David Baillie is a freelance writer and artist, who has contributed work to 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine, such as the twist in the tale Future Shocks, and most recently the three-part series, The Ghostship Mathematica. As 2000AD offers one of the few open-submissions programs with its Future Shocks stories, so I was keen to interview David and find out about his experiences.
PCB Blog: Hi David – Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for my Blog – I am aware that you have a varied career as both a writer and an artist, but for this interview, I would like to concentrate on your work for 2000AD, particularly your Future Shocks. As an aspiring writer myself, I am very keen to hear about your experiences submitting work through the 2000AD Submissions system and the various processes involved.
1) So, let’s start from the beginning, what drew you into comics? Were there any series/books that appealed to you in your childhood?
David: I reckon I have quite a common growing-up-in-the-eighties life story. My first comics were Marvel UK reprints bought at the local newsagents for about 10p, I remember reading Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's first issues of X-Men chopped up into weekly instalments when I was five. They were mostly black and white, with occasional pink or green thrown in. Then I collected the Spider-Man weekly for a few years (which was about 98% US reprint) and then the Transformers comic (all hail Simon Furman), and then, finally, the one I never gave up on: 2000AD.
2) 2000AD is a fantastic place to get stories published and due to its anthology nature, there is a lot of scope for new writers to submit short stories with a twist at the end, known as Future Shocks, to the editor. What led you to submitting your first Future Shock, 'The Lie' to the magazine? And what exactly was the process and time-scale between writing, submitting and getting published?
David: Well I'd submitted a good few Future Shocks before that. It took a long time for Tharg to respond to them, which is the case pretty much anywhere that accepts unsolicited materials, and it was always a polite "No thanks." At the time I was writing, drawing and self-publishing my own comics and then selling them at markets and comic-cons and I always sent a copy of my latest stuff to 2000AD.
Matt Badham was writing a really interesting monthly column for the Megazine about UK small press comics, and when he quit that he handed in a list of people he thought might make good replacements. My name was on the list and I suppose Matt Smith recognised it and I got the gig. I wrote that column for about a year and then afterwards I started to pitch stuff a bit more regularly. I think having a working relationship with the comic probably helped - I wasn't yet another new name in the slush pile.
I had the idea for 'The Lie' maybe a year before I wrote it, but at the time I was reading one of Mike Carey's (brilliant) Felix Castor novels which had a similar father/daughter relationship, so I dropped the idea. I mentioned this to him in the pub and he told me to stop being an idiot and write the story. The first version was a bit more action-packed and revolved around a terrible secret that was never revealed. Tharg didn't like that, so I rewrote it with more exposition and less ambiguity.
According to my files first draft to acceptance was nine days, but like I said I probably started writing that one about a year before I pitched it.
3) How exactly do you approach the task of writing a Future Shock – do you tend to decide upon the twist and work backwards, or create a scenario and eventually place a twist on the ending, or does it all come together fairly organically?
David: I like to mix up my process. As soon as it feels like I have a routine way of doing something it starts to feel like a job and, being work-shy, that's no good. I've started with a twist and worked backwards on a couple of stories. I've also started with a premise and then played with it until I have a twist that works.
Tharg asked me for three Future Shocks in one go at one point last year and I didn't have anything ready to go, so I opened one of my ideas notebooks at a random page. There were some titles there with little or no premise attached, so I just took them and started to mess about, drawing mind maps and conjuring up images that might be interesting.
Once I took a typo I'd made in an email - 'downloan' instead of 'download' - which tickled me, and turned that into a Future Shock. The whole story seemed to be suggested by that one portmanteau
4) Do you ever feel that some of your Future Shocks are restricted to the shorter format, and could potentially spin out into a longer story? For example, in ‘The Lie’, you show a glimpse at a world where Christianity (or Xtian) runs a totalitarian regime, with the more technological outside world – due to the fact that you are writing towards a twist, there isn't enough time to explore this concept in more detail – do you ever consider dropping a Future Shock and expanding it into a pitch for a longer series?
David: I've had a chance at writing longer stories recently, so I feel like I have an outlet for both kinds of idea. I still really enjoy writing the four page stories - sometimes it feels like I'm practising a lost art! It's also great knowing that I only have one chance to explore a new world so I have to give it everything I've got. When a 2000AD-suitable idea pops into my head now I usually have a sense of whether I'll pitch it as a one-off or something longer.
5) Do you have any tips for writing Future Shocks? Are there any challenges or pitfalls that you found yourself falling into? One of the things I tend to struggle with is the pacing of the story and not wanting to tip my hand with the twist until the final few panels, normally resulting in a burst of exposition at the end.
David: Someone (I can't remember who, sorry!) said that a good way of writing Future Shocks is to put your twist on the first page - so it becomes the kicking-off point for the story, and then you need to work in some other narrative surprise for the climax. I think that's quite good advice.
I'd also avoid having characters conducting long conversations - you have approximately 20 panels to tell your story in and, comics being a visual medium, you don't want to spend too many of them on head-shots or panels which are overwhelmed by dialogue.
I know what you mean about the danger of ending with an exposition explosion. That usually means that some of that explanation needs to be hidden earlier in the story I think. Sometimes you just have to take the chance that the reader will guess your twist - as harrowing a proposition as that is! If anyone is going to guess a Future Shock twist it's going to be a 2000AD reader - they've read hundreds of them! (Although I have to say that Tharg always pushes for unpredictable twists!)
6) You recently completed your first multi-part story for 2000AD called ‘The Ghostship Mathematica’ which was very well received by critics and the online community, including myself. Did you find any major differences between writing a short one-off Future Shock and spreading it across three parts? Do you prefer either format?
David: I was so happy with how The Ghostship Mathematica went down with the readers. I even got fan-mail and calls from one of those American publishers - although Inaki Miranda and Eva de la Cruz deserve the lion's share of the credit for making it look so great.
I loved writing the cliffhangers at the end of each episode. I remember being a teenager, reading 2000AD and wondering how the writers came up with them - and as soon as I needed to do it myself, it felt really natural. (Which is perhaps a reflection on how good an apprenticeship writing Future Shocks is.)
It was also great to be able to spend nearly four times as long in a world than I usually get with a 2000AD story (15 pages instead of 4!). It meant I could play with some storytelling techniques that only come into play with multiple episode stories, like callbacks between episodes or revisiting scenes and characters that we'd only briefly met before.
7) Do you feel that there are any influences on your writing, or particular ideas you like to visit? I find that I'm drawn to the concept of time travel myself.
David: I love time travel stories but, for some reason, they take me forever to write! (So much so that I reckon it would be quicker for me to actually invent a time machine.) I have one in the drawer here that I've worked on and shelved three or four times. The giant ant time travel Future Shock I wrote last year took three or four attempts to get right too.
There are some themes that I keep coming back to - but I try to keep an eye on it. I really don't want to become repetitive. I'm fascinated by the idea of artificial life, robots, AI - and I'd have those things in everything I ever wrote if I was allowed. I'm drawn to stories of revolution and the righting of social injustices - but V For Vendetta tackled those issues so well you have to be careful to make sure you're not just rewriting those ideas.
I think it was Alan Moore, in a 'How To Write Comics' article from the 80's, who said that as soon as you become aware of your own ticks and obsessions you have to ditch them and find something else. (I'm paraphrasing, but I think it's good advice!)
8) Do you have any plans to write more Tharg's 3rillers, or even longer stories? And on that line of questioning, do you have any future projects coming up that you would like to tease?
David: I'm working on another Tharg's 3riller right now - my definitive take on revolution and the righting of social injustices! There are a few ideas that I really wanted to use at some point - some of them based on true stories and things I've seen myself, and I've thrown them all in here. Tharg green-lit it last week and I've been working really hard on the scripts, trying to make sure that it's absolutely as good as I can make it.
I've also been commissioned to write something longer, but in prose, but I'm afraid I just checked and I'm not allowed to talk about it yet. (It's not 2000AD or Rebellion related.) Those two projects are keeping me busy at the moment, but as soon as they're over I really want to try my hand at a longer 2000AD or Megazine series. I have a notebook full of ideas so it's just a matter of finding the one I'm most passionate about at the time.
9) Are there any established characters that you will love to write for?
I actually wrote him for the first time in a short story for the Megazine last month - and it was great to finally get to play with all the Mega City one toys. I wrote a Tales from the Black Museum a couple of years ago, which was set in Mega City One - but I didn't dip my toe very deep in the water. Although I did have a battalion of Judges show up in the climax, I suppose.
I'd love to write Johnny Alpha or the ABC Warriors, but of course that's never going to happen. Or Robo Hunter, even!
As I said my first comics were Marvel and I do have a lot of affection for those characters. I don't know who or what I'd want to write for them though. I have a lot of love for Vertigo too, after many teenage years overdosing on the work of ex-2000AD creators like Morrison, Milligan and Smith. You never know...
10) Are there any comics you are reading at the moment? Anything out there you'd like to recommend?
David: The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross is fabulous. If anyone hasn't read that they absolutely need to. (Also check out Suicide Risk while you're in the Carey section of your local comics emporium!). Jason Aaron's Thor is really fun. Valiant's reboot of Bloodshot has been exhilarating. I read the first trade of the Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye last week and really enjoyed it. Ed Piskor's Wizzywig was a thrilling ride through 80's hacking.
There are loads more but those are the ones that come to mind right now - I heartily recommend all of them!
Excellent Stuff. I look forward to reading your upcoming Tharg's 3riller and any more Future Shocks of yours that pop up in the Prog. Thanks for your time, David!
David is available via Twitter and his blog, DavidBaillie.net, which features examples of his artwork and his scripts, and is a really good resource for artists and writers. Hopefully, we will get to speak to David again when his new projects are out.