The year was very good for The Rainbow Orchid, seeing two new translations - a French language collection from Belgian publisher BD Must, and a German language edition from Salleck Publishing - and in November the book was made available in a digital edition through Sequential for iPad. The Complete Rainbow Orchid was shortlisted for a British Comic Award and - much to my surprise - ended up winning in its category, The Young People's Comic Award.
A new Julius Chancer story, The Secret of the Samurai, was serialised in four episodes in The Phoenix (and Metaphrog very kindly cited it as one of their best of the year over at the Forbidden Planet blog).
At the start of the year I didn't have many events planned, but the second half quickly booked up, with Stripped at the Edinburgh Festival, Nerd Fest, the Lakes Comic Art Festival, and Comic Action in Germany.
So what about 2014? I can already mention two events - the big one will see me at Angouleme in France at the end of January, and then I'll be at DemonCon in Maidstone in the middle of February. There will be more to come, so keep an eye on the events page. I'll also be doing more school events this year (but I tend not to list those).
There will be new Julius Chancer too. My plan is to start the new book and put the first few pages on the website. I'd like to do another short for The Phoenix (if they'll have me), but let's wait and see. And then I'd like to continue and get the next book well on its way and completed in early 2015. That's the plan anyway ... sometimes things change!
I hope you had a lovely Christmas break - and here's to a happy and prosperous 2014 for all of us!
Gance was a genius of the silent era, making startlingly creative films such as J'Accuse and La Roue. But his biggest project was Napoléon, and as soon as I read about it in Brownlow's book - in the mid-nineties - I knew I had to see it.
The trouble is, Napoléon is not an easy film to see. Pretty much as soon as it had its premiere, in 1927, the film was sent out into the world cut down, reformatted, re-edited, cut again, partially lost, resized, copied and recopied, and even, in the 1930s, dubbed into an awful sound version. Audiences who went to see the the film, proclaimed as sensational on its first showing, often saw something heavily watered down at best, and an incomprehensible mess at worst. Gance's star faded and he entered a long period of creative anticlimax.
That the film has today been restored to its former glory, and reappraised into its rightful high place in film history, is almost all down to the enthusiasm of one man - Kevin Brownlow. As a young film collector in the 1950s he happened across two reels of the film and was immediately struck by its originality and style. He set out to find more, a quest that led him to the flea markets of Paris, the guarded archives of France's Cinémathèque, and far beyond - including meeting and befriending Abel Gance himself.
That process of reconstruction has never really ended, despite it enjoying huge revival showings in the early 1970s and 80s. Finally, last week, I was able to see the film myself, in a one-off screening at the Royal Festival Hall, complete with live orchestra accompaniment from the Philharmonia, with Carl Davis conducting his own score for the nearly six-hour film.
I was slightly worried that the reality of Napoléon would not live up to my expectations, having heard and read so much about it, but the film actually left me in something of a daze. Some of the impact was immediate - the stunning Brienne snowball fight that opens the film, the emotional unveiling of La Marseillaise, the sensation of the convention scene, the rapid cutting of Napoléon and Josephine's previous encounters, the victims' ball (where the men were 18th century and the women were all but 1920s flappers), and - the show stopper - the much anticipated widening of the screen to reveal Gance's innovative triptych as Napoléon's army marches into Italy. Other scenes I struggled with slightly, usually owing to my own lack of Napoléonic knowledge - the scenes in Corsica being a case in point, but not much else besides that.
The music was a huge part of the experience - what a feat of stamina for the orchestra, and Davis, to keep going for so long, never mind keeping in sync with the film (including some perfectly timed cannon shots). It was a couple of days before some of the musical themes faded from my head.
What is stunning about the film is not so much the story (interesting as it is), but the way it was told. Gance freed the camera - it was a snowball in flight, it was attached to sleds and guillotines, it swung on a pendulum and ran around attached to an operator's chest. The cutting was tight and sometimes startlingly rapid. At other times the screen was charged with two or three images on top of each other, wonderfully composed. The scope of the film, as you'd expect with the subject, was epic, a feeling reflected in the triptych, sometimes displaying a vast panorama with horses galloping from one end to the other, and sometimes parading two or three juxtaposed images. At one point the three screens were tinted with the Tricolore. It was immensely impressive.
Brownlow's story of the reconstruction of Napoléon is as fascinating as the film itself, and a couple of days ago I attended a talk by him at the British Flm Institute, though much of that story is written in more detail in his very absorbing book Napoléon: Abel Gance's Classic Film. It was really a triumph of will to put the film back together, especially in dealing with the often obstructive Cinémathèque, and even sometimes with Gance himself. One particularly poignant image is of Gance, 89 years old, watching alone from his hotel window as the audience below, at an outdoor revival in Telluride, gasped in astonishment at the revived masterpiece.
At the BFI someone asked if Stanley Kubrick, given his interest in Napoléon, had ever approached him about Gance's version. Brownlow - after not quite hearing and saying "Stan who?" - causing much laughter - replied that Kubrick had 'phoned him, asking for a print. "You're a man of the cinema", said Brownlow, "you have to see it on the big screen!". Kubrick, to his knowledge, never did. When informed that Baz Luhrmann had recently been chosen to revive Kubrick's project he rolled his eyes; when he was told that is was for television, he groaned!
There are many other stories, not least of the actors, particularly Albert Dieudonné, who played Napoléon, and never again stepped out of his shadow (on a trip to London later in life he said "I do not want to visit Trafalgar or Waterloo!").
If you get the chance to see Abel Gance's Napoléon - do so (it's next showing in Amsterdam, in 2014). Do not see it on DVD - there is one available, and Brownlow warned us not to buy it from the BFI shop; he wanted his name taken off it, "but instead they made it bigger" he sighed. This is a spectacle - it demands a big screen, live music, and an audience. A true emperor of film.
Special thanks to Linda Wada for her excellent company on this cinematic expedition!
Can you give an overview of who Panel Nine are, and what Sequential is?
Panel Nine is a digital publishing company specializing in digital comics and graphic novels. It's actually an imprint of iEnglish.com, a software development company based in Tokyo which does a lot of educational apps for companies like Oxford University Press.
Sequential is a digital graphic novel storefront app, which we launched in May this year . We offer a range of graphic novels and comics, tending towards the more literary stuff rather than going down the superhero route. It has a Storefront where you can see new releases and browse books to buy, and a Library where you can read the books you've downloaded.
How did you end up at Panel Nine - did you work in publishing beforehand?
After a degree in Philosophy and Theology, which unsurprisingly proved useless in the real world, I worked in children's publishing for several years, writing and editing magazines and activity books. Then my boyfriend and I moved to Tokyo in March 2011 (that's right - just before the big earthquake) and when I was there I got the job at iEnglish. I worked over there for a couple of years, and then when we decided to come home earlier this year, the company asked if I'd stay on and work from London.
And what is your role within the company?
I'm the Editorial Director, so I work with publishers and artists to decide what we put on the app and when, and then oversee the process of getting the books digitized and releasing them. Basically keeping everything ticking over. We're a small company, so I also pitch in with a lot of the production stuff, getting the layouts and extra features just right. I do a fair bit of business development as well - Sequential isn't the only thing we do and we always have other projects to work on.
What's involved in turning a book, such as The Rainbow Orchid, into a Sequential title?
After we get files from the publisher, we redo the pages to fit the iPad screen, take out blank pages, maybe put in some extra bits if necessary. Any double-page spreads are put together as proper spreads, so you can pan across them rather than just seeing the left and right pages separately. We create the panel links so readers can zoom in to Panel Mode, then other resources such as thumbnail images, contents, the main menus and 'about' screens etc. Some books, such as The Complete Rainbow Orchid, have extra features only available on Sequential, so we'll put all those together too.
Then when all the resources are ready they're bundled together and tested very thoroughly. When we know everything's perfect, the book is ready for release on the app, along with information on our Storefront about the book itself, and the creator and publisher.
Can you explain some of the features that are available with books on the Sequential platform?
Each book has Page Mode and Panel Mode, so you can zoom in and see panels in more detail, or read panel by panel. We worked really hard to make everything intuitive, easy to read, and pleasant, too - super-fast swiping, no horrid pixellated images, or waiting for pages to load. We can also add a whole range of things - extra content such as interviews, sketches and artwork, audio commentaries, videos, webviews, and HTML 5 content - almost anything, really.
We also have a new way of reading comics, which we're calling Sequential Mode. This is where, instead of swiping to the next page, you tap or swipe and one image is replaced with another, using any kind of transition you like. It makes for an interesting new way to present sequential images and tell a story. There's a freebie called Fictions which you can download in the app if anyone would like to have a look.
What are some of the other titles available through Sequential?
We're working with a whole load of brilliant publishers, so we have books from Jonathan Cape, Knockabout, Myriad, Blank Slate, plus a range of stuff from smaller and indie publishers like Great Beast, Tabella, Soaring Penguin, and Metaphrog. So you'll find a whole range of things from the greats like Alan Moore and Gilbert Shelton to more small press titles from people like Dan Berry, Terry Wiley and Isabel Greenberg.
We aim to provide a fairly carefully curated selection, and we're quite picky about what we put on the app, so you won't find any superheroes and you won't have to wade through loads of substandard stuff trying to find something decent to read. (At least, that's the idea!) And we add new books every week, so there's lots of good stuff coming soon. We're always interested to hear what readers would like to see, too.
Is Sequential available on any other platforms, besides iPad? Any plans?
It's currently only available for the iPad, but we're working on an Android version which should be released next year. Watch this space...
Is there much resistance to digital comics, from either readers or publishers? Do you think it's something people are embracing, or is there still work to do?
I think there's definitely still work to do. Digital's still fairly new, really, and a lot of publishers are understandably cautious about how and when to make the leap to digital. Having said that, people are reading digitally more than ever so there's definitely a need for it.
Often I hear people talk as though there's some kind of war between print and digital - as though if they read a digital comic they'll be betraying print, or aiding its decline. I don't think that's the case, and at Panel Nine we're certainly not trying to lure people away from print - I wouldn't work here if we were, I love my huge piles of old books too much. We're trying to provide an alternative, so you can find books you might not come across in your local comics shop (if you even have a local comics shop), or you can give your groaning bookshelves a bit of a rest, or if you fancy reading a gigantic tome like From Hell on the bus but you don't want to lug it round with you all day. And of course, digital comics can often include things print versions can't - audio, video, other bells and whistles. So I think print and digital can complement each other and there's a time and a place for both.
Another assumption people make is that all digital is the same, which frustrates me every time you see a bad comics app which is unresponsive, or difficult to navigate, or where you're not sure where to tap or what will happen. Just as print books can be designed well or badly, or be high-spec or low quality, so digital comics can be smooth and intuitive, or clunky and annoying to use. But all digital tends to get tarred with the same brush and I think a lot of people have tried a low-standard app or reader and thought 'that's it then, digital's not for me'.
Were you a comics reader before your involvement with Panel Nine?
To be honest I wasn't much of a comics reader. I'd read some random bits and pieces - Posy Simmonds, Scott Pilgrim, Ghost World, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I mostly stuck to my 19th century novels and I wouldn't have said I was a comics fan. I've read a lot more over the past couple of years though!
Do you have some favourites (digital or not)?
It's an obvious choice but From Hell is one of my favourites - it's just breathtaking in its scope and scale. I just got round to reading Alice in Sunderland and it kind of blew me away. Favourite newer ones include The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon and Eustace by SJ Harris... and I'm looking forward to reading The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg - I haven't found time yet but it looks amazing. I also try and read stuff in Japanese; comics can be a really good language learning tool because of the visual element, so I'm working my way very slowly through some Tintin at the moment. Oh, and I do love The Phoenix... I'm biased because we do the iPad app, which is great because it means I get to see Bunny vs Monkey before everyone else.
A huge thanks to Chloë for taking the time to answer my questions, and for providing such interesting answers! You can download the Sequential app for free here, and you can see my video tour of The Rainbow Orchid on Sequential here.
I've only played a tiny part in the history of The Phoenix, but I'm very proud to have had my work within its pages: The Legend of the Golden Feather in no. 1, The Bald Boy and the Dervish in nos. 23-26 (both written by Ben Haggarty), and Julius Chancer: The Secret of the Samurai in nos. 75-78.
The Phoenix has been consistently excellent, every week, regularly featuring the work of many of the best British creators ... Neill Cameron, Daniel Hartwell, Adam Murphy, Gary Northfield, the Etherington brothers, Robert Deas, Zak Simmonds-Hurn, Dave Shelton, Jamie Smart, Kate Brown, Paul Duffield, Wilbur Dawbarn, Jamie Littler, Matt Baxter, Dan Boultwood ... and that's not even half of them.
Special tribute should be made to the editors, firstly Ben Sharpe, and then his successor, Will Fickling - and not forgetting the man whose vision brought The Phoenix into existence, the man with the red bow tie, David Fickling.
I really hope The Phoenix continues well into, and beyond, its next 100 issues - it is part of the lifeblood of the British comics scene and is responsible for growing a massive crop of new comics readers and creators in this country. If you love good comics then you really should treat yourself!