A quartet of criminally focused comics creators — Ed Brubaker, David Lapham, James Robinson and Darwyn Cooke — teamed up at Anaheim’s recent Wonder Con for a discussion of the crime milieu and its many appeals. Moderator and Image Comics staffer David Brothers opened the talk by referencing “a mood, an approach — there’s a certain feel these creators have in their comics.” He then turned the panel over to Cooke’s incoming Image project “Revengeance.”
“I’ve always preferred crime,” Cooke said. “The first job I did for DC when I was 20 years old was a crime story. I’ve done the Parker books, which are pure hardboiled hard-assed crime stories. When it came to doing my creator-owned, I wanted to do a crime story, but I wanted it to be very different. It’s a story of a libertine, non-violent young man who comes across something so horrible where he has that Mickey Spillane moment and swears he will hunt down whoever did this and kill them.”
“Too much spoilers for me,” Brubaker said.
“He hires a private detective,” Cooke continued, “not to find the bad guy but to teach him how to find the bad guy. It’s a dark comedy, more dark than comic. There’s a lot of what I hope will be funny situations in there. 28 pages per issue, works out to 84 story pages. I didn’t want to go four issues because if it stinks, the retailers…I’m in and out before they can. I’m not kidding, man.”
Robinson, who said he was not really a crime writer, said he was a crime story in a nutshell — world weary, a good man in a bad situation. “I will come clean about something,” he said. “I was young. The very first thing that was published for DC was ‘Blades,’ a three part ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’ I absolutely ripped off from Ed McBain’s cop killer, his first book. Crime fiction is my first love in terms of what I read.”
“If anyone follows McBain’s lawyers for the estate,” Cooke joked, “they might wanna tweet that out …”
Robinson noted his enjoyment of Lapham’s work, saying “I remember the excitement when all those stories in ‘Stray Bullets’ started to link.”
“There was this 10 year gap when nobody wrote crime comics,” Brubaker said to Lapham of his window into using crime stories to build a career. “You left a void, so thank you. The first thing I sold to DC was ‘Scene of the Crime,’ a very Ross MacDonald-influenced murder story. I was sending pictures of San Francisco to Michael [Lark], it was very much a crime comic. Darwyn would once in a while go on a message board …”
“Usually after a third or a fifth,” Cooke quipped.
Brubaker continued, “You said, ‘Sleeper’ would be great if it was just an espionage thing. because it’s in the Wildstorm universe, they have to know this whole other thing.’ I was like, ‘F it!’ I was just gonna do a straight crime story.”
“You’re welcome,” Cooke said.
“Why Baltimore?” Brubaker asked about Lapham’s “Stray Bullets.”
“Because it’s horrible!” Cooke offered.
Lapham explained, “Mostly because when I was a little kid, I lived in Maryland. I spent a lot of time there, I identified with all the Maryland sports teams. Other than that, it’s kind of random.”
“The convention hotel when you stay there,” Cooke said, “they say, ‘You see that street?’ It’s the street the hotel is on. They’re like, ‘Don’t cross that street.'”
Cooke admired Lapham’s eight panel grid. “I’m a guy who just wants to think about the story,” he said. “I was always concerned with what the next picture was. It hurt my head to try and figure whether the next panel was a long one or a short one. I need a hole to fill. You find interesting ways to do it.”
Lapham’s reasoning was utilitarian. “You read an issue, you get to the end and you want to make changes. It’s very easy to make changes.”
“‘New Frontier,’ same thing,” Cooke said.
“It’s been a life saver,” Lapham said before admitting that he had no grand plan when he started. “I just wanted to do my own stuff and came up with that first ‘Stray Bullets’ story. Should we do it as an anthology? That’s probably not gonna sell. Each issue had its own self-contained story, and I found ways to connect them. It created this universe. Some of the arcs are more connected. Even still, I try to have an idea where I’m going, but if I don’t ever have every issue planned out. Sometimes it turns out to not be what you thought when you started.”
Lapham next discussed “Stray Bullets: Killers.” He said, “It turned into this very personal story where I incorporated a lot of things from when I started dating my wife, kids having sex for the first time. I was four issues in and I was like, ‘What the hell is this about?’ Then it all worked out. When you have a plan, you get there and you have to change it because it’s tired already.”
Robinson noted that Brubaker’s “Captain America” run had a crime comic feel. “When I could bring those elements into the superhero stories,” Brubaker said, “it became more easy for me. When I got away from that, I feel it lost my voice a bit.”
Brothers asked them about their influences. “Westlake, Richard Stark, Charles Willeford …” Cooke rattled off.
“Jim Thompson, David Goodis,” Brubaker added. “I still don’t think I’ve written anything as good as ‘Blast of Silence,’ which is a 72-minute movie.”
“I love Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote Charlie Chan,” Robinson said. “What a snob you are!” Cooke remarked. “They were beautifully written, they were beautifully composed,” Robinson said.
“One of my answers brought a sneer to Greg Rucka’s face,” Cooke said, “but The Hardy Boys. I read all those books.”
“Encyclopedia Brown,” Robinson added. “It was reading some of those Nancy Drew, the early versions.” He described a mural of Nancy Drew “with a torch,” and Cooke interrupted, “A ‘torch’ is a ‘flashlight’ for Americans. I’m a Canadian so I can kind of translate.”
Brubaker loved a series of books about a con artist in a Mormon town while Cooke found a common thread between all their favorites. “I think there’s a word you can apply: inevitability. The fact everything’s in motion. Your protagonist is a piece in this giant machine that he’s unable to control.”
“I wouldn’t consider Philip K. Dick a crime writer,” Brubaker said. “But a lot of his books have the same thing. I don’t think about it so much anymore. Initially it was the characters and the situations they’re in. You can see people you know having been in situations like that. If you’ve ever been 25 and desperately in love, you can’t even remember what it feels like when you’re middle aged.”
“That raw emotion,” Cooke agreed.
“Those blacklisted books,” Robinson noted, “I can remember there’s barely any crime, just floored people who have to get through to the end of their story.”
“I love Ross MacDonald, but they’re all the same book,” Brubaker admitted. “Crime is a great way to write about something else. You can write about things easier in a crime story, easier than you can in a straight thing.”
Cooke explained the popular “Parker” adaptations he’s done, explaining that he had to come to an understanding of the character. “Parker’s a guy with a job. It’s the procedural aspect of some crime fiction. Donald Westlake loved nothing if not procedure. When he and I were discussing through e-mail, he was very cynical about my ability to grasp what was going on. One day in the e-mail he broke through and said, ‘Think of it this way. He’s a plumber. He shows up with a tool box to fix a toilet. If you get in his way, he will kill you, ’cause he’s here to fix the toilet.”
An audience member asked if it was easier to make an original concept or adapt an existing work.
“Adaptation is a lot easier, because of the material,” Cooke said. “I have everything I need there. I always wanted to adapt Mickey Spillane’s ‘I, the Jury.’ If you look at it through the eye of Hammer being a psychopath, I’d love to adapt that book with him as this raving nutcase. The book’s such a mess, to adapt that would be murder. It depends on the material, but it’s generally easier to adapt.”
“I wouldn’t consider that an adaptation,” Brubaker said of the “Criminal” series “Last of the Innocent” with Sean Phillips. “My dad was dying, and I was really wrapped up in my childhood nostalgia. He died on Halloween, right after all the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials started airing. I really wanted to write a crime story about nostalgia.” Brubaker noted his displeasure at the Archie books where he chose Betty and Veronica in separate titles and each marriage was “perfect.”
“Nobody in the real world would like Archie,” Cooke said. “He’s too white, and he’s so perfect.”
“Archie is the only one who has no personality,” Brubaker agreed. “Everyone else has one or two aspects of a personality. All those things collapsed on me and I’m doing my version. What if Archie grew up to be The Talented Mr. Ripley because he is a sociopath and he has no personality. Everybody’s different when they’re at home with their wife. I felt like I wanted to tap into that.”
A fan asked which recent film noir worked for the panelists. “‘Drive’ was good,” Robinson said. “‘Grifters,'” Cooke said. “Westlake wrote the screenplay. ‘The Last Seduction.’ That’s hard as nails.” Brubaker said, “I loved ‘Memento.'”
“That’s my new nickname for Amanda Conner,” Cooke joked.
“‘The Fog,’ TV series,” Robinson said, and also said he liked “Coupe de Torchon.” The moderator Brothers suggested a movie called “The Rover” from Australia. “It’s more than 15 years ago,” Lapham said, “but ‘The Buy’ with Elliot Gould.”
They were then asked if any of their stories were inspired by real crimes. “Like in the news?” Lapham asked. “For me, I don’t do so much the procedural. It’s about people trying to push across things that happened to me. These are crime people. Where you wanna punch somebody in the face, they will punch somebody in the face.”
“You’ll do the babysitter for a hitman,” Brubaker said.
Lapham continued, “If I’m doing a story when the hitman has to kill somebody, I don’t know what to do with that. It won’t have my voice in it. The babysitter, what if the hitman needed her to do something with his family?”
Robinson said he was motivated by Fish, a serial killer from the 1920s. “What fascinates me is that he was caught by a guy who made a promise to the grieving parents. The guy never gave up. That driven commitment is very much in the way of fictional crime. I’m currently writing a screenplay I’m trying to direct that is based on a real crime as well, but I can’t say what.”
“There was a forger in Europe during World War 2, and he forged paintings,” Cooke said. “During all the confusion, he sold off a ton of forgeries to Dutch masters and priceless art. He was crossing the border into Switzerland, and he had two Vermeers left. They stopped him at the border and thought they were the real things. He was arrested for being a black marketeer. The sentence was death. He was like, ‘I painted them!’ Their experts looked at them and didn’t believe him. His attorney had him recreate a Rembrant in court and that’s how he saved his own life.”
“The art forger,” Lapham said, “I love art forgery stuff.”
How do the panelists deal with writer’s block? “You sit down and write,” Brubaker said. “You don’t,” Cooke countered. “You drink.”
“Most of the time I get through, thinking backwards, it wasn’t understanding my own characters as much as I thought I did,” Lapham said. Robinson said, “I’ve gotta listen to this piece of logic in my head. If I go to a museum or the cinema, it will unblock.” Cooke said, “The other thing with David and Ed, too. We’re cartoonists, one way to overcome it is if you get stuck. I’ll draw my way out of it until my head clears.”
“If you’re stuck on a scene on one thing,” Brubaker said, “You can stop and go write something else for a week. You’ll have thought about it differently. I’d like to never go a day without writing something.”
“You don’t, you put out a million books a month,” Cooke joked.
Brubaker said of his latest series “The Fadeout,” “I love writing period pieces. Sean hates drawing cars. Now he has to draw a bunch of old cars. He complains a lot. He’s British — that’s how they compliment you. We did a ’76 thing last month…I almost wanna write things that take place in the past. There’s no cell phones, and cell phones ruin drama.”
“It’s two hours of people texting each other,” Cooke said, “and waiting for something to happen.”
Brubaker worried about the effect on this with the next “X-Files” project. “Mulder will be tweeting to Scully. ‘Look out. #theyrebehindyou.'”
“There’s an aesthetic,” Cooke said of the past. “Everybody likes it but nobody is willing to adopt it. Men looked better. Women took better care of their appearance.”
“Even the catalogs looked better,” Brubaker said.
“It’s a huge part of setting the mood for the reader,” Cooke continued. “If you can look on to the visual style of the period. When I do ‘Jonah Hex,’ I pull out my pen.”
“I live in San Francisco,” Robinson said, “The buildings that are going up … a city as unique as San Francisco is becoming more generic.” “I blame the Germans, those bauhaus bastards!” Cooke said.
The panelists noted one of the major differences with crime work and superhero comics was who could be the star. “In a crime book,” Cooke said, “Victor von Doom could be the protagonist.”
“When I was a kid,” Lapham said, “It was very clear Superman was the hero. When I got older, Wolverine was like, he’s an antihero. Now most heroes blur that line.”
“There’s a perfection about superheroes,” Robinson said. “Batman’s obsession. With crime fiction, it’s the flaws and imperfections and humanity. It’s all about the weaknesses that make these guys interesting.”
“In superheroes, in the end there’s a fight,” Lapham said, “and the one who’s right wins.”
“Making the right decision is often the wrong decision in a noir,” Brubaker said. Cooke noted that Brian Azzarello describes things in similar fashion. “All great noir is about a guy making a decision he knows is bad and he makes it anyway.”
“In ‘Maltese Falcon,’ no matter what happens, he can’t personally kill his partner,” Lapham recalled. “In ‘The Long Goodbye,’ the one thread is he won’t have someone make a fool of him. What happens at the end comes from that.”
“The stubbornness,” Cooke agreed. “You’re gonna hold on to this one thing,” Lapham continued. Robinson noted that the book had a different ending than the film. “I like the ending in the book better,” Brubaker said.
A fan asked for thoughts on crime in television shows. Brubaker said, “I love ‘Hill Street Blues,’ where David Milch got his start.”
“I’ve only seen one of those shows,” Cooke said. “‘Law & Order,’ my wife watches it all the time.” “It exists in all time frames at all times,” Brubaker said. Cooke continued, “I’ve never seen the letter-based shows.”
“Watching anything good is inspiring,” Lapham said, “Watching anything bad brings you down.” Brubaker said, “Vince Gilligan said it’s just as hard to make a sh**ty hour of TV as it is to make a good one. You don’t know which one you’re making.”
“It’s a different thing,” Cooke said. “Those shows are created in an open fashion. We work in a more finite respect.”
“I find ‘Law & Order’ interesting, the early ones,” Robinson said. “The characters had drama in their lives that they didn’t show.” Brothers notes how the opinion of the long-running series “came around from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ before the panel ended.”
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