The High Arctic: A Story World Pitch

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A story world pitch deck for Alex McDowell’s “Planet JUNK” collaboration. 500 years after the collapse of our civilization, an admixed tribe live an Inuit lifestyle in northern Greenland.

Destroying the world in 30 years is depressing, but this isn’t my first time down this philosophical road. God kings and abject despotism have held civilizations together for thousands of years–many times longer than democracy. Tribal-scale survival for hundreds of thousands of years.

The horror writer must look where they don’t want to. I feel that we understand, on some level, how fragile our current civilization is. With rare exceptions, we dress up collapse stories to make them more palatable–as Romero zombies, as alien invasions, as fantasy-science-gone-amok.

As dark as it was at times, I wanted to look at a downscaling of human life, and find some beauty and hope in our own survival.

The Lighthouse Keeper

Among any number of negative habits is my tendancy to come up with an idea out of desperation at the last minute, play with it for a little while, and then fall in love and want to dump six months into it. Class workshops on different aspects of game design usually trigger this problem. This one is no different. (See also a simple RPG I’m trying to get working in Tabletop Simulator.)

As boring as it sounds, being a lighthouse keeper was as much about lifesaving as shipwreck prevention. A certain solitary type seems to have been attracted to the United States Treasury’s Lighthouse Establishment/Board/Service between 1791 and 1939 (which I think we can agree encompasses the “Golden Age” of lighthouses). Hoisting a dory into four-meter swells from a flooded gear room at the base of the tower in a pitch-black howling gale was a job requirement, and having a sturdy dog with sharp senses and no fear of the water along wasn’t all about companionship. (“Saved,” from the Louis Prang Collection commemorates a real lighthouse dog’s rescue of a child.) Denis Noble’s Lighthouses & Keepers is a good intro to this world.

I’m attracted to the character of an Indian man serving as a keeper sometime around the turn of the last century–someone like WWI US Army Sergeant Bhagat Singh Thind, who under the racial ideas of the time tried and failed to gain US citizenship when the Supreme Court ruled that, while “Aryan” he was not “white.”

I envision an adventure game made up of episodes (equipment failures, hurricanes, shipwrecks) with free exploration segments before the crisis portion triggers, in which you wander the lighthouse with your dog, read water-damaged books (real ones) about “race science” and other odd but consequential ideas for your character’s situation, and maintain the equipment. The offshore lighthouse serves as a metaphor for your own situation, literally defending a shore you can never reach. In these quiet moments, most of your default push/pull interactions are small acts of cleaning and maintenance (and scritching your dog). I want to make you complicit in the feeling that you’re constantly–even lovingly–maintaining this life-preserving tower.

In truth, an offshore lighthouse was manned by a crew of 3-4. Many keepers were married, and raised families at the facilities. The “solitary” aspect would be a departure from strict historicism–though sickness, injury or just plain poor manpower planning could easily leave a single hand to run a light. It was a quiet and hardworking life, though vastly superior to the sailing trade most keepers left.

I’ll leave you with this cutaway of Britain’s Eddystone Lighthouse, and an 1892 magazine article describing a visit there. It’s a fun topic to get lost in for a few hours. But for now, I think it’s best I leave it at that.

Concept Art for “The Watchfire”

Her bare feet linger just within a crop circle bounded with a ring of stones. A second ring of stones lies closer to the center. In the middle, flanked by two small mirrored pools, looms the BEACON itself–taller than her, topped with a flame that isn’t fire.

A lone BEACON of light shines from the wooded hills above a shore untouched by man.

The DAWN GIRL (10) looks down from the hill, wringing her hands as the GLOW of the explosion below touches her face. She is fair with extremely long blonde hair, draped in a shapeless garment of the same color.

Dusk carries the body to the sea’s edge. She’s about to drop it into the tidal mud when, brow knitting, she leans in. A faint, regular CHIRP-like sound eminates from the golden boy’s mouth, like a ticking counter.

Sunday Comics

By virtue of their printed size, long-form (Sunday) comics have a history of being difficult to translate into book form. Newspaper widths vary between about 11″x17″ (tabloid) and 18″x24″ (broadsheet), while trade paperbacks much above 8.5″x11″ (letter) become expensive to print and hard to move through retail channels. In order to allow reprinting in smaller formats and in different shapes, the modern comics page is dominated by comics with simple art and a large number of small panels. Meanwhile, dedicated comic books, which can be reprinted at the same scale and dimensions in trade paperback, have grown ever more complex and detailed. Sunday comics with ongoing storylines have disappeared, while comic book storylines grow ever richer.

Lets find a different Sunday strip format that’s easier to reprint in book form.

We assume that each artist should get the same amount of space in each edition, and that the artwork should be reproduced at roughly the same size in newspaper and book form.

The simplest method would be to print four standard comic book pages on each page of newsprint (fig. 1), for a total of 16 comics per sheet (bifold: cover, inside left, inside right, back). Reprinting is a question of slicing each full-size page into four book pages.

Fine. Boring. The newspaper sheet looks like a set of unrelated items stuck next to each other.

We could also do three landscape-oriented pages per sheet. (fig. 2) This would give the artist more space to work with. Reprinting would require a landscape-oriented trade paperback though, which is harder to shelve. It’s also just as boring.

If we’re reinventing the Sunday comics page, let’s come up with something more interesting.

We’ll start by dividing the page into blocks. Each page of the trade paperback gets six blocks (2×3), each page of the newspaper, eighteen (3×6). (fig. 3) The blocks need not be square, but they can’t be rotated between newsprint and trade, and need to maintain a consistent aspect ratio.

We now combine the blocks into shapes. These shapes become the working space each artist is given. Since the shapes won’t be divided up further in reprinting, the artist has freedom to use the space in any way desired — panels of all shapes and sizes, or no individual panels at all. A 2×3 block trade paperback page can be divided into fifteen pairs of contiguous shapes. (fig. 4)

Shapes that result in an ambiguous visual flow (spots with no clear left-to-right/top-to-bottom progression) have to be discarded. This leaves us with eight shape combinations. (fig. 5)

Our goal is to give each artist the same amount of space per issue. With twelve artists per sheet of newsprint, each artist gets two sets of blocks to work with, totaling six blocks.

The eight shape sets break down into three basic categories:

  • Two shapes of the same size (1 & 2)
  • One shape with four blocks and one shape with two blocks (3, 4, 5 & 6)
  • One single block and one shape with five blocks (7 & 8)

When we take the eight basic shape pairs and start trying to fit them into the 3×6 grid of the newspaper page, we begin to notice things. (fig. 6) It’s almost always possible to randomly choose one of each category and fit them together in a nice jumble, without any two shapes being fitted together in the same manner they would be in the 2×3 trade paperback. Shape pairs 3 and 4 tend to cause the exceptions, especially with 7s and 8s, often being either impossible to fit into the grid, or only working in their original positions. Neighbors in general don’t tend to work well (2/3/4, 3/4/5, 6/7/8, etc.). A great variety of interesting layouts are allowed.

As long as each artist is given two locations in each issue with a total of six blocks between them, each newsprint issue can be reprinted in book form without any alteration to or significant scaling of the original artwork. An attractively jumbled layout is produced, both for the Sunday newsprint edition and in book form.