Well that was real mature...

Well that was real mature...

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Steampulp: Pulpy Sci-Fi Steampunk with a Dash of Horror

Writer's Commentary: Ashes of the Immortals

Nos from the digital cover of Ashes of the Immortals by Matthew Childers.
 When I first started doing the writer's commentaries for my short stories at Adventures in Pulp, I did one per page. It worked well that way because both Dick Ruby and the Case of the Little Green Men and Hawk and a Handsaw played out weekly, each page a mini-cliffhanger like the old fashioned adventure strips in the Sunday funnies. Because of the repetitive nature of The Four Horsemen, it got put out in multi-page pieces. Jigsaw World, likewise was done by scenes since it was a traditional long form story. I just can't do any of the above with Ashes of the Immortals. Unlike the others, there is no way to go a page at a time or in chunks without spoiling the end of the story. So here it is all in one. If you haven't read the last page, spoilers abound. You can read the whole story starting here: Ashes of the Immortals. In my January 15th blog, Ashes of Experimentation, I discussed at length the experimental nature of scripting this particular story AFTER it was illustrated, so I won't chew that particular piece of cabbage again. Instead I discussed it's origins and some of my thought process and even include the original outline.

Back when my AIP partner/illustrator Matthew Childers and I first started working together I pitched him four stories. Destined, Jigsaw World, The Outer Worlds, and an untitled vampire story. He flirted with Destined (he even drew a single page), before he decided he preferred my Jigsaw World concept. He never really commented on The Outer Worlds, but roundly denounced the vampire genre and chose not to even read the script to the untitled vampire story I provided him. Flash forward a year or so later. We were eating dinner and I was tossing out ideas to him. We had done, noir sci-fi, superhero satire, and fantasy, so I now wanted a horror tale to bring it home. He looked me dead in the eye and said, "We should do a vampire story." I'll be honest... as soon as I stopped coughing (my wife had to Heimlich the onion ring from my throat because my reaction was so severe), I had to double check to see if I had heard right. He asked that I hear him out. I did clutching my butter knife tightly. It had better be a good because you really have to work hard to get a butter knife through a breast bone.  Allow me to pause here. It is in poor taste to refuse to read a story a writer has pitched you only to turn around and ask them to do a similar story. It's like asking an actor to do something they did for another role or asking an artist to imitate another artist. Just imagine: No Mr. King, we didn't read The Shining. Instead we want you to do a supernatural story about a hotel care taker who gradually goes nuts. But I digress. Anyhow, he said: "They are vampires from space. They come from a world that orbits a dim sun."

I put down the butter knife. 

The bastard hit my Achilles heel: Sci-Fi. I'd write Sharknado 4: Water Planet if it involved a spaceship. It wasn't a bad idea. It had been done before, Planet of the Vampires is one of those guilty pleasure moves I can't help but watch when it's on. I even like that crappy Buck Rogers episode "Space Vampire." Don't look at me that way. I'm not proud of it. So I have: Space vampires from a world that orbits a dim sun and twelve pages to fill. Twelve? Yup. When we started Adventures in Pulp, Matt and I agreed to 52 weekly pages. Four 13 page stories. My first script (Dick Ruby) ran a page over so the plan was to run this one a page short. I also decided another sci-fi detective story would be fun and so it could be 180 degrees from what we did with Dick Ruby.

PAGES 1 & 2
I decided that the vampire angle would best be severed as the final page twist. So now I had to construct a story that would build to that climax. Vampires are immortal, so I have a planet of immortals.  What would be a good starting point for a story about immortals? Murder, naturally. Matt decided to make the page out to two pages, for some breathing room. It works great visually but softened the cliffhanger aspect. I really struggled with the text on this one. My original outline for the first page: I recommend a series of panels establishing the alien world around a dim sun, pushing in on the world, then land mass, city, all the way in to an alley behind a tall building. There are alien police officers standing around a body shaped pile of ashes. The last line will be our hero responding to a line that will go: "Congratulations, Investigator Nos.  It looks like you were just assigned the first murder case since our people became immortal a thousand years ago." 

Part of the outline for this page was put at the end of the previous page, but we get back on track here. I wish the data port had been a little less obvious but, it works overall. Note Matt's decision to use the quasi-Victorian look. It contributes to the overall vibe and he came up with the term "Steampulp" for the Pulp Steampunk style. From my outline for the page: Nos, and another investigator, goes through the victim's effects found nearby and sees an ident card with complete info. It takes them to the victim's apartment where he finds her computer records have been wiped. They continue to look around until he finds a hidden compartment and inside a plug in data storage device. When asked what he found, Nos will reply: "It may be nothing, or it might contain a motive for murder."

PAGES 4 & 5
Note my shift in gender here. Originally Nos' partner was going to be a man, but Matt recommended we go female. After catching grief for having the woman (in true Femme Fatale fashion) turn out to be the bad guy in two back-to-back stories, you all can blame Matt for this one (I kid, we had discussed the world being matriarchal in nature). Also note the names: Nos was selected for Nosferatu and Ah'Rella for Vampirella. We were already putting vampire elements in. The "carbon bullet" the "organic blade," by the way were both wood like a wooden stake. Again, Matt pushed the outline from the previous page to two pages which gave the action much needed breathing room. From my outline for the page: The other investigator attacks Nos. Nos manages to toss him out the victim's window. He looks dead after the long fall. Nos looks on the data device. He is shocked to find out the victim worked in the State Temple and that she discovered that the Temple was manipulating the nourishing serum that is provided by the Temple to everyone on the planet. As he takes this in, he looks back out the window to see the other investigator is gone.

Note the guard uniforms, I love how Matt designed them.  They look like the battle armor Dracula wore in Francis Ford Coppla's Bram Stoker' Dracula. I also love his high priestess. Her design evokes Ventress and the Nightsisters from Star Wars: The Clone Wars with the face stripping reminding me of blood down the corners of the mouth. The way the last panel is framed I felt the need to add another exit line from Nos, but I feel it weakened the cliffhanger. From my outline for the page: Nos is on the steps of the Temple. This is clearly a church run government. The Temple is part Vatican, part White House and Capital building. He walks in and is immediately surrounded by priest-secret-service-esque guards. The High Priestess herself comes out, flanked by priest-guards and Nos' "partner". He is led to the main sanctuary where he is told, "You can earn her fate and be the second person to die in a thousand years or you can learn the truth, but be warned everything you know will be changed forever."

I had to deviate from my original outline on this page to fit the art. I worried about leaving too much out, and still worry if it all hangs together. The spot color red helps hide the nourishing serum is blood (or a blood replacement). From my outline for the page:You can set this up as talky or flashbacks.  The thrust will be that the priestess explains that once their people stopped aging and achieved immortality, problems arose. Food sources started to deplete and the population started to rise. The Temple of Immortality gained more and more popularity as people sought comfort. Eventually it got so universally accepted, it took control of the government itself. Once that happened, it was not a problem to make the populace take the Priestess' Holy Serum. It was both a nourishing protein that would keep people from starving and it would also make the people sterile. Population and starvation were no longer a problem. We will end the page with the following exchange: Nos: "Why not tell people? Why kill this woman?" Priestess: "Nature has adapted. The serum no longer works. We are on the verge of dying again." 

I was able to get some of the left out info from the last page into this one. It answers the big question: What do vampires eat once everyone is a vampire. Matt left me a lot of room to breath so I could get it in. If we had not been doing a page-at-a-time I would have scripted the previous page differently. From my outline for the page: This will be flashbacks. Scientists working as the Priestess explains that they tried to adapt the serum. Her assistant saw the latest numbers and asked that they go public so they could bring in private sector scientists. When refused, she planned to do it anyway. She is surrounded in the alley behind the tall R&D building. "We are immortal, but we can still be killed. Because we have cheated nature, all that is left after death is ashes." 

I'm a big fan of this page, not only does it go just as planned Matt crams a ton of action into a choking eight panels. Very impressive regardless if you are going vertical or horizontal. From my outline for the page: Nos makes a break for it.  They try to stop him and, in the process, he kills one of the priest-guards by impaling him. He turns to ashes. Nos is shocked and the guards use this to seize him. The priestess tells him, "You can join him death, Investigator Nos."

This is the page where I start setting up the finale: New food source and the professor. It also let me kick the story back to the sci-fi element. I loved the guard in the first panel. He ALMOST looks like a vampire getting ready to bite but not quite. From my outline for the page: Nos is ready for the killing blow. The Priestess hesitates.  They can kill him or they can send him to find a scientist who may have found a protein that can be developed into a new source of food. He has no real choice. He asks where he will be going. "The professor had to go faraway for the protein. In fact, he is on another planet." 

I like this page a lot. From the last line to Matt's retro space ship. I'm a sucker for retro sci-fi. From my outline for the page: The Priestess shows him the small one man vessel that will take him to Earth. She will explain that the voyage will take years and that VR equipment will keep his mind active and the coffin like sleep tube will slow his body's need for food and preserve his body. A slow release version of the nourishing serum has been developed.  It will line his sleep tube and absorb through the skin. Nos asks the name of the planet. She tells him: "The inhabitants call it Earth." Note the line: "We also have a dry slow release version of nourishing serum that will absorb through the skin." It was going to have a payoff on the next page but things went off course (no pun intended).

I have a severe love-hate relationship with this page. On one hand I had spent 11 pages trying to squeeze in all plot points to fit the story, which left very little room for colorful writing. Matt designed this page and it was a gift in those terms. I got to turn a phrase or two and pause for some character driven moments rather than plot specific moments. But this is a big lesson learned. While discussing the story I told Matt that the sleep tube should look coffin like and the dry version of the serum should look like dirt lining the tube (like in vampire lore where vampires have to sleep in earth from their native lands). We discussed it but I neglected to put it in the outline only in the dialogue. Note to writers: No matter how much you talk to your artist, make sure it is in the script or outline they are working from. It was a real missed opportunity to put more lore in the set up for the finale. From my outline for the page: We will show the voyage of the ship through space and as it approaches a recognizable Earth. Nos is in his sleep tube, VR keeping his mind active (lots of dream like images). A computer display says: Target located. 

This is a great page. Matt does a great job of showing the ship go invisible from panels 1 to 2 and I love that he has Nos enter Sterling City. From the rough thumbnails that I was scripting, I was convinced that Nos was in the woods on panel 3, so that was even a surprise for me as well as readers. From my outline for the page: Nos exits his downed ship, setting it to cloak (invisible) and at the edge of the woods he can see a sleepy small town main street. He is looking at his hand held tracker. He has the professor's location, but first he must find some food (focus on a Chinese restaurant on the main street with a neon "all you can eat" sign). A woman is walking past it. Emphasis should be on the restaurant so we can sell the shock of the next page. Last line will be something like. "Tracker has located the professor but I have to get something to eat before I pass out."

Originally we discussed doing this page as a single panel page, then Matt recommended 3 panels: first a close up of the fangs in the neck, then the full shot of the attack and finally drops of blood on the tracker with the Dracula reveal. Ultimately he decided on this and boy did he knock it out of the park. From my outline for the page: Big reveals. Nos is biting into the woman's neck. He is holding the tracker so  we can see the tracker face and it reads: Target location of Professor Dracula found. 

I hope you enjoyed our little tale.  Most of all I hope you never saw the end coming and on a re-read see our little clues. If we can get it back from the printer in time, We will debut the print version of  Ashes of the Immortals (along with The Four Horsemen) in Adventures in Pulp #2 at Rob-Con August 1st. We will be doing a Kickstarter to fund printing a collected edition will all four short stories soon. You can sign up for advance notification at Adventures In Pulp.

Oh, and yes on page three that is the Klingon logo. I'm a Star Trek fan and Matt thought it would be a great tip of the hat. I love it.

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