Back in Annual 2009, we interviewed Ian (Rebus) Rankin about tackling Hellblazer in a comic story for Vertigo. So here it is for our readers…
The March weather is suitably rainy in London when I set off on the trail of Ian Rankin. One of Britain’s best-selling authors thanks to his Rebus series, which as well as spending time on the book charts, has also been turned into a TV adaptation on ITV, the writer has often talked in interviews about his love for comics.
We had met once before, just after a talk he did at the ICA in London last winter and we chatted about comics then, so Rankin was obviously a good choice for one of Vertigo’s Crime oneshots. Our meeting was arranged in the anything-but-seedy surroundings of Bafta, located on Piccadilly, just west of Piccadilly Circus. He was down south to take part in a launch for his latest novel.
So I reached my destination, pulled my raincoat around me and went in. Rankin was easy to locate as he sat on the first floor, helping himself to a cup of tea. For a bestselling author, his demeanour was very disarming: dressed in a grey shirt and dark trousers, he instantly puts people at ease. As soon as we started chatting about Dark Entries, which features John Constantine from Vertigo’s long-running Hellblazer book, it was clear that the four-colour format (or one colour in this case) is something he feels passionate about.
“I’m not sure actually how Vertigo got hold of my email because they sent me a message direct saying ‘We believe you’re a big fan of comic books. Have you ever thought about writing one? You can use an existing character or you can come to us with an original idea and a brand new character.‘“, he recalls, sipping his tea.
“So I said to them ‘That’s great’ but I was busy doing novels so I told them I would get back to them. And then they responded: ‘Look we’re approaching other mainstream writers,crime writers, novelists and we’re going to have this run of books about crime, Vertigo Crime’. But by then I really decided that I wanted to do Hellblazer because I’ve been a fan of the character since issue one. He’s a private eye, like an old-fashioned Sam Spade private eye. That’s what he’s like but he deals with the supernatural and I thought ‘That’s nicely different from what I’ve done before but still with one foot in the door of what I’ve done before.’ So I came up with this idea which was basically a take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where people in a haunted house are disappearing one by one. But instead of making it an old-fashioned traditional haunted house, I made it a game show. So it’s a haunted house in which contestants are trying to find the way out while being scared out of their wits and being watched by a TV audience. But stuff starts to happen on the set that the producers aren’t responsible for, so they bring in Constantine under the guise of a new housemate, trying to work out what’s going on.”
Rankin has become known as quite a thoughtful writer and the prospect of penning an adventure with one of his favourite comic characters was one that seemed to appeal to his sensibilities. But the format was undecided at this point.
“It just sounded like a lot of fun and they had said to me originally it might be five or six issues of the magazine. Then they informed me ‘No we’re going to do them as standalone graphic novels’. Then they asked me: ‘How long is it likely to be?’ and I told them it would be about 100 pages.”
But as a writer new to comics, Rankin didn’t realise how his work would translate to actual pages in the comic, as he recalls.
“So I started writing it, having never written a comicbook in my life and with nobody giving me instructions, and when they broke it down into pages, they told me, ‘This is 210 pages long.’ So I said to them: ‘Okay how much do you want me to cut?’ and they responded with: ‘We don’t want you to cut any of it. We’re just going to do it as a 210 page graphic novel.’ So that was great.”
The author seems surprised at the level of support that Vertigo have granted him.
“And that’s really interesting to me because as a fan of comic books, often times for me the art comes before the story. It stands or falls by the quality of the art and they were saying to me all the way along that ‘this has got to be the way you want it to be. The visuals have got to be the way you imagined them to be.’ So they keep sending me stuff from the artist whose name is Werther Dell’Edera. I think he’s quite young. I don’t think he’s done a huge amount but when I said to Vertigo there are aspects of the story that will bring in hell and demons, my editor, Will Dennis, said ‘well we’ve got a guy. He’s good. He’s got demons’. I’d been over in New York anyway doing something else so I’d gone into the DC offices and spoken to them. They showed me some of his artwork and I said ‘that looks perfect’. But I’ve only seen the final pages in the last few weeks. I’ve been able to go through the book and correct some things that I thought were wrong. They thought the ending was a bit too dark. Can you believe it?,” Rankin laughs sardonically and then continues.
“He said ‘We need a little spark of hope for humanity’ so I’ve given a small spark of hope. I’ve not made Constantine quite as callous at the end as he was going to be in the first draft. Other than that, I’ve had a lot of freedom and that’s made it a lot of fun.”
He has been writing professionally since 1984 but comics wasn’t as easy as he first thought it might be, as he admitted.
“You always like a new challenge. You like to try and do something in a new genre or something that stretches your brain a bit.”
Luckily, some of the people in the comic industry he has encountered had some advice for him.
“When I met Alan Grant a few times, he told me over and over again: ‘When you write a novel, you’re only using one part of your brain because the reader is doing all the hard work for you but when you’re writing descriptions to let the artist know what you think this looks like, you need to know all the visuals. You’re actually more of a director so it’s not just about the writing, you’re also the editor, the photographer and the director; you’re everything. And that is a challenge that I really enjoyed. But it is hellish hard work. You look at a comic and you think ‘well there’s not many words on the page. How hard can it be?’”
Writing Dark Entries has given Rankin the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream as he got to visit the DC offices to meet his editor on the book.
“I met Will Dennis when I went to New York. They also introduced me to Karen Berger and various other people. What was great is that I got to wander round and see all the different floors of the building. I got to go to the Mad floor because they are on a floor below Vertigo. For someone who’s read comics from the word go, for whom comics were a big inspiration in the early days, this was amazing,” he tells us, finding it hard to contain his smile.
“As a preteen one of the first things I ever tried to write were comics, so it was just such a buzz to walk around there.”
Working on Dark Entries has also allowed him to meet fellow British writers like Neil Gaiman and Mark Millar and he is impressed at the sense of community that exists in the comic industry. He is also aware that British creators still have an influence in the modern comics field, even though it is not as evident as it was in the early days of Vertigo in the 1990s.
“It’s filled with Brits doing good work. To be honest, I knew this from the days I read 2000AD. A lot of the writers from 2000AD went on to work for Marvel and DC. But it’s still happening. Mark Millar was very funny about it. He said that what he wants is for Scotland to take over the world when it comes to comicbooks. There’s a whole coterie of writers who do stuff. You’ve got someone like Denise Mina who is a Scottish crime writer who’s done a run of Hellblazer and is now doing her own series or her own graphic novel featuring her own characters, which is also for Vertigo, I believe.”
In fact, Mina sent Rankin some of her pages from Hellblazer to give him an idea of what to write. The experience has given him a lot to think to about, as he admits quite honestly.
“You’re learning about what you can cut out and what you don’t need and time can pass within the frame. So somebody can be doing something left of frame and, by the time you get to right of frame, time has passed. Whereas writing novels is possibly the laziest kind of writing there is because you’ve got as many words as you need and you’re making the reader do all the work for you. You don’t have to describe the characters in intricate detail, what they’re wearing or their surroundings. But for your artist in comics you need to give them some clues.”
It also gave him the chance to write scenes that he couldn’t use in his Rebus novels and there is one in particular from Dark Entries that he remembers with some mischevious detail.
“There’s one scene where a demon gets a blowjob. I loved writing the words down and thinking ‘I can’t wait to see if he does that or not. Will he do that? Will Vertigo let him do that?’ And indeed they did and it was very tastefully done as these things go, I would say it couldn’t be more tasteful. It was fun because you get to write about demons, the supernatural and anything you want to happen, just write it down. And yet the artist will do their damnedest to make sure it looks like it could happen. I got to do things that I didn’t get to do in my realistic series of crime novels set in contemporary Edinburgh,” he laughs, sounding satisfied.
We wrap up our session, chatting about comics and it is clear that Rankin is proud that he has managed to add his name to the history of the medium.
But I wanted to find out a little bit more about Vertigo’s reasoning behind Vertigo Crime, so I tracked down its Senior VP — Executive Editor Karen Berger. Berger has been at DC since the early 1980s and has run Vertigo since the beginning of the 1990s. Chatting to her on the phone, it is obvious that Vertigo Crime represents a conscious decision to build on the imprint’s successes in the original graphic novel field.
“Looking at the impact that comics have had overall obviously not always in comicbook stores but in the book market, we wanted to do more longform original graphic novels. So we looked at different genres and crime made a lot of sense because of the close connection to a lot of crime elements in so much of the Vertigo stuff, from 100 Bullets to Human Target. Even Hellblazer on some level. The psychological intensity of our books can pretty much transfer to any genre and so we figured ‘why not take crime as a genre and attack it in the original graphic novel form’ because it’s a popular genre in the bookstore market and that made a lot of sense as well as satisfying our direct market readers.”
For her, launching the line with a book that features an existing, well-known DC character makes perfect sense.
“It was a very conscious decision. Dark Entries will have ‘a John Constantine mystery’ on the final actual cover. We’re trying to reach out to people who don’t traditionally read comics particularly with the Hellblazer story. Ian Rankin is the best way to sell this book because of his reputation so we were approaching it more like we were a book publisher than a comics publisher,” she says.
To assemble the list of initial authors who would contribute to Vertigo Crime, Berger considered the talent that Vertigo had collaborated with previously.
“We first thought of comics writers who we have worked with in the past who we know who’d be good at writing this type of material like Milligan and Brian [Azzarello] and then some lesser known comics writers at the time.”
But they also wanted to throw some names in there who had recognition outside the comics field.
“Chris Gage has done television work on Law and Order so he already had a background in the genre. So we tried to think about people who were naturally destined to write a Vertigo Crime book and we also wanted to work with published crime novelists as well. Ian Rankin just really turned out to be a wonderful happy accident. Will was talking to him about doing something with him separate from Vertigo Crime. When we were first talking about putting Vertigo Crime together, we discovered that Ian was a huge Hellblazer fan. So he started talking about doing a Constantine story and then we thought he would really be perfect when we wanted to launch Vertigo Crime, for all the obvious reasons. With Denise Mina, Vertigo had been working with this well known crime writer before and Gary Phillips is also a crime writer. There are a few other people with books we haven’t announced yet.”
The list of confirmed titles is an impressive one as she fills us in.
“After the launch, we have The Chill which is by Jason Starr and Mick Bertolorenzi, a great Italian artist. That’s in January 2010. In March, there’s The Bronx Kill, written by Pete Milligan and drawn by James Romberger. Area 10 is coming out in April, that’s by Chris Gage and Chris Samnee. In June we have The Executor by a crime writer Jon Evans and artist Andrea Mutti. Denise Mina’s book is scheduled to be a little bit later in the year.”
Vertigo has always had a reputation for original graphic novels and it is possible that Vertigo Crime may be a regular fixture on the shelves. Only time will tell.