weeks - so let me know if you spot one at a train station, airport, shopping mall or bus stop, etc.
It was very nice to be working with JCDecaux again - you'll remember that I did the Arni comic for them last November (see if you can spot Arni on the map). Both these jobs have been a challenge, but really rewarding, and both have given me the opportunity to up my game and increase my skills - so thank you to Russell Gower and Janet Guest and their team for that!
I've had a busy start to the new year, especially with one particular project that I've just completed - hard work, enormous fun, and I'll blog about it more when it sees the light of day later this month.
Julius Chancer has never been far from my thoughts and I've managed to get back to a bit of work on the next book again. It's frustrating (for you and me!) that's it's so slow, but money-earning work has to take priority, and that's not the comics, I'm sorry to say.
For now, here's some costume colour guide roughs for characters from the opening scene of the new book.
Both were driven by nostalgia to a large degree. We always used to go and see the new Bond film at the cinema ... I particularly recall seeing Moonraker, but I think The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) was the first. But just six months later my life would change, because that is when I went to see Star Wars (at The ABC in Tunbridge Wells, now sadly flattened).
Up until then it was war - comics, toys, models and films - that were my main preoccupation, but I mostly dropped that after Star Wars, and science fiction and adventure became my new obsession.
It was a great time to be a young kid. After Star Wars came Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Time Bandits, Clash of the Titans, E.T, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, Tron, The Dark Crystal, War Games, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, and Return of the Jedi, to name a few that have stood the test of time.
And it's nostalgia that is at the heart of The Force Awakens - an aspect that is partly responsible for its huge success, but which has also been one of the main points of criticism of the film.
I enjoyed it immensely, but then perhaps the film was rather aimed at me and those like me, and it pushed all the right buttons. I liked it so much that I started 2016 by going to see it again, and was not disappointed with a second viewing and with the hype somewhat cooled.
It's nice seeing the old faces again, but the best thing about the film is the new faces: Rey is an intriguing and positive main character, Fin is entertaining and hugely likeable, and the dark side offers up a very interesting personality in the guise of Kylo Ren.
Unlike some critics, I didn't mind the plot parallels with the original Star Wars. I think it's a trait of the series (or perhaps the Force) that patterns repeat, and I'm not surprised, after the reception that greeted episodes I-III, that the writers and producers wanted to play it safe to get the new franchise off the ground.
My worry is that the creative team behind episode VIII, slated for late 2017, will give too much attention to the voices of the fans when they come to map out future instalments. While, as I said, I loved every minute of The Force Awakens, it has also, actually, given me a greater appreciation of the originality and vision of George Lucas's prequels.
I re-watched them over the past couple of weeks, for the first time in a long time (in fact, in the case of episode III, for the first time since seeing it just once at the cinema) and was pleasantly surprised. Jar-Jar Binks wasn't as annoying as I, perhaps, mis-remembered, and I even found young 'Anni' likeable and somewhat sympathetic. Certainly the over-baked scenes with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are a bit difficult to watch, but I got a better sense of Anakin's path to the dark side by seeing all three in sequence. I surprised myself by really enjoying the last of the three, even Darth Vader's "Noooooooo!" didn't seem half as bad as I recalled.
The setting of the prequels is a feast for the eyes, and I think the story just about works - especially if you immerse yourself fully into the fantasy. This isn't science-fiction, after all, it's pure space fairy-tale!
Was Lucas largely criticised for being original? For telling the story he wanted to tell, and not the one his films' keenest fans wanted (ie. a more Star Wars-y Star Wars). Are those who are criticising The Force Awakens for being too much like A New Hope the same people who criticised The Phantom Menace for not being 'Star Wars' enough?
I'm not saying the prequels were perfect films, not one bit. I do wonder if, because of what they are, they are put under a great deal more scrutiny than would ever be directed at the original trilogy. Episodes I-III are world-building, background, nerd-notes. I shed myself of some of the internet stigma that has built up around them, and found I enjoyed them more than I thought I would.
We've had our nostalgia moment with The Force Awakens, and that's brilliant. Now let's hope we move forward into new territory, where quality storytelling will prevail over commercial interests and fan pressure. I want to see the new characters grow, and I'd love to see Luke Skywalker - the kid that started it all - used intelligently, with new aspects revealed, giving impetus to the new series, so that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, has a bright, absorbing, and exciting future.
It's been enormous fun and a really interesting project (you can read a little interview with me over at the beframeus Facebook page). I've learned a lot from doing it, but overall it's been a success, I think. And there's been some really nice feedback - a big thank you to everyone who tweeted, shared or commented, and especially to all those who took photos of the screens - it's been great seeing them out there.
Here's a few of the screens, as photographed by a variety of Tweeters and Facebookers (as credited). Arni's Epic Adventures runs until the end of November - let me know if you spot him!
Follow Arni's adventure on Twitter with the hashtag #ArniStory.
Arni is a little red bird (a Pine Grosbeak, actually) who was having a lovely snooze in his favourite tree when he was rudely awoken by the sound of a chainsaw and his tree was carted off on the back of a lorry. Arni loves that tree, so he's decided to follow it, but that turns out not to be as easy as he'd hoped, and a series of exciting little adventures ensue.
The strip was commissioned by JCDecaux - "the number one outdoor advertising company in the world" and provider of those digital screens you see everywhere at railway stations, shopping malls and airports. The basic concept and the character idea is theirs, while the realisation of the idea (script, design and artwork) comes from me. He's appearing on JCDecaux screens across the UK, one strip per working day (with catch-ups at the weekend) throughout all of November - twenty strips in all.
As I write, I've still got the last few pages to draw - a little nerve-wracking as the story began its run on Monday November 2nd - but I'm really enjoying it. Even as I wrote the script I knew I was setting myself a challenge with a fair number of testing environments to draw, including depictions of lorries, ships, cranes, and city scenes, many of them from unusual angles - and all with a rather tight deadline. But nothing gets you to do your best like a story that pushes your abilities - and a tight deadline!
A further challenge has been that JCDecaux have two different screen formats ... the Digital-6 is a portrait screen and the Transvision is landscape. As D6 screens vastly outnumber the TVs, I've drawn primarily for that mode, but have then had to re-compose the artwork for the longer, narrower format, often having to cut away some of my artwork (wince!). For me, the definitive versions are the D6 pages, but it's the more screen-friendly TVs that are being published online.
JCDeacux host thousands of screens across the country, many at major railway stations, roadside locations and big shopping complexes, reaching half of the UK population (they reckon 30-40 million). The strip is wordless and appears on screens for 5, 6 or 20 seconds and is being billed as "the first graphic arts story to be commissioned for digital screens" (the big ones, anyway!).
A big thank you to Russell Gower and his colleagues at JCDecaux for giving me the opportunity to work on such an exciting project. I hope you'll come across Arni on your travels throughout the following month - you can follow the strip's progress on Twitter through beframeus and ArniBird - and if you see a screen, do let me know, and tweet a photo if you can!
Of course everyone has asked me what I thought of the beautiful city of Vienna - and, as with my previous European adventures, I honestly can't say! I spent the majority of my time sat behind a table sketching in books and chatting with German and Austrian comic fans - the reason I'm lucky enough to be there. I didn't even see much of the rest of the comic show. I saw a little of the city - through a car window, or taking the Viennese U-Bahn and then walking to the venue with some of the other artists (including Don Rosa, Francois Walthery, Thomas Cadene and Davide Fabbri) - and Vienna does indeed look very nice.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy the weekend - very far from it, I had a wonderful time (and was put up at a lovely hotel - Hotel Kummer on Mariahilfer Strasse). I was particularly pleased to spend so much time with my fellow Salleck author, Belgian artist Francois Walthery, creator of Natacha and long-time assistant to Peyo of Smurfs fame. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak French (well, each a very little) but we bonded over a mutual love of 60s British/US Blues icon John Mayall - and comics of course. Francois, as he said himself, has been drawing comics since the formation of The Beatles (though comics have not made him as rich, he added!).
A big thank you to Eckart Schott for the invite and the hospitality, to Wolfgang Klingel for the company, conversation and translation services, to Johannes Seybert and Michael for the chaperoning and airport transport, and to everyone who said hello (including the pleasant surprise of meeting Dirk Verschure again, last seen in Haarlem attempting to make my then baby daughter laugh), or who bought my book, or even just showed an interest ... danke!