Last week I went to see Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman in the Edinburgh Book Festival, where they discussed the differences between writing prose and graphic novels. The event coincided with the launch of Ian Rankin’s first graphic novel, Dark Entries. I’ve been considering taking a course in shorthand for a while now but what really convinced me to go for it was trying to make notes while Ian Rankin was talking. He speaks very, very quickly. I can’t promise that the notes below are exactly word for word, but they are a pretty close approximation of what was said during the session.
Q: What are the differences between writing prose and writing graphic novels?
IR: They are hugely different. I found the collaborating thing hard [when writing Dark Entries]. I’m used to playing god in my novels, working alone with my computer. After so many years of being a consumer, reading graphic novels and thinking, “Oh, that’s easy,” it turns out it’s not.
NG: Prose is a machine: I give people a code, they compile it into a program. In comics you are writing a script for an artist.
Q: What are the advantages of graphic novels?
IR: Freedom. Scenes can show weird things happening in people’s heads, you can see fantasy lives being acted out. Those are things that you can’t do in these supposed realistic Edinburgh novels.
NG: When you see something in a picture you believe it. I used to read American comics as a child and I believed that superheroes really existed in America. Fire hydrants, skyscrapers and superheroes were all on the same plane of reality for me.
IR: The thing that I find really interesting in writing graphic novels is moving to a different time, place and perspective with every couple of inches. You’re writing and directing a mini-movie with almost every scene.
NG: When I write prose the thing I miss the most is the silent panel. (A) it gives you a beat and a rhythm and (B) it forces the reader to think about what’s going on in the characters’ heads. In a graphic novel you can have a panel where a character says something, then in the following panel he thinks about it. You can’t do that in a novel. By the very act of writing “he thinks about it,” you have spoiled the silent moment.
Q: What are the advantages of prose?
NG: Prose has a totally different set of strengths and weaknesses. In Anansi Boys one of the things I took great pleasure in was challenging the race assumptions people make. Characters are default white unless you say otherwise. In Anansi Boys I only assigned race to white people. It made the readers stop and think. People have to reassess what they thought. You can’t do that in a comic book because you can see everybody.
IR: Yes, in prose you can pull the rug out from under someone. In a picture there’s no rug to be pulled away.
Q: What do you think of your cult status as writers of graphic novels?
NG: Fans care deeply about what we do. We like that. I honestly liked it when I was even more of a cult figure and had a smaller fan base because I really enjoyed when only a few people recognised me. Now people have heard of me even if they haven’t read me and they think they know what I do and they don’t. I preferred it when I was a little more of a secret.
Q: What do you think of the idea that genre writing is regarded as less mainstream and less valid?
NG: I’m always more comfortable in the gutter. I liked it better when comics were comics and they weren’t graphic novels. And I liked it better when adults didn’t go into bookshops to buy Diana Wynne Jones books, when you had to creep into the back of Waterstone’s to find fantasy novels and further back to find crime – where all the Western novels used to be. We [writers of graphic novels] have more influence now that we are in the strange magical world where we are in the mainstream. It’s actually more fun being under the radar.
IR: I’m slightly at odds with that because my teenage son has been introduced to literature through comic books. I bought him Manga Shakespeare and now he wants to see Shakespeare in the theatre. Graphic novels keep your fantasy life active through your teenage years when the whole world is trying to knock it out of you.
Q: What about graphic novels on the web?
NG: The most fascinating think about the web is that it has completely removed the gatekeeper. Before you would have to find a publisher or an editor – a gatekeeper – who would say, yes, this is fit to be published. The glory of the web is that there are no gatekeepers. You are playing on the same field as the Guardian or the New Yorker. The downside is the half a billion other people out there with no gatekeepers. There are web comics that I find and wind up following. There are wonderful things out there.
Q: Have you ever considered doing your own art work for your graphic novels?
NG: I once tried drawing my own comic in 24 hours. I wound up with an amazing respect for artists. They have to figure out how alligator’s teeth work and stuff. It’s incredibly time consuming and there are people out there who are so much better at drawing than I am. One of the reasons I keep coming back to graphic novels is the artists, because they are completely different. I love that I have all these people that will bring things to what I’m doing and inspire me to up my game.