Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Black River Chronicles: Level One

Almost exactly a year ago, Michael Wills, owner and head editor of Digital Fiction Publishing, asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book with him, to be published by DFP and based on an idea he'd been cherishing for a long while but hadn't yet figured out how to make real.

I'd love to say that I snapped his hand off with eagerness, because that, surely, would have been the sensible reaction.  But I had my own projects on the go, and plenty of my own ideas I wanted to pursue, and I wasn't sure that developing someone else's was a thing I was ready to devote months of my life to.

Only. then I heard what the idea was, and rapidly all my doubts went away.  The question Michael posed to me was, how do the traditional characters of fantasy, the warriors and wizards and rogues, get their start in the heroing trade?  Clearly picking up a sword or a spell book and expecting to learn on the job would be a recipe for both disaster and a short life.  So what, then, if there was a school somewhere?  An academy of sorts that prepared young would-be-adventurers for the rigors and dangers ahead?  How exactly would that work?

Within a day, I had a head full of ideas, and - something that had never happened before - a concrete idea of characters I wanted to use, cut practically from whole cloth.  I'd realised by then that, far from being at odds with the kind of things I write, Michael's concept was right within my wheelhouse, and in fact combined two of my favourite things as a writer: coming at well-established ideas from an unusual enough angle that they end up feeling fresh to me, and picking apart tropes to figure out how they might actually work with real people in real circumstances.

So Michael and I began to hammer out a plot together, and tried to figure out just how we would make that concept play; I think we both realised that done wrong it could be terribly hokey, derivative, ironical or all three.  For me, the goal was always to hit a balance between treating the idea seriously enough that it didn't feel like a gimmick and telling a fun, exciting story with the characters we'd cooked up, who I fell in love with so quickly that they were constantly threatening to run away with the plot.

And I think that's what we ended up with.  The book now known, a year later, as The Black River Chronicles: Level One, is a little bit postmodern, I guess, in the way it plays with some age-old fantasy notions and tries to get them to make more sense than maybe they were ever meant to; but mainly it's a fast, fun adventure built around, I think, the best characters I've yet written.  And hopefully it's funny too; perhaps really funny in places, if you're old enough to get some of the more obscure D&D gags.  Level One is nominally a young adult novel, in that all of the protagonists are young adults and it's all pretty much PG13, but I basically wrote it for me and Michael, and if you combined our ages you'd get quite a few teenagers out of the change - so I'm confident in saying adult readers are going to get plenty from it too.

Anyway, I realise I haven't said much about what actually happens in Level One, but I'll come back to that soon; I'll be discussing this book plenty over the coming months, if only because I'm eager to talk about it after keeping quiet for so long.  Mainly at this point I wanted to say that it exists, and in fact that it's out now: more to the point, as a sort of early adopter offer, if you grab the e-book before the end of the month it'll cost you a barely noticeable $0.99 here on Amazon US, or £0.99 on Amazon UK.  So why not give it a go?

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Welcome Your Twenty-First Century Gods

I've been talking about C21st Gods for so damn long that it feels a little crazy to say that it's finally real and finally nearly out - at least the first issue - and that in just a few weeks I'll be holding an actual copy in my hands.  But there it is: thanks to Bill Campbell at Rosarium, thanks to some extraordinary work from artist Anthony SummeyGods is already casting its shadow upon the Earth.

Here's how the blurb talks about that first issue, and indeed the book as a whole:

In a noirish modern re-imagining of H P Lovecraft's classic The Call of Cthulhu, one determined police detective investigates a series of horrific cult murders, only to discover that - in an age when technological marvels outstrip the wildest nightmares of the past - there may be worse to fear than even the return of a godlike horror from Earth's prehistory.

And that's all true, undoubtedly, but maybe it's not entirely what C21st Gods is about.  For me, it's also about horror the genre, and about the idea that sometimes horror isn't all that great a mirror to the things that actually, on a day to day basis, scare the hell out of us.  In particular, it came out of a realisation that The Call of Cthulhu just wouldn't work so well now, because as a species we've been busily cooking up atrocities that would make a semiaquatic, city block-high deity seem like small fry.  And how well would Lovecraftian cults fare in the age of global surveillance?  For that matter, how could one man caught in the midst be expected to make sense of any of it?  Just what is the correct response to threats so vast that you can't make sense of them, that perhaps don't make sense at all?

It never occurred to me until I wrote that last paragraph, but I can see now that that's where C21st Gods fits into the line-up at Rosarium.  Hell, I don't want to pretend that the book is astute social criticism or anything like that, but it's not quite the pulpy little bloodbath that this first issue suggests either.  (Though it definitely is that too - and on a side note, I've learned the hard way that if you've got a weak stomach, don't write horrible things in scripts that someone might then go on to draw, because you'll just end up freaking out over your own comic.)  I guess what I'm saying is, Gods is about pulp horror and also some big ideas about what's really scary in the twenty-first century, and if Anthony and I have done our jobs right then hopefully the result is a story that works on both of those levels.

Though, there's really no question that Anthony has nailed his part.  Just look at that cover!  And its heartening to see that the early reviews have been praising Anthony's work just as much as I've been, his contribution here alone is ample reason to pick up the book.  Which, oh right, was half the point of this post in the first place: C21st Gods is now available for review, here on Netgalley.  So if you're a reviewer then go grab a freebie copy.  And if you're not then please consider picking it up when issue one becomes available to buy on the ninth of November, which - and I've no idea if Bill realises this or not - happens to be my birthday.  What better present could you possibly give me than to buy the first issue of my new horror comic miniseries?

Yeah, that was a trick question.  The correct answer was a herd of capybaras and a garden big enough to keep them in.  But buying my comic book would be pretty cool too. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

First Steps As a Writer, Panel Notes

Obviously I meant to post this last week and forgot!  Ah well, better late than never.  

So, my Fantasycon 2016 panel was All About You, First Steps as a Writer - How Do You Go About Launching Your Career?, and it seemed to go pretty well all told.  At any rate, it was fun to be part of a bunch of bitter, hard-living, battle-scarred professional writers for an hour!  It's always impossible to judge how the audience are receiving things, but I hope that we managed to generate some good advice amid the horror stories and the baring of old wounds.

Anyway, Iain Grant was so thoroughly on the ball that he got three of us discussing the panel topic before it had even happened, with a few pertinent questions that get straight to the heart of this whole professional writer lark.  Here, then, for your potential delectation, are mine, Iain and moderator Sue Moorcroft's answers:

Do you have a writing career?

David:  I write for a living, but I know plenty of writers more successful than me who don't, so it's hard to say precisely what constitutes a career.  I'd say that if a meaningful portion of your income is consistently coming from writing then you're probably safe in thinking that you have a career.

Iain: I’m not sure I have a career as a writer. I make money as a writer and if I quit the day job I would still be earning more than what the government terms a ‘living wage’. But a career is different to a job, isn’t it? A career, for me, implies a path, a vocation, a calling. And, in that sense, I definitely currently consider myself to have a writing career because I can actually see where my writing’s taking me. It wasn’t always like that; I’m not sure when I moved from being a dabbler to a ‘career’ writer.

Sue: I suppose the meaning of the term ‘writing career’ varies according to its context. When I first began getting published in weekly magazines I felt I had a career but I had three part-time jobs, too. I may now be more what people mean when they speak of ‘a career writer’ because I work 50 or 60 hours a week and get all my income is writing related.

Do you write for money or for the love of writing?

David: I write because I'm passionate about it, but it also needs to pay the bills, since otherwise the bills don't get paid.  For me, being a writer who can make a living from writing has always been the end goal, with the proviso that I'd like to do so by producing work that I feel genuinely enthused about.  If that went away then I'd like to hope I'd stop; after all, there are plenty of easier ways to make money.

Sue: I’m compelled to write. I was writing for a long time before I began to make money at it and it was even longer before I made enough to live on (it’s just over 20 years since I sold my first short story). I consider myself lucky to be able to do the job I love but the harder I work, the luckier I get. Until the last couple of years I took writing-related work that wasn’t exactly what I wanted but the earnings from it meant I didn’t have to go out and get a ‘proper job’. I wrote courses, judged writing competitions, wrote writing ‘how to’, appraised manuscripts and spent too much of my week with my writing tutor’s hat on rather than my writer’s hat. Then I narrowed my focus to what I really want to do - write novels - got a fab agent and moved to a big publisher and feel more fulfilled and less stressed.

Iain: I think the vast majority of writers do so because they have an unholy fixation on writing. I can’t remember who originally said it but I write because it’s the only way to get these damned ideas out of my head. However, in the past year or so, I’ve realised that money is now a consideration in what I write. Not a huge one, but it’s there. For example, if I came to the sudden epiphany that I didn’t want to write another comic fantasy book and instead wanted to write a children’s book about mischievous kittens, part of my brain would now definitely wave a little flag and point out that the mischievous kitten story will sell fewer copies than the next book in the series I’m currently working on. Writing remains a joy in and of itself but it serves a more mercenary purpose as well.

What mistakes have you made in your career?

Sue: Although I’ve only learned this retrospectively, I was ignoring opportunities! I assumed that ‘You should meet …’ conversations were friendly but not meant to be taken literally. Turns out that some were actually opportunities! But mostly I have been more guilty of seeing opportunities where there were none than missing them. Nowadays, I’m better at dodging the snakes and getting up the ladders. 

David: I suspect that one's unanswerable!  Things I considered mistakes at the time have paid off in the long run and things that seemed just great have turned round and bitten me in the ass.  I regret letting some work out in the early days that might have been better buried, and the time spent in editing those stories to a point where I could sell them for a few dollars could probably have been better used elsewhere.  I certainly should have started attending conferences and developing contacts sooner than I did.

Iain: I wasted too much time in my twenties trying to get a literary agent and a traditional publishing deal. Literary agents are great things to have and a trad publishing contract has obvious perks. However, the publishing industry isn’t just changing – it has changed and is continuing to change. If I had mentally adapted to new markets, particularly electronic markets, even twelve months earlier than I did, I think my total readership would be much greater than it currently is. I now listen to the mad little voice that suggests a new format or new publishing opportunity (she’s called Heide, by the way).

Given your experience, are there any tips you can offer?

Sue: My top tip is to educate yourself - and that means about publishing and the market as well as writing. Probably the best piece of advice ever given to me was ‘Don’t make enemies’. Though I don’t pretend to have been able to observe it as immaculately as I would have liked, it has stood me in good stead and I try to be professional. Even when others act unprofessionally towards me, I manage to keep my thoughts to myself.

Iain: Two distinct and separate things that I’ve always believed in and haven’t had to learn the hard way. First up, writers write. They don’t just talk about writing or think about writing. Writers write all the time. Secondly, be nice. Be nice. That’s it. It pays back in spades.

David: My golden rule changes daily, but for the moment let's say: write regularly, accept that it might take you years to be as good as you want to be, but always aim for that goal of being the best writer you can be.

Which is better, traditional publishing, self-publishing or being an in-house writer?

David: I've leaned towards traditional publishing, but I wouldn't rule anything out.  Different problems require different solutions, and what works for one book isn't necessarily right for another.  Increasingly I think that most successful writers are making all three approaches work for them, and other avenues as well.

Sue: I like to be published traditionally but some of my out of print stuff is self-published, which makes me a ‘hybrid writer’. Being with HarperCollins, a publishing giant, is suiting me very well so far. I love their support and professionalism. I’ve never been an in-house salaried writer - I tend to think that applies to writers of non-fiction rather than fiction - but I’m conscious that copyright belongs to the employer rather than the employee in that situation. I almost never sell my copyright.

Iain: I am self-published and currently very happy with that. In terms of personal control and percentage royalties, it appears to trump all other models. Having said that, if the right trad deal comes along, I would be very tempted. Not having to employ my own artists, designers, editors, proofers, printers, not having to seek my own marketing opportunities or distribution deals… There are some limitations to being self-published. One day, it might be nice to spend all my writing time actually writing.

What other professionals do you work with in your career?

Sue: I love working with publishing professionals. Currently, I work most with Helen, my editor (Avon Books UK, the imprint of HarperCollins publishing my next two books), and my agent (Juliet Pickering, Blake Friedmann), and with their teams: copyeditors, digital marketing manager, rights manager and various others. Then there’s the PR company Avon employs, which is working on a national PR campaign around the publication of The Christmas Promise and do their job admirably. Although I support my publisher and the PR company in all their endeavours to sell my book and get it noticed, I recognise that they’re the ones with the talent, knowledge, experience and contacts and rely on them to do their job. If I were self-publishing I would employ a professional editor and cover designer, without question.

Iain: As a self-published author, the initial temptation is to assume you can do everything yourself. In my experience (and it had to be learned), this assumption is deeply wrong. We work with two great editors – Keith Lindsay has decades of experience as a script writer and writes more of our jokes for us than I’d care to admit; Mike Chinn has done excellent work on editing both novels and short story collections for us. We’ve used multiple artists/designers but work most closely with Mike Watts ( who has done nearly every one of our covers over the last four years. We’ve worked with three or four proofers over the years and they are, of course, invaluable – you can’t proof your own work. And, over the past year, it’s been a pleasure to work with Cal at Wonderland Management who has been busy striking deals for us in Hollywood.

David: If you find a good copy editor, treasure them.  Since I work partly in comics, I try and cultivate good artists, especially ones who can be relied on to meet a deadline.  There are no aspects of the writing process that I don't involve myself with, and I'd feel a little negligent if I did.  On the publishing side, I tend to get involved as much as a particular publisher wants me to be; at the least, I try and make sure to understand what's going on.

What are your current goals as a writer?

David: My next goal at any given point tends to be to sell the next book.  On a wider front, I'd like to think that I'm always getting a little better at what I do, and seeking out fresh challenges.  I like to try out subgenres I haven't dabbled in before, and there are a couple I want to try out for size next year.

Sue: My current goal is to make the biggest success I can of the two novels in my contract, The Christmas Promise and Just for the Holidays (the latter’s title subject to change), to be central to Avon’s list and expand my sales in other territories.

Iain: I’m currently working on writing more books in the two series we have going. We’re also working on two more original titles. But what’s the next step in the career plan? I think a screen adaptation of one of our books would be the next thing to tick off the list. I don’t think that would change the fact that I’m happiest when writing novels. I just want to keep doing that as long as possible.

The contributors

Award-winning author Sue Moorcroft writes contemporary women’s fiction with occasionally unexpected themes. A past vice chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and editor of its two anthologies, Sue also writes short stories, serials, articles, writing ‘how to’ and is a creative writing tutor. She’s won a Readers’ Best Romantic Read Award and the Katie Fforde Bursary.
Sue’s latest book: The Christmas Promise (Avon) 

Iain Grant is a self-published writer of fantasy and horror novels. With Heide Goody, he is the author of the 'Clovenhoof' comedy fantasy series (in which Satan loses his job and has to move to suburban Birmingham). Iain and Heide's most recent book is Oddjobs, a comedy about the end of the world and the paperwork it creates.

David Tallerman is the author of the comic fantasy novel series The Tales of Easie Damasco, which began with Giant Thief and ended with Prince Thief, graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, the novella Patchwerk and the recently released The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, a collection of pulp-styled horror and dark fantasy fiction.

David's short fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime stories have appeared or are due in around eighty markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He can be found online at, and blogs regularly, though far too often about nineties anime movies rather than anything writing-related.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back by the Sea

Reviewing Fantasycons often feels like dancing about architecture: silly, pointless and probably against the entire spirit of the thing.  More and more I suspect that no one even really cares whether any given Fantasycon is good as such; heck, I'm not even sure that I do.  Every year I find myself drifting a little bit nearer to what I take to be the consensus among hardened F'con punters, that the nation's most cheap and cheerful genre conference is best considered as an excuse for a get-together with old friends, because if you go in expecting much more than that then you're likely to be disappointed.

Still.  I was a little disappointed.

That comes down largely, I think, to the fact that the last two years have been uncharacteristically great, and there was a small part of me hoping that somehow that might stick.  So for 2016's Fantasycon to be such a retrenching stung that bit more than it really needed to.  With the seedy seaside hotel location, the vague but constant sense of disorganization and the lackluster panel topics, there were literally points where I forgot that I wasn't somehow back in Brighton in the not-so-good old days.

And I'm conscious, already, that I'm grumbling about something that was a great deal of fun, having had a great weekend, and that makes this feel all the more futile.  But I can't really point to any of that fun as a result of Fantasycon itself, except in the very loosest sense of, I wouldn't have seen any of the people whose company I so enjoyed if we hadn't all been gathered for the same occasion.  By the same measure, so many others were saying similar things that it seems unreasonable to pretend it couldn't have been quite a lot better.  A decent program pamphlet maybe, with a map to make up for the lack of signage?  A number of microphones that equated in any way to the number of panelists?  More than a couple of panel topics that weren't done to death years or decades ago?  A slightly less smelly venue, with drinks closer to the right side of drinkable and food a bit nearer the correct end of edible?
Shove penny!!!!!!

Ah well.  Goodness knows, it wasn't a disaster, and it really was a lot of fun, and I guess that if this were the baseline for Fantasycons of the future then I could live with that.  Certainly I liked Scarborough more than any other F'con location I can think of, and that fact alone made up for the aspects that didn't work quite so well; going paddling and playing on the shove penny machines and visiting Scarborough castle and drinking free mead were all highlights.  And as always at F'con, the nights were great - though even then, at least one bar space devoted to the convention would have been nice.  On both nights, it really only began to feel like an event after about eleven o'clock, when the other guests had gone to bed and you could tell the convention goers from the normal folks.

Anyway, next year sounds hopeful, so long as the already contentious travel arrangements get sorted out, as I'm sure they will.  And having griped so much, I should add that I'm genuinely grateful for all the hard work and thought that went into this year's event, which was always apparent, even when things weren't quite coming together.  Fantasycon is never not enjoyable, it attracts one of the most varied and interesting crowds of any UK convention, and I'm grateful that it exists.  I just find myself wishing, sometimes, that it could keep a little closer to the bar that other conventions have set without losing its distinctive charm.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Where I'll be at Fantasycon by the Sea

Hey, that rhymes!  I'm a poet and I never knew it to be the case.

Well, I'm not doing a great deal at Fantasycon this year, which perhaps is for the best since I had a piece cut out of me by trained medical professionals on Monday and I'm still feeling rather sore and sorry for myself.  Never fear though, I'm sure I'll be my usual random and garrulous self by the time it comes to my panel, which is:

All About You

Saturday, September 24 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Palm Court Ballroom – The Grand

First Steps as a Writer – How Do You Go About Launching Your Career? Rob Power, Sue Moorcroft (Chair), Helen Armfield, Iain Grant, David Tallerman

(You may be shocked to discover that I just copied that straight off the official program.)

Also, I will be reading, though what I have as yet no idea; probably something from The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, I'd imagine:

Reading – Mark De Jager and David Tallerman

Saturday, September 24 @ 10:30 am - 11:00 am
Reading Café (Royal Hotel)
Mark, by the way, is the author of debut novel Infernal, which came out from Del Rey just last month.

And, wow, I have literally two things scheduled and I still couldn't manage to get them in chronological order, that's quite the achievement.  Hey, let's blame it on the fact that for medical reasons I'm ever so slightly lighter than I was this time last week.  I suspect I'll be blaming a lot of things on that over the weekend, so if I happen to see you there and I seem at all inebriated then just assume that it's down to diminished body mass, okay?  

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Great Jones Street is Live

So I've made the odd mention of a thing called Great Jones Street, and that they've published a couple of my stories, while being kind of vague on the precise details.  If I'm honest, that was partly because I'm habitually vague and partly because I didn't quite understand them myself.  But now I've watched a video explaining things and I'm much clearer!

Great Jones Street is a short story magazine that's also an app.  Currently it's only available for Apple devices, but that will be changing pretty soon - and this is largely why it's taken me a while to figure out the ins and outs, because I have no apple devices, or even any apples for that matter, except tinned ones that probably don't count.

In essence, and assuming I understand correctly, Great Jones Street is an e-reader optimized for use on mobile devices, one that comes pre-loaded with its own huge, cross genre library of short fiction.  Those stories are being cherry picked from the top tier of markets, with an emphasis on award-winning material, so there's as much of a guarantee of quality as you could reasonably hope for.  The pitch on the website is basically "why is there no Spotify for short fiction?" along with "short fiction is really great for reading on mobile phones," and I agree wholeheartedly with both of those statements.  In fact, this seems to me a lot like an app based version of what Digital Fiction Publishing have been up to, and I've made no secret of how I think that's a great concept.  So I feel safe in saying that Great Jones Street is shaping up to be something pretty amazing, and that it's well worth checking out.

With that in mind, you can get more details and a link to the App Store here.  And here's a rather long (and probably already out of date) list of the stories already available.  You may, if you're careful, spot my name among them...

"Visitation" Corinna Vallianatos
"The Mourning Door" Elizabeth Graver
"Grad School" Fred G. Leebron
"The Idiot, or Life in Wartime" Fred G. Leebron
"When It’s You" Fred G. Leebron
"That Year Off" Fred Leebron
"In Other Words" Jennifer Haigh
"The Truth and All Its Ugly" Kyle Minor
"Going To The Big House" Tom Bailey
"Ruby" Tom Bailey
"This Is Not A Love Story" Tom Bailey
"Zombies" Tom Bailey
"A Neighboring State" Corinna Vallianatos
"Islands Without Names" Elizabeth Graver
"Paramour" Jennifer Haigh
"A Wild Night and a New Road" John Dufresne
"Between" Elizabeth Graver
"Ghostreaper, or, Life After Revenge" Tim Pratt
"Jenny's Sick" David Tallerman
"Great Black Wave" David Tallerman
"Mono no aware" Ken Liu
"Paper Menagerie" Ken Liu
"The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" Ken Liu
"Enter A Soldier" Robert Silverberg
"Keeper" Steve Adams
"Hart and Boot" Tim Pratt
"Impossible Dreams" Tim Pratt
"The Secret Beach" Tim Pratt
"Why We Came to Target at 9:58 on a Monday Night" Andy Roe
"Eagle, Globe and Anchor" Geoffrey Becker
"A Time and A Place" Hugh Sheehy
"The Experience Collector" Hugh Sheehy
"The Last Days" Hugh Sheehy
"To Build a Fire" Jack London
"Saving Bambi" Janet Burroway
"The Mandelbrot Set" Janet Burroway
"Cliff Walk" Jessica Treadway
"Down Here" Jessica Treadway
"Ghost Story" Jessica Treadway
"Dirty" John Affleck
"Fine Arts" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"Paying by Check" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"Theft" Katherine Anne Porter
"A Kidnapping in Koulèv-Ville" Kyle Minor
"Till Death Do Us Part" Leslie Pietrzyk
"Remember Me To The One Who Lives There" Michael Parker
"Sredni Vashtar" Saki (H. H. MUNRO)
"Junk Food" Sarah Harris Wallman
"Only Children" Sarah Harris Wallman
"The Dead Girls Show" Sarah Harris Wallman
"Saint Petersburg" Scott Laughlin
"The Fish" Steve Adams
"Holiday" Terri Leker
"What We See" Leslie Pietrzyk
"Benefit" Brett Beach
"Slim Jim" Brock Clarke
"You Would Have Told Me Not To" Christopher Coake
"Compliments" Erin McGraw
"L.A." Erin McGraw
"Love" Erin McGraw
"Crossing Cabot Strait" Geeta Kothari
"Dharma Farm" Geeta Kothari
"Small Bang Only" Geeta Kothari
"Given Ghosts" Jane McCafferty
"Game Winner" John Affleck
"Immaculate Obsession" John Affleck
"Winter Practice" John Affleck
"Small Worlds" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"The Splashing Carp" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"Eight Track" Matt McEver

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 15

It's reassuring to know that there are still classics out there to be turned up.  In fact, this latest round sees a couple of the highest highlights yet - even if one of them does shoot itself in the foot at the last minute.  Still, months after the point where I'd begun to worry I'd exhausted every financially realistic avenue, it's conceivable that the best actually lies ahead for these posts: be it by hovering around E-bay or tracking down Korean releases with English language options or just stumbling over widely available releases I'd somehow missed, I'm still keeping the to-watch shelf stocked with exciting treats.

This time through we have: Ranma 1/2: Nihao My Concubine, Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, Sol Bianca and Silent Möbius...

Ranma 1/2: Nihao My Concubine, 1992, dir: Iku Suzuki

The criticism most often thrown at the second Ranma movie is that it has exactly the same plot as the first Ranma movie, and this is entirely fair.  You could perhaps justify the fact by appealing to the rules of sequel escalation: where the first film's villain only kidnapped female lead Akane to be his bride, the second film's villain has off with pretty much all of the female characters, so as to give himself a broader selection of fiances.  But really, you have to wonder what the makers were thinking; is this truly the only direction in which you can take a show in which the protagonist switches sex when they get wet and half of the characters turn into animals?  Was there no other plot line for a feature length Ranma 1/2 episode than "female characters get kidnapped for purposes of forced marriage, male characters win them back"?

You might argue that this is offset by the fact that Ranma spends a far larger proportion of the running time of this one in female form.  But that doesn't altogether help, given that female Ranma passes most of that time in the skimpiest clothes imaginable, or in one scene - inevitably involving the pervy old midget that hogged so much of the first film's running time - not even that.  But honestly, trying to parse the sexual politics of Ranma 1/2 would be a whole essay in itself, and not one I feel myself especially equipped for.  The only point that significantly bothered me on that front was that, contentious case of Ranma aside, only the male characters got to get involved with the fighting.  Explaining to the audience how kickass your women are and then not actually letting them kick any ass has always seemed to me a failing that anime tends to sidestep by comparison with Western media, but not so here.

And again I'm trying to analyse the gender politics of a cartoon from twenty-five years ago in which a boy turns into a girl when he gets wet, which isn't going to get us anywhere.  Nor does it really tell a great deal about whether Nihao My Concubine is any good.  And yes, it is; I'd certainly say I enjoyed it as much as the first film, and I think I preferred Iku Suzuki's direction over that of original director Shûji Iuchi.  There's perhaps a touch more sophistication to the animation, and some noticeably lovely backgrounds: the villain's floating island base, for example, has more than a dash of Miyazaki's Laputa about it.  Nihao My Concubine is also a little more low-key than Big Trouble in Nekonron, China, and that turns out to be a good thing, because it's also less frantic and exhausting.  Arguably the fact that it's only an hour long compared to the first film's seventy-five minutes helps there too.  And with all of that said, I find myself falling back on exactly the same conclusion as last time.  If you're down for what Ranma 1/2 is about then there are plenty of worse ways to waste an hour, but it's hard to see this making fresh converts.

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, 1999, dir: Kazuhiro Furuhashi

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, the OVA prologue to the well-respected series Rurouni Kenshin, has a reputation for being something of a classic.  And so it turned out to be - for all except its last ten or so minutes.  It's a real shame, then, that those last ten minutes are so frustrating as to nearly ruin everything that comes before.

But let's address the positives first: Samurai X is genuinely adult storytelling of the kind that's all too rare in anime, or outside of anime for that matter.  It tells a sparse and brutal tale about a child who chooses to become a killer, based upon somewhat shaky perceptions and an inflexible moral code, and is then ruthlessly encouraged to do precisely that by adults who may or may not share his desire for a better world - but certainly see the boy, Kenshin, first and foremost as a weapon.  Much anime trades in violence, but Samurai X takes violence as its theme, and then examines that theme unflinchingly; it's profoundly unapologetic about showing the effects that swords have on human bodies, but also about showing the consequences that killing takes on human lives.

Watching Samurai X, it occurred to me that most anime, and even much good anime, rarely gives the impression of having been directed with any sort of an agenda; in that sense, traditional animation is certainly more restrictive than film.  Yet Samurai X is full of clear directorial decisions, and most of them are terrifically good.  There's the way, for example, that Furuhashi uses moments of stillness and images of nature to make the brief bursts of violence seem aberrant rather than exciting.  But this is technically pristine work on all fronts, and it develops in a rewarding direction, as the boy assassin Kenshin encounters a mysterious woman named Tomoe and learns that just maybe there's more to life - even as Tomoe develops into an increasingly fascinating and complex character in her own right.

Then we get to the end, and discover what all this character building and moral greyness and gut-wrenching violence has been for, and - well, let's say, charitably, that it's less than it could have been.  I don't want to spoil that ending, but even a few hints will give it away to the attentive reader, so if that's you and you don't want to know then look away now.  Suffice to note that Samurai X is a prequel and that Tomoe isn't a character who appears in the series, and moreover that the ultimate aim here is to turn the damaged boy Kenshin into the show's presumably more sane and heroic version of the character, and you can probably fill in the blanks.  Or, to go a step further, I could add that there are many lousy ways to make use of a strong female character and Samurai X opts for the one that I personally find least tolerable.  Though, frankly, even that's only half the misstep: it's staggering how all of the show's carefully built ambiguity has leaked out by the time the climax is over.  For an hour and fifty minutes I'd assumed that Samurai X shared my concerns about the use of mentally unbalanced children as assassins.  By the time the credits rolled around I was less sure.

Ah, well.  I can't honestly not recommend Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, so much of it is beyond brilliant.  If you have the slightest interest in nineties anime, it's certainly a must see.  And I'm fully aware that the majority of viewers won't be half so bothered by that ending as I was; judging by other reviews, most like it just fine.  All I can say is that for me it turned what would have been a genre-transcending masterpiece into a painful near miss.

Sol Bianca, 1990, dir's: Katsuhito Akiyama, Hiroki Hayashi

If you ever needed proof that we're living in a broken parallel of the real universe then Sol Bianca is it.

In the real universe, every anime fan has heard of Sol Bianca, and it's familiar outside the fandom every bit as much as works like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.  Commentators routinely point out how it helped to inspire western shows like Farscape and Firefly, with its charming but immoral protagonists and its perfect mix of comedy, action and drama.  The show is held up as an exemplar for its diverse, mostly female cast, its imaginative manipulation of space opera tropes and of course for its marvelous animation, which in the remastered blu-ray edition looks like it might have been made yesterday.

But that isn't our universe.  In our universe, Sol Bianca got cancelled after two episodes, having failed to prove popular enough to justify the remaining parts that would have wrapped up its story, despite having won best OVA at the 1993 Anime Expo.  And the only way you're likely to see it is on a hard to find DVD edition that looks like someone transferred it from VHS.  While drunk.

But hey, we have two episodes of Sol Bianca, and those two episodes are entirely great, so I guess we can only make do.  The first, a thrilling fifty minutes that throws the piratical crew of the titular space ship into the middle of an interplanetary war, is perhaps the better of the two; the second is more interesting on its own terms, but spends a larger degree of its running time setting up the arc plot that will never be finished, which grows increasingly painful the more the intriguing questions pile up.  Either way, though, it's terrific fun, and I can't stress just how lovely it looks at points.  In particular, I don't think I've seen better hand drawn character animation anywhere: the crew of the Bianca blink and tilt their heads and generally behave exactly like human beings do, even though the extra hours of work that it must have taken to achieve that level of realism beggars imagining.

If it's not clear by now, I urge you to track down Sol Bianca; it's exactly the sort of lost treasure I started these posts hunting for.  There's no doubt in my mind that if it had been finished it would be considered one of the masterpieces of eastern animation, but even one incomplete half of Sol Bianca is wittier, more exciting and more elegantly drawn and designed than the vast majority of what I've talked about here.  It's great anime and great sci-fi, and shame on those contemporary audiences who didn't appreciate the treat they'd been handed.

Silent Möbius, 1991, dir's: Kazuo Tomizawa

I've always thought it an odd trend in anime that lengthy series - in this case, twelve whole volumes - were so often adapted into OVAs of a length that couldn't possibly hope to do them justice.  But it occurred to me after watching Silent Möbius that perhaps that's no more strange than a comic book movie that crams decades of continuity into a couple of hours.  The question, then, is not whether the notion is basically sound but whether it's done well - and the problem that it so frequently isn't.

Silent Möbius, which is fifty minutes long plus credits, does it pretty well.  There's only so much you can cram into fifty minutes, even when your basic setup - futuristic Tokyo, invading demons, hot supernatural police ladies - are rote enough to not need a great deal of introducing.  Silent Möbius's rather clever solution is to focus on one significant incident and then to use that as a jumping off point for a lengthy flashback exploring the background of a single character, which in turn folds back into the modern day crisis.  The result is a story that satisfies on its own terms - though at the same time fails to feel terribly unique.

Which isn't by any means to say that Silent Möbius is bad.  The design work is appealing - certainly more so than that in the TV adaptation that would eventually follow - and the backgrounds are lovely, taking on much of the heavy lifting of portraying a weird, off-kilter cyberfuture that feels wholly impractical and yet delightfully complete.  And the story succeeds perfectly well on its own terms, with a few standout scenes, some genuinely memorable imagery and enough intrigue and character development to give the sense of a feature length in what amounts to half the running time.

It's good then - better than most of these demons-invade-Tokyo things, in large part because of the sense of a fuller, more thought-out world that we're only seeing the edges of.  But that's not to say that it can overcome its inherent limitations, or that it's outstanding in its craftsmanship or ambition.  Silent Mobius is an engaging, attractive, rather too short slice of Cthulhupunk, and that's no bad thing to be, but it's also all you get.


Considering how good everything was this time through, it's strange to look back over this post with a vague sense of heartbreak.  But oh how wonderful Samurai X should have been, and oh how extraordinary Sol Bianca would have been if it had only been finished.  Flawed masterpieces are great and all, but unflawed masterpieces tend to be even better.

Still, you have to take your wins where you can get them when you're compulsively reviewing all the nineties anime you can get your hands on, I suppose!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14]