In the age of corporate epic fantasy has pulp-era sword and sorcery become more appealing than ever? Wondering where the genre stands as I discover a forgotten fantasy heroine from the Marvel vaults
Sword and Sorcery (or Heroic Fantasy) has long cast a spell over me as unbreakable as the riddle of steel. I love the absorbing worlds, powerplays and sagas of Epic Fantasy. But sometimes I just wanna see a barbarian dude shove a yard of rune-etched Cimmerian steel through a bad guy’s face.
The pleasures of Sword and Sorcery are primal and undeniable, their tales descended from those of Gilgamesh, Māui, Anansi and Odin, violent, pioneer ‘culture heroes’ who tamed the monster-filled wilderness of newly-forged creation before fading into legend. In the same sense, it’s the bulldozer heroes of Sword and Sorcery – Conan and Red Sonja – who pave the way for the ‘civilised’ epic worlds of Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. But if you’ve read Robert E. Howard, the godfather of 20th century Sword and Sorcery, you’ll know he felt civilisation was just another – even worse – form of savagery.
My love for tales of swashbuckling and monster-bashing was rekindled in earnest with my writing Black Beth, a thoroughly obscure Sword and Sorcery heroine from British comics, whom I revived for Rebellion with the sensational Greek artist Dani. I wanted to write exactly the kind of continuity-free heroic tales I don’t see much of these days.
I harked back to my youth devouring Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and watching Hawk the Slayer on repeat. I grabbed missing back issues of vintage White Dwarf and Warlockon eBay, losing myself in those grimdark illustrations that had so hypnotised me as a kid. But nostalgia becomes poison when one drinks too deeply, and I want to see what the genre is doing right now...
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Image is key to success for writers today. But is the drive to fictionalise ourselves a good thing or a toxic necessity? What does it say to incoming talent?
A few years ago, I took a stab at telling the truth.
I’d just been commissioned to write a novella for the good people at Games Workshop’s Black Library, part of a Sisters of Battle triptych called The Book of Martyrs. My story would feature alongside two other stories, one by the mighty Danie Ware and the other by Warhammer loremaster Phil Kelly. I considered myself an old pro when it came to comics, but still felt like a noob when it came to prose, and this was my longest word count for Black Library to date. I’d only written Warhammer audios and short stories until now and most of those had ended up way longer and taken twice as long to complete than anticipated.
I knew I had a solid story, a turbo-charged thriller about Sister Ishani – a Hospitaller of the Argent Shroud with her faithful servo-cherub Borvo – who must survive a xenos invasion long enough to warn a neighbouring agri-station before they too are slaughtered. I also knew that I could do this, though it certainly didn’t feel like it while I was writing.
The only thing stopping me getting the job done was my worrying about getting the job done.
So I decided to keep a journal. Just ten minutes at the end of each working day and I’d barf out everything with which I’d been struggling during that session. No holding back. No uplifting lesson at the end. Just a bite-sized stream of consciousness. You’d be lucky if you got punctuation! I’d worry about scenes not working, too-subtle character arcs, over-description, the persistent possibility that the whole thing might be running away from me, soaring over the word count and demanding several extra weeks I didn’t have in order to cut it all back.
Bloody Dan Abnett (my stable-mate over at 2000 AD) made this look so easy in First and Only. What was I doing wrong? Why was this so hard? What the hell was wrong with me?
Who knew? Just get it down and get it out there.
I figured I’d wait until Book of Martyrs had been out for a while, then publish a few spoiler-free journal entries on my blog every week. I’d gotten a surprisingly good bit of traction on the craft essays I’d posted, so reckoned there might be a few young writers hooked into my RSS feed who might appreciate the honesty. After all, this was exactly the sort of equalising confessional that I craved back when I was making my first steps into the business of writing. Here was my chance to maybe let a few rookies coming after me know that they probably weren’t doing things quite as ‘wrong’ as they thought.
I managed about two entries in that journal before realising I could never publish it...
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James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) shows us how it’s done
There are certain types of scene that are just naturally boring. There’s no immediate conflict, no one trying to manipulate the focal character, fill them full of lead, punch their lights out, or get to the finish line before them. In writer-speak, you might say the focal character’s line of action has no counter-action to challenge them.
Maybe what one character wants is exactly the same thing the opposing character wants. A great example of this kind of stock scene is the ‘mission briefing’. Think Police Commissioner Lee Van Cleef offering Snake Plissken a do-or-die deal in Escape From New York, the Feds visiting Indiana Jones on campus and sending him off on a quest for the Lost Ark, Lt. Gorman explaining the bug hunt to his crew in Aliens.
Let’s take Aliens as an example of how to approach a scene like this…
Gorman’s objective in this scene is to explain the mission while the marines’ objective is pretty much to just sit there and listen. Plotwise, there’s no conflict, no tension. Boooooring. Faced with a scene like this, most writers might glance at their deadline and get with the info-dumping.
Not Jim Cameron.
In this potentially tedious scene, Cameron focuses not so much on conveying the needs of the plot, but on the emotional tensions between his various characters. This allows him to convey his exposition invisibly, concealing all that dull instructional stuff (we need you to go here, do this, etc.) within exchanges of dialogue. It’s the characters and not the writer who are conveying the story. Cameron approaches this stock scene not as a checklist to race through, but an opportunity to give us insights into the characters with whom we’re about to embark on this adventure.
Remember, all the pyrotechnics in the world count for nothing, unless you care about the characters under fire.
We start off with a helpful establishing shot of the deployment bay of the Sulaco as Gorman (William Hope) strides in with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). (I love the way Hope turns away and smooths down his buzzcut before speaking, as if to psyche himself up.) We quickly see that Gorman – for all his spit-shine demeanor - isn’t quite as on the ball as he appears. He can’t even remember the names of his crew! (‘Hudson, sir. He’s Hicks.’) Straight away, we’re aware of a power dynamic here. The grunts don’t have the greatest respect for their Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant knows it.
We move on as Gorman styles it out by starting to explain the mission. (‘Still no word from the colonists… Yadda, yadda.) But Cameron’s marines are not attentive; they’re restless and bored. In other words, the writer has found an interesting counter-action. Gorman wants to explain the mission, but the grunts aren’t really listening. This emotional tension isn’t as spectacular a counter-action as coming under machinegun fire or wrestling Thanos, but it’s every bit as compelling. And compelling is what is needed to get through any scene.
Now Ripley steps in, struggling to relate the horrifying events of what happened to her aboard the Nostromo. She falters and gulps, clearly traumatized, reminding us just how much courage this woman must possess to have agreed to this mission in the first place. (Man, but Sigourney Weaver is brilliant throughout. And Cameron knows when to keep his camera tight on that wonderful face, making sure we see the emotions playing out under the surface of the main character.)
But still the grunts aren’t interested. (‘I just wanna know one thing… wheeeere they aaaare…’) Now we’re really cooking. Ripley’s objective is to get these swaggering jerks to take her seriously and that objective is now directly challenged by the marine’s boredom.
Stung by their dismissal, Ripley recovers for a moment, then unsheathes her inner steel. ‘Just one of those things managed to wipe out my entire crew in less than 24 hours. Do you understand?’
Well, that sure shut them up!
We’ve also gotten the first hint here that Ripley has got way more about her than fragile Lieutenant Gorman, as we’ll find out for sure later on… It’s called ‘foreshadowing’, kids.
But the scene’s not done yet. Ripley’s objective has been achieved, but the tension between Gorman and his crew remains unresolved. Hudson sticks up his hand with an impish grin. ‘What is it, private?’ (I’m pretty sure Gorman still doesn’t know the marine’s name!) Hudson’s sass-mouth receives a sharp interjection from Sergeant Apone (the late Al Matthews, wonderful in this movie). By now, the Lieutenant’s pissed and decides to show everyone who’s boss (‘I want DCS and tactical database assimilation by 08.30!’). Mic dropped, objective achieved, Gorman marches off, leaving the marines grumbling in his wake.
And what a memorable closer this scene gets… (‘Alright, sweethearts. You heard the man and you know the drill. Assholes and elbows. Hudson, c’mere! Come heeeeeere!’)
It’s a brilliant, brilliant scene, gold spun out of genre straw. And the viewer notices none of it, and THAT’s why it’s great writing.
Our sword-and-sorcery one-shot Black Beth and the Devils of Al-Kadesh was released in the U.S. back in July, following terrific reviews from here in the U.K. Featuring awesome art by DaNi, Andrea Bulgarelli and Vincenzo Riccardi, you can still grab a copy from Midtown Comics, Forbidden Planet UK, and the 2000 AD webstore.
Some amazing reviews just in. Thanks to everyone for your kind words and support!
"A tremendously entertaining story with fabulous characters, gleeful performances, and a sharp, twisty plot... a fantastic first audio release for Warhammer Crime." Read the full review at TRACK OF WORDS.
"Dredge Runners is utterly brilliant! A fantastic crime caper." Read the full review at THE ORKNEY NEWS.
"[A] great beginning to the new Warhammer Crime range." Read the full review at BOOKNEST.
"A perfect introduction to the seedier side of the Imperium of Man, and a cracking tale to boot." Read the full review at AT BOUNDARY'S EDGE.
With the 2020 Black Library Open Submission window opening for two weeks in October, Michael at the amazing Warhammer blog Track of Words asked if I had any useful tips for prospective writers.
I gabbled a response, which Mike was kind enough to give a blog all to itself.
I hope there are a few prospective writers out there who might find this useful...
WRITING FOR BLACK LIBRARY: ALEC WORLEY TALKS PITCHING WARHAMMER HORROR
Michael over at the amazing Black Library blog TRACK OF WORDS has just had me on for a rapid-fire interview about the forthcoming WARHAMMER CRIME audio DREDGE RUNNERS, which is available for pre-order as of Saturday 1st August.
Here's the pitch (to be read in the style of a 1940s noir trailer)...
He’s the fast-talking ratling sniper with an eye for the big score!
He’s the ogryn, the muscle, the hooligan with a heart of gold and a head full of dreams!
Abhuman soldiers turned THIEVES, surviving in a city where only GUTS will get you through!
When they land in the pocket of a savage crime lord, BAGGIT AND CLODDE are sent to spy on the cleanest Sanctioner in town.
Together they uncover a scam that threatens to shake the city to the core!
Now there’s innocent lives at stake, as well as a fortune that could finally buy the boys a ticket out of the gutter!
Baggit and Clodde must think fast and hustle hard, before death points a laspistol in their direction!
The fourth story in my Sister Adamanthea series is an audio drama! Following on from short stories Whispers, Repentia and Martyr's End, this new audio drama collects the three-parter released last December...
Sister Adamanthea, returned from repentance and revered by the faithful as a symbol of the Emperor's will, must cast her doubts aside when disaster strikes during a holy parade.
Hear a thrilling tale of a soul redeemed but riven with doubt, and delve into the murky politics of the Ecclesiarchy, and the many temptations that the Dark Imperium has to offer…
Sister Adamanthea is a Repentia redeemed, restored to her beloved Sororitas and hailed as a ‘living miracle’. But behind closed doors she is haunted by a sin she believes can never be forgiven. Paraded in front of the countless pilgrims of the garden-temple of Concordia, how can she speak of faith when her own is so uncertain? When an aeons-old conspiracy finally triggers, Adamanthea must prove herself the legend she is claimed to be, or risk the forces of Chaos pulling back the shroud of lies, and shattering the faith of an entire world.
Written by Alec Worley. Running time 75 minutes. Performed by Steve Conlin, Sean Connolly, Jonathan Keeble, Penelope Rawlins, Richard Reed, Genevieve Swallow and Claire Wyatt.
Available on Audible, the Black Library webstore and on the Black Library app.
My run of adapting animated TV show Star Wars: Resistance has sadly come to a close.
The fifth and final story, The High Tower - which I adapted with brilliant artist Cosmo White - appears in Star Wars: Fun & Action #1, the monthly magazine for younger readers from Panini Germany, published 18 March...
I've been quietly pottering away on Star Wars comics with Panini Germany for a couple of years now, from novel adaptations to original Star Wars Rebels stories. But I'm happy to see my short run of Rebels tales and all my Resistance adaptations to date currently running in English for the first in Australian kids' monthly K-Zone.
Meanwhile, the adaptation of Greg Rucka's younger readers novel Smuggler's Run, which I adapted with incredible German artist Ingo Romling back in 2018, is now being collected in trade by Panini...