Watching the Detectives: Gibson Talks Harker: The Book of Solomon
Lowdown - Interview
Posted by Andy Oliver on Aug 1, 2012
Out in August from Titan Books, Harker: The Book of Solomon is a loving homage to TV detectives. Collecting the six-issue series from Ariel Press by writer Roger Gibson and artist Vince Danks, it follows DCI Harker and DS Critchley as they investigate a Satanic ritualistic murder in a very recognisable and authentic depiction of London. Broken Frontier reviewed the book last week and today writer Roger Gibson chats to us about the character’s origins, the graphic novel’s cult television influences and what’s next for Harker and Critchley…
ROGER GIBSON: I first met Vince twenty-five years ago – at the time he was working as an assistant to comic artist Richard Piers Rayner on early issues of Hellblazer, whilst I was creating my own comic strips for a small press collective that I'd created called Early Spring.
I was asked to interview Richard for Fantasy Advertiser, a British comics magazine. This was long before the days of the internet and email, so an interview required me to actually go to Richard's studio to chat to him (which was relatively easy, as we both lived in York). He was working at the studio with his inker, Mark Buckingham, and Vince was there too, working on his own strips and assisting Richard with bits and pieces on Hellblazer.
We all got along really well, I was invited to model for some Hellblazer photo-reference shots, and the friendship grew from there. Vince and I probably both owe our careers to Richard, learning our trade from him, inspired by his creativity, and we still use the techniques he taught us (photo-reference, the basics of storytelling and layout etc). If you check out those early issues of Hellblazer, you might recognise both me and Vince in some of the drawings – Vince posed as John Constantine, and I posed for various smaller roles.
As Vince started to pick up his own early professional assignments, on things like Redfox, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf etc, I continued writing and drawing my own small press comic strips for Early Spring.
When Vince decided to self-publish his own Sapphire comic strip, I joined in – first with my Gravestown comic, and then collaborating with Vince on an anthology called Raven. My contribution to the anthology was a strip called Griffin, featuring a quirky, grumpy detective and his assistant, Critchley. It only lasted one episode, but Vince loved the character and suggested that we could work on it together as a team.
Griffin became Harker, the resulting comic series sold really well in the UK, and the first six issues of that comic are collected in Harker: The Book of Solomon.
BF: Harker was originally self-published through Ariel Press. How did Titan become involved in publishing the collected edition?
GIBSON: We have Martin Eden, the creator of the very wonderful Spandex series [reviewed here and here at BF], to thank for that. Martin works for Titan, he was a fan of Harker, and he knew that Titan was looking for original British comic strips to publish. He introduced the strip to the editors at Titan, they liked it (and liked that we were already selling well), and they offered us a three book deal. The first two books will collect the twelve issues of Harker already in print, and a third all-new book has been commissioned especially for Titan, which we're working on now. Hopefully if sales go well, more will follow after those first three – Vince and I are certainly both keen to keep working on the strip indefinitely.
BF: For those of the Broken Frontier audience who haven’t heard of Harker could you give a short, spoiler-free introduction to the basic plot of the first collection?
Harker is a comic that thinks it's a British TV detective series. Somewhere out there in an alternate universe, Harker is on the telly every Wednesday night on ITV at 8:00pm. The Book of Solomon features Harker investigating a series of gruesome Satanic murders that take place near the British Museum. Expect all the usual things you'll see in a TV series – a complex, dark murder plot, lots of twists and turns, plenty of banter between the grumpy, world-weary Harker and his assistant Critchley, a generous dose of wry humour and a thrilling, dangerous conclusion. It's Morse, Waking the Dead, Columbo and Sherlock Holmes, all mixed up and made into something new and wonderful.
BF: How would you sum up the series’s central character D.I. Harker? He seems to be something of an amalgamation of a number of British pop cultural references with a particular 1970s influence in characterisation.
GIBSON: Yep, you've pretty much nailed it there. His personality owes a lot to Gene Hunt, the DCI in the British version of Life on Mars (which itself derived mostly from Jack Regan, the DCI in the 1970s series The Sweeney), though mixed in are elements of Columbo (specifically his shabby appearance and tendency to ramble), Inspector Morse (the nice car and the squeamishness around corpses), Sherlock Holmes (his relationship with Critchley) and a huge dose of myself.
Harker is fifty per cent old TV characters and fifty per cent autobiography - he grumbles about all the things I'd grumble about myself if I wasn't far too polite to mention them. But yes, he's a very old-fashioned copper in a world that has outgrown him, refusing to use computers or mobile phones (relying on Critchley for that) and getting his best results by old-style investigation, shouting and pointing at people.
BF: If you had to label Harker in terms of a specific genre, or combination thereof, what would you call it?
GIBSON: These days, people use the generic 'crime' genre for such things, but I write Harker as if it were a TV detective drama, with a dash of light comedy thrown in. When asked to categorise it, I usually say that if you like Morse, Holmes and Columbo, you'll like Harker.
BF: One of the most notable aspects of the book is the use of location. London is almost a character in itself. Was that something you were consciously looking to achieve? From both a scripting and visual perspective how intensive was the research that entailed?
GIBSON: Very much so, yes. We decided very early on that we wanted to use real locations, so that anyone interested could visit them and see exactly where the stories take place. You could take a copy of Harker to the Russell Square area around the British Museum and find every location. Vince even went to the trouble of finding out the local Coroner's Court, where dead bodies would be first delivered for forensics. The Museum Tavern, featured in an eight page sequence right at the centre of the book, is a real pub opposite the British Museum and the interior is authentic. They also serve a damn good pint in there. Though I should probably point out that there aren't actually any Satanists living on Montague Street (or at least, not that I'm aware of). Just to clear up any potential confusion.
The research was actually pretty easy – I know the area very well, and any old comic fans will tell you that the Gosh comic shop used to be situated a few doors down from the Museum Tavern. Vince visited London specifically to take shots for the story, so all the locations actually exist. The occult bookshop in the strip is our fictional version of the Atlantis Bookshop on 49a Museum Street, the same one used by Alan Moore in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though in our defence, we used it first!
So yes, we wanted a very real, tangible, recognisable London location, and we do the same with Whitby in Book Two and New York in Book Three.
BF: Roger, you’re also developing Harker as a series of prose novels. When can we look forward to seeing those on the shelves and what challenges are involved in bringing life to the characters in a different medium?
GIBSON: I currently have two completed Harker prose novels – one (Harker: The Murder Club) is finished, the other just needs a little editing. I'm in the process of finding the right publisher at the moment, so as soon as that's sorted they'll begin to appear regularly. I'm hoping it won't take too long, as I'd ideally like to alternate the novels with the graphic novels, interlinking the two.
For storylines I tend to go for ones that wouldn't be quite so much fun for Vince to draw, so they have longer interior scenes and less fussing about good locations (though the first one does feature a chase in a forest and finishes inside the tower of Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament, so maybe Vince would enjoy it if we ended up adapting it for comics).
Harker and Critchley are the same as their comic characterisations, so from that point of view the books are easy to write, but there's more of a defined structure to detective novels, a specific formula that tends to be used by the more established authors. I've used that same structure for the Harker novels, though it still hopefully has the feel of a TV detective series and is full of the same references and influences.
BF: Something that stands out about the two detectives in The Book of Solomon is that we learn virtually nothing about them outside of their police work. Essentially that, and their bantering, define them. Was that a deliberate decision or do you plan to flesh out other aspects of their lives in the future?
GIBSON: Oh, it was an absolute, conscious decision. This may be a personal failing of mine, but I always hate it in TV detective shows when they start exploring the personal backgrounds and home life of the detectives and ignore the murder plot. The worst offender in that respect was Cagney & Lacey in the early 1980s, but a few other TV shows have made the mistake of delving too much into the personal life of the detectives, and usually it's either boring or it's just used as padding. My feeling is that we want to see the detectives out solving the crime – I use Columbo as the template for that. We have no idea where Columbo lives, if his wife actually exists, or what he does on his time off. We just see him on the job, solving murders, and I felt that Harker needed to be the same.
There is a back story for Harker – who he is, where he lives, what his house is like, what he likes to eat, what his hobbies are - and the same for Critchley too – but mostly that stays in my own head, with occasional glimpses in conversation to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about just who and what they are. We don't even see if Harker has a boss (he obviously must have) or where they work, which again is drawn from Columbo.
But you do find out hints about their personal life in their banter together – Harker is a book collector, he likes classic cars, he drinks a lot of caffeine, he doesn't like dead bodies, he's unfit – and Critchley is a comic fan and ubergeek who likes the girls – it's there, but it's deliberately underplayed. So whereas I wouldn't rule out a certain amount of fleshing out of their backgrounds, it's always going to be subtle, and you'll need to pay attention to catch it.
BF: With The Book of Solomon being just the first in a planned series of Harker graphic novels are there any hints you can drop as to what’s in store next for Harker and Critchley?
GIBSON: Book Two takes the team to Whitby and a distinct change of tone. Instead of Morse and Waking the Dead as the main influences, in Book Two we borrow from The Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie and the appalling Murder She Wrote. There's a howling dog, a chase on the moors, a football match against goths, bickering lesbians, dodgems and dastardly murder, all set amongst beautiful, authentic Whitby locations.
Then with Book Three we mix up the style again, taking the team to New York and drawing in influences from The Rockford Files, The French Connection, Bullitt, Starsky & Hutch and CSI. Oh, and there's a ridiculously long car chase, as there is in all the best American cop movies. I don't think that's ever been tried successfully in comics, so we're going to prove it can be done.
Book Four will be set in Portmerion, featuring murder amongst the spy community, though you'll need to wait a while for that one.
BF: Outside of Harker, what other projects should we be looking out for from Gibson and Danks in the near future?
GIBSON: We have a series called Gravestown, based on the original comic I did, along with stuff from a Gravestown novel I wrote a couple of years ago. Vince has already done some work on it, so we'll be pitching that to see if we can get a publisher for it.
Beyond that, we're also casting around for freelance work, having thoroughly enjoyed putting together a Torchwood strip for Torchwood Magazine last year. There's nothing on the table yet, but we're hunting for work as we speak!
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