New readers start here. When we last met our gallant author he was in a bar having a pint or three. Now read on...
Having sold 'Assassin of Gods' in December 1988, published a year later as 'The Cursed Land', I was determined to prove that it wasn't a fluke. To do that I needed to write a second publishable script. And, believe me, the idea of earning money from writing was very attractive to someone facing redundancy within the next few months.
One of my favourite Starblazer characters was Mikal Kayn, a private eye character created some years earlier by Grant Morrison. Grant was a regular contributor to Starblazer, producing his first story for no. 15 ('Algol the Terrible') which he also drew. Kayn first appeared in Grant's third story, no. 45 'Operation Overkill'. The original Kayn was a fomer "top member of the star corps. At present he is an investigator working in his own company." At first he was more of a galactic cop and there was no mention of what was to later become one of his trademarks: an accident had left Kayn with eyesight that could see in the infra-red and he had to wear special shades in order to see normally. The shift came with no. 173, 'The Vegas Murders' (written by my old pal Syd Bounds), which was a more Earth-bound adventure. The changes may have been introduced by Grant in his fourth Kayn story, 'The Midas Mystery' (no. 177) which, I suspect, was intended to appear before Syd's story since 'The Vegas Murders' seems to take it as read that Kayn had this ability to see in the dark.
A female warrior called Cinnibar had been introduced in the second Kayn yarn (no. 127, 'The Death Reaper') and her brother, Rulf, in the third (no. 167, 'Mind Bender'). However, they were soon to fade out when Alan Hemus took over as the main writer of the series with no. 199, 'Nether World', which began by establishing that Kayn was based in the city of New Moscow and the tone became more like a futuristic Philip Marlowe. Cinnibar and Rulf were spun off into their own series, also written by Alan.
In no. 211 ('The Dream Machine'), Alan introduced a character called Pop Perz, who "built toys and... things" in the original but would become the general go-to guy when Kayn needed any technological help. Pop had a robot cat whose name was never referred to but who was going to be one of the stars of my Mikal Kayn yarn.
Being a fan of Raymond Chandler as well as science fiction, I thought the Mikal Kayn stories were the best thing Starblazer were publishing. There were quite a few continuing characters in Starblazer (Carter, Grok & Zero, The Robot Kid and a few others) but Kayn was the only one that I wanted to write. As far as I knew, all the characters were being written by the authors who had created them... but Kayn I knew was sharecropped out to other authors because Syd Bounds had told me he'd written one a couple of years earlier.
In January 1989, Bill McLoughlin asked for an expanded synopsis based on an idea I'd had for a Kayn story. When I asked about the continuity of the stories he was rather surprised: "I think you're possibly getting too involved with the detail and background to Kayn. The location of New Moscow has never been specified but I'd always seen it as an urban sprawl in Northern Europe. Kayn (although obviously a Philip Marlowe type) is an anti-hero, the Harry Palmer of Ipcress File fame. Somebody who reluctantly gets involved with big time crime, usually while doing something innocent ... I don't like Kayn getting too technical with weapons and suchlike -- Kayn is broke and only takes the jobs he can afford. I've no objection to human baddies or non-human goodies -- it is a reasonably new angle."
I had my synopsis in the post the same day. Two days later...
Let me pause for a second and interrupt my own story for a quick word of praise for Bill McLoughlin and Bill Graham. Having worked on a variety magazines over the years I know how hectic things can get, especially when you're about to go to press. Correspondence is the first thing to go to the wall. I never appreciated at the time the fact that the Bills always responded to my letters incredibly quickly, usually the same day they arrived or within 24 hours of receipt. I've no reason to doubt that they treated everyone with the same consideration and that was incredibly important for a novice. They were also very gentle when turning down your lame-brained ideas.
Which is what happened two days later: "It isn't a story, merely a neat idea with a few good touches loosely connected," said Bill McLoughlin and catalogued a few of the flaws in the plot.
I've said before that I can't plot my way out of a paper bag. I had precisely the same problem with the first script I'd tried on Starblazer: submitting a synopsis just didn't work for me. As I wrote out the scripts I could see where the problems were and make the appropriate adjustments as I went along.
But, and this is what I meant when I said that Bill McLoughlin was a considerate editor, he ended his rejection with "I'm afraid the plot here is not up to the standard you set yourself with Assassin. There is a story here but I'd suggest you put it on the back boiler while coming up with a new notion. This idea will bubble away until properly cooked."
A few weeks later I had another new notion and this time I decided to return to my previous method of writing -- write the story so I knew exactly what was going to happen and then submit a synopsis along with the first 40 frames. The story was called 'Headcrash'.
Bill's response was mixed. Although he liked the basic premise I'd spent too long introducing a killer-for-hire at the beginning of the story so that Kayn was only introduced on page 7; and, worse, Kayn wasn't doing much actual detecting (he was a detective, after all). "Your synopsis is imaginative but undisciplined. However, we are here to keep unruly authors in line..."
Bill sent down a revised plotline, devised with Bill Graham, that ironed out a lot of the problems and, after I'd argued a couple of points (seriously, I argued that they'd suggested Kayn do something that I felt was out of character! I'm so embarrassed...!), I hammered out the script which was finished two weeks later despite being interrupted by helping to put together an auction for the very first Red Nose Day.
Headcrash was sent into the Starblazer office and was accepted at the end of March. I'm still quite proud of it as it crammed in quite a few fun ideas: computers were still new (I was just about to buy one) and contacting assassins on computer bulletin boards seemed to me to be something new; I killed off the villain halfway through the story which I thought was pretty daring; and the dialogue was the best hardboiled I could manage. And there were quite a few in-jokes: I named Pop Perz's cat Vienna after Rigsby's cat in Rising Damp and gave him a little bit of a starring role; the guy killed in the opening few pages was named after a friend of mine and Bill McLoughlin and Bill Graham, the editors, were named as recent victims of the assassin. It was a tradition in Starblazer to sneak names in -- Grant Morrison had done it in one of his early Kayn stories; John Smith, the founding editor of the series had gotten a mention at least once, and I'm sure the two Bills made regular appearances in one guise or another.
In early April I worked up another Kayn yarn but the synopsis was "too ethereal, confused and unconnected to assess properly... it sounds as if Kayn is about to be involved with aliens wanting to invade Earth."
I haven't a clue what it was about! I don't have a copy of the synopsis and the plot is lost to the mists of time... and it sounds like it deserves to be!
Around this time, Ransom, Hoffman & Pollard, the ball-bearing factory which for many years had been one of Chelmsford's major employers, was slowly winding down and my day job was about to disappear. Many of the friends I'd made were gone, some to new jobs, some to the dole. It was a pretty miserable time all round because there was very little decent employment to be had, despite the fact that Chelmsford is the county town of Essex. I was eventually turfed out in June with a handy sum of redundancy money which I'd already spent on a computer two months earlier.
Down at the dole office they asked me what I wanted to do career wise. I said, "Anything with a desk and a swivel chair. Maybe a secretary, too." They suggested the Britvic bottling factory or working in a junk yard five miles out of town. In those days you had to apply for two jobs before they would even consider giving you any unemployment benefit, so I dutifully sent off applications. The junk yard position was already filled thank God and, according to Britvics, I was overqualified for their production line. So I got my unemployment money.
During July I began working up a story to feature another Starblazer character called Carter, an emotionless cyborg ex-cop created by Mike Knowles for the story 'Carter's Law' (no.191). I thought I might have a better chance with Carter than with Kayn since stories were appearing almost monthly at that time with new tales appearing in March, April, June and July 1989.
I fell back on my previous method of writing the story first before submitting the synopsis as that seemed to work. The Carter story, 'Pyrokine', was the first I'd written straight onto the computer, making the story up as I went along without notes. Which meant I had no idea what the story was really about: the story opens with Carter resolving (in his own inimitable fashion) a hostage situation in a tower block. There's a mysterious explosion. By then I was 40 frames into the story and I could imagine what the Bills' reaction would be: condense the whole opening and get on with the actual story you're trying to tell! The problem was, I suspect, that I didn't really have a story to tell at all, just an opening scene.
'Pyrokine' fizzled out and at the end of July I submitted another Kayn idea based on what I thought was the neat idea of Kayn smashing a drug-running operation only to have the drug runners plant a bomb in his head and force Kayn to carry drugs for them. But there was a twist that I didn't mention. The guy in charge was hiding out in Tibet, a mysterious, unseen figure who was believed to control a vast crime network. And this character, in my mind, was Wilson, the wonder athlete from the pages of Wizard back in the 1940s.
You see, it was revealed in the stories that Wilson was born in 1795 and his remarkable physique was down to living wild on Ambleside Moor and living off the land. My notion was that Wilson was still alive at the time of Kayn's escapades and was addicted to these life-preserving drugs to be found in the wild plants growing on Ambleside Moor. Whether any of this was going to be made clear I'm not sure but that notion was always in the back of my mind and I know I intended having the main villain wearing a black one-piece.
In went the synopsis ("too bloomin' detailed again!" said Bill) and back came the rejection ("too close close to another notion"). Part of the problem was that some elements of my story were similar to one they were just about to publish, no. 247 'Kayn's Quest', about stolen relics.
And that was pretty much the end of my career as a Starblazer scriptwriter. After being offered two dead-end jobs by the unemployment benefit office, I decided to sign up for a college course in computers. As it turned out it was a good move, even if the course didn't turn out to be quite what I expected -- it was more geared towards former secretaries who needed to learn about word processing. However, it put me in touch with a guy called Frank Power who ran a one-man company in London called City Sports. In September it became a two-man company and I became a commuter. I had a desk and a swivel chair. And, that December, I even had a secretary, albeit a temp, while Frank was away on holiday.
The commute to London didn't leave much time for writing and I was often working late, running the office while Frank was on the road. 'The Cursed Land' (originally 'Assassin of Gods') came out in December 1989, followed in February by 'Computer Killer' (originally 'Headcrash'). In spare moments and weekends I started writing up the story 'What Little Girls Are Made Of' which I'd put on the back-burner at Bill's suggestion and mapped out the second story of Terol, 'Assassin of Assassins'. I had most of the latter finished when I learned that Starblazer was to fold and was not accepting any more stories.
All my correspondence and notes went into a folder which I've only recently re-discovered, prompted by the news that Starblazer is to be revived. It's a new century and it's being revived in a completely different medium. Hopefully there will be more news of this soon.
My memories of Starblazer are incredibly happy ones. Even the rejections taught me something. Mostly to get my act together before submitting a synopsis. The fact that I sold them two stories proved (to me at least) that it wasn't just luck. Although my plotting was as woolly as all hell and, towards the end even I could spot when something was going completely off the rails as happened with 'Pyrokine'. So I'd learned something.
Would I be a better scriptwriter now? Probably not. That skill comes with practice and I've not even thought of writing a script for many years. I did write an opening for a Commando in 1991 which was rejected and I've written one or two little things since but nothing intended for publication.
To bring this little Bear Alley birthday series to an end I thought I'd publish this little squib that I found tucked away in my Starblazer folder. Around the time I was submitting ideas, Starblazer was running a couple of more humorous series featuring Grok & Zero (a pair of mismatched cops) and The Robot Kid. So I thought, What about a multi-tentacled alien private eye?, and scribbled down the following opening:
They call me Spade
My real name has 72 letters, 4 hieroglyphs, 23 hand postures and involves growling, so you'll probably want to call me Spade too.
That's as far as it got. I like to think it would have been the greatest story Starblazer ever published. Truth is, it's probably the dumbest idea that Starblazer (thankfully) never published.
(* The images above are from Starblazer and are © D. C. Thomson. From the top: Mikal Kayn's first appearance in no. 45 'Operation Overkill', written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Enrique Alcatena; the same team for no. 167 'Mind Bender' -- Grant Morrison slips his own name into the dialogue; the various covers are all by Ian Kennedy; the extracted panel from 'Computer Killer' is drawn by Vila whose first name I unfortunately don't know.
I'd like to shout out a big Thank You to Bill Graham and Bill McLoughlin, unheralded heroes of Starblazer and many other Thomson papers. Without them, none of these columns would have been possible. A heartfelt thanks, guys, from Starblazer's most undisciplined writer.)