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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Starblazer memories II

New readers start here. When we last met our gallant author he was in a bar having a pint. Now read on...

In early October 1988, a letter from Starblazer deputy editor Bill McLoughlin arrived outlining some of the problems with the original MS for 'Assassin of Gods'. "It is an intriguing notion with a couple of really outstanding elements (the werewolf town and the pool of water-gateway), but overall the tale has too many imponderables. Firstly, Terol is too naive... he's not a fool, but he walks into an obvious trap. Why should he be branded a coward? He's stupid, not a coward. I don't like the retired nun and the wolves..."

The retired nun? Sadly, I don't have the original draft of the story so I've got to rely on memory. Since the story involved wizardry, I suspect the original version of Keri was meant to be an outcast priestess from a convent school of witchcraft with wolves as familiars. The set-up was that she would be responsible for saving the story's supposed hero, Terol, proving to be the stronger character in the end. That strength would rub off on the 'hero' as the storyline progressed into the second and third books until he really was a hero.

Unfortunately, that meant making Terol a bit of an ass who needed his hand held at every turn. His heart was in the right place and his motivations were beyond reproach but he didn't -- at that point in his journey -- have the street smarts to carry out his actions, something that Keri would bring to the team.

Replying to Bill a few days later, I see I put in some serious thought.

The basic plot was still intact: Terol, the hero, comes to do battle with the evil wizard, Grandin, and beats him before a pathway can be opened up between this world and the wastelands of the Dark Gods; the big story arc over the three books was that Terol was raising money in order to raise an army to overthrow the warlord who had taken control of his homeland.

In the revised version of the story, Terol would now become more of a hardened mercenary and freebooter and his naive past would be shown in a flashback -- a failed attempt to assassinate the warlord, Serak, which was how Terol was introduced in the original draft of the story.

Keri's companions, originally two wolves, would become large dogs... I'm amazed to say that even this early (before I even had a suitable plot for the first story) I was already mentioning that one or both the companions would be killed in the second story!

Bill's cautious reply came a few days later ("Thanks for the revised ideas... it seems pretty well in order") requesting 35-40 frames "to see how things pan out."

At the time I was working in a factory making ball-bearings. In late October 1988, they announced that the factory was going to shut down and we were all to be laid off. Jobs would be phased out along what was effectively a production line as and the factory closed when the final orders were completed. I was at the far end of the line, using a massive lathe to grind out the inner racetrack of the outer casings before the various elements went to be checked, so my job was safe for a few months. However, some people were being made redundant almost immediately so there was a huge panic going on and it was three weeks before I finished putting together the first 60 frames. (As I explained to Bill, it wasn't through bloodymindedness that I was submitting more than requested, just that a chunk of around 20 frames was straight out of the first draft and I wanted to show him how I was changing the story following the editorial input.)

Back came the reply requesting the next chunk of story and, on 12 December came the news that the final chunk was accepted and payment (£185 for the script's 150 frames) would be put through as soon as I'd signed the contract. "I'd prefer another idea at the moment rather than another in this trilogy," Bill added. "It's not that I don't like the idea, just that I'd rather get this one drawn first before deciding what to do."

I went down the pub and put a huge celebratory dent in my earnings.

Meanwhile, Bill was turning my script into something publishable. A bit of beefing up here, a bit of explanation there... the submitted scripts were then retyped on flimsy paper (I've seen a couple of scripts, although not my own) that then went off for translation before being sent out to artists around the world. One thing I know will have happened is that my long, detailed panel descriptions would have been chopped down quite considerably to save the translator a lot of unnecessary work. My scripts weren't as good or as entertaining (by a long shot) as, say, Alan Moore's, but I knew what I wanted to see and made the same basic mistakes as all novice writers do -- far too much detail and far too much going on. At least I didn't make the common mistake of mistaking a strip for an animated cartoon and having things move and change in a picture (like, for instance, having your hero look both right and left down a corridor in a single panel). The script for 'Assassin' clocked in at 36 A4 pages for 150 frames. I don't know if that's especially long but it was something that Bill would later pick up on.

However, a lot of the description survived as you can see from the opening frames of the story: the original script (below) asked for weirdly decorated candlesticks and that's what I got; whether the smoke is being disturbed by a gentle breeze (!) I'll let you decide.

The artist assigned to the book was a Spanish artist called José Maria Sauri who had drawn horror strips for Skywald in the 1970s (Dracula, Nightmare Yearbook) via the Selecciones Ilustradas agency. He'd also drawn for Heavy Metal, adapting 'The Odyssey' in a strip called 'Odesio' which has since been reprinted as a collection. He had already drawn one Starblazer (no. 133, 'Death Came Silently') and would go on to produce a third (no. 270, 'The Warrior Quest') so he seems to have carved a little niche doing fantasy strips for Starblazer. I thought he made a pretty damn good job of my script considering the limits that the pocket book format put on an artist.

Bill, kept me in touch with progress on 'Assassin' during correspondence as I worked on a second story, determined to prove that selling one script wasn't a fluke. 'Assassin' eventually appeared -- as 'The Cursed Land' -- in December 1989, a year after the script had been accepted. Another excuse to head down to the pub and drink away the profits of my literary achievement.

Mind you, eleven months earlier, I was beginning to wonder if my 'achievement' wasn't a one-off. But for that little episode you'll have to wait until tomorrow so I can remain in the pub, celebrating for a little longer, all unaware that the plot I'm busily dreaming up between drinks is going to get rejected.

(* The images above are from Starblazer and are © D. C. Thomson. Artwork from 'The Cursed Land' is by Jose Maria Sauri, the cover is by Ian Kennedy.)

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