DC Comics’ Sword of Sorcery

coverI’ve read somewhere that DC’s Sword of Sorcery was conceived as an answer to Marvel’s runaway success in bringing Robert E Howard’s most famous creation to the world of comics, with Conan the Barbarian issue 1 appearing in August 1970. DC dipped its toe by having Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser guest in Wonder Woman #202, in Oct 1972. I haven’t read this, so I don’t know how the two (to my mind, wholly separate) universes would have been brought together. I’d like to imagine a story featuring Fafhrd & the Mouser’s rivalrous attempts to woo the Amazonian Princess, while perhaps simultaneously trying to relieve her of her lovely gold wristbands and glowing lasso (which I can see the Mouser finding irresistible), probably only to be soundly and solidly put in their place — but I think, to judge from the cover, they just get into a fight.

Sword of Sorcery, a standalone title featuring Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser in their proper environment, the fantasy world of Nehwon, debuted in March 1973. In the first editorial, writer/adapter Denny O’Neil issues a pledge: “We’ll change Fritz’s work as little as possible, because we love it, because it would be silly to imagine we can improve on greatness, and because, for the first time in our comics careers, we’re approaching a project with genuine reverence.” But by the third issue (which mentions, in its editorial, that both Leiber and Harlan Ellison have complimented them on their adaptation) they’re presenting an original, non-Leiber story. I do have to say it sticks quite well to the feel of the F&GM stories, including in its cast a bird-woman (which fits in with the pair’s many dalliances with exotic, semi-human females), but this same bird-woman brings out an uncharacteristic note of sexism from Fafhrd (usually the more chivalrous of the two). Thinking themselves abandoned by the half-woman half-bird Lissa, Fafhrd says: “She could be of no help… and besides, what do you expect of a woman… even a woman half a nobler creature?”

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 1, Ningauble and Sheelba

The wizards Sheelba and Ningauble, minus the clash of terse/loquacious personalities Leiber gave them

In general, though, seen as a comics-of-the-time take on Leiber’s tales, Sword of Sorcery manages an okay series of adaptations. The stories have mostly been boiled down to centre on one big fight, but do include a smattering of the sort of wordplay & archaicism so characteristic of Leiber’s writing. One thing I forgot about this sort of comic (not having read any in ages) is just how much the characters love to talk during fights, and mostly about themselves. As soon as they whip out their swords, Fafhrd & the Mouser turn into a pair of gangsta rappers — “Hey, I’m great at this, I’m great at that, look at me, how good I am in a fight.” Fafhrd calls himself a barbarian rather a lot (and is “Fafhrd the Barbarian” in the titles); Leiber’s character wouldn’t do that — not as a boast, anyway, as he was more interesting in being civilised. It’s basically a shorthand way of getting readers to grasp his status as a Conan analogue. And I have to mention one truly awful thought bubble from a non-Leiber back-up strip in issue 4, about Fafhrd in his youth. Seeing his girlfriend snatched by a snow-dragon, the young Fafhrd thinks: “So… my blooming manhood is put to the test!” A letter from issue 4 says it all: “A splendid adaptation of ‘Thieves House’ this month. I wonder, though, why you retitled it ‘Revenge of the Skull of Jewels’. That’s laying it on a bit thick, isn’t it?” Laying it on a bit thick is what this sort of comic does.

from Sword of Sorcery issue 3, a fight scene

Another thing I forgot from US comics of this era is just how crude the colouring technology was. In most cases, the splotchy, all-too-basic colouring detracts from the artwork far more than it adds. I would have preferred to have seen it in black & white just to get a better look at the linework. And I wasn’t 100% taken by the depictions of Fafhrd & the Mouser — mostly the Mouser, who, though properly short, still had the usual superhero proportions, making him seem like a 7 foot tall man shrunk in size, rather than a short man with a short man’s proper proportions. But, again, I suspect this is just one of the conventions of the time. One thing I would like to say about the art, though — and this isn’t at all intended as faint praise — is I liked the backgrounds. They really brought out the feel of Leiber’s Nehwon, particularly the city of Lankhmar, a lush mix of opulent Orientalism and Renaissance Europe:

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 2

And this panel is simply beautiful:

panel from Sword of Sorcery, ship at sea

Sword of Sorcery died without an announcement after five bimonthly issues. It was an interesting run, but more for how Leiber’s work could be fitted into a medium or market that couldn’t properly deal with his attempts to rethink & out-think the clichés of a genre he’d helped define (even, to name).

Fafhrd & the Mouser would appear in comics again in 1990, this time from the Marvel-owned Epic Comics, where they distinctly benefit from being directed at a more adult market, and in a generally more mature (post-Watchmen) comics milieu. In a neat link, although it was drawn by Mike Mignola, this later series was written by Howard Chaykin, penciller for Sword of Sorcery. I’ll maybe cover it in a future Mewsings.

Edward Gorey

I first came across mention of Edward Gorey in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and instantly knew I had to read him:

“His characters perform or endure unspeakable indecencies set against Victorian and Edwardian backdrops. His preoccupations are those of a man obsessed by the terrifying randomness of daily life: rocks and urns plummet from the sky without warning; everyday objects suddenly turn menacing.”

There’s something instantly recognisable about his world of Edwardian Grimm. His strain of nonsense — bringing to the forefront the often too-casual-to-see violence & horror depicted in the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll — veers at times towards the purely surreal, but also borrows from that Roald Dahl-like reaction to moralising children’s literature that’s been going on at least since Struwwelpeter (1845, whose “Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches” might be an episode in a Gorey book), if not before. Part of the fun of his pseudo-pastiche style is that his books feel like they might have actually existed in the past, and might now be considered curios or classics of a bygone age, unconsciously horrific beneath their air of gentility. Gorey’s is both a ready-made archetypal world, and a world entirely his own, an abandoned nursery room of the imagination, where yesteryear’s toys, ill-used and left to collect spiderwebs, have attained both life and malignancy.

Gorey worked as an illustrator (also producing a lot of book covers) for some time before beginning to write and illustrate the short books he’s perhaps best known for, many of which were self-published by his Fantod Press, (some appearing under anagrammatic or punning pseudonyms), and which have subsequently been collected in a series of bumper volumes Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. My two favourites are The Unstrung Harp (1953) and The Doubtful Guest (1957) (both found in Amphigorey).

extract

The Unstrung Harp relates the cyclical life of author Clavius Frederick Earbrass, showing how the writing of a novel (whose title is selected at random from “a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book”) progresses from boredom to self-doubt to gloom to despair to desperation and, post-completion, a sort of blank bemusement as to what it was all for, all wrapped up in the semi-superstitious rituals of a deeply-ingrained creative process.

In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar, penguin-esque creature invites itself into the house of a Victwardian upper class family, mostly to get in the way, damage things, cause difficulties, and be generally exasperating in a world too reserved to express exasperation. Existing somewhere between Paddington Bear and the staring ghost monkey of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, it shares Mr Earbrass’s elongated profile and staring eyeball — the characteristic Gorey look that seems to combine angst, anger, despair, exasperation, resignation and a sense of cosmic dread all in one.

All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall/Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall

The Doubtful Guest is a perfect example of how nonsense becomes sense each time it’s read. The “Guest” could be interpreted as much as a gloomy mood as an actual person, but the first time I read it, it immediately made me think of my stepfather, who appeared in our house almost as abruptly as the “Guest” and came with just as irrational, peculiar, and incomprehensible a set of habits, such as endlessly searching through legions of plastic bags while the rest of us tried to watch TV. I can imagine The Doubtful Guest as an excellent book to leave in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, or as the perfect way for a (perhaps cruel) parent to introduce a child to the concept of a new sibling on the way.

In fact, any one of Gorey’s books might usefully furnish a psychiatrist’s waiting room, if the psychiatrist were sufficiently enlightened or just plain provocative, including his alphabets that describe the various grisly ends of a series of unfortunate children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies being the most well-known), or The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work” so abstract and discreet, it’s almost entirely chaste:

Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan

But beware. Just as with the Grimmest of fairy tales, Gorey’s atmosphere of gentility & nonsense can lull you into letting your guard down. Of his fictionalisation of the Moors Murderers’ relationship, The Loathsome Couple, he says: “I showed it to my editor at the time, and he didn’t think it was very funny, and I thought, ‘Oh really, dear, I don’t think it’s very funny either; what made you think that I thought it was funny?'” (quoted in Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey).

It’s partly because his work seems to borrow that hand-holding air you get from some children’s literature, that you don’t fully notice, till it’s too late, that the hand in question is leading you towards a pretty dangerous-looking precipice. And, perhaps, a Gorey end?

The Rainbow Orchid volume 3 out tomorrow

Tomorrow, the final part of The Rainbow Orchid, “the biggest adventure in comics”, comes out, and I can’t wait. Nor can others, apparently:

The Alice at R’lyeh Report, part 2

(Part 1 of this report, about creating the Alice at R’lyeh booklet, can be read here.)

Now I’d spent actual money getting the Alice at R’lyeh booklet printed, I had to promote and sell it. Not my favourite thing. Some artists & writers are happy to shout about what they’ve done, and frankly, I envy them. Self-promotion is a talent that is, I can’t help thinking, as valuable as being able to produce promotion-worthy content in the first place. I’m sure there’s a part of every writer/artist that wants to crow about what they’ve done, but for some (me included) tapping into it can be difficult. I tend to feel, whenever I produce something I like, that what makes it likeable to me is some rare, personal quality, that, if I’m lucky, might be shared by at most a scattering of oddballs and misfits classifiable by no known marketing category. So I’m the last person to want to convince anyone to buy something I’ve produced. But, if you’re self-publishing, that’s what you’ve got to do.

I have to admit I never exactly shouted at the top of my voice that Alice at R’lyeh was available to buy. But here’s a summary of what I did do.

Website. Old-fashioned, perhaps, in these endlessly new-fashioning times, but you’ve got to have a website. I stopped short of buying a domain name for the project, mostly for reasons of expense, but also because I think, increasingly, unique and meaningful domain names are only of use if you’re promoting something through non-internet media. If you’re being interviewed on the radio, for instance, I guess you have to be able to provide an easily memorable way of accessing more information about your project. But even then, with a sufficiently unique name (or some memorable tags), a Google search is just as good. Search for “Alice at R’lyeh” on Google, and you get my site — so, job done, there.

The major website-related decision I took was to put the text of the poem online, and to provide a freely downloadable PDF of the booklet (with graphics at web-level dpi, both for size reasons, and to encourage people to buy the booklet if they wanted a printed version). Why do this? I could have just put up a teaser so people had to buy the booklet for the whole thing. I’d like to say I was influenced by Cory Doctorow‘s ideas on giving away what he writes as both a free ebook and a paid-for printed book — as I was to a certain extent — but the decision really came down to the fact that I didn’t want anyone being disappointed with the booklet when they finally got it. I have no idea if not having the whole thing readable on the website would have led to more sales, but my main aim, in the end, wasn’t sales, it was just to have what I’d written read by people. To that end, the website was the primary tool.

Of course, what I really wanted to know was that people were reading the thing — either by spending time on the poem’s page, or downloading the PDF. I’d already set up Google Analytics to provide me with stats on my whole website, but now wish I’d put something a bit more basic and specific in place. For two reasons. (1) Google Analytics offers so much data, and so many options, that I can’t find a simple access count for either of the key pages. (2) I tried setting up a filter to provide me with data specific to the Alice at R’lyeh section of my website, but for some reason it resulted in a filter that displayed data relevant to everything but the Alice at R’lyeh section of my site. Plus, there’s an old bit of my site (Getting More Out of GarageBand, about Apple’s GarageBand, and not updated since 2005!) which annoyingly gets so many more hits than any other part, however new. So, I’ve no idea how many people have read Alice at R’lyeh online or downloaded the PDF.

Reviews. There are two sorts of reviews. Those you solicit, and those that pop up spontaneously. I solicited one review for Alice at R’lyeh (at Grim Reviews). But discovering the odd spontaneous review that people put up — however brief — was a real joy. I’m still quite nervous of following links to any mention of Alice at R’lyeh, but am so glad when I do and someone has something nice to say. This one from Homo Sum, for instance — brief, but above all, it’s obvious the guy gets it. And knowing you’ve been “got” is, really, the best reward self-publishing can lead to.

Conventions & shows. I didn’t go to any conventions and shows myself, but thanks to the extremely lucky coincidence that I have a brother with a newly (and professionally) published book out, who very generously offered to put a bouquet of Alice at R’lyehs among the Rainbow Orchids on his table, I learned about the power of selling at conventions and shows. They are obviously the route to go. I don’t know if it’s just because people can see the product, or because the sort of people who go to conventions have curious minds and quirkily individualistic tastes, but Garen got through virtually all the copies I gave him, at a much faster rate than my internet sales.

The odd thing, to me, was that those shows were comics shows. I felt at first I ought to put a sticker on the booklets — “Warning: Poem! Not a Comic!” — but it didn’t seem to matter. Garen told me people were quite okay with it being a poem. And this is one thing I came to learn as part of the self-publishing experience, that different subcultures have very different attitudes to self-publishing. In the UK comics scene, there is a thriving self-publishing community, which sees the fact that something is self-published as a genuine plus-point. It actively welcomes the diversity of the sort of things people produce when they’re let loose on their own. Other areas, though, see self-publishing as an active minus-point, if not an outright automatic rejection. Searching for places to send a review copy of Alice at R’lyeh to, I often came across “no self-published work” notices, which started to annoy me as much as the “no fantasy, science fiction or children’s fiction” notices you find in The Writers & Artist’s Yearbook list of literary agents.

It’s sort of understandable, I suppose, given the context. A self-published comic is a very different thing from a self-published novel. A comic, for instance, has to be drawn, so takes a bit more effort and ability to produce. Also, as you, the punter, can take in the drawing at a glance, you can know instantly if it’s likely to be your sort of thing. (It doesn’t lead to an instant judgment on the story, of course. But if you don’t like the story, you’ve still got the artwork.) A self-published novel is more difficult to judge, and because it takes less skill to write a bad novel than to produce a bad comic, it’s statistically more likely that a self-published novel won’t be as good as a self-published comic. Still, I think there have always been various areas of culture more open to people doing their own thing. When I used to listen to Jazz FM (not being into jazz much, but my stepfather was), I was struck by how all jazz musicians accepted and complimented what each other did, however at odds it was to their own approach. It was a world in which everything was valid. Compare that with pop music, say, where you often get people dissing each other left, right, and centre. (I can’t believe I actually wrote “dissing”, but now I’ve written it, I can’t find a substitute. It may sound like I’m pathetically and outdatedly trying to be hip, but the word stays!) Anyway, there’s room for a whole blog post on that topic. Suffice it to say, I’m extremely grateful for the reception Alice at R’lyeh got from the UK comics community, considering it’s not a comic at all, but a poem.

Google AdWords. Google kept sending me these promotional offers to use £75 worth of free AdWords advertising. If you haven’t come across this, AdWords ads are those brief text ads that appear on the righthand side of Google searches, and also pop up in other places, like eBay. I thought, “Why not use it for Alice? It’s free!” So, keeping a careful eye on the amount I was spending (you can’t automatically cap the expense with AdWords, and in the end I actually went £5 over my free £75 because I realised I was looking at the wrong page on the AdWords control panel), I engaged in a fortnight’s Google AdWords campaign. It’s difficult to judge how effective this was, as I was also, at the time, listing on eBay. But I’d say, if it hadn’t been free, AdWords would certainly not have justified its cost for a small, self-published project like mine. Plus, I got annoyed every time I saw my own ad on eBay or Google — it was costing me!

eBay. After the conventions, eBay was my big seller. I’ve had more sales via eBay than via my website. The main factor here, of course, is that Alice at R’lyeh is a Lovecraftian project, and I suspect a lot of the sales were to people who look out for and collect Lovecraftiana. “Lovecraft” is one of my few regular eBay searches, so I just hoped there would be other people who did the same. Turns out I was right. Of course, the unfortunate thing here is that this doesn’t generalise to other projects. People bought Alice at R’lyeh because of its Lovecraft associations. They certainly didn’t, for instance, search eBay using my name (I didn’t even bother to put it in the headline description). So, I’m not sure how useful eBay would be for a more original project.

Those, then, were my approaches to promoting and selling Alice at R’lyeh. The main lesson, I think, is that each project will have individual quirks (in this case, the Lovecraft connection, and the illustrations giving it something of a comics overlap) which will help sell it, so each project has to be considered on its own merits. One thing you’ll notice missing from the above is any mention of Facebook or Twitter — I’m still getting to grips with social networking, so, obviously, those are pretty much untapped resources, for me.

The main thing about self-publishing is something that should be true about creativity in general. It should be fun. It isn’t always, and you can easily forget to enjoy it, but I think if you keep reminding yourself that it should be enjoyable, and use that as a guide to what to do next, then at least you know, at the end of it, that you made a profit in that sense, even if you didn’t financially.

(And I certainly didn’t make a profit financially. First off, I forgot to factor in PayPal and eBay fees, which wiped out the small margin I’d allowed for in my costings. Then the price of postage went up. Oh, and I indulged in a few “promotional items”, just for the hell of it, such as these mini-cards from Moo.com:

…And a t-shirt from yourdesign.co.uk, which didn’t really work. So I did an Edgar Allan Poe baseball shirt as well:

…which did!)

I’ll finish off by mentioning the two best moments of the whole project. One was each time I got an order from a new country. I ended up selling, as well as to the UK, to the USA, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Japan! (A real surprise, that last one.) I don’t know why, but there’s something inherently satisfying about putting those little mental flags around the globe. (I didn’t actually put Alice at R’lyeh flags on my World Domination Globe. Honestly I didn’t.)

The other great moment was when MorganScorpion contacted me, out of the blue, and offered to record a reading of the poem. Apart from the thrill of hearing the poem read so well, it was the fact that this was, as it were, an artistic/creative response to what I’d done, and it certainly capped the whole experience. (If you haven’t heard the reading, you can do so via the Alice at R’lyeh site, or to Archive.org, which also has other readings by MorganScorpion.)

Anyway, that’s the report. Thanks to everyone who’s bought or read the booklet, and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed the process of getting it out there.

(If anyone has written similar reports about self-published projects, please put links in the comments section, as I’d love to read them.)