Critical Approaches – Metafiction

[I’m currently studying MLitt Comic Studies at Dundee University. The course involves looking critically at comics and their history. This is the first in a series of journals I’m posting from the course.]


Mark Currie defines metafiction as narratives that are “somehow about fiction itself”, using “self-consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge [and] ironic self-distance.”1 Most postmodern literary theory puts distance between the author and criticism of the work1 , or as Roland Barthes describes it: “the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent”.2 Metafiction, however, shows the authors’ hand by engaging in a kind of self-referential critique that can take a number of forms.

In Flex Mentallo Grant Morrison “dramatises the boundary between fiction and criticism” by producing a work that is at once semi-autobiographical and a critique of the superhero genre.1

Credit: Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Credit: Frank Quitely, Pete Doherty (colourist) and Rian Hughes (designer)

Morrison explores the nature of the boundary between comic and reader, with the author acting as a kind of psychopomp, or spirit guide, between the two realms. In The Invisibles, he first plays with the idea of character-as-surrogate, fashioning King Mob as an avatar for himself (with the later suggestion that fictional events began to have a real-world impact on Morrison).3

Credit: Grant Morrison and Brian Bolland
Credit: Brian Bolland

By the time of Flex Mentallo, Morrison was using the author-surrogate as a way to critique the genre and write a work of semi-autobiographical fiction. Wally Sage experiences a breakdown in which the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, and he finds himself both disintegrating as a personality and integrating with the comic world of Flex.4

We know that it is an autobiographical work because Morrison leaves clues, such as in issue 3 page 9, where Wally says the following:

“Was I telling you about those political bookshops my Dad used to take me to? What was I saying?… Those terrible ban-the-bombzines; when you’re a kid they look just like comics at first but they’re not. It’s all screaming Hiroshima faces, burning cities. I used to imagine God was a skeleton and the thunder was the sound of his big, black iron train. War, apocalypse…”4

Credit: Morrison and Quitely
Credit: Quitely, Tom McCraw (colourist) and Ellie de Ville (letterer)

Morrison talks at length about these ‘zines in his later autobiography Supergods.5 Wally acts as a vehicle for Morrison to reveal something of himself, but also to deliver a critique of comics, and of the superhero genre. As a kid, he thought those ban-the-bomb ‘zines were comics, but in reality, comics were escapist – they didn’t reflect the harsh reality of growing up during the Cold War.

Even in the so-called ‘Dark Age’ of the medium, superhero comics weren’t so much engaging in a critical analysis of reality or reflecting the world in which the were created. The sex and violence that marked the era were still forms of escapism.

In Flex, Morrison not only parodies this era but engages in a critical appraisal of it, as well as superhero comics in general, by relating them to the dissolution Wally experiences. Grown-up Wally might just find himself in such a dark place since he, like many childhood comic fans, abandoned them as immature. In doing do, he has lost the magical/imaginative side of existence and is left in a nihilistic and suicidal void.

Flex, then, is both a critique of and paean to the world of comics and their importance to the author and the readers is hammered home through the use of metafiction.

Far from being an invisible actor in the work, metafiction such as this reveals the author to be engaged in exploring the boundaries between fiction and criticism, fact and fiction.


1 Mark Currie, ‘Introduction’, in Metafiction, ed. by Mark Currie (Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1995), pp. 1-18.

2 Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image Music Text (1977), 6.

3 Grant Morrison, The Invisibles Omnibus (New York: DC Comics, 2012).

4 ———, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery – the Deluxe Edition (New York: DC Comics, 2012).

5 ———, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero (London: Vintage Books, 2012).

How does make comics when depressed?

depressionI’ve not done much personal blogging for a while. I’ve also not talked much publicly about my depression and anxiety. Those things are linked, for sure, but I’m not exactly sure how. A while back, welljesuschrist, September 2013 in fact, I published the last of my quick and scuzzy webcomic, Suddenly Something Really Interesting, where I’d gotten to the end of therapy for my anxiety, and the utterly non-climatic or euphoric or epiphanic realisation that underlying all my anxiety was a deep depressive state I’d had since I was a kid.

Even my counsellor seemed disheartened that it ended that way – she didn’t get that sense of satisfaction that we’d “broken through” together. Just a kind of sullen resignation between the two of us that, you know, we’d tackled some stuff, and that, well, this realisation was at least that.

A realisation. Something tangible to potentially work on.

It didn’t really work out that way

Well of course it didn’t. Depression doesn’t work like that. You don’t go, okay, now I realise that depression is the underlying problem, I can solve it. You go, shit. Fuck. Depression, that’s a problem. Then you get depressed, and there’s no way you can summon up the energy needed to work on it.

Or anything else.

Since then, I’ve worked on a number of comic projects, and a couple of other bits and pieces. Thing is though, I don’t think I can comic well when I’m depressed. I mean, sure, I can summon up the energy to draw, because I love it. Occasionally I get fortnight-long periods where I’m writing constantly. Rarely, I’ll feel like I’m ready and willing to take on the world and somehow emerge as an actual professional.

But then the shit-storm hits.

Then the black dog wraps its tail around your neck, swivels its dull eyes at you and rudely salivates drool on your shoulder from its gaping maw, and you can’t even find the energy to turn around and look at it. You know it’s there, but you’re too paralysed to acknowledge it properly, let alone tell it to leave.

When that hits, you’re fucked. I’ve missed the chance to work with at least two writers who’ve since hit big in comics because I was in the middle of a long, slow breakdown. I’ve stretched the length of time a project that should have taken from, say, three months, to over a year because I blinked, freaked, gave up, and went back to full time office work because I couldn’t realistically see how I could make it as a freelancer any more.

I’ve gone to cons, at the very nadir of the depression, and left thinking that I never wanted to make a comic again because it was pointless and no one even wanted to look at my work let alone buy it and what was wrong with me that I made such weird comics anyway instead of stuff that people would actually buy and anyway why do I even want to be involved in this world of comics when it’s all a big sham and a fraud even though I feel like the fraud and the interloper who’s been working for seven years to try and convince people that I’m a comic creator when I’m actually just shit and everyone knows it…

Because depression and anxiety are intrinsically linked for me, and many others.

And then the utter, soul-crushing energy-sapping breakdown that comes afterwards, where you have to try and pick up the pieces and change your life while feeling completely embarrassed with yourself and disconnected from the world. And then the anxiety that comes from the realisation of that. And then, and then, and then. An endless cycle of dragging yourself from a low energy state to be catapulted into a high energy state only to crash back into a low energy state, and so on.

Call to Action

Here’s the bit in a blog post where you should put some kind of call to action, if you’re trying to sell a product or service. Here’s the bit in this blog post where I tell you that there is no getting out of this cycle, and all you can do is use what little energy you have when it arrives.

What I’ve done is recognise that, in many ways, I have to start from scratch. There’s a couple of projects I need to finish freelance-wise, and then I have to concentrate on my own stuff. For me to feel any kind of sense of completion or satisfaction in creativity, I have to finish something that’s solely mine.

I embarked on Gonzo Cosmic a while back, and though I’m still in love with the idea behind it, it’s a long, arduous project with no sense of finality and a lot of hubris to overcome. So while it’s still on the go, I need something more satisfying.

That’s why most of my attention is focused on the Dundee Uni Masters course I enrolled on. I need to give myself the ability to focus on learning about and researching comics for the sake of it for a while. I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and it could give me potential career avenues when I complete it, that would complement the creative work I do. I love the medium of comics, and exploring history, sociology, form, all of that, is exciting and is giving me the buzz back.

And, I’m also focused on making AION. It still comes with hubris (I’m calling it my “queer Flex Mentallo”, go figure why anxious and depressed people like to paint these kinds of targets on our heads), but it’s a complete thing, almost entirely written in my head, pages started. It’s a semi-autobiographical work with elements of superheroes, sci-fi and Burroughs-esque fiction in there. I mean, I never really make it easy on myself, but I have to make the work that excites me, the kind of work I’d read.

I’m also exorcising some pretty big demons throughout AION too. I hope that helps me to feel at least a little better about myself. And you know what? In some ways, I’m looking forward to having it completed and putting it out into the world.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last year or so has been that I need to learn to create without lust for result. AION is mine, and if I put the work in and everyone thinks it sucks, fair enough – but I can’t argue with the fact that it’s exactly what I want to make. And I’m not beholden to anyone, anyone I can let down on deadlines, or fuck up with in some other way. I just have to please me, and right now, that feels like the best I can do.

I’m also writing a novel, which has some very minor elements of autobiography in’t. It’s another thing I think I need to get out in the open – it’s bleak, unremittingly bleak. New Bleak, in fact. It comes from reading ‘Ghosts of my Life’, ‘Conspiracy against the Human Race’, ‘Cyclonopedia’, the ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’ and other stuff that I absorbed over the last year. It’s also my take on queer zombie horror, completely nihilistic, as the zombie genre really should be.

I get moments where I sit and wonder what’s wrong with me that I’m writing something so bleak.

Then I get other moments – mad, raving moments – where I realise that the bleakness is unmitigating anger at the world.

So, that should be fun, for you to read, I mean.

And finally, I’m sitting with this post open, completed, re-reading it and staring at it, wondering what egotistical drive makes me want to write this, thinks I should write it, that I have anything worthwhile to say, that it’s just me feeling sorry for myself, or trying to publicly make excuses, or self-flagellate, or

That’s what it feels like, all the time. In everything I do. Who am I? I’m not good enough to do this. I’m not worthwhile enough to do this. I’m nobody. And so I suppose writing this, and making work, and sharing work, even though it comes with fear, is about trying to prove that I’m not nobody. To try and silence the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough. So whatever, here it is, and that’s that.

Feel free to hit me up with your thoughts in the comments box below.




Would you donate to a print run of Gonzo Cosmic?

Gonzo Cosmic #2 was released at the end of 2014 in digital format. I explained my reasoning for releasing it free here:

There’s also a great review of the book here:

And amazingly, the book has been shortlisted in four categories for the Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards: for Best Comic Book, Writer, Artist and Cover.

Those of you who’ve kept up to date with the book so far know it’s a labour of love, a massive long-term project that I work on in between my paid comic work. In dialling back on the costs, I decided to finish the colouring myself, even though Jim Devlin had done an amazing job on the first 10 pages and I was gutted to not have him do the rest. I coloured the remaining ones myself, but by that point I was desperate to get the book out, and I was never happy with the finish.

I’ve decided to do a redux’d version of the book, recolouring those pages so they work better for me. I’ll never match Jim’s amazing colours, but I felt it was a good idea to go back and take some time to colour it how I wanted to see it, and have it seen. Below there are some before (on the left) and afters (on the right). There’s some male nudity below, so approach at your own risk.

Page11TonesNew   Page11Flat

Page12Flat Page12FlatNew

The new colouring, while maybe not quite as gonzo as the originals, just feels more grown up, less gaudy and in better service to the storytelling.

And, so. To celebrate the SICBA nominations, I want to do a small print run of the book for Glasgow Comic Con 2015. It will be a limited, one time only run, with each copy individually numbered, with the new colouring and some touch ups to the lettering. It’ll be the book far closer to how I’d like to see it.

I’ll also release the redux’d version for FREE, digitally, once it’s complete. But I’m asking if folk would like to donate something towards the print run. I can’t offer anything in return, except for a PDF of the book which you can get for free anyway, and my gratitude, and with the run being limited, only those who attend the Con will be able to buy the book.

But it would be a massive help if I could raise a bit of cash to see this book in print. If you can spare a quid (or dollar, or whatever) or two, I’d be really thankful. And if you can spend more, or would like to set up a small recurring donation to put towards the creation of issue 3, I’d be bowled over.

If you’d like to contribute, there’s a ‘Buy Now’ button on the sidebar and on the home page of this site. It should say ‘Donate’, but HTML… When you click it, you’ll see that it does in fact take you to a donation page, and you can donate there whether or not you’re a Paypal member.

So, if you can spare a dime to help me out, please do – it’ll mean a print copy of Gonzo 2 available for punters to see before they cast their final votes for the SICBA awards. I’ll also get a link up as soon as possible for public voting once it’s announced.

Thank you!

‘Tomorrow’ Panel process stages

I’m currently working on a new graphic novel for release by BHP Comics and written by Jack Lothian (known for his screenwriting on Skins, No Offence and many others). I’m not going to give anything away about the plot, except to say that it’s a very  different book from my recent offerings, and it’s a surprisingly emotional one. The main character is described in the script as An Old Lady, and the first half of the book is a slow, meditative piece that builds up to an unusual halfway point. I know, I know, very cagey, but I don’t want to give too much away at this point!

Anyway, as I often do, I decided to share some process stuff, so below you’ll find a breakdown of the creation of the first panel of the fourth page.Thumbnail

This is the bluelined thumbnail sketch for the panel – really rough, but enough to let me know generally what angle I’m going to be working on and the rough dimensions of the panel.

Bulking Out

Here’s the ‘layout’. This is drawn at actual size, and while I was doing this, the bluelined construction stuff didn’t exist yet, so ignore that for now! This is where I ‘bulk out’ the thumbnail and get a sense of the weight and perspective.

SketchUp Layer

And here’s the newer bit for this book. Since there’s a lot of surburban environmental stuff in here, and given that there’s little dialogue, it was important for me that the backgrounds (something that causes me a lot of grief, generally) were solid and could fully encapsulate the main character rather than being just ‘backdrops’. I decided to build most of the major ‘sets’ in SketchUp, something I’ve used before very rarely. I have a SketchUp document, which I’ll post at the end, that contains all of the sets I’ll need. I can just move around the full document as needed and choose sets and angles to match the layouts. I can then export that to Photoshop and use it to construct the panel, drawing new perspective guides off it as needed so that I can add in more detail.

Refined Layout

Here’s where the layout and SketchUp panel meet – the bulking now fits in with the solid 3D environment I’ve built, and this lets me really start getting to grips with posing the figure. She’s at her dinner, on her own, so she’s quiet, but not necessarily sullen. Just on her own.

Detail First Pass

I don’t always do this additional panel, but I wanted to get that pose right, so here’s a ‘pre-final’where I’ve tightened up the pose and the lines for the figure to make sure I’m happy with it before moving on.

Final over working

Here’s the final with the previous stages overlaid so you can see the development.


And finally, here’s the finished lines. I re-drew over all of the SketchUp lines – it would be fairly easy if I just left the model lines as they were, but I need that hand-drawn line over the top for me to feel like it’s complete. The SketchUp lines are too clean, and this ties the environment to the figure well.

That’s it really. Working this way is teaching me something about the scale and weight of the figure that I’ve often missed in the past because of the disconnect between figure and backdrop. Having a 3-dimensional space to work in means that you really have to think about the scale of the figure, and how to construct a pose that fits with the environment. It means that I’m basically working with larger, more solid figures that I have done previously, and I’m really like the results.

Full Map

Here’s the full SketchUp document I mentioned. Besides the two semi-detached houses, which I downloaded from the 3D warehouse, I built all of the sets. It’s a weird construct, impossible in real life, but it includes bedrooms, kitchen, living room, two different close or stairwell constructs, a street with a construction area, a back yard, a street with shops, and a supermarket.

I can just move around this as needed, choosing angles and exporting them to Photoshop CC. While there’s no way of getting a live-linked version in PS, I can use linked files, so if I go in and change them in SketchUp, I can update it really easily in Photoshop.

I’ll maybe pop up a process post about how I construct a digital page using this method, we’ll see!

Musical Stuffs

All seeing eyeSo in my ongoing quest to stave off boredom and continually do new things, I’ve got back into making music again. It’s been a while since I’ve done anything but I grabbed myself a fantastic mini M-Audio keyboard that sits neatly on my desk, and I’m getting to grips with Ableton Live for the first time. Been noodling away at ambient and electro stuff, partly inspired by The Knife, Susumu Hirasawa and Blanck Mass, among others. Have a listen!