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!
He was born on 16th September 1894 in Willowbank Crescent, Glasgow. His family had just a few months earlier moved from Dundee as his father, Samuel Stewart, was to take up a new post as gymnastics instructor at Glasgow Academy. His mother was Betsy Meffan Phillip, eldest child of Andrew Phillip and Betsy Rough.
By age 16, Harry worked as an apprentice for a shirt manufacturer, but by the time the war came, in 1914, he was working for ship owners J&A Roxburgh. He wasted no time in enlisting, with the 5th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, and in July 1915 he landed with his company at the Dardanelles.
I have not been able to access the war diary of the 1/5th H.L.I., so I do not know the exact details of the battalion's movements on 14th July 1915, the day Harry was killed, except for a report that they were "on general fatigues south of Backhouse Road [trench]". They had seen a fair bit of action in the previous few days, and several men's lives were lost to the deadly Turkish snipers that kept a constant watch on the British positions.
Harry's younger brother, Andrew Stewart, a Lieutenant in the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the winner of a Military Cross, would die in 1918, leaving just two sisters and a brother with their parents (Samuel was stationed at Gailes, training recruits). I've also written about the death of his uncle, Alexander Phillip.
Harry, who had been promoted to Lance Corporal in the short time he served, was just 20 years old. His memorial on the family stone in Glasgow's Western Necropolis states "asleep on Achi Baba".
I'd actually been invited to two other shows this weekend - the Munich Comics Festival, by my German publisher, Salleck, and the Bulles de Mantes La Jolie in Paris, by BD Must - but Copenhagen beat them to it. It's nice to be wanted, and I wish I could have somehow managed all three!
But I'd wanted to attend the Copenhagen event, which is held every two years, for a while now, after hearing positive reports from Colin Mathieson and Dave West of Accent UK, who both thought my book would find an appreciative audience there. When Danish publisher Tellerup added my book to their list late last year, the possibility of attending became a reality - and for that I must thank my champion at Tellerup, Michael Larsen, the Danish Arts Foundation, and Copenhagen Comics themselves.
I'm not a big fan of flying, but - though I'm not religious - there were about 20 or more members of the Salvation Army brass band on my flight, so I knew I'd be okay! Michael met me at the airport and we took the train into Copenhagen, hopped on a bus to my hotel (Hotel Sct. Thomas in Frederiksberg, right next door, it turned out, to Copenhagen's Salvation Army HQ) where I checked in and freshened up, and then we took the bus back into the city where we met the rest of the Tellerup team for dinner, at A Hereford Beefstouw, right next to the famous Tivoli Gardens.
The Tellerup team consisted of Michael, Thomas Schrøder and his wife Lise, Harald and Louise Tellerup, Valdemar Tellerup and one other chap, whose name didn't quite reach my ears (sorry!) [Edit: it was Steen]. They are a wonderful bunch and I feel very pleased indeed to have my work published by them.
After dinner Michael and I took a bus to Nyhavn - the 17th-century harbour that was once home to Hans Christian Andersen. Michael is an excellent tour-guide and he provided tea and good conversation, especially with his interesting insights into acting - something we've both been involved in.
The bus journey back led to a little adventure - Michael got off before me and I remained on board with a man who seemed insistent on informing me about (I think) his savings, the Danish tax rate, and the government (there's to be a general election this month). Whether it was due to this or my own lack of awareness, I wasn't sure which stop to get off at, so I took a chance and then used my 'intuition' to walk in what I thought was the right direction. My intuition was as good as random chance (unsurprisingly) and I soon realised I was going the wrong way. But purely by chance I had come out with a city map in my back pocket, and purely by chance I decided to examine it just as I was about to walk off the edge of it. A 20-minute walk got me back safely to the hotel!
I was staying in the same hotel as Colin and Dave of Accent UK and so I was able to meet them for breakfast the next day. Making up the rest of the Accent UK team were West Noir artist Gary Crutchley, and Colin's son Scott, and all four were terrific company all weekend, starting with breakfast each day.
Day one of the festival was hugely enjoyable - I was busy signing and sketching for most of the day and I met a ton of marvellous comic creators and readers. From my last German trip it was lovely to reacquaint myself with Tatiana Goldberg, also published by Tellerup and whose fantastic book, Anima, was shortlisted for a Ping Award (the winners were to be announced that evening); also Frank Madsen, Sussi Bech and Ingo Milton. I was also delighted to meet (all too briefly) Lars Jakobsen, creator of the fantastic Mortensen books - which Colin had turned me onto a couple of years previously.
At midday I was part of a panel discussion about drawing kids' comics, chaired by Michael Andersen and alongside comics superstars Luke Pearson and Thomas Wellmann. It was interesting that none of us had intentionally created a comic for children, we'd all made comics as something we, ourselves, wanted to read. Being comics for children had more to do with marketing, though all-ages content and clear storytelling were certainly aspects that perhaps made our books more widely accessible - not, we agreed, exclusively for a young demographic, but for a mainstream, even non-comic reading, truly all-ages audience.
Another friendly face present in Copenhagen Comics that weekend was Clíodhna Lyons, who was literally flying the flag for Irish comics, as well as her own gorgeous work. I'd last seen Clíodhna at Angoulême, so even though she only lives 30 miles away from me, we only seem to get to say hello when in mainland Europe. Along with the Accent UK guys and a number of friendly Danes, she was excellent company all weekend - and I owe her a drink in return for the enormous orange juice she treated me to at Cafe Obelix that evening.
The second day of the festival was another good one, perhaps a little slower than the Saturday, but I was still busy enough signing to keep me from clock-watching, with enough space this time to allow me to stretch my legs and have a wander around the Danish comics scene, which, I'm pleased to report, is friendly, full and fascinating.
One nice thing that Tellerup had organised was an exclusive Rainbow Orchid poster, free to anyone who bought the book at the festival. It was a big one - 70 x 100cm - and a common sight was to see people carrying them around in their special Tellerup poster boxes. I'd drawn this in spare moments during a very busy period of work, but was pleased to see that it had come out all right!
I was very pleased to make the acquaintance of another talented Dane, Thomas Friis Pedersen (who uses the pen-name Thop), creator of Flix & Flax and Zombie Kravlenisser (as well as The Great Zardini, which really gave me a good chuckle) and is another Tellerup author. And it was good to meet Árni Beck Gunnarsson too, for whom Thomas and I collaborated on a little jam sketch!
Sunday evening saw a lovely dinner at The London Pub on Godthåbsvej with Clíodhna, Accent UK, and Søren Pedersen, founder of the famous Fantask comics shop, and his wife Vibeke. As with every evening, much conversation was had, including subjects as diverse as Japanese film, potatoes, the Gay Gordons, and, of course, comics.
On Monday morning it was time to return home. A slightly earlier breakfast, again with the magnificent company of the Accent UK team (Colin was torn between a Danish pastry and accompanying me to the station, luckily reason prevailed ... the Danish), before I said my goodbyes and walked off to Copenhagen Central for a train to the airport. Despite a slightly delayed flight I was home by 3pm, and I even managed to summon up the energy to get myself to that night's karate training.
So, did I enjoy my first visit to Denmark? Most certainly. Would I go again? Absolutely. The Danish comics scene was enormously welcoming and I had a terrific time. Huge thanks to Tellerup, especially Michael Larsen who made the whole thing happen, to the Danish Arts Foundation for help with funding, and - by no means least - to Steffen Rayburn-Maarup and the Copenhagen Comics team for having me as a guest. I feel very lucky and honoured that I got the chance to go.
Yes, I know it's the same cover that's been on all the editions, but I particularly like the title design here - I gave it a slightly larger 'O', even though it's all one word in Danish, and spent a little more time on shaping it overall than I have on some of the other editions (oh how I'd like to rework the English one!).
I have drawn a new piece of Rainbow Orchid artwork for a promotional poster, but I'll leave that to be revealed by Tellerup at the festival, so no sneaky peeks just yet! Oh, okay, maybe just a little one ...