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Comic Book Day: Getting Fresh Ink with Denise Mina

DC Entertainment is giving comic book fans plenty of reasons to be excited with events like Before Watchmen and the New 52 Second Wave, but you may already know the title for which we’re most excited: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Who could DC turn to in order to put a fresh spin on a title we’ve seen adapted so recently? With a series of bestselling mystery thrillers and 13 issues of Hellblazer under her belt, Scottish scribe Denise Mina was a natural choice to pen the hotly anticipated adaptation. We caught up with Ms. Mina during a rare U.S. appearance and talked to her about keeping the story fresh, why everyone wants to sleep with Mikael Blomkvist, and some young hotshot named Stephen King.

Nerdist: First of all, congratulations are in order as your most recent work The End of Wasp Season was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Denise Mina: 
I was pipped to the post by Stephen King, some upcoming guy who seems to be doing quite well. I was a bit disappointed. I really thought I was going to beat him.

N: It’s a huge honor nonetheless. We’ll just call it beginner’s luck. You’ll get him next time. With a title like Girl with the Dragon Tattoowhich has been adapted and interpreted so many times and so recently, how do you go about adapting that to a graphic novel and keeping it fresh?

Well, I think the thing about comics is, for me, I know for a lot of people they’re like movies that don’t move. For me they’re a completely different form  I think it’s a perfect story for that form. You know, one of the things about the first book that’s really startling is the sexual violence, and in something like a comic you can use all the visual imagery of pornography for the guy and not for the woman and that makes it very startling. And I think also having two distinct narratives that can join and separate again – there really are two main characters in it, one slightly more compelling than the other – I think that works really well for comics because they are an episodic form. I think it’s brilliant for it, I really do. There are so many subtexts to what’s going on with all the characters, and you can use imagery in a way that you just couldn’t use unless it was a really surreal movie, so I think that comics are just perfect for it. I went to see the movies to see what I could steal… obviously [laughs], and I couldn’t steal that much because it’s such a different thing. For a lot of people, I know it seems like a movie without a budget, but for me it’s a completely different thing.

N: Was there anything that you wanted to take from the movies aesthetically, or was there anything that you had to change because it wouldn’t necessarily work as well in the context of a graphic novel?

Yes, the house in the American film, the cottage, kind of explains why he stays there because it’s really beautiful. And then I realized, that’s not really good for the comic; I just want to go on holiday there because it is very beautiful. Another interesting thing about the central character of Blomkvist is that every woman he meets wants to have sex with him, which, in the first one [the Swedish adaptation], doesn’t make sense because he’s kind of pudgy and also a bit arrogant. If he were pudgy and depressed, then that might make sense. And in the second one, Daniel Craig – I don’t really get why Daniel Craig’s so attractive! All he ever does is pout and look away. He is very buff though. Watching them for that, trying to make sense of why all these women fall for him – in the second one, they just didn’t have him trying to sleep with everybody that he met. I do have him sleeping with everybody that he meets and I try to make that believable.

N: One thing that I noticed is that Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander both seem very much in your wheelhouse, echoing your Paddy Meehan character. How is it for you as an author working with preexisting characters and properties as opposed to your own creations?

Well, I think it’s much easier because you’re not wondering “is this believable?” and it’s much easier because I think if you are a writer, you have an built-in kind of critical position asking “how can I make this a bit better?” If it’s your own stuff, that’s quite hard; you become very self-critical and all you can really see are the flaws. When it’s someone else’s, you don’t feel too bad saying, “That’s rubbish, that bit.” They always say that you can’t adapt your own stuff for film because you don’t really know what’s crap and I think it’s much easier to adapt someone else’s for something else. Also, you don’t have to make up the trajectory – that’s really the hard thing in narrative fiction: having a compelling trajectory. That’s already there. I really enjoy working with other people’s characters. One of the things you really need to be conscious of is not getting your own narrative tics in there too much. Lisbeth’s quite a distant character; my characters tend to be quite open and you know what’s going on with them. She needs to remain mysterious, so I’ve had to go in and shave off things that I wanted to put in about what motivates her. I think it’s good that you don’t really know what motivates her. You have to be quite aware of your own stuff and make sure it doesn’t take over.

N: As a novelist, which do you find is more challenging: writing a novel or a graphic novel?

They’re completely different things; you can’t compare them. It actually feels as though your brain is working in a different way. Alan Grant says that when you write a comic, you’re using both sides of your brain and I think that’s really true. It’s a different physical process. Comics are more fun for me because I’ve done fewer of them. But, I think if I did more comics, novels would be the thing I would always turn to. When I did screenplays, I was always desperate to get back to narrative prose. It’s very refreshing to do other forms. They don’t feel comparable at all. I can go straight from finishing a novel to writing a comic because I don’t feel tired or spent.

N: I was a big fan of your run on Hellblazer. I’m just curious: were you a big fan of comics before you tackled that project?

You know, I read everything. I think because I’m kind of self-educated, I read women’s magazines, bits of newspapers, comics, true crime – I really love reading true crime, which is very low-class. I didn’t read tons and tons of comics, but my friend reads tons of comics. I think he even reads the trade publications. The one comic I did read faithfully though was Hellblazer.

N: Really? That’s fortunate.

[laughs] Yes! So, they got in touch with me. My flatmate told me that I needed a website, so he made me one and the next day DC Comics got in touch with me and said, “Do you want to write Hellblazer?” Actually, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me. So that’s how that happened. It really was the only episodic comic that I read.

N: Any chance we could see you make a return to Hellblazer?

I’d really love to do that. Anytime.

N: Will Girl with the Dragon Tattoo be released episodically – issue-by-issue – or will it be collected as one grand volume?

As I understand it, they’re going to publish all three novels, each one is going to be two trade paperbacks. There’s a free sampler coming out on May 5th for Free Comic Book Day to give people a feel for what it looks like and what the characters are like. It’s really beautiful – I’ve had a bunch delivered to my house and they’ve all gone already. [laughs] Everyone who comes in the house is taking one. Each novel is going to be two trade paperbacks of 140 pages with the first one coming out in November.

N: Apart from Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, what other projects do you have coming up that you can share with us?

I’m doing tons of stuff. I just finished another book called Gods and Beasts that’s out, I think, January in the States and in the summer in Britain. I’m making a series of short films on an iPhone which are monologues rewritten – Tolstoy kept a diary, it’s Tolstoy’s diary rewritten in contemporary language and Samuel Pepys and things like that. That’s just for fun. Next week, I’m in a play in Scotland with a lot of Arab Spring writers…it’s just non-stop. But, it’s all great stuff, so I’m excited.

N: Are there any comics that you’re reading right now?

I’m really obsessed with Jeff Lemire, like really to an unhealthy degree. I just picked up Superboy and I really love Sweet Tooth, so I’m trying to dig up issues of that. I’m reading him very avidly.

N: One last question: is there any chance we could see a Paddy Meehan or Garnethill graphic novel at some point in the future?

Oh god, you know, I’m writing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I’m looking at the Garnethill books and thinking that there are so many parallels, so I don’t know if that would ever happen. The Paddy Meehan books have been made into a TV series in Scotland, the second one is coming out in August. I’d really love to see them as comics, but I think somebody else should do them because I really don’t think it’s good to adapt your own stuff. You can’t pare your own stuff down, but I’d love it if someone else did it.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be available in November from Vertigo, but you can enjoy a free preview as part of Free Comic Book Day on May 5th. For more on Denise Mina, visit her website.