SDCC '09: A Darker Shade of Ink: Crime and Noir in Comics

Best Shots Extra: THE HUNTER

Thursday at the Comic-Con International: San Diego, fans of noir and crime comics were given a special treat—a panel of fan favorites like Darwyn Cooke (Parker: The Hunter), Greg Rucka (Gotham Central), and Steve Lieber (Whiteout)  were moderated by none other than Max Allan Collins, writer of The Road to Perdition.  The panel gathered to discuss their noir projects and the genre that has been taking the comic book industry by storm with popular titles like Criminal and Sin City.

The panel was running a little late so Collins and Lieber briefly discussed their upcoming projects.  As Rucka and Cooke made their way to the front of the room, Collins began the panel with a question to the panelists: “Why Crime?”

There were a range of joke answers and laughter from the audience.  But Darwyn Cooke began talking in earnest about the positives of genre writing—specifically crime books.  He mentioned the human attraction to “being bad” or going down the road less traveled.  He said, “It’s in our nature,” adding, “when you see an armored car full of money—your first thought is, ‘Man, I wonder what it would be like to rob one of those…’ and you daydream about it because you already know that it’s wrong.”

The panel agreed that there is a natural affinity for sordid characters who are able to “free themselves” of moral restraint.  Greg Rucka interjected a fascinating quote by H. L. Mencken:

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

Collins then shifted the topic away from crime and more towards reality and stories with verisimilitude.  Cooke responded, “Everything is sweeter closer to the bone, right?”  He spoke about how good stories don’t capture the mundane day-to-day existence of prolific characters; citing Dirty Harry as a reference, he explained how viewers are privy to an extraordinary event that occurs in Harry Callahan’s life.  He explained, “This moment is his life turned up to eleven.”

Rucka countered that these stories are more about the restoration of order after chaos has occurred and that the protagonist characters are agents of order.  He added, “Crime stories reinforce the gestalt sense of what reinforces the right things that we should do.”

Cooke turned and discussed Parker: The Hunter and his connection to the “remorseless, unrepentant bad guy.” He talked about how writers impose their morality onto others by writing crime stories.  Rucka and Collins agreed and mentioned aspects of characterization that allow the sordid character “to be the best man in his world”; they both used Hannibal Lecter as the perfect example of this sort of spot-on character writing.

Collins shifted and focused on some of his early writing; discussing how he used the concept of up close psychic-distance in his writing to bring the reader into an intimate proximity of his protagonist’s consciousness.  Cooke added, “…I think of a protagonist [in a crime story] as a guy who has a job to do—you know, like a plumber.”

They then turned back to comics with Rucka mentioning Whiteout and bringing Steve Lieber into more of a direct conversation.  Lieber talked about his immersion into crime fiction and how he liked it because, “it was a world I could recognize.”  He went on to elaborate, “The world of a crime story is defined by what’s wrong with them.  People are defined by their conflicts…”

The panel shifted the talk to their earliest inspirations which elicited a very hilarious anecdote from Greg Rucka who described being accidentally introduced to the very mature world of crime fiction in the fourth grade when he read “Murder on the Yellow Brick Road” for the first time and how later, in college, he explored the genre more.  He said, “I started with books that were so hard boiled that the yolk was green.”  He also mentioned how the comic work of Frank Miller via Daredevil and the supporting cast member Ben Urich also helped him connect with crime fiction at a younger age.

Cooke mentioned his exposure to the Hardy Boys at a young age and he said, “You start liking what you like by what you’re exposed to as a kid.”  He also plugged Jim Thompson’s ‘The Killer Inside Me’ for having a profound effect on his palate.

A number of other sources were cited—EC Comics, the Rockford Files, Dick Tracy, and how all of the creators on the panel felt compelled to stick to traditional grid work and layouts when working on crime comics.

The panel, which seemed much more like an intellectual discussion of genre writing, did a short Q&A session with the audience that pertained more to the works of each individual—but the most colorful results of the Q&A happened when one of the audience members asked, “What happens when you write your protagonist into an impossible set of circumstances?”

Rucka said, “I do heroin—no, honestly, I call someone and talk their face off for fifteen minutes to an hour.”  Cooke retorted, “I beat my dog,” and he laughed with the audience, “Seriously, I divert myself to other parts of the work—hoping that things will come out with my clarity later on.”  Collins then stated, “I try to ask myself questions about the scenario until I’ve found my way out of the mess I’m in.”

The panel concluded with Greg Rucka mentioning the release of the Whiteout trailer online.

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