The Big Idea: Alex de Campi
And now for something a little different: The Big Idea focuses primarily on books and their authors, but I think it’s fun to mix things up from time to time and hear from folks trying new ways to tell their stories and get them out to readers. Alex de Campi, along with her collaborator Christine Larsen, are doing just that with Valentine, their tale of intrigue, war, and mystical creatures, set in the year 1812. Why 1812, and what new thing is being brought to Valentine? I’ll step back and let de Campi take it from here.
ALEX DE CAMPI:
It all started with the map. Well, to be honest, it really began with my being a contrary little miss who didn’t like dolls, who forced my father to seek out compendia of folk tales as souvenirs for me when he was on business trips to places American daddies didn’t tend to go in 1979: Leningrad, Romania, Shanghai. But the map was the catalyst which brought Valentine to its crackling, electric existence. Not bad, for an accident.
The map is Minard’s 1869 “Carte Figurative des Pertes Successives en Hommes de l’Armée Française dans la Campagne de Russie 1812-1813”. It fell out of a book on quantitative information that I bought. Now, you can say Napoleon lost 90% of his troops in the retreat from Moscow in 1812, but when you see it in Minard’s mix of statistical chart, temperature scale (“-30 le 6 Dicembre”) and route map, it manages to bring home the sheer stupidity and horror of that campaign in a way that simple words can’t. In short: Napoleon marched half a million men into Russia one summer, and made it all the way to Moscow. There he dithered, trading letters with the Tsar, until – too late, too late! – he decided to leave for better-provisioned quarters. By the time his army limped across the German border, there were barely 50,000 men left.
Why had an otherwise brilliant military commander made such a catastrophic error? And why, while we’re asking uncomfortable questions, do so many cultures have such similar folk stories about mythical beings, undead, faeries and so forth? There was clearly an almost universal agreement, centuries ago, that magic and magical beings existed, and it can’t just be blamed on superstitious people needing an explanation for thunder. How do unicorns explain anything? Whither vampires, from the Arabic ghūl, Indian vetalas, Romanian strigoi and Ashanti asanbosam, to sparkly chaps who chastely fulfil certain young ladies’ penetration fantasies? The biggest lizard in Western Europe is a shy little Spanish fellow who grows to eighteen inches at a push. How in blazes did we end up with dragon stories, then?
Napoleon’s retreat from Russia gave me this richly atmospheric, under-utilised setting to tell Valentine, which in big terms is the story of how magic has drained out of the Earth as it aged, and how certain magical creatures were stuck on Earth because they, like Napoleon, dithered too long as the shadows of autumn’s age lengthened.
1812 is a good year for such a story. It’s sufficiently after the Enlightenment that my characters are not overly superstitious people, or at least not more than soldiers usually are. Europe has been at war with itself for long enough that a comparatively young man of 24 might easily have been a professional soldier for seven years. Placing the beginning action in 1812 also allows me to indulge in a particularly wonderful narrative twist, about which I shan’t say more.
That is where Valentine begins: two cavalrymen, their horses long dead, become separated from the main army by a blizzard as they scavenge for food. A package is given to them by a dying general, with orders to get it to French high command. Soon they find themselves pawns in a desperate rush for home by the marooned creatures of wonder, for whom every further day on Earth means one more step towards becoming stuck in the leaden forms they inhabit, the way each day of winter grows shorter by a hen’s stride until, for those far enough north, the solstice arrives and the sun deigns not rise at all.
Minard’s map, in the end, provided only a beginning – don’t pick up Valentine if you expect the entire story to take place during the Russian campaign. I could write an entire book on the retreat from Moscow to the Beresina, but Valentine is not that book.
Valentine is written in the classic fantasy/thriller pulp tradition – you’re never more than a few pages away from love, fighting, or cliffhangers. And it is, you may be surprised to hear, a comic book. More than that, it’s a comic for your wireless device. New episodes of 70-75 screens are released monthly in 14 languages simultaneously, and cost 99 cents each – except for Episode 01, which is a bit on the short side, and is free. Episode 04 was just released yesterday. The series is set to run for 24 episodes.
This brings us to the other big idea at play here: Valentine’s format. This has been written about extensively elsewhere, so I shall be brief here. I’ve written comic book series for IDW (the Eisner-nominated sci-noir thriller Smoke); Tokyopop, French sci-fi/fantasy publisher Humanoids, and Dark Horse. I’ve long been fascinated by the possibilities of wireless devices for comics, and thought what an interesting narrative and visual challenge it would be to create an episodic story for 480×320 screens. I also have lots of friends around the world, so have always wanted “whatever I did next” to be available in as many languages simultaneously as possible. (Initial sales of Valentine have supported this, in that English has a plurality, but far from a majority.)
And while what John says here about publishing not going away is absolutely correct, what do you do when, for your format, publishing hasn’t yet arrived?
Well, you cobble together a network of excellent publisher-distributors specialising in particular devices. Valentine is available for iPhone/iPad, Android phone, Kindle and eReader right now. By the end of February it will be available for web, from Comics by Comixology (whose content-persistent iPhone/web reader is in beta). By around the time of mid-autumn when Napoleon really should have been getting on from Moscow, the first printed-book edition of Valentine (collecting Episodes 01-07 into a circa 250-page full-colour digest) will be out from Image Comics.