Black North is a new, 96-page gritty SF action adventure graphic novel from Mark McCann and Steven Austin which will soon be seeking crowdfunding. We asked Mark, an author and writer from Belfast, to give us the lowdown on how the project came about – and discover it’s a road hard travelled… In advance of the Kickstarter launch, 2000AD artist Steve Austin also sent over some great artwork and designs from this hard-hitting action tale, and his own take on the great-looking story…
Warning: String Language Advisory within the comic strip featured
DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY: Mark McCann
When downthetubes staple John Freeman asked me to write a director’s commentary, via our mutual friend Steven Austin, I had to check myself. “Don’t be self-indulgent,” I reminded. “This is about promoting the work.”
But removing the ‘self’ is impossible to do on this project, to an extent. Not because of my closet narcissism, but because despite a desire for humility, an attitude I’ve fostered since I got into writing comics, I can’t talk about the work without talking about how we got there. And that is a personal journey, more than a purely transactional one.
Comics, I should preface, is a field I never thought I’d penetrate, never mind court success in. Frankly, I feel lucky to be here. I frequently suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome,’ and a lot of the time I have a fear that I’m about to be found out.
This isn’t the sort of thing you’re supposed to tell people when you’re promoting a KickStarter, but I felt like lying about it wouldn’t do me much good either.
Straight up, I feel lucky to be here. Privileged that people have thus far enjoyed my work. In the small press indies and the mainstream, I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of praise. This hasn’t been hurt by my working with some of the best artists in the industry. Which also acts as a constant reminder, not only of how hard it is to get work in the mainstream, to network and work with such fantastic talents. But to beat out all the rampant competition for a seat at the very crowded table that is mainstream comics.
I repeat: I feel lucky to be here.
And if my childhood self could imagine that some thirty years on, he’d be engaged in the medium that makes him most happy, it would be so unbelievable as to be an alien concept. “It must be somebody else,” he’d say.
With this in mind, it was at Bristol’s Lawless con a year or two back, where lady luck once again shone on me. I was hungover, at a signing table with my good friend and comic book superstar Ryan Brown. He was sketching Dredd effortlessly for readers and I was selling copies of Sector 13, the fanzine I work for (and highly recommend) from my home town in Belfast.
Across from us, behind an endless line of fans queued for sketches, was Simon Bisley (largely responsible for my hangover), my pal Glenn Fabry, Dylan Talbot and Peter Doherty. To my right was the legendary Mike McMahon. To my left, the incredibly lovely David Millgate, and directly to my right, at the end of the table was a newish 2000AD artist named after one of my favourite wrestlers.
Steven Austin was penning some of the most beautiful Judge Death work I had ever seen. I commented on this, and we began a conversation. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I recall thinking Steven was a gentleman. Everyone at our table, with the exception of the Brown and myself – who were hideously hungover – was incredibly cordial. Again, I just felt lucky to be there. I never thought anything more would have come of it. Facebooks were traded. More drinks were had. We all went home after a grand weekend. Yet, it wasn’t ‘the end.’ Not yet.
Fast forward some months and Steven Austin comes on my podcast Considering Comic Books. Afterwards, we have a chat and agree that we’d love to work together. It just needs to be the right project.
I’m working on Esther: The Relique with Ryan Brown. A large US publisher is courting us, but we’ll inevitably have to drop out due to differences in direction. Ryan’s younger brother Adam, a fabulous artist in his own right, pitches one of my strips to 2000AD editor Matt Smith. Tharg accepts and we begin work.
Meantime, I’m working on a strip with Adam for ComicHaus editor, the tremendous Pete Genepool, along with strips for Sector 13 and FutureQuake with my frequent collaborators Patrick Brown and David Yeh.
My friend Glenn Fabry decides that we shall pitch Tharg, over coffee one day. We are accepted, though Glenn is going through his own personal Hell that year. I suspect on numerous occasions that his health will fail, and I doubt we’ll ever finish the project, (a year late, and I am delighted to be proven wrong).
I pitch Steven a straight Horror script, having been inspired by Image Comics’ Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell. We back and forth on the execution, then finally agree. I begin it as prose, my start in writing having been self-published novels, but it doesn’t fit.
This is largely because my own life is in turmoil. My marriage is collapsing due to my wife’s triad illness’, my inability to cope with them all. That, and an ongoing battle with depression. The horror script feels too close to the bone.
I begin counselling, feeling this will help my marriage and decide to get medicated. During this period of healing I read and re-absorb much of the material that I loved and continue to love from earlier periods in my life. I revisit those touchstones of my past, searching for that gratifying distraction that has been missing. During a numbing period, I fall back on philosophical consolations; those simple pleasures that keep oneself buoyant, during the flood of other anxieties.
I re-read the Dredd mega-collection. Re-watch old John Carpenter movies. Read fantasy books. Consume a slew of 1980’s horrors and sci-fi in all mediums. As I’m doing this, I try to remember the last time I was genuinely excited by this sort of material in comics. I can sift small gems, like Kek W and Dave Kendal’s “Dead World”, James Roberts’ stellar sci-fi work on Transformers or Al Ewing’s The Immortal Hulk. But largely I feel unfulfilled by much of what is on the market, and I have dabbled weekly.
Over weeks, I take time parsing this from what I suspect could be the effects of a lingering depression. It’s my eventual concession that it’s a legitimate take. 2000AD, the DC Vertigo line, Heavy Metal, French publishers Humanoids, even Marvel and DC mainstream were so much riskier and more interesting two decades gone.
This is both melancholy and galvanising. Then it occurs to me that when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made their greatest movies it was in homage of the serials they had beloved as children. What are we as creators, if not custodians of wonder? Transporters of spirit-lifting ideas. I’m a writer. Why aren’t I doing something about it?
Having always loved Dredd’s dystopian universe I decide to follow my instinct to write a dystopian Northern Ireland. Fellow Ulsterman Garth Ennis’ Emerald Isle stories always left a derogatory taste in my mouth, yet I’m in love with the post-apocalypse and that particular universe.
I write and pitch Black North, the story of an ex-military mole, working within the infrastructure of a triad super-power based in a walled off future Ulster. It’s a six-page short story, but I think it’s got legs and could work within Sector 13 or Judge Dredd: The Megazine.
Sector 13 fear it’s too close to home and Tharg doesn’t respond, I suspect due to it being open season for submissions. Either way, no one’s interested.
My wife’s illness is stabilising. Our relationship is slowly mending and I am very slowly regaining a foothold on my life. Amidst this, I can’t get the idea for Black North out of my head.
My friend and local comic shop proprietor Aaron Flanagan suggests we should do something together, with him acting as publisher. I write a four-page treatment of Black North as a 96-page graphic novel. Character profiles. Technology. Environment. The full world-build.
Aaron reads and loves it. With this encouragement I contact Steve. He reads my treatment and similarly signs off on it. Things are starting to move.
We agree this will be a project rooted in our love of all those things that now seem so safe, or too taboo to tackle. Edgy sci-fi, philosophical horror, characters that refuse to pander to a creeping political correctness. A story that is at once entertaining, suffused parallel with a deeper lining. Something that asks you to think but doesn’t tell you what to think.
Time moves quickly.
Having seen Steve’s character work and interior pages from their inception to completion, I have no doubt that this book will be visually stunning. The addition of the sage Dave Evans of FutureQuake press in the dual roles of editor and letterer give the project gravity.
John Burdis, 2000AD super-fan, keeper of the Cellar of Dredd and staple on the Everything Comes Back to 2000AD podcast adds a legitimacy, bringing his military expertise to the action set pieces and soldiering semantics of the script.
And finally, there’s me. A writer who frequently suffers from imposter syndrome and feels genuinely lucky to be here. Pushing an idea born out nostalgia. Assembled among the mess of personal trauma. Forged out of a joint love of the genre and the medium.
I can’t think of a project that has spun more deeply from the hearts of fans. Everyone involved has worked to make this project as good as it can be, not just out of professionalism, but because they felt passionate in the making of it.
That’s why in talking about the work, it inevitably became personal. These things are personal. For me, it’s because this sort of fictional reprieve helped me so many times in my life, to escape the pain or mundanity of my ordinary life.
I think this is why we as fans chase the extraordinary. For that escape. The security of another world. So, it is personal. This is a personal project from we, the fans, for you, the fans.
We’ve invested that part of ourselves that love’s the unrestrained and the extraordinary in it and hope you will feel that when you consume the material. Because we, like you, want material out there that we can fall into and escape in. our Kickstarter is coming soon. We hope you’ll join us.
• Check out Black North on Kickstarter here – a six page preview below!
DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY: ARTIST STEVEN AUSTIN
Having been a lifelong fan of comics, getting into the industry came late for me. I was 43 when I decided to take the plunge and leave a career I was doing well at but hated behind. The birth of my first son and a chance meeting with a childhood hero was the impetus that launched me into something I’ve always wanted to do but for various reasons have shied away from.
Having decided to make the move it made sense to cut my teeth in the small press and hone my skills, see if I had what it takes. Could I tell a story? Meet deadlines? I didn’t bloody know.
My first work was for the Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel. The publisher of this small press anthology, Owen Watts, approached me via the 2000AD forums where I was regularly posting submission work I was preparing to send into Tharg. I found the storytelling came quite naturally to me, polishing my sketchy style wasn’t quite as simple. I’d basically given up on the art many years previous and only ever pulled it out at after parties, stoned, following a night out with friends, “Tell me what to draw”! I’d say!!
Following the strip for PJoTT I was well and truly bitten by the bug. I began to submit regularly to Tharg and as soon as I would receive a reply turning down my latest attempt but offering some advice I’d frantically start working on the next, all the while drawing as many small press stories as I could for PJoTT, FutureQuake, Zarjaz, BombScare and other independent comic anthologies.
Finally, I got my break with 2000AD, following a Judge Dredd story I drew for Zarjaz and submitted to Matt Smith for review. It was greeted with enthusiasm from the Mighty One, who stated he’d like to see more of my work. I showed him another strip I had just finished for FutureQuake and he said he’d be in touch.
Fast forward six months and I received my first script for a “Future Shock”! Since then, I’ve drawn “Time Twisters”, a “Black Museum” story, a couple of “3rillers” – and have just completed my second Dredd cover.
I love what I do, but, don’t do nearly enough of it, so that’s why, when I had a chance encounter with Mark McCann at Lawgiver 2018 and we discussed the possibility of working on a project together, I jumped at the opportunity.
If I’m honest, I was unfamiliar with Mark’s work at the time but him and I hit it off straight away and I knew he was somebody I could effortlessly collaborate with.
Mark initially sent me a horror script and although I liked the sound of it, I wasn’t entirely sure it was something I would want to draw, it was a slow burner and I really wanted to get my teeth into some action. We bounced ideas back and forth for the horror script, but I don’t think the energy for it was there, at least not from my part.
Things went quiet between Mark and I for a while and then one day, during a catch up, he mentioned the idea for Black North.
This was a different beast altogether, I was gripped, excited, and straight away, could see its potential. It is a dark, gritty, grown up sci fi thriller that as a fan I would love to read.
This enthusiasm was shared by all involved and I set about drawing six initial pages we would use to promote a Kickstarter. The pages introduce the main characters and set the scene for the story, they’re essentially a trailer.
We’re releasing one of the pages every day on social media leading up to the release of the Kickstarter on Saturday 8th June and we truly believe, and hope, that they will be met with the same enthusiasm we have for the project. As avid and lifelong 2000AD fans it is a story for the fans, by the fans.
• Black North launched on Kickstarter on Saturday 8th June 2019 | Check out Black North on Kickstarter here
BLACK NORTH: A PREVIEW
Warning: String Language Advisory within the comic strip featured
• Black North launches on Kickstarter on Saturday 8th June
Black North © Mark McCann, Steven Austin and Dave Evans