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CCI: Janet Evanovich Brings Alex Barnaby to Dark Horse

by  in Comic News Comment
CCI: Janet Evanovich Brings Alex Barnaby to Dark Horse

Janet Evanovich is a prolific author who’s written over twenty mystery novels since the publication of “One For The Money” in 1994, the first of fifteen books starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. As the beneficiary of legions of devoted fans, Evanovich has had no less than fourteen books hit the #1 spot on the “New York Times” bestseller list in the last decade. “Wildly popular” does not begin to cover her success.

This beloved juggernaut of prose will soon be making a dramatic transition into comic books. The next installment in Evanovich’s nascent Alex Barnaby series will not be a novel, but a comic book. Set in the world of NASCAR, Alex Barnaby has already been solving crimes in two bestselling Evanovich books, “Metro Girl” and “Motor Mouth,” and the highly anticipated third installment will appear as a graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics. The Portland-based publisher will break the news of this project at this week’s San Diego Comic-Con International.

With fourteen chart-topping books in one ten year span, why? Why risk a potential powerhouse franchise by switching horses midstream?

CBR News talked to Janet Evanovich to find out. She is no cynical slouch of sequential art, nor is she a comic book carpetbagger, dabbler, or dilettante. Evanovich is readily passionate and “messianic” about comics. She is an enthusiastic fan, excited for the possibilities of working within a medium she’s loved her whole life. She is also a canny businesswoman — one who has been planning Alex Barnaby’s move into comic books for at least five years.

CBR: You are an incredibly successful novelist with two best-selling series of mystery novels. Why change up the formula and take Alex Barnaby to graphic novels?

JANET EVANOVICH: I do a lot of work with my daughter Alex, she is my webmaster, we brainstorm on projects together, she helps edit my books. Alex and I love comics, we have always loved comics. I’ve read comics for as long as I can remember. I still have a subscription to “Uncle Scrooge.” We read manga, we read graphic novels, and we have always wanted to do a comic book.

But we have just never been able to squash it into the schedule before. Dark Horse was so helpful and didn’t give up on us. When I started the Alex Barnaby series with Metro Girl, we always intended for it to eventually to go to graphic novels.

You planned for Alex Barnaby to become a graphic novel series before you wrote the first novel?

I know that I build my audience as a novelist. And I know that comic books are a whole other thing — the market is smaller, and it’s a more difficult sell. So we just thought that putting out a couple of books to my audience was a good way to start. We really are hoping to bring a lot of those people over into the comic book land.

For a bunch of years now we have been in a huge growth mode but we have not always had the time to do the labor of love projects. We finally feel we have an opening in the schedule, and we have a product that we can really be a success with. Because what we have always wanted to do is bring the graphic novel up to the front of the bookstore. I would like to have this get the same kind of attention and the same kind of space that my bestselling novels get.

You were a painting student in college, but you gave it up because the audience was too small. Do you feel that moving into comic books is a way to satisfy that visual artistic urge with a bigger audience?

Yeah, I do. I started out as a kid that could draw, but somewhere along the line I realized I liked the storytelling that went along with the pictures. I felt like painting was a limited medium. The way you communicate through paintings or sculpture is so much more indirect than the way you communicate with words in a book. So I moved over into writing.

But even if you look at my writing, my writing is very visual. When I write my book I see it as a movie, it’s a very visual experience for me. Being able to move into graphic novels, I think it’s going to be a really satisfying experience.

How did your relationship with Dark Horse begin?

We’ve been talking with Dark Horse for years, I’m not even sure how it started. It’s grown into this really nice friendship, and appreciation of what we both do.

Way back before the Alex Barnaby series was first published, we were talking with Dark Horse then about making it into a graphic novel of some sort. We just couldn’t get it together at the time, we had too many projects going on, we weren’t sure how we wanted to bring it forward. What we knew was we did not want to do a project that was going to get lost. We are a little messianic about our comic books! We feel like they deserve to be more legitimate, they deserve to get more attention, they deserve to have better placement, and they deserve to have a broader audience.

I grew up in the age of comic books. As a little girl, that was all I read. I got a book at Christmas, and my mom would take me to the library once in awhile. But for my entire childhood, what I read was comic books. I read Little Lulu. I read Archie and Veronica. I read Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey and Louie, and I read Katy Keene. And then all of a sudden, somehow, that got taken away form little girls. Comics became this thing that moved into a superhero, young boy niche. You didn’t have comic books in newsstands all the time.

So I was very excited to see manga coming over. Because finally — finally! — You have what is essentially comic books for girls again.

Now that you are a grown-up comic book fan, what books do you read?

You know, I am a huge “Fruits Basket” fan. I loved “Cowboy Bebop.” And I have a subscription to “Uncle Scrooge,” that will always be my favorite. If it wasn’t for Uncle Scrooge when I was a kid, I do not think I would be writing the Plum books.

Why is that?

Because “Uncle Scrooge” is an adventure story. Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck ,and Huey, Dewey, and Louie — in every story they have an adventure. They are out looking for gold, they are in the Amazon, they are in outer space, the Beagle Boys are after them. When I was a kid, I really wanted to push my quarters around with a bulldozer. I always wanted to be Uncle Scrooge. And this is what I write — I’m writing Uncle Scrooge in Trenton, New Jersey. Indiana Jones in Trenton, New Jersey. It’s all the same. These are adventures, they are on a quest.

So taking Alex Barnaby from novels into comic books is really a homecoming for you.

Absolutely, yeah.

Did your plan to take the series into comic books affect the way you wrote the first two novels?

Yes, it did to some extent. First of all, I’m a huge NASCAR fan. So that was a part of it. I had never gone to one of the big NASCAR races when I wrote the first book. Alex and I had been going to little stock car races. We just love cars. So this was something that I loved, that we were interested in — the world of racing, the competition, the fast cars.

But also running alongside of that was this vision of this graphic novel that we could have, with this hot guy and this hot girl and these flashy cars. We could always see the cars in the comic book.

Tell us about Alex Barnaby, the character.

Alex Barnaby in some ways is the opposite of Stephanie Plum. Stephanie is a little like Seinfeld — she wanders through life, she really has no big goals, she has no huge passion. She is a wonderful, average, good person, trying to make ends meet. Trying to find herself.

I thought it would be fun in my new series to have a heroine that was just the opposite. Alex Barnaby was born with a passion. She loves cars and everything mechanical. As a young girl she worked in her dad’s garage, she grew up being able to rebuild a carburetor. This is her talent and this is what she loves.

So, this is a very focused and driven person, as opposed to my other heroine who is not, who is really trying to find herself. Having said that, Alex maybe is still trying to find herself in a more personal way. But professionally, she really knows who she is, and she knows what it is that she loves to do.

Alex is your daughter’s name. Any coincidence there?

Yeah, and her dog’s name is Barnaby. So I named my heroine after my daughter and her dog!

Do you see Alex as a role models for girls who are reading graphic novels?

Yeah, although that is not my primary purpose, my primary purpose is to entertain. If I can put forth good values and good people, so much the better. All of my major characters are good people. They have good qualities — they are tenacious, they have high moral fiber, and that’s important to me. Certainly, that will be the case with this new project.

But I try very hard not to be preachy in my books. Everyone has an agenda, and everybody has things that are of value to them, like family and community. But we are in the entertainment business. So that is always my first focus, is to entertain, but to entertain in a very positive way. Spider-Man, Superman, all of the superheroes for the most part at the same way. The entertainment value is very high, but right alongside of all that, they are good people.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about your characters in that way. The mystery genre is not necessarily known for its good people, especially noir mystery with its flawed and seedy characters.

Well, I think everyone is flawed. What makes a character is what you do with all the little flaws, how you rise above them.

The mystery genre is varied. I started in romance, and I think I took a lot of those qualities with me. I write a very character driven series. I’m found in the mystery section, but really this is a character driven series.

I think there are a lot of mysteries that have very good people, like Robert B. Parker with his Spencer series. Spencer is a very good guy. I’m not a big fan of the tortured hero. That’s why I like Uncle Scrooge over Batman and Spider-Man, that’s just my own personal preference.

Lest people get the wrong idea, your books still have plenty of salacious elements, like crime, sex, and murder.

Yeah, you have to have a body every now and then. A dead body is always a good thing to have!

Is that important to you, to blend positive characters with bad elements in your books?

Absolutely. First of all, it makes your book interesting, it gives you a variety. Something to balance the good with. And it’s a part of life, you know? There are bad things happening out there very day. If you are going to construct a story that was all goodness, you’d probably be writing a romance novel.

But I do like the mystery, I do like the crime element in it. We all need heroes, and one of the ways to have a hero of course is to have a bad guy. If I have a crime in my book, I can have a hero. Crime really serves a purpose for me to give my hero something to do.

Just a moment ago you mentioned family as an important value. How does your family participate in your work?

We are a little family business. My daughter is my webmaster, she tours with me, she runs my co-author program, and she will be spearheading this graphic novel program. She will be helping me write the first story and she works very closely with Dark Horse. We feel like we have all these friends there now.

My son is my agent and our financial officer. He also helps to edit my books and brainstorm with the new projects. I couldn’t do what I do without my family. They do a lot of stuff that gives me the freedom to do the writing.

With family being such an important part of your business, how important is it to have a strong relationship with Dark Horse?

It’s very important. I have a wonderful relationship with my primary publisher, St. Martin’s Press. I have a wonderful relationship with HarperCollins, who has been doing my reprinted romance. And I have the same good feeling at Dark Horse.

I mean, you spend a lot of time with the people you are in business with in this way, and you invest a lot of yourself. So, you want to make sure that not only is it going to be a profitable experience and a satisfying experience, but also a happy experience. The truth is, we are in the business of making fun. We are the happy people, we are the entertainers. So if you are not happy with the people you are working with, and you’re not having fun creating the project, then I just don’t think it works.

You listed community as an important value as well. Are you excited to meet the comic book community?

I’ll tell you one thing, when I go to Comic-Con next year, I’m dressing up! I’m really looking forward to it, I can’t wait. We would be out in San Diego right now, except for the fact that my book tour just ended, and when I was on tour I broke my foot. I’m sitting here with my cast. Usually, my book does not come out this late in the year, it just happened that way. But Comic-Con is on the calendar for next year, so they’re just going to have to change the Stephanie Plum date if it interferes. We are definitely going!

I think that people who have been reading comics in the recent past have been male. I do know that when I go into Barnes & Noble, I see women on all ages from 9 on up to 50 sitting in the aisle reading manga. So I feel part of that community.

I’m looking forward to going into comic book stores and being part of that community. But what I’m really hoping is that a lot of my own readers are going to find that they love looking at the pictures and love reading this kind of book. I have a lot of young readers. My audience started out with a core reader that was in their 40s. But every year, it shifted to a younger and younger demographic. So I have a very large readership that is 12-25. I really think that this is a good group to reintroduce to the graphic novel. I really think I can bring a lot of my community over to the comic book community.

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