Friday, 27 December 2013

Oscar Wilde Fleeced at Banco

Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour of 1882 ended not with a whimper but with a bang. Lonely, and with his popularity on the wane, Wilde fell prey to Hungry Joe, one of the most notorious of New York City's many hucksters and swindlers.

Hungry Joe. Would you trust this face? Oscar Wilde did. BIG mistake...

It was not a merry Christmas for Wilde, who realised he was at the mercy of the 'bunko men' (sometimes called banco or bunco steerers) far too late, after he had lost over a thousand dollars in a rigged game of chance. Although he later recovered the money (bizarrely, Joe and his cohorts left the uncashed cheques at a police station), Wilde was badly shaken by the ordeal. He was petrified that the story would be leaked to the press. His fear was realised within days.

Wilde wrote home to England, frantic for cash to pay for his return ticket. In the meantime he tried, in vain, to avoid the many reporters so desperate for a story that they bothered him at dinner and followed him into his bank to interrogate the tellers.

Earlier in the year, I narrated a series of contemporary newspaper articles that tell the story of the scam for the Short Nonfiction Collection Vol. 029 at Librivox.org, the public domain audiobook website. You can listen to the 10 minute audio clip by clicking here.


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Sample pages

When you're gearing up to query agents about a new graphic novel project, there are at least three things you need to get ready. Top of the list, of course, is the script. Next up is a perfect query letter: the email that will convince every agent who reads it that bringing your comic to market is the reason they were born on planet Earth. But running a close third is sample art.

Lillie Langtry, Oscar Wilde, and John Ruskin chat at the Royal Academy of Art. A scene from my Oscar Wilde comics script, brought to life by artist Danica Brine.

Agents realise that it takes a lot longer to draw a comic than it does to write one, so it's rare to find an agent who demands to see the finished product. Sure, they'd like to, but they'd also like nightingales to sing them to sleep on a bed of rose petals, and that ain't happening any time soon. But seeing the first few pages of the comic really helps.

We all respond faster to pictures than to text, and agents are always pressed for time. Also, sample pages show whether you can write sequential art that works as sequential art, and not just as a script. Sure, an agent can figure out if you're a good writer from your query letter and script, but why not engage them in the story as directly as possible? Show them how exciting your final product could be!

All of which is great advice unless, like me, you can't draw for toffee. In which case, you're going to have to beg or pay someone with talent to do the hard work for you. I opted for the latter, and today took delivery of some amazing pages of sample art by artist extraordinaire, Danica Brine. Here's one of 'em.


If you have something you need illustrating, and you're looking for someone whose rates aren't crazy sky high, whose work is amazing, and who is just an all round swell person, you should look Danica up. She is ace.


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Monday, 25 November 2013

Gilbert & Sullivan & Comics

This weekend I hopped on the train to Leeds for the Thought Bubble Comic Con. It was pretty good. Since I'm the last person on the planet who still doesn't have a phone -- or a camera -- if you want to see some pics of rollerblading young women in gold hotpants you'll have to use that Google thingummybob.


All the big cheeses and head honchos of comics were in attendance (incidentally, I wonder whether Matt Fraction or Ramón Pérez knew they were headed for Leeds when they signed up? Only because I remember seeing Eminem burst on stage in front of 40,000 people at the 2003 Leeds Festival shouting "Yo, wassup, London!?").

There were tonnes of ace comics and art on offer, but the find I was most excited about was a couple of mini-comics by Laura Howell.

Laura Howell's The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan

Yep, that's right, Laura has written comics about Gilbert and flipping Sullivan. And they're brilliant!

As regular visitors to the blog will know, I'm working on a comics project about Oscar Wilde's tour of America, which was set in motion by G&S (the tour, not the comic. Obv.). They wrote Patience, an operetta that satirised the youth culture fad of the day, aestheticism (when people tell you that teenagers didn't exist until the 1950s, James Dean, and Teddy Boys, you can smugly inform them they're out by at least 70 years).

G&S's manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, wanted to send the operetta to tour the US, but he wasn't sure Americans would understand what an aesthete was. So he offered one of the most well known aesthetes -- Wilde -- a contract to tour America as a walking-talking advertisement for the play. Wilde, broke as a joke after self-publishing a book of poetry (that got him kicked out of his flat when his landlord's father got a hold of a copy), was only too eager to sign on the dotted line.

I'm always surprised that there aren't more comics featuring Oscar Wilde, and it was really exciting to pick up one that does!

Wilde sprays himself with a love potion and all the men in London come running.

But what was even more unexpected was seeing D'Oyly Carte in there too. Carte was a big shot in Victorian London. Not only did he sponsor G&S's operettas, he built the Savoy, London's first electrically illuminated theatre (the first show he put on at the Savoy was Patience in 1881). He plays a big part in my script. Until yesterday I would have bet my right arm that he had never appeared in a comic before. I would have lost that bet. So, good job I didn't make it, hey?

What?! Richard D'Oyly Carte? In a comic? Too chuffing cool.

You can buy The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan at Laura's website, LauraHowell.co.uk. And you should. Right now.



Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 8 November 2013

Comics panel breakdowns

Before I started writing a comics script about Oscar Wilde, I tried my hand (not very successfully) at writing novels, making music, and directing short films. Each of these art forms has its own attraction (now I come to think about it, the part I liked most was always editing). But none can beat writing for comics, for one simple reason: I love breaking down panels.

The panel breakdown stage is when the writer plans out how a scene will be split up over multiple panels and pages. It's like the best puzzle ever!

It's a process unique to comics. And from what I've read, everyone seems to have their own way of doing it. Through trial and error, I've settled on first writing out panel descriptions and dialogue; next, splitting those panels into page-sized chunks of 3 to 7 panels depending on the pacing I want; and, finally, to sketching out panel shapes and sizes that best fit the content.

When I'm away from my computer I might sketch these panel breakdowns on the back of an envelope, using my eraser almost as much as my pencil. Here are the panel breakdowns for a scene I wrote recently about Wilde's visit to Chicago.

Panel breakdowns for the Chicago scene of Oscar Wilde Conquers America.

But when I'm at my computer I have a different process. I put aside pencil and paper and instead use Adobe Illustrator. I've set up a page template in Illustrator that allows me to quickly visualise any arrangement of panels in a 3x3 grid or a 3x4 grid. Each section of gutter is on a different layer, so by toggling visibility on selected layers, I can get what I'm looking for.

My Adobe Illustrator template for working on panel breakdowns.

As you can see from the close up on my layers panel below, the gutters are split into Horizontal and Vertical. I have horizontal gutters at 1/4 of page width, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, and 3/4. Each of these gutters is split into four sections: Left (L), Centre Left (CL), Centre Right (CR), and Right (R). Vertical gutters are at 1/3, 1/2, and 2/3 of page height. They are split into 6 numbered sections.

All of these sections might seem overkill, but it means that I can view any arrangement of panels without having to resize any of the paths that make up the gutters. It's super flexible!

Close up of the Layers panel in Illustrator.

Here is an example breakdown of the page on the top right of my back-of-the-envelope drawing. All I had to do was toggle off the visibility of the 1/3 and 2/3 horizontal and vertical gutters, and the 2nd and 3rd sections of the 1/2 vertical gutter. If I'm ever unsure which part of which gutter I need to shut off, I can just select it on the template, and the corresponding layer in the Layers panel is highlighted.

An example breakdown, corresponding to the top right page in the first image.

When I'm happy with a breakdown, I usually save it as a png file and import it into my script. That way, when I read back over the script later, I have a visual reminder of how I intended to break down the scene. Here is the script page that goes with the breakdown above (as you can see, I decided to re-jig the panels a little when I came to write the scene).

An example script page, with the panel breakdown embedded as a png. This helps me to remember what I visualised when I was writing the scene, and may also be of use to the artist.

DOWNLOAD

If you have a copy of Illustrator (CS4 and above), you might like to try the template out. You can download it by clicking here.


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 25 October 2013

Oscar Wilde Explains: His Version of his Arrest at Moncton

On the 12th October 1882, Oscar Wilde arrived in Moncton, New Brunswick, to give the final lecture of his nine-day tour of the Maritimes. It didn't go to plan. There was a confusion between Wilde's agent, W. S. Husted, and representatives of the local Young Men's Christian Association. The men from the YMCA thought they had a solid contract for Wilde to appear at their next meeting, and were incensed to find that he was double-booked with a rival promoter. They had a sheriff sent to Wilde's hotel room, arrest warrant in hand.

Fortunately, it turned out that the sheriff was a sensible chap, who declined to act on the warrant. The matter was turned over to Wilde's promoters, and the lecture went ahead. Afterwards, the YMCA's lawyer demanded $100 for withdrawal of the writ. Wilde refused; $20 was offered; the lawyer refused this, and it looked likely a trial would follow. Wilde's local supporters covered his $35 appearance bond and he was free to leave Moncton.

Within a few days, as the truth emerged and it became clear that Wilde had not signed on the dotted line for the YMCA, the whole matter was dropped. But not before Wilde gave his version of events to a Bostonian journalist. The story was reprinted in the Moncton Daily Transcript on the 18th October 1882.

A lot of the news stories published during Wilde's tour are now freely available on the internet, but the Daily Transcript story isn't one of them. I recently got in touch with the Moncton Public Library and they were kind enough to dig through their microfilms and shoot me over a scan. So here it is (along with a transcription of the article, below).

Moncton Daily Transcript, 18th Oct 1882. Click to enlarge.

Oscar Wilde Explains
His Version of his Arrest at Moncton

Oscar Wilde has arrived in Boston from St John, N. B, and, in an interview Sunday afternoon at the hotel Vendome, he gave an explanation of his recent "arrest" at Moncton, N. B, as stated in Saturday's Herald. He regarded the affair as an ill-advised attempt to extort blackmail on the part of the Young Men's Christian Association of Monton.

"It seems," to us [sic] his own words, "that last week they telegraphed to my agent in Canada to ask whether I could lecture in Moncton for them on Friday night. I replied that I was engaged to deliver my second lecture at St John on Friday, and that Thursday was the only open night I had in the week. At the same time I stated my terms. No reply came for 30 hours, and then another gentleman of that town made application for me to lecture. My agent then telegraphed a second time to the Y M C A to ask them to reply immediately to the previous message. They took no notice of the telegram, and, after 48 hours elapsed, he very properly closed with the gentleman who was not connected with the Christian association.

"These latter people having ascertained that I was engaged by the other party, telegraphed to my agent to say that they would accept the offer, but the agent replied that the date was already fixed for another lecture. At my arrival at Moncton on Thursday last I was visited upon by a representative of the Y M C A and a local attorney, who asked me whether, in consideration of the disappointment to the association, I would not contribute something to the funds. I replied that I did not consider that the association had any right to make such a claim, and that I was not sufficiently interested in it to subscribe to it. On my refusal they proceeded to the under sheriff, and presented him with a writ, which they had obtained that morning, and asked him to serve it on me as I was stepping on the platform to lecture.

"The sheriff, a gentleman of some knowledge of the world, naturally declined to do anything so uncalled for and so impertinent, but called on me at my hotel and explained to me the matter. Two gentlemen of Moncton accompanied him and entered into engagements with the sheriff to prevent my being given any further annoyance. The lecture went off very successfully. After the lecture this local attorney made a definite demand on me for $100, on receipt of which he declared he would withdraw his writ. My agent by my orders, refused to accede to any such gross attempt at extortion, and the matter will proceed to trial before the local judge. Some gentlemen of the town have kindly promised to see to the matter on my behalf.

"I am glad to say that great indignation was expressed at the behavior of the association and, before I left, most of the leading citizens had withdrawn their names as members of it. The whole thing shows the immorality of most moral institutions. Such associations are usually the refuge of the provincial Joseph Surfaces. True, it afforded me an interesting insight into certainly not a very favorable side of Canadian ordinary life, and for experience one would go through a great deal, even a sudden visit from a sheriff."

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A comic script template for Word, with page/panel/balloon numbers that auto-populate and auto-update

Since I started my Oscar Wilde comics project last year, I've been working with the script format used by Jim Zub on Skullkickers (pdf of an example Skullkickers script on the Comic Book Script Archive). But yesterday, Jim tweeted that he'd switched to Fred Van Lente's script format.


I think I might make the switch-over too. Van Lente's format is good and clean, you can fit more information onto a single document page without it getting cluttered, and it even has the thumbs up from letterer extraordinaire Nate Piekos.

Fred Van Lente's excellent comics script format. It looks great, but it could be easier to use.

The only problem is, I've already got my script template set up how I like it with Word's Multilevel Lists function. OK, I've probably lost most of you right there... Why should you care about Multilevel Lists? Because they save you time and they make formatting your script a breeze, that's why! (Don't worry, you won't need to learn how Multilevel Lists work to take advantage of them).

A Multilevel List is a way of automatically numbering sections in a document. A comics script has many numbered pages, panels, and word balloons. Typing numbers is boring, and there’s always a chance you’ll make a mistake. Plus, if you cut a page or a panel and paste it elsewhere in your script, you’ll have to renumber everything manually. Arghhh!

Multilevel Lists solve these problems, because the numbering is automatically generated by Word.

My updated version of Fred Van Lente's script template. See the greyed out Panel Numbers? That's because they belong to the same level of a Multilevel List: a level designed for Panel Numbers. Whenever you start a new panel, select the "Normal" style, and the Panel Number will be populated automatically. No need to manually update numbers for pages, panels, or balloons!

All this to say, I've modified Fred Van Lente's script template to include Multilevel Lists. I've also set the template up so that, whenever you press Enter, the style of the next paragraph is automatically set to what you probably need.

For example, if you've just started a new page, the chances are your next task will be to write a description for your first panel. And once you've written a panel description, you'll probably want to write some dialogue. With this template, those common style changes are automatic, so you'll spend less time manually switching styles and more time writing!

DOWNLOADS

Click here for the TEMPLATE WITH INSTRUCTIONS (.dotx)
Click here for a CLEAN TEMPLATE WITHOUT INSTRUCTIONS (.dotx)

Although Fred's template looks great, I prefer it with a few small modifications.
  1. Page numbers in numerals rather than words (I'm writing an OGN, and "PAGE 186" looks neater to me than "ONE-HUNDRED EIGHTY-SIX".
  2. The document page number in the header (Fred says it's easy to get confused between the document page number and the comic page number, which is probably true, but I want to be sure that hard copies of my scripts can be reassembled if they're dropped).
  3. Slightly more spacing between panels. It's only the difference between 6pt and 10pts, but I like a bit of a visual separation.
Click here for a MODIFIED CLEAN TEMPLATE WITHOUT INSTRUCTIONS (.dotx)

WHERE TO PUT THE TEMPLATES

The templates come as .dotx files -- Word templates -- so you'll want to drop them into your templates folder so that whenever you start a new script you can base it on a template. If, like me, you're on Windows 10, you'll find the folder at C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Templates (it's in the same place on Windows 7 and 8.1).

As you'll see, the template looks exactly the same as Fred's. He's the comic book pro here, not me. If he says this is what a good script should look like, and Jim Zub and Nate Piekos agree, that's fine by me. The only difference is the automatically populating page, panel, and word balloon numbers.

If you have problems with the template, or if you think it's a Jesus miracle, let me know!

UPDATE: The template got the Jim Zub seal of approval, and Fred Van Lente has added it to his download page. If I update the templates at any time, I'll make a note of it here.

NOTE: I am no longer @RobertMarland on Twitter. If you tweet that guy, you won't reach me. I'm at @BaubleRob.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 11 October 2013

A visit to Tite Street, and Wilde's house(s)

This week I took a trip to London and decided to pay a visit to Tite Street, Chelsea.

Me at Tite Street, Chelsea

It's the site of Oscar Wilde's house. Where he and his wife, Constance Lloyd, made their home. Where Wilde wrote his greatest works. And where his worldly possessions were auctioned off after he was convicted of gross indecency and declared bankrupt. Ouch!

No. 34 Tite Street

Blue plaque at Wilde's house

It was great to be stood outside the house from which Wilde sallied forth and conquered London. But, in truth, I hadn't come to Tite Street to see this house. I'd come to see another, fifty metres down the road. Not No. 34, but No. 44. The bachelor pad Wilde shared with Frank Miles, the artist.

No. 44 Tite Street

No. 44 Tite Street

This is where Wilde lived just before he toured America, and it plays a big part in the first chapter of my comic book script about Wilde's American adventure. This is where he entertained actresses like Lillie Langtry and Helena Modjeska, and even such luminaries as the Prince of Wales. It was where he stopped a pair of police officers at the front door while Frank Miles, suspected of interfering with his young models, scurried to his escape over the roof. It was the base of operations for Wilde's first salvo on London literary society: a self-published book of poetry that was met with mixed reviews.

It was exciting to visit the house where the story I've been writing for the past 18 months begins. You can tell how overjoyed I am from this photo.

Rob at No. 44 Tite Street

Or maybe you can't. What can I say? I was worried the millionnaire owners would open the door and swat me off their step with a broom.


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 27 September 2013

Oscar Wilde ♥ Walt Whitman. Twice.

Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman did it. Well, maybe.

This past week, the internet got very excited by the prospect that the grand old man of American letters and the young apostle of aestheticism hooked up in a New Jersey attic. Mallory Ortberg learnt about the meeting, which was arranged by publisher J.M. Stoddart, and allowed her imagination to run wild.

Source: Sam Krause

And why not? Stoddart left the pair alone for several hours at Whitman's request. None of us know for sure what happened behind the closed doors to Whitman's den on January 18th 1882, and there's certainly no harm in a little speculation.

When writing about the encounter in my comic book script about Wilde's American lecture tour, I tried to fill in the gaps myself, and came to the conclusion that the pair probably, at the very least, shared a kiss. After all, Wilde later claimed that the kiss of Walt Whitman was still on his lips. It might have been a metaphorical kiss. Or it might not. Nobody knows!

But one thing that Ortberg didn't mention about Wilde and Whitman's meeting is that it wasn't a one-off. On May 10th, after a visit to the Wild West and the silver-rush town of Leadville, Colorado, Wilde returned to New Jersey to call on his hero again. We know very little about this second meeting. But what we do know made me squeal with delight when I first read about it. Wilde came dressed as a cowboy. Yeehaw!

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 13 September 2013

A Wilde Library

This week, someone on YouTube asked me to make a video about my DVD collection. I've never really understood the point of those videos. But a blog about books is a different matter altogether!

At the time of Oscar Wilde's conviction in 1895, his personal library consisted of around 2000 volumes. My own library isn't quite that large, but Wilde would certainly be envious of the number of books I own about him. I keep them stacked on my mantelpiece for easy access.


Researching Wilde for my comic about his American tour has been time-consuming but relatively simple, because so much has already been written. The only real difficulty is knowing where to start. I would suggest that any serious study has to begin with Richard Ellman's Oscar Wilde. It was, I think, the second Wilde biography I read (the first was Hesketh Pearson's The Life of Oscar Wilde, a battered hand-me-down from an old girlfriend). As you can see, I now own two copies of Ellman; my first paperback fell to pieces. Other sources often reference the first edition, so a hardback Ellman is useful for making sure you're looking at the correct page.

I have also doubled up on Thomas Wright's Oscar's Books (published as Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde in the US), after the spine broke on my first copy. This had less to do with the quality of the binding than the content of the book, which rewards re-reading and jumping back and forth from chapter to chapter. I would recommend Oscar's Books as the best way to get inside Oscar's magpie brain.


Of course, I am most interested in Wilde's activities in 1882, so Lewis and Smith's Oscar Wilde Discovers America: 1882, was required reading. I keep it sandwiched between two excellent recent books on Wilde's American adventure, Roy Morris Jr.'s Declaring his Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, and Matthew Hoffer and Gary Scharnhorst's Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews.

I have read Kevin O'Brien's Oscar Wilde in Canada: An Apostle for the Arts, and would love a copy of my own, but they seem to be rarer than hens' teeth. If you have one to sell, get in touch! [Edit: I just found a copy in CT for $8.50 - huzzah!]

You might wonder if I have read Louis Edward's 2003 novel, Oscar Wilde Discovers America. I have not, but I am desperately looking forward to it. If I were to read it now, it is unlikely I could help but be influenced by it. It's on my wishlist.


On the right I keep all my biographies of members of Wilde's circle. Out earlier this year, Linda Stratmann's The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde's Nemesis has succeeded in convincing me that the 'Scarlet Marquess' wasn't an irredeemable git. Like many I had assumed he was 100% evil, but Stratmann shows how his unsavoury personality was formed. Incidentally, you will notice that I keep books about Bosie a safe distance from those about Robbie Ross. One can never be too careful.


On the left is my 'in-tray'. It's mostly filled up with library books: I recently moved to a new city and the library here had lots of great finds, not least Alan Sinfield's The Wilde Century, a very readable discussion of Wilde's effeminacy and sexuality from a historical perspective. As you can see, I recently began reading Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde Mysteries. Halfway through The Candlelight Murders (published as A Death of No Importance in the US) so far, and enjoying it immensely.

One tome is conspicuously missing: an edition of Wilde's letters. I have read the letters and last year I monopolised a library copy for about six months, but I have yet to get my own. Have you seen how much it costs?! Anyway, until I buy it, the weightiest volume on my mantelpiece has to be the 1882-1883 volume of Punch I picked up at G. David in Cambridge. A great reference if you want to get a feel for the middle-class zeitgeist of the early eighties, and it only set me back three quid! My kind of book.

What's your favourite book about Wilde, his circle, or the fin de siecle ? Or, if you're just getting into Wilde, let me know if you'd like a recommendation. Comments are open!

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 30 August 2013

Was Oscar Wilde the First Stand Up Comedian?

Funny people: they all have at least one hand.

The Edinburgh Festival came to a close last week, and I was pretty chuffed that one of my favourite stand-ups, Bridget Christie, won the award for best comedy show. I first saw her playing a crown-green bowls clubhouse in a Welsh village (she threw a water biscuit at my head), but I think we can safely say she's now hit the big time (we can say that; she never would).

As a paid up comedy geek, I'm fascinated by the history of stand up -- the pedigree that leads from one comedian to the next, from Ted Chippington to Stewart Lee, or Richard Pryor to Chris Rock. You can trace American stand up back to Bob Hope and Vaudeville, and British stand up to music hall turns like Ken Dodd (still going strong!) and Max Miller. But where did these mid-century greats come from? Did they spring into existence from nowhere, a bunch of originals?

I'm working on a comic book about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and, reading back over his lectures of 1882/3, it seems to me that the Apostle of the Beautiful was creasing up audiences before the "first" stand ups were even born. True, his lecture on The English Renaissance, which he premiered only days after landing in New York, was as dry as it sounds. It sent many audiences to sleep. Those who did find Wilde funny were not chortling at his jokes. As Wilde told one interviewer, he was inclined to laugh himself at the generosity of audiences who, "after they have seen me and satisfied their curiosity as to my costume and long hair, would be glad to go away again without sitting through a lecture on a subject that doesn’t interest them". Wilde wanted to keep his punters entertained as well as educated. But how?

On his return to England, Wilde prepared a new lecture: Impressions of America. At the outset of the new one-man show, he confessed that, despite having travelled from New York to New Orleans and Saratoga to San Francisco, he knew next to nothing about the States. This was probably true, because, like many a touring stand up, Wilde saw little of the cities he visited other than his hotel room. This was fine for working up observational material about the newfangled and ubiquitous cast-iron stove ("a necessary nuisance, like a dull relation"), or the American habit of hanging pictures up near the cornice ("it was not until I saw how bad the pictures were that I realised the advantage of the custom").

So touring was as tedious then as it is today. No matter. Wilde dramatised his journey, crafting one of the earliest comic monologues. And just as modern stand-ups take a mundane experience and ask themselves "how can I make this funny?", Wilde twisted half-truths into bizarre, almost surreal scenarios to amuse his audience.

He was warned, he said, that if he visited the lawless Wild West town of Leadville, the gunslingers there "would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me". The saloon in the same town displayed a sign that read: "Please do not shoot the pianist: he is doing his best". On a trip to Salt Lake City, Wilde was told how, after the death of the Mormon President, the man who would succeed him "stood up in the Tabernacle and said that it had been revealed to him that he was to have the Amelia Palace [the home of the President], and that on this subject there were to be no more revelations of any kind!" These stories may have had a kernal of truth, but each has been amplified into absurdity.

Did Wilde's public find his jokes amusing? We know they did, because journalists who reported on the performances for British local newspapers printed routines verbatim and, as a favour to future historians of comedy, indicated where audiences showed their approval: "I met the Indians ... Their language struck me as resembling German metaphysics -- very fine as long as it is not understood. (Laughter)."

Despite the national stereotyping, it is easy to imagine an audience laughing at Wilde's stories, just as they laughed at Richard Pryor's tales of growing up in a whorehouse frequented by a mayor with a penchant for ice cream, or as they laugh today at Bridget Christie's routine about a book store whose male shop assistants, whenever they feel the urge to pass wind, dash to the Feminist Literature section.

Wilde didn't set out to usher in a new art form. But maybe, without realising -- and so stealthily that nobody else realised either -- he invented stand up comedy.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 16 August 2013

Oscar Wilde in the Catskills

It's the height of summer, the sun is shining, and I'm having fun working on the synopsis for my Oscar Wilde comic. One hundred thirty one years ago today, Wilde was touring the summer resorts of up-state New York and having slightly less fun than I am.

On the 11th of August, Wilde was at Hathorn Spring, only a few days into his short tour of upmarket hotels. He stopped to take two glasses of spring water, "somewhat to the disappointment of the fair sex, who seemed to think that he should have differed in some way—perhaps stood on his head or drank two at once".

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11th August 1882

In Saratoga, shortly afterwards, he was mobbed by eager young women and their even more eager mothers. "To balk the pursuit utterly, I fled to the bar-room," Wilde later told a reporter. "Why didn’t I say, “What’ll you have, ladies?” Oh, it wouldn’t have done any good, and all the country would have said I had insulted the ladies at Saratoga." New Ulm Weekly, 4th October 1882.

His grumpy demeanour was possibly due to the sarcastic tone of most journalists. Audiences weren't much friendlier. The New York Times reported that the rich vacationers saw Wilde as a mountebank, but were unable to keep themselves from his lectures. ""I hear he has made over $25,000 in this country," one gentleman was heard to say. "Alas," sighed his companion, "I fear he will add the price of my ticket to his bank account."" New York Times, 17th August 1882.

At Long Branch there were walk outs. Those who remained, "snickered". Wilde requested the landlord keep order, and the guests complained that "they had paid for [the] hotel accommodations and had as a good a right to enjoy them as anybody". One forthright attendee suggested the "blasted Britisher" be subjected to an impromptu dip in the ocean. If this threat was carried out, no evidence of the dipping has survived. Lancaster Daily Intelligencer, 19th August 1882.

Another Oscar Wilde had a much more successful summer, at the Saratoga race track. On the 8th of August a five year-old chestnut gelding named Oscar Wilde won the fifth race of the day, and a purse of $250, when he overtook two other horses on the final stretch to pass the post with a two length advantage. Way to go, Oscar!

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9th August 1882


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 2 August 2013

Where's Wilde?

I decided to redraft the first act of my comic about Wilde's American lecture tour. I read somewhere that problems with the ending of a story are usually due to problems with the beginning. If you don't make it clear where your protagonist is at the outset of their journey, you can't expect the audience to be wowed by their transformation. Fair enough.

To place Wilde in his social context prior to the tour, I'm referring to an excellent resource: a painting by William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881. The picture is a who's who of early 1880's London society - you can see actors, aristocrats, and everybody in between. The Prime Minister is even rubbing shoulders with a pair of cartoonists!

[Click picture to enlarge]

I've added labels so I can keep track of everybody in the jumble. Wilde isn't marked out, but you should be able to spot him. Move over, Wally (or Waldo, for my international chums)!

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 19 July 2013

Comp titles

After reading blog post after blog post about how to write a successful query letter, one thing I’m still not sure about is comp titles.

Don’t know what a comp title is? Well, it’s a book or a film whose title gives an idea of the tone of your project. Often the comparison is given in the “X meets Y” format. So Alien might be Jaws meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avatar might be Fern Gully meets Dances with Wolves, and Chronicle might be Akira meets… Akira.

Two comp titles seems like a good number. Only one, and the agent might wonder why they need your book: if they want to read something like Oliver Twist, they can go read Oliver Twist. But if they’re intrigued to read a cross between Oliver Twist and Blade Runner, they’ll have to wait till your manuscript hits their desk. Just to be clear, I am not advising you to write Oliver Twist meets Blade Runner. Not even Spielberg should try that. Have you seen A.I.? *Shudder*


Anyway, right now I’m juggling with three comp titles. Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. Why did I choose these titles? First of all, every agent has heard of them. There’s no point comparing your project to something no agent will know. But you don’t want to claim kinship with mega-bestsellers, either. No project can compare with Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey.


The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is the one Wilde biography every bookshop carries. It’s also one of the most exciting. There’s quite a bit of speculation, no references, and it focuses on Wilde’s sexuality: just like OWCA. Books about Wilde’s American tour do exist, but they’re tonally nowhere near my project, so it wouldn’t be right to mention them.


Pyongyang is about Guy Delisle’s stint in North Korea’s animation industry. Like OWCA, it’s the story of a man in complete culture shock as he strives to navigate the customs of a strange country far from home. It also skillfully evokes the loneliness of ex-pat life, a loneliness shared by Wilde towards the end of his American tour.


Fun Home is Alison Bechdel’s prize-winning memoir about her closeted gay father, and how his death is tied up with her own coming out. It might not be sensible to compare OWCA to Fun Home, as Bechdel’s book is one of the most successful graphic novels of all time. Still, the way Bechdel and her father slowly stumble towards acceptance of their shared sexuality is breathtaking: if OWCA comes within a mile of that achievement, I’ll be ecstatic.

If you’re working on a writing project, how did you settle on your comp titles? And do you think three comp titles is too many?

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Oscar Wilde, Ireland, and an American St. Patrick’s Day

Oscar Wilde was a son of Ireland. His father, Sir William Wilde, grew up in the west of that country, where he developed a love of its landscape, rich history and folklore. He trained as an eye and ear surgeon in Dublin and ministered not only to the royal houses of Europe but to the poor peasants of Ireland who, lacking money, repaid him with legends and superstitions [1]. Oscar’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, later published her husband’s collection of Irish myths, but by this time had already secured her own place in the firmament of Irish literature. During the 1840s, when the Great Famine was driving thousands of Irishmen and women to America or to the grave, and the Young Ireland movement was advocating armed rebellion against their English overseers, “Speranza”, as the then Jane Elgee styled herself, penned poetry of such patriotic force and vigor she may rightly be credited with inspiring the Irish nationalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century [2].

Oscar spent his youth in Dublin, then the second largest city in the British and Irish Isles, and at the family’s fishing lodge in Connemara, on the west coast of Galway, which his father had built on the supposed site of the legendary battle of Moytura. He was educated first at Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, declared by Lady Wilde to be “the Eton of Ireland” [3]. Whilst a pupil there he once announced with characteristic prescience that his great ambition was “to go down to posterity as the defendant in such a case as Regina Versus Wilde” [4]. He later attended Trinity College Dublin, where he met the man who was to assist him in realising his dream: in 1895 Edward Carson would defend Lord Queensbury in Wilde’s action for criminal libel and “pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend” [5]. For the time being the exact contemporaries sparred more gently as members of the “Hist”, Trinity’s debating society [6].

Ireland was all that Wilde had ever known. Yet he was soon to cast off his Irishness, shedding his accent and even his nationality, as though he were a butterfly shedding the chrysalis. The Empire’s second city was insufficient for one whose ambition was to conquer the literary world. He crossed the Irish Sea and completed his studies at Oxford, with one eye on the metropolis. In 1879, after the death of Sir William, Speranza sold the old family mansion in Dublin’s Merrion Square and followed Oscar and his brother Willie to England, conceding that “both of my sons prefer residing in London, the focus of light, progress and intellect” [7].

Wilde returned to the land he called “the Niobe among nations” [8] but a few times, and never after he had established himself as a leading London playwright. But it is unsurprising that one who so often spoke of life as a masquerade occasionally allowed his English mask to slip, although only when it served him to display the Irish mask beneath. One of those occasions was St. Patrick’s Day 1882. Wilde was two months into his American lecture tour, his quest to civilise a nation, and, if possible, secure sufficient “golden fruits” to fund “a winter in Italy and a summer in Greece” [9]. However, despite sell-out performances in New York and Chicago, he was finding that his lectures on “The English Renaissance” were failing to enthuse audiences who were more interested in his outlandish aesthetic costume than anything he had to say. Attendees at Philadelphia “were so cold that he several times thought of stopping and saying, ‘You don’t like this, and there is no use of my going on’” [10], and the boisterous students at Harvard and Rochester heckled, hooted, attempted to shut off the lights, and were eventually ejected by the police [11, 12]. After only 250 people attended a March 15th lecture in Minneapolis, where Wilde’s delivery was pronounced “flat and insipid” [13], he was finally persuaded of the benefit of tailoring his speeches to his audience. And today, March 17th, Wilde’s audience comprised the sons and daughters of Erin of whose Exodus his mother had sung.

It was a rainy day in St. Paul, Minnesota, but the Irish and their descendents were out in force, their love of country amplified, as it so often is, by their remoteness from its shores. The celebrations at the city’s opera house were commenced by the evocatively named Bishop Ireland, who delivered a sermon on St. Patrick. This was followed by a rendition of the patriotic hymn “Come Back to Erin” (which was, ironically, penned by a native of London), and then Captain O’Conner of the Knights of St. Paul gave a rousing speech on God and Country, with much mention of the English despotism, landlordism and feudal barbarism under which his countrymen were subsisting, which culminated with what was effectively a call for armed rebellion. Similarly red-blooded addresses were given by other eminent émigrés, each of whom made it very clear that there was only one answer to “the Irish question”.

And then Father Shanley, the event’s master of ceremonies, announced “the presence with them of a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters”. Wilde exited his box beside the stage and joined Father Shanley. He began a speech that he claimed was extempore, but which was plainly tailor-made for the “race once the most artistic in Europe”. He lamented the loss of Ireland’s great cultural heritage, harking back to a time “when Ireland stood at the front of all the nations of Europe in the arts, the sciences and general intellectuality...when Ireland was the university of Europe”. Yesterday he had given his usual lecture on art in the very same theatre, when he “spoke in a decided English aw-dialect, and his brogue gave no trace that he was an Irishman” [14]; perhaps his Irish lilt shone through now as he adopted the role of the seanchaí—the Irish bard—and conjured images in the minds of the men and women of St. Paul of the magnificent “cathedrals, monasteries and other public edifices” that “showed a higher style of architecture than that of any other nation.” After pausing for effect he made it clear what had happened to those triumphs of design and execution: “when the English came they were burned”. And it was not only the buildings of Ireland that the English invader had demolished. Art, too, had been crushed beneath his boot: “with the coming of the English, art in Ireland came to an end, and it has had no existence for over 700 years.” He was glad it had not, “for art could not live and flourish under a tyrant.”

As the reporter for the St. Paul Daily Globe attested, “Wilde’s remarks were closely followed by the audience, which testified its appreciation by generous applause as he withdrew from the stage” [15]. Oscar’s Irish mask had served him well. From time to time he would wear it again, but for now the English mask was his preferred disguise. Within three days he was back lecturing on “The English Renaissance”.

1. Ellmann, R. (1987). Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, p10.
2. Coakley, D. (1995). Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish. Dublin: Town House, p10.
3. Pearce, J. (2004). The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p40.
4. Harris, F. (1918). Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions. New York: Privately printed, p25.
5. Ellman, p414.
6. Coakley, p174.
7. Ibid, p179.
8. Lewis, L., & Smith, H. J. (1936). Oscar Wilde Discovers America: 1882. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., p168.
9. Holland, M., & Hart-Davis, R. (Eds.). (2000). The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate, p135.
10. Sacramento Daily Record Union, 4th Feb 1882.
11. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2nd Feb 1882.
12. Olean Democrat, 9th Feb 1882.
13. Morris, R. (2013). Declaring his Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, p127.
14. St. Paul Daily Globe, 17th March 1882.
15. St. Paul Daily Globe, 18th March 1882.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Monday, 25 February 2013

Oscar's final lecture in New York

Last year, when I was researching the script for our comic about Wilde's American lecture tour, I happened across a short paragraph in the 28th November 1882 edition of the New York Sun. It described a lecture Wilde had given the previous evening to a local YMCA group. Nothing odd in that, perhaps, but all four published itineraries of the lecture tour agreed that Wilde had given his final lecture in mid October, in St. John, Canada.

New York Sun, 28th Nov 1882

Was this a lecture that other researchers had missed, or was the New York Sun mistaken? I got in touch with fellow Wilde enthusiast, John Cooper, who located another reference to the YMCA lecture, this time in the New York Herald.

New York Herald, 28th Nov 1882

After a little more digging, we unearthed a total of six references to a lecture Wilde gave on the 27th November. We were confident that this lecture was genuine and that other researchers had overlooked it. So why is this exciting? Well, it has previously been assumed that Wilde grew bored with lecturing towards the end of his tour, and preferred to live the life of a New York gadabout, socialising with friends and dining at expensive restaurants. Perhaps his (unjustified) arrest in Canada for failure to keep a lecturing contract, which occurred one day before what was generally thought to be his final lecture, had frightened him away from the American stage? We now knew this couldn't be true.

John and I co-authored an article that was recently published in the January 2013 issue of The Wildean, the journal of the Oscar Wilde Society. You can read the article in full, here.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Declaring his Genius

I just finished reading Roy Morris Jr.'s new book on Oscar Wilde's North American tour, Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America.

It's almost eighty years since the last book about the tour was published and, as Morris points out in his preface, reading Lewis and Smith's Oscar Wilde Discovers America is a little like being "cornered by a garrulous old uncle at a wedding reception": there are some good stories, but to reach them you're compelled to wade through a mire of waffle. And, as with the chatter of a loquacious relative, it's often difficult to tell the true stories from the tall tales. In other words, Lewis and Smith don't let facts get in the way of a good story (although the title of Morris's book, Declaring His Genius, also plays fast and loose with the truth, since the evidence that Wilde declared anything at US customs - let alone his genius - is practically non-existent).

At half the length of the older book, Declaring His Genius is a faster, more focused, read. Making use of resources unavailable to earlier writers, including Hofer and Scharnhorst's 2010 collection of Wilde's American interviews, Morris conjures up the mind of Wilde in a way that would not have been possible just a few years ago.

The media coverage of Wilde's year-long tour was understandably more intense in January than it was in December, by which time most Americans had lost interest in their guest from across the pond. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that the first third of Morris's book deals solely with Wilde's first month in America. In fact, Declaring His Genius is even more front-heavy than Lewis and Smith's earlier book, with Wilde's last 60 days in America flashing by in only ten pages. So we do not witness the blaze that destroyed the Park Theater the night before Wilde's good friend, Lillie Langtry, was to make her debut upon the American stage, nor do we find out why Wilde abstained from voting at a New York beauty pageant. And the treatment of perhaps the most dramatic event of Wilde's year in America, when he was conned out of thousands of dollars by means of a convoluted lottery scam, is dealt with in under a page (although Morris's suggestion that the police sergeant to whom Wilde reported the crime may well have been its mastermind is an interesting theory, and news to me).

I spent the spring and summer of 2012 writing the script for our pair of comics about Oscar Wilde's American adventure, so I didn't have access to Morris's book when it would have proven most useful. But that's probably for the best. If I'd been able to find everything I needed to know in one 250-page book, perhaps I wouldn't have got so excited about retelling the story. And you definitely can't beat digging through the original sources, many of which are available for free online. Take a look yourself - and if you find anything amazing, tell us about it!

Here's Matthew Sweet's review of the book, well worth a read.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Monday, 21 January 2013

Washington DC


As I write this, Senator Charles Schumer is welcoming hundreds of thousands of Americans to the Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama. One hundred and thirty one years ago this week, Oscar Wilde received a slightly colder welcome to the nation's capital.

The Washington National Republican of the 21st of January 1882 reports that Wilde called at the Capitol and asked if he could be admitted to the floor. The doorman told him that he must first send in his card. Wilde was incredulous. "I never send a card to Parliament when I want to go in." The doorman would not be budged. "You will have to send one here". Wilde sent in his card and soon received a reply from the Speaker of the House, J. Warren Keifer: he was too busy, but would call on Wilde another time.

Thus rebuffed, Wilde decided to take a walk. He wasn't impressed with Washington's public art, and for the remainder of his lecture tour would reprove Washington for displaying "too many bronze generals...To see the frock-coat of the drawing room done in bronze adds a new horror to death". He will have been more pleased that his own photograph was on show in the avenue shop windows. One young lady was heard to exclaim to her friend, "Oh, Maud! How intellectual-looking he is. He is too-too!"

On the 23rd he gave his third lecture of the tour at Washington's Lincoln Hall. He was well received, although one reporter claimed that "there were three persons who were thoroughly satisfied with the lecture: the proprietor of the hall, the aesthete himself, because his salary was assured, and the manager. As for the audience, they had paid their money and couldn't get away, and their principal anxiety was for the conclusion." Another reporter described Wilde's appearance in a less than flattering fashion: "The upper half of his person resembled an English curate; his lower extremities an Italian brigand. He wore black silk stockings and black knee breeches, which gave his legs a general and remote resemblance to two sticks of licorice."

Let's hope the papers go a little easier on Obama.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The first lecture


Today is the 131st anniversary of Wilde's first lecture. At 8.30pm on the 9th January 1882, Wilde took to the stage of Chickering Hall and was confronted by a sell out audience of New York's great and good. Some had come to hear him speak on The English Renaissance, but many were more interested in his long hair and peculiar clothing. It was the first time Wilde had ever spoken in public to more than a handful of people, and it showed. He blushed, stood stock still, and read out his script in a kind of staccato, stressing every fourth syllable.

Still, the audience listened intently, laughed at all the right places, and many considered the night a great success (others didn't).

Before the lecture, Wilde wasn't convinced his trip to America would last more than a few weeks. Afterwards, with his status as a box office draw confirmed, he began a lengthy tour of the country's opera houses, theatres and music halls that would run until late October. Oscar Wilde had not yet conquered America, but the first battle was his.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com