Holy cows and swastikas – “Cycles of Udaipur”

199 Pichola Lake

In 2012-13 I was lucky enough to take some time to travel the world. My first stop was India, a country so crazy I don’t have the space to describe it properly here. India is a bizarro-England, in some familiar and in some the complete opposite. It is frantic, deliriously colourful, filthy yet pure, spiritual yet seemingly gods-forsaken. I loved it.

Despite the great times I had in subsequent countries – including the currently blighted Nepal (donate here) – I decided that my next novel would be set in India, which is in many ways unexplored by modern literature.

Contemporary novels set in India (at least, those written in English), are enamoured with the history and spirituality of the country, at the expense of reality. They acknowledge the issue of poverty and patriarchal social structure, but shirk its rapidly-growing modernity for a daydreamy post-Raj interpretation. They fail entirely to deal with the disillusionment of its modern youth, the outpacing of technology and wealth compared to the cultural maturity of its emerging middle class, and the much-underpublicised rise in sophisticated gang crime.

Cycles of Udaipur

I adored many of the cities I visited during my time in India, but my favourite was almost certainly Udaipur: beautiful, serene, artistic Udaipur, in deep Rajasthan.  There are two cities in the world that I felt a strong immediate bond with upon visiting (the second is Kathmandu, specifically Boudhanath). I set my novel, “Cycles of Udaipur”, in Rajasthan and set out to explore the new tribulations of India’s youth as described above.

The finished result is “Cycles of Udaipur”, which has been much changed and edited since I finished its first draft a long time ago. I’m now very excited to approach my first literary agency, which the is the first step on the long, steep, painful road towards traditional publication.

I’ll keep you posted – in the mean time, wish me luck!



New Release: Next story in the “Professor Arnustace” series

Hello everybody!

I’m most spiffed to announce that I have finally completed the second in the “Professor Arnustace” series of short stories.  “Iced Tea for Professor Arnustace“, is available on the Amazon store here if you own a Kindle device, or via Smashwords here if you own any other ebook reader.

The “Professor Arnustace” stories are steampunk mystery tales, featuring the eponymous brainbox solving some most perplexing enigmas.  Along for the ride are his intellectual peer, Doctor Annabeth Ross, and his talking cat, Verne (read about the first story here and buy it here).

In this second story, which is best read after the first (Secret: you can get the first story for FREE on Smashwords, here), the Professor has his first encounter with Sir Chatterjee, the “sky captain” of a floating island.  Fun, quaintness and weirdness ensue.

Reviewers of my limited-release first story called it a page-turner with “intensifying mysteries and funny characters”, as part of “a very well thought-out universe”.

Professor ArnustaceEngland, the Year of our Lord 1917…

 After a strange new species is discovered on the English coast,
the eccentric Professor Arnustace and indefatigable
Doctor Annabeth Ross are stumped before the mystery even begins.
But when a dinner invitation arrives via a miniature airship
with a mongoose captain, little do they know the surprises in store
for them on Ipsun Isle, the nation in the sky.

Creatures of the deep, sky captains and a talking cat await readers
in this extended second tale in the Professor Arnustace
series of steampunk mysteries!

This story is substantially longer than the first, at a very satisfying 22,000 words. I encourage each and every one of you to give my little story a shot and perform what I like to call The Three Rs…

Read, Review, Recommend!

Happy reading, and thanks again!


New Release: “The Gun of Our Maker”

I’m very pleased to announce that my first full length e-book is now available to buy from online retailers.

“The Gun of Our Maker” is a classic tale of vengeance set in the Old West. You can purchase it from Amazon (here) or Smashwords (here).

The Gun of Our Maker - David BrookesMinnesota, 1859: a man is executed for skimming
from a silver mine to provide for his family.

Arizona, 1877: the sins of the father catch up with the son

Six weeks later: a man on horseback scales
the forests of the Mogollon Rim. He is
searching for Bill Hawken, a renowned gunsmith.

Vivian Culhane is far from a typical hero. Crippled by a
childhood illness, he is weak, blind – yet unstoppable.

Together they will build an instrument of vengeance
that will be known across Arizona, New Mexico and
Texas – a revolver that produces red smoke,
with a limited supply bullets and a thirst for justice.

The Gun of Our Maker is a full-length Western at around 63,000 words, and is available at the bargain price of only 99p!  If you like your West old and your vengeance bloody, pick up a copy, leave a review, and meet me back here for news of more upcoming releases!

Thanks to everyone for your support and encouragement.


Cat-sitting and Crimebusting: The “Pattie Lansbury” Cozy Mystery stories

One of the joys of working the writing and ghostwriting industry is that I get to meet a lot of great writers I might never have heard of otherwise.

I recently came across a series of short stories in the “cozy mystery” genre, which are relatively gentle murder mystery tales in the vein of “Murder She Wrote” and “Midsomer Murders”.

“The Pattie Lansbury Mysteries” from Nancy C. Davis are a cute little collection of stories in which the titular main character, an amateur sleuth, solves crimes with the help of her cats.  When she’s not tracking down serial killers or chasing talented thieves, she runs the “Pat’s Whiskers Feline Retirement Home”.  Most of the stories have a catty theme so if you’re interested in either of these things, this series is worth checking out.

The series of 6 stories have been released in 4 books, and an omnibus collection has just been released, so now’s your chance to bag the lot!

Pattie cover 2

Cat Sleuth:
There’s been a murder in the quiet village of Little Hamilton.
Patricia Lansbury runs her “Feline Retirement Home”
there for abandoned cats, where she expected to have
a quiet retirement. Unfortunately for Pattie, events
have drawn her into the police investigation, and find herself
entangled in the biggest mystery Little Hamilton has ever seen.

With the unexpected help of her cats, Pattie must work
with the police to uncover the truth about the murder.
But when all she wants is a quiet cup of tea, how can
Pattie unravel the mystery when the truth seems so elusive…?

Murder and a Song:
The peace and quiet of Little Hamilton is about to be shattered.
June is the month of the enormous YorkFest music festival,
an annual excuse for camping, partying, merriment … and even murder.

When a man is murdered in his tent, all evidence points
towards his girlfriend as the culprit. She pleads innocence,
and calls on Patricia Lansbury, the village’s resident sleuth,
to find the real murderer. But as the mystery unfolds, Pattie
is met with more questions than she is answers. For example,
how is a drunken farmer involved? Could there be one – or more –
murderers in the heaving festival campsite? And why does
Pattie’sgut tell her that the farmer’s cat is the key
to solving the whole mystery?

OMNIBUS, including: The Escapee
Patricia Lansbury, consulting detective, has solved plenty of
crimes in the Yorkshire village of Little Hamilton. So has
her estranged son, Detective Constable Andrew Lansbury,
who was forced to leave the village in disgrace following a
scandal. Now the past has come back to haunt Pattie. An
escaped prisoner that her son once put away is out for
violent justice, and now Pattie has to solve her most personal
crime yet.

But how are a suspicious homeless person, a
multi-millionaire entrepreneur, and a houseful of cats connected
to the mystery? And can Pattie resolve the matter before the
sins of the son catch up with the mother

…and The Case of the Cat-Napper (OMNIBUS)
Pattie Lansbury, amateur sleuth owner of Yorkshire’s only
Feline Retirement Home, has now established a much-needed
veterinary practice in her sleepy village of Little Hamilton. Others
might be suspicious of her secret investor, but Pattie is more
concerned about the rumours of stolen cats spreading across
the English countryside.

As the cat-nappers take things to the next level, Pattie
is drawn into a mystery far more personal than
she would ever have imagined. Who is stealing Little Hamilton’s
furry residents, and why? And how is it connected to the
secret investor and some of Pattie’s shiftiest customers?
It will take one determined consulting detective to find out,
along with some kitties with very special skills!

Murder Most Familiar
All seems quiet in Little Hamilton. Pattie is making a
success of her Feline Retirement Home, as well as
her new Veterinary practice. Thankfully there’s not a
crime in sight for the consulting detective to solve.

That is, until Matthew Conrad, the village’s local
entrepreneur and global media mogul, receives death
threats just days before the launch of his new TV series.
Worse, the letters seem to come from somebody
in Little Hamilton. In a very small community, the chance
that Pattie knows the suspect is high, putting her
at greater risk than ever

But what ancient secrets is
Conrad’s countryside cottage hiding? What is the
curse of the golden lion? And at what point should
Pattie stop getting involved in the complex, mysterious
affairs of others and concentrate on her own desires…?

Murder on the Moor
As Pattie says goodbye to one part of her life,
another part opens up: for years she has been
comforted by a close friendship with Elliott Knight,
the local doctor in the village of Little Hamilton, but
she has grieved over the absence of her son, who was
driven out of the village due to a scandal years ago.

Little does Pattie realise that both important aspects
of her life will come together after a body is found on
the nearby moorland, apparently slain by a giant
wild cat on the loose in the valley …
But as Pattie works with the police to separate myth
from reality, darker motives are afoot and a threat
from the past gets ever closer, with tragic consequences…

In the final story of the Pattie Lansbury cozy murder
mystery series, everything will be revealed!

Pattie compilation cover

On the Western front


Back when this was the “Spinning Lizard” blog, I mentioned that I was working on a Western story.  Here’s the original post, from two whole years ago.

Eventually I fleshed out a solid revenge tale and called it “The Gun of our Maker”, which I worked on prior to my jaunt to China and tinkered with since.

The market for Westerns is smaller than a prairie dog’s arsehole at the minute, so I’ve decided to polish it up and release it as an e-book for the fun-sized price of 99p.  Look out for it in the coming weeks or months if you like your grit true and your vengeance bloody!

To whet your whistle, here’s the official blurb for “The Gun of our Maker”, coming soon:

Minnesota, 1859: a man is executed for skimming
from a silver mine to provide for his family.

Arizona, 1877: the sins of the father catch up with the son

Six weeks later: a man on horseback scales
the forests of the Mogollon Rim. He is
searching for Bill Hawken, a renowned gunsmith.

Vivian Culhane is far from a typical hero. Crippled by a
childhood illness, he is weak, blind – yet unstoppable.

Together they will build an instrument of vengeance
that will be known across Arizona, New Mexico and
Texas – a revolver that produces red smoke,
with a limited supply bullets and a thirst for justice.


Remembering ‘Lost’: A writer’s perspective


I was late to remember that today is “Lost Day”, a very special date in the calendar of all hardcore fans of ABC’s hit drama Lost.  This article from USA Today sums up the relevance of today’s date (4/8/15), so give it a read if you never watched the long-running mystery-fest and don’t know why “the numbers” make today so cool.

I recently had the pleasure of re-watching the six seasons of Lost (for the third or fourth time).  Being already familiar with its myriad twists and turns, and having the luxury of watching out for early clues to important events in the final season, I could really have fun and marvel at the sheer brilliance of its writing team.

Lost was infamous for taking about three years to set up achingly potent mysteries and holding off for another three years before answering them (I stopped just short of making notes to make sure there were no loose ends), and even though some fans insist that there are unanswered questions, the ones that remain are so minor that I have difficulty believing that the writers ever set them up deliberately – they clearly didn’t have any major importance to the canon of the show.  Debate in the comments section, people.

Lost has been complete for several years now and it’s still one of the best examples of a long-running narrative to date.  It was short enough to not lose too much of its focus (I’m looking at you, Season 3) and long enough to provide not only an intimidatingly strong ensemble cast of characters, but an all-encompassing mythos that covered everything from everyday coincidences to the quintessential battle of good versus evil on a cosmological scale.

I could write a whole book on Lost‘s glorious successes and irritating flaws, but I’ll restrict myself to these few paragraphs.  I’d like to present some of the things that Lost did so well through the eyes of a writer, to further glorify an awesome show that you should all go and watch again right now.

1. Taking an idea and running with it – all the way
Lost did this so, so well.  We know that the writing team had a full overview of the concept from day one (despite clearly padding out the middle of the show with a few extras). Forearmed with a few years’ worth of key plot points those guys clearly had the room and talent to get the most mileage out of every drop of potential.

Every character on that show was fully realized and strongly defined.  Even the ‘bland’ characters (i.e. those who weren’t fugitives, murderers or psychics) were memorable.  Everybody remembers the high school science teacher with a Napoleon complex, and the single father who would do anything for his boy.

Every storyline was explored to its full potential.  In retrospect, the whole idea of black versus white, good versus evil etc. seems to have been embedded in the show from the very first episode (and indeed it was – see pic) but it was very late in the day that all these threads are pulled together into the complex tapestry of the show’s final three seasons.  The past, present and future are laid bare, as are the two sides of an aeons-long conflict viewers knew nothing about until late in the game.

Locke Lost

Take for example the concept of “the numbers”, to which several whole episodes are devoted, and which expands from one character’s delusion that his winning lottery ticket numbers were cursed, to all of the following:

  • A mysterious signal that has been sent out from the island via radio for 17 years (branching further into sub-plots about historical visitors to the island, warped personal family dramas and crushing insight into one of the show’s main “villains”)
  • A buried, hermetically-sealed “hatch” which functions as a valve for the island’s unique explosive electromagnetic properties (branching further into narratives relating to fate, some deep psychology, and time travel, which itself becomes a lynchpin of the show’s later seasons)
  • A form of insanity that spreads like a disease from the island’s inhabitants 30+ years ago, to unlucky passing aircraft, and to sanitariums that housed at least two of the show’s pivotal characters.
  • A major theme of fate and individual purpose, in the form of numbered “candidates” to replace the timeless protector/s of the island

Way to explore every possibility, guys.

The time travel aspect of Season 4 onwards is much bemoaned by some fans, and that season became a threshold for those who would persevere and those who decided they had better things to do with their time (ironically). But love it or hate it, it’s a perfect example of a basic concept introduced in the first or second season and expounded upon until it becomes a narrative device for linking several storylines and characters in one of the neatest twists ever.


2. At last: balanced dialogue
One of the reasons I can’t stand being in the room when there’s a soap opera on is the dialogue.  Dialogue in soaps is just fucking awful, and it’s one of the reasons that I can’t take any soap fan seriously.  Exposition is so clumsily handled that  literally roll my eyes during every scene I have the misfortune to watch.  The rest is casual in the extreme, designed to amuse simpletons with paper-thin, clown-like characters who say funny things in unrealistic ways before side-stepping for the next block of tedious exposition.  When it comes to actually being serious, the writers are incapable of making their characters speak like human beings.

A specific example is Two and Half Men, which thankfully concluded a couple of months ago with the biggest train-wreck of a finale the likes of which I have never seen, nor probably (read hopefully) will ever see again.  Formulaic and laced with predictable non-jokes from beginning to end, the writers never managed bother themselves with actual characterisation, believing that it’s enough to simply bluntly state the same character trait over and over again for tired (canned) laughs.  Comedies such as the late Friends and Frasier trod a fine balance between the farcical and the dramatic without a word ever sounding out of place (although some credit must go to the talent of the actors).  Other shows, like the phenomenal Breaking Bad, elevated dialogue to the point that it was almost Shakespearean, again without the audience ever sitting back and going “No-one would ever say it like that”, even though they would have been correct.

Lost deserves a similar accolade.  Just watch any of the episodes (perhaps bar the Pilot, which was always going to be a hard sell) with your “dialogue ears” on and you’ll be amazed at how everything from exposition to quips, banter to confrontation or romantic exchanges are perfectly tuned.  There were a few exceptions – Dominic Monaghan often couldn’t wrap his mouth around Charlie’s acerbic dialogue, and Fionnula Flanagan (in one of TV’s most grated performances) either had shockingly written lines or simply wasn’t a match for their high-faluting nature) – but I don’t believe I’ll often see the likes of Lost‘s dialogue in terms of practical brevity, dramatic charge and sheer entertainment value.

3. Giving the finger
The Lost writers had no qualms about stretching their concept to the maximum.  They clearly knew that there was enough talent on board (and enough of a fan base) to go as far in any direction as they wished.  Fancy a bit of time travel?  Why not.  How about gods and monsters?  Let’s do it!  Despite teasing fans with the possibility of a thoroughly modern scientific explanation for everything that takes place on that island, when the writers wanted to go mystical, or even full-blown Saturday morning cartoon, they didn’t hesitate, despite what Hollywood snobs were no doubt thinking.  If we are afraid of putting off some of our audience, we will only ever play it tame – and nobody gets excited about tame.


4. True equality
I shouldn’t have to point out how righteous ABC was in deliberately choosing a true international cast for its multitudinous characters.  The good news is that the show pulled it off without making much of a fuss about it, even though years later I came across some amazed-sounding early reviews, primarily from the States, where they should be embarrassed and ashamed for even noticing.

Over the course of its six year run, Lost featured characters/actors from America (including African Americans), Australia, England, Scotland, France, Russia, Iraq (a character was Iraqi, the actor of Indian descent), Africa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Italy, Korea, Canada, New Zealand, and China – and that’s just off the top of my head.  Actually it was amazing that this didn’t reek of a set up, but the concept allowed it to work naturally and it was beautiful.

This wasn’t all surface, either.  One of the show’s gimmicks (and I’m not besotted enough to be blind to Lost‘s many gimmicks) was flashbacks to flesh out the character’s (often secret) lives pre-castaway, and it was clear that the writers and producers worked hard to understand how these cultures sculpted (not defined) their characters.

Why is this worthy of mention?  Because too many films, books and TV series are crammed with white American or British characters, many conspicuously so, and real life just isn’t like that – at least, not where I come from.  But then, Sheffield, England is a very cosmopolitan city.  And no, tossing in an fundamentally white character disguised as a token black or Chinese guy doesn’t count.

There’s a lot that writers can take away from Lost, and just because it’s over doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.  Rewatch, if only for Sawyer’s nicknames.


How to fail at writing a novel (pt.1)

How to fail at writing

I meet a lot of people who are impressed that I wrote a novel. They’re even more impressed when they learn that it was picked up by a traditional publisher.  Writing a novel seems like an unreachable goal for a lot of people, a fantasy that will never come to fruition no matter how hard they try.

And lots of people try.  My artistic social circle is filled with people who have started to write a novel and given up.  From my first days at university back in 2003 to this blustery, wet March of 2015, I keep meeting people who have never achieved what they set out to do: write a novel.

I’m hardly an expert on the subject.  ‘Half Discovered Wings‘ was published in 2009, and it took me six years to write it, get it into a publishable state, then find a publisher.  In the six years since I’ve written several finished manuscripts and attempted to find literary agents for two of those, with no luck (I like to blame the economic crash, but that excuse is losing its validity with every new pre-election Budget).  But as a reader and an increasingly successful ghostwriter, I know what can work if the stars are aligned, and what will not.

Here begins a short series of posts about how to fail at writing your novel.

1. Don’t know your genre

I had great fun reading the long-awaited seventh novel from literary great Kazuo Ishiguro.  Not because ‘The Buried Giant’ was a good novel, but because I was fascinated by the catastrophe of it.  It was a staid exercise in watching the author trying to claw out of quicksand he knowingly walked into.

Kazuo Ishiguro - The Buried Giant

‘The Buried Giant’ was ten years in the making and its release was hailed as the literary event of the year.  People expected great things from the author of ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’.  As a writer of moving literary fiction, Ishiguro should have known better, but for some reason he decided to venture into the genre of high fantasy.  Without knowing a thing about how to write a fantasy novel.

Personally I was amazed at how a writer as talented as Ishiguro could create a world populated by monsters, dragons and sorcery whilst hardly showing us any monsters, dragons or sorcery Incredible fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula le Guin slammed Ishiguro for being vague in a scathing blog post, and she’s right.

Bearing in mind Ishiguro’s bizarre insistence that his fantasy novel was not a fantasy novel, I was two thirds of the way through the book and still wondering whether it was a clever literary device in which the characters believed in the paranormal but the world was actually as described in our history books.  Nope.  A knight attempts to slay a dragon in the final act, and the dragon is indubitably real within the fictional reality of the book.

So why did I spent 200 pages or so wondering whether this really was a fantasy book?

Ishiguro knew nothing about the trade of writing a fantasy novel.  One can’t write a literary novel and just throw in a witch or two and hope to be taken seriously.  World-building is a serious, concerted effort on the part of the writer to construct something tangible and believable within its own context bubble.  Successful fantasy trailblazers such as Tolkien and le Guin were successful because they created living, breathing worlds with complex politics, ecosystems, economies and landscapes.  I could write a whole other post about the importance of world-building, but that would be going off topic.

So why did Ishiguro, this master of the word, fail so miserably?  He probably read a lot of fantasy, but the wrong kind of fantasyToo many writers saw The Lord of the Rings in cinemas and thought, “Hey, that’s cool and it’s successful, I’ll write something like that”, unaware that Tolkien was a master but also a blight on fantasy fiction that writers are still struggling to recover from.  “Fantasy” is too often synonymous with “Middle-Earth” and it’s taking the Herculean efforts of the likes of China Mieville to reinvent the popular assumptions about fantasy literature.  Ishiguro took the standard fantasy tropes, such as knights, dragons and ogres, and shoehorned them into his rather touching piece about the nature of human memory, more as a plot device than anything substantial.

If you want to succeed in writing in any genre, read a lot of books in that genreOnly then will you know why your particular genre is important and how to be original with it.  If you don’t know which parts of the map have been drawn, then how will you know in which direction the uncharted territory lies?  Originality should be the goal of any writer (as far as that is possible).  I can’t help feeling that Ishiguro thought that he knew fantasy, but has probably never read a book by Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer or M. John Harrison.

For any genre, follow a few simple tips:

  1. Read lots of book in your chosen genre and learn what makes them work
  2. If you’ve read your idea somewhere before, come up with a new idea
  3. Read authors from each sub-genre.  There is no such thing as “fantasy”, there is really “high fantasy”, “slipstream”, “steampunk”, “magic realism”, “weird fiction”…
  4. For your genre, think about its themes and style.  Learn the rules before you break them
  5. Don’t read only your chosen genre – diversify your talents in style and vocabulary

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!


The ‘offensive’ Batgirl cover that everyone’s talking about

Batgirl cover

So what’s happening in the above picture?

This is a variant cover for an issue of DC’s comic book, “Batgirl”, which follows a young heroine’s battle against crime in Gotham City.

Issue #41 has yet to be published, but there is already controversy over an alternative cover featuring psychotic villain The Joker terrorising the female protagonist.  It was drawn by popular comic book artist Rafael Albuquerque.  It’s no doubt a dark, disturbing image, appropriate for the fictional Gotham City – but why are so many people talking about it?

There have been complaints over the apparent misogynism in the image, and dark undertones of sexual abuse.  The Joker is clearly the dominant figure in the picture, smearing a blood-red smile on the terrified Batgirl’s face whilst holding a downward-pointing pistol.

Batgirl cover #41 variant

Perhaps a little backstory here.  In a famous Batman storyline from the comic books (“The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore in 1988), psychotic killer The Joker shoots and paralyses the character of Barbara Gordon – the alter-ego of Batgirl.  Some say that this particularly dark graphic novel also implies that Barbara was sexually abused by The Joker whilst imprisoned, although this is not explicitly stated.  The cover is said to be reminiscent of “The Killing Joke”.

According to the artist, Albuquerque, his Batgirl variant cover was an homage to this monumental literary work.  The publisher DC today announced that the alternative cover will not be available to purchase when #41 is released in shops – news that has had with mixed reception.

Batgirl cover variant #41

I’d love to go into excruciating detail about why characters like the douchey “GBG” above are complete morons, but I would probably influence nothing by my blood pressure.

I’m not entirely convinced that the cover itself contains any imagery of sexual abuse.  Apparently the pistol “pointing south” is sexually implicit, but I find it ambiguous.  The Joker could point his gun up into the air, but this would undermine the sense of threat that his character is imposing.  If the arm is to remain over Batgirl’s shoulder, where should it be pointing?  It’s anatomically possible for him to point the gun at the ‘viewer’, but again that undermines his dominance over Batgirl (and what does ‘the viewer’ have to do with the situation?) – not to mention that it would be rather uncomfortable.  Pointing downwards is really the only direction it could point.  But even for the sake of this discussion only, I’m happy to assume that the cover is sexually implicit (it certainly might be) – because for me, this is not the point.

The complaints appear to be saying that any depiction of terrorism or sexual abuse is offensive.  I disagree.  Just because the notion of something is offensive, it doesn’t follow that any form of art should pretend those offensive realities don’t exist (if you’d like to read another of my rants about comic books and literature, click here).  I don’t quite understand any other stance.  What is literature for, but to put a spotlight on various aspects of humanity and society, good or evil?

What is the suggestion here – that characters in fiction should never have anything bad happen to them?  That a person, let alone a ‘hero’, should never be traumatised by past events?  Terrorism happens, crime happens, sexual abuse happens.  Comic books, like any other form of literature, have covered the length and breadth of humanity’s highest and lowest capabilities.  Recently some ‘tweaked’ versions of the cover have been released giving Batgirl a defiant look, which apparently changes the cover from sexist to showing a positive image.  I should hardly think that’s necessary, when anyone would rightly be terrified by encountering the mass-murdering lunatic who once put your in a wheelchair.

It could be argued that sexual abuse is not appropriate material for comic books, which are read by children.  If this is your opinion, then I’m sure you are perfectly sensible about which comic books, films, TV shows, games and books you let your child view.  Comic books have contained adult material since their inception (despite the tights and spandex), so your argument is about 60 years too late.

Some have pointed out, quite rightly, that Batgirl is a strong female character who is depicted uncharacteristically weak in this image.  I would agree.  But isn’t that what variant covers are for?  In the comic book industry, alternative covers are used for anything from ‘what if?’ scenarios to cross-media advertising.  The fact that a variant might be used as an homage to a previous storyline of high repute is not unusual in the least.

It seems that others object purely on the grounds that this is a supposedly strong (female) character trembling in fear of a (male) villain.  Anyone who knows the character of The Joker (i.e. anyone who has seen either of these high-profile films, watched either of these popular TV series, played any of these 3 recent bestselling video-games or has read pretty much any DC comic book ever in the last 75 years) would know that he is a psychopathic murderer: he kills men, woman and children indiscriminately.  His is a non-gender-biased terrorist.  Anyone would be terrified in the situation that Batgirl is in here.  Even Batman himself, the fearless caped crusader, is afraid of The Joker.

If the complaints are suggesting that showing a defeated hero goes against “the current direction” of the comic books, which aim to depict a modern, strong female hero, then I might argue that there is a bit of a double standard there:

Batman defeated Superman defeated Spider-Man defeatedEven super-hero needs to get their butt whooped every now and again.  Who wants to read about perfect, invulnerable heroes who never lose?  Even Superman “died” once.  If we want literature to encompass all the highs and lows of life, even within fantasy sub-genres, then we simply can’t complain that any topic is inappropriate for literature.  That is the philistine’s approach, and I reject it completely.

Is the image glorifying violence or abuse, of any kind?  No.  Is it showing the sadistic killer in any kind of positive light, or the torture of the heroine as a positive thing?  No.  Just because a piece of art, visual or literary, depicts something awful, does not mean it supports that awful thing.  In fact, comic books are renowned for poetic justice and praising the strong positive ethics of its heroes.

Complaints against this piece of artwork seem to be from people who have no understanding of literature or what it’s for, and it’s a very sad thing indeed that art can be censored because ignorance can be loud.


A Sam Simon lament: Depression in the creative industry

Sam Simon, The Simpsons, Mental Health

This time last week, you’d be forgiven for having never heard of Sam Simon, who passed away this week at the age of 59.  Simon is credited as being the unsung hero of The Simpsons, present during the writing and production of their first full season back in December 1989.  He is said to have been the one who developed the show’s sensibility, despite quickly locking horns with their creator, Matt Groening.

Ken Levine, one of the writers on The Simpsons, said that Simon was the real creative force behind The Simpsons:

“The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch, [and] brought a level of honesty to the characters” and made them “three-dimensional”, adding that his “comedy is all about character, not just a string of gags. In The Simpsons, the characters are motivated by their emotions and their foibles. ‘What are they thinking?’ – that is Sam’s contribution. The stories come from the characters.”

If Sam Simon was so instrumental in developing the tone and depth of what Time Magazine called the best TV show of the 20th Century, then why was he compelled to leave after writing only 13 episodes?

There were some creative differences – natch – but it’s also apparent that he had troubles of his own. In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, Groening described Simon as “brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.”

But in the man’s own words, Simon just “wasn’t enjoying it anymore”:

“Any show I’ve ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself.”

Sam Simon, The Simpsons, Mental Health

Soon after, when Simon worked on “The George Carlin Show”, it became apparent that Groening wasn’t simply sour over having the spotlight taken off him.  Carlin confessed to having a negative relationship with Simon, going so far as to issue a general disclaimer for sitcom creators: “[A]lways check mental health of creative partner beforehand.”  In his autobiography, Carlin said:

“The biggest problem, though, was that Sam Simon was a fucking horrible person to be around. Very, very funny, extremely bright and brilliant, but an unhappy person who treated other people poorly.”

There are any number of positive things to say about Simon – his enduring animal rights campaigns, and millions of dollars in charitable donations, to name just two – but for me his apparent mental health issue should be of equal interest.

What is it that makes writers depressed – or perhaps the question should be, what is that makes depressed people write?

It’s no secret that there’s a trend.  Off the top of my head, famous names who attempted or succeeded in suicide include Ernest Hemmingway, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Jack London, Raymond Chandler, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom who join the ranks of severely depressed painters, poets, comics and actors who felt unable to continue despite their success and adoration.  Are all writers depressed?  Of course not, but there’s compelling evidence for a pattern.

Discouraging is the association of poor mental health with creativity.  Who hasn’t imagined the clichéd writer tapping away on his typewriter, smoking with a drained bottle of whiskey beside him, contemplating the rope?  A character in the 2012 film “Seven Psychopaths” deftly illustrates the perceived fatefulness of it when he tells depressed screenwriter Marty that “of course” he has a drinking problem:

“ONE: You’re a writer. TWO: You’re from Ireland … You’re fucked!”

Seven Psychopaths depression

I’ve been asked by more than one girlfriend whether I can only be creative when I’m in a low mood.  This is a common claim amongst creative types, who assert that their best work is produced during their most depressed periods.  I wondered if the same was true of myself back during my university years, when I wrote Half Discovered Wings (published only a mere six years later).  Looking back, it’s clear that much of my poetry and short fiction from that time was morose, self-absorbed drivel (but that can be the only expected output from creative writing course at that age – ask any English teacher).

The serious ramifications of this trend in writers are obvious: that some maintain a state of unhappiness to spur their creative output, believing that it’s the key to their success; and that because it’s “expected” of a creative type, others are less inclined to intervene.  Having seen some of the worst outcomes of these scenarios, I sincerely hope that it’s not a common truth.

Perhaps the sudden interest in Sam Simon will do more than rehash his old dispute with Matt Groening.  It would do well to increase public awareness of mental health issues, which remain belittled and dismissed by many, including leaders of the National Health Service (here and here).  In any case, the entertainment industry has recognised a genuine talent who has gone unsung for too long.


Why is the whale lonely? The mystery of the 52 Hertz ‘Lonely’ Whale

"Aquarian" by Harousel via Deviantart.com

“Aquarian” by Harousel via Deviantart.com

Have you heard the story of the world’s loneliest whale?

Almost thirty years ago, sonar researchers detected a plaintive cry echoing through the ocean.  It was clearly a whale song, but like none that has ever been heard before or since.  Measuring a very unusual 52 hertz, the whale’s eerie moaning was far too high to be that of a blue whale (usually 20-40 hertz), for example.

It was first recorded in 1989, and then every year since.  It has been firmly tracked since 1992, following a migration route across the Pacific Ocean every year.  The route is similar, but not identical to, that of the blue whale, and close to that of the fin (or finback) whale – but different to either.  It strongly suggests that the whale is neither species, possibly a new species altogether.  A genetic anomaly projecting its unique, mournful song through the depths, waiting for a mirrored melody that will never come…

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do

Two can be as bad as one, but the loneliest number is the number one

General consensus amongst the scientific community is that the ‘lonely whale’, often called ’52’, is a cross-breed, most likely between a blue and fin whale.  Cross insemination amongst whales is extremely unlikely (not least due to the incredible size differences between species – a fin being 60 feet and a blue being 100 feet), making 52 literally one of a kind.  The probability of malformed mongrel ever finding a mate would fall at zero.

However, the world’s loneliest whale seems to be relatively healthy: it’s been in this world at least as long as I have (approaching the three decade mark), and its distinctive sonar signature has deepened a little over the years, signifying its continued maturity.

You can view an early article in the New York Times here, and find its distinctive spectrographic call (including a recording) here, at the PMEL Acoustic Monitoring Program’s site.

Of course, it’s easy to personify 52’s plight.  The animal is alone, but that does not mean that it’s lonely.  The whale ‘sings’, but those blips of sonar noise aren’t necessarily a lament.  Its soliloquy might remind we ‘thinking animals’ of lonely, painful times, but no-one can be sure of a cetacean’s ability to feel, however romantic its doomed, tragic story may be.

What interests me in particular is how we have crafted stories around the ‘lonely’ whale.  By adopting it as a mascot for isolated people everywhere, what is that saying about us?  Why do we identify with the lonely whale so easily – or at all?  Are there so many people crying out into the darkness?  It is an animal, but then so are we all (although I know people who would fiercely disagree even on that simple fact).  We have personified the animal, even anthropomorphised it, and spun tales about its hopeless search for love and friendship.  Religious purists would despise the idea of an animal having a ‘fate’, but this word has come up so often lately in relation to 52.  What is its fate?  What will become of this desperately lonely soul as it wanders back and forth through the abyss?

It was hard for me to ignore the recent Kickstarter campaign headed film maker Adrien Grenier, who hopes to raise $300,000 to locate the lonely whale.  With less than 3 days to go, they’re just shy of $240,000, which is agonizingly close.  Spare a few dollars and you could bag yourself a mix tape of 52 songs inspired by the planet’s most depressed water mammal, amongst other incentives.

If you’re artistically inclined, you could also check out the recent glut of Deviant Art inspired by 52, with some typically beautiful and heart-rending paintings from the internet’s elite.

I have my fingers crossed for the Lonely Whale.  At the very least, it’s a fascinating mystery and scientific curiosity.  In my heart of hearts, I wonder what a whale truly feels in the isolating gloom of the deep, and wish 52 the very best.