2013 Preview: Black Leaf

Yesterday, I featured The Standard in the first of my series of sneak peeks at my various comics projects.  The Standard is my most visible project, I know.  It’s the one thing of mine that’s been available to buy, and last week it went on global sale via Diamond distribution.  One might be forgiven for thinking it was the only thing I was working on, but that’s not the case.  2012 for me was a year of planning: establishing collaborations, preparing for marketing and new editions for the Diamond relaunch of The Standard, getting my ducks in a row and getting projects ready.  2013, I want to be a year of doing: I want to get scripts written, comics made and copies available for sale in on form or another.  Hence the numerous new projects I want to highlight this week, starting with Black Leaf

Co-created with artist Garry McLaughlin and written by me over the course of last year, Black Leaf is a very different beast from The Standard.  Even in terms of its format, it’s a radical departure: a standalone 76-page graphic novel whereas The Standard is a 6-issue miniseries.  It’s certainly been an interesting experiment, as the shift in format changes your pacing, and the kind of story you’re able to tell.

Black Leaf is a horror story about a 12-year-old boy called Stuart who travels from Glasgow to the Scottish Highlands to care for his ailing grandfather.  While exploring the woods near the old home of his “Granda”, Stuart befriends an enigmatic local girl called Alison, who shares with him an ancient supernatural force at the heart of the woods.  When tragedy strikes, a desperate Stuart tries to shape this force to his own ends, only for things to go horribly wrong and take a creepingly nightmarish turn…

I love horror.  You might even argue it was my first love, perhaps even earlier established than my well-documented love of superheroes.  So, I was very excited to explore the genre in my comics writing.  But while all too often in comics, “horror” is classified as anything with big gooey monsters and gore, I wanted to try and tell the kind of story that would scare me.  And so I’m drawing heavily from all those old British TV ghost stories – The Woman in Black, The Signalman, Whistle and I’ll Come For You, The Stone Tapes – that relied more heavily on this gradual, turn-of-the-screw building of dread than overt shocks.  Atmospheric comics of recent years like Echoes and Severed have certainly shown this kind of horror to be possible in the medium.  Hopefully I can continue to build on the tradition with the story I tell here.

I would be remiss not to make note of the incredible work the ever-diverse Garry McLaughlin is doing on the art front.  Garry McLaughlin is the highly-talented artist of the likes of Taking Flight, Old Folk’s Home and Good Cop, Bad Cop, and if you haven’t checked out his ace webcomic series Suddenly Something Really Interesting, amend your grievous error now! He’s also the writer/artist of the upcoming Gonzo Cosmic, a dazzlingly high-concept sci-fi epic that’s right up there with the previously-discussed NeverEnding as one of my most anticipated comics of the coming year.  I first envisioned this graphic novel with Garry drawing it, so I’m pleased he agreed to take part!

We talked at length about the kind of aesthetic we wanted from Black Leaf, and we were both of the same mindset of channelling a kind of “dark fairy tale” vibe throughout.  And so Garry has been working with lush watercolours and sweeping inks to craft this ethereal visual style that has shades of Raymond Briggs, which will be fun to see adapted as the narrative becomes increasingly monstrous.  We talked a lot about this book as a physical artefact, how we want it to feel substantial: oversized, hardcover, good quality paper stock.  With Garry at the helm, I’m convinced Black Leaf will look incredible.

Black Leaf is currently being shopped around to publishers, and hopefully we’ll have definitive news on who will be producing the book before too long.  Be sure to follow the blog for updates.  The nature of the graphic novel, and any publishing schedules we may have to adhere to, may mean that this is not a book to look out for at Glasgow Comic Con, but my hopes are to get it released into comic shops in 2013.  This is, after all, the year of doing!  Enjoy this little sneak peek of some of the early pages of Black Leaf, as hauntingly drawn by Garry McLaughlin and skillfully lettered by Colin Bell.BlackLeafPage3ii BlackLeafPage4ii BlackLeafPage5ii


REVIEW: Jonbot VS Martha

This past week, I receieved news that at this year’s Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards, The Standard is nominated for Best Comic, and I’m nominated for Best Writer.  I was of course delighted to hear this news, but I was almost as delighted to see Best Writer recognition also given to my Glasgow League of Writers cohort Colin Bell, and to see his webcomic Jonbot VS Martha also make the Best Comic shortlist.  I have been a fan pretty much since the weekly series began, though I had missed some instalments here and there.  Upon deciding to review Jonbot VS Martha this week, I read the whole thing from the beginning to where we are now, and it made me appreciate anew just how great a job Colin Bell and artistic collaborator Neil Slorance have done.

I could explain the premise, but I think it’s better summuraized via the tongue-in-cheek “opening credits” sequence:

As you can see, Neil Slorance’s art is pretty rough and basic?  But you know what?  It totally works.  Yes, there are some inconsistencies: Martha’s hair color changes so often it surely must be a deliberate running gag.  But behind the simplicity of the characters and locations, Slorance manages to convey a surprisingly diverse range of emotions on those blank faces, crafting expressions that help a comedy beat hit home precisely.  And isn’t that one of the wonders of comic book art?  How, with just a few lines, an emotional connection can be established, and a character with heart and personality can be brought to life?  Take the eponymous Jonbot.  His face is two circles and a line.  But Slorance absolutely imbues those plain features with character, and those 2 circles and a line can convey a wide range of emotion.  A lot could be written about how much of that comes from Slorance himself, and how much of it is us mentally filling in the gaps, but that’s the topic of another piece, not this review.

As a final example of Slorance’s contribution, allow me to point to one of the best chapters of Jonbot VS Martha thus far, a psychadelic dream sequence that takes the form of an artistic jam session, a different artist drawing each panel, including a couple of familiar faces I’m fans of such as Iain Laurie and Dave Stokes.  Some of these images are rendered in far more detail than Slorance’s work, and they look stunning.  But still, it doesn’t quite feel like Jonbot VS Martha, and when Slorance comes back in the following chapter, it’s very much a welcome return.  In the same way that Greg Capullo has done with Batman (this may be the first time that Neil has been compared to Greg Capullo), Neil Slorance has branded this series with his own specific style, making it very difficult to imagine the story told any other way.

But with all this talk about Mr. Slorance, let us not forget Mr. Bell!  It’s quite funny, Colin Bell was at our table at Kapow Con giving out free sample mini-comics to promote the webcomic, and they seemed pretty popular with kids.  Parents would pick one up and be all like, “Here, Sarah, this is a wee comic with a robot in it!”  Oh, those poor children!  Though Neil Slorance’s art is quite cute and almost chibi in places, that is delightfully contrasted with Colin Bell’s caustic brand of humour.  There’s surealism, comedy so black it borders on bleak (“Daddy probably doesn’t have a soul”) and a liberal dose of bad language.  Not for the kiddies, then!

Though I’m sure he would ardently deny it, in person Bell is a bit of a loveable grump, a curmudgeon, and that absolutely comes through in his characterisation of Jonbot, so much so that I found it very hard not to imagine Jonbot speaking in Colin’s voice!  On this note, also bearing in mind how Jonbot’s relationship with his daughter has grown into the emotional core of  the overarching story, and considering that Bell himself is a new father, Jonbot VS Martha is actually a surprisingly personal comic, or at least as personal as a story with robots can be.  This relatable quality is likely what gives the series that added layer of depth beyond the laughs, which emerges at times as an almost poignant quality.

Not that Jonbot VS Martha is short of laughs.  The webcomic is regularly peppered with killer one-liners, and in the early stages of the series Bell showed a real knack for pacing out done-and-one stories around concise, precisely-aimed gags.  More recently, however, rather than resting on his laurels, Bell has experimented with how the constraints of the format and nature of the story can withstand a more longform narrative, with compelling results.  Colin is perhaps best known as a commentator on comics, writing reviews and articles for Newsarama and other sites and blogs, so it’s interesting to see how someone who clearly knows his stuff from an analytical perspective applying that knowledge to making a comic of his own.  I’m definitely keen to  see Colin Bell turn his storytelling skills to more ambitious projects in the future.

Jonbot VS Martha is one of my favourite webcomics, and I for one can’t wait until a bit more material is compiled, and we see it collected in a nice printed edition.  It will most definitely be an addition to my bookcase.  Until then, check out the webcomic for yourself, and see why it’s very deserving of its award nominations.

Jonbot VS Martha can be read online here.