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!”
Another piece written in 2010 and excavated from my old website. It's called 'recycling'...
# The title ‘Age of the Wolf’ comes from the Völuspá, the first poem of the Poetic Edda (a collection of Old Norse poetry that provides our chief source of information about Norse mythology). The poem concerns Ragnarok, the death of the gods, when the giant wolf Fenris will burst his chains and devour the sun.
# The events of the story begin on 14 November 2016, which (in the real world) is when a full moon will orbit the earth some 28,000km closer than usual, appearing 14% bigger and 30% brighter than normal.
# On page one, the references to doctors Carter, Jordan and Patterson are a reference to the writer, director and star of The Company Of Wolves. There’s other werewolf movie easter eggs in there, but I can’t remember them all.
# The heroine, Rowan Morrigan, is based on the doomed and beautiful Norse god Baldr (the ‘bleeding god’). Physically, I based her on Doctor Who actress Karen Gillen, who struck me as having just the right combination of fearlessness and girl-next-door practicality.
# The words Rowan uses in the story to ignite the runes are Old Norse.
# I actually wrote a feature on werewolf comics for the Judge Dredd Megazine #294 (March, 2010), which probably contradicts just about everything I wrote in Age Of The Wolf.
Why werewolves don’t take over the world very often, how classical myth got it wrong, and why it’s never a good idea to make fun of an undercover policeman when researching your story (post written in 2010; taken from my old website)
Towards the end of 2009, pop cultural commentators everywhere seemed to have agreed that werewolves were going to be ‘in’ in 2010. According to all those ‘Next Year Preview’ features I was reading at the time, it was something to do with the continued popularity of Twilight and shows like Being Human and True Blood. Apparently, zombies and vampires were going to be sooooo last season. I’d been gathering ideas for an ‘I Am Legend with werewolves’ story for a couple of years, now it seemed as if everyone was about jump into my seat. Since Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel I Am Legend and George A. Romero’s equally seminal zombie movie Night Of The Living Dead (directly inspired by Matheson’s book) movies and comics have been full of stories in which the world is overrun by vampires or zombies. But no one had ever told a supernatural apocalypse story with werewolves. It seemed such an obvious choice.
Problems with the ‘wolfpocalypse’
The reason why werewolves don’t take over the world very often in books and movies quickly became apparent once 2000 AD’s editor Matt Smith had green-lit the series for development. To put it bluntly, werewolves are rather too good at killing things. If I unleashed a horde of nigh-indestructible lycanthropes on an unsuspecting human world, my entire cast would most likely be dead within a week if I hoped to maintain any semblance of believability.
I was also after something rather more epic than the usual ‘band-of-doomed-survivors-holding-out-against-the-supernatural-hordes’ scenario. Then there was the small matter of how to maintain a full moon long enough for the werewolves to not only overrun humanity but also be prevented from changing back into human form the next day. Imagine a scene in which thousands of naked people wake up on the streets of London with a hangover and a full stomach.
Age Of The Wolf takes place in London 2016. The moon has been mysteriously glowing for over a week. Scientists are baffled and the world is sliding towards mass hysteria. On the ninth night of this so-called ‘perma-moon’ a third of the population inexplicably turn into monstrous wolves. Caught on the London underground in the middle of the outbreak, a young Anglo-Irish woman named Rowan Morrigan flees to safety.
Visited by the ghost of her dead mother, Rowan learns that an ancestor has written her into an ancient Nordic prophecy that singles her out for sacrifice in order to bring about a new world, one in which mankind’s existence is at an end and wilderness rules. However, unlike the sacrificial maidens of myth and fairy tale, Rowan doesn’t feel much like doing as she’s told. She must now find a way to defy the prophecy and escape the monstrous leader of the werewolf pack.
The roots of folklore
I wanted to tell a story that tapped into forgotten werewolf folklore and dramatised exactly why these supernatural icons remain such a vital part of popular culture. I didn’t want the werewolves to end up being merely hairy cannon fodder for the heroine. Despite having grown up on werewolf movies like An American Werewolf In London and The Company Of Wolves (two films with which I was obsessed as a teenager), I didn’t want Age Of The Wolf to turn into yet another game of ‘spot-the-movie-reference’ (although there were times when I just couldn’t help myself). From what I’d read about lycanthrope lore (namely Sabine Baring-Gould’s useful 1865 study The Book Of Werewolves), the concept of the werewolf was a lot more complex and frightening than most modern stories give it credit for.
When someone says ‘werewolf’ you think of the full moon, the infectious bite, the agonising transformation, and the silver bullets. However, these trappings never really coalesced in the public imagination until Curt Siodmak’s script for the 1941 horror movie The Wolfman, in which Lon Chaney Jr tiptoes through the smoke-carpeted forests of the Universal backlot, looking like a furry pubgoer who missed the last bus home. As fondly remembered as the movie is, it’s no classic. Even as a kid, I thought it was odd that a monster as savage and untamed as the Wolfman would choose to strangle his prey. The full moon gave you fangs and claws, dummy. Use ‘em!
Housetraining the werewolf
Rewind several centuries to medieval Europe and werewolves stood for something infinitely more terrifying. The term ‘wer-wolf’ (the word ‘wer’ being Anglo-Saxon for ‘man’) meant ‘outcast’ or ‘godless man’, and was generally applied to perpetrators of the inhuman: murderers, pederasts, cannibals. The werewolf stood for an evil inherent, not inherited.
Today, the idea of transformation, from man to beast and back again, has become central to the werewolf myth. Indeed, it becomes the centrepiece of movies like American Werewolf and The Howling. As critic Peter Nicholls points out in his book Fantastic Cinema, “In modern horror films these metamorphoses – all popping joints, lengthening bones and writhing muscles – become the subject of the film. The central figure is no longer the human, nor the animal he becomes, but the agonised half-and-half thing who belongs to neither world, like a victim of God’s wrath in the Hell of Hieronymus Bosch.”
And yet this idea of duality makes the werewolf ultimately less frightening. It distances us from the terrifying possibility that just about anyone can harbour bestial desires or commit unconscionable acts. Fatalism is common in modern werewolf movies, as Nicholls again points out. “The hollowness of the werewolf story, perhaps, is its fatalistic view that a good chap, through no fault of his own, can become a beast. There is not much dramatic pith in this arbitrary cosmic injustice. The beast-in-man idea is done far more interestingly in [Jacques Tourneur’s 1942] Cat People where the beast stands for something already implicit in the person.”
The Not So Big Bad Wolf
The humble wolf (canis lupus) was a symbol of terror within medieval society for reasons we can barely comprehend today. To the rural communities who relied for their very survival upon vulnerable livestock, the wolf stood for nothing less than the devil incarnate. The animal’s (entirely imaginary) capacity for greed and ruthless evil was immortalised as the Big Bad Wolf of fairy tale. ‘Wolf’ became a byword for malevolence, signifying all forms of ravenous hostility, from famine to grasping landlords.
Today, in more enlightened times, the wolf is an often sentimentalised symbol of nature’s mystery and dignity, an emblem of conservation. The only animal to inspire the same hysterical degree of awe and dread as the wolf did in the Middle Ages is perhaps the Great White Shark, another victim of mankind’s overactive imagination. While wolves were hunted to extinction in the UK by the Anglo-Saxon kings, Great Whites are now protected in several countries, having for decades been the target of trophy hunters. In both cases, there’s acres of difference between the animals themselves and the monsters we have mythologized.
In Age Of The Wolf I tried to stir in wolf iconography from myth and fairy tale, but I also wanted to challenge those classical sources that have provided the foundation for so much western storytelling. We all know how Star Wars was built upon a mythological Jungian template. (Following the movie’s success, Hollywood attempted to distil the works of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell into a recipe book for blockbuster success.) But how many action-adventure stories stop to question the classical foundations upon which they are built?
Take the archetype of the sacrificial victim. You know the sort. She’s the drop-dead gorgeous maiden who has to give herself up to prevent the dragon from laying waste to the town. In the legend of Perseus, for example, the princess Andromeda is offered to the sea monster that threatens to destroy the city of Philistia. In the story of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is ‘given’ to the Beast. Given? On who’s say-so? Does Beauty not have anything to say about this? What if the girl refused to go along with what the story wanted? Better still, what if she went out to deal with the monster herself, instead of waiting around for a Perseus or some other princely ponce to come along and do the job for her? And how might she overcome her own preordained destiny? By now, Age Of The Wolf was becoming much less a horror story and much more an earthbound epic fantasy.
Like so it is written…
A siren goes off in my head every time I hear the word ‘destiny’ or ‘prophecy’ in a fantasy story. It usually heralds the sort of narrative iceberg that often sinks fantasy stories. To my mind, the words ‘destiny’ and 'prophecy’ usually amount to dramatic kryptonite. Take the movie The Dark Crystal, in which the hero learns of a prophecy that says he will save
the world, effectively revealing the movie’s climax halfway through the picture!
In trying to avoid pre-empting my own story, I had an idea: what if destiny was something tangible, like words on a page that could be edited, like a story, something you could rewrite or defuse like a bomb? Hence, I worked out the idea of ‘the Wyrd’, infinite patterns within quantum uncertainty that can be picked out and brought into being if you know how. In this case (in keeping with the Norse mythology vibe), by using runes, magical letters that can shape the future if you can learn how to write them and invoke the correct enchantment. I wanted my sacrificial heroine to literally write her own story.
With a terrifyingly short deadline and several other clients suddenly popping up out of the blue and throwing work at me (Where were you guys last month?), I inevitably didn’t have time to read every scrap of research I wanted. Before writing, I managed to get in a research trip to the centre of London, taking photographs to help me visualise the action as I walked the route Rowan takes within the story, from Tottenham Court Road through Soho down Whitehall and along the South Bank to Tower Bridge. I tried to imagine what the place would look like covered in snow and full of hungry werewolves. Given the fact that Londoners practically begin contemplating cannibalism the moment they see so much as a snowflake, the idea of adding werewolves to the mix almost seemed like overkill.
Wandering around Tottenham Court Road underground station (which has changed a bit since they filmed American Werewolf there), snapping away with my camera at 7:30am, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was stopped and questioned by an undercover policeman. I have no idea what to tell people at parties when they ask me what I do for a living, let alone one of Her Majesty’s finest. And it probably wasn’t a very good idea to crack a joke along the lines of “Illegal photography! Thirty years, creep!” Clearly not a fan of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.
The finished script handed in, amended, signed-off and invoiced, I had nothing left to do but fret about what it might look like once it appeared in the comic. The script was passed into the capable of hands of Jon Davis-Hunt, an incredibly talented young artist fresh from drawing Al Ewing’s Tempest for the Judge Dredd Megazine and well-known for his work on Transformers comics for IDW and Titan. Jon’s precision was perfect for detailing the architecture of Rowan’s world, rooting the fantastical action within a recognisable and realistic setting. He’s also a brilliant conceptual designer with a flair for experimentation not unlike Frank Quitely. That gory splash page in episode eight, which everybody loved? That was Jon’s idea. You can find out more about Jon and his work on his official website: www.jondavis-hunt.com
Jon and I created two more series of Age of the Wolf: She Is Legend and Wolfworld. The entire trilogy was collected in trade in 2014, and you can pick it up from Amazon UK, Amazon US and the 2000 AD webstore.
Interview with Mass Movement magazine #41 about the collected edition of Age of the Wolf.
A 2014 Q&A with Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD on Robo-Hunter and the Age Of The Wolf trade paperback.
Hear a joint-interview with myself and Al Ewing on the 2000 AD Writers Panel (recorded at the Bristol Comics Expo, May 2014). Hosted by Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD. (Contains a few swears.)
Another interview with Karl Keily for Comic Book Resources, this time from June 2013 and including Jon Davis-Hunt and talking about Age Of The Wolf: Wolfworld.
Another She Is Legend interview from 2012, this time with Ken Harrison for Forbidden Planet International.
Here's a 2012 interview I did with Karl Keily for Comic Book Resources focusing on Age Of The Wolf: She Is Legend, but covering plenty of other stuff too.