Alex Irvine talks us through our case of Vertigo

Published On November 14, 2008 | By Joe Gordon | Books, Comics, Interviews

Today I’m joined by author and long-time comics fan Alex Irvine. Alex has penned a number of novels, short stories and reference books as well as branching into comics writing, while also maintaining an academic life teaching literature. Alex’s latest book is the Vertigo Encyclopedia, a great A-Z reference guide to DC Comics’ well respected mature readers imprint. It’s a book I’ve really been enjoying and with its recent publication and a new Daredevil mini-series coming soon from Alex it seemed the perfect time for a chat:

Vertigo Encyclopedia Alex Irvine interview Forbidden Planet blog.jpg

FPI:  Hi, Alex and thanks for taking some time to talk to us. You’ve just recently had your rather fine Vertigo Encyclopedia published by Dorling Kindersley, but before we discuss that perhaps you could tell us a little about yourself and your writing history? I believe you have a number of other works, both novels and non-fiction books, with a bit of a bias to the SF/comics genres.

AI: More than a bit of a bias, I guess, although I’ve always tried to roam all over the map as a writer. I admire people who can stick to one particular mode of writing, but I’ve never been able to do it. I get too interested in too many different things, and I’ve always enjoyed so many different kinds of books that I wanted to give them all a try. So I’ve written several novels that might be called urban fantasy (A Scattering of Jades, One King One Soldier, The Narrows), quite a bit of short fiction in all kinds of genre inflections from hard-ish SF to literary fantasy, a couple of comic miniseries (Hellstorm: Son of Satan – Equinox and Daredevil Noir), and various online things. Alternate Reality Games, downloadable casual games, and so forth. And I’ve done tie-in and media-related work as well: superhero novels (Batman: Inferno and The Ultimates: Against All Enemies) and the Supernatural Book of Monsters, Demons, Spirits, and Ghouls, which is a tour through the folklore behind the TV show Supernatural.

The next few things coming up are a comic SF novella, Mystery Hill, from PS Publishing; John Winchester’s Journal, which is related to Supernatural; and a near-future crime novel called Buyout, which will appear at the end of March. I’ve also got a Star Wars novel coming out in 2010.

Supernatural John Winchesters Journal Hardcover Alex Irvine.jpg

FPI: Crikey, that’s quite an impressive list, Alex! And nice to hear about the Mystery Hill from PS Publishing – I’ve known Peter Crowther for ages and he runs a great little independent SF publisher that’s highly respected and puts out some great SF&F and Horror books. Now, this isn’t your first comics-related book, is it? What is it that draws you to the genre as a writer? And is this an interest that developed with childhood comics reading or later in life?

AI: My interest in comics developed in childhood, but like a lot of other people I wandered away from it when girls obtruded into my worldview. Then when I was in college I started to get interested in comics again; this was, coincidentally or maybe not, about the time that things like Watchmen were appearing, and also about the time that the seminal Vertigo titles started to come out. When I was a kid, I used to draw comics and imagine writing them; then I started publishing fiction, and have been very excited to get the comics-related opportunities that have come up so far.

FPI: In fact you haven’t just written about comics, you’ve actually penned some yourself, such as Hellstorm and now the upcoming Daredevil Noir for Marvel, as you mentioned earlier. How did those come about? There’s been a lot of crossover recently with novelists and screenwriters becoming involved with comics – did you have an idea and approach Marvel, or did they approach you?

AI: I was reading at a bar in New York about a month before The Narrows came out, and my editor came to the reading, and afterward he said we should go catch a drink with a guy he knew who worked at Marvel, who turned out to be Ruwan Jayatilleke. We had a beer, kicked around some ideas, and then he put me in touch with Axel Alonso and things went from there. I’d always wanted to write comics, and had no idea how to go about it, so the way things worked out was terrific.

FPI: It’s nice when it happens that way, people just talking to people. From the little I have heard so far am I right in thinking that the upcoming Daredevil Noir is an ‘alternative’ Daredevil story, in that it is taking the character out of his established world and putting him into a different historical context? Can you tell us a bit about it? And what prompted the use of the different era as a setting?

AI: In a way, it felt like bringing the character home, to Prohibition-era Hell’s Kitchen. The story has some familiar Daredevil characters in it, but I had the chance to re-envision them because of the historical setting. An orphaned, blind Matt Murdock wouldn’t have become a lawyer in 1930, so what would he have done? And in a classic noir setting, what would Foggy Nelson do for a living? The rest of the story grew out of questions like those, and it will not shock you to learn that it involves bootlegging. There’s a femme fatale with a twist, and a crime lord fighting back against the new gangster on the block…it’s got all the elements of the classic noir.

By the way, there are some pages from the book on my blog, if anyone wants to get a taste of what Tomm Coker’s art looks like. I think it’s perfect for the story. I can’t wait for people to see this book.

FPI: I must admit to being quite intrigued, I have a major soft spot for that era and noiresque fiction – and being a self contained story it would also be easily accessible to anyone who hasn’t read a lot of Daredevil too.

Matt Murdock’s not been the luckiest of men in his life – lost loves, murders, jail, psychotic enemies and not forgetting blindness. Unfortunate for Matt, but I imagine great material for a writer to sink their teeth into? And surely he’s one of Marvel’s characters who is most perfect for being used in a classic Noir style tale? Did this allow you a good excuse to indulge your inner Raymond Chandler?

AI: He is perfect for the noir, because the noir is always about the good man trying to remain a little better than the world around him wants him to be, and finding that he has to break rules to uphold the principles behind those rules, at tremendous cost to himself. That fits Murdock to a T.

Daredevil Noir page Alex Irvine Tomm Coker.jpg

(a preview page from the upcoming Daredevil Noir, written by Alex Irvine, art by Tomm Coker, published by and (c) Marvel)

Returning the story to noir’s historical origins lets me focus on some elements of his character that most other Daredevil stories haven’t emphasized. Front and centre among these elements is Murdock’s ability to tell when people are lying to him. He can sense changes in pulse, breathing, even odour; he’s a human lie detector. Well, it wouldn’t take long for a person with this ability to become convinced that since nobody can ever lie to him, he always knows the truth about everything. And as soon as you have a character who believes he’s never wrong, you have a character ripe for a hard lesson.

The noir fits in again here, too, because the classic noir stories are all about sorting out distortions, well-meaning lies, and poison truths. Put Murdock, with his invulnerable sense that he’s always right, into this situation, and the rest of the story practically tells itself. Plus it did give me a chance to indulge my inner Chandler, and what writer could pass that up?

FPI: I don’t blame you; I’d have been turning my trenchcoat collar up and putting on my Fedora myself. Turning to the Vertigo Encyclopedia now, can you tell us how that project came about?

AI: I’d worked with John Morgan at DC on a couple of other projects, mostly related to Supernatural. He called me out of the blue one day and said there was going to be a Vertigo Encyclopedia, and did I want to write it? To which I of course said, yes I do. There followed a period of weeks during which nearly every day saw more comics arriving on my doorstep. I think it was about 25 linear feet by the time I’d gotten everything. What a treat.

Preacher entry Vertigo Encyclopedia Alex Irvine.jpg

(Jesse Custer’s entry in the Vertigo Encyclopedia by Alex Irvine, (c) DC Comics and Dorling Kindersley)

FPI: Ah how we suffer in the name of conducting thorough research… Can I ask how did you approach dividing up the entries? Obviously the book is split between the major series like Preacher, Fables, Sandman and so on and then the mini-series and one-offs, but I’m curious as to how you approached laying out each entry and deciding on what to include in the space you could use – it can’t have been easy to distil series which ran for years to a few pages of relevant information and images, its certainly not a task I envy you! I’m guessing it all begins with a huge pile of research notes?

AI: There were indeed research notes aplenty. During the first few months of working on the book, we went through several versions of how it was going to be organized. There was always going to be a main section and a Gazetteer, but which books would go where, how much space would be allocated to various entries, and how the entries would be organized into stable categories…these were ongoing questions. In each entry, I tried to strike a balance between appealing to the fan who has already read the book or series and introducing new readers to what’s cool about things they haven’t read. Early on, I decided that I wasn’t going to worry about spoilers too much.

The longer entries were sometimes easier to write, because with a series like Doom Patrol, for example, there’s so much going on that it’s really difficult to boil it down into only three pages, with just a few hundred words for a storyline recap. Hellblazer was also tough, just because of the sheer volume of material. Even though I had ten pages for that one, the storyline went through a whole lot of savage edits from John and from Alastair Dougall at DK (both of whom, I should say, were heroic in the amount of work they did on this book). The same was true of Swamp Thing, and those two were complicated further by the fact that there’s so much overlap. We didn’t want to refer among entries too much, but in some cases there wasn’t any way around it.

FPI: No, I’d imagine that’s all but inevitable really, given the interlinked nature of some of the series and as for spoilers, I’d imagine most people reading these entries aren’t going to be deterred by that – its not like there’s another way to give a complete synopsis without spoilers for someone who hasn’t read a series, but I’d think anyone new to a series is more likely to want to start reading it after checking out the entry in the book.

I have to ask on a project like this, did you have help from the folks at DC and editors like Karen Berger? How easy was it to access the artwork you wanted to use?

AI: One of the things for which I will forever be grateful to John Morgan was the way he shielded me from some of the complications involved in shepherding those thousands of images onto the page. I suggested images to go along with certain points in the entries, and John just did the rest in conjunction with DK’s design people.

The editorial staff at Vertigo, including Karen, were very helpful with the project. It couldn’t have happened otherwise. One of the things they did was run most of the entries by the creators so they could catch errors of fact, which was great, and the editors also chipped in with their own sharp eye for mistakes. A potential problem with this was having creators want to rewrite their entries, but that didn’t happen. Overall the incidence of creator prima-donna behaviour was minimal.

FPI: I think that’s probably a good indicator of the calibre of many of the creators involved in the imprint. It is quite surprising to me that such an influential imprint has gone this long without a reference work like this, when you think of it – I know some of the titles printed under Vertigo are part of what drew me back to regularly reading comics in the early 90s when I had become a bit disenchanted with the medium and I’d argue that since a number of Vertigo series have enjoyed success in highstreet bookstores as well as comics shops they’ve helped to expand that adult readership, helping to build the current atmosphere we’re enjoying where comics are taken more seriously as an artform and discussed openly in the broadsheets. Was that part of the appeal for you to work on a book celebrating the imprint, that it had been home to so many influential series that had reached beyond the core comics audience?

AI: Sure, that was part of it. Another part of it was more self-gratifying: I got to read and reread all kinds of great comics and write about them, in a sense offering a first-draft appraisal that will with any luck be part of discussions about these books for a long time. That was quite an opportunity, and one I wasn’t going to pass up. Vertigo has been tremendously influential, as everyone knows, and as an English professor (the other hat I wear), I had a real interest in looking at how these books were becoming part of an ongoing literary conversation – which is not something often explored when people talk about comics. As you point out, it’s becoming more common for such conversations to happen, but writing this book was a chance to get in on the discussion early. So that kind of chance to put my two cents in, together with the fact that these are a bunch of really good comics, made the book a real pleasure to work on. Although now every bookshelf in my house is bent and groaning under the weight of Vertigo comics.

FPI: Ah, that is a terrible burden, but I’m sure you’ll shoulder it! Having enjoyed reading the book I think you have been pretty even-handed – reading the entries I’d be hard pressed to look at one particular entry and think, ‘oh, he obviously likes this series best and has given it a bit more’, which is very professional of you, but it can’t have been easy damping down personal tastes and sticking to the template. Now that you have it all down can I ask are there any series which are particular personal favourites?

AI: Probably the best way for me to answer this question is to point out the series or books that were a real revelation to me. Everyone knows how great Sandman and Transmetropolitan and Hellblazer are. In that context, I’ll give you a top five: Enigma, My Faith in Frankie, Moonshadow, Sebastian O, and Cairo.

My Faith in Frankie Vertigo Encyclopedia Mike Carey.jpg
(the encyclopedia’s entry for one of Alex’s personal favourites, Mike Carey’s My Faith in Frankie, (c) DC Comics and Dorling Kindersley)

And the comment about professionalism is much appreciated. Writing a book like the Vertigopedia is a constant negotiation between FC Fanboy and Critics United. I like to think that in this project, the two fought to a pulsating scoreless draw.

FPI: Alex, we know you have Daredevil Noir coming early next year, but what’s after that for you? Is it back to writing books, sticking with comics or are you hoping for a bit of both?

AI: Discussions are ongoing in both areas. I would love to write more comics, and I hope every comics editor in the known universe sees this and gets in touch with me. But I’d also hate to have to choose between comics and novels. I’ll always do both. There are more novels in the works for sure, some of which I’ve mentioned above, and I have a wish list of comics projects that I sacrifice chickens over every full moon.

FPI: Now your neighbours will know what all the squawking and feathers were about and can stop blaming the neighbourhood cat. Now, a question we always ask our guests – what books and/or comics are you enjoying reading at the moment?

AI: I’ve been trying to keep up with the newest series that you see in the Vertigopedia: Northlanders, Young Liars, Air, Madame X, House of Mystery. Also the New Krypton storyline in Action Comics is exciting, and I’m game for anything that has Batman in it. I’m a long-term fan of BPRD. I love Boom!’s zombie and Lovecraft books (and speaking of Lovecraft, Joe Hill’s Locke and Key is excellent). The Marvel Knights Magneto story is cool, and so are the new Dark Tower books. I’m sure I’m forgetting all kinds of stuff that I’ll wish I’d mentioned as soon as I send this off.

Books-wise, I just read Jeff Ford’s collection, The Drowned Life, which is outstanding. I’m teaching a course in the history of Western lit, so I’ve been rereading a lot of poetry I hadn’t encountered since grad school, and enjoying that so much it ought to cost money. Next up on the pleasure reading agenda is Bolano’s 2666.

FPI: Hard to go wrong with Jeff Ford and I’m forever receiving exasperated sighs from friends I try to encourage to pick up more (or any) poetry so good luck on discussing that with the students. Alex, thank you very much for taking some time to chat with us. Daredevil Noir is due out from Marvel in 2009 while the Vertigo Encyclopedia is on the shelves right now (and makes a perfect Christmas present, hint hint!). You can keep up to date with Alex’s work via his blog, When You Stop Believing in It, It Doesn’t Go Away.

Vertigo Encyclopedia Alex Irvine Dorling Kindersley Forbidden Planet competition.jpg

And don’t forget the nice people at Dorling Kindersley have given us five copies of the Vertigo Encyclopedia to give away as prizes (there’s a potted review here) – the competition ends this Sunday (16th), so if you haven’t entered yet get over now and answer a very simple question to be in with a chance of winning a copy.

AI: Thanks, Joe.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

One Response to Alex Irvine talks us through our case of Vertigo

  1. Logan Lamech says:

    I love winning free books. I’ll have to go enter.

    Logan Lamech