Crime Pays in Comics: Ian Rankin and His Comic Book Love

Ian Rankin on Dark Entries

Our two-part talk with crime novelist Ian Rankin, writer of the upcoming graphic novel Dark Entries for the Vertigo Crime Line, concludes today. In this installment, the best-selling writer discusses just why so many crime novelists have headed to comics and more. Read on…

Click here for part one

Newsarama: Ian, what are some of your favorite comics, both of the past and currently?

Ian Rankin: I like The Boys. I’m a big fan of that. It goes way over the top, and just keeps going. Back in the 80s, when I was in my 20s, I bought a lot of comics, and there was an obscure four-part one called Cinder and Ashe that I loved.

I lost it in a move, but I finally got it again off eBay and read it again and I loved it. It was a Vietnam vet who’d rescued this little girl while he was in Vietnam, and they worked as sort of private eyes in the Bayou, and someone from their past was trying to kill them. Just a great story.

Sometimes it’s those little obscure series that stick in your head. But sometimes it’s just the art. I mean, I remember being blown away when I saw Dave McKean doing covers for things like Sandman and Hellblazer. And Dave McKean has now been working with Neil Gaiman for some time, and they did that film Mirrormask, which I loved.

I remember when Neil Gaiman was a fan who’d write letters in to Swamp Thing, the early ones Alan Moore did! Gaiman was just a fanboy who wrote these really long letters in they’d print every month that showed this incredible knowledge of comic book history, and great empathy for the characters Moore was writing about. You could tell straight away that this guy was going to be a writer of some sort, and a few years later, the first thing I saw him do was Violent Cases, the one with Al Capone.

Dave McKean, I just got his autograph recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. I had to be somewhere, so I left a copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum with one of the organizers, and he signed it for me and did a little drawing of Batman for me as well.

NRAMA: There’s been a real resurgence of crime comics in the last decade. Have you read any of those books, like Ed Brubaker’s Criminal?

IR: Oh yeah. There’s a big historical overview, a big, fat trade paperback of the best crime cartoon stories ever…The Mammoth Book of Crime Comics – it comes all the way up to a few years ago. It’s a great book.

Stray Bullets, that was really good.

What you find in a lot of film thrillers today, like the Bourne films, is that they’re almost done like comic books. They’ve got the pacing of a comic book the way they’re being shot, the way they’re framed, the way they’re run like a rollercoaster ride. Graphic novels are beginning to use film techniques to get back at them. (laughs)

One of the films I loved recently was Cloverfield. Man, that was great. That was one of those B-monster movies that was just so slick and so clever in the way it tried to look…I don’t know, cleverly amateur. I thought it looked very, very interesting. It’s a very expensive operation to make something look that cheap. (laughs) And a very good monster as well – they didn’t bother explaining any of it.

NRAMA: Well, there were some viral sites that explained it, if you want to ...

IR: No. Not going to do it. That’s what they did with The Matrix, they took it too far. Once you get into the Matrix, you never get out again. My son was stuck in there for months, trying to figure out everything about the Matrix.

NRAMA: It is interesting how you can use all this online material to “enhance” a story, but…maybe sometimes a story should just be a story.

IR: Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. You know, it’s almost like people don’t want just the artifact any more. If it’s an album, they want to download these extras, they want the lyrics to be downloadable. If it’s a book, a series of books, they want a website so people can go to the frequently asked questions page, they want forums…

NRAMA: It seems like authors are expected to brand themselves online as a rule.

IR: Yeah, and I have no idea where these authors find all this time to run their websites and write blogs and such. I don’t write a blog; I update my website twice a year, max. If you’re writing all this, how are you supposed to get time to actually write a book?

NRAMA: That’s a question for the ages.

IR: (laughs)

NRAMA: But getting back to comics, there have been a lot of crime novelists working in comics, both on crime books and superhero titles. You have a lot of creators who got their start doing small-press crime books – Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Azzarello, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker – it really feels like a lot of aspects of crime noir and thrillers have been integrated into the basic storytelling of most popular comics. Why do you think there’s such a connection between crime and comics storytelling these days?

IR: I think part of it is just that barriers are breaking down everywhere. For example, in The Wire, they approached proper novelists to script it, so you have George Pelicanos and Richard Price and Dennis Lehane scripting the series.

I think it’s just this thing where you don’t have to sit in a compartment any more. If you sit in a compartment, all you write are mystery novels, or all you write are comic books, or all you write are television shows. And all those boundaries are being knocked down. The artists themselves are not happy to be compartmentalized.

So a lot of us are meeting each other – through the Internet, it’s a lot easier to communicate in an artistic community. For example, in the last year, I worked on an opera with a film soundtrack composer (Craig Wilson) who did the music for the last Hulk film and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. We did this 15-minute opera together, and that could never have happened if not for the sake of the Internet.

I’ve been working with a rock band, writing lyrics for their second album, and I’ve been working with an artist, writing the introduction for a book of photographs of him working and such, interviewing him. You’re no longer stuck in one thing; you’re crossing boundaries.

And I think crime fiction, mystery fiction, it’s pure storytelling. It’s got very strong, traditional narrative values. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s got this sort of rollercoaster ride for the reader. And I think that’s something that you also look for in a comic book, or indeed in a movie. You’re looking for a real strong thread of narrative that’s going to pull you through from beginning to end at a breathless pace.

You get that from crime fiction, you get that in a comic book, and hopefully you get that in good movies as well. There’s things that writers in all these different categories can learn from each other.

NRAMA: There has been a bigger tendency toward story-focused comics in the last decade, and also a great influx of novelists and screenwriters doing comics.

IR: Yeah, I think that’s where you see the barriers breaking down – the barrier between “literary” and “mainstream” fiction is breaking down. A lot of writers who at one time would have tried to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or whatever are interested in genre fiction. They’re interested in storytelling. And they feel that the stories they want to tell, the stories they want to explore, can be just as easily explored in genre fiction – in crime fiction or science fiction, or even in a comic book form.

Look at Watchmen! Watchmen is a great novel! It’s a phenomenal novel, as well as a reimagining of the superhero genre itself.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself doing additional comics after this?

IR: It depends on whether Vertigo thinks that I can do more, and whether readers like the way I’ve dealt with Constantine, and whether I get more ideas. Ideas are all up there, swirling around in the ether, looking for someone to channel, and hopefully it’s me they pick to channel them and not the person standing next to me.

NRAMA: And finally, a completely ridiculous question: What do you think it would be like if Constantine met Inspector Rebus?

IR: It could happen. They drink in the same bars, the same seedy, derelict bars full of disappointed men with disappointed dreams. They don’t have a lot in common, and would probably end up having a fight. I think that Constantine would want to pick a fight with this big, Old Testament guy who sees the world very much in terms of good and evil.

So there’d be a fight…and Constantine would probably get his head kicked. That’s how it goes.

Dark Entries enters stores on August 19 from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint.

Related:

Starting Vertigo's Crime Line: Ian Rankin on Dark Entries, part 1

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