Interview with Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has been writing mystery novels for more than 20 years, this year he is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his series character John Rebus.Ian is also a rabid comics fan.
Next year Ian’s first comic is coming out from DC Vertigo, a stand alone Hellblazer.

I recently interviewed Ian and we talked about nothing but comics.

Jon: Ian, I know you have project coming up with Vertigo at DC but at this point no details are out. So rather than ask you to break a confidence I want to ask how this came about. Did they approach you?

Ian: It’s no huge secret that I’m going to be writing a Hellblazer standalone (ie: graphic novel). Vertigo approached me and basically said ‘we hear you are a fan of comics – ever thought of pitching us ideas for the likes of Swamp Thing, Hellblazer or any other DC universe characters?’ I jumped at the chance, but other projects got in the way, so I’m only now really getting my head around the graphic novel.

Jon: When did you start reading comics and what did you read? From what I understand comics were harder to get your hands on in the UK when we were younger men. Did you read a lot of American comics?

Ian: I started reading comics as soon as I could read. UK comics are very different from American ones, in that they usually consist of a series of different strips. I started with the usual ‘library’ of comics from a Scottish company called DC Thomson. They published the Dandy, Beano, Victor, Hotspur, etc. From there I moved to DC and Marvel, though it was awkward as sometimes (I grew up in a small town, and got my comics from a grocery store) you could get one issue of a title and then not see another for 3 or 4 months, so that continuing stories might have huge gaps in their chronology.

Jon: Who are some of your favorite comic writers? Also, who are some of your favorite artists?

Ian: The English comic 2000AD was my title of choice when I was a teenager. I grew to love characters like Judge Dredd and authors like Alan Moore. I was blown away by a lot of artists’ work, too, including Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiwicz (whose name I’ve probably just got wrong). Alan Grant did great work at 2000AD (and later on at Batman).

Jon: You and I have talked about Dark Knight Returns and I remember how we were both a bit disappointed by the sequel. That aside, what do you think the appeal is of the Batman?

Ian: As a kid – and up to the present day – I liked dark, complex human heroes. I wasn’t so keen on ‘aliens’ like Superman. Batman was flawed and vulnerable. As a kid, I wrote poems and stories and song lyrics but never told anyone and never showed them to anyone – I didn’t think my family and friends would understand. So I had a sort of secret identity, and so could relate to Batman, Spidey et al.

Jon: It seems comics kind of grew up with us. As adults we have Vertigo which is aimed at adults. Hellblazer and 100 Bullets really seem to be ready made for people who may not have read graphic novels before. What would you recommend to non comic readers to get them interested?

Ian: I don’t know what I would recommend to non-comics readers. I just feel a bit sad for them. All I can say is, no matter who you are, there’s a comic book out there that’s made for you.

Jon: What are some of your favorite titles from recent years?

Ian: I continue to read Hellblazer, but my all-time fave is Watchmen. More recently, I’ve found Fables to be an ingenious addition to the genre, and I was a huge fan of the recent Losers series.

Jon: While I read some marvel titles and quite a few of the indies, I love everything DC. Do you have a preference?

Ian: I prefer DC/Vertigo to Marvel. I associate Marvel with non-human superheroes (those ‘aliens’ I was talking about earlier). This is almost certainly inaccurate, but when I was a kid I just remember thinking that Marvel stuff was weird and a lot of it involved far distant galaxies. Being patriotic, I always look out for British talent, be it Neil Gaiman, Cam Kennedy, Denise Mina…

Jon: Until recent years I never really gave a lot of thought to the writing process for comics. Recently I’ve seen scripts for a few books and they read kind of like movie scripts detailing action and set up in addition to dialogue. I’ve heard that some Alan Moore scripts get up to 100 pages long for a 22 page book. This seems a lot different form the “Marvel Style” that Stan Lee used which entailed a one page description of a story and then he let the art define the rest and filled in dialogue. Which approach do you prefer?

Ian: I’ve got an edition of Watchmen where you get to see Alan Moore’s script for the first page of the comic, and he does go into incredible detail. Denise Mina has also let me see some of her scripts for Hellblazer, and she takes a different approach. When I started work on my own comic, I bought an artist’s sketch-pad and started storyboarding. But I’m not sure that’s working, and I’m about to start direct scripting (ie: word-processing onto the laptop). You do need to visualize the action, and translate that into information the artist (whom you may never meet) can process. It is very different from writing a novel.

Jon: Do you think writing so many novels helped make this easier for you or is it like re-learning how to drive?

Ian: Writing a comic is a whole different ball-game. That makes it a challenge, but in a good way. I read a book recently called ‘Understanding Comics’ which made me realize just what a complex skill comic-writing is.

Jon: Working on Hellblazer means writing a character that quite a number of other people have written. Is there a challenge to be able to make your own mark on it and yet keep the feel of who the character has been established to be?

Ian: Since I’m planning a ‘standalone’ Hellblazer rather than contributing regular issues to the series, I’m hoping I may have a little more leeway. Having said which, if I don’t ‘get’ JC’s voice, I know my editor will be quick to tell me I need to put in more work! I also know I have to stay true to JC’s universe – fans out there will be ready with the horse-whips if I get stuff wrong.

Jon: I know you’ve done a lot of book related events and conferences, have you ever been to a comics convention?

Ian: Never been to a comics convention, but did just recently do a panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Denise Mina and Alan Grant discussing comics. It was fun.

Jon: Being a fan of Alan Moore what did you think of From Hell? How about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? And being as informed as you are about politics I would imagine you really enjoyed V for Vendetta.

Ian: From Hell was breathtaking – the amount of historical research! Very dark and obsessive. League of Ex. Gen. – loved the first volume; wasn’t so sure about the second (too many tangents). Great art throughout and (as usual with Moore) a real sense of a fully-realized universe. V for Vendetta – started reading it from issue 1; it was very much of its time (cold war; rise in UK right-wing). A worthy addition to the great tradition of British fictional dystopias. Hey, don’t you want to know what I think of Lost Girls…?

Jon: Having gone through the book to screen thing yourself what do you think if his public outcries about how the movies were terrible?

Ian: Saying the films were terrible means Moore gets to have his cake and eat it. Personally, I really enjoyed the film of League of Ex. Gen. – got it on DVD and have watched it three or four times. (Okay, I’m in a minority there.) V for Vendetta was also an accurate depiction of the book. He’s been better served than some comics writers – and I’ve got fingers crossed for Watchmen!

Jon: Would you ever consider doing a comics version of Rebus?

Ian: I did offer Rebus to DC a while back. Somebody (maybe even Alan Grant) was bringing Batman to Edinburgh and I said if he needed to meet a cop, I had just the guy for the role. But the lawyers weren’t keen, so it never happened. I would be delighted to see a comic-book Rebus. I imagine him as an older, more gnarly Constantine.

Jon: Last question, what’s the latest comic you read?

Ian: Last comic I read was a collection of old strips from 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors‘. Before that: another collection, this time of Alan Moore’s work for 2000AD. Denise Mina turned me on to ‘The Boys‘, then told me it was being liquidated. I’m glad to hear it may be back in business!