Review | Orcs: Forged for War

Orcs: Forged for WarCreating comics is a very tricky business. It has as many pitfalls and traps for the unwary who venture into the industry as I’m sure the publishing business does. Getting the right artist to match the writer and the genre is vital. Not only because it has to be a truly collaborate process, but if one of the elements is not working, the whole will suffer as everything is on the page. With a novel the author spins their magic to help you conjure up the visuals in your mind, but with comics there is less tell and a lot more show. That’s a roundabout way of me saying that I thought this was fun, but there were a few problems and it didn’t really gel as a whole.

I’ve not read any of the Orcs novels by Stan Nicholls but I am aware of them and I like the idea of writing from the perspective of other side. Lord of the Rings from the viewpoint of the Orcs, as it were, where they have their own culture and expanding society, only to have a rag-tag group of rebels, haunted trees that walk like Triffids, and creepy albino immortals start killing them. Or something like that. I’ve seen Joe Flood’s art before and it’s fair to say it has a cartoon style, and indeed, he describes himself in his own biography as a cartoonist. So that is not a negative comment in the slightest and he graduated from the prestigious New York school for Visual Arts in cartooning. His artwork is very clear and tight, the bright colours really help bring it to life and he does an incredibly good job with making all of the Orcs in the squad look different. However, I don’t think his art is a good fit for the story. The genre itself is another issue which I will come back to.

As I mentioned I’ve not read any other work by Nicholls but I would assume the themes in his Orcs books are fairly adult, given the content of this story. That’s the first problem. If this was an all ages comic, one aimed at a young audience, but it was also written in such a way that adults would also enjoy it (like a Pixar film where there are little nods and jokes for grown ups) then the art style would be perfect. However this story has lots of brutal violence and a sadistic villain who tortures people on the page, and it quickly became very clear to me that this was intended as a story for adults. As I mentioned the artwork is quite bright and colourful, which made it even more jarring with the wholesale murder, impaling, dismembering and so on. I would not feel comfortable giving this comic to anyone less than a teenager because of what is shown (hearts being ripped out for example), not implied, referred to or mentioned in passing.

Using more cartoony and less detailed or photo-realistic artwork in comics for an adult audience is not a new approach, but personally it pulls me out of the story and I find it extremely jarring. I have more trouble believing and buying into what I am seeing and therefore I’m unable to connect to the characters or their experiences. Powers by Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming is another example, a very adult (violence, swearing, sex) comic about cops tackling superheroes in a world where people with powers are common. There again, I really like the stories but I’ve always struggled with the visual side of Powers because of its quite blocky simplistic art style, which is why I think I might enjoy the TV series (if it goes beyond a pilot) a lot more than the comic.

Fantasy comics in general are not that popular in comparison to other genres, such as superheroes, crime, horror and so on. There are some characters that are worldwide household names, like Conan or Red Sonja, who have been able to sustain an ongoing fantasy comic for decades. But in comparison to other genres fantasy comics are few and far between. DC comics recently dipped their mainstream toe back into the fantasy comic book waters with Demon Knights, written by Paul Cornell, which mixes DC fantasy characters with figures from medieval folklore. That’s one comic out of 52 new ongoing monthly titles. They also have one western comic too, which shows you how popular that genre is as well.

The story itself in Orcs: Forged for War was interesting and I enjoyed seeing events from the viewpoint of the Orcs where their world is being invaded and polluted by humans. The magic is being leached out of the world because of the destruction and it has become a war for survival. I really liked the fact that the Orc squad were infantry. They were essentially front line squaddies who are not told why, the orders come from the top and they are only told what they need to know. They are expected to follow orders but when those orders don’t make sense, seem unnecessarily risky and dangerous, it makes for some interesting storytelling.

For fans of Nicholl’s Orcs books this is a great addition and for those unfamiliar with his work you can read it without feeling as if you are missing out. If the artwork aspect doesn’t bother you then I think you will enjoy this a great deal, but for me the different creative aspects didn’t gel together well on this comic book.

Gardeners and architects

Most writers would probably agree that they fall into one of two camps, although I am sure there are exceptions that fit neither. Gardeners are writers who have a seed of an idea and they let it grow organically and essentially write by the seat of their pants.

Dean Koontz is a gardener who has described his writing process as the following. He writes down the core of an idea on an index card when it comes to him and then he puts it away in a drawer with a stack of other ideas. When he’s finished writing one book he opens the drawer and goes through the index cards, picks one out that catches his eye, and then just starts writing with no planning. An unusual quirk is that he writes a chapter over and over again, maybe 20-30 times, until he is completely happy with it, word for word, before moving on, so I suspect his first draft would end up being much further along the editorial process compared to a lot of other authors. Stephen King operates in a similar unplanned way, although he describes it as uncovering a fossil, and dusting off the dirt to reveal the true nature of the bones underneath. Once done he then goes back and revises it, but he doesn’t plan it out ahead of him.

Architects are the opposite. They have most of it laid out ahead of time and they don’t fly by the seat of their pants. They might have milestones, or bullet points, or thinking in terms of architecture, they have the steel frame of the building, and the writing process fills in the interior, the stairs, walls, ceiling, doors etc.

I’ve always been an architect. I once tried the gardening approach and it was a bit of a disaster. The seed of the story was not that bad, but the finished project was fairly boring and disjointed because it wandered off into weird areas that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes connected to the main spine of the story. It was a bit of a mess.

Since then I’ve stuck to my original approach. Build a wireframe, have the start, middle and end laid out, plan beats along the way, create a bit of a bible in terms of characters and where necessary, world building. Parts of the idea develop over a long period of time, others come to me while making notes and transferring scribbles on scraps of paper into a structured document on Word. Other parts and details come out in the actual writing, but I never go in with nothing. Once the structure is ready, then and only then, do I start the process of writing a first draft in full. I also tend to keep going right through to the end before coming back to revise in detail. Although I often go back one chapter, perhaps two, to tweak it before going forward again to make sure it feels like an organic continuation. I’m sure the first chapter still ends up being a fair distance away from the last chapter, but that will come out in the next revision. The architect approach seems to work for me and I’ve been much happier with the final product, something that is more cohesive and tighter.

Another good thing about the architect approach is that I find there is still a lot of room for creativity and surprises. It’s not so rigid that I am simply joining the dots, because that would be tedious to write and therefore tedious to read. I am sometimes surprised how I get from A to B and B to C, and that often requires a rejig of some other parts of the story, so it is developing organically, but it’s always within the bounds of a structure.

So gardening is really not for me. Then something unusual happened a few weeks ago. I recently started co-writing a comic book project with Pete Rogers. I’ve known Pete for a few years and although we share hobbies and interests, and a passion for comics, our backgrounds are quite different so we come to stories from a very different perspective. We both had several ideas, which were seeds, and we pitched them to each other before deciding on one project to co-write. We then had a couple of brainstorming sessions, where we planned some of the main beats, and it was a lot more enjoyable than either of us had anticipated. We were able to head off problems before committing and writing ourselves into a dead-end. We spotted flaws and tweaked them on the fly, dodged clichés, bounced small ideas off each other that were then fleshed out and made bigger and better by the interaction.

This idea would not have been as strong as it is now if I had been working on my own, and although I’ve never received much benefit from a writing group, I can see how wonderful it must be to work in a writing pool on a TV show. The interaction with Pete has switched on other creative parts of my brain that were dormant and it’s spurred me on with my other writing projects and reenergised me. Working on this project has certainly given me a new perspective on gardeners and their approach to the creative process.

At heart I am still an architect but the idea of co-writing projects in the future is not nearly as daunting and is a lot more appealing than it used to be.

Manhattan in Reverse

Manhattan in Reverse

A collection of short stories from the master of space opera. Peter F Hamilton takes us on a journey from a murder mystery in an alternative Oxford in the 1800s to a brand new story featuring Paula Mayo, Deputy Director of the Intersolar Commonwealth’s Serious Crimes Directorate. Dealing with intricate themes and topical subject this top ten bestselling author is at the top of his game.

Before talking about the book itself I should mention I’ve only read two Peter F. Hamilton books (The Dreaming Void and Mindstar Rising). Both of those were in the last year, so my review is slightly coloured by my lack of in depth knowledge about the different series and various universes he has created. I have a vague awareness of some, and although I  know certain characters like Paula Myo, I’m sure the stories in which she features mean a lot more to long time fans. There are also a couple of significant moments in a few of the stories, but there again I missed out on their impact as I don’t know the whole story.

I think an existing fan will get a lot more from this book of short stories as most of them tie into his Commonwealth novels, but a couple of them are completely standalone. On the other hand, the book is fairly slender in comparison to all of Hamilton’s books, so it will give new fans a taste of the type of story, characterisation, technology and ideals that are typically explored in his novels.

The first, Watching Trees Grow, is a very curious story that is essentially a murder mystery across the centuries. It follows a dogged investigator who refuses to give up and as advances in technology provide him with extended longevity and more tools to  analysing the evidence and question the suspects, he still struggles to find an answer. The irony of how the crime is solved was not lost on me and I enjoyed the universe Hamilton had created in this story where the Roman empire still exists and major families rule.

My favourite story was probably ‘If at First…’, which is a time travel story about an idea I’m sure many people have often pondered. If you were able to, would you go back to an early stage in your life and fix some of the mistakes of the past? Or perhaps relive your life again up to the present? A mad man is taken into police custody claiming that a famous tech guru, a Steve Jobs type, has done just that and his success is because he invented a time machine and has been reliving his own life with knowledge of the future. It sounds ridiculous and like the ravings of a lunatic. The suspect is a known stalker of the tech guru and coupled with that he was caught breaking into one of the tech company’s offices, it’s an open and shut case. It also sounds like a case for mental health services and yet there is something there that doesn’t ring true and the detective in charge decides to dig a little deeper.

My second favourite story was the last one, Manhattan in Reverse, which to me actually felt like a bit of a western for all its SF framing. It deals with a wild frontier, a new planet full of unknowns and an attack by savage locals on the new arrivals for no apparent reason. This puzzle that is causing all sorts of problems for colonists and no one is quite sure what to do next. The simple solution would be to wipe out the problem with a big laser and not worry about it, but Paula Myo is not someone who thinks like that. She is known throughout the galaxy and her reputation has taken a bit of a knock. This simple job is pitched at helping her curry some favour with the right people so she is not shuffled off to a dark corner and forgotten about for the rest of time. The story still featured the now familiar technology I read about in the Dreaming Void, but here it was just a tool to help Paula with a very particular job. I wasn’t bogged down by some of the detail like I am in the novels, so for me it was a very light and refreshing read by comparison.

As with any anthology or collection of short stories, some are better than others and some more memorable and engaging. One of the stories was incredibly short and it was specifically written to be less than a 1000 words. It showed me what could be done with very little space and it was a feat when this whole book was a quarter of a normal Hamilton novel!

Overall I think this book is a great primer and a good jumping on point which gives you a good flavour about Hamilton’s style and approach to stories, characters and science fiction.

DC Comics 52 Relaunch

For those who missed it, DC comics relaunched 52 new ongoing monthly comic book series. This has been called a reboot by some, a relaunch by others, but the short version of a complex story is, this is intended to be a new jumping on point for new readers. So that could mean people who’ve never read a comic before but saw one of the comic book films or watched some of the animated stuff. Or it could be someone who has always wanted to get into comics but was intimidated by starting at issue 334 or felt uncomfortable trying to navigate through a comic shop to find some help. I think DC comics had to do this for a number of reasons, the most important being that mainstream superhero comic book sales were in decline. They were losing their audience for a variety of reasons and if they wanted to stay in publishing they needed a major shake up. I’m being very specific by saying ‘mainstream superhero comic books’, because comics themselves have never been broader in terms of genre. Some non-superhero comics are doing very well and some non-mainstream superhero comic books have been growing their sales figures over the last few years. So, was DC comics relaunch a success?

Overall I would say it was a success. There were a few missteps, such as poor treatment of some, not all, female characters, stories that didn’t work, and a few missed opportunities, but on balance the response has been very positive. I don’t want to go over the bad again, as it’s been discussed at great length by people online, but I will point out that it’s interesting to note some titles have already announced new writers. This is at a point where issue 2 of some titles have only just come out. I’m sure all of the creators went into a title with the best interests, and remember DC signed off on the initial storyline, but some of them have just really worked for various reasons. Static Shock, one of the teen focused books read like a science lesson about electricity. It was dull, despite the explosions, and the dialogue was stilted. Marc Bernadin is the new writer who will be taking over from issue 5. I’m a fan of his work so I might revisit the title now that he is coming on board. The first issue of Green Arrow was so two dimensional, full of exposition and by the numbers I wasn’t gripped by any part of it, and this is coming from a fan of the character and the writer! A new writer was announced after only one issue had been published. There’s something unique about Green Arrow and his attitude, because no matter how big or powerful they are, he will never, ever back down. I hope the new writer highlights this aspect of the character when they take over.

Ok, that all sounds too negative. Focusing on the positive, I went in with a shortlist of titles that I was really looking forward to and I’m pleased to say they have all proven to be excellent. There were also a few positive surprises along the way, titles I didn’t really have any interest in, but when I read them I found I was really into the character. Titles like Deathstroke, Batwing, Men of War and Justice League International.

In my opinion, and because they suit my particular tastes, which I appreciate not everyone shares, the following were the best and most interesting titles as part of the relaunch.

Batwoman
Red Lanterns
Aquaman
Animal Man
Resurrection Man
Batman
The next interesting hurdle DC need to effectively tackle is their trade paperback policy, that is their collected editions. Normally a trade is about six issues and like novels in the publishing world it first comes out in a hardback form and then a couple of months later a paperback. Sometimes titles jump straight to paperback, sometimes it takes much longer between hardback and paperback. It’s been very odd and inconsistent in the past, and as much as people might like or want to, it’s not financially viable to get all of the comics every month from a local shop. Trades are cheaper and for me they make a comic series infinitely easier to re-read and transport. Digital comics are playing their part too, for those without a local comic shop or those who prefer to read on their digital reader of choice. The move to release all 52 titles in paper and digital on the same day is a bold move, but there again it needed to happen as other publishers had been doing it piecemeal. DC have led the charge and while digital comics make up a small percentage of sales, it has the potential to reach a whole new audience. People who would never dream of going into a comic shop but want to read comics.

Once the initial rush and the PR news cycle is over and the mainstream media lose interest, and I’m sincere in this, I really hope that the monthly sales numbers of DC comics are significantly higher than before the relaunch. More readers mean more variety and creativity, new lifeblood for the comic book audience and potentially new talent and new voices in the future. I don’t think the DC relaunch saved comics, they were always going to exist in one form or another, but I believe this bold move has certainly put a big old spotlight on the industry at a times when it needed a jab in the arm to get people back into the comic shops.

A new beginning

Hello, and welcome to my blog. This is going to be a real mixed bag with all sorts of different posts. I have bits and pieces all over the internet and some of those will continue but this blog will serve as a collection point for all of those plus other stuff.

Previously I’ve written book and comic reviews on my own book review blog, then I joined up with Mark over at Walker of Worlds before it went on hiatus, and I briefly stopped over at Floor to Ceiling Books. Since I’m still an avid reader and always have one book on the go, I will be continuing to post book reviews, but they will be on here from now on.

Since July 2007 I’ve co-hosted a comics podcast. We focus on comics beyond the mainstream superhero titles, as well as genre TV, movies and geek culture in general. Comics are a big part of my life, I’ve been reading them for over 20 years and I love the medium. Like many comic book fans I started in a familiar place with superhero titles but since then have gone on to read across a broad range of genres. Since I’ve always got at least one comic on the go, I’ll be posting comic reviews here as well. I’ll also post links and updates about the podcast which we’re still doing.

Attached to the podcast is a SFF book club for listeners, where we alternate between an older or classic work of SFF and then switch it up to a new modern book, something from the last ten years. So I’ll mention that on here from time to time as well, so please join in with that if you like the current selection or send in suggestions for the future.

On top of that I’ll be posting more general stuff, posts about my current writing projects (at the moment I’m nearing the end of the first draft of an original fantasy novel and I’m working on 2 comic book projects), and anything else that is on my mind.