Vito Delsante hosted a gathering of some of the purveyors of the gritty, and often all too reality-based comics handling crime and violence at Heroes Con, and when they noticed that everyone on the panel was bald, they decided that this was a call to “embrace the dark side of humanity” by shaving one’s head. This kind of genre writing almost calls for creators of these works to be put on the spot about their motivations, ethics, and what value they think crime stories have beyond sensationalism in society. But Greg Rucka (WHITEOUT, PUNISHER), Jason Latour (LOOSE ENDS, WINTER SOLDIER), and Jason Aaron (SCALPED, PUNISHER) were up to the challenge, and often spoke with even greater honesty than fans might have expected. It turned into quite a moving discussion about humanity and suggested that comics only portray the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dark aspects of life in the 21st century.
Most of the questions that Delsante and the audience posed during the panel were hard-hitting, but it all kicked off with the most direct question of them all: what’s so appealing about working on crime comics, and what’s the appeal for readers? Aaron injected some dark humor, but was no doubt being deadly serious. “As a writer, I like doing bad things to good characters”, he said. Rucka took up the implicit suggestion that it might be odd to want to write about crime by saying, “Crime writers tend to be the healthiest people. I like writing about worlds that we don’t inhabit. Most of us don’t, at least, but we know they exist”. But Rucka added that though he comes to crime in comics via detective fiction, he has never really thought of himself as a “crime writer”. Latour’s response was that he likes to “project” himself “into scenarios he would never really be in”, and explore things he doesn’t “understand” or “have a grasp of” since writing helps him understand. Rucka jumped in to agree that such an approach is “legitimate” but that there’s also a “pleasure in doing horrible things to good people and also to horrible people” as a form of “wish-fulfilment”.
One of the most personal questions the panellists responded to was about the impact of research on their lives, and whether learning about true crime has disturbed them in the long term. Aaron’s answer was very much in the affirmative. Learning about the Sioux/Lakota struggles while researching SCALPED to create his fictional reservation led him to confront the “sad, depressing places” the series is based on. In real social contexts brought into fiction, Aaron said, you have to avoid trying to “preach” or make a “documentary”, but the real-life settings were fitting for a crime story since “crime often goes hand in hand with poverty” and SCALPED deals with some of the poorest counties in the entire US. After finishing SCALPED, he said, “the characters linger for me”.
Rucka, who’s currently working on a “supernatural crime” work, he said, is struggling with issues of male gaze and objectification of women at the moment, trying to come up with ways for nudity not to be “sexualized”. But for Rucka it’s his series WALKING DEAD (not THE WALKING DEAD) that sticks with him in terms of disturbing research. For that work, he learned about human trafficking, and found himself visiting internet forums he wished he hadn’t, finding “horrifying articles” that are still with him 5 years later. He explained that the research highlighted not just sexual slavery but simply “human slavery” in real terms and he can’t “unsee that”. Another thing he wishes he could “unsee” was a video of a woman being beheaded in the Middle East for showing her ankles, which took place in a soccer stadium in front of a cheering crowd.
Jason, when working on LOOSE ENDS, felt an “obligation” to get information and experiences concerning the war in Iraq correct, so talked first hand with people who had been stationed near the events of his story and heard them express their “own feelings and frustrations over war”. Jason explained that as a Southerner, he comes from a conservative family in which he is the most liberal member and found himself struggling to “figure out” where he stood about the situation in Iraq, but the more research he did, the more he realized he “would never understand” fully such a complex experience for soldiers.
The discussion moved on to the role of the central protagonist as a man of violence in many crime-based works, often a criminal himself, and why writers and readers find those characters appealing. Delsante suggested that these figures “own up to who they are and don’t make apologies”. Aaron feels that these “deeply flawed” individuals are “fun to dig into” and draws on the influence of James Ellroy to create characters who can “see the light at the end of the tunnel and you and character both know a train is coming” but follow that situation to the bitter end. Rucka said he likes writing about “damaged goods”, whether good or bad characters. “I’m very interested in the price we pay for the things we do”, he said. “Everything I write”, he explained, “comes down to nature versus nurture”, posing the question, “Can you change?”. Latour responded that he likes writing about “characters in a car heading to drive off a cliff” and he’s drawn to stories about things he wrestles with. “Everybody fears death and time”, he said, and was struck by reading The Sound and the Fury for the first time, wherein “time is a broken thing” open to reassembly and reinterpretation. Rucka mentioned a Neil Gaiman quote he’d read that morning to the effect of life being stranger than fiction because life doesn’t have to be believable and shocking things happen regularly.
Delsante asked the panellists if they ever worry that they are “glorifying crime” or get reactions from fans on that note. Latour feels the responsibility to portray lawmen as “human beings” who are not “all assholes” but also “not all good people”. Rucka doesn’t feel like he creates a “conscious commentary” on law enforcement, but finds stories about corrupt cops “borning” because they are everywhere. “I want to respect people”, he said, “but it’s dishonest to sugar coat and also bad writing to do one-note characters”. Rucka shared that after putting up some commentary on the Sandy Hook shootings on his blog, someone responded, “You’re writing PUNISHER. How dare you?”, suggesting he didn’t have the right to come out as anti-gun and anti-violence. His response to the panel was that “If you think Punisher is a life-choice, then check yourself into therapy now”. He doesn’t believe literature is the source of the problem, but rather an “escape valve” that helps people process violence more constructively. “It’s remarkably cowardly”, he said, to blame writers or artists and not the individuals who commit such acts. Latour agreed, saying that the “world is inherently violent to a staggering degree” and people need a “release valve” through art. He feels that it’s, in fact, “irresponsible to act like there is not violence or portray violence without consequences” in comics. Rucka agreed, saying “unkillable badass characters” are “compelling” because they do pay a price for their actions. Rucka cited a favorite character, John Constantine, as an example, who is surrounded by the violent consequences of his actions.
The panellists were very forthcoming when asked what they watch or read that may influence their work. Breaking Bad and the The Wire were touchstones for all of them. Rucka said that the David Simons book Homicide: Life on the Streets, the book on which the show is based, had a big impact on him at grad school. Rucka follows news aggregating sites looking for material, purposefully looking for stories that “for the most part slip through the cracks” in gaining public attention. Latour mentioned Cormac McCarthy novels and Miami Vice, which provoked some laughter, but all three agreed on The Rockford Files. Rucka grew up with Simon & Simon, The Equalizer, and Magnum P.I. Latour later added Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and the show Luther to his list, which the other panellists agreed on. Aaron, Rucka, and Latour all expressed plenty of influence from film and TV as well as pulp or classic literature on their comics storytelling.
Delsante asked what the panellists thought about including “levity” or “humor” into crime works. Rucka feels that it’s part and parcel of depicting violence since “violence is by its nature unpredictable and random”, adding elements of “absurdity” to any situation. “Violence is a bullet, in a nutshell. All are bets are off, and the bullet doesn’t care” what it does or who it harms, he said. Latour related a disasterous date experience watching American Psycho, a film which made him laugh but creeped out his date. Latour loves the Cohen brothers for their ability to handle humor and violence, as the other panellists readily agreed. “What’s the difference between Fargo and Daffy Duck?”, he asked. His answer “Blood”.
All three panellists had strong feelings about the use of “twists” or “mystery” in their works, and Aaron in particular feels that a lot of planning is necessary to do that right. On SCALPED, he outlined 30 issues ahead of time. “I want to know where the hell I’m going before I get started”, he said. Rucka said he really isn’t trying to surprise readers, since he hates stories with “gotcha” endings. If he learns on internet forums that a reader has “figured out” the mystery on a book, he emphatically does not go and change his book’s trajectory, as some writers he’s known have done. “Ideally even if you’ve seen the twist coming, you won’t mind”, he said, based on simply good storytelling. Aaron agreed and mentioned Game of Thrones as an example. You know that “bad stuff is about to happen” (as in the penultimate episode this season), “but it doesn’t matter that you know”. It might even make the situation “more powerful”. Latour thinks that people “assume stereotypes” about crime and mystery works and he intentionally uses conventions and then “veers” since it’s possible to know every major “model” of crime story.
The conversation went overtime at the panel with plenty more to say and tease out about the ambiguities of handling crime in comics. That very zone of uncertainty, and the remaining room for exploration, may be what makes the genre so appealing for both writers and fans.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.