When Roger Gibson and Vince Danks’ first graphic novel devoted to DCI Harker – subtitled The Book of Solomon – landed on my desk, it came with a promise of TV detective reference points, charismatic characters and beautiful artwork. And the book, recently released by Titan disappoints on none of those points, offering a convergence of two story-telling worlds that should have happened a lot more in the past – the detective story and the comic book.
But then there hasn’t really been anyone like Gibson writing that sort of material before now, melding the self-referential pastiche of Life On Mars with the eye for authentic characterisation (and just the right touch of idiosyncracy) that underpins all of the best TV and movie detectives. They are islands in a sea of suspects, morally fortified but occasionally happy to bend the rules to breaking point in the name of justice, and in Harker, Gibson has landed that punch perfectly.
His writing is backed by the excellent penmanship of Vince Danks, whose London scenes are intricate and impressive, but whose eye for shot composition is almost cinematic, and captures the necessary atmospheric elements to drive the plot when it all gets a bit thick towards the end.
Basically, if you haven’t picked it up already, you should definitely do so.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to get some time with Roger Gibson, to talk about his creation, the comic’s reference points and his hopes for the future. If all of this comes to pass, we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Gibson, artist Vince Danks and their detective Harker. And that has got to be a good thing…
Simon Gallagher: In the simplest terms, what do you want to achieve with Harker?
Roger Gibson: A Harker TV series would be really good! In the shorter term, I’m hoping that the book will help to introduce a new genre to comics: procedural detective drama (rather than all the noir crime and violent mobster stuff that we often get saddled with). Despite the huge popularity of such TV dramas as Columbo, Morse, Waking the Dead, The Rockford Files, Sherlock etc, crime comics are generally violent, brutal, dark things. I think we could use a little wry humour, banter and fun injected in there.
SG: Do you put much of yourself into the characters?
RG: Absolutely, yes. DCI Harker is pretty much fifty per cent me, with the other fifty percent being an amalgamation of various TV detectives. He gets his attitude from Gene Hunt in the British version of Life on Mars, his shabbiness and waffling from Columbo, his car and squeamishness from Morse, but the grumpiness and belligerence are all me, sort of amplified and exaggerated. Harker behaves very much how I’d behave if I thought I could get away with it.
SG: There are obviously a lot of classic crime TV reference points, can you run through some of the major ones?
RG: To an extent the whole series is a love letter to classic TV crime shows, so the whole thing has an element of the metafictional about it. Harker is about detective TV shows as much as it is a detective TV show, if that makes sense. Harker himself is very deliberately a combination of a number of TV detectives, and the plots we use in the books are all derived from specific, generic TV plots. So Harker is essentially a comic that thinks it’s a TV show.
More specifically, this first book picks up its tone from British detective shows Waking The Dead and Morse – that kind of evil, brooding nastiness; the darkened morgue scenes; the classic car; and the dour city landscape. We’ve also thrown a little Hammer movie schlock in there, just because I adore those old 1970′s Hammer films, so you’ll find a smattering of The Devil Rides Out in the book.
It’s tricky to reveal too many references without spoiling the book, but I will tell you that the ending is intended to look as though it were directed by John Woo – impossible stunts, lots of things smashed and loads of shouting.
SG: What other references do you bring into your work – ‘From Hell’ is obviously there, but were there other specific comic books that influenced the direction of the project?
RG: Most of the starting points are from TV shows – we were trying to do something that hasn’t really been done properly in comics before, so comic influences for the project were thin on the ground. There’s a little bit of Brian Bendis and Alan Moore in the six page pub scene at the centre of the book, but mostly we’re trying to break new ground. You will see comic references pop up from time to time, as Det. Sgt. Critchley is an ubergeek and a huge comics fan, and his entire frame of reference for the world is filtered through a lifetime of comics and ridiculous genre movies. Much like myself, really.
SG: Who would you say are your industry influences?
RG: For technique, I’d have to mention Richard Piers Rayner (previous Hellblazer artist and an old friend, who taught me a lot about comics technique, probably without realising he was doing so) and P. Craig Russell, who has an instinctive grasp of storytelling and uses photo-reference in the same way that we do on Harker. Beyond that, Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright showed me that it’s possible to bring that specific British comic feel and make it work for a contemporary worldwide audience, and Moore & Campbell’s From Hell should be required reading for anyone interested in the mechanics of storytelling, layout and mood. I really believe that I’m in Victorian London when I read that book, and if Harker gives that same feeling of time and place, then I’m very happy.
SG: There’s a very striking visual style to the comic – did you play with the idea of colour much before settling on black and white?
RG: To be honest, when we first created the book as a self-published comic series, we just couldn’t afford colour, but Vince worked hard on the toning to minimise the loss of a colour palette. We did have discussions with Titan about producing the book version in full colour, but Titan liked it in black and white, and I don’t disagree. It somehow seems to give it even more of a televisual look, which is obviously what we were looking for.
SG: The composition also feels quite cinematic at times, was that a conscious response to the brief to make a TV show-like comic?
RG: Definitely, yes. We were very keen for the comic to feel as though you were watching it on TV, so the panel design is very formal so as not to distract the reader, we use slow tracking shots, the central pub scene is almost animated if you flick from page to page, and we try to keep the camera moving throughout. The hope was that if we could make it look like a TV show, then we’d attract people unfamiliar with the language of comics and make it as easy as possible for them to navigate through the strip.
SG: Does the lack of caption boxes make Vince’s job more difficult? Or is it a welcome challenge?
RG: It never really seems to faze him. The only time he grumbles is when I ask him for an overhead helicopter shot of London or a double-page spread of the British Museum. Then he grumbles for days. He does cheat, though. He uses signs as caption boxes, slipping them in and thinking I won’t notice. He’s a crafty bugger in that respect.
SG: Who decided who to cast as the suspects? Were they written with people like Larry Lamb in mind?
RG: That’s entirely down to Vince. The bigger roles are usually our friends, who pose specifically for us, but for smaller parts Vince will cast TV stars in certain roles – the body is usually Vince’s, and the head might be Larry Lamb, or Leo McKern, or whoever else he decides is appropriate. It all adds to the TV drama look of the book, casting recognisable guest stars for certain roles, but it’s always Vince’s choice, unless I need a specific look for a character for plot reasons.
SG: How would you feel about coming full circle and Harker being adapted for TV?
RG: I’d genuinely love that. One of the most regular comments we get about the book is that it would make a great TV series, which is obviously intentional on our part – it looks and feels like a TV series because we designed it to work that way, so we’re always thrilled when people get that and start wanting a real series out there too. I’d be delighted to see it adapted for TV, and I very much hope that’ll happen. Given my own choice, I’d probably want Peter Capaldi in the role of Harker. He deserves his own detective series, and he’s got just the right sort of look for the part. So yes, I’d love to see a Harker TV series.
SG: What has the fan response been like to Harker so far?
RG: Terrifically positive – everyone always wants more of it, which is always a good sign. We’ve had quite a few instances where we’ve been told that people have bought the book for non-comic fans or for parents, purely because they really like TV detective shows. Sort of: “Hey, if you like that, you’ll definitely love this!”
If we can convert lots of people into wanting to read comics by showing them there there is intelligent, adult stuff out there, then I’ll be immensely happy. I’d like to see Harker sneak into the crime sections in the bookshops, and establish a foothold for crime graphic novels there. We’ll see, I guess!
SG: What’s next for Harker?
RG: Book Two takes the team to Whitby and a distinct change of tone. Instead of Morse and Waking the Dead as the main influences, in Book Two we borrow from The Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie and the appalling Murder She Wrote. There’s a howling dog, a chase on the moors, a football match against goths, bickering lesbians, dodgems and dastardly murder, all set amongst beautiful, authentic Whitby locations.
Then with Book Three we mix up the style again, taking the team to New York and drawing in influences from The Rockford Files, The French Connection, Bullitt, Starsky & Hutch and CSI. Oh, and there’s a ridiculously long car chase, as there is in all the best American cop movies. I don’t think that’s ever been tried successfully in comics, so we’re going to prove it can be done.
Book Four will be set in Portmerion, featuring murder amongst the spy community, though you’ll need to wait a while for that one.
I’m also working on getting a series of Harker prose novels published, as another way of sneakily getting Harker into the crime sections in those bookshops. There are already two finished novels, with more coming up, so they should see the light of day very soon.
SG: And what’s next for the pair of you, in terms of other projects?
RG: We have a series called Gravestown, based on the original comic I did, along with stuff from a Gravestown novel I wrote a couple of years ago. Vince has already done some work on it, so we’ll be pitching that to see if we can get a publisher for it.
Beyond that, we’re also casting around for freelance work, having thoroughly enjoyed putting together a Torchwood strip for Torchwood Magazine last year. There’s nothing on the table yet, but we’re hunting for work as we speak!