Ian Rankin: Think inside the box

The crime novelist Ian Rankin is preparing to release his first graphic novel, but, says Rob Sharp, he's not the only contemporary author to test his mettle on the pages of a comic book
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Cheekbones like an escarpment and an attitude like razor wire, "occult detective" John Constantine sucks on a cigarette before pulling up the collar on his overcoat to protect himself from the horizontal rain. He inhabits that near-typical graphic novel personal universe: hard-bitten and cynical. The costumes are cyberpunk, the ladies voluptuous, and the narrative over in three hours.

But Constantine is not your average comic-book detective. Within the course of the forthcoming graphic novel Dark Entries, part of the well-known Hellblazer series, released on 2 October (and published by the US's DC Comics and Titan Books in the UK), he travels to the centre of a supernatural Big Brother-style television show. When there, he solves the Poirot-style mystery of its gradually disappearing denizens. But his real USP is that his quips, his asides, his drive to discover the truth are penned by one of Britain's best-known crime novelists, Ian Rankin, whose genre-dabbling is typical of a raft of similarly "serious" authors turning their pens to comic-style works.

"I got an email out of the blue from Titan asking me whether I had ever thought about writing something like this," says the author. "My first love when I was a kid was comics. I had been waiting 40 years for this opportunity. I just pitched ideas at them; eventually we both agreed on one that would work."

Other novelists to scratch their ink inside a tiny speech bubble include graphic-novel-newbie Philip Pullman, whose Adventures of John Blake was serialised until May in the children's comic The DFC, published by Random House. A mathematics history comic told through the eyes of Bertrand Russell, and penned by the Greek writer Apostolos Doxiadis and the science professor Christos Papadimitriou, was published earlier this month. Denise Mina, a Scottish crime writer, wrote another Constantine novel, Empathy is the Enemy, in 2006; the American author Jodi Picoult wrote a Wonder Woman comic last year and The Chill by Jason Starr (bestselling US author and screenwriter) and Luna Park by Kevin Baker (ditto) are in the offing. They join some older examples: Doris Lessing's bizarre 1995 graphic novel, Playing the Game, was somewhat dubiously received by the comic- book fraternity.

"There is obviously the argument that publishers are bringing these guys on board because of who they are," says Paul Gravett, author of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life and director of London's international comic festival Comica. "On the cover the writer's name is often billed in bigger type than the name of the character. The publisher is hoping that will bring new readers to the medium. Lots of authors are intrigued by graphic novels; they are not necessarily skilled at writing them. But there is actually potential for them to contribute some good stuff. This should provide the opportunity to bring novelistic ideas into comics, even though I don't think we are there yet."

In fact, the cross-pollination is not just happening in one direction. The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon, has written comics; Zadie Smith commissioned comic-book artists to contribute work to her The Book of Other People, published last year; trendy British author Toby Litt's next book is rumoured to have a graphic novel chapter in it. Meanwhile, Posy Simmonds' Tamara Drewe comic strip is noted for its novelistic qualities. "It seems like an obvious direction for literature to take," continues Gravett. "Why are we obsessed by words when there are so many opportunities to tell stories through pictures?"

Rankin says that it took him a while to get used to the idea of penning something in graphic form. Bizarrely, he never met the book's Italian artist, Werther Dell'Edera; in fact, as he was only liaising with him via DC, he was unaware that the book was eventually going to be published in black and white. While the writer pitched his own ideas, according to Gravett, it is likely as a novice he would only be trusted with one of the publisher's own, proven characters. "My son reads these things in a couple of hours but the ironic thing is that it took months to pull together," continues Rankin. "What you don't appreciate before you're doing it is that you're effectively playing director of a film. For each frame you are effectively pulling together a side of A4 containing detailed notes – you need to dictate exactly what the artist needs to draw; what the room looks like, what the character is wearing. There were something like 1,000 pictures. It took away months of my life; by the end, my wife was tearing her hair out."

The Scot believes that novelists should spearhead a drive into the graphic novel form, which he argues is becoming increasingly mainstream. "If you go into Waterstone's nowadays there is a comprehensive graphic novels section which you wouldn't have found a generation ago," he says. "It seems to me that it's another rung on the ladder towards literacy. I think it keeps people reading as they come out of primary school."

That said, Rankin's Constantine novel is not a classic of the form. The story follows Constantine as he is called into investigate the disappearances surrounding the television reality show. He joins the series and gets to know its participants. It is a cross between a classic detective whodunnit and a supernatural comic book.

"Rankin is still getting used to the form, he still feels he can't write too much on every page," concludes Gravett. "But you have to start somewhere. It just goes to prove that even if you've read them since childhood, you can't necessarily pen one that instinctively. I thought Ian's story was a bit hackneyed; it reminded me of the 1959 horror film House on Haunted Hill; this old thing of whether you will survive the night. I thought some of the earlier stuff in the series was some of the best in comic-book horror, so Rankin had a lot to live up to, though."

Now some authors of comics and novels are turning to the web for inspiration; maybe this could be the industry's next port of call. "The most fascinating thing about the web is that it has completely removed the gatekeeper," said the author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, speaking at last month's Edinburgh Book Festival. "Before, you would have to find a publisher or an editor – a gatekeeper – who would say, yes, this is fit to be published. The glory of the web is that there are no gatekeepers. You are playing on the same field as The New Yorker. The downside is the half a billion other people out there with no gatekeepers. There are web comics that I find and wind up following. There are wonderful things out there."

'Dark Entries', part of the Hellblazer series, is out on 2 October, published in the UK by Titan Books

Drawn to art Four other authors who turned to comics

Doris Lessing: Playing the Game

An unusual exchange for Lessing's typically feminist and provocative fictions, the graphic novel 'Playing the Game', which was released in 1995, centres on themes of love in an urban hell. She collaborated with Charlie Adlard to create a visual fantasy of equal quality to the plot. The protagonist, Joe Simpatico, 'plays the game' with Francesca Bird, hoping to leave the grim reality of his origins behind.

Philip Pullman: The Adventures of John Blake

This weekly serial was published in 'The DFC' comic. 'The Adventures of John Blake' draws on elements from Japanese manga, with brightly coloured illustrations by John Aggs. Pullman, a fan of comics from childhood, was keen to work on the strip about a boy and his adventures on the sea. The abiding legend of the story has it that if you look into his eyes, you will die within a year.

Denise Mina: Empathy Is the Enemy (Hellblazer)

Denise Mina has produced two instalments of Hellblazer: 'Empathy is the Enemy' and 'The Red Right Hand'. The Glaswegian crime writer's first graphic offering, in 2006, with Leonardo Manco doing the artwork, has been charged with having an over-complicated plot; but it undoubtedly fits well with the graphic novel genre – as opposed to being a comic for children.

Apostolos Doxiadis: Logicomix: an Epic Search for Truth

Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou's offering challenges the traditional character of the superhero or detective. Instead, the protagonists are based on philosophers from the early to mid-20th century. The story is told by Bertrand Russell, and incorporates figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein. It has been critically acclaimed as a welcome subversion of the graphic novel genre.