Monday, September 14, 2020

Thirty years ago, the Judge Dredd Megazine was born!

 Hard to believe, but 30 years ago this week Judge Dredd The Megazine was launched as a spin-off from iconic British comics anthology 2000AD. Giving future lawman Dredd his own title had long been mooted, but on September 15th 1990 it became a reality. Happily, it's still going strong today.

 I was assistant editor for the launch, and soon became editor. My association with that title continued off and on for another 11 years as part of the editorial team, and I've since contributed numerous pieces to the title. Here's the first from a series of articles I wrote in 2005 charting the Meg's early years...

In September 1990 a new monthly called Judge Dredd The Megazine was launched into Britain’s turbulent comics market. It lacked the street cred of titles like Deadline and Crisis, nor did it have the media profile of Fleetway’s other new launch that year, Revolver. But the Megazine survived while the rest stumbled, garnering readers, respect and plenty of awards. Fifteen years on, the monthly is still going strong. Now David Bishop tells the story of its tumultuous history…

Giving Judge Dredd his own comic looks an obvious choice in retrospect, yet it almost never happened. The future lawman made his debut strip appearance in March 1977, relegated to the back pages of 2000 AD’s second issue. But within months Dredd emerged as a reader’s favourite, thanks to the writing of John Wagner and dynamic visuals by young British artists like Mike McMahon and Ian Gibson. The character got his own annual in 1980, a sure sign that publisher IPC considered Dredd a valuable asset. In 1984 the company asked Wagner and co-writer Alan Grant to develop a Judge Dredd fortnightly. Scripts were written, strips drawn and lettered, everything seemed set to go. But IPC got cold feet and cancelled the launch, to the frustration of those involved.

Steve MacManus was editor of 2000 AD at the time. ‘Any Judge Dredd spin-off that made it to the newsstands was always going to succeed,’ he believes. This was proven when the first Judge Dredd Mega-Special was published in 1988, selling 75,000 copies when 2000 AD was shifting 100,000 progs a week. Plainly, there was a hunger for more Dredd material. But IPC had sold its comics group to Maxwell Consumer Magazines, who established the group as a company called Fleetway Publications. Instead of giving Dredd his head, the new owners chose to launch a title strongly influenced by the success of mature comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.

The result was Crisis, a politically charged fortnightly that was an initial hit but soon found itself struggling to make a profit. The following summer Jon Davidge joined Fleetway as publishing director. He decided the time was right to do a Dredd spin-off. ‘This was good publishing,’ Davidge recalls. ‘Dredd was our strongest character, he was aimed at our core audience. We should have done the Megazine instead of Crisis, but that decision was taken before I arrived.’ By 1989 MacManus was managing editor of the 2000 AD Group. It had been losing talent to US comics for years because British publishers refusing to pay royalties. MacManus insisted there had to be financial incentives attached to the new Dredd title, otherwise key creators would not get involved.

Wagner was crucial to the new launch, since he had created Dredd with artist Carlos Ezquerra and scripted most of the character’s stories for a dozen years. ‘They needed me to do it,’ the writer recalls. ‘I felt it was an opportune time to put forward my proposals for a fairer deal for creators. Originally it was meant to be me and Alan [Grant] developing the Megazine, but I did most of the initial work because of a misunderstanding.’

The two writers had dissolved their highly successful partnership two years earlier. Grant says they had drifted apart as a consequence. ‘We were out in London one night and [Fleetway PR consultant} Igor Goldkind was there, pleading with John to work on the Megazine. By the end of the evening John and I were back on speaking terms and decided I would play a part in the Megazine as well. Having done so much work previously on prototypes, John negotiated a deal whereby we would be consultant editors and get a percentage in return.’

MacManus was chosen as in-house launch editor. He recalls Wagner coming into the office for an initial meeting to discuss what characters might appear in the new title. ‘There were some proposals already on the table. The concept of a Dredd magazine had been known for quite a while. People were just pitching in, we weren’t commissioning yet. At that meeting we agreed the title would be called the Judge Dredd Megazine. The development work was very easy, I must say. It was simply a question of John writing it, assigning artists and getting on with it. My role was more of a production editor, trafficking material.’

Wagner has a different recollection. He says finding the quality of material he wanted proved tremendously difficult. ‘I have set ideas about Dredd’s world and the kind of stories I like, I’m afraid. I was giving prospective writers a very hard time of it. Sitting in judgement over other writers is not a position I like to be in, it’s one of the reasons I quit editorial in the first place.’

A new generation of writers and artists had emerged in the late 1980s to fill the gap left by established creators going to work for the American market. Many submitted ideas for the new Dredd launch, among them writer John Smith. ‘I was asked by Steve MacManus to come up with a series when the comic was still in pre-production, but all the ideas I pitched got turned down, one way or another. There was an occult investigator story starring Eddy Whyteman [a character Smith recycled for the recent Devlin Waugh story All Hell], a Cursed Earth hospital story and a kind of Alan Bennett comedy strip about a Brit-Cit stand-up comedian. My favourite series almost made it through. It was set in the Academy of Law and followed a group of young cadets as they joined up and trained. I think John Wagner suggested I write that. It would have been revealed one of the cadets was a clone from the Fargo-Dredd bloodline. 

‘Unfortunately everyone felt I went way over the top in terms of nastiness,’ Smith recalls. ‘My view was if you have these five-year-olds being shipped off by their parents to this terrible, soul-destroying place, it’s bound to fuck them up. The Academy of Law is just an institutionalised child-abuse factory, a way of brainwashing innocent, impressionable kids and turning them into mindless, robotic servants of the Law. The story was basically Scum with primary school kids and showed all the horrifying consequences I’m sure that would involve. Thinking about it now, that probably was a bit strong.’

American writer James Hudnall was commissioned to write a six-part story called Killer, featuring Japanese Judge Sadu. ‘I got that through my dealings with Steve MacManus,’ he recalls. ‘I met him at a convention in Britain and he was interested in me doing some work. I wrote the first two parts of Killer and got paid, but there was an editorial shuffle or something and it never got finished.’ An El Salvadorian artist living in Paris, Carlos Kastro, was mooted for Sadu. Hudnall knew Kastro from the San Francisco Bay area where they both used to live.

MacManus says some projects proposed for the Megazine got further than others, but he doesn’t recall why Killer was dropped. ‘Sadu was a good character. Maybe we were holding that back for later, but it never progressed. It was important to choose the right stories for the first issue. There wasn’t a need to create new characters for the launch.’ He says there was one character from the Dredd universe everybody wanted in the Megazine – the skysurf champion Marlon Shakespeare, better known as Chopper.

Up and coming writer Garth Ennis was selected to take over this iconic character from Wagner. ‘When John and Steve started to put the Megazine together, they asked me to do something,’ Ennis explains. ‘They didn’t have too much idea of what they wanted in there, apart from Dredd, so it really came down to the supporting characters. Chopper was kicking about at the time. He had been pretty much shot to death in John’s story Song of the Surfer.’ 

Wagner says he was initially against reviving Chopper, but came round. ‘In my mind Song of the Surfer stood alone as a story. As long as I personally didn’t write the follow-up, I felt I hadn’t committed any breach of faith with Chopper. Rather in the same way I’ve never regarded any Strontium Dog stories not written by me or Alan as real, and am quite prepared to disregard or rewrite any continuity not established by myself. A bit arrogant, perhaps, but they’re my characters. In any case, I liked Garth and John McCrea’s work. I’d been really impressed by Troubled Souls [in Crisis] and wanted to see them in the Megazine. They wanted to do Chopper, so I let them. Aside from Chopper’s miraculous revival, there was nothing in their story I took exception to and was happy to take it on board the Chopper continuity.’

Ennis was the only one from the new wave of young writers to make the launch issue. Grant joined Wagner for some of the deliberations. ‘I recall us sitting with heaps of scripts from the usual suspects for the Megazine. We took a lot of care trying to tell people what they were doing wrong, but they didn’t seem to pay attention. The Megazine was the first thing we had an ongoing interest in, therefore we wanted it to be as successful as we could possibly make it.’ But Wagner and Grant were not the only creators to benefit if the monthly was a hit. Contracts were issued to all the contributors guaranteeing them a royalty for all sales over 50,000 copies.

Unable to find what he wanted from other writers, Wagner was forced to script three of the strips in the launch issue. Cam Kennedy illustrated Beyond Our Kenny, a Dredd three-parter reviving a minor character from the lawman’s past. Wagner adopted the pseudonym Brian Skuter for Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend, a humorous biography of Dredd’s arch-enemy Judge Death [see sidebar] delicately painted by newcomer Peter Doherty. The writer’s other contribution to the monthly was America [see sidebar]. The final strip was another Dredd tale, Midnite’s Children, written by Grant as launch deadline approached. ‘I bumped into John. He said they needed one more story and it was quite urgent. Jim Baikie had to turn the art round at a high rate of knots.’ The last element was Mega-City Times, a satirical newspaper section written by stand-up comedian Tony Allen and designed with an early version of desktop publishing software by Shanti Tolputt.

Finding suitable strip material was not the only problem. Determining the new title’s format also proved a challenge. Freelance journalist David Bishop joined as assistant editor in July 1990, seven weeks before the first issue went on sale. ‘The Megazine had never existed, so John and Steve had to invent it. They needed the comic to be sufficiently different from 2000 AD to justify its creation, yet familiar enough to also attract 2000 AD readers to buy it.’ Bishop recalls seeing a document proposing the monthly feature a 20-page lead Dredd story, with two back-up tales of 8-10 pages each and a satirical magazine section.

‘That concept had been ditched before I arrived, probably because of the lead time required to produce 20 pages of painted art for a monthly.’ At the time 2000 AD was 36 pages and cost 40 pence. For that readers got 28 pages of strip a week, usually three colour stories and two in black and white. The Megazine was almost four times the price at £1.50 when it launched, but the monthly was full colour with 44 pages of strip and four pages of satirical feature material. A deal for the Megazine to be republished in the US meant the pages had to be the same proportions as an American comic, making them visibly narrower than 2000 AD. [Only two issues of the US edition were published and the Megazine expanded to 2000 AD dimensions in 1992.] 

Once the strip content was chosen, a design template for the new launch was required. ‘We didn’t have an art editor or designer,’ MacManus recalls. ‘We needed someone from outside to fulfil the role of creating a look for the Meg, just as we asked Rian Hughes to create a look for Crisis. Sean Phillips had been painting covers for Crisis that were powerful, design-led images – they suggested he could give the Megazine a style of its own.’

Phillips began working as a comics artist while still at secondary school, but had subsequently completed a graphic design degree. ‘I can’t remember if Steve Mac asked me if I wanted to design the Meg, or if I volunteered – probably he asked me.’ The first seven issues featured a logo that stretched over more than a third of the front cover. ‘I was advised to make the logo as big as possible, to make it eye-catching,’ Phillips recalls. ‘A few months down the line we realised that didn’t leave much space for the image, so it was slightly tweaked.’ 

The artist also painted a gatefold image of Dredd and several old foes for the launch issue that angered several established 2000 AD artists. ‘I was asked to do an illustration showing those particular characters,’ Phillips says. ‘I thought it would be a good idea to do my own painted version of iconic drawings other people had done, using the classic Fink Angel drawing by Mike McMahon and the classic Judge Dredd drawing by Brian Bolland. Steve was okay with that, so I went ahead and did it. Apparently the gatefold pissed a few people off, although I’ve never heard from any of them face to face. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. It wasn’t as if I was basing my whole career on ripping someone else’s style off. It was a single painting and it seemed to fit the first issue.’

MacManus believes the bad blood stemmed from gossip Phillips had been paid a lot of money for the gatefold. ‘There was a rumour he got a lot of money, £4000 instead of the £400 he probably got. These days we’d print the creators’ names next to the image, with a big name-check for Carlos as the original visual creator of Dredd to avoid confusion.’

The first issue of Judge Dredd The Megazine went on sale Saturday September 15, 1990. The title’s original editorial budget was £15,500 an issue, but this was exceeded by almost £2000 on the first issue, thanks to all the extra developmental costs accumulated over the previous year.  Wagner and Grant were named inside as consultant editors, but their role was already diminishing. ‘By the time the first issue was out, I opted to take more of a back seat,’ Wagner recalls. ‘I began to feel I was in danger of stifling the kind of creativity we needed. I let Steve and David Bishop deal with submissions after that.’ The new title was launched with a special luncheon at the UK Comic Art Convention in London. Bishop remembers being terrified at the prospect of meeting Wagner and Grant for the first time at the launch, having only spoken to them on the phone. 

‘I knew how important they were to the comic. Alan was never afraid to say if he thought you were making a mistake, while John has a voice like thunder and gravel fighting at the bottom of a cement mixer. Fortunately, neither of them pointed out how little I knew about comics editing at the time.’ The assistant editor had grown up in New Zealand and was not a regular 2000 AD reader before starting at the Megazine. ‘Steve Mac taught me everything I needed to know about comics editing, gave me a real apprenticeship. He was brilliant at the mechanics of putting together a periodical, and gave me a solid grounding in the vocabulary of the medium. I still think Steve doesn’t get enough credit for his part in what most people call the golden age of 2000 AD.’ 

The Megazine had become increasingly important for Fleetway since its launch was first mooted. By September 1990 sales on Crisis had fallen so far the title switched from fortnightly to monthly publication to stay alive. Earlier in the year Fleetway had launched an ambitious monthly anthology called Revolver, aimed at mature readers. But early sales results suggested its eclectic mix of strips was struggling to find an audience. Even 2000 AD’s normally rock solid circulation was beginning to regularly dip below 100,000 a week. 

Fortunately, the Megazine’s first issue sold more than 50,000 copies in the UK, generating a royalty for all the contributing creators. ‘The success of the Megazine was hugely important for the 2000 AD Group,’ MacManus recalls. Subsequent issues never achieved the same level again, but he says the introduction of creator contracts was a milestone for the company. ‘The principal was there, even if it only applied to that first issue. The Megazine was the first comic from a major British publisher that shared revenue with creators. That’s one of its greatest achievements.’

America by Wagner and Colin MacNeil quickly emerged as the monthly’s outstanding tale. ‘The story had a new depth and intensity,’ Wagner feels. ‘It was a more complete look at Dredd’s world as I see it, and for that alone I still rank America among my best pieces. If you asked me what my favourite Dredd stories were, I’d probably plump for some of the one-offs, but America is right up there.’

MacManus says the strip’s success had a powerful impact on the shape and style of stories that followed. ‘It influenced the voice of the Megazine, showing that voice could go older than in 2000 AD and therefore achieve separation. Having said that, stories such as Young Death always have a place in the title. They deal with the darkly humorous side of Dredd which is so important to his success.’ 

To Bishop America represented a quantum leap forwards in Dredd storytelling. ‘It was so different from everything that had been done with the character and his world before. America had the depth and maturity of tone you saw in the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The story also stood out by deviating from the usual Dredd timeline. All previous stories had taken place in a continuous thread, one after another. America jumped back to before the Apocalypse War, then moved forwards through the Big Meg’s recent history. That gave readers a fresh perspective on Dredd’s world. The quality of Colin MacNeil’s art didn’t hurt either.’

The revival of Chopper was not so popular with readers. Many wrote letters complaining about the character’s Lazarus-like resurrection after being shot to pieces seven months earlier in 2000 AD. Ennis found himself agreeing with the readers. ‘There’s no doubt about it, Chopper should have been left there,’ the writer says. ‘It was one of those stories were I lost interest and began to dislike almost as soon as it was seeing print. I knew Earth, Wind and Fire was a mistake, even then. I thought they don’t like it, I don’t like it. Best to consign it to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible. On the other hand, nice art.’

McCrea was excited to be part of the new launch. ‘It was pretty cool to be in the first issue,’ he told website ‘Certain bits of Chopper were reasonably done on my part. Some of the writing’s not up to scratch, but then neither is some of my drawing. ‘I really was sick of painted artwork. I still to this day don’t think comics should have any painted art … it’s not what the medium’s about. It slows things down, it distracts from the story.’

The fourth issue of the Megazine introduced a new strip. Al’s Baby [see sidebar] was a creator-owned story by Wagner and Ezquerra originally devised for a new British weekly anthology called Toxic! But Wagner withdrew most of his characters from that title before it launched and offered Al’s Baby to the Megazine instead. MacManus was eager to secure an all-new story from the creators of Dredd. There was only one problem: Al’s Baby was set in Chicago during the year 2014 and had nothing to do with Dredd’s world. Wagner suggested adding a page to the first and last episodes, with a robot teacher in a Mega-City One classroom introducing the story as part of a history lesson. ‘Breaking the all-Dredd format of the Meg so early was a bold move,’ MacManus recalls, ‘but that era was full of bold moves. This one worked, happily. Looking back at it now, Al’s Baby reads like a science fiction version of The Sopranos.’

Bishop says a few readers questioned the presence of Al’s Baby in the Megazine, but most welcomed the new arrival. ‘If it had sucked, that would have been more of a problem. The fact Al’s Baby was by the original creators of Dredd helped smooth over the anomaly of it appearing in a comic supposedly devoted solely to telling stories from the world of Dredd.’

MacManus was conscious of the need to find new talent for the monthly. ‘It was hugely important for the Meg to find its own voice otherwise there would have been no differentiation between it and 2000 AD. I felt the Meg had to be booted out from the fold, find its own talent to survive.’ The first newcomer to break in via the monthly was artist Dean Ormston. Wagner was impressed by a Dredd painting Ormston took to a comics convention. He sent the artist to see MacManus, who bought the image to use as a cover [it appeared on the front of Megazine 1.10] and gave the illustrator a Dredd script as a try-out. I Singe the Body Electric was published in the comic’s sixth issue.

‘When I started, I were completely in at the deep end,’ Ormston recalls. He had drawn only one comic strip before, a 12-page Spiderman story for America’s Marvel Comics. ‘I’d never done a painted comic when I started on Dredd. I was learning as I went along. Gradually I got better and enjoyed the episodes more as I got faster and better at painting. The later ones are technically better.’ 

Wagner and Grant were still scripting 80% of the Megazine, and finding new writers who could match them was much harder than identifying potential artists. 2000 AD had long used a one-off story slot called Future Shocks as a testing ground for new creators. A similar format was invented for the Megazine called Strange Cases, featuring bizarre incidents from the future-shocked city. The first tale commissioned for the slot was Skin Games by Smith and John Hicklenton, although it was not published until 1992. The first Strange Case to see print was Feed Me by Warren Ellis and Phillips in the Megazine’s seventh issue.

Phillips also illustrated another Strange Case in the following issue, scripted by Ian Edginton. Both writers would have considerable success in the future, Edginton co-creating popular 2000 AD serials Red Sails and Leviathan while Ellis became a much sought after by US publishers. ‘I think Warren’s story is the only thing he’s ever done for a 2000 AD publication,’ Phillips says. ‘I put him off, obviously! Neither story was my best work. It was back in the days when everyone had to paint like Bisley.’

A handful of other Strange Cases were commissioned, but most saw print in specials and yearbooks. MacManus says the one-off concept didn’t sit well in the monthly. ‘We wanted the Megazine to be rock solid from front cover to back. It didn’t feel right to have one-off experiments going into the early issues – we couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong.’ In future new Megazine writers would have to win their place by creating a complete series worthy of publication.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Sneak preview for CITY OF VENGEANCE, my historical crime fiction debut coming in 2021

Thought I'd offer this sneak preview of my crime fiction debut CITY OF VENGEANCE, which Pan Macmillan is unleashing early in 2021. Publishers issue blurbs for their forthcoming titles when selling translation rights round the world, and I stumbled across this advance blurb in the Pan Mac rights catalogue online [click the image to make it bigger!]. For absolute accuracy, CITY OF VENGEANCE is set in the Winter, 1537 - but the rest is all true. Not long now until the cover is revealed...

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The book that first inspired CITY OF VENGEANCE, my crime fiction debut, coming 2021 from Macmillan

I've always been a crime writer, but spent a lot of my career before CITY OF VENGEANCE writing other stories. Crime was almost always the narrative engine for my stories, whether in science fiction novels, screenwriting episodes of Doctors for the BBC, or scripting graphic novels and comics.

Like so many crime writers before me, I grew up reading mystery stories. I loved the brain-teasing puzzle element of those narratives, but also the way they brought alive the time and place in which they were set, and how another story wasalways  being told alongside the questions of whodunnit, howdunnit, or whydunnit?

CITY OF VENGEANCE has been a long time coming. I started the novel in 2017, thanks to the push provided by a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship from the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland. The fellowship gave me a month largely free to write, and in that precious time I was able to draft what became the first fifty pages.

The book that started it all...
But the origins of my crime fiction debut go back a lot further, to the 1990s in fact. I was working as a comics editor in London, but couldn't resist the lure of bookshops in the English capital. One day I wandered into a shop near the British Museum, just browsing in kill some times, with no idea what I might find there.

One book caught my eye: Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence 1537-1609, by John K. Brackett. Published by Cambridge University Press, it was a monograph that did what it said on the cover, exploring criminal justice in 16th Century Florence.

Glancing through the text, one sentence leapt out at me. Writing about the Otto di Guardia e Balia, the most powerful criminal court in Florence, Brackett wrote that this law enforcement organization with its investigating officers and constables was 'roughly comparable to that of a modern police force'.

In moments my writer's brain was working overtime, imagining what a police procedural set in late Renaissance Florence might be like. How did criminal justice work in this period? What was crime like in the 16th Century? What sort of mysteries would law enforcers have to solve?

I bought the Brackett book and set to reading it on my way home. One thing quickly became apparent: I would need to do an awful lot more research before I could dream of attempting to write such a novel. I hadn't even visited the city of Florence back then.

My heavily annotated copy of Brackett's inspirational book!

The fact I didn't start writing CITY OF VENGEANCE until 2017 tells you how long the journey has been to see this novel approach fruition, and why its publication by Pan Macmillan means so much to me. But I owe a debt of thanks to John K Brackett and his monograph, which started me along the path that lead to creating Cesare Aldo...

Thursday, September 19, 2019

News: I've signed a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan for my Cesare Aldo historical mystery series set in late Renaissance Florence

I'll be blogging more about this soon, but here's the  press release text as featured by British publishing industry weekly The Bookseller today:
Pan Mac scoops historical crime novel in two-book deal 

Pan Macmillan has landed the first novel in a historical crime fiction series from D V Bishop.

Alex Saunders, fiction editor at Pan Macmillan acquired world rights to City of Vengeance, which won the Pitch Perfect competition at Bloody Scotland 2018, in a two-book deal from Jenny Brown at Jenny Brown Associates. It is scheduled for publication in February 2021.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Medici dynasty in 1530s Renaissance Florence, following the case of a prominent Jewish moneylender who is found murdered. Cesare Aldo, a former soldier and now an officer of the city's most powerful criminal court, is given four days to solve the murder.

Its synopsis explains: “In the course of his investigations, Aldo uncovers a plot to overthrow the ruler of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici. If the Duke falls, it will endanger the whole city. But a rival officer of the court is trying to uncover the secrets of Aldo’s private life to bring him down. Can Aldo stop the conspiracy before anyone else dies, or will his own secrets destroy him first?”

Saunders said: “I am so excited to be welcoming D V Bishop to the Pan Macmillan list. He has written a wonderful historical thriller set in Renaissance Florence and from the moment I started reading I was impressed by his confident storytelling. City of Vengeance is an explosive start to an electrifying new series, and Cesare Aldo is a remarkable character who stays with you long after the final page has been turned.”

Bishop, a screenwriter and dramatist, added: “I’m proud and honoured to sign with Pan Macmillan, publisher of such wonderful writers as C J Sansom, Ann Cleeves, and the late, great Colin Dexter. There couldn’t be a better home for Cesare Aldo as he investigates murders, the Medici, and all manner of Machiavellian machinations among the palazzos and piazzas of Renaissance Florence.”

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Doctor Who and the Brexit Monstrosity

In February 2019 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) )