Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Fiends story that wasn't

The latest Judge Dredd Megazine officially goes on sale today, although most subscribers got their copy on Monday. The cover features a painting by Colin MacNeil, keyed into events in the latest episode of my Fiends of the Eastern Front serial Stalingrad. There's only one more part to come and I can't wait to see what Colin has painted for the finale; his moody greytone art has added so much to my story. But his contribution certainly didn't begin and end with illustrating my scripts.

It was Colin who suggested the Soviet soldiers could turn the hammer and sickle symbol of the USSR into weapons against Constanta and his vampyr troops. It was Colin who urged me to include the infamous battle for the strategic hill known as the Mamayev Kurgan in my scripts. And Colin made many, many more contributions to the telling of the tale, all of them improving it no end. So, all praise to the mighty Colin MacNeil, a prince among artists. It's amazing what a difference having an experienced, intelligent storyteller as artist makes to a comic strip, how much more they can bring to a script at every stage.

The Fiends serial came about because I was asked to write a trilogy of novels for Black Flame, based upon the 1980 comic strip created by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra. While plotting my trilogy I realised it was impossible to include every major battle of the Eastern Front conflict in the books, even though I had 210,000 words to play with. I also discovered Colin was a massive Fiends fan while interviewing him for a Megazine feature. He offered to fight any other artist for the chance of drawing any comic strip revival of Fiends.

That got me thinking, so I researched the battle for Stalingrad, to see if Constanta and his Fiends could be worked into reality. I watched the films Enemy at the Gate and Stalingrad, read Anthony Beevor's stunning Stalingrad tome and a shelf-full of other books about the long, bloody battle. Then I came up with an idea for a Fiends serial and pitched it to Matt Smith at 2000 AD. He turned it down, rightly pointing out the proposed story was far too derivative [I think I had watched a recent remake of Salem's Lot]. Worst of all, the story made little or no use of Stalingrad's unique properties as a battleground. Besides the weekly had been having a rash of old strip revivals and Matt wasn't in need of another.

Like many scribes I'm fond of recycling rejected ideas, so I pitched the story to Alan Barnes, then editor of the Judge Dredd Megazine. He also turned my proposed plotline down, but encouraged me to go back to the drawing board. Fiends in Stalngrad was a good idea, but I needed a better, more original plot - some of which is what's currently appearing in the Megazine. Come back in a month when the final episode of Fiends in Stalingrad is published and I'll reveal the plotline that got me a commission to write 48 pages for the Megazine. In the meantime, here's the synopsis that [quite rightly] got rejected by both 2000 AD and the Megazine...
1. Lieutenant Charnosov is awaiting execution for an unspecified crime. But he is spared because his father is an important communist party member. Charnosov’s NKVD accuser instead arranges for the lieutenant to lead a unit of shtrafroty (penal company). The first mission is relieving Russian soldiers occupying a four-storey building on the front line. Contact was lost with them just before dawn. Charnosov and his seven reluctant men go in, armed with only a few rifles, a box of ammunition and some hand grenades. The rest bring knives and sharpened shovels as weapons. But they find the soldiers in the building are already dead. Several have committed suicide but the others are pale and white, as if drained of blood – with puncture marks on their necks!

2. One of the shtrafroty, a superstitious coward called Slavik, says the puncture marks are those left by vampires. He has heard rumours the Germans have formed an unholy alliance with the undead to win this war. The others scoff, not believing such nonsense. They want to retreat. Charnosov refuses, even when his men – led by the mutinous Dolymin - threaten to shoot him. But when the shtraf unit tries to leave, the building has been surrounded by Germans – they are trapped. Charnosov smiles grimly – it seems we are staying here after all. The sun goes down. That’s when the undead rise, Slavik murmurs, getting a rifle butt in the face from Dolymin. The soldiers realise there is someone moving about on the floor above. Someone is coming for them.

3. A boy appears on the staircase, and is almost killed by the soldiers. What the hell is he doing here? I live here, says Jakob proudly. The Germans have heard the shots and are approaching the ground floor. Jakob leads the soldiers down to the basement, when he lives with his older sister Mariya. The Germans search the ground floor while the Russians hide in the basement. Dolymin tries to rape teenage Mariya but she fights him off long enough for Charnosov to intervene. In whispers Jakob tells them about hearing the screams of the soldiers who died the previous night. Jakob says he saw their attackers – they were shot many times but did not die. They drank the soldiers’ blood! A panicked Slavik tries to escape, alerting the Germans to their presence.

4. The shtraf unit fights it way out of the basement, killing all but one of the Germans. Mariya helps them, earning the soldiers’ respect. But the German who got away, he will bring back others – or send for the Rumanians. Charnosov organises his men to mount a defence against the Germans. But what if they send the blood suckers, Slavik whimpers. This boy and his sister have survived three months here, we can survive one night. A cry from the top level of the building gets Charnosov to look out. An unearthly mist swirls outside, approaching them. As it gets closer, half a dozen figures emerge. They smile, showing their fangs to the Russians. The vampires are here!

5. Battle begins but the Russians quickly discover what they dead comrades found – ordinary bullets cannot stop the undead. So what does kill them? Daylight does, but that’s hours away. A stake through the heart, but you need to be close enough to deliver it. Charnosov tells the men to use their bayonets and knives to sharpen some stakes. Decapitation is also supposed to work – use your shovels! The vampires attack. In the chaos one of the Russians fatally wounds two of his colleagues, before the vampires get him too. Slavik and Dolymin are trapped on an upper floor. Two other soldiers try to flee and are cut down by German snipers. Jakob makes it to the basement but Charnosov and Mariya are too slow. Charnosov empties his revolver into a vampire without effect. It advances on him and Mariya, fangs bared, ready to strike…

6. Charnosov pulls a silver cross out from inside his uniform and uses it to ward off the vampire. Dolymin stakes two more of the vampires upstairs and Slavik discovers enough courage to decapitate another. An unholy cry rends the air and the vampires dissolve into mist before vanishing. The survivors celebrate – we did it! We survived! Charnosov explains about the cross, he believes in god, something forbidden by the state. An NKVD commissar saw him praying before battle and reported this, hence the court martial. But Mariya discovers Jakob is missing. He could have escaped – or the vampires may have taken him. Charnosov says they can’t risk going out to search for Jakob, despite Mariya’s pleading. They must wait here for dawn – still six hours away.

7. Charnosov reads a letter he recovers from one of the dead soldier’s bodies. It recounts the tale of how the previous group of Russians died. They fought off the blood suckers three times before the end came. They had gained access to the sewers beneath the building and planned to use it as an escape route – but the vampires prevented that. Slavik and Dolymin keep watch while Charnosov tries to persuade Mariya to come with them through the sewers, but she is determined to wait for Jakob. He’s always come back before. Slavik and Dolymin are disturbed by a new cry from the darkness outside. They don’t notice the dead Russians getting up behind them. Despairing of Mariya, the lieutenant goes to see what this cry means. Mariya hears Jakob calling to her. Charnosov arrives just too late to save Dolymin being bitten by a Russian vampire. Meanwhile Jakob lures Mariya outside, then shows his fangs.

8. Mariya flees Jakob, the vampire boy pursuing her into the building. Charnosov, Slavik and Dolymin kill off the Russian vampires, but a weakening Dolymin knows he will become undead soon too. Charnosov presses his crucifix against the wound, burning a cross into Dolymin’s flesh – perhaps that will staunch the infection. Mariya is forced to kill her own brother. Charnosov tells the others of the escape route. But before they use it, he wants proof he can take back to HQ about the vampire threat. Charnosov and Slavik venture outside to capture a ‘tongue’ (Russian slang – prisoners captured for interrogation). They bring back a German soldier who says he and his men are just as scared of the Rumanians. God help us if they ever change sides! Charnosov wonders why the vampires are fighting in this war, what do such monsters have to gain? His cross appears and the German soldier cowers back from it – he is one of the Rumanians in disguise!

9. The Rumanian explains why the vampires are fighting in this war. We have cut a deal with the Nazis. Once the conflict is over, we shall have dominion over this area. Even if the Germans lose, vampires shall arise as a new world power in the chaotic aftermath of the war. At the Rumanian’s cry two more vampires burst in. They call to Dolymin, telling him to join them. He dives from a window and impales himself on a broken piece of wood, rather than become a vampire. Charnosov, Mariya and Slavik fight their way to the sewer access, but Slavik turns back at the last moment, choosing to fight rather than flee – I won’t be a coward, for once in my life, he vows and pulls the pin from a grenade. Mariya drags a protesting Charnosov down into the sewers just before the grenade explodes, taking one of the vampires with it. The entrance collapses after them, both believe they are safe. They begin the long journey towards the Volga, but a sinister mist follows close behind them.

10. Mariya and Charnosov stagger through a waist-high slurry of stagnant shit and poisonous water, gagging on the fumes. For five hours they support each other, pushing onwards. Finally they see a circle of light ahead – the end of the sewer! And it’s daylight outside, dawn must have broken – they’re safe at last! They have but a moment to celebrate as mist swirls around them, then solidifies into the final two vampires, one of either side of the humans. Charnosov kills one by shoving his crucifix down its throat, but loses the crucifix in the process. The other vamp fatally bites Mariya before Charnosov (seemingly) finishes it off. Mariya dies in the lieutenant’s arms and he plunges a stake through her heart, to prevent her turning undead. He staggers out of the sewer, into falling snow. The last vampire bursts from the sewer and attacks Charnosov, its undead flesh burning away as it throttles him to death, to prevent the alarm being raised. The two die together. Epilogue: Charnosov’s NKVD accuser from Episode 1 sneers over the dead lieutenant’s remains. Your god could not save you, traitor…

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