Last fall, when I was at Bouchercon, the annual mystery writers convention, I happened to meet a couple of guys from DC Comics. This was great timing, since at the time I was working on a subplot in my new book VANISHED involving a teenaged kid — Gabe, the nephew of my series hero Nick Heller — who’s writing and illustrating what he calls a “graphic novel.” Problem was, I knew next to nothing about comics, having stopped reading them as a kid, which was a long time ago. Somehow I’d missed out on the huge resurgence of comics and graphic novels, propelled by such modern classics as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
But I wanted to get the details right because the comic book — um, “graphic novel” — in VANISHED plays a central role: it contains a hidden clue that helps Nick to solve the book’s central mystery. So I buttonholed these two guys and asked if I could pick their brains for a couple of minutes. One of them turned out to be the writer Brian Azzarello, one of the greats in the comics world — the author of “100 Bullets” and (with Lee Bermejo) the bestselling “Joker,” which was on everybody’s list of the best graphic novels of 2008.
And as those guys patiently gave me a “Comics for Dummies” tutorial, I had a mini-brainstorm: what if somehow I could turn Gabe’s fictional comic in VANISHED into a real live comic book? I thought this might be a cool way to introduce people to Nick Heller. But I had no idea how to do it. So I contacted my friend at DC Comics (Senior Editor Will Dennis) and told him I wanted the comic to be drawn in the classic style of the comics I read as a kid; Will told me I was thinking of the work of John Buscema or Joe Kubert, and when I looked those artists up on the internet, I saw that he’d nailed it. After a long search, Will found me a new comic artist who lives in Spain, Benito Gallego.
But I still had to write the script for the comic, and after struggling for a bit I realized that this just wasn’t in my skill set — or not yet, anyway. Writing a comic is as different from writing a novel as writing a TV or movie script. It’s highly visual, highly distilled, almost epigrammatic. And some of our finest writers have been writing comics recently — Michael Chabon, Jodi Picoult, Ian Rankin, Jonathan Lethem. But I needed help. So I e-mailed Brian Azzarello and, sort of holding my breath, asked whether he might possibly be willing to write it for me. To my delight, he immediately said yes. A couple of months later he e-mailed me a script, and I realized at once why Azzarello is such a star in comics: he’d turned Gabe’s story — The Cowl — into a dark, brilliant little origin story of how Nick Heller becomes The Cowl and emerges from hiding to confront the evil defense contractor Dr. Cash, who’s seized power in Washington in a coup d’etat and has turned the country into a crime-ridden tyranny. Meanwhile, my artist, Benito, was developing the character designs for Nick and Dr. Cash. All of us — even Azz, who’s worked with the very best — were blown away by Benito’s artistry.
For a while I worried that my readers (or potential readers) wouldn’t quite get the connection between the The Cowl and VANISHED — a comic book that’s not a direct comic version of the novel but is instead the comic created by one of the characters in the book . . . .Not exactly a straight line. But then, some of the best crime fiction isn’t a straight line either. Nor the best comics.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy this experiment, and I’d love to hear your thoughts — email me at Joe@josephfinder.com. And many thanks for your support and enthusiasm.