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Denise Mina Prepares “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for Vertigo

by  in Comic News Comment
Denise Mina Prepares “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for Vertigo

Denise Mina, who earlier this year won the Theakstons Old Peculier crime novel of the year award for her ninth novel “The End of the Wasp Season,” readily admits she doesn’t really get superhero comics. But as a fan of “Transmetropolitan,” “Chew” and “Sweet Tooth,” she most certainly enjoys the medium.

In addition to reading them, Mina has written comics and graphic novels as well, including a run on “Hellblazer” and “A Sickness in the Family” for Vertigo. Now, the Scottish scribe has landed one of the most high-profile assignments in the industry, adapting Stieg Larsson’s international bestselling novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” into a graphic novel for the DC Comics imprint. The 144-page hardcover was originally slated for release on November 7, but DC has bumped the date back a week in order to capitalize on growing publicity surrounding the book.

Mina teamed with Argentine artist Leonardo Manco for the adaptation, after having worked togather on “Hellblazer” #214-288. Inker Andrea Mutti joins them, as does Lee Bermejo (“Batman: Noel”), who provides the shelf-stealing cover.

Speaking with CBR, Mina shared her thoughts on beefing up Lisbeth Salander’s role in the first part of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” explained the sex appeal of Mikael Blomqvist and discussed how she went about getting all the best bits into her adaptation by remaining true to the source material.

Mina also revealed that she is set to write all of the remaining graphic novel adaptations of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, including the second part of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its two sequels, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,” to be adapted in two parts each.

CBR News: When you first read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” what was is about it that drew you into Stieg Larsson’s Millennium universe?

Denise Mina: When I first read the book, just as a reader, I loved the characters and the story. But what really stuck me was how aware he was of the history of feminist crime fiction. He mentions Val McDermid when Blomqvist is reading “The Mermaids Singing.”

The last time we spoke, you told me your agent wasn’t sure you would be interested in adapting the international best seller into a graphic novel, but when he hinted that might be the case, you nearly “bit his hand off.” What was it about the project that made you accept the challenge?

There are a couple of things. The day before my agent wrote to me, I remember thinking, “God, I’d really like to write comics again.” I hadn’t thought about it in ages, but because I’m basically a novelist, I’m always looking for extra projects. I make films and I write plays and I do comics. It’s just my way of staying really engaged and looking at what I’m doing in different ways. I had already thought I’d like to write another comic.

Secondly, because he [Larsson] is so political — I think that’s the thing that gets forgotten about Larsson. He is very politically engaged. A lot of the stuff he’s bringing up, he’s using mainstream media to talk about quite complex political things. What everybody remembers is the rape scene, but they forgot he has a naked, sexualized man being saved by a young woman. He reverses loads of those tropes. I really love him for that and I feel that it’s been slightly forgotten in the way the story had been received in the mainstream.

Larsson famously dropped his manuscripts off at the publisher and died before he could witness his Millennium trilogy become one of the best-selling series of all-time. As a fellow writer, does this project come with extra weight as you are bringing his story to even larger audience?

I don’t know if there are any more people that haven’t read this. [Laughs] Everyone I know has read this. I don’t know if we are necessarily bringing this to more people, but I know a few people that bought the book and didn’t read it. The point is that there is such a great story in here, the prose version might not get to you, but maybe you’ll read the comic if you are a comic person.

It’s more about emphasis. I don’t think I’m doing him any favors or adding any sales because it’s such a big book anyway. But hopefully people will see what one reading of the book is like through this interpretation. It’s very faithful interpretation.

My copy of the original novel was 480-something pages, and while you are telling half of the story in this graphic novel, you were still forced to cut a lot of scenes and plot threads in an effort to condense “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” to 144 art-filled pages. How did you go about deciding what stayed and what had to go?

It’s like when you screw up your eyes and look at something and the bit that jumps out that you can’t see terribly well is the bit that’s important. [Laughs] What I did was re-read the book and make notes about what happened in each chapter — and then I left it for a month and forgot about it, know what I mean? I wanted a bit of distance. Then I went back and re-read my notes, not the actual book, but that created a couple of plot problems. It’s not a straight adaptation. You can’t have people having big internal monologues and thinking about things and arriving at conclusions. It has to all be there on the page. You have to drop some things — even when they were in my notes.

One of the things I really wanted to get in was the fraud story, which was kind of dropped from the films because it’s so not visual. But you can do it in a comic. And then some other bits just didn’t work, so they had to be dropped, but they were few and far between.

Again, last time we spoke and I asked you what you liked most about the Millennium trilogy, you gave me a one-word answer: Salander. How did you go about transitioning the dragon-tattooed protagonist from novel to graphic novel?

There were a couple of practical things. He [Larsson] kept saying that she might be autistic and she might anorexic. I didn’t really believe that. I have friends that are on the autistic spectrum, and to be honest, she doesn’t strike me as autistic. She’s a bit rude, but at the moment, quite often people think that means you’re autistic. It’s a completely different thing. [Laughs] I dropped that, and I hope that was okay. It didn’t work for me at all.

Also, in the book, it’s mostly about Blomqvist for the first half. She’s not really in it. But it’s a two-hander. Visually, you’re much more aware of the other character not being there. It had to be much more balanced in terms of the number of scenes they had. For me, her entire motivation is the fact that her mom is brain damaged from being a victim of domestic violence, which really never came out in the movies. I really wanted to keep that in. That was part of how I put the extra scenes in for her or expanded scenes that I put in for her.

She’s just a very angry person, which actually, in character terms, means you are a very frightened person. That was the position that I came to her from. When she’s attacked, I think she thinks that if you let them do that to you, you’ll get brain damage and you’ll end up in a nursing home, smoking 50 fags a day. That’s her whole motivation. I think she became a lot more streamlined but I felt when I was reading the book, she was someone I knew.

I thought Salander’s dialogue, especially, was very strong. How did you find her voice?

I didn’t find it that hard, actually. I find it hard not to take over and give her witty quips all of the time because she’s the hero and that’s what you tend to do with heroes. I find it quite hard to just keep her monosyllabic, someone that doesn’t say much. She’s always very honest. She never really lies at any point in the book. That was quite hard.

But I think if you like writing dialogue, the discipline is always reining back and taking out your favorite jokes. That’s always the hard thing. It may be a good line, but if it’s not their line, you’ve got to cut it.

You mentioned this being a two-hander, referring to Blomqvist. Unlike Salander, who I feel has remained consistent from the novel to Noomi Rapace to Rooney Mara to your graphic novel, Blomqvist has transformed from his first appearance in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to the cerebral Michael Nyqvist to the hunky Daniel Craig. How did you cast Blomqvist?

Blomqvist is quite a mysterious character from a women’s point of view. He’s a pudgy, bankrupt, middle-aged journalist that everyone finds attractive. He’s a bit of a mystery man. I think what Larsson did was read a lot of feminist crime fiction and come to the conclusion that the reason it wasn’t mass market was because there wasn’t enough gratuitous sex. He thought the way to get men to read these books and buy these books is to have a bit of wish fulfillment in it.

I think there is a central paradox with that character that you have to resolve one way or another. I tried to do it by making him quite adorable — he’s honest, and that’s what’s unique about him. Erika Berger sleeps with him because he’s a pal and he’s never really asked anything of her and he’s always quite distant. With Salander, in the movie they actually changed it. He actually does the business after he’s been shot in the temple, which makes perfect sense to me because you think it’s because she felt sorry for him.

There is a bit of a conundrum with that character that needed resolved, and I think lots of people have done it in different ways.

You’ve seen your own novels on screen, and you’ve worked with artists before on your previous graphic novels, but mostly you work solely as a novelist. Do you enjoy the process of collaboration, specifically with an artist like Leonardo [Manco]?

It never gets old. Actually getting the first pages is more thrilling than seeing your book in a book shop because what I always try to do is remember that it’s 70% visual and 30% dialogue. As a reader of comics, you want most of the information to be in the pictures and no more than a third being in the dialogue. What’s even better is if you can get them to collide with one another. It really makes your eye stay on the page to make out what the story is. It’s a really, really engaging way to read a story. I always try to leave lots of room.

It’s lovely working with someone that I’ve worked with before, because although I describe almost exactly what I want — sometimes I do drawings and take photos — if you just let the artist do their thing, they always come up with something that you haven’t imagined yourself. You write a story and then it’s a surprise, as well, and it’s a lovely feeling when you get those first pages.

This first graphic novel tells only the first half of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Was it an easy decision to break the story for the conclusion of Part One where you did, or did you consider any other scenes?

It was always a natural endpoint. It’s nearly almost halfway through the book, but you know it’s really at the point of the height of the arc. It’s at that point that you get to know that character and what’s she’s about. Before that, she’s just sort of sulky and annoying with a lot of problems. But at that point, she really comes to life in the book.

I know you’re already working on Part Two, but are plans in place for you to continue adapting the series through “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest?”

Yes, hopefully. I think we’ll see how it goes, but hopefully we’re doing all six — all three books, two parts each.

My next question was going to be if you were working on any other projects with Vertigo, but if you are writing these six graphic novels, as well as your next novel, I’m guessing the answer is “No.”

Yes, that’s plenty. I’m do lots of other things, as well. I’ve got a play on next year titled “Grand Guignol,” which is a type of French theater that is very blood-splattery. It’s kind of where horror movies originated. And I just made a movie of my family, as well. We’ll be taking that to festivals.

You mentioned at the top that you had been thinking about coming back to comics before this project was offered to you. Do you have an original concept you’d like to write or did you want to work with an established DC or Vertigo property?

I had an idea, but it turned out that hundreds of other people have had that same idea. It was a about a Jewish vampire during World War II. I think the more you work in comics and the more you read them, you start thinking in those types of terms. I’m not all that interested in superheroes, I have to be honest. I don’t really get it.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Part 1 from Vertigo goes on sale November 13.

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