Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Charles EP Murphy, a regular SLP writer who can be found on twitter.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
It’s got to be Sliders. There were a few other things that introduced me to the format – Sonic the Comic and the Virgin Books both had time travel creating a new present, I read fanfiction on the early internet that ran with the concept – but it’s primarily Sliders. (And I think one of those Power Rangers fanfics was copying Sliders anyway!) Every week on BBC2, the Sliders go to an entirely new Earth, where there was a giant Texas with gunslinger lawyers or dinosaur nature parks or a luddite America that turned against technology or a global Egypt.
As an adult, a lot of these look very silly and even as a kid I got grumpy with some episodes. (That poacher helping them on Dino-Earth killed dinosaurs, dinosaurs are cool, you can’t make me root against dinosaurs!) But that didn’t matter because the concept was more inspiring than a lot of the execution. You could go to a world that’s sort of like ours but different, and these differences, some of them anyway, could have really happened.
A later thing that cemented the appeal include 2000AD’s Savage in 2004, a sequel to the 1977 strip Invasion!. The original strip was set in the near future of 1999 where the ‘Volgans’ invaded. Pat Mills decided Savage was set in the 2004 of that world – and in Part 2, we get an evocative Charlie Adlard panel of a gunship helicopter patrolling the skies of London while captions bluntly state the events of the 1990s that led us here. We have a fascist takeover of Russia by the Volgan People’s Party, the election of Ken Livingstone’s “True Labour”, and other facts.
This happened when I was college and getting more into politics, so this was like a hard drug. That AH approach in 2000AD cemented the ‘it could really happen’ appeal for me and also showed how you could use it: there, an aggressive story about the contemporary Iraq War by showing it happening to Britain.
AH also combines my dorky interest in SFF lore with my other dorky interest in politics & history to create a whole new level of dorkiness!
Your first Published SLP Novel 'Chamberlain Resigns and other things that did not happen', was written in the double blind style in that it's a series of AH essays written from the POV of an historian from an ATL where Churchill never becomes PM guessing what would happen if, among other things, he did. Why did you pick that format and how worried were you that the audience wouldn't get what you were doing?
The big cause of this – which gets a shoutout in the opening prologue – is Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and its in-universe ‘what if the Allies won’ novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, likely the most famous of the double-blinds. The concept is irresistible, people in another world trying to guess what ours is like but getting everything wrong. One key bit in High Castle is a woman raving about the decisions by the US President that prevents Pearl Harbor and the President isn’t Roosevelt, because in a timeline where he wasn’t around in 1941 why would anyone write an alternate history where he was? Presidents serve two terms, a four-term guy is so ASB!
Another big influence was Biteback’s series of alternate-history essay books. All of these would feature on some famous political figure and call themselves “Prime Minister Boris, and Other Things That Didn’t Happen” (oh wait, oh NO). The essays within ran the gamut from dry in-depth theories to flights of fancy to ‘how my boss David Davis could have become Prime Minister and been so much better than the current guy’. So, I nicked the title format and the conceit of essays by journalists, politicians, and military planners.
I never worried if nobody would get it as I felt Chamberlain resigning and Churchill becoming PM is one of those bits everyone knows about history. That gave me the freedom to go for some much more obscure history (and jokes) later on. The fake “What If the Fascists Won?” essay, about ‘democratic fascism’ winning elections, is probably the least ‘friendly’ one for the average reader, talking about a very specific period of history but a completely different version of it than the real world, but still having bits of real-world far-right marches and movements in it. But because we’ve started out with ‘Chamberlain defeats Hitler’, because the readers have already bought in to the world, I can get away with it!
Your second SLP book 'Comics of Infinite Earths' is a collection of a series of essays you did about ways the comic industry could have gone differently for this blog. One of the things I loved about the essays is that you reached out to creators and fans to talk to them and interview them to ask them about things you didn't know, the result being that the book is genuine original journalism. How eager were people to talk to you when you emailed them?
Almost everyone I approached was happy to talk on the record (and in Liam Sharp’s case, graciously let us post some of his concept art on this site). And I can’t thank them enough when I’m basically a rando on the internet asking things like “hey, Big Name Writer Paul Cornell, can you tell me about this Renga! comic from thirty years ago that didn’t actually come out?”
Those interviews helped uncover things I’d have never thought needed uncovering too. While I knew Cornell had done a strip called Killer Tongue for Renga!, I hadn’t known until he mentioned it that it was based on a film. Once I knew that, I could research it and learn which company were behind the film; I then realised I’d seen that studio came up in an interview with Renga!’s editor, the late Tony Luke, as someone he was working on a film with about his Dominator comic.
If I remember correctly, creator & fan Leeann Hamilton actually approached me about the girls’ comic interview – she definitely pointed me towards one of the other interviewees! That ended up leading me to a history of anime fan-girl ‘zines, which like Killer Tongue is something I’d have never known about on my own and broadens the scope of things.
The other thing that makes 'Comics of Infinite Earths' stand out is while you do talk about the big American Superhero comics, you also spend a lot of time focusing on Girl's comics and British kids comics and horror comics etc, which are maybe less known. What is your own history with comic fandom, do the essays reflect your own purchases?
Most of it does reflect my purchases and interests – Spider-Man’s Clone Saga was being reprinted when I was a teenager, the Beano and its ilk and Sonic the Comic were a bedrock of childhood, I got big into 2000AD and scans of Misty, and American Splendor was one of the indie comics everyone knew of. I got lucky to spend some time on comics websites at a time when a lot of the column writers wanted to big up relatively more obscure independent titles and self-published British works as much as the ‘important’ comics. When I went to Bristol Comic Expo as a lad, you could find a lot of indie and small-press titles on sale next to the big creators’ tables in a way you sadly don’t get from today’s Money Pig Expos. Then in my student days, the trade paperback collections are ramping up and you could find some great stuff down at the library if you look too.
So, in the formative teen and young adult days, there’s Dredd and Ultimate Spider-Man and Transformers, but there’s also the Evangelion and Battle Royale mangas, American Splendor and Enigma, Oni Press and Planet Lar, Strangehaven and Jack Staff and Bulldog Adventure Magazine, Astro City and Hellboy, Sandman and Preacher, and reprints of various classics like Captain Britain. As Pekar, you can do anything with comics.
In the case of Acclaim Comics and the Mighty Crusaders, I wasn’t a reader, but I was a reader of the incredibly messy histories of the things. And the histories of the comic industries are always fascinating: it’s full of mad business practices, larger-than-life characters fighting each other, sudden rises and sharp falls of titles, murky acts of sabotage and criminality, and all manner of weird crossovers with the outside world. 2000AD and Fleetway in general were caught up in Robert Maxwell’s infamous pension fund scandal and his suicide! They lend themselves to alternative history.
There’s some things I would’ve liked to have covered more but there’s not enough info easily out there yet. Until I did the research for the girls’ comics articles, I didn’t know the UK had a romance comics market! I’d love to have got more but there’s little in the way of reprints & research – that’s thankfully changing next year, when the Treasury of British Comics brings out a big fat collection of them, A Very British Affair. See this comic Beat article about it.
(Shoutout to the person who’ll go “OH YEAH BULLDOG ADVENTURES!” when they read this)
You currently run the monthly vignette contests on the SLP forums and have had short stories published in four SLP anthologies. What appeals you about the short story format and what do you think makes a good one?
Being passed the vignette contest by Katherine Foy was an honour – the contest were a forum mainstay and she’d been running them for two years, so there was a big desire to not cock it up!
A well-done short story is able to get in and get out. That’s always lent itself to speculative genres like horror and science fiction, as you can have a strong basic idea and explore it before moving on. Stephen King wrote a horror story about someone abducting a child but whoops, the child is a vampire and so’s their granddad and he's found you. You couldn’t do that as a long story, you’d have to add scenes and characters that would dilute the basic premise.
A short story in a forum space also allows you to be experimental in a way a longer story does not, or just do something silly, or write a stream of consciousness as the drive hits you. Lena said in her interview that microfics mean a writer “can read a thing, have an idea, and share the idea with others and they can enjoy your idea”, and I think that’s true of the short stories too.
I think one of the most important parts of a good short story is the ending. A short story is likely going to be read in one sitting and an effective ending – a twist, a comedic punchline, a really good ending line – is the thing people will take away from it. One example is Tom Black’s “Come Back” in 10 Leaders Britain Never Had where David Cameron has died in office and (spoilers) it all leads to a moment of utter defeat and despair by Nick Clegg. I remember that one even after years because it’s the climax of his humiliation and because it’s so cuttingly mean! So, it was important in my two stories in Comedy Throughout The (P)ages to get the funniest punchline I could think of, that my horror tale in Antique Land was the climax of escalating nastiness, or that the faux-war history in Emerald Isles ends with a sense this is just one small battle of a wider conflict.
Outside of SLP, you wrote Simon and Sir Gawain for Sgt Frosty Publications, which is historical kid's fiction set in WWII about a child's love of comics getting him through dark times. How much of yourself is in Simon?
Nothing conscious was intended. Fiction and fandoms have been a bright spot in miserable times, especially when younger, but I swear that wasn’t planned! Originally this started as a short story for an anthology David Flin was planning: the brief was to look at the Arthurian legend, and what I pitched was originally focused on the creators of the Sir Gawain comic and Simon was the final scene. (David felt this read more like the start of a larger story about Simon and so off I went) I just thought I was doing a clever ending for a story about an adaptation but as with a lot of art, seems something was seeping through there.
Thinking about it more, Simon and I both tend to be reserved and bottle stuff up in person, and a lot of characters I write are keeping things bottled up while others run without any filter. Uh oh.
You've also written the 'Sexy Steampunk Girls VS Magic Nazis' series of spoof stories. What was the inspiration behind those, beyond the wonderfully clickbaitish title?
It was absolutely the title! If I remember correctly, I’d chucked it out in a thread as a joke about the most commercial AH titles possible (another was Nazis VS Confederates, the ultimate AH stereotype trilogy). The idea then stuck in my head enough times I had to write it. After I wrote the first one, I decided the second had to be even more clickbait – Sexy Steampunk Girls VS Magic Nazis, Also There’s Dinosaurs.
The whole approach to the books started with ‘what would be the dumbest twist on a clickbait headline’ and then doubling down on the dumbest things I could think of. It turns out that’s harder than it looks! I settled on a faux-crossover with Doctor Who – using the public domain character Doctor Omega that, since 2003, has been used as a pseudo-Doctor in indie works – as being the furthest peak of dumbness and bowed out at that part. But I was very, very tempted to end it for a while with the reveal the characters were playing a video game like in Red Dwarf’s “Back To Reality” and now it'll be continued in Sexy Cyberpunk Girls…
Your first published AH work was 'Events' which is a list and profile of the various PMs of the UK following an Alien Invasion. What inspired you to combine political fiction and sci-fi in that way?
The big inspiration is Doctor Who’s recurring political stories, on TV and spinoffs (which is why I cheekily have various Who writers as political historians in the footnotes and in-universe bibliography). In the world of Doctor Who, there’s various politicians and ministries clashing with Jon Pertwee, and there’s big official organisations that don’t exist in our world, and the Prime Minister might not quite match up with ours. So being me, I think: what’s the politics look like? If Tony Blair was eaten by a Slitheen, and then it and its Slitheen chums walked around in the skin of other officials to fake a nuclear war, and then after that the new PM was a backbencher from some place called Flydale North… well, that’s got to change things, right?
Or if, as “The Green Death” implied, Jeremy Thorpe was PM in the 1970s. How the hell does the Thorpe Affair turn out if Thorpe is running the country at the time? The desire to look at that is why Thorpe – and Shirley Williams, made a PM in Who spinoffs – turns up in Events, a combination of ‘well they did it so I will’ and desire to explore how that would go. (If writing it today, I’d probably drop Williams to have more distance from the inspiration)
This is stuff that preys on my mind in other genre productions that delve into politics but it’s not quite like ours. Iron Man 3 came out in 2013 and had a president as main character, but it’s not got a faux-Obama. Does that mean Obama wasn’t the Democrat candidate or does it mean he lost re-election to a Republican? If the latter, that’s a big change in American politics!
David Bishop’s tie-in book Who Killed Kennedy was the big model for Events, tying the events of Pertwee’s adventures with UNIT into contemporary 1969/1970 politics: secret alien invasions are now responsible for Wilson and Heath’s malaises and the fantastic is grounded in day-to-day politics. (It’s not that far off a Sea Lion Press book, thinking about it!)
At the end, there’s a big list of what I based on real-life events and what I made up, and the title “The Fact of Fiction” is pinched from a Doctor Who Magazine feature.
Of all the things you've written, what are you most proud of?
My co-written horror novel Off Campus is raw and has bits I’d do differently (or not do) now and likely bites off more than it can chew but: it’s the first book I actually had out, it’s thing me and Jeff Woodward decided ‘bugger it, we’ll self-publish’ when we had some rejections, it’s a finished thing that exists and is over 300 pages and got me started.
I managed to sell two Doctor Who indie-press spinoffs around the same time, The Brigadier Adventures: The Fall of Shield Sentai for BBV and The Crikeytown Cancellations for Obverse's most recent Faction Paradox anthology.
BBV has had some mess I’m not going to get into here but the Brigadier has always been my favourite Doctor Who character, so just the fact I got to write a thing about him got me proud (and I threw in everything I thought of). Crikeytown, that one I’m proud of because it was such an odd idea – a murky revenge soap opera with pastiches of the Beano and Buster, written in comic script format and having the tone of a Beano story – and I also wrote the pitch in Beano style. I figured there’d be so much competition at Obverse that I should swing for the fences – and it worked! So that was very gratifying.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Coming sometime from Sea Lion Press, I’ve got a novella called One Night that’s my contribution to AH’s subgenre of Live Election Coverage Drama. We follow the vote count as things begin to rapidly unravel across the country and violence breaks out. That one was a challenge as I decided I was going to do it in second person to capture the feeling of changing TV channels in the fear you’re missing an important clue somewhere else. Next year I also have a script in Bolt, a fundraising comic for mental health and tribute to the sadly missed Dave “Bolt 01” Evans; he’d been a pillar of the British small press comic community. (If anyone reading this is a comic artist, as of writing they’re still looking for artists for some scripts)
I’m also attempting to shop around a horror novella, where an English journalist is investigating a series of weird murders in a small Alabama town. She thinks she’s in a murky crime story. She thinks the killer’s just a person. She’s wrong…