Portugal

 

Sketching at Mértola.

Every once in a while I just need to recharge my visual batteries. For the last three weeks my partner Esperança and I have been doing exactly that, roaming around Portugal’s Alentejo border region with Spain, in the south and east of the country. It is a part of the country we have not visited for over thirty years and at that time it was a rushed visit, so we decided to do a deep dive this time, working our way up from the south and then spending the last week in the beautiful hill town of Castelo de Vide, a few kilometres from the Spanish border.

5-6000 year old Dolmen in a farmer's field.

We have spent a lot of time in rural Portugal, mostly the north and east, land that I love for its boulder strewn landscapes, and old stone. There is something distinctly un-tarted up about the Portuguese landscape, raw and sun-baked at times, but with the history of millennia everywhere you look. A lot of peoples and cultures have made their home here for a very long time, with megalithic monuments dating back 7000 years. The Celts were here, and the Romans, Visigoths came and were assimilated, Moors as well. And all have left their mark on the landscape, giving shape to the towns and villages, leaving remnants still evident everywhere, especially in the sparsely populated border regions where time seems to stand still.


These trips are very important to me, a time to soak in the rich imagery, imagery that inspires so much of my comic book art. It is a time to leave my iPad and stylus at home and pull out my sketchpad and pens, to sit with a place for a couple of hours and record it in line on paper, study the shapes of trees and bushes, how plaster flakes off old walls, exposing the stone beneath. And when not drawing, just absorbing my surroundings, ancient stepped streets, crumbling walls, the dramatic landscape spooling out as we walk a medieval path that people have walked for centuries.


Here is my sketchbook from this trip, two executed outside our B&B across the river from Mértola, a sleepy walled village that was once a thriving Roman river port, and the others done during a glorious week spent in the centuries old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide. When we return home I will be throwing myself into the busy-ness of launching Quid Pro Crow (see details of the launch below) but at least I will be entering these weeks with my energy renewed and my visual batteries well-charged.








Quid Pro Crow to be launched at Take Cover Books, Saturday, May 18, 2023, 7 to 9 p.m.

So of course this is the big news, that the second volume of my Mordecai Crow trilogy, Quid Pro Crow, is landing in bookstores on May 18! That day I will be launching it at my favourite bookstore, Peterborough's own Take Cover Books, doing something a bit different this time. I will be giving a little talk about how the second book came about and sharing some of the pages with you. I really hope you can make it if you are in the area. The store is at 59 Hunter Street East in East City. Hope to see you there!

Quid Pro Crow at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Saturday, May 11, 2 - 4 p.m.

Signing books at the Renegade table, with my publisher,
Alexander Finbow at TCAF 2023.

I will be at the Renegade table again this year at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, signing copies of Quid Pro Crow and just generally hanging out, from 2 p.m. onwards on Saturday, May 11. If you are in the area drop by and visit - I would love to see you! This is a free event, held in the Toronto Reference Library just north of Bloor on Young. It's packed to the gunnels with indie comic book publishers from all over and with a full schedule of exciting workshops and panels. 

Welcome to the Paliseum!

 I had the pleasure of speaking to our local historical society about a week ago - not your usual venue to be plugging comics but the invitation intrigued me. If you have been following my blog or receiving my newsletter you will know that lately I have been talking a lot about places my partner Esperança and I have encountered, in our travels abroad, and how they have influenced settings in the Mordecai Crow series, especially the second and third book. So I thought that love of history and old stone would be a good jumping off point for my talk.

I have always had a love of history, probably instilled in me at an early age by the books of Rosemary Sutcliffe, who wrote a series of historical novels for kids that always had a child at the heart of the story. I think that gave me not only a personal but deeply romantic relationship with history, romantic in the sense that I always equate history with stories rather than dates, battles and royal lineages. So when we travel, we often turn our backs on the cities and crowds and seek out the small historical oddities and old bits of stone that populate the more rural parts of countries like Portugal or the south of France, ferreting out the stories they still have to tell.

These travels have filled my head with images and ideas that I can draw on, literally, as I make my way through 120-150 pages of comic art. In many cases it is simply studies of crumbling walls or sagging roof lines done in my sketch book when I have the chance, or referencing back to the many photos Esperança has taken on our travels. (She is the designated photographer. My job is to complain about how long it takes and then gush about the beautiful record we have of our trip when we get home!)

A crumbling old house I sketched in Mosteiros, Açores.

But on occasion there will be something that lodges itself in my memory for years, things like Santa-Clara-a-Velha, the flooded church in Coimbra, Portugal that I blogged about a couple of months ago. Another such place is the Roman theatre in Orange, in the Rhone Valley in southern France. It is one of the best preserved Roman theatres in the world and is still used today for performances. 

Roman Theatre of Orange today, set up for a performance.

But my take away from that theatre was not so much the theatre itself as learning, through an image in the attached museum, that in medieval times the structure was filled with houses, built throughout the theatre and all the way up its crumbling seating. Again, it was a terrific example of how adaptive we are as a species, how this stout-walled Roman building was re-purposed, in dangerous times, as its very own gated community within a doubtlessly dangerous city.

Roman Theatre of Orange as it appeared in an early etching, prior to its restoration in 1825.

That image gave rise to the Pailiseum in Quid Pro Crow, a re-purposed modern sports stadium that is now the jewel in the crown of bandit ruler Zeya di Boticelli di Obscuro's petty kingdom, Flood Town (that's now New Atlantis, to you, pilgrim). I have shared images of the Palisem before but thought I would give a sneak preview of a sequence of pages when our heroes, Crow and Podd, arrive by boat and enter through the massive water gates into the Paliseum.

Fun fact! The fishing platform is based on the cliffside fishing platforms called trabucchi that we have seen in the south of Italy.


Secrets of Jarrow shortlisted for best indie graphic novel of 2023!
It was nice to find out last week that Secrets of Jarrow had appeared on a shortlist of best Canadian graphic novels
for 2023. The list, selected by Sequential Magazine, will now be voted on by readers over the next month. If you have read Secrets and enjoyed, please consider giving it your vote! Go to the link below and take the time to check out some other great Canadian comic talent published last year. The Graphic Novel category is part way down. (Heads up, to keep things one vote per person you will need a Google account to cast your vote.) Thanks!



Fun talk for the Millbrook Cavan Historical Society this month

Okay, so I knew everyone there as it was in my hometown, but still, it was a lot of fun to get up in front of fifty or so people and talk about the visual and historical inspirations for my books. I now have a finely polished talk that is ready to be trotted out in front of historical societies world-wide! Contact me for fees (none) and available booking dates (all of 2024).


Quid Pro Crow at the printers!
I know I have been saying this for months, but Quid Pro Crow really is at the printers now! Due out in May, we are just hammering out some last minute stuff but it's on Renegade's website for pre-order, so I guess this is real, folks!

https://renegadeartsentertainment.com/product/quid-pro-crow/

See???! It has a cover and everything!

Hanging with the Troglodytes

I confess, I’m fascinated with the way humans adapt to changing circumstances. As much as anything, that was what inspired me to set my Mordecai Crow stories in a post-climate change future. Continuing with a theme, I thought I would blog about the troglodytes of southern Italy, and how their habitations inspired a group of cave dwellers encountered in my second Mordecai Crow book, Quid Pro Crow (due out this May). 

A few years ago we travelled to Puglia in the south of Italy, a part of that history-rich country that has remained a bit of a backwater, although it is gaining more attention in recent years for all of the unique things it has to offer. Among those is a long history of troglodytes, or cave dwellers, that have carved out their homes and churches from the soft porous limestone that exists in the ravines that intersect the landscape.


Most famous of these is Matera, just over the border in the region of Basilicata. You have to see this city to believe it, tumbling down through ancient stepped streets to the bottom of the ravine on which it is located. The area has been inhabited since time immemorial, and is unique in that it was originally a city of caves. Most of the cave dwellings were actually inhabited up until the 1950’s when they were deemed an embarrassment, were abandoned and the residents moved to modern housing in the newer parts of the city. However some of the caves are still inhabited today, both as homes and workplaces, many of them re-inhabited in more recent years and some converted to a boutique hotel!

The rupestrian church of Santa Maria de Idris in Matera, carved out of the rock.

Looking along the ravine, with a view of some of the abandoned cave dwellings on the lower edge of the city. Many of these were still occupied into the 1950's.


But Matera isn’t the only site of cave habitation. Near the town of Mottola, Puglia we tracked down an abandoned cave community that digs have confirmed has been inhabited since the bronze age! Records of inhabitation are dated back to 1227 when a vibrant medieval community lived, worked and worshiped in the cave dwellings in the ravine. More recently, during the Second World War Polish troops were stationed there and left behind the remnants of a church that they had begun to build. 


Access to the ravine is only by six rough hewn stairways carved into the rock walls. The entrance is tricky to find and involves a fair bit of scrambling, but you are rewarded with finding home after home, carved at different levels into the soft rock. Within the caves sleeping areas and cupboards have been carved out and also wells for storage and catching water run off.


A view of one wall of the ancient troglodyte settlement of Gravina di Petruscio.

A close up of some of the home entrances, stacked one on top of the other.


Of the many myths and stories that revolve around Gravina di Petruscio, the one that stuck with me was that in early medieval times, when the invading Saracens had taken control of Mottola and the surrounding area, the local inhabitants had fled to the caves and lived there, undetected, within a few kilometres of their enemy. This gave me the idea for the community of Thunberg in Quid Pro Crow, where Gnostic refugees live unnoticed by the Luddite overlords who have conquered the area.


Besides being hidden, there are a lot of good reasons to live in a cave, especially in a world ravaged by climate change. If doorways are positioned correctly, as they are at Gravina di Petuscio, they can catch the warmth of the sun during the day and remain cool at night. If you go far enough into rock the ambient temperature stays a consistent 13°C winter and summer. It is for these reasons that people and other critters have been living in caves since the beginning of time. I have visited caves where they have determined that bears, humans and other creatures had lived in the same space at different times over millenia, even managing to pinpoint within very short time spans the occupancy of each based on what they had left behind. And probably the most powerful experience I have ever had when travelling was seeing for the first time, deep in the caves of Niaux in the French Pyrennes, prehistoric cave paintings. I have seen many since but that first experience blew my mind, coming face to face with drawings left behind by cave dwellers inspired by what inspires me - putting down a line on a surface to tell a story.


So bringing this full circle, here is a sneak preview of a page from Quid Pro Crow, where Crow and Podd get the tour from one of Thunberg’s inhabitants, Maia.




Secrets of Jarrow chosen as one of the Five best graphic novels for 2023!

I was absolutely thrilled to find out that Secrets of Jarrow was chosen by the Toronto Star as one of the five best graphic novels of the year. Here is the link to the article - check out the other books chosen, as well. I’m feeling like I am in good company.

Upcoming talk at Millbrook Cavan Historical Society Feb. 22, 7 p.m., Millbrook Legion Hall

This is a hometown event, but I am really looking forward to it. I have been asked to come and talk about my work and plan to cover some of the ground I have been talking about recently - how my travels have influenced the landscape of Mordecai Crow. If you live close by, I hope you can make it! 

Here is a link for more information.