Friday, 25 May 2012

Comics conventions and an unconventional comic

Simon Gurr is the artist who has cleverly illustrated the new Scarifyers comic book. He lives in Bristol and has massive hair, and also kindly wrote this for us...
There’s a new comic out this week. In many respects it is rather unusual. It isn’t American or colour or interrupted by Sea Monkey ads. The protagonists eschew lycra. No female characters are scantily clad. Only one gunshot is discharged and the number of punches can be counted on one fist. WAIT! Come back! It’s a new comic! It’s funny! And also rather mysterious! Based on a popular BBC radio series!

Scarifyers issue 1

It’s The Scarifyers issue 1 and people have said it’s very good. Being the artist I couldn’t possibly say that myself, it just wouldn’t be British. However, I can tell you I worked very very hard on it, and I had a great script from the series creator Simon Barnard.

Simon created The Scarifyers about 5 years ago, as an audio series which continues to be the main platform for the adventures of Messrs Lionheart, Dunning and Crow. But when we first met at Bristolcon 2011 he revealed a plan to make a Scarifyers comic. I was enthusiastic – having heard The Magic Circle on BBC Radio 4 Extra I could see the stories were robust enough to work in different formats – and before long Simon sent me a script which had me itching to draw. I must admit, I thought a comics script by a radio writer would need a bit of tweaking to work well in a visual medium, but in his adaptation of The Nazad Conspiracy Simon seemed to instinctively understand what would and wouldn’t work.

Garen Ewing's Scarifyers cover
All the Scarifyers CDs benefit from handsome cover art by Garen Ewing, the very talented writer/artist behind The Rainbow Orchid among other things. I took Garen’s elegant ‘ligne claire’ style as the starting point for the look of the comic strip itself, but I knew the darker moments of the story would need light and shade not normally associated with this kind of illustration. I looked at Blake & Mortimer, Hellboy and The Iron Wagon while I was developing the style of the strip and Simon pointed me towards parts of my own Bristol Story artwork which he thought worked well.

I felt that the 1930s period would be better evoked if the pages themselves looked old. I used halftone screens for the greys to mimic older printing technology and even scanned in dozens of pages of blank paper to provide a range of newsprint rough paper textures! In the end, these background textures were abandoned but a slight texture was retained for the black areas.


Garen’s covers used the likenesses of The Scarifyers lead actors Terry Molloy and Nicholas Courtney as starting points for his portrayal of Professor Dunning and Inspector Lionheart. I began the same way.

This is the first drawing I made in preparation for Scarifyers issue 1, a fairly close likeness of Nicholas Courtney, but the more I drew the more Lionheart the character replaced Nicholas the actor.

Through a very productive email correspondence with Simon, the artwork for Scarifyers issue 1 started to take shape. It was completed just in time to be printed ready for Bristol Comic Expo and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy where we road-tested the comic; Simon at TGSITG, me (in costume as Professor Dunning!) at BCE. [Photo: Mike Molcher]

I was delighted with the reaction at Bristol. I sold a lot of copies and talked to many fans of the radio series who were pleased to see a new format for The Scarifyers. I also had the pleasure of showing the comic to Garen Ewing for the first time.

A week later Simon and I manned the Scarifyers table at Kapow! Comic Convention in London. I have to say this was the most positive convention experience I have ever had.

Simon and Simon at Kapow! Convention
Our table was very well located and we had a more or less steady flow of visitors; some coming simply to talk, others to buy CDs and comics. We were kept busy on both days, ably assisted by Simon’s wife Anya who provided much-needed biscuits and even managed to get a copy of the comic to Peter Serafinowicz! (Peter’s show on 6 Music was one of the things that kept me going as I neared the end of the deadline!)

I came away from the conventions feeling very grateful and excited by the reaction to the new comic. I hope it does as well as these events suggest it will. I’d certainly love to draw more!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Behind the Green Door

This blog entry, as originally envisaged, was to take you behind the scenes of a day's recording of The Scarifyers. You'd follow every minute of the recording as it took shape, gasp at directorial hiccups and thespian tantrums, and thrill as we finished the recording with seconds to spare. 

This didn't happen.

Instead, at the recording of the forthcoming 'The Horror of Loch Ness,' co-writer Paul Morris thought it would be a good idea to report on something far more interesting: what happens in the Moat Studios legendary Green Room.  Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Recording of The Horror of Loch Ness gets underway. Apparently. I wasn’t there to witness this, though - not through lack of willingness on my part, but because getting a train that arrives in London before 10am costs about £50, and as much as I love The Scarifyers, it’s not that good.
After a hectic journey, and a detour into a local newsagent’s to buy a notepad on which to write this journal, I finally arrive. It takes me several attempts to get through the elaborate security systems at the monolithic complex of which Moat Studios is a part. I eventually realise that I’m not being ignored by those inside, but simply pressing the wrong doorbell.
Finally gain access to the Moat (which could only be more difficult to achieve if the place actually had a moat). Greeted by what we used to refer to as The Two Davids – Benson and Bickerstaff. The rest of the team, including our newest David, Mr Warner, is busy recording. As a result of some minor disasters on previous recording days, Simon has decided to record this story in scene order. Benson is playing with his iPad.
Lizzie Roper emerges from the studio, having finished recording her opening scenes as birdwatcher-with-a-secret Vivian Beak. She is slightly concerned about how to differentiate the various characters she is playing today, so I give her a swift and hopefully concise prĂ©cis of each – “She’s in her thirties and English, she’s in her eighties and Scottish, she’s in her fifties and probably Scottish, but doesn’t have to be.” It turns out that Lizzie can do two different Scottish accents, so all is well.
Alex Lowe and guest star Philip Madoc join us in the green room (which, sorry to spoil your illusions, is not actually green). For such a young man, Alex has accrued an extraordinary number of showbiz stories and anecdotes; here he regales us with a delightful story about the actor P**** B****** being a complete bastard.
Our stars, David Warner and Terry Molloy, are finally released from the studio. Both promptly produce iPads and immerse themselves in them. What’s going on with actors and iPads? Do they get an Equity discount?
Follow Benson into the studio so that I can enjoy his first performance as Aleister Crowley for over four years. Unfortunately he can’t remember the voice… Some discussion follows. “Is that it?” Close. There’s a bit of Arthur Nesbitt creeping in though - Crowley didn’t have whistling teeth. “How about this?” Better…  “Not too camp or over the top?” Actually, I think Crowley was even more more camp and over the top than that. “Bloody hell.”
Have a nice chat with Mr Madoc. He has lots of interesting questions regarding his character’s backstory and his motives at various points. I help out as best I can, and try to avoid saying “You’d need to ask Simon about that…” too often.
Our sound man Martin Johnson arrives. Today he’s doubling as photographer, to ensure we have some nice snaps of the cast to adorn the CD. Talk in the green room turns to Brian Blessed and thence to swearing. (Apparently he appeared on Stephen Fry’s programme last night, cursing quite ripely for a Sunday evening.) Everyone present has had first-hand experience of Blessed’s gift with profanity, and many anecdotes are exchanged. (If you’d like to hear Brian being very rude at a Scarifyers recording, just click here)
Back in the studio. For some reason Alex Lowe seems to be channelling Basil Fawlty. Eventually I realise that he is playing the manager of the hotel where Crowley is staying, and all becomes clear. 
Break for lunch. This is the only point in the whole day when producer Simon Barnard is allowed out into the light, and even then it’s only fleeting. As you may have read elsewhere, Moat Studios’ lunches are legendary, and with good reason. Today the trifle goes down particularly well with cast and crew.
Helping Mr Madoc again. He tries out a big moment for his character in scene 58, and suddenly it’s as though Dr Mehendri Solon* is sitting next to me. Should be good… (* Villain in the 1976 Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius, to whom his character in The Horror of Loch Ness may or may not bear a slight resemblance.)
No-one can remember the name of a particular actor who someone once worked with. Disaster! But what’s this – it’s David Warner to the rescue with his iPad. Hooray! The anecdotes can continue.
Mr Madoc bemused by the whole idea of Facebook. Benson launches into a bravura attempt to explain the concept behind it, but to no avail.
Conversation turns to Dad’s Army, whose co-writer David Croft died recently. Mr Madoc needs little encouragement to re-enact the “Don’t tell him Pike” scene for our amusement. Realise we should have written a pastiche of this moment into the Scarifyers script, but it’s too late now.
Or is it…?
Yes, it is.
Creep back into the studio in time to hear our cast launch into what the script describes as “an oafish barbershop version of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.” Yes, it’s the soon-to-be legendary Singing Neanderthals Scene… And if you want to know how that makes sense in the context of the story, you’ll just have to wait for the CD! Which may or may not help you.
Conversation yet again turns to Brian Blessed; Alex once shared a villa with Brian for a couple of months, so naturally the subject is close to his heart. Devise Morris’s Law: “As any conversation between a group of actors grows longer, the probability of someone mentioning Brian Blessed approaches 1.”
Lizzie and Terry compare notes on hidden camera shows (Terry was once part of the Beadle’s About team). From Lizzie’s recent experiences, it seems standards have declined in the last twenty-five years.
Photo op – potential cover poses with our heroes. “Pretend you’re in a rowing boat. That’s right. Can you hold an oar? David, look heroic. Terry, look terrified.” SNAP!
Provide Philip with a nice cup of tea. He’s just about to take a swig when he’s called back in to the studio. Can he take his mug? No, he can’t. It’s a hard life being an actor, and no mistake.
Sneak back into studio. Checking the scene number against my script, it seems we’re nearly there. Could we even finish early, for once? That would be a miracle, considering this is – yet again – our longest script so far.
We tackle the big final scene. At two and half closely-typed pages it’s probably the longest we’ve written since the mammoth four-page finale of Nazad Conspiracy.
And as Doctor Pippin exits our story in the clutches of – well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it – Philip Madoc is done. Back to the green room and his long-awaited tea he goes.
Final scene. David Warner has to do some whistling, and asks for a stunt double because he can’t.
Oh no! We’re not finished after all! Simon rounds up as many actors as can be bothered and gets started on a lengthy round of recording “wildtracks” – background noises, to you and me. “You’re a group of Scottish bystanders. You’re surprised at what you’re seeing. “ Oohs and aahs. “You’re not happy with what you’re hearing.” Muttered oaths and curses. “You’re a group of Neanderthals.” Charming, says one actor, missing the point. Scottish Neanderthals? asks another, facetiously. And on the improvising goes, our actors slowly but inexorably getting into the Neanderthal spirit, towards its inevitable apotheosis of stupidity.
Now we really have finished, with about ten seconds to spare. As Simon calls Cut (not really), our cast to a man race off into the sunset. Studio engineer Toby presses some buttons and the day’s recordings are written to CD…