Thursday, May 02, 2019

Doctor Who and the Brexit Monstrosity

In February this year BBC Audio released The Elysian Blade, a Doctor Who talking book written by me. Read by Frazer Hines, it features the Second Doctor [played on screen by Patrick Troughton in the 1960s] with his companions Jamie and Victoria.

They take on a pair of charlatans who dupe people into harming themselves in exchange for false nostalgia. Sacrifice your senses, the villains say, and you can live in some golden world of the past, untroubled by things that disturb you.

It's a story about lies.
It's a story about self-delusion.
But most of all, it's a story about Brexit.

I've written for Doctor Who spin-offs in the past. My first Doctor Who novel was published by Virgin Books way back in 1996; three more followed from BBC Books in 2002, 2003 and 2004. I've also written Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish Productions, the last of those - Enemy of the Daleks - released in 2009.

All of my writing is, inevitably, suffused with my own views but mostly that tends to be politics with a small p. The Elysian Blade makes no bones about the fact it is a metaphor for Brexit. I voted to remain in the EU in 2016 because I believed it made no sense to abandon the opportunities offered by the UK being part of the European Union.

Since the referendum result, much has been revealed about the tactics and falsehoods spread by those running the various Leave campaigns - little of it good. I won't bother to restate them all, because most people's view of Brexit has long since solidified to the point where arguing changes few minds. But I am still a writer, with things to say.

In March 2018, I pitched three ideas for a Second Doctor audio original. One of them - with the working title 'Senseless' - was chosen by BBC Audio for further development. At that stage it was only a single paragraph long, and I hadn't realised what it was really about. Not yet. Here is the original pitch:
The TARDIS arrives on a world where everyone is missing at least one of their senses - but this is no natural phenomenon. The cause is Elysian Fields, a facility where you choose between the Angel of Forgetting and the Blade of Longing. One of them deletes a memory you never wish to recall again; the other lets you relive a long long moment from your past. As payment you must surrender one of your senses - forever.

I teach creative writing at a Scottish university. In one of my classes I talk about stories having a promise and a metaphor. When you as writer make a contract with your reader, what are you promising them? And what is the metaphor underpinning your narrative, what is it that gives your story meaning?

Having been asked to develop 'Senseless' into a two-page synopsis, I practised what I preach in class and thought about the promise of my story - and pondered for what was it a metaphor? And then it hit me: I was writing about Brexit.

I was writing about lies and the false promise of a better future. I was writing about power-hungry charlatans who will say and do anything for their own gain.

Now I had a choice. I could bury the metaphor, make sure the subtext remained so deep that few other people - if anyone - would recognise it. Or I could lean into my metaphor, make sure it was available to find for those willing or able to hear it.

I didn't want to write a didactic anti-Brexit rant. that wouldn't do anyone any good. But I recognised this metaphor had the power to add depth and meaning to my story.

So I opted to lean into it. I would write Doctor Who and the Brexit Monstrosity.

Once that decision was made, everything else fell into place. I needed a dodgy duo to sell their lies and mendacity to the colonists of the unnamed world in my story. Recent British politics have had plenty of craven opportunists, so casting was easy.

And it all still had to work as a Doctor Who story. It needed to have adventure and jeopardy, it needed to embody everything that is great about the Doctor - how he is never cowardly or cruel, how he fights for those unable to fight for themselves, how he uses the power of words and intelligence to overcome the brutality and falsehoods of others.

After several drafts the project was signed off last summer, and recorded with Frazer Hines - who played Jamie in Doctor Who during the 1960s - as reader. The Elysian Blade was released on CD and download in February this year, just seven weeks before Britain was due to leave the EU.

Three months on, the Brexit process has ground to a halt. Britain still hasn't left, with the ill-prepared exit proving to be an impossible task for the UK Government thus far.

Doctor Who Magazine #537 © Panini UK Ltd 2019

The Elysian Blade has had a few reviews, all very positive. So far I've only seen one  that explicitly noted the Brexit subtext lurking beneath my story - and that's fine. It means I did my job as a writer. I didn't shove my views down people's throats, I let them discover the metaphor for themselves.

So, why am I making the implicit explicit now? Ego, perhaps. Will outing The Elysian Blade as an anti-Brexit narrative mean extra sales? Probably not. But I am proud of the story, and I'd like more people to hear it. So here's a tiny excerpt from what I wrote:
'You promised these people they could red if anything they didn't like about their lives, or themselves. You convinced them they could travel back to some imaginary time in the past when they were happy, when everything was simpler, when nothing challenged them or made them uneasy. 

But life isn't like that. You have to live in here and now. You make things better by facing them, not by holding on to some idealised version of a past that never existed.'

Sunday, February 25, 2018

My self-publishing experiment - Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse - hits a wee landmark

My eBook ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse has just passed 750 sales. Not much in publishing terms, but it's a wee landmark for a £4.99 eBook with no marketing, no print version to enhance visibility, and a niche audience.

ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse is an unoffical non-fiction guide to the TV series Endeavour and Inspector Morse, to Colin Dexter's original novels and short stories, plus Morse on radio and stage.

All the non-Endeavour material in the eBook had previously been published as The Complete Inspector Morse [TCIM] by Reynolds & Hearn across four editions, and then by Titan Books in a new 2011 edition. Those were all print only, a mix of paperback and hardback.

Titan later issued an eBook of TCIM but numerous reviews berated the low quality of its formatting. A reference text should enable readers to dip in and out of an eBook, not force them to scroll through hundreds of unchaptered pages to find what they seek.

In 2016 Titan confirmed it would not commission a new edition, but the company declined to revert rights in the book until the physical print run had sold out. That was estimated for 2017, and under the terms of my contract, Titan could wait another two years before reverting my rights.

I signed my original contract with Reynolds & Hearn in 2001, long before eBooks. R&H did obtain the electronic rights, but only on a non-exclusive basis. After some prodding Titan confirmed I could publish my own eBook, if I wished.

For the cover image, a fellow Endeavour enthusiast provided a photo taken during filming in Oxford - instead of paying a fee, they suggested I make a donation to charity. I happily paid Caroline Goldsmith to prep the eBook for upload [I recommend her!]. 

I made the eBook an Amazon exclusive priced at £4.99 - not cheap for a non-fiction eBook. I published ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse on December 23rd 2016, just ahead of the 30th anniversary of Morse first appearing on British TV.

After Amazon took its cut, I estimated the eBook needed to sell 100 copies to break even. Happily it passed that a year ago, thanks to Endeavour Series 4 being broadcast.


To my surprise, ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse has continued selling, even when new episodes of Endeavour aren't on screen [which is most of the year]. It's a steady wee earner, as the  sales chart above demonstrates.

Despite being only an eBook, I've made far more royalties from this edition over the past year than I did from the traditionally published print versions of TCIM. New episodes of Endeavour makes a big difference, but so does 70% royalties instead of 7-10%!

After some gentle prodding Titan have now reverted all rights in the book, meaning I can publish the next edition in print and eBook if I choose. There's plenty of new material to add, with 10 new episodes of Endeavour and an Inspector Morse radio play.

But for now I'm happy to enjoy a wee landmark, and look forward to watching another new episode of Endeavour on ITV tonight. Onwards!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

My PLR top ten titles for July 2016 - June 2017

Every year the Public Lending Right sends registered authors a statement estimating how many times their books were borrowed from UK libraries. To compensate for lost sales, the PLR pays 8.2 pence per loan. There's a maximum payment threshold [£6600] to prevent bestselling authors from draining the PLR's precious coffers.

About 22,000 authors get payments for the most recent PLR period [July 2016 - June 2017], with 195 on the maximum of £6600. The fate of the PLR is in flux, as cash-strapped councils close libraries and eBooks alter reading habits. But authors still welcome this new year bonus.

It is free to register your books for PLR - just go here. Even if you only wrote [or drew, in the case of comics artist] part of a collection, you can still register your bit. I represent a tiny 3% of the Heavy Metal Dredd graphic novel, but it makes me a few pennies. Like a fool, I forgot to complete registration for the only new book I had published in the most recent PLR period - tsk!

This year's top ten for my titles features several 2000AD-related tomes, two  editions of the same Doctor Who novel, a Warhammer tie-in, and a hugely unsuccessful non-fiction book about the films of Michael Caine. That last book sold so badly, I think more people have read library copies over the past 15 years than ever bought the damned thing when it first came out in 2003.

It's a nice surprise to the Heroes Reborn tie-in to which I contributed appear on this list. I wrote an ebook novella and didn't expect anything to come of that, but it was reprinted by Titan with two other novellas from the series as a wee omnibus. Anyway, here are my top ten titles in librares for July 2016 - June 2017 (with previous year's placing in brackets).

1. (2) Heavy Metal Dredd (graphic novel, published 2009)
2. (1) Fiends of the Eastern Front: Stalingrad (graphic novel, 2010)
3. (-) The Complete Inspector Morse (2006)
4. (6) Doctor Who: Amorality Tale (2002)
5. (-) Thrill-Power Overload (2007)
6. (-) Judge Dredd: Kingdom of the Blind (200?)
7. (5) Starring Michael Caine (2003)
8. (-) Heroes Reborn (2016)
9. (8) A Massacre in Marienburg (2008)
10. (4) Doctor Who: Amorality Tale (new edition, 2015) )

Thursday, May 04, 2017

BLAZING BATTLE ACTION published as an eBook



In 2003 I wrote a behind the scenes account of how trail-blazing British war comic Battle was created and nurtured, as told by those who were there. Commissioned for the Judge Dredd Megazine by then-editor Alan Barnes, it was published as four articles. And there the story remained, trapped inside back issues, in danger of being forgotten all over again - until now.

I have just published an ebook of BLAZING BATTLE ACTION, available exclusively via Amazon. It is a text-only edition because I do not own the rights to any images from the relevant comics. The prose has been lightly edited and updated to reflect recent reprints of material from the pages of Battle. Hopefully more gems from the comic’s pages will be made available for a new generation of readers to enjoy afresh.

It's no exaggeration to say Battle changed the face of British comics. Launched in 1975 by writers John Wagner and Pat Mills with editor Dave Hunt, Battle hacked a path through the jungle of anodyne, lacklustre weeklies throttling the life from the industry at the time. It showed there was a market for harder-hitting, more challenging comics, paving a way for the controversial, short-lived Action and for the iconic science fiction anthology 2000AD.

In its pages Battle published one of the greatest stories ever told in British comics - Charley's War. Meticulously researched by writer Pat Mills and painstakingly illustrated by Joe Colquhoun, Charley's War was a landmark narrative that has stood the test of time and remains arguably the best work by either creator.

Battle was a trailblazing title that unearthed a new generation of British talent, but the comic suffered a slow death during the 1980s while 2000AD was enjoying its golden age. Dead comics soon get forgotten, and their story dies with them - but BLAZING BATTLE ACTION might help keep this particular story alive.

As with ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse, I employed the services of digital maven Caroline Goldsmith to make this ebook fit for purpose. She’s very helpful and reasonably priced, I can recommend her services if you’re too time-poor [or, like me, lazy] to learn formatting - any mistakes in BBA are my fault.


The BLAZING BATTLE ACTION ebook is available for just £1.99 on Amazon - or free to read for those who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited. I don’t expect to make much money, as it’s a niche topic, and I’ll be happy if this edition eventually covers its costs. But I believed the story deserves to be readily available. 

If you loved reading Battle back in the day, or enjoyed the history of 2000AD I co-wrote [THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, now available in a hefty new hardback edition!], try BLAZING BATTLE ACTION. It’s a right riveting read - but then, I would say that. So here's what a couple of readers said about the original articles:
"Text features in the Megazine have been essential reading for many years ... probably the best of them have been David Bishop's histories of 2000AD (Thrill-Power Overload) and Battle (the most shorter, but just as fascinating Blazing Battle Action" - Grant Goggans, Thrill-Powered Thursday.

"If you read Battle and enjoyed Thrill-Power Overload, this is a great little history lesson" - Simeon Brewer, The Judge Dredd Megazine Odyssey.
BLAZING BATTLE ACTION ebook is available now exclusively on Amazon.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A most Remorseful Day: rest in peace, Colin Dexter


Just read about the death of Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse. He was 86 and had not been well enough to make his usual cameos during last year's filming of Endeavour series 4, but news of his passing still comes as a shock, and a sadness.

I had the pleasure of meeting Colin several times at signings during the 1990s when he was still writing new Morse novels. He was friendly and quick of wit, with a ready smile and a genuine affection for his readers - a true gentleman of an author.

I read all his novels and loved the Morse TV series. When both ended - the novels in 1999, the show a year later - I wanted to capture my appreciation for them. From that was born The Complete Inspector Morse, published by Reynolds & Hearn in 2002.

The book was a modest success, and three revised editions followed at R&H to reflect the enduring appeal of Colin Dexter's characters. When Titan commissioned a new edition in 2011, just as news of a young Morse TV drama set in the 1960s was breaking.

Four series of Endeavour have followed, with an extended fifth run of episodes in the works for 2018. And I have maintained my appreciation by adding the new show to my appreciative text, now an ebook entitled Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse.

Colin Dexter is gone, but his wonderful characters endure thanks to screenwriter Russell Lewis, actor Shaun Evans, and all those involved at Mammoth. There's even a new Morse play on Radio 4 this Saturday, House of Ghosts, written by Alma Cullen.

For those of us who have enjoyed Morse on page or on screen - the worldwide TV audience was estimated at a billion in more than 200 countries - this is a terribly sad day. For Colin Dexter's family and friends, it must be far worse. Our thoughts are with them.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
- A.E. Housman

Monday, March 13, 2017

Celebrating some of 2000AD's unsung heroes

A prominent 2000AD creator recently published a list of unsung heroes from the weekly's 40 year history, all of them deserving recognition for their contribution. Well, here's another list of heroes from various periods in the Galaxy's greatest comic.

RICHARD BURTON
Less than a dozen editors have spent any time in the big chair at 2000AD, so there's not many people who understand the unique stresses and strains that come with the Rosette of Sirius. Among those few, Richard gets little credit for doing a sterling job in near-impossible circumstances. He took over when creative talent was leaving for the promise of recognition and royalties elsewhere.

Richard kept the comic going and managed to turn things around, putting together an amazing run of iconic stories and art. The Horned God, Zenith, Necropolis, the death of Johnny Alpha - all part of his tenure. So time were Button Man, Hewligan's Haircut, and the first graphic novel collections. Richard also had the tricky task of introducing colour to the prog, and responding to the advent of Toxic.

Were there mistakes along the way? Of course. Any 2000AD editor who claims to have presided over a perfect era is deluding themselves, just like any creator who always finds someone else to blame when things go wrong. But Richard deserves credit for the many things his editorship did achieve, often against overwhelming odds and amid endless mockery of his droid counterpart Burt.

STEVE YEOWELL
This artist has been around the pages of 2000AD for the better part of thirty years, a consumate professional who always delivers. From his early work on Zenith through strips like Maniac 5, Devlin Waugh, Red Seas and many more, Steve is the artist any editor wants to employ. He can draw scripts that appear impossible, sending them on time, every time. You want storytelling that looks effortless? You want an artist who doesn't need their ego stroked to get the job done? Send for Steve Yeowell.

CHRIS BLYTHE
Colourists don't get noticed, unless they mess up. It is one of the invisible jobs in comics, along with lettering and design and - to an extent - editing. A great colourist serves the story and  artist, and Chris is a great colourist. He took computer colouring in 2000AD great leaps forward, enhancing the look of Judge Dredd in particular and the comic as a whole. I'm not sure I ever met Chris, but he did stellar work week in, week out. Most everything looks better with Chris on colouring.

JOHN TOMLINSON
Another former editor of 2000AD, and a writer for the Galaxy's greatest comic as well. John was a freelance assistant in the early 1990s and became editor for a spell, working with Steve MacManus after the previous incumbent was made redundant in a brutal round of cost-cutting. John didn't have long to make his mark as editor, but his contributions are still important such as commissioning Nikolai Dante and America II. He also wrote two under-appreciated strips - the anarchic Armoured Gideon, and the more measured Mercy Heights.

THE LETTERERS
Just as great colourists go unnoticed, so do wonderful letterers - and 2000AD has been served by some giants in that area. The legendary Tom Frame, the wonderful Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville, plus craftsmen like Steve Potter and more recently Simon Bowland. You don't appreciate how good these people are until you attempt some lettering for yourself. It's a skill and an art, leading the eye around the page, shaping the narrative while remaining unnoticed. Truly, letterers are heroes.

AND SO MANY MORE...
Artists like Simon Davis and Colin MacNeil, pouring all their talents and their creative energies into telling stories through paint. Amazing cover artists like Jason Brashill and Mark Harrison, who can bring the front of a comic to life - and who are no slouches at storytelling inside that cover. Art editors and designers like Steve Cook, whose iconic logo still graces the front of 2000AD today and deservedly so.

And the current editor Matt Smith, longest-serving of all the Thargs by many years - he may not be a screaming extrovert like some predecessors, but his time in the Command Module has proven to be among the most fruitful, most trouble-free and more important in 2000AD history. Long may he wear the Rosette of Sirius with pride!

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Top 10 covers I commissioned for 2000AD titles

The 40th anniversary edition of THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, the unfiltered history of 2000AD by myself and Karl Stock, has reminded me of the amazing talents with whom I was lucky enough to work. I spent twelve years in editorial on various 2000AD titles from 1990 until 2001, going from freelance to staff and back to freelance again.

During that time I commissioned close to 500 different covers from dozens of different artists. Just for fun, here are my top 10 picks from among the many. I could easily have picked another 40 for this list, but these ten will do as a representative sample for today...

Pop Art inspired piece by Sean Phillips for the Judge Dredd Megazine's relaunch as a fortnightly title in 1992 - and this really did pop on the shelves. It was an experimental effort, but one that worked well and was distinctly different from other comics of the time.

Dean Ormston painted this lush image of the Dark Judges for The Complete Judge Dredd, a monthly re-presenting the future lawman's stories in order. It gave 1990s artists a chance to homage to classic strips - in this case, Brian Bolland's Judge Death Lives.

A portrait of Judge Hershey for the Megazine by Simon Davis, now better known for his work on Sinister Dexter and Sláine. Outside the world of British comics, Simon is an acclaimed portrait artist so he was the perfect choice for this striking image of Hershey.

Dozens of the covers I commissioned were homages to artists and striking images. For this Sláine cover I asked Duncan Fegredo to channel Gustav Klimt. It was a fun subversion to have the male character naked and the woman fully clothed for a change.

Jock painted a cracking Missionary Man cover for the Judge Dredd Megazine but the image didn't work with our required elements until I tried an extreme close-up, running the text down one side like an old Wanted poster.Not perfect, but eye-catching.

Steven Cook was 2000AD's art editor for many years and always eager to push the design envelope. He was creating some amazing photo imagery for other titles, so when Devlin Waugh went Bollywood it seemed the perfect opportunity to challenge the norm.

I have an abiding aversion to periodicals who put snow on their logo for the Xmas issue, but am not averse to theming a cover should a fitting idea arise. Kevin Walker provided this festive image for the Megazine, a change from his familiar fully painted style.

Another homage cover, this time spoofing a Tim Bradstreet painting for the Vertigo crime anthology comic mini-series Gangland. The redoubtable Cliff Robinson drew Dredd on the porcelain throne, reflecting a wry Gordon Rennie & Chris Weston story inside.

Dermot Power is a great artist who now works almost exclusively in design for films, a sad loss for comics. I managed to lure him back a few times to provide covers, and this image is a corker. I love how it captures Devlin Waugh's utter nonchalance.

The best single issue I edited, with my all-time favourite cover. Brian Bolland provided this homage to the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo by Joe Rosenthal, with 2000AD characters atop a mound of past British comics - a tribute to those who went before...