Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fiends: Stalingrad - the plot synopsis

Hindsight's a wonderful thing in some ways. It allows you to see past events with greater objectivity and - hopefully - learn from past mistakes. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow you to go back and prevent those mistakes from happening. But there can still be value from reviewing what you've done, in hope what you learn informs future choices. That's the theory. Let's see if the reality holds water.

Two years ago I pitched a revival of the WWII vampire strip Fiends of the Eastern Front to 2000 AD editor Matt Smith. He wasn't excited by the story I was pitching at the time and it didn't get a commission for the weekly. Putting aside the flaws and cliches in my story, 2000 AD was in the midst of several old strip revivals and didn't need another. Timing is a significant factor when it comes to getting any commission. You could write the best asteroid tumbling to Earth screenplay in the world, but you'd have trouble selling it the year after Armageddon and Deep Impact hit cinemas.

I mentioned my Fiends in Stalingrad idea to then-Megazine editor Alan Barnes, who kindly asked to see the plot synopsis. He also turned it down - for many of the same reasons as Matt - but suggested I back up and have another run at it. The concept of vampires in WWII was fine, the Stalingrad setting was a fresh angle on the material, but I hadn't made best use of the unique setting. Besides, Alan wanted a series like XTNCT by Paul Cornell and D'Israeli, where each episode worked as a standalone story with a beginning, middle and end, while also being part of a larger narrative. The Megazine is only published once every four weeks and on-going serials struggle to maintain any storytelling momentum in it.

So I went back to the drawing board and came up with a new tale, to be told in six episodes of eight pages each. [The synopsis for that appears below.] Alan liked it and commissioned me to start writing the scripts. I'd completed the first two episodes in December last year when Alan left the Megazine and Matt took over, inheriting my Fiends in Stalingrad tale. Matt seemed happy to continue with the series but made one request: the Megazine was shrinking its page count and Fiends in Stalingrad now needed to be eight episodes of six pages each. Could I rewrite the first two episodes to take that into account? Of course I could.

I went back into my first two scripts in January and ripped two pages out of each one. This had the beneficial effect of tightening up the storytelling. Unfortunately, I failed to notice I had effectively written a two episode prologue. I guess if they'd appeared as a 12-page opening instalment that wouldn't have mattered so much, but spread over two issues it meant not much happened in my story for two months. Happily, Colin MacNeil's luscious art with monochrome washes compensated for the flaws in my scripts and ensued a positive, if hesitant, early response from readers.

Colin made a massive difference to the story. Once the first two episodes had been tweaked, I was left with four episodes of plot to be spread over six scripts. The need to create cliffhangers that would hook readers into wanting to know what happened next - while at the same time trying to create complete done-in-one plots for each episode - meant I needed more incident and more plot to fill the six remaining scripts. So did what all sensible writers do. I asked Colin what he wanted to draw. You want to get the best from an artist? Make them a collaborative partner in your story, get them involved and they'll feel more involved.

It was Colin who suggested sending Constanta and his unwilling German soldiers to the Mamayev Kurgan, a hill in the centre of Stalingrad. That gave me a new ending for part three and a new episode four. The old episode four got split into components, with some of it forming a new episode five and the rest being carried over into episode six. It was all building towards the creation of the Golem, a living weapon that Russian Jews were planning to use against Constanta and his vampire. Perhaps my greatest regret is how little screen time I gave the Golem, especially considering what a great job Colin did with its design. In the original plot [see below], there would have been half an episode devoted to fighting the Golem. In the end it got a handful of panels and no more - one downside of the shortened page count for individual episodes.

Back when I was creating my new plotline for the Megazine, I struggled to find an easy method of telling a story in the vignette style Alan wanted. I realised the flashback narration device Gerry Finley-Day had used when he created Fiends back in 1980 was the easiest method of achieving the clarity I needed. But I still needed a method of replicating that without copying the exact plot device Gerry had used of a dead man's diary. Eventually I found a solution: an interrogation, in the style of a film called The Usual Suspects. That delivers vast swathes of exposition but in an entertaining and enthralling manner.

Of course, once any of the readers realised I had used The Usual Suspects as an inspiration, they would soon suspect Constanta and my story's narrator were one and the same. Sure enough, some eagle-eyed Megazine reader did exactly that and said so online. I needed a different ending and, if possible, a better ending. I looked at my cast of characters and found one who seemed to have no purpose, merely lurking at one side of the story, making the occasional cryptic comment. The perfect solution!

Now that the whole story's been published, I can definitely see a lot of places where I could improve upon it: the double prologue opening, the paucity of Golem action, a few other moments of foreshadowing I could have slipped into early scripts to set up elements that paid off later. The change in episode format forced me to change a lot of the story, but I think it changed for the better, mostly. I'm not sure each episode works on its own merits, but the story as a whole flows reasonably well. I suspect the complete story reads better in one sitting. In an ideal world, some kindly soul would collect the 48-page story as a graphic novel. In the meantime, it's nice to have written a series for the Megazine that didn't suck like a black hole...


1.1 November 2nd, 1942 - Constanta versus the Golem – a battle between the vampyr lord and the giant of clay, watched from one side by German soldier Karl Richter.
1.2 Full page splash of Constanta and the Golem fighting.
1.3 Three months later – February 2, 1943 – the battle of Stalingrad is over. The Germans have surrendered, the last pocket of resistance in the northern industrial sector has been quashed – long lines of pathetic prisoners shuffle through the snow-covered ruins of the city – walking past them is a Jewish Russian interpreter Mariya Charnosova – she has been summoned to the ruins of the Red October factory
1.4 Mariya meets with an NKVD official – you will interrogate a German prisoner called Richter – you have one hour – after that he is being flown out of the city for a prisoner exchange scheme – one of the politburo member’s sons is being held by the Germans and is wanted back – the Germans asked for Richter – we want to know why – why ask me – you speak fluent German - so do many other interpreters – it’s because I’m a woman, isn’t it? – you may get answers others might not
1.5 She is introduced to Richter – call me Karl – he is blind – legs and hands wrapped in bandages – missing several toes – close to starvation – she offers to get him food – a cigarette will do – he chokes on the posh Russian fag – he’d gotten used to Soviet style roll-ups, made using newspaper – ask your questions
1.6 You were found in a tunnel beneath the factory – what were you doing there? – waiting to die – I was the last men left of a squad sent behind Russian lines three months ago on a suicide mission – most of the others were killed – I think a few made it out – I lost my sight and told them to leave me behind
1.7 Karl says he survived below ground by drinking melting snow as it run down the sewer walls – sometimes I caught a rat and would feast on that – appropriate, really – you know what we Germans call this battle? Rattenkrieg, war of the rats – months of fighting in sewers and rubble, living like vermin amidst the ruins – I never thought I’d see the sun again –he touches the bandage over his eyes – now I never will
1.8 Mariya says he’s being swapped for an important Russian POW – why? – how did the Germans even know Karl was still alive? – I don’t know, he replies - Richter begs not to be given back to the Germans – I know too much, you see – I’m begging you – if you send me back, you’re condemning me to death - keep me safe and I’ll tell you everything I know – start at the beginning, Mariya says…

2.1 Karl recalls his first view of Stalingrad – Sunday August 23 – he was part of a Panzergrenadier squad that had raced across the steppe from the Don River, reaching the banks of the Volga in the late afternoon - upon wave of Stukas and Heinkels had been carpet-bombing the city for hours – Karl and his colleagues cheered as German fighters did victory rolls overhead
2.2 Full page splash of Stalingrad being bombed - blazing oil burning on the river – fireballs and columns of smoke rising a mile into the sky – we thought victory could only be days away, now the city had been bombed into submission
2.3 Karl says they didn’t realise the bombs would turn the city into a perfect killing ground for the Russians to use against them – fast forward to September 27 as he is part of a squad advancing on the Red October metalworks area, advancing with a Panzer tank – the factory is completely destroyed – every window and roof smashed – rusted machinery twisted out of recognition – the Panzergrenadiers fight along a bomb-ravaged gully – Russian guardsmen launch a savage counter-attack at close quarters with sub-machine guns and grenades
2.4 Karl survives the counter-attack but is sprayed by the blood of his dying colleagues – the Germans retreat past a trench where a family of Russian civilians are living in no man’s land – Karl remembers a boy looking at him with hatred – I realised your people would never surrender – we’d have to kill every last one
2.5 The NKVD officer calls Mariya out of the interrogation room – has the prisoner mentioned the Rumanian? No – last October the NKVD began getting reports of a ruthless Rumanian officer taking charge of the German efforts to secure the factory district – Germans were so terrified of his wrath they began deserting to our side – what was his name?
2.6 Mariya mentions the name Constanta and Karl makes the sign of the cross – he is the one who wants me back for this prisoner exchange – I know too much about him – tell me, Mariya says, perhaps I can use the information to ensure you stay with us – Karl says he had been warned about Constanta from his brother Helmut, a radio operator in a Panzer – Helmut wasn’t specific, he said I should do anything I could to avoid Constanta – despite the warning, I started asking questions
2.7 Karl tells the legend of Constanta – some says he’s ageless, even deathless – he’s supposed to have lived far longer than any mortal man – he is Rumanian nobility, coming from the city of Sighisoara in the province of Transylvania – he leads a cadre of creatures like himself – fearless, near impossible to destroy – merely to look into their eyes is to know terror – they drink human blood for sustenance
2.8 Mariya scoffs at such notions – propaganda and lies, spread by the Nazis – Karl says he thought so too, until fresh orders came through – we were to overrun the factory district – win or die trying – our new commander was Lord Constanta!

3.1 Karl recalls Constanta addressing his new command, saying they must become like their enemy to defeat the Soviets – the Russians strike at night, so shall we – they use the sewers and tunnels in daylight to infiltrate our positions, so shall we – Constanta says they will take no prisoners, soldier or civilian – he has a young Russian girl brought to him – she was caught spying on the Germans – you German have refused to fire on civilians, now you shall learn how I treat all my enemies
3.2 Full page splash as Constanta sucks the blood from the Russian girl
3.3 Constanta tosses the girl’s corpse aside – we launch our next attack at dusk, be ready – the Rumanian officer stomps off, leaving the German troops to dispose of the girl’s body – one of them uses his bayonet to saw off her head – we don’t want her becoming like our new commander, do we?
3.4 Cut back to Mariya and Karl – Mariya scoffs at this tale – vampyr are creatures of myth and legend, nothing more – I was like you, I didn’t believe, Karl agrees – but what I saw that night left me in little doubt – Mariya consults with her NKVD controller – this man is delirious, delusional – keep him talking is the only reply
3.5 October 1st – Constanta leads Karl and others through the main drain running down the Krutoy gully, reaching the Volga bank. Constanta goes ahead to check, leaving the German soldiers to discuss their commander in hushed whispers – how can they fight alongside such a monster? He’s as bad as the Russians – what are they to do? They don’t notice the mist creeping back from the Russian positions until Constanta suddenly appears. Choose your enemies carefully, my friends. It’s time to attack.
3.6 They launch themselves at the Soviet’s positions from behind, causing carnage. Karl witnesses Constanta being shot and stabbed by bayonets without being wounded. Vicious, brutal action with the Germans getting the upper hand.
3.7 The Russians counter-attack, encircling and pinning down the Germans. A sniper is brought in and begins picking off the Germans. Karl watches disbelievingly as Constanta becomes a bat, flying off to deal with the sniper.
3.8 Constanta reappears among the Germans and leads them to safety, but they sustain more losses along the way. Karl almost envied his comrades killed by a Russian bullet – quick and clean. At least they could rest in peace. We would not be so fortunate – not with what the Russians had in store – first glimpse of the Soviet anti-vampire squad, led by the bear-like figure of Josef Charnosov, clutching a silver sickle, hammer and fistful of wooden stakes.

Karl and his brothers in arms are horrified to discover Constanta is bringing more Rumanians into the squad, to fill the gaps. Matters are made worse when they find Constanta has permitted his brethren to feed on the blood of dying Germans. Constanta says this is merely another kind of sacrifice, no different than if the soldiers had given their lives on the front line. Karl is ready to launch a mutiny when their position is attacked by a squad of Russian vampyr hunter-killers, the Smert Krofpeet (roughly translates as Death to Blood-Drinkers). The Soviets are armed with silver sickles for decapitating the Rumanians, along with hammers to pound wooden stakes into the hearts of the enemy. The attack is finally repelled, but most of the Rumanians and many of the Germans perish in the battle. The Smert Krofpeet leader is captured, tortured and interrogated by Constanta, according to Karl. The leader boasts the Russians have another plan for dealing with the vampyr, he only wishes he could be there to see Constanta die. Karl says the Soviet’s name was Josef Charnosov. Mariya is shocked – she has a brother called Josef, he’s been missing since… since October. Karl says Josef is dead – killed by Constanta.

Mariya storms out to confront the NKVD leader – that’s why you choose me for this interrogation, isn’t it? We had suspicions. Now do your job – find out what happened to Constanta – or else. The plane coming to collect our prisoner is only minutes away from landing. Mariya returns to questioning Karl: what next?
Constanta disappeared for a week, leaving us to launch another pointless attack upon the factory district. We knew winter would be upon us soon. Rumours were circulating of an imminent Russian counter-attack, but nobody knew when or from where. Russians have been seen gathering earth from the banks of the Volga, nobody knows why. Constanta returns and leads his men into the sewers. They emerge into an underground chamber where a Russian Jew and three other Soviets soldiers are walking in a clockwise circle around a giant clay figure on the ground, chanting a refrain: ‘Shanti, Shanti, Dahat, Dahat!’ Constanta attacks and the Germans follow, wiping out the Russians – but not before the last chant is finished. The Jew gloats as he dies: now you shall join us in hell! Mariya guesses what happens next – the creature of clay comes to life. How did you know, Karl asks? It is called a Golem – my people summon it in times of great peril, when we are threatened with extinction – it is monster born form the power of the Cabbala. Cliffhanger image of the Golem rising up, its body growing red like a hot fire…

The final battle between the Germans, Constanta and the Golem. Its touch burns the soldiers, but Constanta is not so easily stopped. He is caught in the Golem’s grip but grabs a stick grenade from Karl and thrusts it into the creature’s maw. The last thing Karl sees is the Golem exploding, apparently destroying Constanta – but a flying fragment of the burning Golem hit Karl across the eyes and blinded him. I crawled away to die, he admits, but somehow I survived – despite my own wishes. Some urge commanded me to stay alive, perhaps so I could tell you my story – you believe it, don’t you? I don’t know what to believe, Mariya admits. A staff car with tinted windows arrives just before dawn to take Karl to the airstrip. Mariya escorts him outside, apologising that she couldn’t stop him being taken back. Perhaps Constanta did die when the Golem exploded? I doubt it, Karl says, flashing his fangs at her. He gets into the car, where the driver is revealed as Constanta. He winds the window up as the sun rises over the ruins of Stalingrad…


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