Thursday, June 17, 2010

But There Aren't Any Pictures!

What was it that got you interested in reading? In crime fiction? The answer to that question is, of course, different for everyone. But for most of us, the love of reading starts at a young age. Research shows, too, that children who start reading when they are very young are more likely to become lifelong readers. There are several detective series aimed at young readers, too. For instance, Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy boys, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and more recently, sleuths like Cam Jansen have gotten young readers interested in mysteries for many years. But everyone thinks and learns and knows in a different way. For some of us, it’s the visual that helps us know and learn. For readers with a strong sense of the visual, one interesting “door” into crime fiction is the comic and graphic novel.

Traditionally, comics and graphic novels aren’t thought of as “real” reading. However, there’s interesting research that suggests that we use similar reading skills for comics and graphic novels to the skills we use for other kinds of reading. And, for those who learn best through the visual, comics and graphic novels can offer a creative way to experience crime fiction.

Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy is one of the most famous and enduring comic-strip detectives. He’s what you might call a “hardboiled” police detective, but the strip isn’t all about fisticuffs. There’s also lots of detail about police investigation, too. In fact, it’s been argued that this strip was really one of the first police procedural series. Even if it wasn’t, it’s got plenty of the elements of a police procedural: collecting and analyzing evidence (including forensic evidence), interviewing witnesses and suspects, and the details of arrest. Gould himself stopped writing and drawing the strip in 1977, but Dick Tracy remains a powerful influence. The strip itself was continued, there’ve been graphic novels, and of course, Dick Tracy films. There are other comic-strip crime fiction legends too, such as Batman, but for many readers, Dick Tracy was their first introduction to crime fiction.

Some of crime fiction’s most famous sleuths have also had their stories adapted in graphic form. For instance Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, was adapted in graphic form by Ian Edgington and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard. In that story, Holmes investigates the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, both Americans who are staying at the same rooming-house. As Holmes finds out, the two deaths are connected, and both deaths are related to Drebber’s and Stangerson’s past lives in America.

Edginton and Culbard also collaborated on adapting Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles in graphic form. In that novel, Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a supposed curse on the Baskerville family – a demon in hound form who’s haunted the family since one of their ancestors, Sir Hugo Baskerville, sold himself to the Powers of Evil so he could have the woman he wanted. When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the park of the family home, his friend, Dr. Mortimer, thinks that the curse has come back to haunt the family. He’s afraid because the next Baskerville heir, Sir Henry, is on his way from Canada, and Mortimer fears for his life. So he asks Holmes to investigate and see if Sir Henry can be spared the curse. Holmes and Watson find that, far from being the victim of a curse, Sir Charles was killed for a much more prosaic motive.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels have been adapted for graphic form, too. Many of them have been adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by Marc Piskic. For instance, one novel that Rivière and Piskic collaborated on is The Murder on the Links, in which Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. At first, the police think Renauld was murdered by a pair of thugs who are after a secret Renauld is supposedly keeping. Soon, though, Poirot finds out that Renauld’s death had a much different motive. Rivière collaborated with illustrator Frank Leclerq on the adaptation of The Secret Adversary, the first adventure featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. In that novel, Thomas Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are both hard-up for money, and decide to form their own company, “The Young Adventurers, Ltd.” Very soon, they get their first commission: to track down some missing secret papers. Before they know it, they’re swept up in international intrigue and political maneuvering.

Vertigo, an imprint owned by D.C. Comics, focuses entirely on graphic novels, many of them crime fiction. For example, Dark Entries is the story of John Constantine, from the Hellblazer comic series. In this novel, written by Ian Rankin and illustrated by Werther Dell'Edera, Constantine, a paranormal investigator, is hired by the staff of Haunted Palace, a reality television show in which a group of young contestants are trapped in a “haunted house,” and the only way to win is to get into a hidden room and claim the prize. The current group of contestants has, indeed, been terrified by scary visions, but they haven’t been the “rigged” terrors that the show’s producers have planned. Apparently, the contestants are seeing these things themselves. So Constantine’s recruited to find out who or what is causing these visions.

Other graphic novels blend comic-strip heroes and crime fiction, too. For instance, Alan Moore’s Watchmen is the story of the murder of government agent (and former superhero) The Comedian. He’s one of several superheroes in an alternative-future scenario who’ve been outlawed by the current government. The only superheroes who are allowed to continue to use their powers are those like The Comedian who are officially hired by the government. When The Comedian is found murdered, another former superhero, Rorschach, begins to believe that there’s a plot to kill other superheroes as well. So he gathers a group of his former colleagues to investigate. As they begin to try to piece things together, they find themselves in danger as they slowly uncover the truth. In the end, it’s found that The Comedian’s death, and the other events that happen in the story, are all part of a larger plan.

Some of these novels are, of course, more suitable for adults than for children, but there’s also graphic-novel crime fiction available for young readers. For instance, Bill Galvan's Scrapyard Detectives is a comic series about a group of young people who have formed a club called the Scrapyard Detectives. Their name comes from their meeting place – the scrapyard owned by the father of one of the main characters. In the series, the team of young people works together to solve local mysteries. While the series focuses on teaching lessons, it’s also an interesting mystery series that allows readers to follow the clues and solve cases along with the young sleuths.

Chris Everheart’s Recon Academy series is about a team of young people, Recon Academy, whose purpose is to fight terrorism and other crimes in their town of Seaside. There’s a high-tech naval base in town, so security is important, and the Recon Academy team does its share to protect the base. In novels such as Teen Agent and Prep Squadron, the group goes up against terrorist cells, mysterious strangers and odd happenings in and around Seaside High School.

We don’t always think of comics and graphic novels when we think of crime fiction and those forms of literature aren’t always regarded as “real” crime fiction. But well-drawn comics and graphic novels with interesting plots and solid characters have “hooked” many people on reading and on crime fiction. They’re fairly easy reading, so young readers, readers who struggle and readers learning a language can enjoy them. They appeal to the visual, so those who remember best what they see can especially appreciate them. They can be very creative, and they’ve made a unique contribution to the genre. Have you read comic or graphic-novel crime fiction? If you have, which stories have you enjoyed?


  1. When I hear or think of comics or graphic novels, I remember the comics from my youth - Archie, Fantastic Four, etc. To say that graphic novels have changed over the years is an understatement. It's a good thing thought if it encourages young people to read. I'm all for anything that will do that. The new graphic novels have peaked my interest too. I need to revisit them to see what's offered now. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. You have certainly done a good job here covering the evolution of graphics. I, too, as Mason does, remember Archie. And Little Lulu was my favorite. In crime, I remember Dick Tracy. But since my childhood I haven't read stories in graphic form. I prefer forming my own mental images. The images that came to my mind when I read Sherlock Holmes (when I was fifteen) was enough to spook me even in daylight, which was when I read "The Engineer's Thumb." Graphics isn't my first reading choice, but it's good that graphics will lure someone to read who might otherwise not.

  3. Hi, I hopped over here from FB.

    I haven't read any novels done in graphic format, but I grew up with Dick Tracy, which incidentally is still printed in the papers here in Jamaica.

    I have an eight y/o son, who I started buying books very early. The evidence to date suggests that he will be a reader.

    Thanks for sharing this info. I had no idea there so many crime novels in graphic format. Only select stores carry graphic novels here.

  4. Mason - Oh, I remember Archie, too! And, of course, the Fantastic Four and Scooby-Doo. Graphic novels and comics have certainly changed dramatically over the years, but I have to agree that if they get young people to have an interest in books, that is a good thing. Some of the graphic novels I've seen are actually fairly good adaptations of some great novels, too.

    Ann - Oh, of course, Little Lulu! I'd forgotten about her, so thanks for the reminder. It's funny, you're not the only one who likes to form personal mental images. Sometimes I'm exactly the same way. That's one of the "downsides," for instance, of seeing a movie before one reads the book - too many imposed mental images. And, as you say, many readers can conjure up mental images that are as creepy as any graphic artist's are. I agree with you, though: graphic novels can be a very inviting door into a genre, and that can be a good thing.

  5. Joy - Thanks for stopping by : ). I'm glad that Dick Tracy is still printed in Jamaica - He's an enduring favorite, and I'm glad people still read his adventures.

    Congratulations on the work you are doing with your son. All the research I know anything about suggests that reading with children when they are young promotes a lifelong love of reading.

    It's funny; most people don't think about many different kinds of books are available in graphic form, but there are a lot of them.

    If you and your son are interested, you can check out the Scrapyard Detectives comic books at their website. You can read them there online at no charge.

  6. Yes, Archie and Veronica for me. I have a male friend who has every Little Lulu comic.

  7. Patti - Oh, it was always Archie and Veronica... poor Betty... Funny, isn't it, how comics so often stay with us like that...I think it's impressive that your friend has such a collection - cool!

  8. If they get people reading that's a good thing, but I graphic books just don't appeal to me even though I loved comics when I was a child and the cartoon strips in newspapers later on. I've tried but the ones I've seen were just awful - mainly Jane Austen's books.

    Maybe it's as Ann says I prefer my own mental images, and I also love words.

  9. Margot, your post just remind me of Jacques Tardi, a French comic artist who adapted some Leo Malet's crime novels. You may find some references about his work in Wikipedia.

  10. Margaret - I love words, also, so I know exactly what you mean. And, as you say, if graphic novel images are very different from your own mental images, that can be very off-putting. I've seen some adaptations I didn't like at all of some novels. But, as you say, graphic novels and comics do get lots of people to read, and I think that's a good thing, too.

    Jose Ignacio - Thanks for the comment about Tardi. He's an artist whose work I don't really know. I'll have to check out what he's done.

  11. I am not keen on comics (aka graphic novels!)- I think primary school was about it for me and that format. I have a graphic novel of Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds's reworking of Far From The Madding Crowd, but although I've had the book for about 2 years, I still haven't read it!

    Various adventure books are being turned into graphic novels in attempts to get boys to read - eg Antony Horwitz's Alex Rider series, and I believe Charlie Higson's Young James Bond but I could be wrong about that.

  12. My son will sometimes read graphic novels and I've been amazed to see "Beowulf," "Moby Dick," "The Headless Horseman," etc. come out in that form! It makes sense that mysteries would adopt the format, too--why not reach out to readers who don't ordinarily read the genre and maybe get some new series readers out of it? :)

  13. Maxine - You're not alone. Lots of people don't care much for comics/graphic novels. And admittedly, some of them don't at all do justice to the works on which they're based (I have to admit I haven't seen that reworking of Far From the Maddening Crowd, so I don't know how faithful it is to the original novel).

    I'm not 100% sure about the Higson series, but I think you're right about it being released as a set of graphic novels. On one hand, if a format like graphic novels gets young people to read, or gets folks to try a new genre, that's got lots of benefits. On the other, graphic novels are certainly not everyone's cuppa. That's one reason I'm glad there's such a wide variety of reading material out there. One can find something to suit just about anyone's taste.

    Elizabeth - I've been surprised, too, by the number of novels that have come out in graphic form. You've got a good point. The graphic format can have an awful lot of appeal to people who might not ordinarily read, to young readers, and to those who might not have otherwise tried something new. That's one reason I'm glad there are different reading formats. Hmm....I feel another post topic coming in ;).

  14. It was Archie comics for me...Reggie was such a slime.

    You've written another thought-provoking post, Margot. I guess, no matter the format, it's the story that counts. I wonder how much say present-day authors get in the look of their characters?

  15. Elspeth - Yes, indeed, Reggie was a complete bottom-feeder, wasn't he? But characters like that add zip; you love to hate them...

    You put that very well, Elspeth - it's the story that counts. The characters, the plot, the situations the characters are in, etc., are all the key to a good story.

    And you've asked a very interesting question: how much say do authors get in the look of their characters?? Since I haven't been approached yet by a big-name studio for the film versions of my books (are you listening MGM? Universal? Paramount?), I don't know from experience. But from what I've read, an author's contract usually specifies how much say s/he gets in that kind of thing. I herewith admit my ignorance about the details of that sort of thing.

  16. Margot; I do know how the movie industry works with regard to adaptations - not through personal experience, mind you, but because, through the magic of the internet I've been able to 'meet' some rather interesting people. I just wondered whether it would be a similar type of contract...I know Elizabeth George signed a deal that gave her no say in either the look or the portrayal of her characters. Apparently the way the TV series portrayed Helen drove her mad - but what could she do?

  17. Elspeth - Thanks. I didn't know that, but it's quite good to know. I think it must be a really tough decision for an author. On one hand, there are so many benefits (not the least of which is financial) to selling film rights. One can hardly blame an author for doing that. On the other, it must be very hard to give up one's own vision of what a character will look like, and how that person acts.

  18. I grew up reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I used to stay up under the covers with a flashlight trying to finish the book in a night...then I moved on to Agatha Christie and the reading continues...


  19. Clarissa - LOL! I did the flashlight under the covers thing, too! And like you, I started with Nancy Drew, etc... And then I moved up to Agatha Christie. Hmmmm... I think we have a lot in common : ).