Starting Vertigo's Crime Line: Ian Rankin on Dark Entries

Ian Rankin on Dark Entries

Dark Entries

One of the most popular novelists in the world, Ian Rankin heads to comics this summer to help kick off the Vertigo Crime Line with his graphic novel Dark Entries, illustrated by Werther Dell’Edera. Featuring longtime Vertigo leading man John Constantine, the tale takes him to a mysterious house where a reality program is going horribly wrong, and murder is the least of his worries.

This is the Edinburgh-based novelist’s first comic, but he already has an international reputation as a crime novelist of the first degree. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series has been published in 22 countries, adapted into a popular TV series, and he’s won virtually every award known to mystery writers, including the Edgar and the French Grand Prix du Roman Noir. Some estimates say that his books account for 10 percent of all UK crime fiction sales.

During a tour for Rankin’s novel Exit Music, we were able to talk with him face-to-face about his upcoming comics work. Now that the graphic novel is about to come out, we can finally share our conversation. In the first of a two-part series, Rankin discusses how Dark Entries came to be, his long-time love of John Constantine, and what it’s been like moving into comics.

Newsarama: Ian, tell us about your Constantine graphic novel.

Ian Rankin: It’s called Dark Entries, which was a song by a goth punk band in the 1970s called Bauhaus. They had this song called “Dark Entries,” and I thought it was just a great title for a noir graphic novel.

It was quite exciting for me, because I’ve been a comic book fan since I was three years old. That was how I started reading. My parents didn’t have many books in the house; they weren’t college-educated. So the first things I read as a kid were comics. And it was Batman and Superman and Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Fantastic Four.

And so, to get an email from Vertigo saying, “We believe from interviews with you that we’ve read that you’re interested in comic books. Would you be interested in writing Batman or Superman?”, I thought, “My God! I’ve been waiting 40 years for this email!”

I just couldn’t turn it down. I should have – I had lots of work, lots of projects, a lot of things I was behind on. But you get an email like that and you have to jump on it, you know? So I pitched them half a dozen ideas. Some of them were brand-new, with original characters, and some involved existing characters. And the one they liked best was for Hellblazer, for John Constantine.

Originally, they were going to do it as a series, but then they decided it worked better as a stand-alone graphic novel. So I sat down and wrote it. And you know, I’d never written a comic book before. I had no idea how to structure it, how to break it up into pages or anything else.

I almost wrote it like a novella, you know, just a stream of words. Then Vertigo started to break it down into pages, and went, “We have a problem – it’s 200 pages! It’s a very long graphic novel!” But they liked the story, and they didn’t want to take anything out of it, so they said, “Let’s do it, let’s do a 200-page graphic novel.” So the poor artist (Werther Dell’Edera), he’s got to draw 1,010 frames.

NRAMA: You counted?

IR: Eventually.

I was lucky in a way, because a friend of mine who’s also a mystery novelist in Scotland, Denise Mina, had also been contacted by Vertigo, and had written some Constantine scripts. And she set them in Glasgow, which I thought was quite clever, because that’s where she lives.

NRAMA: See, I was going to ask if you were going to have Constantine going to Edinburgh…

IR: Sadly, no. It’s mostly set in a haunted house in England. So it’s his territory – rather than take him to mine, I’ve gone to his territory. And he’s got a gig as a psychic investigator. It’s sort of like of those reality game shows where people are locked up together, but there’s a haunting going on, and people are starting to disappear, which is great for the ratings. But Constantine is brought in to see if he can solve the mystery.

So I structured it almost like Ten Little Indians, you know, the Agatha Christie mystery, where people are disappearing one at a time. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.

NRAMA: So this won’t have a supernatural element…?

IR: Oh, it will. Big time.

NRAMA: I was wondering about that, because of the nature of the crime line.

IR: Oh, yeah. But I had to be true to Constantine’s universe, and he’s always battling demons. So there were always going to be demons in the story. It wouldn’t just be a haunted house scenario; it would grow and grow until we had the demons of Hell involved. Which is something I don’t normally get to write about, so it was quite fun.

NRAMA: John Constantine has had the single longest-running series of any Vertigo character; in fact, he’s had a longer continuous run than most characters in comics. What do you feel is the source of his enduring appeal?

IR: Along with Swamp Thing, Hellblazer brought horror back to the modern comic book. I remember reading issue #1 of Hellblazer, and being terrified, and I was in my 20s! There was a guy with bees or wasps or something just coming out of his mouth. It scared the beejeezus out of me! It sticks with you!

But what appeals to me is that he’s like a private eye. He’s got the coat, and he’s shambling around with the bottle of Scotch on the table when he goes home at night, and he takes these cases where he just gets sucked in. There’s a mystery he’s trying to unfold, and he operates almost like the Sam Spade character from classic American crime fiction, only with a horror twist, a supernatural twist.

And it has a very modern identity – John was in a punk band when he was 19, and I was in a punk band when I was 19! So I think a young generation, especially when the comic first came out, could relate to him.

Plus, he doesn’t have superpowers. He can’t fly. And he’s not a billionaire, so he can’t afford to build a flying ship or a rubberized suit that’ll take bullets and things. He’s only got his own wits that he lives by. He’s as human as you and I. Well, there’s the question as to whether he has some demon blood running through him, but that’s making this more difficult to discuss. (laughs)

And he’s fallible. He’s very fallible. People get killed around him, and it’s his fault sometimes. He screws up. And that’s what I like about him.

NRAMA: What are some of your favorite stories with the character?

IR: Oh, God! There’s just been so many. I mean, the ones that stick out are the early ones, because I was so young, and they just seemed so revolutionary to me.

NRAMA: The Jamie Delano ones?

IR: Yes, Jamie Delano. It was a great, great time, because Sandman was coming out as well, and Watchmen had just come out, as had The Dark Knight Returns. It seemed like a Golden Age. Looking back, it was just a great time, a great time in comic books.

I remember there was the demon who gave him a blood transfusion, that’s where the demon blood thing came from. God, I loved that, the demon who wouldn’t let go. And there was a lot of social commentary, too, commenting on fascism in Britain.

In one early episode, he comes across the ultimate fascist, and it’s this skinhead, four of them are being put together by a demon, bits of arms and legs and things are all being put together to form this horrible grotesque caricature of a human being. That just stunned me, because that was such a vivid metaphor for what racism does to people. It turns them into monsters.

To me, it wasn’t just comics trying to scare people. There was some real social commentary in there as well.

NRAMA: What did you think of the Keanu Reeves film?

IR: It had its good points; it had its weak points. Often when I go to the cinema to see a film based on a comic book, I just turn my brain off at the door. That’s the way to enjoy it. I mean, a lot of people hated the film of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I loved it! I think I went and saw it three times! I liked the characters, and the idea of them as the first superhero fighting team. That’s just a great idea. As a creative writer, that just really appeals to me, genre-hopping and playing games with them.

I loved V for Vendetta as well. I thought it was very true to the source material, very faithful. I thought, “being Hollywood, they’ll make him take off the mask, we’ll get to see his face.” Nope. Loved From Hell also. I think I liked it better than the comic book, which is very hard to follow in parts. And it was in color, unlike the comic, so it was really Grand Guignol, really in your face. And Johnny Depp – I could watch him in anything. He’s terrific in everything he does. I loved that recreation of Victorian London.

NRAMA: Your fiction is grounded in a lot of research, a lot of realistic details, so I can imagine that’s a fun tool to work with, horror characters…

IR: Absolutely. If you want to go to Hell, you can write a scene there. It’s very hard to do that in a realistic crime series set in Edinburgh, but I can do that with Constantine’s stuff.

But! It was very, very, very difficult to write. I thought, “How hard can it be? There’s hardly any words on the page…”

NRAMA: (laughs) You are not the first novelist to say that about comics.

IR: It’s visual! As a novelist, the reader does an awful lot of the work for you. For example, if I say, “Inspector Rebus walked into the bar,” the reader will decide what the bar looks like – is it large, is it small, what are the people talking about, what’s on the TV, is there music playing – you know, all that stuff the reader will do with their imagination.

If I say – for comic book purposes – “Rebus walks into the bar,” I’ve got to describe all of that for the artist, otherwise the artist has nothing to work with.

NRAMA: I hate to say, when I first read one of your books, I had a mental image of another Vertigo character called “Rebus” from Doom Patrol, who’s a radioactive hermaphrodite covered in bandages…

IR: Really? That’s in Doom Patrol?

NRAMA: You hadn’t read it?

IR: I thought I had, but clearly I hadn’t. Now, I read a lot of other stuff by Grant Morrison. They always talk about the Brits in comics, but we’ve got a lot of Scots in there as well.

NRAMA: Well, what do you feel it is about that European perspective that works so well for horror comics?

IR: A lot of them came out of a comic called 2000 AD. And that it did was, up until then the British comic had been a lot softer – war stories and cop stories and funny stuff, things like that. It was realistic. It hadn’t involved superheroes, people with superpowers. And what 2000 AD did was look at the American model, and then bring a British perspective to it.

So there’s a little bit of grit and a little bit of humor and a great bit of satire. You look at something like Judge Dredd, there’s a lot of satire in that one. I think that’s what helped make 2000 AD successful. And it was a good training ground for writers. Alan Moore and Pat Mills and all sorts of people got their start there.

It was one of those things where you could just go to London and knock on their door and go, “I’m interested in writing for you.” This one Scottish guy I know really well, he used to write for Batman, Alan Grant – he wrote half the stuff in 2000 AD! He wrote it under a series of pseudonyms. And I didn’t know that, I thought it was all these different people, but half of them were him, working with Pat Mills.

Alan’s great, and he lives in Southern Scotland, and we meet up two or three times a year, I’ve interviewed him at festivals and things. He’s an interesting guy to talk to, because he has been around in the comic book industry for decades, and he knows the difference between writing prose and writing for comics. He knows that you’re using a different part of your brain as a writer, that you’re having to visualize a lot more than you would (in prose).

And he knows about visualizing it – “Where are we seeing the action from? Are we standing in front of the characters? Are we looking down at them from the ceiling or sky? Are we looking up at them?” You know, these are things novelists never think about. We never think about what angle the camera is shooting from.

NRAMA: It’s “show, don’t tell” taken to the extreme.

IR: Yeah, exactly. And I have no artistic ability. I can’t draw at all, so I couldn’t storyboard the Hellblazer story out when I started to do it. But Denise Mina was very helpful. She emailed me some of her script pages and said, “This is how I do it, this is how I lay a page out.”

What I did was I got a copy of a book called Understanding Comics and the others by Scott McCloud. And I thought they were really quite cerebral. It was like, “What happens in the space between the panels is almost as important as the panels themselves, because time has passed, and you’ve got to imagine what has happened between these two panels.”

And I thought, wow, you never think of that when you’re reading a comic, you never realize that the space between the panels is really quite important – the linearity, or rather the non-linearity of it. The effect you get from turning the page and there’s suddenly a double-page spread in this single frame. Novelists can’t do that! You can’t turn the page and it suddenly goes “POW!” over two pages. It’d be great if you could. Imagine reading a thriller, and you turn the page, and it’s like an explosion in your face.

Next: Ian Rankin on some of his favorite comics, the increased connection between crime fiction and comics, and who would win in a fight between John Constantine and Inspector Rebus.

Dark Entries enters stores on August 19, along with Brian Azzarello & Victor Santos' Flithy Rich, both the lead titles in Vertigo's Vertigo Crime imprint.

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