Postpartum: A Special Merksay Story

They call me the Fisherman.  But I don’t fish for trout or creel or scallop.  I fish for stories.  And that is my gift, I need no bait for them to come to me.  People see me and think I have but one good eye, but I have two and each serves its purpose just fine.  The eye you see watches the waking world.  The eye you don’t faces inward, and looks to the world beyond, a world more real and solid and dependable, the world of stories.  I see them all if I look hard enough, all the ones connected to Merksay, anyway.  I’ve lived here all my long life, Merksay is in my bones, and its stories run through my veins.  It will always be part of me.

That’s what the tale I have to tell you on this brisk and bitter Halloween night is all about, friend.  Merksay is a place with a power to it, a hold that grips those born there or even those that dally there too long.  The people of Merksay are caught like fish in a net, and no matter how far they stray, be it to the ends of the Earth, they never really leave.  Merksay never really leaves them.  Take Heather Connelly, who was living a contented life in Glasgow with her husband and newborn son.  She thought she was free of Merksay.  But the fish swimming in the net think they’re free too until it tightens around them and hauls them out of the water.  Sit down, join me for a spell.  I hope you don’t mind if I smoke my pipe.  Let me share one of my Merksay stories with you.  The story of Heather. 

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Somewhere, the baby is screaming.  That was the first thought to greet Heather as she was hauled out of what had passed for sleep.  The 4:07 on the bedside clock flashed tauntingly at her, a reminder of the ever-closing window for any sleep on this night.  She lay there for a moment, bleary eyes open, glaring hatefully ahead.  She wasn’t expecting the crying to stop, she would never count herself so lucky.  But she thought that maybe this time Craig would answer the call instead of lying on his side in the bed next to her, his back to her.  He was breathing heavily, pretending to be asleep.  Who could possibly sleep in this house!?  She momentarily considered mule-kicking her husband in the kidneys, jolt his arse out the bed to deal with the noise.  But instead, with a deep sigh, she rolled herself out of bed and shambled out of her room and across the hallway to tend to her son.

Heather flicked on the light and tentatively approached the crib.  Colin was still crying, but his ear-piercing wails faltered a little as he looked up at his mother, his eyes widening with base recognition and expectation.  Heather glared down at this baffling creature that had grown inside her and been spat out unceremoniously into the world, and for a crazed moment she eyed him with the bemused, dispassionate disgust with which one might assess a removed mole or cyst popped into a glass jar and given back to you as a souvenir.  Only here was an excised growth that she would have to feed and bathe and clothe, that she would have to care about… forever.

The thought of how her life might be if little Colin were to go away never once crossed her mind.  Not even here, at her most tired and desperate, did she even momentarily entertain the notion of being happier were the howling stranger stealing sleep from her were to disappear.  Later, when the horror began, this is what Heather would insist to herself over and over.  No wish from her, not even a subconscious one, started all this.

Heather picked up Colin, rocking him gently as she paced back and forth across the room.  She smiled and cooed down at him, hopeful it would mask her hard, glaring eyes, which were silently willing him to sleep.  Finally, he did.  Outside, the sun was starting to rise.

The thought had frequently occurred to Heather that your world gets much smaller after you have a baby.  Before, her life had been filled with both a demanding job and an active social life, each of which she’d managed to navigate deftly.  Now, though, she was on maternity leave, and her friends rarely seemed to fit into her schedule, nor her theirs.  Even Craig felt like more of a guest star in her life, popping in at night after work to eat and sleep.  But Heather’s life had shrunk down to just her and her little boy now, her days filled with ways to keep him safe, happy and occupied.

Today that involved a walk through the park, her pushing Colin along in his pram, patiently indulging the gasps and giggles from old ladies she passed along the way.  The streets of Shawlands weren’t quite what you’d call scenic, but at this autumnal time of year “not raining” was about the best you could hope for.  And more and more Heather relished the opportunities to get out of the house, even if it was just for a wander.  Being cooped up in her house, just the two of them, was enough to stir up cabin fever.

She could already feel her gut tightening at the thought of it as she drew in the pram towards her front door.  And that was before she spotted the letter sitting on the ground in front of the door, placed in a solid black envelope.

Heather didn’t think much of the letter at first, save for a mild curiosity over it not being posted through the letterbox like the rest of the mail.  She assumed the postman must have dropped it, not even registering the fact that the envelope was entirely black, with no name or address written on its surface.  It was only when she picked it up that a chill ran through her whole body, a nagging voice in the back of her mind screaming at her to throw it away, not to dare look inside.  Then the rational part of her mind cast aside this silly thought.  She steered the pram through her front door and into her hallway, then opened the envelope.

It was a card inside.  Hand-made, by the looks of it.  It was crafted from a folded over piece of ragged card, a crudely drawn, bloated baby on the front.  Underneath the drawing, vaguely reminiscent of a child’s, was a scrawled out caption in deep red letters…

YOuR HaPPy DaY HaS CoME!

More confused than afraid, so she told herself, Heather nevertheless found her hand shaking as she opened the card.  There was a message inside.

HeLLo HEatHER,

YoU hAD YoUR ChiLD… THis tIMe.  I aM VeRY pLEAsED.  NoW yOU CaN HoNOuR oUR AgREEmENt.

I SHalL CaLL oN YoU to CoLLeCt… SOON.

The letter dropped out of Heather’s hands, and though she felt a scream rising from her gut, it caught in her throat.  When she opened her mouth all she could manage were sharp, rasping intakes of breath.  There was no name signed on the card, but she knew it was from.  A name came to her lips in that moment, a name she hadn’t so much as thought about in over a decade.

“Bonnie Shaw…”

The girl sits sobbing on the kitchen floor, begging having given away to incoherent, defeated wailing.  Her mother stands in front of her, unmoved, arms tightly folded in front of her.

“Enough of that.  It needs to be done, or you’re no daughter of mine.  It goes or you go, girl.  It goes or you go.”

“Heather?  You still with us?”

Emerging from the dark cloud of her thoughts, Heather looked across the dinner table at Craig.  He was taking a turn at feeding Colin, with perhaps a quarter of it apparently completing its journey into his mouth.  But Craig had paused in his task, now looking at his wife with concern.

“I can’t stop thinking about that card.”

“Come on, Heather, it’s just some sicko playing a prank.”

Heather wasn’t convinced.

“Do you know much about where I come from?”

“Orkney?  Not really, you don’t talk much about it…”

“I was born on an island in Orkney called Merksay,” Heather continued, “I hated the place.  It’s stuck in the past and old ways of thinking in so many ways.  They still believe in a lot of the old legends.  The one that always scared me the most was Bonnie Shaw.”

“Bonnie Shaw!?” Craig scoffed, “Sounds like a country music star.”

“I’m serious, Craig,” Heather said, “Bonnie Shaw would make deals with parents, give them whatever they desired, and in exchange, he’d take their children.”

“You really believe that nonsense?”

“When you’re in that world, it feels real…”

“But it isn’t, Heather.  Some Highland boogeyman isn’t leaving letters on your doorstep.”

Heather said nothing.

“Look,” Craig continued, “This… Bonnie Shaw character, he didn’t just snatch children, right?  He only came if you asked him to.”

“Right.”

“And you love our son, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well you have nothing to worry about.  You didn’t make a deal for Bonnie Shaw to take your son away, did you?”

“No,” Heather replied, after a pause.

Craig stood up and walked round behind Heather, hugging her.

“Look, I get that you’re shaken.  That’s a creepy message to find on your doorstep.  But the kind of person that leaves a card like that and runs away is a coward, they’re not going to do anything.  Just in case, though, I’ll get a burglar alarm fitted.”

Heather smiled at him, feeling a little reassured.

“And you know I’ll be here with you every night,” Craig said, “Nobody’s taking Colin while I’m here.  You’re the two people I love most in the world.  I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

Talking about it rationally, Heather felt a little silly.  Of course there was no such thing as Bonnie Shaw.  It was just a scare story parents used to bully and intimidate their children into doing their bidding.  That’s how it was used on her, anyway.  And even if there was such thing, which there wasn’t, no deal on earth could make Heather give her Colin away.  No way she was going to lose her child.  Not this one.

After a week, the scare she’d gotten had retreated far to the back of her mind.  There had been no more letters with sinister messages, and no more talk of Bonnie Shaw.  Her thoughts were no longer lost in troubling past memories, but looking ahead to returning to work, what would be involved in arranging care for Colin.  Craig’s mother would be happy to watch her during the day, Heather considered as she vacuumed the living room carpet.  Colin was asleep up his bedroom, unusually quiet.  She had the baby monitor set up in the living room so that she could hear any cries coming from upstairs.  But of course he wouldn’t cry now.  Of course he’d sleep peacefully all day, getting up his energy for another night’s wailing.  Heather wished she was able to just sleep all day herself, though part of her speculated that if the baby caught onto this trick he’d start screaming during the daytime as well…

“KRRSSSSSSCCCCCHHHHHHHH!!!”

The burst of static from the baby monitor came so shrill and loud that, even over the noise of the vacuum, it just about make Heather leap out of her skin.  She turned off the vacuum cleaner and approached it.  Some issue with interference?  She picked up the monitor, shook it, and the static sound started to tremble and break up.”

“SSSCCHHHHHHHHHHHHIs Mummy listening?

Hearing a stranger’s voice in your child’s bedroom would be enough to invoke terror in any parent.  But Heather’s thought process did not even momentarily jump to the conclusion that an intruder had broken in.  No, immediately she knew that it was the voice of Bonnie Shaw.

She knew because the voice that she heard through the baby monitor was not human.  It wasn’t what she would call an animal sound, guttural and growling.  It was deep, silken, almost pleasant, but even through the monitor Heather could pick up on a reedy, unnatural quality to the voice that made it sound unlike any living thing.  Or perhaps that is being too analytical.  Perhaps she just knew, on some level, that of course he would come.

As her mind was still unpacking the horror of this creature having breached her home, her legs were working ahead of her, carrying her up the stairs.  It was like she was watching herself from afar, viewing her crazed rush towards Colin’s room with the same frustration she felt watching a scary movie.  “Why are you running towards the noise instead of out the front door?”

But the answer to that was easy.  Because it wasn’t just about her.  Her son was in that room.  So no matter what was in there with him she would run to him, as soon as she would run into a room that was on fire to pull him out.

Heather could not see Bonnie Shaw in the bedroom when she burst in.  And her breath caught in her lungs for a moment as it dawned on her that was because he’d already gone, already got what he’d came for.  He’d snatched Colin and they had left together to whatever nightmare world Bonnie Shaw came from.  But she exhaled in ragged gasps of relief as she noticed that Colin was still in his crib.

“Mummy’s here, baby, mummy’s here.”

But Heather’s relief curdled to dread as she peered into the cot.  Colin was awake, and he looked ashen, too frightened to cry.  He was staring, wide-eyed, but not at Heather.  He was staring past her, up to the ceiling behind her.

And in that moment, with terrible certainty, Heather concluded that Bonnie Shaw was up there, gripped to the ceiling, gazing down at them with his black, beady eyes.  In her mind, she pictured him as being just like in the story books, all poorly proportioned limbs, overgrown head and jagged edges.  In fact, she imagined him as literally being a giant version of the story book ghoul that had frightened her as a young child, right down to only being able to imagine him as 2-dimensional, pressed flat against the ceiling, elbows creasing like folded up paper as his long claws started to reach out for her.  She expected to turn and find him silently stifling a chuckle, like a naughty child hiding from an adult.

Then she’d turn and she’d see him there with his massive mouth crammed with needle teeth.  Hello there, Heather, he would say, we decided to wait for you so we can all go away together.  Then he’d fall on her, and it wouldn’t be like paper falling, it’d be like the ceiling itself falling, and that needle-mouth would open and the blackness inside would be anything but 2-dimensional, it would go on and on forever and swallow mother and son whole…

Letting out an audible moan, Heather spun round quickly, turning to face the ceiling above her.

There was nothing there.  Or at least, whatever had been there was gone.

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It was barely a day after the incident with the baby monitor that Heather found herself on the Orkney ferry, the hills of Merksay looming ominously ahead.  The last time she had seen this view, she had been on the boat heading in the opposite direction, and had vowed that she would never look on it again.  And yet here she was, a decade later, returning home.  And now she had her son with her, absently rocking the pram back and forth on the deck as she tightly gripped onto the handrail.

She hadn’t said anything about the voice or the presence she’d felt to Craig, of course.  She had just told him that she wanted to take her son to visit her family.  Craig had initially been dubious, knowing that not only had he never met Heather’s parents but she never talked about them, but he soon came round to it being a good idea.  Maybe he was jumping at the chance to have the house to himself for a bit.

Now that Merksay was in Heather’s sights, all the old fears which had felt distant and irrational suddenly felt very real, and very near.  The monsters hadn’t gone, they had just been waiting.  She did wonder if it was the wisest decision to bring Colin with her to this awful place.  Perhaps not, but Heather knew there was no choice in the manner.  There was no way now that she would ever let her child out of her sight, he would be with her always until she knew he was safe.  And she knew that the only answers to be found would be here, where all this began…

Walking through the roaming fields of Merksay, it was like she’d never left.  Maybe the life she’d lived since then, the intervening years where she had become an adult, got a higher education, found a job she was great at, fell in love with a man and married him, and had a beautiful son, had all been a longing daydream, and she’d never escaped this place after all.  But the pram she was pushing ahead of her gave lie to that notion.  It wasn’t easy going, the ragged terrain ill-suited to the wheels.  Navigating the island took longer than she thought as a result, and the daylight – gray and listless at the best of times here – was already waning when she came across her old family house.  It looked so small, now.

She opened the rickety gate and tentatively made her way up the path towards the crooked, stone-cobbled structure before her.  This was no longer home to her, if it had ever been.  She had no desire to be here, certainly not for the reconciliation Craig had bought into.  She told herself that this trip was purely about information.

Heather knocked on the door, and for a few silent, hopeful moments there was no answer, and she entertained the comforting idea that the house had been abandoned.  But then the door opened, and Morag Creig, Heather’s mother, was standing at the threshold.

It appeared that time had withered Morag Creig.  Heather hadn’t seen her in the 10 years since she’d left for Glasgow.  Just as resolutely as Heather had vowed never to return, Morag had long ago pledged never to leave, and she had stuck her guns much longer than her daughter.  But she looked like she had aged twice as much, her hair now a shock of white, her stature shrunk, her back stooped.  But she still had the same hard eyes, which were now coolly assessing the woman standing on her doorstep, and the baby she brought in tow.  After what felt like an eternity, Morag was the one to break the silence.

“Your da’s dead.  You best come inside.”

Little conversation passed between mother and daughter in the ensuing minutes, with most of it being about the particulars of the passing of Heather’s father.  And Morag did not even acknowledge her grandson until well after they had all sat themselves in the tiny kitchen, Heather’s untouched tea going cold.

“So, you had another one.”

Heather felt the bile rising in her throat.  With a struggle, she swallowed it down.

“His name’s Colin,” she replied curtly, “And his father and I love him very much.  I’m married now.  I’ve made a life for myself in Glasgow, which I’m very keen to get back to.”

“Don’t let me keep you,” said Morag, “Hurry back to the sooth-moother you’ve shacked up with…”

“I want to talk to you about Bonnie Shaw.”

And with the very mention of the name, Heather saw Morag’s eyes widen in fear.

“Don’t say his name in this house!  We don’t want to invoke him!”

“But you already invoked him, Mother,” Heather replied, “All those years ago you brought him into our family.”

“That was you, not me!” Morag snapped back, “You’re the one who asked him to take away the unwanted child in your womb.  And the one who visits granted your wish, leaving you free to live your life without the shame…”

Heather launched herself to her feet, standing up with enough force to knock the chair behind her to the ground.  She was trembling with anger.

“Bonnie Shaw did not take my child,” she said in a hissed whisper, “I had a miscarriage.  I was a 16-year-old child who did a foolish thing, and I was scared, and all the fear and guilt you put me through probably brought it on.  You told me you were going to give me to Bonnie Shaw yourself if I didn’t offer my baby to him.  Your own daughter!”

Morag just looked down at the ground.  Shaking her head with contempt, Heather continued.

“I remember thinking, why Bonnie Shaw?  Why not just take me to get an abortion?  But that would have required a trip to the mainland, wouldn’t it?  Couldn’t leave your precious Merksay!  Well, if Bonnie Shaw got the baby, where was my end of the bargain?  In return I asked for him to undo everything, for it all to be forgotten.  But this town never forgot.  You never forgot.  All I was ever going to be here was the teen slut who got pregnant, I couldn’t get on the ferry out of here fast enough!”

Finally, Morag had found her voice, glaring at her daughter.

“If you don’t believe in the one who visits, why are you asking about him?”

“I said I had a miscarriage.  I didn’t say I didn’t believe in Bonnie Shaw.  And now that I have a child, a child I love with all my heart, he’s coming after my boy as payment for the child I denied him.”

Morag slumped back into her seat, horrified.

“That’s why I’m here,” Heather continued, “I need you to tell me about any way of undoing a deal with Bonnie Shaw once it’s been made, or point me to who would know.  I’ll do whatever it takes to break this curse.”

At first, Morag shook her head absently.  But then, realisation dawning her eyes, she turned to face her daughter.

“There is only one thing you can do.”

“What?  Tell me!”

“Kill the boy,” Morag said plainly, “Snap his neck, suffocate him, cast him off the edge of the cliff.  Something quick.  If you truly love him you will do this, as it is more merciful than what awaits him if he lives.”

Heather could not believe what she was hearing, looking on in dumbfounded silence as Morag laid out this morbid scenario.  When she finally did reply, her voice was low, shaking with rage.

“You did this to me.”

Morag took the words like daggers to the chest, shrinking back into her chair, her face etched with shame.

“You’ll never see us again,” Heather said, “I hope you die here, alone, and soon.”

And with that, Heather wheeled Colin’s pram around and left the house, never once looking back.

Night had fallen on Merksay, and Heather was still pushing the pram through the fields, desperately trying to remember where to find Baubie’s Bed and Breakfast. She let out a scream as a front wheel caught on a jutting rock, snapping the wheel off and causing the pram to slump to its side.  In her mad scramble to catch the pram as it collapsed, Heather herself lost her balance, ending up in a heap on the ground.  She was scratched and battered, but thankfully, Colin was still nestled in his blankets inside the upturned pram, looking bewildered about being on his side, but nothing worse.

Heather abandoned the pram after that, choosing to carry Colin in her arms.  She limped through the green wilderness, and she could swear that there had been houses here before, but now there was nothing but long grass.  It was if the island itself was shifting around her, conspiring to leave them lost and alone in the dark.

Then, about as far ahead as Heather was able to see under the light of the moon, something moved in that long grass.  She told itself it was just a fox, that they were known to wonder here.  But then that something rose up far beyond the grass, its long, spindly limbs attached to a bulbous, misshaped torso, a mess of hair all over.  Was the shape rising up from a crack in the ground, some portal from another world, or had it been here the past decade, lurking in the grass, waiting for Heather to come to this exact point with her child in hands, ready to be delivered?

Bonnie Shaw stretched his arms out wide, head arched upwards to the moon.  Then he turned to look at Heather, and smiled.

Up until that moment, Heather had been transfixed, watching this beast take form out of the darkness in a state of dreamlike terror.  But once Bonnie Shaw turned his attentions onto her and her boy, she found the wherewithal to run, screaming into the night as she did.  With the adrenaline kicking in, she wasn’t even limping anymore, pounding through the fields with her son clutched tight to her chest, even though she didn’t have a clue where she was running to.  Knowing what she was running from was enough.

But none of it did her any good, the screaming or the running.  The screams went unanswered.  And every time she dared look over her shoulder, Bonnie Shaw was still there.  He did not seem to be any hurry, her mad dash contrasting with his slow, casual walk.  And yet every time she looked he seemed to be a little bit closer than he had been the last time.

Then there was nowhere left to run.  Heather found herself standing at the edge of the cliff-face, looking down at the black, tumultuous waters below.

“No no no no…”

She turned around, and Bonnie Shaw was THERE, standing right in front of her, towering over her.

“Stay back!” Heather screamed, “Stay away from us!  You can’t have him!”

Heather grabbed a large stick off the ground and started swinging it wildly, a savage protective instinct taking over her.  But Bonnie Shaw just smiled, unfazed by the blows to his body, letting her strike at him until she was exhausted and dropped the weapon of her own volition.

I can have him, Heather,” Bonnie Shaw said calmly, “You gave him to me, many years ago.”

“I never gave you Colin!” she screamed, “I gave you the other one, the one that died.  And I didn’t even want to do that.  That ended our deal!”

But Bonnie Shaw just shook his head at this foolish idea.

“You do not decide when our deal ends.  I was promised a child from you.  It is my right to take what is mine.” 

Heather started to sob uncontrollably, backing further towards the edge of the cliff.

“N-no!  After all these y-years I’m finally happy and whole.  Colin is my w-world!  I can’t live without him.”

A long, clawed hand stroked gently down the side of Heather’s cheek, wiping at her tears.

“Yes you can, child, and you will.  I do not just take.  I give, too.  I know what you are owed in return for the boy.  Happiness, acceptance and contentment, free from the pain of loss.  You can have it.” 

Tears streaming down her face, Heather shook her head, taking another step backwards.

“I am not blind,” Bonnie Shaw said soothingly, “I know you made your deal with me under most dire circumstances, how broken your heart was, and what it has taken to put it back together.  You can lose everything to escape me.  Or I can make you be happy, can ensure you feel no pain, no loss.  Do you wish to be happy?”

Now, at last, Heather pulled her eyes away from Bonnie Shaw.  She looked down lovingly at her son, Colin, gazing deep into his curious eyes, taking in every little detail of his face.

“Yes,” she whispered, never looking away from her son.

Bonnie Shaw grinned, reached a clawed hand out towards her.

“All you need to do is take a-hold of my hand…”

It was a beautiful day in Glasgow, unseasonably bright and sunny for October.  Heather walked through the park with Craig by her side.  The thought occurred to her that she should cherish the little joyful moments like these as they were happening, and so she did just that, drawing in closer to Craig and resting her head on his shoulder.  They looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.

Colin was with them.  She pushed the pram in front of her, and he looked back at his parents, giggling playfully.  Everything was going so well.  Soon she would be back at work.  But not until after Christmas.  Their first Christmas as a family!  Just this morning she’d phoned her mother, who was so excited to make the trip out to Glasgow to spend Christmas week with them.  It was all exactly as it should be.

Just as they sat themselves down on a park bench, Craig’s phone rang.  Smiling apologetically, he walked a little down the pathway to take the call.  Now it was just Heather and Colin again.  She took her son out of the pram and sat him on her knee.  He was wrapped up warm.  She always made sure to keep him safe.  She smiled at him lovingly.  He looked back at her, and just for a moment, a chill ran through the air in this pleasant October afternoon.  Just for a moment, Heather got the inexplicable feeling that things were not exactly as she should be, that this thing on her lap looked at her with that old recognition and expectation, but none of the simple love that had always come with it.  And a cracked little voice in the darkest recess of her mind croaked futile, meaningless words…

Somewhere, your baby is screaming.

Then Colin smiled at her, and Heather immediately forgot such foolish notions before they had even formulated as coherent thought.

“Mummy loves you, dear.  Mummy loves you.”

And Heather lived a happily ever after, of a sort, in Glasgow.  But part of her, perhaps the most important part, is forever here in Merksay.  It’s the part we all leave here.  And so many of us have stories to tell.  One day I may tell you another. 

But not tonight.  The light is fading, and the chill is setting in.  Off you go now to carve your turnips and go guising in your fancy dress.  Be merry, enjoy the festivities.  Silly old stories like this shouldn’t linger for long amid all the fun.  But maybe, once the decorations are gone and the costumes are back in the cupboard, when you lie awake at night, they’ll come a-calling once more.  Happy Halloween.

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Two-Face & I

Okay, let me talk a wee bit about Two-Face.

Those who know me will know that The Joker has long been my favourite comics villain, one of my favourite characters in fiction. They might not know that for many years before The Joker took that top spot it was occupied by Two-Face. There’s a pivotal memory from my childhood where my experience of the Batman mythos expanded beyond the Burton films and the four villains who appeared in the 1966 Adam West movie… okay, 5, I saw the Mr Freeze episode of the old TV series too. But Two-Face was a key figure in me becoming fascinated in a wider Batman world, and getting into the comics… a gateway drug for getting into comics in general.

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Back when BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES first aired on UK TV, around 1992 so I’d have been 5 or 6, one of the earliest episodes I still have memories of experiencing for the first time was the two part Two-Face origin story. The cliffhanger ending of the first episode – where Batman’s friend, District Attorney Harvey Dent, is horribly disfigured, the reveal of his face shown in gruesome high-rendered detail as he runs screaming out of the hospital ward into the thundery night – horrified and transfixed young me. One of my earliest memories of breathlessly anticipating the next episode of a TV series, with the only earlier memories being the “same Bat time, same Bat channel!” cliffhangers of the Adam West show reruns. In fact, my mum was due to take me out with her to go see her friend the following Saturday, and the only way she got me to go was by making her friend record the episode so I could watch it once I got there. And that episode sealed the deal on Two-Face being my new favourite baddie, that raspy, cut-glass voice entrenched forever in my memory. From there on I would fill endless sheets of paper drawing him, and I quickly nabbed up his BTAS action figure and carried it around with me everywhere!

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was giddy to learn Two-Face would be the villain of BATMAN FOREVER, played by Tommy Lee Jones. I remember being so hyped for that film, and being overjoyed seeing Two-Face on the big screen – don’t be hard on me, I was 8. I have a weirdly specific memory of being on holiday in Majorca and endlessly re-enacting a Two-Face’s death scene from that film, throwing a handful of coins in the air and grasping wildly for them with a death scream as I tumbled backwards into the pool.

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It was around that time I made my first foray into reading single issue American comic books. I went to Candleriggs Market with my cousin, where they had a big comic stall set up, and I was specifically looking for Two-Face comics. I ended up leaving with a couple of chapters of Matt Wagner’s FACES.

Fast forward a decade or so to 2005, and I’d drifted from comics a bit after a foray into Marvel back when I was moving into my teens. But now at age 18, one of the two graphic novels which got my back into comics with a vengeance – the other being THE KILLING JOKE – was THE LONG HALLOWEEN. Which is of course one of the all-time great Two-Face stories. If, from this point on, The Joker was firmly established as my #1 Batman villain, Two-Face was #2 (appropriately enough), and has never really slipped from there.

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Of course, The Joker alone was enough to make THE DARK KNIGHT my most anticipated movie ever, but when I found out that Harvey Dent and then Two-Face would also be in the film, that pushed my hype to astronomical levels. I was just as excited to see Aaron Eckhart’s performance as I was Heath Ledger’s. And while I know some didn’t like Two-Face’s inclusion, I loved it: a Batman movie with both The Joker AND Two-Face! It’s like if you tried to create my ultimate film experience in a test tube. No wonder it is still my all-time favourite film.

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Also, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but one of my proudest writing achievements remains my two-year long stint writing Harvey Dent in the online RPGs I used to play in. When I wasn’t doing half-assed rips of scenes from THE SHIELD and THE WIRE, I relished digging into that character’s psyche in obsessive detail.

It’s funny how there are certain fictional characters who, when you look back through your life, you see were always there in some form, marking out the big moments like members of the family. Two-Face is one of those for me. He’s one of a very select few characters whose appearance will always interest me, and tempt me to pick up even a series I wasn’t previously reading.

Two-Face has been relatively quiet in the New 52 era. Apart from a brief storyline in the underrated Pete Tomasi run on BATMAN & ROBIN (I’d say Tomasi/Gleason but I believe Doug Mahnke drew that particular arc), he hasn’t been given much to do. Which is why I’m VERY excited about his big return in ALL STAR BATMAN, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by John Romita Jr, out this Wednesday.

Snyder did amazing things with The Joker during his BATMAN run in “Death of the Family” and “Endgame”, making the character the most frightening he’s been in ages. I can’t wait to see what he does with Two-Face. As the release draws near I realise my anticipation is off the charts!

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Heroes Con 2016!

I’m proud and excited to announce that one week from today, I’ll be attending Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina, having been invited to the show as a guest.  I’ve been looking forward to this all year.  For years now, I’ve jealously followed the Facebook and Twitter feeds of friends in attendance at Heroes, looking at the great time they’re having and all the original artwork they’re getting their hand on.  Heroes Con has long had a reputation as one of the very best comic cons in the world, and I’ve been desperate to have the chance to attend.  So to not only finally get to go this year, but to be invited along as a guest of the show alongside one of the best roster of creators I’ve ever seen united in a single show, is just incredible.

If you’re attending the show, please come see me, say hello.  I’ll be at Artist Alley table 912, planted in between Aaron Conley and the mighty Nick Pitarra.  I’ll be selling collections of And Then Emily Was Gone, Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare and The Standard.  I’ll also have a VERY limited supply of my advance print run of my new horror oneshot, Quilte. 

I’m also excited to report that I’ll be participating in two panels over the weekend:

Horror Comics   –   Friday, 5:30pm, Room 203A

Crime Comics   –   Sunday, 12pm, Room 207CD

I’m really looking forward to getting to Heroes, sharing my books with new readers and hanging out with comics friends.  Are you going to Heroes too?  Perhaps I’ll see you there!  Remember, AA-912!

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Some Thoughts on DC Universe: Rebirth

I’ve been excited about DC Universe: Rebirth in a way I haven’t been excited in a comic in a while.  Of course, there have been new series I’ve been excited to check out, and the latest chapters in comics I consistently love, both of which have me eager to get to my comic shop on a Wednesday, but this was a different type of excitement.  This was the kind of anticipation I felt going into the first issues of Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Blackest Night, the best kind of event comics where you know as you start that you’re about to read something huge and epic.  When this was announced, I was certainly intrigued, but it wasn’t until the release was impending that I realised just how ready I was for a comic like this.  And it delivered on my high expectations.

Now, when I went into my local comic shop, one of the staff there I know had positioned himself next to the comic, and was warning passing patrons picking up the comic not to look inside, not to spoil any of the experience contained within.  He said it was better to read this totally fresh, and I wish I had.  I wanted to, but key details were spoiled for me on social media.  I didn’t know the specifics so I was still able to enjoy the execution, but I’d have been knocked out of my chair reading that stuff without any prior knowledge.  As such, I’m containing my very spoilerific thoughts to this review rather than posting it on my Facebook wall and risking sullying anyone else’s experiences.  So, here it comes…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There is plenty I’ve liked about the New 52.  But one of my regrets of the whole thing, five years on, was how much of the DC Universe’s history was lost.  Yes, yes, I know, the comics on my shelf didn’t burst into flames so I can never read them again just because they were no longer canon.  But comics like The Multiversity served as a reminder of how much I loved the DC Universe in all its bonkers complexity, rewritten timelines, legacies and death/resurrections included.  And suddenly this old, lived-in universe with decades of accumulated gravitas was new-car shiny and fresh.  Superheroes had only been around five years, everyone was younger, and a lot of the big events in these characters’ history, along with many of the great friendships, rivalries and romances, had never come to pass.  It was always a controversial decision, but whether you were in support or opposition, I imagine that all DC readers were sad about at least one thing they loved no longer factoring into the stories they would read going forward.

If you felt that way to any degree, this is the comic for you.  It’s not regression, as some feared.  It’s not lashing out against diversity or progress.  It’s not retconning the New 52 out of existence.  This 80-page special (and for $2.99, that’s a hell of a deal!) gets off the ground running with a simple adjustment to the premise, but one with catastrophic implications that, I think, makes the whole thing much better.  The New 52 isn’t just something that happened to us, the readers, at an editorial level.  It is something that happened to the characters, within the world of the story.  This is no longer a case of the characters are just now 10 years younger, and many of the experiences and relationships that defined them never happened.  This is a case of these characters having those years, experiences and relationships stolen from them.  And so, on some level, even if they can no longer remember it, all the stuff that happened to them before still happened.

The agent for conveying all this to the reader is none other than Wally West.  Not the teenage Wally West of the current comics, the pre New 52 Wally West, the former Flash.  This was one of the big reveals of this comic that was spoiled for me beforehand, and I think the commentary about it that I caught took his appearance in the wrong context.  There has been discussion about how the restoration of this old Wally West was about catering to the latent racism of fanboys, that the only possible reason people could want this Wally West back was that they didn’t like the new version being black.  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Oh, of course, I’m sure there are some mouth-breathers out there who hated Wally being made black.  But for me at least, my sadness over the loss of “my” Wally West was much more down to the history I’d shared with him.  It was the Geoff Johns/Scott Kollins run on The Flash – with Wally in the mantle – that turned me from a Batman fan into a DC Universe fan, not to mention making me love the mythos of The Flash.  Barry Allen being restored into the role was a tough pill for me to swallow at first, and really it took a combination of the beautifully illustrated Francis Manapul/Brian Buccaletto run on The Flash’s New 52 launch and the excellence of the TV series and Grant Gustin’s performance in it for me to finally fully embrace Barry Allen back in the role, not to mention Barry being injected with many elements of Wally’s personality.  I love Barry Allen now and am totally down with him as The Flash, but it still made me a bit sad that those original Johns/Kollins comics I had been so fond of now starred a character who no longer existed.

But to get back on point, the return of this pre-52 Wally West works so well because he is an emblem of what was lost with the New 52.  Perhaps more than anyone else he is a standard bearer for the change and legacy the DCU was once known for.  He began as a child, becoming Kid Flash.  He grew into a teenager, becoming a founding member of the original Teen Titans.  He became an adult, and took over the mantle of The Flash.  He grew from cocky young man struggling to escape his predecessor’s shadow to a great hero in his own right, becoming so entrenched in the role in this era of temporary substitutes that, by the end of his tenure, I believe he had actually been The Flash for more years (in our time) than Barry Allen had!  He married Linda Park, they had two children, who grew from infancy to being fully-formed 8-10 year olds with personalities and superpowers of their own.  He lived a full life before us on the comic page.  And then in an instant that was all gone because such a life couldn’t possibly exist in a condensed 5-year timeline.  Reading the four-page montage in this book – masterfully illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver – where Wally chronicles his full history from Silver Age through to Flashpoint, I got chills, seeing all that stuff being referred to in a central DC comic once again.  Who better to be the agent through which the events from before the New 52 are put back on the table?  And that they are.  For example, I never got round to reading Flashpoint, but now I absolutely want to read it, as it feels important and relevant again.  Stories from before the New 52 have teeth once more.

That’s not to say that the New 52 is thrown under the bus.  As I said above, there has been a lot to like in the New 52 as well, and we see elements from various books picked up on here, be it the developments of this week’s issues of Justice League and Superman or references to Swamp Thing storylines from a few years ago.  But in amidst that, new wrinkles are being factored in, more remnants from the world that was being brought back into the mix.  Old and new all forming a ragged yet fascinating tapestry.

And, to go back to more Flash talk, I loved the characterisation of Barry Allen here.  We had a whistlestop tour through a lot of familiar heroes and villains, but I think The Flash was my favourite.  Even the little touches demonstrating his remarkable decency and optimism, how more than any other hero it’s the Fastest Man Alive who takes the extra time to ensure the people he rescues are happy as well as safe.  But on a bigger level, having him be the one figure within the New 52 Universe who can remember everything from before Flashpoint and you knows about a malevolent outside force working against them all puts him in a real centrepiece role within the DCU, poised to be a crucial figure in yet another Crisis down the line.

And yes, about that malevolent outside force… that was the other thing spoiled for me in advance.  It turns out that the figure behind the disruption of the New 52 is none other than Doctor Manhattan, of Watchmen fame.  The characters don’t know this yet, and we are left in the dark about the specifics of how and why, but the world of Watchmen is now somehow in play within the DCU.  That’s going to upset a lot of people, I know.  And I am wary of disrupting that perfect, self-contained clockwork industry of the classic comic.  And yet, I can’t deny that the reveal of that smiley face button in the Batcave got my heart racing even without it being a total surprise.  The sheer audacity of it has sparked my interest, and I absolutely need to know how this is going to play out.  Geoff Johns has successfully implanted a longform mystery into the heart of this DCU rejuvenation, with a conflict not quite like anything we’ve seen before.  And even though we don’t know the specifics, the stakes are laid out: this is a battle between the bright and hopeful optimism of the DC heroes and the bleak cynicism of Watchmen.  We’ll see what happens next!

But in talking about all these fascinating mechanics and intriguing developments, and looking into this as a new beginning, there’s something else that’s worth pointing out.  This is also an ending.  For now, at least.  This is Geoff Johns’ last comic for the foreseeable future, with him transitioning fully into the executive role that has been occupying more and more of his time in recent years.  And in that context, DC Universe: Rebirth reads a lot like a swansong for his decorated comics career.  We are taking a tour across various characters Johns has written for, touching on numerous stories he contributed to.  Wally West as our guide through all this becomes appropriate, given how he was the protagonist of one of Johns’ first major DC writing gigs.  And The Flash’s significance is fitting as Johns has always called The Flash his favourite character.  As a writer known for his big, epic events and in particular his breathtaking setups for those events, it is fitting that his final bow be a setup for the biggest event of all, handing the reigns over to others to see it through.  After giving us a Green Lantern: Rebirth and a Flash: Rebirth, Geoff Johns leaves us with a DC Universe: Rebirth.

 

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My Top Ten Comics of 2015

Hello, and welcome to what will be my 6th annual countdown of my favourite comics of the year. 2015 has been another interesting year for comics. It seems to have been something of a transitional year for the Big Two, with both Marvel and DC having big shakeups. In DC’s case, it has involved launching a whole series of new books within the DCU, and more recently under the Vertigo banner too, while in Marvel, it has been a line-wide relaunch. This meant that Marvel’s year seems to have been split between their titles being wrapped up in the first half of the year, and their replacements only really getting going over the past couple of months, which has likely hurt their standing on this year’s list. Scheduling has made a few rankings tricky on this list, going by my usual “a series must have 3 issues released within the year to qualify” barometer. The Sandman: Overture was brilliant, but the staggered release schedule meant that no one year had enough issues released within it to garner inclusion. And on the other end, we’ve had some amazing launches right at the tail-end of the year that have just missed out the cut. Vertigo’s Sheriff of Babylon was one of the best first issues of anything I’ve read in some time, and I think the odds of it ranking in next year’s countdown are very high indeed if the quality remains consistent. Negative Space from Dark Horse is another title which blew me away with its first issue and which may have qualified if we’d gotten more from it this year. Marvel’s standouts thus far in its All-New, All-Different initiative have been Doctor Strange and Invincible Iron Man, but I feel they’re still relatively fresh and I need to see how they settle down before ranking them. Over on the DC side, Midnighter, Martian Manhunter and Constantine: The Hellblazer all get honourable mentions and have proven to be highly successful new launches brimming with ideas for their respective protagonists. And while Image still lead the pack for titles on my list, I’d say my reading has been quite widely spread this year, with me enjoying titles from BOOM!, Oni Press, Dark Horse and IDW – including a binge-reading session of IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run, which is cracking and very nearly made the list! Special mention also goes to Rumble from John Arcudi and James Harren, which was actually on the list at #10 until the last minute when I realised another book I loved but didn’t think qualified as a 2015 release was eligible. But now that I’ve explained away the various comics that didn’t make the cut, it’s time to get down to the books that did…

 
10. BATMAN

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Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s landmark run returns to the list after failing to rank for the first time last year. But really, this team is so finely honed now that they could make a well-crafted adaptation of the phone-book, so even arcs that I might not have been so personally engaged by, like the extended “Zero Year” saga of last year, still have an undeniable level of talent behind them. But my interest was grabbed back with a vengeance with “Endgame,” which was kicking into high gear as the year began. Batman and The Joker are two of my favourite characters in fiction, and so watching them set against each other is always a joy, but this took things to a whole new, climactic level of drama. One of Scott Snyder’s great skills as a writer is that he can take a character like Batman, someone we KNOW is going to be around long after we’re all dead and gone, and ramp up the tension so high that we start to question how the hell Batman can possibly get out of the corner he’s been backed into, how can The Joker possibly be defeated? “Endgame” seems to have had its detractors, but I loved it, for me it played out with all the gravitas we might imagine The Last Ever Batman Story would have. The current “Superheavy” arc has been a fun change of pace, exploring interesting ideas about Gotham without Batman, and Bruce Wayne without Batman, remixing some of the themes Snyder first explored back in his “Black Mirror” story. And of course, Greg Capullo’s visuals are always stunning. Far from resting on his laurels, Capullo uses Batman as a platform to keep pushing the envelope in terms of page construction and what visuals can do to inform the story. Snyder and Capullo have already secured their legacy as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and everything they do going into 2016 is just an extended victory lap.

 
9. DAREDEVIL

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Speaking of victory laps, that’s what these last couple of arcs of Daredevil Volume 4 felt a bit like. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee may not have quite hit the dizzying heights they reached during Volume 3 or even earlier in Volume 4, but they still had a few remaining tricks up their sleeve as they brought their acclaimed run to a close. For me, the biggest ace was bringing in The Kingpin for that last arc. Arguably my favourite Marvel villain, his absence – deliberately enforced, according to Waid – was the one thing Waid’s instant classic run was missing for me. So I relished seeing how Waid and Samnee brought him to life. And really, every chapter of this series was a delight, each issue making me let out a little gasp or chuckle at the cleverness of its construction at least once. I think it came to a rewarding close as well, bringing things full circle and using its closing moments to focus on what we all knew this whole run was about at its core: the friendship between Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson. This was a comic that made me smile, not something one might expect to say about the famously grim Daredevil… but that was its charm. I’m sure Charles Soule and Ron Garney will do fine taking Ol’ Hornhead back into more familiar terrain, but it doesn’t quite feel the same. History will be very kind to what Waid and Samnee did on this series, perhaps remembering their work as fondly as the iconic Frank Miller run.

 
8. SEX CRIMINALS

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Here’s another comic returning to the top 10 after going missing for a year. Back in 2013, based off the first 3 issues, I remarked that this series was so much more than its “lovers who can stop time by having sex decide to rob banks” premise, and that applies even more now than it did then. In fact, the whole “robbing banks” element seems to have at the very least been pushed far into the background. Instead, the book has become this all-encompassing, multi-faceted look at sexuality in all its diverse, strange forms. The second arc saw the famously goofy book turn serious with a poignant look into depression and the impact it can have on a relationship. And the current third arc has saw the series expand its scope, with central protagonists Jon and Suzie giving up centre stage to let a varying ensemble of characters showcase their weird sex powers and, in the process, open up a dialogue about a different aspect of sexuality that many a story might find taboo. In doing so, stereotypes have been busted. For example, the idealistic young girl who stumbled into the porn industry and a world of drugs and debauchery wasn’t destroyed by her experience… nope, she had a good time, learned a few lessons and applied them to a successful academics career. It is also worth remarking that this is absolutely a book that should be bought in single issue format, as the comic experience is much more than just the wonderful main story from Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. It’s also the best letters page in comics, with Fraction and Zdarsky curating a community of readers and a sense of ongoing, evolving discussion from issue to issue that it feels like an organic extension of the narrative. My only complaint about Sex Criminals is that I wish we’d get it more often!

 
7. NAMELESS

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2015 was the year that Grant Morrison came back with a vengeance. The stage was set in 2014 with The Multiversity and Annihilator starting, but both went out with a bang this year, and then Morrison and his Batman Inc running mate Chris Burnham followed that up with Nameless. Morrison revisits some of his recurring motifs of magic and living fictions and wicked alien intelligences and gives them their darkest possible spin here, weaving a tale that starts creepy and gets increasingly nightmarish as it progresses, deftly transitioning from an arcane Armageddon to Event Horizon, and from there pushes things even further into the realms of demented, relentless fever dream. Morrison and Burnham manage to craft a sense of hell on the comic page. And as much as Grant Morrison is the greatest comic writer ever in my opinion, I have to give special credit here to the artwork of Chris Burnham. I’ve always enjoyed Burnham’s work, but here he just takes it to the next level, pushing the envelope to craft some nauseating, horrifying imagery that will leave you wanting to turn back the page or close the book. And he has the ideal partner in colourist Nathan Fairbairn, who is able to bring just the right amount of grisly texture to Burnham’s visuals. The release schedule tailed off a little towards the end of the year, meaning we didn’t get to see the resolution which might have helped Nameless rank even higher, but this is still superlative work from a writer proving that he’s still a master of his craft and an artist ascending to that level.

 
6. BURNING FIELDS

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For those who read Curse, the previous collaboration between co-writers Michael Moreci and Tim Daniel and artist Colin Lorimer, Burning Fields was earmarked as a comics project to anticipate from the moment it was announced. But I think even the team’s existing fans were surprised by just how great this ended up being, ranking right up there as one of the best titles BOOM Studios has ever put out. What was so excellent about it was how, over its 8-issue run, the series just kept on evolving. Set against the backdrop of Iraq, with the shadow of the war and America’s malign influence on the region hanging over it, this starts off as an offbeat serial killer procedural laced with an astute commentary on the corruption of the private security firms filling up power vacuums and setting up shop in the region. Initially I was reminded of the film Black Rain in its American fish-out-of-water crime trappings – though with that film the location in question was Japan – though by a couple of issues in the tone felt more like Angel Heart as the killings became more occult-flavoured and the layers were peeled back to reveal death cults and demonic presences. Then in its second half the series evolved again into a tense, claustrophobic creature feature, before in its final issues coming full circle and revealing itself to all along be a very human story about our protagonists, Dana and Aban, and how their respective connections to the world around them would determine their fates. Since I’m throwing around film comparisons already, I recently watched Sicario, and that for me captured something of the singular aesthetic established here, straddling the line between war and horror and presenting a foreign country as frightening, alien terrain. I also think there’s something interesting to be written about Burning Fields and two other great comics with a war backdrop that launched this year – Tet and Sheriff of Babylon – and what they all have to say about the conflicts of today. I really hope the team of Moreci, Daniel and Lorimer have something else coming up in the pipeline.

 
5. THE MULTIVERSITY

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Originally, I wasn’t going to include The Multiversity in this list, because I thought of it as a 2014 book, and didn’t think enough issues had been released this year to merit inclusion for a second year running. But upon looking into it more closely I discovered there was enough to make the series eligible as a 2015 entry too – yes, this is the 11th-hour entry that knocked Rumble off the list, sorry! “Thunderworld” came in at the very tail-end of last year, after the publication of my 2014 list, and that was sheer joy, Morrison teaming up with artist Cameron Stewart to make the struggling Shazam franchise seem like the coolest, most exciting and joyful corner of the DCU. I would love that in-development Shazam movie to take this tone, though I sadly doubt it will. This year brought us “Mastermen,” exploring a world where Superman landed in Nazi Germany and was used to create a glorious Reich which still endures to this day, drawn ably by Jim Lee, while Doug Mahnke drew “Ultra Comics,” the infamous “haunted comic” Morrison has spent years talking about through the development of this series – it proved to be as skin-crawlingly unsettling as we might have hoped. Then there was the big blow-up finale which, far from ending the story, seemed to open it up for many more stories to be explored in this sandpit. But perhaps my favourite of all the Multiversity comics released this year was “The Multiversity Guidebook,” even if that might be cheating as it is mostly prose. This book is essentially, “Grant Morrison draws out a blueprint for the whole DC Multiverse and its surrounding celestial bodies,” and is as wildly inventive as that sounds. As well as a comic prologue and epilogue laced with mysteries that would be explored in the ensuing issues, this was packed with detailed diagrams and a heap of universe breakdowns – and accompanying illustrations by a range of great artists – loaded to the brim with various delightful DC Easter Eggs. I swear, I’ve read and reread that comic book more than any other this year, and in fact still have it sat by my computer now so I can grab it and browse through when in need of inspiration. The Multiversity is the kind of story that enriches your imagination and leaves your mind buzzing with possibilities of what new directions the vibrant worlds could expand out into… there are few if any writers that generate this effect in me so well as Grant Morrison.

 
4. EAST OF WEST

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It could be easy to overlook East of West because it’s just so damn consistently awesome with each passing issue… it almost becomes a case of running out of things to say about it other than, “Yep, still great.” But even as the mad sci-fi Western epic blasted into its third year, Jonathan Hickman was still expanding the world and further filling out his sprawling ensemble of significant players. I feel like I would really benefit now from going right back to the start and doing a reread of the whole series just to see how everything connects together, as there are times when a character is absent for too long I’ve near forgotten what they were doing last by the time they re-emerge. But Hickman’s gift is that he ensures that every issue, as well as being a chunk of a larger whole, is in itself a self-contained treat, like a little poem in comics form that paints a portrait of a character, place, idea or key moment. But the MVP of the series has got to be Nick Dragotta, who with each passing month further solidifies his case to at very least be in the conversation for best comics artist active today. His character designs are iconic, the kind of figures you instantly want to have as an action figure on your shelf, or as a piece of original art on your wall. His locations all feel lived in, and his staging of scenes generates a palpable sense of mood and scale. The sun-scorched colours of Frank Martin ably enhance the whole desolate aesthetic being presented, and this is regularly one of the finest looking comics on the stands. Perhaps the best showcase for this dynamic duo was the most recent issue, which was presented almost entirely without any dialogue or narration, the visuals completely carrying the story. I have talked before about Nick Dragotta as an “auteur” artist, and I think that issue underlined what I was talking about. Though perhaps my favourite East of West issues of the year were the ones focusing on Babylon, son of Death, and his manipulative robotic “friend,” Balloon. These managed to run the emotional gamut from horrifying, to funny, to sad and poignant. But this world is rich with stories and characters I’m keen to return to, and I’m very excited to see where things go from here. It may seem at times like it’s going quietly under the radar now, but when it’s all said and done, I’m confident East of West will go down in history as one of the all-time great comics narratives.

 
3. THE SCULPTOR

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The Sculptor was perhaps the new comic release I was most hotly anticipating going into 2015. While most perhaps know Scott McCloud best for his Understanding Comics series, I’ll always think of him most fondly as the cartoonist behind one of my favourite comics of all time, Zot! And yet, decades have passed without McCloud doing a follow-up to his one major work of fiction, with McCloud remarking that he sets such high standards for himself that he doubted he might ever again have a work of such perfection that he’d feel confident in sharing with the world. Which might give you an idea of just how good that follow-up is in the form of The Sculptor. In addition to just really looking forward to it for the longest time and the experience of reading it being a climactic experience in itself, the timing of when I got to read it hit particularly hard, as I had just experienced a bereavement, and it was on a quiet weekend at home leading up to the funeral that I binge-read the book, with some of its ideas and moments hitting me like a sledgehammer. This is a comic that deals with big, heavy issues such as mortality, what we do with our life, how we come to terms with our death or the deaths of those we love, and how we find meaning in it all. And it is tackled by McCloud with such poetry and melancholy beauty that it would be very hard not to get emotional reading it. The craft at work is astounding, McCloud applying all his many years of acquired knowledge about what makes comics work and putting it stunningly into practise, while also experimenting with the medium and seeing just how far he can push it. An immensely powerful work of comics literature.

 
2. HARROW COUNTY

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It was the cover that did it for me. How could a horror fan like me take one look at that deliciously sinister cover – the boneless skin of an arm and hand dangling out of a box, with menacing eyes glowing yellow from the shadows within – and not immediately want to check out the comic it came from? Thankfully, this was an example of it being perfectly okay to just a book by its cover, as the story that unfolded inside was gripping. By turns chillingly frightening and disarmingly poignant, Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook have, over the course of 8 issues, established a rich mythology of witchcraft and haints that populate through the remote rural community of Harrow County. The little backup stories – with the best ones being beautifully rendered by the great Owen Gieni – served to further establish Harrow County as a place where all kinds of weird things happen, but our most gripping thread was our main story, which sees young girl Emmy come of age and start discovering her supernatural heritage and the powers that come with it. Cullen Bunn is a writer I’ve always liked, going back to his breakout work on The Sixth Gun, but with Harrow County you get a palpable sense of a creator truly coming into the height of his powers, in a manner not unlike when a director has a few quality films under his belt then ups his game to wow people with an acclaimed Oscar contender. In lesser hands, the omniscient narrator device Bunn employs might have felt heavy-handed, but with Bunn at the helm this technique is used to enrich the story with chilling wordplay and an arch, Gothic tone. And Tyler Crook, oh man, Tyler Crook. His work here has made him a breakout artist of the year for me. I carried issue #1 around in my bag for weeks just to show people – I’d open it up and be like, “LOOK AT THIS ART!” – and he’s just got better and better. I love the time lapse process videos Crook posts up on Youtube, which just show how lovingly rendered each tableau is. This book is visually stunning. And the whole comic package each issue really is a delight. I mentioned the “Tales of Harrow County” short stories, but each issue also has pinups, and an extended letters page featuring prose ghost stories and spooky recollections from the creators, readers and guest contributors. Everything about this comic is great. It’s no surprise it’s already been picked up for a TV adaptation.

 
1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

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Yep, Southern Bastards has done it again. For the first time since a certain other Jason Aaron penned crime saga, the same comic has ranked #1 in my top 10 countdown on multiple consecutive years. Growing out from the pulpy roots of its opening arc in its first year, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have made their hard-boiled Southern noir into a diverse beast that can tackle a number of issues from different perspectives. The second arc, “Gridiron,” came to a devastating conclusion as 2015 began, with us seeing how Coach Boss completed his transformation into the vile human being he is today. But then the series reached perhaps its highest point yet with “Homecoming,” a series of single-chapter stories which provided showcases for various supporting players and new characters, broadening the scope of the world surrounding Craw County. First, we got a closer look at the disillusioned Sheriff Hardy and his story of blighted potential, which did a fine job of immediately placing Coach Boss firmly back in the role of antagonist and voiding out much of the sympathy we’d gained for him. Then, perennial punching bag Esaw Goings took centre stage in a terrifying dissection of toxic masculinity, which chillingly dove inside Goings’ head and found little but more of the aimless rage and futile profanity that characterises his external self. Issue #11 introduced us to perhaps my new favourite character, and another prospective nemesis for Boss to worry about, in Deacon Boone, in a story which eschewed the football focus to look at the South’s relationship with religion and how that conflicted with Boone’s deeds. And then in the most recent chapter we saw series artist Jason Latour switch to writing duties for a trippy tale which checked back in with Tad Ledbetter, a character who I thought was an incidental figure in Earl’s story who we’d never see again but who instead has taken on an intriguing new life. Jason Aaron as a writer is damn near peerless in the comics field. I love all the stuff he’s doing, from Doctor Strange to The Mighty Thor to The Goddamned, but Southern Bastards is his finest work currently on shelves, perhaps his finest since Scalped. The characters are so well realised, their voices so distinctive and real. And Latour’s art just about leaps off the page, his chunky figures feeling stylised and a little cartoonish while never losing gravitas, his staging rich in emotion. And he’s someone else who just seems to be adding more strings to their bow and becoming more refined with each passing issue, the visual style of the series constantly evolving and shifting to adapt the needs of the story being told. Last year, I talked about how Southern Bastards felt like it was building to a catastrophic confrontation, and one year down the line that feeling is still there, the reckoning being brought by the impending arrival of Roberta Tubb still just around the corner. And yet the series never felt like it was spinning its wheels. This, more than any other comic, is the book I’m itching to read as soon as I buy the latest issue, where I can barely make it in the door before I have to rip it on and get my latest fix. It really is the spiritual successor to Scalped, which is about the highest compliment I can give any comic.
And that’s the top 10 down for another year! It was so hard getting this list finalised, as there were so many great comics and it was hard narrowing it down to just 10. But let’s have a look at how the year-end standings now look for each year I’ve done this countdown:

2010: Scalped
2011: Scalped
2012: The Underwater Welder
2013: The Manhattan Projects
2014: Southern Bastards
2015: Southern Bastards

What will 2016 bring? As mentioned above, there are a whole lot of potentially spectacular comics that were just getting going as this year drew to a close, and I’m sure a few of them will be in the mix. There have been some big debuts announced for next year, and I’m sure there will be plenty of others which will take me by surprise. Or will Southern Bastards still reign supreme and make it three years in a row? Find out next year. Thanks for reading!

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This Weekend: Glasgow Comic Con 2015!

This coming weekend at the CCA Glasgow, from Saturday 4th July to Sunday 5th July, Scotland’s comics scene will be celebrating one of the highlights of its year, with the milestone 5th Glasgow Comic Con!  I have fond memories of the first Glasgow Comic Con I attended back in 2011.  I wasn’t exhibiting or selling my wares, I was just there as a fan.  But the first issue of my debut comic, THE STANDARD – back when it was just a self-published comic released locally in Glasgow – was nominated for a SICBA, and I’m aware that this show was the first time many people became aware of me as a comics creator, meaning this was the beginning for a lot of the things that have gone on to be a part of my life: from career path to the friends I’ve made.  And with each passing year, no matter if I’m also attending Thought Bubble or New York Comic Con or anywhere else, Glasgow Comic Con always manages to be my most profitable convention, because of the passion and enthusiasm of Scottish comics readers in supporting local talent.

Me with some Glasgow comics pals in 2012. So young, so full of hope...

Me with some Glasgow comics pals in 2012. So young, so full of hope…

And that brings us to this year, where I’ll be returning to the show, with my debut series, THE STANDARD, complete, and my follow-up comic, AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, also complete.  AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE is nominated for a SICBA Award, for Best Graphic Novel.  You can vote for us here.

I’ll be tabling at the show, along with AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE artist Iain Laurie, at the Art Studio venue.  We’re on Level 1, at Table 68:

GCC15Table

But we won’t just be selling our wares and hobnobbing at the SICBA awards ceremony.  You’ll also be able to find Iain and I at the “Owning Your Own Work!” panel on the Level 1 Workshop Room from 1:15pm-2pm, where we’ll be joined by Emma Beeby, Monty Nero, Gordon Rennie and Shaky Kane, talking about our various creator-owned comics projects.

On Sunday, Iain will be participating in the Big Comic Draw event.  I, meanwhile, will be participating in the “GLoW Goes Global” panel at 2:15pm-3pm, where I’ll be joined by my pals Sam Read, Harry French, Colin Bell, Garry Mac and Gary Chudleigh.  We’ll be talking about the writers group that has been running in Glasgow since 2011, of which I was a founding member, and where each of us have gone in our careers since contributing to the collective.

Glasgow Comic Con is always a fun weekend, and I’m sure that will be the case this year too.  If you’re attending, come along and say hello!

GCC2015

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6 Tips For Writing Horror Comics

HorrorComic13

Last week, as part of the Kickstarter campaign for The Standard, I ran a special live streaming event exclusively for backers: a talk about the history of horror in comics. One aspect of the talk that went down particularly well was where I broke down the ways that the comics medium can be used to craft fear into six key points, as can be seen here:

I’ve had requests to expand on these a bit, so I thought I’d take each point and explore it in more detail.

1. “Horrifying imagery that repulses on a visceral level.”

Anyone who has seen Iain Laurie’s unforgettable work on And Then Emily Was Gone will see why I view this as crucial. Comics are a visual medium, and so the most instantaneous way to make an impact on the reader is through your imagery. Horror is no exception. Work closely with the artist to craft images that will be seared into readers’ brains and stick with them long after they’ve closed the book. If you can, tap into what I call the “visual gag reflex,” something so nasty it makes the reader recoil from the page when they see it. It has long been said that the advantage of novels is that the reader will read the words and create a picture in their imaginations far scarier than what could be drawn, but a comic artist has the challenge of creating a picture that’s scarier than what the reader could imagine.

2. “Panel layouts and angles that unsettle, put the reader on edge.”

In the post-talk Q&A, one question was what I thought made a good opening in a horror story. I brought up some of the best openings of horror movies: the “killer POV” tracking shot in Halloween, the ominous aerial camera following the car in The Shining, and those horrifying momentary flashes of corpses in the darkness in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What all these have in common is that they immediately put the viewer on the back-foot, make them uncomfortable by throwing them into a situation where they don’t have a full grasp of what’s happening and so are instantly on edge. What is the comic book equivalent of that? In comics, there is a certain visual language, and a conventional understanding of how to frame a scene. But if you play with that – start cutting out establishing shots, or framing characters in stifling close-ups or oppressive low angles – it can create a sense of uneasiness within the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of.

3. “Move away from familiar tropes, enter the unknown.”

One of my favourite quotes about horror comes from Ben Wheatley, the director of films such as Kill List and A Field in England. When he was asked about his top tip for making good horror, he said, “Explain as little as possible.” While the likes of vampires and zombies are enduringly popular because they tap into powerful ideas, and while classic, terrifying horror stories have been told with them and likely will be told with them in future, it’s more difficult to scare a reader with them because they’ve become familiar. Once something becomes a trope of the genre, readers will recognise it and begin to feel more comfortable, thinking that now they know the rules. But what if there are no rules? When readers don’t know what to expect, when they can’t get comfortable, it becomes easier to ramp up the tension.

4. “Don’t pull your punches, take your characters to dark places.”

Too often, horror takes a slump in the third act. Much of the tension comes in the build-up, with the threat lurking in the shadows. But in a lot of horror, even a lot of good horror, once you get into the third act, the antagonistic presence is revealed, we get a bunch of exposition explaining it, and the plot mechanics kick in towards resolving the conflict in a conventional manner. And that can act as a release of tension. By the end, the toys are back in the proverbial box, and either the hero has triumphed over the horror they faced or the wicked have met with an appropriately grim fate. This is horror as rollercoaster, where the scares are fleeting and of the moment, little spikes in the adrenalin to get the blood pumping… and by the end you’re uplifted, feeling a little more alive for having faced fear in a controlled setting and come out the other side. And this kind of horror can be very well executed. But I, personally, prefer horror that lingers after the fact, horror that leaves you ill at ease long after you’ve finished the story. And so, rather than releasing tension in that third act, I’d say go deeper down the rabbit hole, leave things unresolved, hanging ominously overhead. And maybe have the courage of your convictions to make us care about a character and then deny them a happy ending. Horror works best when it’s not just a dark chapter in that safe, established narrative world where good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everything happens for a reason, but rather exists in a world that’s cruel and fundamentally unfair.

5. “Pace your narrative in a way that steadily builds dread.”

Above, I talked about the power of horrifying images in horror comics. But the key to their success lies in more than just the images themselves. Once you establish those visuals once, or if readers are aware of what to expect from the artist telling the story, then a writer can use the tools at their disposal to manipulate that imagery and maximise its impact. Comics can be a fascinating medium for delayed gratification, because the reader can turn the pages as fast or as slowly as they want, and therefore the connection between reader and page feels more intimate and personal. Tease out the reveal of the next horrifying image, build up to it with partial stolen glances or reaction shots. And don’t just write it like a screenplay: remember the tools comics can employ. Plan for your page turns, have your biggest shocking reveals on your even-numbered pages, and spend the preceding odd-numbered pages building to them. The best grip a horror comic can have on a reader is to have them dreading turning the page, but unable to stop themselves.

6. “Tap into basic, universally accessible fears.”

All the previous points will ring hollow if you don’t stick true to this. You can have gruesome visuals, inventive panel layouts and a harsh narrative that pulls no punches, but it’s not going to scare your reader unless they can relate to it. So, no matter how outlandish or fantastical your story may be, if you want it to be horror, try and link it back in your mind to a core idea that scares you – the fear of being alone, the fear of losing loved ones, the fear that there is something awful about the world lurking just beyond your comprehension – and make sure that lies at the heart of your story. If it resonates with you, odds are it will resonate with your reader.

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of it. Of course, if you want to explore this in more detail, and hear me talk in detail about how various classic horror comics masterfully employ these techniques, then the best thing to do is watch my full talk. A recording of the full streaming event is available to backers of THE STANDARD Kickstarter, and can be accessed here.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a reading list of all the horror comics I discuss in my talk. Here’s a version for US readers:

Tales from the Crypt
By Various
The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Volume 1

Vault of Horror
By Various
The EC Archives: Vault of Horror, Volume 1

Twisted Tales
By Bruce Jones & various artists
Not been comprehensively collected, but single issues can be found online.

Gore Shriek
By Various, includes “Cottonmouth” by Stephen Bissette
Gore Shriek

Doom Patrol
By Grant Morrison & Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, various
Doom Patrol, Volume 1: Crawling From the Wreckage
Also available on ComiXology

Shade the Changing Man
By Pete Milligan & Chris Bachalo
Shade the Changing Man, Volume 1: The American Scream
Shade the Changing Man #1 on ComiXology

The Sandman
By Neil Gaiman & Various
The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
The Sandman #1 on ComiXology

Saga of the Swamp Thing
By Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, on ComiXology

Hellblazer
By Various
Hellblazer, Volume 5: Dangerous Habits (beginning of Garth Ennis run)
Also available on ComiXology

The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore
The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume 1
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye on ComiXology

Uzumaki
By Junji Ito
Uzumaki 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo & Junji Ito
Read online

Powwkipsie
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Echoes
By Joshua Hale Fialkov & Rahsan Ekedal
Currently out of print, available from ComiXology
Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family
Also available on ComiXology

American Vampire
By Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
American Vampire, Volume 1
Also available on ComiXology

The Wake
By Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
The Wake
Also available on ComiXology

Severed
By Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki
Severed
Also available on ComiXology

Wytches
By Scott Snyder & Jock
Wytches, Volume 1
Wytches #1 on ComiXology

Nailbiter
By Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Nailbiter, Volume 1: There Will Be Blood
Nailbiter #1 on ComiXology

The Woods
By James Tynion IV & Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 1
The Woods #1 on ComiXology

Curse
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer, Riley Rossmo
Curse
Also available on ComiXology

The Empty Man
By Cullen Bunn & Vanessa Del Ray
The Empty Man
The Empty Man #1 on ComiXology

Spread
By Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm
Spread, Volume 1: No Hope
Spread #1 on ComiXology

Outcast
By Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta
Outcast, Volume 1: Darkness Surrounds Him
Outcast #1 on ComiXology

Nameless
By Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Nameless #1 on ComiXology

Burning Fields
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer
Burning Fields #1 on ComiXology

Harrow County
By Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
Harrow County #1 on the Dark Horse online store

Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Through the Woods

And Then Emily Was Gone
By John Lees & Iain Laurie
And Then Emily Was Gone
Also available on ComiXology
And here’s a version for UK readers:

Tales from the Crypt
By Various
The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Volume 1

Vault of Horror
By Various
The EC Archives: Vault of Horror, Volume 1

Twisted Tales
By Bruce Jones & various artists
Not been comprehensively collected, but single issues can be found online.

Gore Shriek
By Various, includes “Cottonmouth” by Stephen Bissette
Gore Shriek

Doom Patrol
By Grant Morrison & Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, various
Doom Patrol, Volume 1: Crawling From the Wreckage
Also available on ComiXology

Shade the Changing Man
By Pete Milligan & Chris Bachalo
Shade the Changing Man, Volume 1: The American Scream
Shade the Changing Man #1 on ComiXology

The Sandman
By Neil Gaiman & Various
The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
The Sandman #1 on ComiXology

Saga of the Swamp Thing
By Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, on ComiXology

Hellblazer
By Various
Hellblazer, Volume 5: Dangerous Habits (beginning of Garth Ennis run)
Also available on ComiXology

The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore
The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume 1
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye on ComiXology

Uzumaki
By Junji Ito
Uzumaki 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo & Junji Ito
Read online

Powwkipsie
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Echoes
By Joshua Hale Fialkov & Rahsan Ekedal
Currently out of print, available from ComiXology

Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family
Also available on ComiXology

American Vampire
By Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
American Vampire, Volume 1
Also available on ComiXology

The Wake
By Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
The Wake
Also available on ComiXology

Severed
By Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki
Severed
Also available on ComiXology

Wytches
By Scott Snyder & Jock
Wytches, Volume 1
Wytches #1 on ComiXology

Nailbiter
By Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Nailbiter, Volume 1: There Will Be Blood
Nailbiter #1 on ComiXology

The Woods
By James Tynion IV & Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 1
The Woods #1 on ComiXology

Curse
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer, Riley Rossmo
Curse
Also available on ComiXology

The Empty Man
By Cullen Bunn & Vanessa Del Ray
The Empty Man
The Empty Man #1 on ComiXology

Spread
By Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm
Spread, Volume 1: No Hope
Spread #1 on ComiXology

Outcast
By Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta
Outcast, Volume 1: Darkness Surrounds Him
Outcast #1 on ComiXology

Nameless
By Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Nameless #1 on ComiXology

Burning Fields
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer
Burning Fields #1 on ComiXology

Harrow County
By Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
Harrow County #1on the Dark Horse online store

Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Through the Woods

And Then Emily Was Gone
By John Lees & Iain Laurie
And Then Emily Was Gone
Also available on ComiXology

Also available on ComiXology

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