Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Superhero Supermarket

I'm delighted have a new story in issue 34 of Storytime Magazine, with wonderful accompanying artwork from Josh Cleland. And it's on the cover too! Linked to the story and amazing illustrations, there's a cracking piece on the Storytime blog calling for more diversity in stories.

Storytime is a  beautifully produced illustrated story mag for kids. It's full of Fairy tales, fables, myths, poems & more all designed to help kids fall in love with reading!

Have a quick flick through issue 34...

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Stowaways

Last year, myself and artist Mhairi M Robertson, worked with Primary 6/7s in Ardgowan Primary School Greenock, to adapt a local story into a comic. The story we chose to adapt, was the tragic tale of the Stowaways on the Arran; seven young boys hid aboard a ship for Canada in 1878, and were horribly mistreated by the crew, before being left to fend for themselves on the ice fields of Newfoundland. Not all of the boys survived the ordeal.

The tale has been told many different times locally, but we chose to adapt the text of Greenock writer John Donald, who had published his version in 1928 in the book The Stowaways and Other Sea Sketches.

Our work with the class was great fun, and in addition to helping us break down the story into the eventual script for the comic, the kids also created their own comics about being stowaways.

Just before launching the book in January 2017, I thought I would see if we could get a bit of wider interest in the story and the project, and so contacted a journalist at The Scotsman. Alison Campsie did a really nice story previewing the book, but also exploring the tragic history of the stowaways.

The Scotsman story, was read by a lady called Nancy Banner, a resident of New Hampshire USA, and the great granddaughter of one of the boys, John Paul. In fact, her own father, was named after John Paul. Nancy contacted us to ask if we could send a copy of the book, and of course, we were delighted to do so.

At the book launch for The Stowaways, in January 2017, I told the kids about the amazing connection that had been made by retelling the story. Our local paper, the Greenock Telegraph were along on the day, and spoke to all the kids about their work writing the book. This story, was read by another branch of John Paul’s family, living down in Southhampton where he had eventually settled. They had never met the American part of their family, and so got in contact with Nancy, to explain lots more details of family history, including the fact that poor John Paul had been buried in an unmarked grave. Together, the family resolved to locate the burial plot of John Paul, and next year, 150 years after the tragic voyage of the boys on the Arran, John Paul will finally receive a gravestone, which celebrates how the survival of one wee boy is remembered generations later by his grateful family.

We were then contacted by more descendants of the family, by writer Patrick Collins who had written his own version of the tale and we heard from Don MacInnis, the great grandson of the woman who took The Stowaways in at Newfoundland. Don hopes to have a plaque mounted for the boys next year. All these people, connected by one story.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in lots of wonderful history and heritage projects over the years, you can never tell where a project will end up or how it will be received. This one surprised us all. It’s proof, if any were needed, about the wonderful power of stories to connect people. The whole time we worked on this project, I thought we were telling a story, but it turned out, we were in one

You can now read The Stowaways for free online.

Read more about Magic Torch Comics work with schools and community groups.

The project was funded by Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland, as part of the Heritage Inverclyde A Quest for Learning programme, an Inverclyde Council project delivered by Inverclyde Community Development Trust.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Superpower Christmas

With the help of a wisecracking, steampunk robot, two accidental superheroes discover that they have inherited some amazing, if unusual, abilities. Computer whiz Megan can fly (mostly sleep-flying, but she's working on it) while her best friend Cam can (in theory) transform into any animal, but mostly ends up as a were-hamster. Together they must protect the source of their ancestral powers from a wannabe evil mastermind and his gang of industrial transformer robots who've disguised themselves as modern art installations on their Greenock estate. It isn't easy to balance school and epic super-battles, not to mention finding time to search for other super-talents and train with their Mr Miyagi-esque were-tiger coach. Can Megan and Cam beat the bad guy, defeat his robot transformers and become the superheroes they were born to be?

In early drafts of The Superpower Project, I tried a couple of different ways of having a chapter set around Christmas time. Ultimately, both got chopped during editing because they didn't really fit. As a festive treat, I thought I would share a bit from one of them.

If you haven't read The Superpower Project, this is exactly the sort of action-packed malarkey you can expect to find on every page of this ideal Christmas stocking filler! You can read the first few chapters for free on the Discover Kelpies website. And if you remain unconvinced, why not read these lovely reviews on Toppsta.

In this 'deleted scene', Megan and Cam have been asked to rescue someone called Wilf from the top floor of an abandoned hi-flat which is being demolished during the Christmas holidays...
The hi-flats stood on a steep hill overlooking the river. There were dozens of blacked out windows, randomly smashed, like row upon row of bad, broken teeth. The buildings were fenced off, and due to the demolition, there were police cars stationed at either end of the street.
‘I'm not sure how we are getting in John,’ said Megan. 'Looks pretty busy down there.’
‘I know a way around the back and under the hill,’ said John. 'You two can get inside and quickly fly up the stairs.’
‘Can't we just take the lift?’ asked Cam.
‘All the power's off. Wilf will likely be up on the thirteenth floor,’ said John. ‘It's been quiet up there for years. That’s his favourite place.’
‘All thirteen floors?' said Cam. ‘This is a nightmare.’
‘Suppose he won’t come with us,’ said Megan.
‘He will, he’s not stupid, just tell him I sent you.’
‘You're not coming?’
‘No, TJ and I are going to wait nearby, just in case we need to try and slow down the demolition.’
‘How,’ said Cam, ‘are you guys suddenly bomb disposal experts?’
‘There will be some wires,’ said TJ. ‘We will just pull out the wires.’
Megan and Cam stared at them both, unimpressed.
‘Well it will be a little more scientific than that,’ said John, trying to reassure them.
‘You said we would pull out all the wires,’ said TJ.
‘Yes,’ said John. ‘But obviously we’ll pull out the wires to stop it exploding. Not the wires to start it exploding.’
‘How will we know which is which?’ asked TJ. ‘Will there be labels?’
‘Y’know what? Let’s go,’ said Megan. ‘Before this plan gets any worse.’

The stairway was covered in rubbish and rubble, here and there, bits of old cable poked out from the walls. Megan dodged and weaved her way ever upwards, round and round, in and out. All the way to the thirteenth floor. She stepped out from the stairwell into the corridor and set frog Cam down on the floor.
‘I'm really dizzy,’ he said as he turned back into himself. ‘That was like the waltzers. Only worse.'
‘Wilf!' shouted Megan. 'Wilf are you here?’
There was nothing but the darkness, and the distant rattle of wind against broken windows.
‘There's an open door over there,’ said Cam, pointing. ‘All the others are boarded up.’
The two of them walked slowly towards the door.
‘Wilf? Is there anyone called Wilf here?’
There was no reply. They stopped outside the door.
‘Okay,' said Cam. ‘Hands up if you think we should go in to the pitch black room on the thirteenth floor of the abandoned building?’
‘Suppose he's hurt,’ whispered Megan.
‘Suppose we get hurt,’ said Cam.
‘Let's just be ready,’ said Megan. ‘We can do stuff like this remember?’
Together, they walked into the tiny hallway inside the front door. Another door stood directly in front of them, hanging off at the hinge. Megan pushed at the broken door and it squealed open. The room was empty, except for an old mattress under the window. On the mattress, was a cat.
The cat miaowed and wandered over to Cam, rubbing itself against his legs.
‘Wilf's a cat?’ said Megan.
‘Makes sense,’ said Cam, ‘I suppose. Let's grab him and go.’
As they made their way back out to the stairwell, there was a massive bang, then a metallic crunch. Both of them thought exactly the same thing at the same time, ‘The building's getting blown up early!’
Megan opened the door to the stairway, and they began to run down the steps. Something was blocking their escape route. Something made of shining black metal, forcing its way up the narrow stairway, bending wires and cracking walls as it came.
‘Resilience!’ said Cam. ‘Why is Resilience here?’
‘Who cares! He’s hardly here to help is he? Back upstairs!’
Scarcely moments ahead of the lumbering robot, Megan and Cam burst back onto the thirteenth floor.
‘Okay...okay....good news? Building isn't exploding yet, it's just Resilience. Bad news? Resilience is here.’
Megan was holding onto Wilf, who seemed to be taking all of this in his stride. ‘What do we do Cam? I could fly us out the window?’
‘You can’t fly down the outside, someone might see,’ said Cam. ‘There’s a webcam filming the demolition.’
‘Well what then?'
The banging and scraping from the stairs suggested Resilience had almost squeezed his way to the top.
‘Got it,' said Cam, ‘we go down the lift shaft!’
‘Down a lift shaft? Won’t it be all jaggy wires?’
‘So be sure not to hit the jaggy bits,’ said Cam. ‘Seriously. You could end up with tetanus or something. My mum made me get an injection. Fly steady.’
Megan glowered at him, ‘Yes. Well that will be much easier now, I’m sure.’
Cam had already kicked the plan into action, and having turned into a gorilla, he was pulling the rusted lift doors apart with his massive arms.
As Resilience smashed through the stair door, Cam once again shrunk down into a frog, and Megan scooped him up and popped him in her pocket. Holding tight to Wilf she jumped down into the dark of the lift shaft, swooping down towards the basement level.
Above she could hear Resilience banging towards the opened lift door. She looked up to see him peering down, perhaps deciding whether or not to jump.
If he jumps down, thought Megan, he will totally squish us, there's no way we could move in time.
The robot began climbing down the lift shaft towards them. They were now at the bottom, and Cam had once again hopped out of Megan's pocket, and turned gorilla to force the other lift door open. This one was much stiffer however, and with so many changes, Cam's strength was weakening. Resilience kept climbing.
‘Cam quick! Please!’ said Megan.
Suddenly, the door was torn open from the other side. TJ stood, holding the broken door and a handful of wires, ‘I do not think these were the right wires,’ said the robot, ‘I think we should hurry.’
Megan, Cam and TJ tumbled out of the concrete shaft and down the thorny hillside as the first of the explosions went off. On the hill above, the hi flat gracefully collapsed in on itself, in a huge mushroom cloud of dust and rubble. The nearby streetlights flickered and popped. In every window, the glow of Christmas lights disappeared. The town was suddenly dark, and totally without power.
‘There really should have been a label on the wires,’ said TJ.
The Superpower Project is available to buy online...

Monday, 7 November 2016

The Skeleton Key

There's a war on. Well, two wars really. There's the one everyone knows about with soldiers and bombers and there's the other one, with spells, magical swords, zombies and giant ravens.

The Rowan Tree Legion are here to help us win both.

The Skeleton Key is a new all ages comic by myself and Mhairi M Robertson, and the easiest way to describe it would be "Dad's Army with witches". We have been working on it for AGES so it's great to finally be able to share it with folk. Skeleton Key is now available from the Magic Torch Comics shop.

There is also a new edition of Mhairi and I's first publication, Wee Nasties, an early years book which introduces younger readers to some of the folk characters of Inverclyde. That's available from the Magic Torch Comics shop too.

In other comic news, I'm delighted to be presenting at the From Heritage To Creativity Workshop : Inspiration For All event, in association with Scotland's Urban Past and the #DareToDream storytelling festival. I'll be talking about some Magic Torch Comics projects, and then Andy and I will be helping folk create their own comics in the afternoon.

And I'll also be along at the awesome Edinburgh Comic Art Festival on Saturday 26th November, presenting on Community Comics and Cultural Identity.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Galoshans and Beyond...

I love this time of the year, autumn into Hallowe'en and then straight on til Christmas. So I'm especially pleased to be out and about a bit over the next few months. If you are around, why not come and say hello.

On Friday 28th October, I'm in Greenock Central Library from 4 - 5, sharing some spooky tales as part of the Galoshans Festival.

On Saturday 29th October, I'm hopping on the ferry, to take part in the Dunoon Book Festival - actually on Dunoon pier!

November is of course Book Week Scotland, and I'm delighted to be popping down to Eastgate Theatre in Peebles on Wednesday 23rd November, for the Read-A-Licious book festival. Then it's off to Johnstone Library on Thursday 24th November to meet the Chatterbooks, with a wee detour via Inverclyde Academy school library to chat with their awesome comic club.

I was delighted to read some really lovely reviews of The Superpower Project on Toppsta, a review site which encourages young readers to post reviews. It's a smashing site, and a great way to discover new books too.

And finally, Mhairi Robertson and I have a new graphic novel out this month, The Skeleton Key, which is ideal all ages reading for the season of the witch...basically, Dad's Army, but with witches. You can get your hands on a copy from Saturday 29th October at the Dutch Gable House from 2pm, and it will be available to purchase online shortly afterwards from Magic Torch Comics shop and via amazon and comixology. Mhairi and I also have a new edition of our first book Wee Nasties out this month too.

Enjoy going your Galoshans...what's that? What's Galoshans?! It's a folk-play, traditionally performed around the houses on Hallowe'en and other seasonal occasions. Magic Torch have been part of a Heritage Lottery supported project to help rekindle that tradition in the Inverclyde area and I've created a new version of the play, which you can read, download and perform for free. The project is part of the wider Galoshans Festival happening 29th / 30th October in Greenock.

Merry Galoshans!

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Largs Viking Book Festival

By Odin's beard, it's Largs Viking Festival time again!

Always a cultural highlight - there's lots to see and do, you can check out the full programme online.

This year, I'm delighted to be taking part in the Viking Book Festival. I'll be at the Woodhouse Hotel on Sunday 28th August at 7pm, discussing comics, folklore and heritage - with a sprinkling of spooky stories and Superpower Project.

There's loads of cool events at the Book Festival, but if I had to pick another "must-see" it would be an afternoon of polite Viking Mayhem with fellow Kelpies authors Robert Harris and David MacPhail - you can catch them on Sunday 28th August on the Festival Stage at 3.30.

Hope to see you at the festival.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Weed Gatherers

Red Weed by John CB2

It being August, I always like to remember HG Wells Martian invasion from The War of the Worlds - still my favourite book. Here's a wee fragment of backstory from something I'm tinkering with...

For the first few years, the prevailing wisdom was that rural communities had suffered less during the Martian invasion. The Martians had largely concentrated their efforts on cities and suburbs, and that is where the greatest physical destruction took place. The destruction of our countryside was more subtle, less immediate.

Certainly, the Fighting Machines which had travelled further afield to create outposts had churned up or burned huge swathes of rural land, and several Martian cylinders had also crashed – by accident or design – in areas such as Cornwall, or even further north in Lancashire. It’s also true, that after the war, country estates suddenly emptied, with their city owners either dead or indebted amid the financial ruins of London, there was no management of the land. Labourers walked across country to find work anywhere they could, leaving ghost villages behind them. But this was not the problem either. It was the red weed - that bitter Martian frond, which spilled out across the world, strangling water supplies and spoiling crops and fields.

The red weed’s life cycle is brief, but relentless. It spawned and died during that terrible August and September of the invasion. But unlike the Martians, the weed returned with a vengeance at the start of the following year. It destroyed any chance the country had of farming its way out of the famine that had endured since the end of the war. It became clear the weed would have to be effectively and aggressively managed. Suddenly, there was work to be done in the countryside once again, and itinerant families returned, including many who had left for the cities during industrialisation.

Weed is gathered in a number of different ways, but there is currently no mechanised or industrial approach, as any machinery is instantly snarled and sheared by the density of the red roots. Instead, teams of workers haul the weed directly out of the ground – almost like a game of tug of war with the earth itself. Where the weed is regularly kept in check, this is a time consuming, but straightforward process. In situations where the weed has overtaken the land to a severe degree, the work is harder and more dangerous – fire and paraffin must be administered to weaken the weed prior to any removal.

Once torn from the ground, the weed must be incinerated completely. This is generally done in huge metal barrels sunk into the ground of each farm, and the fire will burn for many weeks. The determined nature of the weed is such, that even at this stage, it can spore and crawl from the furnaces. These flaming tendrils are often a source of amusement for local children – long fingers of flame, clawing their way out of the pits. Older children will dare one another to jump over them, risking tragedy.

Not all the weed is burned of course. Each farm will be able to sell small amounts to nearby towns and cities, cut and frayed to create weed ribbons for display during war commemorations, or dried and fashioned into lapel pins. This is skilled work, most often performed by women and I observed many groups of them around the country. All of them sing “loo-lally” as they tear and weave, appropriating the howls of Martian language into work-songs. The red stained fingers of the weed seamstresses mark them out as artisans. Only too recently have we come to realise what else their exposure to the weed will mean.
There's more Martian fun on the blog...you can read my Wind in the Willows / War of the Worlds mashup from a few years back, or enjoy Loola of Mars by myself n Mhairi.