Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Finding Thrilling Comics

Many Thriller writers and readers [of a certain age] were weaned on US comics from Marvel, DC and the other superhero stables during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Now with the popularity of Comic Book Superhero film adaptations reaching a zenith with recent box-office hits such as Batman, Wolverine, Watchmen etc - there is a full circle movement going on, with many of the top thriller writers now getting involved writing comics. As a long term thriller and comics reader, this is a welcome addition to my reading.

A few years ago, I interviewed Robert Crais over breakfast in Manchester, and was impressed at Crais’ knowledge about comics, and discovered that his first published work [like my own] was in the letters page of a Marvel Comic [as an adolescent] -

Ali : Going back to your childhood in Louisiana, did you read avidly when you were growing up?

Robert : Yes, I read a great deal, starting with comic books, and this grew into my life-long love of comics.

Ali : Which ones did you read?

Robert : I started with DC, which is now known as the Silver Age, Batman, Justice League of America, Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Flash, Green Lantern and on, and on. Then I got turned onto Marvel Comics when I read issue #7 of Spiderman.

Ali : Steve Ditko?

Robert : Yes I consider Steve Ditko as a comic-book God, he was amazing. I think it might have been Spiderman vs. Green Goblin and his work with Stan Lee really transcended the genre. This contrasted with what DC Comics were doing at the time – Marvel were doing superhero as human being. Peter Parker was very relatable as a human being [as well as being Spiderman’s alter-ego] and very vulnerable, very human, the misplaced outsider, the child who needed a strong father figure.

Ali : And that’s interesting as we touched upon the theme of father-figures in your work, especially within the plot of your latest The Two Minute Rule.

Robert : Yes, we begin to see how this all loops together and so as a youth I got totally turned onto Marvel.

Ali : I acknowledge the importance of Ditko but what about Jack Kirby?

Robert : Yes Kirby was brilliant but Ditko remained my favourite because of the emotional power of his work. There was also Dick Ayers and a whole load of other guys, but for me it was always Ditko centre-stage as his artwork was perhaps more expressive as to what the characters were feeling - he better defined the emotions in the characters than perhaps the others working the field, or so it seemed to me. I became a total Marvel maniac; I had a massive comic book collection at the point. One of the highpoints of my career was my first national publication, which was a letter in a Marvel Comic.

Ali : [laughing]….and the highlight of my career was also having a letter published in a Marvel Comic. Mine was in Kazaa The Savage aged sixteen.

Robert : [laughing]….it’s hard to beat that…[laughing]…everything is downhill from there on in…

Ali : I guess it is…[laughing]…so where did you get your letter published?

Robert : It got it published in The Amazing Spiderman, I think issue #67 by which time John Romita had taken over. I got a ‘no-prize’ and was a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and - cut to many years later - I’m in Hollywood with quite a nice career as a TV writer/producer and I’ve been hired by Warner Bros. Television to write two TV pilots – the first being The Amazing Spiderman.

Ali : Is this the Hammond series?

Robert : No, this is after the Nick Hammond series, as someone got hot to do another series, so I was hired to write Spiderman as well as Dr Strange. So when I first got the call, an executive at Warner Bros. asked me to come meet Stan Lee. So I go to this lunch to meet Stan Lee.

Ali : Amazing – meeting Stan Lee!

Robert : Yes, amazing. I told the executive that it would be nice to have lunch with Stan Lee…[laughing]…So as I put down the phone I immediately ran around the house screaming, hunting around for my ‘no-prize’. Now comes the day of meeting, and I arrive at this lovely restaurant. There are a load of suits from Warner Bros. in their Armani jackets, and I’m there trying to look like an adult when Stan ‘The Man’ Lee walks in. The suits introduce me, ‘Mr Lee, this is the writer we’ve talking about, Mr Crais, and then they introduce themselves to him, and then there’s the yada, yada, yada….and in the middle of all these suits talking millions and millions of dollars, I say, ‘Stan, look at this, I got a “no-prize”’….[laughing]….and Stan just laughed and signed it for me. Hey, no matter who I am, or what I do, that ‘no-prize’ means so much to me. It is the real me, addressed to Bobby Crais and has my Baton Rouge home address when I was a kid. Stan was thrilled, and he wrote this inscription while the suits watched in confusion as we were meeting to discuss a ten million dollar production, while here’s me doing this total fan-boy act with Stan Lee. I had it framed and it hangs in my office…

Read More

Stephen King as ever the pioneer, found many of his works adapted for the comics medium, as did Ian Fleming’s aristocratic spy James Bond, who has been adapted many times in comic book form. More recently we’ve seen David Morrell writing Captain America, Duane Swierczynski, Victor Gischler and many others penning comics. I was pleased last fall [thanks to Jon Jordan] to be introduced to Brian Azzarello, author of 100 BULLETS at Bouchercon Baltimore so I was rather pleased to read this snippet from one of my favourite thriller writers, Boston based Joe Finder

Before I wanted to be an author, before I wanted to be a secret agent, before I wanted to be almost anything, I wanted to draw cartoons. I love cartoons, and always have. Visit my office and you’ll see several classics framed on my wall, including a Charles Addams original.

Reality got in the way, as it often does. The only D you’ll see on my college transcript was – yes – an art class. I realized I was better at words than at pictures, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the dream never completely died, and at last year’s Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), I met a couple of guys from DC Comics. By coincidence, I was working on a subplot in
VANISHED involving the main character’s teenaged nephew, Gabe, who was writing and illustrating what he called a “graphic novel” about a superhero based on his uncle, Nick Heller.

So I took the opportunity to talk comics and graphic novels with them, and discovered a world I’d barely imagined. I knew that several major mystery and literary authors were working in the graphic novel arena – Michael Chabon, Brad Meltzer, Gregg Hurwitz, Duane Swierczynski, to name a few – and at Bouchercon I met Brian Azzarello, author of 100 BULLETS and (with Lee Bermejo) THE JOKER.

This fired my imagination; I’m always looking for ways to introduce my works to new audiences, and what better way than a comic book, especially if a comic book was part of my plot? And what if the comic book included a clue to the central mystery of VANISHED, itself?

I took this idea to DC Comics Senior Editor Will Dennis, who was kind enough to encourage me. He helped me find a Spanish artist, Benito Gallego, who could create the images I imagined for Gabe’s fictional superhero, The Cowl – classically heroic images in the tradition of the comics I read as a kid, by artists such as John Buscema and Joe Kubert.

Writing a comic book, however, isn’t like writing a novel. It’s somewhere between writing a screenplay and writing a series of epigrams, and it’s not what I do. I had a story for The Cowl, but didn’t know how to bring it to life.

Brian Azzarello to the rescue. I asked if he’d be willing to take over The Cowl’s story, and he agreed – and came up with a script even better than I’d imagined, about the origins of The Cowl in a post-Apocalyptic Washington, DC.

The Cowl – the secret identity of international security consultant Nick Heller – takes to the streets of Washington, DC to fight the nefarious Dr. Cash, a scientist who rules with an iron hand and an endless supply of a mind-altering chemical that enslaves the city’s young men.

The idea of a comic book based on the creation of a fictional character is a little complicated, and putting it all together was complicated as well – me in Boston, Benito in Spain, Azz in Chicago. But the first copies came off the press a couple of weeks ago, and I’m delighted with the result. Over the next several months I’ll be giving copies away, and my publisher, St. Martin’s, will make copies available to booksellers along with advance reading copies of VANISHED.

It’s been a great adventure, and I’m grateful to Brian and Benito for letting me achieve my childhood dream, with a little help from my friends.

To learn more about Joe Finder’s Vanished Click Here, or follow him on Twitter Here.


  1. That Ka-Zar was July ,1982. Are you sure you were only 16?

  2. Thanks Anonymous, hmmmm, I guess I was older than 16, the problem with age is that it makes you forgetful......


  3. No problem ,Ali. I,however, remember the event very well! Your old pal, X. Kingsley Campbell

  4. The most exciting comic that I've read has been Captain America #41 where he had to save the girls in the refrigerator.

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