NYCC '09: The Vertigo Crime Panel

100 Bullets #100

Saturday afternoon at New York Comic Con, creators and editors from DC’s Vertigo line gathered again to discuss the line’s crime-driven comics and graphic novels.

The panel, moderated by editor Will Dennis, consisted of 100 Bullets’ Brian Azzarello, Peter Milligan, writer of Hellblazer and the upcoming Greek Street, editors Jonathon Vankin, Christos Gage and James Romberger.

Dennis admitted that he is a huge fan of crime stories, noting that he has edited 100 Bullets for nearly ten years, so he is particularly pleased to be launching a line of Vertigo Crime graphic novels. The line’s first two titles launch in September. Each of the books will be black & white, with some grey tones (depending on the artists’ preference; it was left up to the artist, according to Dennis), hardcover, and in a smaller format – comparable to Road to Perdition. The books will average 180 story pages.

Filthy Rich, by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos, is, according to Azzarello, the story of Junk, a disgraced football star in the early 60s who now works as a used car salesman in New Jersey. His boss, the owner of the dealership, notices his “talent with ladies,” which leads to Junk being hired as a bodyguard for the boss’s daughter, Vicky. “She’s smart, he’s dumb, so you do the math,” Azzarello said. While showing several stunning pages from the book, Dennis added that Santos has won several awards as “the most popular artist in Spain.” Dennis called the story classic noir, with “lots of sex and a little violence.”

“A lot of sex,” Azzarello interjected.

The other launch titles, Dark Entries is written by best-selling Scottish author Ian Rankin and illustrated by Werther Dell’Edera (Loveless). Rankin, a longtime comics fan, got in touch with Vertigo through Denise Mina. He initially pitched a Hellblazer story, according to Dennis, but it was more a detective story that fit well into their ideas for the crime line. The central character, John, is a private detective hired as a mole on a reality TV show called “Haunted Mansion” when things outside the producers’ control start to affect the contestants. Something of a locked room mystery, Dennis said that the book has supernatural elements and though it’s not a Hellblazer story, Constantine fans should enjoy it.

Artist Lee Bermejo will be providing illustrations for the cover of all of the Vertigo Crime books, with each drawing incorporated into a book-specific design element to give it a more traditional book appeal.

After the initial two title launch, several more titles in the pipeline were revealed. Christos Gage is writing a book titled Area Ten. About the book’s genesis, Vankin offered an “insight into being a Vertigo editor”: While talking with Gage, Vankin said, “I’m really fascinated by head injuries.”

“Yeah, I have something about that,” Gage responded.

The premise of the book involves the central character drilling a hole in his head. The theory behind the injury, “if you believe in that sort of thing,” Gage said, is to open perceptions. The protagonist begins to have weird audio/visual perceptions. Gage said a central question of the book is, “Has he awakened new forms of perception or is he just going crazy,” and described the book as “a murder mystery with an unreliable narrator.”

Gage also praised his artist Chris Samnee, who does “amazing stuff in black and white, really evocative.”

The Bronx Kill, by Peter Milligan and James Romberger, is set on a small patch of land in New York City called Bronx Kill. Milligan said that as soon as he first heard of the neighborhood, “I dwelled on this strange sounding place … It’s like the top part of Manhattan, almost like the island is trying to push it away.” Thematically, the book deals with the weight of sins past on the present generation. It starts off with a killing in the Bronx Kill then follows the killer’s great grandson, who’s a writer, when his wife goes missing under mysterious circumstances.

Romberger, a New Yorker, said, “First thing I did was go out to the Bronx Kill and have a look, and it’s pretty nasty there.” Milligan, a native of London, said that he’d never been there, but didn’t want to go as it would change how his imagination created the place.

“It’s pretty much exactly what you imagined,” Romberger shot back. He added that he’d always wanted to work with Milligan, even going so far as to do “samples for Shade years ago.”

Describing her as “a wonderful person, tremendously delightful lady, but the books she writes are the most bleak stuff you can imagine,” Vankin introduced Denise Mina’s A Sickness in the Family. Antonio Fuzo, currently drawing some GI Joe projects (which Gage is co-writing), provides art. “It’s a small world, this comics world,” Vankin laughed. The book revolves around an extremely dysfunctional family, “due to a lot of the problem families have, jealously, parents holding onto money rather than sharing with kids,” and an adopted kid who feels he’s on the outside. It’s a murder mystery when members start dying in nasty ways and nobody knows why. Letterer Clem Robins designed a font reminiscent of an old EC font to complement the tone of the story.

The Chill, by writer Jason Star, is a “serial killer book.” The Chill is ancient Irish curse, about a woman supposed to have power to make men crazy for her, and they all die in mysterious ways. Compared to Jim Thompson’s writing, the book has “some police procedural stuff … and quite a bit of sex in it.”

Dennis wanted to stress that although these are all crime books, there is a variety of material in the crime genre, and there will hopefully be something for all readers.

Cowboys, by Gary Phillips and Brian Hurtt, is “in the Elmore Leonard school of kooky character in weird situations.” The book was inspired by a conversation between Dennis and Phillips about the Sean Bell shooting in New York and how those types of things happen. Phillips being African-American, frequently writes from that point of view. Cowboys challenges “racial perceptions and social perceptions.” A white FBI agent and a black LAPD cop each go undercover, with the black officer as a record exec, while the white guy “has a street thing.” The opening has each pointing a gun at the other, a cut to the outdoors and a shot fired, and the story will explore how people can’t see past own preconceived notions. Dennis added that it has a “police drama show to it.”

More books are in the pipeline, but these are the next books to be rolled out after September.

Asked about price, Dennis said, “It’s gonna be under $20 for close to 200 story pages, hardcover. We haven’t really figured it out.”

Vankin and Dennis both admitted their love of the television shows The Shield and, in particular, The Wire. Neither show has any particular similarity to any of the books, but they did create a better environment for doing crime books.

Romberger said that working in the smaller, black and white format isn’t much of a restriction. “It lets you be a little more expressive and faster.” He added that although he “OD’ed on cop shows ten years ago,” he loves the tradition of crime comics dating back through Steranko, Crime SuspenStories, Krigstein and more.

Milligan acknowledged that the format required a small adjustment to the “beat and flow of the page, but not much difference.”

Dennis relayed an argument that he and Azzarello had about how many panels could fit on a page. Because Santos often drew 16 panels on a page in Spain, Azzarello wrote a script typical of himself. Dennis argued for less panels.

Azzarello: You won the argument, then I just went back and did it the way I wanted to do it.

Dennis: That’s what happens when the editor wins an argument.

Asked if this line will receive mass market support that the Minx line did not, Azzarello explained, to considerable laughs, that “There wasn’t enough sex in Minx.”

“Obviously we’re hoping the mainstream and specialty crime/mystery markets” will respond well, Vankin said.

DC’s VP of Marketing, John Cunningham, stood up from the crowd and offered that this past Wednesday, he presented the books to the Random House sales force for bookstore selling. “Random House picked up that we’re launching with two biggest selling authors, and the Joker book has done so well for them,” so Random House will be giving these books a very aggressive push.

Although there is a potential for sequels, each of the book are currently stand-alone, Dennis confirmed. Gage joked, “There will be more Area Ten, and in each on he will get an injury to a new area of the brain.”

Azzarello, uncharacteristically enthusiastic at a convention panel, said, that he is “really excited working on this stuff, and I want to do another one.”

Depending on the responses, Vankin said, it is not unlikely to see several characters in multiple books. “Crime fans love series, love to see character come back.” None of the line were designed with sequels in mind, but a number would be possibly open to that.

On the line’s evolution, Dennis explained that Vertigo hasn’t always had a system for producing graphic novels, though they’ve received pitches for them over the years. With the success of things like Road to Perdition, Pride of Baghdad, The Quitter and more, it became more feasible for them. Also, the growing acceptance of comics has made it much easier for editors to approach established prose writers. He no longer has “awkward conversations about what comics are and are not” with known writers.

Addressing the format, Vankin said that it’s “just a good format for this type of book,” saying that readers can take the books on an airplane or to the beach. “They’re fun and you want to read them.” To the “average person, it feels like a book,” Dennis added.

One reader asked if Brian Azzarello is there is any chance of seeing of seeing surviving 100 Bullets character in this format after that series ends.

Azzarello: No

After a pause and some laughter, Azzarello added that anything more done with the 100 Bullets characters would likely be in the monthly format. “This stuff is something completely different. You guys better fucking buy this stuff.”

“Isn’t your superhero crime jones being scratched enough?” Azzarello asked when a fan asked about different genres of crime, mentioned sci-fi or superhero crime-based stories.

The fan was reminded that Rankin’s book does have supernatural elements, but Dennis said that there is no checklist of genres that he’s looking to fill. Each project will exist because a writer comes to him with a solid idea for a book.

After a fan thanked Azzarello for signing multiple copies of the Joker graphic novel, Dennis quipped, “Do you have an eBay business?”

Dennis said that having worked on 100 Bullets and knowing Vankin also enjoyed crime stories, combined with shows like The Wire and The Shield, created a “perfect storm of pop culture” that opened Vertigo up for this line. Projects like The Quitter and The Alcoholic showed them how to publish success graphic novels. Azzarello “doesn’t get excited about a lot of things but when he gets this excited, you have to tap the vein,” Dennis laughed.

Gage said that he got involved because the books “sounded like a fun thing to do, an enjoyable opportunity. We enjoy these types of stories.”

“I like working black and white, Romberger added, as the panelists explained the appeal of working on crime comics. Vankin added to Romberger’s thought, saying “I like black and white too; there tend not to be enough of them. I’m thrilled about these.”

Wrapping up the panel, speaking of his 100 Bullets collaborator Eduardo Risso, Azzarello said, “Yes, we are going to work again. We’re developing something right now,” which will not be for the crime graphic novel line. It will be “Vertigo proper.”

Finally, Dennis thanked Azzarello for all his work on 100 Bullets, offering that it expanded what was okay for vertigo to do and made this line okay under their umbrella. “I couldn’t be more proud of my association” with the book, he concluded, acknowledging that its success has made it much easier for him to approach outside writers about working comics.

“Thank all of you for supporting that book for the last ten years,” Azzarello said graciously.

More New York Comic Con 2009 Coverage:

NYCC '09 Video Page

NYCC '09 Mini-Site

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