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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones