Saint-Malo is the venue for one of France’s biggest comics conventions – bande dessinée, I should say –and Gary’s immediate reaction was to rush home, dump his groceries on the kitchen table, grab a few art samples, and drive to Saint-Malo that afternoon.
“Quite a few publishers said they’d take a look at anything I have to show them,” he told me. “So how about it? Do you want to write something and I’ll draw it?”
Did I? You’d have to hold me back with an electric prod. Gary is a fun guy to bounce ideas around with, his artwork is uniquely captivating and gloriously inventive, and I enjoy writing for comics more than just about any other medium.
After some brainstorming over Skype, I went back to Gary with a proposal for Jewelspider – a series of bande dessinée books set in Legend, the Dragon Warriors universe, some five hundred years after DW. Think Down Among the Dead Men’s Tudor world of magic and faerie and you’re not far off. I figured that the combination of flintlocks, faerie woods, rude mechanicals, half-timbered cottages and horror would suit Gary’s style to a T. Here's the overview:
A country a little like Elizabethan England. OK, a lot like. Only there is real magic and there are faerie folk. The heartless sort of faerie folk whose whims make a cat seem compassionate.
Twenty-five years ago at the village of Crossgate, a peasant woman called Mary Barley finds a child lying in the snow near the edge of Jewelspider Forest.
At the same time, the stillborn baby of Sir Roger and Lady Olivia Keppel, whose body was lying in Crossgate Church, is found to have been taken. The locals suspect the “ladies and gentlemen” of the woods, but the priest doesn’t want to hear that. When Mary shows up carrying a baby, he claims that it’s the Keppels’ child, who was only mistaken for dead. “A fox must have dragged him off, and the shock brought him round,” he says. “A miracle! Praise be!”
So the baby is raised as Lady Olivia’s second son, Pelagius. But the rumours of faerie origin persist and the child is undeniably strange. Soon Lady Olivia wants him gone from the manor. He’s given to Mary, who discards the name Pelagius and raises him as plain John Barley.
The years pass. “Gentleman” John Barley is an up-and-coming playwright with the Publican’s Players. As New Year approaches, the Players set out to perform a special play for the Earl of Netherford which they hope will earn them patronage. “We’ll soon be the Earl’s Players,” reckons the company’s manager, Francis Barnsbury.
On the way to Netherford, Francis has seen the opportunity to put on a Christmas play in Crossgate, not realizing that it’s John’s home village. John is not keen to go back. They arrive to find the village troubled by the disappearance of John’s one-time stepbrother Peregrine Keppel.
Before long, and very much against his will, John is investigating what happened to Peregrine and uncovering a macabre tale involving “Mad Dan” Duluth, the squire of the manor a hundred years before. Mad Dan and his henchmen, known as his three knaves, so terrorized the county that they are used to this day as bugbears to scare children. But John begins to suspect that, though dead and buried, Mad Dan and his knaves don’t rest as quietly as they should.
Before the curse can be lifted and the ghosts laid to rest, John will have visited the court of Faerie where he finally learns who his real parents were.
No doubt you will have spotted that the plot borrows from the scenario “Silent Night” which I ran on this blog one Christmas and which I later intended to use as the basis for an interactive story app. Only, this being fiction rather than a game or gamebook, that wasn’t what the story was really about. What interested me most was the Shakespearean career of John Barley, and how being a changeling gave him a special relationship with the world of the imaginary. Some deconstruction of the storytelling process itself seemed likely to feature.
Just as Will Shakespeare liked to mix comedy and high drama – the Joss Whedon of his day – I set out to create a similar blend. Horror on its own bores me; it’s too one-note. Humour helps to add the human dimension that makes the horrific elements more disturbing. And in regard to storytelling I always use disturbing in a good sense, of course.
That’s where Gary and I didn’t see eye to eye. So don’t get excited, because (as I maybe should have said at the start) this collaboration is never going to come to pass. Gary hates that whole Joss Whedon vibe, you see, and he felt the comedy elements I’d included, particularly with my Will Kemp like character Pip Cabbage, destroyed the suspension of disbelief.
Well, not every project comes off and that’s a hard truth you just have to get used to as a writer. Because the writing happens before everything else, you end up with an awful lot of abandoned fragments of development work. Jamie and I have got whole TV scripts and samples of novels that fell on stony ground and now languish in the attic or the far unvisited corners of our hard drives. I briefly toyed with finding another artist to work with, but it’s already a struggle finding the funds to pay Leo and Nikos to work on Mirabilis. I don’t really need another comic book to finance!
So here is that unfinished script. Too jokey? Or a fine blend of the humorous and the macabre? I leave it to you to decide…
Jewelspider Wood book one
A big panel, this, maybe top two-thirds of the page. Nice establishing shot.
A snow-covered landscape, late afternoon. In the left foreground we see thickly clustered trees – the edge of Jewelspider Wood. From there the land slopes down to a valley where the village of Crossgate stands in the middle distance beside a river: cottages, church and manor house. Smoke rising from the chimneys. Beyond, the hills sweep up again into the distance.
A peasant woman, MARY, is trudging up the hill in the foreground carrying a basket. Mary is in early middle age, which for the times and given her social class might mean her mid-30s. It’s bitterly cold – see her breath steam out on the wind.
Behind her, further down the slope, three peasant lads are chucking snowballs at each other.
Reverse previous shot, so we’re looking up the slope with the three lads in the foreground. Mary is a tiny figure approaching the edge of the forest.
Lad #1: Bet a farthing you wouldn’t go twenty paces into Jewelspider.
Lad #2: Nearly suppertime. I would else.
Mary looking down sadly at her basket, which contains just a few twigs. She needs more firewood.
View from behind Mary as she faces the immense, dark and forbidding wall of trees that marks the edge of the woods. We can sense that she feels daunted by it.
Mary has ventured a little way into the wood. Here under the trees there’s less snow – just what the wind has blown in, edging the dead leaves.
She’s stooping to pick up a bit of firewood, but looking all around nervously as she does so.
CU on Mary, startled as she turns towards the sound.
Sound effect: SNAP!
Mary looks down to see some broken twigs laid on the ground in the shape of a pointing arrow. It points back out of the woods.
Mary reacting to the sound of a baby crying out-of-shot (sound effect cutting off at edge of frame?) in the direction the arrow points to. Her hand to her mouth. Fear forgotten now – she’s only concerned for that lost baby.
Sound effect: WAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
Right behind her in the dark undergrowth – she’s not aware of them - are dozens of cat-like eyes and grinning fanged mouths. The faerie folk.
A faerie POV shot – we’re looking out from between the trees as Mary runs down the slope away from Jewelspider Wood.
Sound effect: WAAAAAAA
In a hollow in the snow, Mary comes across a baby (in right f.g.) lying on a blanket. She drops her basket in shock.
Mary: Oh, Heaven and all the saints!
New scene -- Outside the small village church in Crossgate. FATHER GULES (Patrick Magee; about 30 yrs old in this flashback) is berating the SEXTON. By the way this is the equivalent of roughly 1565 AD.
The church door is open and there’s an infant’s coffin lying on the path between them, on its side, lid off.
A small group of less than a dozen peasants has gathered to see what all the fuss is about.
Father Gules (gesturing at the door): Obviously you left it open. A wild animal --
Sexton (deferential but aggrieved): What wild animal? In Crossgate, Father? And I double-bolted it, I swear to that.
At the back of the crowd of onlookers, ROD arrives. He’s a 12-year-old with a shock of unruly red hair (which we will recognize immediately when we return here in 25 years’ time). He tugs the sleeve of a woman, who looks round.
Rod: What is it, Ma?
Rod’s Mum: The lady’s stillborn infant. Laid out in the church, poor mite, and something stole the body.
Back to the argument by the church door. Now Father Gules and the sexton have both rounded on OLD ABE, the gravedigger.
Sexton: The child should’ve been buried by now, anyway.
Old Abe: You take a pickaxe to this ground if you want. Like iron it is.
Father Gules turns to the small crowd of onlookers, one of whom is pointing up towards the woods.
Peasant: You know what’s took it. No wolf.
Father Gules: Enough of that talk! And none of you breathe a word of this up at the hall. If the lady –
Father Gules pauses in surprise at the sound of a baby crying from the back of the crowd.
Sound effect: Waaaa
The crowd parts to reveal Mary standing at the back. In her basket she’s cradling the child she found.
Father Gules: Mary Barley. Where did you get that child?
Mary: Found him, Father. Up by Jewelspider Wood.
Father Gules lifts the blanket to look at the baby.
Father Gules: It is a miracle. You have found Lady Olivia’s baby son – and he lives! Give thanks to God.
On Mary’s horrified expression as the basket with the baby is taken from her.
Mary: No. He’s not hers. Hers was dead. I found him!
(new bubble): No! NO!
Close-up on the exasperated face of “GENTLEMAN” JOHN BARLEY, mid-20s.
John: No no no no NO!
(new bubble): Feeling! Give it some FEELING!
A large function room over a pub, where the Publican’s Players are rehearsing. This is the equivalent of ~1590 AD. John and Francis have copies of the script.
It’s not a dress rehearsal – they’re in regular clothes, though DOUGAL GRATE (late-50s, old thesp, wild-haired Michael Gambon type), who is playing King Solomon, wears a crown and carries a sword. He ought to wear spectacles but he’s too vain, so he makes do with a squint.
FRANCIS BARNSBURY (late-30s, George Sanders type) is the company’s manager and pitches in playing bit parts as needed.
RICHIE BIGG (late-20s, Randy Quaid type) is a lumbering, easy-going hulk of a man who ought to be a bouncer rather than playing one of the women whose case has been brought to King Solomon. He’s the object of John’s ire.
PIP CABBAGE (mid-20s, a young Jeremy Piven) is playing the other woman. He’s the company’s clown, one of those guys who can’t go one minute without turning everything into a joke.
Richie: Sorry, John.
Francis (looking at the script): Can’t we simplify it a bit, love? All this “my son” and “thy son”... You’re going to lose the groundlings.
Pip pours himself a flagon of ale.
Pip: “Whoreson”, now that’d get a laugh.
John is impatient – he wants to get on with rehearsal. It’s not a play he’s especially keen to do, either, so Pip’s insouciance is doubly annoying.
John: Not everything has to be about getting a frigging laugh, Pip!
John grabs the tatty rag doll that they’re using as a prop and holds it up to Richie. He points to Pip, who is playing the other mother.
John: Look, Richie, the King – he’s going to cut the little perisher in half. Pip says it’s his kid. But it’s really YOURS.
Richie: I’m the father?
John: You’re the mother!
Pip: Ha ha!
Richie (looking at Pip): I can do feminine, thank you! I’m very in touch with my lady side. I just need direction.
Richie leans close to John for a confidential chat, but Dougal is right behind them.
Richie: John, the thing is... I’ll fling myself in there, mate. Take one for the nipper, God love ‘im. But couldn’t we get Dougal a wooden sword?
Dougal: I heard that!
Dougal draws his (real) sword and strikes a majestic pose. We see a glimpse of the sizzling brilliant actor he was ten or twenty years ago.
Dougal: What need have I of props? Gewgaws and fakery! Fifteen years I’ve trod these boards.
Dougal swings his sword in a wild sweeping arc. He’s very short-sighted. John and Richie duck just in time to avoid having their heads cut off.
Sound fx: SWOOSH
Dougal: Precision! Focus! Control! And you propose I brandish a whittled stick? Have you no appreciation of the thespic arts?
John: What about a pair of glasses?
Francis leads John aside, gesturing towards TIM and TAM, in the foreground, the company’s two midgets..
Francis: Glasses? John, love, next you’ll want a real gold crown.
(new bubble): If I showed you the accounts book it’d give you a bigger scare than the Welsh Play. We can’t even afford wires for the fairies to fly in on.
Seeing themselves talked about Tim and Tam come over with their copies of the script.
Tim: It’s not like we don’t appreciate the lines, John, but we don’t always have to play elves and goblins and that.
Tam: Yeah. We could be – you know, just little people.
Tam: Yeah. We could be – you know, just little people.
John is always considerate of everyone’s feelings:
John: Well, I –-
But Francis dives in with a frothy pep talk aimed at giving Tim and Tam the brush-off.
Francis: And you are. You are DEAR little people. But audiences today demand a faerie touch, a whiff of otherworldliness. It’s bums on benches, loves.
John looks back over his shoulder as he and Francis go out of the door.
John: Haven’t the heart to tell them they’re going to be playing cherubs.
Francis: Cherubs? In this weather? Brrr.
(new bubble): John, I’m sorry, I know the Old Testament isn’t really your thing. No scope in it for all your usual laughs and mayhem. But it’s what the Earl of Netherford expects.
Outside. They’re going down the steps into the pub garden. It’s a cold day in early December. Not snowing. The pub is in a town but it’s morning, and whatever clientele there is hasn’t spilled out to the garden yet.
Francis is warming to his theme, arms waving. John catches the eye of a SERVING WENCH who’s putting out trestle tables.
Francis: And if we get the Earl’s patronage, the sky’s the limit.
(new bubble): Terribly nice touch getting a baby into the story, by the way. Should go down well. The Earl’s wife is broody, so I’m told.
John helps the serving wench with a table. She smiles saucily at him. Francis doesn’t even notice as he goes to sit at another table.
John: Just as long as it wasn’t Moses being found among the rushes. That would’ve been too close to home for me.
Francis: Ah, yes. Your mysterious orphan past. I know better than to pry.
(new bubble): Not too scary with that Solomon scene, though, eh? Don’t want the ladies fainting, do we. Unless it’s for love.
Francis, still not noticing the flirting going on, is pouring a beer from the pitcher on the table.
Winking, John leans over the table to steal a kiss. The serving wench looks like she’s going to respond. No doubt John is thinking of her as he says:
John: Wait till you see the Queen of Sheba’s dance. Should be a real show-stopper.
(new bubble): Mind you, it’ll be Richie in a dress, so that’ll take the edge off.
Francis: Oh, I meant to say, you will get a chance to stage one of your gutsier plays after all. I’ve booked us a performance on the way to Netherford. Just a manor house gig to earn a few crowns.
John jerks his head round to look at Francis, who is holding out a flagon for him. The serving wench is left kissing empty air, lips still puckered but eyes wide in surprise.
John (pensive): Netherford..?
Francis: Yes. Rural folk, you know. They’ll appreciate the Gentleman John Barley touch. I thought “The Death of Pompey”. We’ll use the wax head from “King Herod”.
Extreme close up on John’s expression of shock and dismay.
Francis (out of shot): Crossgate Manor, it’s called.
(new bubble): Ever heard of it?