By Adam White
Upon reading and thoroughly enjoying Hellblazer #216, I found myself compelled to look up writer Denise Mina simply because hers’ wasn’t a name with which I was familiar. Imagine my delight when I find her to be an accomplished novelist, one with several books in print to provide me with plenty of new reading material. Since I make it my business to be a repository of literary and comic knowledge and knew little about her, I contacted Ms. Mina and she graciously granted me the following interview…
ADAM: Were you ever or are you currently a comic book reader? Or is it a new genre for you?
DENISE MINA: No, I read Hellblazer intermittently, and I’m a great fan of Ennis’s Preacher series. I didn’t read comics as a kid. The first thing I ever read was Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The second installment took about three years [to come out], I think, but it felt like eight.
ADAM: Was there anything in particular about the area you grew up in that fostered your interests in writing and/or reading?
DENISE MINA: I grew up everywhere. We moved house twenty one times in eighteen years and lived variously in Paris, Glasgow, London, Bergen (in Norway), Amsterdam (in Holland). I learned to read very late, when I was about eight or nine, and remember finding a box of Archie comics in the attic as we were moving and realizing that I could read the words now and didn’t have to make up the stories myself.
ADAM: What initially drew you to writing, and novels in particular?
DENISE MINA: Like most writers I started as an avid, delighted reader. I love that point where you are totally immersed in a novel, about two hundred pages in, when you want to eat what they’re eating and smell what they’re smelling. There’s a loss of self in reading a really good novel, a complete shift of reality. I read a lot of Zola and Balzac and spent ten years looking for marron glace, a sweet treat they all eat at the opera. They’re disgusting, by the way.
ADAM: What writers and/or artists inspire you as a creator? Do you have any particular favorites you would recommend to others?
DENISE MINA: I always recommend Bulgakov, a Russian writer who could have been a comic writer, I’m sure. The Master and Margerita is a story about the devil coming to Moscow and putting on a variety show. I’d also recommend Fallen Angel, the basis of the Mickey Rourke film Angel Heart. The book’s much, much better and starts off as a jokey Chandler-esque detective story and turns in to a terrifying Gothic story about satanism. I was eleven at the time, though. Maybe it’s not that scary. I’d also recommend The Lives of the Saints which is as silly and fantastical as anything in comics today.
People on the Hellblazer boards warned me that I’d meet with a lot of prejudice from non-comic fans and I didn’t believe them… It turns out they were right.
ADAM: As an established novelist, what interested you in the comics medium? Did you actively seek out comics work, or was it something that just came together for you?
DENISE MINA: I was offered Hellblazer and jumped at the chance. People on the Hellblazer boards warned me that I’d meet with a lot of prejudice from non-comic fans and I didn’t believe them, to be honest. We’re the generation who grew up loving and valuing comics after all. It turns out they were right. In status terms it’s probably been a disaster, but I’ve always been a seedy underbelly kind of gal anyway. You have to do what you love and I didn’t want to play with those Oxbridge wanks anyway.
ADAM: What interested you in John Constantine and Hellblazer?
DENISE MINA: John’s a great character. I love a protagonist who’s a bit of a bastard and faces moral choices that are really believable — you never really know for sure whether he’s going to do the right thing. Also, I love the whole magic realist ideal: anything can happen. Chandler said that when he got stuck when writing a book, he’d have a guy walk in with a gun. In Hellblazer you can have a guy pull a reality-shift trick and twist the story about that way. It’s a joy to write.
ADAM: Did anything in particular inspire “Empathy is the Enemy?”
DENISE MINA: Yeah: there’s a myth about St. Oran, who’s a real saint. He was buried alive to ensure the foundations of an abbey when it was being built and when they dug him up after three days he told them “things are not what they seem. I have been to Heaven and Hell and it is not as we are told.” That and the whole near-death experience intrigued me.
Comic books are much more immediate than a novel… the best bit is doing the visuals as well. It feels like a very complete way to tell a story.
ADAM: How difficult did you find making the transition from novels to comics? What do you think the fundamental differences are in plotting and scripting a novel versus a comic book?
DENISE MINA: Comic books are much more immediate; a novel takes a year of solid graft. But the best bit about it is doing the visuals as well. I can actually feel synapses zinging into life while I’m doing it. It feels like a very complete way to tell a story. For plotting, because it’s a series, each comic needs to work for 22 pages and have an ending, and then also work as a collection, so it’s like writing a series for a magazine or newspaper.
I think the hardest thing is not hiding behind prose; in novels you can hide a bad link or clue in a big description. Comic plots are like skeletons: there’s no flesh to hide mistakes in.
ADAM: Many writers from other mediums are currently trying their hands at comic books — Why do you think that is? Is there something that comics books offer that other mediums do not?
DENISE MINA: Yeah, it is unique, but I think this generation of writers grew up appreciating comics and regarding them as important. That’s never really happened before.
ADAM: How much or little did you collaborate with Leonardo Manco on Hellblazer, as far as the look, characters, or direction of the story? Did you enjoy the finished product of your first issue?
DENISE MINA: Seeing a comic that you’ve written drawn by someone like Manco feels like winning an Oscar or something. It’s such a buzz! Because a lot of the story is set in real locations in Glasgow, where I live, it needed to be right. I made a DVD of locations and a folder of materials and sent them to him so that we got it right. He’s done a magnificent job. Even the Isle of Iona, a tiny place far off to the west of Scotland, is perfectly drawn. I hope he didn’t mind me doing that.
Seeing a comic that you’ve written drawn by someone like Manco feels like winning an Oscar or something.
ADAM: Have you thought much about where you plan to take Hellblazer after your first story arc?
DENISE MINA: I’m probably working on it for a set period of time and have a good idea of the second half of the story arc.
ADAM: Do you plan to do any comics work beyond Hellblazer? Anything else currently lined up or in development?
DENISE MINA: I’m probably doing a graphic novel for DC called A Sickness in the Family. It’s about property and a serial killer who sticks to his own.
ADAM: Are there any particular creators you would like to work with?
DENISE MINA: I don’t really work well with other writers, to be honest. I pretend to collaborate but really I’m thinking “Oh f--k, why did I agree to this?”. I love Frank Quitely, but he’s probably too grand to work with me.
…Quite frankly, Frank Quitely would do well to get the opportunity.
So now that I (and, more importantly, you) have gotten a glimpse of the intelligent and witty writer behind Hellblazer in 2006 (as well as her previous novels), you have no excuse to skip it just because you “haven’t heard of her.” I went the extra mile to do your homework for you; Ms. Mina went the ten extra miles to provide you with well-conceived insights (not to mention a fantastic comic); so now it’s up to you to go the extra reach of an arm’s length away the next time you’re in your comic store and pick up Hellblazer, because if you don’t you’ll be missing out on not only one great story but also the new standard of excellence for John Constantine.