Sunday, 23 March 2014

Comics, Kickstarter and Unfinished City: An interview with novelist Ben Dickson

As a kid I read any number of comics from the Beano to Misty.  No preparation for a holiday in Cornwall was complete without the pre-requisite trip to the newsagent to stock up on comic books and magazines – doubtless a desperate parental attempt at keeping things quiet and peaceful between my sister and me for the eight-hour (traffic-gods willing...) journey down to the West Country.

Last week I found myself chatting to Bristol based graphic novelist Benjamin Dickson (@beniswriting) about his latest project, Unfinished City.  The conversation has decidedly rekindled my interest in the comic medium, not least because of his decision to fund the completion of the novel through Kickstarter.

Unfinished City is a crime drama set in former Yugoslavia co-written with Sylvjia Martinovic.  Dickson and Martinovic met whilst working at Studio Upstairs in 2007.

“We were both already writers and after a couple of weeks of getting to know each other we thought ‘Shall we do something together?’  Sylvjia said ‘Let’s do a crime drama’.  She had lived in Montenegro, in a town that, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation for crime.  I was up for it because the Eastern European setting was exciting and had an exotic edge.”

After two years of working on drafts and a further two years searching to find exactly ‘the right’ artist for the book Dickson and Martinovic teamed up with Croatian illustrator Robert Solanovic.

“We both really wanted an artist from the Balkans because they would be able to give a level of visual reality to the project that other artists couldn’t – they would know what plug sockets and street signs should look like.”

Despite commercial success (Dickson has already published four graphic novels and has a fifth coming out later this year - Santa Claus vs the Nazis) the team wanted to ensure they maintained autonomy in the production of this particular book.

Dickson says: “Unfinished City is unusual because it is a crime drama, told from a female point of view, in Eastern Europe, as a graphic novel.  To the best of my knowledge, that’s never been done before.”

Dickson has been interested in exploring the Kickstarter funding model and decided this could be an interesting route for Unfinished City.

Kickstarter, for the uninitiated, is a crowdfunding platform that enables you to set a financial target that you reach through investment from people on the net who are interested in seeing your project happen.  If the goal is reached within the time set then investors will receive a copy of the item – with larger backers receiving more ornate, specialised and bespoke copies.  If the goal is not met, investments are returned and, very sadly, the project isn’t funded.

For Unfinished City the Kickstarter funding will pay for the illustration of the book and pay for hardback and paperback copies that the backers will receive.

“Kickstarter is simply a means of completing the book and getting it out there to a first audience.  Once we’re there hopefully we can do more fun things with it.”

Dickinson says: “I won’t personally see a penny of the funding!  I’ll only make money of it if we exceed the goal and/or hopefully get a foreign language edition developed – this is very much a labour of love for me!”

It will take nearly a year to produce the whole book, however it has been written as a trilogy and will be released in three 48-page instalments (as per the French ‘Bande dessinee’ model).  Dickson and the team anticipate sending out PDFs of the book to backers every time an instalment is completed which they expect will be every four months.

Despite the drop off in comic sales and interest in the nineties Dickson feels there’s been a real resurgence in interest in the past 10 – 15 years. Dickson believe we’re now living in a second golden age of comics – but this is happening in bookshops and comic shops rather than on the newsstands as it did previously.

Historically the US and UK market have been pretty different – the US literally have the market on Superheroes.  Dickson explains that UK comics have tended to be more Action-Adventure for boys and drama and romance for girls but that what is happening now in UK comic development is pushing the boundaries of the medium even further.  Whilst you still won’t find many British superheroes, Action-Adventure is joined by more arty and socio-political work in comics today.

Reading the free 20-page sample of Unfinished City there is something decidedly European about this story which promises to progress into an increasingly challenging and tough crime drama.  Dickson warns readers not to be too quick to judge the fact that hero Nadja Djurkovic is a girl.

“It makes it a far more interesting story actually.  The fact she’s a she changes they dynamics but that’s not exactly a bad thing. There’s a particular moment at the end of the first part when I asked Sylvjia what she thought would’ve happened at that particular moment if Nadja had been a man.  She said, ‘They definitely would’ve killed him’. It’s a simple as that.”

Dark indeed...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

And miles to go before I sleep - Review of Almost Heaven: Travels thought the Backwoods of America

I have been travelling across North America for the past month or so - down around the South and then up and out to the West.

Well. Imaginatively speaking I have. I've been reading Almost Heaven: Travels through the Backwoods of America by journalist Martin Fletcher.

As a child I was fascinated by the USA and absolutely desperate to live there.  I stumbled across some stories a while ago that I'd written in Primary School which I'd set in the States.  Upon re-reading them I found had no idea where the places I named actually were. To be honest I assumed I'd made them up but some quick googling showed my childhood geography of the USA to be accurate, if not a little obscure.

As an adult I've travelled to North America a few times. Despite fears that my childhood crush may have been misplaced my visits have never been anything but awesome and awe-inspiring.  Right now I'm too poor and too busy with my studies to even contemplate making any transatlantic journeys so a bit of armchair travelling with Fletcher seemed like a reasonable substitute.

As the title suggests Fletcher is captivated by the more obscure and geographically remote places in the US.  He tells of Appalachian snake handlers who believe they live or die in their handling of venomous snakes by the will of god; he hangs out with a Cajun fur trapper and visits an alligator farm in Louisiana.  He goes to Texarkana - a town that straddles the Texas-Arkansas border and therefore, amusingly, has to have two of everything - two mayors, two councils, two police forces, two fire services, two court systems...

He tells of American communities that I'd never heard of before such as the Gullahs in South Carolina - descendants of freed slaves who bought land just after the Civil War and are still singing songs that can be traced back to a village in Sierra Leone. He meets Melungeons, a community of people who may be descended from original 16th century Portuguese settlers and visits towns like Muenster in Texas where German is still the first language for many of the older inhabitants.

I think for any traveller there is a sense that once you've been to a place a part of you belongs to it; you have a sense of connection that comes from having walked the roads and spent time with the people there. I know this is how I feel about the USA and in some senses I guess I looked to the book to confirm my belief about the America I have experienced and loved.

And Fletcher doesn't disappoint.  He tells tales of America and Americans that I recognise, of people and places that are impressive in their ingenuity and their eccentricity.  He does not however refrain from also showing the less flattering side of American society.

Threaded throughout the book is commentary and discussion about racism. Fletcher visits 'The World's Only Ku Klux Klan museum' and 'Redneck Shop' in South Carolina. He finds that Greene County in Alabama is 'in practical terms, as segregated now as it was in the 1950s. Blacks and whites live side by side but seldom mix.'  He meets Clarence Bradley who was wrongfully arrested and tried for the rape of a white girl in 1980. Fletcher describes the affair as the closest thing to a 'legal lynching' and believes it 'reveals the darkness that still lurks behind the peaceful and pleasant facades of some small American towns'.

Fletcher ends his journey near as damn-it in Idaho which is the childhood home of one of my very best friends and a place I've visited on a couple of occasions.  I saved the chapter because I wanted to savour going back there in my mind. The Idaho I am most familiar with, that I would most call home-from-home is a place of hippies and off-griders, people who are independent spirits and Fletcher does deliver some of that in this chapter.

However what I always forget about Idaho is that it is also home to the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and its political arm the Aryan Nations.  This penultimate chapter then was not necessarily the comforting read I was hoping for.

Fletcher undertook his journey in 1997 which is on the one hand a long time ago.  Recently we've been reminded in the UK of the institutional racism inherent in our police system that was uncovered by the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993.  But I can remember 1997.  I can remember 1993. It all seems too recent for such out-dated and out-moded views to have persisted even then.

As perhaps all great journeys tend to do, Almost Heaven challenged my view of a place that I am fond of and feel connected to and reminded me that none of us, wherever we are in the world, can rest easy in the belief that bigotry is a thing of the past. Whilst at times the roads we travel may feel almost heaven, the truth is that we are, sadly, still very far from any kind of equitable Eden.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Behind the scenes at the Bristol Improv Festival

Highlights from interviews with the Festival directors Andrew Yeoh and Nathan Keates and with Impromtu Shakespeare earlier this week at tech rehearsals at the Bierkeller Theatre.

 And a 'newsy' piece for UWE MA Journalism Multimedia news day:


Mayor presents BTA contributors with copies of book celebrating 25 years of friendship between Bristol and Tbilisi

First published on the Bristol Tbilisi Association website.

The Acting Mayor of Tbilisi, Sevdia Ugrekhelidze, celebrated the publication of Tbilisi City Council commissioned book on Saturday 8 March with a presentation ceremony at the Colston Hall in Bristol.

The book ‘A Bridge of Friendship – Between Mtkvari and Avon’ is filled with the personal stories of a number of people who have been involved in twinning links between Bristol and Tbilisi.

At the presentation the mayor met with a number of people who have contributed both to the relationship between the two cities over the past 25 years and to the content of the book.

Speaking to the group Mayor Ugrekhelidze said: “The most important thing is the friendship between the citizens of these cities.....the personal relationships are the spirit and soul of the connection. It is very hard for any book to adequately reflect such friendship.”

The mayor explained the book is an attempt to catalogue the projects and initiatives between the two cities over the past 25 years.

She said: “I was personally keen to meet all the people involved in twinning links between Bristol and Tbilisi. The book is as a result of the contributions of all of you present and a number of other people who could not be with us today.”

Mayor Ugrekhelidze highlighted the work of Professor Henry Parry and Paul Garland. She described them as: “pioneers....who laid the solid foundation for what has become a 25 year long relationship.”

The mayor concluded: “My hope is for many more good pages and chapters to be added to this friendship in the future.”

The book presentation occurred after a busy couple of days in which the Tbilisi delegation had met with, amongst others, Bristol elected Mayor George Ferguson. Ferguson has said he is very enthused about the relationship and has in principle committed to a return trip in October to Tbilisi when the city hosts their own jazz festival.

The delegation met with Andrew Kelly Director of the Bristol Festival ideas and John Hirst Chief Executive of Destination Bristol as well as key people involved in the Harbour Festival, Balloon Festival and the Arts Council. Ideas were shared and discussed about potential cultural and economic collaborations between organisations in Bristol and Tbilisi.

Mayor Ugrekhelidze’s words were translated by Nino Beglarishvili, Chief Officer of the Department of International Relations in Tbilisi’s City Hall.

Story by Rebecca Megson

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The News Minute//Vacancy: Poet Laureate wanted for tuberculosis

Just recording the piece I had published in February on the blog.

London, one of the world’s leading financial and cultural centres, is also known as the ‘tuberculosis capital of Europe’.
You may already know this, however it is a piece of health information that I like to pass on to as many people as possible.
I’ll be honest, I’m not doing this as a way of performing a sort of personal public health service, at least not in the first instance. What I’m looking for is a level of knowledge or awareness in the people around me.
What I get, repeatedly, is surprise.
Yet the description of London as the ‘tuberculosis capital of Europe’ dates back as far as December 2010 and, a brief Google search reveals, it has been used in UK headlines ever since.TB in badgers is more talked about in the UK than TB in humans, though the human version is on a par with HIV and Malaria as one of the top killers in the world.
Historically TB is thought to be one of the oldest diseases we have – with human bones from as far back as the Neolithic era containing traces of the bacteria. It was rampant in the UK in the 18th and 19th Century, across all classes of people including doctors and poets, giving it something of a Romantic reputation.
Advances in the development of a vaccination and antibiotic treatment of TB has enabled the UK to become complacent about a disease that for most people is now consigned to the history books. As Head of TB Surveillance for Public Health England, Dr Lucy Thomas says: “TB is a preventable and treatable condition” which is only life-threatening if untreated.
And yet. There are nearly 9,000 reported cases of TB in the UK. Whilst the latest report from Public Health England (PHE) shows that rates of TB have stabilised the number of cases is still significantly higher than the rest of Western Europe.
It is a disease these days of the dispossessed. Despite the mythology that all British cases are imported the UK Government state that eight out of ten Londoners with tuberculosis in 2012 were UK-born or had been living in the UK for at least 2 years prior to their diagnosis.
Those infected with TB are however likely to be living on the streets where a persistent cough, night sweats and weight loss are low priority on their list of concerns. Identifying people with the disease is hard enough, ensuring they complete the minimum 6 month course of treatment required is a challenge; knowing who else they have been in contact with is nigh on impossible.
Let’s be clear on a few things here. The nearly 9,000 reported cases of tuberculosis in the UK is tiny when you consider the global picture of 8.6 million new TB cases worldwide in 2012.But the latest, ugliest monster in the global village is the development of new, drug resistant strains of the disease. We’re not staring down the barrel of an epidemic right now in the UK but as MP Andrew George says “TB does not respect borders, and drug-resistant strains of TB pose a major risk to the health of the British people.”
TB was once a disease that we believed we could wipe out completely by the 1980s. Quietly, however, it has crept back into our dark, unseen and unloved corners, where poetry is not, as yet, to be found.

Monday, 3 March 2014

New beginnings or wanting to play out in the spring sunshine

March is a disgruntled month.  It overreaches, excitedly leaning forwards towards sunshine, warmth and long lazy days.  Mamma Winter reins it back, unmoved by tantrum clouds and dark stormy tears.

I feel much the same, disgruntled and ready to move forwards.  Moreso perhaps because the first part of this year, as I realised a few days ago, is all about endings.  Six weeks from now I will no longer have classes; ten weeks from now assignments from this term will be handed in, exams taken.  One final portfolio project to complete over the summer months and my MA will be completed.

And, with all the eagerness of a small kid just home from school, I'm heading for the door ready to go out to play without so much as a backward glance.  Tantalisingly the new writing life is breaking through the dull, damp top soil and gleefully I have been digging around in the mud to unearth it.

Last week I finished the first draft of a play I've been meaning to write for nearly two years.  I began work as a columnist on The News Minute, a new English language Indian news aggregation website, and had my first piece published.  A blog I wrote for a client has resulted in him receiving responses that could lead to new business.  The written word, in its myriad formats, is squarely front and centre in my life.

The end of the MA may be nigh but it's not actually here yet. There's plenty of daily plodding required before it is. Yet my eagerness to run forward and play out with my writing has me rushing around generating long excitable lists of things I want to do.

I want to re-edit some of the radio recordings I did last year and turn them into packages that I can publish on my *cough cough* still under development website.  (I want to develop my website). I want to grab hold of the access I currently have to filming equipment to make more short films on things that don't necessarily fit the narrow confines of my course requirements.  I want to start work redrafting my newly completed play.

Time vanishes before I properly get a chance to catch its tail and like the moody month of March I am reined back by Mama Winter.  She tells me I have to come home now, have a bath and get straight to bed. She says if I carry on like this there'll be tears before bedtime.

I can't say I'm thrilled by the prospect but I know there's sense in focusing on what is right now.  'Doing' has never really been my problem; it's the 'not doing' that I struggle with, doubtless stemming from the youngest child fear that if I don't stay up late and do everything there is to do then I'll be missing out on something Really Great.

And so I head off to pack away my lego and instead crack open McNae's Essential Law for Journalists,  pulling out my notebook ready to take notes..... multi-coloured felt tip pen, of course.