Lifestyle

When graphic novelists turn to prose, the result is something wicked

One might not have expected Comic-Con International, the extravaganza held in San Diego every July, to become a major promotional vehicle for mystery writers. But in recent years, increasing numbers of crime novelists have flocked to the graphic format and made it their own. Greg Rucka is better known for his "Whiteout" and "Queen & Country" comics than for the Atticus Kodiak thrillers that originally launched his writing career; Denise Mina, the author of gritty Glasgow-based novels, penned an entire run of "Hellblazer"; David Morrell (of "Rambo" fame) signed on for a stint scripting "Captain America"; and internationally bestselling novelist Karin Slaughter recently teamed up with Oni Press to launch a new line of graphic novels.

With prose writers invading Marvel, DC and independent waters, turnabout is fair play, and now superstars of the comics world are applying their narrative skills to the crime novel. Their challenge -- intentional or otherwise -- is to bring comics and crime that much closer.

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Those familiar with Warren Ellis will be prepared for the bizarre imagery and acid outlook of "Crooked Little Vein" (William Morrow: 278 pp., $21.95), his first work entirely in prose. Many of the prolific writer's comics, most notably the late 1990s cult classic "Transmetropolitan" and the just-released "Black Summer," are an anarchic combination of gonzo journalism and post-apocalyptic vision. But Ellis, born and bred on the southern coast of England, is no stranger to American-style crime fiction. "Fell" (2005) revolved around a homicide detective, and "Desolation Jones" featured a Marlowe-style private investigator.

Mystery enthusiasts, however, might be taken aback at Ellis' gleeful annihilation of private eye tropes, not to mention his penchant for jumping over taste lines with a pole vault. The book dispenses with the standard "client walks into the PI's office" set-up, in favor of incontinent rats, secretive Homeland Security agents and an investigator, Mike McGill, obsessed with eBay and wasting time. The obligatory femme fatale, who's fond of quipping that she'd like to be "Virgil to [McGill's] Dante," is very much mistress of her own domain -- she can be tied down literally, but never metaphorically. And I can't think of a single crime novel that's even mentioned macroherpetophilia, let alone devoted an entire, spit take-inducing scene to the practice. Now I genuinely wonder how my crime fiction diet had been lacking for so long.***

Unlike Ellis, who mutates convention into scatological brilliance, fellow Briton Mike Carey creates surprising order out of a supernatural horror canvas. Carey earned his storytelling chops penning scripts for the comics "Lucifer" and "Hellblazer," and his narrative confidence is fully evident in "The Devil You Know" (Grand Central Publishing: 406 pp., $24.99), the first in a new series of novels about Felix Castor, exorcist-for-hire.

As you'd expect, "The Devil You Know" features ghosts to bust, a delectable, dangerous succubus to avoid and nasty ghouls afoot. But Carey's debut has the drive and pace of the horror-free thrillers that fill the bestseller lists. It also has, in Castor, a protagonist with a dry sense of humor and a way with pithy observation. Castor describes one young acne-laden clerk as looking "less like a Doctor Who villain and more like the kid in a teen gross-out comedy who doesn't get the girl but does lose his trousers at the graduation ceremony." As for the succubus, she's "the sort of woman that categories would crash and founder on." Carey does occasionally falter in falling back on basic thriller mechanics, but he ultimately succeeds, thanks to his antiheroic sleuth, who may exercise demons but has a place ready for him in the underworld.

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If Ellis and Carey have crossed from comics to prose, Max Allan Collins finds a way to blur the line between genres completely. The long-ago Iowa Writers Workshop graduate has embraced the true essence of pulp fiction with a prolific output of novels, tie-ins and film work, but he is likely best known for the graphic novel "The Road to Perdition," which inspired the Oscar-winning movie of the same name -- as well as two prose sequels from Collins' pen.

Earlier this year, Collins teamed up with his "Perdition" artist, Terry Beatty, for an unusual collaboration -- "A Killing in Comics" (Berkley Prime Crime: 262 pp., $14 paper). The book is a loving tribute to the post-World War II heyday of comic strips, constructed primarily in prose but accompanied by illustrations that open each chapter. The writing is signature Collins: lean and crisp, dialogue-heavy but with just enough description to render three-dimensional characters in single-dimension strokes. The feel and illustrations may be hard-boiled, but the plot is pure Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, complete with a locked-room mystery and a usual suspect roundup to close the action. The result is consummate entertainment that wouldn't be out of place on the funny pages of yesterday's newspapers.

Sarah Weinman writes about crime and mystery fiction at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (www.sarahweinman.com). "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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