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The Story So Far – Part 2

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“Whatever happened to Thamesis?” is a question I am sometimes asked by a rare, few individuals – Connoisseurs of digital graphic fiction from the latter half of the naughties. Thamesis, for the rest of you, was the name of the 6 part ‘digi-comics’ series released in 2007. It was the prototype for The Lion & The Unicorn you know today and this is the story of it’s rise and fall.

But before Thamesis, back in 2004 Albion Rising was the umbrella title I was labouring under (as told in The Story So Far – Part 1). The story of The Lion & The Unicorn, The K.i.D. and their world was progressing, slowly but surely with the help of Javvy M Royle (Of House of Hackney fame) who I was working with in his studio in Hackney Wick, East London. To say we were running a business would be a bit strong – Let’s just say we were creating lots of really cool $#!+ It’s here that the idea of the patches as the agents of power was developed (with more than a passing nod to Jeff Noon‘s ‘Feathers’ – Vurt was doing the rounds at the time). Meanwhile, back in West London, another good friend, Matt Tucker from Partizan Productions, was kind enough to lend me desk space and his keen eye to help create these 4 trailers.

And it was here at Partizan that the first quantum leap in the development of The Lion & The Unicorn would take place. it was here I met Jonny Wardle. I had happened to just leave my home made press pack lying around, casual, you know, no big deal. Jonny saw it, and suffice it to say it was so far up his strasse (as we say in Berlin) that he proceeded to leave Partizan to pursue developing the comic with me full time. It was great, not only to have another mind totally dedicated to the project, but even better to have an organised, disciplined, producer’s mind, with formal training in how to write a script, how to put something together as a coherent whole. Which over the next year is exactly what we did, then through Jonny’s friend (See, it’s not what you know… Alright it’s what you know and who you know) Zack Slatter  we took it to the newly formed Flemming Media. Yes that Flemming. Ian Flemming’s Family had found that they had the rights to the James Bond books along side a rather sizeable amount of money and they decided to take on and develop other ‘intellectual properties’ (a phrase that entered my lexicon at this time and that I have never felt entirely comfortable with, I much prefer… Stories) and fortunately for us The Lion and The Unicorn seemed a good fit for them. It was on! Back in East London, We set up Ash Pure Studios in Dalston – yes, before it was cool and you could still get a Salt Fish patty for a pound and … I digress. We had a  a small but highly talented team of creative collaborators including pros like Javvy on character and costume, Lucas Krull on animation and new comers like Roland Hammed and ChRis Leonard, creating amazing artwork and design to flesh out the world. It was a real learning experience, not just in setting up and running a studio but also in letting go of your ideas to give other people enough space to make amazing things with them and present you with something you would never have thought of and that fits so right. Initially Jonny and I had total free reign as writers and we proved in no uncertain terms that we were not Alan Moore. Producing two rambling incoherent episodes of The Lion & The Unicorn and The K.i.D. One thing was a fact though, they looked really cool. We had developed a rotoscope technique, as I deemed my drawing ability to not be up to scratch to creating the world I had in mind, and no other illustrator, however talented, quite fit the bill. Check out these initial sketches of The K.i.D. and Kendrick by the very talented Rufus Dayglo. They’re great, but not quite what I had in mind.

Via Flemming the living legend that is Mike Lake (Who’s Mike Lake? Open your copy of Watchmen and see who it’s dedicated to, then we’ll talk) stepped in and put us in touch with US writer – John Taddeo. The two separate titles of The Lion & The Unicorn and The K.i.D.were condensed into one arc but unfortunately Taddeo’s version of the alternate reality was not my own and while I was still not skilled enough to write a good story I knew instinctively what was right and what was wrong for the world - this for me represents the other side of having creators take your  characters and creations and interpret them as they saw fit. It’s great when they get it right, not so much, if they don’t. To me his version felt a bit too ‘Disneyfied’ a bit too bubblegum, not rooted in the grime and grit of the island I called home. But it had pace, it had the necessary ‘beats’, set ups and ‘pinches’ that a good story needs. So we went to work pulling it back into shape. Pinning it down to something that was true to the original vision. And so Thamesis was born – It was a real struggle and there was a lot of  back and forth – The Post Master very nearly didn’t make it! But finally we were ready and in 2007 we released 6 episodes as Flash animatics, we called them Digi-Comics: Comic panelling with simple ‘slide, fade zoom’ animation and a masterful score and sound design from C O L O U R F I E L D (Sam Harris), which more than made up for any visual short comings. You can still see and hear the original episodes over on Newgrounds.

So what happened? You have to remember this is 2006/7, Before iPads, before Facebook (Some of the characters had a My Space page!), before ComiXology, before digital comics really existed, so it’s safe to say Thamesis was a little ahead of its time. And while the audience loved it no one involved had ever done this before and not one of us had anything in the way of a plan as to how we should proceed with it. How we could make it sustain itself, i.e. how we would get paid! But as it turns out didn’t matter. The credit crunch happened and quite suddenly my father died so  it was time to put away such childish things. I left Thamesis and London for a time. I left creating stories and worlds and went, truth be told, on something of a self destructive binge, which fortunately was also one part journey of discovery. I learnt more about myself than was perhaps comfortable, but that which didn’t kill me made me stronger and ultimately closer to the ideal I wanted to become. Ash Pure rising. Slowly stories became important again and the characters I had created continued to live on in my imagination, finding new depth and purpose. Plus the story I had wanted to tell way back in 1999 was still there, in fact it was seemingly becoming more relevant day by day. So it was that in 2011 with the ‘property’ fully back in my control, I returned to the world, I returned to Thamesis and set about re telling the story way I wanted to. I was keen to address the short comings of the Thamesis release, which felt to me like it rushed it’s story telling, cramming too much in, not giving the world a chance to breathe. Plus the combination of The Lion & The Unicorn and The Ki.D into one title had always felt a little forced. The need to get all the characters into the same room. a common story device, had put an unnecessary pressure on the narrative. And also with it’s play through format, the Thamesis digi-comics, had lost what I love most about comics, the ability to move back and forth through time at will, to see a page as a whole and control how you read the story. So I put the digital to one side and went back to my first love – print. Creating a print comic was not only within my skill set, but also seemed the best way of plotting and pacing a story. I returned to the original assets and gave them an ink line (You were right Mike!), muted the pallet and created something I felt had the right tone for the story I wanted to tell and was closer to the reduced pallet, oversized UK comics I had groen up reading - From The Beano to The Eagle & Tiger and of course 2000 AD This first printing was launched with an exhibition of the landscape art of the alternate reality London at Shoreditch Town Hall which gave unsuspecting visitors the chance to step into the story world via a one off, immersive experiential even featuring the Wetwipez dancers as rival Thamesis Clans.

Before iPads, before Facebook (Some of the characters had a My Space page. Nice!), before digital comics really existed, it’s safe to say Thamesis was a little ahead of its time. And while the audience loved it no one involved had ever done this before and no one had anything in the way of a plan as to how we should proceed with it. But it didn’t matter. The credit crunch happened my dad died and it was time to put away such childish things. I left Thamesis and left London for a time. I left creating stories and worlds and went, truth be told, on a self destructive binge, one part journey of discovery. I learnt more about myself than was perhaps comfortable, but made myself stronger and closer to the ideal I wanted to become. Slowly stories became important again and the characters I had created continued to live on in my imagination, finding new depth and purpose as I did. Plus the story I had wanted to tell way back in 1999 was still there, in fact it was seemingly becoming more relevant day by day. So it was that in 2011 with the ‘property’ fully back in my control, I returned to the world and set about re telling the story way I wanted to. Next time: the return of The Lion & The Unicorn

Of Fathers, Lions & Kings

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Where do you get your ideas from? Who are your characters based on? Are the most common questions I am asked about The Lion & The Unicorn. Or perhaps more accurately people like to offer their suggestions as to what they think my inspirations might have been. When it comes to The Lion, the most popular character for this guessing game, Marv from Sin City is the most common, but Herman Munster is by far the best I’ve heard to date.

The Lion is undoubtedly influenced by characters from the cult-ure I’ve grown up consuming – I’d actually put him somewhere between James Bond and Hammerstein from the ABC Warriors (Maybe with just a touch of Herman?) – but in truth it goes a little deeper than that. For the Lion is actually based on… Wait for it – This is the big reveal, the one you’ve been waiting for. Drum roll please… My father!

Or to be more precise the good bits about my father – and if you see what an absolute, total arsehole The Lion is that probably tells you a little bit about my old dad.

The Lion, like my father, is an embodiment of 20th Century England. From the Great War to TV dinners to Maggie Thatch. A broken promise of a century, deeply scarred, selfish and bitter, racked with the pain and regret of a nation fallen from greatness but not willing to admit that it no longer rules the waves, or indeed anything at all. My father was a man not willing to admit he was broken armed with an impenetrable shield of cynicism and a sword of super sharp, acerbic wit. Abrasive and offensive but with a strict (a)moral code, suited to an age when you could still be outrightly rude. When you could still smoke everywhere and be prejudiced against pretty much everything.

My father was born in 1945 raised in the mythical kingdom of Essex by his parents, effectively Victorians, the kind of people who loved the dogs more than they loved their children. He grew up to be in his own words,‘a right little shit’, but by the time I knew him he had matured into a grumpy old bastard. He worked as a solicitor, a job he clearly hated so as to send my sister and I to private schools we didn’t want to go to. He was often absent, I naively thought, working late, until it became apparent, even to the most idealistic young eyes, that where he’d actually been was ‘down the pub’.

Like many of the men from his generation he grew up massively emotionally retarded, perhaps even more so than most, but the biggest regret, the greatest tragedy for him and so many like him was, he knew better. He had had the knowledge and the opportunity to change, to live a different life, to be different man from his father. He’d had the 60s revolution in the head but woke up on the cold Monday morning of the 1980s with two children and a mortgage and the overwhelming need to get paid! Which he did to the detriment of his happiness and the happiness of all those around him. He was inherently self destructive, looking after yourself was for girls, smoked 60 – 80 cigarettes a day and despised any food that wasn’t entirely synthetic –  “Yuck! This banana milkshake tastes like real bananas. Where are the e numbers?” – Hilarious until he dropped dead at the stupidly young age of 62.

It was never my intention to create a hero based on the old bugger – Lung Cancer Man! Coool… In fact I didn’t even realise I’d done it  until working on a ‘pin up’  image of an earlier iteration of The Lion & The Unicorn, he looked over my shoulder and, taking an an uncharacteristic interest in my funny pictures he said – “He looks like quite a good chap”.  High praise indeed.

I hadn’t created The Lion in my father’s image consciously, he evolved and became more and more like him – white hair, white face, sarcastic old bastard – but it was only when the penny dropped, when I realised what I’d done that the character really came alive.That’s when I knew exactly how he would speak, how he would react in certain situations. And it was only after my father died in 2007, just after the release of the original Thamesis digi-comic series, that The Lion could really live. That’s when he could become the embodiment of the bits that, despite myself, I loved about my dad – his sense of humor, his nihilistic belief system, his sense of right and wrong and somewhere deep down inside a mischievous, childlike joy. But as all art is catharsis I needed somewhere to put the bad parts, the parts that really pissed me off. Enter Old King Richard of The Rose the embodiment of unfulfilled potential – the coward who has absolutely not put his house in order despite the ample opportunity to do so. If you read Jonathan’s last  conversation with his father (as told in Flashback in The Lion & The Unicorn Volume 0 Book 3) you will see the conversation I wish I’d had with my dad on his deathbed.

I did say to him on our last and only trip together – to Portmeirion, the Village where they filmed the cult 60s TV show The Prisoner, a favourite of ours – “How do you feel about the prospect of your impending death?” and he said to me “I have an advantage over many” – where Jonathan presses the issue I leave it. And that was the end of it literally, he died 3 months later. The Lion, for now, lives on and at least, on paper has the chance, the potential to change and be the best he can be. I’m not saying he will. It depends how much of my dad is in him. Good bye old man. The King is Dead, long live the Lion.

Influence & Inspiration: The Avengers (no, the proper Avengers)

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at the tender age of… I don’t even know! Perhaps then one of my earliest memories was The Avengers.
Daaaa… Daa Daa Da Daa Da.
Like so much of my early ingestion of pop culture this was my father’s doing. This stuff would be on TV and I’d sit there and ingest it all. not always (read ever) understanding the details or nuances but certainly feeling the style, the dynamic.

And that’s what stuck. A man in a 3 piece suit with an umbrella and a woman in a futuristic (or at least what they imagined the future might be like in the 60s) one piece who had the bad ass moves (or at least as bad ass as moves could be in the days of black and white. a Karate chop and a judo roll. Which is incidentally what I’m having for my lunch).

They were British agents of something cooler than just the government, they had adventures and maybe they were going to kiss (Euuuuhhh!) but they never do, but they might…

For The Lion & The Unicorn as is often the case, the characters came first. I wanted to create two agents, who were British and had adventures. He would wear a suit and she would initially look like Jim Lee’s Jean Grey of the X-Men, but with a big 90s gun. They would both evolve considerably from that point into what you see today, but the influence of the Avengers is undeniable and while I don’t think I had anything as simple (have you seen my work?) as updating them in mind I think I did want that dynamic. Although as the cahracters developed it quickly became apparent to me that there would be no ‘will they won’t they’. They most definitely will not. Spoiler? Come on he’s old enough to be her great grandfather. Not cool. Rather he would be solid and clear cut, while she would be the enigma, the one that keeps you hooked. The real hero.

Here’s to you Emma.

 

 

The Source: Rebranding British Pride

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britishpride

Way back in the mid to late 90s when the desire to tell a story was bubbling up inside me. I had the characters of The Lion and The Unicorn (we’ll get to them) but they needed a cause, a fight, a reason to be. Obviously good vs evil, obviously standing against bigotry, abuse and oppression, a voice against corrupt corporations, international crisis and environmental genocide . But for me as a lifelong Londoner, I wanted something a little more personal, a little closer to home.

And so I decided, what I really wanted to do was re-brand British pride. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, these were the years before the Olympics, before Will and Kate, before David Beckham (not that any of these things make me particularly proud. Just for the record). These were the years of Maggie Thatch and Miners strikes. Poll tax riots and police brutality. The hooligan had battered the gentleman into submission and the Union Jack, never mind the St. George’s Cross was out of bounds.

Coming out of this era there wasn’t much to be proud of, rampant consumerism equalled unabated destruction, the high street had been sold off and everyone looked to America for the next, newest shiny toy. But in the 90s things started to change. Rave culture gave us the so called second ‘summer of love’ with British pioneers doing to House music what they’d done to rock and roll 30 years previously; they made it hard and dirty. A fitting soundtrack and escape route to the crumbling urban environment. Ecstasy then escaped from the dance floors sweeping the football terraces putting an end to the hooliganism of the 80s portrayed in films like The Firm and ID. Citation needed? I know this to be true because the old hooligans I know have told me. They are now just cuddly gangsters, Diamond geezers, that love there mum… And would probably still jook you under the right circumstances, but still, they love their mum. Then we had Tony Blair, seemingly a new hope, my first ever vote went to him. Cool Britannia ruled, for a time. Then we had war. I marched for the first time and saw it do no good at all. The Millennium was approaching somehow imbued with an impending sense of doom - Who remembers the Millennium bug. Classic. Keep the fear up chaps.

So I was gripped by the desire to do something, do anything. The nihilism of teenage years replaced with a desire to actually do some good. Being to lazy and selfish to actually go out and get my hands dirty actually helping people I decided comics was the way to for me to ‘do my bit’. I wanted to create a story that would last, and have inherent in it’s construction a new sense of British pride that could sustain and transcend. I wanted to push past politics and pop culture and create a myth, a legend that could inspire and entertain, guide and enlighten, like all good fairy tales should.

That was the point and that’s what I have lost sight of in recent years, ever more concerned with the success of my product and in turn seeing this as a gage of my own personal success. In short my sense of self purpose and self worth has become beholden to the likes on my Facebook page. And that was never the point.

It’s time to return to the heart of what The Lion & The Unicorn is. A cracking yarn that  just might save the world.

Influence & Inspiration: AKIRA

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Picture it. 1989, East Finchley, The Phoenix cinema, a 12 year old boy… nothing would ever be the same again

AKIRA.(Ootomo.Katsuhiro).full.471268

Amongst the monoliths of my formative cultural landscape, none stand taller than AKIRA

Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece resonated with my childhood love of cartoons, of which I could spot the Japanese ones, although I had no real knowledge of Manga and Anime as it exists in the cultural consciousness today. In fact I thought Manga was Anime due to the label the videos were released under in the UK, Love that trailer. But it also resonated with my life long love of science fiction, Blade Runner being an obvious touch point, except with the brooding noir replaced with visceral speed and motion, cool, colourful characters, irrepressible, explosive action, devastating telekinetic power and my first glimpse at what I later came to know as ‘body horror’  (Where human forms transform into fluid monstrous states, A particular staple of the medium. Think John Carpenter’s The Thing, but with more demon cock).

But overall it was the shear depth and scale of the storytelling that struck me, spiralling from the city streets to the inner mind / outer cosmos (all good science fiction should end with the deathbirth of the universe – double spoiler?) and back. With an expertly rendered apocalyptic event in between.

All of this and ‘that bike’.

For me AKIRA set the bar for all anime indeed all animation to come. The American adventure cartoons paled in comparison, with even the mighty Disney looking cheap and amateurish. The precision and continuity of line, is so detailed, so tight it creates an entirely convincing visual experience.

And talking of tight… I recently rediscovered the original manga which I had put to one side due to the Dark Horse versions feeling somewhat  cheapened by the sound effects and mirroring the pages for left to right reading. Hey Pure by name… You know I only ever watch the film in the original language don’t you. But seeing beyond the ‘Fips’, ‘taps; and ‘splorks’ isn’t hard as it’s a mighty work of dizzying visual complexity. One which, like the film, manages to hold a firm linear narrative. Not always common for ‘Eastern’ art, which can employ more non linear, mood building techniques, not being overly concerned about getting from a to b and. Regardless, the art is simply breathtaking.

It’s not hard to see the influences of AKIRA on The Lion & The Unicorn; the rival street gangs, a megalithic city beset by warring factions and revolutionaries. Drugs that grant the user psychic and telekinetic powers and it all heading towards a ataclysmic event that leaves the city and it’s inhabitants changed for ever… But I’ve said too much.

And now I must go because it’s no good watching, it, sitting around and talking about it. You actually have to do it to make the stories living in your head, a reality. Otomo had 6 volumes at over 2000 pages of the most detailled art I’ve ever seen. That and one of the greatest films (not just animated films please note) of all time.

I better get on it.