This was my very first book, published 15 years ago by McFarland and now reprinted in paperback. This thing took me around two years to research. I wrote it in between night shifts splicing together ad reels for movie theatres. My models were the film books that had really expanded my mind in terms of what the genres of the fantastic can do (namely Paul Nicholls's Fantastic Cinema and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies).
Though Empires never reaches the impossibly high watermark of those books, it was still one of the very first to offer a serious critical survey of fantasy as a genre distinct from horror and science-fiction.
Remember, kids, this was written long before the internet and Stranger Things made Dungeons & Dragons cool. Back then, this sort of thing was the love that dare not speak its name!
A lot of water has passed under the bridge of fantasy cinema since the genre hit the mainstream, but I'm still really proud of this book and stand by pretty much everything it says - not sure I should have been quite so harsh about The Never-ending Story though...
The warlocks and ghosts of fantasy film haunt our popular culture, but the genre has too long been ignored by critics. This comprehensive critical survey of fantasy cinema demonstrates that the fantasy genre amounts to more than escapism. Through a meticulously researched analysis of more than a century of fantasy pictures—from the seminal work of Georges Méliès to Peter Jackson’s recent tours of Middle–earth—the work identifies narrative strategies and their recurring components and studies patterns of challenge and return, setting and character.
First addressing the difficult task of defining the genre, the work examines fantasy as a cultural force in both film and literature and explores its relation to science fiction, horror, and fairy tales. Fantasy’s development is traced from the first days of film, with emphasis on how the evolving genre reflected such events as economic depression and war. Also considered is fantasy’s expression of politics, as either the subject of satire or fuel for the fires of propaganda. Discussion ventures into the subgenres, from stories of invented lands inhabited by fantastic creatures to magical adventures set in the familiar world, and addresses clashes between fantasy and faith, such as the religious opposition to the Harry Potter phenomenon. From the money-making classics to little-known arthouse films, this richly illustrated work covers every aspect of fantasy film.
Available from McFarland Books, Amazon UK, Amazon US, Barnes and Noble, Book Depository, Blackwells and Waterstones.
If you're a fan of Black Library's Warhammer fiction and audio dramas, then I would urge you to follow the review blog Track of Words.
Run by reading-machine Michael Dodd, this comprehensive site is essential for anyone keen to keep track of Black Library's dizzying level of output.
How Mike manages to read all that he does is pretty unbelievable and his reviews are never less than literate, well-considered, and contextualised with a comprehensive knowledge of Warhammer lore.
Anyway, I was lucky enough for Mike to have me aboard for an interview about my audio drama Broken Saints, which had just been released as a three-parter for Black Library's December Advent event.
I ended up getting a bit carried away and gabbled about all sorts, from how I write to Sisters lore. Click here to read and make sure you sign up for the Track of Words newsletter.
The latest DURHAM RED one-shot has just appeared in the 2000 AD Christmas Special.
Mutant vampire bounty hunter Durham Red corners her latest quarry in the ruins of an ancient castle, but her prey proves far from helpless...
Here's the first two pages from artist Ben Willsher...
The revamped Durham Red is back for a yuletide one-shot in the 2018 Christmas bumper edition of 2000 AD with art by Ben Willsher (Judge Dredd, Doctor Who, Roy of the Rovers) and letters by Annie Parkhouse...
It’s Christmas Eve. The city is in thrall to a powerful criminal gang whose envoy comes bearing a gift for Durham Red. But the mutant vampire has brought offerings of her own. Three gifts are exchanged, each one revealing the next step in a deadly game...
“You’re the angel of death, Red. That’s why every goon in this galaxy is afraid of you. But I’ll bet that reputation weighs heavy on the soul... especially around Christmas.”
"After their triumphant revamp earlier this year, it’s good to see Worley and Willsher return to the bloodiest of all the Strontium Dogs."
Featuring a bundle of other new stories, including Judge Dredd, Caballistics, Inc. and Slaine, the 2000 AD Christmas Special is available from all good newsagents and comic shops, and from the 2000 AD webstore.
You can also download the 2000 AD reader app for the iPad, Android and Windows.
Download one of these to your mobile device and get access to legendary British sci-fi weekly 2000 AD and monthly sister-publication the Judge Dredd Megazine, as well as TONS of digital graphic novels collecting stories from the past four decades, including Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Sláine, ABC Warriors, Nikolai Dante, and Robo-Hunter!
Superstar artist Dani and myself have resurrected an ancient comic-book heroine, one that’s obscure even by standards of vintage British comic books!
Black Beth first appeared in the Scream! Holiday Special back in 1988, four years after the comic itself had ceased publication. Unusually for a Scream! story, Black Beth wasn’t actually a horror strip, but a 23-page sword opera set in a brooding medieval world.
With beautifully sinuous art by veteran Spanish illustrator Blas Gallego (link NSFW), the strip was a mashup of Red Sonja and The Punisher with shades of MacBeth, in which our vengeful young heroine becomes a knight with a unbreakable vendetta against evildoers.
The identity of Black Beth’s original writer has unfortunately been lost in the mists of time.
The original strip was created in the mid 1970s for another IPC title (also called Scream), but the comic was cancelled before issue one saw print. Beth was left discarded in a drawer somewhere in the IPC offices until she was exhumed over a decade later by editors looking for material to fill up the specials.
I picked up that 1988 Holiday Special at an age when I was beginning to fall so very deeply in love with Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy, Dragon Warriors, Conan, Hawk the Slayer, etc. and would obsess over any scrap of sword and sorcery I could get my hands on.
So when I heard Rebellion were publishing a second Scream/Misty annual, I begged editor Keith Richardson to let me and Dani pitch him a Black Beth tale.
We wanted to tap into that vintage Scream! magic, as well as the kind of unabashed pulp vibe that pervaded Creepy, Eerie, and Savage Sword of Conan.
We dared to be unhip!
Driven by her crusade to punish the unjust, Black Beth must save a group of sacrifices from a warlock intent upon unleashing evil upon the world. But the witch Moldred has given Beth a dire warning: to undertake this mission will have terrible consequences! Will Beth heed Moldred’s advice? Or is her homicidal thirst for vengeance all that matters to her?
The 2018 Scream and Misty Special is available from all good newsagents and comic shops, as well as the 2000 AD webstore and in North America from Midtown Comics.
My team-mate – artist Ben Willsher – has been stretchered off our Durham Red project, but fear not. Indigo Prime and Dredd supremo Lee Carter is joining the team!
Sorry to report that the Durham Red revamp I’ve been scripting for 2000 AD has hit a spot of behind-the-scenes bother, resulting in an injured artist and a minor delay. A few weeks ago, my project team-mate – Judge Dredd artist Ben Willsher - badly scalded his hand (on one of those fancy boiling-water taps) resulting in a severe burn that required hospital treatment. The injury was compounded by the fact that Ben made the mistake of trying to soothe the wound with a bag of frozen peas! As his nurse apparently went to great lengths to explain, never ever cool a burn with ice or iced water! (Instead, run it under cool or lukewarm running water for 20 minutes.)
With his hand strapped up during recovery, Ben has been unable to work at his usual capacity and has therefore been forced to step down from Red at the risk of missing his allotted deadline.
I want you guys to know just how hard Ben has worked on this project. Durham Red and the Strontium Dog universe mean the world to him, and this project has been a genuine labour of love. Ben came to this with a distinct vision in mind from the very beginning, which he’s been seeing through by colouring his own pages and spending several weeks obsessing with me over Red’s new design.
Ben has managed to get four episodes of Durham Red: Born Bad in the can, leaving another four to go. “I am absolutely gutted to have to step away from Red, especially over such a silly and avoidable mishap,” says Ben. “But ‘C’est la vie’, as the French Esther Rantzen fans say. Despite the disappointment of leaving the series, I am overjoyed to have Lee Carter take over!”
If you’re unfamiliar with Lee’s art, go check out his website this instant! His dynamic work on strips including Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Angelic and Indigo Prime are something to behold. His pages boil with mood and atmosphere, his action scenes have thump and grit, while his flights into psychedelia are mind-blowing! In short, he’s perfect for this new version of Durham Red. Ben adds, “Honestly, I couldn’t be leaving Red in better hands – and both of Lee’s hands work! He’s an incredible artist. I’m so glad he’s joined the team. You’re all in for a treat when you see his pages!”
Our strip was originally intended to run in the recent ‘jumping on’ Prog #2073 in lieu of John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra and Ellie De Ville’s Strontium Dog: The Son. The two strips have now switched slots.
The first episode of Durham Red: Born Bad will now be published in Prog #2082, out on 23 May 2018, available at all good newsagents and comic book stores, plus digitally from the 2000 AD webstore, along with the official 2000 AD apps for iOS, Android and Windows.
Get 3,000 coffins ready...
A preview pic for the new DURHAM RED revamp by me and artist Ben Willsher got released last week in 2000 AD.
And here it is...
Regular 2000 AD readers will know Ben from his long-time art duties on JUDGE DREDD, but he’s also worked on various other comics, including several DOCTOR WHO projects, and has recently been drawing attention from overseas... Combining sharp design with dynamic linework and fluid storytelling, Ben’s the perfect artist for a cinematic action-adventure series like this.
To see more of his work, go check out his website.
Rest assured, Durham won’t be spending the entire series in her underwear! Her final redesign has been approved by the Mighty Tharg, but is yet to be revealed...
This new look needed to land somewhere between the original version by Carlos Ezquerra (which first appeared in Prog 505, back in 1987) and the far-future rebirth devised by Mark Harrison and Dan Abnett in the early 2000s - although we favoured the Ezquerra version, since those adventures are closer to the timeline of our story.
We wanted something fresh that would appeal to a new and contemporary readership, while remaining instantly recognisable to old-schoolers. Balancing the two is a tricky proposition, but such revisions have been achieved with aplomb recently, notably by DC’s NEW 52 BATGIRL by artist Babs Tarr and writer Cameron Stewart, as well as Nicola Scott’s redesign of VAMPIRELLA...
However, form must also follow function. The redesign had to reflect where this series sees Durham as a character, that is, a down-on-her-luck bounty hunter struggling to maintain a moral compass against her vampiric nature. (Everyone in the STRONTIUM DOG universe is terrified of Durham; in this series you’ll see exactly why...)
Me and Ben went back and forth for WEEKS about how best to convey everything we wanted to say about her. As a baseline, I always start by ‘casting’ a character, just to get a vague visual sense of who they are and how they’ll look on the page. I was thinking someone with the smarts and venom of Lauren Bacall in TO HAVE OR HAVE NOT and Linda Fiorentino in THE LAST SEDUCTION, but who could throw a punch like Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey, while Ben was petitioning for someone lithe and snakey like Jaimie Alexander from THOR and TV’s BLINDSPOT. And so it went on, week after week, covering everything from body type, hairstyle, clothes, weapons, the whole shebang!
All will be revealed in 2000 AD March 2018.
Created by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Carlos Ezquerra for the legendary 2000 AD strip Strontium Dog, DURHAM RED returns in a new solo series BORN BAD by me with art by Ben Willsher (Judge Dredd, Doctor Who).
This eight-part series sees the mutant vampire bounty hunter struggling for work following the closure of the Search/Destroy Agency. Forced to take on whatever job may come her way, Durham is hired by a dying gangster to track down his long-lost mother – a woman prepared to take deadly measures to cover her tracks.
Now here’s the thing, guys... This is a BRAND-NEW take on Durham!
New direction! New costume! New readers welcome!
But fear not, old-schoolers, I’ve been working on this for the best part of a year – and been gearing up for even longer to take a shot at writing this. In that time, me and Ben have been working our buns off in terms of research, getting the re-design just right, figuring out what makes Durham tick and seeing where we can take her next.
Rest assured, we’ve done our homework.
I’ve seen the artwork for the opening episode and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen Ben produce before. No hyperbole here, but it’s freakin’ amazing! I can’t wait to give you a sneak peak...
Anyway, the first part of DURHAM RED: BORN BAD will be published in 2000 AD #2073, available in stores and online from 21st March 2018.
There will be blood...
I’ve got a free hour and a new comic on my hands, so here’s a quick review...
I’m a huge fan of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, created back in the day by Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. This seminal choose-your-own-adventure series originally totalled almost sixty titles, from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982 to Curse of the Mummy in 1995. I was primarily a TV/video kid, but these books got me and plenty others reading. It’s perhaps not an overstatement to say they were the Harry Potter of my generation.
Fanboy that I am, I badgered the good folks at Titan Comics for an advance copy of Freeway Fighter, a four-part mini-series inspired by the Ian Livingstone book of the same name, first published in 1985 and the thirteenth in the original series.
Set in 2024, in a familiar post-apocalyptic desert (this one devastated by a virus rather than atomic war), the source-book sent the reader/player into the hazardous wastes to scavenge supplies and save their frontier town. Clearly inspired by the Mad Max movies (the third of which – Beyond Thunderdome – was also released in 1985), the book introduced the post-apocalyptic cars-and-carnage genre to a readership far too young to be watching ‘80s Mel Gibson movies. (The book was also part of a lively sub-genre of tabletop/roleplaying games that included Car Wars, Battlecars and Dark Future.) However, Freeway Fighter the comic – published almost thirty years on and featuring a ruthless, whiskey-slugging heroine happy to beat scumbags to death with a crowbar – perhaps doesn’t feel entirely child-friendly. In a good way.
Described as an ‘origination’ rather than an adaptation, the comic follows former racing driver turned post-apocalyptic wanderer Bella De La Rosa, who runs into trouble in a deserted town while scouting the wasteland in search of supplies.
The first issue is sparse in terms of plot, but otherwise brims with hot car-on-car action. Writer Andi Ewington has got a filmmaker’s eye for the punch and rhythm of high-octane action sequences. The whole book simmers with atmosphere too, thanks to Simon Coleby’s brooding artwork, which gives this desolate landscape an appropriately diesel-splattered feel, complimented by Len O’Grady’s sweltering colours. Kudos too to Jim Campbell’s lettering.
This is the first time the Fighting Fantasy series has come to comics and, as an official spin-off, Freeway Fighter feels both authentic and committed. Original author Ian Livingstone is on board as Executive Producer, while editing is handled by Jonathan Green (himself the author of three Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, as well as You Are The Hero, a highly recommended history of the series). Ewington (a prolific yet underappreciated writer who deserves greater attention) also comes with a fitting pedigree, having previously worked on Hollywood-branded comics for Michael Bay, Rob Cohen and George Pelecanos. Freeway Fighter issue one feels like a genuine event – and the lime-green back cover with the zig-zag header is a stroke of design genius that fans of the series will appreciate.
The book’s creative team could have settled for pastiche and fanservice (as do far too many old-school geek franchises these days). Instead, the team has dug a little deeper into the original (if admittedly well-worn) concept, giving us a glimpse of Bella’s pre-apocalyptic past (the switch from past to present pulled off with a zinger of a page-turn). This not only brings a fresh angle to a character that would otherwise be your archetypal wasteland badass, but also gives us a crucial sense of the civilised world that’s been lost to barbarism.
An intriguing first mile in a post-apocalyptic road-trip and a must for Fighting Fantasy fans, Freeway Fighter is worth a look for the widescreen action and scorching artwork alone. One issue in and this series is already burning rubber.
Artwork by Simon Coleby
As anxious a year as this has been, 2016 has left me downright fearful about what’s waiting around the corner next year. I put together this silly two-page comic (above) not so much for my own amusement (although it’s always fun to take the Mickey out of Newsnight Review) as to articulate the jitters I felt during the run-up to the E.U. referendum. This was a time when the British media was generally encouraging the voting public to base a momentous decision on a fog of hysterical reactions, outright lies and fearmongering, and a terrifying absence of facts.
We joke about how such mania is commonplace within the vacuum of social media, but here it appeared to have spilled out into national discourse. And would do so again elsewhere, of course.
The appeal of social media lies in its powers of reduction, to condense an ocean of information into a manageable stream. But when one views the world primarily through such a lens it can reduce the most nuanced argument to a binary option: yes/no, black/white, good/evil. If you’re not 100 percent on my team, then you’re 100 percent against us.
Social media prioritises impassioned response over rational engagement. It fosters paranoia, the assumption that unless the person standing next to you is announcing their fealty to the cause at every opportunity then they’re probably batting for the Dark Side. It encourages an almost sociopathic lack of compassion. It erodes generosity of spirit, the moral imagination required to consider without endorsing – just for a moment – a view that you may not share, rather than dig a little deeper and ask why does that person think that? It encourages readers to skim information, to ignore anything below an often-inaccurate headline, to share articles out of confirmation bias, to brand ourselves as standing unequivocally in this camp or that, two sides calling each other Hitler, each getting angrier at the others’ inability to see the truth, each feeding off each other, needing each other, creating an almighty yin and yang of idiocy, extremism begetting extremism.
Creativity flourishes not on timid conformity, but on fearlessness and rebellion. Great stories thrive not on comforting notions of good guys and bad guys, but the dramatic conflict generated by moral ambiguity, compromise and paradox. But social media has taught readers to be on high-alert for anything they may deem offensive, i.e. challenging, and to punish any such perpetrators accordingly. Today anything, from making an ignorant remark to proposing new ideas, can cause a backlash that damages a working writer’s reputation and livelihood. So can writers be blamed for being tempted to retreat into orthodoxy? Never did Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, that bitter cautionary fable about the ruinous paranoia of McCarthy-era America, feel so prescient.
I’m reminded of a passage from author H.E. Bates’ critical survey The Modern Short Story, first published in 1941: “The notion that literature, and the novel especially, should teach something, that it should carry a lesson, a moral, or a message, and that its results should not give purely aesthetic, sensuous, and recreative pleasure, is one that dies very hard. This notion almost invariably springs from and is fostered by the public and not by writers, who nevertheless in Victorian times often succumbed to the weight of public demand. It seems ludicrous now to think that in its serial form (to be read by the sacred fireside) the passages in Tess where Angel Clare carried [author's italics] the girls across the stream had to be altered so that these girls were decently wheeled across in a wheelbarrow. --- It seems incredible and ludicrous to us that Tess should have been banned, and Jude burned, when to-day their actions, which once brought the thunder from the pulpits, seem only mistakes of timid triviality. The lesson there is clear for all writers: that they should never, from first to last, pay the least attention to public opinion, or to what is worse – public taste.”
However, today we have never been more aware of what we must oppose. Thanks to camera-phones we can see all manner of loathsome behaviour autoplayed on our social media feeds. It’s no wonder that appalled writers feel the need to pick up their trusty weapon – whether pen, pencil or keyboard – and fight back. But when it comes to the type of stories that I write – good old-fashioned, rip-roaring melodrama full of heroes super and otherwise – no one wants to read a bash-you-over-the-head social justice agitprop full of clunky one-note archetypes defined solely by their gender, race or sexuality, all of whom are likely preaching to a readership already converted. Besides, you don’t change the minds of bigots by screaming at them. There are subtler ways of fighting the good fight (whatever your fight may be). A precise whisper can be deadlier than the shout. How about less ‘social justice warrior’, more ‘social justice ninja’?
Progressive writing is often just a case of writing well, of engaging best practice in terms of modern storytelling. So please don’t expect a pat on the back or a bucket full of brownie points for just doing your damn job!
We avoid the default of ‘straight white middle-class male’ and seek fresh perspectives because we need to find a fresh hook, something that can spin an archetypal story off in a new direction. Consider how the Netflix show Luke Cage (despite going into a tailspin in the last few episodes) put an invigorating spin on the superhero story by telling it through the lens of the African-American experience. I also love the ‘stealth diversity’ of things like Star Wars: Rebels and Big Hero Six, which have multiracial/multigender casts and don’t make any kind of fuss about it.
As a writer it’s your responsibility to give your exposition a decent burial, to let the reader discover your theme rather than spell it out for them. (Andrew Stanton of the Pixar braintrust calls this “the unifying theory of two-plus-two”, i.e. don’t show the audience ‘four’. Give them ‘two’ then ‘two’ and let them figure out the rest for themselves.) The movie Zootropolis wouldn’t be half as brilliant if it had settled for the simple message of ‘Racism. Is. Bad.’ It assumes the audience of children – of children, dammit! – are smart enough to understand that even those with the best intentions struggle with prejudice of some kind. That’s a dramatic paradox, right there!
It’s the writer’s job to create rounded, nuanced characters, of which gender, ethnicity, sexuality, spirituality and political views are just a few aspects of the myriad that makes that character who they are. Readers want characters with whom they can relate, whose flaws are more interesting than their strengths. (By the way, we want female characters who are ‘strong’ in the sense of ‘vivid’, not ‘strong’ in the sense of how hard they can punch someone.)
Might it be argued then that good writing is inherently progressive? I dunno. But I do know that good writing and progressive writing are at their most effective when they’re drawing the least amount of attention to themselves.
“When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of heaven,” wrote Lao Tzu. Only he was lucky enough to be speaking two and a half thousand years before writers were fighting to wrest their readers’ attention away from Netflix, Twitter, and the Xbox. It’s no longer good enough to be good, today’s writer must be heard as well.
I wish I could conclude this blog with something nice and comforting, along the lines of ‘just do XYZ, readers, and everything will be fine.’ But I’m afraid December 2016 has found me all out of homilies. I’m left to venture into 2017 armed with nothing more than a handful of slogans: progress fearlessly, be better than what makes you angry, and – in the words of the late great stand-up comic Bill Hicks – “Read! Listen! Think! Shut the f*** up!”